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 fake Hawaiian driver's license, there's nothing fake about this I.D. …
When Maryland’s Seth Allen stepped to the free-throw line in the waning moments Saturday against Duke, the weight of an entire fanbase rested squarely on his shoulders. The Terps, with few signature wins on their resume, were in desperation mode. Not only did a win against their biggest archrival hang in the balance, so did their chances of attending the Dance.
The capacity crowd at the Comcast Center waited with bated breath.
Unfazed, Allen toed the line, dribbled, paused, released and swished both opportunities. Up two with 2.5 seconds remaining, onlookers were about to burst at the seams. When Quinn Cook’s desperation three, eerily similar to Ben Brust’s prayer against Michigan, clanked off the back-iron, an onslaught of red and black stormed the floor.
Another highly-ranked team disposed.
Another wild college basketball Saturday …
The narrative this season, as stated and restated by analysts from coast-to-coast, says upsets are on the rise. The collegiate game, populated by good, but not great teams, is a sport where parity reigns supreme. Indicative in the numerous changes inside the top-5 of the AP poll this year, no club, no matter how talented, is safe from David.
Goliath-slayings, compared to some years, are up, but it’s not the dog-eat-dog world mouthpieces would lead you to believe. According to our friends at StatSheet, the percentage of AP top-25 upsets involving unranked teams is roughly 80-percent, a high number, but not off-the-charts crazy. This century, five years (2001, 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2011) were as or a wee bit crazier.
As discussed previously, upsets are often improperly defined. Vegas views games through a completely different looking glass compared to those who blindly follow arbitrary polls. Per Sin City insider RJ Bell, 25.7-percent of underdogs have won games outright this year. The five-year average prior to this season was 25.4-percent. Again, the consumption of high-profiled clubs by lesser foes is happening often, but not at a historic rate, though Kansas’ recent misstep at TCU, arguably the worst high-major team in the land, should be raised to the third power.
Of course, this doesn’t mean Cinderella won’t arrive in a pumpkin carriage come NCAA tourney time. Then again, it’s entirely possible the Fairy Godmother won’t waive a wand. Upsets in the regular season aren’t mutually exclusive to increased madness in the postseason. As the chart above depicts, 2007 and 2009 boasted the same amount or slightly more poll unrest yet delivered few earth-shattering moments. Conversely, thanks to Butler and VCU’s improbable journeys to the Final Four in 2011, the past three dances averaged 11 upsets per year (Defined as teams separated by four seeds), the second-zaniest stretch since the expansion era began in 1985. If that trend continues, which sans a clear-cut favorite seems likely, March is going to be one heck of a ride.
Buckle up bracketeers.
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)
Memphis Tigers (23-3, RPI: 20, SOS: 81, Current Seed: 9)
Comment: The Tigers really haven't skipped a beat since John Calipari's departure two years ago. Prepubescent head coach Josh Pastner has done an excellent job maintaining what Coach Cal started. Though he hasn't attracted much attention from the national media, he's recruited extremely well and continued to do what Memphis has always excelled at, steamroll Conference USA patsies. Unblemished this season in league action, it continues to climb the ranks with few noteworthy wins. The Tigers' only 'claim to fame' is a 13-point road thwarting of Southern Mississippi. Despite Memphis' often erratic offense and proneness to turnovers it's a clamping defensive team. Its bevy of long, athletic wings, active hands and fast-paced style explain why it has forced turnovers on 23.2 percent of opponent possessions, one of the best marks in D-1. Point guard Joe Jackson, who dropped 10 dimes on Central Florida last week, is the key cog. When he facilitates the offense and contributes from the outside, the Tigers are hard to beat. They've impressively disposed league opponents by an average margin of 13.6 points per game, but you have to wonder if the lack of rigorous competition has them fully prepared for the Big Dance. Keep that in mind when filling out your brackets in a few weeks.
