Selections = made. Matchups = set. It’s time for the absolute BEST time of the year for any true sports fan: MARCH. F*CKING. MADNESS. Get ready for a wild two-plus weeks, folks, as this year is setting up to be one of the craziest in recent memory. Three of last year’s Final Four are in the same freaking region. Last year’s champs, Louisville, are somehow a 4-seed. Wichita State is the first team to enter the NCAA Tourney unbeaten since 1991…and not many people truly believe in them. There are all sorts of intriguing storylines at play this year, and while I’ll leave the actual bracket picks up for your own interpretation, here are all 68 teams that made the field, grouped into categories by their chances to cut down the nets on April 7th, according to strength. For what it’s worth, my bracket will probably include far more wishful thinking.
But nonetheless: Ready, set, GO.
-Count Them Out Now
#68 – Cal Poly (16): No 16-seed has ever beaten a 1-seed. Cal Poly, at a ridiculous 13-19, is one of the worst teams to ever qualify for the Dance. If they get by Texas Southern in the play-in game, they’ll be sent packing by Wichita State in a hurry.
#67 – Mount Saint Mary’s (16): No 16-seed has ever beaten a 1-seed. If Mount Saint Mary’s gets by Albany in the play-in game, that’s the last stop on this train, as they would be faced with #1 overall Florida.
#66 – Albany (16): No 16-seed has ever beaten a 1-seed. If Albany beats Mount Saint Mary’s, they’ll be devoured by the Gators, too.
#65 – Texas Southern (16): No 16-seed has ever beaten a 1-seed. Texas Southern should beat Cal Poly, but staying within 20 of Wichita State would be a victory.
#64 – Weber State (16): No 16-seed has ever beaten a 1-seed. Have fun against Arizona, guys. Make the most of it. Smile for the camera!
#63 – Coastal Carolina (16): No 16-seed has ever beaten a 1-seed. Virginia isn’t going to be the first #1 to fall. Enjoy it while it lasts!
#62 – UW-Milwaukee (15): Pretty impressive to even make the tourney for this team, as they were picked to finish LAST in their conference in the preseason, but here the Panthers are. Too bad they have to deal with Villanova in their first game. Better luck next year!
#61 – Wofford (15): The Terriers finished third in the SOCON in the regular season, but made a gritty run to win the conference tourney. That’s cool and all, but you need more than grit to beat Michigan. Nice to know you, Wofford.
#60 – American (15): It would be really American if American was America’s team and made a deep run as a huge underdog. But I hear Wisconsin doesn’t like patriotism. The Eagles will fly back home in a hurry.
#59 – Lousiana-Lafayette (14): The Ragin’ Cajuns are a good mid-major team, and beat a previously-undefeated-in-conference-play Georgia State team by one point to advance to the Dance. However, beating Georgia State isn’t the same thing as beating Creighton, which is what the Ragin’ Cajuns would have to do to advance. An 0-2 record against top-50 teams isn’t a good omen…especially when those two games were decided by a combined 58 points. Adios, Cajuns. We hardly knew ya.
#58 – Manhattan (13): The Jaspers only have 7 losses on the season, and only one of those losses was by more than six points. Pretty impressive. Too bad they have to play the defending champs, who are peaking at the perfect time, in their opener. Sorry, Manhattan, but Louisville isn’t bowing out this early.
#57 – Tulsa (13): Tulsa has 11 straight wins heading into their tilt with UCLA, but they also have some atrocious losses (see: losing to godawful TCU…twice). There’s something to be said for finishing well, but there’s also something to be said for being 0-4 against BPI top-50 teams, losing 3 of those 4 by double digits. UCLA is coming off a win against the #4 team in the country. They won’t be stopped by the Golden Hurricane. Sorry, Danny Manning.
-Good Conferences Only Get You So Far
#56 – Iowa (11): Iowa is heading the wrong direction. Losers of 6 of their last 7, with the sole victory coming at home against Big 10 bottom-feeder Purdue, Iowa is playing their worst ball at the worst time. Count on the Hawkeyes losing to Tennessee in the play-in game, and even if they win, UMass should handle them. Iowa will not make it to next weekend.
