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Monday, February 24, 2020

Biggest storylines entering the NCAA Tournament

Coach K

During college basketball’s biggest week, sometimes I worry that I’m going out of my mind. The excitement builds and builds to a point where I put any kid on Christmas morning to shame. Just looking at an unfilled, untouched bracket makes my ears perk up and my heart race.

If you’re like me, you don’t need to spell out the storylines we’ll see play out this month. Those ideas are already bouncing around your head like bingo balls.

For those of you who have been more focused on other sports recently or who have not hit peak excitement just yet, there is good news. This bracket, this field of teams, and everything about the next month of basketball we’re about to see is poised to be great.

Here are eight things to keep an eye on:

1. Duke’s sky-high expectations

Even for a top overall seed, Duke’s expectations are as high as any team. This Blue Devils squad is the first since Kentucky’s undefeated team in 2015 to enter the Big Dance with people expecting nothing less than a championship.

With Zion Williamson and Tre Jones healthy and in the lineup, the Blue Devils lost just once. Even with those players out, Duke’s five losses all came to teams in the tournament field and ranked 35th or better in KenPom.

At full strength, this is the best team in the nation. That does not make them a shoo-in to win the title or to even advance to Minneapolis for the Final Four. Duke ranks 338th in 3-point shooting in college basketball, but shot the 63rd most long balls. Every coach poised to face Duke in the next month will know those stats and hope that their team is the one that catches the Blue Devils on a monumentally cold shooting night. If Duke can go six games without an icy cold performance, they’ll cut down the nets.

2. The top tier of teams could lead to a chalk bracket

Just behind Duke are seven other teams that have separated themselves from the rest of the pack. These seven make up the rest of the No. 1 and 2 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. This group is more talented, better coached, and more skilled than the rest of the field by a significant margin. It is hard to play out the future of our bracket without seeing at least six or seven, if not all eight, of these teams remain after three rounds of play.

The top seeds are always strong, but this year the separation is stark and defined. These eight clubs are poised to battle for Final Four bids and compete to be named champions.

3. Finding a contender from the middle of the pack isn’t easy

Just beyond that group exists a bit of a wasteland. There are good teams seeded in the 3-6 range, but all of them are flawed and inconsistent.

Purdue, for example, lost twice to Minnesota in the last ten days. Texas Tech and LSU were bounced in the quarterfinals of their conference tournaments despite being the top seed. Kansas State and Virginia Tech are both dealing with massive injury questions in Dean Wade and Justin Robinson. Marquette stumbled down the stretch, and Kansas has had the season from hell.

Picking one of these teams to crash the party and top of one the top teams is a tough proposition.

4. Can Wofford and Buffalo live up to their seeds?

Teams from the MAC and the SoCon are not generally awarded single-digit seeds in the Big Dance. Buffalo and Wofford earned their respective spots in the bracket, yet that won’t stop casual fans and talking heads from belly-aching if those two clubs don’t perform in the first few rounds.

Neither is ill-fitted for the task.

Wofford’s resume is sharp, featuring a win over South Carolina and an undefeated season in a Southern Conference that featured three other top 80 teams, per ESPN’s BPI metric. The Terriers also battled North Carolina and Oklahoma in tight losses. Fletcher Magee has as good a chance to become the household name from a Cinderella team as any other player in the nation, yet he’s not alone. Storm Murphy is a strong point guard and Nathan Hoover is the Klay Thompson to Magee’s Curry. Don’t roll your eyes at that comparison; these guys can flat out shoot.

Buffalo has been even more impressive, with early season wins at West Virginia and Syracuse, two of college basketball’s toughest environments. The Bulls have lost just three times all season, all on the road and none since Feb. 1. Buffalo plays at one of the fastest tempos in America and defends its brains out for 40 minutes.

5. Eyeing NBA Draft prospects

The tournament is a perfect way to shine a spotlight on the players with a chance to have their names called in June as NBA Draft picks. Zion Williamson will be the first overall selection, barring catastrophic injury, but tons of other prospects have a chance to move up or down draft boards this month. Williamson’s teammates have work to do in that regard. RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish entered their freshmen season as consensus top five picks. Both have provided more questions than answers so far and earned some criticism. A huge tourney for either could cement their place in the top three or stop a slide into the mid-to-late lottery.

Murray State’s Ja Morant likely has the largest opportunity, with a chance to ensure he’s the second-ranked prospect after Williamson. Murray State has only faced two power conference foes this season, leaving Morant with a more scant resume than scouts would prefer. A first round match-up with Marquette is a perfect chance for Morant to shine.

Marquette’s Markus Howard also has an opportunity, highlighting a group of players on the fringes with a chance to move from undrafted to the second round, from the second round to the first, or from the late first to the lottery. Keep an eye on Tennessee’s Grant Williams, Yale’s Miye Oni, Kentucky’s PJ Washington, Iowa State’s Talen Horton-Tucker, and Virginia Tech’s Nickiel Alexander-Walker as possible movers this month.

6. Who is our double-digit team in the Sweet Sixteen?

Every season there is a Cinderella that does not stop with one upset win, but compounds their success with a second win to advance to the second weekend of play. Some years we’re blessed with more than one of these gems.

Finding that team is easier said than done. I have my eyes on the East Region, where LSU is dealing with fallout from FBI wiretaps. If a strong Yale team can upset the Tigers or if the winner of Belmont-Temple can beat Maryland, that pod is prime for a double-digit Sweet Sixteen team.

Other squads with that kind of potential include Vermont, Saint Mary’s, Oregon, UC Irvine, and Seton Hall.

7. Will the ACC prove itself as the best conference?

Any question about the best conference in college basketball was promptly squashed when the brackets were revealed. The ACC received not just three top seeds, but the top three in the tournament.

Other leagues got as many total bids, or more in the case of the Big Ten, yet the top of the ACC was shown to be a clear step above the competitors. It’s dangerous to dole out praise on conferences based on the wild outcomes of the Big Dance, though we’ll all happily do it. If the ACC makes up half, or more, of the Elite Eight, hours of television will be discarded as the discussion will be put to bed. If instead the ACC flounders, loud proponents of the Big XII and Big Ten will have their voices heard.

8. Looking for the next round of coaching candidates to emerge in March

There’s no surer way for a coach to move up the ranks than by leading a mid-major program to NCAA Tournament success. This year that will be prominent with several attractive vacancies already appearing. UCLA and Texas A&M headline the field, with George Washington, UNLV, and Tulane also providing intriguing destinations.

UCLA’s choice is likely above simply finding someone winning in this year’s tournament, but the other schools on that list will be watching intently. Coaches like Yale’s James Jones, New Mexico State’s Chris Jans, and Utah State’s Craig Smith will, or should, be hot names.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

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