With the round of 64 fast approaching, Newsday spoke with CBS Sports college basketball analyst Wally Szczerbiak to break down some potential upsets in the opening rounds and Jameel Warney’s chances for a big night against Kentucky.
A graduate of Cold Spring Harbor High School, Szczerbiak’s performance for 10th-seeded Miami (Ohio) in the 1999 NCAA Tournament helped propel him into becoming the sixth overall pick in the ensuing NBA draft and a decade-long career in the league.
Newsday Sports: You were able to use your tournament run with Miami to boost your own profile and raise your draft stock. When you look at Stony Brook’s Jameel Warney, who’s had a similar transcendent season, do you think he can take advantage of that opportunity as well?
Wally Szczerbiak: Yeah, I think so. Obviously, I think they have a really tough matchup with Kentucky. Kentucky’s strength really isn’t inside. They’re long, they can block shots, but their strength is their guards.
If Jameel Warney can bring it against their length — he’s not overly long and tall for an inside guy in college basketball, but he’s really smart. He reminds me a little of Paul Millsap, a little of Malik Rose, players like that. If he can do it against a team with a lot of length and athleticism inside, that would bode very well for his draft stock, I think. He was incredible in the conference tournament championship with that 43-point performance.
NS: When you look at Yale, this matchup with Baylor might be the best scenario they could have possibly asked for. They get to play a virtual home game and they get to face a team that plays slow and also relies on rebounding. What chance would you give Yale of pulling the upset in the 12-5 game?
WS: 12-5, there’s always a lot of upsets coming. Baylor’s really good, but they’re a little inconsistent. They have really good nights and there’s nights where they struggle. They play that zone, so if you can take some shots and soften that zone up, that can really help.
But I think really strong inside with Johnathan Motley, Rico Gathers — they’re a great rebounding team. Yale’s going to have to compete at a high-major level with their athleticism and their rebounding and their inside length and jumping ability. I think if they can do that, they’ve got a chance to win that game.
NS: Going to the other side of the bracket, in the East Regional, you have another similar matchup where both teams play really similar styles, and that’s West Virginia and Stephen F. Austin, where they both play that full-court pressure defense. What chance would you give the Lumberjacks at maybe beating the Mountaineers at their own game?
WS: That’s one of my highlight upsets. It’s tough to really pick against West Virginia, because they’re on a good run and made the Big 12 championship, but the Lumberjacks have only had one loss in-conference in the last two years. It’s a really good basketball team.
I’m just not a huge proponent of a team that just tries to outwork you and press you and play harder than you. They have a lot of depth, but team depth is overrated in the NCAA Tournament. You want to put your best five players out there on the floor.
That’s definitely one of the upsets that I would keep my eye on. The Lumberjacks are a great team, skilled team. They’re gonna be able to handle that press and get good looks at the basket.
NS: One tendency that’s held true over the last couple years is that at least one team out of the First Four has won multiple games in the tournament since it was first instituted. Out of Vanderbilt, Wichita State, Michigan and Tulsa, which do you think is the most likely team to go on a run?
WS: I would have to say Vanderbilt. It’s a team I think with their talent — they had, arguably, three pros —a great shooter in [Matthew] Fisher-Davis. They’ve just been underachieving all year long. I picked Vandy to go far in the past when they had those three pros in John Jenkins, Jeff Taylor and Festus Ezeli and they really didn’t perform. I had them going to the Final Four and I think they lost in the second round.
That’s a team that, if they just put the pieces together, check their egos at the door, realize that this is their last hurrah and if they can kind of salvage a pretty down season for them . . . that’s a team that if they get their head on straight and they get their players playing up to their potential can get through a couple games.
NS: This is a really soft year for the 16 seeds with a lot of poor teams in the regular season going on runs in the conference tournament. I wouldn’t expect you to pick a 16, obviously, but which one do you think is most likely to at least hang in there for a couple minutes against a 1?
WS: Hampton against Virginia. Virginia’s just a team with a style of play — they just grind you out, they shorten up the game, they try to minimize possessions and not extend possessions . . . so as a result, if they happen to have a bad shooting day and just not on their game, they have a tendency to keep games closer.
That would be the one I would be looking at. Possibly that one.