Looking for some familiar teams to make it to Indy
By Adam Hoff
Get ready for a blitz of columns. March Madness is upon us and the old laptop is about to get a workout. There will picks, analysis, guest Insiders, commentary, rants (most of them aimed at the selection committee, who apparently determined seeding by using a dart board), raves, recaps, and plenty of opinion. Yes indeed, it’s the most wonderful time of the year.
To start things off, we are looking for some teams that might fit past blueprints for title contenders. In the days leading up to the tourney, we will look at this thing from all angles, both here and on the blog, but we might as well start at the top. After all, each of the 65 teams are playing in this tournament for the purpose of crowning a champion. Office pools get destroyed by all the early round upsets, but ultimately the winners are determined by tabbing the Final Four squads and correctly predicting who holds up the trophy when the dust settles. It doesn’t do any good to spend 2,500 words on the 5-12 matchups (which I will do this week), if you don’t spend some time trying to figure out who is going to win it all.
There are many ways to pick the winner. You can go off of gut feeling, look for a particular seed, stick with the favorites, use uniform color, flip a coin, consult the experts, or even search for a time machine that allows you to track down a Sports Almanac from 2015. My strategy this year is to look at the six winners from this decade, try to find some elements of each team that are unique and noteworthy, and then use that model as a blueprint with which to examine this year’s field. Here goes nothing.
Champion: Michigan State
Winning Traits: Leadership, Experience, Defense, Perimeter Stars, Point Guard Play
The Spartans of 2000 were led by a trio of perimeter players from Flint, Michigan that featured fiery point guard Mateen Cleaves (now the best cheerleader in the NBA), defensive stopper Charlie Bell, and primary scorer Morris Peterson. After coming up short in the 1999 Final Four (losing in the semis to Duke), the senior-laden roster rolled through the tournament behind defense, rebounding, and clutch shooting from behind the arc. Therefore, to find a team in the mold of the 2002 MSU Spartans, we are looking for a squad with a tenacious defense, a lightening rod point guard, strong perimeter play, and experience.
Best Candidate for 2006: Villanova.
The best match appears to be the Villanova Wildcats. Kyle Lowry is only a sophomore, but he reminds me of Cleaves, the way he directs the attack, harasses opposing ball handlers, penetrates the defense, wills in ugly jump shots, and plays with emotion and fire. In fact, I would be hard pressed to think of a guy more “Cleaves like” in this field than Lowry. The Wildcats also have tremendous perimeter play and nameless big men, much like the Spartans did. The ‘Cats often play only one big man at a time and therefore get beat up on the glass more often than MSU of 2000, but Randy Foye is Mo Pete’s equal and Allan Ray (provided he is healthy after getting poked in the eye), is probably an upgrade over Bell. Plus, with ‘Nova’s run to the Sweet 16 last year that nearly saw them topple eventual champion UNC, the Wildcats seem to have the experience and the hunger to make a run in this tourney. It is hard to imagine a team that employs a four-guard attack winning it all, but if that is going to happen, this will be the team.
Winning Traits: Experience, Leadership, High-Powered Offense, Aura
The Blue Devils are always well coached, always play hard, and always get a ton of cheap calls (sorry, couldn’t resist). What really set the 2001 team apart was the fact that they absolutely lit up the scoreboard night in and night out. Jay Williams was the offensive star, Shane Battier was the senior leader and All-American, Carlos Boozer operated in the post, and Mike Dunleavy and Nate James fired from the wings. This team was so good that even Chris Duhon was considered a threat from deep as a freshman sixth man. The quote in the 2001 Tourney preview read, “Sixth man Chris Duhon can shoot from anywhere.” I think in the five years since – three at Duke, two with the Chicago Bulls – it has been proven without a doubt that this is no longer true. Such is the power of an offensive putting up over 90 points per game.
Best Candidate for 2006: Duke.
What a surprise. The 2006 Blue Devils don’t really feel a lot like that 2001 team, but when you look closely, there are definitely some similarities. This version lacks depth, just like that team did. This team is carried by two All-Americans, just like that squad. This team also ranks among the top scoring teams in the nation (third). The ’06 Blue Devils struggle against power teams in the paint, just as the ‘01 squad did. In fact, part of the reason that Duke rolled to the title in 2001 was that they avoided teams with bruising front lines (like UNC with Brendan Haywood and Kris Lang, or Stanford with the Collins twins). If this year’s Blue Devils can avoid drawing a team with a powerful front line, they can ride JJ Reddick and Sheldon Williams all the way to the checkered flag. That said, Duke better keep a close eye on LSU in the top half of the Atlanta region.
