Welcome to the Pit. Over 15,000 seats. 5,000 feet in elevation. And one of the loudest arenas in the country. The Pit can be one of the most intimidating places to play in the nation, except, that is, when New Mexico isn’t playing there. In that case it’s just a really nice venue for some good hoops. Here’s the early session on Thursday.
Wisconsin (4) vs Montana (13)
How they got here: Wisconsin (24-9) lost three starting seniors from last year’s team. All were at least 6’6, and all could hit the three. But they returned All-Everything Jordan Taylor and that was enough to get them to a 12-6 conference record, which was one game worse than last year. And they ended up with the same seed in the NCAA Tournament. Along the way they never dropped a game to a team outside of Ken Pomeroy’s top-100. They beat Ohio State, Purdue, and Indiana twice.
Montana (25-6) almost lost their coach to Fresno State, but he returned citing “unfinished business.” They were favored in the Big Sky, went 15-1, and then knocked off the 2nd best team (Weber State) to take home the Title.
The travel: Madison is 1,274 miles from Albuquerque. Missoula is 1,123.
Pomeroy: 87% in Wisconsin’s favor.
Where Montana has the advantage:
1. Elevation: Montana is used to playing at elevation. Missoula is over 3,200 feet (Albuquerque is 5,300), whereas Madison is under 1,000. Is this a big advantage? No. Will it be overhyped? Yes. But it is an advantage.
2. Turnovers: The Grizzlies only have the ball stolen on 8.5% of their possessions, which is 70th best nationally. The Badgers only record steals on 8.8% of their opponent’s possessions, which is 229th. Wisconsin never had more than 7 in a game once conference play began. If the Grizzlies can control the other types of turnovers, they may be able to eak out a few extra possessions.
3. Coaching: Their head coaches name is Wayne Tinkle. That has to be an advantage, right?
4. Size: Wisconsin isn’t a very big team. They’re 184th in effective height, and only have one starter over 6’6 (6’10 Jared Berggren). Montana’s 7′ center Derek Selvig blocks 4.3% of shots when he’s in the game, which was 6th in the Big Sky.
5. They’re on a roll: Montana stumbled a bit out of the gate and began the season 5-5. Since then they’ve gone 20-1 with their only loss coming at Weber State.
Vanderbilt (5) vs Harvard (12)
How they got here: Vanderbilt (24-10) returned all five starters (though Festus Ezeli had to sit out for a bit) from last year’s team. They struggled early with home losses to Cleveland State, Xavier and Indiana State, and then bumped and bruised their way to an unremarkable 10-6 record in the SEC. Then they won the SEC Tournament and went through the nation’s best team to do so. Yeah, we all saw that coming.
Harvard (26-4) made their first Tournament since 1873 (or something like that), and beat Florida State, St Joe’s and UCF out-of-conference. They somewhat efficiently went through the Ivy League with a 12-2 record, and then sat home and watched Penn lose on the final day of the season which allowed them to avoid a one-game playoff.
The travel: Nashville is 1,220 miles from Albuquerque. Cambridge is 2,229 miles.
Pomeroy: 67% in Vanderbilt’s favor.
Where Harvard has the advantage:
1. Tempo: As long as the shot clock remains 35 seconds, teams who like to grind games out can more easily control the tempo than teams that don’t. Harvard averages just 61.2 possessions per game, which was 329th in the nation. If they can build a lead, this puts a lot of mental on teams. When they beat FSU, it was the Seminoles 2nd lowest possession game of the year.
2. 2s: Vanderbilt has one of the best 3-point defenses in the nation (30th), but Harvard makes over 52% of their 2s, which is 27th nationally. There, the Vandy defense is a soft 139th.
3. Denying the three: Vanderbilt lives and dies by the three. They attempt 41.3% of their shots from beyond the arc (21st). Harvard can extend ball pressure to keep teams from shooting them, and only 15 schools force fewer 3s than the Crimson.
4. Limiting possessions: This will be a low possession game, so it’s key that Harvard limit the extra possessions. They’re the 15th best defensive rebounding team in the country, and they rarely put teams on the line (31st).
5. Pressure: Much talked about is the fact that Kevin Stallings has lost to two 13-seeds and a 12-seed in the past three Tourneys. Yes, this is a different team, but if they’re paying any attention to the media then they’re becoming painfully aware of how many people are picking this as one of their upset games.