Top 25 Teams
1. Indiana (#1 seed)
At different times of the year, the Hoosiers were named the nation’s top team only to lose quickly and fall from that lofty perch. If you have read me before, however, you know I couldn’t care less about ranking during the season. This is still one of the nation’s best teams with a loaded roster and several pieces capable of dominating a game. Tom Crean’s team is anchored by sophomore stud Cody Zeller and junior high-flier, Victor Oladipo. The embarrassment of riches does not stop there, however. Yogi Farrell, Jordan Hulls and Will Sheeley provide the backcourt support and the multi-talented senior wing Christian Watford is still knocking down big shots and scoring a dozen a night. LOADED! I think the Hoosiers have a nice draw and should make it to the Final Four.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Zeller is on many’s National Player of the Year ballot, but if you not yet seen Oladipo, the tournament will be your introduction. Oladipo showed flashes of his ability in his first two years in Bloomington, but this year has been a revelation. Aside from the highlight reel dunks, the 6-5 wing is hitting 50% of his threes, while shooting an outrageous 64% total from the field! The dude averages 14/game and only takes eight shots each night out!
KEY WINS: Plenty to sink your teeth into with the Hoosiers this year. Dropped that epic overtime game in Indianapolis to Butler after getting neutral-site wins over Georgia and Georgetown. They also beat North Carolina by 25 at home before earning Big Ten road wins at Northwestern, Ohio State and the most impressive, a late-February thriller over Michigan State to go with their amazing last game of the regular season win at Michigan.
2. Kansas (#1 seed)
Aside from a tough week in early February where the Jayhawks lost three straight games, this is a team that has lost just twice all year (including neutral site to Michigan State). Bill Self really has a complete team, but is a bit young in spots and hasn’t quite developed into the dominating team many thought we would see. That said, this is still a team that could cause major grief in the tournament. They have size inside with Jeff Withey and Perry Ellis, experienced guard play in Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford and a burgeoning superstar in freshman wing, Ben McLemore. It is tough to look past that blip in their scheduling radar, but KU is still a team that could be one of the last four standing. I like their draw and think Kansas will be there in the end.
PLAYER TO WATCH: If you have not yet seen McLemore, he will be coming to an NBA arena near you very soon. The freshman is athletic, dynamic and appears to be getting better on a weekly basis. The first-year player can flat out run and jump but he is also efficient. He shoots 51% from the floor and just under 45% from 3-point range. Dude is a baller.
KEY WINS: Dropped a three-point loss early in the year in a neutral site game to Michigan State, but followed that up with wins over Washington State, Oregon State and a strong St. Louis team in a holiday tournament. Impressive road wins at Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Ohio State bolster an already impressive resume.
3. Louisville (#1 seed)
This year’s edition of the Cardinals was a national favorite to start the season. Then they lost a couple games, fell back to earth, but now find themselves back in a similar position. They are playing great basketball since February and have one of the nation’s best backcourts with Peyton Siva and Russ Smith. Rick Pitino’s teams will always play an aggressive and athletic brand of full-court basketball which makes them a tough match-up for any team with just a couple days to prepare. One of my biggest concerns with them is getting out of the first weekend. They have been prone to being upset. But they get past those first games and they just might make it all the way until the last one. I like the top half of their draw but Elite 8 games against either Duke or Michigan State is a tall order.
PLAYER TO WATCH: The two guards get a lot of the attention, but sophomore forward Chane Behanan is the “nuts and bolts” of this team. The 6-8 250-pound big man is quite nimble and athletic for a guy his size, which presents major match-up issues. When the dirty work needs to be done, expect Behanan to not be too far from the action.
KEY WINS: Some solid neutral site wins over Northern Iowa, Western Kentucky and Missouri, while dropping a five-point loss to Duke in the Bahamas. They have struggled a bit away from Freedom Hall (ummmm, I mean, the Yum Center?) but do have road wins at Charleston, Memphis and recently over Syracuse at the Carrier Dome.