#55 – Xavier (12): Xavier is a perpetual tourney team who missed the 2013 Dance but this year’s group is underwhelming. After starting the season at 13-3, highlighted by a dominating win over Cincinnati, the Musketeers went 8-9 down the stretch, losing ugly games to Georgetown and Marquette. Xavier has plenty of weapons, but it hasn’t come together this year. NC State should shoot the Musketeers down in the play-in game.
#54 – Nebraska (11): Outside of Wisconsin and two teams in the state of Michigan, this is a down year for the Big 10. Many have argued that Nebraska doesn’t deserve inclusion in the field at all, but alas, the Big 10’s surprise team is here. Nebraska falls outside the top-50 of the BPI, and “boasts” a lousy 3-8 record against the top-50 on the season. Wins against Ohio State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin are impressive, sure, as is the Huskers’ strong finish to the season. But Nebraska also lost by double digits to the likes of Illinois and UAB, and dropped more games to also-rans such as Purdue and Penn State. Terran Petteway is a baller for sure, but Nebraska ain’t keeping up with a red-hot Baylor squad.
-Crazier Things Have Happened…
#53 – Eastern Kentucky (15): Ok, so this is the only 15-seed I’m not completely writing off, but automatically counting 15-seeds out has been a bad idea the last two years; there have been three 15/2 upsets in the last two years, including Florida Gulf Coast’s incredible Sweet Sixteen run last season. So while 15/2 upsets are very, very unlikely in general, I think Eastern Kentucky has the best chance to make it three straight years with a colossal upset. The Colonels are an interesting team – they score in bunches, shoot the freaking lights OUT, jack up threes with ridiculous frequency…and don’t even attempt to rebound. They’ll play a Kansas team missing one of its two star players in Joel Embiid; a team that has struggled with consistency this year, despite its immense talent. I’m not saying EKU will win, but I think they’ll give the Jayhawks all that they can handle.
#52 – Delaware (13): The Blue Hens don’t have a name that conjures up fear in their opponents, but they do have the Devon-Davon combo. Devon Saddler and Davon Usher, both senior guards, average over 19 points-per-game apiece. In March, senior leadership and good guard play can often be the difference, and the Blue Hens have the complete package with these two dudes. However, they take on Tom Izzo‘s Spartans in the opening round, and unfortunately, Michigan State isn’t lacking in senior leadership or backcourt prowess, either. Look for Delaware to put up a fight, but come up a little short.
#51 – Mercer (14): The Bears are a good, senior-laden team, lead by outstanding guard Langston Hall. Duke has been vulnerable this year, losing to mediocre squads like Notre Dame, Wake Forest, and Clemson. Unfortunately for Mercer, their strengths are also strengths for the Blue Devils. This matchup should be high-scoring, but Duke should ultimately prevail.
#50 – North Carolina Central (14): N.C. Central has won twenty straight games. N.C. Central hasn’t lost since January 11th. N.C. Central played Wichita State and Cincinnati pretty tight, and they beat N.C. State. N.C. Central is, by most measures, and excellent basketball team. Unfortunately, they have to deal with Iowa State’s three-headed monster of Kane, Ejim, and Niang in their first game. Can this underdog handle the Cyclones’ athleticism? Time will tell.
#49 – Western Michigan (14): The Broncos, fresh off their absolute THRASHING of the MAC’s top-seeded Toledo, come into the tourney with tons of momentum. Their first round foe, Syracuse, has lived on the edge all season long (seriously, was there a game they DIDN’T win on a buzzer-beater?) and has struggled mightily of late. Western Michigan has the best chance to pull an upset of any 14-seed this year.
#48 – New Mexico State (13): Any team that boasts the tallest lineup in America can’t be counted out. The Aggies, led by absolute behemoth Sim Bhullar (7’5″, 355 lbs.) score in bunches, hit the glass hard, and block a lot of shots. They’re also incredibly efficient, shooting the 9th best percentage in the country from the field. However, taking on SDSU in the first round is a tough task; the Aztecs’ suffocating defense will make it very difficult for the Aggies to advance…but not impossible.
