The following piece, originally posted on Highmotorguy.com, was written by HMG contributor Brendan Murphy.
For the third time in three years, I’ve attempted to alphabetize the Madness brought on by amateur athletes who unwittingly impact work-place productivity.
Without further ado, the third annual March Manifesto …
A is for American Hustled … Stretching from northern Connecticut to southern Texas, the upstart, geographically amorphous American Athletic Conference was formed around 10 realignment-jilted teams. The results on the basketball court – the league is likely to feature 3/5s of this year’s first-team All-Americans — were largely watchable … said everyone who wasn’t on the NCAA tournament’s selection committee. Of AAC four teams that received bids, three were criminally underseeded. Defending national champ Louisville was most egregiously violated. In spite of AAC regular-season and tournament titles and having one loss on their ledger since February, the Cards were slated as a No. 4 seed in the Midwest. UConn, one of two teams to beat the juggernaut Florida Gators, also has a reasonable gripe as a No. 7 seed. Oh yeah, and SMU, the league’s fifth-place finisher, is the first top-25 ranked team in a decade to be left out of the field.
B is for back tracking … A seven-footer’s spine and the surrounding muscles have become a topic of national intrigue. Joel Embiid, the Kansas Jayhawks’ African-imported center, has been arguably the nation’s top interior defender. Within 24 hours last week, the story line went from Embiid being a likely participant in the Big 12 tournament to a possible play in the NCAA tournament, should KU — the No. 2 seed in the South region — reach the Sweet 16. If the Jayhawks are to make the third Final Four of Bill Self’s tenure, they’ll need Embiid on the court in his finest form. In all likelihood, a Florida Gators team that hasn’t lost a game since Moses wore short pants (Dec. 2) will be standing in their way.
C is for Calipari Dreaming … After consecutive underwhelming campaigns — Kentucky, an 8 seed in the Midwestern region never really clicked this year, in spite of a litany of lottery-level talent — several NBA teams could make a play for John Calipari, the maestro of mousse. Few have it better in terms of resources than Kentucky’s Colonel. Still, even two seasons removed from a national title, he might be feeling heat from a famously restless fanbase. The endlessly treasured Nets, with whom Cal failed in his first professional stint (that was another era for both team and coach), and Cavs are possible destinations.
D is for Dayton vs. Goliath … If 11th-seeded Dayton comes into its first-round matchup against No. 6 Ohio State motivated by some sort of inferiority complex, it’s hard earned. The Flyers are coached by Archie Miller, a former OSU assistant. Their leading scorer, Jordan Seibert, is an OSU transfer. And they seldom get the chance to take on the in-state super power — having last faced the Buckeyes in 2008, one of only six matchups all time between the schools. UD could put a disappointing season in Columbus to an abrupt end by pulling off the upset.
E is for Early’s Arrival … It took place in last year’s tournament when Cleanthony Early, a year removed from the obscure ranks of Division III junior college basketball, looked the part of the best player on the court — posting 24 and 10 — in Wichita State’s narrow Final Four loss to eventual champ Louisville. This year, the lanky wing will not sneak up on anyone. Neither will the top-seeded, undefeated Shockers. A repeat performance could propel Early into the first-round of June’s NBA draft and WSU to a second Final Four in as many years.
F is for Forty-three thousand, one hundred fifteen … That’s the estimated cost, in American dollars, of a year’s tuition, at Providence College. Bryce Cotton, PC’s dynamic, dramatically overworked point guard, earned every penny of his subsidized education. Last week, the Friars rode Cotton to their first conference tournament title since 1994. Playing 39.9 minutes per a game and missing not one of 34 contests, Cotton has been the Friars’ workhorse from Day 1. PC will need 40 of Cotton’s finest minutes to get past sixth-seeded North Carolina in the first round.
