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: San Diego State
Perennially a tough out during the Steve Fisher years, the Aztecs are back dancing for the first time in three years. They are going to be doing so from a lowly 11th seed after an inconsistent season that looked for all the world like an NIT bid at several points, with early losses to California and Wyoming sandwiching a win over Gonzaga, dropping six out of eight in conference play at one point to drop to a 5-7 conference record, yet crescendoed strongly to win nine in a row. They now draw the always-intriguing #6 versus #11 match-up against Houston.
It would be a tough but fair criticism of the Aztecs to say that there is no one facet of the game in which they stand out. 209th in three-point percentage, 122nd in true shooting percentage, 57th in opponent true shooting percentage, 61st in defensive rebounding percentage, a serendipitous 61st in opponent offensive rebounding percentage, 79th in offensive rebounding percentage, an equally serendipitous 79th in opponent defensive rebounding percentage, 164th in pace, 61st in offence and 31st in defence, is a combination that screams eleventh seed.
Nevertheless, as eleventh seeds go, this is a talented team. They are led in scoring (12.9 ppg), rebounding (6.6 rpg) and blocks (1.1) by Malik Pope, the 6'10 senior whose name seems to have been around forever. Pope's endless length has always intrigued, and although he like his team has never been able to fully hang his hat on any one aspect of the game, Pope shoots a bit, drives a bit, posts a bit, boards a bit, blocks a bit, runs a bit, and has some impact through his physical profile alone.
Beyond Pope, the guard combination of Trey Kell (6'4 senior) and Devin Watson (6'1 junior) drive the bulk of the offence. The small Watson uses a good tight handle to create spacing and get to the rim without needing great speed or explosion, and is prepared to take contact once he gets there despite his small stature. A good shooter to boot, Watson is second on the team in scoring, and gives forth decent energy defensively even if he is too slender to change anything. Keel meanwhile riffs off that - never an efficient scorer or outside shooter in his Aztec career and always better as a physical, anticipating defender, Kell has nevertheless developed his handle over the years, and is very willing to share the ball. He can drive and kick, he can get out and run (when healthy), and, most importantly, he can find Wilson.
Elsewhere, two good freshmen helped turn the season around. 6'6 wing Matt Mitchell has decent length and mobility which, combined with his good outside stroke and defensive energy, give him plenty of three-and-D potential going forward. And up front, 6'10 Jalen McDaniels has posted a season full of highlights, running rim to rim, dunking, and also scoring with some post touches, establishing himself already as SDSU's best prospect for several years. These six, plus some bench shooting from 6'9 stretch big Max Montana and 6'6 wing Jordan Schake, some transition dunks, post lay-ups, charges taken and bump fouls from wiry 6'10 sophomore Nolan Narain, and some old school post presence from 7'1 Cal transfer Kameron Rooks, form the total of Aztec's attack.
Despite the slow start, the Aztecs dragged themselves here, and have a chance of carrying that momentum forward. As it always does with the Aztecs, it starts with defence, and for a low seeded team, they have an awful lot of length and athleticism to throw at Houston. The defence was not to its usual levels throughout the season, but it got close towards the end. This bodes well, and the momentum is there. But how far can a team go with Devin Wilson as its go-to playmaker?
#12 seed: South Dakota State
Winners of the Summit League, South Dakota State score a striking 85 points per game. They do so while turning the ball over ten times per game, and shooting 40.3% as a team from three-point range. They have the 16th best offensive efficiency in the nation, are 49th in pace, and come into the tournament having won 19 of their last 20 games. This, clearly, is a good offensive team.
While the Jackrabbits score all these points without significant length, speed or next-level athletes, they do at least feature offence at every position, and both can and do play five-out at every position. This starts with 6'9 big man Mike Daum, an inside-outside player with mighty impressive season averages of 23.8 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. The Jackrabbits look for Daum on almost every possession, and Daum wants to be looked for - handling the ball a lot on the perimeter, running rim to rim, taking trailers in transition, setting plenty of screens, always oozing around to get open and also getting some paint touches, Daum can score from all over and draws a large amount of defensive attention. He has not the strength or explosion to finish over or through people, but with his activity level, good mobility and strong footwork, he can go around them, and also goes hard at the glass. Playing a bit like Luke Harangody with nicer form, everything starts with Daum, and everyone else plays off of him.
