NCAA Tournament Preview: South Region
By: Dave Maloney
With the premiere of ESPN’s 30 for 30 “I Hate Christian Laettner,” on Sunday night after the brackets were finally revealed to the nation, perhaps the hatred for the Blue Devils was reignited. There is no team in college basketball that is hated on as much as Duke, and this can be accredited to their continued success year in and year out. Coach K has evolved his coaching style while the game has evolved over the past two decades, and now is one of the most successful coaches in recruiting top freshmen talent (as well as John Calipari). He has sent the likes of Kyrie Irving and Austin Rivers to the NBA, but this 2015 Blue Devil’s team may feature Krzyzewski’s most talented freshmen class lead by ACC player of the year Jahlil Okafor as well as point guard Tyus Jones and forward Justise Winslow. These freshmen started every game this year guiding Duke to a 29-4 record, but failed to win the ACC regular season and tournament crowns. The Duke haters question how can the selection committee grant Duke a number one seed in the South region after failing to win their conference, but regardless the Blue Devils are the favorites to win this region and book their ticket to the final four. Jahlil Okafor is just a walking double-double and I don’t see any team in this region that is going to have a big man who has the size, strength, and quickness to contain Okafor. You can try to double-team him too, but that won’t have too much success for he has great poise for a freshman big and can pass the ball remarkably well. The only real negative to his game is when he gets to the free throw line. He only shoots 51% from the charity strike, and if the Blue Devils find themselves in a close game, you may see a team use the “hack-a-Shaq” strategy against Okafor to put the pressure on him to beat you by knocking down free throws instead of posting you up. Quinn Cook’s senior leadership is going to be a huge factor for Duke’s success in the tournament especially if Duke ever finds themselves facing adversity at any point. Cook along with Amile Jefferson are the only members of this team that have actual tournament experience, but Tyus Jones and Okafor have not been playing like freshmen all year. So how do you beat this Duke team? In the ACC tournament the Notre Dame Fighting Irish revealed a possible blueprint to take down the Blue Devils. Mike Brey (a Coach K disciple) decided to let Jahlil Okafor get his points, but made it a point of emphasis to limit Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook’s production. The Irish were successful, not allowing Jones or Cook to find their rhythm the whole game. Could an underdog use Brey’s formula and upset the Blue Devils in the south? I’m sure all the Duke haters will be praying for that to happen, just like Mercer last year.
Another team that the nation tends to dislike is Gonzaga, who are the two seed in the south region. Every year analysts talk about how good the Zags are for four months and they end up winning the sub-par West Coast Conference with an inflated record entering the tournament. However, this regular season success never translates into any success in the month of March. The image that symbolizes this assertion the best is Adam Morrison crying his eyes out after losing to Aaron Afflalo’s UCLA Bruins in the 2006 Sweet Sixteen. In recent memory after having one of their best years in school history, Gonzaga looked to finally make some noise as a one seed in the 2013 NCAA tournament but got bounced out in the round of 32 by Wichita State. So will this be the year that the Zags finally live up to the hype and make it to the school’s first ever final four? I believe that this may be Mark Few’s most talented and balanced team. While I feel making it to the final four will be a difficult task for the Bulldogs, I however don’t see a way that this team can get upset early and fail to make it to the second weekend. Gonzaga is lead by two senior guards Kevin Pangos (who may have the nicest hair in college basketball) and Gary Bell Jr. which is a key component to this team for guard play is a crucial factor to make deep runs in the tournament. These two guards distribute the basketball extremely well and help create chances for their teammates as well as themselves, and that’s why the Zags lead the nation in field goal percentage at 52.4% and are sixth in assists averaging just under 17 a game. Add West Coast Conference player of the year into the picture, Kyle Wiltjer, who is a prolific scorer dropping just shy of 17 points a game and has a deadly stroke from behind the arc shooting 46.6%. While playing against the Bulldogs you better be as efficient as they are offensively for they clean up the glass extraordinarily well, ranking second in the nation in defensive rebounds. A team with great guards, a great scorer, a highly efficient balanced offense, and a defense who doesn’t give up any second chance points seems to be a pretty good tournament team and will be hard to knock off. If you are a Gonzaga fan, you are just hoping that history does not repeat itself.
