Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Their “Middle” Name is Danger

By Jonathan Lowe

We're less the ten days from finding out if, and where, our favorite teams will be set up in the field of 68 (man, it's weird even thinking that). For the juggernauts in the field (your Ohio States, your Texases, your Pittsburghs), they're ready to figure out their paths to Houston. But beware. Hidden amongst the partygoers ready to cheer their Regional Prom Kings are spies. These squads look to use their James Bond-esque skills to not only disband the royal court, but get their chance to squash the tournament life of the highest of the high. Watch out for these groups to oust one, or more, of their well-known foes.

Temple Owls

Last year, Fran Dunphy got the short end of the stick when drawing Ivy League champ and Sweet 16 participant Cornell. So far, Juan Fernandez, Lavoy Allen, and company have been going near the pace of last year. They've defeated Georgetown, Maryland, and Georgia, while losing close against Texas A&M and Villanova.

However, the tournament projection puts the Owls a lower seed than the 5 they had last year. It actually may be to their benefit. Instead of taking on that dreaded 5-12 matchup, they may get a 10th seed in the first round. With their defense, athleticism, and discipline, they're the type of squad that could take out a 2-seed during the first weekend of the tourney.

Upset potential: Elite 8

Xavier Musketeers

This version of the Queen City team doesn't include swingman Jordan Crawford or big man Jason Love, yet they are still in position to win the A-10 title outright this season. Thing is, I don't think that the X-Men have as much potential to go further than their scintillating Sweet 16 run a year ago.

Don't get me wrong. Tu Holloway, Jordan Latham, Dante Jackson, and the bunch will be out to prove me wrong. But I'm not as high on them with the missed chances to get those nice out-of-conference notches. Even though they paid Butler back for the controversial win in Indianapolis, the Musketeers lost to Old Dominion, Gonzaga, Florida, and Cincinnati. Maybe the trend will warm up with the weather, but I'm not betting on it.

Upset potential: Second round

Belmont Bruins

The Nashville-based university put itself on the map in March of 2008, when the Bruins were within seconds of knocking off second-seeded Duke. Now, the team is looking at a return to the Big Dance. They're the overwhelming favorite to get the Atlantic Sun bid after going 19-1 in-conference.

If the Bruins get another opportunity to make waves, they'll look to a strength one of the power teams doesn't want to face ... depth. Ten players have played in every game this season. Eleven players average more than ten minutes a game. Belmont might not have the height of other squads (two tallest kids are 6'10" and 6'9"), but they have the bodies to throw at you.

Upset potential: Sweet 16

George Mason Patriots

The season wasn't looking too great for the Patriots when they lost at Old Dominion to drop to 10-5 overall and 2-2 in the Colonial Conference. Then they flipped the switch and haven't lost since. Jim Larranaga's squad finished the regular season on a 15-game winning streak that might have GMU in the tournament even before they take the court in Richmond for the league's tournament.

Now, can the Patriots reproduce the magic that led them to the Final Four in 2006? There are a couple similarities between these two Mason teams. The '05-'06 squad essentially had a rotation of seven players, five double-figure scorers, and a heavy presence of upperclassmen in that rotation. This season's team has a rotation of six players, four double-digit scorers, and (again) a good presence of experience. Could GMU repeat the results? No. Could they make some noise? Yes.

Upset potential: Sweet 16

Old Dominion Monarchs

The Monarchs were a fairly trendy pick to make the tourney early in the season. Now, they'll have to catch up, so to speak, with George Mason winning the league title. If seedings hold, ODU gets their rubber match against the Patriots for a guaranteed spot in the NCAAs. I believe they'll get that rematch and take full advantage of that chance.

If they should make the tournament, keep an eye on them. The Monarchs have already taken down tournament hopefuls Clemson, Xavier, and Richmond. ODU also lost a one-possession game to Georgetown in the season opener. They have a nice one-two punch with Frank Hassell and Kent Bazemore, plus experience throughout the roster.

Upset potential: Second round

Harvard Crimson

Could this be the 2011 version of Cornell? Eh, probably not. The Crimson do have nice wins over Colorado and Boston College, but I don't believe that compares to how the Big Red scared the bejeezus out of Kansas early last year. Still, whoever comes out of the Ivy League could have another shot at taking down a big gun. Harvard is pretty guard-oriented, meaning a lack of height in the frontcourt. That could do them in against bigger teams.

I do like Tommy Amaker on the bench, though. He seems to have found his fit with the smart jocks. And I wouldn't put it past him to pull out one shocker, that is, if they can beat out Princeton for the league title. It'll be real fun to watch the Crimson and Tigers in two years (both teams are loaded with underclassmen). For now, the Crimson will leave the field with a taste of what's to come.

Upset potential: Second round

Oakland Golden Grizzlies

Just like Belmont, the Golden Grizzlies run away with their league (the Summit). Just like the Bruins, Oakland made a trip to Thompson-Boling Arena to take on Tennessee. Unlike Belmont, Greg Kampe's team walked out with a win. The Grizzlies' signature win came amid a brutal non-conference schedule that rivaled Gonzaga (including West Virginia and seemingly the top half of the Big Ten, save Wisconsin). That schedule set up Oakland to burn through the Summit and, likely, the league tourney.

These guys like to run and score. They're the third-highest scoring team in the country, with four players scoring in double figures, and another just on the short side (Larry Wright at 9.9 ppg). Plus, this team has a lot of length and athleticism. I don't think the situation will set up for them to get to the Regionals, but for anyone other than the top six or seven teams ... watch your back for bears.

Upset potential: Second round

Utah State Aggies

In the race for representation among the lesser-known west coast schools, I'll choose to reside in Logan for the minute. Once again, Stu Morrill has his team headed into the postseason with an impressive (even gaudy) record. Like last year, the Aggies non-conference schedule wasn't terribly impressive. This year, there was one "Power Conference" opponent on the entire schedule (a loss to Georgetown). And that's more than there was last season.

If USU returns to the main tournament for a third straight time, they'll have quite a bit of experience leading the way (six seniors, four juniors). That could provide a problem for some of these more mainstream teams that haven't had a chance to see Utah State. However, any surprise factor from the first round should wear off by Saturday or Sunday.

Upset potential: Second round

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