Bracket Breakdown: Second Session by the Three Rivers

WCC vs. Big East. Big Ten vs. MAAC. The evening session in Pittsburgh will have plenty of local flavor and at least one intriguing matchup. Let’s run through the teams and make a couple calls.

Erik Etherly

Game 1

7 Gonzaga (25-6, 13-3, KenPom: 32)
Ticket punched when…beat Xavier in late December–the Musketeers’ first game back at full-strength post-brawl–at the Cintas Center to close out the non-conference schedule at 12-2. Lost to St. Mary’s in the WCC finals.
Time zones from campus: 3
Name to know: Kevin Pangos. The freshman guard has done it all for the Zags this year, including leading the team in points, assists and minutes.
Difference maker: Free-throw rate. Gonzaga is fifth nationally in FTR at 47.1. Senior Robert Sacre is key to that effort by drawing 6.7 fouls per game. The 7-footer can take over games and control the paint providing plenty of balance on the offensive end.
Run down: Just about everywhere is far from Spokane, yet the committee did Mark Few’s crew no favors in sending them to Pittsburgh. The other three teams in this pod are all within easy driving distance of the CONSOL Energy Center, lead by first second-round matchup West Virginia. Of the Zags six losses, five have been away from Spokane (only Michigan State won in Spokane, albeit off campus). Illinois, however, was the only setback by a team not dancing.

10 West Virginia (19-13, 9-9, KenPom: 42)
Ticket punched when…won their last two regular season games over DePaul and at South Florida to finish the Big East season at 9-9, including topping Georgetown on January 7th.
Time zones from campus: 0
Name to know: Kevin Jones. The senior forward does it all for WVU, as well he should considering hardly leaves the floor thanks to an impressive 1.25 fouls per game.
Difference maker: CONSOL Energy Center. WVU’s first game is so close to campus students should have no trouble transporting couches to Pittsburgh. The Mountaineers will take the 10-seed in order to play what amounts to a home game.
Run down: West Virginia largely held serve through the regular season to make it to the tournament. With few exceptions, high profile wins are few on the resume (4-8 against RPI 1-50). Still, the Fightin’ Huggy Bears are battle tested and will have the full and raucous support of the arena behind them.

Game 2

2 Ohio State (27-7, 13-5, KenPom: 2)
Ticket punched when…the committee read “Ohio State,” they’ve been in the bracket since November.
Time zones from campus: 0
Name to know: Jared Sullinger. With the NBA lockout looming, Sullinger returned to Columbus for a second (and presumably final) year. If he wants another shot at Kentucky who ended his freshman season in the Sweet 16, Sullinger will have to take the Buckeyes to the first Monday in April. That’s very possible.
Difference maker: Aaron Craft. Craft is the defensive key to disrupting opponent offenses (4.6 Stl%) and is also relied upon to spread the ball to all the talent. When the Bukeyes lost alternating conference games in February, Craft never had more than 3 assists.
Run down: This team is loaded and a real contender for New Orleans. Coming off a disappointing loss to Kentucky last year, OSU has retooled and is ready for another run. The one potential bugaboo for this team is the bench. Only five players log more than 30% of the team’s minutes. Fatigue shouldn’t be a factor in the tournament, but look out if a regular gets into foul trouble. Keep feeding the big dogs Sullinger and William Buford and Deshaun Thomas and the Buckeyes will be just fine until they run into a team that can really stretch the floor and match this team athletically.

15 Loyola (MD) (24-8, 13-5, KenPom: 128)
Ticket punched when…beat Fairfield–who upended regular season champ Iona in the semis–to win the MAAC Tournament.
Time zones from campus: 0
Name to know: The guy with the cool hair is diminutive freshman guard R.J. Williams. He also is the team’s engine, leading the team in assist and free-throw rates.
Difference maker: Forward Erik Etherly is the star (108 ORtg, 57.3 TS%, team leader in points and rebounds), but it’s likely Shane Walker will draw the unenviable task of having to match up against Jared Sullinger. If there’s an upset in the wings, it starts there.
Run down: The surprise winner (read: bid thief) out of the MAAC, Loyola and coach Jimmy Patsos are a nice story. 24-8 and 13-5 (including a regular season win over Iona) in conference are both solid marks and the program finally seems to be on solid footing. The Greyhounds do have good size on the wings and are a very good offensive rebounding team. With poor team shooting and only one senior contributor, however, the Greyhounds may be better suited to an upset bid next year.

Predictions: Take the chalk.

Gonzaga over West Viginia: The Zags will rise to the challenge in hostily territory. Losing both the regular season and tournament WCC titles still stings and Robert Sacre will take it out on WVU.

Ohio State over Loyola: This one won’t be close.