State also boast a 16.1 points per game scorer in freshman point guard David Jenkins Jr, who arrived from day one with a series of pro scoring moves. Be it through fakes, jump stops, hesitations or creating space for jumpers with a jab step, Jenkins has strength and speed, and uses the threat of the drive to set up the jumper, all of which he can hit with some poise. He also turns it over strikingly little for a featured freshman at only 1.6 times per game, in large part because of the team's wider ball-sharing style.
To that end, 5'10 guard Brandon Key does a fair degree of the ball handling, especially in transition, a limited scorer himself who nevertheless changes the tempo of the game and passes first, making himself a thorn in the side of the opposition. And designated stopper Tevin King also takes a small turn with the playmaking responsibilities - neither needing nor especially wanting scoring opportunities nor the ball in his hands, King is nevertheless a bulldog of a player who will post occasionally, drive and kick occasionally, swing the ball, find Daum, and play very physical defense against whoever is the key opposing guard.
Outside of those players, the depth things out. Senior wing Reed Tellinghuisen has good size and a nice jump shot, along with some mobility and a love of spinning into the lane, along with some paint touches, but handles the ball little. And thereafter, the scoring falls off. Skyler Flatten spots up but does not get open easily, reserve centre Ian Theisen tries to play like Daum but has not the handle or the mobility to do so at any comparable level, and reserve forward Chris Howell not only cannot shoot from outside, but also turns it over a ton on a team that rarely does.
Furthermore, while it is to the other SDSU's credit that they rarely turn the ball over despite all the possessions they use up, they also force very few turnovers. The guards are not pressure-inducing players in man-to-man defence, and Daum is generally not going to contest anybody at the rim due to his offensive importance. Lacking physicality or length inside, the Jackrabbits leak quite a lot points in the paint, which bodes well for Ohio State's Kaleb Wesson and, should he aggressively seek out the rim, Jae'Sean Tate. For all their scoring and tempo, State do not have the answers to certain match-ups, match-ups that Ohio State can exploit with their personnel.
It seems likely, then, that while Jenkins and Daum will look impressive, and Tellinghuisen usefully irksome on both ends, it will inevitability only all come in a loss. Nevertheless, let's have some more Gody.
#13 seed: UNC Greensboro
UNC Greensboro ranked 7th in the nation in defensive efficiency this season, and 291st in pace. It is therefore immediately apparent what they are here to do - slow it down, grind it out, and annoy the opposition.
It works, to a point. Dominant in the Southern Conference with a 15-3 record, and a 15 point win in the conference tournament title game, the Spartans also picked up a big non-conference win over NC State back in December, and although they lost to Virginia - everyone loses to Virginia - they at least hung around in doing it.
In part, the slowed pace is designed to mask some flaws. With the exception of 6'3 junior Spaniard and leading scorer, combo guard Francis Alonso (15.6 points per game, 110 made threes at 40.7%), UNCG do not shoot the ball from outside well; only a steady diet of curls and pull-ups for Alonzo, and some catch-and-shoot opportunities for second leading scorer Marvin Smith (12.3ppg, 75 three-pointers on 6.6 attempts per game and 33.2% shooting) serve as significant outside threats on the team. And, frankly, the streaky Smith kind of chucks them up a bit. Alonso is one of the tournament's best shooters, to be sure, able to raise up even without space around him and also a willing and capable pick-and-roll passer to compensate for it. But he can't be one whole facet of the offence by himself. Others will need to make shots.
The other candidates for the role include starting point guard Demetrius Troy, who has used a late season three-point barrage to finish up on 39.5% from outside for the season; best served as a ball mover and pressure defender with little intent to ever get inside the arc, it is vital if there is to be any upset chance that Troy shoots well. 6'0 freshman Isaiah Miller won't - he has made only one three on the season, and although he scores 8.5 points per game (fourth on the team) in only 16.3 minutes per game, he does so through speed, athleticism, transition and aggression rather than spacing. Reserve off-guard Malik Massey has been in a slump all season, shooting only 30.2% from outside, and although senior big man Jordy Kuiper has tried to become a stretch five as an upper classman, he lacks for efficiency. The Spartans take a lot of three-pointers, considering, but shooting often is not the same as shooting well. And the Spartans, as a unit, also commit quite a lot of turnovers.
