With the exception of the NBA Finals, there is no better event in the American sports calendar than the NCAA Tournament.
68 teams, whittled down knockout-style, serving as the closest thing American sports has to the grandeur and upset potential of the FA Cup. All the games running concurrently, and the one game knockout format, make for captivating evenings of hours and hours of entertainment. This is particularly true of the first round, where action jumps from game to game, and Greg Gumbel struggles to keep up with all the information he’s getting in his ear. Indeed, with so much action going on concurrently (it is as though the FA Cup all took place in only two weeks), it is arguably better.
In a series of posts here at GiveMeSport, there follows previews (often in the form of a recap) of all 68 of the teams taking part in this, the 2018 NCAA Tournament. That series continues here with the bottom teams in the Eastern region - St Bonaventure, UCLA, LIU Brooklyn, Radford, Cal State Fullerton, Murray State, Marshall and Stephen F. Austin.
#11 seed: St Bonaventure
In coming out of an Atlantic 10 conference that seems to continue to put forth a couple of at-large teams every season despite endless predictions of its demise, St Bonaventure will make only their third NCAA tournament appearance in the last 40 years. Indeed, not since 1970, when the Bonnies made it all the way to the Final Four, has the team won an NCAA tournament game. By virtue of their play-in game against UCLA, they might now manage that.
At their core, St Bonaventure are an undersized team who lack for depth. They have no true centre (save for 6'10 sophomore Amadi Ikpeze, whose combination of size and mobility is intriguing, yet whose lack of poise and ball skill makes him unreliable at this point in his career), and have to rely on a lot of small ball. Flanking the big-minute senior guard duo of Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley are starting forwards Courtney Stockard and LaDarien Griffin, both athletic and active players especially on the glass, but both undersized (Stockard plays the small forward position at 6'5 and without a consistent handle or shot; Griffin, still somehow the leading rebounder and only shotblocker, plays as a face-up four man despite a 6'6 215lbs frame better suited for what Stockard is doing).
It has worked to this point because of Mobley and Adams, and particularly Adams. It is he through which everything goes; a solid ball handler, good pick-and-roll and dump-off passer and willing ball pusher, Adams does a good job of getting these limited athletes the ball in positions where they can be effective (for Stockard, through some spot-ups and open straight-line drives; for Griffin, in pick-and-mid-range-pop plays and pick-and-rolls; for both, out in transition). He also enters the tournament with one of the nation's best outside shots, hitting 45.7% from three-point range having been over 50% for much of the season. Indeed, he shoots better from far away from the basket than he does when right up close to it; as determined as Adams is to get into the paint, collapse the defence and attempt difficult shots right in among the trees, his lack of size, speed and explosion makes it tough to get separation at the rim, and while he will gladly take the contact and head to the line, he will probably otherwise miss the shot. Regardless of this one draw-back, though, Adams is an excellent lead guard, efficient yet determined, with a strong sense of balance between his scoring and his playmaking games.
With Adams pulling up and/or attacking the paint, and without a post option to turn to, the team needs spacing to give Adams room to operate. Into that breach steps Mobley, a senior shooter who also plays almost every minute. Small for a scoring two guard, Mobley nevertheless has some speed, and some moves (shot fakes, side-step dribbles) with which to quickly get away outside jumpers. Although he creates little with his own handle, some timely driving of close-outs and ball reversals see him diversify his offensive game beyond just spotting up and running curls, and provides a useful and important counterpart to Adams in the backcourt and the team offence.
The depth, though, is a concern, as is the lack of size. The fifth starter, 6'4 wing man Idris Taqqee, is a long armed and committed defender who free-roams around to good effect and who can be disruptive in man-to-man possessions, but who has very little offensive skill. And as guard depth, there are only Izaiah Brockington (dynamic but extremely inconsistent) and Nelson Kaputo (who has solid vision and a useful floater, but whose lack of size and speed makes him mostly a mere three-point shooter with a low volume of attempts). That is about it for the depth.
