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March 13, 2012
Tournament Preview
Syracuse in the East

by Corey Schmidt

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If you were to rate the various regions by number of bluebloods, national championships, compelling mid-majors, and future NBA players, you couldn't do much worse than the South region. There's been much talk of the strength of the South, but our own Kevin Pelton rates the East as particularly tough when measuring how friendly each region is to its top seed. Indeed, the East's top seed, Syracuse, could face a number of daunting opponents in the coming weeks. Ohio State lurks at the other end of the bracket as Pomeroy's highest-rated 2 seed, and Florida State and Vanderbilt are in the mix after winning conference tournaments in the ACC and SEC, respectively. While the region may lack for historical greatness or trendy Cinderellas, it makes up for those shortcomings in strength among the top-five seed lines.

All times Eastern.

(16) UNC Asheville vs. (1) Syracuse (Pittsburgh: Thursday, 3:10 on TruTV)
Last season UNC Asheville made it to the NCAA tournament the hard way. It was the No. 3 seed in the Big South tournament and had to defeat No. 1 Coastal Carolina on its home floor to secure the automatic bid. On Selection Sunday the Bulldogs were awarded a 16 seed and a spot in Dayton's revamped opening round, where they beat Arkansas Little Rock to earn their way into the field of 64. This season they made it a little easier on themselves. They won the Big South regular season outright and thus played -- and won -- every tournament game on their home court. With a better record this season UNCA avoided Dayton but was unable to hop up a seed line, leaving the squad to face Syracuse in the round of 64. The Bulldogs are once again led by the fantastic guard tandem of Matt Dickey and J.P. Primm, who are equals in their ability to drive the lane, draw contact, and finish at the charity stripe. They're also able three-point shooters, which will be needed against Syracuse's zone. As for the Orange's struggles on the defensive glass, it's unlikely that the Bulldogs will be able to make them pay: they're average at best on the offensive glass and feature just one regular rotation player listed above 6-5.

(15) Loyola (MD) vs. (2) Ohio State (Pittsburgh: Thursday, 9:50 on TNT)
For much of the season it was Iona that captured the headlines out of the MAAC. And even after Loyola won the league's automatic bid, the Gaels have still been the talk of the nation after earning the conference's first at-large bid since 1995. For a Greyhounds team that operated in more obscure circles this year, something tells me Iona's star turn hardly bothers them. After all, they've got a mighty task ahead of them in their match-up with Ohio State, which has been projected as the strongest 2 seed in the bracket. To keep things close against the Buckeyes, they'll need for their big men to prove why they're one of the better offensive rebounding groups in the country. Erik Etherly (who got some Prospectus ink in November), Justin Drummond, and Shane Walker proved entirely capable of pulling down tons of Loyola's misses in MAAC play, but whether they can be as proficient against Jared Sullinger and company remains to be seen.

(14) Saint Bonaventure vs. (3) Florida State (Nashville: Thursday, 2:45 on CBS)
Florida State is one of two teams in the East region that just won its major conference tournament championship. The Seminoles took the ACC crown after beating NIT-relegated Miami, conference and NCAA 2 seed Duke, and conference and NCAA 1 seed North Carolina. This same squad also owns two losses to Ivy League foes and dropped a road game to Boston College -- by far its worse loss of the year. What we know about the Noles is that they're an elite defensive unit with a tendency to hit peaks and valleys on the offensive end. Lately, they've been in peak form on offense, averaging 1.11 points per possession in five games since March 1, up from their season-long ACC average of 1.02. Coach Leonard Hamilton led his team to the Sweet 16 last year, and should he continue to get this kind of offensive production, a deeper run would surprise nobody this March. The Bonnies however will provide a solid test in the round of 64, led by future NBA draft pick Andrew Nicholson. At 6-9 Nicholson can impress from anywhere on the court.

(13) Montana vs. (4) Wisconsin (Albuquerque: Thursday, 2:10 on TNT)
In November and December, Long Beach State became a popular name around the country as the team made its way through a brutal slate of non-conference games against the nation's elite. The Beach picked up a few solid wins and a bunch of "good" losses along the way, but the one loss that stood out as questionable at the time was the one at Montana. The Grizzlies had suffered a defeat to North Dakota before beating LBSU, and would go on to lose to San Francisco and Oregon State in the week after. Three months later and one might say that losing to Montana should have been expected, even for a tested mid-major darling like Long Beach State. The Grizzlies quietly went about their business after those late-November hiccups, losing just one game between December 17 and Selection Sunday. While Big Sky foe Weber State collected wins and storylines thanks to its stud guard Damian Lillard, coach Wayne Tinkle and his players kept pace with the Wildcats and eventually beat them twice in the last nine days of the season -- once to capture the regular-season championship and another time to win the tournament title. Thus the Grizzlies are dancing, and now they get a chance to become darlings themselves with a game against Wisconsin. Like the Badgers, the Grizz can shoot the three, but they do it less frequently but more accurately. There are three players on the team who drain treys with above-average accuracy, including 7-footer Derek Selvig (37-of-85 on the year), who would himself be right at home on a Wisconsin roster as a prototypical defense-stretching big man.

