Bracket Sleepers, Futures and Nuggets
Published on March 12 at 10:40 p.m. Eastern.
By Brian Edwards
When I think of sleeper teams, I’m talking about squads that are seeded fifth or lower and are capable of winning the national championship. I only see three teams in the 2012 NCAA Tournament that are capable of winning six in a row and cutting the nets down at the Superdome in New Orleans.
1-Vanderbilt– First off all, this is not your typical No. 5 seed. Vandy handed top-ranked Kentucky just its second loss of the season in Sunday’s 71-64 win at the SEC Tournament finals. In terms of crowd noise, that’s basically a road win over the Wildcats, whose rabid fan base always descends on the annual event. The Commodores had already waged a pair of 40-minute slugfests against a UK team that’s the tourney’s No. 1 overall seed and is widely considered the most talented team in America. Kevin Stallings has a senior-laded squad that’s been snakebitten in the last two NCAA Tournaments, losing at the buzzer to Murray St. two years ago and in the final minute to Richmond last season. Therefore, hunger won’t be an issue for Vandy, nor will confidence after the win over Kentucky. The reason the ‘Dores aren’t seeded higher is because of home losses to Cleveland St. and Indiana St., but let’s remember that those defeats came when Festus Ezeli wasn’t playing. Also, they lost three games in overtime (vs. Xavier, at Louisville and vs. Mississippi St.). But look at these wins: Ole Miss, UK, Oregon St. and N.C. St. on neutral floors, in addition to at Marquette in a from-start-to-finish blowout, at Davidson, at Alabama and home wins by double-digit margins over Oregon, Tennessee and Florida.
2-Florida– Billy Donovan’s team has lost four of its last five games, but there was only shame in one of those defeats (at Georgia on Feb. 25). UF lost 77-67 at Vandy in what was a two-point game with four minutes left. Next, the Gators lost to Kentucky at home. Then at the SEC Tournament, they beat Alabama and lost to UK by three in a game they led for 30-plus minutes. Florida’s major weakness is a lack of muscle and depth inside, but this can be overcome when Patric Young stays out of foul trouble. Bradley Beal might be the type of big-time player who can carry a team like a Danny Manning in 1988 or a Carmelo Anthony in 2003. With the ability to have four excellent 3-point shooters on the court (Erik Murphy, Erving Walker, Kenny Boynton and Beal), UF is extremely dangerous on a good shooting night. And there’s also the Donovan Factor. He’s led the Gators to the NCAA finals three times with a pair of national titles to his credit. The draw isn’t bad, either, as UF conceivably wouldn’t see a team with a dominant big man until Michigan St. in the Elite Eight, and it would enjoy the head-coaching advantage in a potential second-round matchup against Missouri. (I refuse to call first-weekend games by the ‘third-round’ moniker.)
3-Connecticut: The defending champs have been extremely inconsistent because head coach Jim Calhoun missed an extended period of time and the team’s talented guards (Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright) often take bad shots and make poor decisions. However, the Huskies have a pair of lottery picks in Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond. With Drummond and Alex Oriakhi, UConn is as big and tough in the paint as any team in the field. If Calhoun can get Napier and Boatright to share the rock and defend to their potential, watch out! There’s no doubt that the Huskies are capable of stunning Kentucky in a potential second-round showdown.
**Dangerous Double-Digit Seeds**
1-Virginia Commonwealth: VCU has great quickness and gets after it defensively. The Rams have won 17 of their last 18 games with the only loss coming at George Mason on a buzzer beater. Shaka Smart’s team is greatly improved from where it was in November. This VCU version has different pieces than last year, but it has the same formula for success.
2-Xavier: I’ve been calling the Musketeers one of the nation’s most disappointing teams since late January, but they have played better in recent weeks. Now that Chris Mack’s bunch is in the tournament and its expectations have somewhat subsided, perhaps it is poised to make a big splash? Tu Holloway is one of the best point guards in the field and he’s highly motivated after playing the worst game of his career in a first-round loss to Marquette last season. Mark Lyons doesn’t always make the best decisions, but he’s blessed with talent galore. I like Xavier senior center Kenny Frease, who is a legit low-post threat offensively. Don’t be shocked if the Musketeers beat Duke after disposing of Notre Dame, a team that overachieved all year.
