Athlon Editors Discuss 5 Burning College Hoops Questions.
1. Which first-round (or I guess we have to call it second-round) matchup interests you the most?
Mitch Light: I’m intrigued by Michigan vs. Tennessee, the 8-9 matchup in the East Region. Michigan has played extremely well over the last six weeks, with a 9–4 record in its last 13 games. Tim Hardaway Jr. has emerged as a consistent scorer, and point guard Darius Morris has done a great job running the show. This team is difficult to prepare for on both ends of the court. Tennessee has been one of the most schizophrenic teams in the nation, but the Vols do have talent. They are limited on the offensive end — Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris are the only consistent scorers — but have played very well on the defensive end. I’m picking Tennessee, but nothing would surprise me.
Nathan Rush: I’m looking forward to Washington-Georgia in the East Region’s 7-10 matchup. The Huskies are a fun team to watch, having most recently won the Pac-10 Tournament on a last-second buzzer-beater by Isaiah Thomas in overtime. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs were a supposed “bubble team” that ended up getting much more respect by the Selection Committee than anyone anticipated. The Dawgs should be hungry to prove they deserve their spot, while UW looks to continue its recent run of success.
Braden Gall: I can’t wait for the UCLA-Michigan State game. Both coaches have loads of Final Four experience and talented rosters. Each plays solid defense, and both coaches have proven to be tournament wizards. Kalin Lucas is playing the best basketball of his career, so I am taking the Spartans and the Izzo March magic to move on. However, a national championship rematch is looming with the Florida Gators in the second round regardless of who wins this game.
2. Which third-round (formerly second-round) game do you most want to see?
Mitch: I think Texas vs. Arizona in a 4 vs. 5 showdown in the West would be fun to watch. Texas is my pick to make it to the Final Four from this region. I believe we will see the Longhorn team that raced out to an 11–0 start in the Big 12 — not the team that went 2–3 in its final five regular-season games. Sean Miller has done a tremendous job at Arizona, guiding the Cats to a Pac-10 title in his second season. Derrick Williams has been sensational, with his ability to crash the boards (8.1 rpg) and score around the basket and on the perimeter (.603 from 3-point range).
Nathan: Charles Barkley already has his heavily buttered popcorn ready for Arizona-Texas and so do I. These are two teams with difficult first-round matchups (Memphis and Oakland, respectively) who are capable of challenging Duke — assuming Coach K advances to his 20th Sweet 16 this season. Chuck implied that UA-UT was all but a done deal when he previewed the bracket on the NCAA Tournament selection show. If the Wildcats and Longhorns don’t play each other on the second weekend, that would be terrible.
Braden: Washington-North Carolina. Few teams finished the season as hot as the Pac-10 tourney champs did. Lorenzo Romar has a deep and experienced backcourt to go with athletic big man Matthew Bryan-Amaning in the post. North Carolina has elite NBA talents, but the Tar Heels have zero tourney experience. Look for the Huskies to pull the second-round upset — if they can get by Georgia. I would love to see the different styles in a Vanderbilt-Louisville game as well as another potential upset in an Old Dominion-Pitt meeting.
3. Name a player who needs to step up for his team to do well in the first two rounds.
Mitch: Vanderbilt forward Jeffrey Taylor must play well for the Commodores to avoid a first-round exit for the third time in their last three NCAA Tournament trips. When Taylor scores with consistency — as he did in the SEC Tournament (20.3 ppg) — John Jenkins gets more looks on the perimeter and Festus Ezeli has more room to operate in the paint.
Nathan: Jimmer Fredette has to play like Steph Curry in order for a Brandon Davies-less BYU squad to make the type of Tourney run fans were hoping for. And if anyone is capable, it’s The Jimmer, who averaged 28.5 points in 34 games this year. In the five games since Davies’ suspension, however, Fredette is averaging 35.4 points — including a 52-point night against New Mexico. The Cougars have taken a long fall from “potential No. 1 seed” to “early upset candidate” since Davies was kicked off the team. But BYU could still make an Elite Eight run — and Jimmer-mania could go out in a blaze of glory — if Fredette keeps pouring in 30, 40 or 50 points per game.
Braden: Lamont Jones, and to a lesser extent Kyle Fogg, of Arizona. A tricky first round match-up with Memphis will take patience and discipline, should Zona should move on with solid backcourt play. But facing Texas in the second round will take big games from the guards. The Horns are deep and talented on the perimeter, so if Sean Miller expects to move into the second weekend, he will need excellent games from his guards.
4. Do you have any double-digit seeds advancing to the Sweet 16?
Mitch: I do. The Belmont Bruins. I realize Belmont has emerged as a very popular pick, but I’ve been on the Bruins’ bandwagon since November. The Bruins have great depth and are tenacious on the defensive end. And please don’t use the word deliberate to describe Belmont’s offense: The Bruins average over 80 points per game.
Nathan: I don’t have any double-digit seeds advancing to the Sweet 16. I strongly considered No. 10 Michigan State in the Southeast Region. But the Gators playing in Tampa is too much of a homecourt advantage to pick against, especially with the inconsistent Spartans — who could have a tough time clawing their way past UCLA in the first round. Still, I’ll be kicking myself if Tom Izzo’s team makes another bracket-busting run in March.
Braden: Missouri could easily beat Cincy and then a worn-down UConn team to advance. The high-paced style of play could wear down a Huskies team that has played a ton of basketball in the last two weeks. Penn State and Michigan State could both pull upsets against Florida and San Diego State — who I view as the weakest two-seeds. Belmont, Richmond and Marquette could all make it to the second weekend as well.
5. For the national title, you can pick Ohio State or Kansas vs. the field. What’s your pick?
Mitch: I so like Texas, but I would have to go with the Ohio State/Kansas combo vs. the field because those are the two teams I have matching up in the national title game (with Ohio State winning).
Nathan: I’m picking Ohio State to win it all in my bracket but I’ll go with the field on this one. There are too many good teams out there with a chance to cut down the nets in Houston.
Braden: I will take the field. Duke is my pick to cut down the nets. And that was before we found out Kyrie Irving is likely to play.