#47 – Tennessee (11): Ah, the great enigma of the the Tennessee Volunteers. These guys led at halftime at Wichita State, played Florida tough in 2 of 3 matchups, and beat the HELL out of 1-seed Virginia right before the New Year (The Vols beat the Cavaliers by THIRTY FREAKING FIVE!!!!). But Tennessee also lost to Texas A&M twice, Vandy once, and finished fourth in a weak SEC. When they’re on, the Vols are a good team that rebounds well and plays solid D. But when they’re off? Anything is possible. Tennessee should get by Iowa, but after that, it’s anyone’s guess.
-The Danger Zone
#46 – Stephen F. Austin (12) Nearly every year, some random double-digit seed makes a miraculous run to the Sweet Sixteen. Every team in this section is capable of such a run. Your first challenger? The Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks. And man oh man, do I hate the seeding committee sometimes. Pitting mid-major darlings VCU against an explosive mid-major up-and-comer? Cruel. Beating VCU would be a lot to ask from the Lumberjacks, but they might just be equipped to do it. Stephen F. Austin has won TWENTY-EIGHT STRAIGHT GAMES, winning the vast majority by double digits. They’re balanced on offense and defense, and have been unstoppable for most of the season. The bad news? The Lumberjacks have faced only one top-100 team this year – Texas – and they lost by ten. This is a good team, but how much will that 284th ranked schedule prove to be a factor? Danger Meter: (3 George Masons).
#45 – N.C. State (12): T.J. Warren is like…good. Really good. And for that reason alone, the Wolfpack are a dangerous team. They’ve been all sorts of inconsistent this year, but look for them to beat Xavier, and then go as far as Warren can take them. Which could be pretty far. Did I mention he’s really good? Danger Meter: (4 George Masons)
#44 – George Washington (9): Despite that nice, shiny 9-seed, I actually like George Washington a little less than the next two teams here. The Colonials have some nice wins, including a neutral-site victory over Creighton, but they’ve faded a little down the stretch, ending with a drubbing against VCU in the A-10 Tourney. The A-10 is criminally underrated, but George Washington isn’t the most-dangerous group to come out of it. Danger Meter: (5 George Masons)
#43 – Dayton (11): Ladies and gentlemen, the Dayton Flyers. After narrowly missing the tourney the past few years, Dayton finally got the nod, and will take on in-state rival Ohio State in round 1. Dayton came a missed foul call short of beating St. Joe’s, who went on to beat VCU and win the A-10. The Flyers are sneaky-good: 4-3 against the BPI top-50, and 9-7 against the top-100. They beat Gonzaga, went 1-1 against St. Louis, and gave Baylor all they could handle. They haven’t lost to a team named anything other than the Hawks since January. Dayton (and the A-10, for that matter) is a lot more legit than you think. Danger Meter: (6 George Masons)
#42 – St. Joseph’s (10): So I like Dayton, and this is a team that beat the Flyers THREE times this season. The Hawks are fresh off of beating VCU for the A-10 Championship, and own a 6-5 record against top-50 competition, while going 9-7 against top-100 squads. Did I mention the A-10 is underrated? (Relatedly, has anyone even stopped to realize that GEORGE MASON IS AN A-10 TEAM!?) The UConn team the Hawks play isn’t the UConn teams of the past. The Hawks will advance and play Villanova, looking to avenge a 30-point STOMPING the Wildcats gave them in December. Danger Meter: (6 George Masons)
#41 – North Dakota State (12): The Bison are not going to be a fun matchup for anyone. North Dakota State shoots the highest percentage of anyone in the nation from the field, they score a lot, and they hold their opponents to below-average days as well. Oklahoma, their first round foe, has been a nice story this year, but look for the Bison to pull upset. Danger Meter: (6 George Masons)
#40 – Harvard (12): Harvard didn’t make a run last year, per se, but they did shock the world as a 14-seed by beating 3-seed New Mexico in the opening round. And this year’s Crimson is a lot better than the 2o13 version, having lost 4 times all season. Their first round opponent, Cincinnati, is prone to offensive droughts, and Harvard will be happy to capitalize. Danger Meter: (7 George Masons)
#39 – Providence (11): The Friars played the 20th-hardest schedule in America…and with very mixed results. Providence beat Creighton in 2 of their 3 contests, played an absurd 6 overtime games (including 4 in 2OT), and somehow won the Big East Tourney. They have a bona fide STUD in senior guard Bryce Cotton, and they’ve been battle-tested playing their brutal schedule. Will Providence bring their best and shock North Carolina? I think so. And after that, there’s no telling how far Cotton and the Friars can go. This is a hot team that could make a serious run. Danger Meter: (8 George Masons).
