Sweet 16 thoughts about this NCAA Tournament, with some bracket observations and locals to watch.
This season is different
That pertains to your bracket, too. Do not forget that all these fifth-year players change the game. The best of them are pros who are still in college. It’s not just Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels, although Villanova would not be Big East Tournament champions if either one of them had left. Same for Providence, all vets leading the Friars to the regular-season Big East title.
You think it’s a coincidence that Virginia Tech just won the ACC title led by Keve Aluma, who is in his fourth season, at his second school? Or that Hokies forward Justyn Mutts (from Millville) is in his fourth season, at his third school? This isn’t a season for the teenagers, unless they are twinned with vets.
So what about Memphis?
The Tigers are dangerous as a No. 9 seed and a possible test for Gonzaga in the second round because they did get their act together with plenty of vets and also a future lottery pick in Jalen Duren, the former Roman Catholic star, who completely skipped his senior season of high school to move on.
Having NBA players on your team is the best predictor of Final Four success. An extreme example: I remember long ago a reader questioning my touting of a particular player as a future NBA star, arguing I was high on him just because his team had gone to the Final Four. In fact, it was the exact opposite, quickly obvious probably even to that reader that Marquette had gone to that Final Four in 2003 because Dwyane Wade had taken them on the ride.
What about the Zags? Finally their year?
It absolutely could be. Gonzaga has the right mix of vets and a high lottery pick. Andrew Nembhard, fourth season, second school. Rasir Bolton, fourth season, third school (starting with Penn State.) Drew Timme, third season. Future pros? Yeah, 100%. Sophomore Julian Strawther will be in the NBA. Freshman Chet Holmgren projects as a top-three pick, a future All-Star.
Yes, the Zags have been this good before. But don’t sell them short just because Baylor was faster last season, with veteran future pros of its own. Going by program history isn’t the way to pick your bracket. It’s the names on the back, not the names on the front.
What about the regional in Philly?
We’ve had pretty good luck in the recent past, from Villanova taking out American and then UCLA in 2009 on their way to the Final Four, to the spectacular Florida Gulf Coast “Dunk City” show in 2013, to a close look at North Carolina in 2016 before the great Villanova-UNC finale in Houston.
This year? Well, Kentucky-Duke won’t reprise their 1992 Philly classic, but Kentucky can get here, the No. 2 seed, with Baylor the top seed, if the Bears get past the North Carolina/Marquette winner. By the way, Virginia Tech is an 11 seed after winning the ACC? Texas can’t love that first-round matchup.
Kentucky in Philly would mean former Drexel coach Bruiser Flint in Philly. There’s that, too.
OK, who else has future pros?
Kentucky has a real shot at the whole thing, with TyTy Washington a special freshman guard, able to play beyond his years — UK assistant Flint said that was obvious as soon as Washington got to campus and began playing with teammates, that he was better than even his high school film. And Oscar Tshiebwe is a veteran handful inside.
But UK didn’t win the SEC Tournament.
Don’t worry about such things. Conference tournaments aren’t predictors of NCAA success one way or the other. Villanova didn’t win the Big East in 2016 (although its all-powerful 2018 squad swept through the entire postseason.) Baylor lost in last season’s Big 12 Tournament to Oklahoma State, never lost again. The familiarity of conference play doesn’t project to the unfamiliarity of the NCAA Tournament.
What does translate?
You need to be efficient at both ends, have to be able to score and slow opponents down. The first part shouldn’t be overlooked. Baylor, a great shutdown defensive squad last season, finished second in the nation in offensive efficiency.
So who fits that profile this time?
Other than the Zags, Baylor does again, and Houston, another 2021 Final Four team, does again. Each is in the top 20 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Villanova has a shot at a run because the Wildcats are eighth nationally in offensive efficiency (buoyed by the best foul shooting in the country), and 28th in defensive efficiency.
