Michigan State is the proverbial "last" No. 1 seed, a distinction the Spartans earned by defeating Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament title game. Not bad for a team that started the season unranked and served up as a sacrificial lamb to top-ranked North Carolina on an aircraft carrier.
In theory the committee did no Tom Izzo no favors, goodness knows, by exposing his team to the winner of a heavyweight showdown between Memphis and Saint Louis in just their second game. But if there's good news for MSU in such a fearsome concentration of ability it's that they know in advance they'll have to face just one of those teams. Should the Spartans make their way to Phoenix we can only hope for what would be a dream showdown between the superb Big Ten defense of State and the orchestrated lethality of the Missouri offense. But there are many games to be played between here and there.
All times Eastern.
(14) BYU vs. (14) Iona (Dayton: Tuesday, 9:10 on truTV)
This is the game between the last two at-larges to get into the field. I mean the very last: Nos. 36 and 37. Thanks to the new open and loquacious NCAA, there's no doubt anymore. Even stragglers like California and South Florida, we now know, made it into the field of 68 with more room to spare than did the Cougars and the Gaels.
So not much is expected of these two squads. Not much was expected of VCU last year, either. Should we expect one of these two teams to recapture the Rams' magic from a year ago? When not battling a knee injury Noah Hartsock has had an exceptionally productive year on offense for BYU, but the strength of Dave Rose's team as a whole in their first year in the West Coast Conference was that they forced opponents into many turnovers and many missed threes. The first ability is widely presumed to become steadily less reliable as the quality of the opponent improves -- in other words the further you go into the NCAA tournament. And the second ability is thought to be more luck than actual ability. As for Iona, a steady trickle of media types have made the pilgrimage out to New Rochelle this year to proclaim the Gaels' big three of Scott Machado, Mike Glover, and Lamont Jones appropriately sublime and fearsome, and so they are -- particularly Machado and Glover. There's no question the Gaels can score, but can they score enough to keep up with what the opponent's racking up against a very permissive Iona defense? That will be the issue.
(14) BYU/Iona vs. (3) Marquette (Louisville: Thursday, 2:45 on CBS)
The winner of the game between the last two at-larges in the field gets Marquette. This season the Golden Eagles occupied a rather ambiguous position in the Big East. Buzz Williams' team finished second to Syracuse at 14-4, and was more or less a clear No. 2, but they inhabited that perch in a year when there was an unusually large -- maybe even vast -- gulf between Nos. 1 and 2. Moreover, for a second consecutive season Marquette enters the NCAA tournament on the heels of a disappointing double-digit loss to Louisville in the Big East tournament. But say this for Williams: MU is better than they were last year and that, you may remember, was a Sweet 16 team. The defense has improved markedly over 2011, and the offense is, as always under Williams, superb. When I first suggested back in December that Jae Crowder was having a first-team All-Big-East kind of year, I was politely told by fans of other Big East programs that I was mistaken. Those fans were correct. Turns out Crowder was having a Big East POY kind of year.
(11) Colorado State vs. (6) Murray State (Louisville: Thursday, 12:15 on CBS)
If you're one of those arch hoops sophisticates who loved Drexel long before they became bubble fodder, you should be equally comfortable loving Murray State, right? The Racers put together 23 consecutive wins before suffering their first loss, to Tennessee State at home on February 9. True, Drexel won their 19 in a row in the Colonial (and in a BracketBusters pairing with Cleveland State), and the CAA's much tougher than the Ohio Valley. But MSU is in the conference they're in, and our job is to figure out how good they really are based on that fact. One thing we know with certainty is that Isaiah Canaan has had an incredible year. If you want to talk about the top point guards in the country you are required by law to include this protean figure whose shots go in from everywhere -- three-point line, foul line, and in close -- and who dishes a fair number of assists while taking excellent care of the ball and drawing fouls. Canaan is definitely Canaan, but is Murray State definitely a 6? We're about to find out, though we may not gather much additional information from a pairing with Colorado State. The Rams have their own mysteries. In Mountain West play, Tim Miles' team scored 943 points and allowed 942, a balance that masked a severe if not schizophrenic home/road fissure in performance. Almost every team is better at home, of course, but as a road team CSU was outscored in conference play by a whopping 0.17 points per trip. I don't expect the Rams to be that weak in neutral Louisville, but they likely won't be as mighty as they've looked in Fort Collins either. Dorian Green has attained levels of effectiveness on offense for Miles this year that have been almost Canaan-esque, albeit as a combo guard and in a smaller role. Last point: CSU opponents -- home or away, doesn't matter -- don't commit turnovers. Expect a close game.
