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NO BULL. JUST STRAIGHT HOOPS.
March 16, 2015
By Anthony J. Fredella
NEW YORK, New York - There are always, always, always upsets in the NCAA Tournament. There has never been a year when each of the higher seeds advanced all of the way to Final Four weekend. And that probably won’t happen this year either. The hard part, however, is picking those upsets. We’ve broken down the 2015 bracket and here’s what we think.
A #16 seed has never beaten a #1 seed, and only six #15 seeds have beaten #2 seeds. Neither of those statistics will be affected this year. The top seeds will retain their perfect record and the #2 seeds this season are about as strong as we’ve seen in some time. With that being said, I also think that all of the #3 seeds will advance past the opening round. Notre Dame should pummel Northeastern, Oklahoma is just too big, too strong and too talented for Albany, and Iowa State is really clicking right now, so the Cyclones should rout UAB. If you are going to pick a #14 over a #3, it has to be Georgia State over Baylor. While I think Baylor will ultimately prevail in this matchup, the Bears, in my opinion, are the most vulnerable of the four #3 seeds (we’ll get into this more later). Georgia State is 24-9 and have won 13 of their last 15 games, including the Sun Belt Conference Tournament. The thing to remember, though, is that this is not your average Sun Belt Conference team. Two of Georgia State’s top four scorers are transfers from top notch programs – PG Ryan Harrow (18.7 ppg, 3.6 apg, 2.2 spg) transferred after starting for a season at Kentucky, and SG Kevin Ware (7.7ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.4 apg) transferred from Louisville, where he helped lead Coach Rick Pitino’s Cardinals to a #1 seed in the 2013 NCAA Tournament before breaking his leg in horrific fashion in the Elite Eight. And junior G/F R.J. Hunter (19.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 3.6 apg, 2.2 spg), son of Coach Ron Hunter, could have played just about anywhere in the country, but decided to play for his dad at GSU. So the Panthers are dangerous and capable of an upset, but I think they received a bad draw against Baylor. In the end, the Bears squeak it out.
I do like an upset on the 4/13 line, and that’s Eastern Washington over Georgetown. The Eagles from the Big Sky Conference are 26-8 this season and have won 13 of their last 16 games. They have a win this year already over Indiana, in Bloomington, and played both SMU and Washington tough on the road. The Hoyas are primed for an upset, having lost 4 of their last 10 games, and barely getting by a bumbling Seton Hall and a bad Creighton team in the last 10 days, before losing to Xavier for a third time this season in the Big East Tournament semi-finals. The Eagles are the kind of pesky, get-after-you squad that should give Coach John Thompson fits, especially if they are hitting from the outside (Eastern Washington attempts more than 24 three-pointers per game). We all know a top 4 seed is falling in the first round, Georgetown is my pick.
Another first round upset is going to be #12 Wyoming over #5 Northern Iowa. Now if you ask me, the Panthers of Northern Iowa received a raw deal with their seed, having gone 30-3 on the season in the Missouri Valley Conference and having been ranked within the top 15, and top 10 at times, late in the season. But apparently the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee did not think too highly of the MVC (28-4 Wichita St. received a #7 seed). So their unfortunate high seed garners them a very bad matchup against a very talented Wyoming Cowboys team. At 25-9, the Mountain West Conference Tournament champions are riding high, having beaten Boise State and San Diego State on route to the title. The Cowboys could lull Northern Iowa to sleep (as well as the television audience) with their slow, methodical style. Neither team is averaging more than 65 ppg, so expect a snoozer, but I think that favors Wyoming. Larry Nance, Jr. has been tremendous this season, and has stepped up when his team has needed him. He poses a serious matchup problem for Northern Iowa, and that’s where I believe the difference comes from. It will be a slow-paced, low scoring slugfest. In the end though, the Wyoming Cowboys advance.
Being as we’ve grown accustom to big first round upsets, most people nowadays overthink the bracket. This season is no different. Many “experts” are picking #12 Buffalo to upset #5 West Virginia and #12 Stephen F. Austin to top #5 Utah. Do not go with the flow on those. I’m not sure if people are high on Buffalo because West Virginia is banged up, or because Bobby Hurley is their coach and it’s a feel good story if his team pulls the upset. Regardless, West Virginia is winning that game. The Mountaineers may have some injury concerns, but that is not going to stop them from dismantling the Buffalo Bulls. WVU went 23-9 in the toughest conference in the country this season, with impressive victories throughout the year over UConn, NC State, a 33-point thrashing of Wofford, Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma State. Buffalo played the 67th toughest schedule this season, and was only 4-5 vs. RPI Top 100 teams. While they did hang with Kentucky for a half, and hung with Wisconsin for a majority of the game, those were back in November and December, respectively, and they have not seen competition anywhere close to that level since that time. West Virginia has been in the trenches all season long. The Bulls may hang for a half, maybe longer, but the Mountaineers pull off the win.
Regarding Stephen F. Austin over Utah, remember that this is not last season, where the Lumberjacks were the Cinderella story the first weekend of the tourney. Sure they are 29-4, but they played in the Southland Conference and had the 193rd toughest schedule out of 351 Division I teams. That means something, especially when 21 of their 29 victories came against sub RPI Top 150 teams. The Lumberjacks beat up on the bottom half of the NCAA this season. That does not make them a legitimate contender. Utah, on the other hand, went 24-8 in the Pac-12, having the 32nd toughest schedule in the nation, and beat teams like Wichita State, BYU, UNLV, UCLA, Stanford twice, Arizona State twice, Oregon State and Washington. The Utes will roll by Stephen F. Austin. Don’t be fooled.
