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March Madness: Big Dance Preview

For many sports fans, it doesn’t get any better than the annual tradition of March Madness. Whether it’s submitting 10 brackets only to have picked eight first round games wrong on the first full day, or passionately supporting your alma mater, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is truly the Big Dance. Expect the unexpected and enjoy the storylines, but always count on at least one fifth seed getting upset by a 12th seed! Now that we know who’s dancing, let’s highlight some players, teams, and potential matchup’s ahead of the action.

Players to watch

Josh Hart (Villanova)

Hart has a lot of good things going for him. His Wildcats are defending champions, #1 seeds, and one of the favorites to win it all. He just led them to a Big East title highlighted by incredible sportsmanship, hugging despondent Seton Hall players after hitting the game winner against their stifling defense. Josh has been a superb senior leader and his play on the court has continued to blossom every year. This means if Villanova repeats Hart will have a fairy-tale ending to his college career. On the other hand, winning one NCAA championship is a tough enough accomplishment, winning back-to-back is monumental. That’s a lot of pressure, but I wouldn’t bet against this NCAA star.

Lonzo Ball (UCLA)

The hype with Lonzo has gone into over-drive, especially after some of his father’s remarks with regards to his son being better than Steph Curry and only playing for the Lakers. Some may roll their eyes at daddy Lavar, but Lonzo has handled the hype with a maturity and calm demeanor way beyond his years. Although the 19-year-old may not be better than a unanimous NBA MVP, Ball has been spectacular in commandeering the UCLA offense. His funky shot release continues to work for him and his instincts on offense compliment his athleticism, ball-handling, and shooting range. A potential Sweet Sixteen date with the formidable Kentucky backcourt would be a spectacular stage for him to prove his worth.

Jonathan Isaac (Florida St.)

The lanky Florida State forward with nearly 7-foot height and 7-foot plus wingspan is a mouth-watering pro prospect. Coach Hamilton has not fully unleashed Isaac this season, playing him under 26 minutes per game. In limited playing time, Jonathan has been efficient and flashed remarkable defensive potential with more than a steal and block per night. On offense, he hasn’t been the focal point and generally scores slashing to the rim or spotting up. He commits almost twice as many turnovers than assists, which may explain why there has been some hesitation in handing him the keys to the offense. That is why his play in the tournament will go a long way in solidifying him as a top-notch lottery pick. He has an opportunity to set up an interesting date with Arizona or St. Mary’s in the third round if he helps the Seminoles get past a feisty Florida Gulf Coast University, and the winner between Maryland and Xavier.

Lauri Markannen (Arizona)

Lauri is one of the most divisive prospects in the tournament – with one end of the scouting spectrum touting comparisons to Dirk and Ryan Anderson – and the other end questioning the 7-footer’s lack of defensive potential. Markannen has the opportunity to raise his stock and solidify himself as an elite shooting big by leading Arizona to a deep run in the dance. The Wildcats have a favorable section of the West region if they get through a tough St. Mary’s and a potential matchup with Gonzaga in the Elite Eight, which will provide Markannen the ideal platform to showcase his game.

Josh Jackson (Kansas)

Josh was suspended for the Big 12 Finals loss to TCU due to an incident in December (when he was charged with misdemeanor property damage from a report filed by a Kentucky women’s basketball player alleging her car was vandalized). On the one hand, his absence from the game may have highlighted his value to the Jayhawks, as they lost in a game they were heavily favored. On the other hand, an aggressive player that struggles to contain his emotions doesn’t need off-court issues to stain his draft resume. Coach Self already declared that Jackson will face no further discipline for this incident and Kansas should be favored to win their region with Jackson back in the fold. Scouts will be paying attention to how he deals with adversity under the spotlight.

