Rappler's Bracketologist breaks down March Madness
MANILA, Philippines - Once again, March Madness is upon us. Starting a few days from today, the most exciting, unpredictable and heart-stopping sports tournament all over the globe will take center stage. For close to a whole month, we will bear witness to incredible Cinderella runs, fantastic individual performances from future NBA stars, breathtaking game-winners, intense down-to-the-wire matchups and many more memories that will be added to our collection of NCAA Final Four moments to remember.
With all due respect to the UAAP, Philippine NCAA and other collegiate tourneys all over Planet Earth, all the aforementioned competitions pale in comparison to the fantastic insanity of March Madness. Some may even dare to say that the NBA Playoffs and NFL Superbowl are a notch below the excitement presented by the US NCAA’s Final Four tournament. While the list of people that state that feeling may not be long, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say they have a point.
Each year’s version of March Madness brings its own unique events, but there’s no doubt the traditional happenings will be present in 2014. There will still be that one team that takes everyone by surprise and earns the adoration of the public; there will be that one player or two – heck, maybe even three or four – that will improve their draft stocks as NBA general managers scout for potential future superstars; there will be those players that fail to live up to expectations after being so overhyped prior to the tournament; and (my personal favorite) there may even be a fight or two that will send the national media into a frenzy. Fun, right?
With that being said, what can viewers of this year’s NCAA Final Four tournament expect to see once the battles commence? Which players will stand out, and which club will reign supreme at the conclusion of the final dance? Well, as always, it’s hard to predict all these things. But I’ll try my best to give a preview of what’s to come over the next few weeks.
The East Region:
Games will take place in: New York
The East region, compared to its three counterparts, is the quarter of the bracket that welcomes the most newcomers to the annual March contest. Of course, there are still some squads that aren’t strangers to the tournament – Michigan St., Memphis, UConn – but this region may very well end up being the most unpredictable due to the equal level of competition amidst its players.
Atop the 16 squads in the East are the Virginia Cavaliers. Even some of the most die-hard US college basketball fans were shell-shocked upon learning that Virginia earned the top seed in its side of the bracket, but, nevertheless, that honor is well deserved. Not only did the Cavaliers earn a 28-6 win-loss clip during the season, they also played the best ball among all teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). As a matter of fact, their team even went on to win the ACC Tournament prior to March Madness, beating rival Duke in the finals.
Villanova and Iowa St. are the two and three seeds, respectively, with the latter entering the Final Four with a head of steam after putting up a pretty impressive performance against the Kansas Jayhawks, and the former being one of the most balanced contenders in the nation.
However, the ultimate X-factor in the East are the Michigan State Spartans.
Led by the incredible abilities of playmaker Gary Harris and the floor-spreading prowess of stretch-four Dreian Payne, the Spartans got off to a tremendous start in November when the NCAA season inaugurated. However, their bad luck of injuries and health issues decreased the team’s overall performance, as they fell week by week from the top ranks of the Associated Press poll.
Nonetheless, the guys in green have gotten healthy as of late, and looked like their old dominant selves during the recently concluded Big Ten tournament, where they triumphed over the rest of the competition. Many pundits will talk about a lot of “dark horses” and “teams not to sleep on” all throughout the competition. But, considering the overall potential of Michigan State and the lowered expectations surrounding the team, there are no bigger sleepers than the Spartans.
Cincinnati, ranked #5, is also an interesting collection to watch out for, mainly because of the lethal combination of Sean Kilpatrick and Justin Jackson.
Both seniors normed about a combined 31 points and 11 rebounds per contest during their team’s non-playoffs games. Being seniors, they both also bring a very mature mentality into each matchup, both on the court and in the locker room, where their teammates surely look up to them. They take their time, they don’t panic, and they’ve had their share of many battles in the past, giving them the experience needed to thrive in the situations their team will soon be in. When both guys get going, the floodgates open up for their teammates. And when that happens, there’s not a lot opposing defenses can do against Cincinnati.
Some familiar names like the University of North Carolina Tar Heels (#6), University of Connecticut Huskies (#7) and Memphis Tigers (#8) are also included in the list of competitors in the Eastern region. Although, I doubt any of the named squads will make much noise after getting past the first round, assuming they do so.
North Carolina, the university Michael Jordan once led to a national championship, is regarded by some as the most unpredictable, up-and-down entree in March Madness. With wins over Louisville, Duke, Michigan State and a couple of other notable teams, the Tar Heels have shown the potential to compete with any opponent in the NCAA. Yet, they’ve also shown tendencies to underperform from time to time, which was most evident during their loss to cellar-dweller Virginia Tech.
