Keifer Sykes has the Phoenix on the rise. (USAT)
Still recuperating from your midweek bar crawl? Are you nostril deep in term paper research? Have no fear, fellow bracketeers. As a companion to the Bracket Big Board, the I.D. is here to highlight all the college hardwood action from the week that was and preview the most pivotal matchups of the weekend. Unlike McLovin’s Hawaiian driver's license, there's nothing fake about this I.D. …
Forget wish-granting fairy godmothers, opulent balls and happy endings, when it comes to the NCAA tournament, Cinderella is a cruel, cold witch.
Last year, tiny Florida Gulf Coast, a school known more for its beachfront views than basketball, arrived to the Dance in a pumpkin carriage. Slotted on the No. 15 line in the South Region and matched against mighty Georgetown, the Atlantic Sun tourney champs were seemingly bound for an early exit. After all, of the 112 previous No. 15s, only six donned a glass slipper. None had ever reached the Sweet 16.
As most recall, FGCU slammed, jammed and whammed its way into the history books. Its high-flying acrobatics instantly attracted a cult following. Overnight, 'Dunk City' became a national phenomenon. In their opening round game, the Eagles feasted on the Hoyas by rocking the rim and cashing in at the line. A similar outcome against San Diego St. occurred in the Round of 32. Brett Comer dropped 14 dimes and five Eagles scored in double-figures as the team shot a blistering 63.4 percent from inside the arc.
Record books rewritten.
Though the theater created by FGCU’s magical run was worthy of an uplifting Disney movie (Kevin Costner as Andy Enfield anyone?), for the majority of office pool managers it was a horror story. Shredded brackets, endless second-guessing and out-of-your-mind-Mount-Boeheim-like eruptions occurred. Of the roughly three million Yahoo Tourney Pick 'Em entries, 47,950 entrants (1.5 percent) picked FGCU to beat Georgetown. And only 18,583 had the HUEVOS, or amazing foresight, to click it to the Sweet 16.
So what underpublicized mid-majors, assuming they earn automatics, have the best chance to plunge a stiletto into the heart of Goliath this year? Here are five schools with shocker special potential:
Delaware Blue Hens (21-9, RPI: 72, SOS: 165, Proj. Seed: 14)
Despite constant lineup upheaval due to various suspensions, the current king of the Colonial is one of the best offensive teams in the country. Davon Saddler has developed into a resourceful point guard, scoring at least 20 points in a game 17 times. Most importantly, he’s routinely found the open man, averaging 5.6 assists per game in conference play. Meanwhile, Saddler’s comrade, Devon Usher, is the league’s frontrunner for Player of the Year. He leads the CAA in points per game (22.8) and ranks top-six in made threes, free-throw percentage, field-goal percentage and steals per game. His 42-point explosion against the College of Charleston on February 5 was one of the most scintillating single-game efforts by a player this season. The Blue Hens are undersized and often lag defensively, but they commit few turnovers and, when firing on all cylinders offensively, are positively radiant. They can flat-out run. If stats machine Jarvis Threatt (18.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 5.4 apg, 2.4 spg), who returned from a month-long suspension Wednesday and scored 24 against UNCW, can continue to contribute, it's doubtful the Hens lay an egg in the postseason.
Green Bay Phoenix (22-5, RPI: 54, SOS: 138, Proj. Seed: 12)
Butler, the darlings of the Horizon, may have moved on to the bigger, badder Big East, but the Phoenix have risen from the ashes to take up the conference’s torch. Among the mid-major class, there is no team that offers more balance than Green Bay. It’s highly disruptive on D, crashes the offensive glass extremely well and converts many high-percentage shots. Seven-footer Alec Brown, who’s swatted at least three shots in a game 17 times this year, and diminutive disher Keifer Sykes, who leads the conference in assists per game and has chipped in 20.3 points per game, make up one of the finest inside-outside combos in college basketball. The Phoenix’s difficult non-conference slate, which included a close loss to Wisconsin and home win against Virginia, and better-than-advertised competition in the Horizon has prepared them for the second season. Total it up, and they own all the characteristics of a classic 12-over-5 underdog.
