FIVE STORY LINES
BIG TEN BREAK
It’s no secret the Big Ten is facing an unusual dilemma this season. With the conference tournament being moved up a week so it could be played at Madison Square Garden in New York, the NCAA Tournament-bound teams — Michigan State, Michigan, Purdue and Ohio State — were left to deal with at least a 10-day layoff. Will the extra time and rest prove helpful, or will it throw teams off and lead to early exits?
Never has a No. 1 seed lost in the first round against a No. 16 seed. In fact, the top seeds are 132-0 and only 15 games have been decided by 10 points or less, the most recent coming in Arizona’s 68-59 win over Weber State in 2014. While it’s highly unlikely to happen — no game has been decided by one possession since 1996 — there’s always a first time for everything.
KING OF THE HILL
Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, the Atlantic Coast Conference owns the highest win percentage (66.7 percent) and is the only conference to reach 300 wins in the Big Dance. The ACC has been represented in the national title game the past three years — with Duke and North Carolina winning it all in 2015 and 2017, respectively — and has a strong shot to make it four straight seasons with Virginia leading the way.
LOOKING TO REPEAT
Only twice in the last 45 years has a team won back-to-back national championships: Duke (1991-92) and Florida (2006-07). North Carolina will look to add its name to the short list. The Tar Heels have the experience to make a repeat run with last season’s Final Four Most Outstanding Player Joel Berry II and breakout star Luke Maye, but its perimeter defense has been poor and will make it a tall task if it runs into an elite offensive team.
DARK SKIES ABOVE
As college basketball enters the most thrilling and popular stretch of the season, the sport is still operating under a cloud of suspicion stemming from a pay-for-play scandal uncovered in an ongoing FBI investigation. Several teams have sat players and coaches as a precautionary measure, but it remains to be seen what will happen if more names trickle out or another bombshell drops before the NCAA Tournament.
FIVE COACHES NOBODY WANTS TO FACE
JOHN BEILEIN, MICHIGAN
For the second straight season, Beilein’s team is riding high into the Big Dance following a Big Ten tournament title run. He continues to maximize and adjust to his players’ talents, and has the Wolverines playing as well any team in the nation. Throw in a defense that’s as good as it has ever been during his tenure and Michigan is a tough matchup for anybody on short prep — especially with Moritz Wagner’s pick-and-pop ability.
TONY BENNETT, VIRGINIA
So much for a rebuilding season. Bennett’s Cavaliers went from being unranked in the preseason to No. 1 by February, and will enter the NCAA Tournament with the nation’s stingiest defense for the second straight year. He’s guided his team past the first weekend twice in the last four seasons and is leading arguably his best team — and most suffocating defense — yet.
MARK FEW, GONZAGA
Few has transformed the Bulldogs from a mid-major obscurity into a regular postseason presence. His 26-18 record in the NCAA Tournament may not wow, but he has led Gonzaga to at least the Sweet 16 the last three seasons, highlighted by the program’s first national title game appearance last year. And as one of three teams that ranks in the top 15 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive and offensive efficiency, more success is likely on the way.
MIKE KRZYZEWSKI, DUKE
No active coach has thrived in March quite like Krzyzewski, who has racked up 91 wins, 12 Final Four appearances and five national titles in the NCAA Tournament over his career. The Blue Devils went 6-2 against ranked opponents in the regular season and have the talent to make another deep postseason run. And as long as legendary figure is on the sidelines, Duke always will be in contention.
JAY WRIGHT, VILLANOVA
Wright has built Villanova into a winning machine and one of the premiere programs in the nation. His team has been ranked No. 1 at some point during the season for the third straight year and despite hitting some bumps down the stretch, the Wildcats won all three of their matchups against ranked opponents this season by at least 16 points. Villanova also likely will have an added edge after being ousted in the second round as the No. 1 overall seed last year.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
DEANDRE AYTON, ARIZONA
The projected No. 1 pick in NBA’s June draft is a freakish prospect who can singlehandedly carry Arizona to the Final Four. Ayton, a 7-foot-1 center, averages 20.3 points and 11.5 rebounds, and has 23 double-doubles, the most ever by a Pac-12 freshman. On top of that, he can step out and knock down shots from beyond the arc as a 36 percent 3-point shooter.
MARVIN BAGLEY III, DUKE
The athletic 6-foot-11 freshman has a versatile skill set that makes him a threat to score from anywhere on the floor. Bagley led the ACC in scoring (21.1 points) and rebounding (11.5), and is only the second player to win both the league’s player and rookie of the year awards. He’s also only one of two players in the nation who is averaging more than 20 points and 10 rebounds while shooting better than 60 percent from the field.
MILES BRIDGES, MICHIGAN STATE
The unanimous All-Big Ten first-team selection has the ability to take over games and does it all for the Spartans, leading the team in scoring (16.9 points) while ranking second in rebounds (6.9) and third in assists (2.8). Bridges holds the key to Michigan State’s national title drive and the Spartans are 11-0 when he scores at least 20 points.
CARSEN EDWARDS, PURDUE
The sophomore guard has been on a tear and emerged as an elite scorer in the last month. Over his past nine games, Edwards is averaging 23.8 points and 3.1 assists while shooting 45.5 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from 3-point range. He’ll enter the NCAA Tournament as a one of the nation’s most feared playmakers who also has the luxury to be surrounded by four talented seniors.
