As the greatest sporting event of they year (suck it, Super Bowl) kicks off, we at Banners HQ will be breaking down, pouring over, and dissecting every region and matchup in the field to give you, our faithful readers, the best source for information in this year's bracket. We also do it because we have too much time to think about basketball, apparently.
Our regional previews are designed to get you the information you need to help with filling out a bracket (of course) but also to highlight a few specific things in each region. We'll have a look at the teams in the wrong seeds, who to watch, who to like, who to hate, a dangerous team, the best matchup, and a player to keep an eye on.
Boom! Easy one to start with. My only real question for the committee on this one is a series of unintelligible syllables followed by a heartfelt "how?" The Buffaloes did beat Kansas on Dec 7th. Other than that, they split with Arizona State and beat Stanford. That is it. They didn't beat anyone else in the tournament field. They did lose to Washington and California, lost to UCLA by 28 and 13, and lost to Arizona by 12, 27, and 20. Make no mistakes, this is a borderline tournament team, not an 8 seed.
The Panthers were about the opposite of Colorado coming into the end of the season. They hadn't notched a great win, other than Stranford, but had yet to take a bad loss. In games they did lose, it was rarely by much, as 8 of their 9 losses came by single digits. Then they beat UNC in the ACC tournament and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The gulf between Pitt and Colorado in KenPom ranking contains all the 5/12 matchups, all the other 8/9, all the 7/10, all the 6/11 (except Tennessee), and a couple of 4 seeds. The Panthers played a tough schedule, and they played well, despite their losses, the 6 line would be a bit more fitting for this team than a 9. Of course, after all this Colorado will probably beat them by 30 just to make me look like an idiot.
Easy to like: VCU
The Rams fans love to remind you that you do not want to go to war with Shaka Smart's squad and, for the most part, this field probably doesn't. The vaunted HAVOC defense is based on VCU's excellent conditioning, and predicates itself on forcing turnovers, which it does at the best rate in the country, and pushing the pace. It is led by Junior guard Briante Weber, the most prolific pocket picker in the nation for three years running now. This is not an elite, or even particularly proficient, scoring team, but they get it done by forcing opponents to work for everything for 40 minutes.
Fun to watch: Florida
The Gators have a core of Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young, and Casey Prather who are all seniors and whose understanding has fueled their charge to the top ranking in the country. They prefer to slow the game down, but make their possessions count and, as per the norm with Billy Donovan's better teams, lock their opponents down and force mistakes on defense. They are fun to watch because they are a picture of where Xavier is trying to get, a team built around players the program has developed, aided by youngsters coming in around them, such as sophomore guard Michael Frazier who hit 11 threes in 37 point effort against South Carolina earlier this month.
Easy to hate: The 3/14 6/11 pod
It is honestly so hard to pick just one of these teams to hate. Then I realized, I don't have to, I have enough hate to go around. Syracuse, with their old men at an open gym defense, slow the game to a ponderous pace, and are coached by Jim Boeheim, one of the easiest coaches in America to get behind bad things happening to. Next you have Ohio State and their legions of borderline basketball illiterate fans who, for reasons that escape me, think Aaron Craft is an elite guard. He is if you don't value taking care of the ball or being any type of threat to stretch the floor in a guard. I do though so I think he is a solid (no better) defender with very little to offer on offense. And who can forget Thad Matta. Ah yes, the first of the two coaches in the field to bolt for greener pastures after repeated promises not to. Next up is Dayton, whose long time rivalry with Xavier was alive and well last night, in the form of their fans heartily reminding X that they still do not care for them. I was going to find something to hate about Western Michigan, but honestly, I need to stop before I give myself a stroke.
Danger team: New Mexico
Doug Gottlieb tired to tell me it was going to be Stephen F. Austin. It isn't. The Lobos come into this tournament having underwhelmed the last 2 years in March, with last year's loss to Harvard particularly devastating. However, this year's squad has been under the radar, and has still managed to rack up wins over UC, SDSU (twice), and Marquette. They are a balanced team capable of scoring inside through Cameron Baristow, or outside with guard tandem Kendall Williams and Hugh Greenwood. They don't force turnovers, but opponents shoot just 41% on 2pt attempts due to their smothering defense. They hit the boards at a respectable rate and, when hitting from outside, can give any team a game.
Best Matchup: New Mexico v. Stanford
For those of us in the Eastern time zone, it will be a rare treat to watch these two teams play one another. This will not be an up and down battle, both teams like to play slow, but this game will hinge on Stanford's ability to score inside. The Cardinal excel at not having shots blocked, and New Mexico's defense is fueled by blocked shots. Neither team forces turnovers, both take care of the ball, but if the Cardinal can find a way past Alex Kirk, they will have control of this game.
Player to watch: Kyle Anderson, UCLA
Anderson is a rarity in the college game, a 6'9" guard/forward combo. Anderson can get under the hoop and score, or bring the ball up and distribute. His Achilles heel has been to turn the ball over at a staggering rate. When Anderson is on his game, UCLA becomes a very difficult team to beat, as was the case in the PAC-12 final, where his 21/15/5 with just 1 turnover fueled a win over Arizona.
There is is folks, don't forget to pick a bracket, and stop by Banners for your NCAA Tournament coverage.