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March 19, 2014

2014 March Madness Preview

by Abel Chanyalew, Online Sports Editor
We've reached the middle of March, which means the Madness is upon us. Very few things are as widely associated with each other as college basketball and the third month of the year, and now it’s time to take a deeper look at this year's field.

Of course, when this time of year comes around, most of America is busy trying to fill out their bracket(s). But before you go on penciling names in, I've got plenty of information to help you win some money.*

*(Then again, it seems like the more you know, the worse your bracket turns out in the end. So hey, maybe just stick to picking team colors and mascots, right?)

Regardless, here we go.

The "Contenders"
Realistically, each year and each tournament gives us about a handful (maybe 8-10) of teams that have a legitimate shot at winning it all. Sometimes, teams can make runs if they have the transcendent player that can carry his squad through the toughest six game stretch in sports. But even in this new wide open, parity-ruled period of college basketball, the eventual national champion normally comes down to who’s chalk and who’s hot.

These four teams are my no brainer title contenders. If at least one of these squads isn’t in your Final Four and even national championship, then either you know something I don’t or you've just decided you’re going with the whole "colors and mascots" method.

Wilbekin (left) is widely considered the best point guard in college basketball. Courtesy of Zimbio.com
Wilbekin (left) is widely considered the best point guard in college basketball.

(1) Florida
While they don’t have any top-tier NBA talents (which can limit them offensively in the halfcourt at times), the Gators are still a loaded college basketball team. They're led by senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin, college basketball's ultimate floor general and one of the nation's top big shot makers. Senior Casey Prather is super athletic and is the team's leading scorer, sophomore guard Michael Frazier is shooting 45.5% from three point land, senior Patric Young is a banger and a tank inside, and the Gators get key contributions from supporting cast members like forwards Dorian Finney-Smith and Will Yeguete as well as freshman point guard Kasey Hill.

This team is very efficient on offense and defense as they are effective in executing as well as defending the ball screen offense. The Gators are extremely versatile defensively and can switch from the one to the four. And unlike a lot of teams, Florida can play with two point guards on the floor with Wilbekin and Hill. They can stretch and space the floor; they're tough and senior-laden (they start four seniors), they're a balanced scoring team, and they have one of the top coaches in the sport in Billy Donovan.

This team has very few weaknesses, but their most pressing issue might be their free throw shooting.Frazier shoots 83.6% but no one else shoots it better than 72.6%, and as a team, the Gators shoot 66.6% from the charity stripe, which isn’t a very good number. With their senior leadership and physical and mental toughness, the Gators are a squad that is well equipped to handle close games, but hitting free throws will be essential in closing out games down the stretch.

(1) Arizona
The Wildcats have superior athleticism and great length, especially on the interior with Aaron Gordon and 7-footer Kaleb Tarzcewski. They crash the boards well and can score off second chance opportunities and put backs. But the ‘Cats also post you up and cause mismatches with Gordon and Tarczewski as well as with freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson on smaller wings. In the backcourt, Sean Miller’s squad has a tough, smart point guard in T.J. McConnell who controls the tempo and makes good decisions. Arizona has lock down perimeter defenders in McConnell and junior guard Nick Johnson.

Though they can struggle mightily in the half court, Johnson is their go to scorer. Gordon is a future lottery pick. He’s versatile and a very good two -way player. Arizona is better in transition and making plays off turnovers where they can run and take advantage of their athleticism, especially the high flying Gordon. And just like all favorites, they're disciplined and well coached.

However, the Wildcats are not a very good perimeter shooting team, and the offense can become very stagnant as a result. IF you can keep them off the boards, the wildcats can be zoned.
And maybe most worrisome, with Brandon Ashley out, Arizona doesn’t have much depth and can realistically only go about 6 (maybe 7) deep and expect some type of consistent production.

Van Vleet is the engine that puts the Shockers' offense into motion. Courtesy of Bleacher Report
Van Vleet is the engine that puts the Shockers' offense into motion.

(1) Wichita State
Point guard Fred van Vleet is the guy that makes the offense go for Wichita State. The sophomore is poised and efficient and can score when he needs to, especially late in the shot clock when the Shockers need a basket (as he most recently showcased in the Missouri Valley championship game). He gets in the lane and can shoot it well. Van Vleet is about as good as it gets when it comes to a floor leader that controls the pulse of an offensive attack. But the Shockers are balanced offensively and have various scoring options in Ron Baker,Cleanthony Early (a projected NBA prospect) and Tekele Cotton. This squad doesn't make a lot of mistakes and they don't beat themselves. They aren’t flashy but the Shockers are solid, disciplined, and very efficient (Top 10 in adjusted offense and defense).