Jayson Tatum and Luke Kennard (Duke)

Coach K is blessed with a deep roster of NBA talent yet again with Tatum, Kennard, Harry Giles, Grayson Allen, and Frank Jackson, and they are starting to peak as we begin the tournament. Just as they were in the ACC tournament, Kennard and Tatum will be the keys to the Blue Devil offense. Kennard lacks elite athleticism, but his ball handling skills and shooting have allowed him to steadily improve into a college superstar, usurping Grayson Allen’s role as Duke’s primary playmaker. Tatum has finally found his groove and will be a difficult matchup for any NBA player, let alone college kids. Duke will face some tough matchup’s in the East region, but if they get through Marquette/South Carolina, Baylor/SMU, and Nova, expect it to be on the broad shoulders of Tatum and Kennard, which would solidify their status as top notch first round prospects in the upcoming draft.

Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox (Kentucky)

Every year coach Calipari rides a new wave of phenomenal freshman into the tournament. This season it’s the dynamic backcourt duo of Monk and Fox. Monk has had the more shiny moments to date, climaxing with 47 points against UNC. Fox has been the consistent force on both ends of the floor, penetrating and distributing on offense while being a disruptive force on defense with his quickness and length. Both are destined to declare for the draft and become lottery picks. Perhaps even a disappointing performance in the tournament won’t sway NBA GM’s from taking both of them in the top 10, but it will be interesting to see if they exceed expectations and lead another young and immensely talented Wildcat team to the Final Four.

Others to keep an eye on

Donovan Mitchell will need to show out to improve his draft stock, and carrying the Cardinals past Michigan and Oregon to an Elite Eight matchup with Kansas would go a long way. Justin Patton will have a great opportunity to lead Creighton to victories over Rhode Island and an injury-depleted Oregon missing shot-blocker Chris Boucher due to a torn ACL. Wake Forest faces Kansas State in a play-in game, which means John Collins will have an additional game of tape to impress scouts before he attempts to play spoiler against UCLA. Zach Collins’s decision to enter the draft may depend on how well the Zags do in their friendly side of the bracket. If Gonzaga makes the Final Four and Zach is a big part of their run, a lottery selection is not out of the question. Miles Bridges faces a tough road ahead with Miami in the first round and Kansas in the second, but every game will be an opportunity for him to positively impact his draft stock if he can lead the Spartans on yet another patented tournament run after a disappointing 14-loss regular season. A repeat of last year’s first round exit after a subpar campaign is not out of the question.

Teams to watch

Gonzaga (32-1)

Advanced metrics love Gonzaga. Traditionalists love hating on this year’s mid-major one-loss Cinderella turned Beast. I think regardless of where analysts or fans fall on the annual mid-major love/hate spectrum, we have to acknowledge that this Gonzaga team that stormed through the season with a 30-1 record is actually very good. Let me add that their bracket is soft, so making the Final Four should be the expectation rather than a surprise. A hypothetical route of South Dakota St., Northwestern, West Virginia, and Arizona is manageable, but I’ll resist myself from picking them over the experienced defending champs in the Final Four if Villanova gets through the tougher East region.

Middle Tennessee State (30-4)

Last year’s 15th seed defeated March magician Tom Izzo’s Spartans in a game they controlled by more than double digits throughout. This year they went 30-4 with virtually the entirety of their team returning. JaCorey Williams, the Conference USA Player of the Year, will be expected to lead this 12th seed over the Minnesota Gophers in Round 1. If they face Butler in the second round that could be a toss-up, but UNC will likely hand them their fifth loss.

Princeton (23-6)

The Ivy League champions had to do it the hard way. Not because they went 15-1 in league play, or come into the tournament on a 19-game winning streak – but because this was the first year that a conference tournament was played and they very nearly were ousted by Penn before tying the game with five seconds to go and winning in overtime. Missing the tournament after dominating league play would have been heart-breaking, but the Tigers can now count on Coach Henderson’s tournament experience to engineer another Ivy League dream run. In the nerdy section of the bracket with teams like Northwestern, Vanderbilt, and Bucknell, Princeton will have to face the tough Fighting Irish in the first round. Will the traditional 12th seed March Madness luck help the Tigers overcome the luck of the Irish? It’s definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Northwestern (23-11)

It took them 78 years of waiting to finally earn their ticket to go dancing. The wait was well worth it, and it’s a feel good story worth writing about. I’ll still mention their last outing, a 28-point loss to Wisconsin in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament. A first round matchup against Vanderbilt is a great opportunity for the program to get it’s maiden tournament win. Victories over Maryland, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Wake Forest make this team proven and battle-tested, but in a potential second round matchup with Gonzaga they will be fighting an opponent whose a little bit above their weight. Never say never though, they’ll want to make this year worth it after the very long wait.

