Possible High Tourney Seeds That Could Be Vulnerable
by Trevor Whenham - 02/27/2007
The NCAA Tournament, the most exciting three weeks in sports, is just around the corner. As we sit here waiting impatiently for the pages on the calendar to turn and the chaos to get underway, all we can do is sit back and speculate about what is going to happen and where the vulnerable spots in the bracket are going to be. This is shaping up to be a particularly interesting tournament, because there isn't a lot of dominance out there, and virtually every team on the board has a reason to make you believe that they can be beat.
The lack of overwhelming strength this year is particularly evident at the bottom half of the top 16 teams. The top four seeds in each region are obviously key because they have the smoothest path to the Sweet Sixteen. A strong four seed can make life miserable for a No. 1 seed. Do you think, for example, that any top seed has any desire to play Southern Illinois after the way the Salukis are playing these days? On the other hand, weak three and four seeds can throw the tournament completely into chaos if they can't hold off the low seeds they play in the first round.
We obviously don't know exactly which teams will end up with what seeds, but we can make educated guesses. Based on those guesses, here is a look at four teams that are en-route to elite seeds that could be vulnerable when the tournament tips off:
Pittsburgh - As much as any team in the country, the Panthers are built around their star player. Aaron Gray is an exceptional center, and if he is at his best then he has shoulders big enough to carry this team far. All is not well in Pittsburgh, though. Gray went down with an ankle injury last week and it could severely damage the tournament hopes of this team. It's just a sprain, but a truck as big as Gray needs good suspension. Gray didn't play against Seton Hall, and the team only won by three, failing to cover the seven-point spread.
He made an unexpected return to the lineup in the huge Big East showdown against Georgetown on Saturday, but that happy news probably didn't cheer up fans of the team much. Gray had 10 points and six rebounds, but he was only able to contribute as a reserve and his team lost by eight. Some reports are suggesting that Gray's ankle isn't responding well to treatment, and that he could be hampered by it well into the tournament. If that's the case then a strong 13 or 14 seed would have to be licking their lips over the prospect of playing Pittsburgh in the first round.
Nevada - Nevada is a team receiving much hype and praise these days. Nick Fazekas is correctly identified as one of the top players in the country, and he is being given credit for deciding to forego the draft last year, where he would certainly have been picked in the first round, for another shot at college glory.
I don't begrudge the attention that Nevada is getting at all, I just wonder how they will stand up under the scrutiny of the tournament. They have put together a very impressive season - 25-2, and 14-8-2 ATS - but they have done it while largely avoiding the level of competition that they will have to face at the tournament.
They have played just two games against teams in the top 50 of the RPI. They handily beat Utah State, which sits at 49, but they lost even more convincingly to UNLV. They were playing the Rebels at home and they were favored by 9.5, yet they lost the game by nine. That's not to suggest that they will be incapable of beating good teams (they did go 7-1 against teams between 51-100 in the RPI), but the team will face a significant step up in the level of competition at some point, and we can't be sure how they will react.
Air Force - Air Force has been a great story this year, but the wheels seem to be falling off the bus lately. The Falcons have reached these unprecedented lofty heights thanks to an incredibly disciplined and effective defense. That defense has struggled at times lately, though, and their unimpressive offense has bordered on inept. That has caused them to lose two in a row and three of their last six. Of those losses, the most concerning was the most recent. TCU hadn't won in 11 games, yet the Horned Frogs were able to hit 15 of their first 20 shots after the half to win by five. That's not how a top defense is supposed to perform.
Given their struggles, the team needs to secure the highest seed it possibly can in the tournament. It may be able to stay high, in part because so few teams are standing up to assert themselves in this part of the bracket. A convincing win in a huge game at home against BYU on Tuesday would really help, too. Even if they do keep their high seed, though, they will be in trouble if they can't fix their defensive problems, and at least establish some kind of offensive capacity.
Washington State - I am not trying to take anything away from the Cougars, and if Tony Bennett isn't coach of the year then the award is a joke. You just really have to be careful about getting too excited about a team that was picked to finish last in the conference before the season started.
They are playing very good basketball, but the team that is on the floor now is the same roster that was thought of so poorly on paper back then. The team might not come crashing back to earth, but they may find themselves seeded higher than they should be.
The fuel for my concern comes from their last two losses. They have only lost two of the last nine, but both defeats have come at the hands of Oregon. The first was in overtime, and the second was somewhat easier for the Ducks. If Oregon has beaten them twice, then the blueprint to beat them clearly exists. A team that is overachieving, like Washington State is, can struggle mightily if their bubble is popped, because they are riding such momentum and emotion as part of where they are. I may be proven wrong, and I'll be thrilled for the program if I am, but the tournament could prove to be a rough ride for these boys.