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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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NCAA Tournament: First 12 Tickets


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 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 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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NCAA Location Advantages

NCAA Tournament Location Winners and Losers

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.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Thursday/Saturday)

Winner – Virginia Tech: The Hokies are caught in a difficult 8/9 matchup in the opening round for the second consecutive season. This year Virginia Tech draws a favorable venue playing about 300 miles north of Blacksburg in Pittsburgh. While Charlotte would have been the best case draw for Virginia Tech travel-wise, drawing Alabama makes the Pittsburgh setting more favorable. This arena will likely be filled with Villanova fans making the trip west but the Hokies have to feel good about the assignment, especially drawing an Alabama team that needed a taxing SEC tournament run last week to even confirm its entry into the field.

Loser – Duke: In three of the last four years Duke has opened the NCAA Tournament in either North or South Carolina playing very close to home. With Duke considered a candidate for a #1 seed most had to assume they would pull games in Charlotte but the rival Tar Heels landed in the Charlotte pod along with overall #1 Virginia. While supporters of Duke are spread out across the east coast, the Pittsburgh draw and being coupled with Villanova playing in the same arena in the home state of the Wildcats isn’t as favorable of a path as Duke usually comes to expect. Duke’s opponent Iona is actually playing slightly closer to home than the heavily favored Blue Devils and the same would be true in a potential Saturday matchup with Rhode Island.

Wichita, Kansas (Thursday/Saturday)

Winner – Kansas: The Jayhawks won the Big XII regular season and Big XII Tournament titles and claimed a #1 seed and a short drive southwest from campus to Wichita. Few teams in the field get to play this close to home and in home state territory and unlike some past years there will be little local competition for tickets as other nearby teams like Kansas State, Wichita State, and Oklahoma were all sent elsewhere. To offset the favorable venue draw however is that Kansas pulled a Pennsylvania team that has a profile that is much stronger than most past #16 seeds.

Loser – Michigan: The Wolverines cruised through the Big Ten tournament to greatly elevate its seeding possibilities. Michigan landed a #3 seed to sit at the high end of those projections but they might have preferred a #4 draw in Detroit, Pittsburgh, or even Nashville as it will be a lengthy road trip for those looking to support the Maize and Blue. The rival Spartans landed a favorable spot in Detroit even though Michigan went 2-0 against Michigan State this season which might be a sore spot. Kansas fans figure to dominate the crowd in Wichita and Houston would certainly have a bit of a location edge in a potential weekend matchup for the Wolverines.

Dallas, Texas (Thursday/Saturday)

Winner – Stephen F. Austin: Campus for the Lumberjacks is less than a three hour drive away, nearly half the distance Texas Tech faces in this in-state battle. Stephen F. Austin has won NCAA Tournament games in two of the program’s last three appearances over the last four years but they drew far away landing spots in San Diego, Portland, and Brooklyn in those games. This is a great opportunity for the program even if this year’s team doesn’t grade as highly as the Stephen F. Austin teams of the past few years. Texas Tech has to be thrilled to be in Dallas but the first round draw features a bit more heightened pressure than a #3 seed might expect.

Loser – Tennessee: The Volunteers reached the SEC championship game and drew a favorable #3 seed but they didn’t get the Nashville games they likely hoped for. Charlotte certainly would have been a solid option for the Volunteers as well but instead Tennessee has been sent to Texas and it is likely going to be a tough ticket on Saturday if Texas Tech advances to the round of 32. Tennessee also has to play an early Thursday game after the SEC Championship ended Sunday afternoon while Wright State has been idle for eight days ahead of this opportunity.

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Boise, Idaho (Thursday/Saturday)

Winner – Gonzaga: The 2017 national runners-up got the location draw they wanted in Boise, by far the closest option for the team though many felt a #3 seed was deserved. In terms of distance traveled Thursday’s opponent UNC-Greensboro has one of the furthest trips of the tournament to benefit Gonzaga although the early time slot isn’t likely ideal for the favored Bulldogs facing an east coast squad. Arizona is also in this grouping but Gonzaga should have a great deal of support in Boise looking to return to the Final Four.

Loser – Ohio State: The Buckeyes only lost to high quality foes this season and only two Big Ten teams were able to beat Ohio State all season. A #5 seed isn’t out of line for Ohio State but they probably would have preferred most other venues. Brookings isn’t all that much closer to Boise compared with Columbus but in a pod with Gonzaga support should be solid for the fellow mid-major west of the Mississippi as South Dakota State could be a dangerous underdog. If Ohio State advances they will share the arena with heavyweight fan bases from Kentucky, Arizona, and Gonzaga in the most likely scenarios.

