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Friday, March 22, 2019

Eight teams that could make a surprising run to the Final Four

Jim Boeheim

No one ever wants to be the boring person who picks all top-ranked teams to reach the Final Four in their bracket. I’d much rather lose taking my chance at finding the needle in the haystack than not even really trying. History, both recent and ancient, suggests this is the way to go. Every single March we see a team or group of teams advance further than expected and shock the basketball world. How easy is it to find those teams who aren’t name brands and won’t be the favorites to win their region?

We can start with this list of eight teams, all of which are projected (by BracketMatrix.com) to be a 3-seed or lower, but who have the resumes, styles of play, and the attitude to potentially make a run this month.

LSU (Currently considered 3 seed)

For as good as LSU has been this season, the Tigers have been overshadowed by controversy in their largest wins of the season. When LSU defeated Kentucky at the buzzer, all of Big Blue Nation moaned about what should have been a basket interference call on the game-winning bucket. Later, when the Tigers topped Tennessee, the game was mired by a slog of strange calls, endless replay reviews, and an ugly overtime period.

After the Bayou Bengals beat two of the best teams in all of college basketball, there was almost no conversation about the strength of those wins or the LSU team that had won the games. Instead, each game was clouded by conversations about the sport, the refs, and the rules, leaving two of the best wins of the season as an afterthought.

Let’s remedy that problem. LSU is really good at basketball, as they proved in monster wins over SEC rivals. Will Wade has the Tigers playing aggressive, attacking offense every time down the floor. LSU has made more free throws than all but one team in college basketball. Unlike other teams who live at the charity stripe, there isn’t one or two players who do the Tigers’ heavy lifting from the free throw line. LSU has seven players averaging at least two free throws per game. Contrast that to a free throw deficient team like Wisconsin, which has just two players attempting two foul shots per game.

Buffalo (Currently considered 7 seed)

There’s no reason not to include a real wild card on this list, though maybe this isn’t as wild as it seems.

Ten of the last sixteen Final Fours have featured a mid-major program. Those numbers are slightly inflated, including some programs that have since joined power conferences in recent years. Regardless, in the recent era of college basketball, the Cinderellas have earned their way far more often than not. If fact, each of the last six Final Fours has included a team seeded 7th or worse.

So if there’s no systemic reason a team like Buffalo couldn’t pull off a run into the tournament’s third weekend, is there any basketball evidence holding them back? I certainly can’t find any.

KenPom pegs the Bulls as a top-20 team, thanks to how well they’ve played this season. Buffalo has lost just twice in the Mid-American Conference and represented itself well in the non-conference schedule, with wins over San Francisco, West Virginia, and Syracuse.

Coach Nate Oats has implemented an effective system, built around a high-tempo offense. The Bulls play at the 7th-fastest pace in the nation, but do so efficiently. Buffalo ranks in the top 25 nationally in 2-point shooting percentage and turnover rate. Despite pushing the pace, the Bulls are still finding the right shot every time down the floor. In a tournament setting, a team that has a defined identity like Buffalo can be a tough test. The Bulls will charge into March, ready to run teams off the floor.

VCU (Currently considered 10 seed)

Despite the program’s past success, the Rams have stayed under-the-radar this season. VCU is 22-6 with wins over (possible) tournament teams like Texas, Temple, Hofstra, and Dayton (twice).

Just like they did back in their Cinderella days, the Rams are winning with high-pressure defense. Head coach Mike Rhoades has “Havoc” back in action in Richmond. VCU is ranked in the top 5 in defensive efficiency, mainly due to its ability to force turnovers. Opponents cough up the ball on more than 23 percent of their possessions, good for 9th-highest in the country. Many teams that force turnovers press too hard or over-stretch their abilities at times, giving up good looks in exchange for the turnovers they create. VCU is careful not to do so. The Rams allow the 2nd-worst 3-point percentage in the nation and the 6th-worst shooting percentage from the field.

It’s not that hard to imagine the Rams blitzing their way through a region, riding Havoc to four wins and a trip to Minneapolis.

Syracuse (Currently considered 9 seed)

We don’t have to do the thing every single year where Syracuse surprises everyone with a run in March. At a certain point, in the same way we all look for Tom Izzo’s March magic to lead Michigan State further than we expected, Jim Boeheim’s Orange need to command the same respect. It’s not hard to understand why that should be the case.

No program in college basketball is more committed to one specific strategy than Boeheim is to his zone defense. Boeheim’s teams have been stumping opponents with zone since the year Virginia coach Tony Bennett was born. Preparing for a zone defense during the short period teams have between tournament rounds is a near death sentences for some teams.

Beyond that, this Orange team has the talent and the skill to push opponents. Syracuse has already beaten Duke, Ohio State, and Louisville this season. The Orange make any team change how they play. The gameplan from every other game has to be thrown out the window and even traditional stats lose value. The zone has Syracuse ranked as the 21st-best defense in the nation, despite allowing the 2nd-highest rate of assisted field goals. Teams are working against the zone to find a shot, but for some teams, who rely on isolation or pick-and-roll play, that style can feel unnatural and clunky.

