Five Best Offenses
1. Ohio State
When it runs through one of the best big men in the country, your offense is probably going to be good. Jared Sullinger improved his stroke, dished more assists and occupied more possessions for Ohio State in 2011-12, but as with the Ohio State offense as a whole, he turned the ball over a bit more and drew fewer fouls. And in all, the Buckeyes started producing diminishing returns over the last month. Still, they have as much potential as anybody in this defense-heavy region. There is competition, of course; Dion Waiters and Kris Joseph should make sure Syracuse's offense gives them a chance to get to the FInal Four despite Fab Melo's absence (and its impact on the 'Cuse defense). John Jenkins can shoot Vanderbilt to the title game (or to a Round of 64 loss). Like Sullinger, Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor was still excellent in what seemed like a slightly disappointing season. And as we will discuss below, Texas' J'Covan Brown is the most dangerous, explosive scorer in the region.
Five Best Defenses
1. Ohio State
3. Florida State
4. Kansas State
Ohio State has Ken Pomeroy's No. 1 defense -- they force bad shots and grab every rebound, they force turnovers, they avoid fouls ... they don't block a ton of shots, but that is as close as they come to a weakness. You can beat the Buckeyes because of occasional offensive glitches, but the defense is stout. In their last four losses, the Buckeyes allowed just 68, 63, 56 and 58 points. When the offense is rolling (as it was when they scored 88 points in the Big Ten quarterfinals), Ohio State is untouchable. But stout defense is all over this region -- Wisconsin, too, forces bad shots and snatches up rebounds, Florida State blocks every shot inside the three-point line, Kansas State pushes you around and gets hands on passes, Harvard is this year's Butler (steady defense, strong defensive rebounding, occasional offense), and Cincinnati is the best set of ball thieves in the region.
As Seeded By Pomeroy
To get a glimpse into the strengths, weaknesses, overseed and underseeds of the bracket, let's re-seed the teams based on their Ken Pomeroy rankings.
3 Syracuse vs. 15 UNC Asheville
6 Kansas State vs. 13 Southern Miss
4 Vanderbilt vs. 10 Harvard
2 Wisconsin vs. 14 Montana
8 Cincinnati vs. 7 Texas
5 Florida State vs. 12 St. Bonaventure
9 Gonzaga vs. 11 West Virginia
1 Ohio State vs. 16 Loyola-MD
Heading into the Big East semifinals, Syracuse was 8-0 in games decided by six points or less; their 71-68 loss to Cincinnati ended that streak, but both the streak and the loss pointed to the fact that Syracuse has been at least a little bit lucky in winning 31 games in 33 attempts. According to Pomeroy, they were the No. 3 team in the region even before Melo's suspension. To get to the Final Four, they will potentially have to creep past not only Kansas State, but also two teams ranked ahead of them. Meanwhile, Ohio State got a 2-seed but received 1-seed treatment -- the No. 2-4 teams are all on the other side of the bracket.
Most Likely Cinderella
(In this case, "Cinderella" refers to teams seeded 11th or worse.)
Texas. It feels off-putting to associate "Texas" with "Cinderella" in any context, but as an 11-seed they technically qualify. The Longhorns were the anti-Syracuse, losing their first seven close games (i.e. games decided by six points or less) of the season and struggling to assemble a tourney-worthy resume because of it. But the ultra-young 'Horns began to turn things around in this regard, winning three of their last four close games. They are good enough (and the competition in this quadrant is just flawed enough) that they could conceivably keep a game versus both Cincinnati and, potentially, Florida State close. And once you reach crunch time during March Madness, who the hell knows what will happen?
This Year's Harold Arceneaux
Here are the top three players, from the list of Cinderellas, most likely to single-handedly take down a region heavyweight, a la Weber State's Harold Arceneaux in 1999.
J'Covan Brown, Texas. Again, this suggests Texas is a Cinderella, but no player in the region more closely personifies Arceneaux than Brown, who averaged 20.1 points per game this season. He is good enough at getting to the line that he will manufacture points regardless, but if the jumper is falling, Brown gets really scary, really quickly. And he tends to heat up against good teams. He scored 34 points (6-for-7 from 3-point range) at Missouri in January, 32 (4-for-10) at Baylor in late-January, and 33 (14-for-15 from the free throw line) at Kansas. (It should be pointed out that Texas lost all three of these games -- Brown still needs help from his nearly all-freshman supporting cast.) He has scored at least 21 points in each of his last four games, and while he isn't always efficient (he scored 21 points in 20 shots versus Missouri), he is always scary.
