The grinder mentality of Xavier Thames and his teammates could put the Aztecs in title contention.
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The great thing about the NCAA tournament: Anyone can win it.
OK, not anyone. I guess anyone can win it, in the same way anyone could have won a billion of Warren Buffett’s dollars.
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But there are teams whose chances are about as impossible as those odds. Cal Poly wasn’t going to be cutting down any nets in April. Nor was Albany, despite the good run it had against No. 1 overall seed Florida in the Round of 64.
But once we get to the Sweet 16, the head-in-the-clouds optimism of the first weekend – if you’re in, you can win – becomes much more grounded in reality. Make it to the second weekend, and it honestly is a bounce here, a bounce there, and you’re in the Final Four.
What follows is one reason each of the 16 teams left standing could be celebrating in AT&T Stadium (a.k.a. Cowboys Stadium, a.k.a. JerryWorld) on April 7.
I’m going to put them in reverse order, from least likely to most likely. Do I think the chance of my 16th-ranked team (Stanford) is equal to my top-ranked team (Arizona)? Of course not.
But I think the Cardinal have a chance.
16 — STANFORD
A hugely talented starting five: One Pac-12 coach told me Stanford has the most talented starting five in the conference – a huge statement, considering the NBA-level talent at UCLA and Arizona. Depth matters less in late March than it did in February. At tipoff Thursday, Stanford will have had four-plus days since its last game. Dwight Powell is playing like the NBA-level big whom many project he’ll become; Chasson Randle is a big-time scorer; Josh Huestis is long and athletic in the post; Anthony Brown chooses his spots but makes threes at a higher rate than nearly anyone in the country; Stefan Nastic still is a large person, and he has been scoring a bit, too. This starting five is big, too — as a team, Stanford ranks sixth in the nation in height, according to KenPom.com. Most teams will struggle with that.
Archie Miller’s blue-collar mentality: This March’s biggest Cinderella story reflects its coach as well as the city it comes from. "It kind of reflects on us how we play, very passionate, very hard-working, a blue-collar team," Dayton senior guard Vee Sanford said Wednesday. "He’s a blue-collar guy who comes to work every day, a businesslike approach, and that’s how we are." It’s an approach that plays well in one of America’s most underrated basketball towns, where University of Dayton hoops is the city’s big-league team and draws an impressive 12,000-plus per game. That blue-collar mentality is reflected in how this team shares the ball and shares minutes: Nine players average 10-plus minutes, and four players score 9.9 points or more per game. Nothing flashy here. Just solid, winning basketball.
14 — IOWA STATE
Fred Hoiberg’s brilliant calm under pressure: If you aren’t yet putting Fred Hoiberg in your list of elite college basketball coaches, you haven’t been paying attention. Without any coaching experience before landing the top job at his alma mater, he was a dubious hire everywhere outside of the state of Iowa, which welcomed him back with exuberance. He has made three NCAA tournaments in four years for a program that hadn’t made the tourney since 2005. Few coaches are better at exploiting the NCAA transfer rules. Few coaches get better results out of timeouts than The Mayor. And nobody better exploits matchups. He’ll need to pull a bunny out of his hat to win it all, though, after his biggest matchup nightmare, Georges Niang, went down with an injury.
13 — UCONN
Shabazz Napier: If there’s anyone in this tournament who could pull a Kemba Walker and put a team on his back, it’s the whirling senior point guard who scored four points (to Walker’s 16) in UConn’s 2011 national title victory but who now is this team’s Kemba.
12 — SAN DIEGO STATE
The Aztecs are grinders: Coach Steve Fisher’s team always seems to slip under the radar, but Xavier Thames is a top-10 point guard nationally, Josh Davis is one of the country’s best rebounders and the Aztecs’ choking defense is one of the nation’s best, forcing mistakes with the press and then using length to dominate the glass. But if the Aztecs do win, it ain’t gonna be pretty. I was in San Diego in January and saw the Aztecs win one of the ugliest offensive games I’ve seen. Afterward, the players didn’t seem worried that their team didn’t make a field goal in the final eight minutes. "We’re just worried about the defensive end," Thames said. No team’s mentality more says "grinders" than this team’s.
11 — TENNESSEE
Advanced metrics: Cuonzo Martin’s team has 12 losses this season, a resume for a First Four play-in team if I ever saw one. But study the advanced analytics, and this is a far better team than its record. KenPom.com, the best source of college hoops information on the web, has Tennessee ranked as the sixth overall team in the nation. This is because many of Tennessee’s losses were close losses, but many of its wins were blowout wins. This is why Tennessee was considered a popular first-weekend upset pick. That, and the two 6-foot-8, 260-pound manchildren down low, Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon.
10 — WISCONSIN
Taking care of the ball: Only one team in the nation has a lower turnover rate than Wisconsin (Georgia State . . . who knew?). This is a talented offensive squad, one of the most efficient in the Bo Ryan era.
