NCAA Tournament: Predicting the Winner If Every Player Had Stayed in School
March Madness tends to leave a lot of fans wondering, “What if?”—just ask anybody who was rooting for Missouri if the Tigers could’ve survived the tournament’s other No. 15 seeds. There is, however, another simple change that could have radically altered this (or any) NCAA Tournament: what if all the college hoops stars now in the NBA had stayed their full four years on campus?
The Florida State Seminoles have plenty of reason to ask that question. If would-be senior Chris Singleton were still in FSU's starting lineup instead of the Washington Wizards’, the ‘Noles would have been a good bet to survive longer than the Round of 32.
Herein, a look at the NCAA Tournament that might have been, starting (for brevity’s sake) from a putative Sweet 16.
Revised Sweet 16
South: (1) Kentucky vs. (4) Memphis
(2) Syracuse vs. (6) USC
Midwest: (1) Kansas vs. (4) UConn
(2) Michigan State vs. (3) Florida State
East: (1) Georgetown vs. (5) UCLA
(2) North Carolina vs. (3) Michigan
West: (1) Duke vs. (4) San Diego State
(2) Texas vs. (3) Ohio State
Class years in subsequent slides indicate the year a player would have been in 2011-12 if he’d stayed in school.
Sweet 16: (1) Kentucky vs. (4) Memphis
The John Calipari Bowl features some outlandish backcourt talent on both sides, with the Tigers led by the oversized tandem of Tyreke Evans (now a senior) and Will Barton, both 6’6” with athleticism to burn.
Of course, even they have a tough time against Kentucky junior John Wall, leading an NBA-worthy group of wing players including Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and senior DeAndre Liggins.
The real difference in this matchup, though, is up front, where Memphis’ talented but smallish post players (notably foul-prone Tarik Black) get utterly overmatched by the hulking Wildcats.
With 6'11", 270-lb junior DeMarcus Cousins at center, 6’10" Anthony Davis shifts to power forward to provide impenetrable defense and an even more dominant interior offense than the real-life Wildcats have.
Memphis gets its share of highlight-reel plays in transition, but Kentucky wins this one in a laugher.
Sweet 16: (2) Syracuse vs. (6) USC
One of the few early-round upsets had USC (behind 7-foot senior Nikola Vucevic) knocking off an undersized No. 3 Missouri team.
That earns the Trojans a shot at second-seeded Syracuse, with the Orange—like their real-life counterparts—having made the Sweet 16 in spite of Fab Melo’s suspension.
Syracuse doesn’t have the benefit of any added players in this scenario, so the absence of Melo is just as devastating here as it was against Ohio State last weekend.
The combination of Vucevic’s presence in the half-court and high-flying fellow senior DeMar DeRozan in transition proves to be too much for the Orange defense, and USC moves on to the Elite Eight.
Sweet 16: (1) Kansas vs. (4) UConn
The return of senior postseason hero Kemba Walker helps the Huskies land a more favorable seed than they got in reality, earning them a Sweet 16 date with a loaded Kansas squad.
Tyshawn Taylor, joined in the backcourt by fellow senior Xavier Henry, would have plenty of scorers to feed with the Morris twins (also seniors) and Thomas Robinson up front.
This matchup features an entertaining battle of backup guards—Huskies Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright against KU sophomore Josh Selby—but the game is decided by Kansas’ prodigious low-post advantage.
With Andre Drummond as the only interior offensive factor on UConn’s side, Jim Calhoun’s team gets battered into submission on the glass and in the paint by the deeper, more experienced Jayhawks.
Sweet 16: (2) Michigan State vs. (3) Florida State
Big Ten champion Michigan State earns only a No. 2 seed here, thanks to stronger competition around the country.
Even so, the Spartans find themselves in another Sweet 16 matchup with a superlative defensive team, this time in the form of Leonard Hamilton’s punishing Florida State squad.
Both offenses struggle, beating their heads against far superior defenses, but the deciding factor is Florida State’s most reliable scoring option, senior forward Chris Singleton.
