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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Eight biggest storylines entering the NCAA Tournament

Tony Bennett

What do you watch for in the NCAA Tournament? There is the obvious — filling out a bracket and seeing how it does. But there’s more to enjoy here, be it coaches, star players, potential upsets, or FBI investigations. Yes, March Madness really does have something for everyone.

Here are eight major storylines to keep your eye on as the tournament unfolds.

1) Virginia’s steady blandness against the world

We’ll go out on a limb here and say the Virginia Cavaliers will not be the most exciting team you watch this March. The Cavaliers are steady, they are methodical, they pride themselves on their defense, and they keep on winning. Those attributes make them dangerous — but in a sense, they also make them rather forgettable. It’s remarkable that the team that lost just two games all season while playing in the ACC and was the no-doubt choice for top overall tournament seed isn’t regarded as a heavier favorite to cut down the nets in San Antonio.

But that is where Virginia is. Part of that is down to the fact that Tony Bennett’s team hasn’t yet had its March breakthrough. They came close in 2016, but lost in the Elite Eight to an inferior Syracuse team. That is one of two years they made it out of the first weekend. This is Bennett’s best Virginia team, but they simply have to break through this year if they want to earn the levels of respect nationally that they’re currently being denied.

2) Sean Miller, DeAndre Ayton, and Arizona against public opinion

Miller, Ayton, and the entirety of the Wildcats program have been wrapped up in the FBI investigation into illegal payments to players that ultimately helped end Rick Pitino’s tenure at Louisville. For a while, it looked like Miller would be the scandal’s second high-profile casualty after he was caught on a wiretap allegedly discussing payments to Ayton. So far he’s weathered the storm, in part because of some inconsistencies that have been pointed out in ESPN’s reporting of the story.

Ayton is still eligible and Miller is still coaching, so Arizona’s attention shifts to the NCAA Tournament. There’s an argument to be made that Arizona was underseeded at four. They’re in a region where, if they get past Virginia, a Final Four could beckon. This team is loaded with talent. The question is whether they can tune out the noise and play like it.

3) Trae Young, Michael Porter Jr. have last chance to make a statement

Two super one-and-done freshmen have seen their seasons go against plan for very different reasons. First there is Young, Oklahoma’s star who was touted as a runaway Player of the Year and compared to Stephen Curry early in the season. As the Sooners collapsed down the stretch and lost eight of ten, Young’s star faded, and he’ll face seventh-seeded Rhode Island looking to prove a point.

Then there’s Michael Porter Jr., who played a total of two minutes before winding up in need of back surgery that looked like it was going to end his season. He managed to return in the SEC Tournament and will be ready to go when the Tigers face the Florida State Seminoles on Friday. Both freshmen are facing long odds and have higher seeds looming, but both have the talent to take over a game. What will their swan song look like?

4) Midwest region may produce a champion — or beat itself up trying

You’ll have to forgive the 16 teams that populate the Midwest region, especially the elite ones, for bemoaning their draw. In another universe, Kansas, Duke, and Michigan State could each be heavily favored to make it out of their region. Instead, they’ve all been thrown together in what is without a doubt the toughest quarter of this year’s bracket.

You could argue that Kansas, the top seed, is actually the weakest of the three teams. Duke and Michigan State are loaded with talent, but the Spartans haven’t really had the resume wins that they usually have, while Duke can be porous defensively. They will likely meet in a Sweet Sixteen game that could pass as a national semifinal, with the winner potentially getting a shot to take out Kansas.

All three of these teams could be champions — or they could all bruise each other so much that the winner of the region will be low on fuel by the time they make it to San Antonio.

Matt Painter

5) Coaches without championships are looking to break through

Every coach needs to find their breakthrough somewhere, but first-time champions are pretty rare in college basketball. Jay Wright got his with Villanova in 2016, while Kevin Ollie — who’s no longer employed — grabbed a first title in 2014. Before that, you have to go back to Bill Self’s 2008 win with Kansas to find a first-time champion coach.

There are real contenders for that this year. There is the aforementioned Tony Bennett, whose Virginia Cavaliers have beaten pretty much all comers this season. Chris Mack, the head coach of top-seeded Xavier, has not won a title. Among the betting favorites for the tournament, Matt Painter’s Purdue Boilermakers, Mick Cronin’s Cincinnati Bearcats, and John Beilein’s Michigan Wolverines could also factor into the equation. None of those coaches have ever claimed a national championship. Could that change this year?

6) The AAC is ready to rise

Nobody questions the credentials of the ACC. The Big Ten is widely respected despite a lengthy championship drought, while the SEC has been successful in recent years as well. But there’s a forgotten conference looking to muscle their way into the national conversation, and that’s the American Athletic Conference.

The AAC does have a men’s basketball title to its name — thank you, 2014 Connecticut Huskies — but is rarely mentioned as a quality basketball conference. They’d like to change that this year. The Cincinnati Bearcats are a very dangerous No. 2 seed, even if they’re not a well-known national commodity. The Houston Cougars are one of the more dangerous six seeds in the field, and could certainly break through with a Sweet Sixteen appearance. The Wichita State Shockers, new to the conference, have been in the Final Four before. The AAC could realistically get three teams to the tournament’s second weekend, which would help people see they’re playing quality basketball in the conference.

7) Quietly, Gonzaga has some nice home-court advantage to fuel their dark horse Final Four candidacy

After losing last year’s national championship — and their two most important players from the 2017 team — Gonzaga’s buzz wore off a bit this year. As usual, they rolled through the West Coast Conference, and had little trouble winning both the regular season and conference tournament titles. They enter the field having won 30 of 34 games and playing very good basketball.

They have been given something of a gift by the selection committee. The West regional doesn’t feature a lot of teams from the west — Xavier of Ohio is on the one line, while North Carolina and Michigan are the No. 2 and 3 seeds in the region. Then there’s the Bulldogs, playing in nearby Boise for the opening weekend against a set of opponents whose fans will have longer treks. Los Angeles is a little further from Spokane, but if the Bulldogs make the second weekend, they’ll be a lot closer to home than any of their foes will be. Don’t sleep on Gonzaga. They’re a good team — and they might have some partisan crowds behind them as they navigate the West.

8) The early rounds could be ripe for upsets

Let’s take a look at the teams on the four, five, and six lines of this year’s tournament. There are teams that could reach the Final Four if all goes according to plan — Arizona and Gonzaga, for instance, are very intriguing teams. Then there are the likes of Auburn, Clemson, TCU, Florida, and Miami. They all deserve to be here, but they all have their share of flaws, and few will be looked at as possible Final Four or championship candidates.

That could open us up for early round upsets. Loyola-Chicago, South Dakota State, and Murray State should not be slept on as smaller teams who could really cause some upsets early in the tournament. There are a lot of power conference teams who are good, but not great this year — nondescript, if you will. They could fall victim to some early upsets, which could open up brackets all over the place.

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