3-West Virginia: Several factors bode well for West Virginia to be a tough out. For starters, the Mountaineers will be playing close to home in Pittsburgh the first weekend. Secondly, they have a coach that’s a great motivator with plenty of tournament success on his resume. Perhaps most importantly, WVU has star that can carry it offensively in Kevin Jones, who averages 20.1 points and 11.1 rebounds per game. And finally, West Va. is tenacious on the glass and can produce offense by crashing the offensive boards. Gonzaga hasn’t had much tourney success lately and Deniz Kilicli is a big body who won’t be pushed around by Ohio State’s Jarred Sullinger in a potential second-round matchup.
4-Davidson: There’s a lot to like about the Wildcats, who are back for the first time since losing by one to eventual champ Kansas in the 2008 Elite Eight. They have an outstanding game coach in Bob McKillop, who led Davidson to a Dec. 19 win over Kansas at Sprint Center in Kansas City. The Wildcats won’t be intimidated after playing teams like Duke, Vandy, UMass, Wichita St. and KU during the regular season. Keep an eye on Jake Cohen and De’Mon Brooks, who combined for 42 points and 16 rebounds in an 87-83 loss to Vandy.
5-Purdue: I’m actually picking Saint Mary’s to beat Purdue, but I feel like the Boilermakers are scary nonetheless because of senior studs Robbie Hummel and Lewis Jackson. Hummel might be the best pure shooter in the field and Jackson is one of the more underrated point guards.
**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**
–As of Monday, most books had the UF-UVA total at 121. This is the lowest total the Gators have seen all season. The previous high was 128 in last Friday’s 66-63 win over Alabama that slipped ‘over’ on two Kenny Boynton free throws in the last 15 seconds. The ‘over’ is currently on a 4-1 run for both of these schools, but that’s where the similarities end. The ‘under’ has cashed at a lucrative 19-7 overall clip for Virginia, while Florida has watched the ‘over’ go 18-10 overall.
–The highest total on the board is 161 for Iona-BYU in Dayton on Tuesday in the First Four.
–Best value on the future board? I say Florida at 100/1 odds at Sportsbook.com as of 7:00 p.m. Eastern on Monday night. I’m not against plays on Syracuse (12/1), Vandy (35/1), Michigan (50/1) and/or Xavier (200/1). If these teams (with the exception of the ‘Cuse) get to the Sweet 16, gamblers can hedge their initial bet in a variety of different ways to produce a profit.
–Best coaching matchups in Round 1:
1-Rick Pitino (Louisville) vs. Bob McKillop (Davidson)
2-Mark Few (Gonzaga) vs. Bob Huggins (West Va.)
3-Shaka Smart (VCU) vs. Gregg Marshall (Wichita St.)
4-Rick Majerus (Saint Louis) vs. Josh Pastner (Memphis)
5-Randy Bennett (Saint Mary’s) vs. Matt Painter (Purdue)
–I’ll stop short of calling for outright upsets, but I think UConn and Kansas St. are poised to give fits to Kentucky and Syracuse, respectively. The Huskies and Wildcats will have zero fear of those matchups. The ‘Cuse and K-St. were set to meet in the Elite Eight two years ago until Butler changed those plans and knocked off the Orange.
–South Florida is back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since The Fab Five were freshmen and Bobby Hurley was still playing college basketball (1992).
–FDR was still in The White House when Harvard last went dancing (1946).
–If Florida and Michigan St. meet in the Elite Eight, that would be a rematch of the 2000 title game won by the Spartans. A rematch of the 1993 title game could materialize in the Sweet 16 if Michigan and North Carolina get that far.
–Teams from the West coast would prefer to play at night if they have to travel East. That won’t be the case for San Diego St. when it takes on N.C. St. at 12:40 p.m. Eastern on Friday in Columbus, OH. Colorado St. is in a similar situation against Murray St. in Thursday’s 12:15 p.m. ET. tilt in Louisville.