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NCAA Contender Concerns

NCAA Contender Concerns

Selection Sunday is less than two weeks away and some of the top contenders for the NCAA Tournament are clear. Many expect a wide open field this season however and here some possible concerns for 11 teams that have a good shot to wind up seeded in the most favorable spots on the bracket.  

Kansas: Bill Self’s past tournament failures

With a long winning steak heading into the final week of the regular season including a late February win at Baylor, Kansas is a near-certain #1 seed and currently in position to be the #1 overall seed in the tournament. The statistics are very compelling with the top rated defense in the country while Silvio De Sousa is set to rejoin the team next week. This team has great size and talent and a quality track record featuring five top 20 caliber wins, four of which have come away from home while being a one-point and a two-point loss away from being 28-1.

It is impossible to ignore Bill Self’s disappointing NCAA Tournament track record however. Kansas did win the 2007-08 championship but they had a favorable path in terms of opponents and locations on that run, including beating a #12 seed in the Sweet 16 and a #10 seed in the Elite 8. Recall they also trailed by nine in the championship game with just over two minutes to go before Memphis collapsed including missing four of its final five free throws while failing to foul up by three in the final seconds of regulation.

Since that championship season Kansas has been a #1 seed six different times while at least a #4 seed in every other year and yet Self and the Jayhawks have been back to the Final Four just twice in those in 11 seasons while failing to escape the opening weekend six different times in Self’s tenure, all as a top four seed. Kansas is a bad free throw shooting team and has limited depth with the roster getting a scare with a possible injury to Udoka Azubuike last weekend. Kansas has the profile of a top contender and this is Self’s best defense since the championship season but we’ve seen plenty of great Jayhawks teams falter in March in recent years as it will be an uncomfortable choice to write Kansas six times in your bracket.

Gonzaga: Not a championship caliber defense

A run to the national title game in the 2016-17 season has legitimized Gonzaga as a program that can win it all and this year’s team could be a #1 seed for the fourth time in the past eight years. Gonzaga has made at least the Sweet 16 each of the past four seasons and this year’s team grades as the top offensive team in the nation. There is great size on the roster and this is an experienced veteran team even with significant turnover from last season’s squad that fell just short of the Final Four.

Gonzaga doesn’t have a ton of weight in its non-conference campaign however as wins over Texas A&M, Washington, Arizona, and North Carolina didn’t pan out to be overly meaningful results despite the past track records of those programs. A one-point overtime win over Oregon is the best non-conference win for the Bulldogs but that result was cancelled out the next day in the Bahamas with an 18-point loss to Michigan.

With BYU and Saint Mary’s expected to also be in the NCAA Tournament field the WCC is as good as it has been in several years but it will still be a big leap in competition for the Bulldogs in March. This is also Mark Few’s worst defensive efficiency team since 2010-11 when Gonzaga earned just a #11 seed and was bounced in the round of 32. The Gonzaga team that lost in the championship to North Carolina graded as the nation’s best defense, this year’s team barely cracks the top 40, a range almost no championship teams emerge from historically.

San Diego State: A long layoff without quality opposition

It took a comeback win in Saturday’s regular season finale for San Diego State to avoid losing for a second time in three games, pulling out a comeback win at Nevada to finish 28-1. Some will argue it was better for the Aztecs to not enter the tournament with the pressure of being undefeated but another issue for San Diego State is that the Mountain West tournament starts this week and there will be at least an 11-day layoff before the Round of 64 game for a team that could still earn a #1 seed if they are victorious this week in Las Vegas.

November wins over BYU, Creighton, and Iowa have put some meat on the great record for San Diego State but from a possible Round of 32 game it will have been three and half months since the Aztecs have faced a top 40 caliber opponent. The Mountain West hasn’t performed very well in recent NCAA Tournaments and this looks like a down year for the conference as whole, grading as the 10th best conference in the nation when as recently as 2012-13 the conference cracked the national top four.

That season produced five NCAA Tournament teams from the conference but those teams collectively wound up 2-5 in the Big Dance despite four of five teams being seeded #8 or better. Last year the conference produced just two teams in the field and both lost badly in the Round of 64 as favorites. This year Utah State has a shot at earning one of the final at-large bids but if the Aztecs roll through the conference tournament it will likely be a one-bid conference. The Aztecs have been a great story but the track record of success for teams from this conference has been poor. This team also often becomes too reliant on low percentage shots from Malachi Flynn while by major conference standards this group is going to have a hard time matching up size-wise against most power conference foes.

Baylor: Rebounding and free throws

The #1 team in the polls most of the season with a 23-game winning streak Baylor could still earn a #1 draw even with losses in two of past three games. Two opportunities for quality wins finish the regular season slate and the Bears will hope to fare well in the Big XII tournament, though they are 0-3 in the past three seasons in the conference tournament.

Baylor has a top 20 offensive and defensive efficiency ranking and as one of the nation’s top defensive teams this team has a championship pedigree even with some offensive lapses at times. Baylor is a bottom four team in the Big XII in two-point scoring and free throw shooting but the deliberate pace and the mix of zone defense can be challenging for opponents, particularly in a short scheduling turnaround in a tournament setting. Scott Drew’s team made the Elite 8 in 2009-10 and 2011-12 but hasn’t advanced past the Sweet 16 since but under Drew the Bears have never drawn better than a #3 seed, which they almost certainly will this season.

Baylor is not a good defensive rebounding team and opponents were handed the perfect formula for beating the Bears by a marginal TCU group last week. Keep pace with Baylor on the boards and turning the game into a free throw shooting contest with Baylor struggling at the line outside of MaCio Teague. Davion Mitchell is a primary ball handler for the Bears despite being a 68 percent free throw shooter and a 31 percent 3-point shooter and without a starter above 6’9” the Bears don’t have as imposing of a front court as they have had in years past.