With Singleton providing a mid-range game to complement Bernard James inside and Michael Snaer outside, the Seminoles eke out just enough points for an ugly, low-scoring victory.
Sweet 16: (1) Georgetown vs. (5) UCLA
Champions of a vastly improved Pac-12, the Bruins make the Sweet 16 by outlasting tournament-tested Butler (and its seniors, Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack) in a defensive struggle.
Their reward is a meeting with Georgetown, a No. 1 seed behind the inside-outside tandem of senior center Greg Monroe and high-scoring guard Jason Clark.
Monroe dominates on defense, but the length of the 6'11" Wear twins bothers him enough to keep his scoring under control.
Meanwhile, the overpowering defenders in the Bruins backcourt—led by senior PG Jrue Holiday—force enough turnovers from Clark and the Hoyas’ thin group of wing players to win the game on fast-break scoring.
Sweet 16: (2) North Carolina vs. (3) Michigan
Even with senior Ed Davis bolstering an already-loaded frontcourt, these Tar Heels narrowly lose out on a No. 1 seed to conference rival Duke.
For Michigan, meanwhile, moving one spot up in the seeding with the help of junior PG Darius Morris helps avoid any first-round upset bug, helping the Wolverines make the Sweet 16.
A healthy Kendall Marshall—spared the matchup with Creighton that produced his unlucky injury—has no problem handling Michigan’s dangerous PG tandem of Morris and Trey Burke.
Tyler Zeller lights up the smaller Wolverines inside and North Carolina cruises to an easy win.
Sweet 16: (1) Duke vs. (4) San Diego State
Even with Ryan Kelly sidelined for the opening weekend, sophomore PG Kyrie Irving keeps the Duke offense flowing and avoids any early upset concerns.
The Blue Devils draw a tough meeting with San Diego State, one of the few teams that can compete with Duke’s deep, high-scoring backcourt.
Physical junior Kawhi Leonard makes the Aztecs tougher up front, but they still don’t have the size to handle Duke’s assorted Plumlee brothers (or a recovered Kelly).
Irving and Austin Rivers have unusually quiet games against a skilled perimeter defense, but Duke controls the boards and pounds the ball inside to Mason Plumlee to secure the victory.
Sweet 16: (2) Texas vs. (3) Ohio State
Even with 7-foot senior Byron (aka B.J.) Mullens playing alongside Jared Sullinger, Ohio State narrowly misses out on a No. 2 seed. As a No. 3, they have the bad luck to draw Big 12 runner-up Texas, one of the tournament’s most dangerous squads.
Longhorn sophomore Tristan Thompson keeps Sullinger in check in the paint while Texas’ pair of high-scoring wings, J’Covan Brown and junior Jordan Hamilton, provide the offensive punch.
Sullinger and Aaron Craft struggle with foul trouble against the aggressive Texas offense, and Ohio State’s bench can’t pick up the slack in a comfortable Longhorns victory.
Elite Eight: (1) Kentucky vs. (6) USC
Nikola Vucevic finally has to face an opponent who can handle his size, and though he has the skill to get a few points over Kentucky’s gargantuan front line, he can’t carry the USC offense.
DeMar DeRozan doesn’t have much better luck, with Anthony Davis and his fellow shot-blockers (including junior Daniel Orton off the bench) stepping in when DeRozan drives the lane.
On defense, USC’s 5'7" Maurice Jones can’t handle the physical Kentucky point guards, and the thin Trojans bench has no help for him. John Wall comes within a couple of rebounds of a triple-double in another Wildcat rout.
Elite Eight: (1) Kansas vs. (3) Florida State
Florida State is one of the few teams with both the size and depth (including 7’1” senior Solomon Alabi, sharing center duties with Xavier Gibson) to bang with the Jayhawks’ front line.
The Morris twins and Thomas Robinson have more skill, but Florida State’s bruising defense keeps the game close throughout.
Chris Singleton turns in another great offensive effort, drawing bigger KU defenders outside and bodying up on smaller ones such as Travis Releford to keep the Seminole offense afloat.
