It’s that time of the year once again. The greatest weekend in college sports will soon be upon us, with 48 basketball games played in a 4-day span. People across the country diligently fill out brackets with Warren Buffett’s billion-dollar prize looming overhead (although probably no one will win it). March Madness is upon us. Here are some quick thoughts:
Team to beat: Florida. Florida, the number one overall seed, is the clear team to beat in the tournament. Billy Donovan’s club is 32-2 and hasn’t lost a game since a last second shot by Shabazz Napier at Connecticut on December 2nd. The Gators cruised through SEC play and boast wins against Kansas and Memphis.
If defense truly wins championships, then the Gators are going to be tough to beat. They boast the third best defense in the country in terms of opponent points per game at 57.9 and rank 11th in defensive efficiency at 89.5 points per 100 possessions. The Gators also hold teams to just 39.9% shooting from the field and create nearly 14 turnovers per game. Look for Scottie Wilbekin and Patric Young to take this Gators team far in the tournament.
Biggest Disappointment: Syracuse. Sitting at 25-0, it seemed like Syracuse was unbeatable. Tyler Ennis’s buzzer beater against Pittsburgh made this seem like a team of destiny. An overtime loss to Boston College changed all of that. In their last seven games, the Orange are a lousy 2-5, with their only two wins coming against teams that will not be in the NCAA tournament.
Syracuse has a good team struggling at the wrong time, but their team efficiency numbers help explain that maybe that 25-0 start was not completely indicative of how good they actually are. They rank 42nd in offensive efficiency and 40th in defensive efficiency; by no means are those bad rankings, but they are not what you would expect out of a team that fancies itself among the best in the country. It’s hard to pick against Jim Boeheim, but if this team can’t regroup, Syracuse could face a disappointing end to a once promising season.
Most to prove: Louisville. The Cardinals were absolutely terrific in AAC conference play and dominated the conference tournament, winning by an average margin of 37 points. Their reward? A four-seed in the tournament. A weak non-conference holds the Cardinals back from a higher seed, but it still seems like a harsh placement.
On paper, the Cardinals are a terrific team. They boast one of the best offense/defense combos in the tournament, scoring 82.1 points per game while only allowing 61. The pressure defense of the Cardinals (causing 17.4 turnovers per game) combined with the scoring ability of Russ Smith have been stellar all year but will have to be proven against more difficult competition. numberFire has them ranked second overall based on their efficiency rankings, and many people feel like Louisville was under-seeded. They’ll have to show that on the court.
Wichita State could easily have been placed here as well. The Shockers’ perfect season is being called into question by a weak regular season schedule. The Shockers have a potential matchup with Louisville in the Sweet 16 which will go a long way toward determining who the best team in a strong Midwest region is.
Cinderella: Oklahoma State. The Cowboys (9th seed in the west) are a very dangerous team that could make a deep run if they can play up to their potential. After a tough seven game losing streak, the Cowboys have pulled it together, winning five of their last seven, including a win against Kansas and overtime losses to Kansas and Big 12 champion Iowa State. The combination of Marcus Smart and Le’Bryan Nash can be extremely hard to contain.
The Cowboys have a matchup with Gonzaga in the round of 64 before a possible duel with Arizona. If they can survive this matchup, Smart and the Cowboys will have a challenging but certainly not impossible road to the Final Four.
Biggest Question: Joel Embiid’s health. When will Joel Embiid be ready for the Jayhawks in the tournament? After losing Embiid to a back injury, the Jayhawks finished the regular season 2-3. Joel Embiid has been terrific for the Jayhawks, averaging 11.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. He has proven to be a game changer on the defensive end for Kansas. Even without Embiid, Andrew Wiggins and the rest of the talented Kansas team will be hard to beat, but Embiid could be the key to making the Jayhawks a true championship contender. When he is able to return could determine the fate of Kansas in this year’s tournament.
The Final Four: While you could make a strong case for why 15 different teams could be crowned champion, only four get to play in Arlington. Here is my best guess at who those four teams will be:
South: Florida. With Syracuse in free-fall and the questions surrounding Embiid, it’s hard to not pick the Gators. Teams like Pittsburgh and UCLA could certainly give them a challenge, but Florida is still the favorite from this part of the bracket.
East: Michigan State. The Spartans are at full health for the first time in awhile and had a good showing in the Big 10 tournament. The Spartans are more talented than Cincinnati and physical enough to upset Virginia (Virginia is ranked 8th in numberFire’s rankings, MSU is 9th), giving them a clear shot at the Elite Eight. There, Michigan State will likely have a tough matchup against either Villanova (ranked 5th by numberFire) or Iowa State. However, Coach Izzo is a fantastic coach, and the Spartans are a strong bet to make the Final Four.
West: Arizona. The Wildcats have taken a step back since losing Brandon Ashley to a midseason injury, but they are still an excellent team that plays tremendous defense, ranking 1st in the nation in defensive efficiency at 86.5 points per 100 possessions. The Wildcats will be looking to bounce back from a loss to UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament championship in a group that is very winnable. They could be faced with challenges against Oklahoma State, Creighton, or Wisconsin, but overall they should be the favorite.
Midwest: Louisville. This year’s “region of death” features so many good teams that it is hard to pick just one. If the AAC tournament is any indication of what is to come, Louisville is the hottest team in the country. Duke and Michigan will be fired up after losses in their respective conference championship games, and Wichita State also has a legitimate shot to make it to Arlington. At the end of the day, I like the Cardinals’ 2nd-ranked defense and Rick Pitino’s coaching to take Louisville back to the Final Four.
Georgetown University Class of 2017