Backcourt experience and senior leadership are two prerequisites for making a national championship run. With guards Peyton Siva and and Russ Smith, coach Rick Pitino can happily check both of those boxes.
Siva, a senior who averages 10 points and 5.9 assists a game, guided the Cardinals to a second straight Big East tournament title, joining Georgetown's Patrick Ewing as the only repeat tourney MVP. Smith, a 6-foot-1 junior who averages a team-best 18.1 points per game, is the dynamic scorer capable of creating his own shot. Siva and Smith also ignite Pitino's trademark press, each making two steals a game, but the diminutive guards can be exposed defensively against bigger guards.
The Blue Devils finally feel complete with the return of Ryan Kelly from a foot injury. The senior forward gives coach Mike Krzyzewski another scorer on a team that's one of the most potent offensively in the country. Senior forward Mason Plumlee remains the focus, averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds a game, and the All-ACC first-team selection is complemented well by the sharpshooting foursome of Seth Curry (17 points per game), Kelly (14.3), Quinn Cook (12.4) and freshman Rasheed Sulaimon (11.5).
Duke not only shoots the 3-pointer, ranking among the nation's best at 40.6 percent, but it also defends the three, holding opponents to just 29.3 percent from beyond the arc.
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You can never go wrong with defense and rebounding in March, and that’s been Tom Izzo’s recipe for greatness for years now. There have been a couple of unattractive losses -- by 12 to Miami and by 13 to Minnesota -- yet stretch run always seems to bring more in the way of ugly wins.
The Spartans will bring the bruisers in the tournament, in the form of Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix, and that should soften opponents enough late in games to give scorers Keith Appling and Gary Harris room to create. The question is whether it will be enough room. Those two combine for just north of 25 ppg, so a hot-shooting team could put the Spartans in a hole that isn’t easy to get out of. Izzo’s crew will once again rely on its toughness to survive and advance, while less physical teams tend to wilt around them – especially as the Final Four gets closer.
Riding an emotional roller coaster since Rick Majerus’ abrupt passing in early December, the Billikens channeled their sadness positively by capturing the A-10 regular season title outright.
Disciplined and mentally tough, they boast one of the top half-court defenses in the land by forcing turnovers while conceding just 0.88 points per possession. Consistency on offense has lagged at times, but when Mike McCall and Cody Ellis are shooting well from the outside, they are very difficult to beat. If they can control the tempo and execute on offense, St. Louis could surprise.
Led by guards Marcus Smart and Markel Brown, who combined to average 30.7 points a game, the Cowboys are making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2010. They have a victory over Kansas on their resume and closed the regular season 11-2 before losing to Kansas State in the Big 12 tournament semifinals.
Brown and Phil Forte give Oklahoma State a couple of solid 3-point threats. One potential worry: The Cowboys looked weary by the end of the Big 12 tournament.
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Memphis blitzed through the Conference USA schedule with no losses and more than a few impressive wins, capping it off with a third-straight tournament title, yet what does that really mean? The Tigers’ four losses were arguably as revealing as their 30 wins: losing two games (by 13 to VCU and nine to Minnesota) at a tournament in the Bahamas, by nine at home to Louisville, and by two on the road at Xavier.
Still, there’s a strong case to be made for a deep tournament run. Most obviously, the Tigers have lost once since December 15. They have four double-digit scorers in Adonis Thomas, Chris Crawford, Joe Jackson, and Geron Johnson. Two of those guys (Jackson and Crawford) are shooting better than 40 percent from three. So the firepower is there. The test will come when Memphis faces a big-conference school with size and strength. Then it will be up to baby-faced head coach Josh Pastner (104 wins at age 35) to array all that shooting talent into a tournament-tough team. Pastner doesn’t drink alcohol, soda or caffeine. If his Tigers can show that kind of discipline in a stressful setting, watch out.
The Blue Jays are the most efficient half-court team in the nation, ranking No. 1 in both three-point and field-goal percentage. Wooden Award candidate Doug McDermott is the heart and soul of this team, but Creighton boasts much more than just one star.
Ethan Wragge and Jahenns Manigat can really fill it up from the outside, Gregory Echenique is a muscle man down low, and Will Artino and Avery Dingman have provided valuable minutes off the bench. Defensively, Creighton can be a mess, but if it locks down in that area, as it did in the MVC tourney, it could make the Sweet 16.
It's been a season of change under Larry Eustachy. He demanded the Rams raise their expectations, and the result was a top-25 ranking in mid-February, the program's first AP poll appearance since 1954. What will a second straight NCAA tourney bid bring?
The CSU faithful can dream big with All-Mountain West first-teamer Colton Iverson. The 6-foot-10 senior transfer from Minnesota brought toughness to the Rams, averaging a team-leading 15 points and 10 rebounds. His inside presence opens things up for Dorian Green and Wes Eikmeier to do damage from the outside. Both senior guards average nearly 13 points a game, but Green has been slowed by an ankle sprain.
The Tigers will only go as far as junior guard Phil Pressey leads them. Pressey, whom coach Frank Haith calls "Batman" after being "Robin" to Marcus Denmon last season, has been a flawed super hero to say the least due to a string of late-game mistakes.
The preseason Southeastern Conference player of the year's poor shot selection and ill-timed turnovers are on the Mizzou fans' minds more than his good deeds, which include a 11.6-point scoring average and an SEC-leading 7.1 assists per game. Perhaps Laurence Bowers (14.4 points per game), Oregon transfer Jabari Brown (13.7), Keion Bell (11.1) and Connecticut transfer Alex Oriakhi (11.1) can lend a helping hand.