Dayton: Marginal defense with quality wins absent

On paper there is a lot to like about Dayton sitting at 27-2 with both losses away from home in overtime against high-quality competition. Dayton grades as one of the best offensive teams in the nation including the top 2-point shooting percentage in the nation as the Flyers rarely have scoring droughts. Obi Toppin is a future NBA lottery pick that is capable of being one of the stars of the tournament as well.

The highest rated win for Dayton is against Saint Mary’s however as while the Atlantic 10 has pretty good depth with a handful of decent teams, it ultimately is at risk to be a one-bid league should the Flyers win the conference tournament. Dayton has also been pushed with single-digit wins in six straight road games as the Flyers have had some good fortune to escape unblemished in league play.

Dayton will certainly be the worst defensive team to land in the top three seed lines in the tournament field. If the Flyers can win out they could earn a favorable venue draw with Cleveland a possible landing spot and if they end up in the Midwest the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games are in Indianapolis as the Flyers have a chance to be ahead of every Big Ten team as well as Kentucky, teams that would normally be considered to snag the top billing in Cleveland. Getting the Midwest draw would likely mean being the #2 seed in the Midwest behind Kansas however as if Dayton lands a #1 seed, they would likely land in the New York region for a more daunting path in terms of locations.

Duke: Youth and road woes

The Blue Devils haven’t resembled a #1or a #2 seed lately dropping three of the past four games but wins over Kansas and Michigan State are going to keep Duke in the mix for a great seed should they finish strong. As usual Duke seems likely to land a close-to-home draw in Greensboro, particularly with the other major Tobacco Road power not likely to even be in the field barring a miracle ACC tournament run.

It has been a down year for the ACC but Duke is one of only a handful of teams with a chance to finish as a top 10 offensive and defensive efficiency team and in great contrast to last year’s popular title contender that fizzled in the Elite 8, this year’s team is a good outside shooting team and an improved free throw shooting team. Coach K’s mixed NCAA Tournament track record deserves scrutiny but the program has made the Elite 8 four of the past seven years though Duke hasn’t won a title from outside of a #1 seed since Krzyzewski’s first championship in 1990-91.

Duke is also just not as talented as last year’s team that featured three players drafted in the top 10 of the 2019 NBA Draft. Vernon Carey is considered a borderline lottery pick but the youth of this team has shown up with very marginal results on the road in ACC play including four losses and a few other narrow escapes. New York has been kind to Duke as a Greensboro-New York draw could be very appealing for this group but a strong finish will be needed for Duke to still have a shot at a preferred seeding placement given the recent slide.

Michigan State: Inconsistent performances all season

The preseason #1 didn’t look the part most of the season with nine losses by mid-February after a stretch of losing four of five early in February including two losses in East Lansing. With three straight wins including a huge win at Big Ten leader Maryland last weekend, Michigan State has put itself back in play for a decent seed on Selection Sunday, possibly even a #2 spot even with a high loss count. With some help, Michigan State can still win a share of the Big Ten title though the remaining games with Penn State and Ohio State will be challenging.

Tom Izzo has been to eight Final Fours and most impressively is that the past five trips have come seeded at #5, #2, #5, #7, and a #2 as this team hasn’t needed a favorable path to get the job done. Less important than seeding could be locations for the Spartans as drawing a #2 or #3 seed in Indianapolis would be very appealing if the Spartans finish strong, though there will be great competition for those spots from teams like Maryland, Seton Hall, Dayton, Kentucky, and Louisville.

The Spartans have quietly joined the top 15 of the efficiency rankings on both sides of the ball to sit in rare company and the Spartans are the #1 effective field goal rate team on both sides of the ball in the highly competitive and tightly-packed Big Ten. The conference grind has hurt Michigan State’s record but could have team prepared for a March run but the inconsistency of a team that returned three starters from last year’s Final Four team will make this group difficult to trust. While Izzo’s Final Four appearances stand out, Michigan State has also lost in the opening weekend of the tournament three of the past four years.

Seton Hall: Late season health and not living up to its size

The Pirates don’t have the credentials to earn a #1 seed with seven losses and only a win over Maryland standing out on the non-conference schedule despite what will be a stand-alone Big East title with one more win. Size and experience will make Seton Hall a team that many will pencil into the Final Four even if the Pirates are in a tougher seeding position than most of the other teams on this list. Winning out could put the Pirates as a #2 seed in a favorable venue draw and Myles Powell is the kind of player the team can lean on to carry the load for a big run.

Kevin Willard has done well to put Seton Hall into the NCAA Tournament for now a fifth straight season but trusting him to advance deep into the tournament is difficult with Willard 2-4 in the NCAA Tournament including a blowout loss to Wofford last season in Jacksonville. The only quality non-conference win for Seton Hall last season was also against Maryland and this team has had a few recent ugly spells on offense, notably in the recent losses to Creighton and Providence.

Despite the experience of this team, turnovers can be a problem for this team and this is also a marginal 3-point shooting team, ranking seventh in the Big East at just 32 percent. Seton Hall also routinely struggles to dominate on the glass despite having more height than just about any team in the country. The roster could also enter March at less than full strength with Anthony Nelson and Tyrese Samuel missing recent games and Powell battling knee pain the last few weeks. The potential for a #2 seed could also be erased in the next week as well with two difficult games remaining facing Villanova and Creighton to close the regular season.

Maryland: Poor results outside the Big Ten vs. major conference foes

Somewhat via attrition Maryland looks likely to stand as the Big Ten regular season champions, though the gap with Maryland at #1 down to Ohio State and Michigan at #7 and #8 in the standings is miniscule. Maryland ultimately had one of the weaker Big Ten schedules with only single meetings vs. Penn State, Wisconsin, and Purdue, while they still haven’t faced Michigan who they will end the season against next weekend.

