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NCAA tournament picks: Sleeping giants, possible Cinderella teams

The tourney is here!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. March Madness has arrived, and though the NCAA tournament is on a different schedule, entirely in one state, and in danger of dropping teams for health reasons, there’s still nothing like it.

The Gophers are sitting out (again), but that doesn’t mean you have to join them, and below is a guide to help you cut through the chaff and dominate your bracket pool. Of note, this analysis is predicated on playing the long game; a 12-5 upset pick might be thrilling, but unless that twelve-seed has legs, it ultimately won’t have much of an impact. There are Cinderella teams ready to make noise in every region, however, plus teams to avoid, teams to try your luck with, and storylines to follow if you want to enjoy the games without filling out a bracket.

West region

How good is the 1-seed? Gonzaga is historically good. In one of the most parity-heavy years in memory, the Bulldogs are 26-0. They’ve won 23 in a row by double-digits, the longest streak in 60 years. They hung 102 on Kansas, 99 on Iowa, 98 on Virginia, and 87 on West Virginia with point guard Jalen Suggs, a Minnehaha Academy graduate, hobbling around on one foot. Three of their starters, including Suggs, are likely to be first round picks next season. Per KenPom’s advanced stats, Gonzaga’s offense is best in the country, their defense is tenth in the country (by comparison the top defense, Loyola, is 49th in offense), and the gap between them and the nation’s second-best team, Michigan, is bigger than the gap between the second- and eighth-best teams. Mark Few’s Zags have been to five straight Sweet Sixteens, with two Elite Eights and a national championship game appearance – there’s absolutely no reason they can’t cut down the nets this year.

Team to roll with if you’re feeling lucky: Creighton. There is no one more flummoxing in college basketball than Creighton. The Blue Jays won 20 games. They’ve been ranked as high as seventh. They start five upperclassmen, including all-Big East first teamer Marcus Zegarowski. This same team lost to Marquette, Butler, Xavier, Providence, and Georgetown (twice), all of whom finished below .500 in a Big East that only had three tournament teams. They shoot 64% from the free throw line, with three starters in the 50s, led by sharpshooting guard Mitch Ballock, who has made – and this is not a typo – just nine free throws all year. Coach Greg McDermott was recently suspended for racially insensitive comments. And yet they still got to the finals of the Big East tournament…where they promptly lost by 25. Creighton could show up on an off-day and get blown out in the first round. They could get hot and go to the Final Four. The world is their oyster. Take them at your own risk.

Cinderella most likely to make a run: UC-Santa Barbara. The Gauchos check in at 22-4, their fourth-straight campaign with 20 or more wins, and have lost just once in 2021. This year’s record includes an impressive 8-4 record in away games (3-seed Kansas, for example, is just 4-6) and a very impressive 15 wins by double-digits. Ten players see meaningful action, led by Big West player of the year JaQuori McLaughlin, who averages better than 16 points and 5 assists on 49% shooting, and they all contribute to the Gauchos averaging nearly eight steals a game. Most notably, Santa Barbara shoots 75% from the line as a team, a key to any potential upset.

High seed most likely to go down early: Virginia. This is less a shot at Virginia, a well-coached team with talented players, and more a reality of the situation the tournament itself is in. The Cavaliers had to bow out of the ACC tournament after a positive test and now, according to coach Tony Bennett, “most” of the roster is in quarantine. That means they won’t be able to practice together, something which has not been beneficial to teams throughout the year, and the availability of guys able to play is anyone’s guess. The NCAA has said a team can go if they have five eligible players, but if a situation like that plays out for Virginia – or Kansas, also in quarantine in the bottom half of the region – it will be tough to advance.

Sleeping giant: Oregon. The Ducks are 20-6 on the year, with two of those losses coming out of extended COVID pauses, a third in the last of three games in five days to make up for pauses, and a fourth in the season opener after it was announced point guard Will Richardson was out with a broken thumb. Oregon is 11-3 since Richardson returned, with wins over tournament teams UCLA, Colorado, and Oregon State and a 5-1 record away from home. On offense all five starters average double-figures, and on defense the Ducks’ full-court press is notoriously difficult to deal with. Under coach Dana Altman Oregon is 60-21 in the month of March, has never lost in the first round, and has taken two of the past three national champions to the brink, losing by one in the Final Four to North Carolina and four in the Sweet Sixteen to Virginia.

