Is it that time of year again? Heck yeah it is. The 68 most deserving teams have almost all been selected, but the committee decimating the dreams of college kids and costing institutions millions of dollars worth of free advertising isn't going to get in the way of our having a good time, right? Today and tomorrow we'll be breaking down each region for you; by the time the play-in games are over and you've put in your order for hot wings, we'll have you prepped for action.
Let's start with the East Region, home of the Xavier Musketeers and not one but two First Four games. The fun starts with FGCU and Fairleigh Dickinson battling for the right to get clubbed by UNC and continues tomorrow with two jaded, mediocre teams from name conferences staggering to the ends of their respective seasons. Also thrown into the mix is the frenetic pressing of West Virginia, the championship pedigrees of Kentucky and Indiana, and the half-season job interview that is Greg Gard's Wisconsin. By the time the dust settles in Philly, someone is going to come out of this region with a hard-earned bid to the Final Four.
Why are they here? Give me Valpo, who defend like demons and played one-seed Oregon to a six-point loss on the road. Give me St. Mary's, the best shooting team in the nation. Give me San Diego State, who challenged themselves in the non-conference and have lost three games by a total of nine points since Christmas. Give me anything other than another tired retread from the middle of a crappy league with tired retread Frank Haith at the helm. A good mid-major is always more fun; this time it would have also been a better team.
#14 Stephen F. Austin
No surprise here. If you seeded this region by KenPom rank, SFA would be the 7. Notre Dame - an honorable mention for being overseeded - is six spots behind SFA in the KenPom. The Fightin' Walkups share the ball, shoot it well from inside and out, and employ a frenetic press that turns teams over at the highest rate of anyone in the country. They also hail from the hometown of Clint Dempsey for an added karmic boost.
Easy to like:
#13 Stony Brook
For three straight years, Stony Brook was within touching distance of a bid to the dance before going down in the America East tournament. This year they were getting run off the court by Vermont, down 14 with 12 minutes to play. Then they started feeding star big man Jameel Warney, and all he did was drop 23/3/0 with 2 blocked shots on 11-11/0-0/1-2 shooting... in those final 12 minutes alone. Warney finished the game with 43/10/1 on 18-22/0-0/7-10 shooting. He basically had a good game in 28 minutes, then had another good game in 12 minutes, all as a senior with the season on the line. How can you not love that?
Fun to watch:
We usually leave the Muskies out of these previews to give you a feel for the other teams, but this one left me no choice. Xavier is deep and fast. They've had 10 players go for double figures at least once on the year and 7 players lead the team in scoring at least twice. They have an offense and a defense prone to crazy hot streaks, leading to the occasional 21-2 run. Plus JP Macura is about to get unleashed on a national audience. Yeah, X is fun this year.
Easy to hate:
#6 Notre Dame
To be honest, I was kind of spoiled for choice here. Notre Dame wins out because (a) Mike Brey has chosen not to speed up the team's tempo at all in response to the rules changes and (b) you know the announcers are going to gush over the "burn offense" that is actually just a bunch of meaningless motion for 25 seconds a possession. The Irish are grotesquely overseeded and scored 47 points in 69 possessions their last time out. The sooner they're back on campus focusing on their studies, the better the tournament will be for it.
You're going to have trouble finding a seven seed with a better win than the one Wisconsin boasts over Michigan State. They've also knocked off Indiana and Iowa and opened up a can on Maryland on the road. Of course, they've also lost to Marquette and Northwestern and their last time out was a 12-point loss to Nebraska, who is not very good this year. The Badgers have demonstrated that they can punch with anyone on their day though, and that makes them a troublesome matchup for any team that doesn't fancy itself indisputably better than Michigan State.
#3 West Virginia v. #14 Stephen F. Austin
SFA is basically WVU writ small (or WVU is SFA writ large, if you prefer). Both teams press and try to speed you up, both teams get a lot of easy buckets from live-ball turnovers. SFA is the more veteran team, but WVU is bigger. WVU doesn't shoot it from deep as well as SFA, but SFA can't compete with WVU on the glass. There's a chance the Mountaineers overwhelm the opponent the way you expect a #3 to do in the first round, but if Stephen F. Austin can hang in there and answer some flurries, this one will be must-see TV.
Player to watch:
Yogi Ferrell, Indiana
The guy pulling the strings on one of the best offenses in the country doubles as its go-to guy for clutch buckets. A game line of 17.0/3.9/5.5 doesn't happen by accident (especially when you're listed at 6'0"), and Ferrell has put the team on his back at times this year. He has been the poster child for the ups and downs of the Tom Crean Era at Indiana, and he is looking to cement his legacy as a Hoosier by getting deep into the tournament. If he finds his groove for a couple of weekends, he's the kind of guy who could be showing up a lot when One Shining Moment comes around.