Potential NCAA Tournament Darkhorses From the West Coast
A lot can happen between now and March 11, but the teams on this list have, short of an absolute implosion, pretty much ensured themselves a ticket to the Big Dance. Now, I’m not talking about the so-called “big boys” here. So, no UCLA’s and Oregon’s in this article; it’s reserved for the teams that are good, but that few, if any people are talking about.
The teams on this list generally fall between what projected five- and eight-seeds. That’s means they’ll be looking at playing a higher-seeded team in second round, while being favored, or at least the higher seed in their first round game.
As I put this list together I had to come up with unbiased criteria with which to judge the respective teams, so here are the base requirements to make this list:
1) Must be a West Coast team. That means I will be focusing on teams from the PAC-10, the Mountain West Conference, the Western Athletic Conference and the West Cost Conference. With all due respect to the Big West and the Big Sky Conference, but they will not produce more than one bid per league and the teams that come from those conferences will not be higher than a 13 seed.
2) Must have senior leadership, or
2a) Must have outstanding talent
3) Have shown they can beat highly ranked teams
4) Have a go-to player
With those criteria in mind, here is the list of West Coast teams that could surprise a higher seed in the second round of the NCAA Tournament:
FROM THE PAC-10:
USC: The Trojans play very good defense, which, come Tourney time, is like gold. They have a good tournament coach in Tim Floyd and very seasoned leadership in senior Lodrick Stewart, a streaky three-point threat, and juniors Nick Young and Gabe Pruitt.
The Trojans have shown with their sweep of Oregon that they can beat teams that are in the national title conversation. They’ve also shown signs of inconsistency by losing to teams like South Carolina at home and getting blown out by Stanford. USC has shown a tendency to make some very questionable decisions in close games, a la the UCLA game and almost blowing a huge late lead against Cal a few weeks ago, but they can also be rock-solid in crunch time as they were in their victories over Oregon.
The Trojans have a sure-fire NBA talent in Young, and probable draftees in Pruitt and freshman forward Taj Gibson. Young, in particular, is not someone that higher-seeded teams want to see because of the huge match-up problems he causes. If the Trojans keep up their current pace, (they’re currently sitting in a second place tie in the PAC-10), then they may be seeded higher than what is acceptable, but USC’s inconsistency probably means that they will lose at least one game that they shouldn’t, thus putting them in the appropriate seeding area to be labeled as a darkhorse. If that happens, their second-round opponent had better beware: the Trojans are a potential Elite Eight team.
Stanford: Of all the teams on this list, Stanford may have the most talented overall group of starters. The trouble for the Cardinal is that they are very, very young. They do start senior combo wing Fred Washington, but he isn’t a vocal leader or one who leads through his exploits. So the leadership comes from this team’s underclassmen; sophomore guard Anthony Goods, sophomore forward Lawrence Hill and twin freshmen posts, Robin and Brook Lopez. These four players are very talented and balanced.
Goods is the three-point threat (just ask UCLA about how clutch he is), while Hill is a very good inside/outside player. The Lopez twins might be the best post combo on the West Coast. Robin has been solid all year while Brook, the more talented of the two, is rounding into form after an early-season injury. The talent of these four is unquestioned, but the only bench player that sees significant minutes is sophomore point guard Mitch Johnson.
That means that of the first six players on the team, five of them are either freshmen or sophomores. That youth naturally leads to inconsistency. The Cardinal beat UCLA a few weeks ago, but they also lost at home by more than 20 to Air Force and on the road to what appears to be a now-overrated Arizona team.
Hill and Goods have both proven that they can hit big shots at the end of games, and the Lopez twins truly change the offensive game plans of opponents. In fact, there are three possible NBA talents on the Cardinal. Now, the Cardinal are probably just as apt to lose their first NCAA Tournament game as they are to defeat their second round opponent, but they certainly should cause higher-seeded team to fear them if they make it out of Round One.
Arizona: Just a quick word about the ‘Cats: if the ship has been righted following the win against Washington, then Arizona may just climb back up to the protected seed range (1-4). But .500-play down the stretch will almost certainly land them in the 5-8 range. If that’s the case, and assuming Arizona can get past its first round game, they will be very dangerous in the second round. The talent on this team is overwhelming, and games can be over before they start against a Lute Olson-coached team (see: Wisconsin, 2006). Arizona already has proven that they can shoot other teams out of a game if the opposition doesn’t play solid defense for long stretches of a game. Just ask Memphis.
