Well folks, we’re really here. A season that started five months ago with 351 teams believing they could win a national championship (well, 350 teams. Pitt never had a chance) is down to just 16 schools left. And thanks to a slew of upsets last weekend, we’ve got a nice balance of teams heading into the weekend. There are traditional powers like Kentucky, Kansas and Duke, true upstarts like Loyola (IL) and Nevada and a few in between teams like West Virginia, Texas Tech and Florida State.
So with Sweet 16 games tipping tonight, let’s talk some hoop. My friends at KSR have you covered from the Kentucky perspective, but let’s look at each individual region, and the storylines heading in. Today, we’ll do the West and South regions (since they play tonight) and tomorrow we’ll hit the East and Midwest.
West Region (Thursday/Saturday): No. 9 Florida State vs. No. 4 Gonzaga; No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 7 Texas A&M
The favorite: Michigan
Truthfully you could probably go with either Gonzaga or Michigan as the favorite here. My personal choice would probably be the Zags, but I’m guessing from a public perception standpoint its Michigan. The Wolverines are the Big Ten Tourney champs and the highest seed here. Even though they needed a miracle to get past Houston, they’re probably the most obvious choice.
And while we’re on the subject, how about that win last weekend? More importantly, how about John Beilein? In a world where so many coaches get justified hype as being “great” (Tony Bennett, Mick Cronin), Beilein truly is a rock star in coaching circles. His teams play smart, they get better during the season, they’re always prepared and are always a threat in March. Keep in mind, in the last six years, Michigan has now made the second weekend of the tourney four times. Virginia and Cincinnati have each made it once over that stretch.
By the way, you know what my favorite thing about the John Beilein experience is? How about that little doozy of a play he drew up last Saturday to beat Houston? Honestly, I watch a lot of college basketball, and I watch a lot of coaches’ draw up garbage out of timeouts. Even when they draw up the right thing, their players never seem to actually execute it. Yet there was Michigan last weekend with Beilein grabbing a clipboard, drawing up the perfect play and his players absolutely running it to perfection for the win.
For all the hype that Tony Bennett gets as a coach, “coaching” isn’t running a specific system, regardless of time or score. It’s adjusting on the fly and having your players prepared for whatever might come at them. Beilein is a hell of a “coach.” And Michigan is the favorite in this region.
Feel Good Story: Mark Few
Normally I’d say the feel good story is Florida State advancing as a No. 9 seed – but ultimately I’m not sure that there is anything “feel good” about Florida State basketball. There’s only so many times you can watch Leonard Hamilton stare into the abyss as his teams haphazardly runs around the court without knowing what they’re doing, before you kind of just say “I’m over Florida State.” Even after upsetting Xavier last weekend, did you really feel like Florida State was that great? Or that Xavier just fell apart?
So with that said, how about Mark Few? I know he’s not the warmest, cuddly character, but man has he quietly been good over the last couple years. Remember, it was just one year ago – ONE – where we were asking “Can Mark Few win the big game.” Now he’s got Gonzaga potentially on the verge of a second straight Final Four.
Beyond that, do you know how good this guy has been overall? First off, he’s made 19 straight NCAA Tournaments – and I don’t care what conference you’re in (and Gonzaga’s conference is bad), that’s pretty incredible. He’s also made four straight Sweet 16’s; a feat that Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State can’t claim. And he’s doing it at a small, private school in Spokane, Washington with absolutely zero basketball tradition before him.
Again, I know that Gonzaga isn’t the sexiest team to talk about. But we’re witnessing a Hall of Fame career right in front of our eyes.
Story Worth Keeping an Eye On: Texas A&M
Of the 16 teams left in the NCAA Tournament, there really might not be a more bizarre story than the Texas A&M Aggies. This was a club that many (including myself) picked to win the SEC in the preseason, and for a big chunk of November and December looked like that team. They beat West Virginia, USC, Oklahoma State and Penn State in the out of conference, and reached the Top 10 nationally. Then they completely fell apart once SEC play started, had virtually every key player suspended or injured at one point, and even had to throw a few players off this team.
Want to know how bad things got? I go on radio every week in College Station and the radio hosts legitimately asked me one day: Do you think Texas A&M even wants to be in the NCAA Tournament? Following the loss to Alabama in the SEC Tournament (remember Collin Sexton’s buzzer-beater) some were even calling for head coach Billy Kennedy’s job.
Yet then the Aggies made the NCAA Tournament and…. OH MY GOODNESS. “November Texas A&M” and showed just how scary they can be. The Aggies absolutely destroyed North Carolina last weekend in Charlotte, which doubled as just the second NCAA Tournament loss the Tar Heels have ever had in North Carolina during the Big Dance, and also the worst NCAA Tournament loss of Roy Williams’ career. That’s a pretty horrifying proposition when you think about.
So yeah, the Aggies are playing insanely well, and the scary part is, they’re just starting to realize it. I was at Texas A&M media day at Staples Center on Wednesday, if Sunday’s win over North Carolina was a learning lesson for them, and if it taught them how good they could be. To a man, they all said “yes” and they seem especially locked and loaded headed into the weekend.
That’s a scary thought for the West Region and a scary thought for all of college basketball. The Aggies are good enough to get to San Antonio.
