By Adam Lindner | Asst. Sports Editor
Finally, it’s that time of year again. Annually, sports enthusiasts and casual followers everywhere rejoice at the beginning of March as the NCAA basketball regular season winds down and tournament play begins. Now that conference tournaments have ended, seeding has taken place and brackets have promptly been filled out by people all across the country, it’s finally time to see those brackets be inevitably busted. Here’s a look at the favorites that have the best shot of cutting down the nets in Phoenix on April 3.
Duke – Following a dramatic regular season including several injuries to key players, a suspension to Grayson Allen, the month-long absence of Coach K due to back surgery and a few uncharacteristic losses, the Blue Devils are hitting their stride and beginning to realize their enormous potential at the exact right time. Coming off of a four-game winning streak that ended in an ACC tournament championship victory, Coach K’s squad is hot at the perfect time as they look to make it out of the East region and into the Final Four. An offensive attack that features the mercurial yet gifted Allen, potential top-five NBA draft pick Jayson Tatum, ACC POY finalist Luke Kennard and others is more talented than any other team in America. However, the reliability of perimeter shots may haunt the Blue Devils, as one poor shooting game from the outside can leave Duke prone to an upset. Although Duke is red-hot and a favorite in Vegas, always expect the unexpected in March. If Duke can get past the Sweet 16, they’re on a collision course to likely face top-seeded Villanova in the Elite Eight.
Gonzaga – Perennially doubted, the Bulldogs out of the WCC are not to be taken lightly. Led by do-it-all transfer guard Nigel Williams-Goss, the Zags come into March an astounding 32-1. With wins on neutral floors against tournament teams Florida, Iowa State and Pac-12 champion Arizona, concerns about Gonzaga’s softer conference opponents can be minimized as they’ve proven their national relevance in their impressive non-conference slate. California transfer Jordan Matthews can create shots off-the-ball from the perimeter, and forwards Zach Collins and Przemek Karnowski are dominant forces in the paint. Definitely count on Gonzaga’s well-rounded attack to surprise naysayers and to make a deep run into March.
UCLA – The prototypical West Coast-styled team, the run-and-gun Bruins have made a national resurgence this year, thanks namely to the arrival of freshman star guard Lonzo Ball. Seeded third in the South region, UCLA will most likely have to face Kentucky and then UNC – all before reaching the Final Four. However, the darlings of Westwood surely can’t be forgotten this March. A freakishly athletic and fun team to watch, be sure to tune in to UCLA’s games during the tournament whenever you’re capable.
UNC – Coming off of an emotional loss to archrival Duke in the ACC tournament, expect to find a tremendously motivated UNC team heading into the tourney. A fast-paced, yet well-rounded team, many veteran Tar Heels also remember last years’ heartbreaking, last-second loss to Villanova in the national championship game. Led by orchestrating guard Joel Berry II, the Heels are deep, solid and well-rounded. Though Roy Williams’ crew did earn the top seed in the South region, they’re unfortunately accompanied by Kentucky, UCLA, and perennial March sleepers Butler and Wichita State. Getting out of their own region will be their steepest challenge. Expect an inspired Tar Heels squad to have a remarkable showing this March.
Villanova – Although no NCAA team has won back-to-back championships since the University of Florida Gators did it in 2005-06 and 2006-07, Villanova certainly has a viable shot at repeating as national champions. The number one overall seed in the tournament, the Wildcats sport an impressive 31-3 record and are led by largely the same talented core from last year. Battle-tested and proven, senior leader Josh Hart, much-improved sophomore guard Jalen Brunson and clutch senior forward Kris Jenkins hope to lead Villanova to another championship this season. A few potential roadblocks from the East region in the road to the Final Four for the Wildcats stands in second-seeded Duke, on a hot streak of their own, and 10th-seeded Marquette, who beat Villanova on Jan. 24.
While we can speculate as to who has the best chance of winning the tournament this spring, there’s no way of knowing what will happen in the subsequent weeks that lay ahead. If this tourney has taught us anything in years prior, it’s to expect the unexpected. Here are a few sleeper teams I’m looking at as potential usurpers of top seeds.
Michigan – Possibly the hottest team in the country, the unexpected Big Ten champions and 7th-seeded Wolverines ride a five-game winning streak into the tournament. Led by senior lead guard Derrick Walton Jr., Michigan’s maturity may pay dividends for the Wolverines down the stretch as a vast majority of their major contributors are upperclassmen. However, their Round of 64 matchup may potentially be a potential sleeper of their own: Jawun Evans and the 10th-seeded Oklahoma State Cowboys started 0-6 in the Big 12, but has since been one of the hotter teams in the nation.
Rhode Island – The A-10 tournament champions, the Rams are very long, athletic and talented. Headed by star guard E.C. Matthews, Dan Hurley’s Rams have a favorable matchup in their Round of 64 game against 6th-seeded Creighton, and can present a matchup for any top team. Creighton, seeded 6th in the Midwest but without star guard Maurice Watson Jr. due to a torn ACL, lack much of the luster that helped them garner such a high seed. After Creighton, the Rams would most likely be set to face #3-seed Oregon in the Round of 32. Oregon, having just lost key rim protector Chris Boucher to a torn ACL, is a considerably different team having lost Boucher. If Rhody can get past Creighton and then Oregon, look for them to make some noise in a debatably weaker Midwest region.
Although we can contemplate all we want, there’s no telling what’s about to transpire. So, sit back, prepare to shred your bracket, and enjoy the best month of the sports year.