SMU (30-4)

The Mustangs come into the tournament on a roll, winning the American Athletic Conference tournament comfortably over Cincinnati. That second straight win versus Cincinnati exacted revenge over the Bearcats from their loss earlier in the season. SMU actually hasn’t lost since that two-point defeat on January 12th, and their first three losses (Michigan, USC, Boise State) all took place back in November. Their strength of schedule is very questionable, and if USC wins the play-in game they will need to continue exacting revenge. Baylor is not the defensive team that it used to be, and if SMU keeps the winning streak going into a Sweet Sixteen matchup with Duke, expect Mustang star Semi Ojeleye to be more than ready to face his former team.

Villanova (31-3)

No, I was not forgetting to mention that the defending champions might be even better this year than last. Josh Hart and Mikal Bridges are the perfect complement of offense and defense. I’m not picking against them.

Others

St. Mary’s(28-4) was the darling of many experts coming into the tournament, but a second round encounter with Arizona will be a very tough test of their depth. Lonzo Ball has brought back a lot of excitement to UCLA (29-4) along with his big men classmates TJ Leaf and Ike Anigbogu. Ball is the highest-rated NBA draft prospect in the tournament, which brings pressure but opportunity. Pressure has not seemed to bother the kid so far in his career, but getting through Kentucky and UNC to win their region would take nothing less than a Herculean effort. Wichita State (30-4) has made a habit of outplaying their seeding and may very well do so again. Their last loss this season was against Illinois State (back in January), a team that has every right to question why the committee excluded them from the Dance.

Potential Regional matchup’s to watch

First Round

Minnesota (5) vs. Middle Tennessee State (12) 

12th seeds always beat fifth seeds – and of the four 5-12 matchups, this one almost seems like a sure bet for an upset. Middle Tennessee is much better than your typical 12 seed. The Gophers survived a five-game losing streak midway through the season by finishing strong, but still look very susceptible when Nate Mason goes cold. JaCorey Williams, Reggie Upshaw, and Giddy Potts provide veteran leadership to a cohesive Middle Tennessee State team looking to make a deep run in the tournament.

Notre Dame (5) vs. Princeton (12)

Sticking to 5 vs. 12 matchups in the first round, the Tigers come into the tournament riding a 19-game winning streak. Notre Dame is definitely the favorite and well deserving of that 5-seed after playing Villanova close and snagging victories over Louisville, Virginia, and Florida State twice each. But, this is where funny things happen and Coach Carill’s upset over defending champions UCLA in 1996 was due in large part to the steady play of PG Mitch Henderson. Henderson will be coaching the Tigers this time around, and Notre Dame didn’t win a title last year.

Second Round

Louisville (2) vs. Michigan (7)

Two teams coming into the tournament with very different stories. The Wolverines are peaking, playing some of their best basketball on the season right now. Louisville has been the better of the two teams throughout most of the season and consequently have the significantly superior seeding from the committee. Lately, however, the Cardinals have lost three of their last five games. Losses to Duke and UNC are excusable, but the Wake Forest loss is concerning. The big dance is all about teams getting hot at the right moment, so Michigan will try to keep their winning ways going before the Cardinals right their ship. Donpvan Mitchell will need to have a good tournament to solidify himself as first round draft selection, and his play on the big stage against Michigan’s senior leader Walton Jr. will be very revealing.

Kentucky (2) vs. Wichita State (10)

These teams have some recent history, and if this game approaches their epic 2014 contest, we will be in for quite the treat. Kentucky will be heavily favored, but Calipari will be wary of the difficult section of the bracket that his team was dealt. The Shockers can’t shock anyone anymore, as teams come prepared for their best in the dance, so expect Monk and Fox to be ready for this occasion and take it to the Wichita State backcourt of Conner Frankamp and Landry Shamet.