Winning Traits: Singular Star, Inside Scoring, Experience, Emotion
The 2002 Terps were one of my favorite title teams of recent years. They had Juan Dixon taking his game to the next level, Lonny Baxter and Chris Wilcox scoring in the post, Steve Blake running the show, and Byron Mouton keeping everything together. Plus, they had the “win it for Gary Williams” and “avenge last year’s collapse against Duke” storylines going for them. They started four seniors, had a chip on their shoulder, and rode an incredible stretch by Dixon all the way to a title. Does anyone have that look to them this year?
Best Candidate for 2006: Texas.
Honestly, nobody fits this profile perfectly. UConn lacks a singular star (Gay, Anderson, and Williams sort of take turns being “the guy”) and seems to have problems maintaining a fever pitch of emotion. Memphis has Rodney Carney, some inside firepower, and a chip on their shoulder after missing the dance last year (especially point guard Darius Washington, who missed two free throws that could have tied and won the 2005 Conference USA title game), but they don’t really have any tournament experience. That leaves Texas. They seem to be more intense than past Longhorn teams, they are a pretty experienced team that learned from an early exit in last year’s tournament, they have good interior scoring with Brad Buckman and LaMarcus Aldridge, and they may very well have the kind of emerging star that can carry a team through this tournament. PJ Tucker isn’t my favorite player in college basketball and he has a tendency to force things too often, but there is no denying that he has been wrecking havoc over the past few weeks. He’s been dropping double-doubles, carrying the offensive load, and even drawing ridiculous comparisons to Adrian Dantley. I’m not convinced that any team is going to follow the 2002 Maryland recipe for success, but if anyone does, it will be Texas behind PJ Tucker.
Winning Traits: Hot Start, Conference Title, Emerging Star, Tough to Scout
Syracuse was an unusual champion. They started the 2002-2003 going something like 13-0 against a weak non-conference slate, before dropping off during Big East play. They were looking like a 4-6 seed until they ran the table in the conference tourney and landed a 3 seed. All of a sudden, they drew a few good matchups, found their rhythm, and rode Carmelo Anthony all the way to a title. Frankly, I still can’t believe it happened. The very next year, Georgia Tech jumped out to a 12-0 start, then struggled in ACC play, then won the ACC Tourney and got a three seed. I immediately picked them to go to the Final Four on the strength of the “Cuse Corollary,” and won all my pools when they reached the title game. Last year I looked hard for a three seed that fit the mold, but couldn’t find anyone (In hindsight, Arizona would have been the only decent option). What about this year?
Best Candidate for 2006: Florida.
This year, we have a match. The Florida Gators went 17-0 to start the year, including 14-0 against a rather pathetic non-conference schedule. In fact, their best win, ironically, was against Syracuse. Then, they went 7-6 during the remainder of the regular season, finishing 10-6 in the SEC. All of a sudden, Florida was being discussed as a 5 seed and the word “disappointment” was floating around quite a bit. Now, they are winners of the SEC tournament, they have a very athletic roster that is tough to prepare for, they have an emerging stud in young power forward Joakim Noah, and they even landed themselves, yes, a three seed. The similarities are somewhat eerie. And just as Syracuse was led by young players like sophomore Hakim Warrick, and freshmen Anthony, Gerry McNamara, and Billy Edelin, so to is Florida by a quartet of sophomores that includes Noah, the bruising Al Horford, freakishly active swingman Corey Brewer, and point guard Taurean Green. If you are looking for a group of youngsters to find the range and go roaring through the field, look no further.
(Apologies to North Carolina. They have the three seed, the young team, and the emerging stud in Tyler Hansbrough, but not the “fast start-slump-conference title” season arc.)
Winning Traits: Size, Experience, Skill, Leadership, Purpose, Being Better Than Everyone Else
This one is going to be pretty quick. The 2004 Huskies were one of the most dominant teams in recent memory. So good, in fact, that even with Emeka Okafor suffering through intense back pain, they still rolled to the title.
Best Candidate for 2006: UConn.
The 2006 version of UConn probably makes the best case, especially since big man Josh Boone came of age and Rashad Anderson and Denham Brown played key roles in that very 2004 tournament, but this year’s Huskies team has flaws that the ’04 group never had to worry about. That team went through Ben Gordon for perimeter offense and he came through virtually every time. This team goes through reluctant star Rudy Gay, who has a tendency to disappear at times. That team was loaded with terrific ball handlers, while this team has a hard time hanging on to the rock once it leaves Marcus Williams’ hands. That team brought it every night, while this team has emotional lulls. All told, the 2006 Huskies are not quite up to the level of the ’04 squad. Of course, after UConn, nobody else is even close, so they still get the edge. If anybody wins the 2006 tournament by simply being better than everyone else, it will once again be Connecticut.
