There is already an emerging theme heading into this year’s NCAA Tournament: The Rise of the Little Guy.
The concept is not a fresh one. In fact, it is kind of a tried-and-true axiom that March Madness is a time for underdogs as much as it is a time for champions. But this year’s tournament field seems to be taking that theme to its logical conclusion: at some point the Little Guy will eventually become the Big Guy.
We see this in all walks of life. Small, upstart companies eventually become global corporate conglomerates. Small, idealistic political movements eventually morph into the establishment platform. And in college basketball, the seemingly grassroots mid-major movement has seeped so far into the sports bloodlines that the lines are now totally blurred between Power and Anti-Power.
No region symbolizes this better than the West. It begins with Gonzaga’s selection as the No. 1 seed in the region. The Bulldogs have been the most celebrated mid-major program of the Internet Age of the NCAA Tournament. It was 15 years ago that they were an out-of-nowhere school that mesmerized the country with their improbable run to the Elite Eight. Now the Bulldogs are the top seed and a favorite to come out of that side of the bracket.
But it doesn’t end there. New Mexico is carrying the banner for the Mountain West. At one point that was a "Who?" conference filled with teams just not quite good enough for the Pac-12. Now they are rated higher and have their champion, the Lobos, seeded twice as high as one of the Pac-12’s flagship programs, Arizona. And that same Wildcats team is being almost written off prior to the tournament as the "obvious" upset choice in the first round at the hands of Belmont.
Further, the play-in game, which will complete this 16-team region, is between LaSalle and Boise State, two mid-major programs fighting for the right to face Kansas State. That we know. But what some people may not realize is that those two small schools were chosen over a more deserving field of "establishment" programs with better resumes. (And if you don’t think Virginia had a better resume than LaSalle you are kidding yourself.)
Up is down and black is white in the NCAA Tournament. That’s the beauty of it. But perhaps no other region in the country has the lines as blurred as the West this year. And, as a result, I expect this to be as chaotic of a portion of the bracket as there is this season.
Here are Doc’s Sports 2013 NCAA Tournament bracket predictions for the West Region:
No. 1 Seed: Gonzaga (31-2 Straight-Up, 17-12 ATS)
We’re all familiar with this dog. The Bulldogs have ascended through the caste system of college basketball over the last decade and have gone from underdog to big dog. And this year’s team is built around a powerful frontcourt that is among the best in the nation. Kelly Olynyk is a seven-foot swingman all-American. He shoots an astounding 65 percent from the field, 78.5 percent from the line, and has even nailed nine three-pointers. Running mate Elias Harris is just as capable. Gonzaga surrounds their stellar forwards with several perimeter shooters. They are No. 11 in the country with 77.6 points per game and No. 3 in shooting. However, the Bulldogs are a bit weak, physically, on the perimeter, and none of the guards are capable of a knockout punch.
Gonzaga Prediction: This is certainly not the best Gonzaga team of the last 15 years, even if it has earned the school’s first No. 1 seed. Their guards are not going to be able to outplay top-tier backcourts, and they went just 1-2 against other tournament teams not named "St. Mary’s". I think Gonzaga’s stay will be short and sweet, with this team failing to make it out of their region.
No. 2 Seed: Ohio State (26-7 SU, 19-11 ATS)
The Buckeyes forced their way through Chicago last week, winning the Big Ten Tournament by pulling out close games against Michigan State and Wisconsin. They were a Final Four team last season and have two of the top players in the nation at their position in point guard Aaron Craft and super scorer DeShaun Thomas. The Buckeyes have won eight straight games and don’t have a loss to a bad team yet this year. If there is a weakness with this team, it is consistency. Guys like LaQuinton Ross, Lenzelle Smith and Sam Thompson can be hit-or-miss. And, if Thomas is off his game, there’s no telling where the points are going to come from. But this team defends for days and has held 10 straight opponents – and 24 of 32 – to 60 points or less.
