With office pools locking their brackets at noon on Thursday, the 2013 NCAA tournament arrival finally meant the nation could exhale from its 96-plus-hour journey into the abyss of making selections.
On Thursday afternoon, that’s thrilling. You watch each game with your bracket gently in one hand and your cell phone in the other waiting to rib one of your friends for a bad selection.
But come Friday, your bracket may already be busted. An upset you picked may have gone unrequited—darn you, Bucknell—or your top-seeded team you picked for a big run may have looked dead in the water already.
For those people, losing those extra pennies is obviously a massive disappointment, but it comes with an underrated reward: You can actually enjoy the games now. No more worrying about brackets or whether your spouse will break up with you for losing this month’s electric bill on the NCAA tournament. It happened, now it’s time to move on and watch the action.
And for those whose brackets aren’t busted, it’s time to do it all over again. With that in mind, here is a complete breakdown of Friday’s best bracket-busting matchups.
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West: No. 10 Iowa State Cyclones (vs. No. 7 Notre Dame Fighting Irish)
No matter which side ultimately wins this contest, fans who enjoy offensive clashes will finally get their appeasement on Friday. In an era where slowed-down, inefficient offensive attacks have become something of the norm, Iowa State and Notre Dame are both exceedingly efficient offenses—only in polar opposite ways.
The Irish are a stereotypical slowed-down team that give credence to pundits who want to lower the shot clock from 35 seconds. They are 319th out of 347 Division I teams in adjusted tempo, per Ken Pomeroy, which is an algorithm that adjusts possessions per game to account for opponents and other factors. Mike Brey emphasizes smart, efficient ball movement that often keeps possessions at a minimum to eliminate mistakes.
For the most part, Brey’s strategy has worked swimmingly this season. Notre Dame is 12th in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, which measures points per 100 possessions, adjusting once again for mitigating factors. Led by a strong stable of guards including Jerian Wright and Eric Atkins, the Irish rank fifth in assist rate and keep their mistakes to a minimum—critical for running efficiently in these sets.
Iowa State is exactly like Notre Dame—only the complete opposite. Running coach Fred Hoiberg’s NBA-style pick-and-roll and three-point-heavy sets, the Cyclones are one of the nation’s fastest-moving offensive teams. They rank 32nd in adjusted tempo, which boils down to sixth among the 68 teams selected for the tournament, per Pomeroy.
Keeping things running smoothly on offense is Korie Lucious. The Michigan State transfer—who already has quite the tournament resume—cannot shoot the ball whatsoever but has emerged as the overarching driving force behind Iowa State’s quick-strike attack. He’s averaging nearly six assists per game, dishing off to any number of Cyclones who happen to be open.
Will Clyburn leads the team with 15 points a night, but the Cyclones are largely a non-star system. Six Iowa State players score more than nine points per game, as the team ranks eighth in the nation in three-point frequency.
Neither side plays all that much defense, so this game will essentially come down to who makes their outside shots. With Iowa State having two strong performances versus Kansas on its resume, it’s hard to bet against Hoiberg’s squad getting it done.
East: No. 10 Colorado Buffaloes (vs. No. 7 Illinois Fighting Illini)
The winner of the West Region’s No. 7 vs. No. 10 matchup will have to score in the mid-70s in order to have a chance. The winner of the East Region’s contest? It may be the first team to 65 advancing to the Round of 32.
Though neither Colorado nor Illinois plays at an especially excruciating pace—both are about right around average—neither side is all that effective offensively. The Buffaloes rank exactly at the Division I average with a 48.6 effective field-goal percentage, and the Illini are 207th In the nation at 48 percent heading into the Big Dance, per Ken Pomeroy.
Neither side is especially playing all that well, either. Illinois is 2-4 in its past six games, while Colorado bests that with a super-stellar 3-3 mark. They were the quintessential should-be bubble team that was never actually on the bubble. In this college basketball season where mediocrity reigned supreme from top to bottom, they had enough quality wins against strong opponents to push them over the top. Almost any other March and they could have had sweaty palms on Selection Sunday.
What will ultimately decide this matchup, as is rather common in March, is which star steps up for his team.
Illinois guard Brandon Paul is the most noteworthy name in the game, but he’s also a possession-heavy guard who shoots barely over 40 percent for the season. His propensity for clunkers is just as great as his ability to score nearly half of Illinois’ points in its 51-49 win over Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament.
On the other side, Spencer Dinwiddie works essentially as a mirror for Paul, so his effect could be negligible. The player who truly controls the game for Colorado, as it has been all season, is Andre Roberson. The junior forward averaged 10.9 points and 11.3 rebounds per game in 2012-13, the latter statistic finishing second in Division I. In a contest where neither side is exactly a plus on the rebounding front—both allow too many and grab too few offensive rebounds—Roberson could have a 15-15 night to lead Colorado to victory.
Even if Roberson just hits his season averages, he gives the Buffaloes a distinct advantage Illinois just can't match up with.
No. 12 Ole Miss Rebels (vs. No. 5 Wisconsin Badgers)
Heading into their West Regional matchup, it’s hard to find two more opposite teams than Ole Miss and Wisconsin. Running coach Bo Ryan’s patented “swing” offense, the Badgers once again rank as one of the nation’s slowest-paced teams. They are 309th in the nation in adjusted pace, which has become a trademark of the team’s cerebral attack.
Ole Miss, on the other hand, is one of the highest-paced teams in the nation. The Rebels are a sprint-now-ask-questions-last offense and they still somehow manage to rank 30th in offensive efficiency while rarely turning the ball over, per Ken Pomeroy.
Efficiency is usually a staple of Wisconsin’s offense as well, but this year that hasn’t been the case. The Badgers rank a respectable 50th in offensive efficiency, but that’s the lowest Pomeroy has ever measured for a Ryan-led team, and they rank only 140th in the nation in effective field-goal percentage.
The inefficiency of Wisconsin is certainly notable. The Badgers aren’t likely to pull away from anyone, much less a team that keeps a high pace without losing its defensive identity. Ole Miss would have been a threat to just about any No. 5 seed in this tournament; Wisconsin just stands out as somewhat ripe for the picking.
Nevertheless, we all know this game comes down to Marshall Henderson. The controversial guard has been the lifeblood of the Rebels’ offense all season long, whether that be poisonous or life-saving like type O-negative. During the SEC tournament, Ole Miss got the best of Henderson. He scored 21 or more points in each of the games and never had the type of woeful shooting performance that took Ole Miss out of a game. Brash as ever, he took over elongated stretches of games to lead the Rebels to victory, including a 20-point second-half performance in the team’s win over Missouri.
The problem with Henderson—other than his garish personality, which rubs plenty of people the wrong way—is the paradigm can shift violently in the other direction. Henderson has the ability to lead; he also has the propensity to shoot 3-of-18 from three-point land as he did versus Mississippi State
Calling Henderson’s game Jekyll and Hyde-like is an insult to Dr. Hyde’s well-meaning, friendly behavior. Even when Henderson is having a good game, it’s mired in offensive schizophrenia.
No matter what, this will likely be a close contest. Wisconsin isn’t the same deadly efficient squad of years past that has busted many an upset pick. But without excellence from Henderson, the Rebels willn't be able to sustain their thrilling late-season run.