Submitted by Jim Hurley on Sunday, March 17, 2013 at 8:33 PM
It’s been quite awhile since we’ve seen an NCAA Tournament field quite like this. An interesting and unique regular season may have set up a workmanlike event where the logical contenders grind their way to the Final Four. But, there’s potential for BEDLAM all over the brackets because the best teams are only a few points clear of the field…and the field is LOADED!
In most seasons…there are one and two clear favorites who have future NBA stars attacking the basket for them. They’re capable of losing. But, they’re also capable of steamrolling the field as long as they have their heads on straight. NBA scouts will tell you that this year’s rosters just don’t have that kind of talent. There aren’t any “sure things” for NBA stardom currently dominating the college game.
We have some very good teams. But, those very good teams turn mortal if their shots aren’t falling, if the other team’s shots ARE falling, or if the refs call a lot of early fouls. There’s not much margin for error….which is why Duke lost in the first round of the ACC tournament, and Indiana lost in the semifinals of the Big 10 tourney.
Most interesting to us right now is the wide belly of “pretty good” teams who are all capable of playing spoiler. It’s like the best teams this season might only be #2 or #3 seeds in previous years…but there are about 25 teams who might normally be seeded in the #5 to #7 range. The Big Dance isn’t top heavy…it’s middle heavy with a slew of teams who could knock off a power without it being much of a stunner.
Let’s look at how the bell curve stacks up…
BEST SUITED TO GO THE DISTANCE
The most respected analytical computers and the legal betting markets have been rating Indiana, Louisville, and Florida as the best teams all season. Florida isn’t seeded that way because they had a few closes losses on the road in league play. They win so big when they win that most methodologies are going to see them as championship material. We include Duke because they have such a strong record with Ryan Kelly on the court this year…and Michigan State because they always seem to peak at the right time under Coach Izzo.
Now, in handicapping terms, we may be fading any one of those teams in the coming week. We’re not telling you that these are JIM HURLEY’S picks to win the Dance. These are the teams best able to run the table based on their skill sets and their success thus far this season. We’re still skeptical of Florida’s ability to execute its offense in close games. We’re always skeptical of Duke’s inside toughness.
COULD GET THERE WITH A BREAK OR TWO
Those teams just miss the elite category in our view because their coaches have had some trouble playing to expectations in recent Dances. Well, the first five anyway. Miami’s an interesting situation because we love the coach…and we loved what the team was doing a month ago. They looked to have peaked too early, and this past weekend’s success was more due to playing in a weak and watered down ACC. We can’t say any of these would be “dumb” bets to win it all if you were trying to avoid taking the obvious market teams. Recent Dance history shows an alarming tendency to play down to the level of their opponents too often. Tough to win six games in a row that way if you’re sweating your second and third games before you even run into the scariest foes.
QUALITY TEAMS, BUT WOULD NEED A FEW BREAKS
Those five teams bring us to 16 already…and even in this third group we have a Wisconsin team that went 2-0 against Indiana without playing a home game…and a Syracuse team that won on the road at Louisville. These guys can play with the best…but they also have trouble consistently getting distance from other good teams they face. Wisconsin is slow, which keeps lesser teams within striking distance. Michigan is soft inside defensively, and may have peaked too early like Miami. The Big East trio have played so many coin flips that you have to assume more coin flips are on the way. You don’t win the Big Dance stringing together coin flips that go your way.
COULD TAKE OUT A POWER, BUT WOULD EVENTUALLY CRASH
San Diego State
That’s almost 16 more teams who are capable of playing with anybody. There are wins over Florida in there…wins over Louisville…wins over Kansas. Butler beat both Indiana and Gonzaga. If any of those teams reached the Sweet 16, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all. You would have many in the media telling RIGHTLY telling you that these guys were capable of playing at a very high level when it was needed.
The problem is, each also has at least one exploitable weakness that makes it very hard to envision six wins in a row. For some it’s sloppy ball-handling. For others it’s weakness on the boards. A few teams listed there live by the trey on game before shooting 5 of 28 the next time out.
We can assure you that none of those are automatic outs. Nobody’s going to be saying “Hey, we caught a break, North Carolina is our next opponent.” Fill in any other name and it’s just as true.
Wait…we have a few more to put on your radar!
MID-MAJOR SPOILERS (won regular season and tourney)
These teams just won their conference tournaments, establishing that they’re not intimidated by playoff basketball. We’re not sold on any of them yet from a handicapping perspective because they’re coming from weak conferences.
*Memphis didn’t impress in a late season road game at Xavier, and had to go double overtime to beat Southern Miss Saturday.
*Belmont is the same undersized run-and-gun team that was squashed like a bug by Georgetown and Wisconsin the past two seasons…but, they are capable of getting hot from long range.
*Akron shook off the arrest and suspension of a starting guard to extend the nation’s longest winning streak with their MAC title win over Ohio.
*Davidson had some “wow” numbers in their stats this year, from a conference that’s caught Dance opponents napping in previous years.
Once you get down to the worst seeds in the Dance…well, it gets pretty dismal this year. Upsets in minor conference tournaments have sent some awful teams into the brackets. This doesn’t look like a year where you have to worry about a #16 finally beating a #1. And, a replay of last year’s shocking DOUBLE victory for #15 seeds over #2 seeds might cause the earth to shake. Something Lehigh over Duke and Norfolk State over Missouri will have to wait for another harmonic convergence.
That fat middle is where the action’s going to be. Handicap accordingly!
JIM HURLEY is already hard at work crunching the numbers for this week’s games. His computer programmers started running their simulations as soon as the brackets were announced. We’ll have play-in games for the Dance Tuesday and Wednesday, along with early NIT action. Then the NCAA’s really get rolling with the Round of 64 games Thursday and Friday.
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Back with you Tuesday for matchup analysis of the play-in games. The conference tournaments were a lot of fun. JIM HURLEY can assure you that THE WINNING IS JUST BEGINNING!