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Top seeds at a glance
Here's a look at the top seeds in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, and why they will — or won't — reach the Final Four:
LOUISVILLE (Midwest region)
Why they’ll be playing in Atlanta: Defense, defense, defense. That’s what wins championships, right? Well, that’s what Rick Pitino teaches. The single statistic he takes most pride in with his teams is the number of deflections they have, and in one Big East tournament game this week, Pitino pointed out that his team had more deflections than in any other game he coached, college or NBA. Louisville’s conditioning is among the best in college basketball, so the Cardinals are able to keep up 40 minutes of constantly pressuring on the perimeter.
Why they’ll be watching the Final Four on TV: Well, you gotta make baskets, and Louisville doesn’t always do that. The Cards started to, though. They’re still ranked 101st in the nation in field-goal percentage. But Russ Smith’s breakout game during the Big East tournament, in which he scored 28, bodes well for this team’s biggest Achilles heel.
The key: Will Russ Smith be Good Russ or Bad Russ? A 2-for-13 shooting night by Smith, which he did earlier this season in Louisville’s upset at Villanova, would doom Louisville’s chances.
KANSAS (South region)
Why they’ll be playing in Atlanta: Experience. This is not just one of the most experienced teams in college basketball, with four of five starters who are seniors. This is a team with serious experience in March after making it all the way to the title game last season. And while Kentucky won the national title last year with a squad dominated by underclassmen, this season has been an abject lesson in the importance of upperclassmen.
Why they’ll be watching the Final Four on TV: Perhaps you heard about the time that Kansas trotted out a gang that Coach Bill Self compared to the Topeka YMCA. That was after one of the biggest upsets in college basketball in years, when fifth-ranked Kansas lost to TCU, which currently is 237th in RPI. That was in the middle of a three-game swoon, in a game in which Kansas scored only 13 points in the first half. Chalk it up to this wacky college-basketball season, but Kansas’ inconsistency — including a 23-point blowout at Baylor that cost Kansas the outright Big 12 title — is alarming.
The key: Kansas’ defense, with shot-blocking machine Jeff Withey manning the middle, is one of the best in the nation. That’s not the Jayhawks' worry. But can they make enough shots? Specifically, can Ben McLemore — who has been one of the best offensive players in the nation when he plays at Allen Fieldhouse, but has had too many disappearing acts on the road — assert himself?
INDIANA (East region)
Why they’ll be playing in Atlanta: They score. A lot. Indiana ranks second in the nation in points per game, seventh in field-goal percentage, first in adjusted offensive efficiency. Coach Tom Crean likes his talented scorers to run. Cody Zeller is the most agile 7-footer in college hoops, Victor Oladipo is the most athletic player in college hoops (and this season’s biggest breakout player), Christian Watford is a Robert Horry-like presence in the clutch and Yogi Ferrell is a whirling dervish at the point.
Why they’ll be watching the Final Four on TV: In the space of one week, Minnesota and Ohio State gave us two very different blueprints on how to beat Indiana. Minnesota had its muscular big man shove Cody Zeller around in the post and take him out of the game. Ohio State played merciless perimeter defense, harassing Indiana’s guards all night. There’s little doubt that Indiana is the nation’s most talented team, but the Hoosiers are not anywhere near Kentucky in 2012. Indiana is very beatable.
The key: As much as people have showered praise on Oladipo for his Player of the Year-caliber season, this team still revolves around Zeller. In four of Indiana’s five losses, Zeller seemed to disappear in each game for several minutes at a time. The worst-case scenario in the NCAA Tournament is for Zeller to repeat his performance against Minnesota — 2-for-9 shooting, nine points, seven rebounds and four turnovers. This team’s future revolves around Zeller taking charge.
GONZAGA (West region)
Why they’ll be playing in Atlanta: Forget the mid-major asterisk that everyone places on Gonzaga. In Elias Harris (14.9 points per game, 7.4 rebounds per game) and Kelly Olynyk (17.5, 7.2), the Zags might have the best frontcourt in the nation. And while their backcourt duo of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. isn’t Burke/Hardaway-style elite, the two are very, very good. Gonzaga is one of the most well-rounded teams in college basketball, and head coach Mark Few’s best chance yet to get over that Elite Eight hump.
Why they’ll be watching the Final Four on TV: Um, about that mid-major asterisk. It’s still there. As much as we think Gonzaga has passed the eye test, as much as we can cite its 5-0 record against Big 12 teams in non-conference play, the Zags still play in the West Coast conference, which is 10th in conference RPI. Gonzaga’s strength of schedule is 95th in the nation, so we don’t really know how they’d match up to a Duke or a Louisville.
The key: Not letting the title of No. 1 seed get to their heads.
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