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A Premature Preview of the 2012 NCAA Basketball Tournament

March 6, 2012

It’s five days and counting until NCAA Basketball Selection Sunday, a virtual holiday around these parts (as well as the first Thursday and Friday of the NCAA Tournament, cough, cough, is this a cold coming on?), when Basketball Christmas either comes for 338 hopeful Division I teams and their fans, or it doesn’t, and my blood is pumping. So what follows is an entirely all-too-premature look at what I think will happen during this March’s version of the Madness.  Looking at the potential field almost a week before it’s even finalized may be a fool’s errand, but I’m just that type of basketball-loving fool.

 

  • Kentucky, Syracuse & North Carolina are head and shoulders (literally and figuratively) above the rest of college basketball, and I will be completely shocked if one of these does not win the NCAA Title this year. They’re clearly a level above the next tier of high-ranked teams. Kentucky is scary good, their one loss was on a buzzer-beating three-pointer at Indiana, and the fact that their three freshmen (Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague) are leading the way is amazing. Syracuse has what their Coach Jim Boeheim calls “seven starters”, and if they can stay healthy and steer clear of recent off-the court distractions surrounding the program, their match-up zone makes them tough for anyone to solve. North Carolina is the most vulnerable of the three, due to injuries depleting their guard depth, but when they’re clicking and hitting outside shots, they’re also the most dangerous.  I think at least two of these three make the Final Four, and wouldn’t be surprised to see all of them in New Orleans.

 

  • As for the next tier of teams, Kansas has an outside shot to make that top tier a four-team group, they have a great 1-2 punch in Wooden and Naismith Awards Candidate Thomas Robinson and lead guard Tyshawn Taylor, but I don’t believe they’re deep enough to beat more than one of these teams on the way to a title.  I think Duke was exposed badly by not only North Carolina this weekend, but in an OT loss to Miami (Fla.) four weeks ago and depend too much on wunderkind freshman Austin Rivers; even if they somehow win the ACC Tournament (which for some crazy reason is in Atlanta and not in the state of North Carolina), I can’t see them going far in the NCAAs.  Michigan State has overachieved to date, and you can forget about them being a #1 seed after Sunday’s collapse at home on Senior Day to Ohio State. Missouri should look good in the early rounds, but their preferred breakneck-fast tempo will suffer as the tournament grinds on and I doubt they can get to a Final Four, much less win the title, due to a lack of interior depth.

 

  • The rest of the solid-to-good teams behind these two tiers in the various Top 25 rankings (roughly from Nos. 8-25) are mostly interchangeable to me.  This tier should yield a Final Four participant but not much more. Among this grouping, Ohio St (based on talent and coaching), Marquette (guard play, toughness & coaching), Michigan (style of play, guard play and athletic “length”), Baylor (talent alone), Florida St (talent, defense and toughness), and Indiana (shooting, coaching and pluckiness) seem a half-notch above the rest as potential darkhorse Title Game contenders.

 

  • I don’t see a “George Mason” or “VCU” this year, a double-digit seeded mid-major team making the Final Four, like Virginia Commonwealth did last year coming out of the “First Four” (the Tuesday and Wednesday games that precede the First Round). Best potential candidates would be Long Beach St, Murray St, and Belmont, as well as Iona and Drexel if the NCAA committee smiles on their at-large bid prospects, but all five have glaring flaws unlike Virginia Commonwealth last year, who was solid all around, versatile, had size, steady guard play, and could defend as well as anyone.  Maybe VCU is this year’s “VCU” now that they won their conference tournament, but I sense that opponents this time around will see them coming, and that potential job openings for Coach Shaka Smart could be a slight distraction.

 

  • There’s a better chance of a “Butler”, a mid-major with a No. 5-9 seed making the Final Four, as teams like Creighton, Wichita St, Nevada-Las Vegas, New Mexico, Temple, St. Mary’s and Gonzaga don’t really fit their “mid-major” label anyways with their high-major talent and coaching. Maybe even teams like Xavier, New Mexico St and Middle Tennessee St if they can win their respective conference tourneys can join this group. These are the teams no coach of a power conference team wants to see in their bracket, and I’d bet we see one of these in the Elite Eight at least.

 

  • Finally, as far as an “LSU” team, an underachieving mid-seed (Nos. 6-12) major conference team that puts things together and makes a run to the Elite Eight or Final Four as Dale Brown’s Louisiana State teams did in 1986 (Final Four as a #11 seed) and 1987 (Elite Eight as a #10 seed), there may be a few candidates.  Kansas State for one, they have good talent, solid guard play, size, and Frank Martin just scares the crap out of me. Look at him. Vanderbilt has a ton of talent and really should not have 10 losses already.  West Virginia for many of the same reasons as Kansas St, only Bob “Huggy Bear” Huggins is less scary post heart-attack. With Coach Jim Calhoun back from several health issues, the Defending Champion Connecticut Huskies could pull it off if they can win a couple games in the Big East tourney. Alabama could surprise a high seed early and get on a roll. I’d also say Oregon and Purdue if they make it, but I think they’re both already maximizing their talent, maybe Louisville (although I don’t think they’re all that talented to begin with), and recently slumping Mississippi St if they make it in (they just won their last two games after losing the previous five in a row).

 

I’ll have more extended thoughts as we get closer to Selection Sunday, including a preview of the major conference tournaments which begin in earnest later today with the (Too) Big East, as well as a look at the infamous tournament “bubble”. Forget what the Christmas Carols say; THIS is the Most Wonderful Time, of the Yeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaarrrrrr!

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