Your Annual Attempt at a March Madness Preview
Oh, college basketball. You lost Saturday primetime regular season spots on ESPN to the NBA. You officially now have four weeks of the year to be relevant. With the NCAA Tournament (technically) starting tonight, let’s get you primed on weeks 2-4 of the sport’s annual trip through the news cycle.
Who are the contenders?
One needn’t look far past the blue bloods– Kansas and North Carolina both won their regular season and conference tournaments. Kentucky is doing the ‘catch fire in March while still possessing the best talent’ charade a la 2014, when the 8-seed Wildcats made the title game. Michigan State got robbed of a 1-seed, but serves as the de facto king of the Midwest, as their 1-seed is a UVA team they’ve knocked out of each of the last two tournaments.
The second tier is WIDE open, as teams better known for football– Oregon, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Miami– all could go on a run.
Which conference should I bet on?
The Big XII certainly seemed to be the best in the business this year. Kansas, WVU, Iowa State, and Oklahoma all spent significant time ranked in the top 10 this year. Texas boasts wins over North Carolina, Oklahoma, and WVU. Baylor has a bracket that sets up for a run if they get past Duke. I found myself leaning HARD on the XII on my first pass at a coherent bracket, which inevitably means I’m dead wrong.
Most importantly: Who’s got an NBA future?
This is not quite as fun as most years, as the prohibitive #1 pick Ben Simmons and LSU flamed out aggressively in the SEC tourney, losing to Texas A&M by like, 40. But you still have some definite lottery picks floating around. In no order:
- Brandon Ingram, Duke: 6’9 wingman plays like Kevin Durant, could sneak into the #1 spot with a strong run a la Carmelo back in 2003.
- Ivan Rabb and Jaylon Brown, Cal: A big and a big, aggressive wing fit the one-and-done model.
- Kris Dunn, Providence: I thought he made a mistake not going to the draft last year, but the explosive sophomore is making me fear UNC’s possible Saturday opponent.
- Jamal Murray, Kentucky: The dude just fills it up. During the Georgia game on Saturday, the announcers said he had scored 20+ (and averaged 25) over the last 11 games. We can acknowledge skinny big man Skal Labissiere here too, but he’s been a robust disappointment this year and will still probably go top-10.
But…there are seniors that’ll carry this tournament. That’s weird, right?
Yes it is. After Duke and Kentucky’s recent success have given the one-and-done model some empirical proof of success, the top teams are led predominately by upperclassmen.
- Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia: The ACC player of the year, along with backcourt running mate London Perrantes, are the anchors of an almost-unfair Virginia defense.
- Denzel Valentine, Michigan State: Triple double machine. Dwyane Wade-esque Final Four run?
- Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige, North Carolina: The senior duo has had a weird Ty Lawson/Tyler Hansbrough 2009 dynamic– the most-feared player on the squad randomly switched. Johnson is capable of terrible things, as evidenced by his 39 point, 23 rebound performance at Florida State in January. If Paige is hitting, UNC becomes the favorite. Problem is, he hasn’t been since sometime last season.
- Giorges Niang, Iowa State: A nice 20/10 face-up 4 is either a matchup nightmare or will disappear.
South Bracket Preview
Favorite: Kansas. They’re balanced, they’re on fire from 3, and they are the best team in the country.
Sleeper: The winner of the Maryland/Cal round 2 matchup, which doubles as the ‘best potential matchup’ of the region. Maryland has Melo Trimble, the quickest guard in the country, and freshman big x-factor Diamond Stone, also a member of the all-whatwerehisparentsthinking name team.
Other contenders: Villanova and Miami reside in the bottom half of the bracket, and Miami’s Jim Larranaga took George freaking Mason to the Final Four back in ’06.
Cinderella: South Dakota State, on pure randomness alone, will end up in the Sweet 16 because I’ve just spent so much time speaking highly of Maryland and Cal.
West Bracket Preview
Favorite: Oklahoma is the only team I don’t have to squint too hard to see playing in Houston. Look for a chaotic bracket.
Sleeper: Ugh. F**king Duke. Another easy draw for them, with the undeserving 1-seed and a clear path to the Elite Eight.
Other contenders: Guess I’ve got to mention the fourth #1, Oregon. Beyond that…lord. Texas A&M? Baylor?
Cinderella: Give me #11 Northern Iowa, as their discipline can handle Texas’ press, A&M’s…whatever, setting up a second weekend matchup with Oklahoma and an underwhelming Elite Eight team from the top of the bracket. My heart will go with UNC-Wilmington over Duke, as they are the only college ever to rep the 910 in the tournament.
Best potential matchup: Second round, #6 Texas vs. #3 Texas A&M. THEY LOVE EACH OTHER!
East Bracket Preview
Favorite: North Carolina, probably, but Kentucky also looms large.
Sleeper: Notre Dame has a terrifying offense when they’re hot…and a suspect D. They’d have probably been a higher seed if they hadn’t gotten mollywopped by Carolina in the ACC Semis.
Other contenders: West Virginia is a scary defensive team as a 3, but it seems the pressing teams always get knocked out by discipline. #2 Xavier isn’t battle tested enough, but stands a chance of making it through an underwhelming first weekend. Kentucky and Indiana are both woefully underseeded as 4/5, respectively.
Cinderella: This regional is too top-heavy, and too filled with high-major teams, to allow for anything too crazy. Having said that, #11 Michigan has a play-in game to get limbered up. They could make a run.
Best potential matchup: Ugh. Sweet 16, UNC/Kentucky. Kill me now.
Midwest Bracket Preview
Favorite: Michigan State, who got robbed of a 1-seed and has Tom Izzo of like, 13 dozen Final Fours.
Sleeper: CLICHE ALERT! Gonzaga is an 11-seed. And they get “hot sleeper” Seton Hall and likely Utah after that.
Other contenders: Virginia is a perfectly fine 1-seed, and is hella frustrating to watch your team play. #5 Iowa State is led by Niang and is a fun watch, but if these two collide in the Sweet 16 Virginia will win.
Cinderella: See also: sleeper.
Best potential matchup: There’s really nothing to see here until next weekend, when we hope for Virginia/MSU round 3.
So…who’s in your Final Four, Chad?
I honestly haven’t decided yet. As of Tuesday at noon, I’m still playing heart vs. head with Carolina. What I do with them has a ton of effect on my bracket, because Kentucky.