James Hawkins and Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News parse the NCAA Tournament's most compelling story lines.
Five story lines
What in the world is going on down on the Bayou? The Tigers managed to win the SEC regular-season championship, but it looks like they won’t have their coach for the postseason and might not have freshman Javonte Smart. It was Smart that coach Will Wade was allegedly talking about when FBI wiretaps caught him talking about a recruit. Wade refused to discuss it with LSU administration leading to his suspension. At full strength, the Tigers are good enough to reach the Final Four. With all the off-court issues, making a run might be tough.
It was bound to happen at some point, but that probably doesn’t make Tony Bennett and the Cavaliers feel a whole lot better after becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a 16-seed after getting beat by UMBC last season. Instead of allowing it to linger, however, the Cavaliers won the ACC regular season title and grabbed another No. 1 seed. No, there will be no rematch in the first round, but don’t bet on Virginia repeating the dubious honor.
Big Ten rebound
The 2017-18 season was not one that would be considered a great one for the Big Ten Conference, even though Michigan won the conference tournament and marched all the way to the national championship game for the second time under John Beilein. But only four conference teams made the field an regular-season champ Michigan State was out by the first weekend. That has been flipped this season as eight teams are in the field with Michigan State, Michigan and Purdue all drawing 3-seeds or better. Could this be the year the Big Ten ends its title drought, one that goes back to MSU’s win in 2000? There are at least more teams making a run at it.
Is there another UMBC?
While Virginia has no intention of pulling a repeat, there always seems to be a team or two that is happy to wear the glass slipper. We’ll play the odds and say a No. 16 doesn’t pull it off again considering No. 1 seeds are 135-1. But don’t county out a 15 as those teams have won eight times (looking at you, MSU) and 14 seeds have won 21 times. Keep an eye the likes of 14 seeds Yale (LSU), Old Dominion (Purdue) and Georgia State (Houston).
Who’s the favorite?
Duke earned the No. 1 overall seed, and with Zion Williamson back there’s a pretty good chance the Blue Devils are gonna be penciled in as the national champion in most office bracket pools. But, as we see every year, the favorite doesn’t always get it done. It’s hard to ignore the track record of teams like Kentucky, Michigan State and Gonzaga, but the Wildcats and Spartans haven’t been to the Final Four since 2015 and the Bulldogs didn’t have the toughest regular-season schedule. As for Virginia, the Cavaliers have never gotten past the Elite Eight under Tony Bennett. So looking deeper, keep an eye on North Carolina, Tennessee, Michigan and, as a bit of a long shot, don’t count out Nevada.
Yes, last year, the Cavaliers became the first No. 1 seed ever to lose to a No. 16 seed in the first round. And, yes, they returned the bulk of their roster from last year’s team. But Virginia doesn’t have the same offensive concerns it did a year ago thanks to Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome, who are all averaging at least 13.5 points while shooting 45 percent from the field and 42 percent from 3-point range heading into the postseason. And the defense is still suffocating and gives up the fewest points in the nation.
The Blue Devils rank in the top 10 in KenPom’s adjusted offensive (120.4 points per 100 possessions; sixth) and defensive (88.5; seventh) efficiency, the latter the best number Duke has posted since 2010 when it won it all. There’s no question the Blue Devils have the top talent in projected lottery picks Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish to deliver coach Mike Krzyzewski his sixth title. The question is whether Williamson is able to fully return to his highlight-reel form after being sidelined for weeks with a knee sprain.
Mark Few’s squads have been no strangers to deep runs and have reached the second weekend of the tournament four years in a row, including a runner-up finish in 2017. The Bulldogs rolled through their West Coast Conference slate and closed out the season with 20 straight wins — all by at least 12 points — before falling in the WCC tournament final. However, the minor setback doesn’t erase the fact that they boast the nation’s highest-scoring offense led by the tantalizing tandem of Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke.
The Spartans overcame crippling injuries that would derail most teams and won their second straight regular-season title in the Big Ten, which was arguably the toughest and deepest conference in the country. (They added the tournament title Sunday.) While there may be concerns about ailments and the fact Michigan State hasn’t made it out the first weekend the last three years, the Spartans have an answer for that: Cassius Winston. Sometimes all it takes is a little magic to fuel a run and Winston’s wizardry doesn’t seem to be running low on supply.
