March is here, which means the most exciting event in American sports — the NCAA Tournament — is just around the corner.
Maybe you’ve been following the regular season since November. Maybe you only tune in come March. But before the conference tournaments begin — the first two of the 30 conference tournaments tip off on Tuesday with the Horizon League and the Big South — here are 50 things you need to know going into March Madness.
1. First, a disclaimer: This is a 100 percent guarantee that any and all predictions in this story will be wrong. Why? Because that’s what this upside-down season has been all about. Texas Christian beats No. 5 Kansas for its only Big 12 win of the season. Penn State beats No. 4 Michigan for its only Big Ten win of the season. The University of Miami is playing like a blueblood, defending national champion Kentucky is on the bubble. None of this makes any sense. So don’t try and make sense of it. Just come along for the ride.
2. Since there have been so many huge upsets this season (the No. 1 ranked team in the AP Poll has lost seven times), that must mean this NCAA Tournament will be filled with upsets. Right? Wrong. Remember: Everything that seems to make sense this year does not. So what’s the only valid prediction for this “opposite day” season? The Final Four will have four No. 1 seeds.
3. Who’s going to be the No. 1 overall seed? Indiana. Probably. Maybe. Who knows? The Hoosiers — who are the current No. 1 team in the AP Poll — seemed to have the No. 1 overall seed close to locked up before heading to Minneapolis and getting manhandled by a tough Minnesota team this week. The No. 1 overall seed in the tournament won’t be clear until the end of the conference tournaments. But you probably could make a case for a number of teams: Duke, even after Thursday’s loss to Virginia. Miami, should it beat Duke this weekend for the second time this season. Kansas, even with its TCU slip-up. Georgetown, which has won 10 in a row in the brutal Big East. Heck, you could make a legitimate case for Gonzaga, even though it’s in the West Coast Conference. Only one thing’s for sure: Whichever team you pick this week will fall flat on its face next week.
4. Who’s the real number one? Nobody. Every team out there is flawed. And every team that makes it to No. 1 in the AP Poll loses (that’s happened seven times since December). Maybe we should start the poll at No. 2 and not fill in the No. 1 slot until April 8 in Atlanta.
5. No, really: Who should be No. 1? Get people mad at a party by repeating these words: “The No. 1 team in the country is Gonzaga.” It may be true this Monday, and it should. Look, the AP Top 25 Poll isn’t supposed to be predictive like a ratings tool such as KenPom.com. It’s not supposed to be able to predict that a No. 1 team can beat the No. 2 team, and the No. 2 team can beat the No. 3 team, and so on. The only uses for the AP Top 25 Poll are bragging rights for schools and arguments for fans. Here’s the argument: The AP poll is resume-based, and you can’t find a team with a better resume than Gonzaga. The Zags have only two losses, and one of those was on a fluke, last-second play in Hinkle Fieldhouse that made them lose to Butler. Sure, they play in the West Coast Conference (10th in conference RPI), but they schedule a tough non-conference schedule, going 4-0 against Big 12 schools — including two schools currently in the AP Top 25 (Oklahoma State and Kansas State).
6. Using the more predictive tools, Gonzaga is still pretty damn good. KenPom.com has the Zags as the fourth-best team in the country; the Sagarin rankings have them at sixth. That’s remarkable for a mid-major school. And that’s because of Gonzaga’s high-major frontcourt in Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris. Don’t insult these two and call them “the best mid-major frontcourt in the nation.” Instead, see if you can find any team in the nation with a better frontcourt. You can’t.
7. The analytics folks think there’s a lot of teams out there that are overrated by the human polls. If you’re someone who believes math over the eye test, there’s a lot of paper tigers to be found. For example: Kansas State is 13th in the AP Top 25 but 33rd on KenPom.com. New Mexico is 14th in AP but 28th on KenPom. Memphis is 19th in AP, 40th on KenPom. All worth remembering when you’re filling out those brackets.
