Brackets are being blown across the college basketball universe as March Madness joins Sweet 16, with Oral Roberts, the State of Oregon, Loyola Chicago, and even previous heavyweights who shouldn’t have the firepower to make it here, like UCLA and Syracuse, survived and advanced to the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament. At the same time, most Gonzaga, Baylor and Michigan, the three best and most consistent teams in the nation for most of the 2020-21 season, have their national title hopes very intact for the weekend’s competitions.
Ahead of Saturday’s Sweet 16 (that’s an odd sentence), ESPN.com college basketball team Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi weighed who would win the tug-of-war between the underdogs and Recognized Powerhouses why the Big Ten and Big 12 struggled in that tournament and which team that we didn’t believe was a national title contender has the best chance of continuing to win. Follow this link for the betting times of the NCAA tournaments on Saturday and visit here Fill out a second chance March Madness bracket.
The Sweet 16 field reflects something of a “year of the underdog” in the NCAA tournament. Why do you think so many teams that shouldn’t be here made the breakthrough and are you expecting double digit seeds in the Elite Eight?
Medcalf: I don’t know if there is a logical explanation to be honest. I think the shortened preseason and non-conference season meant that we didn’t get the typical two month snapshot of these teams. Think of Loyola Chicago. It was the only Power 5 opportunity before the NCAA tournament was played against Wisconsin. And the only reason was because Northern Iowa was forced to pull out of its scheduled matchup with the Badgers due to COVID-19. So Loyola Chicago played at short notice and lost in double digits. The one-sided nature of this game suggested the hikers couldn’t play with the top teams. But perhaps Porter Moser had only a few hours – the Ramblers had played 48 hours before that loss to Illinois Chicago – to prepare for a good team. In a traditional season we might have had more time to identify the shortcomings in these teams that could later become more challenging.
This explanation only makes sense if the chaos continues and a two-digit starting number cracks the Elite Eight, although this is not an easy task. Syracuse could have the best shot simply because Houston didn’t do that well against the quality teams on their roster.
Borzello: All season long we talked about how the rest of the country outside of Gonzaga and Baylor, and sometimes Michigan, wasn’t really that separated. We saw this during the NCAA tournament. Was there really a big difference between Texas as 3 seeds and Oklahoma as 8 seeds? Illinois and Loyola Chicago were separated by six places at KenPom, who participated in the NCAA tournament. I think the lack of an extended non-conference schedule and teams testing outside of the league added to the seeding difficulties compared to previous seasons. I also think everyone who’s on the same pitch in terms of travel and crowds has played a role.
I’m not fully sold that we’re going to see double digit seeds in the Elite Eight. I think Oregon State and Oral Roberts will both fall into the Sweet 16, with the best shots for a double digit seed coming from UCLA and Syracuse. If UCLA can continue to get great perimeter production from Jaime Jaquez and Johnny Juzang, the Bruins will have a shot at Alabama – but I just think the Crimson Tide are too good defensively and can do too many 3s to lose. Then there is Syracuse. Houston has battled Zones at times this season, particularly Tulsa at the first meeting against the Golden Hurricane, but I think Kelvin Sampson, who has a few extra days to prepare, should help.
Gasaway: Even among the double-digit seeds, we may be talking about two different levels of outsiders. For example, it was already clear on the Sunday evening of the selection that ESPN.com’s Giant Killers model loved UCLA’s chances against BYU. When the Bruins made it to the last 16, they faced a # 14 seed in Abilene Christian. A similar process played out with Syracuse, which messed up the state of San Diego with a zone defense and then a three-point game against West Virginia survived.
Stephen A. Smith is being hyped about how well Oral Roberts plays in the NCAA tournament.
In contrast, the real underdogs are arguably Oregon State and Oral Roberts. The beavers have improved by leaps and bounds in defense at a really favorable time of year, while the golden eagles drove the one-two combination of Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor. In short, ORU is here because these people are great, but OSU’s day-and-night transformation remains a mystery to this observer. (Tennessee and Oklahoma State shot only 24% on their 3s, suggesting Oregon State was lucky. However, the same opponents also missed their 2s.) March, go figure.
Lunardi: Time and again I am amazed at the amazement that comes with disruptions in NCAA tournaments. We often react in ways we have never done before, although the “surprise” is that it doesn’t. Not getting all of KenPom or Gasaway at all, but rather a 70 ball game played by college kids always There will be a lot more variance than, say, a 700-owner NBA playoff series played by adult males. I mean, the Pomeroy model gave Abilene Christian a 25% chance over Texas and Loyola Chicago a 35% chance over Illinois. I don’t know how Ken weighs things like domestic bragging rights or scouting reports from Sister Jean, but those aren’t great odds even without the intangibles. If any of us have been told that there is a three or four chance of becoming billionaires by jumping headfirst into a 45 degree ocean, we all sprint across the beach.
