With enough time and enough coffee, ESPN’s Tip-Off Marathon offers college hoops fanatics a splendid 24-hour escape. If you’re unwilling (or unable) to power through a full day, you can always set the DVR. Either way, Selection Committee members will be tracking results. Here are a few of the games that could have bracket implications …
West Virginia at Gonzaga – Other than a game with Michigan on December 15, this is West Virginia’s best chance to post a top-flight non-conference victory. The Zags always play a good non-conference schedule.
Davidson at New Mexico - Davidson is heavy favorite to win the Southern Conference, and many think the Wildcats could advance a game or two in March. A win at The Pit would certainly look good on the Wildcats’ resume if they need it on Selection Sunday. New Mexico has road trips to Cincinnati and Saint Louis in late December, so beating Davidson would be a good way to kick-off the season.
Temple at Kent State – The host Flashes opened their season with a victory over Colonial favorite Drexel. Adding a win over Temple might be even bigger. KSU will challenge Ohio for the Mid-American title, but an at-large berth has been rare for MAC teams in recent years. The Owls still play Duke, Syracuse, and Kansas outside the Atlantic 10. While there is less urgency, this would be a quality road win. Read more…
Just in time for Christmas, here’s Part II of the at-large landscape. This version focuses on teams from the BCS conference along with those from the Mountain West, Conference USA, and Atlantic 10. As we noted in Part I, conference season begins in full force next week, and a lot of basketball remains. The goal is to provide a quick peek into the at-large picture ahead of Bubble Banter in February.
It’s too early to lock any teams into the NCAA Tournament. For the purposes of time and space, however, we’re not going to dwell on the at-large possibilities for teams like Kentucky, North Carolina, Syracuse, Duke, etc. If January turns sour, then we’ll catch up on those teams in February. Let’s go Inside the Bracket:
Kansas State – The Wildcats play Long Beach State on Sunday for the Diamond Head Classic title in Honolulu. A victory would add LBSU to a win list that includes Alabama and Virgina Tech (road). K-State lost a neutral court game to West Virginia. While the rest of the non-conference resume is light, the Wildcats enter Big 12 play in pretty good position. West Virginia and Virginia Tech are both potential bubble teams, so a split is okay. The key will be finding victories against Kansas, Baylor, and Missouri and finishing among the top four or five in conference play. Kansas State opens at rival KU on January 4. After that, it’s Missouri and Baylor at home. So the Wildcats can set an NCAA footprint early.
Texas AM – If you take a closer look at the Aggies, one thing becomes apparent: an NCAA bid is in serious jeopardy. The Aggies non-conference schedule strength (No. 337) is dreadful, and TxAM’s best win is St. John’s. Furthering the issue is a lopsided loss at Florida and follow-up home loss to Rice. It will take some serious work in the Big 12 to overcome the Aggies’ start. That work begins at Baylor on January 2. Flashback: Colorado (last March). The Buffaloes won some big games in the Big 12 but were left home on Selection Sunday thanks to a non-conference SOS that mirrors the Aggies’ in 2011-12. Read more…
It’s time to start tracking results: the regular season begins.
The matchup between North Carolina and Michigan State is certainly Week 1′s primo event. The Tar Heels open the season ranked No. 1 and are among the favorites to reach the Final Four in New Orleans. Michigan State has some new faces but also the talent to contend for a top four spot in the Big Ten. Both UNC and MSU open the year in our Preseason Power 24. Add in the date (11-11-11), the backdrop (aircraft carrier), and two of the nation’s best coaches (Roy Williams, Tom Izzo), and we have a March-ish game in November. See Schedule for more games.
Here are some other Week 1 Games to Watch:
Akron @ Mississippi State (Wed | November 9) – Akron is a contender to win the Mid-American crown (Kent State, Western Michigan are others). The Zips made the NCAA field in 2011 as an automatic qualifier, but will need good showings - and wins – in non-conference games for strong at-large consideration. Akron is led by 7-0 center Zeke Marshall and forward Nikola Cvetinovic. Marshall had 9 blocked shots in last year’s MAC title game. At Mississippi State, coach Rick Stansbury hopes on and off-court troubles are behind the Bulldogs. With Dee Bost and Renardo Sidney eligible for a full season, MSU has its sights on the SEC West and an NCAA bid. Other potential contributors for MSU include UTEP tranfer Arnett Moultrie and star recruit Rodney Hood.
