NCAA Tournament Handicapping: March Madness Surprises
by Trevor Whenham - 3/20/2012
We’re only two games into the NCAA Tournament, but already more than three-quarters of the teams that made the field have been sent home. There have obviously been some surprises — Duke and Missouri certainly weren’t expecting to have this much free time on their hands at this point. Despite the early surprises, though, this tournament is running relatively close to expectations — and relatively short of drama so far as a result.
That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been some surprises, though — some good and some not so pleasant. Here are six surprises from among the remaining teams:
D.J. Cooper is really good
I’m a diehard Michigan fan, so it kills me to even think about Ohio’s star. He was the singular reason that my Wolverines lost to the Bobcats and the opening round (well, that and the fact that my boys forgot how to shoot). Cooper was an absolute difference maker, and he did it again against South Florida in the second round, too.
We had a hint of how good Cooper could be a couple of years ago when he led his team past Georgetown in the first round, but he has matured and developed into something special. Outside of Draymond Green I haven’t been more impressed by an individual player this year so far than Cooper.
Ohio has been a very pleasant betting story so far, and if Cooper keeps it up it might not end — especially since he’s the only starting point guard in his next game against North Carolina who doesn’t have a broken wrist.
Florida is angry
To be honest I had decided to completely ignore the Gators coming into this tournament. It wasn’t personal — outside of Kentucky I had little respect for anyone in the SEC, and conference champion Vanderbilt proved that that opinion was justified.
Florida, though, has been a team possessed so far. They haven’t just won both of their games. They have humiliated their opponents. Sure, Virginia and Norfolk State aren’t the two toughest teams in this tournament. Neither is totally hopeless, though, and the Gators beat them by an average of 30 points.
Billy Donovan has no shortage of tournament credibility, but with at least another win — which is certainly achievable against Marquette — this may be his best coaching job in the tournament yet.
Louisville is ready to play
Rick Pitino is as good as any coach in the country. The last two years have been very disappointing in the tournament for Louisville, though, and the team was inconsistent in the regular season. So, despite their Big East Championship, I was skeptical about their prospects.
They have proven me wrong, though.
Their path — against Davidson and New Mexico — was far from an easy one, but they have looked good against it. They have continued their strong play from the conference tournament, and have now covered six straight spreads. They are dangerous.
If they were playing a team other than Michigan State I’d feel even more optimistic.
The Big Ten really was that good
The Big Ten battle during the regular season was heated, and the teams all seemed to beat each other up. When that happens you can never be sure if it was because the teams were all really strong, or because they were all just pretty mediocre. The teams have really shown that the former was true this year.
Ohio State and Michigan State have been at least as good as expected and Indiana and Wisconsin have done what is asked of them. Purdue would be here, too, if they knew how to play the last two minutes of a game. Only Michigan has underachieved.
All in all, the conference that looked the strongest coming into the tournament definitely still looks the strongest now.
Xavier does something right
The Musketeers are not getting enough credit for what they have accomplished. For any team to be in the Sweet 16 four times in five years would be amazing. For a smaller school playing in a very tough conference recruiting in a very competitive state to do it is beyond remarkable.
Never mind that they have accomplished this with having to overcome the effects of the midseason brawl with Cincinnati this year, or that they had covered just one of their last nine spreads before the tournament started.
The last two coaches of this team — Thad Matta and Sean Miller — have gone on to bigger things. It’s hard to believe that Chris Mack won’t get that chance soon as well.
The mid-majors in the NCAA Tournament are always fun to watch, and to speculate about. Despite the two stunning No. 15 upsets, though, this has been a very unimpressive year for mid-majors.
Only Ohio and Xavier represent the lesser conferences among the final 16, and neither were among the mid-majors seen as most likely to be serious contenders this year.
The Mountain West was a huge disappointment after a great regular season. Murray State underwhelmed. Belmont had no bite. Neither did South Dakota State or Long Beach State.
Backing the power conferences is far from the most exciting way to go, but this year it has been the right path for bettors.
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