-Big Names, Short Stays
#38 – Arizona State (10): Yeah, they beat Arizona. But they just received a smackdown from Stanford (more on them in a second), and they’re only 4-7 against the BPI top-50. Meh. If I show you blind resumes, I think you’re taking several of the above-referenced teams over the Sun Devils. I think they’ll bow out before the Sweet Sixteen, if not immediately to Texas.
#37 – Stanford (10): The Pac-12 is getting a little too much credit this year. It was a good, solid, top-to-bottom conference all year long, but I just don’t see Stanford doing much either. Not against a hungry New Mexico team that wants to erase the memory of last year’s loss to Harvard. Stanford has a deep, senior team, but a 7-11 record against the BPI top-100 reeks of mediocrity.
#36 – BYU (10): Not diggin’ this year’s 10-seeds. I’d be surprised if any of them except St. Joe’s advance. BYU is just not that good…only 3-7 against the top-50, and some pretty UGLY losses…including a double-digit embarrassment against Loyola Marymount. I’d be surprised if they get by Oregon.
#35 – Colorado (8): This hurts to write, because I live in Boulder, and the Buffs had the potential to be a MINIMUM of a Sweet Sixteen team this year…until star player Spencer Dinwiddie tore his ACL. Since then, the Buffs have been nothing short of mediocre, going exactly .500 since Dinwiddie was injured (counting the game in which he got hurt). It seems as though the Buffs will have to wonder what could have been this year, but thankfully, they’ve got a young, talented core that will be back for the next few seasons.
#34 – Gonzaga (8): The Zags are a talented team, but they aren’t the dominant juggernaut of Gonzaga teams past. With a banged-up Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga has looked shaky at times, and I don’t think they’ll be able to match up with a crazy-athletic Oklahoma State team led by the incomparable Marcus Smart.
#33 – Memphis (8): The Tigers are as athletic and talented as ever, yet they’re still struggling with a maddening inconsistency, going only 5-8 against BPI top-50 competition this season. They were less-than-impressive down the stretch, losing to Houston and getting crushed by UConn and Cincinnati. If Memphis gets past George Washington, Virginia will subdue the Tigers.
#32 – UConn (7): UConn has been a nice story, as they’ve returned to the tourney one year after being forced to sit out the postseason due to violations. The Huskies have undeniable talent with Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright, and Co, but I can’t see them getting by Villanova, even if they beat St. Joe’s. UConn took a big step in the right direction, but I think they’re still a year away from real relevance.
#31 – Texas (7): The Longhorns have been as mercurial as anyone, stringing together 3-1 streaks with 1-3 streaks at will. Texas has the talent, and I think they’ll get by Arizona State without too much trouble, but beating Michigan is a lot to ask of Rick Barnes’ team this year. Look for the ‘Horns to bow out in the Round of 32.
#30 – Kansas State (9): Marcus Foster is a stud and Kansas State has an impressive resume, no doubt. But losing three straight wasn’t the best way for the Wildcats to end the season, especially when a matchup with preseason #1 Kentucky is looming. K-State will put up a fight, but I don’t see them beating the Wildcats in blue.
#29 – Ohio State (6): Ya know, it’s hard for me to trust a team that’s 4-4 against the top-50, lost four straight games at one point, and has struggled to put teams away. It’s harder for me to trust a team that can’t score (208th in the nation in points per game). It’s REALLY hard for me to trust a team that has those qualities when you add in the fact that they play Dayton in the opening round. I like Dayton. Ohio State will not like Dayton. Flyers win.
