NCAA Tournament Predictions 2011: Who's Heading into the Big Dance Hot?
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The difficulty in filling out an NCAA tournament bracket is trying to figure out which teams among all the very good teams are heading into the tournament hot.
Hot is a relative term, of course, in that all of the teams to some degree are hot. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be in the tournament.
Further complicating matters this year is the fact that so many teams in the tournament have several losses on their resumes.
Just because a team has double-digit losses does not mean that it got into the tournament only by virtue of winning a postseason conference tournament.
Here are 10 teams that have a little extra bounce in their step and appear to be heading into the Big Dance ready to put on a show.
In the spirit of parity that appears to be pervasive in college hoops, I have attempted to spread the wealth around and I have not selected multiple teams from just one conference.
No. 19 Connecticut 26-9
Kemba better get use to being the center of attention
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On March 5, the Huskies were shaking their heads after losing to Notre Dame, 70-67. Many wondered if Connecticut had peaked, given that the loss to the Notre Dame was the fourth loss for Connecticut in its last five games.
What a difference a week can make for a team.
Since losing to Notre Dame, Connecticut won five straight, including four games over ranked opponents on five consecutive days in the Big East tournament.
Kemba Walker is a scorer, as his NCAA conference-tournament scoring record of 130 points will attest. He has few equals in college basketball and he will pose a problem for any team that Connecticut plays in the tournament.
No player or team in the country is hotter than Walker and Connecticut.
No. 6 San Diego State 32-2
Mr. Leonard will get some well deserved spotlight
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The Aztecs have been overlooked all season long playing in the Mountain West, but this team has played good basketball all year. The only two losses for the Aztecs came at the hands of BYU.
San Diego State got the proverbial monkey off its back by trouncing BYU and sharpshooter Jimmer Fredette in the Mountain West Conference tournament final, 72-54.
San Diego State’s star is sophomore Kawhi Leonard, who is averaging 15 points and 11 rebounds a game.
However, the secret to the success of the Aztecs is the depth of experience of the squad.
The Aztecs have three seniors who average between 10 and 12 points per game and who play 25-plus minutes per game in Malcolm Thomas, D.J. Gay and Billy White.
The fourth senior, 6'11", 300-pound Brian Carlwell, averages 12 minutes per game and he can provide valuable post minutes against teams with imposing front lines.
No. 5 Duke 30-4
What does Mr. Smith play like when he is healthy?
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On paper, an argument can be made that Duke did not finish the season on fire.
Duke lost two of its last six games and one of those two losses was by more than 14 points.
As a result of the two losses, Duke lost the ACC regular-season title to hated-rival North Carolina and appeared to have lost some of confidence.
Basketball, however, is not played on paper but on the court, and Duke’s last three games vividly showed that Coach K and the Blue Devils are heating up at the right time to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
When Virginia Tech attempted to muscle Duke, the Blue Devils pushed back hard and showed that they can be just as physical.
When North Carolina showed up in the ACC championship game in Greensboro, Duke immediately seized control of the game from the opening tip and never looked back.
Duke has its swagger back.
Benson is an NBA Talent
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The Golden Grizzlies may be one of the best No. 13 NCAA tournament seeds in the history of the tournament.
Five of the nine losses Oakland suffered this year came at the hands of five Big Ten teams that made the NCAA tournament and a sixth loss was to West Virginia.
If you eliminate the six losses, Oakland’s record is 25-3, which includes a convincing 89-82 win at Tennessee.
Oakland boasts a NBA-caliber talent in Keith Benson, 6’11" and 230 pounds, who averages 18 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks per game. Benson shoots 55 percent from the field and averages 41 percent from beyond the arc.
The Golden Grizzlies are not a one-man show, as Reggie Hamilton averages 17 points and nearly six assists a game.
The Golden Grizzlies have won 17 of their last 18 games. In their last five games, Oakland has won by an average margin of 15 points.
Texas better come ready to play against Oakland or it will be going home early.
George Mason 26-6
Cam Long always seems to find a way
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OK, George Mason lost its last game of the season, so how can it be considered hot?
Easy. The Patriots won 16 games prior to their last game of the season. In the 16 victories, George Mason trailed in only one game at halftime.
The formula for George Mason is simple: get the lead and hang on by limiting turnovers and taking high-percentage shots.
George Mason is a solid team but it is not especially deep. The Patriots only have six players who average playing more than 10 minutes a game.
