It’s March: Start cramming for your NCAA tournament bracket

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Today marks the first day of March, meaning that it is officially the best month of the calendar year.

Time to ring in the madness.

And while you’ve spent the last four months watching football, the NBA, The Bachelor and whatever show The Walking Dead has turned into, we’ve been typing our fingers to the bone and spending hours upon hours a night on the couch, watching and writing and learning all about the college basketball landscape this year just so we can impart that wisdom on you. 

(You’re welcome, by the way.)

Anywho, for those of you that are just tuning into college basketball this season, here are the nine things that you need to know about the sport as we get ready for the Greatest Tournament On Earth.

1. The freshmen are awesome this year: Last season, the biggest star in college hoops and the eventual No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, Ben Simmons, didn’t end up making the NCAA tournament with LSU, and while there are a couple of potential top five picks that will likely be watching the tournament from the same place you will — a barstool or a couch — the majority of what is a sensational freshman class will be participating in the Big Dance.

Lonzo Ball is the first name to know. He’s the star point guard for UCLA, a Jason Kidd replica and a potential No. 1 pick in the 2017 Draft. Kansas wing Josh Jackson will push Ball for the title of best freshman in America, but those two have plenty of company. There may not be a more exciting player in the tournament than Kentucky’s Malik Monk, who has proven that he can single-handily win a game all by himself, while Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen is a 7-foot forward that shoots 44.4 percent from three. Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac has been terrific, Michigan State’s Miles Bridges is the best dunker in college hoops and Duke’s Jayson Tatum is slowly making people think that Carmelo Anthony’s body-double has returned to the collegiate ranks.

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2. Speaking of Duke … : The Blue Devils have been the hardest team in the country to figure out. They entered the season projected as the best team in the country and started out the year great despite playing shorthanded. Then their freshmen stars — Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles III and Marques Bolden — got healthy and they started playing poorly. Then Grayson Allen tripped someone again, the third time in a year that he’s done so, and we all spent the next month over-analyzing every single thing that any of his extremities did during a game. There were alleged trips, and alleged flops, and an alleged shove of an opposing coach. It was the wildest thing I’ve ever seen in sports, and it all happened while Coach K was out getting back surgery and the Blue Devils were starting ACC play 3-4.

They were a psychologist’s dream, this team of future first round picks that couldn’t seem to find a way to get along on the court. Every step forward led to a step back … until Coach K returned to the floor and the Blue Devils reeled off seven straight wins. That led to a myriad of “Duke is back!” columns which led to even more “Duke is back to not being back!” columns after they lost two in a row last week.

So yeah. Duke has as much talent as anyone in the country, they don’t really have a point guard but they may have a power struggle among the best players on the roster, and their season has played out like the writers of Friday Night Lights decided to make a teen drama TV series about an ACC basketball team.

Your blind guess is probably as good as mine.

LOUISVILLE, KY - JANUARY 14: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Duke Blue Devils dribbles the ball during the game against the Louisville Cardinals at KFC YUM! Center on January 14, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Jayson Tatum #0 of Duke (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

3. Duke isn’t the only blueblood that’s awesome. They all are … except Indiana: That’s been the best part about this season to date: All the biggest and best programs in the country happen to be having terrific seasons … except Indiana. Poor Indiana.

  • Kansas has a senior point guard named Frank Mason III who is going to win National Player of the Year and has his own theme song despite the fact that freshman Josh Jackson is probably the best player on the team. They’re deservedly the No. 1 team in the country right now.
  • Kentucky’s Malik Monk is the most entertaining player in the sport, a must-watch talent that scored 47 against North Carolina earlier this year and put up 30 points in a half in a win over SEC rival Florida.
  • Lonzo Ball’s addition to the UCLA roster has turned the Bruins into an offense as high-octane as the Showtime Lakers. Ball is a singularly unique talent in his ability to pass the ball and bury 30-foot threes. The Bruins, when they are at their best, are the best team in college basketball.
  • North Carolina has been overlooked by a lot of people throughout the season, but the bottomline is that this is a veteran team with a deep, talented front line and two guys — Justin Jackson and Joel Berry II — that can take over a game with the best of them. Roy Williams has now won eight ACC regular season titles in the last 13 years.
  • Arizona spent the first three months of the season waiting for Allonzo Trier, their best player, to have the PEDs he accidentally ingested in the offseason clear his system, but now that he has, he joined an Arizona team that already looked like one of the best in the sport.
  • Louisville goes through some long scoring droughts, but they play that typical Louisville defense and they have a guy named Donovan Mitchell who is awesome.