Charlotte, North Carolina (Friday/Sunday)

Winner – North Carolina: Beating Duke in the ACC Tournament semifinal, despite losing to Duke a few days prior, seems to have landed the Tar Heels with the much more favorable venue draw in Charlotte, just 140 miles from Chapel Hill. The defending national champions shouldn’t have a lot of competition in the early block Friday with the other schools making lengthy trips while the ACC should dominate the Sunday crowd with top seed Virginia also in this grouping.

Loser – Creighton: Losing the final two games with Creighton falling at Marquette in the regular season finale and losing in overtime against Providence in the Big East tournament likely cost the Blue Jays in seeding. Falling to #8 seed and getting paired with #1 overall Virginia isn’t the best path for the Blue Jays and the Charlotte draw certainly wouldn’t have been Creighton’s first choice with Wichita and Dallas as possibilities.

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Detroit, Michigan (Friday/Sunday)

Winner – Michigan State: The Spartans went 0-2 against Michigan but while both Big Ten squads earned #3 seeds, Michigan State landed the very favorable Detroit draw to be one of the closest to home teams in the field, just 90 miles away. Michigan State had a bit of a case for a #2 seed as the regular season champions in the Big Ten but the path as a #3 in this venue looks like a worthy trade-off. Purdue and Butler are also in this venue playing relatively close to home but green figures to be the most common color in the arena.

Loser – Arkansas: The Razorbacks can’t have much of a gripe with its seeding with late season wins over Auburn and Florida likely boosting Arkansas up from a more likely 8/9 game. The issue is playing in Detroit against a Butler squad that is by far the best rated #10 seed and a team that in many metrics rates ahead of Arkansas. Butler is also playing only about a four hour drive from Indianapolis. With two Big Ten heavyweights in this arena most fans will certainly be rooting against the SEC team as there were several more attractive locations for Arkansas available.

Nashville, Tennessee (Friday/Sunday)

Winner – Xavier: The Musketeers are a fairly suspect #1 seed relative to past seasons but no other team stepped up in the final days of conference tournament action to knock Xavier off the top line. Xavier draws a favorable Nashville venue about 270 miles away though they will be sharing the space with rival Cincinnati as the likely dominant fan bases in the building. Missouri does lurk as a fairly nearby threat in a potential Sunday matchup but ultimately Xavier won’t face a lot of competition in the crowds from an ACC or SEC power in the region with teams like Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Carolina schools sent elsewhere. The Musketeers also face the NC Central/Texas Southern winner, a weaker pairing than the Radford/LIU-Brooklyn matchup.

Loser – Nevada: Had Nevada won the Mountain West Tournament they likely wouldn’t have been seeded significantly higher as the #7 pull isn’t bad for the Wolf Pack despite clear signs of trouble developing late in the season. Staying out west likely would have been preferred but the Wolf Pack has been given a day game in the Eastern Time zone. Texas is also a highly regarded #10 seed and a Longhorns team dealing with some late season injuries gets an extra day with the Friday scheduling for a tough first round matchup.

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San Diego, California (Friday/Sunday)

Winner – New Mexico State: By default the Aggies get the billing as the only team likely happy with playing in San Diego in a grouping featuring six Eastern Time zone teams and Wichita State. Las Cruces is nearly 700 miles away from San Diego but that beats the over 2,000 miles from Auburn and the nearly 2,500 miles from Morgantown. Clemson will be the favorite against New Mexico State but the Tigers are playing across the country with a 2,300 mile trip west while that game also draws the late night time slot to boost the upset threat.

Loser – West Virginia: The Mountaineers were one of the top ranked teams much of the season before some late season inconsistency. West Virginia nearly rallied to win the Big XII Tournament but still wound up in the #5 line as by far the highest rated #5 squad and a team that rates ahead of three of the four #4 squads by most measures. West Virginia has been handed lengthy travel coming off a taxing run of games last weekend and they pull a disciplined and veteran Murray State squad that could make a case for a slightly higher seed. In this mismatch grouping of out place teams upsets certainly look possible. Auburn, Clemson, and Wichita State could be in this listing as well as while San Diego has lovely weather, all of these teams had much better location options in mind.

Join Nelly’s, Bobby Dalton, Maximum Sports, and the Big E for March Madness selections – all four have had hot late season runs in college basketball!


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1st 12 NCAA Tournament Teams

NCAA Tournament: First 12 Tickets Punched

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


Murray State – Ohio Valley (26-5) Projected #13 Seed

The Racers were a NCAA Tournament staple in the 1990s and Murray State has won tournament games in the past two appearances, beating Vanderbilt in 2010 and Colorado State in 2012. The OVC was a two-team contest this season and Murray State edge out Belmont for the regular season title and won 68-51 last weekend in the conference tournament final.

