College Basketball Coverage: East Regional Preview

It was November 2011 and the Indiana football program moved its home game with Penn State to FedEx Field, home of the Washington Redskins. I cite this insignificant fact to console Hoosier fans who might not be happy their #1-seeded basketball team wasn’t given the top spot in the Midwest Regional, with its culmination in Indianapolis. Instead, Indiana was sent to what is apparently its home away from home. Tom Crean’s team is the top seed in the East Regional, which ends in Washington D.C.

TheSportsNotebook’s college basketball coverage will break down the East bracket pod-by-pod for the first weekend, look ahead to the regionals in D.C., make picks and look at some of the betting odds for each team’s chances of making it Atlanta and the Final Four.

#1 Indiana vs. #16 Long Island/James Madison
#8 N.C. State vs. #9 Temple

Indiana is going to to have its hands full in the second round (I’m still insisting the first round starts Thursday, in spite of the NCAA’s insistence on calling the Tuesday-Wednesday play-in games the “first round.” Both N.C. State and Temple have the offensive talent to exploit a defense that’s rarely been championship-caliber in big games.

The first question will be whether it’s the Owls or Wolfpack that get the chance. N.C. State has the more complete talent, including quality frontline play from Richard Howell and a great three-point shooter in Scott Wood. If the Pack plays like they’re capable they’ll beat Temple and will be right there with Indiana. But my problem is that if N.C. State was going to play like it was  capable they would have won the ACC, or at least be right in the mix with Miami and Duke. Or the Pack would have won the conference tournament instead of flaming out in the semis. If you want to give them full faith and credit and pick a win on Friday and possible upset Sunday, I can’t tell you it’s a bad pick. But I’m out of belief in N.C. State.

That’s why I’m picking Temple, which overcame a brief bad spell in February, has a great guard in Khalif Wyatt who can break down defenses and good perimeter play all the way around. But because the Owls lack the three-point shooting/post player combo of N.C. State, I can’t give Temple a real shot at beating Indiana. The Hoosiers might have to sweat on Sunday, but they’ll make it through to D.C.

#4 Syracuse vs #13 Montana
#5 UNLV vs #12 Cal

These games are in San Jose, and that gives Syracuse, and to a lesser extent UNLV, a big reason to throw a fit. Cal will be close to its backyard in spite of being the lowest seed of the power conference teams in the pod. The Golden Bears had been coming on hard down the stretch and were in position to win the Pac-12 before a bad loss and a fight against Stanford ended the regular season. Then a really bad loss to Utah followed in the conference tournament. But Cal has extremely good guards in Justin Cobbs and Allen Crabbe. While Cobbs is the point guard and Crabbe the two-guard, they can both score and distribute the ball, making this a tough team to guard.

UNLV had a disappointing loss in the Mountain West tournament final against New Mexico—disappointing because the game was played in Las Vegas. The Rebels, as indicated by an otherwise strong finish and their seed, are a good team, but they lack the distinguishing characteristics of Cal’s guards and they’re no better than even money against the Golden Bear frontcourt of David Kravish and Richard Solomon. I’ve got the 12-seed moving forward in this game.

I also like Cal to beat Syracuse. This should be an intriguing game, and if Jim Boeheim’s zone can confuse Cobbs and Crabbe, than my upset pick is going to go out with the window. But the Orange are an overachieving team—a high compliment to be sure, but also reflective that the talent level is not great. I’m assuming we’ll have a partisan Cal crowd for this one and that swings it the underdog’s way. It’s not fair, but from Syracuse’s standpoint, it’s a makeup for 2003 when they were the #3 seed and played a regional final against #1 Oklahoma in Albany, with a big home crowd advantage.

#3 Marquette vs. #14 Davidson
#6 Butler vs #11 Bucknell

Upset alert can be sounded in both of these games. Butler’s resume is flashy, with the head-to-head wins over #1 seeds Indiana and Gonzaga, but the Bulldogs’ play in the Atlantic 10 has been mediocre and they went out in the semifinals of the conference tournament. I see the logic behind seeding Butler this high, because of the big wins mentioned and the strong start. But when it comes to prognosticating, I don’t see them as much more than play-in game quality. That’s why I’ve got the upset.

I’m not sounding the upset alert in the Marquette game, but the ESPN Bracketology crew was last night. Marquette is a vulnerable 3-seed, unable to overwhelm in the post. They’re like Syracuse in that they’ve overachieved all year long, but will see the talent deficiencies come back at some point in this tournament. Unlike their Big East rival though, Marquette isn’t going to play a team with a great backcourt in a road-neutral environment. Marquette’s opponents are ones where just playing hard and playing good defense—things Buzz Williams’ teams take care of—will be enough. The Golden Eagles come out of this pod.

#2 Miami vs #15 Pacific
#7 Illinois vs #10 Colorado

I won’t say Colorado is a nightmare matchup for Miami, but they’re more of a nightmare than Illinois would be. The reason is the ability of Buffalo power forward Andre Roberson to have a big game both scoring and rebounding, which in turn puts pressure on Hurricane center Reggie Johnson to overcome some of his consistency issues. The Illini and Buffs are both good in the backcourt, although either will have their hands full chasing down Shane Larkin to keep him from spotting up from three. Or Durand Scott, if he gets the ball on the wing. Miami will take care of its business and advance. It’s Colorado that gets the chance to pull the upset.

Indiana vs. Cal
Marquette vs Miami

I’ve been downgrading Indiana since the season began, and I was at least looking at the Miami bandwagon before it filled up for a while in February. So I’m not only picking the Hurricanes to reach the Final Four, but I’m saying Indiana falls in the Sweet 16. It gives the NCAA what they surely dreamt of—a Cal-Miami game in Washington D.C. with a Final Four spot at stake. My issue with Indiana is simple—they can look so good offensively that it obscures the lack of consistent quality on the defensive end. And at this level of competition it’s very difficult to win an offensive beauty contest. But if we do end up with a Miami-Indiana final, it’s ironic because the NBA East is on track for the exact same conference final later this spring.

Even if you don’t agree with me about Indiana, you can’t like the 10-11 odds they’re getting to win this regional. That’s a tough bet for any team, when this day and age of parity means you’re getting three straight games of teams good enough to beat you one time. Even though I’m picking Miami in my bracket pool, I wouldn’t bet them in Las Vegas—a 9-4 shot isn’t enough to justify the risk on a team that doesn’t have tournament-tested players.  Syracuse is the next team on the board at 5-1.

The middle class of the bracket is Marquette at 15-1, then N.C. State, UNLV and Butler at 20-1. The Wolfpack at 20-1 doesn’t make a lot of sense, given that they need to go through Indiana, who the betting markets tell us is a top-heavy favorite. Another reminder that the purpose of gambling lines is not to make cohesive sense, but to draw action.

Will it surprise you at this point to know that I love Cal at 60-1. From a standpoint of a bracket pool, I feel like I’m taking a foolish risk in putting them in the regional final (the picks you read here are what’s going in my pool and I don’t fill out multiple sheets), given that they’ll be an underdog in the first game. But I’d have no problem with putting a few dollars down at 60-1 that Mike Montgomery’s team cuts down the nets in the Verizon Center.

TheSportsNotebook’s official pick in the East is Miami and our best futures bet is Cal. There will be a final national championship article (complete with odds for winning the whole thing) when all four regions are complete.