by Peter Walsh
Favorite: No. 4 Michigan State
With all respect due to ACC champs and No. 1 seed Virginia, the Spartans are finally healthy and are the team most poised to make a run to the Final Four. No senior class under Tom Izzo has failed to make the Final Four, and the graduating class of 2014 certainly won’t be the first. The Spartans are loaded with talent at every position and stormed through the Big Ten tournament en route to the Conference Championship where they defeated in-state rival Michigan for the first time this season. Michigan State was seeded much too low at four and are in the weakest region. Big 12 Champ Iowa State certainly poses a formidable foe if the two meet in the Elite Eight but the Spartans should survive and advance.
Sleeper: No. 10 St. Joseph’s
Led by big man Halil Kanacevic, who averages 10.7 points, 8.8 boards and 4.4 assists, and head coach Phil Martelli, St. Joe’s has won 20 of its last 25 games and surprised everyone by upsetting VCU and winning the tough A-10 Conference. The Hawks drew UConn in its second round matchup and if they can beat the Huskies, will likely face Villanova, setting up a great rivalry game early on in the Tournament. St. Joe’s is a balanced, battle-tested, rugged team who can hang with anyone in the East.
Upset Watch: No. 11 Providence vs No. 6 North Carolina / No. 12 Harvard vs No. 5 Cincinnati
Providence is riding high after winning the Big East Tournament and senior guard Bryce Cotton is playing as well as anyone in the country. Head coach Ed Cooley has done a tremendous job with the program and the Friars are making their first tournament appearance in 10 years. The Friars have little depth but the combination of LaDontae Henton, Tyler Harris and Kadeem Batts up front cause a lot of matchup problems due to their length and defensive ability. The Tar Heels have been inconsistent all season and are a vulnerable team, especially if Cotton gets hot.
Head coach Tommy Amaker has done a fantastic job rebuilding the Crimson program—which we wrote about at length in SLAM 175—and Harvard is upset-minded for the second straight season. Five different Crimson players score in double-figures and the Ivy League Champs have Tournament experience after last year’s second round win. Cincinnati is one of the top defensive teams in the nation and are lead by guard Sean Kilpatrick, who is also the team’s lone scoring threat. The game will likely be a slow-paced, grind it out affair which favors Cincy. But if the Crimson can slow down Kilpatrick, Amaker’s team has a great chance of advancing for the second straight season.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Marcus Paige, G, North Carolina
The Bryce Cotton-Marcus Paige matchup may be the best head-to-head battle to keep an eye on in the “opening” round. Paige really blossomed toward the end of the season and has been awesome during the second half of game, doing most of his damage during crunch time. The sophomore guard is averaging 17.4 points, 3.3 boards and 4.3 assists per game and will need to put together full 40-minute performances to give the Tar Heels a chance at a deep run.
Sean Kilpatrick, G, Cincy
A gifted scorer hailing from Westchester, NY, Kilpatrick averaged 20.7 points per game during the season and may be as important to his teams successes as any player in the country. A tough-minded defensive team, the Bearcats have a chance to make a run if the senior is able to score at his usual rate.
The sophomore guard is the Spartans’ best offensive player and looking to improve his draft stock with a few big games. The sweet-shooting Harris can hit from long range and is strong enough to get the rack and finish at the rim. Harris battled injuries during his freshman season but came back strong his sophomore year to average 17.1 points, 4.2 boards and 2.7 assists per game.
Bryce Cotton, G, Providence
Bryce Cotton is college basketball’s ironman. Thanks to multiple double-overtime games this season, Cotton averaged 40 minutes per game on the season and finally got his due shine when he won the Big East Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award. The senior is one of the most versatile players in the NCAA; after leading the Big East in scoring last season, Cotton played more on ball this season due to injuries and led the Big East in assists.
Melvin Ejim, F, Iowa State
The senior forward averaged 18.1 points, 8.5 boards and 1.8 assists per game while leading the Cyclones to the Big 12 Championship and took home Big 12 Player of the Year. If the Cyclones are to make a run to the Final Four—which they are more than capable of doing—it will be because of the play of Ejim.
Michigan State outlasts Iowa State in an epic Elite Eight matchup at the Garden to advance to North Texas.