Size and depth could be an issue is several matchups with only one starter taller than 6’3” but the Racers held their own in a few quality tests this season, beating two of the better Missouri Valley teams in non-conference play while losing by just five against Middle Tennessee State and by just four hosting Auburn. The Racers are riding a 13-game winning streak into the Big Dance and this is an efficient shooting team that takes care of the ball.

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Radford – Big South (22-12) Projected #16 Seed

Radford hit a 3-point shot at the buzzer in the Big South final for a dramatic entrance into the NCAA Tournament field. This is the third appearance for Radford, last losing 101-58 to North Carolina in the 2009 tournament. The Highlanders had a knack for winning close games to emerge from a tightly-packed Big South conference though they didn’t have to face regular season champion UNC-Asheville in the tournament path.

Size will be a big problem playing against a potential #1 seed in the tournament for Radford, though the Highlanders could be placed in a First Four matchup. Radford plays at one of the slowest paces in the nation as they would have a shot to disrupt the rhythm of a power conference team and they did compete reasonably well in respectable losses against Ohio State and Vanderbilt in non-conference tests.


Loyola-Chicago – Missouri Valley (28-5) Projected #12 Seed

The Ramblers would have received consideration for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid had they lost the conference final but ultimately would have likely been left out like many other Missouri Valley contenders in recent years. Loyola-Chicago won convincingly over Illinois-State in that final with the help of a 17-5 edge in fouls called to now enter the tournament on a 10-game winning streak.

Wins over Horizon Champion Wright State as well as a win at Florida in non-conference play stand out and this team a 2-point road loss is the only setback in the last 18 games. On the season Loyola-Chicago has shot 40 percent from 3-point range as this will be a team that could be pegged as an upset threat in the right matchup with the slow-paced Ramblers also ranking 25th nationally in defensive efficiency.

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Lipscomb – Atlantic Sun (23-9) Projected #15 Seed

Lipscomb lost by double-digits in all four games vs. major conference foes but they did beat Belmont twice and after starting the season just 11-8 the Bisons have won 12 of the past 13 games, claiming the A-Sun tournament title with a 108-96 win over Florida Gulf Coast for the first ever NCAA Tournament berth for the program.

This team could be a threat against a top seed as few teams in the nation play as fast and the defense has been able to force a lot of turnovers. The starting lineup features no seniors as this group has played its best ball down the stretch and the Atlantic Sun has made some noise in the NCAA Tournament in recent years including Florida Gulf Coast losing by just six to Florida State last season. Junior Garrison Mathews sits 13th nationally in scoring this season posting more than 22 points per game.

Michigan – Big Ten (28-7) Projected #4 Seed

Usually the Big Ten tournament wraps up the college season leading into the selection show but this season Michigan will sit and wait week after winning the Big Ten tournament for the second straight season. This is a squad that might not want a break after winning four games in four days to close the season on a nine-game winning streak featuring wins over the top three other teams in the Big Ten. Expect the Wolverines to be a popular team to be projected to make a run to the second weekend of the tournament or further.

This year’s team has John Beilein’s best ever defense by the numbers since he took in Ann Arbor and the Wolverines do a lot of things right on offense by committing few fouls or turnovers, even though this is one of the nation’s worst free throw shooting teams. Mo Wagner could again emerge as a postseason star and senior Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman has carried the team down the stretch scoring nearly 17 points per game on the winning streak. Michigan’s non-conference profile lacks a top 40 win however and ultimately this team might be at risk to be over-seeded and overvalued.

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Iona – Metro Atlantic (20-13) Projected #15 Seed

The Gaels haven’t won a NCAA Tournament game since 1980 but they will be in the field for the fifth time in seven seasons including the third straight trip. Iona was a #13 seed two years ago losing by 13 to Iowa State and a #14 seed last season losing by 16 to Oregon. This year’s team finished fourth in the MAAC regular season but once again found life in the tournament without having to play any of the top three teams.

Iona is one of the most experienced teams in the field and making the trip the past two seasons could help the team prepare for the next opportunity. The Gaels lost by 10 or fewer points vs. Syracuse, St. John’s, and Rhode Island as they held their own against the best teams they faced in non-conference play and hot shooting from a team that takes a great deal of 3-point shots could key an upset threat with Iona’s offense often playing up-tempo but with a very low turnover rate.

