At the conclusion of every year, we celebrate the holidays with our friends and family. We gather for Thanksgiving and eat until we can’t fit another bite in our bellies only to come back and do it all over again just a month later as we celebrate Christmas. Then, less than a week later we have another celebration, New Year’s. As the approach of a new year begins, it’s natural that we reflect on all of our trials, tribulations, and accomplishments that the past year has brought each of us individually. Then after we reflect, we look forward to what’s to come in the new year. Well, one thing that always crosses my mind as I bring in a new year, and after the College Football National Championship, is that we are that much closer to March Madness. Three months away to be exact, and I tell myself, “Here is who could win the March Madness tournament.” March Madness is one of the most exciting events in all of sports. An event in which 64 collegiate programs all come together and compete for one goal, to be crowned champions. Every year there are upsets, cinderellas (teams who go much further than anyone expected), and a whole lot of drama. Powerhouse programs are going to go down, mid-major schools are going to shock the world, and some small school is going to make a deep run and gain the support of the entire sports community. With 2019 upon us it is only fitting that we break down the teams with the best chances of claiming the title, but also the dark horse programs that could stir up some brackets and make a deep run. Welcome to the madness!
FAVORITES TO WIN IT
DUKE BLUE DEVILS
Coach K and the Dukies are loaded, what’s new? Every season you know that Coach Krzyzewski is going to have his Dukies prepared to make a deep NCAA Tourney run. He’s going to have a loaded roster, full of NBA potential and diaper dandies. The question that always looms over Duke, however, seems to be, will they put it all together? More often than not Duke has been upset by a lower seeded team. This Blue Devil team is looking to break that trend, and they have all the talent in the world to do so. The freshmen class they’ve inherited is the most highly touted in the history of the sport. Phenom Zion Williamson has garnered fans of all sports from all over the world in his corner because of the athletic freak he is. He dominates the headlines with his 285lb frame, and a 45+ inch vertical. Ironically, Zion isn’t even the best player on his team, teammate RJ Barrett is the team’s leader, leading scorer, and projected #1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA draft. The Dukies already have wins over three different top-15 ranked teams in Kentucky, Auburn, and Texas Tech. The Blue Devils only loss came to the hands of the Gonzaga Bulldogs, who we’ll cover later on. The only chance opponents have against Duke is if they can protect the ball. Coach K and the Blue Devils are the #3 ranked defensive team in the country. Their length and athleticism make them a matchup nightmare. It will take a gutty effort from a lower seeded team to knock them out of the big dance.
The Vols are the definition of toughness. They’ll challenge you for all forty minutes on both offensive and defensive end of the ball. Guard Admiral Schofield has one of the best names in college basketball and is one of the toughest guards in college basketball. He dropped 30 points on Gonzaga in Tennessee’s big upset, and he’s not even the teams best player. That title belongs to forward Grant Williams. Williams has the size of a linebacker and punishes opponents in the paint on both ends of the floor. Williams is last year’s SEC conference player of the year, and on pace to repeat that accomplishment this season as his numbers are up across the board. The Volunteers are the second least blocked team in the nation which is a reflection of the toughness they play with on the inside. No team wants to draw this matchup in March. Rick Barnes is building a dynasty.
Are the Jayhawks ever not in the Championship conversation? Bill Self has built arguably the most consistent program in the entire country. The Jayhawks always have a mix of veteran stars to go along with a couple of diaper dandy freshman. Memphis transfer Dedric Lawson is an All-American candidate, and one of the best big men in college hoops. Lawson is a double-double machine who runs the floor exceptionally well for someone of his size. The Jayhawks are a much better defensive team this season with him defending the paint. Senior guard Lagerald Vick has become an extremely vital part of the Jayhawks success. He’s shooting over 50% from 3-point range and can guard multiple positions on the defensive end of the floor. The development of freshman guard Quentin Grimes may be the biggest key to how far the Jayhawks go in March. If Grimes can keep improving throughout the season and become the team’s go-to 3rd option, then the Jayhawks will be extremely tough to eliminate. The Jayhawks are never an easy out, why would this season be any different?