North Dakota St. Bison (21-6, RPI: 40, SOS: 122, Proj. Seed:12)
The Peace Garden State may be known for its sparse population, Canadian-like accents and wood-chipped Hollywood characters, but it could soon add "giant slayer" to its résumé. Though running away in the Summit and ranked inside the top 75 according to KenPom.com, the Bison have roamed off the national radar. They’re hardly stringent defensively, checking in at No. 154 in defensive efficiency, but they make up for it on the opposite end. The senior trio of Taylor Braun, Marshall Bjorklund and Trayvonn Wright is long, strong and down to get its hoop on. Together the three seniors have shot 57.8 percent from inside the arc, the primary reason why NDSU ranks top five nationally in two-point percentage offense. The Bison are not particularly effective from distance, but they do protect the ball incredibly well and cash in often at the free-throw line. Their marquee moment this year was a four-point win at Notre Dame in early December. Continue to execute at a high level down the stretch, and new, more exciting memories will be forged.
Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks (25-2, RPI: 67, SOS: 308, Proj. Seed: 14)
Relentless, smothering, nasty – that’s what the Southland stranglers are on defense. One of only three teams undefeated in conference play (Florida, Wichita St. and St. Louis are the others), the Lumberjacks haven’t lost a game since Thanksgiving. Their defensive intensity is always cranked to 11, mixing in man and zone schemes to bewilder the competition. As a result, they’ve forced turnovers on 25 percent of opponent possessions, the second-best mark nationally. Much improved offensively compared to last year’s team that lost by the slimmest of margins to Stanford in the opening round of the NIT, they do an outstanding job of sharing the sugar and, despite having only one player above 6-foot-7 in their rotation, pounding the offensive glass. Many will question Austin’s soft schedule, but Jacob Parker and company shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Davidson Wildcats (17-11, RPI: 143, SOS: 195, Proj. Seed: 16)
The last time the Wildcats stole the hearts of the college basketball nation some dude named Steph Curry was splashing jumpers from ridiculous distances. Though this year’s brand pales in comparison, the probable SoCon representative could flirt with history. Currently projected as my highest No. 16 seed, the Wildcats are capable of pulling off the impossible. In the expanded era of the NCAA tournament (since 1985) no No. 16 has ever taken down a No. 1. However, some have come unbelievably close (e.g. Princeton in ’89). Davidson played a very rigorous non-conference slate facing the likes of Duke, Virginia, New Mexico, Wichita St. and North Carolina. It failed to measure up against the powerful, losing by an average margin of 18.3 points per game. Still, this is a team led by SoCon POY candidate De’Mon Brooks, and it's scoring a blistering 1.215 points per possession and limiting foes to a mere 0.976 points per possession in conference action. Top dogs be warned.
Rehearse your choreographed moves one last time. Get into costume. And press "play" on your boombox. It's time for an Interpretive Dance …
Here are this week’s biggest bracket bulls and bears:
DA BULLS (MOVING UP)
After an inexplicable rough patch in January in which it dropped three games at the Kohl Center and dipped a game below .500 in the Big Ten, Bucky has crawled out of its hole and hunted down the competition. Once again resembling the Final Four candidate from earlier this season, Bo Ryan's bunch has ripped off six-straight wins, including pivotal contests against Michigan St., Michigan and Iowa. The reason for the abrupt turnaround: Frank Kaminsky. During the Badgers' frigid spell, the versatile 7-footer lacked aggressiveness, netting 10.0 points per game. Averaging 16.6 points per game in his past five, he's regained his assertiveness and has eased the pressure on Sam Dekker and sparked Wisky's perimeter game. Since February 4, the Badgers have totaled 1.168 points per possession. Outside a stiff road test at Nebraska to wrap the regular season, they have the easiest remaining schedule among the candidates still in contention for a league title. Michigan should take the cake, but with a strong finish, the Badgers, who sport a 15-4 record versus the RPI top 100, may attract a higher NCAA tourney seed. Bo knows.
