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PARTY CRASHERS
March 23, 2006

SCS.com Despite all of the talk about upsets, parity, and the closing of the gap between "power" conference teams and "mid-majors," the NCAA Tournament bracket has pretty much followed the chalk. Of the remaining Sweet 16 teams, only three truly qualify as surprise teams: Wichita State, George Mason, and Bradley.

Georgetown slipping by Ohio State was a bit of an eyebrow-raiser, but most serious hoops fans were not shocked by that one. The Hoyas seemed a tad underseeded as a 7-seed. The same goes for West Virginia's presence in the Sweet 16. Few are surprised that the experienced Mountaineers got by Southern Illinois and Northwestern State. In fact, not many would have been shocked if they had ousted 3-seed Iowa if they Hawkeyes had managed to get by Northwestern State. Washington's win over Illinois (5-seed over a 4-seed) can only be called an upset in the same way that 9-seed over 8-seed wins can be called upsets.

The rest of the remaining clubs are supposed to be there (one, two, three, or four seeds). Is this the year that a "mid-major" gets to the Final Four? Do any of these three party crashers have what it takes to get to Indianapolis?

BRADLEY

The 13th-seeded Braves have been billed as the big Cinderella in this tournament after going through red-hot Kansas (22-3 in their last 25 games before the loss to Bradley) and savvy Pittsburgh. How have they been able to do it? It's pretty simple, really: two NBA-caliber players. Forward Marcellus Sommerville has been a hidden gem in Peoria for a long time, and 7'0" sophomore center Patrick O'Bryant outplayed super-hyped Pitt big man Aaron Gray in their head-to-head matchup.

Why they can get to Indy
Anytime a team has two legit pros on the roster, they are a threat to anyone. If Sommerville and O'Bryant can sustain their high level of play and if they get help from their mates, this Bradley club can play with any team that takes the court. They have a great defense, can get up and down the floor, and have veteran leadership. There is a lot to like here.

Why they will fall short
The problem for Bradley is that Memphis is just a lot like them, only better. Both led their respective conferences in pace of play, so both like to run. Both play tremendous defense, as evidenced by their gaudy Adjusted Defensive Efficiency ratings (Memphis #10, Bradley #12 in the country). Both have extremely athletic wing players in Rodney Carney and Sommerville. The difference is that Memphis possesses a much more efficient offense. The Tigers are 24th in the country in Offensive Efficiency, while the Braves are 65th.

If both teams play their average games, Memphis will win. However, Bradley put together two excellent outings last weekend. What it will take is an above-average offensive night for the Braves. If they can do that and sustain their defense, they have a chance. In CUSA, Memphis only faced one defense that is anywhere near the quality of Bradley's (Houston #22). If they do get past Memphis, Gonzaga or UCLA will be waiting. But it stands to reason that if Bradley can beat Memphis, the sky is the limit. It is hard to pick against the Tigers, but a great offensive night by BU could make another upset possible. Anything less than that, and it will likely be curtains for the Braves.

GEORGE MASON

The big question surrounding the Patriots' inclusion was this: should GMU be in without suspending point guard Tony Skinn in the first round? George Mason answered that question by dispatching Michigan State with relative ease without their floor general. With Skinn back in the lineup, they sent defending national champion North Carolina packing in the second round. This team has been for real all season long, and they are letting the world know it in this tournament.

Why they can get to Indy
The Patriots also do it with defense. They have the #15 rated Defensive Efficency in the country, including the 9th-best field goal percentage defense. GMU defends in the half-court about as well as anyone. In fact, opponents are shooting just 38.6% against Mason this season, including a paltry 32% from three-point range. They like a slow, methodical pace and they love to pound it inside to wide-bodied Jai Lewis (13.8 ppg, 7.9 rpg) on offense.

Why they will fall short
Much like Bradley, GMU will have to play above their offensive means (#67 Offensive Efficiency) to get to Indianapolis. They have the defense to slow down just about anyone, but to beat the top teams in the land, they are going to have to make shots and that is not their forte. So far in the tourney, guards Falorin Campbell and Lamar Butler have stepped up to have big nights in the team's first two games. One or both of those two will need to keep up the good work to keep the Patriots moving in the bracket.

If GMU has a more pedestrian offensive outing, they will be in trouble against Wichita State or the winner of UConn/Washington.

WICHITA STATE

Of the three party crashers, these guys are the only ones that were favored to be here. Yes, Tennessee was the 2-seed in Minneapolis, but the Shockers' win over the Vols was no upset. WSU is simply better. My bracket picks will not win any awards this year, but I did immediately place WSU in the Sweet 16 based simply on the fact that they were a better team than Tennessee at the end of the year. Nothing that I saw in the first weekend changed my mind about that.

Why they can get to Indy
Of the three party crashers, Wichita State is also the only would that can be classified as an "offensive" team. Their defense is not one to be ignored, weighing in at a respectable 63rd in the country, but they were far and away the most efficient offensive club in the Missouri Valley. That is quite an accomplishment with the bevy of defensive powerhouses in the Valley (SIU #8, Bradley #12, Northern Iowa #30, Illinois State #33, Creighton #36, and Missouri State #40). The Shockers rolled up the 29th-rated offense in the country in one of the toughest defensive leagues in the land. They have depth, balance, and experience. Big man Paul Miller (13 ppg, 6.6 rpg) gives them a quality post presence, while Kyle Wilson, P.J. Couisnard, and Sean Ogirri provide perimeter shooting. Ogirri made 91 three's this season at a 45% clip. Couisnard is an effective slasher as well, taking over down the stretch against Tennessee. The Shockers are the most complete club of the three discussed here.

Why they will fall short
While they do have great balance and depth, the Shockers also lack the sheer athleticism that most other Sweet 16 clubs possess. However, they have been able to overcome that shortcoming all season long with solid play in all phases of the game. If they can maintain the tempo that they want, they will be a difficult out for anyone. If the Shockers lose, it will be to a team that forces them out of their style of play. That may be GMU. If not, if will be very hard for the Shockers to dictate anything to UConn. Washington and Wichita State would be an extremely interesting game, although the chances of that matchup may be small.

The Shockers are a complete basketball team. They are not great defensively nor combustible offensively, but they are efficient, patient, experienced, and level-headed. There are worse qualities to have deep in the NCAA Tournament.

Can one of these three "mid-majors" get to the Final Four? I am convinced that it will happen one year soon, and it is guaranteed that either Wichita State or George Mason will play for the right to go to Indy. The trouble for all three of these teams will be dictating tempo and style to higher-seeded, more athletic clubs. Bradley may be the most talented, George Mason the best defensively, and Wichita State the most complete. Answers are forthcoming in just a few hours.

 > Talk about it in The College Corner...

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