Amid uncertainty stemming from the Tressel Affair last week, Ohio State fans can take some solace in knowing that the shooty hoops squad has done more than its fair share to make the past week-plus palatable. The matchups have been announced, your brackets are already filled, and we all look nervously to Old Man Lighty and company to provide what would be only our second national title in the sport. However the team prepares to get to Houston, fans and the players alike know that is the goal. Notwithstanding the difficulty of winning six games in a row, the overall makeup and character of this squad has us believing it is real possibility.
To that end, the Buckeyes know their road to Houston begins in the familiar haunts of Cleveland, Ohio, a Buckeye safe haven that is home to cover boy David Lighty. What follows is some tidbits about four potential opponents the Buckeyes will face in the first weekend. Before advancing to the Regional of Death in Newark to potentially test themselves against the likes of North Carolina, Syracuse, Kentucky and Washington, the Buckeyes will focus on Texas-San Antonio, Alabama State, George Mason and Villanova in Cleveland.
The group of economists and statisticians at FiveThirtyEight.com, who show some fascination with sports statistics, are predicting Texas-San Antonio will win the play-in game in Dayton on Friday.1 The 19-13 Roadrunners prevailed over McNeese State in the Southland Conference tournament finale, advancing to the Big Dance at the expense of the state of McNeese.
UTSA is not a particularly deep team. Various players will contribute a minute or two off the bench, but the team is basically a six-man rotation. Sei Paye is the contributor off the bench, a 6’3 guard and transfer from UL-Monroe. He averages a good 27 minutes a game, but logged in some extra duty in the conference tournament. He was vital in the come-from-behind win against UT-Arlington and chipped in important off the bench points in the wins against Northwestern State and Sam Houston State.
That said, the heart of the team is senior point guard Devin Gibson, who Aaron Craft will be provided the task of demoralizing. In fact, it was Gibson’s foul trouble against UT-Arlington that had them on the ropes and made the comeback win all the more special. Importantly, players like Jeromie Hill, Larry Wilkins and Melvin Johnson III also rose to the occasion and are celebrated as making the invite to the tournament (coming from a one-bid league) a reality. Forward Stephen Franklin is the other starter on a team light on quality depth.
UTSA is one of those 3-guard, 2-forward teams you see at the college level because quality bigs are hard to find in the college game. Though the NBA has players as diverse as Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Dwight Howard who can occupy the pivot, they will at least have the prerequisite height (6’10+, ideally +) and will have some type of skill set either as a facilitator of the offense (Vlade Divac as an archetype) or a low-post monster (Shaquille O’Neal as an archetype). I bring this up because UTSA has no height to note. Franklin is 6’6, but the 6’4 Wilkins is curiously listed as “center”. Alex Vouyoukas and TJ Williams have greater length inside, but don’t have many minutes. Vouyoukas is more of a forward, lacking strength. Williams is a freshman. Jared Sullinger might find this adorable and it might also make Ohio State more productive on offense with Lauderdale in the game.
The Alabama State Hornets, a historically black university from my current state, will represent the capital city, and quite smelly city, of Montgomery in Dayton, with the hopes of advancing to Cleveland thereafter. The Hornets won the SWAC Tournament, defeating Grambling State to secure the automatic bid to the NCAAs. This is the fourth invitation to the NCAAs, all coming since 2001.
Whereas the Roadrunners were a more balanced team throughout the cupcake part of the schedule (where they themselves were the cupcake), Alabama State was just getting slaughtered. UTSA managed to pick up road victories at Pepperdine, at Houston, and at home against Troy. No one will confuse those opponents for Duke or Kansas, but they’re still good. All told, the Roadrunners began the season at 6-6 before playing its first conference game, a home loss to Sam Houston State. Meanwhile, Alabama State stumbled out of the gates, starting SWAC play against Jackson State (an overtime loss at home) at an appalling 3-10. Further, the losses weren’t even close, and were not anything close to presentable. They were beatdowns with an average score of 72-50. Two of their three wins in that stretch came against teams that I did not know existed (Oakwood, Albany State, Georgia). The other win was against Kennesaw State, who had defeated Georgia Tech five days earlier.
