Peyton Siva will try to guide Louisville to its second straight Final Four.
Anyone can pick a higher seed and watch as it plows through the competition, but that's not the intrigue of filling out a bracket and entering into an office pool.
You don't look intelligent or knowledgeable simply by selecting the higher seeds.
The fun of March Madness is in the upsets, the unpredictability of a lower-seeded team shocking a program with a lengthier basketball history or greater name recognition. That's where the fun lies both in watching and in filling out a bracket.
I've sifted the college basketball landscape and found a few broader lessons as well as some team-specific ones to help you navigate the tournament terrain.
If you call an upset, then not only might you win your pool, but everyone will wonder where you learned that nugget about Saint Louis, or how you knew that the Big 12 had much more depth than just Kansas.
And you know what you'll tell them? You'll steer them here and reference the top 10 lessons from the 2013 basketball season.
Over the last nine weeks of the season, five different teams occupied the No. 1 ranking at some point, proving that this season, no team is infallible.
Gonzaga, the expected No. 1-overall seed, has won 14 games in a row (last losing to Butler at Hinkle), but will people feel comfortable riding the West Coast Conference champion to the Final Four? Indiana, currently the No. 3 team, may be the most talented, but it lost two of its last four games heading into Chicago.
Duke is finally healthy, and it looks poised for a deep run after ripping Carolina in Chapel Hill in the regular season finale. But aside from Duke and probable No. 1-seed Louisville, are there any sure bets?
The point is, don’t ride the No. 1- seeds. Only four No. 1 seeds have made the Final Four over the last four years. This year especially, it would be silly to choose chalk at the risk of not differentiating yourself from the rest of the pool. Most of the one seeds will be seeded as such because four teams have to fill those slots, not necessarily because it’s merited.
Truth be told, there are only a select few teams that could accurately be described as elite, meaning that finding those sleeper teams is essential to winning your pool.
Kansas is the clear favorite in the conference tournament, but Oklahoma State and Kansas State may be getting a raw deal.
The Pokes beat the Jayhawks to kickstart Kansas' inexplicable three-game losing streak, while the Wildcats actually won a share of the conference title along with Kansas. Both teams are worth more than an afterthought.
Wayman Tisdale Award winner (freshman of the year) Marcus Smart is the Cowboys’ unquestioned leader with over 15 points and four assists per game. His mature game is only matched by his already developed physique.
Smart thrived on the biggest stages this season, leading one to believe that the NCAA tournament could be his next platform. The freshman poured in an average of 21.6 points, 4.1 assists and 6.5 rebounds against six ranked opponents this year.
The Wildcats, under first-year coach Bruce Weber, haven’t gotten nearly enough credit for winning their first Big 12 title since 1977. Guards Angel Rodriguez and Rodney McGruder average over 26 points per game, but it’s the Cats’ collective effort in Weber’s screen-heavy offense that’s facilitated such an efficient attack. The Wildcats assist on 66.2 percent of their made field goals, good for the sixth-highest rate in the country, according to KenPom.com.
Keep an eye on the Big 12 tournament, and remember, Kansas doesn’t deserve all of the love.
If you hadn’t heard, Duke forward Ryan Kelly is back from his foot injury, and the Devils are deep.
His month-and-a-half-long injury afforded Coach K time to develop the Blue Devils’ frontcourt. Freshman forward Amile Jefferson averaged 20 minutes per night in Kelly’s absence, and junior forward Josh Hairston saw a significant uptick in his playing time as well.
Meantime, Mason Plumlee continued to swallow rebounds by the dozen. But now that Kelly is back, the Blue Devils can fill their assigned roles as before.
Plumlee can patrol the paint, Seth Curry and Quinn Cook can linger around the perimeter, and Kelly can hang around outside waiting for a pass, only to blow by an immobile defender with a pump fake or a drive.
The 6’11’’ forward’s return not only gives them confidence (Duke is 18-0 when Kelly is healthy), but it adds another dimension to the Blue Devils’ balanced offense. He’s a 53 percent three-point shooter on the season, the leader of Duke’s five long-range threats. By forcing an opponents’ big man outside of the paint, it also frees up Mason Plumlee on the block.
Kelly’s return is an awful development for Duke haters.
If while filling out your bracket you find yourself slotting three or four Big Ten teams into the Sweet 16, don’t fret. It was the deepest league in college basketball, flush with the most elite teams atop the conference.
