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Oregon Sports News March Madness Roundtable – 3/26

Thursday, March 26, 2015

 

The 2015 incarnation of March Madness kicks off the Sweet 16 round today, and there are some great stories and intriguing matchups to keep your attention, so keep those cursors near the “boss button” as much as you can. With one of the more well-rounded mixtures of seeds in recent years and some tough tests in the path for the remaining favorites, we asked five of our staff writers to share their thoughts on the tournament so far, make some bold predictions, and call out their favorite players you should be keeping an eye on.

Writers contributing will be Abe Asher (AA), Jason Hartzog (JH), Nick Poust (NP), Casey Mabbott (CM), and Garrett Thornton (GT).

1. Many criticized the selection committee for putting in four PAC-12 teams, yet the PAC-12 now has 3 teams advancing to the Sweet Sixteen after going 7-1 in the rounds of 64 and 32. What does this show us about the conference?

(AA) Nothing. Teams win tournament games, not conferences. The Big XII wasn’t overrated because Kansas lost; Kansas was overrated because Kansas lost. The Pac 12 didn’t deserve to have four teams in, and they got plenty of luck to get three teams into the Sweet Sixteen. UCLA, obviously, shouldn’t have even been in the tournament, they then beat SMU on a goaltending call that was offensive to the game of basketball, and they then got UAB in the second round instead of Iowa State. 

Both Oregon and Utah got soft matchups too, with Utah getting Stephan F. Austin on a bad day and then a horrendously over-seeded Georgetown team, while the Ducks got an Oklahoma State team with just as many loses as UCLA had. Well done to all four Pac 12 teams for good showings, and good luck to the three teams left in the dance. But they didn’t make any big statement about the conference as a whole.

(JH) It shows that the Pac-12 is a better conference than people thought. It shows that the committee had it right by selecting UCLA as the conference’s fourth team in tournament. UCLA has been the surprise of the tournament. As an 11-seed, they are the lowest seed remaining in the tournament. Oregon represents the only Pac-12 loss in the tournament thus far, and it came as a 65-72 loss to the number 1 seeded Wisconsin Badgers. This might actually say much more about how good Arizona is than it does for the conference as a whole. Arizona dominated the Pac-12 all season, and they have looked like one of the dominant teams in this tournament as well.

(NP) The NCAA Tournament selection committee is under fire every March for one thing or another, and this year it is largely because of the inclusion of the UCLA Bruins in the tournament. Given the Bruins finished the regular season with a 20-13 record, including 2-8 against the tournament’s field, the scrutiny was justified. And yet, UCLA, as an 11th-seed, has exemplified the madness that inevitably takes place this time of year. They are Sweet 16-bound after holding off SMU, albeit controversially, and crushing UAB by 17. 

The conference might very well be a bit stronger than the committee gave them credit for, but Utah and Arizona were expected by many to reach this point. Utah, a five-seed, snuck by SF Austin and beat an overrated Georgetown team by double-digits. Additionally, Arizona handily defeated both Texas Southern and Ohio State and remain a potential roadblock in mighty Kentucky’s quest for the perfect season. Despite UCLA’s hot streak that pits them now against heavily favored Gonzaga, the Pac-12 only warranted three teams in the tournament—Arizona, Utah, and Oregon, which struck fear into Wisconsin’s heart before falling short. UCLA might very well be among the 16 left, but they still shouldn’t have been among the tournament’s 64 in the first place.  

(CM) It means that the tournament is not the regular season, and that teams generally play differently when it’s a single elimination game vs a game with a tomorrow. I would be extremely surprised to see a team other than Arizona make it to the Elite Eight, but that doesn’t mean that we should ignore the fact that Utah and UCLA made it to the Sweet 16 when few had them getting that far, or that Oregon put up a great fight against Wisconsin. That said, none of the Pac-12 teams have faced a team like Duke, so we’ll see what happens when Utah takes on the Blue Devils. 

(GT)  To me, it shows that the Pac-12 is more on par with the rest of the country than they are given credit for. That being said, this doesn’t mean that the Pac-12 deserved more teams in the tournament or that they are all of a sudden one of the top couple conferences in the nation. The beauty of this tournament is that it is do-or-die. This is no 7-game series like the NBA. The reason we love March Madness, is because it is madness. Would Georgia State have beat Baylor in a 7-game series? No chance. UCLA advanced on a controversial goaltending call and had a very favorable second matchup against UAB. Arizona is a dominant team. Utah plays tenacious defense and is peaking at the right time. This conference has showed up in the tournament but what it means going forward remains to be seen. 