Belmont @ Duke (Friday | November 11) - This compelling matchup follows the UNC-MSU game. Belmont raced through the Atlantic Sun en route to a 30-5 record and NCAA bid last season. The Bruins return most of their key pieces including Mick Hedgepath, Scott Saunders, and Ian Clark. Belmont faces Memphis on November 15, so two early chances await. While winning either game isn’t crucial, keeping the games manageable will be. Other than Marshall, the remaining Bruins’ schedule likely won’t provide much of a boost to their at-large profile. Read more…
Maybe it’s because the Mountaineers toppled Kentucky in the East Region final. Maybe it’s because the Spartans are down a key player and the Bulldogs are considered a mid-major by most standards. Maybe it’s because Duke is often a polarizing team among fans. Whatever the reason, visitors to Bracketville tabbed West Virginia (44%) as the favorite to cut down the nets in Indianapolis on Monday night. WVU was followed by Duke (32%), Michigan State (16%), and Butler (8%).
The one common denominator among the last four standing – defense. You can’t listen to a commentary and not hear the word defense mentioned. We credited West Virginia’s 1-3-1 zone with disrupting Kentucky’s offense. Duke puts a lot of pressure on the ball and has size around the basket as back-up. Tom Izzo demands that his Michigan State team commit to defense. All Butler has done is hold every one its NCAA opponents to 59 points or less. This in mind … here’s a quick preview of what to expect at Lucas Oil Stadium:
Butler vs. Michigan State
A great matchup of two teams who prefer to play half-court. Safe to say, the game could very well be decided in the 50′s. Most likely, it’ll come down to two or three possessions. The Spartans thrive on rebounding. Butler out-rebounded Kansas State despite a disparity in size. Repeating that task against MSU won’t be easy. It’s not critical for the Bulldogs to outrebound the Spartans, but Butler can’t get destroyed on the offensive glass. Second-chance points will be at a premium for both teams. If Ronald Norad can keep Durrell Summers in check on the perimeter – MSU could have trouble scoring. The other key is Korie Lucious. Butler forces turnovers by clogging passing lanes and playing physical chest-to-chest defense on the perimeter. So who wins? Gut says Michigan State finds a way; heart says Butler earns the right to play for a national championship. The pick? Butler with a last-possession defensive stand.
West Virginia vs. Duke
As you may have noticed in our final 2010 Bracket Projection, West Virginia was the final No. 1 seed, Duke a No. 2 seed. Does that mean West Virginia is favored here? Not necessarily. The Mountaineers – in my opinion – accomplished a tad more than Duke in the regular season, thus the No. 1 seed projection. Once the ball is tipped, however, none of that matters. Both teams excel at offensive rebounding, so that stat-line bears watching. Duke beat Baylor largely because of second-chance points down the stretch. West Virginia gave up 22 offensive boards to Kentucky, but won because the Wildcats missed a lot of shots. Duke has a little more firepower on offense than West Virginia, and it’s hard to imagine the Blue Devils missing as many shots as Kentucky did against the zone. The pick? Duke makes a couple of extra shots late and advances.
Championship: Butler vs. Duke
Classic matchup between a college basketball program on the rise and one that’s been consistently good for decades. Much like Syracuse and Kansas State, Duke has technical advantages at most positions. They also have a Hall-of-Fame coach. But … sometimes none of that matters. Sometimes, it’s about the right team at the right time in the right place. Would there be a more compelling story than Butler winning the national championship in its home city? So I’ll go with Butler to cut down the nets. Enjoy the games. I’ll be in Indy doing some stuff for NBCSports.com. Follow along on Twitter. We’ll have a very early look at the 2011 tournament field on Monday.
If you had this Final Four on your bracket sheet, raise your hand: Butler, West Virginia, Michigan State, Duke. Congratulations. According to ESPN, 200 people among their 4-million plus entries had the actual Final Four correct. Which brings us to the first question of the week … who’s your pick to win?
I’ll have some thoughts about the games later this week including some picks. Thanks to a partnership with NBCSports.com, I’ll be at the Final Four in Indy this weekend. Should be a lot of fun. Follow along on Twitter at BracketguyDave. Also coming soon … we’ll have an early look at the 2011 NCAA Tournament field – talk about projections. That’ll be posted next Monday in advance of the National Championship game.
So who’s your pick to win it? Tom Izzo and Michigan State? The hometown heroes, Butler? Bob Huggins and West Virginia? Perennial power Duke? It’ll be Butler vs. Michigan State at 6:07 p.m. on Saturday followed by West Virginia and Duke at around 8:50 p.m.
Thanks again for participating this year. What a great first two weeks of the NCAA tournament! Have anything you’d like to know about at the Final Four? Send a rebound. I’ll see what I can get answered in Indianapolis.