Taking three or four even further than the Sweet 16 isn’t ridiculous, either. Indiana may be the most talented, Michigan may have the best player, Michigan State—including its coach—may be the most experienced, and then take your pick between Ohio State and Wisconsin.
All five beat up on each other all year long, and each managed at least 12 wins. Four had a shot at the shared conference title up until the last game of the season, when Indiana proved it was the class of the league with a road win over Michigan.
From here there are two schools of thought. The first theory entertains that the Big Ten season coupled with the conference tournament was too rugged, and thus that B1G teams will flame out in the tournament. I’m not in this boat. I think that even if a contender like Michigan State gets bounced early from the conference tournament, three months of evidence is more substantial than a grueling four-day tournament.
The second thought is that Big Ten teams have been conditioned better than any other league’s team to endure the physical, slow-paced games that the NCAA tournament is known for. Thus I expect Big Ten teams to thrive.
As for that Wisconsin-Ohio State pick, the teams split its season series so you’re on your own for that one.
Speaking of sleepers, no teams are more familiar with fairy tale seasons than those pesky squads from the Atlantic-10.
Although it was in a different league at the time, Butler is the face of mid-major schools, even if it could hardly be described as one any longer.
The Bulldogs handed Indiana its first loss of the season in a memorable overtime affair in Indianapolis, and they also dispatched tournament-bound teams Gonzaga, Marquette and North Carolina. Butler’s only recent losses have come against the only two A-10 schools ahead of it in the standings.
Conference-mates VCU (rife with its own recent dramatic history) and Saint Louis are both capable of busting a few brackets and improving the growing stock of the A-10.
The Rams have 10 top-100 wins, and their worst loss is to Richmond on the road in overtime. They play at an up-tempo pace on offense, and harass teams with full-court pressure on defense, forcing opponents into turnovers on 28 percent of possessions, an NCAA-high (KenPom). VCU's best win may be over Memphis early in the season, but its most resounding win was a 32-point drubbing of Butler at home just two weeks ago.
Finally, Saint Louis, the A-10 regular season champion, is just waiting to be ordained as the darling of the tournament. Head coach Jim Crews has done a phenomenal job with this team, which lost its head coach Rick Majerus earlier this season. Crews’ bunch has lost one game since mid-January, including three-wins over VCU and Butler.
It’s a veteran-laden squad that’s efficient on offense and defends with tenacity, much the way Majerus coached.
Which Billy Donovan team are we going to get once the field is announced; the one which smashed Missouri by 31 in mid-January or the one that coughed up another late lead to Kentucky in the regular season finale?
Florida has the talent, size and experience to carry it to the Final Four, but to go scoreless over the final 7:36 and get out-rebounded by the Noel-less Wildcats? And what are we to think about the game three weeks earlier when the Gators let a 13-point second-half lead slip away to the same Missouri team which they had previously demolished?
Florida is a dead-eye three-point shooting team with gunners Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario and Erik Murphy (combined 171 threes this year). It rebounds extremely well, too, with Murphy and Patric Young in the frontcourt. But in close games, its offense has proven unreliable and inconsistent. Can it survive an off three-point shooting night? It shot 31 percent from deep in its four SEC losses, seven percent less than its season average.
The Gators have the talent to play with anyone, but be wary of whether they can prolong those runs throughout the tournament.
Covering West Coast teams is a tricky proposition, even though it shouldn’t be. Most games start after East Coast dwellers have gone to bed, and for the most part, left coast teams stay off the national media’s radar until the tournament.
New Mexico, UNLV and to a lesser-extent UCLA, are all prime examples. All are projected as at least top-six seeds, but unless you’re intently watching the results of the Mountain West or Pac-12 tournaments, you likely wouldn’t know it.
The Lobos lost five games all season while playing the third-hardest schedule in the country. They logged wins over six, potentially seven, tournament-bound teams while playing in the underrated Mountain West Conference against the likes of UNLV, San Diego State and Colorado State. Behind an excellent turnover rate and stifling defense, the Lobos could make a run with leading scorer Kendall Williams (13.7 points per game). Not to mention that the Lobos have huge size in the frontcourt.
