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Bracket Bits: Confidence Index for Sweet 16

Dave2015After a pair of opening weekend NCAA tournament games, we’re down to the Sweet 16.  Hopefully, you have several of the teams below among your remaining bracket picks.  Now the question becomes: What is your confidence level for each of the teams below moving forward in terms of reaching the Final Four and/or winning the 2019 National Championship?

Upcoming variable include the health of Kentucky’s P.J. Washington, along with your takes on the sustainability of hot-shooting teams like Auburn.  Anyway, here’s my Confidence Index for the Sweet 16 …

My Confidence Index for the Sweet 16 …

  1. North Carolina – I picked the Tar Heels to win this year’s title and I’ve seen nothing yet (other than a rather pedestrian defensive effort in the first half against Iona) to change my mind.  UNC has won its first two games by a margin of 18.5 points, and they are averaging a whopping 84.5 points per game.  When a team can score, it builds confidence, and the Heels are loaded with scoring options, especially with the late season emergence of Coby White and Nassir Little.
  2. Virginia – UVA’s tempo remains a concern because it inherently allows teams to stay in the game.  That noted, the South Regional’s group of four is loaded with teams who have an equally choppy history of NCAA exits (Tennessee, Purdue).  There’s also the matter of righting last year’s historic exit.  Surviving a first-half pressure cooker against Gardner-Webb might end up being the perfect elixir.  The Cavaliers played free and easy against Oklahoma.  Let’s not forget that UVA has only lost three times this season, all to teams ranked highly on this list.
  3. Gonzaga – Back to the whole scoring thing, the Zags are averaging 85 points a game in this year’s tournament.  They’ve also been one of the nation’s most efficient teams all season – the loss to Saint Mary’s excluded.  They have a tough path to the Final Four (Florida State and/or Michigan/Texas Tech), but all three of those teams can go through scoring droughts.  For that reason, I give a slight edge to Mark Few’s group which beat Duke back in Maui.
  4. Duke – Perhaps its the optics of a ho-hum first half against North Dakota State and a rather fortunate finish against UCF, but the Blue Devils haven’t exactly instilled a hearty dose of confidence in the last week.  Yes, no team has an answer for Zion Williamson.  And yes, R.J. Barrett has played like a future pro.  The question is … do you trust Cam Reddish and Tre Jones to make big shots against the likes of Virginia Tech and Michigan State/LSU?  Also, the Blue Devils are making just 62 percent of their free throws in this year’s tournament.  The latter nearly cost them against the Knights.
  5. Michigan – The Wolverines cruised through Montana and Florida, making 45 percent of their field goals.  That’s pretty good, especially against the defensive-minded Gators.  They’re also a more complete offensive team with Charles Matthews back on the floor.  Big Blue creates matchup problems and exploits those matchups.  If there’s a concern, it’s that Michigan relies heavy on making jump shots and there’s nagging feeling that an off-shooting night awaits against some ultra-talented opponents down the stretch.
  6. Florida State – The Seminoles length, depth, and athleticism all present immense challenges.  Their unrelenting pressure harassed Ja Morant and his Murray State teammates into oblivion in Round 2.  If FSU makes 40 percent of its three-pointers against Gonzaga, watch out.  If they shoot closer to 25 percent like they did against Vermont?  That’s the real question, isn’t it.  One scoring drought at this point is all it takes, and we’ve seen that bugaboo show up before.
  7. Michigan State – As well as the Spartans have played down the stretch, they had to scrap and claw to survive a very average Bradley team in Round 1.  They also face an LSU team that’s playing with house money.  It’s really this simple … Can Cassius Winston keep playing at an MVP level for another 80 minutes?  And will Sparty’s supporting cast keep making big shots at big moments?  Adjust your own Confidence Index accordingly.
  8. Virginia Tech – With Justin Robinson back, the Hokies are dangerous.  Kevin Blackshear, Jr. is a match-up problem, and their defense is underrated, holding an offensively gifted Liberty team to five points over a ten-minute stretch in the second half last weekend.  The caveat here, of course, is the Hokies’ path to Minneapolis – having to get past a fully-healthy Duke and either MSU or LSU.
  9. Texas Tech – The motto, Defense wins Championships, has its merits, but scoring matters in today’s game, too.  The Red Raiders have been prone to occasional scoring troubles, hence their early exit from the Big 12 tournament.  TTU swarmed Buffalo into submission in Round 2; that task will be a little tougher against Michigan and/or Gonzaga/Florida State.  Can Tech score enough?
  10. Tennessee – Lost in the shuffle of an excellent season, the Volunteers have shown a propensity for defensive lapses.  They gave up 40 second-half points against 15th-seeded Colgate and blew a 20-plus point lead against Iowa that resulted in an extra session in Columbus.  Neither Purdue or the Virginia/Oregon winner are scoring juggernauts, but still.  The Vols were run out of the gym by Auburn during the SEC title game and have continued to give up points in bunches through two NCAA games.  That makes for some nervous nerves.
  11. Kentucky – If P.J. Washington is able to play at a high level, my Confidence Index changes for the Wildcats.  But until that happens, buyer beware – even though he is apparently out of his walking boot/cast at this point.  UK’s lengthy defense stepped big-time up against high-scoring Wofford and the Wildcats still had to hold on, taking advantage of a huge advantage at the free-throw line. Up next: high-scoring Houston – a more athletic and talented version of Wofford.  If UK’s offense continues to struggle and/or Washington isn’t much of a factor, a path through both the Cougars and either Carolina/Auburn is tougher to find.
  12. Auburn – Live by the three, die by the three. Thus far, it’s been high living, to the tune of 88 points a game.  Can their incredible shooting prowess continue? It’s going to have to against North Carolina, who will be more than happy to run up and down the court with the Tigers.  If Auburn endures a one-half slump?  Therein lies the problem.  It’s all about making shots.  That can be a risky proposition.
  13. Houston – The Cougars are here because they’re about to take a step up in weight class.  To reach Minneapolis, they will likely have to survive two Blue Bloods – Kentucky and North Carolina (or a hot-shooting Auburn outfit).  That’s a tough ask.  Is Houston capable? Absolutely.  But they haven’t been on this type of stage very often.
  14. LSU – One can argue that the Tigers ability to win close games is a measure of their fortitude and resolve. One can also argue that routinely finding yourself in close games leaves you open to the ball not bouncing your way at some point.  The Tigers face the daunting task of potentially playing both Tom Izzo and Coach K in the next few days.  That’s a pretty tall order even for a capable group.
  15. Purdue – When was the last time Purdue reached the Final Four?  If you can’t remember, that’s okay, it’s been a while.  If Carson Edwards gets hot, this team has the balance and ability to beat Tennessee and/or Virginia/Oregon.  But it’s one of those let’s see it before we believe it type of deals.
  16. Oregon – As the only double-digit seed remaining, this is an obvious landing spot for the Ducks.  Yes, they are playing their best basketball of the season.  Their recent defensive prowess has been stellar.  But let’s also acknowledge that beating an offensively challenged Wisconsin team and a 13-seed in UC-Irvine isn’t the same as potentially knocking off Virginia and the winner of Tennessee/Purdue.  The Ducks will have to play their best two games of the season to advance.

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