The first weekend of the Madness is in the history books and only 16 teams remain standing in the NCAA Tournament. Let’s take a look at those 16 teams and assess their chances for tournament success as the field gets reduced to the Final Four this coming weekend. Teams are listed in rotation order.
Wisconsin is a mirror image of their head coach Bo Ryan: tough as nails. There’s no questioning the Badgers execution or heart, but this is not one of the more talented teams that Ryan has coached during his tenure in Madison. The Badgers are an offensively challenged ballclub that relies heavily on their three-point shooting. Four of their top five scorers average at least one made three pointer per game. Their leading rebounder, Ryan Evans, is 6-6, 210; not a team with a dominant inside presence. We’ve seen the Badgers end up on the wrong side of nearly every “step up in class” game away from home this year, with two exceptions: their win at Ohio State and their win over Vandy to reach the Sweet Sixteen.
Fab Melo’s academic ineligibility wasn’t a major factor for Syracuse in either of its two wins to reach the second weekend. It’s certainly not like Orange head coach Jim Boeheim doesn’t have anyone to replace him. 6-9 frosh Rakeem Christmas had eight points, 11 boards and three blocks in the win over Kansas State. Is Syracuse devastated by the news of Melo’s academic ineligibility? It sure doesn’t seem that way. Forward CJ Fair: “I think this is not going to stop our train from moving. Of course Fab is a beast, but we’ve got guys that can go out there and play and keep winning.”
Cincinnati is on a 12-3 ATS run away from home; a veteran team that consistently plays good basketball in hostile environments. Mick Cronin’s Bearcats notched SU wins at Georgetown, Pitt, UConn, Villanova and St John’s in Big East play, then knocked off heavyweights Texas and Florida State here in the tourney. The single most important factor in both wins last weekend might well have been the Bearcats’ refuse to lose attitude, making plays down the stretch of tight games. They’re in excellent current form, 9-2 SU and ATS in their last 11, the only losses coming by a single point at South Florida and when they were completely out of gas in the Big East Championship game.
Ohio State outrebounded Loyola-Maryland 46-23 in its tourney opener. They followed that up by completely stifling Gonzaga on the defensive end of the floor, holding the offensively potent Zags under 40% shooting from the floor. Thad Matta’s squad doesn’t have great depth, but they’ve got great talent and chemistry, with four of their five key contributors starting every game together this season.
Florida won back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007 under Billy Donovan, and they reached the Elite Eight last year before losing to Butler in overtime. After losing four out of five to close out the regular season, the Gators were never tested in blowout wins over Virginia and Norfolk State to get here. The competition gets much tougher for the Gators this weekend!
Marquette ranked in the top 10 in the country in assists on one end of the court and in steals on the other end. And with a 15-5 ATS mark in their last 20 ballgames, it’s clear that the betting markets have been lagging behind their performance. Big East Player of the Year Jae Crowder poured in 42 points with 29 rebounds, six assists, seven steals and two blocks in the opening weekend of action; exactly the type of production he’ll need if the Golden Eagles are going to reach the Final Four for the first time since Dwayne Wade left town.
Coming off a four-wins-in-four-days run in the Big East tournament, Louisville was shipped out West for tough tests against Davidson and New Mexico. They were good enough to grind out a pair of tight victories, despite continued offensive struggles. Rick Pitino’s defense is nothing short of outstanding, ranked in the top ten nationally in defensive field goal percentage allowed and in steals. But an offense that came into the tourney ranked 219th in field goal percentage, 260th in three-point shooting percentage and 258th in turnovers spent the weekend struggling to put the biscuit in the basket.
Michigan State is one of four Big Ten teams to reach the Sweet Sixteen; most of any conference. But the Spartans track record under Tom Izzo – six trips to the Final Four since 1999 – is second to none in the conference. They tied for the Big Ten regular season title and won the Big Ten tournament. Like Ohio State, Michigan State is a legitimate threat to win it all.
Indiana is not a dominant defensive ballclub, but they were good enough to steal one from no. 1 Kentucky with a buzzer beating three pointer at Assembly Hall in Bloomington back in November, despite allowing the Wildcats to shoot 56% from the floor. Kentucky fans will pack the Georgia Dome for the neutral site rematch in Atlanta and the Hoosiers did not fare well stepping up in class in hostile environments for much of the season.
Kentucky might be the best team in the country, but they’ve been a pointspread disaster area all year. The Wildcats 13-22 ATS mark ranks dead last among NCAA tournament teams; consistently overvalued by the betting markets. We saw head coach John Calipari leaving his starters on the floor for 165 of the 200 possible minutes in their win over Western Kentucky on Thursday, with only two contributors from his bench. It was a similar story on Saturday in their near-perfect performance to destroy Iowa State. Depth could be a legitimate issue for John Calipari’s squad moving forward.
In the regular season, Xavier never really got its swagger back after the well-publicized throwdown at the end of their blowout win over Cincinnati back in December. At the time, the Musketeers were 8-0, including wins at Vandy, at Butler and against Purdue. They went 13-12 in their last 25 games prior to the start of the Big Dance, underachieving repeatedly. But with veteran backcourt mates Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons leading the way, Xavier made all the big plays during crunch time while beating Notre Dame and Lehigh to get here.
Baylor can be a frustrating team to watch at times. They’ve got Final Four caliber talent, but their execution down the stretch of tight games was downright miserable for a good portion of the season – turnovers, poor shot selection and a remarkable propensity for blowing leads and ATS covers. That being said, the one thing Baylor does right during crunch time is making free throws, hitting at a 75% clip over the course of the season, among the top 25 in the country in that department.
Ohio did just about everything right in their tournament opening upset win over Michigan. The Bobcats shot the ball extremely well throughout: 51% from the floor, 38% from three point range and 88% from the free throw line. They avoided mistakes, committing only nine turnovers. And they shut down the Wolverines best shooters, as Trey Burke, Stu Douglass, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Zack Novak combined to shoot just 13-of-42 from the floor. They followed their first upset win with another one. All MAC junior point guard DJ Cooper – the same guy who led the Bobcats to a shocking first round upset over Georgetown as a freshman back in 2010 – made all the big plays down the stretch, leading John Groce’s squad to the Sweet Sixteen.
The biggest injury story of the opening weekend was the fractured wrist suffered by North Carolina star point guard Kendall Marshall. Even though Marshall finished their win over Creighton with his fifth double-double in the Tar Heels last six games, his status for the coming weekend is still very much in doubt as I write this. Marshall is irreplaceable for Roy Williams. He dished 351 assists in his first 36 games. Reggie Bullock ranks second on the team with 45 assists.
NC State is peaking at the right time: 6-1 SU, 7-0 ATS in their last seven ballgames, the lone loss coming by two points to North Carolina in the ACC Tournament. With all five starters averaging in double figures, and three of the five shooting 50% from the floor or better, Mark Gottfried’s squad is loaded with scoring threats from anywhere on the floor.
Kansas ranks in the top 10 nationally in defensive field goal percentage allowed. The Jayhawks rank in the Top 50 nationally in rebounding margin, consistently controlling the glass. They have all kinds of future NBA talent on their roster – Thomas Robinson, Jeff Withey and Tyshawn Taylor are all projected draft picks this June. And, quite frankly, Robinson is as good as any college basketball player I’ve seen all year; the type of dominant low post presence that a true national championship contender needs. Bill Self’s squad survived a tough test against Purdue to get here; the type of ‘getting over the hump’ come-from-behind victory that should give the Jayhawks even more confidence moving forward.