When the great Dr. James Naismith created the game of basketball way back when, he intended for it to be a vigorous, demanding, speedy game played as fast as possible. He certainly didn't have the Four Corners offense in mind. The West Bracket in this year's NCAA Tournament would make the good doctor proud.
Boasting a stable of thoroughbreds, the name of the game is speed in the West Region. Marquette gets up and down the court like few teams in the country, while LIU-Brooklyn and Missouri are among the Top 10 points per game. Whether they rely on efficient offense (Michigan State, New Mexico, Florida), transition opportunities (Long Beach State, Norfolk State) or a combination of both (Memphis, Davidson, Marquette), we have exciting and dynamic basketball to look forward to this weekend.
At the same time, there are also suffocating defenses to play Scrooge to all of our fun. First round opponents Saint Louis and Memphis boast the nation's tenth and eleventh best defensive ratings, according to KenPom.com. We all know Michigan State bodies up on D, and Virginia combines the nation's fifth best defensive rating with the sixth slowest offense to squeeze the life out of opponents. The Selection Committee really had some fun here, mixing a couple of sloths into an entire lineup of Usain Bolts.
Colorado State and Norfolk State are the only West Region teams not ranked in the Top 50 nationally in either points per game or points allowed per game. So the West has balance, and it should make for exciting, fast-paced basketball with potential for some classic thrillers.
I am really tempted to take Michigan State, because they rebound, Izzo always has his teams at their best in March and picking against Sparty has made me look stupid more than once before. But the truth is that Missouri is emerging out of this bracket alive. In fact, Frank Haith's squad is my pick to win their first ever national championship.
I believe strongly in the importance of guardplay during the NCAA Tournament, and the Tigers have the best of the bunch. With efficient scoring from Marcus Denmon and Kim English, and Phil Pressey acting as floor general, the offense is ferocious. They share the ball, get to the free throw line and make their threes. If one of them has an off night, there are always other options, like Mike Dixon, ready to step up. Yes, height is an issue, but it has been all season, and the Tigers lost just four games to three teams and beat Baylor (for the third time this year) to win the Big XII tournament.
After they blow out Norfolk State, I'm especially excited for Missouri's second round matchup. If it's Florida, then we'll get to watch the nation's No. 3 offense challenge the nation's No. 1 offense. If it's Virginia, then we have the old Unstoppable Force vs. Immovable Object playing out before our eyes with the nation's sixth highest scoring team against the nation's sixth slowest tempo. Either way, the Tigers - and my prediction - are in for a real test.
Five Players To Watch
- Drew Gordon (New Mexico) - The Mountain West tournament MVP is the Lobos' leading scorer and by far their leading rebounder, but by far his greatest strength is as a defender. If Gordon can be New Mexico's go-to scorer when the going gets tough, the Lobos will be really tough to beat.
- Kenny Boynton (Florida) - Florida is kind of like Missouri Lite, and that would make Boynton a Marcus Denmon Lite. I have Virginia beating the Gators in the first round, but if Boynton gets going his teammates will follow and we could have a problem on our hands.
- Kyle O'Quinn (Norfolk) - Mr. Do Everything for the Spartans needs a monster game to make an impact against Missouri. He averaged 16.3 ppg and 8.0 rpg to lead Norfolk State to the Mid-Eastern tournament title, and is an excellent shot-blocker - will that lead to foul trouble for O'Quinn or frustration for Missouri's slashing guards?
- Isaiah Canaan (Murray State) - Here I just went rambling about the importance of guardplay, and now I'm predicting that the Racers won't make it out of the opening road. It's admirable for any team in the country to pull of a 30-1 record, but I'm not convinced by a team that relies on its point guard to keep up an atmospheric 128.3 ORtg. Will they be exposed? Or are we looking at the next great March legend? It's up to Canaan.
- Draymond Green (Michigan State) - As mentioned above, Michigan State is really good in March, and the reliable senior could very well carry them to yet another Final Four appearance.
Who will overachieve?
Memphis. This is everyone's under-rated team to watch in the entire Field of 68, but it's really tough to overstate it. I have Will Barton and the Tigers taking out Michigan State in just the second round.
Who will underachieve?
Louisville. This is another team that is getting a lot of attention as a deep run sleeper, but I'm unconvinced that their recent surge is for real and underdogs that rattle off improbable four game winning streaks to take their conference tourney don't historically last long in the Dance. Louisville is fantastic defensively with Gorgui Dieng, but I think Davidson - the nation's twelfth-highest scoring team - could give them a run, and if not, the Cardinals face a really tough matchup in Round 2 whether they get New Mexico or a rematch with Long Beach.
Describe this bracket in one word