If you are looking for a top 25 win from Maryland in the non-conference schedule, you’ll have to keep looking as only a neutral site win over Marquette is close to that range as the overall record looks inflated. Maryland also won 12 of its 13 Big Ten wins by 12 or fewer points as this team could easily have a few more losses, notably last week’s narrow escape at Minnesota, a game the Terrapins trailed by 17 in and were still down four in the final minute.

Maryland has been patient with Mark Turgeon but in this his ninth season, the program has one Sweet 16 appearance in that span despite a lot of high-profile recruits coming through College Park. This year’s team has three potential NBA players in big roles but Turgeon’s team hasn’t held up against quality major conference foes as his four NCAA Tournament wins in nine seasons have come vs. Valparaiso, South Dakota State, Hawai’i, and Belmont while getting bounced by Big XII, Big East, and SEC teams, the caliber of teams Maryland rarely beats in the non-conference season either. It also needs to be said that despite the strong rating of the Big Ten, not since 1999-2000 has a Big Ten team actually cut down the nets, though in fairness Maryland did so as an ACC team in 2001-02.

Kentucky: Not a typical Calapari Wildcats team

Kentucky has three players that could be drafted in this summer’s NBA draft but almost certainly no lottery picks as this isn’t the usual John Calapari Kentucky team that has more talent than almost every opponent. It shows in the numbers as well as while the Wildcats have rallied to 24-5 and a SEC regular season title, the current numbers grade this unit as Calapari’s worst defensive team since the #4 seeded 2015-16 team that lost in the Round of 32 to Tom Cream and Indiana. Kentucky also hasn’t ranked this low nationally on offense since the 2012-13 NIT season. This year’s team is pretty good at everything but not great at anything even in a year where the SEC ranks as the worst of the major conferences.

The current eight-game winning streak features six wins by single-digits as there have been close calls along the way and Kentucky only had to play LSU and Mississippi State once in the league draw. Kentucky beat Louisville and Texas Tech for impressive non-conference wins but both results required overtime and damaging losses to Evansville and Utah will likely prevent the Wildcats to climbing to the #2 line unless they win out and see some other contenders for those spots stumble.

Given plenty of other teams in the mix for favorable seeds that would like to land in Dayton, Cleveland, or St. Louis it seems likely that the Wildcats could be sent to a far away spot in the opening weekend, especially with the SEC Championship not until the afternoon of Selection Sunday. The only way Kentucky would be able to claim a #2 seed would be with that title, something the committee may simply not have time to adjust for.

Louisville: Reliance on 3-point shooting and struggles vs. top teams.

Chris Mack is clearly a good coach and he has Louisville back in the mix as a contender in just his second season with the Cardinals even after stepping into a difficult situation following the toxic exit of Rick Pitino leaving the program in a tough position for a few years. Mack was a #1 seed and a #2 seed at Xavier however and didn’t win in the Round of 32 either year however and Mack’s postseason debut at Louisville was a bit of a humiliating result with a double-digit loss to Minnesota and Richard Pitino a year ago.

Louisville played one of the weakest non-conference schedules among teams in the mix for top seeds in the field and that metric could keep the Cardinals out of consideration for a top two spot barring titles in both the ACC regular season and the ACC tournament. Louisville has also played one of the weakest ACC paths with the entire resume built on the big win at Duke in January, a game Wendell Moore didn’t play in.

Louisville is ultimately 2-5 vs. top 40 caliber teams this season and without a defense that grades as championship caliber it is very difficult to envision this team running off several high quality wins in a row in March. Louisville is one of the better 3-point shooting teams in the nation with Jordan Nwora a 40 percent shooter beyond the arc but relying on those outside shots in unfamiliar venues can be a risky formula.

This feels like a year where the eventual champion could come from anywhere as top seed lines may not be as strong as usual and there will be contenders lurking all over the board. There are concerns with each of the teams currently in play for #1 and #2 seeds though the past five champions have all been seeded #1 or #2 with 10 of the past 13 champions being a #1 seed. The jockeying for those top four spots in the next two weeks will likely be critical in determining the champion in Atlanta April 6.

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Location Winners and Losers

NCAA Tournament Location Winners and Losers

03/18/2019

While the focus in the aftermath of Selection Sunday is often on seeds and the matchups, many coaches might prioritize the venue draw in those announcements as the programs scramble to make travel arrangements and hope to get fan support thrown into often random location assignments. The committee allegedly only makes location concessions for the top handful of seeds but certainly there were winners and losers in the location assignments.

Hartford, Connecticut (Thursday/Saturday)

Winner – Villanova: Playing just over 200 miles away the Big East champions have a great location draw in Hartford to easily calm any hostility regarding being a surprising #6 seed, especially with the Marquette team they topped for the Big East title being a #5 seed. Saint Mary’s is playing nearly 3,000 miles away from home for this contest though the Gaels at least avoided being handed a daytime slot. Villanova should have the bulk of the audience in this pod as by far the closest of the top seeded teams in this grouping while also getting the primetime time slot Thursday night.

Loser – Purdue: A Purdue squad that was the regular season co-champion of one of the top conferences in the nation didn’t land either of the two Midwestern sites in Des Moines or Columbus. They also pull a late night time slot and will deal with a Big East heavy crowd following up the Villanova contest Thursday night. Norfolk isn’t exactly close to Hartford but #14 seed Old Dominion has a much shorter trip to this site as Purdue certainly could have had a better draw in this pod. Staring at the defending national champions for a potential Round of 32 Saturday matchup is also daunting particularly given how the makeup of the crowd will likely look. A Florida State squad that was in the ACC title game also failed to land a preferable spot in Jacksonville or Columbia.

