The brackets are out, and the NCAA Tournament begins in just days. The editors at Athlon Sports are debating some of the hot topics regarding the Field of 68.
Name two double-digit seeds that you believe will win at least one game.
Mitch Light: I realize I’m not the only member of the Long Beach State bandwagon, but I really like this team to beat New Mexico in the 5 vs. 12 matchup in the West Region. The 49ers feature an elite guard in Casper Ware and a solid cast of role players. They don’t have great size, but senior forward T.J. Robinson is averaging a double-double and shooting over 50 percent from the floor. This team also won’t be spooked by the big stage; Long Beach has played at Pittsburgh, San Diego, Louisville, Kansas and North Carolina and also played Xavier, Auburn and Kansas State on a neutral court.
I also like Ohio University in a 4 vs. 13 game against Michigan in the Midwest Region. Ohio defends the 3-point shot very well — opponents only shoot 30.3 percent — and Michigan relies heavily on the 3-point arc. Keep an eye on junior guard D.J. Cooper, who scored 23 points as a freshman two years ago when the Bobcats pounded Georgetown 97–83 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Mark Ross: Long Beach State (No. 12 in the West) will have its hands full with Drew Gordon and No. 5 New Mexico, but this is a veteran team that starts four seniors and one junior and won’t be intimidated by the higher-seeded Lobos. The 49ers’ non-conference schedule this season included eight teams — Creighton, Kansas, Kansas State, Louisville, Montana, North Carolina, San Diego State and Xavier — that are in this year’s field of 68. And although Long Beach State went 1–7 in these games (beat then-No. 15 Xavier on a neutral court in December), the 49ers’ margin of defeat was a respectable 7.4 points. This is a team that has been working toward this point all season, and not only do I think they will upset New Mexico, I also sixth-seeded think they have good shot at beating Louisville, should the Cardinals take care of business against Davidson, and advancing to the Sweet 16.
Speaking of Xavier, the Musketeers (No. 10 in the South) have been inconsistent throughout the season, but played well in the A-10 Tournament before falling to St. Bonaventure in the championship game. Xavier gets No. 7 seed Notre Dame in the first round, and I think the Musketeers will be too much for the Fighting Irish to handle. Notre Dame was hit hard early by injuries and had a remarkable season going 13–5 in the Big East, but most of its big wins came at home. The Fighting Irish have struggled against athletic, guard-oriented teams that can defend, and Xavier seems to fit the bill here.
Nathan Rush: West Virginia (No. 10) and Belmont (No. 14) are the double-digit underdogs with the best chance of winning at least one game. The Mountaineers are playing Gonzaga (No. 7) in Pittsburgh, which is less than two hours away from their home in Morgantown. Along with a “homecourt” edge, WVU also has senior leaders in Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant as well as a Tournament-tested coach in Bob Huggins; “Huggy Bear” is 15–4 all-time in the first round of the Big Dance. The Bruins are a longshot against Georgetown (No. 3), but Rick Byrd’s team is well-coached, experienced and more athletic than most realize. Plus, the Hoyas are fresh off of back-to-back losses in the first round, making John Thompson III’s squad vulnerable for late-game “deja vu all over again” jitters against a smart Belmont team hungry to earn the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament victory.
Patrick Snow: I have been a fan of San Diego State all season, but the 6th-seeded Aztecs are ripe for an upset versus lower-seeded NC State. Steve Fisher’s bunch lost four starters from last year’s Sweet 16 club, but SDSU still won 26 games. Even though sophomore guard Jamaal Franklin has been on fire lately, I believe NC State will be able to pack it in on defense against the Aztecs, a team that only shot 34 percent from 3-point range (T-182nd in the nation) this season. For the Wolfpack, sophomore forward C.J. Leslie can be a force inside and played well down the stretch. Guard Lorenzo Brown is one of the more underrated players in the country, as he contributes in all areas of the game. That duo is part of five NC State players who average double-digit points, and Mark Gottfried’s team should share the ball well enough to beat San Diego State.
Saint Mary’s had a solid year in winning the West Coast Conference and breaking Gonzaga’s decade-plus stranglehold on WCC regular-season league titles. However, Purdue showed improvement late — winning five of its last seven regular-season games — and Robbie Hummel has been playing back to his 2009-10 form. The senior forward is a great story of perseverance after multiple ACL tears, and he forms a trio of top treymakers with Ryne Smith and D.J. Byrd. The Gaels will be led by a formidable duo in Aussie guard Matthew Dellavedova and burly Rob Jones inside, and Randy Bennett’s club should control the boards. But Purdue’s veteran group should be able to control the tempo, and I see Matt Painter’s Boilermakers pulling the upset over Saint Mary’s.
Braden Gall: I will go with St. Bonaventure (No. 14) and Long Beach State (No. 12). In an East Region loaded with hot teams — Vanderbilt won the SEC tourney, Florida State won the ACC tourney and Montana has won 14 straight — St. Bonaventure enters having won five straight and the Atlantic 10 tourney. The Bonnies are an excellent offensive team (38th in Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings) with stud big man Andrew Nicholson playing like a lottery pick. He has averaged 26 points and 10.6 rebounds per game over his last seven, and the Bonnies are 6–1 over that span. Something has to give against a team that plays stellar defense like Florida State, which also lacks a true point guard.
New Mexico also plays excellent defense, but Long Beach State can really score and certainly won’t be scared of the Mountain West champs. Dan Monson’s bunch has played Louisville, Kansas, North Carolina, Xavier, Kansas State, San Diego State, Pitt and Creighton in non-conference action. The 49ers lost to Kansas by eight, North Carolina by six, Creighton by two and the Aztecs by four in overtime. They have won 18 of their last 20 and are as prepared to make a Sweet 16 run as any mid-major squad in the tourney.