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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Gonzaga passes the title of best program without a Final Four to Xavier in win

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In 1999, Gonzaga was not yet “Gonzaga”.

A No. 10 seed in just their third NCAA tournament, the Zags won three games against high-major competition, coming within a possession of reaching the Final Four in a loss to No. 1 seed UConn.

UConn, at that point, was one of the best programs in the country under Jim Calhoun, but the knock on the Huskies at that point was that they couldn’t win the big one. They had been to three Elite 8s and three more Sweet 16s in the previous eight seasons, but it wasn’t until they knocked off that Gonzaga team that they finally were playing on college basketball’s biggest stage.

For 18 years, Gonzaga tried and failed to get to a Final Four, becoming one of the nation’s premier basketball programs without having the postseason success to legitimize themselves in the eyes of idiots around the country. That ended on Saturday night in San Jose, as No. 1 seed Gonzaga ended No. 11 Xavier’s thrilling run to the Elite 8 and passing on the torch that UConn passed to them.

Xavier can now claim the title of the best basketball program that has yet to make a Final Four, which is both a compliment and a curse.

The Musketeers have been to the NCAA tournament 25 times since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985. They’ve been to nine Sweet 16s and three Elite 8s. They had a winning record in NCAA tournament play until Saturday’s loss and now lay claim to the title of the team with the most NCAA tournament wins without an appearance in the Final Four.

Xavier is going to get there eventually. Chris Mack is one of the best coaches in the business. Hell, if Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner both return to school, it could very well be next season that they snap that streak. It’s coming at some point.

I don’t even think it’s an insult to say this about Xavier. I don’t think it’s a shot at the program or the coaches that have come through it. Getting to the Final Four is hard. Bill Self is a lead-pipe lock to be a Hall of Famer, and he’s been to just two Final Fours in his career. He’s 2-7 in the Elite 8, and if Derrick Rose could make his free throws, the discussion of just how good of a coach Self is if he can’t win a title would be raging with the Jayhawks flaming out of the tournament on Saturday night.

But as with Gonzaga and UConn before them, Xavier is going to have that monkey on their back every time they suit up in March.

VIDEO: Tyler Dorsey hits dagger after dagger in upset of Kansas

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Tyler Dorsey is building himself quite the reputation for being a big-shot maker.

He hit the game-winner that got Oregon to the Sweet 16. He hit two threes at the end of the first half to push Oregon’s lead to 11 points over Kansas. And he hit this three, the dagger through the heart of Kansas:

Dorsey finished with 27 points. He’s scored at least 20 points in every game since the NCAA tournament began.

No. 3 Oregon heading to first Final Four in 78 years

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Oregon, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest region, made what looked to be a smooth path to Phoenix into a bumpy road. But after 78 years, the Ducks are going back to the Final Four, defeating No. 1 Kansas, 74-60, in Elite Eight on Friday night in Kansas City.

Everything went right for the Ducks in the first half. Josh Jackson was called for two fouls in the less than three minutes. The Jayhawks were limited in transition. Tyler Dorsey’s two 3-pointers in the final 40 seconds gave them a double-digit lead at halftime. Oregon stretched it to as many as 18 in the second. Kansas couldn’t buy a basket from three (a far cry from the 3-point barrage it put on Purdue two nights earlier). When the Jayhawks drove to the basket, it was Jordan Bell (11 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks) who either blocked or altered their shots.

However, the Ducks not only left the door open for the Jayhawks, they held it open. Kansas’ comeback attempt was a mix drink that was equal parts KU putting the clamps on defensively, Oregon playing a bit of hero ball, and the Ducks playing not to lose instead of to win. Up six with less than two minutes remaining, and Dorsey (27 points) buried a dagger 3-pointer that all but sealed the win — and a spot in next week’s Final Four — for the Ducks.

Oregon will play the winner of the South region, which will either be No. 1 North Carolina or No. 2 Kentucky on Saturday.

 

VIDEO: Jordan Bell’s spectacular chase-down block

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Oregon big man Jordan Bell has been the best player on the floor for the Ducks against Kansas, totally changing the way that Kansas wants to play with his defense.

