Sports Nut

Up the Creek Without a Melo

Our team of NCAA gurus chats with readers about March Madness.

Also in Slate, Chris Wilson explains how to win your NCAA pool and Will Oremus breaks down what would happen if the NCAA Tournament were a fight to the death between mascots. Plus, you can download Holly Allen’s printable 2012 school color and mascot brackets.

Western Kentucky plays against Mississippi.
Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils play the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

Photograph by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images.

Hang Up and Listen host Josh Levin, college hoops stats maven Ken Pomeroy, and Basketball Prospectus and writer John Gasaway were on Slates Facebook page on Tuesday to chat with readers about the start of March Madness. The following transcript of the discussion has been edited for length and clarity. To see the full conversation, click on this link.

John Gasaway:
Greetings all. My name’s John Gasaway, and I write about college hoops at ESPN and Basketball Prospectus. If this is a gathering of Slate readers who love college hoops, I must be in the right place. What’s on your mind?

Ken Pomeroy: Hey everybody, Ken Pomeroy here. You can call me KenPom, or preferably just Ken. I do ratings and analysis at and am ready to talk hoops and brackets.

Amy Childs Reichardt: Could you post your color/mascot brackets this year?

Josh Levin: Amy, we posted our color/mascot brackets this morning.

Wade Fasano: Syracuse is gonna be down without Melo, boosts chances for UK?

Josh Levin: I have a question for John and Ken about the Syracuse situation: Given Fab Melo’s suspension, does UNC-Asheville have the best chance—even if it’s not that big a chance—of any 16 seed in recent years to knock off a 1 seed?

Harry Johnson: I want to know how serious Ken Pom is when he says that a 16 seed will beat a 1 seed this year. Also, does Syracuse still count without Fab Melo?

John Gasaway: Wade and Josh, with regard to Syracuse and Melo, it’s amazing how the absence of a player turns that player into Lew Alcindor overnight. Melo is a terrific interior defender, but the Orange will still be able to score points—an aspect of their performance that tends to be underrated. As for the 1-16 chances, Ken has that covered. Ken? …

Ken Pomeroy: ‎@Harry I am serious in the sense that this crop of 16’s is the strongest in the history of the tourney. Chances are still slim, just less slim than usual. And yes, I still consider the ‘Cuse a 1-seed.

Josh Levin: Here’s Kens post on this being the year that a 16 loses to a 1.

Ken Pomeroy: I’m with John on Melo. Fab was on the bench for 15 minutes every game, and Boeheim actually has guys to fill his role that have played in meaningful games this season. A rare luxury for him. It hurts, but isn’t a killer by any means.

John Gasaway: The takeaway is this: Next year on Selection Sunday eve when Syracuse says “Big Man X is healthy and eligible!” take it with a grain of salt. After Arinze Onuaku in 2010 and now this, it seems they like to be coy about their personnel until after the brackets come out.


Josh Levin: I am less bullish on Kentucky than many people because I’m convinced that the Wildcats’ point guard, Marquis Teague, is going to drive them into a ditch. I’m envisioning a UK loss in the Elite Eight or the Final Four in which Teague scores 0 points and has a lot of turnovers. Am I being overly pessimistic? Do you guys think his shortcomings are overcomable?

Ken Pomeroy: ‎Funny how nobody is talking about Teague. Kentucky is outstanding, but personnel-wise, the point guard is the weak link. Wouldn’t surprise me if the Cats overcame it because they are so good at a lot of things, but yeah, their point guard issues are going to get attention in opposing game plans.

John Gasaway: Teague might not be the new Cousy, but his mates are pretty good. What’s impressive to me about UK is their offense has been stellar across all categories, including, most crucially for your concern, turnovers. I think they’ve been overcoming Teague pretty well to date. We’ll see, though.


Jake Burgers: Which double digit seed has the best chance to reach the Sweet 16?

Ken Pomeroy:  I’ll vote for N.C. State.

Josh Levin: I’m starting to believe the St. Bonaventure hype. They’ve got a star player in Andrew Nicholson and a first-round opponent, Florida State, that’s struggled with consistency all year. If they can get through that game, I like their chances against either Cincy or Texas.

