Potential ticket-punching games, my Cinderella team and more (cont.)
As for the Mailbag, we'll start with a couple of e-mails I received in response to this week's Hoop Thoughts column taking you all behind enemy lines to hear what some coaches had to say about 19 teams from four power conferences. (Remember, part two will be published on Monday.) I obviously couldn't include every team, but there were two omissions that garnered the most outrage. To wit:
Let me get this straight: You profiled five Big East teams but you left out Pittsburgh? Pitt is 10-4 in the Big East, having beaten the three teams in front of them, yet Connecticut is profiled at 6-8 in the Big east and 16-11 overall. Georgetown is 8-6 in the conference and 18-7 overall. [EDITOR'S NOTE: This was written before UConn and Georgetown won their next games.] How does this make sense?
I'm curious as to why Maryland wasn't on your list, yet they are second in the ACC, and there are teams like UConn which are under .500 in their conference. The Terps have a lot of experience with [Greivis] Vasquez (the first player in ACC history to score 1,000 points, collect 700 rebounds and 600 assists), [Eric] Hayes and [Landon] Milbourne, and [Jordan] Williams is starting to develop as a center.
I did not have any specific reason to leave off those two teams, but since they are both going to be in the tournament and have the potential to make it to the second weekend, I got on the horn on Tuesday and spoke with an assistant coach from each conference who has scouted them. Here's what they had to say:
MARYLAND: Defense and rebounding are probably their biggest weakness. The teams they lost to -- Clemson, Wake Forest and Duke -- all have big guys who just pounded them inside. So if they're missing shots, they're in trouble because they can't make it up on the glass. Also, Greivis Vasquez does not play any defense. They like to hide him by having him guard someone who's not good. But they are a very good offensive team because they share the ball so well. You have to keep Vasquez out of the middle of the floor because he has great vision and he's so good with those little floaters. He has toned down his emotions on the road, which is good, although at home he's giving you more shimmy shakes than ever. The young kid, Jordan Williams, is developing into a nice post player. He's kind of a Lonnie Baxter in waiting. And the guy who is really underrated for them is Eric Hayes. He's such a good shooter so he can play off Vasquez, but he's a good ball handler and knows how to run their stuff. They're both seniors, and you can't emphasize enough the importance of experience.
PITTSBURGH: Probably their biggest concern is their lack of depth in the backcourt. Travon Woodall comes off the bench, but beyond that it's kind of questionable, which could hurt them as they go deeper into the tournament. I wouldn't say percentage-wise they're great shooters, but they do hit big shots. I would have said their inside game would be a problem, but Gary McGhee has turned out to be pretty good for them. They also don't have a true point guard. Ashton Gibbs finds a way to get it done, though I think his quickness as a defender is a question mark. If they go against a team with quick guards that can make plays off the bounce, they can struggle with that. Marquette gave them trouble, though they ended up beating Marquette because of their size. Gilbert Brown is a really good, long, athletic wing. He has been around a long time, and the guys who left from last year passed down some of their toughness. They really share the ball on offense, they do all the right things defensively, they're methodical. They want to grind you out in the half court more than get into an up and down game. If they had to get into a running game, that might expose their lack of a point guard and lack of depth on the perimeter.
And now for the rest of your e-mails.
Hey Seth, I have one little question about the tournament. I keep hearing these experts say how unpredictable this tournament will be and how it's unlikely many 1 seeds will make the Final Four. However, in the media bracket, you had three 1 seeds and one 2 seed going to the Final Four. Whom should I believe?
Believe me. I don't have the exact numbers in front of me, but over the last 20 years I'd say at least 75 percent of the national championship teams were either a 1 seed or a 2 seed. So having a lot of chalk advance to the Final Four is the rule, not the exception. Will this year's tournament be unpredictable? Of course -- because every tournament is unpredictable. That, however, is usually confined to the earlier rounds.
I am also hearing a lot of people talk about how wide open this thing is, but that is another misconception. It is very unusual that one team enters the tournament as the dominant, unquestioned team to beat. People like to revise history and say North Carolina was that team last year, but let's not forget that the Tar Heels stumbled into the tourney, largely because Ty Lawson's foot injury was a question. Lots of people (myself included) picked someone other than North Carolina to win it all.
Oh, and while we're debunking myths, let's stop talking about how there is more parity this year than ever before. There is no more parity in college hoops right now than there has been over the last 10 years, and there is certainly not a surfeit of high-quality teams trying to get into this thing. If anything, I'm seeing a lot of mediocrity when it comes down to deciding whom to give those last three or four at-large bids. That's par for the course.
I was looking at conference rankings based on RPI numbers and was shocked to see the Big Ten at number four. With four legitimate top-20 teams (Purdue, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State) out of 11, how can the Big Ten be behind the ACC (which they beat in the challenge for a change) and the SEC?
Actually, the Big Ten is ranked fifth in the conference RPI, not fourth. I'm no math geek, but my understanding is the conference RPI rankings are mostly a reflection of the middle and bottom teams in the leagues. The Big Ten is strong at the top, but it also has four teams with horrible RPI rankings: Michigan (141), Iowa (190), Penn State (197) and Indiana (214). That will drag a league down far more than good teams like Purdue (7), Wisconsin (19) and Michigan State (28) will prop it up. The SEC, by contrast, has only one team ranked below 140, and that's No. 219 LSU.
Incidentally, the same principle applies to strength of schedule. If a team has played a bunch of teams with really low RPI rankings, that will hurt its SOS more than playing strong teams will help. That's why many conference commissioners are taking a firmer, more broad-based approach to scheduling by demanding that the middle and bottom teams in the league stay away from teams ranked below 200. Former Atlantic 10 commissioner Linda Bruno started doing that several years ago in her league, and that is a big reason why the Atlantic 10 has such a strong RPI profile -- which, naturally, will result in more NCAA bids.
Which double-digit seed do you think will be this year's Cinderella?
Like a lot of people, I've got my eye on UTEP. Derrick Caracter has had a terrific season, and he gives the Miners a presence in the paint to complement high-scoring guard Randy Culpepper. If UTEP can win out in the regular season, I think it would have a very good chance at an at-large bid if it were to lose in the final of the Conference USA tournament.
One of the things I look for in spotting potential Cinderellas is a single player who can put a team on his back and score a ton of points, a la Stephen Curry. That's why I'm keeping my eye on Oklahoma State. James Anderson has very quietly had a phenomenal season. The 6-foot-6 junior swingman is sixth in the nation in points (22.5 ppg), he is in the top 10 in the Big 12 in field-goal percentage and free-throw percentage, and he is also chipping in 6.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game while converting 36 percent from three-point range. Does that sound like a guy you'd like to face in March?