Ohio State Prediction: There is no reason not to like the Buckeyes. As mentioned, they have throttled every middle- and lower-tier team they have played this season. Outside of a defeat at Illinois, OSU has only lost to the best of the best. But Big Ten Champions have flamed out in the past, and something about the streaky supporting cast doesn’t sit well with me. I have a hunch the Buckeyes won’t make it out of the first weekend.
No. 3 Seed: New Mexico (29-5 SU, 19-12 ATS)
The Lobos were the best team in what was – according to the computers – the third-best conference in the country. New Mexico is executing at a high level right now and has lost just once in its last 10 games. The Lobos offense revolves around guards Tony Snell and Kendall Williams. Everyone plays off that duo, and right now the attack is in top form. There are issues with this group, though. First, they are prone to cold spells on offense and are just No. 218 in the country in field goal offense. Williams is their best and most explosive player. But he has been icy, failing to hit double digits in four of his last seven games. If the Lobos are going to advance, they will need him to catch fire. Also, keep an eye on one of my favorite bit players in the country, Hugh Greenwood. The Aussie does it all and is an X-Factor for this group.
New Mexico Prediction: The Lobos certainly earned their lofty seeding. But I am not sure they will live up to it. They are outstanding defensively but just struggle sometimes to score points. That can be a crippler this time of the year. They are executing well on offense. But they still have to knock down shots. I am just not convinced that they can knock down enough to really tear up this region.
No. 4 Seed: Kansas State (27-7 SU, 15-14 ATS)
So far, so good for new coach Bruce Weber. The new Wildcats coach has tweaked the K-State style of play, and the results have been all positive so far. Kansas State won a share of the Big 12 regular season title and fell in the championship game to rival Kansas in the league tournament. A trio of guards leads them. Scorer Rodney McGruder is one of the most unheralded players in the nation, and Angel Rodriguez is the gutsy point guard. Shane Southwell handles the shooting. But if this team is going to continue to play they will need more production from the post. Bob Huggins and Frank Martin rebuilt the Wildcats through a thunderous post presence. Weber has shifted the team to a more guard-heavy attack. But K-State will need to find easy buckets and has to get more minutes and points out of Thomas Gipson and Jordan Henriquez.
Kansas State Prediction: The Wildcats didn’t win on the road, and they didn’t beat many really good teams this year. It’s tough to tell how good they really are. They face the winner of the Boise State-LaSalle play-in game and then would have to tangle with either Wisconsin or Ole Miss. I actually have a hard time seeing this team playing out the weekend. But if they do then there is an excellent chance that this team can make a mad dash to the Elite Eight.
No. 5 Seed: Wisconsin (23-11 SU, 13-18-1 ATS)
The Badgers seem like a hot team heading into the Big Dance and may be playing their best basketball of the season. Wisconsin upset Michigan and Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament and nearly knocked off Ohio State to win the title. Bo Ryan is a savant, and his senior-laden roster will be a tough out in this draw. Ryan Evans, Jared Berggren and Mike Bruesewitz are tough, smart players that have had four years to marinate in Ryan’s system. Junior point guard Ben Brust and sophomore Taevon Jackson are the setup men for this efficient attack. Wisconsin wants to play a slow, methodical game that can frustrate opponents. And they are nearly totally reliant on the three-point shot for offense, meaning if the Badgers are on from deep then watch out. But if they are cold then they are going home early. Keep an eye on freshman Sam Dekker for this team as well.
Wisconsin Prediction: I seem to have little luck betting on or against this Wisconsin team. I do think they will be a little fatigued after their Big Ten Tournament run. The Badgers play a much more disciplined, fundamentally sound game than Ole Miss. But they also aren’t used to the athleticism they will face in this bracket from the Rebels and K-State. Wisconsin is another team that I am keeping low expectations for.
