With Selection Sunday in the books and March Madness only one day away, there is no better time to preview the biggest tournament in college sports. Every year, there seems to be a clear-cut favorite to win it all which is why this years’ tournament is so exciting. There really is no team that has shown they are head and shoulders better than the rest of the field. There is not really a team that, if they do not win it all it is a complete disappointment, as we have seen in some past years in teams like Gonzaga in 2020-21 as well as Kentucky in 2015-16. There are also some great storylines headed into the big dance this year, and it is always fun to investigate them.
First, the depth in this tournament is truly unlike anything that has been seen before. There is no doubt that there are teams worthy of better seeding than they received. Starting with Texas A&M, a team that was ranked for most of their campaign. They ended the season off strong beating Alabama in their last regular season game and then defeating a tough Arkansas squad along with a hot Vanderbilt team, falling short of an SEC tournament championship to Brandon Miller and Nate Oats’ Crimson Tide squad. With a 25-9 record in one of the best conferences in college basketball, a 7-seed seems like it is not fair. In-conference program Kentucky received a 6-seed with a worse resume and a more inconsistent season, really showing that there are so many teams with great resumes along with the observation that there are potential biases to other, more respected basketball programs. Too continue, A&M received a first-round matchup of Penn St, another team that is hot right now and advanced to their conference championship game, falling short to Purdue.
Purdue the riskiest 1-seed?
Another storyline is Purdue and how they are easily the most vulnerable 1-seed in the tournament. First of all, they have shown that they can win big games, as they were dominant in non-conference play to start the season. Skepticism arose though, as some unexpected games were dropped in Big 10 conference play along with being swept by their biggest rival, the Indiana Hoosiers. Recently though, the Boilermakers proved that they could win games when it matters most, taking home the Big 10 tournament championship. Moving forward, the East Region seems like it might be the easiest route to the final 4, but when you take a deeper dive, Purdue will have to play some big-time programs if they want to make the final 4. Matt Painter is known as a good coach, but is also known for choking in March Madness, as multiple of his recent teams have been upset in early rounds of the tournament. Zach Edey is easily the most dominant player in this tournament, and teams know that now. Without the time to prepare for the 7-foot 4 center, like Big 10 teams have had will make it difficult for the Boilermakers’ opponents this tournament. Teams that face Purdue will have to make other players beat them, and Purdue has shown they do not have the guards to score in crunch time of big games. Yes, Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith have been phenomenal this season, especially considering their rankings coming out of high school and into the season. But, towards the end of big games Smith has a hard time being decisive in terms of shooting the basketball and Loyer is a good spot up shooter but not the best creator. In the second round, whether Purdue must play Florida Atlantic or Memphis, which are two good teams who are both hot coming into the tournament, someone besides Edey is going to have to step up, and as of now, nobody has proven that they are going to be that option with the ball in their hands besides Edey.
It is always fun to investigate the potential Darkhorses who can take the tournament and nation by storm. The criteria that I will work off of is the program has to be a 5th seeded team or lower. Creighton is a very fun team to look at, but their route will not be easy. If they cruise past NC State in the round of 64, they will most likely have to take on Baylor, a team who many people have started to write off due to their recent loss in the Big 12 tournament. Baylor is a really good team but relies too much on their three-guard combination of LJ Cryer, Keyonte George and Adam Flagler, and Creighton’s Ryan Kalkbrenner is one of the best rim protectors in the country, which could be a huge kryptonite to any team the Bluejays may face along the way.
Another team that could make a run are the Miami Hurricanes. Last season, Isaiah Wong and Miami surprised everyone by making it to the Elite 8, their first in program history. This season, they have returned Wong who was recently named ACC player of the year. They also have returned Jordan Miller, a versatile scorer, Wooga Poplar, an electrifying player on both ends of the floor. They replaced their point guard void with the loss of Charlie Moore by bringing in Nijel Pack from Kansas State. Pack can score in spurts and is a good playmaker and a chippy defender. Jim Larrañaga’s squad has shown they are one of the most consistent scoring teams in the country, but their lack of size is their biggest weakness. If forward/center Norchad Omier does not return for the tournament, Miami will have to rely on their aggressive on ball defense along with their various defensive schemes that consist of trapping and gambling for steals. Because of this, Miami is a threat to make another run, when you play at a fast pace, have big-time scoring guards, and make risks that could lead to big wins or tough losses is always a recipe to go on a run in the tournament.