Michigan St. Spartans (22-5, RPI: 9, SOS: 8, Current Seed: 1)
Comment: Snow-melt, brats on the barbie, Izzo coached teams peaking – these are the rites of spring. In what should be unsurprising to no college basketball fan, no matter how casual, the Spartans are reaching their zenith at the most opportune time. Badgered by offensive inconsistencies spurred by excessive turnovers just weeks ago, they've tightened the screws, matching intensity on both ends of the floor. Michigan St. is one of only five teams that ranks inside the top-20 nationally in offensive and defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com. Gary Harris has been especially deadly, routinely splashing the cylinder from outside. His hot shooting explains why Sparty has drilled nearly 40-percent from distance in Big Ten play. Couple that with Adrian Payne's dynamite interior muscle and overall scoring versatility and Derrick Nix's recent surge, and its likely Michigan State will soon punch a ticket to the Final Four, its sixth appearance since 2000. The Indiana miscue smarts, but second in the league's toughest conference, it remains in contention for a league title with four regular season tilts to go. Handle business on the road at Ohio St. and Michigan, and the Spartans could still be gifted a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday. Fo' schizzo.
California Golden Bears (16-9, RPI: 53, SOS: 34, Current Seed: 12)
Comment: Channeling the coaching ghost of Bob Knight, Mike Montgomery's questionable physical encounter with Allen Crabbe Sunday versus USC, an episode Yahoo!'s own Oskie cheerleader Michael Silver, quoting Ice Cube, called a 'love shove,' may have actually saved Cal's season. Down double-digits for much of the second half, the Golden Bears were ignited by the incident, particularly Crabbe who scored 14 of his 23 points post-chest tap. Cal finished on the right side, avoiding what could've been a significant blow to its postseason hopes. For now, it resembles a tourney-worthy team. Unlike many schools lodged on the bubble, it played a challenging non-conference schedule, owns three RPI top-50 wins and grabbed a critical road win against a top-flight opponent (at Arizona). Cal generates just 17.8-percent of its points from downtown choosing instead to attack the rim, which it's done with considerable success. Leading scorers Crabbe and Justin Cobb have converted 51.9-percent inside the arc and 83.1-percent of their freebies. The Bears don't possess much depth, but the C&C Points Factory should carry them to an at-large bid and surprising win or two in the Dance. With a favorable schedule remaining (at Oregon, at Oregon St., Utah, Colorado, Stanford), they should enter the second season with a hot hand.
Also Flaming: Kansas, Gonzaga, Marquette, North Carolina
DA BEARS (MOVING DOWN)
Ohio St. Buckeyes (19-7, RPI: 26, SOS: 22, Current Seed: 6)
Comment: Despite a respectable conference record and top-25 strength of schedule, Brutus needs to nut up. To the superficial, Ohio St. is deserving of a top-5 seed. Its residency inside the AP top-20 seals its sterling reputation. But looking under the hood, the Buckeyes are corroding. Though LaQuinton Ross and Lenzelle Smith have occasionally chipped in impactful lines, they don't possesses a reliable scoring threat outside DeShaun Thomas. Moreover, the Bucks haven't taken advantage at the charity stripe (69.5 FT%), manufactured few turnovers and have failed to extend their defense effectively. OSU is still a quality club, but its 'finest' road win this season was a 10 point dispatching of Purdue (RPI 126) back in early January. Additionally, with only three victories over top-50 teams (Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota) and a laughable non-conference SOS (No. 272), it has characteristics more aligned with projected 7-10 seeds. Opportunities remain – home wins against Michigan St. and Illinois and/or a W at Indiana would do wonders – but until the Buckeyes' emaciated resume resembles a bodybuilder's physique, it could earn an unattractive seed when the field is unveiled March 17. Their beat-down of Minnesota Wednesday, a team that's lost eight of its last 12, was only a small step forward.
Arizona Wildcats (22-4, RPI: 10, SOS: 14, Current Seed: 3)
Comment: 'Zona may stand second in a much improved Pac-12 and boast a top-12 national ranking, but it's played precariously for much of the season. Enormous non-conference wins against Florida and Miami will lead novices to believe the 'Cats are Final Four frontrunners. However, Sean Miller's bunch have often played up/down to its level of competition, a dangerous game in a single elimination scenario. Still, it's a well-constructed team. Floor general, Mark Lyons, is one of the best scoring guards in the country. Solomon Hill is an excellent complementary scorer who's drilled nearly 40-percent of his three-point attempts. Meanwhile, versatile sophomore, Nick Johnson, a nasty ball-hawk, has coaxed 2.2 steals per game. But sans adequate depth, the 'Cats are a club that can ill-afford foul trouble. And equally disconcerting, they've done a poor job extending their defense, checking in at No. 264 nationally in three-point percentage defense. If they can overtake Oregon, which they trail by just one game, and win the Pac-12's regular season title, a top-3 seed is inevitable. But be careful. If they receive an unfortunate draw, a quick-hook is entirely possible.
