By Allan Erickson
We’ve finally made it. That time of year where college basketball fans from around the world enjoy the frenzy that is March Madness, the biggest tournament in all of sports. Some, like myself, will be pulling for their alma maters (GO TAR HEELS!) Some will be riding the coattails of a Cinderella story, I’m looking at you, Texas Southern. And most others will be rooting for any and every team that ends up playing Duke. While there’s a 68 team field, realistically there are 8 teams that have a legitimate chance at cutting down the nets in San Antonio. Here’s what you need to know before filling out your brackets. A reason these teams are contenders, and a hypothetical as to why they don’t reach the promise land.
1- Michigan State Spartans– coached by the great Tom Izzo, you can never count out Sparty in a national tournament. Izzo’s crew always seems to rise to the occasion and make deep runs in the tournament. Miles Bridges is the most valuable player for MSU, and the reason that Sparty is a team to watch. Many NBA experts felt Bridges was a bonafide lottery pick had he skipped his sophomore year at Michigan State. But Bridges returned to improve his game, and be a leader on a team that was the preseason number 1 team in the country. If you’ve watched this tournament before, then there’s no surprise that a team coached by Izzo with a superstar is a good bet to make a run in the tournament. All those things point to a run. Here’s how they can have an early exit- lack of shooting. This team can have a night where the team defense is so good that they can put up 60 points in a winning effort. However, throughout most of the season, the Spartans have been inconsistent from beyond the arc. In order to win this tournament, you need to be able to knock down big shots in crunch time. The lack of consistency in big moments is what could send this team home in the second weekend. Pair that with the devastating bracket they were placed in, and it could spell nightmare for Michigan State.
2- Virginia Cavaliers- coached by Tony Bennett. The ACC is an absolute gauntlet for college basketball. Blue bloods and storied programs from top to bottom. Tony Bennett is the coach of the year, without question, and in a league of old-time hall of fame coaches (Roy Williams, Coach K, Jim Boeheim,) Tony Bennett could very well be the next version of those guys. Winning a lot of games for a team that was mostly forgotten about until he took over. UVA lost only 2 games all season, a non conference game against a feisty West Virginia team, and an overtime thriller against rival Virginia Tech. This team plays a tenacious defensive game, switch every ball screen, and have players that buy into locking down an opponent. There are athletes everywhere, so running a simple pick and roll, and getting a big man matched up with a guard doesn’t solve the defense. They swarm the ball, gang rebound, and play with a chip on their shoulders. I see the Cavaliers as a final four club. As typical with any Tony Bennett coached club, the weakness is offense. Virginia doesn’t score a lot of points, and rely heavily on shutting down their opponents to win. All it would take for Virginia to stumble in the NCAA tournament, is a team catching fire from the outside. There are times where contested jump shots against Virginia are exactly what they want you to take. However, if a team starts taking them and making them at a high percentage, UVA doesn’t have the firepower to keep up with something like that.
3- North Carolina Tar Heels- coached by Roy Williams. What a job Roy has done with this team. It’s not your typical UNC club, where they play inside out and dominate by using their bigs. The emergence of Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley as players that can come in and provide quality minutes is huge for this club. That being said, there’s 1 thing that any team who’s going to make a big run in March needs- quality guard play. Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson have experience from the last 2 years (consecutive final four runs) and the grit and toughness to win close games. This team could make a 3rd consecutive final four appearance. The emergence of Luke Maye as an outstanding college player is a huge lift for a team in desperate need of another scorer when the season started. The heels have 4 starters that can stroke the 3-ball, Maye, Berry, Kenny Williams, and Pittsburgh graduate-transfer Cameron Johnson can all make the 3. Through the last half of the season, the Heels have really stepped up their defensive play. They can, however, slip back into the late December “lala land” defense we saw from UNC, and have an early exit from the NCAA tournament.
4- Villanova-coached by Jay Wright. What else can we say about this club? This team seems to fight through adversity each year and remain contenders into tourney time. Coach Wright has done an outstanding job getting players to believe in his system and play for the name on the front of the jersey, not the back. Villanova is a complete team, with 4 players averaging double digit points per game this season. Jaylen Brunson is the most complete player in the country. He can score, assist, rebound, and defend. He’s a finalist for the John Wooden award, and deserves a ton of praise. This team fights, and rallies through adversity, but they can be beat. The key to beating Villnova is transition. Don’t allow their defense to get set, because they’re very good in the half-court. Even off of a basket, if a team can push the pace and speed Nova up, taking them out of their element, then the Wildcats could have an early demise.
