It always takes a while to get a grip on what’s happening in the NCAA Tournament and this year is even more difficult than normal.
Gonzaga vs. Creighton at least seems pretty straightforward.
But Andy Enfield has USC playing like Dunk City on steroids and the Trojans will see conference rival Oregon next.
Both teams are really good and playing well and saw each other in February with USC winning 72-58.
Keep in mind our principle about teams that have freakishly good games like USC had against Kansas: you generally don’t get two of them and assuming your freakishly good game didn’t come in the tournament finale, your next game is going to have to be much grittier.
It’s a really hard game to call, isn’t it? We’ll come back to it before game time.
Michigan and Florida State is a game with an echo: remember in 2018 when FSU’s Leonard Hamilton was asked by CBS’s Dana Jacobson why he didn't contest the end of the game?
Hamilton peered at her in disbelief and said “that game was over,” as if she couldn’t possibly be asking him such a dumb question.
But Mike Krzyzewski or Dean Smith would have surely tried. Most coaches would have.
That game was a fascinating contest between Hamilton’s defensively oriented system with waves of defenders vs. John Beilein’s elegant offense with carefully planned, complex plays.
This time, he’ll come up against Beilein’s successor, Juwan Howard, who has instilled a certain ferocity in his Wolverines. We think Michigan has an excellent chance of frustrating Hamilton again but keep this in mind too: Hamilton is a quiet man publicly, and always gracious, but when he discussed playing UNCG in this year’s tournament, he remembered that Spartans coach Wes Miller had played for UNC in a game FSU lost. Florida State hadn’t bothered to scout him only to see Miller come off the bench and hit some decisive threes.
Hamilton, in a bit of a departure from his normally calm public image, said he figured he owed Miller “a knuckle sandwich.”
We’re favoring Michigan right now but Hamilton may want to give Michigan a knuckle sandwich too.
Keep in mind too that Michigan’s Chaundee Brown is quite familiar with Hamilton’s system and many of his players too. He’ll be a valuable asset for the Wolverines this weekend because he’ll have knowledge the coaches can’t possibly gain on their own.
Ferocity is a theme in this tournament and there are arguably three teams that are a step above in this regard and two that aren’t far behind.
The next one up is Alabama. Nate Oats has really done a great job in Tuscaloosa and so far in this tournament as well.
Surviving Rick Pitino in March is not easy feat because his teams are also ferocious. Bama survived them and then rained threes all over Maryland.
So what happens when Mick Cronin’s bulldog defense gets its teeth into Alabama? We’re not sure that UCLA is ready for a deep run but clearly he’s building a solid program.
And here’s another principle of March: teams automatically play more conservatively. So while you might see a perfect storm that sends Kansas home with a stinging 34 point defeat, the odds of that happening again are not great.
Basically it comes down to this: if UCLA can slow Alabama down and limit their three point attack, they can be close in the final minutes. And if that happens, that game becomes a toss-up. And we would say now we will be surprised if Alabama has that much freedom to shoot threes.
Turning to the right side of the bracket, as much as we admire Jay Wright, its really difficult to get this far into March with a new point guard replacing the injured Colin Gillespie. Winthrop? Okay, sure. North Texas? Yes. Baylor’s superb defensive perimeter?
That’s hard to see. We’ll take the Bears.
Oral Roberts has been impressive but Arkansas is one of the unbelievably ferocious teams we mentioned above and they took out Texas Tech, which matched their ferocity step for step. That game was stunningly intense.
Oral Roberts is a team that knows itself well and no one has questions about roles: this team will go as far as Max Abmas and Kevin Obanar take them. Abmas, a 6-1 sophomore, is averaging 43.1 percent on three point attempts and only once this season did he fail to score in double figures - in a 111-58 win over South West Christian.
Even there he scored better than a point a minute.
And Oral Roberts has seen Arkansas this season, losing 87-76 in December. However, they were up 12 at the half and really pushed the Hogs.
Abmas shot 4-11 and just 1-6 from deep, finishing with 11.
Want an interesting twist? What if the Golden Eagles are the ones who start raining threes?
Consider this too: in the earlier game, Obanor shot 7-12, finishing with 21 and also had 10 boards.
Of course, this game was in December and Oral Roberts isn’t sneaking up on anyone at this point. But they’ve been here before.
We’ve said before that when Wayne Tinkle brought his Montana team to Cameron we knew he was good and he’s proved that this March. By the way, he used to work for former Duke Blue Devil Tony Barone so in a sense he’s learned from Vic Bubas indirectly as well.
Oregon State has vastly exceeded expectations but Loyola’s Cameron Krutwig put on a master class in basketball against Illinois, culminating when he forced a decisive turnover against star guard Ayo Dosunmu near the end of the game.
Dosunmu has been legitimately great this year but Loyola held him to nine points and forced six turnovers. Those guys are no joke.
Incidentally, Dosunmu picked Illinois over Wake Forest.
Syracuse is the second ACC team left and the Orange have a tough game with Houston. Then again, Houston will have a tough game with Syracuse too.
Buddy Boeheim has been brilliant and Marek Dolezaj has won raves too. Rough, tough West Virginia was exactly the sort of team that you’d think would give Dolezaj massive trouble given that he’s 6-10 and just 200 lbs. And they did - he got four fouls - but still played 38 minutes. Backup Jesse Edwards got his four in just seven minutes.
Houston will have to contend not only with Boeheim’s surging brilliance but if they try to double team him, either Joe Girard or Alan Griffin, both also excellent three point shooters, are likely to benefit. And if it’s not them, it could be Quincy Guerrier.
It’s not an exact analogy, but Syracuse is starting to remind us a bit of Duke in 2010 but not in every way. We missed this stat: West Virginia had 19 offensive boards to Syracuse’s four. In 2010, Duke grabbed missed shots and passed out for threes. Syracuse is just hitting them.
We’re really impressed with what Laurinburg native Kelvin Sampson has accomplished at Houston and he may the the greatest Lumbee coach in any sport. He understands what a challenge Boeheim’s 2-3 zone presents but his players haven’t dealt with it. So we think that gives the Orange an advantage here and of the game is close, young Boeheim can take them home.
Trivia we never even dreamed of: Sampson’s dad took part in the Battle of Hayes Pond. If you don’t know what that was, you should take some time today and read about how the Lumbees routed and humiliated the Ku Klux Klan during a 1958 rally in Maxton. This wonderful photo was taken afterwards. We’d love it if someone would ask Sampson what he knows about this. He was only three at the time but he’s bound to have heard stories.
By the way, the two teams that are nearly as ferocious? Baylor and Houston.
You can’t predict anything in a tournament like this, but we’d love to see Gonzaga have to deal with Michigan, Alabama, Arkansas, Baylor or Houston. What Gonzaga needs most of all from this field, if they’re going to run the table, is for a worthy challenger to emerge.