And then there’s Indiana.

The Hoosiers started the season so promisingly, beating both Kansas and North Carolina, but they’ve since been obliterated by injuries and sabotaged by the lack of a point guard, meaning that they are going to likely miss the NCAA tournament in a year where it’s near-impossible to not be good enough for the bubble, and that, in turn, has put Tom Crean’s job status in peril once again.

Poor Indiana.

4. Gonzaga almost had an undefeated season and now may not get a No. 1 seed: The Zags won their first 29 games of the season, including wins over Arizona, Florida and Iowa State, but since they’re Gonzaga and somehow everyone has gotten into their head that the 2013 season — the one where Mark Few’s club was 31-2 entering the tournament, earned a No. 1 seed and lost to Wichita State in the second round — is the norm and not the outlier, they get zero respect for those first 29 wins. This is how bad it is: They enter the WCC tournament with a 29-1 record, the ‘1’ being a lose in their regular season finale to a BYU team that’s beaten them in Spokane three straight years, but they may very well end up dropping to the No. 2 seed line on Selection Sunday.

ORLANDO, FL - NOVEMBER 27: Nigel Williams-Goss #5 and Josh Perkins #13 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs celebrate a victory over the Iowa State Cyclones at HP Field House on November 27, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Nigel Williams-Goss #5 and Josh Perkins #13, Gonzaga (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

5. This may finally be the year the West Coast gets back in on the Final Four mix: If we’re being fair, that has less to do with the fact that Gonzaga’s profile is relatively weak than it does with just how strong the profiles are for the other top teams around the country. Villanova, Kansas and North Carolina are close to locks for the No. 1 seeds in the East, Midwest and South, respectively, and one of the three teams at the top of the Pac-12 — Arizona, Oregon and UCLA — would have a very strong argument for the No. 1 seed out west if they win the Pac-12 tournament title.

Where this really gets interesting is that the last time a team west of Norman, Oklahoma, reached the Final Four was 2008, the third in a string of three straight Final Fours by UCLA. The last time a western team not named UCLA reached the Final Four? Arizona in 2001. The Wildcats won the last national title for the left coast as well, and that was all the way back in 1997. The West Coast can claim four of the nation’s top eight teams this season, and it would not be surprising to see three of them get to the season’s final weekend.

6. But the Big Ten, not so much: The West Coast has four national title contenders, the Big Ten has about a third of one. The league is down this year, and it’s not just because Indiana went from looking like a team that could get to the Final Four to a team that can’t even get to the NCAA tournament. Michigan State is young and got off to a rough start to the year. Ohio State, who won five Big Ten regular season titles in a seven-year span during head coach Thad Matta’s tenure, stinks this year. Even teams like Maryland and Minnesota, who are both going to finish in the top four of the league, aren’t really all that good.

The two teams at the top of the conference are Purdue and Wisconsin. The Badgers have lost four of their last five games and, quite frankly, haven’t had the look of a title contender very often this season. Purdue is the one team that might have a chance. They have a National Player of the Year candidate in 6-foot-9 Caleb Swanigan and they surround him with shooters. But they don’t play great defense and they struggle with more athletic teams, which they’ll see in every round after the opening game of the tournament. The Boilermakers are probably destined for a No. 5 seed. Can they get to the Final Four as a No. 5 seed?

VILLANOVA, PA - NOVEMBER 11: Josh Hart #3 of Villanova attempts a shot as Nick Lindner #11 and Kyle Stout #24 of Lafayette defend during the second half of a game at The Pavilion on November 11, 2016 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. Villanova defeated Lafayette 88-48. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
Josh Hart #3 of Villanova (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

7. Villanova is a legitimate threat to repeat: The credit for this one falls on the shoulders of Jay Wright. Not only does he have his team in a position to make another run at a title, but he has them there despite losing Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, arguing the two most irreplaceable players on last year’s team, and while star freshman Omari Spellman and junior Phil Booth haven’t playing this season. Josh Hart has played like an all-american, sophomore point guard Jalen Brunson isn’t all that far behind and, despite going just seven players deep, the Wildcats are going to slot right into a No. 1 seed in the east.

8. Louisville and North Carolina are still waiting on decisions on their NCAA investigation: The NCAA has been in Louisville and in Chapel Hill for investigations in recent years. Louisville was caught having a staff member hire dancers and prostitutes for players and prospects, while North Carolina is still dealing with the fallout of 18 years worth of fake classes provided by the African-American studies department. Neither will be resolved before the season ends despite the fact that two of the most high-profile programs in college sports are involved.