5- Duke Blue Devils-coached by Mike Krzyzewski. Here’s another blue blood that has taken a “Kentucky” approach of recent years. One-and-dones galore for the Blue Devils. And just a few years ago, (Tyus Jones, Justice Winslow, Jahlil Okafor,) this tactic worked for Duke. This year, the team is led by Marvin Bagley III, who I believe should be the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. He’s a big body, who can stroke the 3, and cannot be stopped down low. Wendell Carter is another diaper dandy who plays down low for the Devils. Freshmen Gary Trent and Trevon Duval take up the backcourt, alongside senior captain Grayson Allen, this team is loaded offensively. They’ve also made great strides in the zone defense they’ve assembled this season. This team is loaded with McDonald’s All Americans. That being said, I mean, come on. It’s worked once for Kentucky, and once for Duke. The key to March is the moment not being too big, experience, and a genuine desire to have one shining moment. Grayson Allen wants to win another national title. But do Bagley III, Carter, Duval, and Trent have enough invested to buy-in to this? They’ve been thinking about draft day since arriving on campus at Duke. If they all want it bad enough, this team can achieve it, if the individuals are looking ahead to their pro careers, then Duke will lose in the second round, a la Lehigh/Mercer.
6- Michigan Wolverines- coached by John Beilein. Athletes, athletes everywhere. Michigan won the big ten tournament by defeating Purdue, and the aforementioned Michigan State Spartans. The Wolverines bring a balanced attack, there’s not a great scorer on this team, with Moritz Wagner leading the way at 14.5 ppg. However this team has depth, athleticism, and balance. 4 players average double-figures in scoring, and this team rebounds well. They play sound defense, not to Virginia’s standards, but they are very active in passing lanes, and one of the nations best teams in converting turnovers into points, a skill that will be necessary to make a deep run. One thing that scares me about Michigan is that they’ve gotten better and better as the year has progressed. Winning the big ten tournament was huge, now they’re ready for a push to the final four. The one thing that could derail this team, is the thing I just mentioned. This team is hot, and playing with a swagger that could lead them to One Shining Moment. Or, a team could come along that brings them back down to earth, quickly. You want to play with confidence, but if the swagger Michigan is playing with turns into an arrogance, to the point that they overlook a team, they could be upset early in the tournament.
7- Cincinnati Bearcats-coached by Mick Cronin. Here’s another team that is blessed with balance, with 4 players averaging double-digit points per game. Cronin has done an outstanding job with this team, and like Cincy teams before them, this team plays with an attitude. A tenacity that has an opportunity to set them apart from the competition. Or, it could be their downfall. We’ve seen instances in the past where players have been in skirmishes, given flagrant or technical fouls because of attitudes. One mental error can completely change the outcome of a game. Someone dives on a lose ball, next thing you know punches are being thrown. As a competitor, you love the hustle, but you have to control it. In a situation where tempers flare, I’m not sure Cincinnati can keep their emotions at bay, and it may be the reason they won’t hang a championship banner.
8- Arizona Wildcats-coached by Sean Miller (for now.) I’ll start with the obvious reason this team could have an early exit in the tournament. We all know about the scandal that involves Miller and freshman superstar Deandre Ayton. If you don’t, you probably don’t understand half the things in this blog. That’s what will make this team lose early. Knowing the feds are paying attention to their every move, and that Ayton won’t be around next year, more than likely neither will Miller. However, Ayton is the second best player in the country, and quite honestly, they could rally around giving Sean Miller a hell of an exit, winning a national title. The same reason they could lose early, they can win the whole thing. It can go either way with Arizona. They crumble under the pressure of an FBI investigation; or, they rally around it to give the FBI a giant middle finger en route to a national championship. Only time will tell.
68 teams, and I’ve narrowed it down to 8 teams with a real chance at cutting down the nets in San Antonio. Read before you fill out your brackets, Go Tar Heels, oh, and let the madness COMMENCE!!!!!!!