The Runnin’ Rebels have as much talent as any team in the power conferences, but finding consistency amidst significant injuries has been their biggest problem. Forward Anthony Bennett (16.8 points, 8.1 rebounds) is a lottery pick and Mike Moser and Khem Birch are excellent at cleaning up the glass as well. A strong showing on Friday night against Colorado State and potentially New Mexico on Saturday should dissuade any unease about running with the Rebels.
Depending on whom you ask, Kentucky is in. Barely.
The Wildcats, still recovering from the season-ending injury to center Nerlens Noel, took down Florida in the regular season finale, 61-57. But just because they tied for second in the weak SEC, doesn’t mean the defending National Champs should be taken seriously.
UK is young, prone to a ton of turnovers, and its three-point shooting is abysmal. If the Cats do make the tournament, don’t be fooled by their name.
The Tar Heels were also a bubble team until Roy Williams opted for a four-guard starting lineup that included sophomore guard P.J. Hairston. The Tar Heels subsequently reeled off six consecutive wins to get themselves comfortably in the field of 68. Unfortunately, Carolina has gotten fat on the weaker ACC teams and has lost four times to the two teams ahead of it in the standings (Duke, Miami).
Those games highlighted their lack of a true low-post threat and exposed their weaknesses on the defensive glass. Not to mention, Carolina is one of the worst free-throw shooting teams in the country at 66 percent.
You can feel a bit more comfortable with the Jayhawks and potential No. 1 pick Ben McLemore, but it’s tough to get past their baffling three-game losing streak in early February. Not to mention their massive 23-point letdown at Baylor with a chance to clinch the outright Big 12 title on March 9.
They have depth, size and Bill Self, but who would feel comfortable riding them? If you do, make sure to see how they fared in the conference tournament against the likes of Oklahoma State and Kansas State.
Just like last year, freshmen will play a massive role on some of the top-seeded teams.
The Jayhawks’ sterling freshman shooting guard Ben McLemore averages a team-high 16.7 points per game in just over 32 minutes a night. He’s a shifty dribbler with a quick trigger from outside the arc where he shoots 43 percent.
After Kentucky’s stud freshman center was lost with a torn ACL, McLemore instantly shot up to the top pick in some NBA mock drafts. A strong March showing could solidify his chances of leaving. As good as McLemore was, he lost out on conference player of the year honors to Oklahoma State's freshman Marcus Smart.
Two other freshmen who have filled roles usually reserved for upperclassmen are Gary Harris of Michigan State and Shabazz Muhammad of UCLA.
Harris is the uncommon freshman who gets heavy minutes in Tom Izzo’s rotation. That’s mostly due to his outstanding three-point shooting eye and his propensity for playing well on big stages. Despite dealing with shoulder and back injuries this season, he’s also become a tough perimeter defender. Michigan State doesn’t have enough consistent scoring to advance deep into the tournament without Harris.
As his coach Ben Howland alluded, Muhammad is likely leaving UCLA after this year. Muhammad led all freshmen with 18.3 points per game this season and helped guide the Bruins to an outright conference title in the convoluted Pac-12. The 6’6’’ lefty is a good slasher, but he’s best suited as a jump shooter. The Bruins’ Pac-12 and NCAA tournament hopes may well reside with their stud freshman.
Last year Louisville stumbled into the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden and promptly rolled off four straight victories to win the league’s automatic bid. Then it plowed through the NCAAs en route to the Final Four.
This season, the Cards head to New York just a bit hotter, as in, riding a seven-game winning streak. Rick Pitino’s squad has excellent guard play in Russ Smith (who’s been a little less Russ-diculous this season) and Peyton Siva, who carried them in the postseason last year.
Gorgui Dieng has quietly developed a respectable post game, scoring double-digits in seven of his last eight games. His footwork has improved immensely and he’s now able to consistently knock down baseline jumpers. On the defensive end, he’s as imposing of a shot blocker as looms in the NCAA tournament.
The X-factor for this team is 6’6’’ Chane Behanan, the powerful—but undersized—forward. His scoring has been down recently, but the Cardinals need him to focus on rebounding and outletting the ball quickly.
He’s strong enough to hold his own against bigger forwards and mobile enough to get out in transition, but Louisville has the scorers so long as Behanan is battling down low. He’s also the primary beneficiary when Smith or Siva drives and forces the defense to collapse.
Trust Louisville’s balance and experience, or pick against Pitino at your own peril.