Third Round

Kentucky (2) vs. UCLA (3)

This game has to come to fruition. The backcourt duel: Ball/Alford vs. Fox/Monk would be must-watch television. That’s three top-1o projected NBA draft prospects and a senior scoring 16 points per game. These two historically great schools have only faced off 13 times with Kentucky leading 7-6 head-to-head. If their December contest, which Kentucky won 97-92, is any indication of what fireworks we may see in the tournament, expect another high-octane, fast-paced track race.

Sweet Sixteen

Duke (2) vs. SMU (6) 

Semi Ojeleye wasn’t getting an opportunity to play at Duke, so he had to make one of the toughest decisions a college player could make, telling Coach K he was going to leave. Thankfully, he had another legendary coach that wanted to see if he could mold the physical forward into a college star. Although Larry Brown is no longer with SMU, Ojeleye has fulfilled his potential and would love to show his former team what he’s made of while making Brown proud for taking a chance on him. Anything short of an out-of-body experience would probably result in a comfortable Duke win, but regardless of outcome there will be very tangible human drama.

Potential Chalk Final Four

Villanova (1) vs. Gonzaga (1)

Villanova and Gonzaga have been the two best teams throughout this college season and they should be considered the first and second tournament favorites. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 15 percent and 14 percent probability, respectively, to win the whole thing – with Kansas, Kentucky, UNC, and Duke following with 10 percent, eight percent, seven percent, and (again) seven percent probabilities. However, there is a zero percent chance that these two favorites will face off in the Championship game. This Final Four matchup is likely the one I’ll most be looking forward to, and for good reason: the excitement of two high-powered offenses colliding – with Nova having the advantage on defense and with experience.

Kansas (1) vs. Kentucky (2)

Kansas was given a favorable region with Louisville as their toughest test. In the South region there is the big-three of historic powerhouses: UNC, Kentucky, and UCLA. All three schools are having exciting seasons, and although UNC is the #1 seed in the region, if Kentucky passes the UCLA test with flying colors I expect that victory can carry them to an upset over UNC in the Elite Eight. Following that logic, Kentucky could catch a slightly less-tested Kansas and use their size and athleticism advantages to beat a Jayhawks team that is still reeling from their Big 12 quarterfinal loss to TCU.

Potential Upset Final Four

Duke (2) vs. Arizona (2) 

Many expected Duke to be a top seed and many books have them as the betting favorites to win the whole thing, but I’m not willing to go that far, even if Coach K has a roster stacked with NBA draft lottery talent. Villanova is still the top seed in the East Region, the defending national champion with a 31-3 record. They enter the dance with a dominant regular season, and an experienced and balanced collection of college stars and role players. Duke getting through their region would still be a major upset. Arizona doesn’t have the easiest path to the Final Four, but the Wildcats do have the ability to build off their Pac-12 title and utilize their diverse array of scoring options. The reason they only have four losses on the season is the multitude of offensively talented players that can contribute on any single night, and in a tournament where teams get penalized for over-reliance on one star player, Arizona is blessed with an abundance of riches: sweet shooting 7-footer Markannen, playmakers Alonzo Trier, Kadeem Allen, and Rawle Alkins, and sixth man Miles Jackson-Cartwright.

Michigan (7) vs. UCLA (3)

Kansas just lost to TCU in the BIG 12 quarterfinals. Meanwhile, Michigan steamrolled everyone in the Big 10 tournament, culminating with a 15-point victory over a solid Wisconsin team. In terms of current form, Michigan would rank just above Louisville (lost in ACC quarterfinals to Duke by 4), Oregon (lost Pac-12 finals to Arizona by 3, and lost Chris Boucher to season-ending ACL injury), and Kansas – so taking out all three of these teams would be an upset in terms of seeding, but not in terms of form. UCLA would have to get through Kentucky and UNC, but if Lonzo Ball gets hot anything is possible.

So, who is going to win it all?

Villanova with another buzzer-beating three in the final.