Intriguing Bracket Teams, Part 1

On Wednesday and Thursday, I kicked off my abbreviated, bracket-focused season preview with a look at how the bid race looks in mid-October for each conference or group of leagues (Big Six post, Rest of D1 post). Today and Monday, I'll look at a group of teams that intrigued me from a bracketology perspective as I was putting together early projections last week.

For another list of intriguing teams, hang out over at Searching for Billy Edelin for a bit.

Intriguing does not necessarily mean obvious, by the way. You won't find storylines like "Will Duke Repeat?;" "Will Kentucky's Freshmen Match the 2009 Class?;" "Will UConn/UCLA/UNC Bounce Back?" in this post (though you may see them in a later entry down the line, either here or at SB Nation).

Instead, these teams are worth following thanks to issues like recent history, conference issues, and scheduling. There are 68 stories in a filled-out bracket. Here are 16, in two convenient eight-team servings. The first comes after the jump.

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Arizona: Last season saw the Wildcats' run of 25 straight NCAA appearances end, thanks to the combination of a young team and what everyone thought was a laughably weak Pac-10 (until Cal beat Louisville in the NCAAs and Washington reached the Sweet 16). Sean Miller's 2010-11 group is young, talented and potentially ready to start a new streak. The most pressure will be on sophomore point guard Lamont Jones, who has the first shot at replacing graduated Nic Wise. He'll have a lot of guys to work the ball to, thanks to the presence of returnees (Kyle Fogg and Derrick Williams) and some talented newcomers (Jordin Mayes and Daniel Bejarano).

Arizona has a schedule that should give them enough wins to get in, provided they don't stumble too frequently in the conference. The non-league slate includes some tricky games (New Mexico State and Robert Morris at home), a Big 12/Pac-10 Series contest that won't really help (Oklahoma), and three games outside of Tucson that could really boost the resume (Kansas in Las Vegas, BYU in Salt Lake City, at NC State).

It may be close, but the 2010-11 Wildcats should be back in the good graces of the Selection Committee, especially with three extra slots.

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Butler: What do the Bulldogs do for an encore, especially with Gordon Hayward in the NBA? If he had stayed around for his senior year, Butler would have found themselves in the preseason top 5, a favorite for a protected seed and serious challenger for a place in Houston.

Without him, Butler will still be good, especially with Shelvin Mack, Ronald Nored, Shawn Vanzant, and Zach Hahn in the backcourt. They just look to be 4 or 5 seed good. The frontcourt could be a surprise, even without Hayward, as Matt Howard is still around (if he can stay on the floor), and he'll be joined by two freshmen with promise, Erik Fromm and Khyle Marshall. If those two can make an impact, watch out.

With their trip to the National Championship game, the Bulldogs have joined Gonzaga and Memphis as major programs within non-major conferences, and the schedule for Brad Stevens' squad reflects this. Over the first two months of the season, Butler will

  • Help Louisville open their new downtown arena
  • Meet Duke at the Meadowlands in a rematch of their title game
  • Visit rival Xavier and host Stanford (on CBS to boot)
  • Anchor the Diamond Head Classic field, opposite South Region finalist Baylor.

The Bulldogs didn't win all of their up games last season, and they likely won't this time around either. However, facing a variety of teams, and an assortment of playing styles, ultimately helped their postseason run. The sky's the limit with an arguably tougher slate, even with Hayward in Utah.

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Colorado: It's the Buffaloes' last go 'round in the Big 12, a conference the team hasn't seen much hoops success in--making their last appearance in 2003 and grabbing their last win in 1997, when Chauncey Billups was on campus. Last season's 6-10 Big 12 mark isn't terribly impressive, but Kansas and Kansas State both struggled on their trips to Boulder, and Baylor lost at Coors.

New coach Tad Boyle has more than enough talent to see an increase in wins and jump up the standings. Seniors Cory Higgins and Marcus Relphorde and sophomore Alec Burks are a legitimate offensive trio, and they'll have a new point guard, redshirt freshman Shannon Sharpe, running the show. Sharpe missed last season with a knee injury.

The non-conference schedule doesn't leave much margin for error. The Buffaloes' first game at the Las Vegas Classic, against New Mexico, could provide more of an RPI bump than their second, against Indiana or Northern Iowa. Games at Georgia and against Colorado State in Boulder could be helpful, if those two teams are as good as advertised.

Of course, playing in the Big 12 North, the Buffs will get two shots at Kansas, Kansas State, and Missouri, all potential top 20 teams. They'll just need to take advantage of them this season.

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Loyola Marymount and St. Mary's: I've grouped these two together to illustrate how mid-major non-conference scheduling can be a bit unfair, especially when it comes to trying to get a talented team to the Tournament.

Loyola Marymount is a name that still brings bittersweet memories to mind for many college basketball fans. In the late 80s and 1990, Paul Westhead's run and gun system put up mind boggling offensive numbers and made the Lions' a household name, with the team's run to the Elite Eight after the tragic death of Hank Gathers during the 1990 WCC Tournament permanently burned in the memories of hoops fans from coast to coast. Since that time, LMU has largely disappeared as a national name, but a team led by senior guard Vernon Teel and junior forward Drew Viney looks set to challenge Gonzaga for the league title.

Last season, St. Mary's, featuring Aussies Mickey McConnell, Matthew Dellavedova, and Clint Steindl, and the quotable Omar Samhan, made it all the way to the Sweet 16. It was the Gaels second tournament trip in three years, a number that could have been three had Patrick Mills not broken a hand during the 2008-09 campaign.

