Remember back when you were a senior in high school, and your class got together to hand out those unique awards? Best dressed, class clown, teachers pet, etc. What were they called again? Ah, yes.
They were something everyone either looked forward to or dreaded based on what someone thought they would get. Sounds kind of similar to teams preparing for what seed they’ll get on Selection Sunday, if they even make it in.
In anticipation for the start of the big dance, some superlatives would be fun to discuss. The bracket reveal always gives college basketball fans a lot of stories to talk about. So, why not discuss some of those storylines here, while also putting a label on them – or a superlative you could say.
Most Intriguing Matchup: UConn vs. Iona
Come November, the coaches of these two teams could likely be facing each other regularly in the Big East, with the rumors surrounding Rick Pitino. Regardless, the Hall of Fame coach has his Gaels in the tournament again as the MAAC regular season and tournament champion. On the other side, Dan Hurley has his Huskies in the tournament for the third straight year. This time however, he’s looking to finally get them past the first round.
UConn has been one of the best teams all season ranking fourth at KenPom.com, and for the past month they ranked third at BartTorvik.com. They have one of the best guard/big combos in all of college basketball. Jordan Hawkins and Adama Sanogo both average over 16 points a game for the huskies. Hurley’s team has depth too with other guys like the athletic Andre Jackson Jr. providing great stuff for the team.
The 4-13 matchups are always ones people love to pick the upset on. However, UConn has become one of the favorite picks to win the title this year, even after getting a 4-seed. The Huskies are also in the top nine of the betting odds for the tournament. It just goes to show how good they are. However, Iona is no slouch, especially with the guy on their sideline. Hurley has pressure to succeed in this tournament though. And while people can debate how far expectations should go, getting out of the first round should be a definite even if the opponent has Pitino as their coach.
So, with a potential future conference coaching rivalry brewing, pressure from a passionate fanbase to live up to expectations, and the scare of getting upset/start of a Cinderella story, UConn-Iona will be a game everyone will want to tune into.
Most Loaded: The West Bracket
Blue. Blood. Central.
Kansas and UCLA are the 1 and the 2-seeds respectfully, and are two of the 5 greatest programs of all time. Not to mention Kansas is the reigning national champion. Gonzaga is arguably the best of the “new bloods”, after constant success over the past decade is on the 3-line. Lastly, UConn, who has won 4 championships since 1999 and as mentioned is one of the best teams in the country, is the 4-seed. Those four teams make up four of the top nine teams at KenPom.com. TOP NINE!
Further on down, Saint Mary’s is the 5-seed and the Gaels are consistently one of the best mid-major programs in the country. 6-seeded TCU, when they’ve been healthy, is one of the best teams in the country. Mike Miles Jr. has played in 25 games this season for the Horned Frogs, and in those games the horned frogs are 18-7. However, Miles only played four minutes in their loss to Mississippi St. So, when you don’t count that game, TCU is 18-6 with all six losses coming in the Big 12, five of which were against tournament teams.
Lastly, the 8-9 matchup between Arkansas and Illinois features a pairing of two athletic and fun-to-watch teams when playing well. The Razorbacks have two lottery picks in Nick Smith Jr. and Anthony Black. Illinois has Terrence Shannon Jr. who has been one of the best guards all season. This will be a really fun matchup to watch.
This region is filled with talent, great coaching, and some of the best potential matchups we will get all tournament. Imagine a Gonzaga-TCU second-round matchup. Or a Kansas-UConn Sweet Sixteen dogfight. Cinderella potentials VCU and Iona are also on the 12 and 13 line respectively. So much good stuff coming in the West. Las Vegas will feature incredible second-weekend matchups.
Most Underseeded: Florida Atlantic
When Selection Sunday was on the television, and Florida Atlantic popped up on the 9-line, did anyone else feel outrage? This team deserved better – much better – and for them to be placed against a fantastic Memphis team in an 8-9 game was wrong. Let’s walk through it.
FAU is 31-3 overall heading into the first round, and holds a C-USA regular season AND tournament title. The Owls are ranked No. 13 in the NET Rankings with a 2-1 quad 1 record, and a 4-2 quad 2 record. So FAU is 6-3 in the first two quadrants with ZERO additional losses outside of the first two quadrants.
Texas A&M has two quadrant four losses. Both Arkansas and Auburn are under .500 in the first two quadrants and both have a quad 3 loss. Iowa has a 6-3 record in quadrant 3 & 4, including a quad 4 loss. So, FAU has the same record in quadrants 1 & 2 as Iowa does in quadrants 3 & 4, with zero losses outside of those first two quadrants and yet Iowa has a better seed than them? Ridiculous.
Even if the committee put them on the 7 or 8 line, that would have been fine. Since they didn’t though, we have a great game with the Owls going against Memphis. Both of these teams are capable of making runs in the tournament though. And while these types of mid-major matchups are excellent for the regular season, in the tournament we have got to get these teams against Power 5 schools to add intrigue. FAU-Memphis will be a great game, but sadly one a lot of people wish wasn’t happening for reasons out of our control.
