The matchup rocks, but the narrative rolls: Only in Bracketville can you get two men who made it big in Manhattan locking horns in Brooklyn.
Ten years ago, Bob Huggins gave Brad Underwood one of his first big Division I breaks, hiring the then-Daytona Community College head coach to become his director of basketball operations at Kansas State. This was May 2006, and Huggins took off for his alma mater, West Virginia, not too long after that.
As it turns out, Underwood’s coaching career took off, too — the K-State alum rose up the Wildcats’ ranks under Huggy Bear’s successor, Frank Martin, eventually following Martin to South Carolina before heading back west, transforming Stephen F. Austin (27-5) into the biggest “axe” in the Southland Conference.
So in some ways, Friday’s East Region showdown between the third-seeded Mountaineers (26-8) and the No. 14 Lumberjacks brings things full circle. West Virginia ranks 13th nationally in defensive efficiency (.919); SFA ranks eighth (.912). The Mountaineers rank first in steals-per-defensive play (12.4 percent); SFA, sixth (10.6).
While the programs aren’t exactly mirror images of one another — the 52-year-old Underwood is his own man — they nevertheless are in the same philosophical zip code: Smother, harass, press, rinse and repeat, never giving the other guy a millisecond to catch his breath.
West Virginia’s roster is longer and more athletic, but the ’Jacks might be the hottest team entering the Big Dance with 20 consecutive wins, including a third straight Southland title. Plus, seniors Thomas Walkup (17.5 points per game) and Trey Pinkney (3.6 assists per game) have been here before, knocking off fifth-seeded VCU in the NCAA Tournament two years ago in a contest that also featured two pressing, in-your-face defenses — “Havoc” versus holy heck.
Friday’s matchup? Salty. Friday’s narrative? Even better. And because their scheme can be tough to prepare for over the course of a weekend, the ’Jacks, on paper, figure to have just as good a chance of making it out of the first weekend of the dance as some of their mid-major brethren. Although if you break down dance cards facing other schools from the ASN footprint, they’re not the only ones dreaming big.
POTENTIAL UPSET SPECIALS
No. 12 Chattanooga (Southern) vs. No. 5 Indiana — Experience counts in Bracketville, and the Mocs’ top nine scorers are upperclassmen. Chattanooga already has non-conference scalps over Dayton (KenPom: 54), Georgia (65) and Illinois (126), so Power-5 talent and size won’t scare coach Matt McCall’s roster.
No. 12 Yale (Ivy) vs. No. 5 Baylor — Of the Bulldogs’ top four active scorers, three — Justin Sears (15.8), Brandon Sherrod (12.5) and Nick Victor (7.0) — are seniors. Yale is one of only two NCAA tourney programs from the ASN footprint (Connecticut being the other) to rank among the Top 75 nationally in both effective field-goal percentage and defensive effective field-goal percentage, both key Bracketville predictive indicators. The Ivy champs played well against the likes of SMU and Illinois, but Baylor’s length — and a desire not to repeat last March’s infamous flameout against Georgia State — makes this a tricky draw.
No. 13 UNC Wilmington (CAA) vs. No. 4 Duke — Most of the nation hasn’t heard of guard Denzel Ingram. If the junior sharpshooter carries over the goods he flashed during the Colonial Athletic Association tournament (17 points in the title game), that could change in a heartbeat. The Seahawks take care of the ball (38th nationally in turnover percentage) and get after it defensively (58th), two traits that figure to serve them well on a neutral floor.
No. 15 CSU Bakersfield (WAC) vs. No. 2 Oklahoma — Grindy, disrespected and physical, the Roadrunners (No. 4 nationally in defensive efficiency) can ugly it up against anybody, anywhere. But having to slow down The Buddy Hield Express in Oklahoma City might be a bridge too far.
No. 10 Temple (AAC) vs. No. 7 Iowa — Opposing scouts said the Hawkeyes looked gassed down the stretch, which could play right into the defensive hands of the Owls (No. 42 nationally in opponents’ effective field-goal percentage). Temple fans would love nothing more than to ruin Villanova coach Jay Wright’s month, but they’ll have to take care of business against the Big Ten’s most mercurial squad first.
No. 8 Saint Joseph’s (A-10) vs. No. 9 Cincinnati (AAC) — Either squad is going to be a sexy pick to knock off top-seeded Oregon in Spokane. But that’s assuming they haven’t beaten the living snot out of one another first.
No. 9 Connecticut (AAC) vs. No. 8 Colorado — See Saint Joseph’s vs. Cincy, only replace “Oregon” with “Kansas.” Nobody wanted to see Kevin Ollie on that side of the bracket. Nobody.
No. 7 Dayton (A10) vs. No. 10 Syracuse — The Flyers’ Archie Miller has established himself already as crazy-good in the Dance (5-2 all-time), but how will Dayton handle the role of favorite? And with Michigan State looming in St. Louis?
No. 10 VCU (A10) vs. No. 7 Oregon State — Takeaways are still the Rams’ bread and butter (No. 4 nationally in steals per defensive play), but the Beavers take care of the rock (No. 80 in fewest turnovers per offensive play) better than most.
No 11 Tulsa (AAC) vs. Michigan (First round) — More than a few bracketologists raised their eyebrows with the Hurricanes’ profile, and with good reason: Of Tulsa’s four wins versus the RPI Top 50, three were notched at home.
MIGHT NEED A MIRACLE (OR TWO)
No. 15 UNC Asheville (Big South) vs. No. 2 Villanova — The Bulldogs’ Dwayne Sutton and Dylan Smith are two of the best freshmen guards still standing. But is that enough to extend Jay Wright’s recent string of premature Bracketville exits?
No. 14 Green Bay (Horizon) vs. No. 3 Texas A&M — Strange things happen in Oklahoma City sometimes. And what would be stranger than the Phoenix and old Mid-Con Conference partner Northern Iowa somehow locking horns for a chance to advance to the Sweet 16?
No. 14 Buffalo (MAC) vs. No. 3 Miami (Fla.) — The Bulls are peaking at the right time. But with Arizona, Wichita State or Vandy lurking on the other side of the pod, they might not have landed in the right place.
No. 16 Holy Cross vs. No. 16 Southern (First round) — The lesson from Bill Carmody’s Crusaders? The jury is out on the regular season, but the Princeton offense, done right, can still work in a tournament setting.
No. 16 Austin Peay (OVC) vs. No. 1 Kansas — The Governors are a heart-warming story. And landed a soul-crushing draw.
No. 15 Middle Tennessee (C-USA) vs. Michigan State — The Blue Raiders will not back down from a challenge. But getting Tom Izzo that first weekend of the Big Dance is as steep a climb as there is in Bracketville — and history doesn’t dig MTSU’s chances of being around long enough to enjoy the view.