College hoops is unlike anything else. You can tell come March because everyone fills out brackets to participate in the madness. It’s the time where people who don’t even like basketball will fill out brackets, bragging about being in a high percentile, or complaining about how they’re brackets are busted; the time where casual fans start researching how the regular season has gone, attempting to gain all the knowledge from what has transpired throughout the year; and the time where actual college basketball fans are impatiently waiting for the first tip-off of the entire tournament and then do not stop watching, regardless of the game, until it’s all said and done and One Shining Moment is playing as confetti of the winning team’s colors is falling from the rafters.
We won’t get too ahead of ourselves though, as all teams still have a few remaining games of the regular season before the action of conference tournaments begin. The conference tournaments are the perfect pregame into the NCAA tournament for us fans. You get a little taste of all the action, while watching entertaining games, but you know that while you’re watching those games, the tournament will be so much better. The perfect pregame into the party.
This college basketball season has been a crazy one. No team can hold the number 1 spot. There have been plenty of upsets. No team in the country is unbeatable, making the tournament completely unpredictable, which we all like. There are certainly teams that are much more talented than others, but every team has the chance of being upset in March. And with the one-and-done setup that the NCAA tournament plays, the upsets will happen.
Now let’s start talking about the real contenders of the tournament this year. When I think about the teams who have the highest legitimate chance to hoist the National Championship trophy, I think of: Villanova, Virginia, Michigan State, Kansas, Duke, and Purdue.
An experienced group that is arguably the best team in the nation. Villanova can beat you in many different ways and is most likely the most versatile team in the country. Villanova has dealt with injuries, losing starting guard Phil Booth with a fractured hand earlier this season. The Wildcats must be thrilled as it was announced he’s returning to the lineup tonight after missing the previous seven games. Freshman guard Collin Gillespie missed a chunk of the season early on with injury as well. Eric Paschall missed time with a concussion too. But that has allowed Villanova’s rotation to deepen, as some of the bench guys in Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Jermaine Samuels have stepped up in the absence of some Villanova starters. Then of course Donte DiVincenzo, who was the sixth man last year and began this season as the sixth man, has been bumped into the starting lineup and has given Villanova his usual energy on both ends of the floor, while possessing the ability to score in many different ways. Jalen Brunson is one of the best natural point guards in the country. He can shoot the three, take you off the dribble, fascilitate the offense, take you to the post, and is a great finisher at the hoop. Brunson has a great skill set and the experience to lead Nova in a deep tournament run. Mikal Bridges will be a lottery pick in the NBA draft, if not this year than definitely next as he’s just a junior this season. Bridges entered Villanova as a slashing wing player who could guard multiple positions on the defensive end and lock up anyone. He has blossomed into a great scorer as well, either with his shot or with his ability to drive to the rim. Bridges has great length and very athletic, making him a tough matchup on both ends. The front court of Villanova is very athletic and can score inside and out. Eric Paschall and Omari Spellman are both athletic, can run the floor, take you inside, and stretch the court as well with the three-ball. Villanova is led by coach Jay Wright, who has developed the best team culture in all of the nation. He is a great coach, with a winning tradition, and has all of the experience to take this team to the championship. Villanova plays great team defense, they trust each other on offense, and have many capable scorers who can beat you in many different ways. This team is my favorite in the tournament and my pick as the National Champions for the second time in three years.
The Cavaliers play basketball unlike any school in the country. They play amazing defense and use up their entire offensive possession looking for the best possible shot to take. They are led by sophomore sharpshooter Kyle Guy. This defense is frustrating for opposing offenses. They rarely give up open shots, they force turnovers and just never let up. The concern for this team will be that great offenses can beat great defenses in the tournament. Virginia hasn’t been making it as far in the tournament as predicted in recent years after their high success in the ACC, but coach Tony Bennett will have this team ready for the Madness.
The Spartans are always a hot pick in March and that’s mainly because of Tom Izzo. Izzo has a great roster this year led by Miles Bridges and Nick Ward. Michigan State is very deep this year. The Spartans sit atop the Big 10 which is full of solid basketball teams, and they are currently number 2 in the nation. It’s hard to bet against Tom Izzo in March, but I’d understand if you didn’t fully trust them in the tournament because of what happened with Denzel Valentine’s team a few years back. This team is perfectly capable of winning it all this year.
The Jayhawks dominate the Big 12 every year, this year that’s no different. The Big 12 is very competitive this season with all but one team possessing a winning record as of right now. Kansas is fresh off of back-to-back wins over WVU and Oklahoma. Led by senior guard Devonte’ Graham, one of the best guards in the country, Kansas is an experienced team, poised for the big games. The Jayhawks have a really solid starting 5 in Graham, Malik Newman, Svia Mykailiuk, Legerald Vick, and big man Udoka Azubuike. This is a high powered offense. The flaw here is that Kansas doesn’t have a very deep roster. Deep teams are successful in the tournament, so we’ll have to see what Bill Self will do with his rotations to keep everyone fresh.
The Blue Devils are the most talented team in the country. I don’t think there are any arguments there. They have one of the best players in all of college basketball right now in Marvin Bagley and one of the greatest coaches ever in Coach K. Duke can flat out score the basketball, no questions asked. Their struggles have come on the defensive side of the ball this season, however they switched to playing a zone defense, which has helped smooth over their defensive weaknesses and it has really helped them. This team is filled with players who have great potential in upcoming NBA drafts, as Coach K has switched his recruiting technique to more one-and-done players with the exception of Grayson Allen. Speaking of Allen, if Duke makes it far in the tournament it will be because of him. When Grayson is locked in, there is no stopping him and I believe Duke’s success will revolve around him handling that offense in March. It’s easy to hate him because of his fiery personality on the court and his tripping incidents, as well as his meltdowns on the bench. But if he keeps his head right, Duke is a major threat in the tournament.
The Boilermakers went on a 19-game impressive win streak during the season. After the long win streak, Purdue surprisingly lost three straight and are currently 8th in the nation. The three-game skid can be kind of worrisome, but this team can play. They have a monster in Isaac Haas. The 7-2 big man is a force on both sides of the ball. He has a good shooting touch as well for someone his size. Purdue can also shoot the lights out. They shoot 42% from deep and 74% from the line. They spread out and have a plethora of guys who knock down the deep ball. They also play very good team defense and have shown to be very successful in one of the best conferences in college basketball this year. Purdue is without Vincent Edwards right now with an ankle injury. He is only expected to miss a couple more games, however he could come back not 100%. The senior is averaging 15 points and 8 rebounds per game, while leading the team in minutes played, so Purdue will miss him and hope he recovers quickly because they will need him. This team is scary to face and they have a real shot to make a long run in the tournament.
Like I mentioned earlier, I believe Villanova will win the National Championship. They have overcome injuries, won in many different ways, they are the most experienced team in the nation, they have great leadership and coaching, and have the best overall team in college basketball. Jay Wright is building a dynasty in Philly, which is crazy to even think about because Villanova rarely gets top recruits. That just goes to show the culture Jay has created within his squad and the buy in he gets from all of his players. These guys play like a real team and can beat anyone in the country. Look for Villanova to win the Big East tournament, which won’t be easy as the Big East will be sending a solid amount of teams to the NCAA tournament as well. Villanova is a great team with a lot of experienced players who know how to succeed in March. They are my pick as National Champions this year.