There are certain things that you can count on each March:
- Dick Vitale rambling on incessantly without really making a point (OK, that happens in other months, too).
- People getting hammered on St. Patrick’s Day.
- And a five seed losing to a twelve.
With that last bullet in mind, I have decided to rank the upset potential among the four 5-12 matchups, starting with the one I think is most likely. Truth be told, I actually don’t love any of these. (This fits with Jerod’s 5-12 upset picks, which has only one 5-12 upset.)
1. #5 Wichita State vs. #12 VCU
This is one of the first round games I am looking forward to the most. It’s too bad that the selection committee has a cruel sense of humor, because they set up this early matchup between two of the best “mid-majors” in the field.
Defense will be the name of the game in this one, with both teams ranking in the Top 30 in defensive efficiency. The Rams want to press and push the tempo, but with veteran guards like Toure’ Murry and Joe Ragland, don’t expect Wichita State to get rattled easily. Still, I think VCU’s “havoc” defense is what ultimately gives them a shot to win this game, because it can serve as the equalizer against Wichita State’s offense, which has been far better than VCU’s this year.
Shaka Smart’s tournament success last season also plays a factor, and his players will be listening intently to his every word in preparation for the game. The team’s veterans will also carry forward the understanding of what it takes to succeed during March Madness, and that may well put them over the top against what I believe is a better team and arguably the best “mid-major” in this year’s field.
2. #5 Temple vs. #12 California / #12 South Florida
First things first, this is only in play if Cal beats USF, because I still don’t think the Bulls deserve to be in the tournament.
One thing working in Cal’s favor is that Temple doesn’t have a strong low post game, which is key against a California squad that lacks quality depth inside. If Harper Kamp and David Kravish can at least play Micheal Eric and Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson to a draw, it will come down the backcourt play.
The Owls have a trio of strong guards, which would make for a great matchup with Cal, who boasts an impressive trio of its own in Allen Crabbe, Jorge Gutierrez, and Justin Cobbs. Those guys have the talent to exploit what at least on paper is a vulnerable Temple defense, and it’s tough to bet against a fierce competitor like Gutierrez, who was named Pac-12 Player of the Year. Guard play is always critical in March, and even though I picked the Owls to come away with the win, the toughness of Gutierrez could push the Bears over the top.
3. #5 New Mexico vs. #12 Long Beach State
Damn the selection committee for making two of my favorite teams from this season face off in the first round.
The Lobos are one of the top defensive teams in the country, but Long Beach State can put pressure on opposing teams thanks to the play-making of Casper Ware and the interior toughness of T.J. Robinson. If Larry Anderson is able to return from a knee injury that caused him to miss the Big West Tournament, it gives the 49ers another offensive weapon as well as a player who can impact the game defensively.
Against at least a couple of the other five seeds, I would be inclined to take the 49ers, but injury concerns about Anderson and the stout New Mexico defense have me leaning heavily toward the Lobos. Still, I’ve seen Casper Ware completely control games in the past, so I refuse to write them off entirely.
4. #5 Vanderbilt vs. #12 Harvard
I am well aware of Vanderbilt’s recent track record in the NCAA Tournament, but instead of coming in carrying the burden of those past failures, the Commodores come in with confidence after beating Kentucky.
Vandy sharpshooter John Jenkins should be able to take advantage of suspect three-point defense from the Crimson. Jeffery Taylor is a really tough matchup when he’s playing well, and Festus Ezeli is the type of big man the Crimson don’t see a lot of in the Ivy League.
One of Harvard’s strengths on offense is its ability to get to the stripe, but Vanderbilt has one of the lowest opponents’ free throw rates in the country, which makes it even more of an uphill battle for the Crimson.
What do you think?