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Bracket Noise: Mid-seeded marvels

Brad Evans
Yahoo Sports

Wander around Bill Self's office and you're bound to discover framed team photos, trimmed championship nets and hair-styling products galore. Look on the walls and you'll probably also notice a motivational poster that reads, "Strategy: Hack the bejesus out of a horrendous free-throw shooting opponent, extend the game and hoist tourney crystal."

Comb the space carefully and you'll likely also uncover an aphorism encased in glass that says, "Defense wins championships."

The overused adage may sound cliché, but in the Jayhawks' unforgettable comeback last April, the phrase proved prophetic. Intelligent coaching may have partly propelled Kansas past Memphis, but in the end staunch defense is what put it into a position to win.

Down nine with 2:12 remaining, the Jayhawks' defensive tenacity is what kept them alive when all hope seemed lost. Mario Chalmers' memorable game-tying three with seconds remaining would have never materialized if KU folded defensively down the stretch. Memphis, the fourth-most efficient offense in the nation last year, was limited to just 40.3 percent from the field (27.3 percent from three), its fourth-poorest effort of the season.

The importance of defense in decoding which teams possess the pedigree of a contender cannot be underestimated. Look below at the defensive efficiency numbers of Final Four teams since '04:

Year Teams (defensive efficiency rank)
2004 Duke (4), Georgia Tech (3), Oklahoma St. (12), UConn (5)
2005 Illinois (11), Louisville (14), Michigan St. (25), North Carolina (5)
2006 Florida (5), LSU (4), George Mason (18), UCLA (3)
2007 Florida (12), Georgetown (20), Ohio St. (15), UCLA (2)
2008 Kansas (1), Memphis (4), North Carolina (19), UCLA (3)

Bolded teams were national champions in given year

Notice over the past five years, only one team (Michigan St.) ranked outside the top 20 in defensive efficiency and advanced to the Final Four, which is ironic since the Big Ten historically has been a conference predicated on stiff defense. Also, keep in mind no net-cutting team finished outside the top 12 in defensive efficiency.

Why is defensive viability so crucial?

Defenses that force guards to start offensive sets miles from the basket frustrate, strangle and defeat superior teams. Any team that exudes tenacious, aggressive tactics in a half-court or transition game can establish and control tempo, which can increase its odds of gaining the upper-hand. More importantly, as Kansas proved last season, teams that consistently contest shots are never out of a game. In essence, mentally and physically tough defensive squads can erase sizable leads in an instant by creating turnovers and stops.

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Versatile guard Alex Ruoff is poised to go all Pittsnoggle on that bracket … elevating the Mountaineers again into to the Sweet 16
(Getty Images)
Stalwart D is just one of several influential factors that should be considered when penciling in your Final Four. Here are three additional characteristics of a tourney champion:

Balanced efficiency
Defense might be the single-most critical championship ingredient, but you still have to squeeze the orange through the hoop. Analyzing the same group of Final Four teams discussed above, just five ranked outside the top 20 in offensive efficiency. Meanwhile, of those who finished on top, none finished short of the top five in the category. This evidence coincides with the fact that 22 of the past 24 NCAA champs have averaged at least 77 points per game and tallied a 10-plus margin of victory.

Even Stevens: Duke, UConn, Gonzaga, Missouri, Kansas

Experience
As former Princeton standout and U.S. Senator Bill Bradley once noted, "The taste of defeat has a richness of experience all its own." In today's day and age, teams rarely are well-seasoned largely due to the attractiveness of NBA greenbacks. For those schools lucky enough to survive the bling desires of the pro game, a cohesive, battle-tested unit that has tasted the fruits – whether bitter or sweet – in March have a distinct advantage over their opponent. These experienced squads are far less likely to crack under the microscope of the national stage due to chemistry and confidence.

March wisdom also applies to coaches. Clipboard scribblers with at least five years of tourney experience have relished in championship glory 17 of the past 24 tournaments. Simply put, spotlight pressures can be overwhelming for inexperienced teams, especially those from smaller conferences.

Seasoned Vets: Marquette, Utah, North Dakota St., Morgan St., Radford, Chattanooga, Connecticut, St. Mary's, Stephen F. Austin

Downtown Men
Nothing in the NCAA game is more style-altering than a team's ability to dial-up from long range. Why? 1. You are never out of the game … 2. Consistent perimeter shooting allows defenses to be stretched, opening up higher percentage opportunities in the paint … 3. Any riddling zone can be busted by an arc bomb. If rain isn't in the forecast, a team's chances to advance will run dry.

Arc Assassins: California (43.4%), Cornell (40.7%), North Dakota St. (40.2%), Arizona (39.8%), UCLA (39.6%), Gonzaga (39.9%), Xavier (39.9%), Oklahoma St. (38.4%)

Why you frontin'?
Its commonly perceived that teams equipped with elite backcourts outperform those that don't. Yes, guard play is a basic characteristic for tourney success, but it's not supreme. In fact, per BracketScience.com, guard-oriented offenses have reached the Final Four just 39 percent of the time since 1985. Conversely, clubs with dominant frontcourts (more than 48 percent of team scoring) have danced their way to the Mecca of college hoops at a 53 percent clip. Both are integral parts of any championship team, but front-heavy schools traditionally have accomplished more.

