The NCAA tournament, that glorious spectacle that only comes but once a year, is finally upon us. Sportswriter Bob Ryan said that if the field of 68 duked it out six times, we’d have six different winners. Sounds like brackets will be busted early and often, which, in my view, makes for the most enjoyable viewing experience. Sure, Michigan State was my pick last year (sorry Hoos), but I was stoked to see Middle Tennessee State do the unthinkable and knock off Sparty in the first round. Once my dreams of a perfect bracket are shattered, usually in the first few hours of play, I can kick back and pull for the underdogs.
Here are some of the 2017 tourney’s more compelling story lines:
The Villanova Wildcats are the defending National Champions, and they’ve earned the #1 overall seed in their bid to repeat. Although they lost Ryan Arcidiacono, their scrappy floor general from last year’s squad, they still have Big East POY Josh Hart and the Big Smooth, sharpshooting Kris Jenkins. You’ll remember Jenkins from his heroics in last year’s title game. President Obama commended him for the performance, saying, “Congratulate all of them, and tell Jenkins he looked pretty cool out there taking that shot.” Villanova’s coach is the impeccably dressed Jay Wright; look for him to get lots of face time on the sideline.
Best Plane Crash Ever
The Michigan Wolverines got a boost in last week’s Big 10 Tournament from a seriously unexpected source. Set to take off for Washington, D.C. for their first round matchup against Illinois, the plane carrying the entire team skidded off the runway and crashed into a nearby embankment. One player was cut badly and needed stitches, but the rest of the team got away without harm. They were forced to switch up their travel plans and ended up arriving just hours before tip, playing the game in their practice jerseys. The circumstances could hardly have been worse, but, on the court, the Wolverines looked like a completely different team. Talk about a moment of violent grace! Coach John Beilein reflected, “You think you’re going to get to the bottom of the hill sometime on a rough toboggan ride. On that plane, we had no idea what was going to happen if or when it stopped. As you just get out of it, you just work through it. We’ve just been working and working and working, (not thinking) about what could have been. And I have a new appreciation for that right now.” Although it may ring hollow to call the crash a “God thing,” or to compare the mishap of a D-1 basketball squad with our daily struggle to cede control, looking death in the face puts a lot of things in perspective. And, as it turned out, the traumatic event was just what Michigan needed to come together at the end of the season. They rolled through the Big 10 tournament, beating Wisconsin by 15 in the title game. The Wolverines look formidable heading into the big dance.
Storied Programs Convene in the South
Of the four regions sending teams to Phoenix, the group with the most historic programs is overwhelmingly the South. Mistake by the selection committee or not, there are sure to be some entertaining games when the likes of UCLA, Kentucky, North Carolina, Wichita State and Butler are gathered in the same quarter of the bracket. The Bruins boast freshman Lonzo Ball, a projected top three pick who’s garnered comparisons to Magic Johnson and has two little brothers following him to Pauley Pavilion in the near future. His dad, LaVar, just made headlines for claiming he could take MJ one-on-one and saying his sons deserve a billion dollar shoe deal. Expect lots of flash from UCLA; they’re exciting to watch. Calipari’s Kentucky squad is loaded as always. De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk are the most dynamic guard tandem in the country and can put up points in a hurry. The question for them is the same every year: can you win a title with so many freshmen playing the most important minutes? UNC is poised to avenge their last-second-loss in the 2016 title game. Joel Berry and ACC POY Justin Jackson will help them get there. Wichita State is criminally miss-seeded at a 10-spot and could be big trouble for Kentucky in the second round. Butler has taken down Villanova twice and is always a popular mid-major Cinderella pick. The South region will be a lot of fun.
O Ye of Little Faith
Following last year’s tournament, a familiar yet perplexing reversal took place for Villanova and Coach Jay Wright. The Wildcats had as good a shot as any to make a run in the tourney, but their detractors turned to the popular refrain aimed at those who haven’t yet succeeded in March. This is the L-Law if I’ve ever seen it. “Wright’s a good coach, but he can’t win in the tournament,” they said. The teams wallowing in that basketball purgatory of the “unproven” this year are Mark Few’s Gonzaga Bulldogs and Tony Bennett’s Virginia Cavaliers. Gonzaga has the best record in the country at 32-1, and the #1 seed in the West, but nobody believes in them. Mark Few has never brought the Bulldogs to a Final Four. They have the talent to do it this year, but I won’t believe it until I see it. Tony Bennett receives the same criticism. He’s a great coach who’s cultivated a distinctive, winning style for his program. The Hoos have had consistent regular season success, but Bennett has yet to lead them to key victories in March. Until he proves us otherwise, fans will believe that he’s constitutionally incapable of winning in March. For Mark Few and Tony Bennett, the only way to convince the doubters in this faithless world, unfortunately, is to give them some tactile proof, i.e. tickets to Phoenix.
Grace for Grayson?
Duke is getting the best odds in Vegas to win it all, and judging by their performance in the ACC tournament, they look like they’re good for the money. Coach K was sidelined with a back injury during the season, and they struggled for a spell, dropping three of four games two different times in ACC play. But, as expected, Special K has his Blue Devils playing their best ball at the right time. They’re led by the scoring of Luke Kennard – a shifty, balding lefty who averages over twenty a game and is nails down the stretch. Jayson Tatum, a matchup nightmare, will be a top five pick, and Harry Giles, the #1 overall recruit in the 2016 high school class, is finally hitting his stride coming back from an ACL injury. The guy who everyone loves to hate on Duke, though, is Grayson Allen. Taking up the gauntlet from the likes of Christian Laettner and JJ Redick, Allen, with his nasty habit of kicking opposing defenders, has that awful mix of entitled cockiness and undeniable skill that make him easy to dislike. After a self-imposed one game suspension for tripping yet another player, Allen has been keeping his legs to himself. In the ACC tournament, he adapted humbly to a new role coming off the bench and helped lift the Blue Devils over Louisville, UNC and Notre Dame on successive nights. In 2015, Allen’s freshman year, he came out of nowhere to spark Duke off the bench as they went on to win a national title, and he may be poised to do so again. Even if you can’t stand Duke and their spirit animal, Grayson Allen, this year’s team demands your attention in March.
Cinderella, Dark Horse, Dunk City, Et Cetera
Now, bear with me here, but isn’t the whole fun of filling out a bracket trying to predict the upsets? And, in the same vein, mixing it up enough so that you don’t just go with the chalk? Picking the higher seed in every game is not only a super lame way to fill out your bracket, it’ll lose you some office pools. Naturally, I get into trouble picking too many upsets, and the odds do favor the higher seeds, but you get the point. In March, it pays to try something crazy. When else throughout our lives are we rewarded for doing the illogical thing? There’s a gospel connection here, but I won’t beat you over the head with it. So, who could play Cinderella this year? Wichita State, mentioned earlier, is a dangerous mid-major team to watch out for. Middle Tennessee State is back and ready to make some noise, and they have a contender for best name in the tournament with Junior guard Giddy Potts. Florida Gulf Coast made it to the second weekend as a 15-seed a few years back, and they’ll be looking to resurrect Dunk City against Florida State and beyond. UNC-Wilmington is another popular upset pick. It’s all speculation at this point. The opening weekend never fails to produce some underdog stories, and as I wait impatiently for Thursday, I’ll be happily digging deeper into the zany theorizing and upset-predicting that the tourney encourages.