Despite three losses in their final four games and an 0-3 record against Vanderbilt, Mike White has the Florida Gators (24-8) dancing as a #4 seed in the East when the NCAA Tournament gets under way in Orlando Thursday. The Gators will face #13 seed East Tennessee State (27-7) in the 3:10 p.m. game.
There was plenty of speculation that Florida’s quarter-final loss to Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference Tournament would knock the Gators off the #4-line and possibly force a first round game somewhere far away, but the overall resume was good enough to keep the Gators among the top 16 seeds and playing in state. Florida comes into the tournament as the #10 team nationally in the Realtime RPI with the #7 strength of schedule. The Gators got wins over six NCAA Tournament teams – Florida Gulf Coast, Seton Hall, Miami, Arkansas (twice), Kentucky and South Carolina – and all eight losses were to teams that made the tournament and were ranked in the top 50 RPI. The Gators had a loss to West #1 Gonzaga, East #2 Duke, South #2 Kentucky and West #3 Florida Sate.
The Gators got a favorable first round draw with #13 East Tennessee State (27-7), winner of the regular season and tournament in the Southern Conference but things get dicey after that. Should the Gators win their opening round game, they face the winner of #5 Virginia and #12 UNC-Wilmington. Virginia is a grind it out team that makes you play ugly while UNC-W plays at a racehorse pace and wants a game when shots are launched from all over the court. Both matchups present serious problems. Virginia plays way too much like Vanderbilt only the Cavaliers are far better defenders than Vandy. UNC-W thinks it has the shooters who can light up anyone they play.
As for Florida in the East, this is a difficult bracket. If the Gators go 2-0 on the opening weekend, they travel to New York, which will seem almost like a home game for Villanova of the Big East and Duke of the ACC, which seems to play all its big non-conference games at Madison Square Garden. The Dukies already beat Florida (84-74) at Madison Square Garden back on December 6.
With John Egbunu, Florida’s chances of getting to the Elite Eight game or further would be much improved, but without him, it’s a tall task to ask the Gators to win their next four.
But stranger things have happened.
13 EAST TENNESSEE (27-7)
The Bucs are coached by Steve Forbes, who was Bruce Pearl’s ace recruiter when he worked at Tennessee, and Gregg Marshall’s top assistant when Wichita State made its Final Four run. In his two years at ETSU, Forbes has a 51-19 record and a regular season and Southern Conference Tournament championship this season.
The Bucs have the #55 national RPI and the #173 strength of schedule. In games against NCAA Tournament teams, the Bucs lost by 9 to UNC-Wilmington and beat South Dakota State by 6. East Tennessee split two games with SEC teams, beating Mississippi State, 67-65, while dropping a 72-68 decision to Tennessee. They have won 13 of their last 15 games and take a 3-game winning streak into Thursday’s game.
This is a very good shooting team. The Bucs are hitting 49.1% overall and 38.3% from the 3-point line. Leading scorer T.J. Cromer is hitting 40.4% of his 3-oointers while wing guard A.J. Meriweather is hitting 46.4% of his 3-pointers. The Bucs take 19.6 3-pointers per game and get to the foul line 24.7 times per game.
Defensively, ETSU holds opponents to 69.4 points, 41.5% shooting overall and 35.6% from the 3-point line.
A couple of transfers do the damage for the Bucs on the inside. Indiana transfer Hanner Mosquera-Perea (6-9, 230) and Wichita State transfer Tevin Glass (6-8, 220). They are both exceptional defenders and high percentage shooters (Mosquera-Perea 59.5% and Glass 54.5%).
East Tennessee starting lineup: 6-9 Hanner Mosquera-Perea (8.4 points, 4.6 rebounds); 6-8 Tevin Glass (8.9 points, 6.2 rebounds); 6-4 Desonta Bradford (10.6 points, 4.5 rebounds); 6-3 T.J. Cromer (19.1 points, 2.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists); 6-2 A.J. Merriweather (8.6 points, 3.6 rebounds)
Sixth Man: 6-6 David Burrell (7.4 points, 3.3 rebounds)
POTENTIAL SECOND ROUND OPPONENTS
5 Virginia (22-10): The Cavaliers are one of the toughest defensive teams in the country, giving up just 55.6 points per game. Stopping people isn’t Virginia’s problem. Scoring, however, is. The Cavaliers average only 66.6 points per game. Part of that is by design by head coach Tony Bennett (256-115 overall, 187-82 a Virginia), whose coaching style mirrors that of his dad, Dick Bennett, who was famous for leveling the playing field by slowing the game down. Virginia’s goal is grind at both ends of the court and turn the game into an endurance contest. The Cavaliers are a lot like Vandy in that they spread the floor and surround the 3-point line with shooters (39.3% as a team on 3-balls), the most dangerous of which is senior point guard London Perrantes (38%), who leads the team in scoring (12.5) and assists (3.8).