UNC-Greensboro – Southern (27-7) Projected #13 Seed

The Spartans beat NC State back in December in Raleigh while losing by six against Wake Forest and just 12 against top ranked Virginia to hold their own in three tests against the ACC. The Southern Conference featured three top 100 caliber teams as this was one of the stronger small conferences and UNC-Greensboro won both the regular season and tournament titles.

A high turnover rate is a bit of a concern for the Spartans but this is a quality defensive team that has very good size for a small conference program. The Spartans play at a slow pace and could give a favored squad a big test although closing out a game with poor free throw shooting numbers could be a recipe for heartbreak. This will still be one of the draws that teams in the #3-4 seed range will not want to be paired with.

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Wright State – Horizon League (25-9) Projected #15 Seed

Wright State started the season 0-3 but has gone 25-6 since with a win over Georgia Tech on the road on the resume. Wright State didn’t have to play Oakland, Illinois-Chicago, or Northern Kentucky in the Horizon Tournament run but they actually went 6-0 against those three quality teams in league play but had four conference losses against lesser squads. The Raiders are led by a defense that has national top 50 rankings in several categories.

This is the first NCAA Tournament appearance for Wright State since 2007 with the program 0-2 in two previous appearances. The Horizon League has a pretty strong NCAA Tournament track record in the past two decades but several teams have left the conference in recent years. This year’s run for the Raiders has been even more impressive considering senior Justin Mitchell left the team in January.

College of Charleston – Colonial (26-7) Projected #14 Seed

College of Charleston has won 14 of the last 15 with the only loss an overtime loss in the regular season finale. The Cougars needed overtime to top Northeastern in the conference tournament final in a game between teams that shared the regular season title in the CAA. This is only the fifth season for College of Charleston in the conference since moving up from the Southern Conference with the Cougars last in the NCAA Tournament in 1999.

The only top 100 wins of the season for College of Charleston came in going 3-0 vs. Northeastern and the Cougars lost by 18 against Wichita State in the toughest test they faced, though also playing to within six against Rhode Island. This team will be a threat for an upset with a deliberate pace, one of the lowest turnover rates in the nation and nearly 77 percent free throw shooting as the Cougars won’t beat themselves with mistakes.

LIU-Brooklyn – Northeast (18-16) Projected #16 Seed

The Blackbirds can start planning to play Tuesday or Wednesday in Dayton as they look certain to be one of the worst rated teams to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. LIU-Brooklyn was just 10-8 to finish fourth in a Northeast Conference that ranks as the nation’s fourth weakest. The program made three straight NCAA Tournament appearances from 2011-13 but this year’s run was unexpected.

LIU-Brooklyn didn’t even play a top 150 team this season with NEC regular season champion Wagner providing the best two wins of the season for the Blackbirds. This team plays up-tempo and can have some success scoring inside with a pair of imposing upperclassmen forwards while a pair of sharpshooting guards sits on the perimeter. There isn’t a lot to like on the resume for LIU-Brooklyn but former UMass head coach Derek Kellogg’s team has some momentum.

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Gonzaga – West Coast (30-4) Projected #3 Seed

The Bulldogs don’t have last season’s record or NBA talent as matching last season’s run to the NCAA Championship game looks unlikely. However it is hard to discount a team that has come together to win the last 14 games mostly in blowouts while posting a number of quality non-conference wins including beating Ohio State, Texas, and Creighton.

This is one of the few teams nationally to be in the nation’s top 15 in both offensive and defensive efficiency with this year’s offense actually out-pacing last season’s Gonzaga offense. The roster has great size and scores effectively inside and out with the defensive numbers excellent inside the paint. In a fairly wide open national picture Gonzaga is a viable threat especially if they can grab opening weekend pod in relatively nearby Boise.

South Dakota State – Summit League (28-6) Projected #13 Seed

Two years ago South Dakota State had a similar record and played Maryland very tough in a 5/12 matchup, losing 79-74. With a coaching change last season the Jackrabbits had a lesser season but still won the Summit Tournament but drew Gonzaga playing as a #16 seed and were quickly eliminated. This could be South Dakota State’s best chance to win its first NCAA Tournament game with a veteran group that proved itself in November with wins over Iowa, Buffalo, and Ole Miss, while also playing right with Wichita State and Colorado.

Junior Mike Daum is one of the nation’s top scorers with 6’9” size while shooting 43 percent from 3-point range and 86 percent at the line. Depth is a bit of a concern with the Jackrabbits losing two contributors late in the season but the starting lineup features four upperclassmen and standout freshman David Jenkins. Few teams shoot as well as South Dakota State from 3-point range or at the line and SDSU had the second lowest turnover rate in the nation for a strong recipe for an upset.