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Everyone loves to find the Cinderellas.
It’s fun to hypothesize which mid-majors, tiny schools, and new names are going to streak through the bracket each March. Every upset has two sides to its story.
On the negative side, whenever a Cinderella finds its slipper, a highly-seeded evil step-sister heads home early. In hindsight, they can seem obvious. “Of course they lost! We should have known!”
If it were that easy, we’d all book flights to Vegas next week. The teams that earn high seeds do so for a reason. Those that then lose in the first round often have a fatal flaw or issue beneath the surface. Let’s dig and find some potentially upset-victims, ripe for the taking.
The Tigers are a really good basketball team. As recently as one week ago, I dubbed them as a sleeper team to reach the Final Four. Things change really fast in the world of college basketball.
LSU hasn’t lost a step on the floor, having won four in a row in SEC play. Why the pessimism? With the FBI investigation once again rearing its ugly head on the college basketball landscape, LSU has been embroiled in accusations and investigations. This week, the pressure boiled to a point beyond the comfort level of LSU’s administration, who suspended head coach Will Wade indefinitely. Wade was reportedly recorded on a wiretapped phone call with soon-to-be-inmate and shady basketball fixer Christian Dawkins talking about his “offer” to then-recruit, now freshman Ja’vonte Smart. Smart has also been “suspended” for his role, ending his season in which he scored 11.5 points per game.
It’s not entirely clear what the upside of suspending Wade is for the LSU is unclear. Worst case scenario: Wade coaches LSU the rest of the season, the Tigers are still considered a Final Four contender, the school makes tons of money, the fans enjoy themselves, and a few years from now the NCAA plays pretend and tries to tell us that LSU’s tournament wins never happened. You know, like that Louisville national title that never happened? Or Reggie Bush’s Heisman season that none of us can seem to remember? Vacated wins are a hollow threat, but LSU is taking it seriously.
That means the Tigers are now without their head coach and are surrounded by rumors and negative buzz as the biggest month in program history begins. Recent history says that’s less than ideal for the Tigers’ tournament hopes. Last year, it was Arizona that was in the crosshairs of the FBI. The Wildcats didn’t suspend Sean Miller, yet still got upset in a blowout loss to Buffalo last March. No one on the court for Arizona that day looked prepared for the game or even vaguely interested in winning. Buffalo ran Arizona off the floor.
It’s possible LSU’s players use this issue as a way to band together, grow as a team, and it inspires them to win several games in the Big Dance. Or it could be a distraction and a disadvantage. No matter what you think of Wade as a coach (I happen to think he’s pretty solid) or of his staff as a whole, a change in the main voice from the sidelines and in the huddle at this point in the season could be a real shock to the system. Losing Smart, a real valuable contributor, makes matters worse. LSU could be as high as a 3-seed in March, with a major target on its back.
Add in the fact that LSU is 5-2 in overtime games this season and its clear LSU’s record is a tad inflated. If any of those wins swung the other way, especially the three OT wins over non-tournament teams, and the Tigers fate this March looks a little more clear.
As the rest of the Big XII scratched and clawed at one another, all in an effort to dethrone Kansas and end the Jayhawks 14 year conference title streak, questions about each of the teams challenging Kansas begun to pop up. Many began to wonder if Iowa State, not Kansas State or Texas Tech, was really the most talented and complete team in the conference. The Cyclones certainly feature the most players attracting the attention of NBA scouts. Steve Prohm has one of the most balanced rosters in America, with five players capable of sparking a team win.
Like LSU, Iowa State’s issues have come more off the court.
Leading scorer Marial Shayock injured his foot during some sort of practice altercation. Prohm publicly said it was a fluke mishap during an intense practice. Other reports have indicated there was a dust-up during Cyclones practice and Shayock hurt his foot kicking a door.
Then, the very next time the Cyclones took the floor, tensions were high once again. Just days after being blown out by Texas, Iowa State got handled by the worst team in the Big XII, West Virginia. As the Mountaineers routed Iowa State, the Cyclones had an on-court shouting match around a team huddle. Junior Michael Jacobson took issue with freshman Talen Horton-Tucker and emotions were clearly and loudly expressed.
So, now what?
How do we feel about a team that fights in practice and on the court? They’ve also lost their last three regular season games heading into the conference tourney, including a home loss on Saturday to Texas Tech. This team had some really great wins when it was playing well. If team chemistry becomes too volatile, it’s possible they peaked too soon.
There are plenty of reasons to feel good about Wisconsin entering the NCAA Tournament. The Badgers have a good coach, an All-American player leading the way, a strong crop of role players who do the little things, and they play elite defense. I would not be surprised if this team made a run through the brackets this March.
On the other hand, the one major reason I remain bearish on the Badgers lies with their best player, Ethan Happ. The senior big man can do nearly everything and plays a beautiful, old-school kind of game that I have raved about before. He’s a double-double waiting to happen, with the ability to guard any big man thrown his way.
Happ isn’t perfect, due to his massive Achilles’ heel: his free throw shooting. In his four year career, Happ is a 54 percent free throw shooter. This season, he’s been even worse, managing just 46.9 percent from the stripe. In a close game, Greg Gard is often forced to take his best player off the floor. Few opponents have gone to the lengths of flat-out intentionally fouling Happ, choosing instead to selectively hack Happ when advantageous.
I’d argue that any team playing the Badgers in March should consider intentionally fouling a little more seriously. Wisconsin’s offense has been good this season, scoring 1.11 points per possession. Two Happ attempts at the free throw line are worth, on average, 0.938 points per trip.
BracketMatrix pegs Wisconsin as a future four-seed. Any low-major 13-seed would be ill-advised to ignore this strategic avenue. It’s not the fun way to win your first round game, but who cares how you do it? If Happ can’t connect from the line, send him there and send the Badgers home.
The Boilermakers are a really strong team and definitely capable of a deep run in March. I have concerns about Purdue’s scoring, despite the Boilermakers ranking 5th in the nation in offensive efficiency. Carsen Edwards attempts more than 19 field goals per game. That’s enough to rank him sixth in the nation in percentage of shots taken while on the floor. That’s not an issue, in and of itself. Edwards is a good player and a great scorer.
It is a problem of variance for Purdue. Edwards is shooting under 40 percent from the field this season. Twenty attempts at that percentage is a scary proposition some nights. In a loss at Michigan State, Edwards managed just 3 for 16 from the field. At Minnesota this week, Edwards shot an ugly 7 for 31 on the night. Edwards has attempted more than 25 field goals in four games this season, with Purdue losing three of those four.
Carsen Edwards could have a hot March like Steph Curry, but he could also follow other high volume shooters like Trae Young and Jimmer Freddette, who both struggled in the tournament and exited early.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.