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March to Madness: Breaking down the East and Midwest

March 13, 2012 Columns No Comments

In our first look at the brackets, we checked out the South and West, with lots of love for Kentucky and Missouri.

In this edition, we’re looking at the East Region in Boston and Midwest Region in St. Louis. There’s plenty of excitement ahead in both regions, and we take a look at the top players, potential spoilers and bracket favorites.

The VCU Index searches to find a team that can fit the glass slipper. This is a team with a No. 10 seed or worse that has the chops to make a run to the Final Four.

First up, the East Region. Then we’ll head to the St. Louis side of things in the Midwest Region.

East Region

Bracket favorite: No. 2 Ohio State. Syracuse is the top seed playing in Boston and have lost only twice all season. But the Orange have been fading a little down the stretch and will now be without Fab Melo, who is done with Syracuse after becoming academically ineligible. His presence on defense was a huge reason the Orange had one of the best defenses in the country. This team still has a ton of talent and could reach the Final Four, but Ohio State becomes the favorite because we know what to expect from the Buckeyes. That starts with suffocating defense and Jared Sullinger’s dominance.

Upset alert: No. 3 Florida State, No. 5 Vanderbilt, No. 6 Cincinnati, No. 7 West Virginia.

The East has plenty of potential spoilers, starting with No. 14 St. Bonaventure, which squeezed into the tournament on the final day by winning the Atlantic 10 championship and earning a date with the Seminoles. Florida State has to be on upset alert because the Seminoles turn the ball over nearly 25 percent of the time. They improved big time in the ACC Tournament, but was that a sign of a team that suddenly figured out how to protect the ball or an aberration? The Bonnies have Andrew Nicholson down low to battle Bernard James and the Seminoles’ beastly front line.

The craziness could continue from there. Vanderbilt draws No. 12 Harvard, which I thought could have earned a seed as high as No. 9. The Crimson have a great win against Florida State and decent victories against UCF and Saint Joseph’s. Looking at the stats, I’m not confident Vanderbilt can beat Harvard with its usual strategy of jacking up 3-pointers. The Commodores get more than 35 percent of their points from behind the arc, jacking up more than 40 percent of their shots from long range. Harvard is excellent at defending the perimeter, forcing opponents to attack from inside the arc. If Vandy doesn’t adjust, the Commodores could shoot themselves out of the tournament, especially because they’re not a particularly good rebounding team.

According to Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency stats, No. 11 Texas is a better team than Cincinnati. I’m not sure I buy that, but I do think Texas has the talent needed to take down the Bearcats, who can go into prolonged scoring slumps. J’Covan Brown will be the most talented player on the court and can score in multiple ways.

Gonzaga gets a road game against No. 10 West Virginia, which will be playing in Pittsburgh, an hour and a half away from its campus in Morgantown, W.Va. Granted, the Mountaineers are just 1-4 in their past five home games, but it’s a consideration that helps even the playing field between two teams that are already pretty tight. Gonzaga relies heavily on its ability to get to the free throw line, and West Virginia is excellent at keeping opponents off the line. Something has to give there. For the Mountaineers, they attack inside the arc and collect a lot of rebounds to make up for a relatively bad shooting percentage. Kevin Jones is critical to West Virginia’s upset bid.

Intriguing match ups: My sister attended Vanderbilt, and I learned that Dores fans like to call the school the Harvard of the South. Well, the Harvard of the South will meet the Harvard of the North in what should be a competitive No. 5 vs No. 12 first-round match up.

In later rounds, Syracuse vs. either Vanderbilt or No. 4 Wisconsin would be a fun game because of the underdogs’ ability to hit 3-pointers. Syracuse’s zone could give up a lot of points — relatively speaking in the case of turtle-slow Wisconsin — and the Orange would be under pressure to keep pace at the other end. Likewise, No. 2 Ohio State would be a force to reckon with for Syracuse.

MVP candidates: Half of Syracuse’s roster, Vanderbilt’s John Jenkins, Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor, Florida State’s Michael Snaer, Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, Texas’ J’Covan Brown.

The Orange have a ton of talented players who play nearly equal minutes, so anyone could emerge as a star. I’d keep a close on Dion Waiters, Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche and Kris Joseph in particular.

For Vanderbilt to advance to the Elite Eight or further, Jenkins will need to hit a ton of shots and put up gaudy scoring stats. Taylor is in a similar leadership role for the Badgers, though he needs to lead by keeping the team on its slow pace and getting buckets when the rest of the team struggles to find a shot.

Florida State’s Snaer has a flare for the dramatic, and his previous buzzer beaters give him the confidence to take the critical shots late in games. Texas’ Brown is in a similar situation, though the Longhorns rely on him to score from start to finish. And Sullinger is just a beast for Ohio State. He’ll be as important for his work on the boards as he is scoring in the post.

VCU Index: Although I could see a double-digit seed or two reaching the Sweet 16 in Boston, none of the underdogs looks like a real Final Four contender.