Storyline to follow if you’re not making a bracket: the Zags’ dominance. This isn’t just a team aiming to be the first to finish a season undefeated since Indiana in 1976; this is, in simple terms, a team representing everything people claim to love about college basketball. Few has turned a 5,000-student school in Spokane, Washington into a powerhouse that now out-recruits blue bloods. Two starters turned down the NBA last summer to come back for a chance to win a title and now get their chance. The team plays a beautiful brand of basketball, with excellent fundamentals and fantastic ball movement, and they clearly enjoy playing together. If you haven’t watched them, sit back and enjoy the show – you’ll be in for a treat.

South region

How good is the 1-seed? Baylor is really good, though they’ve looked vulnerable as of late. Behind an all-upperclassmen starting five, the Bears shot a blistering 42% from three and deployed one of the nation’s stingiest defenses, winning 17 in a row to start the year in largely dominant fashion, winning 15 by double-digits wins and allowing 70 points just twice while knocking off tournament teams Illinois, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma State. Then they went into COVID protocol, not playing nearly the entire month of February. In the seven games since their offense has looked sloppy and their defense has allowed 70+ six times as they’ve lost twice, gone to overtime another time, and struggled to beat cellar dwellers Iowa State and Kansas State. Baylor is good enough to win the national championship, but it looks a lot dicier than it did a month ago. The Scott Drew-led Bears are just 2-6 in the NCAA tournament versus single-digit seeds and have been on the wrong end of 3-14 and 5-12 upsets.

Team to roll with if you’re feeling lucky: how lucky are you feeling? Wisconsin is 3-9 versus ranked teams and somehow a top-ten team in the country per KenPom. North Carolina finally turned it on recently, winning six of nine to end the year, but sandwiched in there was a thirteen-point home loss to a Marquette team that finished 13-14. Winthrop is 23-1 against a strength of schedule ranked 268th and shoots 68% from the line. Texas Tech finished sixth in its own conference. Purdue lost to the Gophers. Pick your poison.

Cinderella most likely to make a run: Colgate. Winthrop is the hot pick, but don’t sleep on Colgate. The Raiders come in at 14-1 against a top-100 strength of schedule, undefeated on the road, and with an average margin of victory of 18 points; their one loss a fluke two-point defeat to Army a day after beating them by 44. Colgate is much better than their seed suggests with a NET ranking of ninth (as in, ninth overall) and friendly advanced stats, with KenPom putting them closer to a 12-seed and the Bart Tovik T-Rank liking them even more, ranking them near 11-seeds. Their four leading scorers are upperclassmen guards who pace an offense that puts up points in a hurry, shooting 49.8% from the field and 40% from three. Like any good Cinderella, Colgate is well coached, moves the ball effectively, and minimizes turnovers. Their last NCAA appearance came in 2019, where they had a second half lead on two-seed Tennessee before falling 77-70. Guard Jordan Burns had 32 against the Vols. Think he’ll be ready to go this time around?

High seed most likely to go down early: Villanova. Truth be told, this was a good-but-not-great Villanova team for most of the season, with losses to Virginia Tech, St. John’s, and Butler. Then point guard and Big East co-player of the year Colin Gillespie got hurt. The Wildcats are winless without him, with a season-low 52 points against Providence and a first-round conference tournament exit to Georgetown. ’Nova enters the tournament leaderless, with its rotation in flux, and its offense, far superior to its defense, with a lot of question marks. Jay Wright is an excellent coach, but he has his work cut out for him here.

Sleeping giant: Ohio State. For a team that’s lost nearly a third of its games (21-9 on the year), Ohio State could not inconceivably win the national championship. The Buckeyes are led by all-Big Ten guard Duane Washington Jr. and forward E.J. Lidell, one of the country’s best duos, but go nine deep with eight of those guys having gone for double-figures more than once this year. Ohio State has seven top-25 wins, and is the only team in the country who can say they beat Illinois, Michigan, and Iowa. Their offense is good enough to run teams off the court, and their defense is good enough to get stops when needed. The Buckeyes are very good, very deep, and very capable.

Storyline to follow if you’re not making a bracket: the Big Ten. Despite laying claim to being the country’s best conference year after year – a whopping nine teams got into the field this year – the Big Ten nevertheless hasn’t won a championship since Michigan State cut down the nets in 2000. With Ohio State, Purdue, and Wisconsin all here, the South region has as good a shot as anyone of getting someone into the Final Four to try and break that streak. If conference loyalty isn’t your thing, there’s plenty of room on the Colgate bandwagon.