9. The bubble is weird because everyone outside the Big Six leagues stinks: There are teams like Georgia Tech (17-13, 8-9 ACC), TCU (17-12, 6-10 Big 12) and Vanderbilt (16-14, 9-8 SEC) on the brink of getting at-large berths to the NCAA tournament this year because everyone outside of the Big Six. The ACC only has two at-large teams (SMU and Cincinnati) because teams like Memphis, UConn and Temple are all down. Unless Rhode Island lands a couple of Atlantic 10 tournament wins, that conference is probably going to send just VCU and Dayton to the tournament as at-large bids. The Mountain West is a one-bid league as San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV are all outside the tournament picture. Wichita State, Illinois State, Saint Mary’s and Middle Tennessee State might be able to land at-large bids, but beyond that, there aren’t any mid-major teams with bubble-worthy profiles.

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Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

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Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

Welsh and Holiday returning to UCLA

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UCLA sustained some major, though expected, attrition from its roster this spring. On Tuesday, the Bruins announced a pair of significant contributors that will be back.

Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday will both return next season to the UCLA program, according to the school.

Welsh, a 7-foot center, averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior last year for the Bruins. He shot 58.5 percent from the floor and blocked 1.2 shots per game, and decided to declare for the NBA Draft without an agent before ultimately deciding to return to Westwood.

“Thomas has worked hard all spring,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We supported him testing the NBA waters and are excited to have him returning for his senior year. He simply continues to develop each and every season.

“Thomas will be one of the top centers in college basketball next year and, undoubtedly, has a great chance to be a first-round pick in next season’s draft.”

The 6-foot-1 Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists last season while sharing a backcourt with Lonzo Ball, whose departure, along with those of TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will leave UCLA with a very different look next season. The positive results, however, may not fluctuate too significantly with Welsh and Holiday coming back to play alongside two five-star recruits, Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, as well as Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo.

West Virginia’s Macon forgoing final year

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West Virginia’s attempt to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12 took a bit of a hit Tuesday.

Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 forward, announced his decision to forego a fifth year in Morgantown in order to pursue a professional career.

“First things first I would like to say thank you Bob Huggins and Erik Martin for believing in a young 15-year-old boy growing up from the Southside of Columbus, OH losing my mother and still having you guys push me to be the man I have become,” Macon said according to the school. “I can do nothing but thank you for all you and Mountaineer Nation (have) done for me. Unfortunately, I will not be returning for my senior season at WVU and instead sign with a(n) agent and play professional basketball. Thank you guys for all the love and support!”

Macon wasn’t a major contributor for the Mountaineers last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, but he was an experienced and tough player who was well-versed in Huggins’ style and demands. Given the pace that the newly-fashioned Press Virginia plays at, depth is also paramount for them as a program.

Macon’s departure, though, may have been expected or at least partly anticipated by West Virginia. The Mountaineers signed five players in its most recent recruiting class, putting them one over their allotment of 13, so something had to give. West VIrginia will stay have interior depth, anchored by junior Esa Ahmad, so the loss of Macon is one they likely can weather, even if it may take some time to acclimate the newcomers.

“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school period that ends June 2 and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in August,” Huggins said in a statement released by the school. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Key returning to Alabama for sophomore season

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Alabama’s top scorer is returning to school.

Braxton Key has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will be back with the Tide for his sophomore season, the school announced Tuesday.

“I spoke to coach Avery (Johnson) just over a week ago and informed him of my decision to withdraw my name from the NBA Draft and return to the University of Alabama for my sophomore season,” Key said in a statement. “I made that official when I sent my paperwork to the NBA league office Monday morning. I want to express my appreciation to my teammates, Coach Johnson and the entire coaching staff for giving me their full support while I went through this process.

“I am excited for the future of the Alabama basketball program and looking forward to getting to work as we prepare for next season. Roll Tide and Buckle Up!”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field as a freshman. He gives Alabama four returning starts to pair with one of the country’s highest-regarded recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Collin Sexton. The Tide will also have an eligible Daniel Giddens, who previously transferred in from Ohio State.

Key didn’t seem likely to stay in the NBA draft, especially after he wasn’t invited to the combine, but his ultimate decision is a huge one for Avery Johnson as he looks to break through in his third season in Tuscaloosa with his first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

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Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.