2. Who is your favorite underdog, and which of the 5 remaining 1 and 2 seeds do think has the biggest chance of being upset?

(AA) The really vulnerable two seeds – Virginia and Kansas – are already gone, so this question is difficult. Judging on how they played Oregon, the answer has to be Wisconsin. The Badgers have a tough matchup with a hot North Carolina team in the Sweet Sixteen, and a showdown with the best two seed in the field, Arizona, looms in the Elite Eight.

(JH) My favorite underdog is the Wichita State Shockers. Led by junior guards Fred VanFleet and Ron Baker, the shockers are performing like they should have in last year’s tournament. Unfortunately for my bracket, I have Notre Dame winning that matchup versus Wichita State, so I have to root against them.  

Wisconsin looks like the most likely to be upset in the sweet 16 matchups. That’s not meant to take anything away from Wisconsin, they’re a great team and have been playing very well. But so has North Carolina, who is one of 5 ACC teams left in this tournament. This is looking like the toughest conference by far, and UNC is one of the conference elites.  Also, Duke and Arizona have looked so tough that I don’t see either of them falling in the sweet 16. Kentucky will be challenged by West Virginia, but again, they’ll prevail. I see Gonzaga as the second most likely to drop with them coming out of one of the weaker conferences and playing UCLA for the second time this season. 

(NP) As Wichita State is widely seen as worthy of better than a 7-seed, they can hardly be considered an underdog. That leaves NC State as the main underdog remaining, and what a great story the 8th-seeded Wolfpack would be if their run could continue. This team, which upset number-one seed Villanova in thrilling fashion in the third round, is far from the one that took the floor in January, when they were in the midst of a 2-6 stretch. That’s largely due to the heightened play from guard Cat Barber, who caught fire in February and is averaging 15 points per game thus far in the tournament. If he stays in the zone he’s been in, NC State could keep raising eyebrows. 

Who could be the next Villanova, the next top seed to suffer unexpected defeat? I’ll have to go with Wisconsin. While Oregon was a worthy opponent sporting the Pac-12 Player of the Year in Joseph Young, Wisconsin was supposed to put them away in rather convincing fashion. They looked beatable, and their Sweet-16 opponent, North Carolina, which has been firing on all cylinders since the start of the ACC Tournament, could end their run. Tar Heels guard Marcus Paige has the talent to match Sam Dekker point for point, and their overall length and athleticism could give forward Frank Kaminsky fits. Wisconsin has been terrific all year, but they’re not playing their best basketball right now – and that’s what winning in March is all about.

(CM) I’m pulling for Michigan State to keep surprising, although Tom Izzo’s 13-1 record in the round of 32 meant that perhaps we should have been betting on him all along. The #7 Spartans have a tough game against #3 Oklahoma this week, but they have all the tools to pull it off and I expect to see them facing the winner of Louisville/NC State over the weekend with a ticket to the Final Four on the line. #1’s Duke and Wisconsin have the biggest chances of falling this week, as Utah and UNC have the ability to handle them, and we’ll see if some of the biggest names in college basketball are up for the task with some stingy bigs in their way, something they’re not quite used to. 

(GT) North Carolina State (8th seed in the East) and Michigan State (7th seed in the East) are my favorite “underdogs”. I feel like one of these two are going to be the Final Four representative from that Eastern bracket. North Carolina State beat 1 seed Villanova. Michigan State beat 2 seed Virginia. Both of these teams enter the Sweet Sixteen with momentum. When push comes to shove in March, I always go with coaching, so I will go with Tom Izzo and the Spartans. 

I wrote last week that Utah was one of the most overrated teams in the tournament. Well I will eat all of those words. Their defense is nasty and they have played two very well rounded games. I think they could jump up and bite number 1 seed Duke on Friday night.

3. Who has been the star of the tournament so far?

(AA) Ron Hunter! RJ Hunter! No question! Georgia State’s run was easily the best story of this year’s tournament. 

