Ross Wendlandt

There is nothing quite as satisfying for a sports fan than the month of March. The NBA playoff picture is taking shape, the MLB season is right around the corner, and NFL teams are paying the GDP of small countries for average quarterbacks. However, none of these hold a candle to the world’s greatest tournament, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. March Madness is here. Incredibly intense games? Check. Buzzer-beating shots? Check. Mid-major schools coming out of nowhere? Abso-freakin-lutely. Grab your bracket and a writing utensil and let me help you win your bracket pool. I will be going region by region, breaking down teams, players, and potential juicy matchups. I will also be placing various bets on teams I like.

South

The Favorite:

Virginia Cavaliers (No. 1 seed)

Current Title odds: 5/1

The Cavaliers are a perfect college basketball team … in theory. The number one overall ranked team in the country is also the number one defensive team. Surprisingly, the Cavaliers, don’t have a go-to scorer, but they make up for it with four solid scorers. Head coach Tony Bennett is widely regarded as one of the best young coaches in the nation. But I’m just not that excited by this team. Not having that go-to guy can be a detriment, especially in crunch time. Two of the biggest indicators of NCAA tournament success are defense and elite guard play. Virginia checks one of those boxes, but the box they do not check is notable.

Prediction: Lose in Sweet Sixteen

The Contenders

Cincinnati Bearcats (No. 2 seed)

Current Title odds: 22/1

*ESPN 30 for 30 voice* “What if I told you that the No. 2 seed in Virginia’s region plays an extremely similar style of basketball, and a matchup between these teams might result in a final score of 45 to 44. ESPN presents, Mirror Image: The Cincinnati Bearcats story.” Once the Bearcats start playing, their games turn into rockfights, and they have to hope that they get more stops than the other team. Their path to the Elite Eight is quite easy, but once they meet Virginia/Kentucky/Arizona, they will have a hard time.

Prediction: Lose in Elite Eight

 

Arizona Wildcats (No. 4 seed)

Current Title odds: 12/1

Now this is where this region gets interesting. Arizona is a good team, and they are seeded correctly. Also, Deandre Ayton, the presumptive first overall pick in the NBA draft, has the ability to single-handedly change games with his power and finesse on offense and his rim protection on defense. What’s more, Ayton is flanked by two combo guards, Rawle Alkins and Allonzo Trier, who can both heat up at a moments notice. Arizona is a very hit or miss team, but if they are hitting, watch out.

 

Kentucky Wildcats (#5 seed)

Current Title odds: 28/1 (Bonus Bet: $20 on Kentucky to win the title)

It’s really a shame that one of these teams will be gone by the end of the first weekend. The Kentucky Wildcats are hitting their stride at the perfect time of year, after running the table and winning the SEC tournament. While Kentucky can’t match Arizona’s (Ayton’s) star power, they do have multiple future NBA players, churned out of coach John Calipari’s one-and-done factory. Point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and combo forward Kevin Knox are both future lottery picks playing their best heading into the tournament, but my player to watch is Wenyen Gabriel, a 6’ 9’’ sophomore forward. Gabriel can protect the rim on defense, and has a sweet three-point stroke.

 

Most Intriguing Potential  Matchup:

Arizona vs Kentucky

I am salivating at the possibility of this matchup. Kentucky is one of few teams in the country who have big bodies to throw at Ayton. In a battle of two of college basketball’s premier programs, I firmly believe the winner of this game will go to the Final Four.

Prediction: Kentucky defeats Arizona in the second round, and advances to the Final Four

 

Other Players to Watch:

(NBA prospect rankings courtesy of nbadraft.net)

  • Lonnie Walker (14), SG, Miami: A quick, rangy guard, Walker will be instrumental for Miami if they are going to find any success in this tournament.
  • Mohamed Bamba (5), C, Texas: Bamba is cut from similar cloth as Ayton. He is a humongus human who can reach further and higher than anyone. Texas is not very good, so make sure to check him out while you have the chance.
  • Admiral Schofield, G, Tennessee: The Volunteers are entering the tourney as one of the least talked about teams, despite the fact that they are a three seed. They are lead by an unconventional player with a great name in Admiral Schofield. Schofield is a broad player, who can get to any spot on the floor he wants. I’m not sure about Tennessee’s title chances, but I know I love watching the Admiral.