At 17-17 on the season, no one would confuse Alabama State from the mighty SWAC as an at-large bid. So, it helps the Hornets’ case that they actually have won 11 of their last 12 games, last losing in the season finale against the same Grambling State team that they defeated in the conference tournament final.
Chris Duncan is the conference defensive player of the year, though he missed eight games early into the season. Oddly, at 6’8, Duncan is not quite the rebounder. That said, he averages about 2 blocks a game and had a 7 block effort at Alcorn State. Similarly named Tramaine Butler and Tramayne Moorer lead the squad in scoring.
Hey, remember these guys? George Mason is making its second tournament appearance since its miracle run to the Final Four in 2006. While George Mason’s Patriots are remembered for a fantastic run as an 11-seed, that included an upset victory in the regional final against heavy favorite and ready-for-NBA Connecticut team, their inclusion into the Final Four basically made for easy pickings for the Florida Gators. And thus, I now know about Joakim Noah. Thanks, George Mason.
Here’s the fun part about the Patriots. They are not an automatic qualifier. They ended their conference tournament run with a semifinal loss to Virginia Commonwealth. Thus, the Colonial Athletic Association regular season champion was good enough to qualify as an at-large at the expense of the likes of Virginia Tech and Colorado.
By virtue of the aforementioned 2006 Final Four run, the 26-6 Patriots are drawing comparisons to that year’s group even while this year’s team is an at-large. The thought on the minds of most DC area fans is whether or not they could do it again. They, maybe more than any other team in the regional, are an enigma. They won their conference by two games, though were blasted in the semifinals of the conference tournament. They beat Harvard (and that’s a good win) and even won their BracketBusters game at Northern Iowa. They also lost to North Carolina State, so go figure. I don’t doubt this team is talented and could play with us (should they get past Villanova). It’s just hard to project that looking at their resume. They have no signature wins outside of CAA play.
Most of George Mason’s production is the result of six players. That said, they might remind Buckeye fans of Wisconsin. The Patriots are 16th nationally in offensive efficiency, 14th in points per possession, and shoot a healthy 39.7% outside the three point line. Forward Mike Morrisson is the only one who is not a threat beyond the arc. Guard Cam Long and forward Ryan Pearson lead the team in scoring, though focusing on both players will simply result in Jim Larranaga dialing up plays to allow someone else to shoot the ball. Again, these guys can shoot.
Speaking of tournament enigmas, we have Villanova. Simply put, this team is in free fall. The Wildcats started 16-1 on the season, an astounding mark that made them the 7th ranked team in the nation. Since a 74-66 out of conference win over Maryland on January 15th, the Wildcats faceplanted. They finished 5-9 and were quickly bounced out of the Big East tournament on the first day by lowly South Florida. Even then, one of those wins was an overtime victory against DePaul, who battled Auburn all season long for the distinction of worst basketball team in a BCS conference.
The star of the team is senior guard Corey Fisher, who leads the team in scoring. As Villanova has wilted down the stretch, so has their leading scorer. The limp to the finish line included disappearing acts at Providence (2/10 shooting, 7 points), against Syracuse (3/16, 8 points), against St. John’s (1/10, 2 points), and at Pittsburgh (3/14, 7 points).
Though not quite Feldman and Haim, the second Corey on the team — Corey Stokes — is the team’s second leading scorer. Sophomore Maalik Wayns had a breakout season, finishing third on the team in scoring. The Wildcats have size inside with Antonio Pena (6’9, 235lbs) and Mouphtaou Yarou (6’10, 250lbs), but make no mistake about the offensive philosophy. It’s a guard-based, isolation-intensive offense. Stifling the Coreys (Fisher especially) is key. As much as Villanova has faltered to the finish line in Big East play, the team is talented enough to give us problems (if they’re clicking). If not, well, I think Villanova fans have seen this before.
- They are also predicting Ohio State goes all the way in Houston. Oh please oh please oh please. [↩]
- Both losses to NC State and Wofford were in the Charleston Classic, meaning the Patriots came up empty in this tournament. [↩]
- This was a high quality win. [↩]
- An understandable loss, but their only loss in their 16-1 start to the season. [↩]
- This is a win, I know, but this was an atrocious game to watch. [↩]