#28 – Oklahoma (5): Not sure how the Sooners got a 5-seed. This team likes to score a lot (7th nationally) but their defense is an absolute sieve (308th nationally). They open up against a North Dakota State team that shoots the highest percentage in the country. Did I mention Oklahoma also allows opponents to shoot 44% from the field? This is bad news for the Sooners. They’ll be out sooner than you think (sorry, I had to).
#27 – North Carolina (6): The Tar Heels had been looking great down the stretch…until they finished the season getting spanked by Duke and then losing to Pitt in their first ACC Tournament game. The Tar Heels aren’t bad, as they’ve gone 7-5 against the top-50, but they do have some ugly losses (UAB…eww). This is more about the fact that I like Providence. Even if the Heels hold off the Friars, they don’t have it in them to beat Iowa State.
#26 – UMass (6): UMass finished fifth in the A-10…and got a 6-seed!? The Minutemen’s best win was over New Mexico, convincingly, on November 22nd. Yes, four freaking months ago. In 2014, the Minutemen have been much less impressive, playing so-so basketball and losing to the likes of George Mason and Richmond. I don’t see anything to make me believe UMass can hang with Duke…and if Tennessee wins their play-in game, lookout: the Vols can handle UMass.
#25 – St. Louis (5): Until three weeks ago, the Billikens were unstoppable. After starting 6-2, with their only losses to Wichita State and Wisconsin – respectable to say the least – St. Louis ripped off 19 straight wins. Then, out of nowhere, the Billikens caught a case of the sucks. They ended their streak with a godawful loss to lowly Duquesne (at home, no less), and then proceeded to lose three of their last four regular season games before getting bounced by St. Bonaventure in the first round of the A-10 tourney. Ouch. If NC State gets by Xavier, they’re definitely capable of beating a reeling Billikens squad. If St. Louis survives that, Louisville should end their misery.
#24 – Cincinnati (5): Cincinnati is a good team. Sean Kilpatrick is a legit star. But this is an ugly team to watch at times, as they simply hate scoring. Harvard, their first round opponent, can beat Cincy at its own game. The Bearcats love to play suffocating defense and force opponents to play slow, sloppy basketball. Harvard excels in the same areas, as both teams rank in the top-20 in PPG allowed and steals. However, Harvard simply scores much more efficiently than Cincinnati. The Bearcats could definitely prove me wrong, but if I were Cincinnati, I would hate this matchup. Even if they win, Michigan State likely awaits. Joy.
#23 – Oregon (7): The Ducks are an interesting bunch. Last year, as a 12-seed, the Ducks knocked off 5-seed Oklahoma State and 4-seed St. Louis to crash the Sweet Sixteen. This year’s team is much better. The Ducks rank a lofty 20th in the BPI, and own an 11-8 record against top-100 competition. Their first round opponent, BYU, is underwhelming. Potential second-round foe, Wisconsin, has been shaky at times. Can the Ducks pull off another shocker in the round of 32?
#22 – Pittsburgh (9): The Panthers are perpetual tourney choke-artists, but a friendly first round matchup against the ailing Colorado Buffaloes might be exactly what they need to get over the first round hump. An impressive 13th in the BPI, Pitt is loaded with talent, and their schedule is littered with close losses to top teams. If the Panthers can knock off the Buffs, they’ll be ready for Florida; they’ve already come extremely close to beating Virginia and Syracuse this year.
#21 – New Mexico (7): The Lobos were a 3-seed last year when they ruined America’s collective bracket by getting upended by Harvard in the opening round of the tourney. This year’s squad is still loaded with talent; Tony Snell left for the NBA, but the Lobos return electric guard Kendall Williams, scoring forward Cameron Bairstow, and 7-footer Alex Kirk, amongst others. The Lobos are an impressive 10-3 against the top-100, and they seem to be peaking at the right time, as they just notched an impressive victory over San Diego State to claim their third consecutive Mountain West title. It might take some self-reflection to trust the Lobos after last year’s disaster, but this is a deep, senior team that will do anything to avoid another disappointment. New Mexico can make a run.