This Orange team is far from Boeheim’s best, yet with high level athletes and the tallest team in the nation by average height, the legendary coach can guide this roster through the perils of March.

Washington (Currently considered 7 seed)

While you were sleeping, a few things have happened out West in the Pac-12. First, most of the league has been a disgrace. Per KenPom’s metrics, the conference has slipped not just to the back of the power conference pack, but beneath the American Athletic Conference as well. Those numbers show a narrow gap between the Pac-12 and the usually inferior West Coast Conference. When the two have matched up this season, the WCC has won 10 of 17 meetings. The entire situation is less than ideal for Pac-12 fans.

Except those in Seattle. Washington, in the program’s second season under Mike Hopkins, has been the best team in the Pac-12 by a wide margin. The Huskies have just two conference losses, on the road versus Arizona Stat, the only other possible tournament team in the conference, and at lowly Cal. Other than that, they’ve mopped up wins against the rest of the league.

Because the Huskies are skating through a weaker than expected conference, they have been overlooked. Let’s not forget: Washington is still 13-2 in the 7th-best conference in the country. Though they haven’t collected a top of the line, resume-defining win, the Huskies are 8-5 versus the KenPom top 100. Washington pushed Gonzaga to the buzzer in a two-point loss on the road at the Kennel. Clearly they are capable of hanging with top teams.

Washington’s success is built on defense, as the Huskies force the third-highest rate of turnovers in the nation. They also swat away the 2nd-most blocks in Division I. A team built on defense that’s won 14 of its last 15 games absolutely has a path to the Final Four.

Houston (Currently considered 3 seed)

I’d nominate the Cougars as the most undervalued team entering the month of March. Casual fans seeing them listed as a 3-seed when the brackets drop may be confused, but those who have seen the Cougars in action — including coaches — know that they are the real deal.

Houston is the final one-loss team in college basketball and hasn’t been coasting against an easy schedule. The Cougars have played the 114th-toughest slate in the nation, posting wins over opponents like Oregon, Oklahoma State, LSU, BYU, Utah State, Memphis, Temple, and Cincinnati.

Kelvin Sampson has his team succeeding in old fashioned ways, with defense and production from upperclassmen. Houston allows the lowest effective field goal rate in the entire country. The Cougars’ defense is relentless, allowing no easy buckets or even a moment of peace for an offense to operate.

JUCO transfer Corey Davis has turned from a solid secondary piece on last year’s squad to a real alpha dog scorer. He can get hot in a hurry, like when he hit 8 of 11 from long range at Tulane. Davis is also capable of attacking the paint, with multiple games shooting double-digit free throws. He’s joined in the backcourt by senior Galen Robinson, who dishes more than 5 assists per game, and Armoni Brooks, who hits 40 percent on more than 8 long range shots per game.

Guard play has always sparked runs in March. This trio has been excellent all season and is fully capable of keeping things rolling into the Big Dance.

Kansas State (Currently considered 5 seed)

It seems odd that the team currently tied atop the standings of the deepest conference in college basketball is looking at a 5 seed and a brutal first round match-up with a 12 seed. If this is the year a team like Kansas State can snap Kansas’ streak of Big XII titles, that would be quite the unfortunate reward.

The Wildcats deserve a bit more respect due to how they have traversed the brutal Big XII schedule this season. They find themselves tied at the top of the league in part because they have played well not just at home, but also in tough road games. Four of Kansas State’s wins in conference have come in the gym of a top 40 KenPom team. Come March, wins like that are proof of a team’s worth.

Kansas State’s success on the road has validated the age old cliché that “Defense travels”. Bruce Weber has his team playing elite defense, ranked in the top 10 in the nation. The Wildcats slow teams down with perimeter pressure that funnels to rim-protector Makol Mawein. Every player in Weber’s rotation is strong on the defensive end, challenging opponents for 40 minutes.

This program surprised people with a run to the Elite Eight last year. If they go as far or further this year, we shouldn’t be as shocked.

Texas Tech (Currently considered 4 seed)

Kansas State is joined atop the Big XII standings, and in the top 10 of defensive efficiency in the nation, by Texas Tech. In fact, Chris Beard’s Red Raiders are the top defensive team in college basketball this season, allowing just .85 points per possession. Texas Tech is a driven, physical, and well-coached team that has stumped most of its opponents this season.

The Red Raiders’ five losses this season have come to Duke at a neutral site, Iowa State at home, and three road games versus tournament level Big XII teams. Beard has the Red Raiders playing the kind of defense that is so strong it is effective against any level of competition or style of play.

Tech holds a leg up on Kansas State when looking forward to tournament play thanks to its best player, Jarrett Culver. The sophomore swingman is starting to earn legitimate buzz about being drafted in the top 10 in June’s NBA Draft, for good reason. Culver has the body, tools, and skills to get his shot against anyone. He finds ways to the rim, but can also step out to hit a jumper.

Few teams in all of college basketball can rely so heavily on a go-to-guy like Culver in crunch time. Texas Tech wouldn’t be the first team to ride one star and a strong defense to the promised land.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.



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