After the dust settled yesterday evening, the committee had spoken and their opinion of Villanova proved much higher than public consensus. Going into the past week ranked #10 in the polls, we lost our first game and managed to come out of it with arguably the 6th most favorable seeding out of the 65 teams advancing to the big dance.
That said the Cats enter this week with plenty of question marks, in what is generally seen as the easiest path to the Final Four. While we seemingly matchup well with Duke, there are numerous teams that could give us trouble along the way.
It will be universally agreed on this week that the South is the least arduous path to Indianapolis. The perception is that this bracket contains the weakest 1-4 seeds collectively and individually and a big part of this is because people are down on Villanova due to the late season slide. In reality the bracket has an overrated #1, a slumping #2, an up and coming, but not tournament tested #3 and a depleted #4 fresh off putting up a whopping 11 points in the first half on a Minnesota team that, as of a week ago, wasn't in position to make the field of 65. Despite all the negatives, the bracket will be challenging and has some sleepers that can make some noise as well.
More after the jump...
#8 California vs #9 Louisville
I watched Cal play in person early this season when they were ranked #12 and were a double digit favorite to beat an unranked, unproven Syracuse team at the Garden in the preseason NIT. They were promptly blown out by 22 and angry Nova fans alike can direct some blame at them for helping to jump start Syracuse towards the Big East title this year. They have a phenomenal undersized scoring point guard in Jerome Randle, who is really spectacular to watch when he is on and two wing players in Theo Robertson and Patrick Christopher who play very little defense but can fill it up when they get hot. Their interior is modest at best, led by former Duke Blue Devil Jamal Boykin. The Bears draw a Louisville team that basically made the field because of two wins over Syracuse. No one can doubt Rick Pitino's big game coaching prowess and if Samardo Samuels commands touches in the post, he should put up numbers here. Louisville will go as far the enigmatic Edgar Sosa can take them at the point; Pitino should pray the team that showed up and beat the Orange a few weeks ago at Freedom Hall shows up and not the one that got pasted in back to back L's to Charlotte and Western Carolina at home in the same week earlier in the year. And wearing this couldnt hurt.
# 7 Richmond vs #10 St. Mary's (CA)
If there is a team in the bracket outside the Cats that I have a personal soft spot for, it is the Spiders who enter the tournament for the first time since 2004. Being a resident of Richmond, I have seen this team play 3 or 4 times a year for the past four years and have seen them grow from a undersized team with inferior talent and athleticism to a confident senior laden squad that could potentially win multiple NCAA games. Led by senior guards Kevin Anderson (the 2010 A-10 player of the year) and David Gonzalvez, Richmond runs a unique wrinkle of the Princeton offense (Coach Chris Mooney was a Tiger) that is unlike any other team's in the tournament. Anderson and Gonzalvez can both spot up as well as get their own shots which stretches defenses and provides the neccessary floor space to run back cuts and create opportunities for spot up shooter Ryan Butler and versatile big Justin Harper. The Spiders go up against a SMC team fresh off a throttling of Gonzaga in the WCC championship game, a game that many thought the Gaels needed to get into the tournament at all. Similar to Utah State (who ironically was St. Mary's best non conference win) St. Mary's has really not beaten anyone out of conference and while the Gonzaga win was important, the game was clearly more important to the Gaels than the Zags. A strong 3 point shooting team, the Gaels are led on the perimeter by junior Mickey McConnell (who made a ridiculous 51.5% of his 130 3 point attempts this year) and Australian freshman Matthew Dellavedova. While these two look like they could be cast as extras in "The Sandlot", interior force Omar Samhan provides the intimidation and should be a matchup problem for everyone the Gaels see.
#6 Notre Dame vs #11 Old Dominion
A midseason bubble team, familiar foe Notre Dame's torrid finish to the season boosted them comfortably into the tournament. The Irish ironically caught fire after the injury to 12th year senior and 7 time Big East Player of the Year, "The Gody". Strangely, after big Luke went down, the Irish became less predictable on offense (please sense sarcasm, Harangody was finishing 35+% of the Irish's offensive possessions before going down, good for top 5 in all of college basketball, according to KenPom). Working him back in over the past couple weeks, they won a couple games at the BET and come into the dance with high hopes. ND has attempted to deflate the basketball during games, so if you are looking for high skill, entertaining matchups, you should look elsewhere. The style has been effective but ultimately the way Tory Jackson plays will be the crucial element in their push forward; he needs to keep distributing the ball to all of his teammates (and provide offense himself), as a return to Gody-ball could doom the Irish. They meet a strong mid-major from the CAA in Old Dominion. I watched the conference final closely (my sister's school, William & Mary opposed them in the final), and was really impressed with the Monarchs perimeter defense, against a W&M team that rated as one of the better 3 point shooting teams in the country. This should prove advantageous for them against guys like Tim Abromaitis and Ben Hansbrough. ODU is not a stereotypical mid-major in that they can really dominate the interior with 6'10 Gerald Lee and 6'8 Frank Hassell. The Monarchs, who ground out a low scoring win at Georgetown this year, will be comfortable playing at the Irish's pace and their athletic bigs will pose a serious matchup problem.