Jacksonville, Florida (Thursday/Saturday)

Winner – Maryland: Jacksonville is a 10 hour drive from College Park but Maryland has to feel good about this draw, landing a #6 seed despite a late season slide. Teams that win the First Four games can often be dangerous but that Tuesday victor is going to go from playing a late night game in Dayton to facing an early afternoon game Thursday in Jacksonville for a difficult turnaround. This pod also lacks a local favorite with Florida State and the other ACC powers sent elsewhere. Kentucky fans will dominate the stands but all things considered Maryland landed in a decent spot.

Loser – LSU: The Tigers, not the Wildcats were the SEC regular season champions yet LSU will share this venue with the rabid Kentucky fanbase. Baton Rouge is technically a bit closer to Jacksonville than Lexington but while Kentucky gets the Thursday night primetime billing, LSU has a very early start game vs. Yale on Thursday with the Ivy League teams being very dangerous in recent years. Kentucky will be almost three times as big of a favorite as LSU in the opening round despite these teams only being one seed apart.

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Des Moines, Iowa (Thursday/Saturday)

Winner – Michigan: Much is being made of Michigan getting the more favorable bracket draw than Michigan State and both of those teams will land in Des Moines for the opening rounds. Ultimately the committee likely locked in their choices when Michigan had a double-digit lead in the second half of the Big Ten championship. Both teams are heavy favorites Thursday but while Michigan State plays an under seeded Bradley team that is less than four hours away from Des Moines, Michigan draws an injury depleted Montana squad that makes a long trip. Michigan would have a bigger location edge Saturday in a potential round of 32 game vs. Florida or Nevada as well while Michigan State would draw Louisville or Minnesota who both have reasonable trips to Des Moines.

Loser – Louisville: The Cardinals had a much closer option in Columbus in its sights and despite the selection committee handing out three #1 seeds to the ACC, Louisville was dropped to the #7 line even with a win over Michigan State plus ACC road wins over North Carolina and Virginia Tech. Add that the committee had to have a laugh in engineering a matchup of Richard Pitino against his dad’s former school and the Cardinals have a tough opening draw. The Gophers also are playing in the closest possible venue for them fewer than 250 miles away and then if Louisville wins they likely pull the Michigan State team they beat in overtime in November to provide plenty of motivation for the Spartans.  

Salt Lake City, Utah (Thursday/Saturday)

Winner – Baylor: Gonzaga was a natural fit for Salt Lake City even though Spokane is still over 700 miles away. Waco is more than 1,200 miles away but this is a good draw for a slumping Bears team that most pegged for an even lesser seed. The Bears get to face a zone team that they will be comfortable with and an east coast Syracuse team faces longer travel west and will face the late night start time to give the Bears a bit of an edge in the timing and location. The status Tyus Battle, the best player for the Orange, is also unclear and putting Syracuse in a Thursday group makes for one less day for his recovery. A Bears team on a four-game losing streak, while just 4-7 in the past 11 games, didn’t deserve these potential breaks.  

Loser – Auburn: A dominant SEC championship game victory Sunday didn’t boost Auburn’s stock much nor did it provide a favorable venue as Salt Lake City would not have been high on Auburn’s first travel choices. Auburn will also draw an early game Thursday for a quick turnaround with long travel after Sunday’s win in Nashville. New Mexico State is a dangerous team with great depth and while Las Cruces isn’t exactly close to Salt Lake City, it is about half as far as Auburn has to travel. Auburn fans will also be drowned out by Gonzaga and Kansas fans that figure to take over this arena.

Columbia, South Carolina (Friday/Sunday)

Winner – Mississippi: The Rebels have only defeated three teams that made the NCAA Tournament this season but with a #8 seed Ole Miss doesn’t appear to have been remotely close to the bubble despite losing five of the final seven games of the season including three losses to non-tournament teams. Mississippi draws an Oklahoma squad that most also expected to be closer to the cut line and a team that hasn’t been at its best in recent weeks. Opposing a Virginia program that has struggled in the NCAA Tournament in recent years is also the path most #8/#9 seeds would likely choose. Ole Miss also played in this arena in February as they will have some familiarity with the court.

Loser – Virginia: Columbia is the venue Virginia would have chosen but the selection committee isn’t giving the first team ever to lose as a #1 seed in the Round of 64 a free pass the following year. Gardner Webb is only 112 miles away from Columbia and Virginia is going to have to deal with Duke being in this pod as well. UCF and VCU should also get decent support in this group as the Cavaliers will have plenty of folks cheering against them on Friday and Sunday in this venue. Virginia also failed to land a spot in the East region where Washington D.C. will host the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games. Instead will have to potentially face a team playing very close to home in Louisville should Cincinnati, Purdue, or Tennessee advance to the regional final. In a potential Sweet 16 game Virginia could also pull a Wisconsin or Kansas State team that is more than comfortable at a deliberate pace.

Columbus, Ohio (Friday/Sunday)

Winner – Cincinnati: The American champions have a right to complain about being a #7 seed but looking at the draw and not the seeds there are a lot of things working in favor of the Bearcats. Cincinnati is one of only a few teams playing in their home state and they are barely 100 miles away from Columbus. Iowa is also a team that has played as poorly as any team in the field in the last month for a favorable first matchup. Tennessee is waiting as a difficult Round of 32 game but the big picture path is favorable with the South bracket leading to Louisville, a city less than 100 miles away from Cincinnati.

Loser – North Carolina: A one-point loss to a Duke team they beat twice last weekend flipped the Tar Heels out of more favorable venues in the bracket, missing out on Columbia or Jacksonville while also not placed in the East region that winds up in Washington D.C. While Chapel Hills is only 450 miles from Columbus the Tar Heels haven’t had to leave the Carolinas the past three years in the opening round games. If North Carolina makes the Sweet 16 they could wind up facing Kansas in Kansas City for a big potential disadvantage.