G is for Gunners … Some guys like to pass. These guys love to shoot. The field’s top guns (field goal attempts per a game): NC State’s T.J. Warren (18.55); Creighton’s Doug McDermott (17.88); BYU’s Tyler Haws (16.44); Delaware’s Devon Sadler (15.48); and Providence’s Cotton (15.47)
H is for the hands-off approach … Providence and St. Joe’s, both coming off prolonged Tournament hiatuses, boast March’s maddest, or at least most foul-prone, players. The Hawks’ Halil Kanacevic, a do-it-all junkyard dog and arguably their most important player, is the touchiest competitor in the field, registering 3.67 fouls per a game. The Friars, conversely, will lean heavily on Kadeem Batts, a physical 5-man who fouled out of nearly a third of their games. If these long-exiled institutions are going to make the most of their return to the Madness, they’ll need to keep these vital components on the floor.
I is for Inches … 69 of them — that’s 5-feet, 9-inches in height, for the math averse — haven’t limited, UMass’ pint-sized point guard Chaz Williams. His contributions have been big enough to get the Minutemen — a No. 6 seed in the Midwest — in the field of 68 for the first time this millennium. At seven assists per a game, Williams is the tournament’s most generous player. And in terms of value to his team, he is among its most important players. During three seasons in Amherst, the Brooklyn native either scored or assisted on 40% of UMass baskets. Williams faces a tall order against a physically imposing, defensively tenacious Tennessee team on Friday afternoon.
J is for Joy … Jabari Parker, Duke’s once-in-a-generation freshman, brought me so much of it over the past five months. Some would find it concerning that Parker has been my reason for living during a very cold, very celibate Chicago winter. (My roommate has seen more of the nation’s most notable Mormon not named Mitt than he’d care to admit. It was generally against his will.) It all started so unforgettably, with his college debut at the United Center against Kansas this past November. Since then my love has blossomed over an RCN cable connection. It has been cross-network and cross country. In spite of all the noise about his long-anticipated arrival, Parker has been an almost quiet consistent. Formerly the pride of Chicago’s prep ranks, Parker scored in double figures in 32 of Duke’s 34 games. He is sure to earn every significant honor for freshmen achievement on the basketball court. If any player is capable of leading a team to a title on his own in this year’s field, it’s Parker. My sentimental side wants this fling to end with spring glory. Duke’s maddeningly inconsistent supporting cast, however, has me thinking it wasn’t meant to be.
K is for Keeping Up … The more possessions a team has, the more shots it takes, the more points it scores. It’s pretty simple — probably oversimplified — math. BYU (76.6 possession per a game), Iowa State (74.7), Louisiana Lafayette (74.4), UMass (74.1) and Oklahoma (74.1) play the fastest basketball in the field. Offensive success is not just about quantity. It’s about making shots count. Of those five teams, Iowa State and Oklahoma rate the highest in offensive efficiency — both average 1.1 points per a possession. Of those five teams, Iowa State and Oklahoma are the most likely to reach the tournament’s second weekend.
L is for Launching Point … The trajectory might be a modest one. Still, this tournament is a landmark achievement for North Carolina Central. Just three years removed from reclassifying as Division I, NCCU, of the MEAC, will make its NCAA tourney debut. The welcome reception will involve a first-round matchup with loaded Iowa State. Largely because of a win over NC State earlier this year, NCCU has some traction as an upset pick. Keep in mind, the MEAC is just two years removed from Norfolk State’s life-ruining upset over second-seeded Missouri.
M is for McBuckets … When Creighton’s Doug McDermott takes the court, he is the model of extra-value efficiency. So many words have been written, so many numbers have been crunched, to calculate and celebrate his mounting achievements. (Sports Illustrated even insinuated he may be treating Omaha’s cheerleader population the same way Freddie Corleone treated Las Vegas’ cocktail-waitress population.) Here’s my attempt: In a few weeks, McDermott will become the 11th player to be honored as first-team All-American in three different seasons by the AP. Eight of the 10 players to previously earn that distinction three times are in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
N is for No Rush … Slow and steady might just win the race this year. Top seeds Florida and Virginia rank among the five most deliberate teams in the field; each averages fewer than 65 team possessions per a game. Both have used a slow burn to suck the life out of their foes — particularly on defense. Virginia surrendered fewer points to the opposition than any team in the country (55.3). The Gators (57.9) ranked third. A slower pace and lower scores should, in theory, give a team less margin for error. That hasn’t been the case of late, however. Each of the past four national title winners has averaged 69 or fewer possessions per a game.
