If you have ever attended the NCAA tournament’s first or second rounds, you know the crowd loves jumping on the underdogs and lower-seeded teams. As the intensity grows and the score remains tight, the fans in the stands are pulling for that huge upset. But in this crazy time of COVID-19, not many fans will be in the stands. I really believe this will ease the pressure on the favorites, as the arena will not be full of fans screaming against them. Upsets will happen, but take this into consideration when picking your bracket sleeper teams.
As far as pressure, what might be different for this week’s conference tournaments? Certain teams always feel right at home in conference tournament week. Examples? St. John’s at Madison Square Garden, Kansas at the T-Mobile Center in Kansas City, Indiana and Purdue when the Big Ten tournament is in Indianapolis (as it is this week) … and of course Duke and North Carolina usually pack the Greensboro Coliseum.
But St. John’s played on campus this year at Carnesecca Arena and did not get its usual “home” games at MSG to become familiar with the surroundings and shooting backdrop. Kansas schedules games every year in K.C., with the biggest advantage being a Jayhawks fandom that jams and rocks, but that won’t happen this year with small crowd sizes. The Hoosier State’s love of basketball always provides Indiana and Purdue with great crowd support in Indianapolis, but again crowds will be smaller this season. In the ACC, neither Duke, UNC nor any other school will be able to ride the emotion with its fan base this year. Let’s see if teams traveling long distances don’t feel a little more at ease without 18,000 passionate fans screaming against them.
Atlantic Coast Conference
This is Leonard Hamilton’s best Florida State squad, and that says something because he has made the Sweet 16 and an Elite Eight. FSU is always tall and athletic, and this year it can shoot the basketball really well. The Seminoles led the ACC in points per game and 3-point percentage. And FSU is tough to score on with its interior size. If the 3s are falling, look for the Seminoles to cut down the nets in Greensboro.
If not Florida State, look for Georgia Tech to at least make a move in Greensboro, N.C. Moses Wright, this year’s ACC player of the year, will be the best player on the court no matter who Tech plays, and Wright plays with high intensity on both ends of the floor. I believe Georgia Tech is safely in the NCAA field of 68 and will play loose, looking to give coach Josh Pastner his first ACC tournament title.
The early game Wednesday matches Syracuse and NC State. Both are squarely on the bubble, and the loser will be out of the conversation. The winner probably still would have more work to do, but the opportunity will be there Thursday in the quarterfinals as the winner takes on Tony Bennett’s Virginia Cavaliers. An Orange or Wolfpack victory over Virginia would force the selection committee to have long discussions.
My pick: Florida State
American Athletic Conference
All the talk around this year’s AAC has centered on Houston, which deserves that attention. But flying under the radar is top-seeded Wichita State. The teams split this year’s series, each winning on its home court. Might we see them play once more in the title game? Houston is projected as a No. 3 seed nationally, but a conference title could vault the Cougars to a No. 2 seed. The Shockers are right on the cut line and need to avoid any bad losses. A run to the title game should seal a ticket to the Big Dance. Every win is huge for Wichita State, which would like to avoid playing in the NCAA First Four.
Another AAC team that needs to pile up wins in Fort Worth, Texas, is Penny Hardaway’s Memphis club. The Tigers had Houston on the ropes Sunday, but the Cougars hit a running 3-pointer off the glass with no time left to stun Memphis. The Tigers must regroup in a hurry because they have work to do this week. If they can avoid a bad loss in the quarters Friday, they will likely meet Houston again in the semis. Memphis will need that win over Houston to feel good about its chances of punching a ticket to the NCAA tournament.
My pick: Memphis
If you’re a Villanova fan, you must be feeling sick. No team in America can match the culture around coach Jay Wright’s program. But the injury bug hit the Wildcats in a horrific way the last two weeks. Collin Gillespie’s torn MCL is devastating in more ways than one. Gillespie is a senior leader who knows exactly what Wright is looking for on the court. He knows when to take his money jump shot or dump it down low to Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. Gillespie is the heart and soul of the team. If that weren’t bad enough, stud sophomore guard Justin Moore went down last weekend at Providence and spent the rest of the game in an ankle boot. Early word is Moore is doubtful for the Big East tournament.
Creighton has as much offensive firepower as any team in the country when it is clicking. The Bluejays have five players who average in double figures, led by junior guard Marcus Zegarowski. But negative buzz surrounds coach Greg McDermott after his suspension for insensitive language in a team meeting. McDermott is one of the top coaches in the country, and the Bluejays will welcome back his experience on the sideline. Not many teams are playing better basketball than Danny Hurley’s UConn Huskies. UConn is led by national player of the year candidate James Bouknight, who is back from an elbow injury. With a healthy Bouknight, the Huskies look like the team to beat this week at Madison Square Garden. A potential semifinal matchup of UConn and Creighton would be a must-watch Friday night.
The second quarterfinal Thursday pits Seton Hall against St. John’s. The winner gets a shot at decimated Villanova, and I look for the winner to knock off the top-seeded Wildcats in the semis. The Pirates and the Red Storm are on the wrong side of the bubble, but if the winner can dispatch Villanova, it will have the selection committee’s attention. The loser will be done.
My pick: Creighton
The Big Ten could put nine teams in the NCAA field, and the conference has never been deeper. The bubble talk surrounding Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans ended Sunday when they cemented their slot with a huge home win over Michigan. The two Big Ten teams closest to the cut line are Rutgers and Maryland. Both have done enough to feel good come Sunday night, though Rutgers fans would feel better if they beat Indiana in the second round Thursday.
Another team with not only a Big Ten title but a national title on its mind is Iowa. If the Hawkeyes are to make a run, they must have Joe Wieskamp on the floor. Wieskamp twisted his ankle Sunday against Wisconsin. He is one of the country’s best shooters, and his marksmanship matched with Luka Garza’s inside game is a tough tandem to beat. Michigan State plays Maryland in the quarterfinals, and if the Spartans can pull out a win, they will see archrival Michigan for the third time in two weeks.
Illinois claimed the No. 2 seed behind its own awesome inside-outside combination of Kofi Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu. The Illini could really use a big tournament from X-factor Giorgi Bezhanishvili to push them over the hump. The fifth seed is Ohio State, which shows just how deep this conference is, considering many people had the Buckeyes as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament just a couple of weeks ago. Regular-season champ Michigan looks to get rolling again after its loss to Michigan State. The Wolverines have their own health issues, as Eli Brooks twisted his ankle against MSU. Even without a victory in the Big Ten tournament, Michigan has done enough to lock up a No. 1 NCAA seed.
If a No. 4 seed can be a long shot, Purdue is it. With this conference’s firepower, the Boilermakers have flown under the radar most of the season. They are playing their best basketball of the season, and coach Matt Painter has his young squad thinking big. Purdue plays really good defense and knows how to get a good shot on the offensive end.
My pick: Iowa
If the seeds hold in the Mountain West quarterfinals Thursday, we are looking at a wild Friday night in Las Vegas. Top-seeded San Diego State would face fourth-seeded Boise State, and second-seeded Utah State would face No. 3 Colorado State. This becomes so intriguing because only San Diego State should feel comfortable about an NCAA bid. The other three teams are sitting near the cut line. The Colorado State-Utah State winner should solidify its NCAA chances, and a Boise State victory over SDSU would be huge on its resume.
My pick: Colorado State