Assessing the favorites, dark horses and key players on their road to the Final Four in Minneapolis
Throughout March and early April, 68 university basketball programs in the United States compete in a single elimination tournament. The chaotic and upset heavy nature of the tournament unofficially garners it the name ‘March Madness.” Teams are seeded 1-16 and pitted in one of four regions. Last years tournament had the first ever 16 seed victory over a one seed, a Cinderella run from Loyola-Chicago to the Final Four, and a dominant offensive team in Villanova winning it all.
It could be argued that so far this season, it has been as exciting as any tournament. Chock full of:
And FBI scandals!
Alas, anything can happen in March, and below are a couple teams to keep an eye on when filling out your bracket this week (you can download and print one off here). Whether they help you win or lose your bracket challenge, I will not be responsible for that!
Favorites (tournament seeding in brackets)
Duke Blue Devils (1)—Having three of the top five overall prospects in the upcoming draft leaves them an obvious heavy favorite. Canadian RJ Barrett is leading the way with 22.9 points per game, 7.5 rebounds and four assists. The mega-truck Zion Williamson returned from his knee injury with a vengeance, shooting a perfect 13/13 from the field for 29 points and a victory in the ACC quarterfinals against Syracuse. He followed that up to claim MVP honors in the tourney, shooting 33 for 43 in the three games. He finished the season with an effective field goal percentage at a whopping 71.7%! Williamson is the most touted prospect since Anthony Davis, and his mere presence gives teams fits. NC State’s head coach (who may play Duke in the first round, provided they win their First Four matchup), had this to say:
Regardless, anything less than a Final Four would be a disappointment.
Virginia Cavaliers (1)—Last year, I had the Cavaliers to go all the way to the final, only for them to lose to the 16-seeded UMBC Cavaliers. They became the first one seed to ever lose to a 16 (1-136 overall). However, this year, the team is better prepared, most notably with their star sophomore back in De’Andre Hunter. He is a do-it-all wing who provides the team with a clutch scorer. He missed last years tournament with a broken hand, and their loss to the Retrievers showcased their lack of go-to scoring ability. They also have seniors Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome to bring veteran leadership to their pack line defense.
Tennessee Volunteers (2)—Head coach Kermit Davis has brought the program back to relevancy. The Volunteers are third in adjusted offense, led by veterans Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. A Williams post-up in the low block is an automatic bucket, while Schofield gives opposing defenders fits with both his size (240 pounds) and three point shooting ability (41.1%).
Wofford Terriers (7)—The small school from Spartanburg, South Carolina, who is a third(!) of the size of StFX, has had an exceptional regular season, finishing with a perfect 18-0 conference record. They went on to claim the Southern Conference tournament championship with a victory over UNC Greensboro. 29-4 on the year, their only losses have come to tournament teams in Kansas, UNC, Oklahoma and Mississippi State. Senior Guard Fletcher Magee has led the way for the Terriers, with 20.5 points per game. Four guards are averaging above 41% from three, and if they get hot, a long run in the tourney is possible. A tough matchup in the first round against Seton Hall awaits them. Sparky guard Myles Powell poured in 29 in one half against the Georgetown Hoyas a week ago, so the Terriers will have to play him tight.
Iowa State Cyclones (6)— Steve Prohm’s team won their fourth Big 12 tournament championship in six years. They boast a team that goes eight deep, including Dartmouth Nova Scotia’s own Lindell Wigginton, who was named Sixth Man of the Year in the Big 12. They are led by the veteran and former Virginia Cavalier Marial Shayok (who is from Ottawa!) Perhaps their best NBA prospect is Talen Horton-Tucker, a 6’4 230 pound scythe-like guard who is a matchup nightmare for anyone. A potential Sweet 16 battle with Kentucky entices.
Intriguing Players & Matchups
Ja Morant (Murray State) vs Markus Howard (Marquette)
If you are looking for a potential Kemba Walker candidate player (one who can single-handedly carry a team to the final), look no further than the matchup on Thursday between the Racers and Golden Eagles. It is a tantalizing game, showcasing two explosive guards leading the way. Morant is a projected top five pick in this years draft, and a three and a half minute highlight reel of his best plays this year is all you need to know about him, giving off shades of Russell Westbrook.
Meanwhile, Howard is no slouch. The third-year has microwaveable scoring abilities, dropping at least 30 points in 10 games this year, with a career-high 53 against Creighton in January. Look for the winner to play a long and rangy Florida State team, where their NBA level length will give scouts ample film to view how Howard of Morant can play through size.
Ignas Brazdeikis (Michigan) vs Brandon Clarke (Gonzaga)
A potential Elite Eight clash will bring two gaudy Canadians up against one another. Clarke has been leading the Bulldogs with 3 blocks a game, and a tidy 16.5 points. He will most likely have to guard the firecracker Brazdeikis who is the Big 10 Freshman of the Year. Because of his three point shooting ability (.420 on four attempts a game), Clarke will have to showcase his ability to defend in space, a necessity for not only his potential NBA career, but for a long run in the tournament.
The tournament’s first round begins on March 21, with 16 games on the docket. Let the bracket busting begin!