A Way-Too-Early Look At March Madness
Updated: Mar 24
Grab your High Noon or a glass of your favorite whiskey, & kids grab your Capri Sun because this is gonna be a long one...
One thing you can be sure of going into each college basketball season is the uncertainty of who will populate the Top 10 rankings and who will be the last team standing at the end of March Madness. With Covid cancelling the tournament last season, this one was destined to be even more unpredictable. So far, it’s played out in ways no one would have imagined. The biggest and baddest of the blue bloods, Duke, Kentucky and UNC, are all unranked for the first time since 1961. The top 10 winningest programs in college hoops history; Duke, Kentucky, UCLA, Kansas, UNC, Temple, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Indiana, and St. John’s are also all unranked and most of the 10 are on the bubble. The most recent iteration of the Tobacco Road rivalry began with Duke being the 4 point favorite in a must win against UNC. UNC won the game and the players partied like it was 2009 and they had knocked off a top ranked rival, not a team struggling to make it to March Madness. With their loss to Notre Dame last night, Coach K’s Duke is now under .500 for the first time since November of 1999, and also on a 3 game losing streak. Villanova is a Top 5 team but with a terrible resume. If I had a vote they’d be ranked 13 at best since the Big East is trash.
All fluff and no substance you say? UVA is technically still the defending national champions due to Covid canning last year’s tournament and they’re putting up highs in points per game during the Tony Bennett era, in the ACC without Duke and UNC at the top. Texas Tech is in the Top 10 with a completely different roster than the team that made it to the National Championship game against UVA in 2019. Mac McClung is a Player Of The Year candidate with a few buzzer beaters on his belt this season. He’s showing the hype of the YouTube dunk highlights from his high school days in Virginia. He’s a streaky shooter who has been inefficient all year so if he goes 6-20 in the tournament Tech is dead in the water. Houston once looked like a potential No. 1 seed, but then lost to East Carolina who was under .500. They could still be a contender come March with their defensive prowess and veteran players. Michigan, Ohio State and Illinois have strong cases but it doesn’t say much in the Big 10. Is the Big 10 really deep or are they all just really good bad teams that beat up on each other?
Iowa has the favorite for Player Of The Year in Luka Garza, aka mini Jokic, but if they go cold they could go down in March. The SEC is just as much of a dumpster fire. You can never count on Rick Barnes led teams to make deep runs in the tourney so I’m out on Tennessee. Mizzou has been up and down all year and nearly choked up a win to Bama who was down 18 late in the second half. Bama is one of the most athletic teams in the country but shoots almost half of their shot attempts from three, but their defense is stellar so that could cancel out a bad shooting day. Oklahoma has the best resume in college basketball with 4 wins against Top 10 teams in the month of January alone.
Oklahoma State is intriguing simply because they’ve played their way into the top 25 with projected No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham and appealing their postseason ban making them eligible as of right now. With a win over No. 6 Texas and a loss to unranked Kansas on Monday, the Cowboys will be an entertaining team to watch win a few games in the tournament but not likely win it all.
This blog is way too early because I think conference tournament play is the best indicator for teams that will go deep; think Uconn on their runs to the National Championship. This is not me making a case for taking a future bet on a team right now. This is a playbook to help gamblers everywhere make educated choices with their brackets and picks on individual games throughout the tournament. I believe the best combination for a team to make a deep run involves having a lockdown defense that allows around 60-65 points per game, but plays with a fast tempo on offense and a mix of veteran players with balanced scoring.
All the historical context aside, let’s get down to brass tax and get to my Final Four projections. You’re probably wondering why I haven't mentioned 68 teams so far, but that's because by the time I finished writing a blog of that length, March Madness would be over. My first two picks for the Final Four are understandably boring but here's the reason why: these teams have no weaknesses. Gonzaga and Baylor are the last two undefeated teams in the country and this would not be the case if Covid didn't spoil the matchup between the two that was supposed to take place in early December.
The Zags have the flashier, lottery pick level talent in standout freshman and potential Top 5 pick Jalen Suggs, as well as leading scorer and senior Corey Kispert. They added former two year starting point guard Andrew Nemhardt as a transfer from Florida to pair with returning starters Joel Ayayi, Drew Timme and Anton Watson. With this interesting mix of youngsters and experienced players, the Zags have answered the biggest doubt of teams in the past. They can play defense now. Ayayi and Watson aren't flashy, but they do the dirty work. Kispert turned into a very capable defender who just so happens to shoot just under 50% from 3. Jalen Suggs is a former 5-star dual threat quarterback who shoots passing lanes like a free safety. Nembhardt comes off the bench as the pesky defender who doesnt turn the ball over. Timme, not the defender on the team, will just give you buckets with the offensive arsenal of the guy you can't stand playing pickup with because he sweated through his shirt within the first minute of play. As a team they give up 70 points per game while averaging 93 on the offensive end. Coach Mark Few tried to load up on the non-conference schedule to build the resume that leaves them lacking after conference play. They started to look bored the last two weeks but took care of BYU, the next best team in the West Coast Conference, Monday night by 11 points. As of today, Baylor just overtook Gonzaga as the favorite to be the last one standing at the end of March. Baylor, also undefeated, plays in the Big 12 which is hands down the best conference in the country without Kansas being ranked and Kansas State losing to a Division 2 team earlier this season. A blog about the need to relegate K-State will be saved for another day. Baylor’s noteworthy wins came against Illinois, Kansas, and Texas, who have all been in the Top 5 at one point in the season. Baylor is now on a Covid pause and is missing the gauntlet to end its season, where it was supposed to play TCU, #12 Oklahoma, #7 Texas Tech, #14 WVU twice and #23 Oklahoma State. It's crucial for any undefeated team to get a loss at some point before March Madness and there's still time to get one in the Big 12 Tournament. Same goes for the Zags, a loss can alleviate the pressure of having to go undefeated.
Baylor has the best defensive and overall backcourt in the country in Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell. Combine that with high intensity bigs who also happen to have some of the best names in college hoops in Flo Thamba and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchou. My third Final Four team is FSU, who is ranked #17 now, but I had been tweeting at the Associated Press twitter account to get them ranked for weeks prior. The push to get in the top 25 has been without their star and projected lottery pick Scottie Barnes. MJ Walker has carried them offensively in Barnes’ absence, but the scrappiness and length of the team on the defensive end and their depth will take them far in March. Leonard Hamilton is the best coach in college basketball that you've never heard of who plays 9-10 guys or more on a nightly basis. They have guys remaining from the 2018 Elite 8 team as well as from the 2019 Sweet 16 team who lost to No. 1 Gonzaga. With the last pick, I’ll be going with a smaller program, but not who you'd expect. VCU and Wichita State don't have the juice to make big runs, Drake just lost their first game of the season and although Loyola Chicago still has Sister Jean powering them, they don't have their four stars from their last Final Four team. Alright, so my last pick isn't a Mid-Major, but they are a middle of the pack team in a small-ish conference without many strong tournament appearances recently. St. John’s is that team you hate to play cause they're jumping at you with that AAU style full court press and pesky on ball defenders that make Tony Allen and Gary Payton smile. This choice comes with some recency bias as they've upped their offensive output to just under 80 points per game over the last few games. With a defense this infuriating and an offense that looks like it's truly coming together, the Johnnies will be shocking lots of people in March.