4. New Mexico (#3 seed)
A threat to make it all the way to the Final Four, the Lobos are experienced, balanced and loaded for a long tournament run. Playing in a competitive conference like the Mountain West has this team battle-tested. There is no discernable stars, but several guys that can have big nights and will this team to a win (isn’t that right, Colorado State?). Not only is there balance on this team, but their players are also very versatile. Tony Snell is a streaky-scoring wing with length that can shut down an opposition’s scorer. Kendall Williams is a solid combo guard that showed his scoring ability with 46 against CSU in an impressive late-season win in Fort Collins. After the past week in Vegas and seeing the brackets, I think New Mexico will be one of the last four teams standing, period. Their entire team is rolling right now.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Alex Kirk gives the Lobos size and an interior presence. The 7-foot junior took huge strides this year and became one of the most dominant big men in the west. Paired up with Aussie banger, Cameron Bairstow gives the Lobos one of the more intimidating frontlines, this side of Gonzaga.
KEY WINS: Lobos had an impressive start to their season getting three quality wins in the Virgin Islands, punctuated by the final win over UConn. Couple solid road wins in there as well, at Colorado State, Boise State, Cincinnati, Indiana State and a sweep of the season series over New Mexico State. The MWC tourney sweep in Vegas put an exclamation on one of the best seasons ever out of Albuquerque.
5. Gonzaga (#1 seed)
There have been several really good teams at Gonzaga over the past fifteen years. This year’s installment, however, might be the best suited to make a long tournament run. To think this “mid-major” used to beg for a tourney invite is now a #1-seed is unbelieveable! As usual, the Zags are balanced, experienced and boast one of the most talented frontlines in the country. Kelly Olynk has blossomed into an elite big man and can score from anywhere on the court. Fellow interior man, Elias Harris is still in Spokane and is still dominating teams with his mix of size and athleticism. And southpaw, Sam Dower adds another talented inside-out threat to Mark Few’ embarrassment of riches. We have all been duped by the Zags before, but this ain’t the year. Think the draw as a #1-seed equates to an Elite 8 appearance at the minimum.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Gonzaga’s frontcourt is the best in the nation, period. But, with guards like Gary Bell, David Stockton and Canadian sharp-shooter, Kevin Pangos, this is not a one-trick pony. Pangos runs the show, scores from the perimeter and is the pulse of the team. If he can have a strong shooting tournament, the Zags are a Final Four lock. This team is so deep, though, they might make it even if he struggles.
KEY WINS: As usual, Few organized a monster of a schedule. Getting conference wins at St. Mary’s and BYU always impress, but there is plenty before WCC play to get excited about. It took a last-minute buzzer-beater to drop a mid-season game to Butler at Hinkle. The Zags swept Clemson, Oklahoma and Davidson en route to a holiday tourney win in Orlando. They destroyed Kansas State in Seattle, won in Stillwater over Oklahoma State and beat Washington State down the road in Pullman.
6. Duke (#2 seed)
Simply put, this Duke team just might be the best in all of college basketball. They are loaded with talent at every position, have faced some of the stiffest competition and are trending at the perfect time (I even liked their early exit from the meaningless ACC Tourney). Mason Plumlee is a monster inside with athleticism and size. Guard Quinn Cook is a bit of a revelation for such a young player and getting forward Ryan Kelly back in the season’s last week was a major positive. Getting outside production from Seth Curry is paramount, as well. I hate Duke’s draw, losing out on a #1-seed, but then also a possible Sweet 16 game against Michigan State.
PLAYER TO WATCH: This is all about Ryan Kelly. The nation’s top stretch-four returned with a huge finish to the season proving his worth to the Blue Devils. In his absence, the team struggled to find balance, but always gave fans the reason to say, “but, we don’t have Kelly back yet.” No excuses now and his continued excellence just might make Coach K and the Dukies a favorite to reach the Final Four.