 

Possible Cinderella:

Davidson Wildcats (12 seed)

Current Title Odds: 200/1

Have you ever heard of a guy named Stephen Curry? Curry first stole America’s hearts as a baby-faced assassin for Davidson in 2008 when he propelled Davidson to an elite-eight appearance. Could something similar happen this year? I won’t rule it out.

 

West

The Favorite:

Michigan Wolverines (#3 seed)

Current Title Odds: 8/1

Incredibly, the favorite to come out of the West region is not the number one seed, or even the two seed. The Michigan Wolverines are the definition of hot after winning their second consecutive Big Ten tournament. It’s easy to see what people like about this Wolverine team, especially forward Moritz Wagner. Wagner burst onto the scene during year’s tournament, and now he’s the big man on campus. I’m excited to watch this team, but there is also a reason they are a three seed.

The Prediction: Lose in Sweet 16

 

The Contenders:

Xavier Musketeers (#1 seed)

Current Title Odds: 22/1

I’m not going to lie, I do not know very much at all about Xavier, but the thing I do know is that they have a player named J.P. Macura from Minnesota. Macura actually defeated Tyus Jones in the state title game their senior year. He also wears long sleeves under his jersey. So, yeah. Xavier.

The Prediction: Lose in the Second Round

 

North Carolina Tar Heels

Current Title Odds: 18/1 (Bonus Bet: $10 on UNC to win the title)

The reigning champs are back, but this is not the 2017 Tar Heels. Gone is their intimidating front court, as coach Roy Williams watched Kennedy Meeks, Tony Bradley and Justin Jackson leave for the NBA. Trying to play the same style as last year’s team was never going to work. Instead, the Tar Heels get up and down the floor with point guard Joel Berry. The Heels will need to turn their games into track meets, and I think they can control the pace of games, especially in their regional. The big X-factor for UNC is Cam Johnson, a transfer from Pittsburgh. Berry and forward Luke Maye are always going to score and make plays, but Johnson can be the spark plug that puts the Heels back in the Final Four.

Prediction: Advance to Final Four

 

Most Intriguing Potential Matchup:

Xavier vs Missouri

The outcome of this potential matchup comes down to one name: Michael Porter Jr. Currently the number two prospect on nbadraft.net, Porter is a bit of an enigma in the college basketball world. Expectations for Missouri were sky high after landing Porter, a five star recruit. Unfortunately, Porter checked out after playing just two minutes in the first game of the season, and was later reported to need back surgery. Without their star, Missouri managed to skate by and make the tourney as a very average No. 8 seed. After returning last week in the SEC tourney, all eyes will be on Porter this weekend. A combo forward who is able to handle the ball, Porter can prove his worth with a strong showing in March.

Prediction: Missouri advances to Sweet Sixteen

 

Other Players to Watch:

(NBA prospect rankings courtesy of nbadraft.net)

  • Keita Bates-Diop (#33), SF, Ohio State: The Buckeyes were not seen as much of a threat coming into the season, and have blossomed into one of the best teams in the Big Ten. This development is in large part due to the emergence of Bates-Diop. KBD is currently projected as a mid-to-late second round pick, but if Ohio State makes a run, Bates-Diop could see his stock rise to the mid-first round.
  • Rui Hachimura (#30) F, and Killian Tille (#41) F, Gonzaga. Gonzaga has already proven itself on a national level, but if the Bulldogs are going to make a deep run, one of these two will have to take over games. Hachimura, an athletic combo forward, is a very interesting prospect, and he might be the first Japanese-born player in NBA history.

