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.

RELATED: Player of the Week | Team of the Week | Takeaways | Top 25

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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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VIDEO: West Virginia honored Andrew Jones before game vs. Texas

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The West Virginia basketball team donned burnt orange ‘Big 12 Strong’ warmup shirts with the No. 1 on the back in honor of Texas point guard Andrew Jones.

Jones was diagnosed with leukemia earlier this month.

Texas Tech also honored Jones before a game this week, and Texas has raised more than $100,000 for his medical expenses.

Saturday College Basketball Recap: No. 7 Wichita State, No. 8 Texas Tech lose

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PLAYER OF THE DAY

It’s hard to argue with the performance that J.P. Macura had on Saturday. No. 11 Xavier went into Newark and knocked off No. 19 Seton Hall, 73-64, behind 27 points, five boards and three assists from Macura.

This win was particularly important for Xavier, who remain just a game out of first place in the Big East and in great position to make a run at getting a top three seed, which would mean they likely won’t have to play Villanova until the Big East title game. The loss is the second in a row for Seton Hall and the their third loss in four games.

THE REST OF SATURDAY’S STARS

  • CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue: Edwards finished with 22 points, eight assists, two steals and no turnovers as the No. 3 Boilermakers blew out Iowa on the road.
  • MALIK NEWMAN, Kansas: Newman finished with 24 points and seven boards, including a personal 7-0 run with three minutes left to help No. 10 Kansas remain in sole possession of first place in the Big 12 with a 70-67 win over Baylor.
  • BRYCE BROWN, Auburn: Brown finished with 28 points as Auburn erased a 14-point halftime deficit to knock off Georgia 79-65 and remain within a game of first-place in the SEC.
  • DEAN WADE, Kansas State: In a win over No. 24 Kansas State, TCU’s second-straight win over a ranked team, Wade went for 20 pints, six boards, six assists, two blocks and two steals.

TEAM OF THE DAY

Houston landed themselves their first marquee win of the season as they pounded No. 7 Wichita State in Houston, 73-59. Rob Gray led the way with 24 points and four assists, putting the Cougars in a position where earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament is feasible. There is still plenty of work left to do, but this is the start they needed.

The bigger question mark, however, is Wichita State, who also lost at home to SMU this week. The Shockers are nowhere near as good as many expected them to be. Their offense isn’t good enough to make up for the fact that they aren’t guarding anyone.

GAME OF THE DAY

Trae Young went for 48 points, 34 of which came after halftime as the Sooners erased a 19-point deficit, but thanks to a Kendall Smith three at the end of regulation, this game went into overtime. Young had shots at the buzzer in regulation and in overtime to win the game and missed both, as the Pokes escaped with an 83-81 win.

Young needed 39 shots to get those 48 points. We went through whether or not that is too many shots for him here.

WTF???? OF THE DAY

Iowa State, who can’t guard anyone and is probably the worst team in the Big 12 this season, knocked off No. 8 Texas Tech, 70-52. The Red Raiders have now lost three of their last four games – all of which came on the road – after winning at Kansas. Texas Tech is also now just 1-3 in the four games since Zach Smith broke his foot, but they also beat Baylor by 24 points and won at Kansas when Smith played 10 total minutes.

So you explain Texas Tech to me. Because I don’t get it.

WHAT ELSE DO YOU NEED TO KNOW?

The Florida Gators moved into sole possession of first place in the SEC thanks to a 66-64 win at No. 18 Kentucky on Saturday. It was hardly a pretty game – Florida shot 33 percent from the floor and 6-for-30 from three – but the Gators were able to hang on thanks to a questionable no-call in the final seconds.

No. 20 Clemson held on to beat Notre Dame at home on Saturday, 67-58, but missing out on a commitment from Zion Williamson wasn’t the only bad news of the day. Star forward Donte Grantham went down with a knee injury midway through the second half. He averages 14.3 points and 7.1 boards. Losing him would be disastrous for the Tigers.

No. 14 Arizona had to rally down the stretch, but the Wildcats did. Trailing by as many as 11 points late in the second half at Stanford, the Wildcats survived as Dorian Pickens missed a three at the buzzer. The win puts Arizona all alone in first place in the Pac-12.