KEY WINS: Chew on this for starters: Neutral site wins over Ohio State, Kentucky, Davidson, Temple, Minnesota, VCU and Louisville!?!? That looks like a run to a national title, eh? No real quality road wins in conference (aside from down the road in Chapel Hill) might give some cause to be critical. I’m not, though.
7. Michigan St (#3 seed)
This is my “sneaky” team to beat this season. Not much was made of the Spartans coming into an extremely competitive Big Ten season. However, they gelled in the desired spots and have gotten massive contributions from some young players. Throw in the stiff competition they have faced all year and the March Magic which Head Coach Tom Izzo can seemingly summon every year about this time and this year seems taylor-made for another run. The Spartans have size in Adrien Payne and Derrick Nix, an experienced leader in Keith Appling and a freshman star in Gary Harris. Yes, they slipped up a bit down the stretch, but Izzo has done far more in March with far less. Not a big fan of their draw, especially a possible Sweet 16 meeting with Duke!
PLAYER TO WATCH: Plenty to enjoy here, but Harris is the guy to pay particular attention towards. The freshman guard from Indiana has been consistent, solid and at times, the team’s best player and go-to-guy. He has taken more a scoring role in the past month and is now the team’s leading scorer.
KEY WINS: Before the Big Ten gauntlet, MSU got home wins over Texas and Boise State. In addition, their two neutral site games ended with a loss to UConn, but an impressive win over Kansas. Away from East Lansing, Izzo’s boys weren’t all that great, but their win at Wisconsin is most impressive.
8. Miami (#2 seed)
The Hurricanes are a tough team to analyze due to their somewhat late emergence onto the national scene this season. However, this team is a strong, physical outfit that is still trying to get back to normal following the return of bigman Reggie Jackson from injury. Point guard Shane Larkins is the perfect mold for a college point guard. He can score, defend, is tough and leads by example. Simply put, this is a challenging team to handicap. If Jackson can return to form and quickly, the ‘Canes can be a factor. If not, they might make a brief tournament appearance. I do like Miami’s draw early on if they can get by their second game, an Elite 8 match-up looks imminent.
PLAYER TO WATCH: I love Larkins (son of former MLB shortstop Barry Larkins) but Florida-transfer Kenny Kadji will make a huge impact on this team’s March fortunes. Much hyped, then maligned during his two seasons in Gainsville, Kadji has found a perfect niche with Miami. A stretch-four that has added the outside touch, Kadji dwarves most at his position standing just below 7-feet tall. Big games from the Cameroon-national might allow for a long tourney run.
KEY WINS: Much has been made of their blowout home win over Duke, but I did not see that as much of an upset. Also got impressive home wins over North Carolina and Michigan State. Miami lost both of their neutral site games in Hawaii to Indiana State and Arizona. Road wins include Florida State, North Carolina and North Carolina State.
9. Ohio St (#2 seed)
This has been a bit of a tough team to read this year. Explosive offensively at times, but lost and misguided at others. Defense has been a consistent hallmark of Thad Matta’s teams and one led by senior guard Aaron Craft, will always bring it on that end of the court. Offensively, this is a team led by dynamic all-court performers in Lenzelle Smith Jr. and 20-point/night guy in Deshaun Thomas. Both are “above the rim” guys, with Smith being the most volatile of the two, capable of greatness, but also disappointment. Thomas is a scorer and smart heady player and one that as a junior should be the league’s top player next season. Craft being the nation’s most aggressive guard defensively, makes them a tough “out” on every night. Buckeyes could be a surprise in this tourney! This is a Sweet 16 draw for the Buckeyes and probably not much more after that.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Craft is a coach on the floor and Smith is electric in the open court, but Thomas is the man for Matta. A bit of a volume shooter, the 6-7 wing can score from any spot on the floor and isn’t afraid to “get his hands dirty,” as he is the team’s top rebounder. This fact does prove how thin they are on the frontline, which might be the ultimate hinderance.