The most interesting games for me in the First Round (I don’t consider the first four “play in” games an actual round) are the 7/10 matchups. I can see at least two and maybe all four #10 seeds winning their first game. The best game for me is the Wichita State/Indiana game out of the Midwest Region. I think the Shockers are a better team and are going to win the game with their more talented, more experienced backcourt of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, but would anyone be surprised if the Hoosiers advanced? As far as the most appealing #10 seeds, I like Ohio State to beat VCU and Davidson to beat Iowa. G D’Angelo Russell of Ohio State is the type of player that can put his team on his back and engineer a victory, and that’s what I see when the Buckeyes face the havoc defense of the VCU Rams. As far as Davidson, I think they are just a better team than Iowa. They control the tempo of their games, they shoot the ball better and they are, in all honestly, more explosive than the Hawkeyes. If the Wildcats score more than 75 points (they’re averaging 79.9 ppg), Iowa will not be able to keep up. The last of the 7/10 games is the hardest to call. #7 Michigan State is matched up with #10 Georgia. I’ve seen both teams play a number of times this season and, they both have multiple personalities. I’ve seen the Spartans look great, average, and terrible. I’ve seen the Bulldogs look really good and pretty bad, but never great. Michigan State is on the heels of a Big 10 Tourney finals appearance where they were a bad pass in the closing seconds away from upsetting Wisconsin. They are playing confidently right now and Coach Tom Izzo always – always – has his boys ready to play in March. I think Georgia is just happy to be invited to the party. I like the Spartans to advance, but if bad MSU shows up vs. good Georgia, it could be the other way around.
As far as the remaining Round of 64 games which could see minor upsets, I like #11 Texas to send #6 Butler home early, #9 Purdue over #8 Cincinnati, #11 Ole Miss (after they beat BYU in the First Four) to knock off #6 Xavier, and #9 LSU over #8 NC State. The rest of the First Round is going to be chalk, meaning that the top seeds will advance.
The Second Round, as it always does, poses some more interesting matchups, some of which could be real upsets if the First Round plays out like we think it will. The first of which will be #12 Wyoming over #4 Louisville. Louisville was over-seeded, especially in light of losing star PG Chris Jones for the season. I know they beat Virginia on March 7th, but they also lost four of their last eight games, having been knocked off by North Carolina, Notre Dame, Syracuse and NC State in the last month. The Cowboys will be riding high off of their First Round victory over Northern Iowa and the momentum will carry them past a slipping Louisville squad. In that same region, #6 Providence is going to beat #3 Oklahoma. The Friars were well within reach of knocking off Villanova in the semifinals of the Big East Tournament and the duo of G Chris Dunn and F LaDontae Henton are as dangerous as they come. The Friars are still fuming from the Nova loss and will be playing with a purpose during the first weekend. I do not think the Sooners match up well here, and that will cost them late in the game. The Friars will advance to the Sweet Sixteen.
Here is where I might lose you: in the Second Round, #11 Ole Miss is going to knock off #3 Baylor. There, I said it. You may have been thinking it, but were afraid to write it down, but I’ve now given you my blessing. So blame me. The Ole Miss Rebels are 20-12 on the year, but don't let that record fool you, they are a dangerous team, and they are battle tested. First Team All SEC guard Stefan Moody (16.3 ppg) is a firecracker, capable of exploding at any time. I like the Rebels to beat Baylor based solely on backcourt matchups. Guards are generally the key to wins in March, and Ole Miss has tremendous backcourt depth in Moody, Jarvis Summers (12.4 ppg) and Ladarius White (11.2 ppg). The Rebels also fire away from three, averaging more than 19 three-point attempts per game. If the outside game is going, that opens up the middle for F Sebastian Saiz and F M.J. Rhett. Don't overthink it, the Rebels will shake up the brackets as Moody, Summers and White will be too much for the undersized Kenny Cherry and Lester Medford of Baylor.
Are you still hanging with me? Good. Listen closely to this one: #7 Wichita State will beat #2 Kansas in the Round of 32. The Shockers will finally gain the respect they have so desperately been seeking since going into the 2014 NCAA Tournament undefeated, only to be knocked out early by the upstart Kentucky Wildcats. This year, it’s the other way around, and here’s why: the Shockers are a more well-balanced, more structured, more team-oriented squad than Kansas. Does Kansas have better athletes? Yes. Does Kansas have more talent? Yes. Does Kansas have more NBA players? Yes. But this tournament is not about athleticism, or NBA talent. It’s about surviving and advancing, and Wichita State pulls off the monumental upset in this matchup. Look for VanVleet and Baker to give Jayhawk guards Frank Mason and Wayne Selden, Jr. fits on the offensive end, and for F Darius Carter to come up huge with a double-double in the victory. Sorry Rock Chalk Nation, but the Committee’s snubbing of the Missouri Valley Conference is the only thing to blame here.
So when you are filling out those brackets, and enter those office pools, just remember to throw in a few upset specials. You never know when the next UConn, or VCU, or George Mason may appear. With a little luck, your office mates will be forking it over to you this year because you were wise enough to have Wichita State, Providence and Wyoming in your Sweet Sixteen. Best of luck.