Jalen Brunson scored 23 points and Donte DiVincenzo added 17 points off the bench as No. 1 Villanova blew out UConn in Hartford, 81-61.

No. 13 Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s both won, meaning that the Gaels still hold a one game lead over the Zags in the WCC. Nevada knocked off Boise State, giving the Wolf Pack a two-game lead in the Mountain West.

At this point, Pitt barely counts as ACC competition. But they are and No. 5 Duke beat them 81-54 tonight.

Jevon Carter went for 22 points and eight assists as No. 6 West Virginia knocked off Texas, 86-51. The game was closer than the final score indicates, as the Mountaineers pulled away late.

The star of the day for No. 12 Cincinnati was Gary Clark, who finished with 14 points, 14 boards, two assists, two steals and two blocks, in an 86-60 win over East Carolina.

Luke Maye went for 17 points and 11 boards to lead four players in double figures as No. 15 North Carolina held on to beat Josh Pastner and Georgia Tech, 80-66.

It ended up not being much of a game when the Big Ten invaded Madison Square Garden as No. 22 Ohio State put a beating on Minnesota, 67-49. Minnesota lost Jordan Murphy to an ankle injury in the game as well.

You Make The Call: Did Kentucky’s P.J. Washington get fouled?

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There was a controversial finish to Florida’s 66-64 win over No. 18 Kentucky in Rupp Arena on Saturday night.

Florida had taken a 45-37 lead on the Wildcats before Kentucky fought back, eventually pulling ahead before the Gators surged back in front. A pair of threes and a missed front-end set up a situation where the Wildcats had the ball, down 66-64, on the final possession of the game, leading to this play:

P.J. Washington drives to the rim and appears to get hit in the head by Jalen Hudson. Hudson initially gets his hand on top of the ball, but as Washington’s momentum carries him, Hudson rakes Washington across the face and pushes his head back with his elbow.

It’s not intentional, but the contact is clearly there.

Did the referees blow this call?

If they did, the call could end up determining the SEC regular season champion. Entering Saturday, both Kentucky and Florida were tied for the league lead at 5-1 in the conference. They play again on the season’s final weekend in Gainesville.

Norvell helps No. 13 Gonzaga bounce back to beat Santa Clara

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Zach Norvell Jr. scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half, and No. 13 Gonzaga bounced back from its first conference loss of the season to beat Santa Clara 75-60 on Saturday night.

Josh Perkins added 17 points on 6-of-7 shooting, Rui Hachimura scored 16 points and Killian Tillie had 12. Johnathan Williams had nine points and eight boards for Gonzaga (17-4, 7-1 West Coast Conference), including his 400th career rebound.

Two days after a 74-71 home loss to Saint Mary’s that ended Gonzaga’s six-game winning streak, the Bulldogs had trouble shaking the pesky Broncos (7-13, 4-4) until Norvell found his stroke after halftime.

Norvell made pair of 3s, a short jumper and a layup in the first 7 ½ minutes of the second half, scored on an offensive rebound as part of a 12-0 run, and then made a fast-break one-handed dunk to put the Bulldogs up 75-41.

It was Gonzaga’s 17th consecutive win over the Broncos and improved coach Mark Few’s record to 40-4 against Santa Clara.

KJ Feagin scored 21 points for the Broncos.

Unlike the first game between the teams this season, when Gonzaga built 27-point lead by halftime on the way to a win in Spokane, Santa Clara kept it close early despite struggling from beyond the arc.

The Broncos missed eight of their first nine 3-point attempts but were tied with 8 ½ minutes left in the first half following Josip Vrankic’s driving layup that had the crowd at Leavey Center roaring.

Part of the problem for Gonzaga was the Bulldogs’ inability to keep Feagin from getting to the basket. He had 12 points in the first 20 minutes, made three layups and tipped in his own miss to help Santa Clara close within seven at halftime.

BIG PICTURE

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs have not lost back-to-back games this season and looked good after a somewhat slow start. Norvell provided a huge boost but the Zags also got another big game from Hachimura, who has scored in double figures in nine consecutive games.