Craziest Coaches: Bruce Pearl vs Fran McCaffery
This is a fun one. Iowa and Auburn aren’t the prettiest of teams to watch this season, and while I was vouching for FAU to potentially take one of their spots, I am happy about the matchup of coaches we’re going to get in this one.
There is likely no one who shows so much passion towards his players, fans and institution than Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl. Whether he’s in the stands of a football game with his shirt off, or drenched in a pool of sweat on the sideline, Pearl has a constant fire lit under him that everyone can see.
Iowa’s Fran McCaffery is pretty insane too. Expressive just like Pearl, McCaffery found himself in the national spotlight after the Hawkeyes’ comeback win over Michigan State just two and a half weeks ago. It wasn’t about how he coached his team to a comeback victory though, it was about an interlocking of the eyes between the crazy coach and official Kelly Pfeifer. It was an awkward, hilarious and dumbfounding exchange between the individuals. This just adds to the list of crazy Fran McCaffery moments. At this point, it would be no surprise if McCaffery and Pearl exchanged a stare-down during their first-round matchup.
Most Likely Cinderella: Oral Roberts
They did it in 2021, and they might do it again here. The world discovered Max Abmas two seasons ago when he and Kevin Obanor lit up Ohio State as a 15-seed to move onto the round of 32 after beating the 2-seed. The world knew and respected Oral Roberts after they beat Florida in the second round. This season, the Golden Eagles are back for more, with the Blue Devils of Duke standing in their way.
Oral Roberts still has Abmas on the squad. They also have a stellar big man in Connor Vanover who stands at 7’5 and averages over three blocks per game. ORU is a 12-seed this time and has the squad and the path to go on another Cinderella run. If they get past Duke, their second-round matchup will either be a lower-seeded Louisiana team, or an untrustworthy Tennessee team. If they get past there, they’ll either face the weakest of the one seeds in Purdue, or two other non-power 5 schools. Not to mention, Purdue lost to Saint Peter’s last year.
Not saying it’s going to happen, but the Golden Eagles are a 30 win team with a conference regular season and tournament championship tied to their name. ORU also ranks third in the country in points per game, so they know how to put the ball in the basket. They have the past Cinderella experience as well – and experience matters in March.
(Not So) Friendly Revenge: The Bryce Hopkins Game
When it comes to an individual player’s reason to win their first-round game, no one has a better reason than Bryce Hopkins. Hopkins spent his freshman year at Kentucky but had a very limited role. He averaged only 6.8 minutes per game under John Calipari, averaging 2.1 points and 1.4 rebounds in those minutes. After transferring to Providence in the offseason, Hopkins is now averaging 16.1 points and 8.5 rebounds per outing and made the All-Big East First Team. A complete turnaround for the now-Friar.
In an interview with Brian Hamilton of the Athletic, Hopkins detailed how things were in Lexington. Says, “I feel like last year when I got out there, I was under a microscope. (Calipari) only wanted me to do certain things, and it was like I was playing like a robot. Now when I get on the court, it’s like coach Cooley is allowing me to do whatever I want, but under his system. I just can’t thank him enough for that.”
Those are strong words coming from Hopkins. It definitely adds intrigue to the first-round matchup. “I’ll say hello after the game, but before the game, I’m going to be locked in, going to try my best to take away their primaries and come out with that dub,” Hopkins said talking to local media. “We’re going to be playing hard, we’re going to have to box Oscar [Tshiebwe] out and go from there.”
Final Four Dark Horse: Creighton
This pick is a little trendy, but Creighton deserves it. Let’s just hope they don’t turn into the 2023 version of Iowa from last year’s tournament.
The Bluejays are well coached by Greg McDermott, have a great roster, and have the wins to solidify their potential in a great run. They have wins over Arkansas, Providence, Xavier, and UConn, the last two of which are stellar. And when Ryan Kalkbrenner, their guy down low and their best player, is healthy and playing, the Bluejays only have one bad loss. The other losses either came to teams at the top of the Big East, or their losses to Texas and Arizona by a combined seven points.
Creighton has a great lineup, starting with Ryan Nembhard running the point. They have a three guard lineup with Nembhard and then Baylor Scheierman and Trey Alexander on the wings. Everyone knows how important guards are in March. Scheierman is the guy will out-rebound your center and then dribble it up the court and slam a three from the logo in your face. Confidence like that is key. Arthur Kaluma is an active forward for the Bluejays as well. He can bang a 3-pointer just as easy as he can take it to the hoop. Lastly, Kalkbrenner averages over 15 points on the season and is a fantastic post player standing at 7’1.
One of the more important stats though that Creighton excels at is free throw percentage. McDermott’s team ranks 24th in the nation at 76.74% from the line. If you take the starting five and average their numbers, that percentage increases by three percent at 79.78% which would rank second in the nation. The tournament is full of close games, and so has Creighton’s season. When it comes down to being clutch at the stripe, there’s no starting five I’d trust more to make the free throws than Creighton’s.
“From Our Haus to Yours!”