These guys “play angry”; they’re physical, they lock you up defensively, and they rebound well. Early causes problems for defenses as he can play inside at 6'8" as well as step out and shoot it. Baker is a very good all-around basketball player but can really shoot the ball well. Cotton is their best perimeter defender and is very capable of knocking down open looks from long range.

While they have three guys that take and make plenty of threes, they can be a streaky shooting team. But this team really does not have a lot of weaknesses and do a little bit of everything well. However, all that may be because of the level of competition they've faced. So it's possible their flaws could be exposed as they face probably the toughest region in the field.

(4) Louisville
The first thing that comes to mind when I think "Louisville" (outside of senior Russ "Russdiculous" Smith) is one of the peskiest defenses in college basketball. The Cardinals' press causes problems for nearly everyone in the country and with lightning quick guards Smith and junior Chris Jones, Louisville can turn defense into offense in a hurry. Rick Pitino's squad has been blowing teams out all year and leads the nation in most wins by 20 or more points. Of course, a lot of that has to do with being one of only two teams in America to be in the top 10 in both adjusted offense and defense.

This team is very deep and capable at the guard position. The backcourt options of Smith, Jones, and freshman Terry Rozier give the Cardinals a trio of guards with quickness and shooting ability Smith, probably their most important player is playing great, efficient basketball as he's dishing out more assists and hitting threes at a 40% clip. And when you can stretch teams out with Wayne Blackshear & Luke Hancock on the floor like Louisville can, you're going to give opposing defenses major problems.

The question about Louisville is simply their ability to take care of the ball, make good decisions (specifically Russdiculous), and be efficient in the half court offense. This last issue is greatly alleviated when the beast known as Montrezl Harrell is playing well in the post. He is undoubtedly one of the best interior presences in college basketball and when he's playing up to his pro potential, it opens up things for the guys around him, making the Cardinals possibly college basketball's most dangerous team. However, if Harrell gets into foul trouble, it could spell danger for Louisville as there isn’t much production in the frontcourt from the guys behind him.

The sophomore two guard is a guy the Spartans can rely on to create his own shots. Courtesy of msutoday.msu.edu
The sophomore two guard is a guy the Spartans can rely on to create his own shots.

(4) Michigan State
Like the Gators, the Spartans are a tough-minded, physical, and well coached squad, but as opposed to Florida, they do have an NBA lottery pick in sophomore wing/two-guard Gary Harris. He's a quiet, unassuming guy on the court but is a legitimate shot maker and can score in different ways. He's the type of player that the Spartans can just give the ball to when they need a basket.

Around him is senior point guard Keith Appling, senior center Adreian Payne (a big that can shoot the three),and athletic wing in Branden Dawson, and this core four all score in the double digits. They are very good at scoring in transition with the aggressive Appling pushing the ball up court, but with one of the premier coaches in the game in Tom Izzo, the Spartans also execute well in the halfcourt. And ironically, the various injuries during the regular season has actually benefitted Michigan State in the end as backups have gotten significant playing time, improving the Spartans' depth.

As good as this team is they have a few more holes than the aforementioned Gators. While Payne is capable of playing with his back to the basket a little bit, he has a tendency to linger on the perimeter looking for the outside shot rather than banging inside. As a result, Michigan State lacks a true interior, post presence, which could very well be the place for opposing teams to attack the Spartans.

The "Threats

(2)Wisconsin: This is being heralded as Bo Ryan's best team offensively as they have versatile offensive weapons all over the floor. The Badgers have got guys that can mix it up inside as well as step out on the perimeter and shoot. Early on this team was seen as possibly the best in the nation, but a decline in defensive efficiency from the last few years has really hurt this Wisconsin team. We'll see if they can defend well enough to make serious moves in this tournament.

Ennis is the <i>other</i> freshman from Canada. But he's been just as impactful as fellow countrymen Andrew Wiggins. Courtesy of SI.com
Ennis is the other freshman from Canada. But he's been just as impactful as fellow countrymen Andrew Wiggins.

(3) Syracuse: When you think Syracuse basketball, you probably also think of its daunting 2-3 zone. Teams that go up against see it and just get stuck. Well, while it's been good this year, Cuse's zone hasn't been as effective it has been. Jim Boeheim's team has had major offensive woes when playing in the half court, but they have the pieces in Tyler Ennis, C.J. Fair, and Jerami Grant to turn it around. If that zone can cause a few more turnovers, the Orange can put points on the board.

