There are few times of the year that are better to sports fans than March. In that spirit I asked the writers of Maize n Brew to talk about this wonderful time and make a few predictions of what to expect over the next three weekends.
Which of the Big Ten's three four-seeds has the easiest path to the final four? Which has the hardest?
Maize in Spartyland (Blog) - I really like Wisconsin's chances to make a run. They face a tough match-up with Montana, who is led by guard Will Cherry, one of the country's leading scores and one of the top two guards in the Big Sky (Damian Lillard of Weber State being the other). Wisconsin would face Vanderbilt or Harvard in the second round, either of which the Badgers match-up well with.
If I was an Indiana fan, I'd be VERY concerned with their first round match-up with New Mexico State. The Aggies are one of the top scoring teams in the country and Indiana has not been defensively sound. They also have struggled a bit away from Assembly Hall and are missing crucial sixth-man Verdell Jones III.
Alex Cook (@Alex_MnB) - Out of the trio of Big Ten four seeds, it's a tossup as to who can go the furthest. I personally think that Michigan has the easiest route to the Sweet Sixteen as Temple is worse than Vanderbilt and Wichita State are, but I have to figure that Wisconsin is most likely to go further than that as the Wolverines have North Carolina and Wisconsin has Syracuse as potential opponents in the Sweet Sixteen. I know that Indiana has beaten Kentucky this year, but losing Verdell Jones III is rough and whoever they'll potentially get in the round of 32 (be it either VCU or Wichita State) will be a tough draw. If I'm making a prediction off of the top of my head, I'd say that Michigan makes the Sweet Sixteen, Wisconsin loses to Vanderbilt, and Indiana loses to Wichita State. Unfortunately it looks to be a tough year for the four seeds in the Big Ten, although for how good the league is, I wouldn't be surprised to see any of us make a good run.
Dave Ryan (@dryanbball) - Wisconsin looks to have the easiest. Aside from possibly having to go through the Buckeyes to get there, the Badgers don't have to play a team that has actually proven itself to be a Final Four contender. Vanderbilt is prone to getting clipped early, Syracuse now has serious issues in the paint without Fab Melo, and Florida State might not have the offense to sustain a deep tourney run. I'll officially go down on record as saying the Badgers will lose to Montana in the second round on a miracle buzzer-beating three-pointer, even though I absolutely love their draw and would wish it upon Michigan.
And because Indiana's path to New Orleans will almost assuredly go through Kentucky, Tom Crean's Hoosiers get the nod for the most daunting road in my book. I'm not sure there's a team in the field that's fully equipped to stop the Wildcats right now. The fact that Indiana beat UK in Bloomington back in December tells us nothing, since it's painfully obvious that the Hoosiers were a different team away from home this season. I will be flat-out stunned if the Hoosiers reach the Elite Eight.
Holdin' the Rope (@HoldinTheRope) - Honestly, I think Michigan has the "easiest" path to NOLA. Of course, no easy path truly exists. However, let's look at Indiana. Not only are they in the same region as Kentucky, but they have a relatively tough match up against New Mexico State in the first (or third, whatever they call it these days), and then a very difficult test in either Wichita State or VCU in the next round. Wisconsin is probably looking at facing a tough Vanderbilt team in its second game, with the Badgers having to go through Syracuse to get to the regional final. If they get there, they're likely looking at the Buckeyes or Seminoles coming from the other side of that region. At the same time, a chalk bracket would have Michigan going through UNC and Kansas en route to NOLA, so you could say that Michigan's path is "easier" only because the probability of them losing in the first two rounds seems to be lower than either Indiana or Wisconsin.
Zach Travis (@Zach_Travis) - Probably Wisconsin, but for the sole reason that Syracuse is the most vulnerable of the three one-seeds. I think Michigan has the best path to the Sweet Sixteen, but I fear for anyone playing North Carolina. Indiana won't be able to recreate the magic against Kentucky. However, I don't trust Wisconsin to go the farthest of the three. I just don't trust the Badgers, and I think Indiana and Michigan will both get bounced by ones in the Sweet Sixteen.
Ohio State or Michigan State: who makes a deeper run in the tournament?
Maize in Spartyland - I like MSU's chances to make a deeper run than Ohio's. MSU has a tougher road, once they hit the Elite Eight, but I also think they are a deeper team. Even with the Dawson injury, Michigan State has the depth if they get into foul trouble. Ohio's title chances entirely hinge on the health and smart decisions of Jared Sullinger, William Buford, and Deshaun Thomas. The Buckeyes also have matchups with better defensive teams - Cincinnati or Florida State and Wisconsin or Syracuse. On the other hand, Missouri is a great offensive team, but their defense can be fairly porous.
Alex Cook - Ohio State. They have an easier road to the Final Four and Michigan State has to deal with an injury to a key contributor. Since both teams are pretty close to evenly talented, I'll go with the Buckeyes because frankly, it will be hard for the Spartans to make it to the Final Four. I know that Tom Izzo is particularly good at getting to the Final Four
and losing but I don't see it this year. I can however, see Ohio State matching up well with every team in their region and perhaps beating North Carolina in the Final Four.
