The NCAA tournament is a pretty unique experience. For no other sporting event do people scramble to learn so much with only 4 days until go-time. It’s one of the most watched sporting events of the year, and the vast majority of its viewership are the casual fans that pay average (at best) attention during the regular season. Can you imagine a world in which the NFL played out an entire season while no one really gave a shit, and then the playoffs came around and people started going nuts?
The tournament is also one of if not the most gambled on sporting events on the planet, with over $9 billion dollars already wagered on brackets in the United States this March. That is an insane number, considering how that same vast majority of people following their brackets throughout the tournament have virtually no idea what the hell they’re doing (including myself).
That said, here’s some of teams I’ll be riding this year to bracket stardom, and a few thoughts on some others:
Not exactly going out on a limb here... The #1 seed in the West seems to have a favorable route to the final four, depending on how hot UNC actually is and whether or not Arizona is for real this year. I sincerely believe Wisconsin will make it to the Final Four unscathed – their team is way too talented and experienced for most of the teams in their region. For Wisconsin, their true test would potentially come in the Final Four, where the heavy tourney favorite Kentucky awaits.
It’s not quite a safe assumption that both these teams make it that far. After all, two #1 seeds haven’t made the Final Four together since 2009. Last year, the Badgers and the undervalued Wildcats both got there, with Kentucky edging by one point before going onto lose to UConn in the final. They won’t be so lucky this year – Frank Kaminksy and Nigel Hayes will want this much more than the young, mostly untested Kentucky team, and will go on to win the tournament.
LSU comes into the tourney having lost 6 of their last 12 since January 31st – not a great indicator coming into the tourney. Even more concerning is the fact that 5 of those losses come to teams with a combined 28-44 SEC conference record, including Auburn who got 110 points dropped on their heads by Kentucky less than a month ago.
But in the tourney, logic generally gets you nowhere – otherwise every year would be a Final Four with only 1 seeds, something that’s happened only once… ever. LSU’s got two guys over 6’8 that average over 16 points a game and almost 10 rebounds a game, respectively. 41st in the nation in scoring, 12th in rebounding, and 16th in assists – I think it’s safe to say this team has been severely underachieving given their overall record. And yet, on February 10th, they blew a lead with 1 minute 30 seconds to go against Kentucky.
With that kind of power down low in the tournament, I think they’ve got a chance to take out NC State, bully the annually overrated Villanova, compete with an undermanned Louisville, and face either a slumping UVA team or a solid Oklahoma team. The health of Jordan Mickey is obviously critical – his bruised shoulder has clearly affected him. If that extra week was enough to get him close to 100%, watch out – LSU could have a Final Four run up their sleeves shortly. We’ll see which team shows up to play NC State. And we’ll see how fast I delete this post after they lose.
I’m just not buying it this year from the Wildcats, which says a lot considering Joe Lunardi has them pegged as the best Villanova squad since their 1985 championship run, if not better. Their wins against top 25 opponents come against Georgetown, Providence, Butler, and St. Johns (all tournament teams). It’s hard to ignore a team with only 2 losses on their record, but the defeat against the 16-15 Seton Hall says it all – they can be beaten by almost anyone in the tourney. I’m looking for Villanova to struggle with either NC State or LSU if not lose, or have the wheels come off a little further in.
As good as this team looked for the majority of the year, making it all the way up to the #2 team in the country with a close loss to Duke at home, they’ve looked a little more beatable at the finish line. Once regarded as one of the few teams that could take down Kentucky, it’s hard to imagine the Cavaliers advancing without a completely healthy Justin Anderson. After averaging over 12 points a game through the season, Anderson is 0-6 from the floor in his first two games back since coming back from a broken finger and appendectomy. An extremely small sample size: yes. A good sign of things to come: not exactly.
Malcom Brogdon is certainly a force, and the occasional heroics from London Perrantes and Anthony Gill will only help. But without Anderson’s energy to spark them, the Cavaliers have simply not looked the same. The potential matchup with Michigan State in the 2nd round, who knocked them out of last year’s tourney, will be very telling in the kind of run they’ll be able to make. Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, I think we're looking at a repeat performance.
Georges Niang has put together another solid year for the Cyclones, averaging about a point less per game @ 15.5, but raising his FG and 3PT percentage. Fresh off of wins against #15 ranked Oklahoma and #9 ranked Kansas, Iowa State is looking to do a little more damage this year after being ousted prematurely last year by the eventual champs of UConn.
I say prematurely with a grain of salt – Shabazz Napier at times seemed destined to win that tournament. Realistically, when Niang broke his foot in the opening round last year, they never had a chance. The loss to 1-6 Big 12 play Texas Tech is mildly concerning to say the least… that is, until you consider they blew them out of the damn water less than 2 weeks later 75-38.
This year should be different – I’m looking for this Iowa State team to shake up the southern region with wins in the round of 32, as well as a squeaker again Gonzaga. Duke may be a different story. The Cyclones certainly contain enough firepower with 14th in the nation in scoring and 18th in FG%. If Duke looks as flat at any point during this tournament as they did against Notre Dame, Iowa State could make a considerable run.
EDIT: Iowa state has been upset Rd. 1. Great!
Much like Villanova, Gonzaga comes into the tournament a 2 loss, highly untested team. You can only fault them so much for the schedule they were given, through which they beat most of their opponents fairly handedly. However, they’ve played no team since Arizona in December ranked in the top 25, and meet up with Iowa State and possibly Duke in their region. I have a hard time believing they’ll be able to hang with the caliber talent in some of the other more powerful conferences, and don’t think they’ll advance as far as their seed represents them.