Ten teams who can win it all, five who can’t

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The field for the 2012 NCAA Tournament is so balanced that any of a number of teams could cut down the nets in New Orleans. The committee did a great job making each bracket difficult for the top seeds, and provided a plethora of entertaining match-ups.  But it wouldn’t be wise to stray too far away from what we already know: The higher seeds are there for a reason.

So who will reign supreme when it’s all said and done?

(NOTES: We had a bit of fun with this. We decided that one No.1-seed would not be able to win it all, we also decided that a No.5-seed or higher could win it all. Does it make perfect sense? No. But neither does March Madness.)

(UPDATE: We’ve had to make an adjustment to our list due to the breaking news that Syracuse center Fab Melo won’t be elligible to participate in the NCAA Tournament.)

Ten teams who can win it all:

Kentucky (No. 1 South):
Simply put, they are the best team in the country. There are not more than two or three teams that can match up with Terrence Jones, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis. They have solid guards in Doron Lamb and Marquis Teague, and Darius Miller is a terrific shooter to bring off the bench. Their loss in the SEC Tournament Championship game served as a reality check, and the ‘Cats aren’t likely to let it happen again. Their portion of the bracket has a lot of interesting teams, but not very many that can beat Kentucky without playing a perfect game.

North Carolina (No. 1 Midwest):
The Tar Heels are the top rebounding team in the country and rank second in points per game. They force a bunch of turnovers and want to get out and run. Next to Kentucky, North Carolina has the most talented front line in the country in Tyler Zeller and John Henson with Harrison Barnes able to step out and knock down shots. The south bracket could shake out in a variety of different ways, which could help smooth out the Tar Heels path to New Orleans.

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Kansas (No. 2 Midwest):
The Jayhawks will not face a team with as much tournament experience as them until the Elite-Eight. Thomas Robinson is the most dominant big man in the country, and Jeff Withy is one of the best shot blockers in the country. This team as a whole is one of the most efficient teams in the country on both offense and defense, and their starting line-up has the experience and talent to make up for their lack of depth.

Missouri (No. 2 West):
Size does not matter with this team. Their four guard set is difficult for teams with a lot of size but not a lot of speed. Phil Pressey is one of the best point guards in the country. Marcus Denmon is one of the best scoring threats in the country. Michael Dixon is one of the play-makers in the country. Ricardo Ratliffe has the highest field goal percentage in the country, and Kim English does absolutely everything. Missouri is in a difficult bracket, but they are experienced and mentally tough.

Ohio State (No. 2 East):
The trio of Jared Sullinger, William Buford and Arron Craft will be the key components to a National Championship run. Buford is a difficult assignment for any defender, and Craft’s relentless defense will be difficult for any opposing point guard. Sullinger will go up against a bevy of other quality big men in the East bracket, but his physicality and ability to step out and make shots will be a difference-maker.

Baylor (No. 3 South):
The amount of talent on this team is overwhelming. Their loss to Missouri in the Big-XII Tournament finals was not as bad as it seemed. The Bears showed toughness and resiliency, which had been questioned for much of the year. Pierre Jackson is as dynamic of a point guard as there is in the country, and Perry Jones III is starting to play like the lottery pick he is projected to be.

Georgetown (No.3 Midwest):
The Hoyas have been promoted thanks to the decline of their arch-rivals. Georgetown has had recent issues in the first round, but this year’s squad is wired differently. Their defense is as suffocating as it was in 20o7 when they advanced to the Final Four. The Hoyas lead the nation in defensive 3-point efficiency. Their length at the guard and forward positions make it nearly impossible for opponents to get good looks from behind the arc. With Henry Sims as a threat to score as well as distribute, this is a team that might not win style points, but could win a handful of tournament games.

Louisville (No. 4 West):
The Big East Tournament Champions struggled through injuries this season after cracking the top-5 in December. But they are fully healthy and playing at a very high level. Their ability to play both up-tempo and grind-it-out styles will benefit the Cardinals when they have to prepare on short notice. Peyton Siva’s leadership cannot be questioned and the depth of this team is starting to show again.

Vanderbilt (No. 5 East):
Despite recent early exits in the NCAA Tournament, the Commodores are clicking at the right time, and their victory over Kentucky in the SEC Tournament Championship showed that they are capable of beating elite teams. John Jenkins has the ability to be a game-changer, Jeff Taylor can hit almost any open shot and Festus Ezeli will be a difficult assignment down low. The East bracket could end up producing a handful of upsets, which would provide Vanderbilt with an easier path back to New Orleans, where they won the SEC Tournament.