O is for Obama’s bracket … When it comes to Barackatology, Executive Decisions haven’t been all that stellar in recent years. The president hasn’t correctly tabbed the title winner since he picked North Carolina in 2009. Perhaps that explains why the world’s most powerful man is siding with the pundits over the people in picking Michigan State. (As of Wednesday night, 13.7 percent of all brackets filled out on ESPN had the Spartans cutting down the nets — second to Florida’s 27.6 percent.) The pick is hardly a shoo-in. The Spartans have been injury-ravaged from Day 1. Only two players on the roster, in fact, have played in all 34 games. Purportedly playing at full strength, the Spartans looked like the juggernaut they were pegged as in the preseason by running roughshod throughthe Big Ten Tournament. Barack’s banking they can keep it up.
P is for Proving Ground … Many coaches enter the tourney with a chance to change perceptions. Steve Alford, UCLA’s first-year head coach, is among them. The Bruins earned a Pac-12 tourney title last week. Alford will need them to sustain momentum if he’s to reach the tournament’s second weekend for the second time in 19 years on the sidelines. Other coaches who could use a solid showing: St. Joe’s Phil Martelli hasn’t won a first-round game since 2004; Tennessee’s Cuonzo Martin’s seat was prematurely and unfairly heating up a few weeks, he could cool it for good with a win over UMass; Craig Neal could prove he’s everything his predecessor (Alford) was not by guiding New Mexico into the Sweet 16.
Q is for Questionable Forecast … This year’s field features Cyclones and a Golden Hurricane. One storm system — hailing from Ames — is stronger than the other. For Tulsa, earning a berth in Danny Manning’s second season at the helm is a success. Iowa State, on the other hand, has Final Four aspirations and the talent to back them up. ISU’s DeAndre Kane, Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang are three of the most versatile players, and toughest matchups, in college hoops. Powered by one of the nation’s least selfish (they lead the nation in assists per a game) and potent offenses, ISU will be among March’s toughest outs.
R is for Run Off … A quarter of made baskets in college basketball came from behind the three-point arc. It has been called, as the cliché goes, the great equalizer. Well, a team can’t make what it doesn’t take. This time of year — when a hot-shooting night from the opposition can cost the better team its season — defensive schemes are often intensely focused on running the deadliest shooters off the 3-point line. The field’s best three-thwarters are St. Louis (holding opponets to 29.1% from beyond the arc); Louisville (29.1%); Kansas State (29.4%); Ohio State (29.4%); and VCU (30.1%). Many teams, meanwhile, aren’t built to withstand an off-night from beyond the arc. The field’s most three-liant teams: Creighton (scoring 39.1 % of its points on 3-pointers); Mount St. Mary’s (35%); Eastern Kentucky (34.6%); Villanova (34.5%); and Michigan (34.2%).
S is for Smart Money … VCU has won at least one game in three previous tournament appearances under Shaka Smart. I like them to win two and reach the Sweet 16. The Rams could struggle with a Stephen F. Austin squad that plays a very similar style to their own in a 5-12 matchup. They will have less trouble with straw-man Steve Alford’s Bruins in Round 2. Conversely, Marcus Smart, a mighty but mercurial talent, will not make it past Round 2. A trendy pick to upset Arizona in the second round, eighth-seeded Oklahoma State has been better since Smart returned from a three-game suspension. The Wildcats, however, have a fleet of physically imposing defenders to frustrate Smart for 40 minutes.
