Misery, Magic, Mayhem: March Madness!
I could go on and on about the pure brilliance of the NCAA tournament and all it represents…but why hear it from me when you saw it for yourself last year! The 2015–2016 basketball season was dominated by senior led teams and culminated in the (doubted by many) Villanova Wildcats’ Kris Jenkins draining a triple at the buzzer to beat UNC 78–75. It was the kind of dream finish we hope this year’s march madness can rival!
But in case you’re just now turning on the college hoops, if last year’s Big Dance felt like getting down to Michael Jackson at your buddies open bar wedding…the 2016–2017 season has felt more like that chaperoned middle school social with that big bowl of red nasty punch that never seems to run out. In other words, it’s been entertaining, but definitely the awkward kind.
How do I mean? Well, to be blunt — nobodies all that good. Sure, there’s plenty of dynamic players and there’s been some fantastic basketball this year (see the 3x UNC/Duke showdowns or any UCLA offensive possession). But even the so-called favorites seem to have big time weaknesses this year. In fact, even the Vegas oddsmakers are having a hard time agreeing who’s a favorite this march.
Somebody has to win though! Which is what make this tournament equally so enticing and so very painful: The team you pick to win it all could be gone just like that! (RIP last year’s Michigan State). So with that let’s end the babbling and get to the good stuff! Below I’ve compiled scouting reports of 14 teams. While a team outside of these 14 could make the final four (scroll way down for list of them), the 14 below are The Usual Suspects.
KANSAS JAYHAWKS (28–4 / 16–2)
The good: Kansas has senior PG Frank Mason III who is a legit candidate for player of the year.
The great: They also has 6–8 slasher Josh Jackson and guard Devonte’ Graham to complete what is probably the best backcourt in the nation.
The bad: KU’s big men (or lack thereof) leave something to be desired to say the least. 6–10 Landen Lucas better stay out of foul trouble.
The ugly: This team has a way of falling behind in the 1st half only to miraculously turn it midway in the 2nd. There’s better traits to have in March.
X-factor: Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (make up your own pronunciation) is a 6–8 sharp shooting Ukrainian. I could also be talking about an assassin from a Jason Bourne movie.
Don’t worry if:
-The Jayhawks shoot well from outside and can keep their best players out of foul trouble.
-Getting out to a nice lead would help too.
Start to panic if:
-Frank Mason III gets really cold
-They go up against a team that can match up well defensively with their guards (West Virginia).
Shocking stat: This is amazingly the 8th straight year Kansas will be a #1 or #2 seed.
Bottom Line: Kansas certainly has the look of a team that could be the National Champion. But doesn’t it feel like we’ve said that for like the last 5 years? They made it to the finals in 2012 but since then have failed to make it past the sweet sixteen 3 of the last 4 years. They come in with something to prove.
North Carolina Tar Heels (27–7 / 14–4)
The good: UNC has like four 6–10 guys. All they do is crash the boards and two of them got some game in the post.
The great: These guys return 3 of 5 starters from last year’s finals team. Point guard Joel Berry III and forward Justin Jackson are both capable of taking over games.
The bad: Having a brain isn’t exactly the tar heels strong suit. Picture the good-looking surfer dude that can rip a wave but has also had his head ripped by a wave one too many times. You can just picture coach Roy Williams doing one of his famous head palms.
The ugly: Carolina managed only 43 points at Virginia a couple weeks ago. I know Virginia likes defense but yikes! That was one of a few different games where this team has looked susceptible to being somewhat shutdown but good defensive teams.
X-factor: Isaiah Hicks. UNC usually wins when he stays on the floor.
Smooth sailing if:
-UNC can fast break (they deadly in transition)
-Face teams that can’t match up with its size (did we mention they are huge?).
-Kennedy Meeks or Isaiah Hicks get in foul trouble.
-They match up against a team they hits outside shots and grabs defensive boards.
-Justin Jackson decides to play passively.
Shocking stat: UNC leads country in rebounding at 43.5 boards a game.
Bottom Line: Most would agree that Carolina has the most talent of any team this year. Unfortunately, it always seems to be not quite with Roy Williams’ teams. But he also deserves a lot of credit for assembling a really talented team. If they do fall short of another deep tourney run, it’ll most likely be because this team beats itself.
