Tuesday, March 17, 2009

March Madness Preview: South Regional Breakdown

2009 Tournament: Schedule and Preview (can be found here)
Tuesday 1pm ET: South Regional Preview (can be found here)
Tuesday 5pm ET: East Regional Preview (can be found here)
Wednesday 9am ET: Midwest Regional Preview (can be found here)
Wednesday 11am ET: West Regional Preview (can be found here)
Thursday 9am ET: An inside look at entertaining announcer Gus Johnson (can be found here)
Thursday 12:20 ET: 2009 Tournament tips off with Butler and LSU from Greensboro, NC

Bracket to View can be found here

Bracket to Print can be found here

I’m here to preview the South region of this year’s NCAA Tournament. Along with some slightly subjective analysis of each team in the region, I’ll be throwing some hard numbers about each team at you (you'll find them in the graphics included in every paragraph). These include Pomeroy ratings of the efficiency of each team’s offense and defense (a predictor that looks at how many points each team gives up for each 100 offensive and defensive possessions. For more go here, and for a full list of every team in Division 1 Basketball go here). Also included is the Pythagorean calculation for expected win percentage, which predicts the likelihood of a team winning. The best part about all these ratings is that they are adjusted for how the teams would play on a neutral court, just like the NCAA tournament. The number in parenthesis is where the team ranks in all of NCAA Division 1 basketball in that category. Now put away your abacus and let’s take a look at each of these sixteen teams.

North Carolina (28-4, #1)

Ty Lawson’s toe is what will make the biggest difference in how far North Carolina can advance in this tournament. He played in the regular season finale win against Duke and finished with 13 points, 9 assists, 8 rebounds, and a bag of ice on his toe. Lawson didn’t play in the ACC Tournament because of the toe, and because, with a top seed locked up, Carolina didn’t need to play him. It will be interesting to see how Lawson is able to cope with one day’s rest between games from round to round. Outside of Lawson, there are the usual suspects in Tyler Hansbrough, who is having a pretty quiet season by his standards, averaging a little over 21 points per game. The surround cast for North Carolina is solid with Wayne Ellington and Danny Green. Green struggled in the ACC Tournament though, he’ll need to step his game up, particularly with Lawson hurting. Carolina has the talent to get to the Final Four, but they do face some stiff competition in this region, they will have to prove themselves against unpredictable teams like Gonzaga, Syracuse, or Arizona State, and Blake Griffin’s Sooners. The Tar Heels are strong on the glass, solid at the line and have incredible efficiency on both sides of the ball.

Player to Watch: Ty Lawson

Radford (21-11, #16)

Want to know what Radford has going for them? Well, they score a heck of a lot of points. If anyone had a chance to see the Radford-VMI Big South championship, it was high scoring, back and forth basketball throughout. The second thing that Radford has going for them is one of the coolest names (not to mention that he's a good player) in 6'11"
Belorussian Artsiom Parakhouski (it's the second best name of the tournament, after Alabama State's Chief Kickingstallionsims). Parkhouski was the Big South player of the year, and earned it by averaging a double-double. The big man is complemented by Kenny Thomas in the backcourt. If anything, Radford will be a fun team to watch with their full throttle offense. They aren't the stereotypical run and gun team though, with Parakhouski holding down the low post. While they almost certainly will not beat North Carolina, The Highlanders style of play might at least make the game pretty fun to watch.

Player to Watch: Artsiom Parakhouski

LSU (26-7, #8)

LSU has a solid inside-outside game between its two leadings scorers, guard Marcus Thornton (16.3 ppg) and forward Tasmin Mitchell (20.7 ppg). What LSU doesn’t have though is proof of any quality wins. The Tigers had the best record in the regular season, but in a conference that only has three bids, and would only have two if not for Mississippi State’s SEC tournament run, that’s not saying a whole lot. What is more telling is what they did it non-conference play, where they lost to Xavier, Texas A&M, Utah, and even Washington State. All of those losses were by 10 points or more, which to me shows that LSU has not been particularly competitive against quality opponents. LSU only has two wins against the NCAA tournament field this year, both against Mississippi State. If the Tigers have one advantageous aspect to their team, it’s their senior leadership with three starting seniors and no freshman in the starting lineup.