As will be seen below, UCLA does not have much depth, either. But what they do have is size. The Bonnies severely lack for size, and further hampering their prospects of a tournament run is an injury to Stockard, who hurt his hamstring in the last A-10 game versus Richmond. A team with few weapons, little depth and even less size cannot afford to lose a key starting forward. But with Stockard's injury, they may just have done so, and so even if Mobley and Adams can be disruptive in man-to-man defence against Aaron Holiday at the guard spot, Thomas Welsh and Kris Wilkes up front and on the wing could be unsolvable problems.
#11 seed: UCLA
This might well be the worst defensive team UCLA has had in the Steve Alford era, and for a while, that looked to have them just outside the tournament bubble. However, a slight defensive uptick and some good late wins have seen them get back to the tournament, hoping to at least match last year's Sweet Sixteen run. To do so, however, means having to play a lot of catch-up.
The Bruins are having to make do with a lack of depth. Part of the reason starting point guard Aaron Holiday plays almost every minute of almost every game is because of how good he is, offering up an endless barrage of drives to the rim, tough finishes, dump-off passes and kick-outs that rely upon guile and smarts more than any particular size or explosion. But it is also in part because a solid backup point guard option does not exist. The role when required falls to starting shooting guard Jaylen Hands, a more explosive player with pro scoring moves, plenty of flair, the ability to make extremely tough shots and an unnerving confidence in his own shot-making talent that seems him keep taking the tougher ones. Yet although he can drive and kick the ball, Hands is a natural scorer, and an offence led by him on a team with few other creators would not be an offence that got very far.
As it is, though, the Holiday-Hands pairing makes for the foundation of a fairly potent offensive unit. Ranking 31st in offensive efficiency and 52nd in pace, Holiday pushes the ball with Hands alongside him, even if the main big men on the team cannot run with them. Senior 7'0 centre Thomas Welsh has become a true stretch five this year, adding pick-and-pop three-point range to his already plentiful selection of base line and foul line jumpers, while fellow 6'11 senior Gyorgy Goloman also prefers the half-court, adding some pick-and-pop stretch ability of his own, along with some pick-and-roll possessions and rare post touches (largely ineffectual unless he catches the ball on the move due to his lack of strength and thus ability to create any space). Both have their offensive uses, Welsh especially, and between Welsh's excellent rebound nous and Golomon's good hands and plays on the ball, both add something on the interior to an underwhelming team defence that needs help all over. They are not, however, going to run much.
Freshman stretch four Kris Wilkes will, though, and despite a slow start and some streakiness, he has grown through the year to become a key offensive weapon for the Bruins. Able to spot up from outside and from the mid-range, moving around offensively into the space Holiday creates and an aggressive finisher if not yet much of a creator, Wilkes's length and athleticism give him both plenty of potential and also an immediate role. Third guard Prince Ali (who dips in and out of the starting line-up depending on Alford's views on Jaylen Hands at any given time) will also run, particularly if it was one of his passing-lane gambles that set up the break in the first place. And young face-up four men Alex Olesinski and Chris Smith have the ability to get out in transition, especially Smith, who struggled for the majority of his freshman season without having an obvious role to play yet who improved a bit down the stretch when he came to understand that he was much better running without the ball than with it.
Offensively, then, the Bruins know what to do. Run, cut and screen, encourage Holiday to keep barrelling in, move around when he does so, shoot on sight. It is somewhat limiting to only have one set half-court creator like this, but it has just about been enough so far. Defensively, though, is where they have been a little short all season.
By virtue of good reads and good hustle even if not especially fast himself, Olesinski added some depth late in the season to an interior defensive pairing of Welsh and Goloman that was always exploitable by opposing drivers (lacking length and leap, Welsh prioritises rebounding position, while for all his good plays on the ball, Goloman can be frustratingly timid and gambles excessively, perhaps to compensate for his major lack of core post strength). With their length and speed, Smith and Wilkes ooze defensive potential in the front court. So too do the athletic and lengthy Ali and Hands in the backcourt. But potential has not equalled results, and the by-product of relying so much on underclassmen leads to mistakes that the limitations of the upperclassmen cannot compensate for. Be it a lack of foot speed (Welsh and Olesinski), a tendency to ball-watch and gamble (Goloman), ill-discipline (Ali and Hands) or lacking strength to challenge anybody (Wilkes and Smith), every play in the short UCLA rotation sans Holiday has some key defensive flaw.