Looking ahead, UCLA’s KenPom model offers the best chance of advancing among the remaining double-digit seeds. But I’m going with Syracuse. While Houston must be considered a small favorite to emerge from the Napoleon (blown apart, understand?!?) Region of the Midwest, we’ve seen this movie a few times over the past few years. And it’s always Jim Boeheim who grins at the end of the credits, this time with a buddy by his side.
College hoop watchers made a sport of playing the Big Ten and Big 12 this week after the game’s two most dominant leagues each had a single team on the second weekend during the regular season. What do you think of the screenings from these conferences at this event? Is the criticism fair?
Borzello: The criticism is certainly fair. The Big Ten looked like the best league in a long time in the regular season, and Michigan is all that’s left. Big 12 proponents said their league had more potential than the Big Ten in March, more than seven teams to win games in the tournament – and Baylor just stood still. As I said above, the lack of an extended non-conference schedule played a role in establishing that high reputation in the regular season, especially in the case of the Big Ten.
Some of that is the variance of a single elimination tournament and the Madness of March, but the leagues clearly failed to live up to their reputation last week. I don’t think entire narratives and trends can be developed based on just one game in March – one of my favorite sayings on the coaching carousel is “You shouldn’t be hiring someone on April 1st if you haven’t hired”. March 1st “- but that is the nature of college basketball. We will see in the next season whether this has a lasting effect on the perception of both leagues.
Jay Bilas tries to explain why only Michigan remains of the nine teams that won the NCAA tournament in the Big Ten.
Gasaway: If either the Big Ten or the Big 12 had promoted as many teams as the brackets would allow by the second weekend, that league’s headquarters would currently be releasing press releases about this historic tournament achievement. This is how the game is played, reputation will be established in March. I’m not assuming the Pac-12 is one of the greatest conferences ever, but it sure did record one of the best tournament performances we’ve seen in a long time. The Big Ten and Big 12 had high ambitions, and the nature of the NCAA tournament is that we see those expectations shattered in an incredibly short period of time. It’s shocking and the reactions you hear reflect that fact. The criticism won’t always be fair, no, but it’s perfectly understandable.
Lunardi: My heart says it’s extremely fair to point out that three Jesuit basketball schools – Gonzaga, Creighton, and Loyola Chicago – are staying in the Sweet 16, which is more than the Big Ten and Big 12 put together (!). My head knows that the whims of March produce these seemingly inexplicable results almost every year.
To me, almost the stupidest thing sports directors do is evaluate, fire, and hire coaches based on four days in March instead of the previous four-month season. Yet we see it year after year after year. Bill Self is a bad coach because he has just a national championship in Kansas? Or is he a great coach because he has 19 consecutive NCAA commandments that are no worse than the number 4? Did the Pac-12 dwarf the NBA’s Pacific Division because three of its four tournament teams got hot at the right time? Or is it the weakest power conference because it receives the fewest NCAA bids every year?
To quote old Wendy’s commercials, I’ll use “Burger B.”
Medcalf: If you want to tout your league as a “glove” during the regular season – a word players, coaches and sporting directors like to use in these leagues – you must be held accountable when it all collapses again in March. The criticism is justified. Overall, I think this says more about the growing landscape and the idea that the “bluebloods” might turn out to be an antiquated idea.
Loyola Chicago appears on Sweet 16 for the second time in three years. Two lottery picks play in Spokane, Washington. The planned top selection was played in Stillwater, Oklahoma. These leagues have a lot of talent, but they also face more competition than ever before. The Big 12 lose Lon Kruger. Kansas is a mystery with an ongoing NCAA decision and uncertainty on the recruiting path. Texas has not won an NCAA tournament game under Shaka Smart. And the Big Ten have been promoting their status as “America’s Best Conference” for years. But the deep runs have not resulted in a national title in more than 20 years. Most importantly, the players will continue to reject the regular season results in both leagues after weak stakes for both conferences.
A few weeks ago the respected college basketball writer and Author of books John Gasaway identified eight teams that were real national competitors. Of this group, Alabama, Baylor, Gonzaga, Houston, and Michigan remain in this area. (Colorado, Illinois, and Iowa are gone.) This means 11 of the Sweet 16 teams missed John’s Bar. Which of these 11 could you make the best case for right now … and John, we give you the final say here.