Player to Watch: Marcus Thornton

Butler (26-5, #9)

In the frontcourt Butler has a strong duo in Horizon Player of the Year Matt Howard (14.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and Horizon Newcomer of the Year freshman Gordon Hayward (13.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg). Joining the freshman Hayward in the starting lineup are two more freshman in the backcourt, Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored. Hayward is impressive from behind the arc, where he shoots almost 45% on the season. Butler staved off pretty strong competition from within the Horizon League to win the league's regular season championship. They dropped the tournament championship to Cleveland State but it was after Butler was already assured a place in the field of 65. One problem that the Bulldogs face is a lack of height (no one that gets playing time is over 6'8"). They are generally young and inexperienced, which may translate into taking the tournament by storm, or may conversely translate in a poor showing. Don't be surprised by a first round exit or by Butler putting a scare into North Carolina in the second round.

Player to Watch: Gordon Hayward

Illinois (24-9, #5)

Illinois comes into the tournament with one of the best defenses in the country. While they don’t necessarily create a ton of turnovers, or at least enough to give them a huge advantage, they make the opposition take tough, well-defended shots. Unfortunately, their big defensive stopper, guard Chester Frazier, is out with a broken hand meaning the Illini will be without probably their best matchup defender. Frazier doesn’t offer a lot offensively, but neither does the rest of the Illinois team really. Trent Meachem is the only meaningful offensive player who is shooting 40% or greater from three point land while Mike Davis and Demetri McCarney lead the team in scoring with just a shade over 11 points per game each. They’ll need to work the ball into Davis and 6’11” Mike Tisdale, especially against a much smaller Western Kentucky squad in the first round. Illinois will need to rely heavily on defense to make it anywhere in this tournament. If they find themselves behind in any games they’re in serious trouble with a lack of outside shooters and an overall lethargic offense.

Player to Watch: Trent Meachem

Western Kentucky (24-8, #12)

Western Kentucky does seem to have an average offense and an average defense, but there does seem to be a perfect storm brewing for the Hilltoppers in their first round game against Illinois. Illinois holds their opponents to less than 30% shooting from behind the arc, but without Chester Frazier, the Illinois defense takes a hit, and Western Kentucky has players like A.J. Slaugher, Orlando Mendez-Valdez and Steffphon Pettigrew, all of whom can hits threes and take advantage of that downgrade in the Illinois defense. Center Jeremy Evans, while providing little on the offensive end will need to hold his ground, play defense, and rebound well as he is Western Kentucky’s only real height at 6’9”. WKU will want to play a guard-oriented perimeter game and keep the ball out of the posts, on both sides of the ball, as much as possible. While seemingly not as good as last year’s Sweet 16 team, if they can do this, they have a chance provide an upset in this tournament.

Player to Watch: Orlando Mendez-Valdez

Gonzaga (26-5, #4)

Gonzaga is a strong candidate to take a shot at knocking out North Carolina in the Sweet 16. Their backcourt is led by Jeremy Pargo, who has had a quiet season compared to last season, and Matt Bouldin, who is big (6’5”), can score, and can even handle the ball. Bouldin is also a threat from deep, and is one of three players who shoot over 40% from long range (6’11” Josh Heytvelt is one of them). I doubted Gonzaga in early February when they were being blown out by Memphis in Washington. But two things happened, they came storming back in that game and only lost by 18 points (it should have been much worse) and they dominated their league to finish the season, capping it off by trouncing St. Mary’s in the WCC championship. Complementing their backcourt is the aforementioned Heytvelt and forward Austin Daye, who are the leading and third leading scorers on the team respectively. Furthermore, this team plays great defense, ranking second overall in the Pomeroy rankings (behind Memphis). But just take a look at the difference between the field goal percentage they shoot and the field goal percentage that their opponents shoot. That’s an astounding 12% difference, and the Zags don’t play in a terrible conference. This team has experience, can score, but even more so can play defense. I would be surprised if they don’t make some noise in this tournament.

Player to Watch: Matt Bouldin

Akron (23-12, #13)

Akron emerged from the logjam that was the top of the MAC, beating Buffalo in the conference tournament to claim and #13 seed. The Zips are led by the frontcourt of Chris and Brett McKnight, but seem to spread the scoring out evenly among the team’s five starters. Nate Linhart joins the brothers in the frontcourt and is the team’s leading rebounder. Their backcourt lacks size but is athletic (5’9” and 6’), and overall they are likely to be outrebounded when facing Gonzaga. Their field goal percentage is also fairly low at 41.9%, which is barely better than the solid (from a defensive standpoint) 40% shooting that they give up. The team is average at best at shooting the three, so they’ll have to look inside to the McKnights and hope to win by trying to bring the game to a slower tempo.