KEY WINS: The Buckeyes procured neutral-site wins over Washington and Rhode Island and should be applauded for scheduling out-of-conference games (which they lost) at Duke and home to Kansas. Aside from a road win at Northwestern and Purdue, an overtime loss at Michigan is all that stands out away from Columbus. That is until, the impressive win in Bloomington over Indiana.
10. Georgetown (#2 seed)
Having one of the best players in the nation is always a luxury. Hoyas’ Head Coach John Thompson III is lucky to have Otto Porter on his team. But, this is more than just a one-trick pony. Georgetown is still a team built around team defense and have a balanced attack on both sides of the court. This is also a team that has spent weeks throughout the year as a “darling” but some slip-ups in January were a setback. The past two months, though, few teams around the country have played better than the Hoyas.
PLAYER TO WATCH: There are some nice pieces around Porter like Markel Starks and the now-injured, Greg Whittington, but Porter is undoubtedly the man for this team. The 6-8 sophomore does a bit of everything in addition to being the team’s top scorer and rebounder. Would love to see him come back for more NCAA play, but with his size and talent, the NBA allure might prove too great.
KEY WINS: The Hoyas have neutral site wins over Texas and UCLA while dropping an overtime game to Indiana. They have been dominate in the Big East and have road wins at Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Syracuse. Pretty solid stuff there.
11. Florida (#3 seed)
A pretty good team in an awful conference can look REALLY good. This is largely the case for the 2012-2013 Florida Gators. A really nice team with some good pieces that has absolutely destroyed the competition in a down year for the SEC. However, this is still a team that could make some noise in the next month. They have a talented backcourt with Kenny Boynton, Scottie Wilbekin and Rutgers-transfer, Mike Rosario. Defensively. this is a monster of a team with athleticism, Head Coach Billy Donovan’s mantra and a force of a big guy in the middle with Patric Young. Not a bad draw for the Gators.
PLAYER TO WATCH: There are several nice Gators to spotlight, but Young is the guy to check out. Standing at 6-9, 250-pounds, Young is a physical specimen. Much was expected out of the Jacksonville-native this year. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much progress, as he put forth almost identical numbers to his sophomore campaign. Still, this guy has the ability to dominate a game from the interior and his play in March could go a long way to determining whether this team plays long into the tournament.
KEY WINS: Neutral-site win over Air Force backed up a close holiday tournament loss to Kansas State. A nice road win at Florida State couples well with home wins over Wisconsin, Middle Tennessee and Marquette.
12. Kansas St (#4 seed)
The Wildcats have been a bit of a revelation under first-year Head Coach Bruce Weber. Many thought that with some departing players and exit of the stern gaze of Frank Martin that there would be a dip in the production in Manhattan. But, Weber has kept this team focused and consistently winning games. Despite some overall depth, this is really a two-man outfit that paces the offense. Rodney McGruder is the most recent, “That dude is still there?” in college basketball. The senior guard does everything for this team and has added “clutch” to that list of responsibilities. Alongside McGruder is sophomore point guard Angel Rodriguez, who has upped his production from his exciting freshman season of a year ago. This team truly goes as these guys go.
PLAYER TO WATCH: McGruder is not flashy but is one of the most productive players in college basketball. His running mate, Rodriguez is a sight to behold, however. He is a lightning quick point guard that is just as happy doling out a highlight assist as he is nailing a big 3-pointer. The Puerto Rican-native is a fun watch.
KEY WINS: Some strong stuff here for the Wildcats. Neutral site win over Florida is the centerpiece of their resume, but also a nice win against a strong Delaware team. Two neutral site losses against Gonzaga and Michigan are not that damaging. Not much stands out away from Manhattan but the past month has seen solid road wins at Texas, Oklahoma and Baylor.
