Can anybody stop Florida?
Billy Donovan’s Gators head into the tourney on a 26 game win-streak. With talent, experience, and defense they should easily make it to the Final Four– four seniors on this team have reached the Elite Eight. They’ll also hold home court advantage in the opening rounds as they travel to Orlando during the first week of play.
Many people love taking the 12 seed over the five but it’s hard for me to pick against Shaka Smart and VCU. The Rams are good, but don’t expect too much from them this tournament. Even if they get past a talented Stephen F. Austin squad their next challenge will likely be against Kyle Anderson and the unique UCLA Bruins.
At the bottom half of the bracket there are three teams that catch the eye: Ohio State, Syracuse, and Kansas.
Even with a season full of struggles the Buckeyes hung on and earned themselves a six seed. Their trouble is that they play down to their opponents; an odd trait for a Thad Matta team.
Wins against Wisconsin and Michigan State prove the Buckeyes can run with the best of them, and experience also goes a long way in March. Seven-year senior Aaron Craft (exaggeration) won’t go down without a fight. Don’t be surprised if OSU once again makes the Sweet Sixteen.
The same can be said for the Syracuse. The Orange’s stock plummeted towards the end of the season. Their 25-game win streak came to an abrupt halt to the hands of the 8-12 Boston College Eagles.
Syracuse’s slump comes at the wrong time. That’s why many neglect picking the Orange any further than the elite eight. I however, am a believer in Jim Boeheim. 973 career wins and 28 tournament appearances speak for themselves. If Boeheim can adjust his often shaky 2-3 zone the Orange will be set for a another run.
Sitting at the bottom of the bracket are the Jayhawks, college basketball’s most talented squad; and my early season favorite. Kansas is headlined by two lottery picks in Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins.
Doesn’t look good for Embiid though. His injured back took him away from action in the Big Twelve tourney. After another medical examination Kansas ruled him out for the opening weekend of play. Without Embiid Kansas’ Final Four hopes are flushed away.
The Jayhawks just need to survive opening weekend. Two wins will buy them a week off; just enough time for Embiid’s back to heal up. There’ll be no argument from me if you think they can the ride the ship past the Sweet Sixteen to the Final Four.
At first glance, the East looks to be the weakest region in the tournament. Look deeper, there are some strong candidates for an NCAA championship.
My favorite is Michigan State. The Spartans are finally healthy and very deadly. Their true potential was exploited last week, as they dominated the Big Ten tournament.
MSU’s star studded cast features a handful of NBA talent. Senior Adriean Payne anchors the Spartans’ interior, making no basket easy. Their scoring is led by All-Big Ten guard Garry Harris, a pure shooter that’s knocked down 70 triples this season. At the helm is point guard Keith Appling, who, when healthy, completes this Spartan team.
Then there’s Tom Izzo, the master of March. Coach Izzo is coming off his fourth conference tournament championship. He just knows how to make the right moves at the end of the season. He basically took this same team to the Sweet Sixteen last year. Don’t let the four seed fool you, MSU is one of best teams in the country.
Outside Michigan State, I’d keep an eye on Virginia, Cincinnati, and Iowa State.
Even as a one seed, Virginia still seems to get no respect. The Cavaliers earned their spot after winning the ACC; their first time since 1976. Since January 18, the Cavs have gone 16-1. They play great defense, which goes a long way in the tournament.
Cincinnati is one of my favorite teams to watch. Many seniors make up this team and I like that. First-team All American Sean Kilpatrick is the star. He’s accumulated 2,127 points over his four years with the program. The issue is that the Bearcats tend to be a one man show. Others will have to step up and help score for Cinci to advance.
Iowa State brought home the Big 12 trophy last weekend- their roster is loaded with talent. Melvin Ejim won player of the year in a conference full of stars. Ejim can bang down low as well as shoot the three. The Cyclones also have DeAndre Kane, the transfer from Marshall. Kane is mister do-it-all- this year he averaged 17 points, 6.7 rebounds, and and 5.9 assists. Both Ejim and Kane earned conference first team awards. Their two man punch makes ISU one of the deadliest teams in the country.
The region from hell. I personally feel sorry for any team that’s been placed here. It was bound to happen though; with such an open field this year there had to be a region overloaded with elite teams.
At the top we have undefeated Wichita State. I am a firm believer in the Shockers. What else can you ask from them? They haven’t just won every game, they’ve dominated. Wichita is second in the nation in scoring margin.