Dave Ryan - Michigan State. The Spartans are definitely in the tougher region, but are still a very strong Final Four candidate as far as I'm concerned. State fans have to feel confident about the way Draymond Green has taken over this team as both a go-to scorer and a leader over the last few weeks. And, when push comes to shove, I'll take the team led by Green over the Ohio one led by Jared Sullinger any day of the week. The Buckeyes rely a little too heavily on the whistle to be considered a sure thing from what I've seen, and it's bothersome that star big man like Sullinger has now reached a point where he's expecting foul calls almost every time down the floor. Will some of the whistles he got during the Big Ten season be there against Kevin Jones and West Virginia, or Bernard James and Florida State's front line? Once the Spartans get through Memphis I think they should be okay, but I think Ohio State will find itself in a dogfight every time it hits the floor.
Holdin' the Rope - I think the Spartans make the deeper run. Branden Dawson's absence didn't seem to hinder MSU much in the BTT, and I think their region is not quite as tough as some people are indicating. They do have possibly the peskiest 8/9 match up awaiting them in the second round, but I still think they roll all the way to the regional final at least. They will need more from Appling than they got in the tournament championship game, though. The Buckeyes are supremely talented, but inconsistent 3-point shooting will be their undoing at some point. At the same time, I could see the Buckeyes making it all the way to the title game, so I guess taking the Spartans here is like investing in a safe, steady mutual fund as opposed to the risky boom or bust stock that is OSU's outside shooting.
Zach Travis - I have to go with the Spartans, which is the exact opposite of what I would have said had you asked me a week ago. I really expected the Dawson injury to hurt Michigan State, but the way the Spartans played in the Big Ten tournament was as impressive as any team to win it in years. Ohio State just seems too streaky. I see some team sneaking up on OSU when one or more of the big three have an off night.
What is the first one-seed to fall this year?
Maize in Spartyland - I have Syracuse falling to Wisconsin. I've seen Syracuse play this year - they play a ton of close games, but have the talent to eek out wins. Problem is, Syracuse has looked shaky at times. They are also used to playing guard dominated teams, which means jump shooting is their game - they don't like getting down on the blocks and grinding out buckets, outside of Fab Melo, who will not play in the NCAA Tournament due to eligibility issues. Wisconsin has some solid jump shooters, especially with Jordan Taylor. They can slow down the tempo, creating headaches for the opposition, but they can also play down on the blocks. Ryan Evans and Jared Berggren have picked up a lot of boards. Syracuse's low totals for the year for points in the paint - 18 and 20 - came in losses, to Cincinnati and Notre Dame, respectively. If the opposition clogs the middle and forces bad shots, Syracuse (and Coach Boeheim) will be the first one seed heading to the golf course, rather than back to the basketball court.
Alex Cook - For reasons I've gone into above, I'll go with Michigan State. I figure that Kentucky will make it to the Final Four, North Carolina will probably make it as well, and Syracuse has a very good shot of making it to the Elite Eight. Michigan State -- the last one seed -- will have to survive a tougher slate than any of those teams to make it into the Elite Eight or the Final Four.
Dave Ryan - I think it's Syracuse, mainly because of how integral Fab Melo would have been to a deep run. With him out of the picture I really believe the Orange will be on upset alert as soon as things go final with UNC-Asheville. Melo was one of the biggest reasons why 'Cuse's zone has been so efficient this season, and he was a beast on the back end. It needs to be said that Syracuse is probably more equipped to deal with a loss like this than others because of how insanely deep this rotation goes, but how are we not talking about the most beatable of the No. 1 seeds by a longshot after this latest gut punch?
Holdin' the Rope - I think it will either be Syracuse or UNC that falls first. I have not yet convinced myself into penciling the Wolverines into my Elite 8 (i.e., they would of course have to go through the Tar Heels to get there), so I think Syracuse is the answer here. I have no idea how I would go about researching this, but I think it's safe to say that Syracuse might be one of the worst rebounding teams to ever get a 1-seed. For the same reasons that I think rebounding mitigates the fact that the Spartans' talent level is not as high as it has been, it does the opposite for the Orangemen. Ranked 341st out of 345 teams in defensive rebounding percentage, it's actually sort of astounding that Syracuse's record is what it is. Like OSU's 3-point shooting, this is Syracuse's fatal flaw, the thermal exhaust port in their Death Star.
Zach Travis - Syracuse. The Orange just have too many weaknesses inside and rebounding to put together a sustained run and the duo of UNC and Kentucky are odds-on favorites to make the Final Four. So the question becomes: can Syracuse cobble together enough rebounding and a sufficient defense to outlast a Michigan State team that could be susceptible to fast-paced teams that can attack void left by the injured Brandon Dawson. I trust Michigan State over Syracuse in this situation.