13. Marquette (#3 seed)
This is another classic “Buzz Williams” team. And for that matter, another college team out of the state of Wisconsin. Let me explain. Both Marquette and Wisconsin are overlooked in their conference, EVERY YEAR! Then we turn the calendar to a new year, and suddenly they are in the national discussion, again. This year’s Golden Eagles are a balanced group that has learned to play without the long-time services of greats Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder. They play a tough brand of basketball that is fueled through their rugged point guard, Junior Cadougan. After two solid seasons in Milwaukee, junior guard Vander Blue has continued his progress and is now the team’s leading scorer. The team also gets a lot of solid minutes and hustle play from junior BIG man, Davante Gardner. No stars, but a team that could cause major headaches and could easily play into the Sweet 16.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Cadougan is the guts of this team. The team goes as he goes. The Toronto-native is not the proto-typical playmaker in the sense that he is a wide 200-pound-plus guard that barely tops 6-feet in height. The senior always looks to set up his team and when he explodes for big games, good things happen. This kid could break-out a bit in this year’s tourney.
KEY WINS: A rough early season schedule still yielded neutral site wins over Mississippi State and Southern Cal, while dropping a one-point decision to Butler. They took down their neighbors from Madison early in the year in Milwaukee. However, their only signature win away from the midwest came in an overtime win at Pittsburgh.
14. Michigan (#4 seed)
Talent abounds in Ann Arbor and if guard play does really win championships, then this year’s Wolverines should be a favorite to make it to the Final Four. Not only do they possess the nation’s most electric point guard in Trey Burke, but there is genetics on the side of this team. NBA offspring, Tim Hardaway Jr and Glenn Robinson III are major contributors. Throw in contributions for freshmen, Mitch McGary and Nick Stauskas and you have a team capable of beating anyone. Michigan does get the hometown draw in Detroit, but I am not a fan of their opposition. South Dakota State will be a tough match-up as will be VCU in the 2nd round.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Best point guard in the Big Ten and possibly, the nation, Burke is a sight to behold. He is the point guard every coach in the nation would love to have with a combination of scoring, play-making and stellar defense at the point of attack. Perfect example of this was his play in the waning moments during a home game against their rivals from Michigan State. After scoring a bucket to bring the team to within one, Burke picked Keith Appling’s pocket and went the length of the court for the game-winning lay-up. One of my favorite players in the nation to watch, period.
KEY WINS: The Wolverines won their first 16 games this season, which included neutral-site wins over tournament teams from Pittsburgh and Kansas State. They followed an impressive start with road wins over Minnesota and Illinois.
15. St Louis (#4 seed)
This is a balanced team with proven wins over quality teams. Getting 14 wins and strolling to the conference tourney in the competitive Atlantic-10 is impressive. Eight guys contribute on a regular basis, all five starters score at least nine points each game and their leading scorer averages just under 13 points. With a rugged frontcourt and experience up and down their lineup, the Billikens just be that team to make a major push deep into the tournament. Throw in the emotional rollercoaster this team has gone through with the passing of Head Coach Rick Majerus and you have the makings of a motivated team. I think they have a tough draw but should still make the Sweet 16.
PLAYER TO WATCH: With a balanced team like SLU, it is sometimes a challenge to pick out that one guy. Dwayne Evans is one of those throwback players that is a little undersized for the interior damage he can inflict. The 6-5 junior is a monster in the paint getting almost 13 a night, but has been one of the conference’s best rebounders since he started three years ago.
KEY WINS:SLU had an impressive 20-point neutral site win over Texas A&M in KC, before losing in that holiday tournament to the “hosts” from Kansas. They also have nice home wins over New Mexico, Valparaiso, VCU and Butler and an impressive road win over Butler.
