Thursday, March 09, 2006

Tourney talk


Not long ago, I wished the Winthrop Eagles absolutely nothing but the worst. I hoped their bus blew a tire on their way to road games. I hoped some seven-year-old snuck between their chairs and tied their shoelaces together before they took the floor. I hoped Gregg Marshall spilled salsa down the front of his exquisite suits. Most of all, I hoped they'd lose enough for Birmingham-Southern to take the Big South title, of course.

But all of that's behind me now. Let us raise our glasses to Winthrop, and what will hopefully become the Big South's first-ever first-round NCAA Tournament victory. (And, of course, the recruiting boost that comes from rubbing shoulders with second-round NCAA teams. Promise you: the seeds for the Colonial's rise to current potential at-large-dom were planted when UNC-Wilmington knocked off USC in 2002.)

Will it happen? The good news is that, as I've covered before, Winthrop has many of the necessary ingredients to make it so. ESPN the Magazine published an article this week looking at seven different common factors that defined mid-major "Giant-Killers" in the NCAAs over the last 10 seasons--things like better three-point shooting than their opponents, experience against playing power conference teams, etc. Of the seven, Winthrop failed only one requirement--that Giant-Killers start two or more seniors. Seeing as how Bradshaw, Martin, and most significantly Gaynor all play like them (Gaynor-to-Bradshaw for the Big South title the best available evidence) I don't think this should necessarily be held against them.

(Plus the article admitted that a perfect 7-for-7 isn't really necessary, since all three of 2005's Giant-Killers [Bucknell, UW-Milwaukee, and Vermont] missed on at least one. By-the-by, the five teams that met all of ESPN's factors were UNC-Wilmington, Old Dominion, Northern Iowa, Murray St., and Pacific. Also by-the-by, Birmingham-Southern was cited for missing on only one factor, which was nice.)

But however well-prepared Winthrop might be, it won't mean jack if they simply run into the wrong match-up. As noted yesterday, I think the Eagles are a 13-seed; others will contend they're a 14. (The consensus is that WU's a 14, but I think this is lazy slotting-by-conference-reputation. I can't see South Alabama ahead of Winthrop on the "S-Curve" no matter how hard I try.) So the candidates for the 3-seed and 4-seed lines are also the candidates to go head-to-head with Winthrop in the first round next week. Here's the JCCW's ranking of these potential fallen Goliaths, from least to most desirable from the Go Big South! perspective:

Texas, North Carolina: Both of these teams are more likely 2 seeds but could fall to the 3 line with poor conference tournaments. These teams feature players like LaMarcus Aldridge and Tyler Hansbrough and coaches that have exactly zero track record of first-round upsets. If Winthrop's doing the "get everybody together to watch the Selection Show" thing and find themselves placed opposite either of these guys Selection Sunday, hopefully they'll have one of those Scottish funeral bagpipers ready to play as they leave the room.

Pittsburgh: Pitt's currently projected as a 4 or even a 5 seed, but I think they'll be the toughest out of the remaining upset candidates. The Panthers have rather easily handled tough upset bids from good teams the last few seasons, and they'll hardly be bothered by Winthrop's preference for a slowed-down, defense-first grind-fest: that's the way they play anyway.

Kansas: Potential 4 seed. Good news: Jayhawks are young and Bill Self's job at preparing his team for last year's Tourney didn't exactly reach "bang-up" standards. Bad news: Youth doesn't play as big a role in NCAA success as it used to (does it, Carmelo?) and the Jayhawk's efficency margin numbers (ask Kenpom) suggest they're actually a little underrated.

But more good news: it gets easier for WU from here.

Gonzaga: I don't list the Zags higher than the teams because I don't think they're more ripe for the upset. I watched the WCC title game vs. Loyola-Marymount and if this team goes to the Final Four, I swear I'll turn this site into an "Adventures of Pluto Nash" tribute page. But after Winthrop scared the holy living crap out of Gonzaga (who's a cinch for a 3-seed IMHO) in last season's first round, I'd put WU's surprise factor at somewhere below zero. And surprise factor is a major part of pulling off the upset.

Iowa: Iowa's one of those teams, like Utah under Rick Majerus, that seem to never lose a first-round game. These Hawkeyes have struggled mightily on the road (loss to Northwestern, drubbing by Michigan St.), so there's hope. But steady, fundamentally sound teams like this one (a likely 4 seed) also don't get upset a lot of the time, either.

West Virginia: The schizophrenic Mountaineers--which could fall anywhere between a 3 and a 6 seed depending on their Big East tourney showing--didn't exactly look like a bad postseason team in 2005, what with their huge Big East and NCAA tourney runs, did they? And their 1-3-1 defense/Bizarro World cuts-and-threes offense combo makes them a tremendous pain-in-the-arse to prepare for. But Winthrop's biggest strength is the ability to defend the three (just ask Messrs. Collins and Leasure) and almost no one in the country shoots more threes than WVU. One off game from outside (very possible, even for guys like Pittsnogle and Gansey) and the Mountaineers are toast.