Stars of Shockers include Fred VanVleet, one of the best point guards in the country. He takes care of the ball and shoots high percentages. Scoring is led by Cleanthony Early [15 points per].
Wichita State shines on the defensive end, holding opponents to sub-40 percent shooting averages. That’s why I’ve fallen in love with the Shockers.
No game will come easy on their road to Arlington. Hopefully them and the Cardinals of Louisville meet in the Elite Eight for a rematch of last year’s final four. Victory barely slipped away from the Shockers as the Cardinals would go on to win the National Championship. Now with most of the team returning, Wichita State has a solid chance of heading back to the Final Four.
Standing in their way though- yikes. The possibilities are frightening: Kentucky, Louisville, Kansas State, Michigan, Duke, even Texas.
To start there are the Cardinals of Louisville. Receiving a four seed is appalling considering how hot they are right now. Russ Smith is a man among boys. Russdiculous is the playing at the highest level in the NCAA. Just last week he dropped 42 on Houston.
Louisville’s press can suffocate you on the defensive end and on offense they’re even better, scoring 81 points per, ranking them eighth in the country. The issue is post defense. Since losing Gorgui Dieng last year their interior has been iffy. There are plenty of returning players, but losing Dieng was big, literally.
Michigan and Duke have the same issue as Louisville. Michigan because they lost their All-American Mitch McGary. They have the stars in Parker (Duke) and Stauskas (Michigan) but both have tendencies of spending too much time outside the lane.
If I had a team to look out for it would be the Texas Longhorns. Yes, they come into the tournament on a four game skid but they match up very well in the Midwest region.
The Longhorns are loaded with bigs. My favorite is Cameron Ridley, the 6-foot-9, 285-pound semi. No one in the tournament is bigger; well at least heavier.
Texas is capable of losing to Arizona State in the first round, or advancing to the regional championship. Chances are slim but I like them. Taking the ball inside is how you beat Duke and Michigan. Doing so against Coach K and John Beilein; not so easy.
The west region looks to be an exciting one. One seeded Arizona will be the clear favorite to make it to Arlington. The Wildcats win off tough defense and solid rebounding. Sean Miller has brought in a plethora of athletes that many can’t match.
Red flagging the Wildcat’s Final Four chances is the absence of Brandon Ashley. When the forward went down midseason the Wildcats ran into some problems. Without him they just haven’t been the same. Arizona still has Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson, their two top players. The two create one of the best inside-outside games in the nation. The West is full of teams that rely on their offense. If the Gordon, Johnson, and the rest of the Wildcats keep up the tough defense, there’s no telling how far they can go.
Of all the regions the West has the best match ups of the opening round. Oklahoma and North Dakota State will be a great game. The Bison physical and efficient. They’re tops in the nation in shooting; making 50% from the field. Oklahoma will have their hands full tomorrow.
Gonzaga, Oklahoma State will be just as fun. Marcus Smart’s Cowboys are once again playing to their full potential. Smart’s midseason suspension created all kinds of problems for OSU. His bone-headed decision to shove a fan at Texas Tech cost himself three games and resulted in the Cowboys losing seven in a row.
But with Smart back OSU has gone 5-2 with major wins over Iowa State and Kansas. I have a feeling these Cowboys may be dancing deep into March.
Moving on in the West we have Doug McDermott and the Creighton Bluejays. Dougie McBuckets will go down as one of college basketball’s greatest player. He has moved up the ranks of the NCAA’s all-time scoring leaders season long. His 26 point per game average is highest in country. McDermott is far and away the country’s top player.
I wouldn’t bet to highly on the Bluejays however, for March hasn’t been kind. Creighton has gone 3-3 this month with a few tough losses. Suspect defense makes me a little reluctant on sending Creighton anywhere near the Final Four. Their defense ranks 134th in the nation and rebounding percentage 183th.
Wisconsin received a lot of love from the NCAA selection committee. Not only did they receive a two seed but they’ll also get to play in Milwaukee only 78 miles from Madison. The Badgers are a complete team that forces opponents to beat themselves. UW can beat anybody in the nation. They’ve beaten top seeded Florida and Virginia prior to the regular season.
Bo Ryan though has never been to the Final Four. His Badgers also seem to find an early exit in March. If Wisconsin can gain momentum while in Milwaukee watch out; not many teams will be able to catch them.