Written By Billy Attridge
March Madness is on our doorstep with Selection Sunday days away, that means this is the final installment of our Bracket Watch 2020 series. We focus on four more teams and their current placement heading into this all-important and entertaining conference tournament week; I would love to say we are shocked at the current number of power programs slotted in, but alas, little has changed over the years. Generally speaking, mid-majors don’t bring the eyeballs and dollars prominent programs do. We’ll point out two (11) seeds ESPN projects to go dancing that we believe have absolutely no business being included in the NCAA tournament. There’s an (8) seed already giving their prospective #1 seed a massive headache, and one familiar face on the outside looking in that leans on their defense to get the job done. Finally, we take a gander at a couple games this week with enormous consequences in terms of seeding. The Madness is upon us!
Seeded too Low: (8) Houston Cougars
Imagine being the number one overall seed in the NCAA tournament coming off a comfortable win in the first round, and now you’re rewarded by playing a team we have power rated 16th in the country? Say hello to Houston, a squad that touts a Top 25 offense and defense in efficiency, is an absolute menace on the glass, specifically on the offensive end where they’re #2 in offensive rebound percentage. In fact, on shots taken within 4 seconds of an offensive rebound around the rim, Houston is shooting over 70%! The Cougars are led by 6’10″ center Chris Harris, who is 9th in the country on the offensive glass, he’s shooting a whopping 89% on putbacks! Head Coach Kelvin Sampson, all things aside, has proven to be a defensive genius over the years and this season is no different. Houston is 5th in the country in effective field goal % allowed, 8th in the country in opposing 3-point %, and is ELITE at guarding the rim, coming in at 7th in block %. One thing I like about Houston is they really don’t have a bad loss; every conference defeat coming away from home was by a respectable average margin of 2.4 points. In the Cougars losses early in the year to BYU (1-point) and Oregon, they shot a combined 6-37 from the 3-point arc, well below their average of 33.7%. It’s why we talk about the 20-5-5 rule all the time. Houston never gets the respect they deserve from the committee due to competing in a lesser conference, but over the past 3 season (including this one), Houston has finished as one of our Top 20 power rated programs. If Houston can win their conference tournament, we could see them slide up to a more deserving seed (5 or 6), but the committee would still be under seeding Houston, who should be a 4-seed. If they were slotted properly, the Cougars could be a tough out this March, but unfortunately ESPN has them slotted against the best team in the tournament opening weekend.
Seeded too High: (11) UCLA Bruins
UCLA is a great story and Mick Cronin is a coach I’m extremely fond of, but I cannot justify having a team power rated this low as an at-large team in the tournament. When the hiring of Cronin was announced, I couldn’t help but shake my head in disbelief that the old-school, tough as nails Cincinnati coach was going to Los Angeles to turn around a program built for fast-paced scoring with little to no regard for defense and physicality. Yet, Cronin has the boys believing and adjusting to his style, and for that I tip my cap. That said, in our previous iterations of Bracket Watch 2020, we’ve noted the lack of strength in the Pac-12, and that really hurts the Bruins. With Colorado and Arizona dropping off a cliff losing 8 of their final 9 regular season games combined, those “big” wins for the Bruins have lost a touch of luster. The other Top 40 Pac-12 programs in Stanford and Oregon, beat UCLA by a combined 36 points over two games. Outside of being a Top 20 offensive rebounding team, the Bruins don’t really excel in any other area but intangibles. They allow teams to shoot 38.3% from deep, which is bottom 10 in all of college basketball, and on the other end of the floor, UCLA has a tough time shooting the ball (outside the Top 210 in shooting from both inside and out). The talent on the offensive end lacks, and though 5’11” Tyger Campbell has exceeded expectation during his freshman campaign, he can’t handle all the ball handling responsibilities as the Bruins turn the ball over on 19.9% of their possessions. UCLA has come on strong towards the end of the year, and the Pac-12 tournament might give them an opportunity to gain a big win over Stanford in the quarterfinals, provided the Cardinals can get by California.
Currently In, but really?: (11) Texas Longhorns
We’ll touch on another team not remotely deserving to be in the Big Dance at this point, and the Longhorns are front and center with that designation. If the tournament started today and there weren’t automatic bids, Texas wouldn’t be included in my Top 68. In fact, we have the Longhorns power rated 69th. When Texas was at full strength with Jericho Sims, the team drastically underperformed, going 4-7 in conference play. Then something odd happened. With Sims sidelined, head coach Shaka Smart was left with no choice but to go smaller and really lean on his three guards in Matt Coleman, Courtney Ramey and Andrew Jones. Texas went on to win their next 5 games, including a home win over West Virginia and two road wins at Texas Tech and Oklahoma at the buzzer. With things seemingly on the up and up, Texas hosted Oklahoma State last Saturday wanting to end their season with a bang but proceeded to get absolutely boat-raced from box-to-wire. That was a loss they couldn’t afford to have, especially when we really break down this team analytically. The offense has been absolutely dreadful, finishing last in the Big 12 in overall offensive efficiency, offensive rebound %, and free throws attempted. The addition of assistant coach Luke Yaklich has been very beneficial on the defensive end, but the Longhorns are still getting worked on the defensive glass this year, allowing 32.2% of opponent shots to be rebounded, good for 328th in the country. Shaka was awesome at VCU, but his tenure in Texas has been rocky to say the least. With an opening Big 12 tournament game against Texas Tech on deck, the Longhorns will likely need to win that one to have a shot at staying on the right side of the bubble.
Outside looking in, but Deserving: Wichita State Shockers
The Shockers have one of the best coaches in all of hoops in Gregg Marshall, and with the way they play defense it’s quite the head scratcher as to how this team is not currently projected in the field. Wichita State is 8th in the country in overall defensive efficiency, and does a great job not allowing second chance points, as they’re 24th in defensive rebounding %. While Marshall has had much more efficient offenses over his successful run in Wichita, this team does an above average job at not turning over the ball (108th in turnover %), and again, typical of a Marshall team, hits the glass on the offensive end scooping up 31.7% of missed shots. The Shockers have some decent non-conference wins over other bubble teams such as South Carolina, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, VCU, and Ole Miss, with an average victory of 15.4 points. They had some tough losses in conference, but their only two home losses were to Houston and Cincinnati, both of whom should be tournament bound. Unlike Texas, with pressure on for their regular season finale, Wichita stepped up to the plate and annihilated Tulsa by 22 at home as 7.5 point favorites at FoxBet.com. Its tough to envision March without the Shockers included, and it would be a crime if our 39th power rated team wasn’t included. As long as the Shockers don’t stumble in their quarterfinal matchup (likely against Uconn), the committee better include Wichita.
Pivotal games to watch this week:
Today: Washington vs. Arizona – Who are these two teams? Washington has the talent to play spoiler, while the whole hoops world waits for Arizona to live up to their potential.
Thursday: Texas vs. Texas Tech – Texas needs this game to join the party, but on the other side, the Red Raiders aren’t really in position to be giving games away.
Weekend: Seriously? Just pick a game!