#20 – Baylor (6): Another veteran team that is coming together at the right time, the Baylor Bears are poised to make a run. Finally healthy, the bears feature an upperclassmen-heavy squad that includes standouts Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin. The Bears have been hard to figure out; they jumped out to a 12-1 start, then lost 8 of 10, before finishing the season 11-2. So it’s really a question of which Baylor team shows up in the dance. Baylor was an even 9-9 against the top-50, so how they fair seems to be a coin flip. But make no mistake: the Bears have the talent and athleticism to hang with anyone…just ask Kentucky.
#19 – Kentucky (8): Yeah, Kentucky. The preseason #1 team. The youngest team in the entire country. The Wildcats are one giant cluster of conflicting information. They rank 10th in the BPI, but are only 3-8 against the top-50. They lost to (gulp) South Carolina, but just came within one point of beating Florida. We know the talent is there: there’s a reason this young, YOUNG team was ranked #1 to start the season. Can the Wildcats put it all together, though? That, my friends, is the question. If they can…watch out.
#18 – Virginia Commonwealth (5): Is it even fair to call VCU a sleeper? They aren’t exactly strangers to the Big Dance – or the Final Four, for that matter. Yet again, VCU is a dangerous matchup for any opponent in the land; their first in steals yet again, they beat Virginia in Charlottesville, and they still have Shaka Smart calling the shots (his last name is accurate). How far can HAVOC go? Well, the sky is the limit.
#17 – Oklahoma State (9): Don’t let that 9-seed fool you – the Cowboys are as dangerous as they come. They have underachieved horrendously this year, but Marcus Smart might just be the best player in America, and Markel Brown and Le’Bryan Nash are no slackers, either. On paper, the Cowboys might be the most talented team in the country. Okie State only has one bad loss – the infamous “shove game” against Texas Tech – but they’ve come up short repeatedly in matchups with top teams, many times in overtime. Maybe it’s a lack of clutch, maybe it’s just bad luck – but whatever the case, if the Cowboys can flip the switch, they are straight-up lethal.
#16 – Syracuse (3): Has there ever been a team seeded this high that you can trust any less? Syracuse is a study in living on the edge. The numbers are there, no doubt, as is the talent. Jim Boeheim’s squad is deep, talented, and versatile…they’re just terrifying. They’ve had 15 games decided by single digits. All but two of their games were decided by buzzer-beaters (that’s false but seems about right). Syracuse lost to Boston Freaking College (AT HOME!), and got SMOKED by Virginia in the last month. They went 2-5 down the stretch. I don’t trust them. I don’t think they’re getting to the Sweet Sixteen; they’ll probably fall on a buzzer-beater.
#15 – San Diego State (4): SDSU plays some of the best defense in the country, but they’re allergic to scoring at times, coming in 196th in points-per-game. SDSU also has a very “meh” 3-3 record versus the top-50 BPI teams. I guess we’ll see if the old “defense wins championships” adage is accurate. I think the Aztecs will make it to the second weekend, but beating Arizona, or possibly Oklahoma State, would be a tall task.
#14 – Michigan (2): How is Michigan a 2-seed? This is not last year’s Michigan team, folks. 8-6 against the top-50, while playing the 11th-hardest schedule in America is nice, but the Wolverines lost every marquee non-conference matchup they played this year, getting bested by Arizona, Duke, and Iowa State. I mean, they beat Stanford and Florida State by a combined 5 points if you think those victories are impressive. Frankly though, assessing Michigan comes down to what you think of the Big 10. And I think it’s overrated as hell. Don’t be surprised if the Wolverines fall to Texas, but if they make the second weekend, Duke will send them packing, just as they did in December.
#13 – UCLA (4): I don’t know where to put this Bruins team. They just ripped off three straight wins, including a victory over 1-seed Arizona, to win the Pac 12 Tournament. Before that? They lost by EIGHTEEN to a Washington State team that finished 3-15 in conference play. Lolwut. The talent is there, but is the toughness and consistency? I think not. UCLA could definitely fall to VCU, but they ain’t getting by Florida in any case.
