Forget the bluster from the suits that they trot out on TV to pick all the chalk. Ignore the droning analytics geeks. If you want to win your bracket, there are no more qualified sources than the coaches who played, recruited against and studied the teams in the NCAA tournament.
We all know Gonzaga, Baylor and Illinois are good. Who are some of the teams that college basketball coaches are picking to bust up brackets? Yahoo Sports spoke to a dozen coaches this weekend to see what teams outside the obvious elite tier can make a run.
No. 4 Florida State
First-round matchup: No. 13 UNC Greensboro (21-8)
FSU coach Leonard Hamilton has reached 10 career NCAA tournaments and has yet to reach a Final Four. That appeared destined to happen in 2020, as FSU won the ACC regular season and was 26-5 when the pandemic shuttered college basketball. FSU is under-seeded at No. 4 and positioned in a bracket where No. 1 seed Michigan expects to be without senior starter Isaiah Livers (13.1 ppg, six rpg) for the tournament. Can Hamilton be a feel-good story?
What coaches say about the Seminoles: “Their defense is very good because of their size and the amount of guys who come at you. They switch everything, and it makes it tough for you to get inside. They front everything. When you do get it inside, they send everyone to the ball and have great size, length and athleticism. When you play those guys, you need to take your playbook and throw it out the window and not run a lot of sets. Their best talent is Scottie Barnes, a 6-foot-9 freshman, who is a unicorn. He plays the point and drives right by a guy. He’ll go downhill on drives like Ben Simmons and gets going downhill and makes winning plays. He’s a lottery pick, but plays like a jack of all trades, like a taller Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at Kentucky."
They don’t get enough credit for their shooting, as they are first in the ACC in 3-point field goal percentage. Their talent level is very high, but they also have a mix of depth, older and younger.
No. 7 Oregon
First-round matchup: VCU (19-7)
The Ducks have been the best West Coast team not named Gonzaga for a majority of the past decade. Don’t be surprised if they end up facing the Zags in the West regional final. They are 11-3 since point guard Will Richardson returned in early February and have four other double-digit scorers around him. Oregon had won six straight before getting upset by Oregon State in the Pac-12 tournament. Don’t let that lone result prompt recency bias.
Why coaches like the Ducks: “You never want to face them in the NCAA tournament. They’re so hard to prepare for on both ends. Dana Altman is a great coach and he can really manage a game from the sidelines. They change defenses a ton. They play man-to-man, but they also play a match-up zone. But the way they play it, you honestly think that they’re in man. Sometimes they’ll switch within the possession. On offense, he manipulates the game to where they aren’t running a lot of ball screens. They run a Wheel, it’s similar to what Illinois runs. It’s not Princeton-style, but it has those concepts where you can’t pressure anyone because the ball is moving constantly. They can run in transition, they have guys who play above the rim and he’s going to make you play slow and methodically break you down in the last 10 seconds of the shot clock. Without Will Richardson, they were average. With him, they’re really good.”
No. 8 North Carolina
First-round matchup: No. 9 Wisconsin (17-12)
Yes, plucky little UNC cast as an underdog is certainly rich with March irony. But the Tar Heels showed just enough life at the end of the season to get coaches around the ACC believing in their potential. Some of that coincided with the emergence of 7-foot-1 center Walker Kessler, who put up 20 points and eight rebounds in a win over Florida State and 16 and 12 in the ACC tournament over Notre Dame. But mostly, the Tar Heels are still relying on their nation’s best offensive rebounding percentage to compensate for their anemic 31.7% 3-point shooting. Freshman guards RJ Davis and Caleb Love have grown up some through early struggles, but will they be able to handle this new stage?
Why coaches like the Tar Heels: “UNC has the potential to do some damage. Their guard play is starting to ramp up, but the key is the frontline. No one has a frontline like that if you’re not used to playing those guys. That’s an NBA team. They have NBA size. Kessler had eight blocks against Notre Dame in the ACC tournament, and he comes off the bench. Day’Ron Sharpe has only started four games, but he’d be a top-15-to-top-20 pick if he came out in the draft this year. Sharpe’s powerful and a really good passer. The key is going to be the guards. Love has been more under control. He’s a streaky shooter, but they have a chance if they’re not turning it over as much.”
No. 9 St. Bonaventure
First-round matchup: No. 8 LSU (18-9)
So much about the NCAA tournament is the draw. And St. Bonaventure got a lousy one. They suffered from small sample size — just 20 games — and no quality wins outside of league play. But the committee’s reluctance to award teams from outside major conferences showed up here, as the eye test and numbers should have bumped them to at least a No. 7. They also got stuck with tricky matchups. LSU's roster is loaded with pros and No. 1 Michigan looms after that. That said, the Bonnies start five upperclassmen — four juniors and a redshirt junior — who score in double digits and have a rugged defense than ranks them in the top 35 nationally in effective field goal percentage defense. They’ll require a 15-round TKO to get outslugged.
Why coaches like the Bonnies: “They’re one of the best teams I’ve seen this year. They have four ball handlers on the floor at all times and they play with a great balance of structure and freedom. That makes them hard to guard, as they can break off and attack and also stick to the script. There’s a lot of variations. They’re also just connected as a unit. It’s not what they do on defenses, it’s how hard they do it. [Bonnies coach Mark Schmidt] does a great job with how hard they play. It all starts with Kyle Lofton, he’s the best player in our league. I tell NBA scouts that all the time when they ask about [VCU’s Bones Hyland] that Lofton is the best in the league. He defends the best player on the other team every single night and almost always holds him below his average. You can’t quantify a lot of what he does. His shooting percentages aren’t great [25.4 from 3-point range], but he always seems to make shots when it matters. Jalen Adaway is both a great offensive rebounder and facilitator, which is really different. They’re good, man. They can make a run in this thing.”
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