Obviously Ohio State wanted to win the Big Ten tournament title. It's depressing to lose a game like that and then get dropped to a 2 seed, while the team that beat you got a 1. But the reality is, Ohio State has an easier path to the Final Four than Michigan State does. Michigan State was handed a brutal bracket, while Ohio State's is very reasonable.
It's not that any of Ohio State's games will be easy (other than the Loyola-Maryland game), but that they don't have any "Oh, that's not fair" opponents, like Michigan State does. Gonzaga and West Virginia are solid 7/10 seeds, but both are fairly placed there. Florida State is a team that can give Ohio State trouble, but they're probably the softest of the 3 seeds in the Tournament. Texas is a very strong 11 seed, but Cincinnati is a soft 6 seed. And if Texas gets to the Sweet 16, it's hard to argue that a "strong 11 seed" is an unfortunate match-up in the Sweet 16.
Syracuse probably has a tougher path to the Elite 8 than Ohio State. I'd prefer to play Florida State than either Vanderbilt or Wisconsin. Syracuse will have a formidable Sweet 16 opponent.
My Picks:1. Syracuse over 16. UNC-Asheville
8. Kansas State over 9. Southern Miss
4. Wisconsin over 13. Montana
5. Vanderbilt over 12. Harvard
11. Texas over 6. Cincinnati
3. Florida State over 14. St. Bonaventure
7. Gonzaga over 10. West Virginia
2. Ohio State over 15. Loyola-Maryland
Thoughts:I wouldn't put any thought into the Syracuse or Ohio State games. There are some feisty 15/16 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, but these two teams are not among them. UNC-Asheville is a team with zero size. They are going to try to get out and run, and they'll know that forcing a ton of turnovers will be their only chance to make the game close. But Syracuse is perfectly fine running, and they'll be happy not having to face a team that can take advantage of their poor defensive rebounding. That will be a blowout. Loyola-Maryland, meanwhile, was probably the fourth best team in the MAAC. They have decent height for the MAAC, and they had success in conference play by pounding the offensive boards. But Ohio State is second in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage (75.2%), facing many front lines more formidable than Loyola-Maryland. This game will be a romp.
St. Bonaventure has been on a tremendous run the past few weeks. They've won 7 of their last 8 games, and were under-seeded as a 14. They should have been a 12 seed, probably. Florida State, meanwhile, is an overrated 3 seed. They were probably a 7 or 8 seed a couple of weeks ago, and flew up for winning the ACC tournament. Florida State is a team that has played to its quality of opponents this season, too, with losses to Princeton, Boston College and Clemson to go with a pair of wins over North Carolina and a pair of wins over Duke. I'm fascinated to see what happens when St. Bonaventure's Andrew Nicholson, the hottest player of Championship Week, goes against the extremely long and athletic Florida State front line. Florida State has more offense than they've had the past couple of years, particularly on the perimeter with Michael Snaer and Luke Loucks. In fact, I think Florida State has a better backcourt than the Bonnies, and that's a problem for St. Bonaventure. Andrew Nicholson is playing great, but being a great shot blocker doesn't do a whole lot of good against a Florida State team that doesn't run much of their offense through the post. And everybody struggles to score inside against the FSU bigs - Nicholson will not be an exception. This game probably should be a 5/12 instead of a 3/14, and so these teams are a lot closer talent than a 3/14 game usually has, but Florida State is the favorite here.
Montana is a pretty good 13 seed, and I know that Wisconsin is always a popular upset pick (because their deliberate, fundamental play tends to fail skin-deep "eye tests"), but I'm not sure I see what Montana's edge is here. Montana is an awful offensive rebounding team and nobody turns Wisconsin over. Wisconsin's defense is spectacular, as they are second in the nation in eFG% against. So Montana won't get extra possessions and they won't shoot well - they're not going to score a lot of points. The only chance they have is if Wisconsin goes into an extended shooting slump. This, of course, has happened this season to Wisconsin. Their loss at home to Iowa was a perfect example of this. But I wouldn't pick Montana just on the off chance that Wisconsin has a historically bad shooting day.
Harvard is a very strong 12 seed (they should have been something like a 10 seed), but unfortunately I don't think they match up very well with Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt is sloppy with the ball, and they struggle against teams that can get in their face and turn them over, but that's not what Harvard does. Harvard plays a very sound defense that pushes opponents away from the basket and limits three-point opportunities. Vanderbilt does have a lot of good three-point shooters, and Harvard will shut that down, but I struggle to see how Harvard will be able to stop Jeffery Taylor and John Jenkins from getting to the rim. Offensively, Harvard wants to get the ball into the paint to players like Keith Wright, but Festus Ezeli is one of the best post defenders in the nation. Even when Harvard got their biggest win of the season, against Florida State, they got almost no offensive production (a 33.0 eFG%). They won because their defense sucked the life out of the Florida State offense. But as I said, I just don't think they'll be able to do that against Vanderbilt, a team that has many more options in attack.