In the end, though, Florida State’s perimeter defenders can’t keep the Jayhawks from penetrating, and a couple of late drive-and-dish plays from Tyshawn Taylor give Kansas a hard-won victory.
Elite Eight: (2) North Carolina vs. (5) UCLA
With Kendall Marshall running the show, North Carolina weathers the storm of UCLA pressure.
Even Jrue Holiday can’t harass Marshall out of his rhythm, and while Marshall doesn’t get many points of his own, he sets up plenty of opportunities for the Tar Heel frontcourt.
Defensively, John Henson’s shot-blocking presence reduces UCLA to a jump-shooting team, a battle this roster isn’t built to win.
Junior Tyler Honeycutt and senior Malcolm Lee struggle to find their range, while Henson and Tyler Zeller get enough good looks inside against the less-skilled Wear twins to carry North Carolina to the win.
Elite Eight: (1) Duke vs. (2) Texas
Texas struggles on the boards against Duke’s waves of big men, but Tristan Thompson’s shot-blocking keeps the Blue Devil post players from putting up big scoring numbers.
Kyrie Irving gets his share of points, but Texas’ three-headed point guard rotation (with sophomore Cory Joseph and junior Avery Bradley joining Myck Kabongo) holds its own against the Duke star.
On the other end of the floor, even Irving’s presence can’t rescue the erratic perimeter defense that’s dogged Duke all season.
J’Covan Brown and Jordan Hamilton drain nine 3-pointers between them, combining for 42 points and sending the Longhorns to the Final Four.
Final Four: (1) Kentucky vs. (2) Texas
Tristan Thompson plays his heart out, but DeMarcus Cousins’ 40-lb weight advantage takes its toll on the Longhorn center.
As the game wears on, Cousins and Terrence Jones start getting easy looks inside against a tiring Thompson and his journeyman frontcourt mates.
The Wildcats’ length on the perimeter keeps J’Covan Brown and Jordan Hamilton from getting into a rhythm, and Texas’ point guard trio is overmatched by the equally deep Wildcats (with sophomore Brandon Knight joining John Wall and Marquis Teague).
The game is competitive for 30 minutes, but as the exhausted Longhorn starters start getting beaten in transition by Wildcat reserves such as Darius Miller and junior Eric Bledsoe, Kentucky pulls away late for another double-digit win.
Final Four: (1) Kansas vs. (2) North Carolina
The frontcourt battle is virtually a wash here, with the superior muscle of Kansas’ bigs alternately outplaying and getting beaten by the longer Tar Heel forwards.
Kansas does gain a slight edge when Ed Davis comes off the bench in the first half and returns to it almost immediately with two quick fouls.
Outside, Kendall Marshall vs. Tyshawn Taylor is as electrifying a matchup as it should have been in real life, but the rest of the North Carolina backcourt can’t pull its own weight.
The quickness and strength of Xavier Henry and Josh Selby are too much for Reggie Bullock and the Tar Heel reserves, slowing UNC’s transition offense and setting up just enough open shots for the Jayhawks, including a Marcus Morris jumper in the final minute that gives KU the lead for good.
Championship Game: (1) Kentucky vs. (1) Kansas
A matchup that could well happen in the real national title game is virtually inevitable here, with all the NBA talent retained on these two rosters.
The Morris twins, plus Thomas Robinson, provide a serious challenge for even the titanic Wildcat frontcourt, battling DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis to a virtual standstill.
The game is decided on the wings, where even Xavier Henry and Josh Selby struggle to get good looks against the tall, quick Kentucky perimeter players.
Meanwhile, Tyshawn Taylor faces perhaps the one point guard in the country who can dominate even against him, as John Wall feeds DeAndre Liggins, Doron Lamb and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for a barrage of mid-range jump shots.
A three-point play from Markieff Morris cuts the Kentucky lead to two in the final minute, but the Wildcats hit their free throws and KU never gets any closer.
A 70-66 final score gives John Calipari—who, let’s face it, has lost more talent to the NBA than most coaches have on their entire teams—his first national title.
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