Will Cherry, Montana. Wisconsin plays some of the best perimeter defense in the country, so the 6-foot-1 Cherry may struggle to develop a good rhythm. But if he does, the junior from Oakland could make the Grizzlies an incredibly tough out. (Plus, he's from Arceneaux' conference.) Cherry averaged 16.0 points per game this season, hitting 37 percent of his three-pointers and 51 percent of his two's. He is one of the best ball thieves in the country, and he can generate a slew of easy basket opportunities. He has made just three of his last 13 three-point attempts, but he is still dishing and scoring, and he is Montana's best shot at a huge upset.
Andrew Nicholson, St. Bonaventure. Nicholson, a 6-foot-9 senior from Ontario, is one of the more beautifully efficient scorers around. He scored 26 points on just 13 field goal attempts in the Bonnies' upset of Xavier in the Atlantic 10 finals. He is a great rebounder, and he not only generates plenty of second-chance opportunities, but he will probably draw a foul on said second chance, as well, and make both free throws. He hit 78 percent of his freebies and is currently riding a streak of 17 consecutive makes. Florida State plays excellent interior defense, but in going for (and attaining) a ton of blocked shots, they open themselves up for offensive rebounds, one of the Bonnies' strengths. If Nicholson, Da'Quan Cook and company are finding second chances, they could hang with FSU for 40 minutes.
Most Overlooked Team
Ohio State. Despite recent offensive issues, the Buckeyes still grade out very well, and they have scored some nice "DISRESPECT!" fodder with the sudden popularity of the "Florida State to the Final Four" pick. The Buckeyes still have Sullinger and company, after all, and though they are just 6-4 in their last 10 games, the losses came to Michigan State (twice), Wisconsin and Michigan. (They also beat Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament and Michigan State in East Lansing.) They will be a tough, tough out despite trending for the Seminoles.
Best Round Of 64 Matchup
Cincinnati vs. Texas. Texas is actually the more highly-rated team according to Pomeroy, but Cincinnati is just a week removed from taking out both Georgetown and Syracuse in the Big East Tournament. Cincy has the perimeter defense to contain Brown (when Brown is capable of being contained, anyway), and Texas has the big bodies to match Yancy Gates and company. Both teams are ferocious on the offensive glass and occasionally inattentive on the defensive glass. Texas draws and commits a lot of fouls; Cincy draws and commits few. Both are streaky from long range. This is one of the most evenly-matched games of the Round of 64. Watch it.
Best Potential Round Of 32 Matchup
Syracuse vs. Kansas State. In Monday's picks column, I broke one of the cardinal rules of bracketology, picking a 1-seed to lose on the first weekend. That is still a bit of a reach, but the pick became a bit more trendy with the announcement of Fab Melo's tourney absence. Kansas State is nothing if not long -- their possessions don't start until they've missed a shot and grabbed the offensive rebound -- and with that zone, Syracuse has suffered on the defensive glass. KSU probably doesn't have the offense to pull the upset ... but they are streaky. Aside from perhaps Michigan State versus either Memphis or St. Louis, this is the tightest potential Round of 32 matchup for a No. 1 seed, at least if KSU can first handle its business against Larry Eustachy and Southern Miss.
Best Potential Sweet Sixteen Matchup
Ohio State vs. Florida State. The trendy pick versus the best overall team in the region. Florida State blocks shots, and Ohio State avoids them. Both are either streaky or iffy (your choice of adjectives) from long range. Both get up and down the court, ranking in the nation's top 100 in Adj. Pace. FSU has the experience that Ohio State lacks, but Ohio State is less likely to suffer glitches (Princeton 75, Florida State 73 on Dec. 30). Good luck figuring this one out.
Best Potential Elite Eight Matchup
Florida State vs. Vanderbilt. Because it gets boring picking 1-versus-2 matchups in the Elite Eight, let's go with the two streaking teams instead. Vanderbilt is one of only two teams to beat Kentucky this year, and Florida State took down North Carolina twice. Either could streak their way to the national title game ... and against Harvard and St. Bonaventure, respectively, either team could lose in the Round of 64. Still, while name brands are great, let's root for a more unique Elite Eight matchup for once.
Florida State. I point out how people are overlooking Ohio State, then I pick against them anyway. Integrity! With Syracuse uncertain, with Vanderbilt facing a tough road, and with the Seminoles capable of matching Ohio State on the interior, we'll continue to favor the Seminoles, right up until St. Bonaventure takes a one-point lead against them in the final minute.