Who will win this bracket and how it will go down: Gonzaga over Texas A&M
I know I said off the top that Michigan was probably the favorite in this region, but as I just mentioned, I truly believe that the Aggies are the wrong matchup for them, and that Texas A&M will win. Michigan has size, but they are more of a finesse team and I’m not sure that physically they can match up with Tyler Davis and Robert Williams III down low. The Wolverines are the better team. But in a tournament of matchups, the matchups favor the Aggies.
In the other game, well, to put it succinctly I like Gonzaga. They are the better, more talented team, and are playing closer to home where they should get the overwhelming fan support. Florida State is a nice story, but like I said, it just felt like they beat Xavier last weekend more so because Xavier was playing tight, than because Florida State was the definitively better team. Also, does anyone else worry that the Seminoles will have a “Happy to Be Here” attitude following their surprising win last week?
And in the final game, I like Gonzaga. With three NBA prospects in their frontcourt (Rui Hachimura, Killian Tillie and Jonathan Williams) they are one of the few teams that can matchup in the paint with the Aggies. Add in better guard play and the home-court advantage and the Zags will be going to their second Final Four in as many years.
South Region (Thursday/Saturday): No. 5 Kentucky vs. No. 9 Kansas State; No. 7 Nevada vs. No. 11 Loyola (IL)
The favorite: Kentucky
Sorry UK fans, I know you don’t want to hear this. I know that you prefer to be flying under the radar, prefer to let idiot “experts” (like me, for example) pick teams like Arizona and Michigan State to make deep tournament runs. You prefer the less people talking about you the better. I totally get it. I’d feel the exact same way if you were.
Unfortunately, when the No.’s 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 seeds all lose in the first weekend it sets up a regional, where yes, Kentucky is the overwhelming favorite. Not only are they the highest seed, but they are also the most talented team. And it doesn’t hurt that – for the craziest fan-base in the country – these games are only a short drive away. That’s especially the case when you consider that none of the other three schools in this region are within driving distance.
It will set up a fun atmosphere in Cat-lanta where the Wildcats are heavy favorites to win.
Best story: Loyola (IL)
I mean, in the same way that picking Kentucky as the favorite in this region is a no-brainer, isn’t picking Loyola as the best story in this region a no-brainer as well? After all, along with Syracuse, the Ramblers are the lowest seed left in the tournament and advanced thanks to a pair of near buzzer-beaters against Miami and Tennessee. Their fans also dress like goofy extras in a Harry Potter movie, and then there’s little, old “Sister Jean” the 98-year-old team chaplain that accompanies the team everywhere they go.
Ultimately, Loyola is about as “March as it gets,” the feel-good story that no one saw coming. And they will be the fan favorites in Atlanta this weekend.
Story to Keep An Eye On: Nevada coach Eric Musselman
So if you guys listen to the Aaron Torres Sports Podcast – and if you don’t, you’re wasting your life – you know that I have been hyping Eric Musselman since long before it was cool to hype Eric Musselman. Heck, I was hyping Eric Musselman since before most anyone knew who Eric Musselman was. As I’ve said many times: In Muss, We Trust!!
If you’re looking for a summary of my Musselman rants, just take what I said about John Beilein and apply it here: In a world where we love to overhype head coaches (cough, Mick Cronin, cough), Musselman is the full package. He isn’t a guy who has a “system” or needs the “right pieces” to build his team. You know what his system is? “Give me five guys and I’ll figure it out.” Seriously, this is a guy who is down to seven scholarship players right now. He had to bring two players over from the Nevada football team just so he could run five-on-five scrimmages in practice. And he still coached circles around Mick Cronin last week.
Great Eric Musselman story: When he was coaching in the CBA, his three best players were once called up to the NBA during a flight changeover. Literally lost a third of his team mid-trip. You think that dude is afraid of anything he'll see in the NCAA Tournament?
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) March 19, 2018
IN MUSS WE TRUST!
The Muss Buss is rolling into Atlanta and America better be ready. This guy is a rock star and everyone is just finally starting to figure it out.
Who’s Going to Win and How It’s Going to Go Down: Kentucky over Nevada
Again, I know you guys hate me for putting it out there this way. But I’m always honest with my audience – good, bad or other – and I truly believe Kentucky is the favorite in this region.
Let’s start with tonight’s game against Kansas State. To backtrack a bit, I think we can all agree that there are scenarios where Kentucky can lose in this NCAA Tournament. They could run into a hot shooting team (like Auburn when they played a few weeks ago). They could run into a big, physical team like Texas A&M. They could run into a veteran team that just executes their stuff perfectly (like Michigan for example). The problem is, I don’t see any of those examples applying on Thursday night. I truly believe Kentucky would have to play its worst game of the season to lose to Kansas State.
In the other semifinal, well, I’m riding the Muss Buss. The simple truth is that while Nevada may be a “mid-major” by on paper, but they’re a high-major team in reality. Their two best players (Cody and Caleb Martin) began their careers at NC State and a third starter Kendall Stephens began at Purdue. The Wolf Pack aren’t deep, but) I think they might have the three best players on the floor, in the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline. They’ll beat the Ramblers to advance to the Elite Eight.
And in the Elite Eight – and please don’t hate me – I actually like Kentucky. Nevada is a really, really good team, but like I said, they have just seven scholarship players. Kentucky’s size, length and depth will be too much.
I truly believe Kentucky will be headed to San Antonio next weekend.