‘Nova looks to prevail amongst Minneapolis Madness

Kyle Scudilla

After Allan Ray’s potential tragedy-turned-miraculous recovery this weekend, many speculated about whether or not the Villanova Wildcats, despite being co-regular season champions of the Big East, would fall out of the running for a number one seed. (In recent history, Cincinnati fell to a number two seed in 2000 despite having the nation’s highest RPI after star forward Kenyon Martin broke his leg in the Conference USA tournament.) However, after all the worry, Sunday’s Selection Show yielded what many “bracketologists” had been calling all along: Villanova earned the top seed in the Minneapolis bracket. While many experts have deemed the bracket a difficult one, there isn’t any reason to count out Villanova as a contender to reach Indianapolis, especially after the news that Ray has been cleared by doctors to play as soon as the NCAA Tournament begins. Even at full strength, however, a deep bracket means the Wildcats will have to bring their best if they want to keep playing in April.

Here’s a look at the field:

Teams Just Happy to Be Here

(14) South Alabama, (15) Davidson, (16) Monmouth: As automatic bids from weak conferences, none of these teams are expected to do much against the top-three seeds in the bracket. While South Alabama finished an impressive 24-6 and won 11 of their last 12, they face a tough matchup against Florida in Jacksonville in the first round.

Bracket Busters on the Horizon?

(5) Nevada: Odd to see a five seed listed as an underdog or a potential upset winner on the outset, but that’s exactly how to classify these mid-majors in this bracket loaded with top talent from major conferences. The WAC Champion Wolf Pack is led by second team All-American forward Nick Fazekas (21.9 ppg, 10.3 rpg), a 6-foot-11 nightmare for opposing defenses. Don’t be surprised to see a potential second round matchup between Nevada and Boston College go down to the wire, especially since the game will be held close to home for the Wolf Pack in Salt Lake City.

(10) Northern Iowa: This is the team that put the mid-major Missouri Valley Conference on the map this season with its superb wins against Iowa, LSU and Bucknell in non-conference play. However, the 23-9 Panthers stalled toward the end of the season, losing five of their last seven, including one against conference bottom-feeder Indiana State. While they remain a talented bunch, Coach Greg McDermott’s crew will have to right the ship very quickly if they hope to hang in with Georgetown in the first round.

(11) Wisconsin-Milwaukee: Last year’s Cinderella squad made it to the Sweet Sixteen by beating Alabama and Boston College, and is back in the mix this season once again as Horizon League Champions. The Panthers feature an all-senior starting lineup, four of whom started during last year’s magical run through the tournament. Despite the return of this core group of players, gone is Coach Bruce Pearl, now head-coach of Tennessee. Still, this battle-tested group could give Oklahoma fits in the first round.

(12) Montana: It’s common knowledge among college basketball enthusiasts that just about every year, a 12 seed downs a five seed, but it’s not just their seeding that makes Montana dangerous. The Big Sky Champions have a sharp-shooting offense that connects on close to 50 percent of its attempts from the field and averages almost 80 points per game.

(13) Pacific: After knocking out Pittsburgh in last year’s NCAA tourney, the Tigers are back for a third straight season as Big West Champions. Senior forward and conference player of the year Christian Maraker (17.2 ppg, 8.9 rpg) leads a feisty bunch that should look to jump on a potentially road-weary Boston College team in the early-going after their cross-country trip from Massachusetts to Utah.

Middle of the Pack

(6) Oklahoma: Whether they played down to inferior teams or just know how to win the close ones, the Sooners were on the positive side of five out of seven one-point contests in their Big 12 schedule. After getting eliminated in their first conference tournament game, this talented bunch, led by forward Taj Gray and guards Michael Neal and Terrell Everett, have left many analysts scratching their heads when determining the team’s prospects.

(8) Arizona: Despite a disappointing record of 19-12 for this perennial top seed, it’s the Wildcats’ tough schedule that has made them an experienced bunch that could be a tough draw for Villanova in a potential second-round matchup. The team’s prospects against Wisconsin in the first round hinge on the return of senior forward Hassan Adams, who was suspended for the Pac-10 tournament following his recent arrest for DUI.

(9) Wisconsin: The usually solid Badgers had an up-and-down year in the Big Ten, rising up and beating conference rivals Ohio State, Michigan State and Indiana, but also losing five of six games in late January and early February. The team will rely on junior forward Alando Tucker (18.9 ppg) and their excellent turnover margin to overcome their conference-worst shooting percentage this season from both the field and the free throw line.

The Upper Echelon

(4) Boston College: With the status of Allan Ray still a mystery to many of the bracket experts, and a solid run in the ACC tournament that landed two points short of knocking off top-seeded Duke, the Eagles have emerged as a favorite to advance to Indianapolis. After dropping their first three in ACC play in their first season in the conference, BC turned it around quickly, led by veterans Craig Smith, Jared Dudley, Sean Marshall and Louis Hinnant. They could meet Villanova in the Sweet Sixteen and seem to be the toughest matchup for the Wildcats thanks to the duo of Smith and Dudley scoring the ball in the paint.

(2) Ohio State: With a solid resumé, including wins against LSU, Illinois, Michigan State and Indiana, and a second-team All-American (center Terence Dials), the Buckeyes earned the number two seed in Minneapolis. Under Coach Thad Matta, Ohio State led the Big Ten in scoring en route to winning the conference’s regular season title. However, they were last in the league in rebounding margin, which could prove to be crucial late in ballgames when big rebounds can be momentum changers.

(3) Florida: The Gators started out of the gates quickly this season after being eliminated from the NCAA tournament last year by Villanova, winning 17 games straight and climbing to number two in the polls. Despite a mid-season three-game losing streak, Florida bounced back to finish second in the SEC East and ultimately win the conference tournament. Led by Coach Billy Donovan and a plethora of talent including Joakim Noah, Taurean Green, Corey Brewer and Al Horford, Florida runs a fast-paced offense and should be a tough match-up on most nights.

(7) Georgetown: Posting 21 wins overall and ten conference wins despite playing in the new, super-charged Big East, some may be surprised to see the Hoyas earn a number seven seed. Don’t expect this bunch to act like a typical seven seed, however, having already defeated the likes of Duke, Pittsburgh and Marquette earlier this season. Led by Coach John Thompson III, Georgetown is involved in March Madness for the first time since 2001. A solid frontcourt of Jeff Green, Brandon Bowman and the greatly improved 7-foot-2 giant Roy Hibbert could spell trouble for rebounding-challenged Ohio State in a potential second round game.

And Finally, Your Villanova Wildcats

(1) Villanova: The Wildcats have been defined by their toughness and resilience all season long since star forward Curtis Sumpter went down with a knee injury. Despite featuring the now famous four-guard lineup, the rebounding ability and hustle of each of the guards has made it possible for Coach Jay Wright’s undersized bunch to knock off teams such as Connecticut, Syracuse, Georgetown and Oklahoma, all of whom feature above-average frontcourts. While it remains to be seen how well Allan Ray can bounce back from his recent eye injury, if he can provide the ‘Cats with close to his standard long-range shooting and defense, they should continue to cause the match-up problems they have created all season.