Which teams can upset the top two seeds?
In the top half of the region, I believe that Duke has a fairly easy path of making it to the Elite Eight. However, if the San Diego State Aztecs are able to beat St. John’s in the eight nine match-up, the Aztecs could create a lot of match up problems for the Blue Devils. Steve Fisher, known for his “Fab 5” Michigan team has had this Aztec team become a defensive juggernaut over the last couple of seasons. The only problem is they have not had tremendous success in the tournament, but were able to make it to the Sweet Sixteen last year and return key members from that team. This San Diego State team’s defense is second in the nation in points per game, only surrendering 53 points and match up significantly well with Duke. Winston Shepard and J.J. O’Brien are two talented forwards that will most likely take turns on guarding Okafor, but I believe he will still be able to be productive offensively. The key is if Shepard can work Okafor defensively, and maybe get him into foul trouble or get him to expel more energy on the defensive side of the ball instead of his offensive game. Another huge match up would be between senior guard Aqeel Quinn up against Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook. If Quinn can have a huge game and limit either Jones’s or Cook’s production, San Diego State may have a solid chance. This game would come down to who controls the pace. Duke is going to want to play at a quicker pace and try to score around 80 points, while San Diego State will want to slow the game down and keep Duke around 60 something points. The Aztecs will definitely play good enough defense to be in the game, the question is will they be able to make enough shots down the stretch?
Looking at the bottom half of the bracket, Gonzaga should be able to make it into the Sweet Sixteen without having a scare. Although if Davidson is able to sneak by the seven seed Iowa in the first round, it could pose for a really intriguing match up against two of the nation’s top offenses. Davidson coming from the A-10 Conference is a highly efficient offense scoring 79.9 points per game and are third in the nation in assists. Any team that can move the ball around and share the wealth like this Wildcat team can have the potential for a Cinderella story. This Gonzaga team cleans up the boards extremely well, so if the Wildcats want to upset the Bulldogs they are going to have to knock down their shots. It certainly helps out for Davidson’s case that their two leading scorers Tyler Kalinoski and Jack Gibbs shoot over 40% each from three. The x-factor in this match up is junior guard Jordan Barhum. Kalinoski and Gibbs are going to put up their points, but if Barhum can give the Wildcats some production this may be another short-lived tournament for Gonzaga. Barhum shoots over 47% from the perimeter, so the Bulldogs are going to have their hands full guarding this Wildcat team along the perimeter. If Davidson has a hot shooting night, this game could get real interesting especially since it is just a single elimination tournament.
Potential first round upsets
No. 13 Eastern Washington over No. 4 Georgetown
The committee loves the Big East for some reason that I don’t know. Butler and Xavier were granted underserving six seeds and this Hoya team is definitely overrated considering it is positioned as a four seed. Yes beating Villanova was impressive, but that is truly the only quality win Georgetown has this year after failing to beat Wisconsin and Kansas, and losing multiple times to Xavier and Providence. John Thompson III’s team has not had the best tournament track record over the past five years either with loses to: No. 14 Ohio, No. 10 Davidson, No. 11 VCU, No. 11 N.C. State, and No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast. That’s five straight loses to teams with double-digit seeds! No. 13 Eastern Washington has a system were they love to get up and down the court to score, and that’s why they are a top three team in points per game (averaging about 81 per game). Another reason for that may be sophomore guard Tyler Harvey who is the nation’s leading scorer averaging 23 points a game. D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera is going to have to have a huge game for the Hoyas to keep up with the pace that Eastern Washington is going to play at. A key factor in this game could be its location since it will be played in Portland, Oregon and Eastern Washington may get some support from the crowd. If Eastern Washington is able to shoot a high percentage from the field, Georgetown may suffer its sixth straight loss to a double-digit seed in the tournament.