Also, do not count out Iowa or Purdue. They have the top offensive efficiency ratings without falling off the table at the other end. They have vets and future pros. (Iowa beat Purdue Sunday for the Big Ten title. The Hawkeyes are under nobody’s radar now.)
But I’ve learned …
Never sell the SEC short in March. The athleticism of that league translates to NCAA success, regardless of seeding.
What about Duke?
Eh. Yes on efficiency ratings (seventh offensively, 44th defensively) and yes on future pros, but 345th in experience.
You may have heard, this is it for Krzyzewski, and those recent losses to North Carolina to Virginia Tech mean the Blue Devils actually get to go into March Madness with a bit of an underdog mentality. A good way to play, without the pressure of expectations, which were obvious in that last Krzyzewski home game. Except the path is treacherous, with Duke getting the Michigan State/Davidson winner if the Blue Devils win a first-round game.
Another good stat to find
Iowa State will force turnovers. Wisconsin, UCLA and Iowa decline to turn it over. Villanova gets pretty stingy, too.
We’ve got locals
Never mind your bracket. There are lots and lots of locals you can root for this week. Coaches such as Delaware’s Martin Ingelsby, the only coach in the field who has a brother who wrote “Mare of Easttown” and a father who played in the NCAA Tournament for Villanova, and is a Carroll graduate. Colgate coach Matt Langel, the Penn grad who keeps getting it done at Colgate. Fran McCaffery at Iowa checks boxes for La Salle High and Penn. (and for brothers of Philly sportswriters) McCaffery faces another Philadelphia Catholic League alum, Richmond coach Chris Mooney from Archbishop Ryan, after Richmond beat Davidson Sunday in the Atlantic 10 final and basically stole a bid from Dayton.
Players such as Iowa State’s Izaiah Brockington, a Ryan graduate who is at his third school (St. Bonaventure, Penn State) but was missed by Big 5 recruiters. Alabama transfer Jahvon Quinerly will grab your interest from Villanova. The Martelli family is represented by Phil Sr. at Michigan and Phil Jr. at Bryant.
The Delaware contingent facing Villanova is full of locals beyond Ingelsby, with Jameer Nelson Jr. from the Haverford School, most prominently, and West Chester East graduate Andrew Carr, a key player, and former Villanova player Dylan Painter getting it done inside.
Who else? Bonner graduate Isaiah Wong will have the ball in his hands for Miami. Former Carroll star A.J. Hoggard will do the same for Michigan State. (So you’ve got a pretty good Philadelphia Catholic League alumni team … starting with Gillespie, Brockington, Wong, Hoggard, Duren. That team would be a No. 1 seed.)
Jersey is well-represented, too
Seton Hall and Rutgers? Nobody is going to be thrilled to play any of them in the first round. (Sorry, Princeton, nobody would have wanted to play you, either.) Add St. Peter’s to the mix and New Jersey deserves a lot of kudos. For Pennsylvania, Villanova has to carry the entire load.
Let’s go with the Midwest. Kansas as a top seed, all right. Auburn as a No. 2 seed, tough squad. Any region with Iowa as a No. 5 seed is a tough one. Wisconsin as a No. 3 seed, legit too. No. 4 Providence has a chance to reprove itself against No. 13 South Dakota State. Far from a bye.
No Philly for Villanova even if the Wildcats are able to win a couple. Jay Wright made it clear that familiarity takes a little fear away for Delaware, which causes him anxiety. If Villanova advances, it could be an interesting second-round matchup in Pittsburgh with Ohio State or Loyola of Chicago. (Sister Jean alert.) Everyone will be watching the Wildcats, not just locally, based on Villanova’s recent success. Gillespie will be one of the most recognizable faces in this NCAA Tournament.
Final Four picks?
At least I gave you Houston last season, believing the Cougars were worthy of their No. 2 seed. Not going with Kelvin Sampson’s squad this time. But I can’t get that Baylor beatdown of Villanova out of my head, so the Bears get my nod. Kentucky, definitely. Man, picking the Zags makes this entire chalky. So let’s take Iowa out of the Midwest.