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Tulsa, Oklahoma (Friday/Sunday)

Winner – Houston: The Cougars lost by double-digits Sunday in the AAC final and despite using an incredibly weak non-conference schedule to help create the 32-3 record but stayed on the #3 line in a favorable venue. This pod will have some Big XII support but the Cougars get a Friday game unlike some of the other teams that played on Sunday and now face a Thursday game. The Tulsa/Kansas City path would have been where Houston would have placed itself in the bracket given the choice. Likely opposing Houston in the Round of 32 would be an Iowa State team that mostly struggled in the last month might be a bit over seeded from its Big XII tournament championship, a run that didn’t include facing the top Big XII team Texas Tech.

Loser – Buffalo: Getting a #6 seed is a big deal for a MAC team but Buffalo has the disadvantage of not knowing who they will play until late Wednesday night. They also could wind up facing Arizona State, coached by Bobby Hurley, the former Buffalo coach who gave Nate Oats his entry to the division I level and will be intimately familiar with how the Bulls play. The Bulls also face a long trip to Tulsa when far more attractive venues were available in terms of travel distance. With Houston, Iowa State, and Texas Tech playing relatively close to home in this draw the Bulls might not get the support they expected.

San Jose, California (Friday/Sunday)

Winner – UC Irvine: The Anteaters haven’t lost since mid-January and won’t have to leave California for the NCAA Tournament unless they win twice. They also get to face a wounded Kansas State squad that appears to possibly be playing without Dean Wade in the tournament for the second straight season. Add that this team lost 71-49 at Kansas State early last season and Russell Turner’s team has a lot to work with to try to engineer an upset bid.

Loser – Virginia Tech: The Hokies have some good news with Justin Robinson cleared to play but Virginia Tech is getting sent out west and has the late night draw with a game starting around 10:00 PM Eastern Time. Saint Louis won four games in four days to win the A-10 tournament but getting a Friday draw helps the Billikens who won that title game on Sunday afternoon in Brooklyn. The Hokies played only one non-conference road game this season and lost it and actually has never left the Eastern Time zone all season. A squad reliant on 3-point shooting could have trouble in an unfamiliar venue at an irregular time slot. The Hokies also land in the grouping with #1 overall Duke should they advance to the Sweet 16 though that opportunity would come in a favorable Washington D.C. venue.

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NCAA Tournament: First 12 Tickets

03/14/2019

12 teams have punched their NCAA Tournament tickets with automatic bids in the last few days and can sit back and enjoy the madness this week around the country during the remaining conference tournament games. Here is a look at those confirmed teams and what to expect in the Big Dance next week.

Murray State – Ohio Valley (27-4) Projected #12 Seed

The Racers were a popular #12 seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament but wound up with an ugly 85-68 defeat against West Virginia as a 10-point underdog. Sophomore Ja Morant is an expected NBA lottery pick scoring nearly 25 points per game and the Racers didn’t look out of place in close losses on the road vs. Alabama and Auburn in non-conference play early this season.  

Murray State beat Belmont by 12 in the OVC Final last weekend and while Belmont is a bubble team for an at-large bid, the conference as a whole did not rate as strong as in past seasons with a big gap between the top four teams and the bottom eight teams. Turnovers were a big problem for Murray State in last season’s game against West Virginia’s pressure defense and a more favorable matchup could make the Racers a threat to advance this season. This squad won’t likely present great underdog value as they will surely be considered a popular Cinderella choice as one of the most well-known small conference squads.

Gardner-Webb – Big South (23-11) Projected #16 Seed

Gardner-Webb went from a third place regular season finish in the Big South to punching a ticket to the Big Dance with wins over the top two teams in the conference in succession in a pair of true road games. The Runnin’ Bulldogs are likely to face a tough opening matchup and could be considered for one of the First Four games as they will likely be one of the worst rated teams in the field by some measures.

In November opportunities playing up Gardner-Webb lost by 12 at VCU and by 28 at Virginia Tech but did take Furman to overtime on the road. With an 11-2 run to close the season the team is playing its best down the stretch but has also benefitted from four overtime wins on the season. Size will be an issue in most potential matchups with the entire roster 6’6” or shorter. Radford from the Big South won its First Four game by 10 points last season before being blown out by eventual national champion Villanova.

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Bradley – Missouri Valley (20-14) Projected #14 Seed

Loyola-Chicago was a Final Four team out of the Missouri Valley last season as while the conference has lost a few heavyweights in recent years this league has a great postseason track record over the past two decades. Bradley started the Valley season 0-5 before a great turnaround and ultimately winning three games in St. Louis in three days by a combined total of eight points.

Bradley plays gritty defense and is a strong outside shooting team and they will not be an appealing draw for a top contender with Bradley a better team right now than they will be seeded, likely in the 14-15 range based on the marginal season record. Bradley beat SMU and Penn State in Mexico in November and a slow deliberate pace of play could make the Bears an upset threat in the right matchup.

Liberty – Atlantic Sun (28-6) Projected #13 Seed

Liberty jumped from the Big South to the Atlantic Sun this season and finished tied with Lipscomb for the regular season title, besting the Bisons in the conference tournament final. The Flames won at UCLA in December and played competitively in three other major conference losses in the non-conference season. This veteran lineup will enter the tournament on an 18-2 run and will be a threat to make some noise.

Liberty deploys one of the slowest tempos in the nation on offense and excels in getting quality shots, featuring the 13th best effective field goal rate in the entire nation. The Flames are a 78 percent free throw shooting team and the team’s top players Caleb Homesley and Scottie James have enough size to compete with major conference opposition.

Wofford – Southern (29-4) Projected #7 Seed

Wofford was pushed in a tight Southern Conference final against UNC Greensboro but has now won 20 straight games. Wofford beat South Carolina in non-conference play and the only four losses came against major conference teams in NCAA Tournament consideration including misses against North Carolina and Kansas. The Southern will be deserving of more than one bid this season, ranking as the 11th best conference in the nation, ahead of the A-10, Conference USA, and Sun Belt, though many suspect deserving candidates UNC Greensboro and Furman will be left out.

