In a few weeks the Madness will officially begin – March Madness, that is. As the newest member of the Yahoo! Sports team, I am looking forward to bringing my experience in the college game to you through analysis and commentary as we close in on Selection Sunday.
Before you know it, 65 schools will start the journey of a lifetime. Four schools will end up in the Final Four and one will cut down the nets on Monday, April 2, in Atlanta.
Last year, the George Mason Patriots, from the Colonial Athletic Association, upset North Carolina and Connecticut on a most unlikely journey to the Final Four. Could history repeat itself with another mid-major team?
From my eight years (1990 to 1998) coaching at George Washington, I know what it is like to be on the bubble and how it feels to wear Cinderella’s slipper. In 1993 we earned an at-large bid and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen before losing to Chris Webber and the Fab Five of Michigan.
As I write this, I see five teams from outside the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC that – with good health, lots of luck and the right matchups – could advance to the Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight. In fact, I feel that one of my picks has a chance of playing in the Final Four.
The programs I am keeping an eye on are Air Force, Butler, Southern Illinois, Xavier and Nevada. All possess what I consider to be the necessary ingredients for NCAA tournament success:
1. Excellent coaches.
2. Postseason experience.
3. Experienced players and senior leadership.
4. Multiple scoring options.
5. Strong backcourt play.
6. Ability to shoot and make the three.
7. Solid halfcourt defense.
8. Shoot a high percentage from the free-throw line.
9. Take care of the basketball.
10. Physically and mentally tough.
Air Force coach Jeff Bzdelik has done a marvelous job combining aspects of the pro and college game. On offense, the Falcons execute their Princeton-style offense to perfection, beating opponents with the backdoor pass when they overplay or hitting the three when they drop off. As a team the Falcons shoot better than 40 percent from beyond three-point land and defend better than most. But the Falcons have one glaring weakness that will eventually do them in – rebounding. The night I saw Air Force lose to Duke in November, the Blue Devils outrebounded the Falcons 30 to 10. As a team the Falcons have been outrebounded by 4.5 boards per game in Mountain West play.
Coach Todd Lickliter and Butler put everyone on notice in December with a 10-0 start and the Preseason NIT title, including victories over Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee and Gonzaga. The Bulldogs were ranked in the top 15 then and probably should have been in the top 10, which they finally cracked last week before falling back to No. 13. They may not have enough of an inside game to beat the big boys, but with guard A.J. Graves running the offense, the Bulldogs can run with anyone. They are fundamentally sound and will not beat themselves. In the end, however, I think they will lose the battle of the boards, and a postseason journey could end early.
Once again Chris Lowery has Southern Illinois competing for top honors in the Missouri Valley Conference. With five consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament, four players averaging more than nine points per game and two big-time players in guard Jamaal Tatum and forward Randal Falker, the Salukis can compete against the best. But they don’t always respect the ball, and that's the underlying weakness that probably will lead to their downfall. As a team they average almost 15 turnovers per game, and in the tournament, every possession is crucial.
Two weeks ago my mid-major list did not include Xavier, but at just the right time the Atlantic 10 co-leaders are getting healthy and playing winning basketball at both ends of the court. How many teams in America can say that they have three players in the 1,000-point club (Stanley Burrell, Justin Doellman and Justin Cage) and one more on the way (Drew Lavender)? In addition, Xavier has a go-to guy in Lavender, a point guard who can take over a game and control the pace by beating teams off the dribble, hitting the open three and making a defensive press ineffective. Coach Sean Miller has grown into his role and has turned stumbling blocks, like injuries, into stepping stones. If the Musketeers can stay healthy, Cinderella could make an appearance in Cincinnati.
Nevada, however, is at the top of my mid-major list and is the team that has a legitimate shot to be this year's George Mason (although unlike the Patriots, the Wolf Pack are in the top 10). With three consecutive NCAA appearances and more than 25 wins per season in that span, Nevada has the necessary tournament experience and certainly knows how to win. The Wolf Pack's go-to guy comes in a 6-foot-11 All-American package named Nick Fazekas – a player who can beat you inside or out. Four members of the WAC leaders average more than nine points per game, and as a team Nevada shoots 48 percent from the field, 73 percent from the free-throw line and 40 percent from behind the arc. If that's not enough, the Wolf Pack play excellent halfcourt defense and take care of the ball with a 1.3-to-1 assist to turnover ratio. Last but not least they can rebound – including the guards – and are enjoying a rebound advantage of more than seven per game that puts them at the head of the mid-major class.
Now I know a lot can happen between now and Selection Sunday, but the teams I have mentioned here all have a shot to make an impact as the season hits its most frenzied point. The fun part will be watching to see how it all unfolds.