On the plus side, the pressure defence wins many of them back, and the halfcourt guard pressure is anchored by a strong interior rim protector. 6'10 sophomore James Dickey is wiry thin, has few skills with the ball, gets flustered easily when in possession of it and does not step up well on screen action, but those long arms of his get everywhere on the interior. An imposing paint protector, Dickey, the conference defensive player of the year, averages 8.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game, without too egregious of a foul rate either. He also ranks third on the team with 8.9 points per game, able to finish dump-off passes with short hooks and athletic finishes, and is a better big man talent than a mid-major team would normally have. At the level Greensboro have been playing at, Dickey has been a defensive anchor.
He will need to be one at the next level now, though. Gonzaga, the Spartans' first round opponent, have the third-best offence in the nation. It is always a pleasing thing when a strong offence meets a strong defence, but the Zags have a depth of options and scoring at every position that the Spartans cannot counter. If we were to dream, Dickey is everywhere around the basket, Alonso hits big shot after big shot, Troy is right there with him, and the Spartans pull the upset against a rattled Zags team. But Gonzaga's greatest strength is in its balance, and the Spartans are too limited to challenge that.
#14 seed: Montana
The Big Sky is not a strong conference, but Montana were by far and away the best team in it this season. Back to the tournament for the first time in five years, and for the seventh time in the twenty-first century, Montana are largely untested after a fairly sedate non-conference schedule (the biggest match-up, against UCLA, was cancelled),. Yet they have some attributes that their first-round opponent, #3 Michigan, should be aware of.
The Grizzlies rank 20th in the nation in defensive efficiency, and that defence is driven by 6'2 junior guard, Michael Oguine. A committed rebounder who anticipates well where both the carom and the pass are going, Oguine plays pressure defense on opposing playmakers from the minute they cross the timeline, and also scores 15.8 points per game on his own via a steady diet of catch-and-shoot jumpers and slightly wild forays into the lane that normally culminate in foul shots or tough reverses. Oguine is joined defensively by 6'8, 253lbs post player Jamar Akoh, the team's leading rebounder and wall of muscle in the paint, who is plenty willing to try and make a play on the ball should anyone drive at him, unfazed if doing so means committing a hard foul.
What the Grizzlies do lapse in, however, is three-point defence. They give up 35.3 % shooting from outside, 189th in the nation, something particularly troubling against a sweet shooting Wolverines team. To be sure, this is not Michigan's best shooting line-up ever, but between Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Duncan Robinson, Charles Matthews, Jordan Poole, Isaiah Liver and Moritz Wagner, they can generally have four plus-shooters on the court at any one time. They also have ball handlers at almost every position to combat the pressure of Oguine et al, and no one on the Montana roster has the size and speed combination to contest with Wagner in one-on-one defence. Akoh is quite strong, but will not have the fleet of foot to contain Wagner on the drive, and when he inevitably gets into foul trouble, there exists little big man depth on the Grizzlies' bench. The other post option, 6'8 senior Fabijan Krslovic, will have the same defensive disadvantages as Akoh - he is slightly more offensively skilled via post touches and a mid-range jump shot, but no faster.
Any path to victory, then, might rely upon an offensive explosion that may not be forthcoming. The Grizzlies are led in scoring (17.2ppg) and assists (3.7apg) by Oregon transfer Ahmaad Rorie, the team's go-to player who can score in isolation and the halfcourt, and who has improved his jump shot incrementally over the years to match. There is however a scoring void between the backcourt of Rorie and Oguine, and the post pairing of Akoh and Krslovic, that no wings or forwards step up and fill. A well-honed unit such as Michigan can send the ball to the players Montana do not really want it sent to. And if they do that enough times, it's over.
#15 seed: Lipscomb
Lipscomb rank fourth in the nation in possessions per game, which empowers them to score a striking 83 points per game. It is not however an efficient 83 points per game. The Bisons shoot only 33.1% from three-point range, 268th in the nation, and turn it over a hefty 15.6 times per came as well. They have the tenth worst turnovers per game total in the league. Bad start.
