originally posted here…
- written by Myron Medcalf
- ESPN Staff Writer
March has arrived.
And with the new month comes the commencement of the greatest postseason tournament in sports. Yeah, the World Series is fun, but we all know the Milwaukee Brewers ain’t taking down the Yankees in seven games. The Golden State Warriors should skate to another NBA title. The New England Patriots still run the AFC.
But Middle Tennessee could make a run to San Antonio. Who? Exactly.
The NCAA tournament is built for the underdogs.
And we’re here to prepare you for the pending whirlwind. With this survivor’s guide, you’ll walk into that NCAA tournament party feeling omniscient.
The stars are here:
Marvin Bagley III, Duke Blue Devils
Duke’s lead actor is a 6-foot-11 freshman with the most versatile set of skills in college basketball. He’s not afraid to handle the ball, go to work in the paint, take a 3-pointer or run the floor and score. He led Saturday’s comeback against North Carolina — Duke outscored the Tar Heels by 20 points after halftime — with an uncanny 21-point, 15-rebound, two-block effort.
Deandre Ayton, Arizona Wildcats
Imagine if Shaquille O’Neal could hit the occasional 3-pointer. In most cases, any comparisons to one of the most powerful centers in NBA history would draw justified criticism and questions about the author’s credibility. But Ayton, a freshman from Nassau, Bahamas, is 7-foot-1 and 260 pounds. The most freakish prospect at his position since O’Neal is averaging a healthy double-double this year. He could go Anthony Davis on the field and carry Arizona to the Final Four.
Luke Maye, North Carolina Tar Heels
We like our stars to possess imposing physiques and cocksure personalities. Well, that ain’t Luke Maye. If you put all the top players on the court for a pickup game, Maye would not stand out. But the lighthearted, subdued star is an All-American and the key to UNC’s evolution this season. He entered Saturday’s game against Duke averaging 17.9 points per game and 10.2 rebounds per game, while connecting on 46 percent of his 3-pointers.
Devonte’ Graham, Kansas Jayhawks
The 6-foot-2 guard leads a Kansas squad that just snatched its 14th consecutive Big 12 championship, a record for Division I schools. He’s a potent guard who averages 17.7 points, 7.2 assists and 1.6 steals per game, while connecting on 42.6 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. Against zone defenses, he has made 48.7 percent of his shots, an “excellent” mark, per Synergy Sports.
Jalen Brunson, Villanova Wildcats
The smartest player in college basketball commits turnovers only about once every 10 trips up the floor. Brunson is solid everywhere: at the free throw line (81 percent), 3-point line (40.5 percent) and on isolation plays (52.2 percent, per Synergy Sports). He’s the confident leader of a serious contender for the national championship. He’s not an above-the-rim threat, but he’s savvy and wise, a point guard worth watching.
Never leave the room when these teams are playing:
On Selection Sunday, Xavier will probably secure one of the four coveted No. 1 seeds. In two matchups this season, Villanova beat Xavier by a combined 40 points. This is a Villanova squad that has the same qualities Jay Wright’s team boasted when the Wildcats won the title in 2016. Small ball is the new chic style, and no team in America plays it better than Villanova, a squad with three players 6-foot-5 or taller who’ve made at least 39 percent of their 3-pointers. This is the most exciting and efficient offense in the country, and it could rumble through the field in March.
Tony Bennett’s team plays a defensive style that’s led to numbers we’ve never seen in the analytics era. The Cavaliers (.839 points per possession allowed) are ranked first in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom.com. Check this: 13 squads have failed to score more than 50 points against Virginia in a 40-minute game. It’s a gradual decline for opponents when they play Virginia, a team that plays the slowest pace in America. Fifty-point outputs and a slow tempo are a turnoff to some. But Virginia’s unmatched ability to submit opponents and force them into folly is a beautiful thing to witness. This is the most daunting defensive matchup in the field.
Michigan State Spartans
Tom Izzo’s team’s greatest asset is its interior depth. He has six players who are 6-foot-7 or taller, a revolving fleet of size that’s the anchor to a defense that has held opponents to a 38.4 percent mark inside the arc, the No. 1 team in America. You combine that with a 6-foot-11 lottery pick named Jaren Jackson Jr. who made 43 percent of his 3-pointers in Big Ten play, a 6-foot-7 Wooden Award candidate named Miles Bridges and a squad that has connected on nearly 42 percent of its 3-pointers this season, and you have a legit contender. The Spartans, who lost to rival Michigan in the Big Ten tournament semifinals, are one of the most fascinating products in the field.