Player to Watch: Nate Linhart

Arizona St. (24-9, #6)

Arizona State has sound offensive and defensive efficiency, as well as a strong overall likelihood of winning games. They’re a pretty straightforward team and I like them to make a run at some of the stronger teams in this region. They shoot a much higher percentage from the field than they give up. The Sun Devils have a strong inside-outside game between leading scorer
James Harden (21 ppg) and 6’9” forward Jeff Pendergraph 14.5 ppg, 8.4 rpg). They have proven that they can win away from home and that they can control the tempo of games, keeping them lower scoring and to their advantage. They have an experienced coach in Herb Sendek and that has translated into a well disciplined team that plays its style and forces other teams their style, while controlling and taking care of the ball. They’ve proven that they can contend with, and beat some of the better teams in the country.

Player to Watch: James Harden

Temple (22-11, #11)

Dionte Christmas is the driving force behind this Temple Owls team. He averages nearly 20 points per game, and is capable of more if the Owls need him to carry them through stretches of games. Christmas seems to come up big in big games, which is exactly what Temple will need from him when they go up against the stingy defense and slowed down pace of Arizona State. Temple got into the tournament by winning the Atlantic 10 tournament and surely will try to ride that momentum into the first round. The Owls have a few solid non-Christmas players in Ryan Brooks and Sergio Olmos, who can be a force inside, but they certainly seem to lack dept, It’s likely that as Christmas goes, so go Temple.

Player to Watch: Dionte Christmas

Syracuse (26-9, #3)

Syracuse showed how much heart and determination they have in their six overtime win over Connecticut, their one overtime win over West Virginia, and after all that, still giving Louisville, the top seed in the entire tournament, a run for its money in the Big East championship game. Syracuse has a very strong backcourt, led by Jonny Flynn, who seems to have endless energy and a quick first step on drives to the basket. He leads the team in scoring and assists, dishing out nearly 7 a game. He is joined in the backcourt by Eric Devendorf, who is always a threat from outside and is the Orange’s second leading scorer Their guard play is further enhanced by sixth man Andy Rautins, who seems capable of knocking down big threes from anywhere on the court. Rautins by no means shies away from firing shots in crunch time at the end of games. If he’s shooting well, Syracuse is going to be in great shape. The Syracuse frontcourt by Paul Harris, who seemed to dent the rim (seriously, it seemed like he missed lot of layups and dunks) more than score during the Big East tournament and averages nearly a double-double every game. This team certainly has the components to make a strong tournament run, especially with their legs back underneath them after a four days of rest. While their overall team free throw percentage is 64%, four of the five starters shooting free throws in the 70% range and their overall average is dragged down by C.C. Sabathia lookalike Arinze Onuaku who shoots 30%.

Player to Watch: Andy Rautins

Stephen F. Austin (24-7, #14)

Stephen F. Austin will be in big trouble unless he manages to find four other people to play with. Okay but seriously, the Lumberjacks of SFA offer a very strong team on the defensive side of the ball. They hold opponents to only 27% shooting threes, a number that they’ll surely need to keep up to stay competitive with Syracuse in their first round matchup. Guard Eric Bell is only 5’3”, so it will certainly be interesting to see how he matches up with the Syracuse backcourt. Matt Kingsley is the Southland player of the year and averages a shade over 16 points per game, and a shade under 8 rebounds per game. SFA will have to rely heavily on their ability to play defense and get the ball inside on the offensive end. They have almost no perimeter offense, which means a lot of their success relies heavily on Kingsley. Stephen F. Austin is making their first NCAA tournament appearance, they’ll want to make the trip last as long as possible, even if it’s just one game. To be successful they’ll have to do just that, they will need to slow down the game tempo as much as possible and keep the opposition off the scoreboard.

Player to Watch: Matt Kingsley

Clemson (23-8, #7)

Clemson started the season 16-0 and like years past have limped into the tournament. K.C. Rivers, the team’s second leading scorer, is a threat from behind the arc and seems to be a driving force behind the team’s success or failure. In the Tigers’ ACC Tournament loss to Georgia Tech Rivers shot only 4-14. He did suffer an arm injury earlier this month, which may be
affecting his shot. They’ll need him to step up his own shot efficiency in the tournament. Clemson’s leading scorer and rebounder is Trevor Booker (15.3 ppg, 9.7 rpg). The 6’7” big man will need to establish himself inside and play bigger than he is to be fully effective. Guard Terrence Oglesby will also need to continue his solid scoring efforts and his backcourt partner Demontez Stitt will need to drastically cut back on turnovers for Clemson to put together anything more than a win over Michigan, if that.