(2) Kansas: I'm a bit hesitant about the Jayhawks if they continue to be without the 7-footer Joel Embiid, a potential number one overall pick. Then again they have another possible number one selection in Andrew Wiggins that is capable of dropping 40 in a game like he did against West Virginia, albeit in a losing effort. The Jayhawks tend to have their offensive issues, specifically turnovers, but they have the weapons in Wayne Selden, Perry Ellis, Wiggins, and Embiid to score in bunches. They've got the length and athletes to strap you up on defense, and they're plenty tested after facing one of college basketball's the toughest schedules.

The "Interesting"

(3) Iowa State: This team is as explosive as any in America with the trio of DeAndre Kane, Melvin Ejim, and Georges Niang. And they're hot. But the Cyclones don't defend or hit free throws at a high level.

McDermott (right), affectionately known as Dougie McBuckets, is the premier scorer in college ball. Courtesy of dataomaha.com
McDermott (right), affectionately known as Dougie McBuckets, is the premier scorer in college ball.

(3) Creighton: This team almost exclusively beings and ends with Doug McDermott, indisputably the best player in college ball. When he's making shots, it gives his supporting cast plenty of opportunities to put more points on the board, and the Bluejays are as dangerous as anybody (see the two whooping they put on Villanova). But they aren't great defensively and that will hurt as they'll probably face Oregon or Wisconsin in the second weekend.

(2) Villanova: Despite getting slammed by Creighton twice, this Villanova team is a very tough, hard-nosed team. They've got big, physical guards that can make shots, especially from long range, and this size also allows them to be very physical defensively and cause problems for opposing backcourts. However, the Wildcats can be beaten by a team that can run and score in transition (like Creighton). They can also get pounded inside and are very reliant on the three, which can be a recipe for a quick exit in the tournament.

(4) San Diego State: Last year, I was enamored by Gonzaga, a team that could score points as fast as you could count. I've now learned my lesson, and I firmly believe that what's more important in this tournament is the ability to get stops and crash the boards. Well, the Aztecs do both extremely well. They can lock up tight on defense and guys like Winston Shepard, JJ Obrien, and Josh Davis are tenacious rebounders and provide plenty of second chance opportunities as well (I watched them beat Kansas earlier this season, and they simply put on a rebounding clinic). Their only serious offensive threat is Xavier Thames as he's their main ball handler, penetrator, and big shot maker. This one-dimensionality could very well come back to bite them.

First round upsets & possible Cinderellas

Harvard: Yes, Cincy is very good defensively, and yes they tied with Louisville for the best record in the AAC. But they only have one true scorer in Sean Kilpatrick. You know how you beat a team like the Bearcats? You beat them with balanced scoring to stymie a defense Harvard has five guys scoring in the double digits and another guy with nine points a game. You play stout defense. Harvard's man to man is stifling and forces almost 8 steals a game. And it helps if you can it shoot it well from long range. Harvard shoots 38.7% from three, best in the Ivy.

Mercer's senior point guard looks to the Bears to a major upset in the Round of 64. Courtesy of SI.com
Mercer's senior point guard looks to the Bears to a major upset in the Round of 64.

Mercer: They're playing Duke. Long shot, right? Well, Duke did lose to a 15 seed just two years ago. The Bears are potent offensively and solid defensively, as they led the Atlantic Sun in both. They're a senior laden team that is led by point guard Langston Hall. The senior and Atlantic Sun player of the year averaged 14.7 points and 5.6 assists a game, and his 2.37 assist to turnover ratio demonstrates his ability to take care of the basketball. I pegged them as a possible upset over Duke because they shouldn’t get dominated on the boards (the interior is not Duke's strength), they have a 6-10 guy in Daniel Coursey that could cause some problems inside, and they shoot 38.4% from three (not a bad recipe for taking out Goliath). Also, who doesn’t get up for a game against Duke?

Team I really like but I'm too scared to even consider

Delaware: The Blue Hens have THREE guys averaging at least 18 points a game, and they are top five in Division 1 in turnover percentage, which means they rarely give the ball away. On the contrary, they turn YOU over, can score in transition, get solid post production from 6'9" forward Carl Baptiste, and have a three point specialist in Kyle Anderson, who shoots 39% from behind the arc. I could give you a list of their weaknesses to explain why I just can't pick them, but really all I have to say is that they're playing Michigan State in their first game. I just can't imagine Tom Izzo and a very, very good Spartans team losing in the round of 64 to a double digit seed.



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