March Madness is rapidly approaching, as conference tournaments begin in less than a month, and the NCAA Tournament tips-off on March 14th.
As conference play winds down, same teams have played themselves into the Final Four conversation (Gonzaga and Baylor), while others (Florida State and Kentucky) have raised serious questions with their recent play. Now, it’s time to project, or rather predict, the Final Four teams that will play at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
Last year’s tournament champion will be back in the running in March, as they’ve navigated through a tough Big East schedule. The #2 Wildcats sit at 25-2, with impressive wins over Notre Dame, at. Creighton (prior to Mo Watson Jr.’s injury), two dominant wins over Xavier (sorry Tyler and Gabe), and Virginia. They don’t have a bad loss, thanks to Marquette’s bubble status. Their only other loss came at. Butler.
Jay Wright has done a tremendous job with this roster, but it’s easy to win 25 games when you have Player of the Year candidate Josh Hart and tournament-hero Kris Jenkins. Jalen Brunson has enjoyed a breakout sophomore year, scoring 14.2 points per game and shooting 37% from three-point range, all while running one of the most efficient offenses in the NCAA. The Wildcats shoot 49% from the floor as a team and hit 80% of their free throws, something that is always crucial come tournament time. Nova loves to shoot the three, and while a cold night shooting could do them in come March, it doesn’t seem likely at this point.
The experience and coaching for Villanova has them as the favorites to win the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row.
Kansas’ home win streak may have just been snapped by Iowa State, but have won three straight close games against Kansas State, Texas Tech and #9 West Virginia. The Jayhawks trailed the Mountaineers by 14 with under 3:00 left to play and forced overtime, eventually winning by four. Kansas has had three marquee wins against Duke and back-to-back wins over Kentucky (at Rupp Arena) and Baylor. Kansas will likely win the BIG XII… again, and should be one of the favorites to cut down the nets.
Led by the best backcourt in college basketball, Kansas sits at #3 in the country with a 23-3 record. Frank Mason III is the leader for the Player of the Year, while Devonte’ Graham is in outstanding complement off the ball. What has really sparked this team is the play of freshman Josh Jackson.
Over his last eight games, Jackson is scoring 19.7 points a game, and grabbing eight rebounds a game while even hitting 15/30 of his threes. Jackson will likely hear his name called in the top five in the NBA draft, but with a strong March, he could find his way into the top three.
Outside of those three, complementary players such as Svi Mykhailiuk, Landen Lucas, Legerald Vick and Carlton Bragg Jr. have been excellent as well. This is a deep, experienced and talented roster that can play both ends of the floor for a full 40 minutes.
While the recent close calls may be cause for alarm for some, it will only make this team stronger during March Madness.
Bill Self is one of the best in the business, and he has an experienced and gritty backcourt, and good guard play carries teams deep into the tournament every year. The only red flag for this team is their poor free throw shooting. The Jayhawks are the worst free throw shooting team in the BIG XII (63%), and in close games, it can cost them.
I’ve made the mistake of choosing Arizona for the past five or so years to make a deep tournament run. As Albert Einstein said, “Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” So I guess, I’m insane. But hear me out.
Arizona is the #5 team in the country and is 23-3 in a better-than-expected Pac-12. Their only three losses have come to Butler, #1 Gonzaga and a blowout loss at Oregon. However, they do have marquee wins at USC and UCLA. This is a deep team, even without Ray Smith.
The freshmen trio of Lauri Markanen, Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons have combined to score 38 points a game, which is about half of what Arizona scores on a nightly basis. Markkanen has impressed with his potential as an elite stretch four by shooting a blistering 47% from deep while grabbing 7.2 rebounds per game. Alkins is a powerful small forward when attacking the rim.
Allonzo Trier, despite not putting up huge numbers, is still one of the better pure scorers in college basketball.
This is a program hungry for a national title, and may not get a better chance than this year. They got screwed last year with injuries, but the talent is there, when healthy to make a serious run at a national title. Also, extra motivation to win a national championship in your home state is a nice little nugget for the Wildcats.
Duke Blue Devils
Yes I know Kansas and Duke were both projected to be in the Midwest bracket in the March Madness preview released by the NCAA, but that is subject to change… I hope.
Everybody seems to have counted out the Blue Devils, but this is still the most talented roster in college basketball. Injuries to both players and coaches have not allowed this team to hit their stride. Also, Grayson Allen’s antics haven’t been too pleasant to hear about either. However, the Blue Devils seem to have turned the corner, winning five straight including a tough win over North Carolina.
With all the turmoil, Duke is still 20-5 and ranked #12 in the country. Three of their five losses have come to ranked opponents, Kansas, Louisville and Florida State. Their only bad loss was at home against North Carolina State, a game in which NC State came from behind to win.
Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen are two of the best players in America, and Kennard has evolved into an absolute star scoring 20 points a game and knocking down 45% of his threes. Jayson Tatum, while occasionally erratic, has been a solid third scoring option. Amile Jefferson is the elder statesman on this roster, and is one of the most important players in the country, almost averaging a double-double. Frank Jackson has emerged as a sparkplug off the bench, and Matt Jones has been a rock as a three-and-d player and leader.
However, backup big men Chase Jeter, Marques Bolden and Harry Giles have all disappointed and battled injuries this year, meaning Duke’s front line is capable of being dominated and exposed by teams with big and athletic front lines.
As long as Coach Krzyzewski is on the sidelines and not in the hospital, Duke will be a tough out in March.
Cover Photo via USA Today
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