8. The Big East is a Big Beast. Four teams in the top 14 in RPI: Louisville, Georgetown, Syracuse, Marquette. And one team that’s 41st in RPI, Pittsburgh, is a team analytics guys love. Pomeroy, the king of college basketball statistics, has Pitt as the seventh-best team in the nation and calls the Panthers the most underrated team in the nation. Another prominent bracketologist picked eight Big East teams in the tourney, more than any other conference.
9. The Big Ten is better. Plenty still doubt Big Ten teams’ abilities to go deep into March Madness, despite all evidence to the contrary this year. The Big Ten is a victim of its own recent history of March Sadness. The last Big Ten team to win the national title was Michigan State in 2000, and the Big Ten has only won one of the past 23 national championships. (Compare that to eight for ACC, six for the SEC, and four for the Big East.) But the Big Ten has a remarkable six teams in the top 25 in RPI, and projects to send those six plus a seventh, Illinois, to the tourney. Surely one of those teams — or more? — will make the Final Four.
10. And the term mid-major no longer applies to … Gonzaga! The Zags are second in the AP Poll and, with the No. 1 team, Indiana, losing earlier this week, could very well find themselves atop the poll next week. This is Mark Few’s best team since he arrived in Spokane, and Gonzaga’s best shot to get over their Final Four hump.
11. The term mid-major also no longer applies to … The Atlantic-10. Five teams in the top 50 in RPI (and likely those same five teams in the NCAAs). The two brightest young coaches in college hoops in Butler’s Brad Stevens and Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart. What may be the single hottest team in the country in Saint Louis. And a conference tournament that this year is moving to the slick new Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The A-10 are all big boys now.
12. What’s up with Kentucky? They’re young.
13. What’s up with UCLA? They’re young.
14. What’s up with North Carolina? They’re young.
15. What’s up with young teams struggling? Last year John Calipari’s freshman- and sophomore-laden Kentucky team won the national championship, and the Calipari Way seemed the way of the future. The most talented one-and-dones go to the bluebloods, and the bluebloods win. As Calipari points out, though, last year’s team did have the top two picks in last year’s NBA draft — but those two players, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, finished fourth and fifth on the team in field-goal attempts. They shared the ball. They bought into a team-first philosophy. This year, UCLA had the top-rated recruiting class in the country, with Kentucky second and UNC eighth. All three look to barely make the NCAA tournament. The lesson: You need the talent, but you need the talent to play together.
16. The most intriguing team in the country is the one doing it the opposite way. The Miami Hurricanes have made the Sweet Sixteen once in program history, and that was 13 years ago. Yet they seemingly came out of nowhere to all but wrap up the ACC title. They’ve done it with one of the most experienced teams in college basketball. Five of their top six players in minutes played are seniors. And a dynamic sophomore point guard, Shane Larkin, plays quarterback and ties these old souls together.
17. Places you didn’t know even had basketball teams suddenly have very good basketball teams. The aforementioned Miami. A tough Colorado State team that made the AP rankings for the first time since 1954. Louisiana Tech in the WAC are ranked 25th in the AP Top 25, and the Akron Zips in the MAC have the nation’s longest winning streak at 19 games.
18. Back to those struggling bluebloods: Will they make the tourney? After much hand-wringing in Lexington, Westwood and Chapel Hill, it looks like all three will be on the right side of the bubble. But here’s hoping that one of them has to play in one of the First Four games in Dayton. That would be an incredible draw for college hoops, and a great story. Especially if they go on a run.
19. Someone will be this year’s Player of the Year award. That much is certain. And that’s where the certainty ends. As soon as someone starts to get POY buzz, they’re replaced by another, hotter name. The most recent name to float out there? Otto Porter, the do-it-all forward for a hot Georgetown team. But a week ago the hot name was Indiana’s Victor Oladipo. Before that, Michigan’s Trey Burke, Kansas’ Ben McLemore, Creighton’s Doug McDermott, Indiana’s Cody Zeller and Duke’s Mason Plumlee were all briefly the hot name. It’ll come down to who gets the hottest now.
