Potential Bracket Busts
Four teams to be wary of come March.
The college basketball regular season is starting to wind down and March is swiftly approaching. Chances are some die-hards have started to size up the potential field of 65, at the very least some of the teams that are set to wind up with prime seeds, and may already be penciling in a preliminary Final Four. Ever year though, like clockwork, there is that one team—you know exactly what I’m talking about. For me, the worst-case example came in 2004 in the St. Louis Regional.
Coming in red hot fresh off an SEC Tournament Championship and owners of a No. 1 seed, Kentucky was a can’t miss for the Final Four. The team was loaded with future NBA talent (Rajon Rondo, Randolph Morris, Kelenna Azubuike) and was more than prepared to roll over any team in its path for a trip to San Antonio. The rest is history though. After a first round win over Florida A&M, the Wildcats ran into UAB, losing 76-75 and screwing my bracket for the year.
So who’s it going to be this year? Which team are people going to pencil in for the Elite Eight or the Final Four, only to watch them fall in tragic fashion? There are several teams this year that will land a seed somewhere between one and four that will in all likelihood find themselves packing up early, even after the first weekend of play. Here are a few teams that while they can certainly make a push well into March should be labeled with one word: CAUTION.
The Cardinals are the mother of all cautionary picks come March. Rick Pitino’s squad has the talent and athleticism to hang with any team in the country when they are hitting on all cylinders, but as has been the case for a couple of years now, no one knows which team is going to take the floor. While Earl Clark and company can boast of wins over Pitt, Syracuse and Villanova, they leave pundits scratching their heads with losses to Western Kentucky and last Thursday’s 33-point shellacking at the hands of Notre Dame.
Making things even more tantalizingly difficult is the inconsistent star power that the Cardinals boast at the top of their roster. Earl Clark, Terrence Williams and Samardo Samuels will be wearing NBA uniforms one day—that isn’t in question by any stretch of the imagination. What is in question is the consistency of the star-studded trio. Not one of them has been able to avoid slumping this season for several games and in fact they have all been guilty of it on multiple occasions. With Clark every game is a roller coaster depending on which player shows up, and after looking like the Big East Player of the Year during the month of January, Terrence Williams has reached double-figure scoring just twice in his last seven games.
Again though, it can’t be overlooked that when this team is playing up to its potential, it is dangerous. The Cardinals reeled off eight straight wins to open the Big East schedule and knocked off a hot Kentucky team prior to that. This squad is almost a coin toss to go all the way or check out after round two.
After a season hiatus from the upper echelon of the AP Poll, the Blue Devils are back in the top 10 and folks in Krzyzewskiville couldn’t be happier. There is plenty of reason for pause though before you put Duke down for a flight to Detroit though. If the last three weeks have shown anything, it’s that the kids from Durham are a subpar team when it comes to athleticism. All of Duke’s five losses this season have come at the hands of opponents who are more physically gifted and can beat them up the floor or off the dribble.
Michigan was the first team to show that Duke had some kinks in the armor back in December, but since the end of January, Wake Forest, North Carolina, Clemson and Boston College have all recorded wins against the kids in blue.
While there is no question Duke has talented players with the likes of Kyle Singler and Jon Scheyer, small forward Gerald Henderson is the only one who can be considered an elite athlete. When facing squads like Clemson and Wake, Duke struggled to get their perimeter shooters going against longer defenders and continually struggled to slow down the opposing fast break. The Michigan loss also proved that the opposition doesn’t need to be an elite program to give the Blue Devils problems either.
If Duke finds itself squaring off against a taller, more athletic team such as a team like Dayton, Coach K could have another disappointing Tournament.
The Golden Eagles have been loads of fun to watch this season thanks to the four-headed scoring attack of Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews, Lazar Haywood and Dominic James. While those four have all been having great seasons, they also represent the potential problem for Marquette come March; there is no bench.
All four starters average over 30 minutes of playing time per game and they have accounted for 83 percent of Marquette’s scoring and 62 percent of its rebounding. Seemingly every team that has advanced well into the NCAA Tournament in recent years has had some sort of solid production coming off the bench to speak of, but the Golden Eagles have their four leading men and then a tremendous drop off.
Of course, another major issue is the lack of productive size on the roster. At 6-6, Haywood is the tallest player to really contribute on the floor, and while Jimmy Butler and Dwight Burke see minutes, they aren’t massive bodies that can help out much either. Marquette has struggled against some bigger teams this year (see the loss to South Florida) and could run into trouble during the Tournament as well. It’s also worth noting that there have been plenty of teams in the past who have lived by the three and died by the three when the pressure begins to mount. Over one-third of Marquette’s shot attempts have come from beyond the arc this season, and if they go cold at the wrong time, it could spell and early exit.
Pending the rest of the regular season and their conference tournament, the Sun Devils could wind up with a lower seed, but as for right now they are looking at a 3 or a 4 seed. What makes Arizona State a dangerous pick is the fact that their fate is tied to one player: James Harden. Not to take anything away from Jeff Pendergraph who has had another solid season inside, but ASU only goes as far as their superstar sophomore takes them. A loose way of looking at this is in Arizona State’s 20 wins Harden shot 56 percent from the field, with that number dropping to just 39 percent in the team’s five losses.
With so much tied up in one player, if Harden has an off night or ASU runs into a team with a good defensive scheme to stop him, the Sun Devils are left trying to figure out how to fill the role of the player who has been responsible for nearly one-third of their scoring this season. Of course if recent history has shown us anything though, one player (*cough, cough, Steph Curry*) is certainly capable of carrying a team to great lengths in the postseason.