Yours truly wanted to go on-record to make some bold predictions about upsets in this year's tournament. Remember, I said bold. That means I'm not picking any 5-12 upsets, they've happened WAY too much to be considered "bold." Along the same ilk, a 9 beating an 8 is not an upset. Those games are practically draws. Here's a few that don't happen too often:
SECOND ROUND POTENTIAL UPSETS:
2. VIRGINIA vs. 15. BELMONT
There has been much a-do over Tony Bennett's Cavaliers and their "Pack-Line" Defense. Here's the scoop on their D: They beat you by clogging the middle and making you take contested mid-to-long range jumpers. They aren't particularly adept at forcing turnovers (#221 in the country in TO%). If you can shoot over and around the Cavs' D then you have a chance to break 60 points on them. Further, with Justin Anderson's offense missing, the already suspect Virginia offense has sputtered to a 1-2 finish. He may not be better just yet.
Belmont, on the other hand. is coming off a great win over a then-ranked Murray State Racers team that had (at the time) the second longest winning streak in the NCAA behind only the Kentucky Wildcats. This team has been to the NCAA Tournament in 2011, 2012, and 2013. You may also remember them for putting a heck of a scare into the Duke Blue Devils back in 2008 in the 2/15 game, falling on a Gerald Henderson layup with about 10 seconds to play.
This year's Belmont team can shoot. They rank sixth in effective field goal percentage, have big guards, and 4 players who shoot 39.9% or better from 3PT. Their biggest weakness is turnovers. They are 225th in the country in turnover percentage. As stated before though, Virginia is not particularly skilled at forcing turnovers, so this could be neutralized allowing the Bruins to outscore the Cavs.
Rick Byrd, in his 29th year at Belmont, has led the Bruins to some big upsets in the past, but not for a while now. He's about due. If you want to pick a shocker of an upset and impress your coworkers in your office pool, this is a great place to start.
4. LOUISVILLE vs. 13. UC IRVINE
Louisville has been a shell of their former selves since losing Chris Jones in one of the most disappointing stories of this year. They have gone just 4-3 since Jones's departure from the program. One of the greatest issues is the total imbalance of scoring on the Cardinals roster. Without Jones, the Cards have just three players averaging over 4 points per game (Montrezl Harrell, Wayne Blackshear and Terry Rozier).
One thing that the the Anteaters do with great success is limit opponents shots in the paint. At 7'6, Irvine's Mamdou Ndaiye is the tallest player in college basketball. He averages 1.7 blocks per game and is backed up by 6'8 Will Davis (1 BPG) and 6'10 John Ryan (1.3 BPG). With Harrell at 6'8 and Blackshear at 6'5, they will undoubtedly struggle to find air in the stratosphere with the bigs from SoCal. Here's the other thing, both Luke Nelson and Alex Young bring the heat in the backcourt, each averaging over a steal per game.
This will be no cakewalk for Rick Pitino's team, but having him on the sidelines cannot be overlooked. Either way, this is a must-see game and a potential upset pick.
6. BUTLER vs. 11. TEXAS
The Butler Bulldogs have had an outstanding year. After years of toiling in mid-majordom in the Horizon League, they've finally moved up to a top-notch Conference. After holding their place as a top 4 Big East team after a revival under Chris Holtzman, the Bulldogs find themselves sitting pretty with a 6 seed in the Midwest. The change in conferences hasn't changed their style of play, these hoosiers come at you with their typical mix of unheralded, undersized, moderately athletic but tenacious and heady players. They still bring that Butler-brand of mistake-free, well-rounded basketball that you would expect from the Brad Stevens coached-teams who ran through the tournament to consecutive National Championship games.
The Bulldogs however have an interesting match up against the Texas Longhorns. The Longhorns are everything the Bulldogs are not. First, they are tall. Very tall. They run out 5 guys on a regular rotation of which the smallest is Jonathan Holmes at a bruising 6'8, 240. By comparison, the Bulldogs only play one player for more than 12 minutes per game who listed at over 6'7, and that's Kameron Woods listed at a lanky 6'9 200. Beyond the sheer size of these behemoths from Austin, you have to consider that each of the 5 is a former ESPN top 100 recruit. As if size and raw talent weren't enough, there's also the fact that all of them (except last year's No. 2 Center, Myles Turner) are at least juniors.
Size. Talent. Experience. Those three often translate to NCAA Tournament success. Frankly, its amazing that Texas didn't warrant better than a No. 11 seed this year. Texas comes in ranked 187 in turnover percentage and 156 in effective field goal percentage. In order to keep the 'Horns at bay, the Bulldogs are going to need to look to Alex Barlow and Kellen Dunham for to keep the pressure up on the sometimes turnover prone backcourt of Texas and the entire team is going to have to go with the old-school keep-a-hand-in-their-face defense. If anyone is up to the task of avoiding an early defeat in what seems like some sort of bizarre reversal of a David vs. Goliath match-up, its Chris Hotlzman's Butler Bulldogs, but they're going to have to play some disciplined basketball.
