Here’s the thing about this year’s tournament.
I don’t feel at all like I can tell you who’s going to win it.
Instead, I can tell you who’s not going to win it.
And there have been times when it’s felt like I could say that about every team in the field.
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Four days ago, I felt reasonably good about Houston as the best candidate to win the NCAA championships. Then All-American guard Marcus Sasser’s upper body zigged while his lower body zagged, and suddenly the Cougars looked a fair amount like an ordinary team. A month ago, no one could deal with 7-4 Purdue center Zach Edey (they still can’t) and that made it easier for the team’s young backcourt to produce (now they’re not). Alabama is dealing with the aftermath of the murder charges against a since-dismissed player and the revelation that two players, including the team’s superstar, were present when the shooting occurred.
Championship contenders that already were underwhelming or flawed now are mostly underwhelming and flawed.
But if there’s a game, someone’s got to win it. So we’ll have four teams in Houston in early April, and one of them will hold up a championship trophy and join the likes of UCLA 1972, North Carolina 1982, Duke 1992, Maryland 2002 and Kentucky 2012 – dang, those were some great champions. Maybe the trick is to look forward to the year that ends in “2”.
This one will end with Alabama as the winner over a Final Four that includes Duke, Texas and Connecticut, and they instantly may become the least popular champion in the sport’s history.
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The Crimson Tide can be a spectacular defensive team. They can be a spectacular offensive team. They rank in the top 20 in both categories at KenPom.com. They have a frontcourt with size, dynamism, toughness and shooting. They have at least one obvious NBA prospect, future lottery pick Brandon Miller. In Miller, they have a player who can break down defenses under pressure. Jahvon Quinerly is the type of talented, experienced point guard who can win a title.
Quinerly might not be a first-round draft pick, but he fits the mold of past champions like Dajuan Harris of Kansas and Joel Berry of North Carolina. Quinerly was injured in last year’s tournament, and it has been a journey for him to get back to playing major minutes at the level he lately is reaching.
If Alabama does win it all, at the very least we all can feel good about him getting a ring.
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1 Alabama over 16 Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
8 Maryland over 9 West Virginia
5 San Diego State over 12 Charleston
4 Virginia over 13 Furman
6 Creighton over 11 NC State
3 Baylor over 14 UCSB
7 Missouri over 10 Utah State
2 Arizona over 15 Princeton
1 Alabama over 8 Maryland
5 San Diego State over 4 Virginia
6 Creighton over 3 Baylor
2 Arizona over 7 Missouri
1 Alabama over 5 San Diego State
6 Creighton over 2 Arizona
1 Alabama over 6 Creighton
There are certain regions every year where it looks as though the coach of the top seed was granted the opportunity to pick the opponents he would prefer to have in his team’s region. This year, it’s as though that honor has been presented to Alabama and head coach Nate Oats.
It’s just a mystery what he did to earn that honor.
Oh, I guess he fielded the team that became the No. 1 overall seed. I suppose that’s a good reason. But Bama gave the committee plenty of justification to consider going hard on the Crimson Tide and making them work to get to Houston.
Well, forget about that. We saw what Arizona was made of in the Pac-12 championship game against UCLA. Oh, sure, they won, but they needed a terrible call that changed the momentum of the game, two major injuries to the Bruins, the only remaining UCLA bigs to be disqualified and a late 3-pointer to get that trophy. After last year’s Arizona squad squandered the talents of Bennedict Mathurin, Dalen Terry and Christian Koloko with its Sweet 16 departure (that easily could have been a first-weekend loss), it’s hard to trust this squad.
No. 3 Baylor might be happy never to see Iowa State again, but overall the Bears have been struggling to find consistency on offense.
That’s why I wound up selecting Creighton – another team that rarely seems to capture the sum of its collective talent – to reach the Elite Eight against Alabama. It’s mostly a belief that it ought to work more than any specific evidence it will. Think about this: Creighton has beaten one of its four NCAA Tournament opponents since Feb. 1. And that’s the team I’m picking to make a run?
1 Purdue over 16 Texas Southern
8 Memphis over 9 Florida Atlantic
5 Duke over 12 Oral Roberts
4 Tennessee over 13 Louisiana
6 Kentucky over 11 Providence
3 Kansas State over 14 Montana Statev 7 Michigan State over 10 USC
2 Marquette over 15 Vermont
1 Purdue over 8 Memphis
5 Duke over 4 Tennessee
6 Kentucky over 3 Kansas State
2 Marquette over 7 Michigan State
5 Duke over 1 Purdue
2 Marquette over 6 Kentucky
5 Duke over 2 Marquette
Now that Duke is fully healthy, it’s hard not to be impressed by its collective talent and the sense of purpose the Blue Devils carry into every game. Kyle Filipowski has become about as difficult to defend as any player in college basketball, given his size and ability to score from deep and around the goal and impressive ability to play on the move. Center Dereck Lively II is a ridiculous rim protector. They really have a lot of the qualities one might look for in a national champion.