Lunardi: At the time I remembered, I thought, “John, if it were me, I would have traded USC for Colorado” among his chosen true contenders for the title. If only because I thought USC’s freshman sensation Evan Mobley was the most impactful player not on their list. And the Trojans also have a really undervalued sideline.
Despite the USC’s misfortune to be in Gonzaga’s bracket, I still believe the Trojans are the best team of the “Not” 11 (and I suspect pretty much any Kansas fan in America would agree). Will they win the national championship? Probably not. But we said the same thing about Carmelo Anthony and Syracuse in 2003. This is my composition.
Borzello: This well-respected college basketball insider and carousel scuttle coaching courier will partner with the State of Florida. The Seminoles aren’t as defensive as they have been under Leonard Hamilton in recent years, but they also shoot the ball far better from the perimeter, which reduces some of the droughts they have seen in the past. Now they tend to spin the ball a ton, which can be a problem, but Michigan and possibly Alabama don’t thrive on sales. Florida State is also bigger than any team in the country and deeper than most teams in the field, and it can simply overwhelm opponents at times. The Noles also tend to do their best in the biggest games of the season – a stretch against Michigan, Alabama, Gonzaga and Baylor would certainly qualify.
Medcalf: I will go with Arkansas. His possible path to the Final Four will require a win over Oral Roberts, the second 15 seed to hit the Sweet 16, and a win over Baylor, a great team that lost their only games of the year last month A Villanova- Team moving forward without starting point guard Colin Gillespie. While Arkansas fought Texas Tech in the second round, it was another match that fell short of a good team against the Razorbacks. Only Oklahoma State (Cade Cunningham scored 21 points) and LSU (Cameron Thomas and Javonte Smart combined 40 points) have found a way to beat the Razorbacks in more than two months. They are a balanced group (top 3 in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency in the SEC).
Loyola Chicago tees off Illinois and celebrates on the floor with Sister Jean in the crowd.
Gasaway: (Correction: “Author of the Book”, singular.) Now I will add Loyola Chicago to my charming circle of teams. My pick is based in part on concern for the previously selected Houston when it comes to the Syracuse Zone. The good news is that the Cougars will be aggressively ricocheting off in abundance. The bad news is that they may also miss the next shot. When that happens and the orange progresses, I like the hikers’ chances in this regional final. (Assuming, of course, Porter Moser’s group passes a suddenly formidable Oregon state team.) Loyola’s games are definitely more of a defensive match, and I can’t imagine the Wanderers allowing Buddy “Buckets” Boeheim to go wild.
If you were still in the Elite Eight, which remaining team on the field would shock you the most?
Medcalf: UCLA. Alabama has won eight straight wins. All but three games were decided with double-digit profit margins. Alabama is a difficult matchup for any team in America because of its defensive versatility. I think the Crimson Tide will have a game plan to slow down Johnny Juzang. The Bruins played at one of the slowest tempos in the league, in contrast to Alabama’s up and down style. But the beauty of Alabama’s success this season is that it plays fast without being sloppy. What Mick Cronin did to a group that lost the standout Chris Smith months ago was impressive. But Alabama is on a different level.
Borzello: Oral Roberts is the easy answer, but I’ll go with Oregon State. I just thought Loyola Chicago’s performance on both ends of the floor against Illinois was one of the best efforts we’ve seen all season. The Wanderers were excellent defensively against the guards from Ayo Dosunmu and Illinois, and they also did what they wanted offensively to find Cameron Krutwig and have him operate in space. The Oregon State defense has been creating problems for its opponents in the past few weeks, but Krutwig should find room in the middle and I think the Ramblers full-backs, led by Braden Norris and Lucas Williamson, should be able to beat the Beavers – Security guard Ethan slowing down Thompson. Wayne Tinkle’s team had a tear in the postseason but I see it coming to an end against Moser’s group.
Gasaway: Oral Roberts. We’ve never seen a # 15 seed in the Elite Eight, and we’ve only seen one in the Sweet 16 so far: Florida Gulf Coast in 2013. Arkansas has beaten the Golden Eagles once this season, beating the Razorbacks me (and doing this feels like a famous last word, but here it is) as the kind of team that runs and shoots too much to be nervous and tense in the face of a losing opponent to lose to lose. Even during this historic run by ORU, the opponents had no problem making 2s. I’ll be shocked when Paul Mills’ team make it to the regional final. On the other hand, after everything we’ve seen so far, shock has become more or less my default state. Bring it on.
Lunardi: Whoever plays Gonzaga (sorry, Creighton).