Memphis (No. 8 West):
Having won seven in a row, the Tigers are one of the hottest teams in the country right now. They looked nearly unstoppable in the Conference-USA Tournament and Will Barton is putting together an All-American caliber season. People forget that this team is loaded with talent, and having flown under the radar for the past two months could provide the Tigers with the self-confidence needed to make a run at the title.

Five who can’t win it all:

Syracuse (No. 1 East):
With the recent news that Fab Melo won’t play in the NCAA Tournament, Syracuse has been pulled from our list up top. Why you ask? Because Fab Melo is a game-changer. Even if he’s not producing statistics, he forces teams to alter their offensive decisions. In Syracuse’s only regular season loss, a road blowout to Notre Dame, Melo did not play because of eligibillity issues. Sure the Orange have depth, even at the center position, but Fab Melo was one of a kind. This is deflating news that is sure to affect how the team fuctions.

Michigan State (No. 1 West):
The season-ending injury to Branden Dawson is more costly than you may think. He was the Spartan’s best swing player, and without him there is a big gap between the backcourt and forward Draymond Green. Plus, their bracket is just difficult. Any of the top six or seven seeds could advance from the West regional. Even if Tom Izzo is their coach, a National Championship in 2012 just seems a bit out of reach.

Duke (No. 2 South):
Duke lives by the three and dies by the three. As of late, it’s been more of the later than the former. Plus, their defense is just not that good. The talent is there but the execution is not.

Florida State (No. 3 East):
Despite defeating both Duke and North Carolina twice in the same season, including in the ACC Tournament, the Seminoles don’t have the makings of a National Championship team> Bernard James is a good frontcourt player, but he has very little help. The East bracket is filled with teams with dominant big men, and Florida State just doesn’t have the talent up front.

Marquette (No. 3 West):
The Golden Eagles have a propensity for digging holes they cannot get out of. They are notoriously slow starters, and in every one of their losses, they have either squandered a big lead or were unable to claw back from a huge deficit. Injuries to big men Chris Otule and DaVante Gardner took away a lot of Marquette’s depth, something that they could use during March.

Indiana (No. 4 South):
When the Hoosiers beat Kentucky earlier in the season, it was the perfect storm, everything was going right and everything was in place. But in order to win a National Championship, they would have to beat Kentucky in the Sweet-16, after beating a scary-good New Mexico State team and either Wichita State or VCU, two of the best mid-major teams in the country. The brackets just don’t line up in the Hoosiers favor.

Troy Machir is the managing editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @TroyMachir.

Saturday’s NCAA Tournament Elite Eight schedule, tip times, and announcer pairings

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Regional Finals – Saturday, March 25

6:09 p.m., TBS, San Jose
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 11 Xavier (Brian Anderson, Chris Webber, Lewis Johnson)

8:49 p.m., TBS, Kansas City
No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 3 Oregon (Kevin Harlan, Reggie Miller, Dan Bonner, Dana Jacobson)

Sweet 16 Preview: Friday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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Thursday brought us a thrilling night of college basketball. Oregon won a thriller. Gonzaga did, too. Kansas put on a show, toying with the Big Ten champs. 

And that was just the appetizer for what’s on tap Friday night.

For an in-depth look at each region, check these out:

SWEET 16 PREVIEW: Midwest | West | South | East

No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA (-7.5) vs. No. 4 BUTLER, 7:09 p.m. (CBS): As weird as it sounds for a team that finished second in the Big East, that swept Villanova and that has a combined three wins over Arizona and Xavier, Butler is basically back to being a mid-major in the South Region. That’s what happens when you get stuck in a region with three of the biggest brands in the sport.

And don’t think, for a second, that Butler is going to be overmatched here. They’ve proven, time and again this season, that they are good enough to play with the best of the best even if their roster, on paper, doesn’t look that way.

But here’s the thing about North Carolina: If they play their best basketball game, they should be able to run through the Bulldogs. That’s a big ‘if’, however, especially if Joel Berry II plays the way that he has played in the first two games of the tournament. North Carolina goes as Berry goes, and he’s 3-for-21 from the floor in those two games.

PREDICTION: North Carolina (-7.5)

No. 3 BAYLOR (-3.5) vs. No. 7 SOUTH CAROLINA, 7:29 p.m., (TBS): Baylor’s front line is massive. Johnathan Motley is an all-american in the middle, Jo Lual-Acuil was one of the nation’s most improved players this season there’s an argument to be made that Terry Maston has been the most important player for the Bears in this tournament. That’s where Baylor’s strength lies, and they play to it. The Bears want to play slow and they want to pound the ball into the paint.