Iowa St. Cyclones (18-8, RPI: 43, SOS: 71, Current Seed: 11)
Comment: When away from the creature comforts of the Hilton Coliseum, the Cyclones are more like 'Gentle Wind Swirls.' Though falling just short in Stillwater and Austin, their best road win this season, prior to taking out Baylor in Waco on Wednesday, was a 13-point licking of basement-dweller TCU. Their only other victory away from Ames was at Missouri-Kansas City – not encouraging. And therein lies the problem for Iowa St. The Selection Committee, which historically punishes teams that can't conquer the road, will surely grant it an unsavory seeding when the field is announced in three weeks, even if it holds court against Kansas and Oklahoma St. However, the Cyclones are a tough team. Guard Tyrus McGee, a highly efficient scoring juggernaut, has converted a ridiculous 45-percent from downtown. And Will Clyburn, Georges Niang and Melvin Ejim average a combined 37.2 points per game. When on, the Cyclones can really fill it up. However, if you plan to advance them a bracket line or three, pray their hotel beds are cozy.
Also Laming: Minnesota, Baylor, Florida
SOWING THE SEEDS
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. New Mexico at Colorado St.
If New Mexico has ambitions of sewing up a Mountain West title it must conquer Fort Collins. Though it lost a hard-fought battle to UNLV Wednesday, the Rams remain in contention for their first conference crown since their wiggity wiggity WAC days in 1990. Spearheaded by a senior-laden roster and indisputably the finest rebounder in the land, Pierce Hornug, they have played fantastic basketball in recent weeks, particularly putting ball in basket. Over their past seven games, they've averaged 1.11 points per possession. In the Lobos' three road losses this season, all against tourney-level competition (St. Louis, San Diego St. and UNLV), they were spanked, losing by an average margin of 14 points per game. Terribly erratic offensively, Tony Snell and company will need to fire on all cylinders to escape with a victory. Don't bank on that happening.
Prediction: Colorado St. 68 New Mexico 60
2. Creighton at St. Mary's
Creighton's resume is severely wounded. Splitting its schedule down the middle this month, dropping games to Indiana St., Illinois St. and Northern Iowa, it could apply a much-needed tourniquet in BracketBusters' marquee event. For that to happen, it must exert pressure on the ball, an exercise it hasn't suitably executed this year. The Jays rank 88th nationally in adjust defensive efficiency and 321st in defensive turnover percentage. Doug McDermott is virtually unstoppable on offense, but how he bodies up on the opposite end will determine the winner. Postmen Brad Wadlow and Mitchell Young have netted a combined 58.7 percent from inside the arc. Add that to Matthew Dellavedova's often prolific outside shooting, and the Gaels are in good position to score a vital W.
Prediction: St. Mary's 73 Creighton 70
3. North Carolina St. at North Carolina
For the Bubblicious Tar Heels, who have just one RPI top-50 win on the resume, the second Carolina-State Game of the season has major dancing implications. UNC fell short in the rivals' first meeting in Raleigh back in late January, but are in line to return the favor in the rematch. In triumphs over Virginiaand Georgia Tech, led by the fiery hand of P.J. Hairston and assistance of Dexter Strickland (13:1 AST:TO split), the Heels played arguably their finest two-game stretch of basketball since early December. Against the Cavs and Jackets they compiled 1.16 points per possession. State is a juggernaut offensively, but has performed dreadfully on defense. No tourney-caliber teams from a high-major conference sports a worse defensive efficiency standing (No. 142). Given the stakes and with the game scheduled for the Dean Dome, expect the Heels to get one step closer to securing an at-large bid.
