March Madness is one of the best times of the year. What could beat four straight days of nonstop basketball, followed by even more big games on nights and weekends? Let’s not forget the conference tournaments, which can serve as a nice appetizer over the two weeks leading up to Selection Sunday.
Usually, there are only two valid complaints from college hoops fans at this time of year, the first being that the wildest, most action-packed days of this glorious roundball feast occur on weekdays, and second that the tournament is only one day old and your bracket is already kaput. Unlike the tournament schedule, which we all have to put up with, your bracket can go from busted to brilliant if you pick the right teams. With that in mind, here are a few teams that could make a deep run in March, as well as those who may be headed for an early exit.
Smart Pick: Kentucky Wildcats
Kentucky simply has too much talent to overlook. Coach John Calipari is notorious for running an “NBA feeder school,” where top-ranked players leave for the pros after their first season on campus, and this year is no exception. Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox are both top-10 draft prospects, and the Wildcats may even have two more first-round selections on their roster in Isaiah Briscoe and Bam Adebayo. There is always concern that their youth and immaturity will be a problem on the big stage, but Kentucky should have no problems getting through the early rounds, when they have an advantage at four of five positions on the floor.
Risky Pick: Virginia Cavaliers
Virginia plays at the slowest pace of any team in the Power Six conferences, using their suffocating pack-line defense to hold opponents under 50 points on a routine basis. There are problems with grinding the game to a halt, however. Their inability to go on quick offensive spurts to expand their lead can allow teams to stay in the game much longer than they should, and can be an even bigger problem when they’re trailing late, despite the poise of all-conference guard London Perrantes in the clutch. Virginia will be vulnerable to the upset this year, especially if they draw a dangerous mid-major that likes to play the run-and-gun style.
Smart Pick: Wisconsin Badgers
As I write this, Wisconsin is currently 33–0 under head coach Greg Gard when they have a lead with five minutes to go. They are an experienced team that rarely turns the ball over, they play sound defense, and they shoot exceptionally well from the foul line. That’s never a combination to bet against. The Badgers will go far, and you can count on at least one monster game from center Ethan Happ.
Risky Pick: Duke Blue Devils
Duke’s season seems fit for a daytime soap opera rather than the college basketball hardwood. First, there were the early season injuries. Then came the Grayson Allen Tripping Saga, and more recently, an incident where Coach Mike Krzyzewski confiscated his team’s practice gear because he felt they weren’t putting in enough effort. This is an upset-prone team that already lost to a bad North Carolina State team at home, and the inconsistencies of their top three offensive options (Jayson Tatum, Luke Kennard, and Harry Giles) only increase their chances of a first-round departure.
Smart Pick: West Virginia Mountaineers
Several coaches in the Big 12 described the challenge of facing Bob Huggins’ all-out full court press as “like playing five on seven.” No team in their right mind will want to find themselves face-to-face with such all-out havoc and limited time to prepare in a postseason setting. The Mountaineers are the only team to beat both the first- and second-ranked teams this season, and Jevon Carter is a legitimate conference player of the year candidate. Don’t be surprised to see WVU playing in the Final Four come early April—their defense is in a class of its own.
Risky Pick: UCLA Bruins
UCLA will always score points in bunches, but unlike West Virginia, they can’t seem to stop anyone from doing the same thing. The unpredictability of an offensive shootout has largely worked in their favor so far this season, and should continue to do so against the weak Pac-12 Conference. Once they meet a team that can stop them on defense, however, their luck will run out. Coach Steve Alford has never progressed past the second weekend of the tournament, and that streak will likely continue this season.
Smart Pick: Villanova Wildcats
Jay Wright’s team won the national title last season and they’re ready to defend it, returning all but two rotation players from last year’s championship squad. Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson are two of the best players in the Big East, capable of putting up big numbers on any given night. Their championship-caliber defense (currently ranked 16th in points allowed per game) and team play have garnered even more attention. Does anyone remember the last play of the title game, where point guard Ryan Arcidiacono passed up a potential game-winning shot, because his teammate, Kris Jenkins, had a better look? Jenkins buried the three, and here we are 10 months later, watching Villanova defend their title. The Wildcats are battle-tested, free of glaring weaknesses, and a great pick to cut down the nets for a second consecutive year.
Risky Pick: Gonzaga Bulldogs
As of February 8, Mark Few’s Bulldogs were the only undefeated team in Division I basketball, and ranked #1 in both the AP and Coaches polls. However, they’ve been racking up most of these wins against the West Coast Conference, which has only one other team projected in the tournament field. We’ve seen other mid-majors torch the competition all year only to fall flat against stiffer competition—the 2013 Wichita State Shockers come to mind. Przemek Karnowski has been unstoppable in the post, but whether or not he can sustain that against teams from the Big 12 and ACC remains to be seen. Trust Gonzaga at your own risk.
Of course, the most important thing to remember is to enjoy all the great basketball, and not to worry about your bracket. After this, college basketball goes into a six-month hibernation, so make the most of what you have left. And if you’re looking for a smaller school to make a run, look out for Middle Tennessee State and UNC Wilmington.