The Hoosiers enter the tournament with three losses in their past six games after falling to Wisconsin in the Big Ten semifinals. Cause for concern? Not too much. With Victor Oladipo's athleticism and Cody Zeller's size, Indiana remains a good pick to reach the Final Four and challenge for the national title.
The Hoosiers also shouldn't be too fazed by pressure in the tournament. They won the regular-season title in the nation's best conference, where nearly every game was a bloodwar. They won't experience much over the next few weeks that they haven't already seen in the Big Ten.
In just two seasons, Jim Larranaga has turned Miami into a basketball school. The Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year led the Hurricanes to their first-ever outright regular-season championship, winning the ACC with a surprising 15-3 record.
The 'Canes' emergence coincides with the rise of sophomore point guard Shane Larkin, the son of MLB Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, who averages a team-best 14 points a game, forms a dynamic backcourt with senior Durand Scott that gives opponents fits on both ends of the floor. Both Larkin and Scott made the All-ACC defensive team, Scott winning ACC Defensive Player of the Year. They are a big reason why Miami yields only 60 points a game.
The Golden Eagles were supposed to take a step back this year because of key graduations, but coach Buzz Williams did a remarkable job and Marquette tied for the Big East championship. The emergence of guard Vander Blue (14.3 points per game) helped tremendously. Marquette is strong on the perimeter, although it does not shoot 3-pointers well, hitting just 30.1 percent from behind the arc. But Marquette rarely turns the ball over and is very accurate on its 2-point attempts.
Marquette got to the sweet 16 last season, and even though this team doesn’t have stars like 2012 heroes Darius Johnson-Odom or Jae Crowder, and it bowed out in its first game of the Big East tournament against Notre Dame, don’t count out this well-coached, hard-nosed team in the NCAA tournament.
The Orange looked like an elite team for the first half of the season. Before Jan. 26, Syracuse was 18-1 with a four-point loss to Temple being the only blemish. Then Syracuse started to struggle in the teeth of Big East play. Syracuse went just 5-7 to finish the regular season, although none of the losses were that bad.
The Big East tournament showed the Syracuse team from earlier in the season, as it won three games (including nice wins against Pitt and Georgetown) and led Louisville before the Cardinals went on a huge run. Part of Syracuse’s problem late in the regular season was that James Southerland was out with an eligibility issue. He is back and broke a Big East tournament record for 3-pointers. Guard Brandon Triche also shook off a mini-slump in the conference tournament. Triche and Michael Carter-Williams make Syracuse strong on the perimeter.
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The Runnin' Rebels will go as far as their frontcourt muscle will take them. At the forefront is freshman Anthony Bennett, a 6-foot-8 matchup nightmare who is projected to be an NBA lottery pick. Junior Mike Moser also has the talent to take over games but has struggled with consistency since suffering an elbow injury in December.
Khem Birch, the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, is the shot blocker who's helped keep opponents under 39 percent shooting. However, coach Dave Rice will hope someone from UNLV's backcourt will raise his game. Freshman Katin Reinhardt can get hot from 3-point land, but the onus likely falls on point guard Anthony Marshall to be the steady senior leader.
Butler’s first (and only?) season in the Atlantic 10 went well. Even in a tougher league, Butler went 26-8 and 11-5 in the conference. This isn’t coach Brad Stevens’ best team (obviously you remember his two teams that made the title game) but it did beat Gonzaga and Indiana this season, showing it has the ability to beat any team in college basketball.
The keys to this team’s success are sharp-shooting guard Rotnei Clarke, an Arkansas transfer who averages 16.7 points and can carry Butler to a few wins if he’s hot, and 6-11 center Andrew Smith, who averages 11.1 points per game. It shouldn’t be a surprise if Butler pulls a few more NCAA tournament upsets this year.
It's been a seesaw year for the Illini. They roared out of the gates and reeled off 12 straight wins, including arguably the best non-conference road win this season (at Gonzaga), only to stumble to a 2-7 start in Big Ten play. But a late-season turnaround, spurred by key wins over Indiana and Minnesota, has Illinois on a roll.
The enigmatic club will go as far as its guards will take it. Brandon Paul's and D.J. Richardson’s shooting from behind the arc is instrumental for Illinois. When hitting from the outside and committed to defense, the Illini are capable of eliminating anyone. However, bouts of inconsistency leave them vulnerable to 20-point blowouts. Still, this is a dangerous midrange seed that could reach the second weekend if it finds its stroke.
With four starters returning from a Sweet 16 team, the Wolfpack were the preseason pick to win the Atlantic Coast Conference and C.J. Leslie was touted as the favorite for ACC player of the year. They failed to meet those lofty expectations with a fifth-place finish and a sometimes disinterested Leslie, but coach Mark Gottfried's club has a second chance to make this season memorable.
The 6-foot-9 Leslie improved his numbers slightly, averaging 7.4 rebounds and a team-high 14.9 points a game, but senior forward Richard Howell has been the real rock for N.C. State. The 6-8 Howell averages 12.7 points and 10.7 rebounds a game to earn a place on the five-man All-ACC first team.
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Temple has been competitive in every game this year save for one (a blowout loss to Duke) and the big reason for that was Khalif Wyatt's offensive game. The senior guard was 17th in the nation in scoring with 19.9 points per game and still managed to dish out 4.1 assists per game.