#12 – Duke (3): Ranked 8th in BPI, led by Coach K, and led by phenom Jabari Parker, there’s a lot to like about Duke. But then there are the losses to Clemson, Wake Forest, and Notre Dame. Duke can score with ease, but pretty much eschews rebounding entirely, something that will prevent them from being a serious title contender this year. I think the Dookies outer-limit is the Elite Eight.
#11 – Virginia (1): Virginia is a nice story, coming out of nowhere to win the ACC and get a 1-seed for the Dance. The Cavaliers have only lost 2 games in the New Year, but they didn’t exactly look like gangbusters through the early part of the season, losing to VCU and Wisconsin, and getting absolutely obliterated by Tennessee. What makes Virginia great is their suffocating defense, ranked first in the entire nation in PPG allowed. However, their potential Sweet Sixteen foes, Michigan State and Cincinnati aren’t exactly slackers on the defensive end, and if Michigan State is the opponent, the Cavaliers are simply less talented. They’ll make a surprisingly early exit.
#10 – Kansas (2): On paper, the Jayhawks are probably the country’s most-talented team, led by freshman studs Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. However, Embiid is injured, and his availability isn’t entirely known; he’ll miss the Jayhawks’ first game at a minimum. Even with Embiid healthy, Kansas has been a strange team to follow for most of the year. When they’re on, they are ON, looking nothing short of unstoppable at times (see: blowouts of Duke, New Mexico, Texas, and K-State), but when they’re off, they can struggle mightily (see: double-digit losses to Iowa State and Texas). For whatever reason, the Jayhawks haven’t been able to put it all together this year, despite their unmatched talent. I think Embiid is injured enough to put a serious dent in Kansas’ chances, and I just don’t see them getting to the Final Four…if they even come close.
#9 – Wisconsin (2): Ok, you got me: I don’t trust the Big 10 this year. I also don’t trust teams that don’t display consistency. Wisconsin, despite a mostly-impressive season, had a heinous 1-5 stretch this season that included losses to Northwestern, Indiana, and Minnesota. They then strung together 7 straight wins, with many of those coming against ranked teams, before dropping 2 of their final 3 to end the season. Sorry Badger fans, but that kind of variance is the shit that lands you in hot water in March. And I hear Oregon’s Ducks are quite fond of water…
#8 – Creighton (3): Doug McDermott is an absolute monster. Creighton has the experience, the senior leadership, the shooting, and the poise. But still, I just don’t see the Jays getting all the way to Texas for the Final Four. They’re only 7-6 against the top-50 and they’ve lost like pedestrian teams like St. John’s and Georgetown relatively recently. The Jays will go as far as Doug can carry them, which could be all the way, but should they meet a defensive-minded team (SDSU, Wisco) or a team with superior athletic ability (Baylor, OK State, Arizona), I don’t think the Jays will get it done.
#7 – Iowa State (3): It’s hard to find a more talented threesome (unless you’re talking about Keira Knightley, Natalie Portman, and myself) than the trio of DeAndre Kane, Georges Niang, and Melvin Ejim. The Cyclones are a force to be reckoned with, cruising to the Big 12 title over the aforementioned Jayhawks and Baylor Bears. Iowa State handled the nation’s second-toughest schedule
#6 – Villanova (2): Villanova is very good, and the Wildcats are getting the least love of any 2-seed in recent memory. A loss to lowly Seton Hall in their most recent game – a loss that eliminated them from the Big East – tourney, is probably a large reason. The two absolute BLOWOUT losses to Creighton don’t help either (and boy oh boy were they BLOWOUTS). Nonetheless, against teams that don’t have Doug McDermott, the Wildcats are 28-2. They’ve beaten Kansas on a neutral floor. The Cats are balanced and do everything well on both ends of the floor, and could make a deep run…but what happens if they meet Iowa State, a team that can shoot and score from anywhere? Hopefully we’ll get to see.
#5 – Michigan State (4): I’m not as sold on the Spartans as the rest of the world is, apparently. Yeah, they’ve had plenty of injuries, and yeah, they’re playing their best ball at the right time of year. But Sparty hasn’t been the picture of dominance this year, and they’re only 7-6 since the beginning of February. The Spartans certainly have the talent, coaching, and experience, but I’m not so sure they’re any better than Nova or Iowa State, and they’ll probably have to beat one of them if they want to make the Final Four.