Player to Watch: K.C. Rivers

Michigan (20-13, #10)

Michigan will need to rely heavily on what every John Beilein team has ever relied on: three point shooting. Led by the Big Ten’s second leading scoring Manny Harris, Michigan is making its first tournament appearance in over a decade. Michigan also has some of the worst numbers out of anyone in the South region, as they have a dreadful record away from Ann Arbor
and are the only team in the region to shoot a worse field goal percentage than their opposition over the course of the season. That isn’t helped by the Wolverines lack of rebounding, as they are outrebounded by 3 rebounds per game. They will look to Zack Novak and Zack Gibson to help on the boards, unfortunately Novak attempts more three pointers than he does collect rebounds. Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims will get their points, but it is up to the supporting cast to complete the job for Michigan to advance to the second round. Like Beilein’s old West Virginia teams, it comes down to the execution of three pointers and his 1-3-1 defense. Point guard C.J. Lee offers very little besides ball handling, and Stu Douglass, of all people, may have a big say in how well the Wolverines do. He was efficient from behind the arc in their upset win over UCLA, and singlehandedly kept Michigan competitive with Connecticut in Storrs in February. If he and Novak are on from behind the arc, Michigan can get a big win or two.

Player to Watch: Stu Douglass

Oklahoma (27-5, #2)

Oklahoma will certainly be happy to have the best player in the country, Blake Griffin, back, healthy, and ready to go for the tournament. Teaming up with his older and often forgotten about brother Taylor, the Griffins together combine for a very strong frontcourt at over 30 points and 20 rebounds per game. A big factor in the success of Oklahoma is how much of the load they try to throw on Blake Griffin’s shoulders from an offensive standpoint. The three guard backcourt of Willie Warren, Austin Johnson, and Tony Crocker have all shown flashes have sharing the offensive load, but have also lacked consistency, particularly as the season began to wind down and Griffin was missing from the lineup with a concussion. The guards turn the ball over entirely too much (Oklahoma turns the ball over more than their opponents do, which may come back to haunt them). The Griffins controlling the boards are a huge advantage for the Sooners, but much like in Marches of the past, guard play will play a huge role for all teams, Oklahoma is no different. They need their three guards to step it up and take some of the offensive load off B. Griffin while taking good care of the ball for the team to have a shot at the regional final, never mind the Final Four.

Player to Watch: Willie Warren

Morgan St. (23-11, #15)

Coach Todd Bozeman leads Morgan St. into this tournament, and he faces a monumental task in Oklahoma in the first round. Bozeman was the head coach at Cal during the mid-90s before resigning over recruiting violations. Now over ten years later, he’s back in the tournament. Junior Reggie Holmes is the team’s leading scorer, but it will be the team defense that will get them anywhere in the tournament. Morgan St. beat Maryland earlier this year, so they have the capability to compete with tournament caliber teams, unfortunately their lack of offense and overall talent will do little for them, especially with the unfortunate draw of a matchup with the best player in the country. They’ll need a huge game from Rodney Stokes on the defensive end and on the boards if they have any hope of trying to contain the damage that can be inflicted by Blake Griffin. While Holmes and Marquise Kately, who came over as a transfer from Bozeman’s old school, lead the offense, they need the interior presence of Kately, Stokes and Kevin Thompson to have a prayer of making it to round two.

Player to Watch: Rodney Stokes/Kevin Thompson

Now for my picks (if you're in the March Madness pool that I'm in and trying to get a sneak peek at my bracket, I'm really picking a Michigan- Akron regional final, I swear):

The one game I really, really, really want to change is Gonzaga beating North Carolina. I think it's very possible that it can happen (especially with Lawson's health up in the air) but I couldn't pull the trigger on my bracket because I already had Oklahoma being knocked out by Clemson and I really don't want to envision a Gonzaga - Syracuse Elite 8 matchup. Although they did play a combined seven overtimes against Connecticut this year. For some reason I just don't think Oklahoma will make it to the regional final. Their backcourt has been entirely too inconsistent over the last few weeks and Blake Griffin can only do so much.

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