It just seems too improbable for Duke to win a national title in its first season following Mike Krzyzewski’s retirement.
Is that a good reason not to pick the Devils? Well, for me it wasn’t a good enough reason not to pick them to advance to the Final Four. Purdue opponents will fret about how to defend the Sporting News Player of the Year, Zach Edey, but his companions just are not contributing enough regularly for them to defeat a team as gifted as Duke.
Marquette is a wonder, with maybe America’s best pure playmaking point guard and some of the best passing of any team in Division I. But the just-good-enough defense will cost them at some point, and my belief is that point will arrive in the Elite Eight.
1 Houston over 16 Northern Kentucky
9 Auburn over 8 Iowa
12 Drake over 5 Miami
4 Indiana over 13 Kent State
6 Iowa State over 11 Mississippi State
3 Xavier over 14 Kennesaw State
7 Texas A&M over 10 Penn State
2 Texas over 15 Colgate
1 Houston over 9 Auburn
4 Indiana over 12 Drake
3 Xavier over 6 Iowa State
2 Texas over 7 Texas A&M
1 Houston over 4 Indiana
2 Texas over 3 Xavier
2 Texas over 1 Houston
If I’m willing to believe the Cougars can reach the Elite Eight with an injury-compromised Marcus Sasser, why not just pick them to go all the way? OK, I’m getting into the really odd reasoning here: It just doesn’t seem like a season when we’re going to get two No. 1 seeds in the Final Four.
There almost always is a least one top seed in the Final Four; the last time we had zero was in 2006, when the seeds were No. 2 UCLA, No. 3 Florida, No. 4 LSU and No. 11 George Mason.
I figure Alabama gets the obligatory spot because of the inadequacy of their region. Houston has some teams that can challenge them, but more so there is the concern about whether Sasser can reach the extraordinary level required to win the biggest tournament games.
I am not fully convinced Texas is going to get through its likely second-round game against once-and-future rival Texas A&M, but if the Longhorns do get through, they’re equipped for a good run. (If they make good end-game decisions with the ball, which is not a given).
And as much as the local fans at the Midwest Region might not like Texas, they might cheer even harder against a Houston team they feel was gifted their opportunity to play in KC when the Jayhawks were right freaking there with 17 Quad 1 wins and still slotted behind the Cougars on the official NCAA seed list.
1 Kansas over 16 Howard
8 Arkansas over 9 Illinois
5 Saint Mary’s over 12 VCU
4 UConn over 13 Iona
6 TCU over 11 Arizona State
3 Gonzaga over 14 Grand Canyon
10 Boise State over 7 Northwestern
2 UCLA over 15 UNC Asheville
1 Kansas over 8Arkansas
4 UConn over 5 Saint Mary’s
6 TCU over 3 Gonzaga
2 UCLA over 10 Boise State
4 UConn over 1 Kansas
2 UCLA over 6 TCU
4 UConn over 2 UCLA
It’s not easy to pick against UCLA should they make it that deep into the tournament. This team has a will to win that is unmatched among the other 67 teams in the field. However, the vast majority of the other 67 teams aren’t potentially without 40 percent of their starting lineup just when the games matter most.
We pretty much know that wing Jalen Clark, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, will not be available for March Madness. The status of gifted freshman center Adem Bona is unclear, but it is unlikely he’s going to provide his customary physical presence if at all compromised by his shoulder injury.
It always seemed like analysts who pushed for the Bruins as a likely national champion were asking a lot of a team that frequently struggles to score. But they had the goods for a Final Four. Maybe they still do, but it will be so much harder.
No. 1 seed Kansas does, too, but that rank of 361st in bench minutes is no accident. It’s a team that relies so much, almost too much, on its starters. Those who advocated for Kansas as a possible/likely national champion were overlooking that center KJ Adams is 6-7. He’s a terrific 6-7 player, but there hasn’t been a champ with a center that size since 1979. And that Michigan State team had a guy named Magic on its side.
UConn has everything it needs, really, to make it to Houston.
The Huskies just need to stay focused, together and pointed in the proper direction for four games. They did that at the start of the season. They could do it in the end.