16. Wisconsin (#5 seed)
Much like their buddies from Marquette, this team is annually disregarded in preseason write-ups. “They lost too much, don’t have enough talent and not athletic enough” are the constant refrains. Then every season, Bo Ryan has the Badgers at 20+ wins, almost unbeatable at home and making some noise in the tournament. This year’s team is really no different. Gone is leader and top scorer, Jordan Taylor, and in his place is a balanced team with no real discernable go-to-guy. Senior big man, Jared Berggren is capable of some big games (and highlight dunks) while junior point guard Ben Brust is the stereotypical Bo Ryan leader. Tough team to predict to go very far, but the Badgers are sure to be a pain in someone’s butt.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Breggren gets frontcourt support from Ryan Evans, but the emerging player on this team is freshman swingman, Sam Dekker. The 6-7 freshman has shown some nice flashes through the year, but in the past month, has kind of become the team’s de facto scorer. He is shooting 50% from the floor and 45% from long-range, where he can have his biggest impact.
KEY WINS: Their neutral-site games included a win over Arkansas and a loss to Creighton. They sandwiched in a nice home win over a pretty strong California team before the start of conference play. Their most impressive win away from Madison came at Indiana, which looks great alongside road wins at Northwestern and Illinois.
17. UNLV (#5 seed)
This year’s Rebels have been an up-and-down outfit. One week they are playing a brand of basketball that could beat anyone, the next, they struggle to compete against inferior competition. While loaded to the gills with talent, this team does lack a true point-guard. Senior Anthony Marshall has filled that role valiantly, but he is still a scorer at heart. The team is not big, but when freshman stud, Anthony Bennett and Pitt-transfer, Khem Birch get going they can be a handful for most teams. Gunners Bryce DeJean-Jones and Katin Reinhardt can put up big numbers, but can also shoot their team out of games. The Rebels do have a workable draw in San Jose and a Sweet 16 appearance isn’t out of the question.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Bennett is a physically mature freshman with game to back up the bulk. His phenomenal first year in Vegas has many harking back to the days of Larry Johnson, but I see a lot more Chris Webber in the Canadian-national. Could be a breakout March for this guy.
KEY WINS: Dave Rice’s team has not been great away from the Thomas & Mack, but do have road wins at San Diego State and Wyoming. The Rebs ability to be consistent away from the bright lights of Vegas concerns me and makes it tough for me to put them through into the second weekend.
18. VCU (#5 seed)
This team will bring the HAVOC ball for 40 minutes and can press and run any team out of the gym. (Ask Butler about that early March blowout in Richmond). They play with a lot of energy, athleticism and rely on a core of five guys to do most of their damage. Treveon Graham, Juvonte Reddic and Troy Daniels pace this team in scoring, while Darius Theus runs the offense. This is another year where the Rams have proven their worth in the national discussion and could very easily play into the second weekend and beyond. VCU-Cinderella alert, again! I do like their draw and would suggest putting the Rams through to the Sweet 16 with a possible win over Michigan.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Daniels is one of the nation’s most lethal long-range shooters, getting up over eight 3-balls per game and hitting at a 40% rate. However, Reddic is the muscle, grit and does all the dirty work that can get unnoticed in the mayhem that is HAVOC ball. The 6-9 235-pound Reddic shoots almost 58% getting a lot of his buckets off turnovers.
KEY WINS: VCU has faced a ton of elite teams this year from the start of the season through the conference tournament. Played in the loaded Thanksgiving tournament in the Bahamas, beating Memphis, before falling to Duke and Missouri. The Rams got quality home wins over Alabama, Dayton and Belmont. On the road, really just one victory of note, beating Xavier in Cincinnati.
19. Oklahoma St (#5 seed)
This team may surprise some people this March. The Cowboys have not gotten much national attention this year (aside from their win at Allen over KU) but they are loaded with talent and appear to be piquing at the proper time. Travis Ford’s team is loaded with one of the nation’s most talented, pro-ready, three-headed attacks with LeBryan Nash, Markel Brown and Marcus Smart. Each are dynamic, able to break out a 30-point game and should be playing their trade in the near future in the NBA. Talent like this is tough to ignore, so don’t be surprised if the ‘Pokes aggressive and attacking style of play turns into a long tournament run. Tough for them with a potential meeting with St. Louis in the second game.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Plenty to chose from in this group to be certain. Smart may be the most exciting and the most ready for the play at the next level. Just a freshman playing the point guard, Smart adapted quickly to play in the Big 12 coming out of Texas and his outbursts of excellent play have been especially fun to watch. 25 in the road win at Kansas and 28 in an OT victory over Oklahoma come to mind.