Mountain West Conference:
BYU: BYU is an intriguing team in that they certainly have the talent to make noise in the Big Dance. The trouble is they are terribly inconsistent. They have been much better at home than on the road, but that seems to be changing. They lost to Boise State and Lamar on the road (both bad losses), but they beat Air Force and crushed a good UNLV squad, both at home. This would make you, (and the Selection Committee), think that this team is toast anywhere outside of Utah. However, they have started to win fairly easily away from Provo.
They have talented senior leadership in leading scorer Keena Young and guards Austin Ainge and Jimmy Balderson. They have younger, more talented players in sophomore wing Lee Cummard and sophomore postman, lefty Trent Plaisted.
With all due respect to Air Force, the Cougars should be the best team in the MWC. Of all the teams on this list, they are one of the least likely to achieve a second-round upset simply because they may be one of the least likely to get into the appropriate seeding territory. But if they do, they will be a tough out, and a team that higher seeds won’t want to see in their sub-regional.
UNLV: The Rebels are a solid but unspectacular team. They have the personality of their coach, Lon Kruger, which means good half court defense and a solid offense. Their mentality reminds viewers of a Ben Howland-coached team in that they believe in defense and rebounding.
Good senior leadership comes in the form of leading scorer Wendell White and point guard Kevin Kruger, the ArizonaState transfer and coach’s son. They also have a solid off guard in sophomore “Wink” Adams, the most effective three-point shooter on the team.
As a team they hold the opposition to less than 44% shooting from the floor and only 33% from behind the arc, (even after BYU’s 15 ‘3’s against them last week). Their rebounding totals are actually mediocre, but they have gotten better as the season has progressed. They also force about five more turnovers per game than they give up.
They have one bad loss, at home to UC-Santa Barbara, but two very good non-conference wins: at Texas Tech, (denying Bobby Knight his record-breaking victory), and at Reno against in-state rival Nevada. The Rebels are no match for a one or a two seed, but they could surprise a three or a four. Kruger runs a pretty disciplined team and you have only one day to prepare for your second opponent. Again, while not as strong a bet as one of the PAC-10 teams, don’t sleep on the Rebels.
Nevada: This team won neutral-court games at California and at Gonzaga, if that makes sense, and also won at Akron, which is looking like the safe bet out of the MAC.
This may tell you something: none of the “big programs” that Nevada contacted in the spring and summer of 2006 wanted to schedule the Wolfpack. They talked about 2 home games versus one in Reno, but the fact of the matter is that they just didn’t want to play a team with Nick Fazekas, a sure-fire NBA first round pick.
Fazekas, a senior, is one of the most complete players in the country and one of the few players truly capable of carrying his team. He is a match-up nightmare for any team. But he doesn’t have to do it all himself. Senior Kyle Shiloh helps to provide leadership, while juniors Marcelus Kemp and Ramon Sessions both provide double-digit scoring. Kemp, in particular, can carry the team when Fazekas is off the floor. In all honesty, this team has PAC-10 level talent; they’d be no worse than third or fourth in the conference right now. They are deep and experienced and the taste of last year’s first round exit will have to be fresh in their minds. This might be the least hoped for second round match-up for any three or four seed. But with a solid finish to the WAC season, the ‘Pack may find themselves in that position themselves.
West Coast Conference:
Gonzaga: Okay, the ‘Zags lost again this week, this time to lowly Loyola Marymount. But if they bounce back to beat Memphis at the Spokane Civic Center on BracketBuster weekend, that loss would be all but forgiven.
The fact that they’ve seemingly fallen since their resounding start to the year is not a surprise considering they were replacing their two best players in Adam Morrison and J.P. Batista. But the team isn’t without talent. They have one of the best backcourts in the country in senior Derek Raivio and sophomore Jeremy Pargo. They have depth and leadership in the post with sophomore Josh Heytvelt and senior Sean Mallon. They have solid contributors off the bench in freshman Matt Bouldin, junior Pierre-Marie Altidor-Cespedes and up front in junior posts David Pendergraph and Abdullahi Kuso.
They’ve beaten North Carolina, Texas and Washington, but they’ve also gotten blown out by Virginia and Georgia. The loss to LMU was just plain bad. So why the inconsistency? Simple: the ‘Zags, other than Pargo, lack superior athleticism. Raivio is quick but can be easily thrown off his game if he is forced to rely on that too much.
Gonzaga also looks tired. They played a lot of games in the beginning of the year and crossed the country several times, (New York twice, Virginia, Georgia), and it looks as if it might be catching up with them. Plus, they have the proverbial bulls-eye on their back every time they enter an opponent’s gym in WCC play. They certainly won’t sneak up on anyone this season, but they will still cause sleepless nights for any coach unfortunate enough to find them in his pod.
– Rob Carpentier