UVA starting lineup: 6-11 Jack Salt (3.6 points, 3.9 rebounds); 6-5 Devon Hall (8.7 points, 4.4 rebounds); 6-2 London Perrantes (12.5 points, 3.1 rebounds, 3.8 assists); 6-3 Kyle Guy (7.8 points, 1.7 rebounds); 6-2 Ty Jerome (4.4 points, 1.5 rebounds)
Sixth man: 6-7 Isaiah Wilkins (7.0, 6.2 rebounds)
12 UNC-Wilmington (29-5): The Seahawks won the Colonial regular season and tournament titles. Third year coach Kevin Keatts (72-27) is already in the discussion to replace fired John Groce at Illinois. The Seahawks want to run, run, run. They press, spread the floor and everybody in the starting lineup except center Devontae Cacok (0-0 this season) has a quick trigger finger from the 3-point line. The Seahawks average launching 26 3-pointers per game and they make an average of 9.6.
UNC-W starting lineup: 6-7 Devontae Cacok (12.3 points, 9.6 rebounds); 6-5 C.J. Bryce (17.6 points, 5.5 rebounds); 6-0 Denzel Ingram (14.5 points, 2.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists); 6-2 Ambrose Mosley (8.1 points, 2.8 rebounds); 6-5 Chris Flemmings (15.8 points, 5.5 rebounds)
Sixth man: 6-0 Jordon Talley (7.8 points, 1.7 rebounds)
FIVE SEC TEAMS IN THE FIELD
While the ACC dominated with nine teams selected in the field of 68, the SEC put five teams in – Kentucky (#2 South), Florida (#4 East), South Carolina (#7 East), Arkansas (#8 South) and Vanderbilt (#9 West).
THE NCAA FIELD OF 68
1 Villanova vs. 16 Mount S. Mary’s/New Orleans
2 Duke vs. 15 Troy
3 Baylor vs. 14 New Mexico State
4 Florida vs. 13 East Tennessee State
5 Virginia vs. 12 UNC-Wilmington
6 SMU vs. 11 Providence/Southern Cal
7. South Carolina vs. 10 Marquette
8 Wisconsin vs. 9 Virginia Tech
East Regional predictions, etc.: If you listen to Dickie V, you might as well engrave the trophy and put Duke’s name on it because Villanova has no chance. Didn’t they say that last year when the Wildcats beat North Carolina to win the national title? Duke does have 10 wins against teams ranked in the top 50 RPI and what the Blue Devils did in the ACC Tournament with four wins in four days, knocking off Louisville, North Carolina and Notre Dame in the last three, was impressive, but Nova is the best coached team in this tournament and it doesn’t matter how tall or how good opponents are, Jay Wright always has a plan. I think Baylor will be fortunate to beat New Mexico State in the first round. You won’t find Cinderella in this bracket, but keep a close eye on SMU. Prediction: I really like Villanova.
1 Kansas vs. 16 North Carolina Central/UC-Davis
2 Louisville vs. 15 Jacksonville State
3 Oregon vs. 14 Iona
4 Purdue vs. 13 Vermont
5 Iowa State vs. 12 Nevada
6 Creighton vs. 11 Rhode Island
7 Michigan vs. 10 Oklahoma State
8 Miami vs. 9 Michigan State
Midwest Regional predictions, etc.: This shapes up as a Kansas-Louisville final because after the top two seeds, the rest of the bracket really isn’t that strong. Before the injury to 6-10 Chris Boucher (11.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game), Oregon probably would have been a #2. The Ducks are still dangerous but they aren’t nearly as good without the eraser in the middle. If you’re looking for Cinderella, try #12 Nevada (28-6), which gets Iowa State in the first round. The Wolf Pack have a lot of 6-7 and 6-8 guys who can get up and down the floor and win with tempo. Another dangerous mid-major is Rhode Island, which is good enough to get to the second weekend. Prediction: I like Louisville’s size and depth but I think Kansas has the best two players in this region in senior point guard Frank Mason III and super freshman Josh Jackson.
1 North Carolina vs. 16 Texas Southern
2 Kentucky vs. 15 Northern Kentucky
3 UCLA vs. 14 Kent State
4 Butler vs. 13 Winthrop
5 Minnesota vs. 12 Middle Tennessee State
6 Cincinnati vs. 11 Kansas State/Wake Forest
7 Dayton vs. 10 Wichita State
8 Arkansas vs. 9 Seton Hall
South Regional predictions, etc.: It could be argued that this is the toughest of all the brackets with three teams (North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA) that could eventually cut down the nets. Kentucky played both North Carolina (won at Rupp) and UCLA (lost at Rupp). Right now the Wildcats are the hottest team in the bracket with 11 straight wins. If you’re looking for Cinderella, look no further than Middle Tennessee State (30-4), which won the regular season and tournament titles in Conference USA. MTSU kayoed #2 Michigan State as a 15-seed last season. The Blue Raiders are quite capable of knocking off Minnesota in the first round and the winner of Butler-Winthrop in the second. Another team to watch out for is Wichita State (30-4). How are these guys a #9? The Shockers have 11 guys who average 11 or more minutes per game. I like Wichita State to knock off Dayton in round one. Can their depth get the best of Kentucky in the second round? Prediction: Kentucky survives Wichita State the first weekend, and beats UCLA and North Carolina to advance to the Final Four.
