From the top of the bracket to the bottom of the bubble watch, we break down the final push for placement into the 68-team men’s March Madness tournament.
This is the portion of the season where every step on the hardwood has become a potential death trap. Conference play has teams like Wisconsin, Iowa, and Ohio State longing for better non-conference days after getting impaled by teams considered inferior.
Since starting the season 15-0, Ohio State has been drilled by Michigan State in overtime after Shannon Scott missed a lay-in as time expired in regulation, Iowa by 10, Minnesota by 10 and Nebraska by six. Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott are still pressuring ball handlers with the force of a million suns, but they lack a go-to scorer that in recent years could convert in crunchtime situations.
On Wednesday night alone, Iowa was clipped by Michigan, Wisconsin was Kimbo Slice’d by Minnesota, Nebraska shocked Ohio State and that was just the Big Ten.
Even better is that Oregon, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa State started the season 58-0. Now they've lost a combined 14 in a row.
— Andrew Greif (@AndrewGreif) January 23, 2014
The path to a title is sprinkled with boobie traps and these squads continue stepping on the tile that springs spikes from the floor. On Monday, fourth-ranked Villanova accidentally slipped into a coma against Creighton and woke up to a barrage of treys being rained down upon them that blotted out the sun.
This is when the elite coaches emerge, put their teams on alert and advise them not to wait until it’s a primetime game to suddenly perk up, put some pep in their steps and keep their heads on a swivel. Anybody could be next. Getting caught in the trap is common. The real contenders are the ones that show the persistence and determination to escape unscathed in the long-term.
CLIMBING THE LADDER – Player of the Year Power Rankings
3. Lamar Patterson – The Pitt forward averages 17 points per game in a tortoise-paced offense that is annually one of college basketball’s slowest. He wasn’t able to lead Pitt to a win over undefeated Syracuse, however, he did hit shot after shot that kept Pitt battling for the lead. He followed that up by playing a key role in the Panthers 33-point rout of Clemson.
2. Gary Harris – One week, Michigan State’s rep in the Naismith Award watch will be Harris. Next week it may be Keith Appling and the week after it could be Adreian Payne again. The team MVP situation is a fluid at Michigan State. However, it’s not a bad problem to have. This week, it’s Harris for scoring 20 of his 24 points in the second half of a win over resurgent Indiana.
1. Doug McDermott – The wet work assassin scored 23 points in 28 minutes of light duty against Villanova and attempted just 13 field goal attempts.
GAME RECOGNIZE GAME
(21) Michigan at (3) Michigan State:
Believe it or not, this rivalry has rarely been must-see TV. Out of 171 matchups, only nine has feaured both the Wolverines and Spartans ranked in the Top 25. It’s one of the more amicable rivalry games in the nation. This one features a pair of ex-high school teammates and Mr. Indiana Basketball honorees. Michigan State’s Gary Harris won the award in 2012. Michigan reserve guard Zac Irvin was the 2013 winner. Michigan's Derrick Walton is expected to return to the starting lineup, meaning that the guard play and wing action will be top notch, but the absence of a pair Mtich McGary and potentially Adrien Payne lowers the wattage in this matchup between two teams jockeying to survive as the final team with an undefeated record in the Big Ten.
Pick: Michigan State
(18) Duke at (21) Pittsburgh:
Pittsburgh’s snail-like offensive pace belies their offensive efficiency. They’re snipers on the floor who eat up the shot clock and hit a high percentage of shots, don’t turnover the ball and rarely score in isolation. Pittsburgh plays it safe on the offensive end, grinds on defense (15th in defensive efficiency) and are an incredibly boring team. Nobody defines their efficient dullness more than redshirt senior forward POY candidate Lamar Patterson.
Conversely, Duke is a YOLO small ball unit defined by their reliance on three-point sniping. It's a matchup of contrasting styles in those terms. Pitt scores more two-point field goals than all but 37 teams in the nation. Duke is 315th in that category. Also, observe how Pitt dominates Duke’s undersized frontcourt on the boards.
(11) Oklahoma State at (25) Oklahoma
Oklahoma’s continuing flirtation with the top 25 continues thanks to a redeeming win over top-15 ranked Baylor last Saturday, however, this is not an in-state rivalry on the scale of the Spartans vs. the Wolverines. However, this matchup may be more aesthetically pleasing because of the high-octane offenses that will be pacing up and down the floor. Points will be scored and scoreboards will short circuit.
Pick: Oklahoma State
Texas at (24) Baylor
Baylor is looking to pick up the pieces after losses to the Sooners and Kentucky. The Longhorns are 2-0 midway through a slate of top-25 opponents and have Kansas ahead on Feb. 1 if they win. Ultimately, Baylor’s desperate after going 1-5 in conference play. Whoops, Freudian slip. They’re only 1-4 in conference play entering Saturday’s matchup after losing three games in five days.
IN THE BONUS
The aforementioned Creighton Bluejays have never flown higher than they are now. Omaha is having the best month of any American city in the relatively new year and this is the most auspicious time for a Bluejay since Joe Carter belted a World Series winning walk-off homerun over 330 feet into left field.
Creighton’s Ethan Wragge has similar scoring range. No other team had a win as impressive as Creighton’s over Villanova in which they knocked down 21 treys, including their first nine against a team that was specically adept at running three-point shooters off the line.
McDermott will presumably run away with player of the year, but it was Wragge who stole the show in Monday night’s win. Wragge hit 9 of 14 three-pointers including eight in the first half.
College basketball is rife with a hodgepodge of non-comformist athletes.
After all, college is the time to experiment. There’s Jabari Parker, the 18-year-old, 6-8 future top 3 draft pick, perimeter scoring forward packed into the post. Or UCLA’s Kyle Anderson. The 6-9 forward is the second-tallest player on the mid-season Wooden Award List. He’s also the fulcrum of UCLA’s offense averaging 15.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game.
Wragge stands out as Creighton’s 6-7 center because he isn’t an undersized bruiser. Instead, he’s one of college basketball’s best marksmen who spends most of his offensive time vacationing out on the arc cliffs.
This season, 93.67 percent of his field goal attempts have been launched from behind the three-point border. That’s the highest percentage of field goal attempts from three-point range by any player in the entire nation by 10 percent.
Despite playing in a "Big East" conference occupied by Villanova and Georgetown, Creighton’s DNA test still tests positive for mid-major. However, in the aftermath of their 28-point win over Villanova, questions are arising about how far they can advance into the tournament.
The 2013 Bluejays are basically a poor man’s Duke—the team that eliminated them from the tournament last season.While their offense is explosive, serious deficiences in post defense and athleticism could submerge them early in the tournament. Thanks to Wragge and McDermott and their downtown offense, which consists of taking more three-pointers than any other team in the nation, the Blue Jays are first in points scored per possession.
As we inch towards March 2014, Creighton’s defensive vulnerabilities will start looming larger. Unfortunately, Wragge is at the forefront of the concerns. Just as it’s challenging for 6-10 centers to guard him on the perimeter, it’s equally as difficult for him to step into the lane and protect the rim.
The mid-majors that infiltrate the Elite 8 and Final Four like VCU, Wichita State and Butler are usually balanced squads that play an intense brand of defense. That doesn’t sound like Creighton.
Against foes with a significant post presence, they’ll have to rely on their shooting remaining as scorching hot as it was on Monday to make a push as a March Cinderella instead of reverting back to the pumpkin form Providence witnessed Saturday.
That’s why this time of year can be confusing. Little things like their subpar defensive efficiency rating end up playing big factors in how seasons pan out.