Manzier (or "Bro") needy: North Carolina, Utah, Wake Forest, Pittsburgh, Washington, UConn, Michigan St.

Outside the obvious top seeds (i.e. North Carolina, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Michigan St., etc.), here are five mid-seeded squads that have enough horsepower to reach Motor City:

Mid-seeded Marvels
Team W/L Seed-Region RPI SOS
Washington Huskies 25-8 4 – West 15 18
Starting Five: G – Isaiah Thomas (15.4 ppg, 1:1 AST:TO), G – Justin Dentmon (15.0 ppg, 42.2 3PT%), G – Venoy Overton (5.9 ppg, 1:1 AST:TO), F – Quincy Pondexter (11.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg), F – Jon Brockman (14.9 ppg, 11.2 rpg)
Key Wins: Oklahoma St. (18), UCLA (11), at Arizona St. (13), Arizona St. (3), Arizona (5)
Key Losses: at Portland (6), at Kansas (19), at California (15)
Why they could be marvelous: Winning the Pac-10 outright for the first time since the Eisenhower administration (1953), the Huskies are a fleet-footed group that pressures the ball relentlessly. Lorenzo Romar's club, ranks in the top 12 nationally in defensive efficiency, wears down opponents by applying full-court pressure. Offensively, the Huskies leave some to be desired, especially from the arc (34.1 3PT%), but the bruising play of glass-pounder Jon Brockman creates many second-chance opportunities. Washington ranks third in the country in offensive rebound percentage. Brockman's punishing style combined with the unfazed slashing play of Thomas, Dentmon and Pondexter generates numerous free-throw opportunities. Converting nearly 70 percent from the line, U-Dub normally manufactures a mountain of points with the clock paused. Turnovers can plague them at times, but the Pac-10 princes are a well-rounded, dangerous squad built to inflict serious damage. Mississippi State is an unfortunate first-round draw, but the guard play of Thomas and Dentmon will likely cage the Bulldogs.
Prediction: Sweet 16 loss to Connecticut
Missouri Tigers 28-6 3 – West 10 38
Starting Five: G – Zaire Taylor (6.5 ppg, 3.5 apg), G – J.T. Tiller (7.9 ppg, 3.6 apg), F – Matt Lawrence (9.0 ppg, 45.8 FG%), F – DeMarre Carroll (16.8 ppg, 7.3 apg), F – Leo Lyons (14.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg)
Key Wins: California (27), at Texas (4), Kansas 92), Oklahoma (9)
Key Losses: Illinois (N) (16), at Nebraska (5), at Kansas St. (16), at Kansas (25)
Why they could be marvelous: In less than three seasons in Columbia, Mike Anderson's high-pressure system has erased solemn fan feelings experienced under Quin Snyder's tenure. Anderson's fast-paced philosophy, which applies intense full-court pressure to induce abundant turnovers (8th in TO% defense, 2nd in Steal%), has routinely worn out opponents. Add that with the goal-attacking tandem of Leo Lyons and DeMarre Carroll, and Mizzou has the ingredients to emerge victorious in its tourney region. Statistically harmonious, the Tigers are one of six teams that rank in the top 20 nationally in offense and defensive efficiency. Because of their lack of size inside, teams have occasionally manhandled them on the glass, which could be troublesome against a front-heavy half-court team. Also, free-throw shooting has been problematic at times. The Tigers have converted just 66.8 percent from the line (242nd in D1). Still, due to their dogged devotion to the press, teams with sloppy ball-handlers will crumble against them. A potential third-round clash with Memphis would be a tough matchup, but a tightly-contested game.
Prediction: Sweet 16 loss to Memphis
Gonzaga Bulldogs 26-5 4 – South 26 88
Starting Five: G – Jeremy Pargo (9.8 ppg, 5.1 apg), G – Steven Gray (9.3 apg, 3.1 rpg), G – Matt Bouldin (13.7 ppg, 44.8 3PT%), F – Austin Daye (12.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg), F – Josh Heytvelt (14.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg)
Key Wins: Oklahoma St. (N) (12), Maryland (N) (22), Tennessee (N) (9), at Tennessee (3), at St. Mary's (2), St. Mary's (N) (25)
Key Losses: Portland St. (7), Memphis (18)
Why they could be marvelous: Every year bracketology virtuosos wax romantically about how America's mid-major sweetheart is destined for a deep tourney run. Based on the results under Mark Few, they're still waiting. Gonzaga has advanced to the Sweet 16 just once in seven straight appearances. However, this year it may finally live up to expectations. Peeking at the numbers, this is the strongest Bulldogs team ever under Few's direction. The Zags are one of two teams (Duke the other) that ranks in the top ten in offensive and defensive efficiency. Against top-quality defensive adversaries they have looked stagnant at times, but they still rank in the top 25 in three-point (39.9) and two-point percentage (52.9). It's safe to assume they are a club comprised of accurate scorers. More impressively, self-inflicted wounds are few and far between, shown in their sixth-best offensive turnover percentage. Defensively, Gonzaga is equally mighty. Opponents are netting just 38.6 percent inside the arc against it, the lowest mark in college basketball. Unblemished in West Coast play, its weak schedule is always worrisome, but its rigorous non-conference slate should have this team prepared. If the sometimes selfish Zags can distribute the rock more crisply, they have excellent odds of reaching the Final Four for the first time in school history.
