What a wild winter is has been thus far. We have seen record cold temperatures across the country, Alabama’s famed Bryant-Denny stadium was covered in snow, and students at the University of Illinois are rioting because they didn’t get a snow day. One thing has stayed particularly hot though through this disastrous cold spell, college hoops. Even as this winter seems to have no end in sight, college basketball has given us a roller coaster of a season through the first three and a half months. We have seen four different number one teams; a Wichita State team that is fighting for a number one seed, and freshman phenoms that NBA GMs are salivating over. Although March Madness is a few weeks away and the bracket hasn’t even been set yet, there have been teams that have shown they can win the whole thing despite their record, and teams that might fizzle out the first weekend after dominating the regular season. There are 3 teams that I think can make it very far in this tournament despite not being ranked in the top 5 right now…
Duke: Oh how I hate myself for saying this, but I love this Duke basketball team. I hadn’t watched them in a full game until they played Syracuse on February 1st and let me tell you, this team is going to do some damage come tournament time. They seem to play up to their competition as they almost defeated ‘Cuse in an OT thriller. They have the perfect balance of scoring and defense led by the freshman that often looks as if he is straight out of a video game, Jabari Parker. Parker is averaging a blistering 18.6 PPG and is an endless highlight reel. At his side, Parker has sophomore Rodney Hood averaging 17.2 PPG and provides ever so important tournament experience. Sophomore Amile Jefferson who grabs an average of 7.7 RPG has led them defensively. This is a formula for success you want going into the tournament and lets put it this way, Coach K doesn’t often lose close games in March.
Michigan State: Yes, I know you may think this is biased as I am a Michigan State student, but bear with me. The country has not seen what this Michigan State team is truly capable of just yet. Beat down by injuries to key players across the board, this basketball team has been finding ways to win nearly every game they have played. First, they lost Adrian Payne to a bum ankle, which has sidelined him for 5+ weeks. Then they lost Brandon Dawson to a broken hand during a tirade mid film session. Three days later when they played Michigan at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, senior leader Keith Appling sprained his hand in the first half. Through all of this, this team has found ways to win. Thankfully, this team is very deep on the bench and is full of role players who are getting key game experience. When this team is healthy, they can run with anyone in the country. If (and it’s a BIG if) Michigan State is fully healthy by tournament time, don’t be surprised if this team is cutting down the nets in Texas.
Texas: Where on earth has this Texas team been all year? After a frustrating first half of the season, they sat at 11-4 and looked like an average team at best in the Big 12 conference. Then the wins started piling up, and not just any wins. They took down Iowa State, Kansas State, Baylor, and Kansas (all ranked in the top 25) in a two-week span. On this 4 game win streak their average margin of victory was nearly 10 points. This team has had a completely new look the past 3 weeks and can be thankful junior forward Jonathan Holmes has been playing as well as he has been. Holmes has been the heart and soul of this Texas basketball team averaging 15.2 PPG and 8.2 RPG during this winning streak. If Texas continues to take the Big 12 by storm into the month of March, expect them to get a higher than expected seed and to make some noise early in the tournament.
I absolutely love Duke, Texas, and Michigan State in March this year but there are 3 other teams that have been getting love in the polls, but I wouldn’t bet a cent on come tournament time…
Wichita State: Let the debate begin: does an undefeated Wichita State team deserve a number one seed in the tournament? In my opinion, yes. If a team can go undefeated in the regular season, regardless of their conference, they deserve a number one seed. Schedules are made years in advanced and despite the lower tier competition they are playing, they are winning like they should. BUT, do I think this Wichita State team will go far in the tournament? Absolutely not. This isn’t the same team that made it to the Final Four last year, this team has a target on it’s back. I cannot imagine this team sizing up against an ACC, Big East, or even SEC basketball team. Their best win this year has come over St Louis University who is currently ranked #13 in the AP polls. I just don’t see this team going far in March this year. There is too much other talent in the country this year, they are no longer a Cinderella, and they haven’t played the caliber of teams power conference teams have.
Kentucky: Would the real Kentucky Wildcats please stand up? Kentucky has been one of the most frustrating teams to watch this year because of inconsistence. At times, they look like the best team in the country and at other times, I see flashes of last years NIT team. This team lacks leadership. Nothing more. They have the talent, they have the coaching, but these guys seem to be playing for an NBA contract, not a national championship. I have said before that John Calipari’s recruiting style is flawed and he gets more Pre-Madonna’s then he does team players. I am worried about this team coming together as a unit mid-March. They have the athleticism to win a championship but how bad do these players want it? Are they playing to raise a banner, or are they playing to sign a contract next summer?
Villanova: Villanova is one of the weirdest teams I have ever seen. They beat every team they should beat, but when they are put in a big game they either dominate or get blown out. Sure, they have an impressive resume with wins over Iowa and Kansas, but they have a 16-point loss to Syracuse and a 28-point loss to Creighton on their resume as well. Don’t get me wrong, this is a talented, well-tested basketball team led by a trio of upperclassman. They could very well be a Final Four team come late March, but their inconsistence is disturbing. I shutter at that 28-point loss to Creighton in which Creighton put on a show from behind the arc scoring an NCAA record 21 3-pointers. I just don’t see this Villanova team going as far as a lot of people think this year. You need style points to win the NCAA tournament; this team doesn’t have that right now.
So there you have it, those are the teams I love going into March Madness and the teams I don’t love so much going into March Madness. Lastly, despite the brackets not being released just yet, it’s always fun to imagine your dream Final Four. Who would put on the best show in Texas? What teams would clash best with whom? What storylines would be the most intriguing? Right now, the Final Four I would most like to see would be…
Duke vs. Syracuse and Kansas vs. Michigan State
This Final Four would have it all. Four of the sports most prolific coaches, freshman going head to head with veterans full of tournament experience, an epic Syracuse/Duke rematch, and an unpredictable outcome. As always, these are March Madness predictions, and without the madness of upsets and Cinderella’s, it wouldn’t be March.