Nevertheless, although the lack of depth was a factor all season, there might only be one game left, thus only one more push required. If Hands's ankle is healthy, and Courtney Stockard's hamstring isn't, then the Bruins become a big favourite over the Bonnies in the play-in game. After that, who knows?
#12 seed: Murray State
Murray State come into the tournament with some excellent metrics on their side. Not only are they 17th in the nation in offensive efficiency, they are also 30th in defensive efficiency, a strong pairing that speaks to a team with some depth and balance. It still only equates to a twelfth seed due to the weakness of their own conference and through having no impressive non-conference wins (losing to Auburn, Middle Tennessee State and, rather worryingly, to Saint Louis by 14). But that was all a while ago now. And as twelfth seeds go, this one has some talent.
The Racers are led by high scoring combo guard Jonathan Stark, who never seeks to let his small stature (6'0, 180) and lack of elite explosion keep him down. Armed with NBA range, a range of fakes and a quick release, Stark scores the bulk of his points through outside shots, and so good of a shooter is he that he does not even really need to do much to get open - just raising up alone can get it done. The offence is built for Stark, who, despite having some passing vision when called upon, has a scorer's sensibilities that he is empowered to explore. He has the freedom to shoot, he has the ability to shoot, and shooting is both his first and second option.
Up front, the team also has some size to compensate. In particular, 6'8 senior power forward Terrell Miller brings an intriguing combination of inside/outside shot-making skills and some rebounding desire. Be it as a trailer option, pick-and-pop player or weakside guy, Miller can stretch the floor with his three-point stroke, yet can also score with post catches via short hooks, as well as a face-up jumper when pushed further out. Smooth and skilled if more of a finisher than a creator, Miller also gets after it on the glass, and although he is more of a rebounder than disruptor defensively, his strength and decent athleticism make him a presence (and certainly a match-up for West Virginia star big man Sagaka Konate). Alongside Miller, second post Jaylen Dupree has a limited set of skills but does well to play within them; an offensive rebounding specialist, Dupree plays help defence on the interior (relying on timing rather than explosion), and scores a few points offensively through making a passing angle to the post, catching and finishing. He hasn't the range, mobility or versatility of Mitchell, but again, Konate will have a body on him that lower seeds could not offer.
Surrounding Stark in the three-guard line-up are Ja Morant (a reckless but dynamic freshmen point guard who is always pushing the ball, exerting pressure and being aggressive), and Shaq Buchanan (a defensive specialist 6'3 off-guard, corner shooter and baseline driver who picks his spots below the break). Morant in particular is an intriguing presence, a very good athlete and potent lead guard who zips passes, crashes the glass, attacks the rim and keeps the dribble alive; if Murray State lose, it won't be because they were passive, for Morant and Stark never are.
The depth tails off further down the short rotation. Bench guard Byron Hawkins has microwave potential but is erratic on both ends, 6'8 245lbs post man Brion Sanchious is the token bench size but is slow and underskilled, and although 6'7 forward Anthony Smith uses a good frame and mobility to crash the offensive glass and barrel his way to the foul line, he does little else than this. The Stark and Mitchell pairing alone, however, is pretty darn good for a twelfth seed.
#5 versus #12 match-ups are always looked at for upset potential, and there is a chance here. West Virginia will put on a ton of pressure and commit a ton of fouls, but the Racers have plenty of guards to be able to handle the pressure, plenty of good foul shooters, and, in their starting line-up at least, offence at every position. They also have a good rebounding rate, particularly offensively, which plays into the Mountaineer's weaknesses. West Virginia are, of course, still the favourites. But unless Stark goes ice cold from the field, it won't be a comfortable match-up.