The Owls stayed competitive in the Atlantic-10 (no easy task this season), and can boast non-conference wins against Big East juggernauts Syracuse and Villanova. Bombing out of the A-10 tournament early with a loss to Massachusetts didn't help with Temple's seeding, but Fran Dunphy's team scores enough to stay competitive with anyone.
Coach Tad Boyle was so exasperated by a Senior Night loss to lowly Oregon State that afterward he grabbed a microphone to apologize to the home fans. Overall, Boyle has nothing to be sorry about -- not with his team's solid body of work.
The Buffaloes are 4-2 against Top 25 teams and would've been 5-1 if a game-winning, buzzer-beating 3-pointer hadn't been disallowed against Arizona in their Pac-12 opener. All-conference first-teamer Spencer Dinwiddie and point guard Askia Booker form a potent backcourt tandem, and athletic 6-7 forward Andre Roberson, the Pac-12 defensive player of the year, is a menacing presence to both post scorers and perimeter shooters.
Fear the Bison, high-majors. Among automatic qualifiers seeded No. 12 and below, Bucknell might be the most dangerous. Patriot Player of the Year, Mike Muscala, is solid NBA prospect who's averaged a double-double per game on the season. His soft touch inside and strong rebounding ability has greatly aided Bryson Johnson and Cameron Ayers along the perimeter.
Combined the long-bombers have convereted 40.3-percent from three. On the opposite end, Bucknell is incredibly stiff. The Bison have held opponents to the fifth-lowest effective field-goal percentage in the country. The Buck doesn't play comfortably against fleet-footed teams, but against half-court oriented squads it should hold its own. Recall it nearly knocked off Missouri, in Columbia, in early January.
The Golden Bears made national headlines when frustrated coach Mike Montgomery shoved Allen Crabbe in an attempt to motivate the Pac-12 player of the year. Crabbe responded by leading a comeback victory over USC and helping extend a win streak that would reach seven games.
Since making its push for the NCAA tournament, Cal has stumbled, losing its last two games including a Pac-12 tourney upset defeat to Utah. Also, Crabbe, the Pac-12's leading scorer, struggled from the floor at season's end (38 percent in last five games). Point guard Justin Cobbs, forwards Richard Solomon and David Kravish and freshman starter Tyrone Wallace must be prepared to pick up the slack.
Recently, it's been an emotional rollercoaster for the Grizzlies. On March 7, it learned leading scorer Mathias Ward would not return from a foot injury suffered in mid-February. However, star guard Will Cherry, who feared he too was the victim of a catastrophic foot injury, dodged a bullet, returning just in time for the Big Sky Tournament. Good thing. Cherry carried the Grizzlies to the auto bid, scoring 40 points in two games. Gritty and determined, he is the heart and soul of this team.
Overall, Montana is a slashing, aggressive club that lives at the free-throw line. Roughly 23-percent of its points have come on freebies. But very sketchy defensively, it must continue to excel at a high level offensively if it wants to don a glass slipper.
Stephen Curry isn’t walking through the door again for Bob McKillop, but the Wildcats, dancing for the sixth time this century, shouldn’t be immediately dismissed. The best free-throw shooting team in the country -- shooting better than 80 percent from the line -- Davidson is a club that excels at attacking the basket.
A good 3-point shooting (36.9 percent) and cautious with the basketball, the Wildcats are well-rounded. Davidson played a rigorous non-conference slate against the likes of Duke, Gonzaga and New Mexico, barely losing to the Lobos in November. That experience on a team brimming with upperclassmen makes it a dangerous low-seed.
In his final season pacing the bench for the Tigers, living legend Bob Thomason was gifted one last opportunity to cement his legacy. Earlier this century, the old coach helped guide Pacific out of the opening round twice (2004 and 2005), wrecking brackets in the process. However, the challenge will be stiffer the third time around.
The Tigers can light up the scoreboard from beyond the arc. Equipped with several sharp-shooters, they've splashed 39.1 percent from three, the 13th-best mark in the game. Disciplined, they also rarely turn the ball over. Soft on defense pre-conference, they tightened the screws in league play, yielding a respectable 0.98 points per possession. If that level of intensity continues and the experienced Tigers tickle the twine from outside, they are capable of pulling off another shocker special.
The last time the Dukes went dancing, in 1994, Ace of Base was blowing up your tape deck. Don’t deny it. Despite scoring just 0.97 points per possession, the Dukes managed to roll through the Colonial Conference tourney, dispatching favorite Northeastern in the final.
James Madison rarely makes mistakes on offense, ranking inside the top-25 in offensive turnover percentage. Andre ‘Small Country’ Nation, at 6-5, is an enforcer in the paint, swatting 1.2 shots per game. Still, the Dukes are the antithesis of an offensive juggernaut. Combine that with their problems guarding the perimeter, and the Dukes don't have much of a chance.
The Blackbirds flew their way into the field by stomping Mount St. Mary's in the Northeastern Conference tourney final to win their third straight league title. LIU employs a high-tempo, attacking offense, exhausting defenders with aggressive dribble-drives and sharp outside shooting.
On the year, it's converted better than 38 percent from beyond the arc and 53 percent from inside. Jason Brickman is the antithesis of his last name, shooting nearly 46 percent from three-point range. Unfortunately, the Blackbirds surrender 1.13 points per possession, ranking 323rd in Division I. Because of their lack of size and general uneasiness in a half-court setting, they are often frustrated when pressed into a slow pace. However, if a track meet breaks out, the Blackbirds will hang tough.
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