As our friends at the Stanford Fast Break Club described in a tweet yesterday, the 2011 NCAA Tournament selection committee got real cute by placing the UCLA Bruins and Xavier Musketeers in the same bracket as the Stanford Cardinal.
Perhaps the same could be said about matching the Connecticut Huskies with the Duke Blue Devils as the #1 and #2 seeds respectively in the Philadelphia region.
Of course, as Division I competitors, Duke probably wants a shot to avenge their near-40 point beatdown at the hands of UConn. But even if there are not lingering psychological barriers to bouncing back after a loss like that, 100% improvement would still mean a near-20 point loss.
In other words, UConn probably has this bracket on lock while Duke might still feel they have something to prove. And that drama of Duke proving themselves leading up to an anticipated rematch might be the most exciting thing going on in this bracket.
Upset watch: #10 Marist vs. #7 Iowa State
As James has already noted previously, Marist is the team "you really don't want to face" and they might be the team most likely to make things interesting in this bracket. Both Marist and first round opponent ISU can score and although the Cyclones have a relative advantage on the offensive boards Marist has a strong defense and a stronger 9% turnover percentage differential that could make the difference in this game. And while some people might harp on their strength of schedule, they did take advantage of opportunities to prove themselves in non-conference play.
Points per possession: 1.06
Opponents' points per possession: 0.76
Statistical strength: scoring efficiency (+9.5% effective field goal percentage)
Multiple Swish Appeal writers have seen Marist play this season and have pretty much come up with the same conclusion, which makes them a particularly deadly tournament team.
Time to Dance: Marist, Metro Atlantic - Swish Appeal
Marist relies on good, sharp ball movement and exquisite balance. They're led by senior guard Erica Allenspach, a deadly shooter from everywhere on the floor.
A player with potential to get hot can carry a team in a single-elimination setting. So a team with that player and a balanced unit to support her has a shot to do some damage.
Which brings us back to Duke.
Bear in mind, it's not necessarily "likely" that Marist beats Duke should they meet in the second round. However, if we're looking for a low seed that can truly embody a "Cinderella", Marist has the best chance of any to get out of the first round and might have a key strength that helps them against Duke.
Marist hasn't been much of a turnover prone team this season, even in loss. Coincidentally, in Duke's losses and close wins (NC State, Xavier) they weren't able to rattle their opponents in turnovers and score transition points - although the final box scores of their narrow wins don't show it, they were down at half in both games when their opponents didn't turn the ball over that often, then won the second halves when their opponents did turn the ball over. Meanwhile, what we saw exposed at UConn was an undeniable truth about Duke that was on display previously against NC State - if they're not scoring in transition, they really struggle to score in half court sets.
Obviously, there are a number of other things that would have to happen for Marist to pull off what would likely be the biggest upset in program history, chief among them battling Duke in the paint while also trying to slow the pace to their normal level. But if Duke has an off game, Marist is the type of extremely efficient unit that could take advantage.
Potentially exciting game to watch: #11 Dayton vs. #6 Penn State
While Marist is the most likely upset by seed, a Dayton win in the first round would be a bigger seeding upset, although it's hard to even consider it an upset given that these two teams opened the season with a double overtime thriller. However, this game should certainly be fun to watch with Dayton improving the execution of their uptempo attack (in which they run after opponents' made baskets) led by point guard Patrice Lalor. The question is where Dayton can actually establish a consistent advantage against PSU - while they are strikingly similar teams statistically, Penn State has a narrow advantage in their shooting efficiency, offensive rebounding percentage and turnover percentage differentials that could make the difference.
Competitive first round game: #12 Princeton vs. #5 Georgetown
Aside from the 8/9 game between Kansas State and Purdue, which is competitive by design, Georgetown and Princeton are an interesting portrait of contrasts. Georgetown thrives on forcing turnovers and transition, while Princeton is a far more efficient scoring team that relies heavily on ball movement - and limiting opponents' ball movement - to win games. Although the only major strength Georgetown has going in their favor is turnover differential, that could be enough to wear down Princeton. But if a lapse occurs or the Hoyas go cold, Georgetown could find themselves feeling like the 1996 UCLA Bruins men's team.
Points per possession: 1.17
Opponents points per possession: .75
Statistical strength: scoring efficiency (+19.5% effective field goal percentage relative to opponents)
Even non-basketball fans have heard enough to know that they're at least the team with the most momentum entering this tournament. Maya Moore is talented too. So no need to say much about them, except that it's hard to imagine them experiencing an early upset. And it's also hard to imagine them losing an anticipated rematch against Duke.
Although one thing does stand out.
Georgetown played them relatively well (meaning they were within 20 in two meetings) and if you really want to find a way to make this bracket interesting, root for Georgetown to get to the Sweet 16 and force a short-handed UConn into a sloppy game full of turnovers. Georgetown was somewhat successful in that task during their two meetings has as good a chance as any to pull an upset based on the evidence in front of us.
But anything less that UConn in the Final Four would be a shock of epic proportions.
#1 UConn def. #16 Hartford
#8 Kansas State def. #9 Purdue (Feel free to toss a coin to pick this one, I picked KSU based on an offensive rebounding edge.)
#5 Georgetown def. #12 Princeton
#4 Maryland def. #13 St. Francis
#6 Penn State def. #11 Dayton (Another close call, but had a hard time finding a tangible reason to pick Dayton.)
#3 DePaul def. #14 Navy
#10 Marist def. #7 Iowa State
#2 Duke def. #15 Tennessee - Martin
UConn def. Kansas St.
Maryland def. Georgetown (Should also be an interesting one, but Maryland's considerable rebounding differential should make the difference.)
DePaul def. Penn St. (A rebounding test for DePaul, but their gexecution wins out.)
Duke def. Marist (The likelihood of things coming together for Marist in this one is slim.)
UConn def. Maryland
DePaul def. Duke (For all the reasons listed above regarding Marist: disciplined offense and shooting efficiency does the trick. And no, a #3 beating a #2 is not an upset.)
UConn def. DePaul