Santa Clara: Coming off a win at San Francisco, the Broncos made a splash in the first half at home to keep things interesting. They never had the Bulldogs on their heels, but it was a much better effort than their first meeting.

No. 10 Kansas rallies late to beat Baylor, 70-67

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LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Kansas coach Bill Self has relied on a four-guard lineup all season, one that is designed to attack the basket aggressively, draw fouls and get to the free throw line.

He was fortunate one of those four guards stepped up Saturday night.

Malik Newman scored seven of his game-high 24 points in the final minutes, bailing out the rest of his sluggish teammates, and Baylor turned the ball over on the last inbounds play as the No. 10 Jayhawks escaped with a 70-67 victory that kept them atop the Big 12.

“We were lucky,” Self said, “to have one guy out there putting defense on its heels.”

The Jayhawks (16-3, 6-1 Big 12) trailed 67-61 with 2:05 to go before Newman went on his scoring binge, giving them the slimmest of leads again. The Bears (12-7, 2-5) had a couple of chances after that, but Manu Lecomte missed a 3-pointer and a layup attempt high off the glass with three seconds left.

Devonte Graham added a pair of free throws before Baylor squandered a chance at the final shot.

“(Newman) put us on his back and all we needed was to get those stops,” Graham said, “and we did.”

It was the Jayhawks’ 11th consecutive win over the Bears, who have never won in 16 tries in Lawrence. It was also the closest Baylor has come during any of those games.

Graham finished with 15 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. Udoka Azubuike had 14 points and seven boards, but he was just 4 of 11 from the foul line and missed two crucial ones late.

Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. had 14 points and 12 rebounds before fouling out for Baylor. Nuni Omot added 14 points and Lecomte had 10, though he was 3 of 12 from the floor and 1 of 8 from the 3-point arc.

“Very frustrating. We’re as good a team as them. We know we can beat them,” Lecomte said. “They’re a really good team. They never give up. Next time we have to make sure we keep that lead.”

Allen Fieldhouse has been Baylor coach Scott Drew’s personal house of horrors — the closest he had come to winning had been the Bears’ 73-68 loss last season. And when the Jayhawks opened the game by making their first seven shots and taking an 18-5 lead, it looked as if this one would be no different.

It took Drew burning through nearly all his timeouts to settle Baylor down.

Shots eventually stopped falling for Kansas as the Bears picked up their defensive pressure, and their deficit dwindled to 32-26 before a late flurry left them in a 38-27 halftime hole.

Kansas began the second half determined to get Azubuike the ball in the paint, and he made good on his first couple of chances. But when he failed to execute a few times in a row, Self greeted him during a timeout with, “Are you kidding me?” — spiced up with an extra word.

The Jayhawks still led 52-47 midway through the second half when Baylor went on a 16-4 run.

Omot started it with a bucket in the paint, but it was seven free throws by the senior forward that did the real damage. Lual-Acuil’s basket with 4:39 left gave Baylor a 61-56 advantage.

The Bears scored on nine consecutive possessions down the stretch.

Newman finally turned the momentum, though. He converted a three-point play and a nifty drive on a run-out, then knocked down another basket to give Kansas a 68-67 lead with a minute left.

“When the game is on the line, Coach always says that players make plays,” he said. “I was just trying to be aggressive and we came out with a win.”

HONORING JO JO

Kansas honored two-time All-American Jo Jo White with a video tribute before tipoff. The seven-time NBA All-Star, whose jersey hangs from the Allen Fieldhouse rafters, died Tuesday at the age of 71.

BYE, BYE BILLY

Kansas freshman Billy Preston signed with a pro team in Bosnia on Friday, ending any chance the five-star prospect will play for the Jayhawks. Preston had been held out all season while the school looked into the finances of the car he was driving during a November accident.

BIG PICTURE

Baylor has lost its last five games to the Jayhawks by a combined 20 points, no doubt adding to Drew’s frustration. Six of the Bears’ seven losses this season have come against ranked teams.

Kansas has won five straight to grab ahold of the Big 12 race, though none of them have been very comfortable. The Jayhawks’ winning streak has been by a combined 18 points.