By: Travis Thayer
Here we go again on this crazy journey called March Madness. College basketball fans everywhere are quick to fill out there brackets, in hope that they will win some prize money, or at the very least some bragging rights over friends and family. Others look intently at the road their favorite team must take in order to make it to the Final Four in Arlington. And surely, there are some individuals who simply sit back and watch the madness unfold. Regardless of which person you are, this March looks to be packed with unpredictability, upsets, and a lot of emotion. The NCAA tournament is one of the greatest spectacles in all of sports, and the fun begins Tuesday night in Dayton, Ohio. Before the action start though, let’s identify 16 teams that have the best chance to make it to the Final Four.
The Sleepers – Creighton, Oklahoma St., UCLA, Kentucky
Everybody loves a cinderella story, and this year a cinderella story could come from college basketball royalty. Kentucky and UCLA aren’t used to the underdog role, but they could serve as two huge bracket busters. Kentucky could potentially face the undefeated Wichita State Shockers in the round of 32, and UCLA could run into the number one overall seed Florida Gators in the Sweet 16. Both Florida and Wichita State are big favorites to make a deep run, but imagine the shock (no pun intended) if Kentucky beats the Shockers, and UCLA knocks off the Gators. It’s not inconceivable to think that either could happen, and if they do both teams could make a Final Four run. There are two other sleepers in my mind, and they both reside in the West Region. The Oklahoma State Cowboys and the Creighton Bluejays have the star power that can lead a team to the Final Four. Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart has been playing out of his mind since his suspension, and they are a round of 32 upset of Arizona away from making a serious run. Guard play usually is very key come March, and the Cowboys have they guys to make a similar run to the one Wichita State made from the 8-9 game last year. Creighton on the other hand boast one of the best front court players in the nation in Doug McDermott. McDermott should be a unanimous decision for the National Player of the Year, and he alone could channel his best Steph Curry impression on the way to a possible Final Four berth. McDermott is currently ranked fifth all-time in scoring in NCAA history. If there is one man in the tournament field who can carry his team, it is McDermott.
The We Can Beat Anybody Group – Duke, Michigan, Iowa St. Michigan St.
This group of teams can beat anybody in the nation on any given night. For Duke and Michigan, most of their tough games come down to hitting the three-point shot. Both teams have a bunch of guys who can put the ball in the basket, but there are two guys in particular who will have to be great in order to advance deep into the tourney. Nik Stauskas for Michigan and Jabari Parker for Duke must carry their teams to victory the first weekend before a possible Sweet 16 matchup, and rematch of a regular season game that the Blue Devils won. Stauskas has proved that he can take over games from the outside, as the Wolverines look to get back to the National Championship game for the second consecutive year. Jabari Parker of Duke is the complete package, and we are likely seeing his final few college basketball games, and he could certainly lead his team through the very tough Midwest Region, on the way to the Final Four. Iowa State and Michigan St are both coming off conference tourney championships, and they might be getting hot at the right time. Iowa State has the blend of talent and athleticism that is needed to make a deep run. Big 12 Player of the Year Melvin Ejim leads the Cyclones into the East Region that is very winnable. Ejim will have to be good, but the Cyclones have players like DeAndre Kane and Georges Niang that can take the pressure of him. The Cyclones are talented enough to win the whole thing, and they just might be on a collision course with Michigan State. Sparty could meet up with Iowa State in the Elite 8, and boy would that be a great game. Michigan State is finally healthy, and they are easily one of the best teams in the country when they are at full strength. Adrian Payne, Brandon Dawson, and Keith Appling are three seniors who are looking to make the Final Four for the first time in their four years in East Lansing. The Spartans impressive display at the Big Ten tournament has me thinking that they might be the team to beat in the East Region.
We Have a Chip on Our Shoulders – Wichita St., Louisville, Syracuse, Kansas
There are four teams in the field that aren’t really getting that much respect, and for different reasons – starting with the Wichita State Shockers. The Shockers are 34-0, let me repeat, the Shockers 34-0!!! Apparently, that’s not good enough for the so-called experts. Virtually nobody thinks the Shockers can return to the Final Four for the second consecutive season, even though they didn’t lose that much in between, and they seem to have gotten better. Wichita State should take it personal that to this day, nobody still believes in them out side of the state of Kansas. The second team from the state of Kansas that should have a chip on their shoulder is the Jayhawks themselves. Center Joel Embiid is doubtful to play the first weekend, and some think they might be vulnerable. This is KANSAS we are talking about. Regardless of missing one of their best players, they should still win their first two games, and reach the Sweet 16. If I’m Kansas, I’m ready to show the world how good we are without Embiid, and then how scary we are with him. Syracuse is yet another team that should be feeling disrespected. Yes, this is a what have you done for me lately kind of world, but the Orange were once upon a time the number one team in the nation, and they held that mark for a good portion of the season. Ok, so the Orange have played poorly down the stretch, but are they really a team you would want to play? The answer is no. If the Cuse’ get back on track they could be a scary team going forward. And finally, the Louisville Cardinals. First off, the Cardinals are the defending NCAA Champions, and while that has no bearing on their seeding for this year, the Cardinals were certainly more deserving of receiving a seed higher than number four. The Cardinals lost only five games all season, all of which were to tournament teams by a combined total of 31 points. So what if the Cardinals played in a weak American Conference because they did what they should have done – they shared the regular season championship, and won the conference tournament. The Cardinals are playing as good as anyone these days, and a potential Sweet 16 matchup with Wichita State might just determine which of the two teams make it to the Final Four.
The Best of the Best – Florida, Arizona, Virginia, Wisconsin
And that leaves us with the four best teams in America, at least in the eyes of most “experts”. Everyone is raving about the Wisconsin Badgers, and I will admit they are a good team, but I’m not as high on them as most are. Wisconsin is very good with the ball, and they are a great shooting team, but a team with great athleticism could take them out of their game (Oregon or Baylor) . I have them in the best of the best group because of their play down the stretch, and because of the praise they have garnered in the national media. I hope the Badgers prove me wrong, but Wichita State really deserves to be in this group instead. Next we have the ACC Champion Virginia Cavaliers. All I can say is good luck scoring on the Cavs. There are few teams in the nation that play as good of team defense as Virginia does. Their defensive tenacity combined with the sharpshooting of Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon all that Virginia needs. The Cavs make few mistakes and they hit the boards harder than most teams. Energy guy Akil Mitchell will be key to the Cavaliers success, and even though these guys are sort of unknown – they shouldn’t be taken lightly. Moving from East to West, we now have the Arizona Wildcats, who are one of the most talented teams in the nation. Head coach Sean Miller has the Cats playing well, and senior guard Nick Johnson is poised to lead the Cats back to the Final Four for the first time since 2001. Johnson is their leader, but freshman superstar Aaron Gordon will need to come up big for the Cats. The Wildcats are one of the nation’s best defense teams, and they will need to hang their hats on that end of the court if they want to make it to Arlington. And finally, we have the Florida Gators, who are winners of 26 straight games including a win over Kentucky in the SEC Championship. Florida is quite possibly the best defensive team in the nation, and they are led by senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin. This is all you need to know about Florida, Billy Donovan has won two National Championship, therefore he knows how to get it done – and the Gators will go only as far as Scottie Wilbekin will take them. It is really that simple.
My Final Four Prediction: Kansas, Iowa State, Arizona, Wichita State.
Championship: Kansas over Wichita State