NCAA Tournament: Go Big or Get Buried, Post Players and the Rise of Mid-Majors
Every analyst had the same things to say: Kansas and Kentucky were the class of the field, great guard-play would lead teams to victory, and don't expect much from most of the lower-seeded teams.
What a difference two rounds has made.
The first day saw buzzer-beaters and huge upsets: Murray State upsetting Vanderbilt in a game that Murray State controlled throughout, Washington defeating a hot Marquette team, St. Mary's mauling Richmond, Ohio beating up Georgetown, Old Dominion downing Notre Dame.
Day Two brought Cornell, Missouri, and Georgia Tech all pulling out victories over higher-seeded foes, but more of a less chaotic day than the first.
Then came Day Three.
The landscape of the tournament has changed in one day. Suddenly, the entire remaining field now has a chance to win this tournament. The competitive level of this tournament has been turned up a couple of notches.
Analysts who said that great guard play will win the tournament must now re-think their ideas, as two mid-majors proved today.
First, St. Mary's toppled Villanova by riding on the back of Omar Samhan. Samhan had 32 points and seven boards in the Gael's 75-68 victory over the Wildcats. By the way, Samhan is the team center.
Then, in the most shocking upset of the tournament so far (which is saying something), Northern Iowa defeated overall No. 1 seed Kansas, 69-67. While UNI had great three-point shooting, it was the effort of seven-foot center Jordan Eglseder to shut down Cole Aldrich that led to the Panther's victory.
Butler was threatened by Murray State, but was helped by fabulous work from seniors Gordon Hayward and Matt Howard, both physical presences in the paint.
The point is: Teams with great guard play (Villanova, Kansas, Murray State) lost to teams who had established post presences.
Big posts have been key to wins, as the ability to not only score inside but also to open up the perimeter game has been proven by three teams with great posts. As I write, Kentucky, whose physical posts of Patrick Patterson and Demarcus Cousins have been dominant this year, is taking Wake Forest to the woodshed.
The trend should continue on Day Four.
Georgia Tech could be in a great position to defeat Ohio State, if they get freshman phenom Derrick Favors involved early. Ohio State has great post play of their own, as Evan Turner could be on his way to a Player of the Year award. Whoever establishes better post play early will move on to the Sweet 16.
Perhaps the most interesting matchup of Day Four will be Syracuse and Gonzaga. Syracuse is going to be missing the physical play of Arinze Onuaku against Gonzaga's Robert Sacre. Gonzaga is more than ready to get Sacre involved early, and as seen in today's upsets, Sacre could be the key to this game.
Now, there have been exceptions to the rule so far (Washington, Missouri, Maryland). But the general rule has been to exploit the paint early, pounding it inside with the big uglies down low. This could prove to be a problem to some higher-seeded teams, as it has today.
I would expect one more one-seed to fall in the second round, and the most likely will be Syracuse. I just don't know if they have the physical presence to deal with the skilled Robert Sacre. Gonzaga does a great job getting him the ball, and as we've seen, the post play has opened up guys like UNI's Ali Farokhmanesh to shoot open threes.
If the pattern holds through the rest of this tournament, it is not a far-fetched idea that one of these scrappy, physical mid-majors could pull into the Final Four. At this point, it isn't even out of the question to see two or three of these teams dancing past the Elite Eight.
The question that needs to be answered is this: what effect does this have on the future of college basketball? Could it be that the mid-majors are finally catching up to the big names like Kansas, Kentucky, and Duke?
The answer to this point is a resounding yes.
Mid-majors have found new places to recruit players, with good results. St. Mary's has the Australian connection, and so far they have found diamonds-in-the-rough on the international market.
Butler is benefiting from the collapse of Indiana in the home state, which helps them gobble up better recruits.
A healthy number of transfer students and overlooked gems help these mid-majors fill out rosters with quality talent.
The result is the rise of small programs like these into national prominence.
I now believe that Kentucky is the favorite to win this tournament. Their balance and athleticism is unlike anything other teams have. But a scrappy, slower-paced Cornell team could, if the stars align, beat Kentucky on a given night.
And why couldn't Cornell appear in the Elite Eight, fighting to get to the Final Four with the likes of West Virginia, or even a red-hot Washington?
Stranger things have happened.
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