Rick Barnes has the Volunteers on the upswing and hungry for more in the program’s first back-to-back trips to the Big Dance since 2010-11. Despite falling short of winning the Southeastern Conference, Tennessee still recorded 27 wins in the regular season — their most since 2008 — and has a three-headed attack that’s hard to contain in Grant Williams (19.3 points), Admiral Schofield (16.3 points) and Jordan Bone (13.4 points).
Five dark horses
The Wolverines are known for peaking — not plateauing — around this time of the year under John Beilein. However, they dropped four of their final 10 regular-season games and the prolonged offensive droughts have been a major concern. Yet, Michigan still has a defense that can keep it in a game and has the postseason experience required to make some noise. The big question is whether the Wolverines can get back to their early season form when they were steamrolling foe after foe.
The Cougars don’t have the postseason pedigree of most programs and have only two NCAA Tournament appearances since 1993. They also didn’t play a daunting schedule, one that ranks No. 95 nationally in KenPom’s strength of schedule rating. But Houston still ran through the American Athletic Conference and has posted better offensive and defensive efficiency numbers than last year’s team that was a shot away from reaching the Sweet 16.
Despite the suspension of coach Will Wade, the Tigers used a strong finish to claim their first outright SEC regular-season title since 2009. While it remains to be seen if Wade’s off-the-court issues will affect LSU moving forward, the Tigers have proven two things: they can prevail in close games and they can beat top competition. They pulled out five wins in overtime and recorded nine quadrant 1 wins in the regular season, including victories over Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Nate Oats’ pack of Bulls stampeded through the Mid-American Conference and arguably are better than last year’s group that pummeled Arizona in the first round. Buffalo ranks fifth in the nation in scoring offense and can light up the scoreboard thanks to C.J. Massinburg (18.5 points) and Milan’s Nick Perkins (14.8 points). With a veteran roster and a solid defense to boot, the Bulls could break up a whole lot of fans’ brackets.
The Terrapins have the makings of a team that can do some serious damage. They have a talented frontcourt duo in Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith, the necessary complement of 3-point shooting, a scoring point guard in Anthony Cowan Jr. running the show, and an offense and defense that both rank in the top 30 in efficiency. The Achilles heel for Maryland has been taking care of the ball as evidenced by its average turnover margin of minus-3.7, which ranked last in the Big Ten.
Five teams to avoid picking
The defending national champions are far from the formidable force they were a year ago. The biggest difference? They don’t have the same insanely efficient and accurate offense that was ranked among the country’s best the past four seasons. It also doesn’t help the Wildcats are surrendering more points per possession (0.991) than they have since 2012, when Villanova last failed to make the tournament.
The hits keep coming for the Jayhawks. First, they lost big man Udoka Azubuike to a season-ending injury in early January. Then in February, forward Silvio De Sousa was ruled ineligible for the rest of the season and second-leading scorer Lagerald Vick took a leave for “personal matters” and won’t return. Then earlier this month, Kansas’ Big 12 championship streak came to an end, marking the first time since the 2003-04 season the Jayhawks didn’t win or share the regular-season crown.
The Golden Eagles feature one of the nation’s premier scorers in junior Markus Howard (25 points) and best 3-point shooting attacks (39.4 percent), but they are trending in the wrong direction. Marquette had a chance to seize the Big East title and gain some momentum over the final two weeks of the season. Instead, Steve Wojciechowski’s crew squandered it away and tumbled down the stretch with four straight losses.
The Cyclones are a high-efficiency machine on offense but their defense leaves plenty to be desired. In fact, among KenPom’s top 25 teams — Iowa State is rated No. 21 — they have the worst adjusted defensive efficiency at 98.3 points allowed per 100 possessions, which ranks No. 71 in the nation. To make matters worse, the Cyclones dropped six of their final eight games of the season to finish in the middle of the Big 12 standings.
The Badgers are known for slow-it-down, grind-it-out style of play. And it works for them because they rarely turn the ball over and they have a top-10 defense that can frustrate opponents. But expecting that formula to pay off for six straight games is problematic, especially for a team who relies on a point-per-possession offensive approach and has a star big man in Ethan Happ who can be a liability at the free-throw line in crunch time.