(13) Davidson vs. (4) Louisville (Portland: Thursday, 1:40 on TBS)
I'm not entirely sure why De'Mon Brooks isn't more of a household name, where the "household" is defined as the place where hardcore hoops fans gather and compare notes. Maybe it's simple category trouble. Brooks is your classic mid-major 6-7 Swiss Army knife. He shoots an occasional three and gobbles up possessions just like a 6-7 featured scorer would do in a major conference. But since this is a SoCon program -- or this particular SoCon program -- Brooks is expected additionally to clean the glass at both ends of the floor. It makes for a full plate, but Brooks at least gets help in the rebounding and scoring departments from 6-10 Jake Cohen. Now the worrisome part for Wildcat hopes: the Davidson attack relies heavily on these two players, and you can look a long time at the field of 68 before you come across a Big Two that's more foul-prone than these guys. Ordinarily you'd expect the big scary 4 seed from the major conference to go right at these guys and draw fouls, but of course even a Big East tournament champion can have issues on offense, and Louisville has issues. I know it may not look like it if you catch Peyton Siva or Russ Smith on a bad night, but the Cardinals' shooting this year was actually not the problem. Rick Pitino's team simply didn't get enough chances to shoot, as they gave the ball away on 22 percent of their possessions in Big East play. That's a concern for a team trying to win six times, but in the near term this defense should be able to get the job done for the 'Ville.
(12) Long Beach State vs. (5) New Mexico (Portland: Friday, 4:10 on TBS)
Hey, I wrote about this one already!
I submit to you that New Mexico is the most puzzling team in the entire field of 68. As you peel back the layers on Steve Alford's men, each successive increment of additional information seems to contradict what's come before. Start here: New Mexico tied for first in the Mountain West (with San Diego State) during the regular season, and they won the conference tournament. To accomplish the latter feat, the Lobos had to beat UNLV on the Rebels' home floor. All of the above is impressive. But even with the league putting four teams into the NCAA tournament, I can't shake the feeling that this may not be the strongest Mountain West we've seen in recent years. And as for UNM's undeniably impressive per-possession performance in league play, a lot of that was accomplished through the medium of two blowouts against Air Force. So, no, I'm not penciling Alford's team into my Final Four. I just think they'll be good enough to prevail against a Long Beach State team that lost to Cal State Fullerton 10 days ago.
I would only add a suggestion to keep an eye on what happens when New Mexico misses. If the Lobos can get offensive boards against what has been an average defensive rebounding team, it could be a long afternoon for the 49ers and Dan Monson.
(10) Virginia vs. (7) Florida (Omaha: Friday, 2:10 on TNT)
It took a few years but Tony Bennett has officially succeeded in his quest to import the mores and attitudes of Pullman, Washington, circa 2007 to the Commonwealth. Those mores and attitudes revolve around preventing the opposing basketball team from scoring points, and at this Virginia was singularly outstanding in 2012. The Cavaliers played the best D of any ACC team, and that combined with Mike Scott raining made twos and free throws on opponents was enough to get the Hoos back to their first Dance in five years. This sets up to be a nifty collision along irresistible force and immovable object lines, because the last time we saw Florida they were scoring a quick 56 points in the first 29 minutes of their SEC semifinal against Kentucky. With Kenny Boynton, Erving Walker, Erik Murphy, and Bradley Beal firing threes, and Patric Young in the paint, the Gators will give even a vaunted Virginia defense a fair test. This game will very likely be slow-paced and everyone will immediately cite Bennett as the cause, but in truth new-look Florida goes really slow in their own right, averaging just 62 possessions per 40 minutes. Anyway, forget pace. The material point is either of these teams is capable of giving Missouri a test in the round of 32.