Midwest region

How good is the 1-seed? Illinois is very good, with a caveat. The Illini are led by all-Big Ten first teamers Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, the best inside-out duo in America, with the rest of their rotation including an all-league defender, the conference’s sixth man of the year, and two upperclassmen with 115 starts between them who come off the bench. The caveat is a maddening ability to play to the level of their competition. While most of the Big Ten’s top teams beat each other up but feasted on the bottom of the conference, Illinois lost to Michigan State (15-12), Rutgers (15-11), and Maryland (16-13), went to overtime with Indiana (12-15) and Nebraska (7-20), and needed a last-second bucket to beat Ohio – who, in their defense, is tournament-bound – at home. Since shuffling their starting lineup in mid-January, the Illini are 14-1.

Team to roll with if you’re feeling lucky: Tennessee. The Volunteers started the season 10-1 and were ranked as high as sixth. They have wins over tournament teams Arkansas, Kansas, Colorado, Missouri, and Florida. They’re also 8-7 over their last fifteen games and haven’t won more than two in a row since mid-January. They have arguably the tournament’s stingiest defense (4th in the country, per KenPom), and inarguably one of its worst offenses (71st, per KenPom). Even so, with stud freshmen Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson and defensive wizard Yves Pons, who averages two blocks a game at 6-6, the talent is there, and everything enticing about Tennessee was on display as they held a 15-point lead over Alabama in the second half of the SEC tournament semifinals. Everything repulsive about them was on display as they blew that lead.

Cinderella most likely to make a run: Loyola. Loyola is unquestionably the most under-seeded team in the field, getting an eight-seed despite ranking tenth in in the NET, ninth in KenPom, and thirteenth in the T-Rank. The Ramblers are 22-4, with three losses coming by a combined eight points and a fourth at Wisconsin, a notoriously difficult place to play. This team is efficient (they shoot better than 50% from the field), deep (seven players average at least seven points a game), and stymying (per KenPom they’re the country’s top defensive team). And if you forgot, it was just three years ago they went to the Final Four, with Missouri Valley player of the year Cameron Krutwig and defensive player of the year Lucas Williamson, both of whom started at various points for that team, ready to lead another run.

High seed most likely to go down early: Tennessee. It’s the Volunteers, for the reasons mentioned above.

Sleeping giant: Houston. Yes, they’re a two-seed, but Houston is a great team that’s gotten minimal attention all year. One of four teams with a top-ten offense and top-twenty defense per KenPom, the Cougars are 24-3, having lost road games by one, five, and nine points, and just won the American championship in a 91-54 blowout. They dominate on the boards, wearing teams out with one of the country’s best rebounding-margins and nearly 15 offensive rebounds a night, and don’t beat themselves, with few turnovers and very good free throw shooting. Guard Quentin Grimes was AAC player of the year, and he’s joined by guard DeJon Jarreau, the conference’s defensive player of the year; forward Justin Gorham, its most improved player; and guard Marcus Sasser, an all-conference second team selection. Two tournament appearances ago Kelvin Sampson’s team lost on a buzzer beater to eventual runner-up Michigan with a trip to the Sweet Sixteen on the line, and last time they missed the Elite Eight after Kentucky hit a three to give them the lead with 25 seconds left. This team is better than both.

Storyline to follow if you’re not making a bracket: Cade Cunningham. Like a number of talented freshmen – think Ben Simmons at LSU, Markelle Fultz at Washington, or the Wolves’ Anthony Edwards at Georgia – Oklahoma State’s all-world guard entered college with scouts talking him up as the first overall pick in the NBA draft. Unlike them, however, his play is already backing up that potential, and not only is his team in the tournament, they’re ready to do damage, winners of eight of ten with four of those wins against top-ten opponents. Cunningham is a 6-7 point guard with the quickness to get to the rim at will, the stroke to knock down threes, the vision to send precision passes all over the court, and the leadership ability to will a team that began the year unranked into a four-seed. It’s not a stretch to say he’s the best player in the tournament, and basketball fans should start enjoying him as soon as possible.