Villanova Wildcats (31–3 / 15–3)
The good: Mirroring UNC, Nova returns 3 of 5 starters from last year’s title run including Josh Hart (18.6 ppg) who might be the player of the year and Kris Jenkins (who made the shot last year).
The great: Besides losing twice to pesky Butler, the Wildcats’ record and superiority in a strong Big East suggests they are hungry to repeat as champs.
The bad: This team is not very deep this year so foul trouble or an off night for just one could spell disaster.
The ugly: Villanova has no 6–11 Daniel Ochefu anymore and also misses Ryan Arcidiacono. Much more pressure on the big 3 of Hart, Jenkins, and point guard Jaylen Brunson.
X-factor: Donte DiVincenzo hopes to be the next Ryan Arcidiacono. He’s a scrappy player.
Smooth sailing if:
-Josh Hart takes over and gets good support from Jenkins and Brunson.
-Nova have the bad shooting game they never had last year.
Shocking stat: The last team to repeat as NCAA champs is Florida who did it ten years ago (2006 & 2007).
Bottom Line: I prefer the word expectation over pressure. Because that’s where pressure comes from, right? One year ago Villanova was out to prove it could finally get it done in March. Now, things are different. Everyone including Villanova themselves feel the change. But man, this team is so likable. Jay Wright is a great coach and Josh Hart is really really good at college basketball. I’m rooting for ya’ Villanova!
Gonzaga Bulldogs (32–1 / 17–1)
The good: Apparently everyone wants to transfer to Gonzaga. Nigel Williams-Goss (16.9 ppg), Jordan Matthews (10.4 ppg), and Jonathan Williams (10.2 ppg) are all transfers from Power-5 conferences. None of these 3 were on last year’s team which went to the sweet 16. So yes, this team is better.
The great: Williams-Goss is a fun guard to watch and the Bulldogs have 7–1 Przemek Karnowski who is hard to handle inside. These guys have depth too.
The bad: Not their fault but they play in the west coast conference and got to coast through weak competition in January and February.
The ugly: Mid-major #1 seeds from haven’t fared particularly. 3 years ago, #1 seed Wichita St. lost to #8 seed Kentucky. The year before that, #1 Gonzaga lost to #9 seed Wichita St. Oh boy…
X-factor: Jonathan Williams loves to dunk the ball and the more he does the better.
Smooth sailing if:
-Williams-Goss continues to play like an all-american
-Their strong front-court stays out of foul trouble.
-They remember that they are Gonzaga.
-They face a team that can stretch out its bigs with shooters.
Shocking stat: Gonzaga always has one really weird dude on their team. It’s definitely Przemek Karnowski from Poland who has a lumberjack beard.
Bottom Line: Say what you want about the ZAGS but this team is for real. They are good on both ends of the floor have legitimate weapons with their talented front and back courts. That said, doubting them is understandable. But just remember that Villanova was ignored last year and look what they did. It will take this kind of Final Four run for people to give them respect. Now it’s time for them to come through.
Kentucky Wildcats (29–5 / 16–2)
The good: The SEC may not be terribly strong this year. But UK did its part by scheduling Michigan State, UCLA, UNC, Louisville, and Kansas (2–3 in these). So Coach Cal has tested his team.
The great: Malik Monk is the latest 1 and done Kentucky phenom. He’s totally capable of dropping 30 or 40 any night and his sidekick De-Aaron Fox is another guard that can really play.
The bad: This isn’t close to Calipari’s best team and they don’t seem as explosive as last year’s even.
The ugly: Besides the win over UNC earlier this year, the Wildcats haven’t often looked like a commanding, dominate team, instead scraping by several of their wins in conference play.
X-factor: Derek Willis. Kentucky is much harder to beat if the 6–9 senior takes and makes 3's.
Smooth sailing if:
-Outside shots fall opening up the lane for 6–10 Bam Adebayo who looks like a mini Dwight Howard.
-Malik Monk gets angry and starts scoring like a mad man.
-An opponent somehow can shut down Monk
-UK gets out of rhythm and is forced to play a half-court game and grind it out.