The first thing you should know about the Cincinnati/Texas game is that both Sagarin and Pomeroy rate Texas as the better team. Cincinnati was a borderline bubble team before winning a couple of games in the Big East tournament, including an upset of a Syracuse team that clearly didn't care about winning the Big East tournament. Texas, meanwhile, is wildly underrated. They went only 2-6 this season in games decided by five points or less. With some better luck they'd have been a Top 25 team. What about the match-ups? Texas offensively has a scoring star in J'Covan Brown, but they get most of their offense in the paint. They are a really good offensive rebounding team and get to the line often (they led the Big 12 in FTA/FGA). Cincinnati doesn't foul opponents, but they're a poor defensive rebounding team. Yancy Gates has come on strong late, but Cincy doesn't have much size besides him. Offensively, Cincinnati is not that good. They have good individual pieces, but they tend to be sloppy and ineffective as a team. They finished 14th in the Big East in A/FGM ratio. So I'm just not sure what the argument for Cincinnati is here. If I were Mick Cronin, I'd spend the week practicing boxing out. But I'm also picking Texas to win this game.
West Virginia is a team that seems like they should be better than they are. Kevin Jones is, in my opinion, the best player in the Big East. Truck Bryant is an excellent guard, but he's been too selfish this year for my liking. At the same time, guys like Gary Browne and Jabarie Hinds have potential but have been awfully inconsistent, particularly in the clutch. Kevin Jones against the big Gonzaga front line will be the key match-up. West Virginia allowed a 52.8 2P% against in Big East play, third worst in the Big East. On offense, the problem for West Virginia is that they have no outside shooters. They hit only 30.2% of three-point attempts this season. Will they be able to score inside against Robert Sacre and Sam Dower? I wouldn't bet on it. Gonzaga is my pick.
One of the easier games to pick in this round is actually the 8/9 game, in my opinion. Southern Miss is, as I've said several times, a wildly overrated team. They were one of the luckiest teams this season, and in no way were one of the 37 best available at-large teams. They deserved to get an at-large bid, of course, because they had one of the 37 best available at-large resumes, but that was driven by a 9-4 record in games decided by five points or less or in overtime against Conference USA opponents. Southern Miss is particularly bad defensively, and I expect Kansas State to torch them for an easy win.
My Picks:1. Syracuse over 8. Kansas State
4. Wisconsin over 5. Vanderbilt
3. Florida State over 11. Texas
2. Ohio State over 7. Gonzaga
Thoughts:It's not inconceivable that Syracuse could be vulnerable to Kansas State. Syracuse is an atrocious defensive rebounding team (they finished 341st in the nation in the defensive rebounding percentage), and Kansas State led the Big 12 in offensive rebounding percentage. The problem for Kansas State is that they're very sloppy with the ball and they struggle against zone defenses, which is a lethal combination against Syracuse. The Orange thrive on easy baskets off of fast breaks. Kansas State is also a poor defensive rebounding time in their own right and they don't hit free throws (their fourth straight season below 67.0%). This is the type of game that could easily get away from Kansas State at any moment. Syracuse is my pick.
Wisconsin/Vanderbilt would be a really interesting Round of 32 game. Wisconsin is a strong 4 seed and Vanderbilt is a strong 5 seed. That said, I think Wisconsin is a bad match-up for Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt's biggest defensive strength is in the paint, and their biggest offensive strength is hitting threes. But Wisconsin is probably the best three-point defensive team in the nation (they were 2nd in the nation in 3P% against and 3rd in the nation in defensive 3PA/FGA ratio). And on offense, Wisconsin is a perimeter-oriented team that isn't going to test Festus Ezeli much. That said, Vanderbilt is good at preventing three-pointers also (they led the SEC with a 28.9 3P% against in conference play). If the threat of Ezeli causes Wisconsin to become too reliant on shooting threes, and those threes don't fall, Vanderbilt will win. But Vanderbilt is going to struggle too much to score. Wisconsin is my pick.
One thing you can certainly say about the Florida State/Texas game is that there will be a lot of offensive rebounds. Both teams can get after the boards, but both are bad at boxing out on defense. Texas is the more explosive offensive team, but they rely a lot on points in the paint. Nobody scores in the paint against Bernard James, Xavier Gibson and Jon Kreft. Texas is going to have to hit outside shots, which has not been a formula of success for them this season (a 32.7 3P%). Florida State won't score a lot against the athletic Texas defense, but they won't need to score a lot. They are my pick.