If you need a defensive wizard, look no further than Virginia’s Tony Bennett. Bennett’s Cavaliers have led the nation in scoring defense six of the last seven seasons. The one season they didn’t finish first, they finished second. That is a remarkable statistic. That goes far beyond the players. That’s 100% credited to Bennett’s defensive mind and schemes. His defensive gameplans are no fluke. The Cavaliers have gotten better and better on offense over the past couple of years, and have only suffered three total losses in the last two years. That’s incredible! Especially when you take into account that they play in the ACC, the toughest conference in the nation. Virginia may have their most talented offensive team of the Tony Bennett era. Guards Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy make up one of the nation’s best backcourt. Forward De’Andre Hunter is a lottery pick talent. All three of them are shooting over 42% from the three on the season, and the Cavaliers as a team are ranked 10th nationally in offensive efficiency. Don’t let last seasons loss to a #16 ranked seed in the tourney scare you away from this years team. Hunter was out with a broken hand last year. The slow pace which Virginia plays with offensively limits the number of possessions their opponents receive in the game. Which in return makes it next to impossible to build a lead against this Virginia team. If they go down, it will be a low-scoring, grind it out style of a game. This team is unbelievable, and our favorite to win it all.
This year’s Michigan team is utterly dominant on both sides of the ball. They’ve yet to lose a game, and a loss might not be coming anytime soon. The Wolverines have wins over Purdue, North Carolina, and Villanova by an average margin of 21 points. That’s incredible. Coach Beilein lost Mo Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdul-Rahkman, and Duncan Robinson from last year’s National Championship game squad, and somehow got even better. Freshman Ignas Brazdeikis has been a superstar and a borderline All-American. Returnees Jordan Poole, Zavier Simpson, and Charles Matthews have all gotten exceptionally better. Point Guard Simpson has been one of the most steady in the country. He rarely turns the ball over and plays exceptional defense. It’s a known fact now that to go far in March, you must have stellar guard play throughout the tournament. You can bet that the Wolverines will get solid play from their head honcho Simpson.
NEVADA WOLF PACK
Eric Musselman has built an incredibly unique program. With the Wolf Pack being a relatively unknown program, instead of recruiting the top incoming players, he’s turned toward recruiting the top transfer available. Musselman has built an 8-man rotation solely off transfers, and it’s worked wonders. The Wolf Pack made an Elite 8 appearance this past season, led by NC State transfer guards Caleb and Cody Martin. Forward Jordan Caroline is a bonafide star as well, and together the trio averages over 84 points per game combined. All five of the Wolf Pack’s starters are seniors, so their window for bringing a championship back to Reno is closing. On the positive, experience won’t be an issue come tournament time. The Martin twins rarely turn the ball over. They are ranked 3rd in the country for turnover percentage. That statistic will go a long way when the season is on the line. I know this team is hard to judge given the strength of their conference, and they likely won’t play any major programs until March. But, don’t let that lead to you doubting this school. Look at what they did last season. With everyone back and an extra year of experience under their belt, it’s easy to see them going on a deep tourney run for the second consecutive time.
The Bulldogs have already displayed their championship pedigree with their victory over the deemed unstoppable Duke Blue Devils. They did it without arguably their best player in Killian Tillie too. Mark Few has been exceptional in the way he’s built his program up in Washington. He’s yet to get over the hump and bring home a championship, but year in and year out his team is one of the best in the country. The Zags won’t play another team ranked inside the current top-40 for the rest of the season, so it’s very possible they win out. Once they receive Tillie back, who’s recovering from ankle surgery, they’ll have a ton of depth in the frontcourt. Forward Rui Hachimura has been a star all season long on both ends of the floor. He’s one of college basketball’s best offensive forwards and should benefit greatly from Tillie taking some of the focus off of him come tournament time. Guards Zach Norvell and Josh Perkins have proved to be big time when it comes to hitting clutch shots and making big-time plays. This is amongst the most talented rosters top to bottom in the country. They’re also one of the most versatile. The Zags can play small-ball, or they can go big. There aren’t many weaknesses on this team, and opponents will need their A-game to take them down.
MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS
Tom Izzo has become the absolute king of flying under the radar. It seems like almost every year The Sparty’s take a couple of hits early, fall in the rankings, and then quietly climb back up the ranks and end up with a 1 or 2 seed in the tournament. Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston is looking like the best player in the Big-10 right now. Forward Nick Ward is coming into his own and starting to be dominant in the post. Winston and Ward could finish as the best 1-2 punch in the conference. The Spartans have a deep roster, loaded with big bodies. Foul trouble will not be an issue in March as the Spartans can go 4-5 deep up front with their rotations. Not too many teams in the country can match State’s offensive shooting percentages, so the key to beating them will be turning them over and getting extra possessions for your offense. However, with Winston running the show for the Sparty’s that may be difficult to do.
SLEEPER TEAMS THAT COULD MAKE A RUN
MARQUETTE GOLDEN EAGLES
When you have arguably the best scorer in the entire country, you’re always going to have a shot come tourney time. This Golden Eagles team reminds me of the Davidson squad that Curry led to the Elite 8. Marquette is a much bigger program than Davidson is, but Markus Howard reminds us a lot of Curry. He’s a one-man scoring machine who can light it up from deep in bunches. He does a ton of his scoring off the dribble, which is extremely difficult to defend. If he gets just a sliver of space, he’s going to hit the bottom of the net. Howard is hands down the best shooter in college basketball, and that will go a long ways come March. He’s already got two 45+ scoring games this season, and something tells us he’ll have more. One of those games came against a top-15 ranked Buffalo squad in which he dropped over 40 pts in the second half alone. If he can catch fire in the tournament, we could see another Curry like run, and that would be great for the sport. The stars shine the brightest in the biggest moments, and we’re drooling over the anticipation of watching Howard on the games biggest stage.
ST. JOHN’S RED STORM
Somehow the Red Storm are 14-1 but can’t crack the top-25 rankings. Thus far this season they already have wins over VCU, Georgetown, Cal, and Marquette. All of which are regulars in the NCAA Tournament. Their only loss comes at the hands of Seton Hall, which needed a buzzer-beating three while being down two points to get the win. If it weren’t for that, they’d be undefeated. The Red Storm’s junior point guard Shamorie Ponds is one of the most exciting players in the country. Ponds can fill up the stat sheet in every way imaginable. He’s flashy, creative, explosive, and clutch. Last year he had 30+ in wins against top-5 ranked Duke and Villanova. This season Ponds has already gone for over 30 four times, and over 35 three times. His game is tailored for a tournament run. He’ll dominate the ball and make the right play time and time again. On the court head coach Chris Mullen has surrounded Ponds with elite athletes at every position, and they fly around the court defensively. This team will be ultra exciting on the big stage, and everyone knows the recipe for success in the tournament. Give the ball to your best guard, and let him carry your team as far as he can. Well, there aren’t many guards you’d rather have to carry your team on their back than junior Shamorie Ponds.
Certainly, Kentucky is a program is a powerhouse. But, you can be a powerhouse and still be a sleeper in the grand scheme of things. Being defined as a sleeper team just means that no one is talking about you when they mention the teams with the chance to win it all. Ever since Kentucky got blown out by the Duke Blue Devils the first game of the season, everyone has written off the Wildcats. Kentucky is as young as they always are, and as loaded as they always are. They have 5-star talent up and down the roster, and one of the nation’s best coaches. Freshman Keldon Johnson is starting to come into his own, and sophomore PJ Washington is beginning to get an excellent feel for the game. Kentucky only plays one upperclassman, senior Reid Travis. When you play so many young guys, struggles are inevitable. But, I can tell you one thing, no one will want to play the Wildcats in the tourney. With elite talent like they have and one of the best coaches in the country, they’re always going to be a difficult out. Freshman guard Ashton Hagans has been a menace defensively, and he could ultimately be the x-factor. If he can eliminate or limit their opponents top guard in the tourney and Johnson/Washington can carry the offensive load, Kentucky could make some serious noise. Never count coach Cal out.