KEY WINS: Okie State started off the season in grand fashion winning all three games in Puerto Rico over a great Akron team, Tennessee and an impressive win in the final over North Carolina State. Pretty quiet road team throughout the Big 12 season, but their win in Lawrence over KU is one of the most impressive in the entire nation all year long!
20. Arizona (#6 seed)
Sean Miller brought in one of the most talented freshman classes in school history. Much was expected out of this team and they lived up to the pressure for much of the season. February came, though, dropping half of their games and falling out of first place in the PAC-12. This team is led by Xavier-transfer, Mark Lyons, who acted as playmaker and go-to scorer in his solitary year in Tucson. Nick Johnson is Lyons’ #2 giving athleticism on the wing. Long-time forward Solomon Hill did his part, chipping in with some scoring punch to go along with needed rebounding. This is a deep team with talented young pieces. Unfortunately, they have been inconsistent like most newcomers.
PLAYER TO WATCH: The freshman trio of Brandon Ashley, Grant Jerrett and Kaleb Tarczewski are all big and have contributed at times in the Wildcat frontcourt, but Lyons is the guy to pay attention towards. He is a gutsy, undersized combo-guard that wills his way into space and scoring opportunities. He did great things during his time in Cincinnati and this March may put a nice bow on a great college career.
KEY WINS: Neutral-site wins over San Diego State are nice. 19-point blow-outs over Miami are even nicer. In addition, ‘Zona got a road win over Clemson and a home win over Florida before the start of conference play. Like most, though, conference play was tough away from the McHale Center, getting wins over Washington and Arizona State.
21. Butler (#6 seed)
Everyone’s March Darlings have had an up-and-down season complete with great wins alongside some head-scratching defeats. Head Coach Brad Stevens still has a team that can make a major impact in this tournament with experience and quality perimeter shooting. Arkansas-transfer Rotnei Clarke is a dynamic scorer, whose range starts the minute the Bulldogs cross the half-court stripe. Front court guys, Andrew Smith and Roosevelt Jones do a bit of everything from grabbing rebounds, knocking down perimeter shots to creating opportunities off the dribble. Tough to gauge with the season they had, but Butler might again be a team worth selecting into the second weekend, especially after seeing their draw in Kentucky.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Clarke makes this team entirely different due to this ability to stretch the floor. He is not the strongest on the ball nor the best creator, but as a 43% volume shooter, his impact is easy to value. When this dude is on, space abounds inside for Jones, Smith and fellow forward, Khyle Marshall.
KEY WINS: Neutral-site wins over Indiana, North Carolina and Marquette are impressive, no doubt. Not much away from Hinkle Fieldhouse, otherwise, other than road wins at Dayton and Northwestern. Great home win over Gonzaga.
22. Creighton (#7 seed)
The Bluejays are largely lauded for the greatness of junior forward Doug McDermott. And rightfully so. The Iowa-native is everything you have heard or read about and probably even more. Alongside senior bigman Gregory Echenique the Bluejays can roll out one of the more intimidating offensive attacks. But there has been a level of inconsistency that plagued the middle section of Missouri Valley play when they dropped five of eight games. The backcourt is not loaded with major playmakers or scorers aside from the gritty all-court game of Grant Gibbs, which can often put a bit of a burden on McDermott to be especially great. This is a really good team, but they just haven’t proven to be great.
PLAYER TO WATCH: McDermott is arguably the best college basketball player in the past five years. He can score from the block, the elbow and well beyond. He has a gift of maximizing his efforts to continually find himself in good positions to have easy shots, grab offensive rebounds or make the defensive deflection. Put simply, he is just really good at the game.
