The arrival of March Madness means it's once again time to print your brackets, identify some Cinderella squads, predict the big shots that are going to live up to expectations and more.
The NCAA tournament is a whirlwind frenzy of college hoops activity over three amazing weekends, so you'll want to be a bit more informed on the elite teams and talent involved.
The event is even more exciting when you nail some of your bracket projections, potentially winning your office or friendly pool, or correctly identify one of the tournament’s top players before it even begins.
Here, I'll predict some of the strongest teams you should get behind this year, highlight a player that appears on the verge of breaking out in a big way during the Big Dance and list the complete March Madness schedule so you won't miss a single minute.
March Madness Bracket and Schedule
It’s great to be a Florida Gator right now. The team just capped off an epic run through the regular season, compiling the first and only 18-0 season in SEC history.
USA Basketball commended head coach Billy Donovan and his players on such a remarkable feat:
The Gators are also a top contender in the NCAA tournament, a status that was solidified after their showing in the SEC tournament. This is the team to beat this March, and it’s doubtful that it falls early on in the Big Dance, if it does at all.
Florida is balanced and efficient on both offense and defense, as Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings show. It relies on a starting five comprised of four seniors and a standout sophomore to get the job done, and any single one of them can turn it on to beat the opponent on any given night.
While that lack of star power may eventually be this group’s downfall, it hasn’t proved to be a flaw yet and should result in a Final Four finish at worst.
Despite all the accolades and praise heaped upon this squad, the players have the collective wisdom to realize that it will all mean nothing unless they go on to win a national title. That is the only way this UF team will be truly remembered as one of the greats.
Patric Young, the senior starting center, admitted as much to Tom Spousta of The New York Times after beating Kentucky in the 2013-14 season finale:
This is not mission accomplished. We are obviously headed in the right direction now because the ultimate goal is to be national champions. It feels good to sit back right now and say that we have accomplished something, but we still have to get back to work.
Florida will carry the momentum of a fabulous regular season into this tournament and is no doubt a top team to watch for a championship run.
The Shockers are one of the nation’s most intriguing teams, having went undefeated in the regular season and blitzed through the Missouri Valley Conference tournament without a blemish.
They have earned well-deserved praise for their efforts, but not everyone agrees or believes in their talent.
Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports noted that the Shockers improved from their Final Four run last year, but that doesn’t make them worthy of one of four rare No. 1 seeds:
CBS’ Doug Gottlieb supported that argument, noting that Wichita State played zero teams in the tournament with a No. 5 seed or lower and isn’t proven:
Garrett Tucker of Future150 rebuffed those detractors, saying the undefeated season is a rare, near-impossible feat that deserves plenty of credit, including a top seed:
Radio personality Evan Cohen agreed with that sentiment, noting there shouldn’t even be a debate on the subject:
Some may think that the drama surrounding the Shockers could impact the team’s play, but that simply doesn’t seem to be the case.
CBS Sports’ Gary Parish asked guard Fred VanVleet what he and his teammates think of their doubters, and it didn’t seem of any concern to them:
Wichita has proven itself against tournament-caliber teams, including Saint Louis, Tennessee and BYU. VanVleet is a legit star talent, while Cleanthony Early, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton form one of the best supporting casts around.
This isn’t a team to be taken lightly, especially with its defensive prowess and ability to hit shots from anywhere on the court. Don’t sleep on the Shockers making another run to the Final Four, potentially even winning it all in 2014.
|More Contenders and Sleepers to Watch During March Madness|
|Michigan State Spartans||Contender|
|Duke Blue Devils||Contender|
|Green Bay Phoenix||Sleeper|
|Delaware Blue Hens||Sleeper|
Star Player to Watch: Andrew Wiggins, Kansas
Wiggins is the biggest star in college basketball right now, even if he hasn’t exactly lived up to the hype surrounding him during the recruiting process.
However, it would be downright foolish to say the Huntington Prep product isn’t one of the best players in the game today. Wiggins finished the regular season with averages of 16.8 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.9 blocks per game.
Factor in that he put those up against the top competition in the nation (the Jayhawks boasted the No. 1 toughest strength of schedule in the country) and you are looking a serious gamer that is primed to end his brief college career with a bang.
Wiggins is most likely a one-and-done talent who is going to declare for the NBA draft shortly after the tournament, but he will leave fans in Lawrence with something to remember.
He already tapped into his vast potential in the season finale, putting up a whopping 41 points in an unfortunate losing effort against West Virginia. He followed that up with 30 points against Oklahoma State. This kid can flat-out score the basketball and is just waiting to put up points in bunches during March Madness.
With Joel Embiid—Wiggins’ elite teammate and another potential No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming draft—expected to miss time in the tourney, it will fall on Wiggins to shoulder the load.
ESPN’s Jeff Goodman concurs with that sentiment:
Don’t be surprised if Wiggins uses this opportunity to morph into the star that everyone expected him to be when he arrived on campus and leave a lasting mark on the collegiate game with a NCAA tournament to remember.
Here are my choices for other stars that will rise to the occasion:
|Other Notable Players to Watch During March Madness|
|Marcus Smart||Oklahoma State|