THIRD ROUND POTENTIAL UPSETS:
7. WICHITA STATE vs. 2. KANSAS
Yesterday, on ESPN'S "The Experts" tournament preview show, Bill Self stumbled around why his Kansas Jayhawks don't play their top (as of late) in-state competition the Wichita State Shockers. He pretty much said those in Lawrence just haven't felt they needed to play the Shockers. Translation: They're really good and could hurt the RPI we've tried so carefully to craft. Seriously, 8 losses and still #2 RPI? I know the Big 12 was good, but wow, the KU Athletic Department knew what they were doing.
If Wichita can get past another blue-blood, Indiana, in the second round, they will be looking at a third round match-up with Kansas in a prime-time Sunflower State Shootout. (Patent Pending. WHY DO THEY NOT HAVE A RIVALRY WITH THIS NAME!?!??) Incredulity aside, Coach Self's fumbling was indicative of what basketball insiders already know, WSU can beat KU on any given day. These two teams both hung around the top 10-15 teams in the polls all year.
Led by proven coach Gregg Marshall, Wichita has seasoned guards in Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker who know how to take care of the ball and who can score in bunches. All the while, KU's most veteran leader, Perry Ellis (I'm wearing your pants! Oh, wait, he's not the clothing designer?) is a huge question mark due to a sprained knee. Without Ellis's scoring, defense and leadership, the Jayhawks are vulnerable. Look for the Jayhawks to be one of the first top seeds out if he can't return at 100%.
3. OKLAHOMA vs. 6. PROVIDENCE
The Friars have beaten a 3 seed in Notre Dame and nearly beat a 1 seed in Villanova during the Big East Tournament. If they bring the same effort and intensity that they had against the Wildcats into Columbus, the Sooners could be the bounced-too-Sooners. Oklahoma is led by junior guard and Big 12 POY Buddy Hield. His stats look eerily similar to those of Big East Co-POY Kris Dunn except Dunn has more assists, more steals and more turnovers. These two should essentially be a wash.
The question becomes, can Houston transfer TaShawn Thomas and junior forward Ryan Spangler get it done against a talented and tall Providence frontcourt? Ed Cooley's team is in their second consecutive tournament and have the depth and experience necessary to make this one count. LaDonte Henton is fresh off leading the Big East in scoring. He should be the difference maker as the Friars dance their way into their first Sweet 16 since 1997.
If the Friars can get there and my prediction above comes true, the Friars may be facing 7 seed Michigan State for the opportunity to head to their fourth match-up of the year against the Villanova Wildcats in the elite eight. If that happens, I'll say one thing: It's really, really, really, really, really (get the point?), really hard to beat a team as good as the Friars 4 times in one season.
SUPER EXTREME-NEVER GONNA HAPPEN--SWEET 16 PREDICTION:
15. BELMONT v. 7. MICHIGAN STATE
Belmont has a shot to be the second 15 seed in the history of the tournament to make the Sweet 16. For all the reasons above, Belmont could be a match-up nightmare for Tom Izzo's Spartans. The Bruins have the talent in their back court to control the tempo and hit shots which was the recipe for disaster displayed in the second half of the Spartans' home loss to Texas Southern in December.
The Spartans don't have one glaring weakness. You have to beat Sparty everywhere to take them down in the tournament. In each of their four bad losses (Bad Losses for them are losses to teams not receiving a #4 seed or better in this tournament) they haven't had one area specifically that they faltered. On defense you need to limit their rebounds, make them take tough and challenged shots, keep them from running on you. On offense, you need to slow it down, keep possession and make the most of your opportunities because Belmont is not going to out-rebound MSU.
Its hard to pick against Tom Izzo in March, but this year's team lacks the star power of years past. Because of this, the stars just might align for history to be made.
OTHER UPSETS TO WATCH FOR:
7. VCU v. 10. OHIO STATE: Big-time players win big games and D'Angelo Russell is a big-time player. VCU has been mercurial all year and has been playing without injured star Briante Weber. A 10 beating a 7 isn't a huge upset, but its worth keeping an eye on.
7. IOWA v. 10. DAVIDSON: Davidson entered the A-10 Championship on a 10 game winning streak before falling to VCU in dramatic fashion. While raising the conference hardware would have been great, their 20 point smack-down at the hands of the Rams may have been a blessing in disguise as they will come out with a fire in their bellies trying to avoid following that loss with an early tourney exit. On the other side, Iowa is coming off an embarrassing loss at the hands of Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament. Don't count out the A-10 regular season champs who are let by a great, seasoned coach in Bob McKillop.
3. IOWA STATE v. 6. SOUTHERN METHODIST: This potential third round match-up is intriguing. SMU started the year 2-3 with losses at Gonzaga, Indiana and against Arkansas. That was without Villanova transfer Markus Kennedy who was suspended until December for academic issues. Kennedy returned to become the Mustang's second leading scorer and second leading rebounder. You also may have heard of their head coach..... Larry Brown. Yea, he's a pretty good coach to lead you into your first NCAA tournament in 22 years. While they haven't gotten the attention of Iowa State, they have every bit of the scoring, size and coaching that the Cyclones bring. Look for the Mustangs to make a run at their first Sweet 16 since the Lyndon B. Johnson administration.
3. NOTRE DAME v. 11. TEXAS
For the same reasons listed above, Notre Dame could struggle against the size of the Longhorns. The Irish play small Nd should be able to outscore the 'Horns while keeping them off balance with high-pressure on-ball defense, but if Texas's guards can hold onto the ball, they will be a tough out.