Shocking stat: Kentucky actually gets 16.6% of its points from seniors this year. Pretty big # for a program I didn’t know graduated anyone ever.
Bottom Line: There’s no reason a not as talented Kentucky team can’t advance far in a not as talented college basketball year. UK’s only double digit scorers are 3 freshman, not so uncommon for a Coach Cal team. The simple bottom line is these three (Monk, Fox, Adebayo) need play well. And then play well again…and again…and again…
Duke Blue Devils (27–8 / 11–7)
The good: Duke has weathered multiple injuries earlier in the season and are now healthy and deadly. The Blue Devils are never out of it.
The great: Luke Kennard is the superhero to the Grayson Allen villain. Both can shoot and attack the basket. Freshman Jayson Tatum is scoring at will of late.
The bad: Sure, Duke can look brilliant at times. But because of the early season injuries there are still times where they look like they are still figuring it out.
The ugly: Duke has tall guards but it’s only true big power forward is Amile Jefferson. Look out when they meet teams like UNC that have size.
X-factor: Frank Jackson (10.8 ppg) makes the Blue Devils very hard to beat if he plays well.
Smooth sailing if:
-Grayson Allen keeps his head
-Kennard has been automatic, if Tatum gets going say good-bye.
-Anything bad happens to Luke Kennard
-Duke plays a big athletic team that can guard the parameter (Louisville)
Shocking stat: The Plumlee brothers are all finally gone.
Bottom Line: Duke just become the first team to win 4 games in 4 days at the ACC tournament. And though they were only had a #5 seed there, they seem to have their mojo going. There’s been some big up and downs but I wouldn’t want to play Duke right now.
UCLA Bruins (29–4 / 15–3)
The good: UCLA has the best basketball in college hoops. Heck, they’d probably put up 100 on a couple NBA squads.
The great: Lonzo Ball has a sick name and is sicker baller (sorry). Fellow freshman T.J. Leaf is a matchup nightmare and senior Bryce Alford is absolute money from downtown.
The bad: Have you seen UCLA (try to) play defense? I rest my case.
The ugly: I’m sorry but their defense really is ugly…ok besides that? UCLA is such a different team from last year sometimes they look like a bunch of players running around rather than a team.
X-factor: Could be super 6th man Aaron Holiday but I gotta go with Thomas Welsh. The 7–0 center has the best 12 foot jumper in basketball. Automatic.
Smooth sailing if:
-The Bruins can get enough stops to run n’ gun and get into an offensive flow.
-Lonzo Ball cares more about making UCLA better more than making the scouts salivate
-Bryce Alford has a really bad shooting night.
-The face a defensively minded team that can also score (Arizona).
Shocking stat: UCLA has 6 players averaging over 10 points, the only team who can say that to my knowledge.
Bottom line: It’s not complicated. UCLA is must watch TV because of its dynamic offense. This also makes them a legit national championship contender. The fear is that the Bruins won’t be able to get stops down the stretch when they really need them. At the end of the day, this team will make it even more fun this year. Welcome back UCLA.
Louisville Cardinals (24–8 / 12–6)
The good: The Ville has 2 really good guards in Donovan Mitchell and Quentin Snider. Deng Adel has a phenomenal name and obliterates the rim on dunks.
The great: Louisville is extremely athletic. They have the ability to shut teams down defensively and dominate teams on the glass with their remarkable size and length. They also have good depth.
The bad: When Louisville gets stops they can score on the break. But there’s been times this year that their offense has stalled and they struggle to score.
The ugly: The Cards are a pretty young team and seem like they could be a year away from really arriving. Will anyone step up amidst a tight game?
X-factor: Mangok Mathiang & Anas Mahmoud are both difference makers with their size inside.
Smooth sailing if:
-Donovan Mitchell and Quentin Snider make 3’s to compliment their excellent driving abilities.
-They can get second chance points.
-Deng Adel steps up and becomes a more consistent scorer.
-An opponent gets hot from the outside.
-They continue to struggle making free-throws.
Shocking stat: Coach Rick Pitino is 15–3 in his last 4 NCAA tournaments.
