Sports Editor Dustin Brown and Sports Writer Rohtas Wadera preview some of the NCAA Tournament championship contenders, bubble contenders and dark horses that made it into the Big Dance this year. They will also discuss teams on upset alert in the first round and games to watch on Thursday and Friday.
DB: My legitimate contenders are Michigan State, Kansas and North Carolina. The hardest road for those three is obviously North Carolina’s with having to face the winner of USC-Providence but first having to play Florida Gulf Coast in the first round.
RW: The only other team I would add is Kentucky, and the winner of Kentucky-North Carolina could make a deep run. Obviously with the way they are playing and being incredibly under seeded, but I agree with the rest.
DB: I originally placed Virginia in this category, but I don’t think they have enough to make it into the Final Four, let alone the championship game.
RW: I have no belief in Virginia whatsoever.
DB: Well, this tournament provides a lot of tough choices because even Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky have had inconsistent stretches throughout the year. Whether it be a half or 1o minutes and even stretches of two or three games, no team has been consistent enough this season.
I wouldn’t be surprised if brackets were busted after the first and second rounds. This tournament has talent and the selection committee messed up on several occasions.
RW: Yes, it could be an interesting tourney unlike we’ve seen in the past several years because of some of the early matchups.
DB: The three I could see pulling off a surprising run at a title are Oklahoma, Villanova and even Indiana. The Hoosiers have the ability to get hot — even inconsistently — and could spell trouble for teams like Kentucky if they do so. Kentucky might still be pissed off about their seeding and it could haunt them if that is the mentality that they approach these games with.
Even Virginia could end up in this part of the conversation because they have the talent and defense to do so, but again, it comes down to inconsistent play at points during the season.
RW: I was going to go with some sleepers, but I don’t see any other teams that can really fit the mold of a bubble contender.
DB: But in usual fashion, UCONN is playing hot right now as they head into the tournament. I think they’ll beat Colorado who should have been given a better seed.
RW: Definitely, and UCONN should go on a deep run based off of their current play that tends to show up in March.
There are a lot of vulnerable teams this year and Maryland is probably the biggest. South Dakota State could take advantage of a reported dissension in the Maryland locker room and use it to pull off the upset in the first round, but we can discuss that later.
Dark Horse Contenders
DB: I think you could include Duke and Notre Dame in this conversation, and I even placed Oregon in this portion of the conversation. Not because they don’t have what it takes to win, but I want to see how they react to play outside of the Pac-12 conference. They have the pieces and the speed to go far, but potential matchups with Cincinnati or Saint Joseph’s and then the winner of Baylor-Yale or Duke-UNC Wilmington could pose a threat to their run.
Xavier and Miami could even be included in this section with their ability to score.
RW: Miami is very intriguing, and with Jim Larranaga coaching them they have the ability to stay in games. They are a streaky shooting team, but if they score early and often in games, they can pose issues for several teams in the East.
I think two other teams that should be looked at are Texas A&M, who have long and athletic guards, and Purdue as well with their size. They look like a freaking NBA team and could pose lots of problems. A Sweet 16 matchup with Virginia would be very interesting, and must-see TV.
DB: I have a hard time calling the No. 9 and No. 8 game an upset if the ninth-seed wins because it is basically the selection committee going “What do we do with these teams?”
RW: It is a coin flip and each game is like predicting the winner of a coin flip.
DB: Maryland is on upset alert and Iowa is as well with how they’ve flared out at the end of the season. Temple has a lineup that can stretch the floor and really test the Hawkeyes.
Baylor is being talked about as a guaranteed winner, but Yale is a team that shouldn’t be slept on because of all the issues that they have dealt with, pushing them aside and growing closer as a team. If they can stay close with Baylor’s ability to set the pace, the game should be close with five minutes left to play.
RW: Yale has a puncher’s chance to win against Baylor because of their balanced roster.
I have two teams on upset alert that no one is talking about. You can put Duke on upset alert because anytime that you have an in-state matchup (i.e. Dayton-Ohio State), there is a chance that they will lose. They have been susceptible to early round exits when seeded outside of the top-three and this year could be more of the same.