LSU: Yes, Glen Davis is a cross between the Incredible Hulk and the Thing. Yes, they're the most talented team in the SEC. But have you seen John Brady's tournament track record? Take last year: the Tigers were matched up against UAB. I don't have to tell you that UAB presses like demons and lives for an up-tempo game with plenty of quick shots from both sides, do I? There are jellyfish floating in the Gulf of Mexico right now who could tell you the key to beating the Blazers is to not dribble through the press and not take ill-advised threes early in the shot clock. Which is precisely what LSU did on their way to a savage beating at the hands of the Blazers. I've never seen a worse one-game coaching job than that one from an SEC coach. If Brady pulls that kind of pre-tournament performance again, Winthrop will be more than a match for them. Plus...

Tennessee, Florida: ...the SEC is the go-to conference for an early-round upset these days. Starting with the 3-seed Georgia/2-seed South Carolina twin-killing in 1997 and running right up to Bama's embarrassment against UW-Milwaukee last year, no conference watches more high seeds fall in the first two rounds than the SEC. And tiring Tennessee--a 3 or 4 seed depending on the SEC tournament--looks like the most vulnerable of the bunch. It's impossible to read an article about the Vols now that doesn't use the adjectives "slumping," "fading," or "backsliding." Another positive for Winthrop? The Vols' preferred up-tempo style won't exactly bother an Eagle team that's played VMI, Radford, and High Point twice each, will it? The chemistry-laden Gators will be a touch tougher in the JCCW's view, thanks to their truly beastly frontline of Joakim Noah and Al Horford. But good sweet Lord, has Billy Donovan done a miserable job getting his team ready for the NCAAs in recent years. Despite never being seeded lower than a 5, they haven't made the Sweet 16 since 2001.

UCLA, Washington: UCLA has been injured and inconsistent all season long. Washington did nothing on the road outside of conference and got swept by meek in-state rival Washington St.--a defense-first-and-second team whose style isn't that much different from WU's. The Pac-10 already has a long and storied history of becoming early-round roadkill and Winthrop should salivate at a match-up with either of these teams.

George Washington: This team is a complete fraud. They played one good nonconference team--NC State--and got absolutely creamed. They just lost badly today to a mediocre Temple team. Their best player will be hobbled. Start your candlelight vigils now, Winthrop fans, that this is the team you get.


From this point, consider this a "Mid-Majors NCAA Tourney" blog as much as a Big South blog. Like everyone else I've got a very close eye on where those last few at-large bids might go. Unlike everyone else I have a blog where I can inflict these thoughts on an unsuspecting public. So here goes.

After a) Syracuse beat UConn this afternoon b) Florida St. hilarously threw away their Duke win with a loss to bottom-feeding Wake Forest c) Temple finalized the second, automatic bid for the A-10 only a complete idiot (i.e. 99 percent of college hoops commentators, it seemed) wouldn't have expected, the bubble really comes down to this:

Three bids to divide amongst Missouri St., Michigan, George Mason, Hofstra, and Texas A&M. (Seton Hall has too many good wins to leave out. Cal did too well in a power conference. UAB has no bad losses. Creighton has too many bad losses to leave in. The MWC loser, be it San Diego St. or Air Force, has no wins of impact at all.)

Of those five teams, the JCCW's thoughts are these: Despite scheduling half the SWAC, Texas A&M gets in with one Big 12 tournament victory. Their Big 12 record will be too good. Following them will be Missouri St., which can point to having zero bad losses and a pair of road wins (at UNI, at UWM) over other tournament teams. Michigan can't say the same--their best road victory is at Notre Dame--which combined with their collapse down the stretch (3-7 last 10) slides them just out.

Which leaves George Mason and Hofstra. The majority of internet commentators believe Hofstra's two W's over Mason at the season's conclusion put them above GMU in the NCAA pecking order. I don't see it. Mason has two very important feathers in their cap the Pride don't have: 1) the Colonial's outright regular season title 2) the road win at Wichita St., the undisputed MVC champ. I also don't believe the Skinn suspension will cost them a bid. If the suspension was for the whole tournament, OK, deny away. But it's just for the first round. Denying Mason any shot at the Sweet 16 on the basis of it being substantially harder for them to get past the first round game seems, well, unnecessarily cruel and unfair to the JCCW's eyes. Barring a surprise winner (hardly out of the question) in CUSA or one of the power conferences, I think Mason gets the final at-large bid.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.