20. None of those players should win the award. The national Player of the Year shouldn’t be the person with the gaudiest statistics, or the most NBA potential, or just the best player on the No. 1 team. It should be the player who has meant the most to his team this year. (Yes, this is an adaptation of the “wins above replacement” argument that dominated baseball’s AL MVP race last year.) No player is more valuable to his team than Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart.
21. What makes Marcus Smart so good? Smart doesn’t rank in the top 100 in the nation in points, rebounds, assists or 3-point percentage. Yet no player means more to his team than Smart means to Oklahoma State. If there’s a more tenacious player in college basketball, I can’t name him. Smart does everything — a freshman point guard who can rebound, score, dish, and play defense. (He ranks fifth in the nation in steals.) Without him the Cowboys were 15-18 last year and finished seventh in the Big 12. With him they’re 21-6 and 15th in the nation. He’s made everyone around him better.
22. The most underrated team in the country is Oregon. The Ducks have gone 5-4 since Jan. 23. Not exactly a record that inspires a fan base to be excited for March, especially since that record comes in the decidedly mediocre Pac-12. But they’re still in the AP Top 25, and Thursday night they were scheduled to get their dynamic freshman point guard Dominic Artis back from a foot injury that has kept him out the past nine games. Now that 5-4 record doesn’t look like a winter swoon. It looks like a resilient team who gutted it out with their backup point guard and is now back to full strength.
23. The most overrated team in the country is Arizona. The Wildcats are currently ranked 11th in the AP Top 25 Poll. They were ranked as high as fourth earlier this year. That was absurd. They’re coming off a bad loss to USC, and they’ll plummet in the polls if they lose at UCLA on Saturday. It’s not that they’re bad. It’s just that they’re not nearly 11th in the country good.
24. What’s up with basketball on the West Coast? The Pac-12 is sixth in conference RPI, yet bracketologists says the conference projects to get five or six teams playing in the tourney. The Mountain West Conference ranks first in conference RPI yet projects to get only four teams in the tourney. And the best team out west, Gonzaga, plays in neither of the big west-coast conferences. What gives?
25. Is there a more exciting player to watch in college hoops than Indiana’s Victor Oladipo? In a word: No. Twitter exploded with praise when the guy MISSED a dunk. (On a misplaced lob from Jordan Hulls in Indiana’s home win over Michigan, Oladipo reached waaaaay back, caught the ball in mid-air, and slammed it off the iron. Almost an all-time play.) Try and find a better athlete in college hoops than Oladipo. The Dwyane Wade comparisons feel about right.
26. The award for most disappointing team goes to … So many entries in this category. Do you pick defending champion Kentucky? Or North Carolina State, which was supposed to upset the ACC power balance this year? Or Creighton, the mid-major with the most preseason buzz and a Player of the Year candidate in Doug McDermott? I’m going with UCLA. After getting the top-ranked recruiting class (with one-and-doner Shabazz Muhammad plus super-freshmen Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams), they’re the most up and down team in college hoops this year. They lost at home to Cal-Poly and crosstown rival USC; they beat then-7th-ranked Missouri and then-6th-ranked Arizona.
27. And yet I still feel UCLA has a legit shot to go deep in March. Ben Howland, I can’t quit you, and I can’t quit your crazy, maddening, awesome team. These guys are one of the most exciting, talented teams in college hoops. In a way, they remind me of last year’s Kentucky team, not in how they play but in how they’re constructed: Some of the most talented freshmen in the country yet also with a big upperclassman presence — with UCLA, it’s senior point guard Larry Drew II, who is second in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio — who could hold them together in March. It’s teams like this that I get emotionally attached to and inevitably end up ruining my brackets. (Like Mizzou last year.)
28. Speaking of Missouri … who is this year’s version of 2012 Mizzou and 2012 Duke? In households of Mizzou and Duke fans, two schools shall never be spoken of: Lehigh and Norfolk State. Last year’s tournament was the first time in history two No. 2 seeds lost in the first round. The highly ranked team that has the biggest chance of being upset early in this year’s tournament is Michigan. (I swear I was saying this before they lost at lowly Penn State this week.) Michigan relies on the jump shot, and when the jump shot turns cold, there’s not much of a backup plan. Throw in the fact that they’re 135th in the nation in total rebounds (and only 34th in the nation in rebounding rate), and you got a recipe for trouble in March.