Bottom Line: I’m not a big Rick Pitino fan but I really like Donovan Mitchell and this Louisville team. They play can play really good defensive but also can score in dynamic spurts resulting in a fun style of b-ball. Louisville is just 5–4 in its last 9 games. Is that their youth showing or just a sign of how tough the ACC is? It’s hard to say. This team is hard to judge but Pitino has been good come this time of the year more often than not.
Arizona Wildcats (30–4 / 16–2)
The good: Zona has good size and plays nasty tough D. They go 9 deep with a roster packed full of athletic, versatile players.
The great: 2 0f their 4 losses happened without their leading scorer Allonzo Trier (who is a 6–5 guard that can do it all). Finnish freshman Lauri Markkanen is a 7 footer that can shoot and will probably be a top 10 NBA pick in the draft.
The bad: Like Louisville, Arizona doesn’t have a whole lot of experience with their top 3 scorers being a sophomore, freshman, freshman.
The ugly: Arizona has had a lot of adversity with Trier missing half the season and another player getting hurt before any games started. Maybe the Wildcats feel like they’ve already arrived.
X-factor: Senior Kadeem Allen is great defender and plays the game the right way.
Smooth sailing if:
-They can find consistent scoring rhythm.
-They meet a team that has athleticism to matchup.
-The tempo of the game gets really fast.
Shocking stat: Coach Sean Miller is 0–3 in the elite eight at Arizona with the last 2 losses coming vs Wisconsin in that round.
Bottom Line: This might be the best offensive team that Miller has had. Could this be his team that can finally get to the final four? Arizona doesn’t lose to bad teams and while youthful, this team is going to be tough to take down. They have a big front court with guards that can D up and drive the lane. Let’s see if March is Millertime!
Oregon Ducks (29–5 / 16–2)
The good: Oregon shoots the ball really really well. Although Arizona just beat Oregon in the Pac-12 final, earlier this year Oregon blew them out 85–58 and shot a scorching 16–25 (62%) from beyond the arc.
The great: 6–7 junior Dillon Brooks plays angry & can will Oregon to wins.
The bad: Oregon gets confused offensively if it starts missing shots.
The ugly: Chris Boucher, the Ducks leading shot blocker and a capable scorer just tore his ACL in the Pac-12 tournament semi-final. Big loss.
X-factor: Jordan Bell dunks the ball really hard. It’s fun to watch but also a little frightening. Take cover!
Smooth sailing if:
-The Ducks shoot the three well and get in transition.
-Sophomore Tyler Dorsey plays well.
-Oregon can’t figure out how to play without Boucher.
-The ducks compensate for the loss by chucking up outside shots most possessions.
Shocking stat: Dylan Ennis (10.9 ppg) is a 6th year senior and 25 years old. There’s a splendid article in the NY Times about it.
Bottom Line: The news about Chris Boucher being out with an ACL injury is tough to swallow. Talk about another great story through hardship to the hardwood. But even though it is a hit to their interior defense and scoring, this team is still a balanced and talented squad. They play with passion and coach Dana Altman has led them magnificently. I’ve always been fond of the Ducks. I hope they can find a way.
Baylor Bears (25–7 / 12–6)
The good: BU beat both Oregon and Louisville in their non-conference slate. Really solid wins.
The great: 6–10 Jonathan Motley is a an absolute handful. This team has some real athletes and is one of the best defensive teams in the nation.
The bad: Manu Lecomte is a solid scoring guard but hasn’t shown consistent play game in and game out.
The ugly: Baylor is 5–6 in its past 11 games. Not a good sign for a team that started 15–0.
X-factor: Ishmail Wainwright. The senior is a great all-around player that impacts both ends.
Smooth sailing if:
-They control the tempo of the game
-Jonathan Motley doesn’t have to do it all himself
-Motley gets in foul trouble
Shocking stat: Baylor has been upset in the NCAA tourney in back to back seasons (#5 seed last year and #3 seed in 2015). A third straight time surely must set some kind of record.