Prediction: Elite 8 loss to Syracuse
West Virginia Mountaineers 23-11 6 – Midwest 21 10
Starting Five: G – Darryl Bryant (9.5 ppg, 2.7 apg), G – Alex Ruoff (15.9 ppg, 3.5 apg), F – Da'Sean Butler (17.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg), F – Wellington Smith (5.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg), F – Devin Ebanks (10.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg)
Key Wins: at Ohio St. (28), Villanova (21), Providence (27)
Key Losses: Kentucky (N) (11), Davidson (N) (3), at Marquette (22), Pittsburgh (13), at Syracuse (13), at Cincinnati (4)
Why they could be marvelous: Bob Huggins' fashionable attire alone could scare away tournament opponents. No matter if he sports a pullover, mock turtleneck or pimpish gold suit, the decorated coach will have this team prepared. West Virginia's questionable record and mid-seed is counter to its statistical potency. The Mountaineers rank in the top 30 nationally in offensive and defensive efficiency, offensive rebound percentage, three-point defense, turnover percentage defense and block percentage. Essentially, this is a well-rounded squad poised for another Sweet 16 berth. Actually, compared to last year's squad, the 2009 team is brawnier on defense. Alex Ruoff and Da'Sean Butler are outstanding scorers who can beat you in a variety of ways. Their conversion success is pivotal to WVU's advancement chances. Butler, who has performed erratically down the stretch, especially needs to play efficiently. If all the pieces synergize, Huggy Bear's sleuth could again topple a high seed. Kansas and Michigan St. should be fearful.
Prediction: Elite 8 loss to Louisville
BYU Cougars 25-7 8 – West 30 67
Starting Five: G – Jimmer Fredette (16.2 ppg, 4.2 apg), G – Jackson Emery (7.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg), G – Lee Cummard (16.8 ppg, 38.0 3PT%), F – Jonathan Tavernari (15.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg), C – Chris Miles (7.2 ppg, 58.6 FG%)
Key Wins: at Tulsa (6), New Mexico (11), at San Diego St. (10), Utah (13)
Key Losses: at Arizona St. (1), Wake Forest (7)
Why they could be marvelous: Talk of "Big Love" may incite disdainful emotions in Provo for some, but it's exactly how bracketeers will feel if they scribble BYU on the pool sheet line. The well-proportioned Cougars are crouched in a cave poised to strike from the shadows. Rarely seen east of the Continental Divide, BYU has quietly compiled a brilliant resume inside the resurgent Mountain West. Championed by super-efficient guard Lee Cummard, whose 16.8/6.3/3.3 average line is a smorgasbord of statistical goodness, the Cougars are a ferocious bunch that finished the pre-tourney season in the top 25 in offensive and defensive efficiency. Known as stalwart perimeter challengers, BYU has limited opponents to just 30 percent from long distance. Dave Rose's squad is fairly frontcourt thin, but because Cummard and backcourt partner Jimmer Fredette are so efficient cradling the rock (11th in turnover percentage offense) and scoring inside, outside and from the charity stripe, the Cougars are dangerous. Don't forget, 6-foot-6 forward Jonathan Tavernari averages 2.6 three-point splashes per game. All singing Osmonds would agree: BYU will be difficult to eliminate.
Prediction: Second-round loss to Connecticut

TOURNEY TIDBITS
Below are a handful of fast facts to help you construct the ultimate bracket.

  • All-time No. 4 seeds in the Sweet 16 are 14-27 (34.1%), but just 3-11 since 2000
  • No. 3 seed round-by-round record since 2000: 34-2 (Rd. 1), 21-13 (Rd. 2), 10-11 (S16), 5-5 (E8), 3-2 (FF)
  • Since 1985 No. 7 seeds are 192-192 versus No. 10s. In Round 2 No. 7s are 48-144 (25.0%), but 20-28 (41.7%) in Sweet 16 clashes.
  • All-time No. 8 seeds have notched a 96-96 record versus No. 9s. Since 2000, No. 8s are 36-36. Like the 7-10 matchups, flip a coin in the 8-9 games.
  • No. 2 seeds are 21-23 (47.7%) all-time in Elite 8 games, No. 1s are 42-27 (60.8%)
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