John Gasaway: Sign me up for Purdue.

Ken Pomeroy: I suppose if you call UNLV a mid-major, which would offend every Rebel fan in the country, they are a solid option, too.

John Gasaway: Josh, FSU had disastrous outings, obviously, against Princeton and Boston College. Also lost, less disastrously, to Harvard. Basically any opponent that’s an Ivy or in close proximity to one is an issue. With the Bonnies safely ensconced in Western, N.Y., that shouldn’t come up. The ’Noles certainly seemed alert and focused in the ACC tourney.


Chris Jagalla: Do you think teams winning in the “First Round” (like BYU) suffer a disadvantage going into the real first round (“Second Round”)? How big of a disadvantage?

Ken Pomeroy: I do think it’s a disadvantage, although in BYU’s case maybe not much of one since it’s merely a long cab ride from Dayton to Louisville. The good news for the Cougars is that they had 10 days or so between their conference tournament and yesterday’s game. So fatigue is less of a factor.

Josh Levin: I think the matchup with Marquette is going to be a bigger problem for BYU than any possible hangover from Tuesday. The Golden Eagles are a bigger, stronger, more defensive-minded version of Iona. I’m thinking it’ll be like last night’s first half, but for the whole game.

David Storm: We’ll say that 130 miles from Olean to Ithaca isn’t close enough for the ‘Noles. How about Missouri; can Frank Haith lead them to the Final Four? With as much history as that program has, is it surprising they haven’t reached that level even once?

John Gasaway: What’s more surprising, David, that Mizzou’s never been to the Final Four or that they went as far as they’ve ever gone under Quin Snyder? (2002 Elite Eight.) This group has a great shot at equaling or exceeding that high standard. Yesterday I wrote that if KU’s Thomas Robinson is smart he’ll tell his grandchildren simply, “I won Big 12 POY in Marcus Denmon’s senior year.” What a season.

Josh Otis: Missouri had a ridiculous season, with the only blow-out losses coming against Kansas State (who it seems like they just can’t match up with). Are there any teams that present similar matchup problems for them in the bracket? It seems to me like they have one of the easier paths to the Final Four (not that any are easy).

John Gasaway: The team that wants to score more points than Missouri will have to seize the advantage presented by an average Tiger D. So that would be more Florida, for instance, than, say, Virginia, from my chair at least.


Kevin Morris: Is Georgetown one of the more disrespected 3 seeds in recent memory, or is Belmont just a very good team, underseeded, and (potentially) a bad match for the Hoyas?

Ken Pomeroy: Belmont is very good and Georgetown is very good. Second year in a row the committee didn’t give the Bruins a break with their matchup. If the Hoyas can sneak by, they have the skills to go far. That said, Belmont is going to be a pain for them.

Josh Levin: Georgetown lost to Davidson in 2008, Ohio in 2010, and VCU in 2011, so if you pick them losing to a small-conference school in this year’s tournament then maybe you’re rating them properly. I think Belmont was everyone’s Cinderella before the start of the season, since they did well last year and had everyone coming back. They were a little disappointing in the regular season, but they certainly have the ability to beat Georgetown if they make threes.


Thomas Laughlin: Ken, does Jeff Goodman actually hate A) you or B) actual objective data, or is it mostly shtick? Ken and John, I know both of you are rather bearish on Baylor (no pun intended) and think that SDSU has more than a snowball’s chance to pull an upset. Have you considered that the Bears are finally playing more man to man (as appropriate) and won’t be as susceptible to SDSU as they would if they played 2/3?

John Gasaway: Although I do think Baylor was overrated by some observers during the season, I also think the Bears received a very nice draw. I will be stunned if they’re not in the Sweet 16 and merely surprised if they don’t reach the Elite 8.

Ken Pomeroy: Goodman truly hates objective data (he likes to watch the games, you know) but not me. As for Baylor’s defensive metamorphosis, I’m not completely sold that man is the way to go for them. Their zone was always pretty aggressive and a pain for non-conference teams to prepare for.

