With March right around the corner, the college basketball regular season is coming to an end. Conference tournaments will begin this week, with the NCAA Division 1 tournament following shortly after. Once the conference tournaments crown their respective champions and the bracket is finalized, the madness will quickly begin. Office pools and friendly contests will begin competing with one goal in common, to predict the perfect bracket. During this time of year everyone turns to ESPN’s main Bracketogolist Joe Lunardi for all of the answers. However, I’d be willing to put my knowledge of this years field of 68 against anyone. I’m going to give you guys a head start to your brackets by breaking down some of the Top 25 teams and where they stand.
With the recent fall of Gonzaga late Saturday night, Kansas has claimed the No. 1 spot in the country. They hold an impressive 26-3 record with a 14-2 conference record sitting atop the BIG 12 rankings. Kansas has very capable scorers all over the court, which makes their offense hard to contain. Frank Mason III (my pick for player of the year) leads the team in scoring with 20.2 PPG and has proven time after time he wants to take and make the big shot. To succeed in the tournament you need a big time scorer who will show up every night, Mason III is tough to compare against. The emergence of big time playmaker Josh Jackson is another key for Kansas as he looks to make one big run before becoming a lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft. The Jayhawks biggest weakness is their free throw shooting, where they sit at 295th in the country at only 65.9%. This can really be a factor as they’re trying to close out games.
Cincinnati is currently ranked 18th and 1 game behind SMU for the lead in the AAC. They boast an impressive 17-0 home court record, but just 7-3 on the road. With their latest loss to UCF, I had no choice but to assign them as pretenders. The Bearcats are always a good defensive team, but often struggle to put the ball through the hoop. Kyle Washington leads the way with just 13.6 PPG in a pretty evenly distributed team scoring effort. The best thing about Cincinnati is their ability to share the ball and make the extra pass. Mick Cronin always gets his guys to play hard, but they just don’t have the offensive fire power to keep up with other top teams.
The Bruins are only in 3rd in their own conference, but rank No. 3 in the AP Top 25 poll. They won 19 of their first 20 games, with that lone loss coming on the road against Oregon when Dillon Brooks (did what Dillon Brooks does) hit a game winning fade away 3-pointer with time running out. UCLA’s prolific offense speaks for itself averaging 91.6 PPG, which is number one in the country. The Bruins are also 2nd in points scored, 1st in FG%, 4th in 3-point %, and 1st in assists. When UCLA is sharing the ball and hitting their shots, there is no other team in the country that can hang with them. Star Freshman, Lonzo Ball, receives most of the attention in the media for his outstanding play and cool demeanor. However, fellow Freshman TJ Leaf is the leading scorer with 16.8 PPG. Alford, Hamilton and Holiday can all fill it up from distance and Thomas Welsh shoots mid-range jumpers like they’re layups. The only knock on the Bruins is their lack of defensive pressure and their defense tends to be pretty soft overall. Look for their ability to run up the scoreboard be able to hide their defensive woes and carry them to the final weekend.
SAINT MARY’s– PRETENDER
Saint Mary’s is ranked No. 20 in the country, but have played a pretty weak schedule overall. The Gaels finished the year 26-3 and finished in the WCC behind Gonzaga who beat them twice. Besides pretty much dominating their conference, their best non-conference wins came against Dayton and Stanford. Saint Mary’s doesn’t overly impress you on offense or defense, but are very fundamentally sound in both. I don’t expect the Gaels to make much noise at all in March.
NORTH CAROLINA– CONTENDER
The 5th ranked Tar Heels are currently 25-5 overall and 1st in the ACC. Every year you come to expect North Carolina to be in the conversation for best team in the country and this year is no different. They lead the country in rebounding and are among the top in scoring as well. Justin Jackson can fill it up from anywhere on the court and averages 18.8 PPG. The Tar Heels as a team are just super athletic, and can put up a bunch of points easily. They should be able to make quick work of the first few rounds and be there towards the finals.
The Louisville Cardinals are ranked 8th overall and are locked in a two-way tie for 2nd in the ACC. The Cardinals have had another solid year, but not much has impressed me besides their 23-6 record. They have some quality big men down on the block, and Donovan Mitchell can really shoot it. There just isn’t anything about this team that has stuck out to me this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were one of the first big schools to be upset.
Kentucky is currently ranked 9th overall and 1st in the SEC. The Wildcats are always known for their big time Freshmen and that trend continues. Malik Monk averaging 21.5 PPG, and De’Aaron Fox 15.5 PPG lead the way for the Cats in what can be a very high-powered offense. This team can really get up and down the floor in a hurry and defend as well. Malik Monk is a special player, and a very accomplished scorer in such a short period of time. Along with Frank Mason of Kansas, Monk is one of the few players I really trust with the ball in his hands in crunch time. Kentucky is inexperienced, but that shouldn’t stop them from making a deep run.
WICHITA ST.– PRETENDER
The 21st ranked Wichita St. Schockers are 27-4 overall through a weak schedule. Their top opponents have been Louisville, Michigan State, and Oklahoma State, and they lost to all three. Nobody on the team averages over 12 PPG however, they manage to put up 82.5 points a game. I honestly don’t have much to say about Wichita St. other than they wont be shocking anybody this year in the tournament.
The current No. 2 team and defending NCAA Tournament Champion should be a lock to be a contender, but something about them just doesn’t sit well with me. I understand they have the big time players and all the statistics are there. They have Josh Hart, who is arguably the most complete player in the country, and drops 18.6 PPG from anywhere. The Wildcats show up to work everyday , have a 27-3 record, play hard, but I just for some reason can’t back them in this tournament.
Oregon, Arizona, Duke and Notre Dame are some other top schools I expect to do well come tournament time. Gonzaga, Florida St, and Virginia should all make some noise as well. The best thing about the tournament is any team can win on any given day. The only thing we can expect is that there will be a good amount of upsets, so don’t be afraid to go with the underdog. As we all know, everyone loves a good Cinderella story.