Where Baylor struggles, however, is with their guard play. Manu Lecomte and Jake Lindsey are not exactly Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham, and if we’ve learned anything about South Carolina this season, it’s that their defense can be a nightmare for opponents to try and run offense against. They don’t pressure in the full court, but their half court defense is just as tough and as physical and as frustrating as West Virginia’s. I think the first one to 60 wins this game, and I think South Carolina gets it done.

PREDICTION: South Carolina (+3.5)

No. 2 KENTUCKY (even) vs. No. 3 UCLA, 9:39 p.m. (CBS): Does it get any better than this?

Do you really need me to tell you that a matchup between two of the four best teams in college basketball, two teams that can legitimately win a national title, playing in the Sweet 16 is must-see TV?

You shouldn’t.

You probably know all the storylines by now, too, so I’m going to say this: I think this game comes down to how UCLA decides to matchup with Kentucky’s guards. My best guess at what happens is that Aaron Holiday chases Malik Monk around all those screens while Lonzo Ball draws De’Aaron Fox, mostly to save his legs but in part because he has the length to challenge a jump shot while playing far enough off to keep his from getting into the lane.

PREDICTION: I think Kentucky wins, but I love the over (165.5)

No. 4 FLORIDA (-1.5) vs. No. 8 WISCONSIN, 9:59 p.m. (TBS): Florida is one of the best defensive teams in the country. They have length and athletes everywhere on the floor, and head coach Mike White knows it. They pressure, they overplay passing lanes and they make life miserable for opposing playmakers. Wisconsin, like Baylor, is a team that plays through their bigs, but unlike Baylor, a post-up for Nigel Hayes or Ethan Happ is like their point guard getting an isolation. Both guys are just such great passers out of the post that Greg Gard doesn’t have to worry as much about the lack of playmakers in his back court.

I think that is a huge advantage for Wisconsin in what could otherwise be thought of as a bad matchup.

But more than anything, I trust Wisconsin’s vets more in NCAA tournament games than just about anyone else. This is going to be the 17th NCAA tournament game for Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, the most of anyone in the tournament. They’ve both played in two Final Fours and two more Sweet 16s. Hayes and Koenig are the two career leaders in NCAA tournament scoring, and Koenig may be the single-most clutch shooter left in the tournament. I’ll bet on that.

PREDICTION: Wisconsin (+1.5)

No. 11 Xavier advances to the Elite 8 with upset win over No. 2 Arizona

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Trevon Bluiett scored 25 points, Malcolm Bernard scored all 15 of his points in the second half and No. 11 seed Xavier, despite being down eight points with less than four minutes left in the game, rallied to beat No. 2 seed Arizona, 73-71, to advance to the Elite 8.

Arizona is going to regret that loss. As good as Allonzo Trier was in building that eight-point lead — he finished with 19 points, including a run where he scored 15 straight points — he went into full hero-ball mode in the final minutes, a stretch where Arizona’s point guard issues came into plain view. I’m sure that there are going to be Arizona fans that are upset with Sean Miller about the way that the final four minutes played out, but remember: this Arizona team lost Ray Smith, Terrence Ferguson and were without Allonzo Trier for the first 19 games of the season, and Miller still led them to a share of the Pac-12 regular season title and the Pac-12 tournament title.

He’s an incredible coach.

Arizona is lucky to have him.

He’ll breakthrough eventually.

But the story of this game isn’t Arizona or Sean Miller, it’s Chris Mack. It’s Xavier.

The Musketeers have now won three games in the NCAA tournament. As of March 9th, the Musketeers had won three games in the previous five weeks — all three of which came against DePaul — and were heading into a game against Butler in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament with, quite literally, their NCAA tournament bid on the line. They were very much on the bubble, evidence being the No. 11 seed they earned after adding a top 15 win to their résumé.

The Musketeers have been without Edmond Sumner (torn ACL) since the end of January and without Myles Davis (left the team) since the beginning of January. They were two of the three most important players on the Xavier roster heading into the season, and as of today, head coach Chris Mack is fielding a name whose only point guard is a four-star freshman named Quentin Goodin.

They shouldn’t be here.

They shouldn’t be one game away from the Final Four, but this is what Mack does. He’s been a head coach for eight seasons, all of which have come at Baylor. This was his fourth Sweet 16, and the only time he actually entered the tournameht seeded higher than a No. 6 was last year, when the Musketeers were beaten in the second round by a Bronson Koenig buzzer-beater.

