Potential NCAA Tournament Upsets
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by Matthew Stevens
Thursday and Friday represent Christmas Day for every mid-major program, as they receive national television coverage, play in front of their largest attendance all year and attempt to pull of an upset that their fans will remember for generations to come. Here’s my breakdown of each of my predicted first-round upsets.
Veterans Memorial Arena – Jacksonville, Fla.
Christmas week I predicted that the Iona Gaels would upset Kentucky in Rupp Arena...and it obviously motivated Tubby Smith’s Wildcats to a double-digit win in front of the home faithful. So, now that they’ve been pitted against another SEC power, I still like the Gaels' chances.
Guards Steve Burtt (the second 2,000-point scorer in school history, 25 ppg) and Ricky Soliver lead Iona in every game they play. They pair dictates game tempo, and it’s no secret that the offense run by head coach Jeff Ruland runs through them. The duo became the first Iona players ever to score 30 in the same game when they did it against Marist in the semifinals of the MAAC Tournament. Forward Kiril Wachsmann gives the Gaels solid play inside, but the guards make everything happen.
Iona tends to fall apart down the stretch, including a breakdown against Manhattan that cost the Gaels a MAAC regular season title. Not a great history for a school that is entering a bigger stage.
LSU is a team with the best one-two underclassmen punch in the nation. Sophomore Glen “Big Baby ” Davis (6-9, 310) is one of the premier big men in the SEC and finished the regular season second in the conference in scoring and number one in rebounding. NBA scouts are drooling over his agility which seems impossible for his wide body. Freshman Tyrus Thomas is a sensational shot blocker and is 100 percent healthy after missing the conference tournament due to an ankle injury.
OUTLOOK: This game will come down to where these teams are getting shots. If Iona can get dribble penetration and make their perimeter shots, an upset is brewing. However, if LSU can dominate the paint and get several offensive boards, the SEC regular season champion will move on. I took the Gaels in December and love them even more in March.
Iona with the upset 83-77.
Cox Arena – San Diego, Calif., 9:55 p.m. Thursday
Here’s the ironic thing about the Tournament: I would argue for hours that Utah State has no business in the tournament over Cincinnati or Missouri State. However, since the Aggies are in, I like how they match up against the Huskies. Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar will trot out Brandon Roy, who may be a NBA lottery pick when the draft comes up. However, the classic recipe for a 5-12 upset is a team that can consistently make shots from the perimeter. A team can’t win the Tournament banking on its three-point shot, but a less-talented squad can win one game that way. Utah State is the definition of a team that can find the bottom of the net, having hit 49.8 percent from the field, 40.5 from 3-point range and 72.1 from the foul line. The inside part of its offensive game is senior forward Nick Harris. The 6-7 post player led the squad in scoring (17.2 per game) and rebounding (7.5) this season.
OUTLOOK: Washington has a problem stopping teams defensively and once the Aggies start hitting outside shots, the crowd will get behind them for the classic upset environment. Stew Morrill is one of the best lesser-known coaches in the country and deserves the recognition from this victory.
Utah State wins 83-80.
Greensboro Coliseum – Greensboro, N.C., 2:50 p.m. Thursday
I know, a 15-seed has beaten a two only four times in NCAA history but ask yourself this: when has there been a weaker 2-seed and a better 15-seed than what we have in Greensboro? The answer is never. What puts Winthrop over the top is this team has more tournament experience than Tennessee. When Volunteers head coach Bruce Pearl tells the media this week the he thinks Winthrop is a very good team, he’s not lying, and deep down he believes it.
The Eagles will hound you with tough, usually man-to-man defense, leading their league in scoring defense for the eighth straight year. The only team that scored more than 78 on them this year is Rob Judson’s Northern Illinois and they needed double overtime to do it. Greg Marshall’s squad is athletic and strong, they rebound, and they go 10 deep, with reliable backups at every spot.
OUTLOOK: The Volunteers give up more than three rebounds a game to their opponents, and their perimeter game led by C.J. Watson will not be able to make up the difference. Pearl may be the national coach of the year but building a big-time program comes with steps. Disappointment in the NCAAs is a step his team will experience.
Winthrop opens the tournament with the biggest upset of the event. Eagles 72-66
Dayton Arena – Dayton, Ohio, 2:35 p.m. Friday
Northern Iowa head coach Greg McDermott is one of the best mid-major coaches in the country and an upset win could lead to bigger job offers in the coming months.
McDermott was able to convince this veteran group to rely on its normally inconsistent defense when they weren’t hitting shots and certain starters were out due to injury. Now that the Panthers don’t necessarily have to rely on the outside shot of Ben Jacobson and company, it makes this mid-major even more dangerous.
Jacobson is certainly the player who makes the Panthers go. The senior guard has a sweet stroke from the outside, and when he's on, it makes UNI hard to beat. He had back-to-back 21-point outings in early January to help the Panthers to road victories over Wichita State and Missouri State.
Georgetown plays the Princeton offensive system that requires a lot of discipline to defend correctly, and usually results in the Hoyas getting good looks underneath. Hoyas coach John Thompson III has a 7-foot beast in the middle in Roy Hibbert that will limit UNI’s already vulnerable rebounding ability.
OUTLOOK: Northern Iowa gets out to an early lead and Thompson III’s system does not really allow for the possibility for a big game comeback. Northern Iowa wins in a low scoring thriller 58-55.
It should also be noted that I like UNC-Wilmington and Bucknell in its first round matchups but they are both in 8-9 games so they wouldn’t be considered particularly shocking upsets.
Enjoy the madness of March.