Remember when the sky was falling on Chapel Hill? In a season filled with more plot twists than "True Detective," North Carolina, a team that unbelievably lost to Belmont, UAB and Wake Forest earlier in the season, is peaking at the right time. Winners of nine straight, including a triumph over hated rival Duke in the Dean Dome, it's entrenched in the upper echelon of the suddenly unpredictable ACC. The presence of Leslie McDonald, who was suspended the first nine games of the season, has made an enormous difference. His ability to take defenders off the dribble, drive and drain the occasional three has added a much needed ancillary scorer. Lane clogger Kennedy Meeks has also contributed invaluable minutes off the bench, lending support in times when James Michael McAdoo has disappeared. Despite its efforts, this is still a team that lives and dies by Marcus Paige. In three of the Heels' seven losses the point guard failed to reach double-digits. If they intend to make a deep NCAA tourney run, he must become a consistent dual threat (distributor/scorer). Still, because UNC locks down on defense (No. 12 nationally in defensive efficiency) and generates ample second-chance opportunities, it should be highly competitive in March. With two of its final three regular season games on the road (at Va Tech and at Duke), it will enter postseason play battle-tested. Consider it a very dangerous No. 4-5 seed.
As usual, the always underrated Lobos, despite a shiny overall record and top standing in the Mountain West, have received little press nationally. As the season has moved along, so has New Mexico's ability to defend. Tattooed often from all over the floor earlier this year, they've tightened the screws, surrendering a mere 1.001 points per possession in conference play. Cautious with the rock, effective from three and unselfish, the Lobos are highly efficient offensively. Cameron Bairstow, who averaged 9.7 points per game a year ago, has made a quantum leap in production, scoring 20.2 points per game. His strong post game, combined with Kendall Williams' smooth outside stroke and 7-footer Alex Kirk's stalwart execution, makes New Mexico a team to fear. Without a bad loss on its résumè and coming off a spanking of San Diego St. at The Pit, it's a club on the rise. A road date against the Aztecs on March 8 will be a chore, but even if the Lobos drop that contest and win the rest of their remaining games, it's conceivable Craig Neal's kids get a No. 4 or No. 5 seed in the Big Dance.
Also Flaming: Oregon, Iowa St.
DA BEARS (MOVING DOWN)
Just two weeks ago, many in West Central New York were debating whether this was the greatest Syracuse team ever. Now those same fans house concerns of whether it will survive the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Their anxiety is completely justified. Defensively, the Orange are one of the nation's stiffest. The sheer length of C.J. Fair, Rakeem Christmas, Baye Keita and Jerami Grant is frightening. When operating at a high level, the 2-3 zone can be smothering, forcing turnovers and questionable shots. However, as proven by Duke and Boston College, it's far from indestructible. Teams that feature plus mid- and long-range games can and will soften it. Defense, however, isn't the primary issue impacting the Orange. Confounded by offensive lulls over long stretches, they must get steadier production out of three-point marksman Trevor Cooney and super frosh Tyler Ennis. When the pair is off, the Orange sorely lack balance. To secure an ACC regular-season title, they must win at Virginia and at Florida St., an uphill battle based on their recent performance. It must also control Jim Boeheim from going all FRAN on the officials. Good luck.
Just a week ago, the Tigers were a team set to Footloose. At 7-6 in the SEC, a marquee out-of-conference win against UCLA under their belt and a supposedly soft schedule remaining, consuming cupcakes was all that was required. However, they were the ones covered in icing. Last Saturday they were toppled in Tuscaloosa, winding up on the wrong end of an 80-73 battle with 'Bama. Worse yet, Georgia had their number again. The Bulldogs, a team that ranks 80-plus according to various measurements, drop-kicked Mizzou for the second time this season, a defeat that raises significant doubts. Clearly the Tigers' No. 143 ranked defense has plagued them. In their last five losses, they've surrendered a staggering 1.219 points per possession. That, folks, won't cut it. Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson are fantastic scorers, but the club's team-wide ineptitude on D, combined with the dragging play of interior options Ryan Rosburg and Jonathan Williams, has the Tigers gasping for air. Their end-of-season clash at Tennessee has now become a must-win.
