Despite the thinking for much of the year that the NCAA tournament would be as wide-open as the regular season, many have gone with traditional powers such as Louisville, Indiana and Duke when filling out their brackets. With this college basketball season being as “unpredictable” as it has been, is there an opening for a darkhorse of sorts to get hot and get to Atlanta? Here are five candidates to keep an eye on (seed and region in parentheses).
1. Saint Louis (4-Midwest)
The Billikens, regular season and tournament champions of the Atlantic 10, are well-known by this point in the season. Armed with veterans such as guards Jordair Jett and Kwamain Mitchell and forwards Cody Ellis and Dwayne Evans Jr., interim head coach Jim Crews has the pieces needed to win multiple games in the tournament. Despite landing in the brutal Midwest region, SLU’s attention to detail and its status as one of the best defensive teams in the country (7th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, 10th in points allowed/possession) make them a tough out.
2. Wisconsin (5-West)
Bo Ryan’s team wasn’t at it’s best down the stretch in their loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game on Sunday afternoon. But with that being said, the Badgers are capable of making a run in the West region. From an efficiency standpoint Wisconsin is similar to Saint Louis: ranked in the fifties offensively but one of the best in the nation defensively. With Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans the Badgers don’t lack for depth in the front court, and point guards Traevon Jackson and George Marshall have improved as the season’s worn on.
3. Syracuse (4-East)
Lacking confidence entering the Big East tournament, Syracuse tallied three wins in New York later and took steps towards the level of play that helped the Orange win 18 of its first 19 games. Of the five teams on this list Syracuse is the only one that ranks in the top 25 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. Plenty of teams play zone at some point or another during the year, but how many can do so with the length that Syracuse possesses? And with veterans such as C.J. Fair, James Southerland and Brandon Triche, Syracuse will be formidable in the East.
4. VCU (5-South)
Like Syracuse, VCU offers up a defensive system that will be difficult for opponents to prepare for. “Havoc” is the name of the game for Shaka Smart’s team, with the Rams being the best team in the nation when it comes to forcing turnovers. Opponents have a turnover rate of 28% and average 19.9 turnovers per game. VCU has a deep rotation with guards Darius Theus and Briante Weber spearheading their full-court pressure, and Treveon Graham leads four players in double figures with an average of 15.5 points per game.
5. Arizona (6-West)
Those three McDonald’s All-American big men haven’t played to the level many expected of them before the season began and the Wildcats struggled at time in Pac-12 play. But Sean Miller’s team doesn’t lack for talent, and in senior wings Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom and senior point guard Mark Lyons the Wildcats have tournament experience. The keys for Arizona: defending the three-pointer better than they have for much of the season (opponents shoot 36% from three) and getting consistent production from the trio of Brandon Ashley, Grant Jerrett and Kaleb Tarczewski.
Others to consider: Oklahoma State (5-Midwest); Butler (6-East).
Tempo-neutral stats from kenpom.com