This has been a season of upsets, underdogs, and unpredictability. The conventional wisdom has been that the NCAA tournament will follow suit. But will it? Will we see four No. 1 seeds in Atlanta, or none at all? Check out the tiered preview below:
The Top: These are the teams that, when judging by seed alone, should have the best shot at making the Final Four
The Hoosiers began the season as the No. 1 team in the country and are looking to come full circle and win a national title in Atlanta. Yes, they have weapons like Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo, Christian Watford, and Yogi Ferrell, but the key will be how each of those gets involved. Oladipo will be the do-everything forward, but Zeller needs to be assertive and physical down low. Because of that, beware of a team that can push the Hoosiers around on the interior.
The Cardinals pulled off an immaculate comeback to beat Syracuse in the Big East title game, but it will ultimately come down to guard play for Louisville. If Russ Smith and Peyton Siva are clicking offensively and the defense is forcing turnovers, they’re very tough to beat. If those two are off track for a game, though, the Cardinals could be sent home early.
Gonzaga hasn’t gotten as much national respect as it perhaps should have, even when it reached No. 1 in the national polls. This is their time to prove their worth. Kelly Olynyk is one of the country’s most mobile and versatile big men and will be at the center of everything the Zags do. Expect an early challenge from Pittsburgh in the Round of 32.
Kansas powered through the Big 12 on the backs of Ben McLemore and Jeff Withey but turnovers will be the biggest stumbling block for the Jayhawks on the road to the Final Four. Especially if Kansas meets VCU in the Sweet 16, we could have an upset. If they keep that under control, though, coach Bill Self’s team has the firepower to make a Final Four push.
The Non-No. 1s: Just because they’re not No. 1 seeds doesn’t mean they can’t challenge for a Final Four
The Buckeyes won the Big Ten title the same way they have won games all season: defense. Their ability to defend on that end of the floor will never be in question, but we’ll need to see how they work offensively to get a good taste of how far this team can go. Deshaun Thomas cannot be the only scoring option. Lenzelle Smith, Jr., Aaron Craft, Shannon Scott, LaQuinton Ross, Evan Ravenel, and the rest can all find ways to contribute.
The Mountain West has been as brutally competitive as nearly any conference in the country this year and from it emerges a Final Four sleeper pick, New Mexico. How are the Lobos a sleeper pick as a No. 3 seed? Because many know little about them. Keep an eye on Kendall Williams, Tony Snell, and Alex Kirk, all of whom need to be going offensively for the Lobos to shift into gear. The major concern will be shooting percentage. New Mexico has to hit shots consistently to advance.
At the beginning of the season, Miami was not expected to do what it has done. Point guard Shane Larkin is a big reason for that, but it has also been a matter of team cohesiveness and the ability to play at different paces. Reggie Johnson needs to be a factor on the interior and the Hurricanes have a chance to make life tough for opponents if Kenny Kadji is stretching the defense from the power forward spot.
Otto Porter, defense, and more Otto Porter. That will be Georgetown’s gameplan in the NCAA tournament. Porter does a little bit of everything well, but will need help from Markel Starks and D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera offensively for the Hoyas to make it to the Final Four being in the same regional as Kansas.
The Mid-Majors: These teams are dangerous in March. They might have come from smaller leagues, but watch out.
Coach Shaka Smart and the Rams live off of turnovers. They force close to 20 per game and it becomes the lifeblood of a transition offense that can put points on the board in a hurry. Against Saint Louis in the Atlantic 10 championship game, VCU erased a 13-point deficit in close to three minutes.
Saint Louis, the team that beat VCU to win the A-10 title, is efficient, poised, and smart with the basketball. In a region like the Midwest where Louisville is the No. 1 seed, the Billikens match up favorably. If they can control turnovers, it hurts what Louisville can do offensively. Kwamain Mitchell against Peyton Siva would be one to watch.
When your team features one of the country’s best players, you’ll always in a position to be dangerous in the NCAA tournament. Doug McDermott will be the centerpiece of this team, but Grant Gibbs, Gregory Echenique, and Austing Chatman aren’t to be discounted, either. We all should be rooting for a Creighton-Duke matchup in the Round of 32, if for no other reason than to see Ryan Kelly go head-to-head with McDermott.
If you don’t know Mike Muscala’s name yet, you likely will when this NCAA tournament tips off. The Bucknell big man anchors the paint for the Bison and is part of a defensive team that likes to grind teams down to a halt. It’s not always an easy way to win, but Muscala will be the engine behind a push.
Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_