As of the time of this posting, he had nine points, 11 boards, seven blocks and three assists, but his impact is not solely limited to the shots he swatted — every Kansas player that gets into the lane is very aware of the fact that Bell is lurking around the rim.

The thought of him changes shots.

The best block he’s had today came midway through the second half, when he snuffed out a dunk attempt from Landen Lucas with an impressive chase-down block:

No. 1 Gonzaga reaches first Final Four with win over No. 11 Xavier

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It took 18 long years, but after Gonzaga exploded onto the national scene with a Cinderella run that came one possession short of the Final Four in 1999, after the program followed up that run with back-to-back trips to the Sweet 16 as a double-digit seed, after 19 straight trips to the NCAA tournament marred by moments of unfathomable heartbreak, the nation’s preeminent mid-major success story is finally headed to the Final Four.

What will the ‘Gonzaga is overrated’ crowd say now?

Armed with a roster that included a pair of blue-chip guards in their back court, a trio of high-major transfers and a McDonald’s All-American and future first round pick coming off the bench, Mark Few knocked off No. 11 seed Xavier, 83-59, on Saturday night to win the West Region and punch his first ticket to the final weekend of the college basketball season. Nigel Williams-Goss led the way with 23 points, eight boards and four assists and Johnathan Williams III, who was named the region’s Most Outstanding Player, added 19 points and nine boards as Gonzaga buried 12 threes and jumped out to an early lead they would never relinquish in a game that never felt like it was in doubt.

And with that, the monkey on Mark Few’s back is now gone.

“It means everything that we could deliver for guys like this,” Mark Few said after the game. Few had been the winningest NCAA tournament coach without a Final Four on his résumé. “They believed in us when they came. This is what we wanted to do and set out to do, and these guys were unbelievable. I could not be happier for all these guys, all our former players and all of Zag Nation.”

Whether or not that monkey was deserved is a fair question to ask. Gonzaga has had an incredible amount of success in the NCAA tournament. They’ve won at least one game in 16 of the 19 NCAA tournaments, including this year, that they’ve been a part of, including five of the six years in which they were a double-digit seed. In 13 of the previous 18 NCAA tournaments they played in, they advanced as far or further than their seed suggested they should have. Only five times did they lose to a team that was seeded lower than them. They’ve won 17 WCC regular season titles and 15 WCC tournament titles during that span.

What they’ve done, the consistency of the success that they’ve had, is not something done easily.

And it’s not something that should be overlooked when you consider where this program was in the early 90s. When Few was hired as an assistant coach in 1990, Gonzaga was thought of as the worst job in the WCC. The program, located in Spokane, Washington, which isn’t exactly a hotbed for recruiting, had never been to an NCAA tournament. The school didn’t even have a weight room for the team.

(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

“Players would sign out sweats and jerseys at the beginning of every school year and turn them back in nine months later,” wrote Yahoo’s Jeff Eisenberg earlier this week. “Sneakers were the only gear players received new, but obtaining a fresh pair typically required proving the old ones had a hole in the bottom.”

Within five years, Gonzaga was in the NCAA tournament. Within nine years, they had won the league and reached the Elite 8. Within 15 years, the school opened up a sparkling, $25-million, 6,000-seat arena, chartering flights for road games and recruiting trips.

Today, Gonzaga is arguably a top ten program in the sport

It is, quite literally, college basketball’s best rags-to-riches story.

They shouldn’t need this to justify their standing in the sport. Few shouldn’t need this to legitimize himself as something more than a coach feasting on a conference that can’t compete.

“My legacy is I guess built on a lot of other things,” Few said on Friday. “It’s built on the respect my players have for me and how they feel about they were treated and coached and developed and all that.”

“I’m schlepping along right now like vastly far behind my father who is 54 years a Presbyterian minister, man. He’s saved thousands of souls. He’s helped hundreds and thousands of people through all their tough times, you know. And that’s kind of the legacy that I’m looking at.”

But that’s not how our sport works.

March means everything.

If you can’t win on the biggest stage, if you don’t have that level of success when all eyes turn to college basketball, then everything you did during the previous four months is written off.

It’s not fair.

But that’s just how it is.

And now, nearly two decades removed from their introduction into the national consciousness, Gonzaga’s detractors no longer have that leg to stand on.