#4 – Louisville (4): There is no team in the country playing better than the Cardinals right now, and that is a terrifying prospect…you know, since they’re the defending champs. The committee must really hate Wichita State to put Louisville as an absurdly-low 4-seed in their region. To say the Cardinals are not one of the top-12 teams in America is a farce. Ranked 4th in the BPI, Louisville returns many key contributors from last year’s championship squad – notably Russ Smith. Rick Pitino is still coaching, and still one of the game’s elite minds. Louisville’s only flaw is the fact that they lost to Memphis twice, but thankfully, the Tigers shouldn’t be on the Cardinals’ road to the Final Four. Anyone who saw Louisville’s merciless run through the American Tournament (including a PASTING of Rutgers, 92-31 – the most lopsided conference tournament game in 50+ years) knows that the Cardinals are peaking at the right time. We seem destined for a Sweet Sixteen clash between the Cardinals and Shockers, which is frankly unfair, because I think these are two of the top-5 teams in America. In any case, pencil the Louisville – Wichita State winner into your Final Four.
#3 – Arizona (1): The Wildcats are #1 in the BPI, and have lost four times all season long, including a nail-biter to UCLA in the Pac 12 championship game. Those four losses have come by a combined 16 points, and none of them were legitimately bad losses; their “worst” defeat was a 2-point at Cal, who would have made the tourney with one more victory. Led by the dominant duo of Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon, the Wildcats are big, strong, athletic, and tough. They play suffocating defense and complement it with efficient offense. They had one loss by more than 3 points, and 16 wins by more than 20 points. They’ve beaten Michigan, Duke, and SDSU in non-conference. They’ve beaten every Pac 12 tourney qualifier at least once. The Wildcats have as good a shot as anyone to be cutting down the nets on April 7th.
#2 – Florida (1): At 32-2, the Gators have lost twice, by a combined 7 points. Both losses came to tourney teams in Wisconsin and UConn. The Gators have not lost a basketball game since December 2nd, putting together 26 consecutive wins over the likes of Kansas, Kentucky, and Memphis, as well as a bunch of mediocre SEC teams. That’s the only possible knock on Florida; the SEC is Weak (with a capital W). But the Gators, led by Casey Prather are deep, tough, and talented as anyone in the country. Billy Donovan has been here a few times before, too. It would be nothing short of shocking if Florida doesn’t advance to the Final Four.
#1 – Wichita State (1): And finally, the Shockers, my favorite name in all of sports – for the sexual connotation and the way they constantly shock the world. Almost nobody is picking Wichita State to cut down the nets in North Texas, and I can’t blame them; the seeding committee rewarded a 34-0 season by placing Wichita State in a bracket with Louisville, Duke, and Michigan. Yikes. Mid-major teams just continue to have the deck stacked against them. But fear not, Shocker fans: Wichita State is LEGIT. The Shockers return nearly everyone from last year’s Final Four team, who came thisclose to beating eventual champion Louisville. What Wichita State lacks in size and athleticism, they make up for in toughness, grit, and heart. Plus, they’re really good at playing basketball. The Missouri Valley Conference may not be the ACC, but the Shockers did plenty in their non-conference slate, beating tourney teams BYU, Tennessee, St. Louis, Tulsa, and N.C. Central with relative ease. They then breezed through their conference slate, only really being tested one time, by Missouri State. The Shockers play great D, force turnovers, and hit the glass hard on both ends of the court, and they’re a good offensive team too. Make no mistake, the Shockers are one of the most complete teams in America, and going undefeated is no easy task, no matter what conference you call home. It’s a shame that Wichita State faces a veritable gauntlet of elite teams on their path to the Final Four, but the Shockers can absolutely get it done.
Tags : Athletics, Basketball, College, college sports, Danny Manning, featured, FloRida, Iowa, March, March Madness, Michigan, Michigan State, NCAA, NCAA Basketball, NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship, NCAA Tourney, Nebraska, sports, Sports Takes, Tom Izzo, Wichita State, Wichita State University, Wisconsin
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