(15) Norfolk State vs. (2) Missouri (Omaha: Friday, 4:40 on TNT)
If Thomas Robinson is smart in 2057 when his grandkids crawl up in his lap and ask him what he used to do, he'll tell them simply, "I won the Big 12 Player of the Year award in Marcus Denmon's senior year." Denmon plays virtually all of the available minutes, makes virtually all of his free throws, and has connected on 41 percent of his threes and 52 percent of his twos. He is the leader of what is clearly one of the finest offenses in the country. You've heard about Ricardo Ratliffe's amazing accuracy (69 percent), and when you add to that Michael Dixon's shooting inside the arc (58 percent -- and he's 6-1!) you can see that the Tigers' shots simply go in. This is a perimeter-oriented team that is actually more successful, relative to the respective conference averages, when they shoot twos. A transcendent offense combined with average D has netted Frank Haith a 30-4 record. The likelihood is that prolonged exposure to some of the best offenses in the country will imperil a team with an average defense, but we're talking about "likelihoods" when the defending national champion went 9-9 in conference play last year. I say we see what happens. As for Norfolk State, Kyle O'Quinn is one of the few players nationally who can at least look down on Dixon's interior shooting. At 6-10 O'Quinn is hitting 62 percent of his twos. He's really good, and, being Basketball Prospectus, we've written about him already.
(9) Saint Louis vs. (8) Memphis (Columbus: Friday, 6:50 on TBS)
As I noted yesterday, it's a shame that arguably two of the three best mid-major teams in the country (the other being Wichita State) had to be pitted head-to-head to yield just one entrant in the round of 32. But now that the die has been cast we have to pick just one team here, and I'll go with Memphis. The Tigers were overrated entering this season, to the tune of a top-10 preseason ranking. That was a bit lofty for a team that actually had the worst offense in C-USA play last year, and Josh Pastner's team proceeded to show just how lofty it really was by losing games to Michigan, Georgetown (twice), Murray State, and Louisville. But once they reached calendar 2012 Memphis hit their stride, and you're now looking at the best offense in the league. (Best D too, of course.) Will Barton has had a year that can only be termed heroic (at 6-6 he is the Tigers' featured scorer and their best defensive rebounder), Antonio Barton and Chris Crawford have contributed timely threes, and NBA-track freshman Adonis Thomas is reportedly about to return after missing two months due to an ankle injury. The Billikens are a rock-solid A-10 team that wins with one of the best defenses in this 68-team field and opportunistic offense from Kwamain Mitchell and Brian Conklin. I'd pick SLU against any mid-major in the country -- except Wichita State or Memphis.
(16) Long Island-Brooklyn vs. (1) Michigan State (Columbus: Friday, 9:20 on TBS)
Ah, the sweet paradox of the Friday nightcap: rested players, exhausted viewers. My friend Ken thinks this will be the year we see a 16 beat a 1, an astonishing-sounding prediction that he bases on the fact that in 2012 we have on our hands no fewer than three of the six strongest 16-seeds of the seeded-tournament era. (Ponder that for a moment. That's pretty amazing right there.) The bad news for fans of the Blackbirds is that LIU-Brooklyn is not among that trio of historically feisty 16s. Michigan State will likely survive, and you can sound like a droll analyst in front of your friends by saying things like:
The Spartans this year are surprisingly normal on the defensive glass -- Ohio State, for example, is better. Where Tom Izzo's team truly excels in 2012 is field goal defense.
Your friends will be impressed.
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