#5 Texas A&M vs #12 Utah State
The Aggies are an intriguing 5 seed in that if they make it out of the first weekend, they would have a clear home court advantage in Houston. The massive state school is only 83 miles from H-Town (a little closer than the 1,551 miles from the Main Line) and you can bet that their fans will travel in flocks down for these games. A&M is a feel good story as they sustained a gruesome and possibly career ending injury to arguably the best perimeter defender in the country in Derrick Roland to post their best conference finish in recent years. The inside-outside duo of Donald Sloan and Bryan Davis is going to their 4th NCAA tournament and will provide the senior leadership that can carry teams into the second weekend and beyond. A stingy defensive team (23rd most efficient in America), they meet a relatively unknown but an offensively efficient squad (16th best) in Utah State. The other Aggies have rode a Duke-like home court advantage over the past few seasons back into the tournament. They beat a good BYU team this year but have basically played no one away from home so this one should be interesting.
#4 Purdue vs #13 Siena
The devastating season-ending injury to Robbie Hummel already had the Boilers reeling and their stinker against the Golden Gophers was arguably the most shocking score during championship week. The team is now led by E'Twaun Moore, who has really struggled to score since Hummel, the team's true offensive facilitator, went down. Moore was 10 of 40 from the field in the team's final three games (including a treacherous 1 for 14 Friday vs. Minnesota. JaJuan Johnson is a monster and needs to demand the ball, as he will be a match up problem for anyone. Purdue's supporting casts needs to step up immediately and Moore must find his stroke if they want to avoid an early exit. Fran McCaffery's Siena s squad look to win a first round game for the 3rd straight year but come into the tournament with a less heralded team than year's past. Despite steamrolling the MAAC for the third consecutive year, the Saints, who quite possibly boast the least initimdating mascot in tournament history, were unable to convert on any of their non-conference opportunities and enter the tournament with a mediocre profile. Irregardless, Edwin Ubiles, Alex Franklin and Ryan Rossiter are tournament veterans and are just the kind of players you don't want to see across from you in a first round game if you are a low seed. This team is well coached and could make some noise here.
#3 Baylor vs. #14 Sam Houston State
I have watched Baylor closely this year and they should have no problems here. While SHSU gave a young Kentucky team a game early on this year and have a nice player in undersized Puerto Rican Juco transfer Gilberto Clavell, they shouldn't provide much of a challenge for the loaded Bears. Baylor is deep and boasts a scoring/facilitating senior point guard (Tweety Carter), an electric scoring guard (LaceDarius Dunn) and a sleeper NBA lottery pick playing his first year after transferring from Michigan (Ekpe Udoh). Carter is a true leader and despite the fact that Baylor has yet to win an NCAA game, he is the type of player who can take a team on his back and will them to multiple wins. While Dunn at times would rather eat the basketball than pass to his teammates, he can flat out light it up. And Udoh can score in the low post, grab offensve rebounds at a high rate and blocks nearly 4 shots a game. They also play two other massive players regular minutes in 7'0 Josh Lomers and Anthony Jones at 6'10, presenting real match up issues for basically everyone in this bracket. All this aside, the team turns the ball over at a high rate and no one on the team has ever won a tournament game. Either way it doesn't help to have the brother of the guy who hit this shot as your head coach going into the tourney.
#1 Duke vs. #16 Somebody else
The best news of the weekend was that the Wildcats avoided a bracket with the two tournament favorites and the team that dismantled us weeks ago in upstate NY. Duke is far and away the best matchup for Villanova if we manage to get that far. The Cats should have confidence playing a team that is similar to the one that we destroyed in Boston last year. Duke is extremely efficient and skilled offensively (KenPom has them as the #1 team in the country) and has benefited from a real home court advantage at Cameron Indoor Statium. You will hear Bilas, Vitale and any number of analysts defend the Dookies #1 this week by telling you that in addition to their usual offensive strengths, they are improved on the interior and rebound/play defense at a much higher level than Blue Devil teams of years' past . While there is some truth to this, the Plumlee brothers and a smaller, less skilled version of the great Shawn Bradley, named Brian Zoubek aren't going to make me lose sleep over the next few weeks. Duke is perennially overhyped by the media and their fanbase and national following equals money for the NCAA; whether Nova or someone else upsets them one thing is for sure: Duke didn't deserve the relatively easy draw that the Wildcats are hoping to take advantage of.
All things considered, we need to feel fortunate but realize that although Duke is potentially a good match up for us, there is a lot of work to be done before that may even occur. The bracket boasts five talented mid majors that each play a unique style that will be difficult to contend with, two familiar foes who know our game all too well and two Texas schools with serious hopes of using Houston as a springboard to a surprise Final Four appearance.
Get the boys ready Jay, here's to hoping that the next couple weeks provide some moments similar to 2009.