The Bearcats haven't fared well over the past month of the season. Of even more concern: They've particularly struggled against top-tier competition, losing their past six games against ranked teams. That likely doesn't translate into Cincinnati advancing past the opening weekend of the tournament.
The Bearcats haven't found much rhythm on offense, shooting just 40.2 percent, which ranks 305th in the nation. Junior guard Sean Kilpatrick leads the Bearcats with 16.9 points per game. Senior guard Cashmere Wright is averaging 12.6 points on 35.9 percent 3-point shooting.
The Gaels are ecstatic that history didn't repeat itself. Four years ago, St. Mary's went 0-3 against rival Gonzaga and were denied an at-large berth. This year, the resume was strong enough. Despite having only a handful of quality wins (Creighton, BYU twice), Randy Bennett's squad got the nod by maintaining a respectable RPI in the low 30s.
Senior guard Matthew Dellavedova is the biggest reason why the Gaels are dancing. The All-West Coast Conference selection leads the team in scoring (16 points per game) and averaged a league-best six assists per game. Reliable perimeter shooting has been lacking for St. Mary's, which will need junior guard Stephen Holt and junior forward Beau Levesque to knock down shots.
The Blue Raiders made the play-in game with an at-large bid, a testament to their 28-5 record. Senior guard Marcos Knight leads Middle Tennessee State with 12.5 points and 5.8 rebounds. The Blue Raiders can shoot -- they ranked 39th in the nation at 46.3 percent while averaging 71.2 points per game. Senior guard Raymond Cintron is a dependable 3-point threat, making 44 percent of his attempts.
Under Pac-12 coach of the year Dana Altman, the Ducks turned heads with an 18-2 start that featured wins over three top-25 teams (UNLV, Arizona, UCLA). They then hit a rough patch, struggling through a 5-4 stretch without injured point guard Dominic Artis, but the freshman's late-season return has made Oregon's balanced attack whole again.
Leading scorer E.J. Singler, brother of ex-Duke star Kyle, is one of five players averaging at least nine points a game. Freshman guard Damyean Dotson is a tough cover with his slashing drives to the basket; senior forward Arsalan Kazemi and senior center Tony Woods do the dirty work inside, offensively and defensively.
The WAC representative is a team to take seriously. In December, it nearly knocked off intrastate rival New Mexico and bounced a gritty Southern Mississippi club. It's a quality defensive team. The tallest squad in the country, it rosters five players at 6-foot-8 and taller.
Animated skyscraper Sim Bhullar, who stands at 7-foot-5, is a prolific rebounder and shot-blocker. In the WAC tourney alone he rejected nine shots. Still, questions loom. The Aggies are ghastly from three and haven't taken advantage of their numerous free-throw attempts. Self-inflicted wounds are also a problem, evident in their high turnover rate. But given their massive frontcourt size, they shouldn't be immediately dismissed.
Twenty-five years ago, Bryce Drew stunned Ole Miss with one of the most memorable game-winners in NCAA tournament history. Now he's back in the dance with Valpo, this time as the team's head coach. The oldest team in the tourney, Valpo boasts nine upperclassman and five senior starters.
The Crusaders are led by sharp-shooter Ryan Broekhoff and senior forward Kevin Van Wijk, who combine to shoot 53.2 percent from the field and 81 percent from the free-throw line. Defensively, the Horizon reps are average at best and turnovers have plagued them at times, but the Crusaders should not be overlooked. If they draw an opponent that's soft on defense, they could wreck many brackets.
Getting a ticket to the Big Dance for only the third time in school history was no small feat for the Great Danes. Unlike most high-major tournaments, the AmEast regular season champ is rewarded with the honor of hosting. Albany unpredictably conquered adversity, beating Vermont on its home floor.
The oversized Canines are an effective three-point shooting team that also cashes in often at the free-throw line. Defensively, they lack punch, but led by 6-foot-10 center John Puk, they've dominated the glass at times, ranking inside the top-40 nation in defensive rebounding percentage. Albany shocked Washington in Seattle back in December, but unless it's en fuego from outside, it will likely get the quick hook.
Liberty is the definition of resiliency. It punched its ticket to the Big Dance after an 0-8 start by disposing of favorite Charleston Southern in the Big South tournament final. Dale Layer’s club is horrendous defensively, ranking worse below No. 200 in eight categories.
However, the Flames occasionally overcame their shortcomings with long-range shooting. Davon Marshall, who set a Big South record by hitting seven three-pointers in the tourney final, shoots 43.3 percent from behind the arc. Still, with little size and given its defensive shortcomings, Liberty is a low-end seed with little substance.
Agriculture, technology and MEAC champs ... That's what the school's seal should read. The last time the Aggies went dancing, 1995, Coolio still had a career. Still, despite sporting a .500 conference record, they improbably prevailed in one of the wackiest tournaments of the year.
Unquestionably the worst offensive team in the field, ranking No. 317 in adjusted offensive efficiency, A&T relies solely on defense. It coaxed turnovers on nearly 24-percent of opponent possessions and limited foes to a laudable 0.95 points per possession. But unless Adrian Powell goes nuts from three, the Aggies will soon get body-slammed. Recall, they lost to Cincinnati 93-39 back in November.
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