Wofford shoots a ton of 3-point shots and has four players hitting above 41 percent from 3-point range. The Wofford defense could have some problems in certain matchups, allowing 77 points per game in the five non-conference games vs. SEC, ACC, and Big XII teams however. Mike Young’s team made the tournament in 2014 and 2015 with first round exits but this could be the program’s best team ever and the Terriers figure to be in a tight first round pairing in a 7/10 or 8/9 draw.

Iona – Metro Atlantic (17-15) Projected #16 Seed

Once 7-15 on the season, Iona won the final 10 games of the season to win the Metro Atlantic regular season title and tournament title, now making a fourth straight NCAA Tournament trip. The Gaels are going to be more of a threat to win a game this season as they seem destined for a First Four matchup to start the tournament against a fellow #16 seed instead of a national power.

Iona didn’t hold up particularly well in any of the recent NCAA Tournament appearances nor did they stay within double-digits in three top 100 non-conference games this season but Tim Cluess will get another short in the Big Dance with his up-tempo offense and a Gaels squad that shoots well from all over the floor. The starting five is all upperclassmen from a team that lost by 22 to Duke last March in the Round of 64 as a 15 seed.

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Northern Kentucky – Horizon (26-8) Projected #14 Seed

The Norse made the 2017 NCAA Tournament and gave Kentucky a scare in a 79-70 defeat in a 2/15 matchup. This year’s team could climb to the #14 line with a strong record even with no top 100 caliber wins. The Norse competed respectably in road losses to UCF and Cincinnati and held a very tough home court with just one home defeat all season.

This team has pretty good size for a smaller conference program and statistically was one of the better interior scoring teams in the nation. Free throw shooting is a concern at just 67 percent on the season but this team could be a threat to keep a tournament game tight as they also played Louisville to an eight-point game in the NIT last season. John Brannen figures to get some looks for around the nation after three straight strong seasons with this program following a 9-21 first year in 2015-16.

Fairleigh Dickinson – Northeast (20-13) Projected #16 Seed

The Knights started the season 6-11 including going 1-4 in the first five conference games before catching fire to the tune of a 14-4 run culminating with a Northeast Championship win at St. Francis. While the overall profile isn’t a strong one for FDU ranking outside the nation’s top 200 by most measures, they had respectable losses to Providence and South Florida in the non-conference season. As an over 40 percent 3-point shooting team this squad could shoot its way into advancing if they wind up in a First Four contest.

The Knights earned this spot despite a late season injury to Xzavier Malone-Key as a team with a very limited bench had to make some late season adjustments. With a defensive efficiency ranking near 300 nationally this could be a favorable draw for a top seed to find its offensive rhythm early in the tournament. Last year’s Northeast representative LIU-Brooklyn lost by 10 in the First Four, though the 2017 representative Mount St. Mary’s was victorious in its 16/16 game.

Northeastern – Colonial (22-10) Projected #13 Seed

The Huskies beat Alabama by 16 in November but lost badly vs. Virginia Tech, Davidson, and Syracuse in other big non-conference tests. The Colonial did not grade as a strong league this season but Northeastern was one of three quality teams and the Huskies are in the tournament for the first time since 2015. That team lost by only four to Notre Dame in a 3/14 contest in that appearance and the Huskies are on a 16-1 run since early January with only an overtime loss.

This is an experienced team led by its offense, featuring the fifth rated effective field goal rate nationally, while a nearly 39 percent 3-point shooting team and a strong shooting team at the line that commits few turnovers. Coupled with a deliberate pace of play the Huskies have the potential to be a sleeper for an upset next week in the right draw with a roster full of upperclassmen ready for this opportunity.

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North Dakota State – Summit (17-15) Projected #16 Seed

The Bison finished just fourth in the Summit League but navigated the conference tournament to earn this spot with league champion South Dakota State upset by the league’s #8 team Western Illinois. North Dakota State could conceivably draw the Gonzaga team they lost to by 42 in November while the Bison also lost badly in three other top 100 non-conference tests on the season.

Size will be an issue in a likely 1/16 matchup for North Dakota State but this squad has good offensive shooting numbers while featuring a very low turnover rate despite a roster without a senior. The Bison also faced Gonzaga in the 2015 NCAA Tournament with a respectable 10-point loss in a 2/15 contest. Defensively it is hard to see North Dakota State competing well against a top contender but this squad will hit some shots.

Saint Mary’s – West Coast (22-11) Projected #12 Seed

The Gaels would have been an interesting bubble discussion case but they didn’t leave their Tournament inclusion to the committee, turning in a stunning 60-47 upset over Gonzaga in the WCC Final. That was the only top 50 win of the season for Saint Mary’s who looked the part in close losses vs. Mississippi State and LSU but ultimately didn’t have a lot of weight in the win column.

Saint Mary’s plays at an incredibly slow pace and works for quality shots with strong shooting numbers all over the floor, led by Jordan Ford who has scored over 21 points per game this season while a 42 percent 3-point shooter. Saint Mary’s beat VCU in a 7/10 matchup two years ago in the Big Dance and the Gaels won two NIT games last season. This squad has good size but limited depth and the roster includes only one senior. Expect Randy Bennett’s team to control the pace of play in whatever matchup they pull.

Colgate – Patriot (23-10) Projected #15 Seed

The Raiders will take an 11-gmae winning streak into the NCAA Tournament after winning by double-digits in all three Patriot Tournament games, which were played on their home court. Colgate didn’t look too out of place in non-conference defeats at Syracuse, South Florida, Penn State, and Pittsburgh including two 10-point losses.  The Patriot is also an underrated league and last year’s representative Bucknell lost by just four to Michigan State in a 3/14 contest while Bucknell lost by just six to West Virginia in the 2017 tournament.

