Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Top Seeds Look to Make This the Craziest March Yet

By all accounts, this has been a fantastic NCAA Tournament. After two rounds we have the Missouri Valley Conference staking its claim as a national power, the Pac-10 salvaging an off year, and two double-digit seeds reaching the Sweet 16. It all fits with the concept that this is the most "wide open field yet."

In fact, the prevailing feeling about this year's field is that anything can happen. You hear coaches talking about parity and experts saying that anyone can win it and after a while, you become convinced that this is the year that a team will come out of nowhere to cut down the nets. While this could certainly happen, the truth is that the giants are still lurking. UConn, the heavy favorite, has played poorly but remains in the field. Duke seems to be growing stronger every game. Memphis is wowing with its athleticism and depth, quickly turning into the kind of bully that UNLV was in the early 1990's (meaning: coming out of a middling conference, flying under the radar, and then blowing people away). Texas is still around. So is UCLA. The truth is that the Final Four will probably feature three of those five teams, in addition to the survivor of the Nova-BC-Florida-Georgetown bloodbath in the Minneapolis region.

The fact that some sense of order will probably be restored this coming weekend got me thinking about the possibility of all number one seeds reaching the Final Four. Wouldn't that be the ultimate irony? 2006 seems to be the pinnacle of parity in college hoops, and this tournament is being hailed as the most wide open ever. So wouldn't it be the craziest development yet if, after all of the upsets and buzzer beaters, this thing went chalk into the Indy?

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Adam Hoff said...

Considering that it is has never happened before, the smart money is on at least one of these top seeds to go down. However, you have to think that it is bound to happen sometime. After all, the last two World Series winners were the Red Sox and White Sox. I doubt many people were calling for that in the winter of 2004. Not only that, but the fact is, the top seeds have a lot of momentum right now. Going into the tournament, Memphis was a popular pick to get bounced out early and Villanova's status was in doubt because of an eye injury suffered by star guard Allan Ray. One week later and both of those teams have answered all the questions and move into the regionals on a roll. Strangely enough, only the heavily favored UConn Huskies seem to lack momentum.

Not only are the top seeds all looking like favorites, but just the fact that they are in the Sweet 16 is a good sign. It doesn't sound like much for a 1 seed to advance to this round, given that the best team they can face is an 8 seed during the first weekend, but over the past 10 years, seven of the 40 top seeds have failed to even make it into the Sweet 16. Not only that, but each of the losers bowed out in even-numbered years. In the last five odd-numbered years (1997, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2005), all of the top seeds advanced, but in the even-numbered years (1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004) only 13 of the 20 top seeds have marched on. This is a little freaky, to be honest with you. However, here we are in 2006, and its the first even-numbered year since 1988 that has seen all the 1 seeds advance through the first two rounds. Could it be a sign? After all, in the last eight even-numbered years, top seeds are 17-5 in Sweet 16 games and 12-5 in regional finals. Top seeds have had success in the past when they made it this far.

Obviously, statistics like those above only go so far. They can be manipulated and interpreted to mean pretty much whatever you want. In fact, even in the best possible light, the numbers above still don't indicate that the top seeds are likely to win out in this tournament. Ultimately, it comes down to the here and now, to the teams involved. Here is a look at the 1 seeds and their prospects of advancing to the Final Four.

1. Duke. The Blue Devils struggled with lowly Southern in the first round, but found their stride against George Washington on Saturday. Of course, if GW could should AT ALL, we might not even be having this conversation. Duke faces LSU on Thursday and then gets the winner of West Virginia and Texas.

Why They Will - Duke is reminiscent of the 2003 Kansas Jayhawks, who were doubted because of a lack of depth but were able to ride the inside-outside combo of Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich to the title game. JJ Redick has rediscovered his energy and shooting touch for Duke and Sheldon Williams is being allowed to absolutely hack the crap out of people on the inside (I'm sorry, but the refs swallow their whistles whenever Williams attempts to block a shot), so you have to like Duke's chances. Not only that, but LSU was looming large as a spoiler in this region with their big front line and athleticism, but John Brady has been revealed to be an atrocious game coach. The Tigers have been declawed a bit.

Why They Won't - Texas is the best two seed in the field and lurks in the bottom of the region. One cold shooting night from Redick could mean lights out. Brady could suddenly learn how to coach.

