Every time I hear somebody ask, “Who’s going to be this year’s George Mason?” I shudder.
What kind of question is that?
Two double-digit teams have made the Final Four in the 64-team field’s history – No. 11 seeds LSU in 1986 and George Mason in 2006.
That said, there’s still a group of teams with Sweet 16 potential. At the top of my list of sleepers is a Texas squad I think will move past North Carolina and Georgetown in the East to make the Final Four.
Next comes a highly touted Winthrop squad, a team that has received a lot of hype as “this year’s George Mason.” The Eagles likely won’t reach the Final Four, but I’ve got them in my Elite Eight.
Next on the list is a pair of Colonial Athletic Association teams, Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth, both squads that could see the Sweet 16.
Finally, Arizona is a team that hasn’t lived up to expectations and, if it doesn’t find its groove, could send defending national champion Florida home early. Here’s a quick synopsis of each of these upset picks:
1. Texas – The Longhorns were as high as No. 18 in the ESPN/USA Today poll in week two, but dropped quicker than the DOW Jones with losses to Michigan State and Gonzaga. Led by freshman Player of the Year candidate Kevin Durant, the Longhorns are back in the postseason picture after winning eight of their last 10.
The Longhorns lost nine games this year and seven of those were to tournament teams. They may be young, starting four freshmen, but so was a Carmelo Anthony-led squad in 2003 – that Syracuse team started two freshmen, two sophomores and a senior and, oh yeah, won a national championship. The Longhorns might not be title-game-bound, but they could knock off North Carolina in a potential Sweet 16 matchup. For the record, I included the ‘Horns in my Final Four.
2. Winthrop – Played North Carolina and Wisconsin close – on the road – early in the season. Have won 18 straight since being shellacked by Texas A&M, 71-51 on Jan. 2. The Eagles see most of their offensive production from Michael Jenkins and Torrell Martin, a pair of efficient guards who are as potent as any backcourt in the nation. The pair combines for nearly 30 points per game. The backcourt accounts for 65 percent of the team’s scoring. The Eagles also have a capable post game with 6-foot-10 Craig Bradshaw posting 13.3 ppg and 6.3 rpg.
The Eagles have a tough draw, first taking on Notre Dame from the Big East and an anticipated game with No. 3 seeded Oregon in the second round. A win against the Irish seems feasible, but Oregon is a hot team, fresh off a Pac-10 Tournament title. If the Eagles can keep Oregon’s bevy of talented perimeter players under control, Winthrop could survive to the Sweet 16.
3. Old Dominion – Is not the best the Colonial Athletic Association has to offer, but the Monarchs are an intriguing team. Valdas Vasylius, a 6-foot-7 forward from Lithuania, is averaging 15.8 points per game and 6.2 boards per game. Drew Williamson is a capable point guard whose assist-to-turnover ratio is better than a number of notable big-time point guards, like UCLA’s Darren Collison (2.70-2.03).
The Monarchs’ marquee win of the season was a 75-62 trouncing of then-No. 8 Georgetown. That was a different Hoyas squad, but the win earned Old Dominion some respect. Butler might have been the role-model for mid-major schools after the preseason NIT, but they’re in for quite a game with one of the more underrated mid-majors.
4. Duke/VCU – Before championship week began, I penciled in Duke as a potential sleeper while VCU sat on the bubble for my list. It was either Duke or VCU and I chose the Dukies because they’re a big-name team getting little respect – and maybe rightfully so. As luck would have it, the pair is squaring off in the first round.
It seems odd to consider the Blue Devils as a sleeper pick to make the Final Four, but don’t skip out on the Dukies even if it’s been a down year. Just as anyone would be, I’m wary of the Blue Devils’ three-game losing streak heading into the NCAAs, but the trio of Greg Paulus, Josh McRoberts and DeMarcus Nelson has the ability to take the Dukies at least to the Sweet 16 . that is, if they can survive VCU.
The Rams have a formidable trio of guards in B.A. Walker, Eric Maynor and Jesse Pellot-Rosa. Maynor absolutely took over the final minutes of the Colonial Athletic Association title game against George Mason and averages 6.3 assists per game. Maynor’s 3.01 assist-to-turnover ratio is as good as any big-name point guard in the nation. The Rams’ ability to take the ball to the basket could prove troublesome for Duke. I’ve got VCU in an upset on my bracket.
5. Arizona – There’s lots of talent on this squad and, even though the Wildcats couldn’t find a rhythm during Pac-10 play, Florida should be wary of a potential second-round matchup with the ‘Cats. Arizona was ranked No. 10 to start the season and, following a season-opening loss to Virginia, looked to be a serious threat with 12 straight wins.
Finishing above-.500 is noteworthy in quite possibly the toughest conference in America. Arizona isn’t terribly tough on the inside, but it can run the ball up and down the court. If the ‘Cats get rolling from the perimeter, they could put a scare into defending national champion Florida.
Remember, Arizona gave No. 1-seeded Villanova a run in the second round of last year’s tourney and 2007 could be the same.