1 Gonzaga vs. 16 South Dakota State
2 Arizona vs. 15 North Dakota
3 Florida State vs. 14 Florida Gulf Coast
4 West Virginia vs. 13 Bucknell
5 Notre Dame vs. 12 Princeton
6 Maryland vs. 11 Xavier
7 Saint Mary’s vs.10 Virginia Commonwealth
8 Northwestern vs. 9 Vanderbilt
West Region predictions, etc.: Is this the year the Zags finally make it to the Final Four? At this point the biggest obstacle seems to be #2 Arizona (30-4), whom the Zags have already beaten this season. If they get past the first round, they have tough matchups with either West Virginia or Notre Dame in the Sweet 16 round. Arizona has an easier path to the Elite Eight. Don’t be surprised if Zona is facing someone other than Florida State in the Sweet 16 game. This is only the fourth NCAA invite for the Seminoles under Leonard Hamilton, who has lost in the first round twice and the second round once. A lot of the experts seem to think the Seminoles could go down in the first round in Orlando to Florida Gulf Coast. There is nobody in this bracket that you would really call a Cinderella although if you’re looking for someone other than Arizona or Gonzaga to advance to the Final Four, it might be either West Virginia or Notre Dame. Prediction: This is the year the Zags get over the hump and make the Final Four.
SEC TEAMS IN THE NIT
Three SEC teams were invited to the NIT. Georgia (19-14) is the #2 seed in Region 1. The Bulldogs will face #7 Belmont in the first round. Ole Miss (20-13) is also in Region 1 as a #5 seed. The Rebels will host Monmouth in the first round. Alabama (19-14) is a #3 in Region 4 and will face Richmond on the road.
A FEW GATOR (NON-BASKETBALL) NOTES
Mike Holloway came within a whisker of his seventh NCAA championship as the Gators were edged out by Texas A&M 46-45.5 at the national indoor championships in College Station. The Florida women finished 11th.
Florida’s #1-ranked softball team got a 1-hitter from Delanie Gourley Saturday (Gators won 6-0) and a 3-hitter from Kelly Barnhill Sunday (Gators won 1-0) to improve to 22-1, 2-0 SEC. The Gators wrap up their first SEC series of the season tonight with Missouri.
The Florida baseball team (12-5) finished a tough week by taking two out of three from Seton Hall. After taking an 8-0 win Friday night, the Gators split a Saturday doubleheader, losing in 13 innings, 3-2, then bouncing back to win the nightcap, 4-3. Next up for UF is Florida State in Jacksonville.
The #1 UF women’s tennis team beat South Carolina, 4-0, Saturday. The Gators face #2 Ohio State in Orlando Tuesday.
The UF men’s tennis team dropped a 4-2 match to FSU in Orlando Friday but bounced back with a 4-2 SEC win over 24th ranked South Carolina on Sunday.
The #6 UF women’s golf team won the Sun Trust Invitational for the second straight year and the 20th time in the 45-year history of the event.
Florida’s 3rd-ranked lacrosse team ran its record to 5-1 with a 22-14 win over #7 Stony Brook Saturday. The Gators host #5 Syracuse Tuesday afternoon.
The good thing about the NCAA Tournament is that all games are broadcast on CBS and Turner affiliates. What’s so good about that? It means no Dick Vitale calling the games. I appreciate the good things he has done for cancer research but as an analyst, his sell-by date expired years ago. Listening to him Sunday when he was the analyst for the Kentucky-Arkansas game, I got the impression Dickie would be very happy to bear John Calipari’s love child.
If it weren’t for Tom Izzo, Michigan State would be going to the NIT. The Spartans are 19-14 with three losses in their last four games and a 2-6 record vs. teams ranked in the top 25.
The reason teams like Vanderbilt and Michigan State got in with 14 losses is because this was a rather weak year for mid-to-low majors. About the only schools that might feel they were shafted are Illinois State (27-6), Charleson (25-9) and Belmont (22-6).
QUESTION OF THE DAY
Who are your early picks to make the Final Four?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
Ever since he was the front man for The Police, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Sting, largely because I can’t think of anyone who can actually imitate his voice. Today’s music is a March 6 concert from Montreal.