Wednesday, March 14, 2012

South Preview


First of all, what a start to March Madness! In case you missed it, you missed two of the most improbable comebacks in tournament history.

In the early game, Mississippi Valley State led Western Kentucky by 16 points with 4:52 remaining in what was a poorly-played and, up to that point, dull game. It took less than two and a half minutes for the Hilltoppers to erase all but one point of that deficit. They tied it up a minute later, and ended up winning by one. WKU won despite committing 27 turnovers, in large part due to a 53-30 edge on the glass. (MVSU's complete collapse when faced with pressure defense in the final minutes helped, too).

That was just the opening act, however. In the late game, Iona looked like it was poised to run BYU right out of the gym, scoring 49 points in the first 13:48 and taking a 25-point lead. Incredibly, the Gaels managed just 17 points over the final 26 minutes, and the Cougars won going away.

Let's hope we haven't peaked. These were exciting games, but each of the four teams in action played some bad basketball. There's room for improvement.

On to my preview of the South region!

First-round upset
#10 Xavier over #7 Notre Dame -- I wasn't all that high on Xavier even before the brawl with Cincinnati, and a run to the A-10 championship game isn't really going to change my mind. But part of the reason I don't like Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons -- their tendency to try to do too much themselves -- may serve them well against a fairly unimpressive Notre Dame team. Don't misunderstand me; Mike Brey and the Irish did an incredible job to finish third in the Big East without Tim Abromaitis. I saw them early in the year, before Abromaitis got hurt, and they were awful; I saw them again in the Big East tournament, without Abromaitis, and they didn't look much better. Holloway, Lyons, and Kenny Frease have this last opportunity to avenge that heartbreaking overtime loss to K-State in the Sweet 16 two years ago, an opportunity they squandered by bowing out in the first round of last year's tournament.

Other interesting first-round games
#5 Wichita State vs. #12 VCU -- I can't give any special insight to this one because I haven't seen Wichita State play. I know, however, that VCU is good enough to win this game, and to win another in the next round. I'll be reading up on the Shockers before I pick this game, and I'll likely advance the winner to the Sweet 16.

#4 Indiana vs. #13 New Mexico State -- I haven't seen NMSU this year, either, and this is a trendy upset pick. I'm sticking with Indiana for three reasons: 1) I think they have a pretty good team that will be playing extra hard to win a game for senior Verdell Jones III, the backup point guard who tore his ACL in the Big Ten tournament, cutting short his long slog through the turmoil of the post-Kelvin Sampson Hoosier program just before it reached the promised land; 2) I have a lot of faith in Indiana coach Tom Crean; and 3) everyone is picking New Mexico State, and everyone is usually wrong.

#3 Baylor vs. #14 South Dakota State -- The Jackrabbits are making their first-ever tournament appearance, and I've seen a fair number of people picking them over Baylor despite the latter's run to the Big 12 title game. I understand the appeal: Baylor struggled a lot down the stretch, and the Jackrabbits played and beat some tough teams out of conference. And South Dakota State has a bunch of good three-point shooters, a standard recipe for a Cinderella. But Baylor's guards aren't slouches, and the Bear frontcourt is big and athletic. It's too much for South Dakota State to handle.

#9 Connecticut -- The Huskies have a tough first-round game with Iowa State, but if they can win that one, they may pose the biggest threat to Kentucky in the whole region. UConn has under-performed all year, and their biggest problem has been consistent effort and focus. But the talent is there. This was a preseason top-five team. When I saw them beat Florida State in the consolation game of that weird Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in Ryan Boatright's first collegiate game, I thought that they had enough to contend for the title. UConn has the talent to stick with Kentucky: Boatright, Jeremy Lamb, and Shabazz Napier are maybe a little bit better, when at their best, than the Kentucky perimeter guys, and while Anthony Davis is a ways ahead of his classmate Andre Drummond and UConn has no real answer for Terence Jones, the Huskies do have their usual stable of big bodies that should prevent the Kentucky bigs from going crazy on the glass. I'm trying not to get too cute this year because I think the top eight teams have been consistently better than everyone else, and as a result, I'm not picking UConn. But I really, really want to.

#6 UNLV -- I like the Rebs to upset Baylor and Duke and get to the Elite Eight. Vegas has been up and down this year, more up than down lately, but their high was really high, a 90-80 victory over North Carolina in November that wasn't even that close. They've got great balance (Mike Moser inside and Chace Stanback, Anthony Marshall, and Oscar Bellfield outside) and I just like the way the bracket sets up for them.

The challengers
#2 Duke -- The Blue Devils have put together a very good season, but there hasn't been a point during the season where I've felt like they were a true contender. I thought they might get there early in the season, when Andre Dawkins and Mason Plumlee were playing so well, but Austin Rivers hadn't found is footing in the college game yet, and now that Rivers is comfortable, Dawkins has been terribly inconsistent and Plumlee's level of play has been down, as well. With Ryan Kelly's status up in the air due to a sprained foot, I can't see the Devils getting by Kentucky, or even UNLV (I do like them against Baylor, should that Sweet 16 matchup arise). A loss to Xavier in the second round wouldn't shock me.

#3 Baylor -- What to make of these Bears, who started the season so strong, played terribly down the stretch, then righted the ship in time to beat Kansas and give Missouri a run for its money in the Big 12 tournament. The frontline is formidable; Perry Jones III seems to be finally living up to his vast potential, I've been a fan of rugged Quincy Acy for two seasons now, and freshman Quincy Miller has been a pleasant surprise. The backcourt is solid; high-scoring juco transfer Pierre Jackson has supplanted veteran A.J. Walton as the starting point guard, but Walton remains a steadying influence, and Brady Heslip is one of the country's top three-point marksman. But they lack focus defensively, the same way North Carolina does, and that's why I like UNLV to beat them.

The winner
#1 Kentucky -- I thought the Committee gave Kentucky the toughest draw of all the number one seeds, because I think Connecticut is a brutal second-round matchup and a team like VCU or Wichita State could cause a lot of trouble. (Let's not forget, too, that the only team to beat the Wildcats during the regular season, Indiana, is lurking as the region's #4 seed.) But Kentucky is up to the challenge. Loaded, balanced, and aware of their own mortality thanks to a loss in the SEC championship to Vanderbilt, Kentucky is the team to beat in the South.

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