Prediction - I have LSU in all my brackets, but I've changed my tune. This is one of those years where Duke is gaining momentum and being allowed to play defense they way they want my the officials. I don't think they will lose in the regional, even in the face of some tough matchups. Duke goes to Indy.

2. UConn. The Huskies have battled just to make it this far, rallying against Albany and struggling to hold off Kentucky. Now they face another group of Huskies from UW and would play the winner of the ultimate Cinderella matchup between Wichita State and George Mason.

Why They Will - UConn has the most favorable opponents remaining. UW is playing very well and has Brandon Roy, a fabulous player. However, Washington doesn't seem to have the balance to overcome UConn. Connecticut can just throw athletes at Roy and pound Washington's suspect big men. Even Bobby Jones, UW's defensive star, will be neutralized because he can't guard more than one guy at a time. If he's on Marcus Williams, the Huskies can go inside or set up Anderson and Brown for jumpers. If he switches, Williams will go off. In the Elite Eight, the Huskies would get an overmatched foe. Not only that, but it feels like this team is going to explode and start crushing people.

Why They Won't - If UConn simply doesn't wake up and start playing better, Roy is the kind of player that could run them out of the tournament the way Julius Hodge did a year ago.

Prediction - UConn flips the switch, wins both games by at least 15, and marches on.

Villanova. The Wildcats were an interesting team to monitor on opening weekend, because they had a star player coming off an injury and they are trying to win with a four-guard offense. The results are in: the style of play works and Allan Ray looks fine. Nova faces a very tough Boston College team in the next round and then would get the winner of Florida and Georgetown.

Why They Will - There isn't a backcourt in the country that can matchup with the 'Cats, and they put so much pressure on teams that they are able to run right past a dangerous region. If Nova is hitting threes, they are almost impossible to beat.

Why They Won't - Even though Will Sheridan is playing very well inside, Nova doesn't have a lot of big bodies. BC is tough and nasty and features bruising Craig Smith. If they get past the Eagles, they will face either Georgetown and 7'2" Roy Hibbert or Florida, who goes four-deep with big athletic big men and is showcasing 6'11" freak of nature Joakim Noah. Either of these teams could give Villanova a lot of problems inside. Also, consider this: BC played against Nova in conference just last year, Florida faced the Wildcats in the second round of last year's tournament, and Georgetown has played Villanova three times over the past two years in Big East play. Of course, the 'Cats are 4-1 against those three teams over the past two seasons, so maybe this is moot. The point is that all of Villanova's potential opponents are familiar with them and their style of play.

Prediction - I think the 'Cats are the most likely 1 seed to fall short of the Final Four. Every team in the Minneapolis region is playing at a high level and has the talent to play in Indy. Whenever there are four outstanding teams, you have to take the field over any one squad.

Memphis. The Tigers rolled over Oral Roberts and Bucknell after trailing early in each game. They have displayed superior athleticism and depth and suddenly look like a very tough out. They face 13 seed Bradley in the next round and then the winner of the UCLA-Gonzaga West Coast showdown.

Why They Will - As mentioned a few times, they are deeper and more athletic than anyone else, certainly in their region. They are shooting the three much better than expected and if that continues, it is hard to imagine them losing.

Why They Won't - As ESPN's Pat Forde discussed in a recent column, Memphis could have a point guard controversy brewing. Star sophomore Darius Washington has been a bit off through two rounds and walk-on Andre Allen is playing out of his mind. It seems unlikely, but coach John Calapari might wind up in a situation where he has to bench Washington, the source of Memphis' swagger. This could spell trouble. Also, the jumpers could stop dropping at any time.

Prediction - Memphis squeaks past Bradley and then rolls through UCLA/Gonzaga to reach Indianapolis.

I've got three top seeds moving on, but anything could happen. They could all lose (highly doubtful) or all win (unprecedented). That is the beauty of the tournament. However, there is no denying the irony if this crazy tournament is the year that all the one seeds outlast the field.

Adam Hoff said...

I think this is going to be the year. Duke is hot, UConn is too good, Memphis is quitely playing great, and only Villanova has to overcome truly tough matchups. I think Nova is the magic team this year, that they will win the regional, and then win it all as the nation grows to love them more every step of the way. How do you NOT love a team with Lowry, Foye, and Ray?