Next to Kansas, there's no school in the country that's dominated its conference like Gonzaga. Since 2001, it has worn a West Coast crown every season but one (2012). Mark Few, a future Hall of Fame coach, has done a terrific job keeping the talent flowing. Sadly, for the Kennel Crazies, that imperium has weakened. The Zags' 15-year streak of NCAA tournament appearances is in jeopardy. Though it owns a tidy 23-6 record, its overall résumé lacks substance. A pair of bad losses (Portland and San Diego) and with only one KenPom top-70 win (BYU), the Bulldogs' profile reeks of staleness. Nationally, they are still one of the more balanced teams around, ranking top 50 in offensive and defensive efficiency. However, they've done a poor job on the offensive glass and protecting the basketball. Kevin Pangos, their best three-point shooter, has also been wildly inconsistent. With a date at rival St. Mary's looming, the losers of three of their last five have officially entered the danger zone. Even if Gonzaga turns things around quickly, a double-digit seed could be a foregone conclusion.
Also Laming: Toledo, Kentucky
This segment sifts through the bountiful weekend slate to highlight five titanic games that will bear the greatest impact on a team's "Bracket Big Board" standing.
1. Kansas at Oklahoma St.
Many in the bracket prediction biz still have the Cowboys clinging to an at-large. I believe they're on firmer ground, but a win against the newly crowned Big 12 champs would go a long way to securing a spot in the NCAA tournament. Marcus Smart, motivated by his own self-inflicted shortcomings and his team's overall underachievement, has played inspired basketball since returning from suspension. In blowout wins against TCU and Texas Tech he totaled 33 points, 11 boards, 17 assists and 11 steals. Impressive. Because of Kansas' incredible size advantage, it's imperative for OSU to limit second-chance opportunities on D and aggressively go at KU's bigs. Get Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins in foul trouble early, which has happened occasionally this year, and the Cowboys will save some face in an otherwise disappointing season.
Prediction: Oklahoma St. 78, Kansas 76
2. Syracuse at Virginia
This clash of conference titans, hyped in this space two weeks ago, will determine who takes the whole enchilada in the ACC. The Cavs may not light up the scoreboard or win in the prettiest fashion, but it's shocking how little attention they've received despite going 14-1 in a high-profile league. If Virginia wants to write headlines, Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon must continue to frustrate defenses by hitting jumpers from the elbow and beyond. Do that, and the Orange's 2-3 zone will come unglued. Also smothering defensively, the Cavs should pull it out in a low-scoring, brawling type of affair, a victory that could send Syracuse's projected NCAA seeding south.
Prediction: Virginia 55, Syracuse 52
3. St. Louis at VCU
Another team with an eye-popping record few are talking about is St. Louis (25-2). The Billikens, sitting in the driver's seat in the highly competitive A-10, haven't lost since falling five points short against Wichita State on Dec. 1. Employing a staunch pressure defense, they've forced plenty of turnovers and held opponents to a mere 0.885 points per possession, the third-lowest mark in the country. In the first matchup at Chaifetz Arena, St. Louis' free-throw advantage and VCU's horrendous day behind the arc (2-for-16) proved to be the difference. Though the Billikens extend their defense like few others (27.4 three-point percentage allowed), gut feeling says the Rams' relentless 'Havoc' scheme carries Treveon Graham and company over the top.
