March Madness 2013: Gonzaga and More Dangerous Mid-Major Powerhouses
Perhaps no other season has better showcased the mid-major's rise to the top of the college hoops world than the 2012-13 campaign.
Not only did the No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs grab a top seed, making them just the fourth non-power conference school in the last 14 years to do so, but the fate of the so-called bubble teams also speaks volumes.
Saint Mary's, Middle Tennessee State, Boise State and La Salle were the fortunate final four squads given a golden ticket, while powerhouses like Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia were given a nice parting gift in the form of an NIT invitation.
It doesn't stop there.
Five Mountain West teams and five Atlantic-10 teams made the tournament. That's as many as the Pac-12 and Big 12, and more than the ACC (4) and SEC (3).
Moreover, as Geoff Grammer from the Albuquerque Journal points out, the seeds also suggest a changing of guard:
Pac-12 got 5 teams in w/ avg seed of 9.2. @themwc got 5 teams in w/ avg seed of 7.2. Now will MW actually outperform P12 in NCAA Tourney?— Geoff Grammer (@GeoffGrammer) March 18, 2013
Times, they are a changin'.
So, even though it's clear that "mid-major" doesn't even begin to describe many of these schools anymore, let's take a look at the most dangerous teams outside the power-six conferences.
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One look at Sir Doug McDermott, and it's not exactly surprising that Creighton is first in America in field-goal percentage, first in effective field-goal percentage, first in true-shooting percentage, third in points per possession and sixth in Ken Pomeroy's offensive efficiency rankings.
To put it simply, this team knows how to put the peach in the basket.
McDermott, the coach's son, is obviously a stud. He averages 23.1 points on a staggeringly efficient 56.1 percent from the field, 86.0 percent from the free-throw line and 49.7 percent from long range. At 6'8", 225 pounds, he can score from the inside, score from the outside and score with a sloth draped over his shoulders.
But the Bluejays have other weapons.
Grant Gibbs is one of the best point-forwards in the country, and Gregory Echenique, who won't be out-worked by anyone, is a force defensively and on the offensive glass.
The seventh-seeded Bluejays face their evil twin in defensively-minded, drag-you-through-the-mud Cincinnati to open things up, but if they get past that game, anything is possible (relevant) in what will likely be a shootout against No. 2 Duke.
New Mexico Lobos
While the RPI is more broken than Stephen Curry's ankles, it is important to note that according to that system, the Mountain West ranks as the strongest conference in the country.
I'm not going to sit here and argue that the MWC is better than the Big Ten, but that's a testament to underrated talent of the league.
As such, the fact that New Mexico went 13-3 in conference play and won the tournament with relative ease is far more impressive than most would have you believe.
The Lobos' calling card is defense. They have two massive bodies inside in Alex Kirk (7'0", 250) and Cameron Bairstow (6'9", 250), and big, athletic guards on the perimeter in Kendall Williams (6'4", 185) and Tony Snell (6'7", 200).Overall, they give up just 0.91 points per possession and rank 11th in the country in defensive efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy.
Steve Alford's squad, however, struggles to score at times.
The Lobos average just 1.018 points per possession with an effective field-goal percentage of 48.7, both of which rank outside the top 100 in the nation.
Still, Williams has a microwave-like ability to heat up (proof on proof on proof. Sorry, Colorado State), and Snell is averaging nearly 20 points per game in his last five contests.
When the Lobos can add consistent offensive production to their always stifling defense, they are obviously a nuisance to deal with.
A trip to the Final Four isn't out of the question.
VCU's HAVOC defense is something you need to witness to fully understand, but it's something sort of like this.
The pressure is absolutely unrelenting. The Rams will trap the ball anywhere on the court and will get all up in your personal space for all 2400 seconds of the game.
It's undeniably annoying for teams that have to face it, but it's unquestionably effective for Shaka Smart's team. The Rams are first in America in both turnovers forced per game and opponent turnover percentage.
There's a problem, though.
VCU isn't nearly as dangerous when the game slows down. Juvonte Reddic is a force down low and Troy Daniels is in range as soon as he crosses the border into Virginia, but the Rams' half-court offense can get stagnant.
Moreover, when they aren't causing turnovers, they are a below-average defensively and overmatched on the glass, as detailed by ESPN's John Gasaway.
Essentially, depending on the amount of mistakes they can cause, it's feast or famine for the energy-filled, up-tempo Rams.
Things should go smoothly against Akron, which is 187th in turnover rate and without point guard Alex Abreu, but a likely third-round matchup with Michigan looms.
The Wolverines, led by dynamic point guard Trey Burke, are first in America in turnover rate and have the backcourt tools to disarm the HAVOC bomb.
St. Louis Billikens
Two of St. Louis' four best players—Jordair Jett and Cody Ellis—come off the bench.
That's just not fair.
While the Billikens aren't going to win many beauty contests, they come at you with an eight-man rotation that is all juniors and seniors. They are experienced, strong and physical. They will get in your air space, bump you off your cuts, ruin your timing and simply out-work you.
Essentially, they are all grown men who work well together and enter every game extremely well prepared by interim head coach Jim Crews.
Fueled by that physicality, the Billikens rank seventh in Ken Pomeroy's defensive efficiency rankings, eighth in points allowed per possession and 16th in opponent turnover rate.
The Billikens weren't handed any gifts in the stacked Midwest region, but this team has the makeup of a legitimate threat for Atlanta.
Gonzaga has as few weaknesses as any team in the country.
Despite taking all 13 of his other teams to the NCAA tournament, this is Mark Few's best team in Spokane. It has an NBA-caliber frontcourt, electric, sharpshooting, smart guard-play, role players, depth off the bench and pretty much anything else you look for in a potential national champion.
Wooden Award candidate Kelly Olynyk is the headliner, and for good reason. Blessed with the ability to beat defenders inside or out, Thor is averaging 17.5 points in just 25.7 minutes per game. The seven-footer is shooting a gaudy 65.2 percent from the field, 78.5 percent from the line and 34.6 percent from long range.
The Zags also boast a double-double threat next to him in Elias Harris, and bigs off the bench in Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski, who could both start almost anywhere else in the nation.
In the backcourt, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, who both shoot around 40 percent from deep, provide a lethal combo of both steady (just 2.7 turnovers per game combined, an amazing number) and dynamic ability.
Should one of them get into foul trouble, David Stockton, who has the top assist-to-turnover ratio on the team, comes off the bench as the Zags' best distributor.
Of course, none of those three stand above 6'2", and Gonzaga tends to struggle with big guards, but when the team is playing together defensively, that is more of an inconvenience than a weakness.
Don't forget about Mike Hart, either. The best glue player in the country has logged 552 minutes this season. He has scored just 64 points, but he has racked up 116 rebounds, 37 assists, 29 steals and a minuscule eight turnovers. He has also hit 11 of his 20 three-point attempts.
Throw it all together, and you have a team that is first in America in points per possession, 17th in points allowed per possession, 16th in rebounding percentage and far more physical and tournament-built than Few's teams of the past.