What they also have, however, is one fiercely good scorer. Standing 6'5 and 210lbs, junior guard Garrison Mathews [sic] scores 22.1 points per game on a hefty diet of three-pointers (7.2 per game, hitting at 38.9%) and free throws (7.8 per game, hitting at 79.8%). Relentlessly aggressive, Mathews does all this without much athleticism, length, or ball-handling ability, instead relying on a massive dollop of confidence. If not just raising up from outside, Mathews also works off screens and off the dribble, using fakes and spin moves to snake into the lane, as well as being the end recipient of pretty much every devised out-of-bounds and late-shot clock play the team possesses. Oozing confidence, always attacking, pushing the ball and constantly trying to find his own, Mathews is one, the one, for opposing defences to key in on. He is hidden defensively for a reason.
Outside of Matthews, there are some players to like, particularly in the form of 6'9 junior power forward Eli Pepper. Extremely active and a good athlete, Pepper covers for a lack of length and strength by deflecting the ball, jumping passing lanes, diving, cutting, constantly running to the rim and trying to dunk everything, along with exhibiting capable range. With his lack of strength to establish position, he is not much of a post-up threat, but he plays alongside one that is; 6'7 de facto centre Rob Marberry, a very efficient scorer who does it with post catches, passes over the top, angles and a soft touch, despite having little in the way of a jump shot and having a small forward's body type. The typical cliche crafty lefty, Marberry has little explosion or ball handling ability, but does have good IQ on when and how to pass and when and how to shoot, and has good hands to boot.
However, what Lipscomb do badly lack for is assured ball-handlers. The closest thing to such on the team is 6'0 sophomore guard Kenny Cooper, another lefty who likes to push the ball, get out in transition, and who is asked to not do much more in the halfcourt game other than bring the ball up, swing it and reverse it, cut sometimes and finish athletically when called upon. Yet Cooper still turns it over three times per game in this limited role, and his own lack of jump shot further cramps the spacing that Mathews alone cannot solve. Michael Buckland serves as the off-guard physical, hands-up, anticipating wing stopper, and is as effective in the role as one so unathletic can be, yet he is no ball handler, rarely looks to score, and is good only for some catch-and-shoot plays sometimes. And while 6'4 senior Aaron Korn often gets the backup ball handling responsibility, he is.....not good at it. Press this team.
As is the life of a mid-major, Lipscomb's depth really does tail off after Mathews, Pepper and Marberry, plus whatever Cooper can offer. 6'7 forward Matt Rose is a decent shooter limited to pretty much that and some pick-and-roll plays, while Korn and Greg Jones are designated shooter guards off the bench, but not efficient ones. 6'10 senior George Brammeier offers size from the bench and is an interior target, but makes no significant impact in any facet. And that's it.
With a high tempo game reliant upon transition baskets, spacing (they'll play four out even if the four are not great shooters), eschewing the mid-range game and a defence focused on funnelling players into the lane to take charges, Lipscomb can be easy on the eye to watch. It is a slick style they play. The upset potential, though, will rely upon something historic from Mathews.
#16 seed: North Carolina Central
On the season thus far, North Carolina Central ranked a distinctly middle-of-the-pack 162nd in defensive efficiency, and a rather worrying 203rd in offensive efficiency. Only three teams in the tournament (Alabama, Wright State and Syracuse) rank behind the Eagles in offensive efficiency, and yet those three all rank much, much better defensively. The Eagles also went only 9-7 in the MEAC regular season, and were only a sixth seed in their own conference tournament before a timely five game winning streak got them over the hump. Not a good start for trying to find upset Potential.
Nevertheless, they are here now, and they have at least one winnable game ahead of them by virtue of the oddity that is the First Four.
NC Central do what they do without much guard play. The offence is run inside-out through 6'9 post man Raasean Davis, a reasonably fluid big man who can get position and finish, and who functions fairly well as a roll man clattering to the basket. So too does 6'6 forward Pablo Rivas, who also plays well off of Davis as a catch-and-shoot player from both mid-range and outside, who leads the team in three-point shooting and blocks while second in both points and rebounds (behind Davis). The man usually finding them in these pick-and-roll plays is 6'1 freshman point guard Jordan Perkins, a pass-first floor general who does little spectacularly, but who can at least set these two up pretty smoothly, and holds his own as a shooter and finisher. And at off-guard, Reggie Garnder [sic] is by far the most capable broken-play backcourt shot creator, scoring 11.1 points per game even if he has to shoot 34.7% from the field to do it.
