The thing about putting eleven mid-major at-large teams in the NCAA Tournament – a practice I fully support, especially this season – is that you find yourself looking at a bracket with a lot of unfamiliar names. In North Carolina's Midwest region, nine of the eighteen teams are from smaller conferences, and the Heels could very easily meet nothing but mid-majors until the Elite Eight. So here's some profiles of the teams you probably haven't seen much this season.
Let's start with the Temple Owls. The highest-seeded mid-major in the tournament – the overall seeding list had them two above Wichita State – the Owls biggest win came against Duke in January. They followed it up with a win over Maryland a few weeks later. Otherwise, they struggled in their big non-conference games, losing to Purdue and Texas. Some of that was matchup problems. Temple, although absolutely loaded in backcourt, doesn't have much of an interior presence. Their owed forward, Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson, is only 6'6". UNC has matched up really well against smaller teams this season, and struggled with the bigger teams willing to run with the Heels. Temple is definitely the former, and although they're 9th in the country in three-point shooting percentage, they don't do so in quantities to sink Carolina.
The Creighton Bluejays at the eight seed, of course, are the darling of early bracket reviews. Primarily, this is due to Harrison Barnes's high school teammate and lights-out shooter Doug McDermott. He has the third highest true shooting percentage in the country and leads a team with the best effective field goal percentage, as well as the fifth-most efficient offense. You'd think it's a lock I'd be writing a full preview of this team come Saturday, when they would meet UNC in the second round, but hold your horses. Ken Pomeroy gives Alabama the edge in their first round game. I don't know if I'd go that far – I have my doubts about the SEC – but it's clear their defense is suspect. In fact, the one thing they do well on the defensive end is rebound, and UNC would be able to easily overwhelm that. That three-point shooting percentage is a little disconcerting, and believe me I'd prefer Alabama's much weaker offense (and 9th-ranked defense), but Carolina can take this team.
Pomeroy's favorite mid-major in the Midwest Region is in fact the Belmont Bruins. Their a 14-seed, but one on a 14-game winning streak and a team who started the season one point shy of beating Duke. The Bruins have the 12th-most efficient offense in the country, and although Pomeroy does not have them beating Georgetown (7th-best defense), if they get past the first round, their chances for success are pretty high. Belmont shoots and makes a lot of threes; this regional is truly going to put to the test whether great perimeter shooting can overcome great defense.
Luckily for N.C. State, folks don't think much of their first round opponent, the sixth-seeded San Diego State Aztecs. Last year's Sweet Sixteen team lost four starters, and did good but not great in the Mountain West. The split their games with UNLV, and beat California, but mostly tried to win by slowing the pace down and relying on their defense. A defense, by the way, that doesn't rely on blocks and steals to get it's way, and is rather undersized. A team, in other words, that UNC would roll over. And this year's State team is nothing if not a team trying to play in a style similar to Carolina's (but with a little more three point shooting); C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell should have plenty of success underneath.
The last mid-major of note are the Saint Mary's Gaels, neither the girls finishing school in Raleigh or a team likely to get past first round opponent Purdue. The Gaels' biggest claim to fame is winning the rubber match with Gonzaga to take the West Coast Conference title. Otherwise, their schedule was rather soft. They're another high-efficiency offense (22nd), but facing an even better one (Purdue is 6th); this would be an exciting game if both teams didn't play bog-slow. The Gaels have the honor of a player with the second-most minutes among tournament teams– only West Virginia's Kevin Jones played more minutes this this season and is still dancing – with point guard Matthew Deladedova. That should tell you something about this team's depth; that only wing Rob Jones uses more possessions should tell you about their limited offense. If you're an Arrested Development fan, they do have a forward named Stephen Holt to give you something to yell at the television.
I'll pull out my thoughts on the big three seeds Carolina might face tomorrow. In the meantime, I might as well mention that should UNC make it to the Final Four, the good folks at Buick have offered to send myself and the fiancée to New Orleans – flights, hotel, tickets and all. Hence their sponsorship of this post and a fair amount of other stuff on the blog. It appears in that case I will be providing "a both an in-the-stands and behind-the-scenes look at the Final Four, all with that same pro-quality, fan perspective thing you won't get anywhere else." I'll also probably be mention Buick much more than I would in the course of everyday conversation. So there's that.
(They're doing this for the SB Nation blogs of all the Final Four teams this year. And you won't believe the deep-black hatred in my soul for Kansas will be if they make this whole thing go south.)
Anyway, here's one more bit of marketing:
Also check out the exclusive Buick-NCAA Team Badge application found on http://apps.facebook.com/ncaabadges/ which allows college basketball fans to post a college-specific March Madness badge on their profile to show support for their team.