March is finally here, which means March Madness, and based off of the season up to this point, plenty of madness will occur. This projects to be the most balanced tournament, with upsets involving team in the top five all year long. Last week, Gabe released a bracketology article, highlighting potential number one and two seeds. Those teams are likely to wind up within those top spots, but who are the real contenders to cut down the nets?
Indiana Hoosiers (23-6)
Following last nights victory over the Iowa Hawkeyes, in Iowa City no less, the Hoosiers became outright BIG 10 Champions, which is a pretty big accomplishment for a conference that could send seven, maybe eight teams to the tournament. Indiana owns one of the most dynamic offenses in the country, spearheaded by senior guard Yogi Ferrell. Indiana has been doing this without scoring star James Blackmon, who was injured back in January and will miss the rest of the season. With Thomas Davis manning the middle, the offense can run from both outside and inside. Indiana’s achilles heel, however, will be their defense. They rank outside the top 100 in points allowed per game and Bryant is anything but a shot blocker around the rim. An off shooting night could spell trouble for Tom Crean’s squad, but Indiana might be the hottest team in the entire country right now.
North Carolina Tarheels (23-6)
An experienced, deep and talented roster is what North Carolina has going for them. Senior Brice Johnson might just take home the ACC Player of the Year, as he’s averaging a double double on the year and is finally showing off his immense potential. Senior guard Marcus Paige might be the best lead guard in the country and Kennedy Meeks, Joel Berry, Justin Jackson and a host of other options give opposing defenses fits. Currently projected as a number one seed by Joe Lunardi of ESPN, North Carolina is one of the favorites to take home the prize. But the ‘Heels have underperformed in recent NCAA tournaments and with multiple seniors leaving after this season and an underwhelming freshman class for next year, this could be Roy Williams’ last chance to get a ring at UNC.
Oklahoma Sooners (22-6)
The Sooners will live and die by Buddy Hield and the three ball. The leader for the Player of the Year has “slumped” a bit recently but is still scoring 25.3 points per game but his three point percentage has slipped to “just” 47%. The senior trio of Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler will be asked to do much of the heavy lifting for the Sooners. There’s no doubt Oklahoma can score the basketball, but after nearly blowing a 21 point halftime lead against Baylor, serious questions about their defense remain. Oklahoma has the potential to make a run to the national title, but they can’t run into a team like Oregon who can really fill it up, or else they could get exposed.
Virginia Cavaliers (22-6)
The theme with all the teams so far has been senior leadership, and with Virginia, its no different. Virginia loves to play a methodical (read as slow) game, relying on their defense to get them wins. Just to back that point up, Virginia only scores 70 points a game, 237th in the country, but allow just 60, third in the country. Seniors Malcolm Brogdon (potential ACC Player of the Year), Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey lead the stingy Cavaliers defense. Probably the least flashy team in the nation, Virginia loves to grind out wins and wear down opponents. Virginia does get into trouble when they get behind, strictly because they don’t have the offensive firepower to mount a comeback. But Virginia is an extremely safe bet to at least make a Final Four run as a projected one seed.
Kansas Jayhawks (25-4)
The number one team in the nation has been the best team from college basketball’s best conference, again. Thirteen straight regular season BIG 12 titles for Bill Self means his team will likely be the number one overall seed in the tournament, but his teams have faltered in recent years after making it to the national championship game in 2012. Perry Ellis has been at Kansas since what seems like 2005, and he’s finally on his way out the door. The senior is aided by juniors Wayne Selden, Brannen Greene and Frank Mason while sophomores DeVonte’ Graham, and Svi Mykhailiuk also provide key minutes on this roster. Kansas is a balanced team, ranking in the top 100 in points for, points against, assists and rebounds. But Kansas will have to prove that they’re not just a regular season darling by taking home their first title since 2008, when Mario Chalmers became an NCAA Tournament folk hero.
Michigan State Spartans (24-5)
In my opinion, the Spartans are the favorites to make it all the way, but they’re only projected a number two seed by Lundari. They have a top three coach in the country and a potential Player of the Year candidate in Denzel Valentine. Valentine is Buddy Hield’s only competition for National Player of the Year, and leads his team in points and assists and is second in rebounds. Not to mention he’s shooting 45% from deep. But he’s not a one man team in East Lansing, with a quality supporting cast of Matt Costello, rising freshman Deyonta Davis, sharpshooter Bryn Forbes (50% from three), and Eron Harris. That core is one of the best in the country, and given Valentine’s all around game, he could take over games in the tournament and lead Sparty to their first championship since 2000.
Cover Photo via LA Times