East region

How good is the 1-seed? Michigan is very good, but the more important question is, are they healthy? All five of the Wolverines’ starters average more than 9 points per game and the team was second in the Big Ten in scoring defense. But in the last week Isaiah Livers, their second-leading scorer at 13 points per game and better than 43% from deep, hurt his foot and is out indefinitely, and senior Eli Brooks, their fourth-leading scorer, had to be carried off the court with an ankle injury. Brooks came back for the Big Ten tournament, but without Livers the Wolverines got down big to Maryland before rallying and then lost to Ohio State. Since starting the year 18-1, Michigan has dropped three of five, losing by 23 to Illinois, falling to Michigan State, and then losing to Ohio State. Though none of those are bad losses, their fourth defeat was a 75-57 shellacking by the Gophers. If that by itself is enough to eliminate them as a contender, well, I wouldn’t blame you.

Team to roll with if you’re feeling lucky: Texas. The Longhorns started the season by winning the Maui Invitational tournament, ended it by winning the Big 12 tournament, and in between had a lot of ups and downs. On paper this team is awesome, with three guards who can light it up, two athletic big men who could be first round picks, a sharpshooter off the bench, and a dominant interior defender in Minneapolis native Jericho Sims. In reality they don’t shoot free throws well, turn the ball over frequently, settle for bad shots, had two of those guards have to be physically separated during a game, and had one those potential first round picks leave the bench during the middle of another game. Seemingly every Longhorns contest is a nail biter, with four of their seven losses coming by four points or less and a fifth in double overtime, but seven of their wins also coming by four or less. So, if you love tension, look no further than Texas.

Cinderella most likely to make a run: St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies check in at 16-4, with two losses coming after COVID schedule changes and the other two coming by three points. The team only plays six guys, but all five starters are upperclassmen who score in double-digits and know how to play together. The Bonnies’ defense is anchored by Osun Osunniyi, with whom the team is 36-10 over the past two years. Osunniyi is a 6-10 center with a seven-foot-eight wingspan who contests everything at the rim to the tune of three blocks a night, with an absurd seven in the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals against a good St. Louis team. If he’s not physically impacting shots, you better believe he’s mentally impacting them. KenPom has St. Bonaventure ranked 25th in the country, ahead of teams like Texas, West Virginia, and Oklahoma State.

High seed most likely to go down early: Alabama. The Crimson Tide are a good team that makes a ton of threes and plays solid defense. But look a little closer and things start to get uncertain. For starters they’re just 1-3 versus ranked teams, and though they’ve won nine of ten, seven of those were against teams below .500 in a mediocre SEC. The first good win came after Tennessee blew a 15-point lead, showcasing the Tide’s tendency to fall behind, something that can be mitigated with good shooting but tends to be problematic come tournament time. The second came when LSU missed a last-second tip-in in a game ’Bama shot just five free throws and missed three, capping a season in which they went 65% or worse from the line twelve different times. And for a team that plays fast and looks to light it up, their offense is really not that special, coming in at 34th per KenPom and 38th per T-Rank. Is Alabama good? Yes. Are they going to waltz to the Final Four as many analysts seem to think? I’m skeptical.

Sleeping giant: Connecticut. UConn might be just 15-7 but – but! – a good chunk of the season was played without future lottery pick James Bouknight. With a healthy Bouknight they went 11-3, losing by a combined 13 points to Villanova and Creighton while beating a good USC team and smacking Big East tournament champion Georgetown twice. The Huskies are a well-coached group that plays above-average offense, above-average defense, and can dominate in rebounding. And then there’s Bouknight, who’s gone for 20 in half his games and dropped a 40-spot on Creighton. The last time UConn was a seven-seed, they won the national championship, which probably doesn’t mean anything, but…

Storyline to follow if you’re not making a bracket: Old friends. There’s been a lot of talk about this being a ‘down’ year for college basketball blue bloods, and Duke and Kentucky both missed the tournament entirely. But if you long for the past, you’ll love the East region. UConn is dancing for the first time in five years and ready to make up for lost time. Georgetown is in for the first time in six after winning the Big East tournament as the eight-seed and is coached by former Hoya star Patrick Ewing. Ewing isn’t even be the only high-profile ex-player coaching his alma matter here, with Michigan led by Juwan Howard. And the play-in game features a Michigan State team that got hot at the end of the year and a UCLA team that paced the Pac 12 for much of the season before fading down the stretch. Have either of those teams ever done anything in this tournament? (If you hate royalty, Florida State plays a nine-man rotation of athletes and has the talent to go to the Final Four.)

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