Dancing to the Big Easy: Ohio State. The Buckeyes are a young team that has improved throughout the season. They’ve been great on defense from start to finish, and the offense is starting to run more smoothly. That bodes well for Ohio State heading into the NCAA tournament. The Buckeyes have great rebounders, a great perimeter defense, and a great on-ball defender in Aaron Craft. As long as Sullinger stays out of foul trouble, the Buckeyes should be moving on to New Orleans.

Midwest Region

Bracket favorite: No. 1 North Carolina. The Tar Heels are right there with Kentucky in sheer talent. And as long as John Henson’s wrist is OK by this weekend, the Tar Heels have one of the best defenses in the country. Henson is a beast on defense, and his mere presence on the court changes how opponents attack UNC. On offense, Kendall Marshall is the purest point guard in the game, and he keeps North Carolina in attack mode from start to finish.

Upset alert: No. 3 Georgetown, No. 5 Temple, No. 6 San Diego State, No. 7 St. Mary’s.

Based on recent results, Georgetown should always be on upset alert. But that’s especially true this season against a veteran No. 14 Belmont team that shoots well from behind the arc. Georgetown is one of the best teams in 3-point percent defense, but the Hoyas allow teams to shoot a lot of 3-pointers. As Ken Pomeroy noted recently, defensive 3-point percentage is almost entirely luck. Good perimeter defenses don’t even let opponents shoot from behind the arc. In other words, the Hoyas’ perimeter D is more lucky than good. Belmont could expose that.

Temple doesn’t play particularly great defense, and if the Owls draw No. 12 California, which must be No. 12 South Florida in the First Four to advance, they could be in trouble. Cal has more talent than the Owls and play much better defense. The Owls are solid team, but they don’t any one thing exceptionally well.

San Diego State might have the toughest draw of any favorite in the first round. NC State is a solid team with NBA-caliber players. San Diego State has more youth and a questionable offense. NC State actually might be the better team, and the Wolfpack are pretty pissed off about losing the ACC Tournament in dramatic and controversial fashion. The Wolfpack want to prove that they’re legit, and a win against San Diego State would help the cause.

St. Mary’s has to find a way to slow down No. 10 Purdue’s offense, which won’t be easy. The Boilermakers don’t commit turnovers, and they shoot very well. St. Mary’s will need to raise its game to keep pace with Purdue.

Intriguing match ups: One of the most anticipated match ups of the entire tournament is a potential Elite Eight clash between North Carolina and No. 2 Kansas, pitting UNC coach Roy Williams against his former team on the Jayhawks’ turf in St. Louis. These two teams have the most talent in the region, and a rematch of the 2008 Final Four game would be great made-for-TV drama.

Besides that premier match up, a second-round game against Creighton for North Carolina could be a high-scoring affair, with both teams capable of putting up a ton of points. The first-round battle of Michigan and Ohio pits the fan bases of two states that just naturally dislike each other.

MVP candidates: North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall, Kansas’ Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor, NC State’s C.J. Leslie. North Carolina and Kansas look like the favorites by a long shot in this region, and they have plenty of talent on their rosters. Barnes is fully capable of averaging 25 ppg in the tournament, and he likely needs to step up for the Tar Heels to reach their potential.

For Kansas, Robinson will be hard to stop. He’s a dominant player who’s ready to take his team to the next level after last year’s heartbreak in the Elite Eight. For that to happen, he needs Taylor to play at a high level and avoid turnovers. At times this season, Taylor has looked like an elite point guard, while he’s also forced the issue too much on occasion and hurt the Jayhawks’ rhythm.

If NC State can make a run in the tournament, Leslie will be a major catalyst for it. He’s a match up nightmare for most opponents because he’s a 6’8 wing who can post up guys or drive to the hoop. Although Leslie is not a prolific shooter from long range, he can extend the defense, and he does a great job of drawing fouls.

VCU Index: NC State is the closest thing to a 2011 VCU in this region. The Wolfpack snuck into the Big Dance, somewhat controversially, as one of the last bubble teams. Coach Mark Gottfried has this team fired up and ready to battle. And the Wolfpack have plenty of talent, led by C.J. Leslie, Richard Howell and Lorenzo Brown. NC State came close to upsetting the big dogs multiple times during the season. They could put it together at the right time of year. And I can guarantee you all of Raleigh would explode in ecstasy if a run to the Final Four included a victory against hated rival North Carolina in the Elite Eight.

Dancing to the Big Easy: Kansas. North Carolina and Kansas seem destined to meet in St. Louis. The Jayhawks have an even better defense than North Carolina does, and the offense is improving as Tyshawn Taylor is playing better, smarter basketball. Kansas has plenty of motivation to take down the Heels, partially to avenge an Elite Eight loss to VCU last season and partially to upstage their former coach. Look for Robinson and company to hold down the fort in St. Louis en route to New Orleans.

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