Bottom Line: Early on Baylor looked like a legit final four team. Lately though, they haven’t looked awesome. This team is hard to score on and must be tired of early exits in March. They couldn’t dethrone Kansas this year but Baylor is a solid #2 team from the Big 12.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (25–9 / 12–6)
The good: Classic Notre Dame team. Shoots the eyes out and annoys the crap out of you. A lot of upperclassmen on this team.
The great: Undersized forward Bonzie Colson averages a double-double and is a matchup problem. Also, most of their lineup is also a matchup problem with their versatility.
The bad: This team doesn’t blow you away with firepower or send shivers down your spine. They are deadly in a Notre Dame kind of way.
The ugly: They chucked the most 3’s in the ACC. They shoot it well from there but its always worrisome that they will go ice cold.
X-factor: The 6–6 senior Steve Vasturia should be in the Notre Dame hall of fame for being totally Notre Dame-ish. He shoots well and is best described as wily.
Smooth Sailing if:
-They hit shots
-Teams struggle to contain Bonzie Colson and V.J. Beachem.
-They miss shots
-They face an athletic team that pounds the boards.
Shocking stat: Who’s the only team in the country to appear in the last 2 elite eights? Yup, it’s actually Notre Dame.
Bottom Line: The Fighting Irish are a strange conundrum. Picking against them never quite seems right. But placing confidence in them should scare you to death. But Coach Mike Brey is really underrated. Reaching back to back to back elite eights would be an impressive fete and not out of the question. If this team can get there again, who knows how far it can go?
Butler Bulldogs (23–8 / 12–6)
The good: Butler beat Villanova twice this year and also scored W’s over Arizona and Cincinnati.
The great: This team is so Butler. It’s impossible to root against them and they have 3 or 4 players capable of dropping 20 points on any night.
The bad: Their leading scorer Kelan Martin has actually come off the bench the last quarter of the season. Kind of cool but also makes you a little nervous.
The ugly: Lost to Indiana State and St. John’s. Yuck.
X-factor: Andrew Chrabascz is so solid and absolutely encapsulates what it means to be Butler.
Smooth sailing if:
-One or two of there guards get hot.
-They start taking bad shots.
-They face a team with size and/or an elite offense.
Shocking stat: If you pick against Butler you will pay, somehow, someway.
Bottom Line: This Butler team might have more weapons than normal. They have a lot of versatile players that can score. However, can Butler be Butler if they aren’t as much an underdog? I guess we’ll see but Butler basketball being back in March is a beautiful thing.
Florida State Seminoles (25–8 / 12–6)
The good: This team is a younger, less trustworthy UNC. Incredible length and athleticism.
The great: This team loves to drive the lane and Dwayne Bacon and Jonathan Isaac are freshman that can really play.
The bad: This team is young and the seem to either play great or horrible.
The ugly: As a program, FSU is pretty unfamiliar with the NCAA tourney.
X-factor: The entire team’s ability to dunk the basketball with fury.
Smooth sailing if:
-The freshman don’t shy away from the big stage
-It faces a team that has more experience and/or decent size to match up.
Shocking stat: The Seminoles are the tallest team in college basketball. If it feels like everyone is 6–7, well it’s because everyone is.
Bottom Line: So much talent and so many athletes. Nobody will want to play them. Finishing tied for 2nd in the ACC this year was really impressive as well. The downside is that, of the #3 and #4 seeds, Florida State might be the most likely to go home early as a team that hasn’t been in this spot in such a long time.
You Don’t Want To Play US:
Michigan Wolverines: An experienced team that drains the 3-ball. Derrick Walton Jr. is a name to remember.
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders: The team that busted brackets by beating Michigan State as #15 seed is back. And they’re probably better. Giddy Potts has a great name and is a 6–2, 215 pound wrecking ball that is really good.
Florida Gulf Coast Eagles: Dunk city is back! This team played Baylor and Michigan State close and yes, can slam home some serious jams!
Seton Hall: Has some really strong athletes and has some big wins this year.
Northwestern: Has never been to the NCAA tournament! So why not make a run?
Michigan State / Wichita State: Nobody wants to play either of these teams come March.
Nevada: Were down 14 points with 1:10 left and ended up winning in OT. Wow.
Rhode Island: They play with confidence and have good athleticism for a smaller program. If they get rolling watch out.