Beyond that trio, however, is a big drop-off. The Eagles regularly play twelve players, but the other eight all play between 11.3 and 16.8 minutes per game. And with the exception of token posts Dominique Reid and Zaccary Douglas, who rebound well but who are very limited offensively (Reid to the dunk, Douglas to the occasional catch-and-shoot), the rest are small guards and undersized wings who cannot shoot from outside. Garnder's 76 makes lead the team (on 32.8%), Rivas's 42 made three-pointers rank second, and only two other players (Perkins, with 21 makes, and 6'4 Larry McKnight, with 24 makes on 31.6% shooting and a 1:3 assist/turnover ratio) have made more than 20. The team sorely lacks for spacing, partly because Davis is very poor at kicking the ball out to shooters, but also because the shooters aren't there.
In tandem, then, the Tigers are a poorly spaced unit who struggle to defend. Congratulations, gents, and good luck - it gets extremely hard now.
#16 seed: Texas Southern
Fair play to Mike Davis and his Texas Southern team. This is how you improve during a season. The Tigers started the season on an ugly thirteen-game losing streak, and although an extremely difficult non-conference schedule included losses to BYU, #15 TCU, #21 Baylor, Oregon, Clemson, Syracuse, Kansas, Ohio State, Washington State and Gonzaga in that time, those ten losses were by a combined 188 points. That's a lot, and losses to Toledo, Oakland and Wyoming interspersed among the carnage didn't help anybody.
Davis targets non-conference schedules like this - it should be hereby noted that all 13 games were also road games; getting the money up in this way won't have hurt, either - precisely because he feels it toughens up his team for the late-season conference tournament push. An at-large bid isn't going to happen, so they might as well learn the tough lessons in the toughest way and come out of it tougher. And it's hard to argue with the results; Southern ended the season on a seven-game winning streak, and now make their fourth tournament appearance in five years.
That said, they are still a true #16, undermanned and generally undersized. But they try not to let this bother them. 5'7 lead guard Demontrae Jefferson leads the team in minutes (37.5) and points (23.4) per game, thoroughly unafraid of taking on any opponent of any size, barrelling into the trees with confidence and a swagger, as well as being a high volume high efficiency outside shooter. There is only so far that you can go as a 5'7 scoring guard with few point guard instincts, but Jefferson is determined to go that far. Alongside him at off-guard is 6'4 Massachusetts transfer, athletic senior Donte Clark, who puts up 18.6 points of his own. The knock on Clark has always been his inconsistency - inconsistency in his outside shot, inconsistency in his defensive effort, inconsistency in his judgement on both ends - but when playing well, he is a strong driver who can get to the rim in isolation with his right hand, take the contact or kick out, and pile up fouls on the opposing trees. He only needs one more big effort.
The most intriguing player though is 7'2 former Auburn and Maryland centre, Trayvon Reed, who blocks three shots per game in only 27 minutes. Limited offensively to the put-back, the transition dunks, the alley'oop, the occasional catch-and-finish over the top and the very occasional catch-and-shoot jumper, and lacking in much in the way of touch, awareness or scoring instincts, Reed is nevertheless a massive presence defensively. With arms that seem to go on for about half an hour, Reed is a wall inside and not something opposing Summit League teams can match up against. Nor, either, can Southern's aforementioned opponent in the play-in game, NC Central.
Between Jefferson and Clark, the Tigers will get to the line. Between Jefferson and 6'3 junior Derrick Bruce, the Tigers will get jump shots up. And between all of them plus Reed, they will run the ball. Defensively, however, there is too much reliance on Reed to cover for everybody, particularly troublesome given how foul prone he is. There is little size outside of Reed - there is a reason the above blurb has focused on guards rather than forwards - and only 6'8 senior Marquis Salmon helps Reed on the boards in any significant way.
Defensively, Southern ranked 128th in the country, and while the brutal non-conference schedule is a large part of the reason why, that schedule is also still going to be easier than a #1 versus #16 match-up against Xavier will be. They play fast on offence, but simply do not compete enough defensively, particularly worrying considering their lack of size can only be masked with higher effort level than the opposition. Yet it isn't there.
Nevertheless, I'm picking them to win the play-in game.