T is for Tony, Tony, Toni … There’s Tony Bennett: The singer who famously left his heart in San Francisco; Tony Bennett: The skipper who fascinatingly made the top-seeded Virginia Cavilers one of this season’s biggest surprises; And, Toni Bennett: The stripper who infamously made an impression on college hoops’ most polarizing pundit.
Usual suspects, unusual results … With the states’ largest, land-grant institutions combining for 67 tournament bids since the event’s inception, Illinois and Indiana are regulars. It’s almost inexplicable then, that neither state has put a single team — no high-major, no mid-major, no low-major — in the NCAA tournament field. This marks only the second time in 42 years that the Hoosier state failed to produce a bid-worthy team. Illinois has missed the seed line twice in two decades. It’s a strange Selection Sunday when teams from Nebraska (two of them!), North Dakota, Rhode Island and Delaware are celebrating entry while two Midwestern mainstays come up empty.
V is for Vasectomy … There are jokes about men having children and a hyperbolic castration ensuing. Seldom do we hear of men opting to undertake such pains. Per CBS local, the Cleveland Clinic sees a spike — of about 40 or 50 — in the number of vasectomies scheduled during the third month of each year. The patients, the article goes on to say, are quite candid about the reasoning: March Madness.
Wins … The three mid-major teams occupying the 12-seed line have combined to register 82 of them. Still, Harvard (facing No. 5 Cincinnati), Stephen F. Austin (facing No. 5 VCU) and North Dakota State (facing No. 5 Oklahoma) feature 40 tall men who are good at basketball and short on recognition. Among the three, Harvard, which won a first-round game a year ago as a No. 14 seed, is the most recent to register a loss … and that was Feb. 8. Stephen F. Austin hasn’t lost since November, having run the table in the Southland, and ranks third nationally in turnover percentage. North Dakota State — undefeated since Feb. 1 — ranks first in the nation in field goal percentage, making more than half of its shots. A No. 12 seed has defeated a No. 5 seed in all but two of the past 23 tournaments. One of these three — my pick is NDSU over Oklahoma — will keep that going this year.
X is for Xavier … This year’s field features one team – well, it featured one team, Chris Mack’s Musketeers were eliminated Tuesday via the play-in game — and three players who answer to that name. Two of them, Xavier Johnson and Xavier Talton, play for the Colorado Buffaloes. Of the three X-Men, San Diego State’s Xavier Thames is the most exceptional. The Mountain West Player of the Year led the Aztecs to a regular-season conference title and a 4 seed in the West Region. This is woeful underrepresentation of a somewhat common moniker. Xavier was the 78th
Y is for Young Money … This year’s crop of one-and-done freshmen largely lived up to the hype. Now it appears a half dozen of them are ready to matriculate to the moneyed major leagues. ESPN’s Chad Ford presently has seven freshmen ranked among the top nine prospects for June’s drafts. As has become a rite of spring, salivating scouts from the professional ranks will overanalyze their every move over the next few weeks. At this point, the race for the top pick appears down to three – Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid and Duke’s Jabari Parker. Per Ford, Wiggins is the leader in the clubhouse. most popular baby name in the U.S. last year.
Z is for Zero Percent Chance … Yes, there is no chance these picks are correct. Iowa State hates defense like Kate Moss hates Big Macs, but they rebound and present mismatches at every position. The Cyclones are my pick in the East. Florida is the most seasoned team in the field, and no one’s been able to figure out the Gators in three months. Florida will get thru the South. Arizona has, at times, been an offensive oasis, but they have balance and the nation’s most versatile defensive player in Aaron Gordon. The Wildcats should prevail in the West. Louisville has the nation’s best tournament coach (Rick Pitino) and most incendiary guard (Russ Smith). The defending champ Cardinals should come out of the Midwest. In a matchup of student (Billy Donovan) against teacher (Pitino), I think Florida will win the national title to complete one of the most impressive runs in decades.
Follow Brendan Murphy @Chi_Murph
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