29. That said, I still love Trey Burke. And the sophomore point guard — who is averaging Magic Johnson-esque numbers of 18.8 points and 6.9 assists per game — could just as easily put this young team on his back and take them to the Final Four.
30. Other teams that could get KO’d early: Indiana, if Cody Zeller gets manhandled by a big, physical team like he did in their loss this week to Minnesota.
31. And also: Florida, if their injuries aren’t healed by the tourney (and if they play like the mediocre Gators who’ve had recent road losses at Missouri and Tennessee instead of the Good Gators who spent the rest of winter blowing out the SEC).
32. And also: Duke, if Ryan Kelly doesn’t return at 100 percent and they get a bad draw the first weekend.
33. But wait — not Kansas? OK, fine, they lost to TCU, which is 228th in RPI. That was the year’s biggest upset. It was also a turbulent time — three losses in a row, with coach Bill Self calling out his team at a press conference — that the Jayhawks seem to have weathered just fine. Better to get that out of the way in February than in March. Since The Streak, the Jayhawks have gone on another streak, tearing off five wins in a row, including character-building road overtime wins at Oklahoma State and Iowa State.
34. Elijah Johnson holds the key to a successful March for Kansas. If the kid plays half as well as he did in the final minute of regulation and the five minutes of overtime against Iowa State — “I just blacked out,” he said after scoring 20 crucial points in less than six minutes — then Kansas is your national champion. Of course, the senior guard, who has been forced to play point guard this year although he’s naturally a shooting guard, has struggled plenty, shouldering much of the blame for KU’s losing streak. But remember: He can be clutch. He proved it against Iowa State. And he proved it in March last year, averaging more than 13 points per NCAA tournament game.
35. Ben McLemore has the smoothest game in college basketball. Does any other player this season have more the “look” of a basketball player than KU’s redshirt freshman? When he jumps, he floats. His shooting stroke is a thing of beauty. He had a highlight-worthy 360 dunk against Texas. But there’s a big part missing in his game: Driving and creating shots. If he added that he’d be a slam-dunk number-one pick in the upcoming NBA draft. He might be anyway.
36. In a year filled with dark horses, the dark-horse pick for the Final Four should be … Oklahoma State. The Cowboys are tough. They don’t have a bad loss. There isn’t a more high-impact player in college hoops than Marcus Smart. Markel Brown can flat-out score. Le’Bryan Nash is a force. Phil Forte is clutch from three. Michael Cobbins is an underrated big man. This team has all the tools.
37. North Carolina State is another dark horse. The Wolfpack are as likely to get bounced in the first round as they are to make the Final Four. I keep waiting for this team to put it together. They’re as talented of an offensive team as there is. And remember: Four of their losses in January and February were by a total of seven points. They’re still 26th in RPI. They beat Duke. And point guard Lorenzo Brown is now healthy, which is key.
38. Who cares what the analytics guys say? Kansas State’s another dark horse. This is a tough, physical team made in the image of their departed coach, Frank Martin, who took a rebuilding job at South Carolina after last season. This team is built for March. Rodney McGruder has become a genuine star, even though he’s prone to disappear for stretches.
39. The most talked about injury of the year was Nerlens Noel tearing his ACL on a typical hustle play. The injury that ended Noel’s season, hurt his NBA draft stock and threw Kentucky’s tourney chances up in the air was as painful to watch as it was painful for Wildcats fans to figure how it’d impact their slim chances of a repeat. But Kentucky was more or less a train wreck anyway, so Noel’s injury was not the most significant injury of the year in college basketball.
40. So was the most significant injury of the year must be Ryan Kelly, right? Nope. Kelly’s injury was huge for Duke. Losing a 6-foot-11 forward who can shoot the three and space the floor is always bad. But Duke has played well enough in his absence, only losing three ACC games and staying near the top of the AP poll. Plus, Kelly is due back in time for the ACC tournament. A healthy Kelly makes Duke formidable in March, perhaps even the odds-on favorite to win it all.