(12) Harvard vs. (5) Vanderbilt (Albuquerque: Thursday, 4:40 on TNT)
Vanderbilt entered this season as a Final Four darkhorse. After all, its trio of potential NBA draft picks -- Jeffery Taylor, Festus Ezeli, and John Jenkins -- was back for another go-around, as were experienced contributors like Lance Goulbourne and Brad Tinsley. The key for the Commodores to capitalize on their potential was to improve on the defensive end. No one questioned whether this group could score, but they had yet to resemble anything close to a strong defensive unit in their time together. Well, 34 games later and Vandy arguably has the best statistical profile we've seen under Kevin Stallings since his 2004 Sweet 16 team. His squad improved defensively (from No. 88 to 31 in adjusted defensive efficiency) while more or less maintaining its elite output on offense. The Commodores also enter the NCAA tournament having just won their first SEC tournament title since 1951, beating No. 1 overall seed Kentucky to earn said hardware. Is this the year Vanderbilt finally avoids the round of 64 upset in favor of a deep tournament run? Its first opponent, Harvard, is certainly no pushover. Tommy Amaker's squad won the Ivy's 14-game tournament outright and brings with it a handful of impressive non-conference wins. Crimson opponents have taken just 27 percent of their shots from beyond the arc, which has proven to be a valuable strategy for a defense that holds opponents to 43 percent on their two-point attempts. Vanderbilt, of course, relies heavily on the three-ball, so watch for a match-up of conflicting strategies here.

(11) Texas vs. (6) Cincinnati (Nashville: Thursday, 12:15 on CBS)
Laptops have been high on Texas for much of the season, so much so that at least two sources (this one and this one) have the Longhorns standing out as one of the few egregiously underseeded teams in the bracket. The fact that Rick Barnes and company were able to convince computers of their strength says a lot for a team that outscored their Big 12 opponents by just 0.01 points per trip. Meanwhile, Cincinnati put early home losses to Presbyterian and Marshall -- and that brawl with Xavier -- in the rearview and had itself a nice Big East campaign that culminated in a runner-up finish at the conference tournament. To finish second at Madison Square Garden, the Bearcats had to defeat Syracuse, which makes them one of just two squads to do that in 2011-12. While we'll get an intriguing backcourt match-up of Cincy's Sean Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright and Texas' J'Covan Brown and Myck Kabango, the interior test between Yancy Gates and Clint Chapman is worth eying. Chapman has been serviceable for the Longhorns this season, but there's just not a lot of depth behind him, particularly now that Alexis Wangmene is out with a broken wrist. Gates, who is coming off a strong showing in New York City, figures to be a load inside.

(10) West Virginia vs. (7) Gonzaga (Pittsburgh: Thursday, 7:20 on TNT)
This year there's not much difference in Pomeroy rating between the 7 and 10 seeds, and that trend holds true in this match-up of NCAA tournament regulars. Just a few teams separate Gonzaga and West Virginia in both overall ranking and adjusted offensive efficiency ranking, but the Zags enter the tournament with a significantly better defense built on solid defensive rebounding and perimeter D. Mark Few's dominant defensive rebounding duo of Elias Harris and Robert Sacre should be engaged in an entertaining battle on the boards with Kevin Jones, who leads the attack on the offensive glass for the Mountaineers. While those players jockey for position in the paint, we'll be treated to a youthful match-up in the backcourt where Gonzaga employs efficient marksmen like Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell while West Virginia relies on streaky shooters such as Jabarie Hinds and Gary Browne. Darryl Truck Bryant, who will be one of the few senior guards in this game, could be a difference maker for the 'Eers, though he's battled with bouts of inconsistency throughout his career. Even if Truck's a no show, WVU could have the edge here due to geography. As Nate Silver showed last March, teams traveling less than 50 miles to a tournament site have won 92 percent of their round of 64 games since 2003. Pittsburgh is about 75 miles away from Morgantown.

(9) Southern Mississippi vs. (8) Kansas State (Pittsburgh: Thursday, 12:40 on TruTV)
Due in part to their No. 21 ranking in the RPI, Southern Miss, which was Conference USA's third-best team on a per-possession basis, found itself comfortably in the field of 68 when the bracket was released. The Golden Eagles' gaudy RPI ranking is also helpful in explaining their placement as the 9 seed here despite ranked No. 13 in the region by Pomeroy and named the most overseeded team by TeamRankings.com. Stat geeks agree that USM looks more like a double-digit seed than a 9, but on a neutral court can it win a game against Kansas State? Larry Eustachy's club has a few things going for it in this match-up. For one the Golden Eagles managed to maintain a top-50 offense despite the fact that they were well below-average in shooting accuracy. They thrived on offense by taking care of the ball and getting lots of offensive boards. Meanwhile, the Wildcats' tenacious defense has been predicated on forcing misses and turnovers. In other words, USM won't flinch when K-State's forcing a bunch of misses inside the arc. If Southern Miss is able to take care of the ball as it did all season, then this game could come down to whether the C-USA team can keep Frank Martin's squad off the offensive glass and off the free throw line. If so, the Golden Eagles would be pulling an upset that would rate more unlikely than most 9-over-8 defeats.

Third Round and Beyond
Both Vanderbilt and Wisconsin have been vulnerable to round of 64 upsets in the past, but if both squads were able to make it past their mid-major opponents it would set up for a very interesting Saturday showdown. Either team would offer Syracuse a solid test in the Sweet 16 since they're both capable of getting hot from beyond the arc. At the other end of the bracket, Florida State's path to a second straight Sweet 16 isn't exactly a free ride, but it certainly offers less resistance than last year's route. Awaiting the Seminoles in Boston would likely be an Ohio State team that rates even higher in adjusted defensive efficiency than FSU's top-ranked D did in 2011.

A Syracuse-Ohio State regional final would pit Pomeroy's top-rated 2 seed against the lowest-rated 1. And while that match would be heavenly for reasons beyond the analytical realm, we've seen enough over the past few tournaments to expect the unexpected.

Follow Corey on Twitter: @cjschmidt1. This free article is an example of the content available to Basketball Prospectus Premium subscribers. See our Premium page for more details and to subscribe.

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