#13 seed: Marshall
Marshall are headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in an impressive 31 years. Despite having quality players such as Tamar Slay, Hassan Whiteside and Jason Williams amongst others play for them in that time, it has been a long old slog for the Thundering Herd, who nevertheless are here now to try and do something they have never done before - win an NCAA tournament game.
Marshall are led by junior guard Jon Elmore, who posts the amazing averages of 22.8 points, 6.9 assists and 6.0 rebounds per game. Led by head coach Dan D'Antoni - both the older brother to, and somewhat disciple of, pioneering pace-and-space NBA head coach Mike D'Antoni - the Herd play an uptempo, three-tastic, swinging, pick-and-roll based offence, and Elmore heads it up. Driving around about 745 screens per game, Elmore regularly hits roll men, throws lobs to unguarded bigs, reverses the ball around the perimeter or, should it be the best option on the play, pull up for a jumper of his own. A good decision maker and decent shooter, Elmore drives the whole system, and although he lacks much strength or explosion of his own, this does not stop him taking the ball the whole way to the basket if doing so is the right decision. He also never seems to come out of the game.
To run this system of course relies upon floor-spreading shooters and big men who can actually roll. 6'9 starting big man Ajdin Penava is the welcome recipient of many of Elmore's pick-and-roll passes, a very capable finisher around the basket with either hand who is also learning how to spread the floor as an upper classman. Highly skilled, Penava - a good athlete and tremendous shot blocker at a nation-leading 4.1 per game - is also willing and able to handle the ball in transition, and, given that D'Antoni teams are all about freedom of expression, he promptly does so. [Penava is, really, a very good stretch four.] Alongside Elmore, off-guard C.J. Burks is to be found running off the ball, looking to exploit the space that Elmore and Penava can open up and exploit. He is also a solid pick-and-roll handling option of his own, and, notwithstanding a knack for committing turnovers in doing so, can get all the way to the rim.
Between Elmore, Burks (20.5) and Penava (15.5), Marshall are good for 58.8 points per game alone. Beyond those three however is a talent drop-off. Undersized freshman Jarrod West is a ball-handling option and good shooter who is yet to learn how to get shots away at a higher volume than he does currently. Freshman forward Jannson Williams shows shot blocking and stretch potential akin to Penava, and comes into the tournament having really strung it together down the stretch of the season, yet who remains largely untested. Junior guard Rondale Watson gives a defensive presence on the wing, but is too often a non-factor offensively. Freshman forward Darrius George has three-and-D potential, but currently defends via only the foul. And beyond that is very little.
Nevertheless, although their lack of depth and distinctly middle-of-the-pack defence give cause for concern considering the match-up against the deep and offensively gifted Wichita State Shockers, Marshall are here on merit. With a talented trio unbecoming of a mid-major, a clear identity and the ability to score big, there is an outside chance of recording that first ever NCAA tournament victory. It is not likely, but not impossible.
#14 seed: Stephen F. Austin
Stephen F. Austin's plan on any given night is clear - get stops. To do so, they do not play at a slow pace; recording 81 points per game despite being 106th in offensive efficiency relies upon a faster game plan, and with the 57th most possessions per game, the Lumberjacks do not slow the game to a grind in order to get these stops as may be assumed. Instead, they get them through aggressive man-to-man defence and plenty of trapping.
This works through a barrage of players and use of strong depth. Seven different Lumberjacks players play between the very narrow range of 23.1 and 27.4 minutes per game, with two others (5'11 pressure-defense sophomore guard John Comeaux and 6'7 foul-everybody sophomore forward Samuli Nieminen) playing 12.4 and 14.8 respectively. The pressure forces a lot of turnovers - the most in the nation, to be exact - and players such as Comeaux and 5'11 sophomore point guard Aaron Augustin know their roles - play intense pressure defence, stay out of the way offensively, hit the shot if you can.
So committed are the Lumberjacks to defence that their leading scorer comes off the bench. Shannon Bogues scores 15.4 points per game in 24.0 minutes per game as a sixth man of sorts; athletic and running at every opportunity, Bogues also jumps the passing lanes to force turnovers of his own. Indeed, much of the team's offensive efficiency and pace comes from the amount of live-ball turnovers they force, and the halfcourt game is more of a struggle.