 

Possible Cinderella:

South Dakota State Jackrabbits (12 seed)

Current Title odds: 1000/1

For these mid-major schools, sometime all it takes is one player. Mike Daum can be that player for SDSU. Daum is averaging a double-double on the year, and has impressed with his improved three-point stroke (42%). The odds are obviously stacked against them, but it’s not impossible to see them upsetting Ohio State and possibly Gonzaga. All Hail the Daum-inator!

 

Midwest

The Favorite

Duke Blue Devils

Current Title Odds: 6/1

My completely objective thoughts on the Duke basketball team: Duke won’t win the title because they choke every year and lose to 15 seeds because they don’t play defense. Actually though, I don’t get the hype for this Duke team. Yes, they have some of the top prospects for the NBA draft. Yes, coach Mike Krzyzewski is one of the greatest coaches college basketball has ever seen. But again, this team cannot defend. Coach K had deployed a 2-3 zone for the majority of this season, which asks the question. Why can’t these future NBA players play man-to-man defense? Playing a zone is dangerous, especially in the NCAA tournament. If Duke finds themselves matched up with a team that catches fire from the three, they are toast. On the other hand, Duke might walk to the Elite Eight without playing a team that is a threat to them.

Prediction: Lose in the Elite Eight

 

The Contenders

Kansas Jayhawks

Current Title Odds: 14/1 (Bonus Bet: $10 to win the title)

I was very lukewarm on Kansas heading into the season, but I think they won me over during the season. The Jayhawks won their 14th straight Big 12 regular season title and have had a variety of players step up. Devonte’ Graham has emerged from the shadow of 2017 Naismith Player of the Year Frank Jackson, and has become the de facto leader of this years squad. However, he is not Kansas’s most important player. That honor belongs to sophomore Udoka Azubuike. The Nigerian-born center, who is currently nursing a knee injury, missed the Big 12 Tournament, and his status is up in the air for the games this weekend. Azubuike’s availability will be vital for Kansas. If he is out, Kansas will be a decent team who could win some games. If he plays, the ceiling on this Jayhawk team is a national championship.

Prediction: Advance to Final Four

 

Michigan State Spartans

Current Title Odds: 8/1

In a region with Mike Krzyzewski and Bill Self, it’s tough for a coach to stand out, but that is exactly what Tom Izzo has done. Izzo has a reputation of success in March, reflected by their title odds. They trot out one of the top front lines in college basketball, headlined by Miles Bridges, a sophomore who will need to carry the team. Michigan State’s length should be a problem for nearly every team in the tournament which makes their prospective second round matchup with Duke all the more interesting. Duke is one of very few teams who can match Michigan State in height, and the Blue Devils have exponentially more talent in the back court. Sorry Izzo, maybe next year.

Prediction: Lose in Sweet Sixteen

 

Most Intriguing Matchup

Oklahoma vs Duke

Trae Young. That is the name that has lit up college basketball this year. There has been the good (leading the nation in scoring while averaging nearly nine assists), the bad (losing eight of their last ten games causing them to barely make the tournament), and the ugly (Trae, I mean this in the nicest way: please get a better haircut). Oklahoma squeaked into the tournament field, but we have seen what they can do, both good and bad, so if they come out hot against Rhode Island in the first round, I will be waiting with bated breath for their matchup against the NBA caliber players on the Duke Blue Devils.

 

Other Players to Watch

(NBA prospect rankings courtesy of nbadraft.net)

  • Basically Every Player on Duke: If they wanted to, Duke could put out a starting lineup of future NBA players. Forward Marvin Bagley (#3 ranking) is a game-changing offensive player, who can score from multiple levels. Wendell Carter (#7) is a center, who cleans up any misses. With a back court of freshman Gary Trent Jr. (#15) and Trevon Duval (#35), and the senior Grayson Allen (#24), Duke will be a team to watch for NBA scouts and fans alike.
  • Jaren Jackson Jr. (#4), C, Michigan State: Jackson has come in, and somewhat stolen his teammate’s, Miles Bridges, draft hype. Jackson has shown the flashes NBA teams are looking for both on the defensive end with his rim protection and on the offensive end where he opens up driving lanes and space for shooters.
  • Sviatoslav Mykhailuk (#33), SG, Kansas: If I was the Timberwolves, I would draft this man based solely on his nickname: The Ukrainemaker. He is a very intriguing prospect for NBA teams. He is a senior but is still only 20. I expect him to be an early second round pick, as his three-point ability will entice many scouts.