Five coaches nobody wants to face
Nate Oats, Buffalo
He’s the coach of the year in the Mid-American Conference for the second straight season, not exactly something that will strike fear in many teams in the NCAA Tournament field. However, Oates happens to be coaching a team has won 31 games this season, including 16 in the MAC and has been ranked for 18 consecutive weeks. On top of that, Oates is leading a veteran team that won a game in last season’s tournament as a 13-seed.
Tom Izzo, Michigan State
The record for Izzo, in his 24th season leading the Spartans, is enough to want to avoid seeing Michigan State in the bracket. This is his 22nd straight appearance in the tournament and he’s reached seven Final Fours with a national championship in 2000. However, Michigan State has failed to get out of the first weekend in each of the past three seasons. If there ever was extra motivation to make a run with the Big Ten champions, proving he’s still got that March magic might be it.
Bill Self, Kansas
Things haven’t gone well at all for the Jayhawks in the second half of the season as they watched their streak of 14 straight Big 12 championships come to an end. But even short three players that were expected to play key roles this season, Self long has had the right touch in the postseason. He led the Jayhawks to the Final Four last season after reaching the Elite Eight in each the previous two trips to the tournament. The expectations won’t be as high this time around, but counting out a Kansas team led by Self might not be wise.
Mike Krzyzewski, Duke
Let’s be honest, Coach K will be on this list as long as he coaches, regardless of any perceived shortcomings or obstacles the Blue Devils have to overcome. Missing Zion Williamson certainly hurt Duke down the stretch in the regular season, but now at full strength, it’s hard to see the Blue Devils not getting to Minneapolis. Krzyzewski has merely won 94 tournament games, five national titles and has reached 12 Final Fours. However, he hasn’t gotten the Blue Devils to the Final Four since they won it all in 2015. Seems like that drought is about to end.
John Calipari, Kentucky
OK, everyone tell the truth. When the Wildcats got worked over by Duke at the Champions Classic to open the season, most expected this would be a long year for Coach Cal. Instead, they’ve persevered and managed to get it done in the SEC tournament. And, like the other coaches in this list, Calipari is looking to get back to an elite level as Kentucky hasn’t been to the Final Four since 2015. It was that same year Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo were there. Which one breaks the dry spell and gets back?
Five players to watch
Zion Williamson, Duke
Everything about the freshman’s game says he’s the player of the year as he averaged 21.6 points and 8.8 rebounds during the regular season. But it was the way he transformed the game, a 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds playing the game like a swift-moving shooting guard and one moment and then overpowering his opponent the next. He missed the last five games of the regular season with a knee injury, but at 100 percent, he makes the Blue Devils one of the teams to beat.
Ja Morant, Murray State
He doesn’t play at one of the blue bloods, the sophomore might be the most electric player in the country who’s sure to be an NBA Lottery pick. He’s averaging 24.6 points and 10 assists a game and scored 36 points with seven rebounds and three assists in the Ohio Valley championship game win over Belmont. How far he can take the Racers is up for debate, but the longer they hang around, the more Morant, and that’s a good thing.
Markus Howard, Marquette
While the Golden Eagles lost their last four regular-season games, Howard has consistently been one of the top players in the nation and eared Big East player of the year honors by soring 25 points a game. His season was highlighted by breaking his own single-game conference record by scoring 53 points in an OT victory over Creighton in January. He is the first Marquette player to win the honor since Jae Crowder in 2011-12 and he’ll need to be at his best if the Gold Eagles expect to get on a roll.
Grant Williams, Tennessee
The junior was named SEC player of the year for the second straight season by both the coaches and the Associated Press, hardly a surprise when you consider he averaged 19.3 points and 7.7 rebounds in 31.9 minutes per game for one of the top teams in the nation. Three losses in the final three weeks of the regular season helped keep the Volunteers from an SEC championship and will no doubt provide some motivation for Williams and his talented teammates.
Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga
The junior was voted WCC player of the year after scoring 20.4 points per game and grabbing 6.6 rebounds. He has 19 20-point games and scored a career-high 33 against Idaho State in the season opener and has scored in double-figures in every game this season for the Bulldogs. He reached the national championship game as a freshman, and after the WCC title game loss to Saint Mary’s, there’s no doubt Hachimura will be looking to make amends in the NCAA Tournament.