Finally, it’s March. We welcome Spring Break and March Madness, two of mankind’s greatest achievements. As much as I would love to discuss where all of you should go for Spring Break, I will instead try to point you in the right direction for predicting the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament. Whether you are a casual sports fan or a die-hard fanatic, March Madness is a great opportunity to park your keister on a couch and watch something that makes you happy. Here are some tips about the well-known and not so well-known teams to look out for this tournament.
DISCLAIMER: The tournament bracket comes out Sunday, so these predictions will change when we actually find out who will play who.
This misnamed 12-team conference will be successful this year: Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State all have a chance of winning the whole tournament. Indiana will probably go into the tourney as the favorite to win it all. They have fantastic guard play led by junior Victor Oladipo and great center in sophomore Cody Zeller and have spent much of the season as the #1 team in the country. That being said, Michigan will be the dark horse pick for many experts. The Wolverines have the best backcourt in the country, led by sophomore Trey Burke, the Big Ten Player of the Year. Even though they can sometimes struggle with defense and rebounding, Michigan has the offensive firepower to win any shootout. Pencil the Hoosiers and Wolverines into the Sweet Sixteen now.
Michigan State and Ohio State should also be very reliable. Both played extremely difficult non-conference schedules, but seem to perennially make it to the second weekend. Other teams from the Big Ten like Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota will be more prone to an early loss, but that shouldn’t stop you from picking any of them to win a game or two.
Led by their defenses, Georgetown and Louisville are the class of this conference. Louisville’s Russ Smith and Peyton Siva are tenacious defenders, averaging over four steals combined a game. While their offense can get stagnant, they swallow up teams on D, limiting teams to 58 points per game (16th in the country).
Georgetown is another great defensive team. Their turtle-like pace of play could make them prone to an upset if they draw a more up tempo team for the second round, but Wooden Award Finalist Otto Porter won’t let his Hoyas lose easily.
However, the rest of the Big East is a wild-card. Marquette should be able to win at least their first game, but depending on their draw they aren’t a lock for anything more than that. Furthermore, don’t be sold on Syracuse, Notre Dame or Pittsburgh to automatically win more than a game this year. It all depends on the luck of the draw for them.
Duke is looking really good right now and will be really difficult to beat if seniors Seth Curry and Mason Plumlee stay hot. They’ve played consistent basketball all year, with the exception of their 27-point loss to Miami on Jan. 23. Speaking of the Hurricanes, the regular season ACC champions should be able to grab a two-seed in the NCAA tournament. Although they’ve struggled as of late, losing three of their last five games, Miami is a solid Final Four pick because of their star sophomore point guard Shane Larkin and likely Coach of the Year Jim Larranaga. All of the other Hurricane starters are seniors, an advantage that can’t be understated in the NCAA tournament.
The only other team from the ACC that could make a run to the Sweet Sixteen is North Carolina. The Heels had a rough regular reason, but their recent hot streak should help them come tourney time. The Heels are playing great ball right now, so watch out for them to win one or maybe two games.
The Pac-12 is easily the most inconsistent of the major conferences. Arizona, UCLA, Oregon and California are the four strongest teams, all finishing with 13-5 or 12-6 conference records. Despite good conference records, all four teams have gone through awfully inconsistent seasons which often bodes poorly for postseason success. It would be a surprise if any of these teams made the Sweet Sixteen. That being said, UCLA and Cal both have their own star power in freshman Shabazz Muhammed and junior Allen Crabbe (the Pac-12 Player of the Year) respectively and could make some noise in the tournament.
There are three legitimate Sweet 16 teams who can emerge from the Big 12: Kansas, Kansas State and Oklahoma State. Kansas can definitely make it to the Final Four with super frosh Ben McLemore leading the way, although four losses to unranked teams (including a 23-point blowout to Baylor on March 9) suggest that the Jayhawks are susceptible to an early upset. Oklahoma State has serious upside as well, with Freshman of the Year Marcus Smart leading the way. The Cowboys only lost by one point to current #1 Gonzaga on Dec. 31 and should be at least Elite Eight-bound. Furthermore, Oklahoma and Iowa State will be 11 or 12 seeds that will be tough outs. That being said, neither will make the final 16.
The SEC is in the middle of a down year, with Florida the only team that’s currently in the Top-25. The Gators are 4-1 this season in games against ranked opponents and should make it to the Sweet 16, but it’s tough to see them making it further than that.
Ole Miss started the season off with a 17-2 record, including a huge win against then-#10 Missouri on Jan. 12, but have faltered down the stretch, losing six of their last 12 games. The team is led by junior shooting guard Marshall Henderson, who averages 19.7 points per game and achieved some notoriety earlier this year for antagonizing the entire Auburn student section. If he gets hot, he could single-handedly carry the Rebels to a couple of wins.
Perhaps the most disappointing team in college basketball this year is defending national champion Kentucky. The Wildcats were expected to have another great season (picked third in the preseason coaches’ poll), but have been horribly inconsistent all season. Despite losing likely NBA lottery pick Nerlens Noel to a season-ending knee injury, the Wildcats were still able to beat Florida on Mar. 9, proving that this team might win a game or two in the tournament. However, the Sweet 16 is likely this team’s ceiling.
Other teams to look out for:
Virginia Commonwealth (VCU)– I love this team and their “havoc” defense and could see them making a Final Four run as a 6-seed, provided they aren’t paired with the most upset-worthy 3 seed (likely Michigan or Florida) in the second round. Their coach, Shaka Smart, knows how to motivate.
Butler– Two Final Fours in three years and a 3-0 record against Top-10 teams. Never count them out.
Gonzaga– They will be a 1-seed come selection Sunday. That being said, I refuse to be sold on any team from the West Coast Conference. It is all about the draw for the Zags. I predict they will be the first one seed to go down.
South Dakota State-Ya never know!
Predictions: I have two Final Four scenarios: Duke, Oklahoma State, Louisville and either VCU (if I’m adventurous) or Indiana.
Winner: Duke (throwing up in my mouth a little bit) over Indiana.