One thing that I’ve never really understood about coaching searches is why Mack’s name never gets mentioned with the likes of Dayton’s Archie Miller and Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall. Those are the two coaches outside the Power 5 leagues that get mentioned with every single quality opening. “Take a shot at Marshall and Miller, see if they’ll say yes, then move on.” Mack always ends up next on those lists, and I’ve never really understood why.

Part of it is probably because he’s already at a program that is in a high-major league. Part of it is because he’s a Xavier guy — he played there, spent eight seasons there during two stints as an assistant and is an Ohio native. Part of it is because Xavier is already a really good job.

But it does seem like Mack gets overlooked in all of these searches.

Take Indiana, for example.

Steve Alford is the first name everyone mentions with that job. Then it’s Miller and Marshall. If I’m Indiana’s AD, however, Mack is the guy that I go after, and not just because he’s proven that he can go into Indiana and recruit.

He’s just a flat-out terrific coach.

And if this run on top of his other three runs to the second weekend didn’t prove it to you, then the play that resulted in the eventual game-winning points should. It was simple, really, but it certainly was not something you see done in the college ranks all that often. With 50 seconds left and the game tied, Mack had his guys roll the ball up the floor and then used Bluiett, who is scorching the nets in this tournament, as a decoy, running him off of a screen to set up a duck-in for Sean O’Mara:

Not only was the play that Mack drew up beautiful, it took all of six seconds, which meant that Xavier had the lead and was guaranteed to have a shot to get the ball back to win the game regardless of what Arizona did at the other end of the floor.

That is great coaching.

And it’s past time for us to recognize that Mack belongs in the conversation among the best in the business.

No. 1 Kansas dominates No. 4 Purdue in style

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Kansas, the top-seeded team in Midwest region, didn’t just beat No. 4 Purdue, it did so in style. Fast break after fast break, 3-pointer after 3-pointer, dunk after dunk, the Jayhawks ran the Boilermakers off the floor, advancing to the Elite Eight with a 98-66 win on Thursday night in Kansas City.

It followed a familiar script as KU’s 90-70 win over No. 9 seed Michigan State in the second round. Only this time, the climax occurred sooner. Kansas was up 61-54 when Caleb Swaingan checked back into the game, playing alongside fellow Monstar Isaac Haas. Instead of Purdue’s size — the big advantage it had over Kansas — taking control, the only thing that grew was the deficit for the Boilermakers. Kansas went on an 11-0 run beginning at the 14:30 mark. By the time Haas was subbed out, the Jayhawks led 69-56. It never got closer.

Lagerald Vick threw down a 360 dunk … and the Jayhawks hadn’t even begun to pour it on yet. Now, that’s a team that’s playing with confidence.

Kansas shot 66 percent from the field in the second half and connected on 7-of-15 made 3-pointers on the evening. Purdue’s last lead was 35-33 with 4:54 remaining in the second half. That means the Jayhawks outscored the Boilermakers 65-31 for the remainder of the game.

For all that was made of Kansas matchup issues with Purdue, the Boilermakers never solved the matchup problems the Jayhawks presented. While Laden Lucas and the rest of the defense found ways to frustrate Caleb Swanigan (18 points, seven rebounds and five turnovers) and somehow, outrebounded the Boilermakers, Purdue never found a solution for penetration or 3-point shooting from KU’s stable of guards.

“Those guys, especially Caleb on the glass it’s hard to keep ’em off,” Kansas head coach Bill Self said. “If you look at Landen’s stats he only got four rebounds, but the story is Caleb only got seven. And if you had told this before the game that would be the give and take I would have sold out for that because he does a really good job of making sure neither one of them got it for the most part.”

Frank Mason II and Devonte Graham each had 26 points. Mason added seven rebounds and seven assists. Josh Jackson had a double-double of 15 points and 12 rebounds. Vick and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk each recorded double figures too. Lucas’ play has improved as the season’s progressed. They aren’t just putting teams away in this tournament, they’re doing it in style. And it couldn’t be happening at the right time.

They know how win close games, but through three NCAA Tournament games so far, the Jayhawks aren’t willing to take any chances. They’ve elected to not just put teams away, they’ve decided to do so in style.

Kansas advances to play No. 3 seed Oregon on Saturday in the Elite Eight.

WATCH: LaGerald Vick’s 360 dunk

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It takes a lot of confidence to throw down a dunk better suited for pre-game lay-up lines than the middle of a NCAA Tournament game.

But Kansas sophomore guard LaGerald Vick thought this breakaway opportunity in the second half of a Sweet 16 matchup against No. 4 seed Purdue was the perfect time to throw down a 360 dunk.