The Huskies exceeded most expectations this season, thanks in large part to AAC Player of the Year Shabazz Napier. Besides hitting some head-shaking clutch shots, Napier can do it all on the basketball court – he averaged close to 18 points, six rebounds and five dimes a game. Though for all his excellence, it’s no secret that UConn relies on him way too much. Think of Connecticut and Napier as the New York Knicks and Carmelo Anthony. If the team’s star player plays out of his mind, they can win against anyone, anywhere. But when he gets taken out of the equation or plays sub par, a loss is inevitable.
Prediction: Eventually, I think the Spartans will come out on top and be the squad that represents the East region in the Final Four. Don’t be fooled by their fourth-seed ranking; if this team had stayed healthy, they would most likely be atop one of the four regions present on the bracket. They play tremendous on both sides of the floor, and they’ve got that “we’re the underdog and we’ve got something to prove”-kind of vibe going on right now. I’m putting my chips on Michigan State.
The South Region
Games will take place in: Memphis
If big-name players and familiar teams are what you’re searching for while indulging in this year’s March Madness, then the South region is where you’ll want to focus most of your attention.
From head to toe, the line-up of teams participating from this side of the bracket not only have the talent to make some serious noise, but also the blockbuster appeal that some of the more casual fans of the US NCAA search for. I mean, when you take a look at the South bracket’s roster and see universities like “Kansas,” “Syracuse,” or “Florida” participating, then you know you’ll be in for a good time in terms of on-court action and the outside theatrics.
So, from the clubs that will head to Memphis, Tennessee, which undisputed victor will earn the right to make the Final Four? Let’s take a look:
At the top with the highest seed are the Florida Gators. No, Billy Donovan’s team no longer has the services of a clear-cut NBA talent like a Mike Miller, Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer, Al Horford or Bradley Beal. But what the 2014 Gators have, though, is that from the first five up to the last man on the bench, this team is loaded and can hurt you in so many ways.
Florida, 32-2 in the regular season, suffered their last loss way back on December 2 (against UConn, 64-65). Ever since then, this team has been practically unbeatable. They rampaged through the rest of their schedule, and they outplayed a pretty talented set of opponents en route to winning the SEC Championship. Beating the Gators is doable, but it’s going to be absolutely difficult.
Ranked #2 are the Kansas Jayhawks. Entering college basketball this season, most of the talk surrounding this team was about the entry of coveted freshman Andrew Wiggins into the national basketball scene. However, as the season progressed, it turned out that Coach Bill Self’s starting center, Joel Embiid, looked more like the guy who would end up as the top pick in this year’s NBA Draft.
That makes it even sadder when you realize Embiid might not see action in March Madness unless his boys manage to make it to the second or third round without him. Towards the end of Kansas’ 24-9 campaign, the Cameroonian big injured his back, rendering him unable to compete in the SEC Championship tournament. The pressure is now on Wiggins to deliver his best performances – he did have a 41-point outburst the other day – in the opening rounds of the tournament and carry the load for the time being until the big guy can return.
If the Jayhawks can make it far enough without Embiid and get him back in time for a potential showdown against Florida, then the Gators might just have a pretty challenging road to the Final Four.
Locked in at #3 are the Syracuse Orange. If you told me a few months back that Tyler Ennis and company would end up as just a third seed, I would have laughed. But after the way this team combusted in the dwindling weeks of the regular season, it’s hard to argue against their ranking.
At one point, Coach Jim Boeheim’s guys were an immaculate 25-0. However, they ended their season losing five out of their last seven games, making them the contender entering March Madness with least momentum. But there’s a reason why some NCAA experts are still picking the Orange to win it all. They have four guys averaging double-figure scoring numbers – Ennis, CJ Fair, Trevor Cooney, Jerami Grant – which makes them as versatile as any team in the nation. Also, one of those guys is the impressive Tyler Ennis, who does a phenomenal job getting easy buckets for his teammates and coming up big in pressure situations. Syracuse isn’t entering Memphis a favorite because of their recent transgressions, but don’t sleep on the Orange to potentially win its region, albeit unlikely.
Under the tutelage of Head Coach Steve Alford, the UCLA Bruins, #4, surpassed its expected outcome and finished with a pretty respectable 26-8 record. That’s thanks in large part to the fantastic play of do-it-all prospect Kyle Anderson, who averaged 14.9PPG, 8.8RPG, and 6.6APG during the regular season, and his supporting cast.
Silently, the Bruins put up a pretty commendable campaign because almost anyone Coach Alford called from the bench had the ability to put the ball in the basket. Their defense isn’t great, but it isn’t bad either, and that might be enough for them to stay within striking distance against some of the more elite counterparts they will face come March Madness. That was the case when they beat #4 AP ranked Arizona for the Pac-12 Championship, and, make no mistake about it, the entire league was put on notice.