No. 12 Stephen F. Austin over No. 5 Utah
When filling out your brackets you always look towards that 5-12 matchup for an upset. Every year in the tournament a twelve seed has always knocked out a five seed, so you would be wise to at least pick one in your bracket. Stephen F. Austin is a really good defensive team and likes to get up in your face and pressure the ball in a hectic half court defense. This style of play forces a lot of turnovers, but could also create easy chances if you are able to break through it. The Lumberjacks were bracket busters last year defeating VCU in the opening round in a thriller and return most of that nucleus from last year’s squad. Utah is a team that has struggled in the later part of the Pac-12 season, recently losing to Oregon on a buzzer beater in the Pac-12 semi-final game. This Utah team plays great team defense and has size down low, which could make for a interesting potential match up with Duke further down the road, but their weakness is they are inconsistent offensively. They go through scoring droughts that put themselves in bad situations, which Stephen F. Austin can exploit. If Utah wants to avoid that dreaded upset to a twelve seed, they are going to have to get a big game from their star Delon Wright.
Elite Eight Showdown
Prediction: No. 1 Duke vs. No. 3 Iowa State
The Duke haters can hate all they want but this Blue Devils team is for real.
This team is way too talented to not make it to the Regional Finals. They may have some hiccups along the way against San Diego State or even maybe against Utah in a potential Sweet Sixteen showdown but the explosiveness of Jahlil Okafor and the backcourt of Jones and Cook will be too much for those teams to handle. On the other side I like this Iowa State team coached by the great basketball mind of Fred Hoiberg to beat Gonzaga and advance to the Elite Eight. The way that this team was able to be resilient and come back against Kansas in the Big-12 Championship game proves that this team is ready to compete with the best teams in the nation. Georges Niang is the most talented forward in the nation, and I hope we actually get to see this match up with him against Okafor. Niang can post you up, hit a “Dirk Nowitzki-esque” fade away, beat you on the dribble to the hole, and can also knock down his triples (shooting about 40%). What more can you want from a player? There is no limitation to his game, and to me has the best offensive skill set that will translate the best into the NBA. The difference maker for the Cyclones is their heart and soul, Jameel McKay. He will get the call from Hoiberg to guard Okafor in this match up and he will probably have as much success as you can going up against such a talented post player. McKay has great length and speed, which could make things difficult for Duke to score inside the paint. The Big-12 defensive player of the year will definitely leave his mark on the floor, and his energy with Niang’s scoring could propel the Cyclones to the Final Four.
I find it fitting that the most dominant post player in college basketball in my lifetime (granted I’m only 21) has the chance to play the Regional Final game in Houston. Yes I may be young but I grew up hearing stories of Phi Slama Jama, the first ever-dunking fraternity of the Houston Cougars in the early 80’s. That Houston squad made it to two consecutive NCAA Championship games lead by of course the great Clyde Drexler and one of the most dominating centers of all time Hakeem Olajuwon. Olajuwon was a presence that was never quite seen before, and was drafted number one overall by Houston in the 1984 NBA draft. Jahlil Okafor will probably share the same fate as Olajuwon in the fact that he will be the number one overall pick in this upcoming draft, but can he leave his own mark in the tournament like Phi Slama Jama. In a basketball culture where it is more trendy to jack up three pointers than a hook shot in the lane, and we see the center position becoming devalued its great to see a talent like Okafor develop into the player he is and to even play for the most despised team. This is his time to shine, his moment to grasp, and this tournament he will showcase his talent to the whole nation. A talent like this does not come around too often, that is why it is important to appreciate it while it’s here. I believe that no one can stop him or this Blue Devil team in the South, not even a talented Iowa State team, and Duke will be going to Indianapolis to compete in the Final Four.