It started in the Sun Belt Championship, when Georgia State beat Georgia Southern – I kid you not – 38-36 in the worst game of major college basketball ever played. After they won, RJ tackled his dad and coach Ron, and Ron tore his Achilles. Then the merry band went to the tournament, where RJ scored the last thirteen points of the first game to upset heavily-favored Baylor, including a 30-foot three pointer for the win that made Ron Hunter fall off his chair and crack his cast. The run came to an end against Xavier last Saturday, but this was a moving father-son story that served as a slapstick comedy and was a heart-warming example of Cinderella’s ability to capture our hearts.

The tournament isn’t about who wins. It’s about finding stories like Georgia State’s.

(JH) Jahlil Okafor has shown that he is the best player in college basketball and should be the first overall NBA draft pick this summer. He has been the single most dominant player in this tournament. Most teams have had a key player go off one round, and another player the next, or a good group of guys contributing equally. No one has been able to match up with Okafor yet in this tourney. He is shooting a ridiculous 21/27 (78%) from the floor and averaging 23.5 points throughout Duke’s first two games. Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer is my runner up to Okafor, as he has been outstanding as well.

(NP) It’s hard to go against Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, who has made 21 of his 27 field goal attempts thus far to compliment his five blocks, but Arizona’s T.J. McConnell gets my vote. He hasn’t put up the points Okafor has, but he has been dominating in his own way. In two games thus far, the guard has 31 points on 13-21 shooting, 10 rebounds, 10 assists and nine steals. He has been all over the place, impacting the game both offensively and defensively. His play is a big reason why Arizona could ultimately be a thorn in Kentucky’s side if they were to meet. 

(CM) Jahlil Okafor and Frank Kaminsky have played, well, they’ve played great. But the play of Karl-Anthony Towns seems to be overlooked. Perhaps it’s cliché to give the nod to a guy on an undefeated team that has rarely faced an opponent with their talent, but this kid has been great in the tournament so far. Check out these numbers – 10/16 from the field, 9/10 from the charity stripe, and averages of 14 points, 9 boards, and 3 blocks. He’s just a freshman and he’s clearly outplayed fellow seven footer and hyphenated name pal Willie Cauley-Stein, and his numbers compare well to Okafor’s. 

(GT) Ron and RJ Hunter. No doubt. This is the kind of story that CBS is praying for to boost their ratings surrounding March Madness. This is a story that has transcended basketball. There are non-basketball fans talking about it. I knew this was a big story when an 80 year old lady grabbed me at a Blazer game and asked me what I thought of RJ Hunter. America loves underdogs. America loves father-son stories. Not only did they make one of the biggest upset wins of the tournament, they did so in buzzer beater fashion, with their crippled coach falling off of his stool. Doesn’t get much more original than that. Now RJ Hunter is getting more and more buzz about his draft stock in the upcoming NBA draft. Those are the stories we talk about for years to come. 

4. Which teams do you have winning this week to get to the Elite Eight, and who makes it to your Final Four?

(AA) I’ll take Michigan State, Duke, Louisville, Gonzaga, Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Notre Dame in the Elite Eight, with the Spartans (Izzo!), Blue Devils, Wildcats of Kentucky, and Wildcats of Arizona the last teams standing in Indianapolis. 

(JH) In my bracket, although I’m in first place in my pool and hold a 99.3 percentile, I only have 5 remaining teams going to the elite eight. So I have to stick to my guns and say Kentucky, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Duke all move on. That leaves me with 3 matchups (NC State/Louisville, Oklahoma/Michigan State, and UCLA/Gonzaga). I’m going NC State over Louisville. If NC State can win the battle of the boards like they did against Villanova and against Louisville earlier this season (a 74-65 win for the Wolfpack), then I like their chances. The way Tom Izzo gets his team playing come tournament time, it’s too hard to pick against them. I have Michigan State winning over Oklahoma. Then we have another rematch with UCLA and Gonzaga. The two met earlier in the season. UCLA fell to the Zags 74-87 in that game, but they’re playing much better basketball right now. It should be a great matchup, but I think Gonzaga holds on at the end.

(NP) Representing the Elite Eight in the East Region, I’ll have to go with NC State and Michigan State. Michigan State looked mighty dangerous in upsetting Virginia, and I expect the superb play of guard Travis Trice that helped beat the Cavaliers to continue. 