As many turnovers as the Lumberjacks cause, they also commit a ton themselves, with a negative assist to turnover ratio as a team speaking to their limitations. They lack for spacing - for all the pressure-playing small guards, only Kevon Harris is a plus outside shooter - and also lack for options on the interior. TJ Holyfield, the team's lone rotation 'big' at 6'8, negates the impact of his own athletic face-up game by being chronically turnover prone.
The Lumberjacks overcome this deficiency by sticking to what they know and pressing teams into oblivion. This strategy, however, works at the team's own talent level. It is much less likely to be effective against a far bigger and more athletic Texas Tech team. Traps can theoretically work against a motion-heavy offence like Tech's, and this is not to say that paint touches for Tommy Hamilton and Norense Odianse is the answer. Yet they do have far more ball handling options than Southland conference teams tend to, and plenty of athleticism in order to force turnovers of their own back again. The beauty of the NCAA game is the blend of vastly different styles of team not otherwise seen in the professional game, but ultimately it is still talent that decides the outcome.
#15 seed: Cal State Fullerton
At a time that basketball as a whole is very much prioritising the importance of outside shooting, Cal State Fullerton enter the NCAA tournament with one of the nation's worst outside shooting teams. Hitting only 5.3 three-point attempts per game on a 33.8% shooting percentage as a team, the Titans have only the 200th best offensive efficiency in the nation, and the fifth worst in the tournament (ahead of only NC Central, Alabama, Wright State and Syracuse).
Fullerton overcome this lack of spacing through a dynamic backcourt pairing of Khalil Ahmad and Kyle Allman. An intriguing combination of cuts, pull-ups, transition and (surprisingly, considering he is only 6'4) post touches, Ahmad has good instincts for getting open and a constant offensive aggression that make him one to game plan against, and while he can be a bit shot-happy (especially with regards to the frequency of outside shots he takes despite not being a great shooter), his persistence and bloody-mindedness serve as the foundation of the Titans offence. The quick and athletic Allman, meanwhile, is the closest thing to Bobby Brown that the program has had since Brown himself - able to create separation with the handle, willing to get to the rim and jumping very high to shoot, Allman leads the team in scoring at 19.4 points per game, and could be playing at a level higher than this.
Beyond the two KAs, the Big West-ness starts to shine through. 6'7 sophomore forward Jackson Rowe is an efficient and pretty athletic four man who can space the floor, run the floor and finish with some righty hooks, but a match-up against Tyler Haas is going to be next to impossible for him. (6'9 senior big man Arkim Robertson will initially draw the assignment, but will also quickly foul out, and get nothing back on the other end.) 6'3 sophomore guard Austen Awosika facilitates, makes generally good decisions on both ends and runs the court, but neither handles or spaces. Fellow 6'3 sophomore guard Jamal Smith will handle the ball enough to allow Allman and Ahmad to play off of it and look to score, but his main attribute is his conservative nature with the ball, not something conducive to upsets. And while 6'5 forward Davon Clare contributes useful deflections and rebounding, it is a different game doing that against Vincent Edwards.
Fullerton, then, stand to be a bit overmatched. They are limited offensively anyway by the lack of spacing, and their usual strategy of thriving on forcing opponent's turnovers will not work as well against such a ball-secure team like Purdue. Defensively, too, they have not the size to contain the Boilermaker's length and depth, and so the upset here looks very unlikely.
#16 seed: LIU Brooklyn
Winners of the Northeast Conference tournament, LIU Brooklyn are back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013, and what was then the third of three consecutive appearances. A relative powerhouse in a true mid-major, the team had only a 10-8 conference record and a #4 seed going into the tournament, but peaked at the right time.
The Blackbirds are one of the quicker paced teams in the nation, 53rd in possesions per game. Rarely do they fully get out in transition – they simply have not many athletes who can run or the ball-handlers who can push the ball to do so. Nor are they a particularly well-spaced unit - rarely does any backcourt player get open for a jumper off of a curl play, nor do they try to, and often the team is struggling to get the ball meaningfully inside the arc. Instead, LIU Brooklyn counter these limitations with not dithering in the halfcourt and, at least late in the season, some defensive physicality.
