Bracket Racket X: Looking for locals, plus a South Region preview

This has been a winter of discontent like none other, with schools inside the Capital Beltway drawing the big donut in the Men’s NCAA Tournament draw for the second time since 1978.

And this winter — I’ve been everywhere man, from Annapolis to Foggy Bottom to Fairfax, from Xfinity, to Capital One Arena, to Burr Gymnasium. And in response to the unforgiving season, one looks to extend the “regional net” as wide as possible.

Blacksburg may be four-and-a-half hours away from D.C., but there are enough alumni in Northern Virginia to make Virginia Tech a “local school.” Richmond is less than two hours from Washington (on a good day for Interstate 95) so the Spiders fall under the local umbrella as well.

Then things begin to get tricky. The University of Delaware’s campus is within two hours of the District, so the Blue Hens get our local eye (at least this year). I had a chance to see head coach Martin Ingelsby’s team put on a defensive tour de force during the CAA Tournament, holding three straight opponents to under 60 points en route to their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2014.

Their reward? A trip to Pittsburgh (easy drive) to face No. 2 seed Villanova (not-so-easy draw) in the first round. The Wildcats are accustomed to defensive duels after allowing the fewest points in the Big East, and they surrendered just 48 points in the Big East Tournament championship game. They also have graduate guard Collin Gillespie, who took Most Outstanding Player of the tournament after netting 17 points with seven rebounds and five assists in the final against Creighton and played 16 minutes in the Wildcats 2018 National Championship game victory over Michigan.

Farmville, Virginia, is a little over three hours from D.C. and for the longest time, the school there — Longwood University — was a million miles away from making the NCAA Tournament. The Lancers once specialized in “buy games” but this winter earned their first-ever trip to the Big Dance by taking the Big South Tournament last weekend. And while their success is a great story, so is the background of head coach Griff Aldrich. Before coaching the Lancers, he was on Ryan Odom’s staff at UMBC. Before that he was a partner in a law firm and the CFO of a private equity firm, but Aldrich stayed connected to the game during that 16-year stretch by founding an inner-city youth basketball program in Houston.

Two wins can send Aldrich and his team to the Lone Star State and the Sweet 16 in San Antonio, but to get there they first have to topple No. 3 seed Tennessee. The SEC Tournament champs have won 15 of 17 games over the last two months. They play Thursday in Indianapolis.

The South Region begins with Pac-12 regular season and tournament winner Arizona (31-3) in Tommy Lloyd’s first season on the sidelines. Wouldn’t it be something if the Wildcats reached the Final Four during the first season without Sean Miller (three Elite Eight defeats plus two more in the Sweet 16, not to mention a first-round loss in 2016 where Miller sweated profusely through his shirt)? Three of the nine Big Ten schools find homes in this bracket after Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan each lost its first conference tournament game. The Wolverines’ inclusion was the biggest head-scratcher for me, as the Preseason Top Ten team went 1-7 against ranked foes this winter and lost to last place Minnesota (4-16 in league play) in Ann Arbor.

Bold: Chattanooga boasts Dennis Haskins (Mr. Belding on “Saved by the Bell”) as one of its alumni. They were saved by David Jean-Baptiste’s 3-pointer with two seconds left in overtime to win the Southern Conference Tournament. The Mocs have the kind of guard who score to the max in Malachi Smith (12 points and eight rebounds in the final) while also having a post player in six-foot-nine Kansas transfer Silvio De Sousa (11 points and 7 rebounds per game) who won’t be screeching in the presence of Illinois All-American Kofi Cockburn. The Fighting Illini were upset last year in the second round and still have their Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal flameout where they shot 0 of 3 with four turnovers over the last five minutes.

Fold: Houston made the Final Four last year and climbed to as high as No. 6 this January, but the Cougars failed to beat a ranked foe this winter (their only game against a Top 25 team was their loss to No. 9 Alabama Dec. 11). And this year’s nucleus looks little like the one that reached the national semifinals: of their top seven scorers two went to the NBA, two transferred, and one graduated. The other two (Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark) suffered season-ending injuries in December. UAB has guard Jordan Walker (20 points and 5 assists per game while shooting 41% from 3-point land).

Gold: Tennessee as mentioned is 15-2 over the last two months and probably deserved a No. 2 seed over Villanova and/or Duke. The Volunteers held their foes in the SEC Tournament to 57 points per game and led the conference in three-point shooting during the regular season. They also draw a Longwood team reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history and the number one seed in the bracket is being led by a first-year coach. Tennessee has never reached the Final Four in program history. Until this month.

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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