Prediction: North Carolina 78 NC State 71
4. Michigan St. at Ohio St.
As discussed above, the Buckeyes sorely need additional resume-building wins. With the Spartans still licking their wounds after serving Indiana a W on a silver platter late Tuesday in East Lansing, Ohio St. is in prime position to pounce. However, unless Ross or Smith elevate their game, they may spoil the opportunity. Sparty's beefiness inside combined with Gary Harris' outstanding perimeter execution presents a daunting task for a squad that at times lags defensively. Thomas is incredibly explosive, but the inconsistent cast that surrounds him makes the Bucks vulnerable. To be fair, OSU performed brilliantly against a reeling Minnesota team Wednesday, but the hungry Spartans, who are still nipping at IU's heels, are an entirely different animal.
Prediction: Michigan St. 63 Ohio St. 60
5. Pittsburgh at St. John's
The Johnnies have planted deep roots in Bubbleville. With three noteworthy wins on their resume and a top-35 strength of schedule, they are in the at-large conversation. But in order for the Committee to give the Fighting Sweaters a pass on ugly missteps against UNC-Asheville, San Francisco and Rutgers, they must handle business Saturday against Pitt and March 9 versus Marquette. Evident in their 46.3 effective field-goal percentage, putting numbers on the scoreboard has been an arduous exercise for the Redstorm this year. To pull off the upset, forward Jakarr Sampson, who was a revolting 4-for-15 from the floor against Louisville on Valentine's Day, must bring his 'A' game. Talib Zanna and Steven Adams are quite the stalwarts in the paint.
Prediction: St. John's 65 Pittsburgh 64
Other Notable Games: St. Louis at Butler, Missouri at Kentucky, Temple at Charlotte, Baylor at Oklahoma, Georgetown at Syracuse, Cincinnati at Notre Dame, Illinois at Michigan, Southern Mississippi at Memphis
MID-MAJOR HALL OF FAME
What underrated player earned his bust?
Malcolm Armstead, Wichita St., G
It's been quite the emotional rollercoaster for the Shockers in recent days as Gregg Marshall's club stole two pivotal games on the road against Illinois State and Indiana State, the former in dramatic fashion. Armstead's contributions in those victories was invaluable. Currently playing his best stretch of basketball this season, the diminutive guard has chipped in 14.5 points per game and dished out 16 assists in his past four games. With a BracketBuster tussle against Detroit on the horizon, look for the Oregon transfer to step on the accelerator in what should be an uptempo affair.
HIGH-MAJOR WALK OF SHAME
What high-profiled player took a long, embarrassing walk home?
Keith Appling, Michigan St., G
Appling's performance against Indiana emitted a rather putrid odor, one reminiscent of rotten sushi on a powerless Carnival cruise. He vanished for long stretches against the Hoosiers only to reappear in the game's penultimate frame, rimming off a crucial front-end of a 1-and-1 that could've rubber-stamped a win for Sparty. Overall, he finished with just six points and committed four turnovers. To be fair, Appling was a main catalyst behind Michigan State's recent surge. During its five-game win streak prior to Tuesday, he averaged a stout 16.4 points per game. But if Izzo has any chance of keeping pace with IU, Appling's game can't abandon ship.
Each week, per your tweets, the Noise will attempt to get inside the mind of Selection Committee chairman Mike Bobinski.
@yahoonoise O/U games won by UNM in the tourney is 1.5. You're taking the.....?
— Matt Frese (@mdfrese) February 20, 2013
Obviously, matchup will dictate how early New Mexico will exit, but the gambling man in me says sell a kidney on the black market to fund the UNDER.
Glancing at their resume, the Lobos deserve a top 3-4 seed. The Mountain West, according to some RPI measurements, is the game's second-best conference, which has helped vault New Mexico's strength of schedule into the top-20. Additional non-conference triumphs over Connecticut, on a neutral floor, and at Indiana St. have also helped solidify its standing among traditional powerhouses. Still, I could easily see New Mexico fall prey to an early round knockout. Unreliable offensively the Lobos have shot a mere 44.8-percent inside the arc, the 278th-best output in college basketball. Combine that with equally poor three-point shooting and few second-chance opportunities, and they're ripe for the picking.
Because New Mexico is a staunch defensive team, it could advance beyond the first weekend with an uptick in offensive production. But that's probably a stretch. Keep in mind the Lobos haven't reached the Sweet Sixteen since 1974. Another underwhelming effort seems likely.
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