The embodiment of both those qualities is found in their best player and leading scorer, Joel Hernandez. Through a high activity level and plenty of cutting, Hernandez uses paint catches (despite being 6’3), fakes, pull-ups, floaters and short hesitation drive-y bank-y things to exploit the mid-range areas, lacking as he is a high efficiency high volume jump shot or any explosion at all. Hernandez tries to mix it up on the glass, and competes defensively, his activity level and hustle able to mask some of his athleticism disadvantage,
Outside of Hernandez, starting forward Raiquan Clark gets into the lane and to the line with some frequency, via some post-up touches and cuts to the rim. But he also commits a whopping 4.1 turnovers per game, through a steady combination of walks and passes thrown into the car park. 5'11 sophomore point guard Julian Batts provides the best speed and shooting on the team, able to raise up or get to the rim, 5'11 senior point guard Jashaun Agosto is much less inclined to try and score, while Raul Frias and Jamall Robinson cast up outside shots in their limited minutes.
There is, however, no size on the team. The de facto centre is 6'7 Zach Coleman, a decent enough athlete forced to play the role of sole big man despite having a small forward's body type. Coleman can finish in the paint and step out for pick and pops, but he is a centre by default only. And behind him lies only 6'8 sophomore Julius van Sauers, who at 6'8 with long arms has the best interior size on the team, but with little skill on the ball and no real awareness of what to do with it.
Like with Radford below, the play-in game will be the highlight of the tournament for LIU Brooklyn. There are not the horses in the stable to pull the upset thereafter.
#16 seed: Radford
Back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the Artsiom Parakhouski era, and for only the third time ever, Radford made it back to the big one via a strong late-season defensive push they hope to carry forward into upset potential. This is not, however, likely.
The Highlands are led by Ed Polite, the leader on the team in points (13.5), rebounds (7.7), steals (1.9) and blocks (0.9) per game. Polite anchors both the offence and the defence, despite standing only 6’5. It is an only somewhat athletic 6’5 at that, and although Polite’s herky-jerky right-hand-dominant driving game plus the occasional post touch gets him to the basket in the Northeast Conference, where he seeks and finishes through contact, his lack of explosion, jump shooting or advanced ball handling severely limits him in his role of go-to scorer when playing against true athletes. As he will now be.
Outside of Polite, freshman point guard Carlik Jones was the X-factor that got the Blackbirds back to the dance. Also not really a shooter, Jones uses curls, fakes, and Northeast Conference-level quickness to get to the rim, whereupon he very much favours running bankers or dumping the ball off to post men. Jones and Polite made for a pair of effective free-roaming defenders who play the trapping, recovery-heavy rotation-intense defence that saw the Blackbirds come out of their conference tournament despite entering it as only a number two seed.
The halfcourt offense, however, is not strong. Few players ever penetrate the first line of any opposing defence or create any meaningful space, and there is not shooting on the time to simply shoot their way through. With very little penetration, and no post game, it is often just swing, swing, swing. Their defence fuels their offense but when it doesn’t, offence is a struggle.
Beyond Jones and Polite lies little help, particularly offensively. Donald Hicks is a shooter who does not do much to get open off the ball, and who shoots with his feet sticking out weird. Reserve guard Caleb Tanner is a purer shooter and much more regularly found in motion, but who is limited to this one skill only. The even smaller Travis Fields (5’9) is quicker than either, but does little with it, and up front, while big strong body Randy Phillips sets meaningful screens and finishes inside, and less strong body Devonnte Holland plays with a high level of urgency around the rim, neither has the size or skill level to do much beyond being around the basket, on ground level.
The defence got them here, but defending Villanova’s fearsome five-out motion offence requires a whole different level of defence. Offensively, Radford are a true #16 team, and should present no threat to the dominant Wildcats. If even they get through the play-in game, that is.