As to the players in George Mason’s six-man rotation, only one Patriot in the rotation is taller than 6’8". As a result, the Patriots rank 167th in the nation in rebounding.
Dismissing George Mason, however, could be risky as they have stumbled on a formula for success.
No. 2 Kansas 32-2
Kudos to Thomas Robinson for remaining strong amid adversity
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The Jayhawks lost only two games during the entire season, so it is safe to say that they have been hot all year long.
However, Kansas stepped up its level of play another notch after getting upset by in-state rival Kansas State in Manhattan on February 14.
Kansas played with a chip on its shoulder in the Big 12 tournament.
Leading up to the rematch against Texas in the Big 12 tournament championship, the Jayhawks vowed to leave no doubt as to who was the better team out of the Big 12.
When Kansas lost to Texas on January 22, some players felt the January loss was attributable to consoling teammate Thomas Robinson the night before, as he was dealing with the unexpected death of his mother.
Tragically, Robinson lost both grandparents just weeks before his mother passed away.
Kansas played hard, inspired basketball against Texas, leading by 15 points at halftime and ultimately winning 85-73.
Kansas could be the team to beat for the NCAA championship.
Don't let Dahlman's baby face fool you
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Watch out for the Minnesota Mafia. They are hot and back once again in the NCAA tournament, as Wofford won its second consecutive Southern Conference tournament title and its last eight games in a row.
Who is the Minnesota Mafia?
The Minnesota Mafia refers to the three Wofford Terriers who hail from Minnesota: Cameron Rundles, Jamar Diggs and Noah Dahlman.
Rundles, Diggs and Dahlman played AAU basketball together in Minnesota.
The chemistry among the players was on display in the 77-67 victory over Bobby Cremins' Charleston team, as Rundles scored 21 points, Dahlman put up 20 and Diggs added 17.
The Terriers amazingly hit their first 20 free throws against Charleston.
Dahlman said of the nickname: "Being from the Midwest, we're not flashy at all. We use our game. We're going to grind it out, and it paid off tonight.”
Sounds like the Terriers mean business.
No. 20 Xavier 24-7
Xavier's enthusiasm is contagious
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Xavier is playing impressive basketball once again, as the Musketeers won 15 of their last 17 games.
The Musketeers did lay an egg in the Atlantic 10 tournament semifinal game, falling behind by 18 points to Dayton before ultimately losing 68-67. In fairness to Xavier, Dayton shot 62 percent from beyond the arc and 52 percent from the field.
Most Xavier fans will respond by saying that is nothing new and that you better watch out for the Musketeers if past history gives any indication of what is going to occur.
The Musketeers, which have made the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament each of the last three seasons, have not won a league-tournament title since 2006 despite winning or sharing the regular-season championship the past five seasons.
The Musketeers have solid guard play in Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons, and they have size in Jamel McLean and Kenny Frease to match up with the big boys.
Xavier appears once again to be a tough out in the NCAA tournament.
No. 1 Ohio State 32-2
Don't overlook the play of Aaron Craft
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I know it is easy to pick the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament as being hot, but you have to be impressed with the play of the Buckeyes freshmen in the Big Ten tournament.
Jared Sullinger really shot poorly during the Big Ten tournament, yet he put up three consecutive double-double games and he was a force who could not be denied in the paint.
Aaron Craft played great on-the-ball defense while dishing out eight assists against only two turnovers yet still managing to average more than 12 points a game.
DeShaun Thomas continues to play well in limited minutes, as he did coming off the bench against Michigan.
Jordan Sibert, who has been rarely seen this season, even contributes when he gets a chance to get in the game.
Ohio State’s freshmen appear to be battle tested and ready to win the national title.
Shelvin Mack and the Bulldogs are back
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Butler’s chance of returning to the Big Dance appeared to be in jeopardy after dropping three straight games with a 62-60 loss to Youngstown State on February 3.
Could the Bulldogs overcome the loss of Gordon Hayward?
Could Butler overcome the injuries that hampered Shelvin Mack and saw three different Bulldogs lose playing time as a result of suffering concussions?
Could coach Brad Stevens overcome a swollen cornea from wearing contacts that were too tight?
The answer to each of the above questions was an unequivocal yes as Butler won its next eight games, which included the Horizon tournament championship in which Butler dominated Milwaukee, using a first-half 14-0 run to race out to a 23-6 lead.
Butler appears to be back and may have even found a lucky charm.
Coach Stevens noted that his “glasses are 2-0; I’m going to keep them.”