In this day and age, some would consider the NCAA March Madness Tournament to almost be in the ranks of a national holiday. Millions of people all over the country fill out brackets to test their luck in what is surely an entertaining few weeks of basketball.
This year, the tourney may be a year to remember for all of the upsets that happened throughout the year. The Kansas Jayhawks currently have held the No. 1 position in the polls for the longest length of time this season, but there will be others challenging for the title. There are four teams considered to be the favorites going into the tournament, as well as four possible Cinderella teams that may steal the show.
Kansas Jayhawks (30-4 Overall, 15-3 Big 12)
Head Coach Bill Self has once again put together a fantastic basketball team. The comical fact is this is not one of Self’s best teams, which shows how good of a coach he has been. The Jayhawks won their 12th consecutive Big 12 title, and have one of, if not the best, roster up and down in the tournament. They have been consistent as one of the most efficient teams this year on both sides of the ball, which sets them up perfectly for a title to take. Senior power forward Perry Ellis is the rock of this core, as he has averaged 52.3 percent from the field, while averaging 16.7 points per game and 5.9 rebounds per game. Another difference maker will be the junior guard Frank Mason III. Mason has shot 41.4 percent from behind the arc and can change the momentum in big ways. The team as a whole can be deadly from the three-point line as well.
Michigan State Spartans (29-5 Overall, 13-5 Big Ten)
It sure is a wonder how the Spartans did not receive the number one seed in their region. Tom Izzo’s team could have just as great of a chance of cutting the nets down as the rest of the best, and MSU undoubtedly has the most valuable player in the game in senior guard Denzel Valentine. The 6’5” Lansing, Michigan native averaged crazy numbers this year: 19.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg and 7.6 assists per game. He is one the best-rounded studs of the tournament, but that is not all State has to offer. Fellow senior guard Bryn Forbes is tremendous from behind the three-point line, hitting almost 50 percent this season (48.4). There is not a blemish to be glorified on this squad, as they can shoot, rebound and pass extremely well.
Virginia Cavaliers (26-7 Overall, 13-5 ACC)
Seems like every year the Cavs find their way into Final Four discussions. What distinguishes them differently from other teams is their slow-style of play. They still finished second in the ACC with 13 wins, in which they were the slowest in their conference. ACC Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon will surely pace this solid squad, as he averaged 18.7/4.1/2.8 this season. The senior also shot over 40 percent from deep (40.9). Virginia these past two seasons struggled on offense, which hindered them in making a run for a championship. This year, however, is a complete 180 degrees turnaround from the past. Coach Tony Bennett has shooters a ’plenty: as a team, the Cavaliers are hitting over 40 percent from three-point range (40.2) and over 50 percent on two-pointers (51.3).
North Carolina Tar Heels (28-6 Overall, 14-4 ACC)
Most preseason polls had the Tar Heels ranked No. 1 going into the season, and through some tribulations early on in the season the ACC champs are here to wreak havoc in March. North Carolina won both the ACC’s regular season and tournament titles, and have looked scarier as the season has rolled on. Head Coach Roy Williams has not had a team in the Final Four since 2009, when they subsequently won the championship. This will be a year where fans are expecting the same kind of run as the roster is packed full of heart and talent. The offense does their damage in the paint, as All-ACC first-team senior forward Brice Johnson will be a major key for the Tar Heels’ success. Johnson averaged a double-double this season (16.6 ppg and 10.6 rpg) and has been great defensively. Senior point guard Marcus Paige will look to end his collegiate career on a high note as well as he is a threat to change the pace of the game at any time. With a fast-paced offense, North Carolina will have to rely on their points in the paint as they were the worst three-point shooting teams in the ACC (28.3 percent).
St. Joseph’s Hawks (27-7 Overall, 13-5 Atlantic 10)
The Hawks have been playing as great as anyone lately, and playing under-the-radar could work well in their favor as they enter the tournament as the eighth seed in the West Region. They are set to play Cincinnati in the first round, and are actually favored to win. With a surprise one seed in Oregon within the same region, do not be shocked if the Hawks keep up their hot style of play. Most are saying they are under-seeded and they have great players to back it up. Star junior forward DeAndre Bembry has stat-stuffed all season long, averaging 17.3 points a game. The Atlantic-10’s player of the year will be the man to lean on, but senior forward Isaiah Miles has improved his game dramatically as well and proves to be a viable option. As long as the Hawks can continue to not turn the ball over and get solid production from their bench, they could be dancing well into the tourney.
Hawaii Rainbow Warriors (27-5 Overall, 13-3 Big West)
What a surprise season to witness for the island school. The Rainbow Warriors are most certainly a team to not be overlooked, as they play an aggressive and physical style of game. Hawaii has not seen a team in the big dance for 14 years, and they are not planning to go one-and-done. They play a very talented California team to get things started, but the Golden Bears have shown inconsistent play throughout the season. Cal has also been sloppy with the basketball as well, and Hawaii’s stingy defense could very well seize the opportunity. They have proven to give tough opponents a run, as they lost close games to Oklahoma and Texas Tech earlier this season. They rebound well, which could be a factor against California’s porous offensive rebounding.
Arkansas Little-Rock Trojans (29-4 Overall, 17-3 Sun Belt)
Yes, the Purdue Boilermakers are surely a tough first round matchup for the Trojans. What will be a major factor in this game is how the three-point defense will fare against Purdue’s shooters. The Boilermakers have struggled scoring from two-point range all season and Little-Rock plays a gritty defense that could carry them deep. Little-Rock is different from other teams in terms of what they pride themselves in, which is getting back on defense. The Trojans will need to play tough defense, and force bad shots. They also have to turn the ball over and make good decisions with the basketball on offense. They can shoot the rock well from deep, with Marcus Johnson Jr. hitting 46 percent from the three-point line this season. The Trojans also have a deep rotation as Chris Beard’s team stays ready to go all game.
Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks (27-5 Overall, 18-0 Southland)
By now, if you have been paying attention to March Madness each season, the Lumberjacks should not be a new team you have heard of in this section. One thing can be said about this team: they shoot the ball well (54.9 percent from two point range, 37.1 percent from three) and they dish the ball around efficiently (19 APG is ranked second in the NCAA). They were not undefeated in their respective conference by chance, as this team can get on a roll and dominate. Head Coach Brad Underwood will take on his former team West Virginia, where he was an assistant head coach to Bob Huggins. Both teams have the same style of play, and it should be a grind-it-out type of game. The Mountaineers have struggled shooting the ball at times, which could mean big things for the Lumberjacks. Be sure to watch senior forward Thomas Walkup. He averaged 17.5 ppg while dishing out nearly 5 assists a game and 6.8 rebounds a game, and will be a tremendous player that will be relied on in the paint for Stephen F. Austin.