Champion: North Carolina
Winning Traits: Talent, Redemption, Go-To Player, Athleticism
The Tar Heels were the top overall seed last year and saw four players go in the first round of the NBA draft, so you could make a case that they were just “better than everyone else” like UConn was the year before. However, it never felt like that during the journey. They barely escaped Villanova in the Sweet 16 and had to scratch and claw their way to Roy Williams’ first title. Nevertheless, pure talent was a big factor, there is no doubt about that. They also were on a mission to get Roy a title and to validate the hype that had surrounded both the McCants-Williams and May-Felton recruiting classes. They were balanced, athletic, and had Sean May in the post. Needless to say, this is a good blueprint to emulate, if you can pull it off.
Best Candidate(s) for 2006: Boston College and Memphis.
I know this is cheating, because I listed two teams and also found a way to sneak all four top seeds into the column, but both teams do make a case. Memphis, as mentioned earlier, has the necessary motivation heading into this tournament. Not only did the university get left in the wreckage of C-USA after the mass exodus to the Big East (that worked out well for Louisville, Cincinnati, and others), but they also were one of the final teams left out of last year’s tournament. Even now, the Tigers are no doubt the most disrespected of all the 1 seeds. They might be the most athletic team in the field, they have talent to spare, and they have players that mirror various Tar Heels from a year ago: The go-to-guy (May) in Rodney Carney, the Felton-esque leader at point guard in Darius Washington, a combination of Jawad Williams and Marvin Williams in freshman stud Shawne (you guessed it) Williams, and a versatile scoring guard ala Rashard McCants in Chris “Buckets” Douglas-Roberts. They don’t have the experience of the Heels, but they have everything else.
As for Boston College, they have the worst seed of anyone on this list, but anyone who saw the ACC Tournament this weekend knows they can play with any team in the country. BC has the closest proximity to Sean May in this year’s field in the form of Craig Smith, a bruising power player with touch, smarts, passing skills, and a nose for the ball. He’s the type of guy that could carry a team to Indy and leave announcers gushing. The Eagles also have a coach overdue for some breakthrough success in Al Skinner, a roster loaded with talented athletes, and the swagger of teams like Memphis and the ’05 Heels. BC is definitely a dark horse team in this field, which is funny, because they so closely resemble a team that just a year ago was the favorite to win it all (and did).
To recap, we’ve got seven teams from six different molds, and each would seem to have a makeup that has been proven to work in the big dance. Let’s look at them by region, to see how this would shake out for purposes of a bracket.
In Atlanta, Duke is looking to follow the path of their 2001 brethren but they have a daunting opponent due to show up in round three in the form of the LSU Tigers and their massive front line. That takes some of the potency out of the comparison. At the bottom half of the bracket, Texas is making the best case for an ’02 Maryland run, but there are some holes in that profile as well. All told, there doesn’t seem to be a sure bet in the Atlanta region.
In Oakland, the top-seeded Memphis Tigers are looking to parlay pure talent, swagger, and athleticism into a title run that will remind viewers of last year’s UNC squad. Nobody else in the region has the look of a past champ, so Memphis might make for a good Final Four pick. Particularly in light of the fact that so many people are already looking elsewhere in that part of the bracket.
The Washington region features an intriguing North Carolina team, that in addition to coming pretty close to the 2003 Syracuse profile, could also have a shot at the most remarkable title defense in recent history. However, the beast looming in this part of the bracket is the mighty UConn Huskies, who are looking to just throttle everyone the way they did two years ago.
Things get very interesting in the Minneapolis Region. The top seed, Villanova, is looking to harness the toughness and perimeter play of the 2000 Michigan State Spartans, but they have company. Both the third-seeded Florida Gators (2003 Cuse Corollary) and fourth-seeded Boston College (2005 UNC model) lie in wait. Throw in Ohio State, a dangerous Georgetown team, and upset-minded UW-Milwaukee, and the Minneapolis region could wind up being a bloodbath. All three of these teams have good cases based on their respective blueprints, but the fact that they are all in the same region makes any one of them a risky bet.
All told, it looks like Memphis and UConn make for the safest bets to win it all, based on past champions and the alignment of the current brackets.
Then again, you would probably be wise to disregard everything you just read and instead flip a coin or brush up on uniform colors. You have to love March Madness.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for the Webby-winning WhatifSports.com.