Like many of the teams on this list Colgate plays at a slow pace and can shoot as a 39 percent 3-point shooting team and a strong free throw converting team. This squad has enough size to compete with larger programs as 6’10” Rapolas Ivanauskas leads the team in scoring. This could be one of the more dangerous #15 draws and even could get #14 seed consideration depending on how the remaining automatic bids fall.

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Free NBA Pick Wednesday

#508 Minnesota Timberwolves -12 over Atlanta Hawks 7:05 PM CT

After being embarrassed at home against Memphis on Monday the Wolves should be sharp on Wednesday night. Losing as a 13-point favorite Minnesota is now clinging to the final playoff spot in the Western Conference as a team that once looked like a serious Finals contender now is just 1.5 games ahead of the Clippers for the final spot. Minnesota is 27-10 S/U at home and Minnesota has lost three consecutive games just once all season.

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On Monday Minnesota scored 11 points in the fourth quarter and were outshot by six percent overall including by 15 percent from 3-point line as Wayne Selden had a career game with 23 points for the Grizzlies. The Wolves don’t have much depth and they were playing a third game in four days after a pair of prominent east coast games followed up a big home win over the Clippers last Tuesday.

Atlanta has lost nine of the last 10 games and six of those losses came by 12 or more points. The Hawks have the third worst record in the NBA in a race to the bottom and Atlanta has no margin for error with five teams within three games ‘ahead’ of them in the standings. Atlanta is 6-31 S/U on the road this season for the league’s worst road record and a dysfunctional Minnesota group knows it cannot afford to let this game get away.

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Don’t miss Bobby Dalton’s college basketball Trips-2-Win 2/3 offer tonight to build on a 47-31 March Madness run! Nelly’s has a 2-for-1 offer tonight with college and NBA picks with our basketball service plus over +25* since February 1. Big E will have his next 10* Biggie Wednesday as well for only $9.94!

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Free CBI Pick Thursday

#825 Campbell +9.5 over San Francisco 9:00 PM CT

Campbell has played both of its CBI wins at home as tonight the Camels are playing clear across the country in San Francisco. This was a 10-win team in the Big South and a team that competed fairly well when playing up with close losses against East Carolina, Saint Louis, and Bowling Green. The Camels also beat Liberty twice, Radford and Winthrop once each and played close in both losses to regular season champion UNC Asheville.

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Strong shooting numbers pace Campbell with a nearly 39 percent 3-point rate while also hitting 77 percent from the free throw line in conference play. Diminutive guard Chris Clemons was the nation’s fourth leading scorer at nearly 25 points per game and he has 67 points in two CBI wins as he can carry this squad to another win.

San Francisco was just 9-9 in WCC play and one home upset over Saint Mary’s provides a big boost to the ratings for the Dons. San Francisco has won narrowly at home in both CBI games and this team struggled to pull away from any foe this season as 13 of the last 17 wins have come by 11 or fewer points. San Francisco has lost three times to teams outside the nation’s top 200 and while the Dons play solid defense this is a 33 percent 3-point shooting team and a 68 percent free throw shooting team. Trusting the Dons to hit shots to keep pace with a proven elite scorer might be a challenge as the underdog points are appealing.

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Nelly’s is 7-3 in NCAA Tournament picks – get tonight’s guaranteed selection for $15. A Trips-2-Win offer is available from Bobby Dalton for Thursday night for $24.99 with Dalton 7-4 in NCAA Tournament picks. Don’t miss the Big E’s 25* NCAA Tournament Game of the Year.

 

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Free NCAA Pick Saturday

#535/536 ‘UNDER 142.5’ Ohio State vs. Gonzaga 6:45 PM CT

Ohio State wound up with 81 points against South Dakota State in a game that was very competitive with a tie-game at 70-70 late before a few big plays from the Buckeyes. Ohio State took 40 3-point shots in the contest despite being a below average 3-point shooting team and a team that did not take a great proportion of 3-point shots most of the season. Ohio State normally plays rather slow and after watching UNC Greensboro slow the pace to a crawl making Gonzaga nearly an upset-victim on Thursday Chris Holtmann will likely also want to keep the pace slow especially with a backdrop in Boise that will feature a lot of Gonzaga support.

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Gonzaga’s offense really struggled with a long layoff and the jump from WCC competition and facing the Southern champion will be severe now facing one of the top Big Ten teams. Gonzaga shot 22 percent from 3-point range and surprisingly lost the rebounding battle on Thursday. Turnovers should be low on both sides of this matchup as transition baskets will be rare and both teams have had some inconsistency at the free throw line.

These teams met in November in Portland and Gonzaga won 86-59 for 145 points, just above tonight’s current total but that was a Buckeyes team still finding itself in just the fifth game and first major test under the new coaching staff while Gonzaga shot over 58 percent in that game. A high free throw count pushed that scoring upwards as well and while there is risk of a tight finish meaning late free throws and a slow clock in the final minutes, this game does figure to play like a defensive grind with a Sweet 16 bid on the line for teams that narrowly avoided first round upsets.

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Bobby Dalton went 4-1-1 Thursday & Friday with two 10* wins – don’t miss his early Trips-2-Win offer Saturday. Nelly’s is 4-2 in NCAA Tournament picks and we have a pair for Saturday for only $15. Big E has his next NCAA 4-Pack while Maximum has a later 2/3 offer. Point Train also has a 6-unit release for Saturday tournament action.