KEY WINS: Some quality out-of-conference work here by Creighton. Neutral-site wins over Wisconsin and Arizona State led to a holiday title in Vegas. That was followed up by a blow-out win against in-state rivals from Nebraska and a nice road win in Berkeley over Cal. Unfortunately, for Blue Jay fans, their team really had no quality wins in conference away from Omaha.
23. Notre Dame (#7 seed)
Kind of a standard lunch-pail Notre Dame group again for Head Coach Mike Brey. They are lead by the inside-out combination of senior forward Jack Cooley and junior guard Jerian Grant. Cooley has developed into a pretty nifty college big man and is capable of having big nights both scoring and rebounding. Especially the later, as Cooley is a top five rebounder nationally. The Fighting Irish are a team to pay attention to and could easily play themselves into the second weekend. The one issue though, remains the supporting cast around these two and junior point guard Eric Atkins.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Cooley is a slimmer, more nimble version of Luke Harangody. Similar game, similar style, but without the girth and muscle that big Luke threw around in South Bend for four years. Atkins is a fun, pass-first type of leader that has assumed that role since he first stepped foot on campus. He saw his scoring dip a bit from last year, but the assists numbers are way up. Nice player to watch.
KEY WINS: Neutral-site wins over BYU and Purdue would be more impressive in recent years, but still solid. The beat the Kentucky Wildcats at home early in the year, but that win must be viewed differently now that we know what we have with UK. Couple nice road Big East wins at Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
24. Memphis (#6 seed)
This is a very balanced Tiger team that relies on a core of eight players to provide most of their scoring and defensive punch. Head Coach Josh Pastner has seen a couple volatile years in Bluff City, but has put the pieces together this year to finish with not only an undefeated 16-0 season in Conference-USA but is again enjoying another 30-win season. And this is not a team we have “heard” much from all year. Pastner has farmed much of the local prep talent with several key contributors being from the Memphis area. Included amongst those are guards Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford in addition to forwards Tarik Black and Adonis Thomas. Other than a last-second loss in Cincy to Xavier, this team has not lost since mid-December.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Needless to say, it has not been a perfect three years at home for the point guard, Jackson. He has had up-and-down years and this one is no different. The 6-1 guard had some rough early games, but has rebounded to be the team’s leading scorer and top playmaker (doling out five assists/night). His exciting brand of up-tempo play is the perfect fit in Pastner’s style of offense.
KEY WINS: It has been a down year in C-USA but road wins at Southern Mississippi and UTEP are still of note. They lost to VCU and Minnesota in the Bahamas before beating a game Northern Iowa squad in a consolation game. They played a tough home game before losing to Louisville, destroyed a good Ohio team at home and travelled in-state and beat an emerging Tennessee team in Knoxville.
25. Colorado (#10 seed)
A bit of a tough team to read, but one to consider to make a run into the second weekend. This is a young squad but have experience up and down the roster. Junior forward Andre Roberson is the nation’s best rebounder AND defender and anchors the team’s backline. Sophomore guards Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker provide much of the punch out of the backcourt, with the former being a name that might explode onto the national (NBA) scene with a strong March. Throw in a couple emerging freshman and you have a balanced team that only really struggles with slow-down half-court teams with a strong inside presence. I like the Buffs first draw down in Austin but Miami in the 2nd round is just that type of team.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Dinwiddie is the star of this team and has potentially the most professional upside, but freshman Xavier Johnson has made the biggest progress in the past two months. A guy that spent much of the early season watching from the bench, Johnson is now an integral bench player and a guy that score in bunches.
KEY WINS:The Buffs had a great start of the year taking home the Charleston Classic with strong neutral site wins over Murray State, Baylor and Dayton. Otherwise, they were “jobbed” by the last-second officiating gaffe at Arizona, while also getting wins away from Boulder at Stanford and Oregon.