Prediction: VCU 65, St. Louis 61
4. Creighton at Xavier
Tuesday in a Bubblicious battle at St. John's, Chris Mack's secret weapon, Jalen Reynolds, threw a party in the paint in a 65-53 Xavier win. The frosh dominated the interior, tallying 17 points and 16 boards. Collectively, the Musketeers played brilliant defense, forcing the Johnnies to take unappealing jump shots from 15 feet and beyond, a clear weakness. Obviously, Mack will have to alter his game plan against the 'Jays. Reynolds and Matt Stainbrook must clog the lane for Xavier to pull the upset. Teams that clean-up inside can be a bugaboo to the Fighting McDermotts. However, Creighton's lights-out execution from outside should easily gash Xavier's loose perimeter D, pushing the Musketeers back toward the bubble.
Prediction: Creighton 80, Xavier 74
5. Louisville at Memphis
After sneaking by Cincinnati in somewhat controversial fashion last weekend in the Queen City, many Louisville fans believe their team graduated from the mid-seed ranks. That's not entirely the case. The triumph definitely helped the résumé, but with only five RPI top-100 wins and a strength of schedule teetering on 100, the Cards remain a No. 5. Another noteworthy road win, however, would bolster the cause. Back in early January, the Tigers escaped the Yum! Center with an unlikely 73-67 win over Louisville. They played balanced ball, weren't crushed by turnovers, won the battle of the boards and excelled defensively. But that was many moons ago. Over the past month, no team, in efficiency terms, has performed quite like Louisville. The Bearded Pitinos have ratcheted up pressure, forced turnovers, scored easy buckets in transition and, as Russ Smith showed against the Bearcats, come through in clutch situations. Favor returned.
Prediction: Louisville 75, Memphis 70
Last week's record: 3-2
Overall record: 16-4
Other Notable Games: Iowa St. at Kansas St., Cincinnati at Connecticut, Texas at Oklahoma, UMass at Dayton, California at Arizona St., Minnesota at Michigan, Gonzaga at St. Mary's, Stanford at Arizona
What underrated player earned his bust?
Alan Williams, UCSB, C – With New Orleans' nightmarish King Cake Baby the lone exception, there may be no scarier presence on a basketball court than Williams. Undeniably one of the nastiest paint patrollers in the game today, the 6-foot-7 center has dominated at an astounding rate. He's launched over 37 percent of the Gauchos' shots, hitting 57.2 percent of those attempts. That's almost Doug McDermott territory, folks. Hacked often, the junior has also shot better than 70 percent from the charity stripe. Oh, and he also leads his team in rebounds (12.0 per game), blocks (2.5) and steals (1.3). Presently, UCSB is tied with UC-Irvine for the Big West lead. For the sake of mid-major enthusiasts, one can only hope it earns an automatic berth. It would be a crying shame for America not to see Williams on a big stage.
What high-profile player took a long, embarrassing walk home?
Each week, per your tweets, the Noise will attempt to get inside the mind of Selection Committee chairman Ron Wellman.
San Diego St. is a very close second, but 'Nova has the characteristics of a team destined to decorate your bracket with red slashes. Admittedly, they are one of a handful of teams that ranks top-20 in offensive and defensive efficiency. They also are relentless from outside. Ryan Arcidiacano is a streaky shooter, but James Bell and Darrun Hilliard convert better than 40 percent from three. 'Nova also boasts quality out-of-conference wins against Kansas and Iowa.
My biggest gripes with the 'Cats are threefold: 1) They possess underwhelming interior depth. JayVaughn Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu are fantastic post players, but if restricted due to foul trouble, coach Jay Wright has to play small. 2) They are overly reliant on the all-mighty three. Nearly 35 percent of the team's scoring production comes from money balls. One off night and elimination is inevitable. You need scoring balance to advance deep. 3) They don't extend defensively. 'Nova ranks No. 235 nationally in three-point percentage D. Yikes.
Bottom line: Matchups mean everything in the NCAA tournament. If placed in a region against a team that can exploit their weaknesses, the 'Cats will go back to Philly with hanging heads.
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