March Madness is finally here!
The Selection Committee took the spotlight on Sunday, making some controversial decisions, which included placing Oklahoma as a 3-seed and Maryland as a 4, giving UCLA an at-large bid and not even forcing them to play a first-round game, and possibly undervaluing Northern Iowa and Wichita State, two teams with relatively easy schedules but few losses.
But after tip off on Thursday, all the focus will be on the 10 players on the court.
Kentucky: This year's Kentucky Wildcats team is unlike Head Coach John Calipari's traditional "one and done” squads. The bulk of the production comes from sophomores and juniors. This added maturity, coupled with Kentucky's usual abundance of future NBA players makes them one of the best men's best college basketball teams we've seen in a long time.
Kentucky's 34-0 record this season is no fluke. They lead the country in offensive-defensive efficiency and are outscoring teams by an average of over 20 points per game. It's so difficult to beat them because they are deep and don't heavily rely on one player. The only thing that can derail Kentucky this year is the pressure of being an undefeated team, which isn't too hard to get to some collegian athletes.
Senior forward Frank Kaminsky is a frontrunner for the Wooden Allen national player of the year award, after averaging 18 points and 8 rebounds. Yet he is not a one man show. Sam Dekker, Nigel Hayes, Traevon Jackson and Bronson Koenig all contribute to the most efficient offense in the country.
Defensively, Wisconsin is also stellar. They give up on average only 56 points per game, good for ninth in the country. This defensive efficiency is in large part the result of their not fouling. The Badgers commit the fewest fouls per game in the country. Not only does this save them a few points near the end of halves when teams are generally in the one-and-one or double bonus, but they also do not have to sit players due to foul trouble. Having a star player such as Kaminsky in foul trouble can ultimately derail a team's national championship hopes, but this should not be a problem for Wisconsin.
This is Mike Krzyzewski's best freshman class in recent history. Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, and Justice Winslow are all former high school All-Americans and lived up to the hype this season, averaging in double figures in the regular season. The likely first overall pick in this year's NBA draft, 6'11” Okafor is the lifeline of the team as the Blue Devils rely on his inside presence to rebound and score. Meanwhile, Jones has consistently come up clutch this season for Duke. He led the team to crucial victories over Virginia and North Carolina. Not to mention, senior captain Quinn Cook was named second-team All-ACC. Cook is deadly from the three-point line, and when he gets hot, the Blue Devils are practically unbeatable.
However this team is unlike any other of Coach K's. This Duke team refuses to play defense. They on average gave up a whopping 65 points a game this season. The team's refusal to play defense led Coach K to start a Jim Boeheim-esque zone defense. Following the dismissal of Rasheed Sulaimon, the Blue Devils are left with only eight scholarship players. Down the stretch, Duke's health and stamina will be crucial factors in determining how far this team goes.
It's all about the defense for the ‘Hoos. They allow just 50.7 points per game, the best in the country. This team has the potential to shut down any top offense (cough cough, Wildcats). Nate Silver's analytical website gives the Cavaliers an eight percent chance to win, which is pretty good, all things considered. This is a team that started the season 20-0 and won the regular season ACC championship. Led by Malcolm Brogdon (13.7 points per game), and Anthony Gill (11.6), the Cavs have the depth necessary for a championship run.
This team could easily find themselves in the championship game. As long as Justin Anderson bounces back healthy. Anderson averaged 13.4 points per game, and used his sturdy build to grab 4.3 rebounds per game. He missed the last seven games of the season due to a broken finger, and then underwent an emergency appendectomy only a couple weeks ago. Anderson returned for the start of the ACC tournament, but didn't look ready to play. He missed all of his field-goal attempts and struggled to stay in the game for a duration of time. With a week to rest, Anderson should be healthier now. If he returns to form, Virginia will win the East Region; if he struggles, they may not even see the Sweet 16 based on the way Michigan State has been playing.
Some potential Cinderellas:
Most argue that the Longhorns shouldn't even be in the tournament, and rightfully so. However, now that they are in, they are immediately a force to be reckoned with.
First, the saying "defense wins championships” has become a cliché for good reason, and Texas plays good defense. They rank first in the nation in blocks, fourth in defensive rebounds, and allow just 60.4 points per game. Second, they are getting healthier. The Longhorns played most of their 2015 campaign with many injuries all across their lineup. Now, with a full lineup back, the Longhorns can use their size to dominate in the paint. The Longhorns may just be an 11 seed, but they've played the best of the best, won't back down from anyone and after being thought of as lucky to even make the tourney, have something to prove.
Stephen F. Austin
The Lumberjacks breezed through the Southland Conference, finishing 17-1 and securing the automatic bid by winning the conference tournament. Their three other losses came consecutively at the hands of Northern Iowa, Xavier and Baylor, all tournament teams.
They have not defeated a single team in the field of 68, which is why they rank 53rd in BPI. However, SF Austin entered the tournament last year in similar standing and pulled off a 12-over-5 upset of VCU. This year, again as a 12 seed, they face Utah in the first round. Utah prospered for most of the Pac-12 season, but struggled late, losing three of its final five regular season games.
The Utes are a spectacular defensive team, but the Lumberjacks counter with a potent offense led by junior guard Thomas Walkup, who is averaging 16 points and 6 rebounds. SF Austin is riding high and could very well find themselves in the Round of 32, where they would face either Georgetown or Eastern Washington, both of whom are beatable. Don't be surprised to see them in the Sweet 16 taking on Duke.
12 seeds have defeated 5's six out of eight times in the past two years' opening rounds. This Buffalo team starts at the helm with Bobby Hurley. Hurley won two national titles as a player at Duke, so he will provide the team with his own experience. Buffalo was ranked in the top 30 in the nation in scoring (74.8) and rebounding (38.2). Junior Justin Moss led the MAC in scoring (18.4) and rebounding (9.3). The Bulls run a fast-tempo style of play, just like Hurley did at Duke. All these attributes are a good mix for a cinderella story, until a Sweet 16 run in with Kentucky.
Here are our Final Four Picks…
Final Four: Kentucky, Arkansas, Virginia, Duke
National Champion: Kentucky
Final Four: Kentucky, Wisconsin, Virginia, Iowa St.
National Champion: Kentucky
Final Four: Kentucky, Arizona, Virginia, Duke
National Champion: Arizona
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