A lot will have to go UCLA’s way to win the South, but is it impossible for them to come out on top? Definitely not.
VCU (#5), Ohio State (#6), and New Mexico (#7) have the potential to upset a higher-echelon club in the South when the Round of 32 arrives, even if the odds may be stacked against them. It is March Madness after all, so who knows, right?
Prediction: When the dust settles, I think the Jayhawks will book a date with the Spartans, the East Region winners, in the Final Four round. Look, the Gators are just absolutely loaded. But in do-or-die games, which is the case for every contest in March Madness, sometimes, the individual brilliance of a star can propel his team regardless of the opponent. Kansas has one in Andrew Wiggins, and another in Joel Embiid. Assuming the latter returns from injury in time, I’m rolling with the Jayhawks.
The Midwest Region
Games will be played in: Indianapolis
Sometimes, certain teams with great records aren’t awarded with the credit they deserve because of the level of competition they faced en route to attaining said record.
With the 34-0 Wichita State Shockers, that may be the case.
Though they went perfect in the regular season, the Shockers beat a total of zero teams ranked in the top 25 of the Associated Press. Does that keep them from being regarded as better than every other university in the nation, even if their win-loss clip demands the recognition? Probably. But each team can only play the opponents on its schedule, and going unbeaten in 34 contests is still impressive, regardless of the circumstances.
But, needless to say, the Shockers are about get the toughest competition that they’ve faced in the last few months after they make the trip to Indianapolis. Despite getting the top seed, leading scorer Cleanthony Early and the rest of his boys will have to deal with a number of big-time opponents such as Michigan, Duke, Louisville, and Kentucky, among others.
Wichita State relies on its defense to win games. En route to 34-0, the most points by an opponent they allowed was 74. It’s hard to score against the Shockers, and in a system like the NCAA where each matchup is divided into two halves composed of 20 minutes each, the ability to keep an adversary from putting up points is usually the deciding factor.
But like I said, the Shockers aren’t going to face teams like BYU, Drake, or Loyola; they’ll have to deal with Coach K’s Blue Devils, the defending champions of March Madness, a stacked Kentucky Wildcats, and more.
Speaking of the Blue Devils, ranked #3, the 2014 version of the team is their best in recent memory. Yes, they have a superstar in Jabari Parker, though limiting him doesn’t automatically make it easier to beat Coach K’s guys. Teams in the Midwest Region will also have to worry about Rodney Hood, Quinn Cook, and Rasheed Sulaimon.
In a way, the 2014 Blue Devils remind me of the Miami Heat. Like LeBron, Jabari is unquestionably the best player on the squad, and arguably the best player in all of college basketball right now. But like the Heat with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, Duke can hurt you with its other stalwarts if Parker is forced to pass out of double or triple teams.
Furthermore, when the Heat are connecting from long-range to go along with the individual prowess of their mainstays, there’s not a lot of teams in the NBA that can beat them. It’s the same with Duke. If it’s a cold night from three-point territory, they might just get eliminated on that certain evening. But when those outside shots are falling in, forget about it.
Michigan and Louisville, ranked #2 and #4, respectively, are also solid teams to watch out for. The Wolverines went 25-8 pre-March Madness and have a legitimate star in leading scorer Nik Stauskas, whose 17.8PPG helped crown him the Big Ten Player of the Year. Michigan will also get to capitalize on the services of Glenn Robinson III and the versatile Caris LeVert.
The Cardinals, on the other hand, don’t have as much talent as they did last season when they won the NCAA national championship, but they’re still going to be a pretty dangerous threat. On the way to their 28-5 win-loss clip, they lost three early games, but ended the season on a tear, winning 12 out of their last 13 contests.
Coach Rick Pitino will miss the rebounding and defending abilities of Gorgui Dieng and the playmaking talent of Peyton Siva – both of whom are now in the NBA. But with solid performers like Russ Smith, Montrezl Harrell, and Luke Hancock (last year’s most outstanding player in the finals against Michigan) still in tow, the Cardinals are going to be a problem for anyone on any side of the bracket.
Outside of #5 St. Louis, #6 UMass, #7 Texas, #8 Kentucky, and #9 Kansas St., the other participants in the Midwest region will most likely fall at the hands of the higher-ranked teams.
Prediction: Now, with everything mentioned, I believe the Blue Devils will reign over the rest of the competition in Indy. Wichita State is good, but I’m just not certain how consistent their defense will remain when they have to stop guys like Parker, Stauskas, and Smith, not to mention their supporting casts. Michigan and Louisville are also pretty formidable picks, while Kentucky and Kansas St. are wildcards. Though, in the end, the team with the best system, the best coach, and the best player will stand tall. That team, my friends, will be Duke.