Gonzaga's offense has been efficient this season (1.07 PPP in conference play), but they haven't seen a defense like Ohio State has. There will be no open shots to be had. The offensive spark for Gonzaga has been Kevin Pangos. He's not their best player, but he's been the offensive spark in games like the recent wins over BYU and St. Mary's. In the WCC tournament, Gonzaga fell to St. Mary's in large part because Pangos was shut down (3-for-18 from the field). Pangos, as a freshman, has never seen a perimeter defense like Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith and William Buford. Ohio State seems like a pretty easy pick here.
1. Syracuse over 4. Wisconsin
2. Ohio State over 3. Florida State
I'm not going to assume that everybody chose to put Wisconsin into the Sweet 16 against Syracuse. I'm sure plenty of you disagreed with me and picked Vanderbilt. That's fine. But if you do picked Vanderbilt, I wouldn't pick them past Syracuse. Vanderbilt has struggled all season against defenses that can pressure them on the perimeter and turn them over. They're very sloppy with the ball, and Syracuse will eat them alive. Wisconsin would be a much tougher opponent for Syracuse because of the fact that they are great at transition defense, don't turn the ball over and don't allow offensive rebounds. Syracuse is going to have to grind out offense in the half court, which they tend not to be great at. That said, this year's Syracuse team is better at scoring in the half court than their recent teams have been because of the improvement of Kris Joseph and Dion Waiters.
The concern for Wisconsin is on offense. They have a tendency to struggle against long, athletic zones that can push them out behind the three-point arc. If Wisconsin is forced to take a lot of long three-pointers, Syracuse might be able to get out on the break off of long rebounds. Syracuse also has more depth than Wisconsin, and will be playing closer to home in Boston. So while Wisconsin has a great chance to win this game, I have to pick Syracuse.
As for Ohio State, their defense is too good for anybody to score too many points against them. When Ohio State has struggled this season it's been when their offense has struggled and they've gotten into a low-scoring grind-out battle. The big change with Ohio State's offense this year is that they don't shoot threes well anymore. Last season they led the nation with a 42.3 3P%. This year they are only hitting 32.5% of threes. If a team has enough post defenders to handle Jared Sullinger one-on-one, and to also keep DeShaun Thomas under control, Ohio State will struggle to score against them. I don't think Texas really has that ability (I'm pretty sure that Sullinger would get Clint Chapman into foul trouble quickly, and Texas doesn't have much front court depth beyond that). Florida State does have the interior defenders to handle Ohio State. I can definitely see the Buckeyes struggling to score. But Pomeroy rates the Ohio State defense better than the Florida State defense, and I think the Miocene Era was the last time Florida State beat a team with a better defense than them. Their offense, while improved, is not good enough to carry the defense to victory. Ohio State is my pick.
2. Ohio State over 1. Syracuse
In a lot of ways, Ohio State is a tough match-up for Syracuse. They led the Big Ten in offensive rebounding percentage in conference play, which means that they can take advantage of Syracuse's big defensive rebounding problems. Also, Aaron Craft is a steady point guard who should be able to limit turnovers. In the post, I would argue that DeShaun Thomas will be more important than Jared Sullinger against Syracuse. Sullinger will struggle scoring against Fab Melo, but I'm not sure Syracuse has a player that can guard Thomas. And the ability of Thomas to handle the ball and score from 15 feet makes him the perfect zone-beater.
Ohio State led the Big Ten in defensive rebounding percentage and defensive FTA/FGA ratio, so if you're going to score on them you need to score on a one-and-done opportunity. You must find a way to get an open shot. The concern there is that Syracuse doesn't have the post scorers to go after the softest part of the Ohio State defense, in the post. Dion Waiters and Kris Joseph are going to struggle to score in the half court against Ohio State. Throw in the fact that the computers all rate Ohio State as the better team (the Buckeyes would probably be a three point favorite in Vegas), and Ohio State is my pick.
Syracuse would fare better against either Florida State or Texas. Florida State, while better offensively than in the past, is still offensively anemic compared to a team like Ohio State. Florida State was last in the ACC in offensive turnover percentage in conference play (they turned the ball over on 22.5% of ACC possessions), so Syracuse would get a whole bunch of easy baskets and blow the game open. Texas would probably be a more formidable opponent, though I wonder how a Rick Barnes-coached team would be able to handle the best zone defense in the game. Texas tends to do too much one-on-one basketball on offense, and that's never going to work against Syracuse.
Should Wisconsin get past Syracuse, they'll obviously pose a serious threat to Ohio State. Both games between those two teams were close this year, with each team winning on the other's home court. Ohio State has the offensive patience and experience to be able to probe the Wisconsin defense and take advantage of any imperfections. Jared Sullinger has consistently been a big problem for Wisconsin to deal with. Jordan Taylor is one of the only players that can outplay Aaron Craft one-on-one, but Wisconsin doesn't have any post players that can threaten Sullinger and Thomas. Wisconsin's only chance would be getting hot behind the arc, and I wouldn't want to be betting on that. I'd pick Ohio State here.