Kevin Luchansky writes about baseball and college sports for WARR
This year’s NCAA Tournament bracket won’t be unlike any bracket from any other year in that picking and choosing teams to win and advance will be difficult.
Picking upsets will be even more difficult.
But unlike any other year, this year provides a bracket that will cause a unique reaction among the wide and disparate players of NCAA tournament pools — it is being said that this should be the first year ever that over 50 percent of all brackets filled out will have the same predicted champion. Each of the major providers of NCAA Tournament bracket pools — CBS, Yahoo and ESPN — have reported more half of the brackets on their sites crowning the No.1 overall seed Kentucky Wildcats as their champion.
Kentucky’s status as a near-unanimous pick is not surprising at all. Undefeated, talented from top to bottom with an elite defense, it’s almost a no-brainer to go with the Wildcats against the field — you and everyone else in your company pool who are doing so know it’s the safe pick and, probably, the right pick.
What does it all this mean? Well, if you plan on wearing your office’s tournament pool crown come Tuesday, April 7, you’re going to need to pick some winners throughout the process that not many others in your bracket can predict as well. Catching my drift?
In other words, don’t just take all the 12 seeds to beat all of the 5s. Yes, that particular match-up produces upsets with some regularity through the years, but everyone is up on that irregularity and that causes more people to pick those upsets. Not a lot of value in those picks when everyone and their mother are in on it.
There’s still time. Look up the one or a dozen brackets you’ve filled out…you NEED to find some upset-minded underdogs in the first weekend to create the kind of separation from your competitors that allows you to stay near the top of your pool standings. Let’s look at a few match ups that could produce 2015’s most uniquely attractive Cinderellas.
#13 Valparaiso over #4 Maryland
This one may come as a bit of a surprise, as there hasn’t been a lot of love expressed for coach Bryce Drew’s Horizon League champions as an upset possibility. Valpo has an efficient enough offense to score with Maryland, and it also presents the 30th-ranked adjusted defense, according to KenPom.com.
With the exception of their upset win against Wisconsin earlier this season, the Terps have exhibited struggles with lockdown, physical defenses. Seeing as Valpo is undersized, it also plays to their advantage that Maryland is a smallish team that doesn’t do much damage in the paint. If Valpo can frustrate Melo Trimble on the ball and force the Terps’ second and third scoring options to look for more shots than usual, the Crusaders could still be dancing come Friday morning.
#13 Harvard over #4 North Carolina
UNC enters this game coming off a hot ACC tournament run that ended at the hands of eventual champion Notre Dame in the final game. On the flipside, Tommy Amaker’s Harvard team looked dominant in the Ivy League throughout much of the season, and then limped into the big dance, fumbling a few games down the stretch before clinching its tournament-less conference in a winner-take-all match against rival Yale, who previously beat them at home when they had an opportunity to initially lock their bid up.
Figure in all of the above — especially when you add in UNC’s length, athleticism, front-court depth and the experience of point guard Marcus Paige — and you’re pointing to a Tar Heel beatdown, but a closer look at each team’s pace, schedules and their efficiency ratings reveal that Carolina struggled this season with teams that slow things down but can fill it up from outside.
Guess who fits that description to a T? Harvard.
#15 Belmont over #2 Virginia
This one might be the most far-fetched or unlikely to open up your bracket — 15 seeds over 2s has happened but rarely — but hear me out for a second. First, lets preface by saying that I think the 2-seed Cavaliers are not only well coached, but also very talented and they’re great at finding — and making — open shots (they just take 34.5 out of every 35 seconds to do so).
When Justin Anderson was healthy earlier this year Virginia looked like a great candidate to make it to Indianapolis for the Final Four. Since then? Eh, not so much.
As was clear in their last game against Louisville, this team struggles when they get down as much as 7 to 10 points and this is for a few reasons. One, as I alluded to earlier, Virginia’s offensive sets are very long. If a team is taking that much time off the clock and not hitting shots they dig themselves into quite the hole. If a team is unable to control the pace of a game, things can really get out of reach for them even if they are disciplined.
Not to mention, Anderson hasn’t looked the same to me since his wrist injury was followed up with an emergency appendectomy and the team doesn’t like playing face, an early deficit against a very strong-shooting Belmont team could force that hand. Belmont, fresh off their win against the second-hottest team in the country at the time (Murray State) can fill it up — they average nearly 75 points a game — and do so pretty damn efficiently, hitting 47% of their shot attempts this season.
#13 Eastern Washington over #4 Georgetown
There’s a chance you may have seen this one talked about given Georgetown’s recent tournament struggles. There’s also a slight chance I have some bias here, as EWU bested my Hoosiers back in November in Assembly Hall.
Regardless, the team is not only well coached but they’ve got an elite scorer in 6’4 guard Tyler Harvey, who averaged just a sliver shy of 23 points a game this season. In the Big Sky conference tournament, Harvey poured it on, with scoring outputs of 42, 9 and 18 en route to the Big Sky championship. Despite Harvey being their clear go-to scorer, EWU does a solid job of moving the ball around, not forcing it into Harvey too often and allowing Venky Jois (16.6 ppg) to be a strong second option.
As for Georgetown, I thought a 4 seed was a gross over-ranking. Though I could never prove it, I think their high seeding had a lot to do with the thumping they gave No. 1 seed Villanova back on January 18. It was a great win against a talented Nova team, but what have the Hoyas done to impress since then? Not much.
Don’t be surprised if hot-shooting EWU throws the first punch in this game and never looks back.
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