No. 6 Seed: Arizona (25-7 SU, 14-16 ATS)
This seed is not where I thought the Wildcats would end up when they started the season 20-2 and were one of the top six or seven teams in the nation. But the Wildcats, thanks to erratic guard play and the lack of a point guard, have gone just 5-5 in their last 10 games and not looked well doing it. Arizona is capable of being a lock-down defensive team, and their length and athleticism is unrivaled. However, this team is among the leaders in turnovers because they don’t have consistent ball handling. Mark Lyons, a shooting guard-turned point guard, is doing the best he can. But neither he nor streaky sophomore Nick Johnson has seized the reins, and the Cats can struggle because of it. However, this team is capable of playing big-time basketball. They beat Florida earlier this season and routed Miami on a neutral court.
Arizona Prediction: If this team gets hot from the outside they can shoot themselves into the second weekend. If that happens they have the high-end athleticism to go to Atlanta. But first things first. Belmont is a very trendy upset pick right now, and Arizona will have a battle in its opening game. But if they win there I think this team would be able to strong-arm New Mexico in what should be a hard-fought defensive tussle. But Arizona has to get that first one under its belt.
Best second-round matchup: No. 8 Pittsburgh vs. No. 9 Wichita State
These are two tough, rugged teams that both want to play a bare-knuckle style. The Shockers lean on Carl Hall, one of the best post players in the country, and a band of cast-offs to get the job done. They are similar in tone to Pittsburgh, a group of relatively unheralded players that have thrown themselves into their program’s physical system. Both teams defend all-out, and both teams are nearly solely reliant on one guard – Tray Woodall for Pitt and Malcolm Armstead for Wichita – to push the buttons. This one won’t be pretty but it also promises to be a tense battle down to the final minutes.
Best potential third-round match up: No. 3 New Mexico vs. No. 6 Arizona
These are two of the best programs out West right now, so it would be fitting to see them tussle with a slot in the Sweet 16 on the line. These are two defense-first teams that rely more on wing scoring and defense-to-offense transition scoring than they do natural ability. It would also be an interesting reversal to see the Lobos, from the Mountain West, favored over the team from the Pac-12. Both teams have exceptional athletes and two outstanding coaches moving the chess pieces. With rabid fan bases travelling to see this one, it would have as much energy as any game played in the region.
Upset Alert (third round): No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 10 Iowa State
My initial thought was to put Ohio State on Upset Alert in the first round as well. The bottom line is that the Buckeyes could end up facing two teams, Iona and Iowa State, that have a different level of guard play and team scheme than anything that Ohio State sees in the Big Ten. And that could be a tricky adjustment for a relatively young team to make this late in the year. The Buckeyes are brilliant defensively. But they also haven’t had to defend many teams that get out and run like Iona or are as shockingly brazen on the perimeter as Iowa State. No. 2 seeds are perpetually overvalued in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. And, as I look to see which ones are vulnerable, I just have a sinking suspicion that Ohio State should be at the top of my list.
Dark Horse team: No. 8 Pittsburgh
This Pitt team has lingered in the teens of the Top 25 for the past two months. They have some very good wins, and this is probably one of the least-discussed Pitt teams of the last decade. The prevailing storyline with this program is always, "When will they get to the Final Four?" But this year’s team enters the tournament with seemingly none of the baggage or the expectations of years past. Pitt sure as hell won’t be scared of Gonzaga in The Round of 32. And they match up perfectly to defend what Gonzaga does well. Tray Woodall is a hidden gem. And I think the senior point guard has some big shots left in him.
Team That Makes Me Nervous: No. 5 Wisconsin
I just haven’t been able to wrap my hands around this Wisconsin team over the last two months. And, for the most part, I had just been staying away from them. I mean, they beat Indiana and Michigan and nearly won the Big Ten. But just a week earlier they were blown out by Purdue (at home, no less!) and Michigan State and struggled through 40 minutes with Penn State. I can’t decide if this team is any good yet, although my gut instinct is telling me they are ripe for a flameout. But then I just keep coming back to Bo Ryan – the best coach in the country without a national title. And I know I am never in a hurry to get my money down on the other side of him, even in March.