Wichita State Shockers
Sunday’s loss to Cincinnati was just the second setback since Jan. 20 for Gregg Marshall’s squad (the other was at Temple on Feb. 1). Six players on the roster are averaging at least 8.4 PPG and 10 players average 4.8 PPG or more. The Shockers are led by Landry Shamet, a point guard trying to play his way into the first round of the NBA draft. He’s made 44 percent of his 3-pointers this season, and Wichita State generates a whopping 1.21 points per possession with him on the floor (hooplens.com). This is a team with an explosive, diverse offense and a smooth point guard who leads the attack. Fun squad to track in March.
Duke Blue Devils
In recent weeks, Mike Krzyzewski’s squad switched to a zone and commenced a late burst that culminated with a win over a North Carolina team that Duke outscored 49-29 in the second half on Saturday. Wow. The last time Krzyzewski made a similar transition to zone with a talented roster that has struggled on defense (10th in the ACC in adjusted defensive efficiency during league play, according to KenPom.com), he won a national title with the 2014-15 team. He has two lottery picks in Wendell Carter Jr. and Marvin Bagley III. And when they play their best basketball (see: second half of UNC win Saturday) the Blue Devils are hard to stop.
Squads on the rise:
Murray State Racers
Murray State, which just captured the Ohio Valley Conference title and the automatic berth attached to it, has lost just one game since Jan. 11. The Racers are led by versatile guard Jonathan Stark (21.8 PPG, 41 percent from the 3-point line, 89 percent from the free throw line), and the team connects on more than 37 percent of its 3-point attempts. Dangerous underdog.
Rick Barnes has manufactured a magical season in Knoxville. His team is 10-2 since Jan. 17. The Vols have made 38.1 percent of their 3-pointers, too. They’ve beaten Purdue and swept Kentucky. With Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams, the Vols can play with any team in America.
Mark Few lost key players from a team that reached the national championship game last year. This current Gonzaga crew is different but equally potent and stacked with matchup nightmares. The Bulldogs boast players like 6-9 Johnathan Williams, who can guard multiple positions and play inside and outside. Killian Tillie, a 6-10 NBA prospect, has made 46 percent of his 3-point attempts this season. This has been a promising finish for a team with just one loss since Christmas entering the WCC tournament.
At some point, we’ll begin to recognize John Beilein as one the game’s top coaches. Against Michigan State in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament, Moritz Wagner — a 6-11 big man who connects on 39 percent of his 3-pointers — struggled in the first half, but the Wolverines hit the switch in the second half of a key victory. Behind Wagner’s team-high 17 points, Michigan defeated Purdue on Sunday to claim the Big Ten title and take a nine-game winning streak into the tournament.
Cuonzo Martin’s squad was left for dead after Michael Porter Jr. suffered a back injury that cost him all but two minutes of the regular season. Yet it seems that the Tigers sit comfortably in the field of 68. They’ve made 39.5 percent of their 3-pointers. Jontay Porter, Michael Porter Jr.’s younger brother, is helping with 9.8 PPG and 6.8 RPG. And big brother could come back for the SEC tournament. Watch out for the Tigers.
Don’t the bet the farm on these frustrating teams:
This ain’t the typical one-and-done crew John Calipari assembles in Lexington. They’re long and bouncy, and these Wildcats can overwhelm teams with their athleticism. But you never know whether you’ll get the squad that launched a successful comeback at West Virginia in January or the team that forgot to defend the 3-point line in a loss at Florida on Saturday.
West Virginia Mountaineers
The Mountaineers are one of two teams in America that can say they’ve defeated Virginia. But they’re a more reasonable foe when their rabid Press Virginia defensive style fails to stall opponents as intended. The same team that beat Virginia couldn’t handle a Texas team on Saturday that did not have three of its top six scorers.
There are two Florida teams. Good Florida hits 3-pointers from the parking lot and beats teams like Gonzaga and Cincinnati. Bad Florida gets swept by South Carolina and loses to Ole Miss on the road. We’re not sure which one will show up in March.
Texas A&M Aggies
The promise and peril of Texas A&M was punctuated by one stretch in Saturday’s win over Alabama, which gave the Aggies a 7-3 record in their past 10 games. In the final minute, TJ Starks was ejected after he got physical with Collin Sexton. It was a silly play that ruined Texas A&M’s momentum, but it also highlighted the problem with this talented roster: The Aggies might not be disciplined enough to get out of their own way in March.
When Oklahoma beat Wichita State, USC and Kansas, Trae Young and the Sooners were praised. Young looked like the clear favorite to win the Wooden Award then. Now, we’re looking at a squad with just two wins since Jan. 30. The Sooners are playing poor defense, and that could thrust the program into a dangerous opening-round game. We know how high they can go. Their early wins proved as much. But Oklahoma’s floor is quite low.