At first glance
The top two seeds in this region, Indiana and Miami, have been two of the more consistent teams in an inconsistent year of college hoops. They’re clearly the best two teams in the East, but the next four seeds – Marquette, Syracuse, UNLV and Butler – are dangerous if they’re on their game.
This might be the region to bet chalk on most of the games.
By the numbers …
1 – Number of tournament victories for Montana in its past six trips to the Big Dance. They’re often a popular upset choice, but picking the Grizzlies normally hasn’t been wise.
18 – Margin of victory for Colorado State over Washington (73-55) at Alaska Airlines Arena on Nov. 24.
27 – Margin of victory for Miami over Duke on Jan. 23.
INDIANA: The Hoosiers have two future lottery picks in Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo. They have very good role players, led by Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford and Yogi Ferrell. They are a good three-point shooting team, making 41.1 percent of their attempts. They’re a solid defensive team. And they can win at a variety of paces. What’s not to like? Only their 3-3 record down the stretch. But those losses, to Minnesota, Ohio State and Wisconsin, were all against tournament teams and perhaps were the result of a long season of competition in the Big Ten, college basketball’s best conference this year. Don’t expect any carryover into the NCAA tournament.
MIAMI: The Hurricanes, who won the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season and tournament, have a legitimate gripe about not being a No. 1 seed. For goodness sakes, they beat Duke by 27 earlier in the season. They have seven players who average at least 21.3 minutes per game, and their seven-man rotation is as good as any in the nation. This is a good, veteran, tough team.
BUTLER: You can never count out a Brad Stevens team. He led the Bulldogs to title game appearances in 2010 and 2011. His team has been up and down this season, but Butler beat two No. 1 seeds (Indiana, Gonzaga) earlier in the year.
BUCKNELL: I’m loving Butler as the sleeper — unless Bucknell beats the Bulldogs in their opening matchup. The Bison have a good senior center, Mike Muscala, who averages 19 points and 11 rebounds. It’s hard to go against Butler because the Bulldogs have been so successful in the tournament recently, but the Bison, the Patriot League champions, are 28-5. They have that record because of good balance (four players average double figures), an efficient offense and a defense that limits opponents to 37.8 percent from the field.
Headed for a fall?
MARQUETTE: The Golden Eagles are tough and consistent. They had only one bad loss this season, and it came to an intrastate rival, Wisconsin-Green Bay. But there’s nothing dynamic about this team. They have only two players averaging double figures. They aren’t a good rebounding team. They’re ripe to be upset the first weekend.
Oladipo and Zeller are big-time players, but the best in the East might be UNLV freshman forward Anthony Bennett, who is versatile and athletic and makes the Runnin’ Rebels a threat in this region. Miami point guard Shane Larkin, the son of baseball Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, leads the Hurricanes, averaging 14.2 points and 4.3 assists per game.
Jim Larranaga led George Mason to the 2006 Final Four. He’s popular because he’s an affable coach, but the man gets the best out of his teams, too. When Larranaga goes to his “scramble” defense, the Hurricanes can change the tenor of any game.
Best players you might not have heard of
Mike Muscala, Bucknell: We mentioned the 6-11 center earlier and for good reason. He can score inside and outside. He rebounds like crazy. He’s a matchup problem for any team in this field.
Khalif Wyatt, Temple: The senior averages 19.8 points and 4.1 assists and will be a major problem for North Carolina State in their opening matchup.
De’mon Brooks, Davidson: He is why Marquette could be in trouble. Brooks is a quality forward who should benefit from the defensive attention that his teammate, 6-10 forward Jake Cohen, will receive from the Golden Eagles’ defense.
And the winner is …
Indiana. When in doubt, go with the most talented team you can find that is also well coached. The Hoosiers are just that. Tom Crean will have them ready. They went to the Sweet 16 last year and should be hungry. Indiana is the most dangerous of all the national title contenders.