9 — BAYLOR
That massive front line: That front line. Oh, that front line. No one in the nation can look at Baylor’s bigs and say, "Hey, I think we match up pretty well against 7-foot-1 Isaiah Austin, 6-foot-9 Cory Jefferson and future NFL tight end Rico Gathers [6-foot-8, 270 pounds]." Coaches have nightmares about teams like this. Add the fact point guard Kenny Chery is healthy – Baylor’s midseason swoon happened when Chery was dealing with turf toe – and you have one of the most dangerous teams still standing.
8 — MICHIGAN
3-point shooting: Live by ’em, die by ’em. Wow, can this team shoot the ball. Wow, does this team shoot the ball. Michigan hits nearly 40 percent of its 3s, good for sixth in college basketball, and nearly 35 percent of its points come from 3s, which is 21st in college basketball. Nik Stauskas hits 3s at a 45 percent rate. When the 3s are falling, this team is unstoppable. When the 3s are clanking – as against Michigan State in the Big Ten title game – this team is utterly beatable. Fun fact (which isn’t so fun if you’re a Michigan fan): In seven of its eight losses, Michigan shot below its season average from 3.
7 — UCLA
Momentum: This team was a pretty good, fast-paced, fun team all year. It looked awful losing its regular-season finale at Washington State (218th in RPI). Since then, Steve Alford’s run-and-gunners look like one of the best teams in college basketball, especially when UCLA beat the nation’s best defense, Arizona, in the Pac-12 championship game. Why? It’s all about having fun, which makes this team play loose. Alford took his men into the locker room after that Washington State loss, showed the players highlight clips of them running and dunking and having fun, and told them they needed to enjoy the journey. They have responded and haven’t lost yet. Fun plays well in Westwood.
6 — KENTUCKY
If you can beat Wichita State, you can beat anyone: The Wichita State Shockers looked like a national title-contending team on Sunday when they played Kentucky. Kentucky was just one basket better, playing its best game all season when it mattered most. The Harrison twins (Aaron and Andrew) played their best combined game of their college careers, scoring 39 points, while Julius Randle fed from the post instead of forcing shots, James Young made shots when it mattered most and Willie Cauley-Stein looked as if he’d found himself again on the basketball court. This team had been a hugely talented dumpster fire most of the season, but the Wildcats are catching legitimate fire as an 8 seed. I still fear the young Wildcats will make a huge, Chris Webber-like mental mistake when it matters most. But wow. The team on Sunday looked like the 40-0 team some people were prophesying about in November.
5 — LOUISVILLE
The Pitino Press is college basketball’s best system: Forget Shaka Smart’s Havoc. Pitino has the answer at Louisville. The national-title-winning team from a season ago looked nearly impossible to beat from February on, and it had nothing to do with offense. It was how Pitino used his incredibly conditioned athletes to force opponents into mistakes. This year’s version definitely is junior-sized compared to a year ago. Louisville struggled against its mirror image in the Round of 64 against Manhattan, then turned over the ball more times against Saint Louis than it had all season. But the kind of chaos the Pitino Press brings to the college game is hard to prepare for. Louisville gets more steals than all but one team in college basketball: Smart’s VCU team.
4 — VIRGINIA
There is no star: No highly ranked team is as anonymous as Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers. In college basketball, a game in which teamwork gets you wins while focusing on individual stars gets you bounced in the first weekend (see: Duke, Kansas), that’s a good thing. The Cavs score at a plodding 65.8 points-per-game clip, ranking 294th in college hoops, with no player averaging more than Malcolm Brogdon’s 12.6 points. No matter. It’s near impossible to get an open shot against this stout pack-line defense.
3 — MICHIGAN STATE
The Spartans are healthy, finally: Coach Tom Izzo said earlier this year that Spartans players had missed more practices this season than the previous five seasons combined. That makes it tough to even practice, let alone play. But Sparty is back and healthy, and once again is playing like one of the nation’s best. The only concern is Keith Appling’s lingering wrist issues. Since returning from his injury in mid-February, Appling hasn’t looked like the guy who made a case to be the nation’s top point guard the first couple months of the season. Travis Trice, however, has been an admirable backup.
2 — FLORIDA
Experience matters: In the supposed Year of the Freshman, how appropriate that the team with the No. 1 overall seed starts four seniors. Florida’s lone one-and-done possibility, Chris Walker, hardly plays after sitting out much of the season with academic and eligibility issues. Florida’s ability to win it all, however, may rest with a sophomore: Michael Frazier II, the team’s lone reliable gunner, who hasn’t been all that reliable as of late. In the NCAA tournament he has made 3 of 13 3-point attempts. But he’s just as liable to have another game like he did against South Carolina on March 4, when he made 11 of 18 from 3-point land.
1 — ARIZONA
Defense wins championships: And no defense is better than Arizona’s. That’s according to KenPom.com (which has the Wildcats tops in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency), and according to my own eyes. I’ve seen these guys plenty in the past few weeks. My Lord. It’s as if Tony Bennett’s fundamentally perfect Virginia defense were stretched out a few inches and given a few dozen extra pounds of muscle. This is what blue-chip talent looks like when it has help defense in which players seem to have ESP on what their teammates are thinking. Aaron Gordon may not lead this team in points, but he leads this team in energy, and the rest of the group follows, especially on defense. They’ll win it all. Trust me.