March Madness Preview
SLAMonline’s college basketball experts weigh in on upcoming the NCAA Tournament.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. But before you finish filling out your brackets, we figured we’d bring together SLAMonline’s biggest college heads—Cub Buenning, David Cassilo and Jon Jaques—for one more roundtable, with tons of links to fill your brain with even more college basketball knowledge, to preview the upcoming month.—Ed.
What’s a team that you think can surprise people in the Tournament? And which team do you think is most likely to be this year’s “VCU?”
Cub Buenning: I think people are going to be surprised by how good the entire Mountain West has become and, specifically, UNLV. The Runnin’ Rebels poached alum Dave Rice from BYU, where he was the architect of that high-octane Cougar attack that had so much success in the past decade. UCLA-transfer Mike Moser is a legit star and can dominate at times. Don’t be surprised if there isn’t at least one Mountain West team still alive in the second weekend.
This year’s VCU is Wichita State. While their national ranking during the late part of the year was nothing like Shaka Smart’s crew was when they slipped last minute into their dancing shoes, the Shockers have about as much national cache as the Rams did a season ago. This is a two-headed attack with a potentially dynamic scoring point guard in Joe Ragland, in addition to an occasionally dominant big man in 7-footer, Garret Stutz. The big fellow made some major strides in his last season at Wichita. The Shockers are also a really deep team with several guys who can add scoring punch. My second guess for a VCU-type run, oddly enough, was VCU, then they got matched up in the first game with Wichita State. I also think California could come out of one of the “play-in” games and make a long run.
David Cassilo: The surprise team of this year’s Tournament could be UNLV. Led by Mike Moser and Chace Stanback, the Runnin’ Rebels are a dangerous team that have the capability to knock off Baylor and Duke for a spot in the Elite Eight. Remember, UNLV easily beat North Carolina earlier this season.
If any team has VCU potential, it’s Long Beach State. The 49ers are a battle-tested team that played at North Carolina, Kansas, Louisville, Pittsburgh and Creighton this season. Wins against New Mexico and Louisville in its first two round are very possible, and Long Beach State should give Michigan State all it can handle in the Sweet 16.
Jon Jaques: Keep an eye out for UNLV. The Rebels have a pretty favorable matchup in the Sweet 16 versus Duke if both teams advance that far.
Which team is most likely to disappoint?
CB: I would look to a Big East team to bow out early. Georgetown seems to be the most likely one in my mind, as they just haven’t done much to impress me as a viable threat for an extended Tourney run. I also have an up-and-down feeling in general about Syracuse. While I can’t see them being eliminated in the first weekend, I don’t think they will be in New Orleans a couple weeks later.
DC: Of all the 1- and 2-seeds, Duke should be the one heading home first. The Blue Devils did not look good in losses to North Carolina and Florida State late in the season. If Xavier can get past Notre Dame, it might have enough to knock off Duke in the third round.
JJ: I’m afraid people will overrate teams like Florida State and Cincinnati after they made conference championship runs. These two teams could potentially face each other in the second round, so a deep Tournament run for both the Big East and ACC tournament champions isn’t happening.
Why do you think mid-majors have been so successful over the past few years?
CB: I think the recent success of mid-majors is largely due to the overall expansion of the sport, both domestically and internationally. Players rarely “fall through the cracks” these days due to the accessibility of scouting information and video, in addition to the fact that there’s just a larger talent pool for programs to pull from. Although, I am not sure how Murray State’s Isaiah Canaan got out of Mississippi.
DC: Because mid-majors usually lack lottery picks, they can keep their talent together without any unexpected departures. Therefore, while bigger schools are losing players every year, mid-majors can build chemistry easier. This has been intensified in the one-and-done era.
JJ: Initially, increased parity in the college game was a dominant factor, but I think the momentum of the mid-major and general confidence at that level has taken over. Watching Butler advance to the National Title game in back to back seasons and VCU reach the Final Four last season has to generate confidence this time of year. The disparity in talent is shrinking, but these non-BCS teams believe they are just as capable of making Final Four runs as a team like Kentucky or North Carolina.