Possible Tournament Cinderellas
by Trevor Whenham - 03/06/2007
When it comes to handicapping the NCAA tournament, even a monkey can pick a winner in the 1-versus-16 games and some of the other mismatches on the board. Where you make the real money, though, not to mention the bragging rights, is in isolating a few live longshots. I'm not talking about the 16 seed that is finally going to win a game, or the 14 that is going to shock - I don't want to throw my money away. I'm talking about teams outside of the public's perception of likely winners. If the teams go deep then you have to deal with a significantly fatter wallet. Here's a look at four teams that may be poised for a surprising run:
UNLV - I was lucky enough to see the Running Rebels play in Albuquerque this week and I was impressed. Though the team didn't end up covering, they won without effort and only let New Mexico back into the game once the starters started taking a break and they let up on intensity. I'm confident that they won't do that when the games actually matter. What is so impressive about this team is the athleticism. It might look like they are in trouble, then all of a sudden they will throw down a ridiculously powerful dunk to grab momentum back. Guard Kevin Kruger, the coach's son, is very streaky, but he is playing well lately and he can put the team on his back if he has to. The team is hard to stop, and less prone to slumping, because they don't have a true star - no player is averaging over 15 points, but three put down 13 or more a game. The team has had two bad losses in February - a blowout against BYU and a rough showing against San Diego State. In both games the team failed to really get their head into the game. That's a bit of a concern, but it doesn't worry me a whole lot. Coach Lon Kruger is experienced and savvy, and he will be able to use those showings as a motivating lesson going forward.
Air Force - It might seem excessive to have two teams from the same, and somewhat obscure, Mountain West Conference. That's just a testament to the great basketball that is being played by the member teams, though. Air Force and UNLV are also likely to be joined by BYU in the tournament, which will make the MWC the most prominent mid-major at the dance. On paper, the Falcons are not coming into the tournament in good shape. They lost their last three games down the stretch - at UNLV and TCU and at home against BYU. All that will do, though, is give the team more betting value. The loss to BYU was in a tight game, and they have nothing to be ashamed of. In that game, and especially in the other two, the team got away from what they do best. They have got to where they are by playing exceptional, disciplined defense. Though they moved away from that at the end of the year, that's not the type of thing you suddenly forget how to do, and the coaching staff will have the time to re-instill the urgency and get them back on their game. If the Falcons get the right match-ups at the tournament then they could create some serious headaches for their opponents.
Louisville - A month ago it was pretty hard to get excited about the Cardinals. They weren't exactly struggling, but they also weren't doing anything to make anyone think that they could do any damage in the tournament, or even be assured to make it, for that matter. How things have changed. They have won nine of their last 11 (including five of six on the road), covered six in a row, and they are playing a kind of basketball that a lot of teams would not want any part of. Rick Pitino is a master of getting teams ready for the dance, and it looks like he has done it again. This is far from his most talented squad, but he has them playing a disciplined and selfless style that is incredibly effective. Their recent game against Connecticut tells the story perfectly - they hit their final 11 shots without a miss to mount a comeback, and five different players hit shots during that stretch. That means that they didn't ride a hot hand to the win, they just stepped up their effort as a team. An elevated team effort is what wins tournament games.
Maryland - The Terrapins are hidden in a tough ACC, but an argument could be made that they are as dangerous as any of their conference mates. After the season started with hits and misses, this team is really rounding into form of late. They won their last seven games of the regular season. More importantly, they covered all of them to show that they are playing consistently better than the expectations of bettors. That's key entering the tournament. They truly showed that they were in the right place when they beat North Carolina, then traveled to Duke three days later to wallop the Blue Devils by 12. Besides solid play and good form, a successful tournament team usually needs a player to emerge and play significantly better in the tournament than they have been all season. Greivez Vasquez is an excellent candidate for that. In other years he would be one of the most talked about freshmen in the country, but this year he isn't even the most discussed player from his high school - he played at Montrose Christian with Kevin Durant. Vasquez, a point guard, has been consistently getting better all season, and it was against Duke that he gave us his best look at what is possible. He needed just one more assist to go with his 13 points and 12 rebounds to make a triple-double, and that was in the hostile insanity of Cameron Indoor. Add in the vastly improved D.J. Strawberry and a solid supporting cast and you have a team that could go further than many expect.