The West Region
Games will take place in: Anaheim
From the four #1 seeds in this year’s NCAA March Madness, no one has an easier path to the Final Four than the Arizona Wildcats.
Led by the incredible combination of Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon, Arizona dominated most of its competition and acquired a 30-4 record heading into the annual March festivities of the league. Although they failed to win the Pac-12 Championship – won by UCLA, 75-71, against Arizona – the Wildcats still had a remarkable regular season campaign, and their success should carry on to Anaheim, where they will look to get past the competition and earn a Final Four berth.
With his ability to score and crash the glass, Gordon has emerged as a top NBA Draft lottery prospect. Meanwhile, his partner, Johnson, has one job and does it very well: scoring.
The Wildcats can score the ball, are ranked one of the best in limiting opponents’ points, and do a lot of other important things very well. But they do have a weakness, which is their inability, at times, to win close games. In their four losses, the #1 seed lost each matchup by seven markers or less. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that en route to winning the national title, Arizona will be in a lot of tightly-contested affairs. If they can’t close out an opponent, a few unlucky bounces may yield them out of the tournament.
Discounting #4 San Diego State, almost no one else in the West is on the same level as Arizona when it comes to defense. However, with clubs like #2 Wisconsin, #3 Creighton, #5 Oklahoma, and other offensive powerhouses present, viewers can be certain that a whole lot of points will be put up on the scoreboard.
Now, if I had to select an underdog that has the chance to usurp the Wildcats, it would have to be the Creighton Bluejays.
When thinking about the third-seeded Bluejays, obviously, Doug McDermott comes to mind. Not since the days of Jimmer Fredette has the NCAA witnessed such an outstanding scorer who seems like he can shoot from anywhere on the floor. But unlike Jimmer, McDermott is also an imposing rebounder, and is much more effective when it comes to shooting the basketball (52% FG, 45% 3PT-FG). Let’s also not forget that this year’s Creighton team is way more talented than Fredette’s BYU squad. They still rely on McDermott a lot, but other guys can score, too.
Like I mentioned above, Arizona has shown that they can struggle in down-to-the-wire fights. And when you’ve got a ticking time-bomb waiting to explode on the other team, danger is on the horizon. All McDermott and his Bluejays will have to do is manage to stay within striking distance against the top ranked team, hope they start to unravel late, and take advantage of the situation with some help from their big-time scorer.
It’s not the best of plans and the chances of all events transpiring are slim – especially if you take the Wildcats’ defense into the equation. Yet, it is possible.
Prediction: And the last Final Four spot will go to... the Wildcats!
Once again, I remind you that anything can happen in March Madness. But this team is an elite defensive club and you’re going to have to play near perfect defense to limit them from scoring close to their average output. And if they manage to clean up their late-game issues for the tournament, then good luck to the rest of the West Region, because I don’t see anyone beating them from that side of the bracket.
So, who will rule above all and carry the NCAA National Championship on April 8 (Manile time)?
This is pretty tough. I can’t recall the last time the NCAA Tournament had a field with these many challengers and superstar-potential players that can shift the scene of things with a scoring outburst or two. And just like every year, there are moments when logical sense just gets thrown out of the window and the unexplainable takes place.
Now, in spite all of that, I’m going to say that the Michigan Spartans will win this year’s National Championship.
Look, this team has the talent, cohesiveness, mental discipline, experience, and everything else you need in order to win a championship. Like I previously noted, do not be fooled by their fourth seed ranking. When healthy, which is the case now, Coach Tom Izzo’s guys are the class of the entire league. Add that with the fact that they feel they have something to prove, along with an “us against the world” mentality, and you have a very lethal club.
Momentum is everything in sports. I don’t like comparing basketball to American football, but if you take a look at the 2013 Superbowl run of the Baltimore Ravens, it was obvious that they caught steam at the right time, which helped propel them to the Lombardi Trophy. Rewind the clock three years back, and you can make the same case for the 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks. Outside of Texas, who predicted Dirk Nowtizki and company to get by the teams they beat en route to the title? In the March Madness tournaments of 2011 and 2012, Coach Brad Stevens’ Butler squads caught fire in the right time and made consecutive trips to the National Championship Game.
Gaining momentum at the right time is key to be the last team standing, and I believe the Spartans are in the perfect situation to do just that. - Rappler.com
Naveen Ganglani is a part-time businessman and a part-time sports writer, who has covered collegiate sports in the Philippines for The Lasallian (DLSU's official publication), the NBA for Basketball TV, the Philippine Superliga for Solar Sports, and others. A die-hard Miami Heat, New England Patriots, and DLSU sports fan, Naveen religiously follows a variety of sports both international and local, and considers sports as his first love.