TRAE YOUNG, OKLAHOMA
The freshman phenom drew Steph Curry-like comparisons when he took the college basketball world by storm with his jaw-dropping shooting displays and historic stat lines. While his numbers have dipped down the stretch, Young is still one of the most electrifying players and leads the nation in scoring (27.4 points) and assists (8.8).
The most efficient offense in the nation looks a lot like the team that won the national championship two years ago in one of the best title games in recent memory. Guard Jalen Brunson is averaging 19.4 points and 4.7 assists a game and was just named the national player of the year by USA Today. After winning it all as a freshman, he has the Wildcats primed to do so again.
The Blue Devils are second to only Villanova in offensive efficiency this season and with the firepower the Blue Devils have, it’s not hard to see why. What has plagued Mike Krzyzewski’s team has been defense, but since the legendary coach went to a zone full time, the Blue Devils have come to life. They’ve got young stars like Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. along with a senior star in Grayson Allen, giving them a perfect mix headed into the NCAA Tournament.
It’s hard to find any gray area with the Jayhawks — either you think they are a sure-fire No. 1 team or you think they’re a fraud. The naysayers will point to the losses — three in quadrant 2 and one in quadrant 3 — while the supporters point out Kansas has 10 quadrant 1 victories with the second-toughest schedule in the nation. They also happen to have senior guard Devonte Graham, who was named the unanimous Big 12 Player of the year in the same conference as Oklahoma’s Trae Young.
The critics have come out in full force after the Spartans were bounced by Michigan in the semifinal of the Big Ten tournament. Actually, they’ve been out for a while as Michigan State avoided playing Purdue and Michigan on the road this season while winning the Big Ten title. The Spartans also have just three quadrant 1 wins. However, they don’t have a bad loss, either, and they might have as much talent as any team in the nation. The question is if they can rediscover what they had early in the year when they blew out the likes of North Carolina and Notre Dame with Bonzie Colson.
The Cavaliers won’t excite anyone and they sure won’t light up the scoreboard, but what they will do is stifle even the best offense in the nation. The top team in defensive efficiency is remarkably difficult to score on as 13 teams have failed to score 50 points on Virginia this season. Where the Cavaliers come up short is the pure scorer to take over a tight game late while they also don’t have a great tournament history, only getting past the Sweet 16 once under coach Tony Bennett.
FIVE DARK HORSES
The Wolverines might be playing as well as any team in the country, something that is becoming the norm under coach John Beilein. The championship in the Big Ten tournament is the second straight for Michigan, which enters the NCAA Tournament on a nine-game winning streak. With Moritz Wagner at the top of his game and Zavier Simpson emerging as a top defensive point guard, there’s no telling how far the Wolverines could go.
The Wildcats got off to a miserable start to the season, losing all three games they played in the Battle 4 Atlantis. But slowly, they returned to form and won the Pac-12 by two games. How much the off-the-court issues affect the Wildcats will be interesting to watch as coach Sean Miller and freshman DeAndre Ayton were named in a recent report on the FBI investigation. But Alonzo Trier is back from suspension and Arizona could earn a favorable draw out West.
The Shockers finished two games back of Cincinnati in the American but they have an efficient offense that is balanced. They’ll likely give up their share of points, but it’s an offense with a dynamic point guard in Landry Shamet, who is shooting 46 percent from 3-point range this season and could carry a team in a six-game stretch over three weeks.
Rick Barnes has led an impressive revival in his third season leading the Volunteers, who shared the SEC regular-season title with Auburn, the first conference championship for Tennessee since 2008. The Volunteers are fourth in the nation in defensive efficiency, but they’ll score, too, as Grant Williams is scoring 15.3 points a game and Admiral Schofield is scoring 13.8.
It’s never a good idea to pick against the Bulldogs, who won the WCC tournament for the sixth straight season and enter the NCAA Tournament on a 14-game winning streak, their last loss coming on Jan. 18. They’ve also reached the Sweet 16 in each of the last three seasons, including the national championship game in 2017.
FIVE TEAMS TO AVOID PICKING
The Musketeers won the Big East by a game and rank seventh in the nation in offensive efficiency. But while some of the metrics are favorable for Xavier, its two decisive losses to Villanova still linger, making some wonder whether the Musketeers can really get it done against the top teams in the nation.
The record is ugly as the Wildcats, who won the SEC tournament Sunday, have lost 10 times this season, including a four-game skid in early February. However, the metrics still aren’t bad as Kentucky has an RPI of 17. They certainly have the pedigree but if eye test matters at all, few would predict a deep run from John Calipari’s team.
The Sooners have one of the most dynamic players in the nation as Trae Young leads the nation in scoring and assists. He could be the type of player that carries a team on an epic run, however, he’s not getting much help as Oklahoma closed the regular season with two wins in the last nine games and got bounced from the conference tournament by Oklahoma State.
Bruce Pearl’s team was 25-7 this year in a league the metrics seemed to love. But the eye test is another thing and watching it get outscored by 28 in the second half by rival Alabama in the SEC tournament semifinal was shocking. The bet here is that the SEC was a bit overrated this year and Auburn will be another school from that league that goes out early.
It’s been a remarkable season for first-year coach Chris Holtmann, who took a team picked to finish 11th in the Big Ten and getting them to finish ties for second behind conference player of the year Keita Bates-Diop. The Buckeyes are tough and will play hard, but three losses in the final five games entering the tournament could be a sign the magic is running out.