Randy Bennett's team has earned national respect, something that has helped the Gaels earn some newsworthy, if not necessarily marquee, non-conference games this season: St. John's at home in Steve Lavin's coaching debut, Texas Tech and either BYU or South Florida in South Padre, a spot in the Wooden Classic opposite Long Beach State, and finally, a hurriedly-scheduled game against Mississippi State in Las Vegas.

The Lions, on the other hand, will be hard pressed to build a worthy-resume with their non-conference slate. I've already written about the weak draw LMU was handed in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off, but add in home-and-homes against Cal Poly and South Dakota and home games with Sacramento State and non-D1 La Sierra, and their RPI is bound to be below their league rival's. Games against Big West favorites UC Santa Barbara and Long Beach State (SMC's Wooden Classic opponent) could provide a boost, but the Lions will need to make a statement in their lone non-conference showcase, a home game against Florida State.

Of course, LMU hosts St. Mary's on January 6 to open the WCC season. There may be no better statement for the Lions to make than sweeping the Gaels, and maybe picking up a win against Gonzaga too.

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Maryland: When we last saw the Terrapins, they suffered a gut-punch loss to Michigan State in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament in Spokane. The Spartans made it all the way to the Final Four, and it's entirely possible that Maryland could have also made it to Indy as well.

Now the Terps must put that game aside--and begin life without the graduated Greivis Vasquez, the heart and soul of the program over the past four seasons--and Landon Milbourne and Eric Hayes, the number 2 and 3 scorers on last year's roster. That combination would normally be a recipe for a down year for Gary Williams' team. (Williams' job security should be improved with the move of former athletic director Debbie Yow to NC State.)

However, junior guard Sean Mosley and sophomore forward Jordan Williams are back, ready to step up to ensure that doesn't happen. So are three seniors who have one last chance to make an impact in College Park: point guard Adrian Bowie, swingman Cliff Tucker, and forward Dino Gregory. The returnees get some help from five freshman, led by point guard Pe'Shon Howard and swingman Mychal Parker. As is typical of a team in transition, if the returnees, particularly the seniors, continue their improvement and the newcomers get a hang of the system quickly, the Terrapins should avoid a post-Vasquez hangover.

The schedule is a typical Gary Williams' slate, plenty of winnable home games (which a reduced opportunity for the inevitable surprise November/December upset), a marquee event (the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament in New York), and contests with regional foes Penn State, Villanova (both on the road) and Temple (in DC). Those should be enough to get the team ready for an ACC slate that features home-and-homes with Duke and Virginia Tech and a road trip to UNC.

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Mississippi State: The Bulldogs felt hard done by last Selection Sunday, as they were left out after an overtime loss to Kentucky in the SEC Championship earlier in the day (a game where the Kentucky snatched a tie, and eventual OT win, from the jaws of defeat at the death). Miss. State would have likely been in a field of 68, but that wasn't an option for last season.

The biggest issue for Rick Stansbury's team last season was the schedule. A 9-7 mark in the SEC, good enough for the West crown, but lacking in wins against the East's powers, was problem number one. An underwhelming non-conference schedule, thanks to down years for UCLA and DePaul and a loss to Richmond in South Padre, was even more damaging. Like other coaches faced with this predicament (Billy Donovan last season, Seth Greenberg this year), Stansbury has made adjustments. He's also managed to schedule his way around the suspensions of forward Renardo Sidney (who will finally make his Bulldogs' debut after an ordeal more drawn out than War and Peace) and point guard Dee Bost (who has to sit nine games for not withdrawing from the NBA Draft in time...oops).

The Bulldogs will be without both players for the early portion of their slate, which hasn't been officially released. (Here's a look per ESPN's Andy Katz.)  The first few games don't look too challenging, but games against Detroit and East Tennessee State have some upset potential. Sidney joins the team just as things get interesting. The Bulldogs play Virginia Tech in the Bahamas, then travel to Hawaii to play in the Diamond Head Classic (opening with Washington State). MSU's first stop on the mainland will be in Las Vegas, where they'll take on St. Mary's. Bost then makes his return, just in time for the SEC campaign.

Even though Jarvis Varnado graduated, the Bulldogs will have a formidable frontcourt, even without Sidney early on, as Kodi Augustus returns and sophomore John Riek looks to finally be healthy. That unit will be hard to top in the SEC.

If Mississippi State can successfully work through the roster changes and grab some late December victories, they'll be in good position to get off the bubble in 2011.

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Murray State: As I wrote yesterday, the Racers look to be the best hope for the low-majors to grab an at-large this season, especially if they can replace Danero Thomas and Tony Easley's production. However, the challenge for Isaiah Canaan and co. will be to not slip up against a schedule that has many issues.

...A LOT will have to break right for the Racers for this to happen, especially with regular season games against lower division Reinhardt and Bethel on their schedule.

 

  • A win at Mississippi on November 17 would be a major boost.
  • A good run through the 76 Classic in Anaheim over Thanksgiving weekend is vital. The Racers play Stanford in the quarters and will face either Tulsa or UNLV on day 2. As for day 3, a game against Virginia Tech or Oklahoma State is preferable to one against DePaul or Cal State Northridge.
  • Beat Western Kentucky and East Tennessee at home and Chattanooga away.
  • Draw a marquee Bracketbuster game and win it (at home).
  • Get through the OVC slate unblemished.

As you can tell, Murray State will almost have to go unbeaten to earn an at-large bid, even with four extra places up for grabs.

So there are several questions surrounding Murray State's fate. What's their seed ceiling? Can they get themselves to the 8-10 range with a good run through the non-conference season? Would an OVC loss cause them to drop? Can they earn an at-large if they lose in the OVC final with a creditable non-conference performance?

The fate of the Racers on Selection Sunday is not only a story to watch at the appointed hour, but for the next five months.

Check back on Monday for the next eight teams.

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