It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and no, I’m not two months late for Christmas. March Madness season is upon us, and this year’s tournament promises to be just as mad as ever. For your bracket-completing pleasure, I’m highlighting a few teams of interest in the field this year. This isn’t a list of who I think will (or won’t) win, but a list of teams that I believe have
the potential to exceed or fall short of their expectations. (For people who have read Matthew Berry’s Love/Hate fantasy football column, this will look familiar; I’m expecting that to be about two people.) It’s not a guarantee of success, but rather a prediction of relative performance. Anyway, let’s get
to the teams.
Teams I Like:
UCLA Bruins (26-3)
I know, I know… strength of schedule and all that. But at some point, the record has to speak for itself. I don’t care if you play YMCA-league 12-year-old teams as your non-conference schedule, any three-loss team is impressive. And can we talk about those losses for a second? Two of them came against teams that have legitimate championship hopes (Oregon and Arizona) and the other, at USC, was avenged in a 102-70 walloping on UCLA’s floor three weeks later. Wünderfreshman Lonzo Ball has driven the UCLA offense to the nation’s top scoring average (92 points per game), more than four points ahead of the next serious title contender, Kentucky. For a team projected as a three- or four-seed, those numbers have “Sweet Sixteen upset” written all over them.
West Virginia Mountaineers (23-7)
Sometimes, I don’t have any reason for believing in a team except for gut feeling. That’s exactly why the West Virginia Mountaineers appear here. I’ve been a believer in the Mountaineers for a few years (a position I regretted last year, after WVU’s early tournament exit at the hands of Stephen F. Austin). This year, though, I can’t see that happening again. The Mountaineers have an
impressive resumé, with wins over tournament teams like Iowa State, Baylor and the potential number one team in the country, Kansas. West Virginia’s schedule has been lighter recently, but they’ll face a challenge in the Big 12 conference tournament, which might be just the test to get them into
NCAA tourney shape.
Teams I Don’t Like:
Oregon Ducks (26-4)
UCLA’s Pac-12 foe makes my list of teams I think will underperform this year. There is no question that Ducks have talent; they have one of the tallest rosters in college basketball, and junior Dillon Brooks is a do-it-all, buzzer-beating freak. For me, though, so much depends upon momentum, and too-close games against non-contenders Colorado and Stanford don’t give me a lot of confidence. Like UCLA and West Virginia, Oregon has the chance to prove its mettle in its conference tournament, but for now, I’m staying away.
Wisconsin Badgers (22-7)
Yikes. Talk about momentum; the Wisconsin Badgers are an eighteen-wheeler that just hit a brick wall. Two weeks ago, the Badgers were 21-3, with a legitimate argument for a two- or three-seed. After losing four of their last five, to the “elite” group of teams that is Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Northwestern, Wisconsin would be lucky to get a six-seed. There’s a bit of time for Wisconsin to turn it around, but it’s starting to look like that truck’s nose is crumpled beyond repair. I would steer clear
of the Badgers.
Teams to Watch:
Miami (FL) Hurricanes (20-9)
The Miami Hurricanes confound me. On one hand, this team has the size, physicality, and sheer athleticism to be a very good team, possibly a great one. The problem is, the Hurricanes seem to be learning how to use those assets too late in the season. The team has had promising moments, one of which came in Miami’s win over Duke last week, in which Miami outscored Duke 40-20 in the paint. Two days later, the Hurricanes struggled against a much smaller Virginia Tech team, losing 66-61 and committing 20 fouls. Clearly, Miami still has work to do, which is almost never good, this late in a season. Should they figure it out, though, the Hurricanes will become a very scary team
come tournament time.
Bias? What bias? In all seriousness, I think this Northwestern squad could be one of the more interesting teams in the tournament this year (that is, of course, assuming the Wildcats make it in). Northwestern, still looking for its first-ever NCAA tournament berth, seemed to be one of the better teams in the nation early in the season, losing just three times in the first two months of play. However, after losing five of their last seven games, the Wildcats need to pull it together if they want to secure a berth in the tournament. If they can find some of their early-season mojo again, Northwestern has the potential to be a dangerous dark horse.
Florida Gulf Coast (23-7)
Two words: Dunk. City. Anyone who paid attention to the 2013 NCAA tournament surely remembers the high-flying FGCU squad that took down
two-seed Georgetown and seven-seed San Diego State as a 15-seed before falling to Florida in the Sweet Sixteen. This year’s FGCU team still needs to take care of business; the team would need to win its conference tournament to even make it to the Big Dance. If it does, though, FGCU will probably enter as – you guessed it – a 15-seed.