Coach Jon Scheyer and Duke were hearing a lot of criticism around the halfway point of their season, but they have won their last 12 out of 14, and just by watching the Blue Devils there is a sense that everything is coming together for this very young squad. Scheyer led the Blue Devils to their first ACC championship since 2019, defeating three tournament teams in Pitt, Miami and Virginia along the way. Kyle Filipowski means business, and he has shown a different prowess compared to many Duke stars of the past. When Filipowski was fouled at the end of their game against Virginia resulting in a loss, he did not complain, he put his head down and started playing even better. His three-point shot has come into fruition, and he looks like the key player that Duke can rely on down the stretch. The Blue Devils had that problem for about half their season, as Jeremy Roach showed he was the only player who really could go get a bucket late in the game. But Duke was a very young team coming into the season and has shown maybe the most growth of any team this season. Tyrese Proctor is one of the smoother point guards in the country, can shoot the three well and is poised down the stretch. Along with Proctor making progress this season, Derek Lively and Dariq Whitehead have shown great flashes and have emerged as awesome role players for this Blue Devils team. The culture and the teamwork that Scheyer’s squad has developed this season is hard to look away from and could be the reason Duke could go far in this tournament.
Moving away from sleepers and onto favorites, there are some programs that could win for the first time in a long time, as well as some that could win for the first time ever. Mark Few’s Gonzaga is very experienced and has been one of the better teams this season that is not talked about as much. This may be good for the Bulldog’s though, as the hype in recent years has caused for them to choke. Drew Timme has already declared this will be his last season playing for Gonzaga, and it is likely that Julian Strawther will be entering his name in the draft. This recent dominant era that Gonzaga has obtained could be closing in, and after a dominant win against a very solid St. Mary’s team, the Bulldogs are one of the hotter teams that is not being discussed, and very well could bring their first national championship to Spokane.
Another program that could win their first National Championship is the Alabama Crimson Tide. Coming in as the outright #1 seed, Nate Oats’ squad has been great all season. Although there has been a lot of drama, this team is locked in, and freshman Brandon Miller has been the best freshman in the country and arguably the best forward in the country. Miller is surrounded by talented veterans that have played on this stage before, and in recent years that has proven to be a successful recipe in the tournament.
Arizona and UCLA are two teams that have been incredibly consistent all season on both ends of the floor. The Wildcats have not missed a beat after losing Bennedict Mathurin and Dalen Terry to the draft. Courtney Ramey has filled a scoring void and Azoulas Tubelis as well as Kerr Kriisa and Pelle Larsson have all taken big strides this year. When it comes to the Bruins, some think the Jaylen Clark Achilles injury has put a dwindle on their championship hopes, but the Bruins’ defensive abilities along with their two stars Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez Jr give them a chance to win any game. The Bruins will need to count on Amari Bailey and David Singleton to step up, which they are more than capable of. Bailey proved that with a 26-point outing in the Pac-12 tournament, and Singleton can really shoot the three and does so with confidence. The Bruins are capable of beating anyone, but they have had a tough time running up scored this season. Regardless, UCLA has the chance to raise a banner in Pauley Pavilion for the first time since 1995.
Moving on, Houston is another program that in recent years, just like Gonzaga, has come really close to winning it all, including coming off of back-to-back elite 8 appearances. Marcus Sasser is one of the best guards in the country, and, just like Alabama, this team has a lot of veteran play along with a freshman star in Jarace Walker. Houston plays up-tempo basketball that includes high pressure defense. Kelvin Sampson has proven he is one of the best coaches in the country and holds his team to high standards in terms of their discipline. Along with this, the storylines just make too much sense: the final four is in Houston this year and Jim Nance, a Houston Alumni, is not calling anymore final fours after this year. The storylines add up for the Cougars to win their first national championship.
To continue, Kansas has all the tools to repeat as national champions. If Bill Self is healthy and ready to coach, this veteran squad has had the toughest schedule of any other team in the country and stayed in top 10 rankings all season long. Gradey Dick has slumped a bit recently, but the freshman sharpshooter has all the confidence and is just a winner. Dejuan Harris is one of the best game-managing point guards in the country, and Jalen Wilson is one of the best scorers in the country. Something about the talent that the Big 12 conference had this season, and the poise that Kansas has shown night in, and night out have really proven that the Jayhawks can repeat as champions.
To wrap things up, Marquette, Kansas State, UCONN and Texas all have the tools to make deep runs as well. Marquette, coached by the fiery Shaka Smart, plays passionate basketball with a chip on their shoulders. Tyler Kolek is one of the most polarizing and consistent scorers and playmakers in the country, and he proved that by winning the Big East player of the year as well as leading the Golden Eagles to their first Big East tournament championship victory. Kansas State, led by Keyontae Johnson and Markquis Nowell, has also been a big shocker this season. They play tough on both ends of the floor, and Nowell is one of the better shot makers in the country with unlimited range. Kansas State played very well in Big 12 competition and has the firepower to go on a big run. UCONN and Dan Hurley are experienced and have been very hot after a tough slump in the middle of the season. Jordan Hawkins can really score, and their rim protection makes them very dangerous against any program. Lastly, Texas is awesome. Sir’Jabari Rice is one of the best glue guys in the country, and Marcus Carr has shown that last season was just an off year. With all the drama surrounding Chris Beard, this Longhorn’s squad has persevered and improved through the whole season. They are also very consistent on both ends of the floor, and they hustle better than most teams in the country. All these factors are what you want in a team in March Madness, and this tournament is truly going to be like none other.