John Gasaway: I don’t hate Ken, objective data, or Jeff Goodman. I save my hate for intrusive officiating and people who recline in front of me on airplanes.


David Storm: All this time and no questions about Harvard? Anyone think Harvard will knock out Vanderbilt?

Ken Pomeroy: Their chances are overrated by 5 percent or so, but a 12-15 percent chance for a 15 seed is still mighty impressive. Lehigh’s combo-guard C.J. McCollum does just about everything a basketball player can do except block shots.

Josh Levin: I don’t give Harvard much of a shot. And here’s John’s analysis from ESPN Insider: “Harvard, goodness knows, is an unusually strong Ivy representative, and if Festus Ezeli is thinking he’ll have an easy time against these scholars from Cambridge, a few possessions against an interior beast like Keith Wright will correct that impression. But the last time we saw the Dores, they were beating Kentucky and, not to put too fine a point on it, the Wildcats are better than Harvard.”

John Gasaway: The tough thing about being an Ivy is that you have one of the best teams the league’s ever produced and the reward is an opponent that just beat Kentucky.


Whit Alexander: Any chance WVU, led by Big East POY-snubbed Kevin Jones and essentially playing at home in Pittsburgh, can get through Gonzaga and then OSU?

Josh Levin: Whit, I like West Virginia’s chances against Gonzaga and do not like them much at all against the Buckeyes.

John Gasaway Whit, the ‘Eers can absolutely get by Gonzaga but I wouldn’t call it a sure thing. I do like the Buckeyes coming out of that foursome. A lot.


Ben Wiles Belmont coach Rick Byrd said the biggest concern he had about Georgetown was “their ability to defend 3s” (opponents shoot about 27 percent against them). Should your findings about 3-point defense give Belmont fans even more confidence going into Friday?

Ken Pomeroy: Yeah, I think 3-point-percentage defense is an overrated stat. Maybe the most overrated. The Hoyas were merely average in that category the last two seasons, and now suddenly lead the nation. The good news for Belmont backers is that the Hoyas give up a normal amount of three-point looks, so the Bruins will have opportunities to score from beyond the arc.


Josh Levin: Ken and John, can you guys talk about what makes Wichita State such a great team? John, you’ve been high on them all year, and Ken’s log5 system has the Shockers with the ninth-best shot to win the tournament.

John Gasaway: One thing I like about the Shockers is that they are almost equally mighty on both offense and defense. Often a hot mid-major specializes at one of those. Gregg Marshall’s team can beat you even on a bad shooting night or even if a star has a great offensive game against them.


David Seitz: Am I crazy to think Creighton has the potential to go on a Butler-esque run this year?

John Gasaway: No crazier than you would have been last year, David, to say, “My hitherto listless 9-9 UConn team is going all the way!”

Josh Levin: Creighton plays no defense and seems likely to get blitzed by North Carolina if they can beat Alabama in Round 1.


Brian Shea: I like Kansas State in a matchup against Syracuse because they are great on the offensive glass and a solid defensive team.

Ken Pomeroy: A great offensive rebounding team against a historically bad defensive rebounding team sounds like a recipe for an upset. However, Syracuse will enjoy a similar, though less pronounced, advantage when they have the ball.

John Gasaway: Brian, that’s a fair “like,” the question I’d have would be whether even with those offensive boards the previously average K-State offense could score enough points against a D that doesn’t foul very much.


Josh Levin: Ken and John, let’s wrap this up with your Final Four predictions, if you’ll indulge us …

John Gasaway: ESPN already pried Final Four picks out of all of their scribes on Sunday night (pre-Melo!), so I am on the record for better or worse: Kentucky, Michigan State, Ohio State, North Carolina.

Ken Pomeroy I’ll go with Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas, and Ohio State. I’ll take the Buckeyes to win the whole thing.

Josh Levin: And I’ll pick Wichita State, Missouri, Ohio State, and UNC. Someone has to back the Shockers!

John Gasaway: I like the spirit, Josh. After last year, Ken and I look way too conservative, you’re right.