March Madness Preview

So much for the Big Ten getting loads of respect from the NCAA selection committee. 

While it’s true that the seven Big Ten teams picked for the NCAA tournament ties a conference record while also tying the ACC and Big East conferences for most teams in the field of 64, one quick look at the seedings tells you that the three conferences are in no way equal in the eyes of the selection committee.

The Big East got three of the tournament’s four number one seeds — a record. None of its seven participants seeded lower than six (Marquette and West Virginia). Only one ACC team — Maryland — got a double-digit seed, earning the 10th spot out West.

In contrast, three of the Big Ten’s seven teams — Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin — were seeded tenth or lower. Given that the lowest seeds are reserved for the champs of smaller conferences, you can bet that the three just barely made the cut. More precisely, while the selection commitee won’t comment, it seems a given that the Badgers and Arizona — both at-large 12 seeds — were the last two teams locked in.

After supposedly earning it all year long with strong non-conference wins (except for Penn State, which is why they’re headed to the NIT) and competitive league play, respect seems to still be in short supply for the Big Ten. That could change with some wins Thursday and Friday.

But with the lower seedings some of the conference’s teams are saddled with, that could prove tough. While I like Michigan’s chances to upset Clemson, you’d certainly have to give Texas the nod over Tubby Smith’s inexperienced and inconsistent Gophers. Even two of the higher-seeded Big Ten teams got tough matchups: In the Midwest, No. 9-seed Siena has a higher RPI rating than No. 8 Ohio State, and in the South,  No. 5 Illinois could be a victim of the dangerous 5-12 matchup against the Sun Belt champ Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky, who are just a year removed from a Sweet Sixteen run and this season beat No. 1 overall seed Louisville by 14 points. To my eye, Michigan State and Purdue are the only Big Ten locks to move on to the second round.

But what about Wisconsin? Could they beat No. 5-seeded Florida State out of the ACC? Well, could Sandy, the obnoxious 53-year-old bus driver from Kentucky, have won Survivor: Tocantins? The correct answer to both questions is: Yes, it’s in the realm of possibility. But you wouldn’t want your governor to bet your state’s stimulus money on it.

I’d be lying if I said I saw a lot of Florida State basketball this season. But as a Badger fan, many things scare me about this matchup: One, the Seminoles led the ACC in defense. If they can contain the more high-flying teams of the ACC, I shudder to think what they’ll be able to do to Wisconsin — a couple of those infamous Badger scoring droughts seem almost a certainty come Friday night. Two, the Seminoles boast the second-most dangerous offensive player in the ACC in guard Toney Douglas, who averages 21 points a game. Douglas clearly has the potential to take this game over offensively in a way that no Badger player does. Three, the Seminoles are playing well as of late, making it all the way to the ACC championship game, where they lost to Duke. The Badgers have lost three of their last five.

Those hoping for a Wisconsin upset can point to the Badgers’ tournament history, which includes 10 wins in the last seven straight tournaments under Bo Ryan. Florida State hasn’t even been in the field of 64 since 1998, the middle of the Dick Bennett era. Tournament experience, depth, and their defense should help Wisconsin keep the game close, but in the end the outcome should reflect the selection committee’s obvious ambivalence about inviting the Badgers to play. FSU 66, Wisconsin 55.

Here’s a capsule look at the four brackets:

Midwest: A stacked bracket that features not only the tournament’s number one seed in Louisville, but the best team in the Big Ten — Michigan State — the defending national champion — Kansas — and Pac-10 champion USC. Other teams that could go deep include Wake Forest, who finished tied for second in the ACC with Duke, West Virginia from the Big East, and Boston College, who’ve beaten North Carolina, Duke, and Florida State this year.

Final Four Pick: No. 1 Louisville. Big East champs. Enough said.

Could Surprise: No. 9 Siena. Great balance, experienced team that last year beat No. 4 Vanderbilt in opening round. 

Overrated: No. 3 Kansas. Yes, they’re the national champs. But the team is almost completely different from last year.

Don’t bother: No. 12 Arizona. Is it NCAA law that the Wildcats have to get in every year?

West: Perhaps the weakest overall region — except at the top, where top-seeded Connecticut and Memphis, which has won 25 in a row, reside. But even here, there are questions about Connecticut’s depth and postseason history (they lost in the first round last year) and Memphis’s soft Conference USA schedule. But Memphis shut up its doubters (including me) last year when it went all the way to the title game. Elsewhere, watch out for either Big 12 champ Missouri or Big Ten tourney champ Purdue.

Final four pick: No. 2 Memphis. I won’t doubt them again.

Could surprise: No. 13 Mississippi State. The SEC tournament champs have won six in a row.

Overrated: No. 6 Marquette. Have looked very ordinary since losing Dominic James.

Don’t bother: No. 12 Northern Iowa. Played one ranked team all season (Marquette). Lost by 30.

East:  Like the West, very strong at the top, but with a little more depth. Pittsburgh could win it all, while Duke, Villanova, Xavier, Florida State, and UCLA all seem to be capable of pulling some upsets. Villanova particularly looks dangerous, winning 12 of its last 15 in the Big East and boasting conference Coach of the Year Jay Wright. UCLA is only a year removed from going to the national semifinals and, despite losing several players off that team, still boasts the great Darren Collison. And can powerhouse Duke improve on its 1-2 mark in the last two tournaments?

Final four pick: Pittsburgh. Added scary offense to tough defense.

Could surprise: No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth. They beat Duke two years ago and boast at least one great player in senior Eric Maynor.

Overrated: No. 9 Tennessee. Bruce Pearl’s team ranks 224th in the nation in defense. Isn’t defense sort of important?

Don’t bother: No. 10 Minnesota. No seniors, inconsistent play down stretch.

South: A bracket loaded with great talent but also one loaded with questions. Will North Carolina guard Ty Lawson be healthy? Can Oklahoma bounce back from a pedestrian end to their season? Will Illinois’s Chester Frazier be able to return following a hand injury? And who is or are Stephen F. Austin? Outside of the obvious contenders, this bracket is full of programs with tournament experience: Gonzaga, LSU, Butler, and Western Kentucky. Should be a fun ride.

Final four pick: Syracuse. Am I drinking the orange Kool-Aid after their dramatic run through the Big East tournament? Probably.

Could surprise: No. 10 Michigan. Am I being a homer for the Big Ten here? Probably.

Overrated: No. 2 Oklahoma. Am I reading too much into their late-season slide? Probably.

Don’t bother: No. 13 Akron. Like you were going to pick them.

Final four picks: Louisville over Memphis. Pittsburgh over Syracuse.

National champion pick: Louisville. Congrats to Rick Pitino. You’ve got great hair and you’re going to win your second national title. Me, I’m still trying to figure out how Sandy passed Survivor‘s battery of psych tests.

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One Response

  1. Jeff – Would like to have this kind of stuff going at bleacherreport.com. Get back to me mtcheyan@bleacherreport.com if you are interested.

    Best,
    Max

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