It's close enough that fans can almost taste it. The NCAA tournament is the second-biggest event on the American sporting calendar every year behind the Super Bowl, and the tournament is less than two weeks from tipping off.
This could be the year that a No. 2, 3 or 4 seed gets to the top and cuts down the nets by the end of the tournament. Teams like Kansas, Oklahoma, Michigan State and Villanova are very good and have an excellent chance of earning No. 1 seeds, but it's hard to look at any of those teams and think that they won't be severely challenged—and possibly beaten—before they even get to the Final Four.
Teams and seeds won't be announced until March 13 on Selection Sunday, but we'll offer our predictions for the top seeds in each region and a quick look at the tournament schedule.
|2016 NCAA Tournament Schedule|
|March 15, 16||First Four||UD Arena (Dayton, OH)|
|March 17, 19||First/Second Rounds||Dunkin Donuts Center (Providence, RI); Wells Fargo Arena (Des Moines, IA); PNC Arena (Raleigh, NC); Pepsi Center (Denver)|
|March 18, 20||First/Second Rounds||Barclays Center (Brooklyn, NY); Scottrade Center (St. Louis); Chesapeake Energy Arena (Oklahoma City, OK); Spokane Arena (Spokane, WA)|
|March 24, 26||West Regional (Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight)||Honda Center (Anaheim, CA)|
|March 24, 26||South Regional (Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight)||KFC Yum! Center (Louisville, KY)|
|March 25, 27||Midwest Regional (Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight)||United Center (Chicago)|
|March 25, 27||East Regional (Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight)||Wells Fargo Center (Philadelphia)|
|April 2||Final Four (Semifinals)||NRG Stadium (Houston)|
|April 4||Championship Game||NRG Stadium (Houston)|
The Villanova Wildcats have unfinished business with the NCAA tournament just around the corner. The Wildcats were a 33-3 team a year ago before taking a shocking loss in the round of 32 against North Carolina State. That loss hurt badly when it happened, and it continues to sting this season.
Head coach Jay Wright's team has played with a purpose this year, and their 26-4 record has earned them the No. 3 spot in the Associated Press poll, giving them an excellent chance of playing as the No. 1 seed in the East.
It's hard to argue with the balance that the Wildcats have shown once again this year. They have five players who are scoring in double figures, led by junior guard Josh Hart, who is averaging 15.2 points per game and connecting on 50.7 percent of his shots from the floor.
Forward Kris Jenkins is a 6'6" junior who can take the ball outside and score. He is averaging 12.5 points per night and has made 70 of his 194 attempts from beyond the arc.
Ryan Arcidiacono, Jalen Brunson and Daniel Ochefu are also scoring in double figures, and all of them can get hot and help the Wildcats go on a streak.
This team has proved its greatness in two consecutive regular seasons. Now it's time for the Wildcats to show up at the most important time of the year.
Kansas is the No. 1 team in the nation, according to the AP poll, and Bill Self's Jayhawks have almost certainly earned the No. 1 overall seed based on their play during the regular season.
As a result, they should get the top seed in the Midwest Region. The Jayhawks have rolled to a 26-4 record this season and are coming off a 30-point road victory over Texas Monday night. That victory enabled Kansas to clinch its 12th consecutive Big 12 regular-season title.
"For 20-25 minutes, that was about as well as we can play," Self said after the game, per the Associated Press (via USA Today).
Kansas back on top of in AP men's Top 25 (Yahoo Sports): Kansas is back on top of the men's college basketball... https://t.co/PGLhCVKpIG— Mark Oh (@MajorLeagueNews) February 29, 2016
The Jayhawks have been on fire throughout the second half of the season, and they have won 10 straight games as they prepare to host the Iowa State Cyclones Saturday.
As usual, Self has an array of star players who have combined to play excellent team basketball as the season heads toward its climax. Senior forward Perry Ellis has had a great season, and he leads the Jayhawks with an average of 16.3 points per game while shooting 52.3 percent from the field. He is also second on the team with an average of 6.0 rebounds per night.
Guard Frank Mason III is second on the team in scoring with an average of 13.6 points per night, and the 5'11" Mason is averaging 4.6 assists per game. Wayne Selden Jr. and Devonte Graham are also scoring in double figures for the Jayhawks.
The Virginia Cavaliers are the fourth-ranked team in the AP poll, and that means they should have a fair chance of securing the No. 1 seed in the South Region.
The Cavaliers have played good, solid basketball throughout the season, and at one point during the year they won seven straight ACC games. That's a good sign for a team that would like to get past the round of 32. That's where they were eliminated last year by Michigan State.
Head coach Tony Bennett should have his team prepared as well as any in the nation during the tournament. The 23-6 Cavaliers work hard and always hustle, and that has been the calling card of Bennett's teams throughout his career as a head coach.
The Cavs may not have the depth of Villanova or Kansas, but they do have a go-to star in 6'5" senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, who is averaging a team-high 18.5 points a night while shooting 47.7 percent from the floor.
Additionally, the Cavs get good production from Anthony Gill, who is scoring 13.5 points per game, while London Perrantes is also in double figures at 11.3 points per game.
The Michigan State Spartans did not win the Big Ten regular-season title as Tom Izzo's team went through a lull early in the conference slate. However, with the Big Ten tournament just around the corner and the NCAA tournament coming up shortly after, the Spartans are playing extremely well and may be the most tournament-ready team in the nation.
Michigan State played its way into the Final Four a year ago, but the Spartans were beaten by eventual national champion Duke. Izzo's team is motivated to get back to the Final Four and play for the title this time around.
The Spartans are the second-ranked team in the Associated Press poll and have a 25-5 record after beating Rutgers 97-66 Wednesday night in New Jersey.
The Spartans are led by Player of the Year candidate Denzel Valentine, who is averaging 19.6 points and 7.6 boards per night. Valentine is a versatile performer who can hit the long shot, but he can also cut through the lane and get to the basket.
Valentine teams with forward Matt Costello and guard Bryn Forbes to give the Spartans a dangerous and hungry nucleus. Forbes is a much-improved scorer, as he is averaging 14.6 points per game this year—significantly higher than the 8.5 points per game he scored last year.
Costello is a warrior who will battle hard for every loose ball and will go to the glass with a purpose. He leads the team with 8.3 rebounds per game and is averaging 10.3 points per night.