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Free NCAA Pick Friday

#877/878 ‘UNDER 150.5’ Bucknell vs. Michigan State 6:10 PM CT

All of the Big Ten teams have had slow first halves in the NCAA Tournament with long layoff easy to blame. Michigan State will get a boost with crowd support playing in Detroit but this is a rather slow tempo team despite some high scoring affairs throughout the year. The Spartans are very turnover prone despite their success and in the Big Ten tournament Michigan State scored just 63 and 64 points.

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Bucknell is an up-tempo team but inside scoring success isn’t likely in this matchup. The Bison shoot just 34 percent from 3-point range and the defense has allowed 67 or fewer points in seven of the past eight games. Bucknell’s great scoring came against one of the weakest schedules faced by a NCAA Tournament team as well there are concerns about the team’s ability to step up in class while maintaining its offensive success.

‘Under’ has been the play so far in the tournament even with the potential for late foul shooting and if this game is close Bucknell will look to slow the game down while if Michigan State takes a commanding lead they would also look to stall the pace. This total has climbed since its release as this is a favorable number to look ‘under’.

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Nelly’s is 4-1 in the NCAA Tournament so far with a Friday afternoon game in progress. We have a NBA pick tonight and will have our next NCAA release tomorrow looking to build on a 20-10 start to March (+12.0*). Bobby Dalton went 3-0 Thursday in tournament picks and has two evening picks Friday. Big E and Maximum (4-1-1 Thursday) also have night game offers.

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Free Early Friday Pick

#873 CS-Fullerton +20.5 over Purdue 11:40 AM CT

Cal-State Fullerton should use Buffalo’s model in trying to pull off mammoth upset early on Friday. The Titans play fast and had respectable non-conference showings against Saint Mary’s as well as SEC and Pac-12 schools before finishing the Big West season strong with three wins in three days. With a smaller lineup the Titans could push the pace against a much bigger Boilermakers squad looking to provide some wear on the heavy favorite.

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Fullerton scores very efficiently inside and shoots well at the line while rating as the second best defense in a typically underrated Big West. The long layoff may be hurting the Big Ten with Ohio State and Michigan struggling in wins on Thursday while Nebraska was bounced from the NIT and it took take a Boilermakers team that is reliant on 3-point shooting some time to find its rhythm last playing on March 4.

Purdue closed the season with losses in four of the final nine games and the Boilermakers have just one win by more than eight points in the last 13 games. Purdue’s big non-conference wins over Marquette, Arizona, and Louisville turned out to be much less meaningful than they looked at the time and while an upset isn’t likely getting past this hefty spread could be a challenge in early action in Detroit.

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Big Thursday’s yesterday in NCAA action as Nelly’s won our 2/3 offer led by Buffalo’s big upset. Bobby Dalton went 3-0 and Maximum went 4-1-1. Don’t miss Friday offers for the Round of 64!

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Free Late Pick Thursday

#733 Montana +10 over Michigan 8:50 PM CT

A long layoff for a Michigan team that got red hot in the Big Ten tournament might not be ideal and while the Wolverines were given a #3 seed in the tournament they have been dealt a less favorable Wichita venue and a late night time slot. They also draw a #14 seed in Montana that rates similarly to several teams in the 10-13 seeding range with Montana easily the highest rated #14 draw, with the Grizzlies sitting in power ratings similar to teams like Nebraska and Wisconsin from the Big Ten.

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Montana wasn’t overmatched in any of several tough non-conference games though the Grizzlies failed to score a marquee win with a win at Pittsburgh getting greatly devalued as the season went on. Montana has only lost twice in 2018 however and the Grizzlies are riding an 18-2 run the past 20 games. This is a veteran team with reasonable size for a smaller conference squad and the Grizzlies are a strong defensive team.

Michigan doesn’t turn the ball over often but this is a bad rebounding team and one of the nation’s worst free throw shooting teams. Michigan plays at a deliberate pace and can struggle if the 3-point shots aren’t falling. While the Big Ten tournament wins over Michigan State and Purdue were memorable Michigan needed overtime to beat Iowa to start that run and the first game in this unfamiliar venue could be a challenge for a team that is reliant on outside shooting, especially with 12 days in between games. This line has justly crept downward and Montana is a threat for a late night upset.

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Nelly’s enters Thursday on a 47-21 run since Feb. 1 including 16-9 (+9.1*) in March. Don’t miss 2/3 offers Thursday night or for daytime action Friday – $25 each!

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Free Early Pick Thursday

#737 Wright State +12 over Tennessee 11:40 AM CT

Tennessee has delivered a huge season to return to relevance but the late season run may have taken a toll, playing three games in three days last weekend including Sunday’s SEC championship game. The Volunteers are in Dallas against a rested Wright State squad that punched its Big Dance ticket on March 6. Wright State was able to avoid the top contenders in a favorable Horizon Tournament run but the Raiders have elite defensive numbers and should disrupt the pace of the heavily favored Volunteers.

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Wright State beat Georgia Tech while also playing right with Loyola-Chicago this season for a few quality results and in the last 22 games Wright State has zero losses by more than 10 points. In the last nine games Tennessee has just twice won by a more than eight points as a lot of narrow wins fill the resume for the Volunteers. The most meaningful wins of the season came very early in the year and at home and the Volunteers have had success by getting to the line frequently where they hit nearly 77 percent in the SEC season.

This figures to be a slower-paced, lower-scoring game and Wright State doesn’t commit a great deal of fouls. The strength of the Tennessee defense is on the perimeter but Wright State takes few 3-point shots and the Raiders defend the paint exceptionally well. The heavy underdog in this early start game with one of the lowest totals on the Thursday schedule is worth a look.

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Nelly’s went 4-0 in the opening Thursday of the 2017 NCAA Tournament – get a 2/3 Guarantee for today’s games for just $25 with Nelly’s 47-21 with six straight winning weeks since Feb. 1 in basketball. Big E has FOUR Biggies today in a $29.94 offer while Maximum has a big 6-Pack of picks for day and night games.