 

East

The Favorite

Villanova Wildcats

Current Title Odds: 5/1

Earlier, I called Virginia the theoretical perfect college basketball team. I stopped at theoretical because Villanova is actually the perfect college basketball team. While Virginia is the top defensive team with a solid offense, Villanova is the No. 1 offensive team with a solid defense. Basically Villanova is Virginia, if Virginia was aesthetically pleasing to watch. Point guard Jalen Brunson can score and set the table for others, and he is a strong contender for National Player of the Year. My favorite player for Villanova is Mikal Bridges, who is a great “fill in the blanks” guy. Any holes that Villanova might need filled, Bridges is their guy.

Prediction: Advance to Final Four

 

The Contenders

Purdue Boilermakers

Current Title Odds: 15/1

When talking about Purdue, the first thing to mention must be big man Isaac Haas. The 7’ 2’’ senior is a singular brute force who is a problem for every single team in the tournament. Opposing teams will form their gameplans with Haas in mind. He has been a godsend for Purdue’s shooters, Carsen and Vincent Edwards. The three of them will be instrumental if Purdue is to find success in the tourney.

Prediction: Lose in Elite Eight

 

West Virginia Mountaineers

Current Title Odds: 40/1

Chaos is the name of the game for coach Bob Huggins’s Mountaineers team. West Virginia will play full-court defense for the entire game, trying to cause turnovers and speed the other team up. Senior guard Jevon Carter holds couple of important distinctions in the tourney. One is that he is the best bald player in the field. The other is that he is a downright thief, averaging nearly three steals a game. If Carter continues the Herculean effort he has displayed so far this year, West Virginia is a team to watch out for.

Prediction: Lose in Sweet Sixteen

 

Other Players to Watch

(NBA prospect rankings courtesy of nbadraft.net)

  • Collin Sexton (#8), PG, Alabama: If there is one player in this tournament who is capable of single-handedly carrying at team to a Final Four, it’s Collin Sexton. Gopher fans might remember Sexton as the guy who kept scoring once Alabama was down to three available players (it’s a long story, just look it up). If Alabama can knock off Villanova and advance to the Sweet Sixteen, the sky’s the limit. He has “2011 Kemba Walker” potential.
  • Landry Shamet (#25), PG, Wichita State: Once upon a time, Wichita captured America’s hearts with their Cinderella run to the Final Four in 2013. Times have changed for Gregg Marshall’s program. They aren’t sneaking up on anyone this time, but they are also battle tested after playing in the American Conference this year. Shamet has been the spark that makes the Shockers move. Not the most athletic player in the country, Shamet uses his intelligence and feel to affect the game even when he doesn’t have the ball.

 

Quick Hits

  • North Carolina State Wolfpack (Current Title Odds: 250/1): Every year I talk myself into the Wolfpack, and this year is no different. Put me down for $10 on NC State, and lets hope I get rich (and really lucky)
  • Texas Christian University Horned Frogs (Current Title Odds: 150/1): Head coach Jamie Dixon has lead TCU to their first at large bid since 1998. Good for you, but I think you’re going to lose to whoever you play in the first round.
  • Arizona State Sun Devils (Current Title Odds: 500/1): One of the greatest oddities of college basketball. The Sun Devils were at one point ranked #2 in the nation, and were the last remaining undefeated team in college basketball. Now they are fighting for their lives in one of the First Four play-in games against Syracuse.