It’s the most exciting time of year in the basketball world – conference tournaments are completed, Selection Sunday has passed, and fans around the nation are feverishly filling out brackets in anticipation of the Big Dance’s opening games.
Months before the season even begins, every college basketball program in the country was working towards the same goal – make it to March, and make waves when you get there. What makes the NCAA Tournament so special is the idea that it’s a clean slate for any team that makes it. Solid contenders that got off to a rocky start can turn their seasons around with just one buzzer-beater. Powerhouse programs with the biggest targets on their backs can prove they are deserving or succumb to the pressure. If mid-majors from Iowa can take down the No. 1 overall seed in the second round anything is possible.
As a March Madness devotee, the most difficult matchups to analyze are often the initial ones. Let’s take a deeper look at some potential close-calls and bracket-busters.
- (11) Kansas State vs. (11) Wake Forest
- (5) Minnesota vs. (12) Middle Tennessee
- (8) Northwestern vs. (9) Vanderbilt
These two 13-loss teams will battle in a First Four play-in game for the 11 seed in the South Region. When looking strictly at strength of schedule, Wake Forest has an established upper hand on K-State. Although over half of both teams’ losses were to ranked opponents, the Big 12 has just four teams in the AP Top 25 compared to the ACC’s six. Additionally, the Demon Deacons have a more efficient offense than teams like Gonzaga, Arizona, and Kansas, according to KenPom. STATS SportVU tells us that in possessions where Wake Forest executes a ball screen, they average an impressive 1.17 points per possession. When they drive, they average 1.20 points per possession.
Middle Tennessee is undoubtedly amongst the strongest mid-major programs in the country this season. Although their schedule didn’t contain many nationally rated contenders, 30 wins and a conference tournament championship isn’t an easy chore. Not only have they won a lot of games, but they’ve won them by a sizeable margin. They went 17-1 in Conference USA with a plus-12.8 scoring margin, the eighth-largest of the 68 tournament teams. Their lone conference defeat, conversely, was lost by a single possession. It will take a continuance of this scoring capacity for the Blue Raiders to have a legitimate shot against a Minnesota defense that ranks as KenPom’s 18th-most efficient. But then again, they have a bit of experience shredding a Big Ten team in this sort of setting in one of the biggest upsets in tourney history.
Don’t let Vanderbilt’s 19-15 record or inferior seed fool you – the Commodores’ road to the NCAA Tournament has been arguably the toughest one. Fourteen of their 15 losses have been to top-100 teams, as well as 11 of their 19 wins. While Northwestern may have the mental momentum going into their first-ever NCAA Tournament, Vanderbilt’s strength of schedule gives them an edge in experience with big-time games vs. big-time competition. According to SportVU, Northwestern will want to get the ball into the paint as often as they can – the Wildcats average a whopping 1.41 team points per possession on trips where they get a paint touch (for comparison, Duke averages 1.21 TPPP).