I love college basketball season. It’s hands-down my favorite sports season. And Selection Sunday is the Sunday I most look forward to every year (unless Christmas falls on a Sunday). But, if you’re like several of my coworkers, you didn’t start paying attention to college basketball until yesterday.
So if you’ve been too busy working these last few months, here’s what you need to know before you fill out your NCAA Tournament bracket.
Talented, Tough & Scary
Unlike last year, this year several teams have held the AP No. 1 spot—six to be exact—and of the AP top-10 teams, they lost a combined 74 games, the most all-time. And all of that just proves there’s really no true favorite to win, even though KU earned the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, this year’s tournament. But even so, there are quite a few teams that coaches and teams should be afraid to face.
If you know me, you know my loyalties lie with the Jayhawks. But that’s not why they made the cut. They’re the No. 1 overall tournament seed. They finished the season as the AP No. 1 seed. Kansas won its 12 consecutive Big 12 Conference Championship as well as the Big 12 Tournament title this year, against a tough conference. The Jayhawks are a hot shooting team, shooting above 42 percent from the 3-point line and shooting an efficient field goal percentage of 56 percent. And in my opinion, there’s no better backcourt in the league—made up of Frank Mason III, Alexander Graham and Wayne Selden Jr.—who can handle the ball and make good choices on the court. Add all that to the likes that KU is on a 14 game winning streak, they’re a balanced team ready to continue their winning streak deep into the tournament (knock on wood).
Another 1 seed, UNC is very talented. The Tar Heels defeated a very good Virginia to win the ACC Tournament, and they’ve got a handful of players helping lead the way in Brice Johnson, Marcus Paige, Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson to name a few, all of which average double-digit points a game. And if you don’t trust me that they’re a force to be reckoned with, college basketball analysts Jay Bilas and Jay Williams have them going to the Final Four.
On Sunday, Michigan State won the Big 10 Tournament title. But even before then, several believed they were a for sure a 1 seed. And then the committee shocked most of us by making them a 2 seed. Nonetheless, the Spartans are a well-balanced team who can score and defend. Led by potential Player of the Year candidate Denzel Valentine, Michigan State has made 29 NCAA Tournament appearances and last year made it all the way to the national semifinal game where they lost to Duke that ultimately won the championship game. And many analysts agree with me when I say the Spartans will make it that far if not farther this year.
If you know nothing about West Virginia, all you need to know is that their nickname for the last two years has been “Press Virginia.” They’ve forced 617 turnovers on the year, averaging 18.15 a game, which is the second most forced in the league. WVU is also second in the NCAA in total steals with 338. Coach Bob Huggins is a tough-love coach, and each of his team players play tough and hard for him all game long. They have a deep bench, are great defenders and rebounders and are much better offensively this year.
Another shocker was Kentucky getting a 4 seed. Earlier today they defeated a great Texas A&M team to win the SEC Tournament title. They’ve had a tougher season this year compared to last, where they entered the NCAA Tournament undefeated. But even through some losses, they’ve played hard and gotten better and healthier as the season has gone on. When you’ve got guys like Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray, Alex Poythress and Isaiah Briscoe, you can’t help but be good. So, I don’t feel bad for UK getting a 4 seed—I feel bad for Indiana and UNC who are likely to face them in the second round and Sweet 16, respectively.
California of the Pac-12 Conference is a talented team. Yes, they’re a young team, but this team is peaking at the right time. Cal is well-coached and arguably the best defensive team in the Pac-12. Ivan Rabb has been great all season long, and Jaylen Brown is a great at attacking the rim. Sure they’re in KU’s region, but the Golden Bears are a hot, frightening team—and teams in the South region should be worried to face them.
At the beginning of the season, we were all unsure of how Texas and the coaching of new head coach Shaka Smart would mix, but it’s been a good, surprising fit. Notable season wins include defeating then-No. 3 UNC, then-No. 17 Iowa State, then-No. 6 West Virgina, then-No. 15 Baylor and then-No. 10 West Virginia. Isaiah Taylor, Cameron Ridley and Javan Felix are hard-working, talented players. Texas may be in a region with tough higher seeds like Oklahoma and Texas A&M, but Smart isn’t a stranger to making a deep tourney run as the underdog.
Every team has their go-to guy. The guy the coach and the other players know they can count on to take and make that last shot or make that big defensive play. You’ve missed watching their magic on the court thus far, so don’t miss your chance to watch these guys who have style and substance in action these next couple of weeks.
Hield considered entering the NBA draft last year, and I think everyone has been glad he didn’t. He’s taken his game up a notch, shooting above 50 percent from the 3-point line and scoring an average of 25 points a game. His work ethic, charisma and ability to score from just about anywhere on the court makes for a fun basketball watching experience.
School: Michigan State
Along with Hield, Valentine is the other top runner for Naismith Player of the Year. He can score (19.6 ppg), he can rebound (7.5 rpg) and he’s an unselfish player, dishing out 7.6 assists per game. His stat line is great, and as you watch him, you’ll quickly learn his level of play positively affects his whole team.
School: North Carolina
Johnson has 20 double-doubles this year, averaging 16.6 points per game and 10.6 rebounds per game. And his field goal percentage of over 60 percent is quite impressive as well. He plays for a storied program, a team that has a good chance to go far this month, and Johnson is decisive to that happening.
Consistent, efficient and humble are three words I’d use to describe Ellis. He’s not a flashy player, but game after game where the KU team has shown some inconsistency Ellis has remained consistent, scoring baskets and being the guy his team and coach Bill Self can always rely on. A good student and athlete who’s having his best season of ball, he’s a super senior you want to make time to watch.
Position: Point Guard
Dunn is a complete college basketball player. He’s a tough defender, a good passer (6.4 apg) and has no problem putting the ball through the hoop (16 ppg). One of the nation’s best point guards also won Big East Player of the Year, so if the Big East respects him, I know you’ll respect his game as well.
Gary Payton II
School: Oregon State
Position: Point Guard
Son of a basketball legend, athleticism and talent are just in his genes. Payton II is an unbelievable competitor who can do it on both ends of the floor, grabbing 7.9 rebounds per game, earning the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year award and getting 15.9 points per game.
At only 5’9”, Ulis won SEC Player of the Year, SEC Defensive Player of the Year and SEC Tournament MVP. With his smooth shot he’s scoring 16.8 points per game and also helping his teammates with 7.2 assists per game. It’s already been announced he’s entering the NBA draft after this season, so it’s your last chance to see this little, yet very talented giant on the college court.
It’s called March Madness for a reason—anything is possible this month. But even so, here are some tips to help you better fill out your bracket, and hopefully help you win your office pool this year.
- Never pick all four No. 1 seeds to make the Final Four. That’s only ever happened once.
- Choose at least one 12 seed to defeat a 5 seed. Why? Because in 27 of the last 31 years, a 12 seed has won at least one first round game. Although one didn’t win last season, it’s a highly likely first round upset.
- In the last 14 years, each national champion was a 1, 2 or 3 seed. The only exception was UConn, which won in 2014 as a 7 seed.
- The No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed. Upsets happen, but don’t get carried away and choose one of these guys.
- As the top-2 seed, KU and Villanova have each lost three times before making it to the Sweet 16 since 2010.
- Duke has been eliminated from the NCAA Tournament in the first round the last two times when a 3 seed or lower.
So get your dancin’ shoes on y’all, it’s time for the big dance.