Oklahoma guard Isaiah Cousins (11) blocks a shot by Virginia Commonwealth guard Melvin Johnson, front, in the first half of a second-round men’s college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament Sunday, March 20, 2016, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Alonzo Adams)
Brackets have already been set and busted, but March Madness is just heating up. Michigan State made a shocking early exit in the first round, but plenty of top-ranked seeds still remain. As the early rounds have shown, anything is possible, and the success of favorites such as North Carolina, Kansas and Virginia isn’t guaranteed. March Madness brings out the best performances in players and this year’s tournament looks like it’s going to be a wild ride. Perry Green and Stephen D. Riley of the AFRO Sports Desk debate and defend their picks of who will cut down the nets when the madness is over.
Riley: When it comes to tournament time, I always look for the team with the best guard and forward combination. Good center play is rare in college, so receiving production from the forward spot is paramount, as is the presence of a seasoned point guard. No team fits that description better than the North Carolina Tar Heels. Point guard Marcus Paige’s scoring has been up and down this year, but he has run the offense with fluidity all season. Forward Brice Johnson is a double-double machine and 6-foot, 8-inch guard Justin Jackson can alternate between wing positions. Their center combination doesn’t offer much in terms of offense, but they do form a nice wall on the interior between 6-foot, 8-inch Isaiah Hicks and 6-foot, 9-inch Kennedy Meeks. The Tar Heels have the depth to propel a solid starting five through the Final Four.
Green: I originally picked Michigan State, but their early-round upset busted my bracket. I’m glad it did, however, because it gave me a chance to go with my gut feeling: Oklahoma. The dynamic backcourt of Buddy Hield and Isaiah Cousins has everything you can ask for in a duo, between Hield’s explosiveness and Cousins’ steadiness. Hield is such a terrific scorer, and he can be the type of player that powers a team through the tournament. He’s been the player of the year for many fans, and for good reason. When you can shoot with range, handle, distribute and drive into the lane, you have a game tailor-made for the NBA. To have a player like that suiting up for you in college is an amazing advantage. I expect him to have some big performances in this tournament.
Riley: Hield has been phenomenal so far, but the Sooners just don’t have the depth that the Tar Heels have. Oklahoma’s backcourt is strong, but their front court play outside of senior forward Ryan Spangler is questionable. The Sooners have had an outstanding season, but they just don’t have the balance of a team like North Carolina. The Tar Heels can score from both outside and in, and they’re backed by good coaching and solid depth. They’re a clear-cut favorite for a reason and they’ve outscored their first two opponents by an average of 18 points per game. Head coach Roy Williams has UNC dialed in.
Green: North Carolina is a strong team with talent but there isn’t a go-to scorer on the team. Paige is talented, but he’s not a go-to hero in the clutch. The clear-cut favorite now that Michigan State has been eliminated is Kansas. I initially picked Kansas to reach the championship and lose to the Spartans. Now, I’m riding with Oklahoma and the best player in the nation at the moment. UNC has talent everywhere on the court, but the absence of a preferred playmaker who can give the team options down the stretch could haunt them. As for my pick, I know I’m putting a lot on the shoulders of Hield, but he’s shown he can manage the load. He’s been unbelievable this year, and when a player is on a hot streak like that, it’s hard to bet against him. He opened the first round with a 27-point explosion and shot 50 percent from deep. I anticipate a few 30-plus performances, and perhaps even a 40-point game in this tournament as he leads the Sooners to college basketball immortality.