(Updated 3/16/2017) It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
March is upon us, and for hoops junkies, March equals “Madness,” and a college basketball overload.
For the next three weeks, you will hear the terms “bracket” and “cinderella” more than you will for the next 11 months. If you’re looking for great theater, pound for pound, the NCAA Tournament gives you more thrills than any American sporting event.
Kansas State’s Isaiah Maurice, left, and Wake Forest’s John Collins, right, battle for a rebound in the first half of a First Four game of the NCAA college basketball tournament, Tuesday, March 14, 2017, in Dayton, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Last season, a dream sequence of late-game shots concluded with a three-point dagger by Villanova’s Kris Jenkins in the national championship game against North Carolina. It will be hard to eclipse that moment for most fans.
But this season has produced more than a dozen teams who have a legitimate chance to cut down the nets on April 3 in Glendale, Ariz.
The East Region sets two of the hottest teams in the country on a collision course in the Regional Final. Defending champ Villanova earned the No. 1 overall seed. Duke reeled off four wins in four nights to claim the ACC Tournament Championship on Saturday night, and is the second seed. Both teams have studs on their rosters; Villanova boasts Josh Hart, the Big East Player of the Year; the aforementioned Jenkins, and Jalen Brunson. Duke may have the most talented team in the tournament, led by sophomore Luke Kennard, super-freshman Jayson Tatum and the polarizing Grayson Allen. It’s hard to envision anyone in this bracket defeating either team before they match-up in the regional final. But look out for the SMU Mustangs at the No. 6 seed, who could give Duke trouble if they meet in the Round of 32.
The Midwest Region features the Big XII regular-season champion Kansas Jayhawks as the No. 1 seed. Kansas is led by conference Player of the Year and consensus first-team All-American point guard Frank Mason Jr., and stud freshman Josh Jackson. The Jayhawks should benefit from an unfortunate injury to the second best player on second-seeded Oregon’s roster, defensive stalwart Chris Boucher, who is out for the season with a torn ACL. Without Boucher, the Ducks will have to lean even more on Pac-12 Player of the Year Dillon Brooks to shoulder the load for a team who some consider the favorites to win the championship. Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals are the third seed, but have had trouble making shots virtually all season.We know how good Louisville’s defense is under Pitino, particularly this season, but if sophomore star point guard Donovan Mitchell has an off-night, the Cardinals may struggle to crack 70 points, as they did against Duke in the ACC tournament. The Blue Devils switched to a second half zone, and with Mitchell shooting 3-for-14 from the floor, the Cards had no answer. A sleeper team in this region could be the Rhode Island Rams. A preseason Top 25 team that was blitzed by the injury bug, Rhode Island has won seven in a row and fits the narrative of a “Cinderella” team.
The South Region is flat-out loaded. Despite not winning its conference tournament, North Carolina is the top team in the South. The bracket is a region of bluebloods as the Tar Heels, Kentucky and UCLA make up the top three seeds. Kentucky has once again gotten possibly the worst draw of any potential title contender in the whole tournament. If the Wildcats win their first-round matchup against Northern Kentucky, they could face the criminally underseeded No. 10 Wichita State. The game would be a rematch of a second-round matchup in 2014, in which Kentucky defeated the top-seeded Shockers and ended their undefeated season in one of the best games in recent tournament history. If they get past Wichita State, a potential matchup with Lonzo Ball and UCLA awaits, followed by a possible tilt with North Carolina just to reach the Final Four. Amazing. One thing Kentucky has in its favor is Malik Monk, just the type of perimeter scorer that can take a game over and win it on his own. In the best game of the regular season, Monk delivered a thrilling 47 points against North Carolina in a 103-100 victory by the Wildcats.
There is only one question fans care about when discussing the West Region. Will Gonzaga, this time as the No. 1 seed, finally make it to the Final Four? The former mid-major-turned-powerhouse is enjoying its 19th consecutive trip to the tournament, a testament to head coach Mark Few and his crew of assistants who have managed to bring in talent year after year. The Zags have won 17 of 18 West Coast Conference regular season titles in Few’s tenure as head coach, and they are consistently a top-25 team frequently a top 10 team. They recruit McDonald’s All-Americans and shuffle players off to the NBA. They do everything that a great program does, but they haven’t broken through to that final weekend of the season just yet. The team which will most likely stand in Gonzaga’s way is my choice to win it all, the Arizona Wildcats. Coach Sean Miller has what could be his most complete and explosive team in his tenure in Tuscon. The mid-season arrival of Allonzo Trier from suspension has catapulted Arizona to a level unmatched by most teams. Add in seven-foot freshman Lauri Markkanen, who can create a Dirk Nowitski-eque mismatch on most nights, and I fully expect Arizona to keep the good vibes going and come out of this region with ease. Don’t sleep on the Florida State Seminoles as the third seed either. Leonard Hamilton has a couple of NBA-level talents in Jonathan Issac and Dwayne Bacon, and a deep roster that rotates 10 players.