March Madness is the best month stretch of the year (even I’d say that the best weekend of sports is the round of 64 and then 32.) I’ve been pretty obsessed with college hoops this year, like watching Summit League games on Wednesday nights, that kind of obsessed. So here’s my preview of the greatest post season in sports.
Really tough draw for the teams in this region. It is undoubtedly the toughest field of 16 in the tournament. With three teams at the top that were considered one of the best, if not the best team in the country at certain points this season, the Midwest seems to be top-heavy with Louisville, Duke and Michigan State. Any of those three teams would be a favorite in most regions if they didn’t happen to share their bracket with each other.
This is a tough region to pick because of the strength at the top but I’ll go with Duke. Duke has proven to be the best team in America when they have a healthy Ryan Kelly. With Kelly, Duke has a third top-flight scorer to go along with All-Americans Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry. Duke doesn’t go very deep but in typical Duke fashion their floor general, Quinn Cook is solid distributor and scorer when he needs to be. Duke is 13-1 in games that Kelly has played and their only loss came to Maryland in the ACC tournament, a game that didn’t mean very much to the Devils and everything to the Terps. With three elite scoring options it’s hard to picture even an elite defensive team like Louisville taking them down.
If they hadn’t already, the St. Louis Billikens have returned to relevance for the first time since Larry Hughes played there. Odds are SLU plays to seed and falls to a superior Louisville team but they turned in a fantastic year while playing with heavy hearts after the death of coach Rick Majerus. They aren’t going away either with leading scorer and rebounder Dwayne Evans returning next year.
If you haven’t heard of him, you will by the end of the weekend:
Evans, who averaged 21 points and 9 rebounds in the A-10 tournament this past weekend. Also, most NBA scouts have Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart at the top of their draft board. Smart is an extremely effective combo guard capable of playing the point or the off-guard, a freshman with loads of potential.
The West region is definitely the most wide-open this year. By my count there are as many six or seven teams who could wind up coming out of this bracket. Gonzaga has been under fire all year for being in a soft conference, now they get to prove it as they sit atop the region. Big Ten tournament champion Ohio State appears to be peaking at the right time by finding secondary scoring options like Aaron Craft, LaQuinton Ross and Sam Thompson to be the Robin to Deshaun Thomas’s Batman. New Mexico won the Mountain West regular season and conference tournament while the Mountain West had probably it’s best season top-to-bottom that it’s ever had. Other teams in the mix are Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin Badgers, Bruce Weber’s Kansas State Wildcats and perennial power Arizona.
So who wins?
Call me crazy but I’m buying Wisconsin and whatever Bo Ryan is selling. Year after year Ryan takes a team that is projected to finish in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten and makes them a contender. The Badgers don’t play pretty basketball, but it’s extremely effective. They almost managed to win the Big Ten tournament, taking Ohio State down to the final minute. They ran through the gauntlet that was the Big Ten this year and came out the other side with wins over Indiana (twice), Michigan (twice), Illinois (twice) and a beating of the Buckeyes in Columbus whom they share a bracket with. They’re deep and every player knows their role, the Badgers are led in scoring by Ben Brust followed closely by Jared Berggren, Ryan Evans and Sam Dekker. Wisconsin’s balance and unique style matches well with this region.
Other than the Badgers, I think New Mexico will prove once and for all that they belong. The Lobos will be a tough out. Also, keep an eye on the Belmont Bruins who managed to control a competitive OVC from the start the conference season, if Arizona doesn’t bring their A game, the Bruins, led by OVC co-player of the year Ian Clark, can and will beat them.
Who you probably haven’t heard of but soon will:
New Mexico’s duo of Tony Snell and Kendall Williams (aka the guy who put up 43 points while going 10-13 from three vs. Colorado State this year) are both dynamic scorers who are both going to return for the Lobos next year, making them the favorites to take the Mountain West again. Also keep an eye out for Wisconsin freshman Sam Dekker, he’s probably the most talented on the Badgers’ roster and if they want to make a run, they’re going to need a lot of Dekker.
