Fernando Castro and Bobby Amarant
Brackets. Upsets. The Final Four. Legacies. The time of March is truly magical for basketball fans, casual and intense. The NCAA tournament might not be the highest level of basketball played in the world, and it might not let the best teams win, but its excitement and entertainment never let up any year. Of course, it’s easier to look back fondly when the reigning champions are your hometown heroes.
That being said, the hype for March Madness is back, and it’s important to sound like you know what you’re talking about when all your friends are huddled around the TV watching college hoops.
The NCAA tournament’s format is single game, single elimination playoff rounds. Forty minutes to decide your fate. This loans to a system of being extremely vulnerable to upsets for most teams. Ultimately, a bad day can end the season of a team who’s been having a great year. For the most part, greatness prevails, but be ready for your bracket to be busted if you picked all one seeds in the final four. With that in mind, there are some teams that will generally be safe bets to win the whole tournament, at least, go far.
The Big Boys
Duke Blue Devils
UNC Tar Heels
These teams have had perennial success in Division I basketball. UCLA, Kentucky, and Duke, are the three leaders in teams with most NCAA championships since the tournament’s origins in the 40s. These colleges recruit big, and almost never have down years, fielding the best high school basketball players year after year, and often sending them into the NBA. In the year 2012, the Kentucky Wildcats sent 4 of the 5 starters to the NBA after they won the national championship. Two of their players went #1 and #2 in the draft. Anthony Davis went #1, and has become one of the star players of the NBA, on the New Orleans Pelicans. Michael Jordan played for the Tar Heels. Hometown hero Joel Embiid played on Kansas with Andrew Wiggins. These teams are decorated with championships, hall of fame level players, and high expectations. They rarely disappoint.
These teams are the ones having good years now. They have a strong core of players in their senior year, but it’s unlikely you’ll see them back at the top in two or three years, unlike the Big Boys. Keeping this in mind, their tournament experience isn’t strong. They’ll have nerves, this is the first time on the big stage in a while or ever. These teams are more prone to being upset, making it inherently more difficult to progress through. Playing basketball this time of the year isn’t always all about the skill, the strength, the stamina. It’s about the mental game. It takes multiple go arounds to be ready for the stage. While Villanova is the reigning champions, they haven’t reached the level they are at now for quite a while until recent. Don’t expect them to have as much of a choke factor. However, don’t be misguided by the strength of these teams in the regular season and on paper. Believing in one of them to take the title is a risk.
Players to Watch This Tournament
Lonzo Ball – UCLA Bruins, PG
The oldest of the infamous (thanks, pops) “Ball Brothers” is as exciting a prospect as they come. His well-documented dominance in high school at Chino Hills has carried over to the collegiate level. Lonzo has elite size at 6’6” and is a gifted playmaker, likely the best in the collegiate level. The transition is where he really shines as UCLA has adopted some aspects of the fast-paced play Chino Hills used, averaging the most points per game in the NCAA. His 14.6 points, 6.2 rebounds, 7.7 assists speak for themselves, and with competent teammates such as TJ Leaf, watch out.
Monte Morris – Iowa State Cyclones, PG
Monte Morris might just be the best point guard in college basketball. As a senior who has improved every year, his well rounded game seems poised to help Iowa State at least scare some higher seeded teams in the tournament. With averages of 16.3 points per game, 4.8 rebounds, and 6.1 assists, this 6’3” point guard is really capable of doing it all on the floor. He is an excellent playmaker, both in creating for himself and for his teammates. Add that to his ability to score from anywhere on the floor, carry his weight on the glass and his above average defensive ability, and you have a nightmare matchup at the one.
Caleb Swanigan – Purdue Boilermakers, PF
At 6’9”, 247 pounds, and possessing a 7’3.5” wingspan, Swanigan is a physical beast that can dominate anyone on the block while also dropping 43% of his three pointers. He averages a whopping 18.5 points and 12.6 rebounds a contest, which was enough to earn him the Big 10 Player of the Year award as well as a nomination for the Wooden award and a spot as a finalist for the Naismith award. Though he has athletic and defensive deficiencies that could limit him in the NBA, at the college level he is a force to be reckoned with and could be able to take Purdue deep.
Frank Mason III – Kansas Jayhawks, PG
Though not a daunting physical presence with his 5’11” stature, Frank Mason III is as dominant as they come. Against high level competition, Mason averages 20.8 points and 5.1 assists and is considered one of the strongest, if not the stronger senior in the country. Mason is an incredible shooter with a 48.7% clip from beyond and alongside Josh Jackson, Kansas is definitely a contender.
Josh Hart – Villanova Wildcats, SG
The hometown hero around the Radnor area, Josh Hart is for real. As one of the best and most consistent players in the country and a future NBA draft pick, he is a swiss army knife on the court because of his ability to do just about anything needed of him to help his team win. He can score from anywhere, play rock solid defense, get his teammates involved, and pull down a high rate of rebounds. Hart won’t take over a game as much as some of these other guys, but his versatility and value to Villanova is priceless.
Jayson Tatum – Duke Blue Devils, SF
Jayson Tatum is the most skillful scorer in college basketball. One of the top prospects in the draft, Tatum can be best described with one word: smooth. Every movement is spot on and it allows him to dominate his opponents. His size, athleticism, and skill combine to make him a real threat in any game. His 16.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, which have been trending up, show that he is going to leave his mark on any game he plays in. He is the primary reason that Duke is one of the favorites this year.
Malik Monk – Kentucky Wildcats, SG
Monk has explosive athleticism that is often overlooked by fans to pair with his heralded three point shooting skills. Averaging 20+ points a night as a freshman is a rare feat, and Monk is accomplishing that. He isn’t the most consistent, but as seen by his four 30+ point performances including a 47 point miracle, when he catches fire, it’s game over. When coupled with another great player in De’Aaron Fox the backcourt, Kentucky could catch fire behind Monk and make a deep run.
Justin Jackson – North Carolina Tarheels, SF
Jackson has gone from a projected second round pick to a projected lottery pick, and as a junior who has his age working against his draft stock, this is no small feat. Jackson alongside Joel Berry make UNC a terrifying opponent. Justin averages an efficient 18.2 points per game and has shown that he can take over a game. Watch out for the Tarheels, they could very easily make the finals with a vengeance behind them.
Lauri Markkanen – Arizona Wildcats, PF
Markkanen is seven feet tall and he shoots 43.2% on threes. The best word to describe his offensive game is “unguardable.” At the college level, very few teams have players that will be able to approach his size and he will continue to have the impact he has had so far. Allonzo Trier may be the best player on the team, but Lauri’s unique skillset could make him the Wildcats not-so-secret weapon, as Markkanen is projected to be drafted in the top half of the lottery.
Semi Ojeleye – Southern Methodist University (SMU) Mustangs
Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye does not get the same media reputation as every other player listed before him, but on a team only six deep and extremely versatile, he still manages to be a standout. Averaging 18.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 4.9 assists a game, this 6’7”, 235 pound forward is going to turn some heads and maybe even bust some brackets this tournament. He is an excellent shooter with the ability to score from everywhere and he can do it all on the court. He is a strong athlete who can contend with anybody he is put up against. Look for his draft stock to rise to being a top 20 selection if he puts up solid performances that he is more than capable of.