March Madness is Near: What You Need to Know
Some argue that March is the most exciting month in sports. I suppose it may be because aside from Super Bowl Sunday, February is such an unbearably slow month in sports. But obviously, the main reason people love March is because of the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament, which tips-off in less than two weeks.
Now, there is no need to pencil in your Final Four just yet because the brackets will not be released until March 13th. However, it is always beneficial to get a leg-up on your peers who might not have been following much college basketball this year. With that said, here is a general summary of what you need to know to get you ready for March Madness.
There is No Clear Favorite
As opposed to last year when Kentucky was ranked first for the entire regular season, seven teams have claimed the number one ranking in the AP Top 25 poll at some point this year. This means that there is not one team that you can bank on getting to the Final Four. So if you get easily frustrated when your bracket busts in the first weekend, you may want to sit this tournament out.
Even though there are no juggernauts this year, there are a few strong teams to be aware of such as the Kansas Jayhawks, who currently sit atop the AP Top 25 after recently clinching the Big 12 title. Barring a major upset in their conference tournament, the experienced Jayhawks are the safest bet to land a number one seed.
I’ll move next to the ACC, where North Carolina and Virginia are both currently slated as number one seeds by ESPN College Basketball analyst Joe Lunardi. Virginia defeated the Tar Heels on February 27th, which gives them a leg up on North Carolina in terms of seeding. However, I wouldn’t worry if I was a North Carolina fan because they currently rank first in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI), which is a power ranking system that takes point differential, opponent strength, and injuries into account. This is encouraging for the Tar Heels, because three of the past four teams to finish first in BPI have gone on to the Final Four, with two of those teams winning titles.
Two other teams worth mentioning are Villanova and Michigan State. Villanova has been highly ranked for most of this year and rank second in BPI, yet they play in arguably the weakest of the major conferences. Michigan State, meanwhile, has been surging of late after a midseason funk and looks like yet another Tom Izzo team that is peaking at the right time.
Sleepers Galore in this Year’s Field
Obviously, if there are no overwhelming favorites, that means that the top teams are poised to be upset. So what underrated teams could be very dangerous come tournament time?
One team I think everyone is sleeping on is Wichita State. The Shockers stumbled out of the Top 25 early in the season largely because their star shooting guard, Fred VanVleet, was out with an injury. VanVleet along with fellow senior Ron Baker give Wichita State a dangerous duo that has led them on deep tournament runs before. Remember, the Shockers are only three years removed from a Final Four appearance and two years removed from an undefeated regular season. In short, watch out for Wichita.
Two other teams to keep an eye on are Syracuse and Iowa State. After struggling early in the season, Syracuse has looked better of late since coach Jim Boeheim returned from a suspension in January. Yes, the Orange lack a stand out win aside from a nice road victory at Duke, but they have been competitive with teams like North Carolina and Virginia, which should bode well for them in the postseason. Iowa State, meanwhile, has dipped after ranking as high as fourth in the AP poll. But the reason I like them this March is that I think they will be more motivated than most teams in the tournament, especially considering they were stunned last year by 14th seeded UAB.
A Few Superstars are Capable of Carrying Their Teams
Recent history suggests that one outstanding player, by and large, can lead you to a deep postseason run. This statement has held true with recent championship teams, particularly the 2014 and 2011 UConn Huskies and Cinderella teams like Stephen Curry’s Davidson Wildcats back in 2008. So what players might put their teams on their back this year?
The first name that comes to mind is Oklahoma shooting guard Buddy Hield. Hield, who ranks second in the nation in points per game, is a lights-out shooter and a threat to score every time he touches the ball. If the season ended today, he would likely win the Naismith award given to the nation’s top player. However, Michigan State power forward Denzel Valentine might be closing in on Hield. I mentioned the Spartans earlier and how they seem to be back on track after a slump. I neglected to point out that the main reason they were in that slump was because Valentine was injured. Now healthy, Valentine is averaging close to 20 points per game to go along with over seven assists and seven rebounds per game. While Hield may be the nation’s most prolific scorer, Valentine might just be the best all-around player.
Finally, there are three other players worth remembering as you start to project your bracket. First, I would be remiss if I did not throw in a perfunctory Ben Simmons mention, so here it is. Look, I get that Simmons is talented, but let’s see LSU make the tournament first before we discuss how far Simmons can take the Tigers. Secondly, Utah seven-footer Jakob Poetl is quietly the best player in the nation no one is talking about. His presence on both ends of the floor makes Utah a dark horse Final Four team. Lastly, Grayson Allen deserves to be mentioned. As we saw in the national title game last year, he has the ability to take over a game.
Though it may be too early to start making predictions for this year’s NCAA tournament, rest assured one thing: nothing that happens in March Madness, this year in particular, should come as a surprise.
Photo courtesy of Urban Ride