As for the South Region, I’ll have to go with Duke and Gonzaga meeting in the Elite Eight. I think Utah might put up a fight against Duke early on, but Okafor has dominated thus far and I don’t think that will stop anytime soon. In the West, Arizona will play Wisconsin, who survive North Carolina’s tough test. 

Representing the Midwest Region will be Wichita State and Kentucky, a matchup that could go down to the wire. Who reaches the Final Four, then? NC State, Gonzaga, Kentucky (begrudgingly picking them to narrowly win), and Arizona.

(CM) I have Duke beating Utah, Kentucky beating WV, Wisconsin beating UNC, Arizona beating Xavier, Gonzaga over UCLA, MSU over Oklahoma, Wichita State over ND, and Louisville over NC State. Duke, Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Lousiville then win over the weekend to form the 2015 Final Four. 

(GT) Kentucky over West Virginia. Notre Dame over Wichita State. Wisconsin over North Carolina. Arizona over Xavier. NC State over Louisville. Michigan State over Oklahoma. Utah over Duke. Gonzaga over UCLA. Kentucky, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Gonzaga headed to the Final Four.

5. Now that we've seen all of the Sweet 16 teams perform in two win or go home scenarios (with many being pushed to the brink), who is your favorite to win it all on April 6th?

(AA) Still Kentucky. Cincinnati tried to flat bully them in the second round, and that clearly didn’t work. West Virginia and Bob Huggins will be a tough Sweet Sixteen matchup, but this WVU team isn’t nearly as talented as the one that knocked off John Wall and Co. in Calipari’s first year with the Wildcats in 2010. 

The only team that has the raw talent and shooting ability to beat Kentucky is Duke. If the Blue Devils play their best game, and Kentucky plays their best game, Duke will win. The problem is, Duke have only hit their best a handful of times this year. But that’s the field’s only hope – or the Wildcats complete their march to 40-0.

(JH) There are a lot of tough teams left. However, I have to stick with my original pick and say Kentucky. I’m not so sure they are as far above the rest of the competition as I originally thought. But at the end of the day, I believe this is the year that we see a team finish out the pursuit of perfection. Kentucky will become the first undefeated champion since Indiana in 1976. Side note: there is an intriguing story brewing for a possible elite eight matchup. Last season Kentucky upset Wichita State in the round of 32 during the Shockers pursuit of perfection. Wichita State, if they beat Notre Dame, will have the chance to return the favor against the Wildcats this weekend.

(NP) I picked Gonzaga at the start of the tournament and I’m sticking with them. The Bulldogs survived a scare in the opening round against North Dakota State, but looked much more like themselves in a drubbing of Iowa. I fully expect them to represent the South Region in the Final Four and ultimately prove to be the only test Kentucky can’t overcome.   

(CM) It looks like a long shot after their narrow victory over Oregon, but I still see Wisconsin as the team to beat. The Badgers’ trio of Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, and Nigel Hayes is arguably one of the best in the tournament, and their length, size, and outside shooting ability makes them unique and very difficult to defend, and will help them match up well with the arguably superior athletes suiting up for UK and Duke. I actually like the matchup with Arizona as they compare more to Oregon than UK or Duke but any of the three will be a tough test. It will take some very lucky bounces and Kaminsky and his fellow upperclassmen will need to lead the way against the blue blood teams and their phenomenal freshmen, but that’s the team I’m circling to hoist the trophy at the end.  

(GT) I’m still going with Kentucky. And I am still sticking to my original prediction that they not only win every game, they win every game by double digits. They are just too big, too talented, and too motivated. When you think about it, this Kentucky team has more to lose than any team in the tournament. If another team loses, they head home disappointed they lost in the tournament. If Kentucky loses, they go with losing out on their chance to be undefeated throughout the entire season. The expectations are sky high, but that is nothing new for this bunch. Kentucky wins going away. Too much NBA talent on the court at any one time to fall. 

 

GoLocalPDX partner Oregon Sports News: Since 2011, Oregon Sports News has provided entertaining, hard-hitting local sports news & commentary every weekday. To read more from this author, check out Oregon Sports News by clicking here.

 

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