Another one is the Seton Hall-Gonzaga game because people are always so big on conference tournament champions and I tend to shy away from them. Seton Hall has a ton of talent but Gonzaga has the talent to beat them as well.
DB: I agree and foul trouble will be the difference in that game.
Another team on upset alert is Texas. Facing a very physical Northern Iowa team presents problems for the Longhorns and Northern Iowa has tournament experience on their roster.
As we head further down that road, another team that needs to be on the lookout is Iowa State as they face a dangerous Iona team.
RW: Only 20 minutes down the road from me!
DB: Again, if the Cyclones are hitting shots early and Georges Niang is hitting from everywhere and staying out of foul trouble, they could run away with this game. But Iona is a dangerously quick team and offsets Iowa State’s defense fairly well. Foul trouble and dealing with teams like Iona and Oklahoma present problems for the Cyclones, so they will need to stay on their toes.
Games to Watch
No. 5 Maryland vs. No. 12 South Dakota State (South)
DB: Like we said before, the Terrapins could be in trouble if they don’t take this game seriously. It is almost a given that a No. 12 knocks off a No. 5, but there are occasions where it doesn’t happen. This is probably the best opportunity to see that happen this year. If SDSU goes up by 6-10 points early, Maryland could be in trouble.
The biggest issue with the East is that Wichita State got screwed by having to play against a bubble team in Vanderbilt, even though they lost in their conference championship game unlike Vandy.
RW: I agree with SDSU and I actually picked them to pull off the upset in the first round.
No. 7 Iowa vs. No. 10 Temple (South)
RW: Temple provides plenty of problems for the Hawkeyes out of the gate and this is another upset that is likely to happen, but should be fun to watch in the process. Iowa doesn’t wow you and get you excited come tournament time. With a win by Temple, it would set up a fun second round matchup with Villanova in a battle for Philadelphia.
DB: I like the Owls chances in this game and it could be one of the better games on Day 2. There is the ability to see Temple jump out early or Iowa to force an ugly game out of this one.
No. 4 California vs. No. 13 Hawai’i (South)
RW: This is a game that no one is really talking about for some reason. Cal has three future NBA players and they’re talented, but youth is not on their side.
Hawai’i only lost to Oklahoma by three points earlier this year and have played teams very close and have experienced seniors. They pose an interesting matchup for Cal as well.
No. 6 Texas vs. No. 11 Northern Iowa (West)
DB: If I were a Longhorns fan, I wouldn’t watch the game. It is going to be physical and ugly.
RW: It’s a game headed for the 50s because of that as well; very low scoring.
DB: The pace will mirror that of a Kimbo Slice fight; whoever isn’t gassed with 10 minutes remaining probably pulls itself apart late.
No. 7 Oregon State vs. No. 10 VCU (West)
DB: This is another game that could be an easy one for VCU, even without Shaka Smart as their coach this season. I’m not impressed with Oregon State and not sold on them either. They have guys getting ejected from games for tripping referees and that isn’t smart basketball by any stretch of the imagination. In a lot of games this season, they were their own worst enemy.
RW: The Beavers really need Gary Payton II to have a solid game, otherwise they will be blown out by the Rams. He needs to takeover this game for Oregon State to have a chance.
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 16 Florida Gulf Coast (East)
DB: FGCU is still known as “Dunk City” and they have the ability to run with many teams in the tournament. After obliterating Fairleigh Dickinson by 31 points, they now look at a game against a title contender.
Maybe not a game to watch per se, but don’t be surprised if it’s close in the second half.
RW: (laughs) This could be a test for the Tar Heels but they have plenty of experience.
Other Games to Keep an Eye on
No. 4 Iowa State vs. No. 13 Iona (Midwest)
No. 6 Seton Hall vs. No. 11 Gonzaga (Midwest)
No. 6 Notre Dame vs. No. 11 Michigan/Tulsa (East)
No. 3 West Virginia vs. No. 14 Stephen F. Austin (East)