The South appears to be a two horse race at least for the time being. The top two seeds of Kansas and Georgetown proved all year that they are among the nation’s best. The Jayhawks are led by their Player of the Year candidate Ben McClemore while the Hoyas have the front-runner for the award in sophomore sensation Otto Porter. The middle of the South looks soft on paper. A slumping Florida team sits in the three spot, although they managed to win the SEC this year, the conference was as down as much as it has been in a decade. The Michigan Wolverines boast another one of college basketball’s best in sophomore guard Trey Burke but their youth and inexperience started to show down the stretch of the season and into the Big Ten tournament. Virginia Commonwealth is an interesting case at five because this might be the most talented team Shaka Smart has had at VCU, and any team coached by Smart is not to be taken lightly this time of year. Unfortunately the narrative seems different this time around, the Rams aren’t sneaking up on anyone this year.
It’s the Jayhawks to lose. If the assumed match up between Kansas and Georgetown comes to fruition, the x-factor might be the secondary players for each team. If McClemore and Porter go at each other, it falls on the supporting casts of each team. Kansas has the edge with potential Defensive Player of the Year, Jeff Withey along with off-guards Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford who have both shown that they are capable of carrying the team when McClemore can’t.
I’m extremely high on South Dakota State who won the very surprisingly solid Summit League led by one of the best scorers in the nation, Nate Wolters. Wolters was the fourth highest scorer in the NCAA this year, scoring almost 23 a game. The showdown between Wolters and Trey Burke should produce one of the first round’s best games.
Who you don’t know, but soon will:
The three big names in this region are McClemore, Porter and Burke but Nate Wolters and North Carolina’s PJ Hairston might be the unsung heroes of this region. Hairston battled through hand injuries to have a very successful ACC tournament this year for the Heels. He was a very highly touted recruit coming out of high school and if the sophomore is able to by-pass the NBA draft for one more year, he has All-American written all over him next season.
It seems as if Indiana has been the toast of college basketball for most of the season and for good reason. Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo are two of the nation’s best and the Hoosiers are probably the favorite to take this region. Unfortunately for the Hoosiers their draw wasn’t ideal, they’ll have to go through teams that play a different brand of basketball than they do. The Miami Hurricanes had a great year and are a great basketball team. The ACC Champs have experience, depth and a boatload of talent. Led by guards Shane Larkin and Durand Scott the Hurricanes are one of the most dangerous teams in the tournament. Kenny Kadji and Julian Gamble are two of the most athletic and agile big men in the country and perhaps more importantly, they play the type of physical defense that has given Cody Zeller trouble this season.
Miami. It seems like an unfair draw for the Hoosiers because they and the ‘Canes may very well be the two most talented teams in the whole field. Miami is coached by one of the best in the business in Jim Larranaga, not to take anything away from Tom Crean, but Larranaga was responsible for one of the best runs in tournament history when he took George Mason to the Final Four. In the end, Indiana has two great players but they’re surrounded with guys who are just solid role players, like Will Sheehey and Jordan Hulls or by young guards like Yogi Ferrell who may not be up to the task of handling the talented, versatile guards of Miami. As Hoosiers fans know all too well, their x-factor is 6-9 senior forward Christian Watford. A player who has all the tools to be a star and shown flashes but has just never put it all together. If Watford has a great tournament, Indiana won’t just be heading to the Final Four, but they’ll be cutting down the nets in Atlanta.
UNLV. The Rebels have to get past a Syracuse team that is looking to bounce back from a thumping administered by Louisville, but if the Runnin’ Rebs can manage to get by the Orange, they pose a really interesting matchup for Indiana. Coming out of the aforementioned Mountain West, UNLV has the best player you’ve probably never heard of in freshman forward Anthony Bennett. Bennett, a projected lottery pick has been the anchor for the Rebels all season and is just the type of player that could really bother Cody Zeller and the Indiana offense if he gets the chance.
Who you haven’t heard of yet, but soon will:
Bennett and Zeller are the two marquee big guys in the region but Bucknell’s Mike Muscala is one of the biggest sleepers in the country. Muscala averages 19 points and 11 rebounds for the Bison, making Bucknell a very good early Cinderella candidate.
Finally, who takes it all?
I think Duke cuts down the nets. Their diversity on offense is too much for any team to stop. They can beat you in a variety of different ways and are (vomit) coached by one of the best of all time. I think it’s the Dukies. AMERICA ARE YOU SERIOUS!?!
So there it is. The mega-preview. Odds are I’ll be tearing my bracket up by the third day just like most people but at least you’ll have a little knowledge to fill the dead air as you watch your 7,535th Buffalo Wild Wings commercial of the day.