41. The most significant injury of the year passed right by your eyes. That’s because you don’t care about the Patriot League. But no injury in college hoops was more impactful than CJ McCollum’s broken foot. The leading scorer in college hoops at the time of his January injury, McCollum’s Lehigh Mountain Hawks — the same team that upset Duke in the tourney last year — have suffered four losses since he was out. It’s too bad, because the Patriot League had a great rivalry developing between McCollum’s Lehigh and Mike Muscala’s Bucknell team.
42. Jim Crews is the Coach of the Year. The former coach at Army was an assistant under Rick Majerus at Saint Louis University. Then Majerus passed away at the beginning of the season, Crews was appointed to become interim coach and the Billikens have become the surprise of college hoops. They’re 18th in the AP Top 25 Poll and at the top of the Atlantic 10.
43. Texas has had a miserable season. Rick Barnes should not be held responsible. The Longhorns were a young squad before the NCAA handed down a ridiculous and excessive 23-game suspension to point guard Myck Kabongo. (For Kabongo, the coverup was bigger than the crime. He lied to NCAA investigators about receiving improper benefits.) This is Barnes’ 15th season at Texas, and unless the Longhorns miraculously win the Big 12 tournament, they’re going to miss the NCAA tourney for the first time in Barnes’ tenure. Barnes has done a wonderful job in Austin, and this awful season is more the fault of the NCAA than Barnes.
44. The worst part of the NCAA Tournament is that there won’t be any court-stormings. That’s because the NCAA tourney is played at neutral sites, so home crowds don’t sweep down to the court deliriously after upset wins. It’s too bad, because the best moments of this insane college hoops season — Butler’s miraculous victory over Gonzaga, Notre Dame’s five-overtime thriller over Louisville, Minnesota’s upset of Indiana — can all be marked by court-stormings. Some think the court-storming has become cliche. These people are called fuddy-duddies. It’s one of the best things about college hoops.
45. Which teams are flying under the radar now but built for success in March? As much as we love a run-and-gun team, the teams made for March play great defense and run a solid half-court offense. Louisville fits that mold (although a Rick Pitino team never fully flies under the radar). Wisconsin fits the mold, too. And don’t forget about Wichita State.
46. Speaking of Wichita State, one of my favorite mid-major players is Cleanthony Early. He’s a long, athletic junior forward who can drive, rebound and shoot, all with a seeming ease. Paired with bruising big man Carl Hall, Wichita State has a complementary duo.
47. This year’s Big East Tournament — the “Granddaddy of Them All” for college hoops — will be a wake. The Madison Square Garden tournament is the most exciting conference tournament in college hoops, but with the Big East soon to become a shell of what it was, this year marks the end of an era. It’s sad.
48. But, wow, pretty excited for next year’s Catholic 7/Catholic 10/Big East Part II tournament. I couldn’t care less what the conference is called. Call it the Vatican League for all I care. I … can’t … wait. And please, let’s make sure Creighton, Xavier and Butler are all invited to the party. The idea of a league based on connections stronger than geography — a shared religion, and a shared prioritization of basketball — is good for college sports.
49. College basketball is dead. Scoring is down to its lowest level in more than 50 years. Attendance ain’t too great, either. Regular-season games aren’t important. Coaches control their players too much on the court and give us a boring, slow-tempo game. The one-and-done phenomenon (or even the two- or three-and-done) ruins fans’ attachment to great players. Football is king, and basketball barely registers.
50. Long live college basketball. To those who spout the narrative of how much college basketball is struggling, say this: “Are you kidding me?” To the true basketball fan, this has been nothing short of an incredible regular season. Court stormings. No. 1 teams losing. More parity than any other American sport. Epic five-overtime games. Russdiculous Russ Smith. Oh-Lah-Dee-Po. The silly and wonderful trend of “big heads” (giant posters of random celebrities) in student sections. The silly and wonderful trend of “Harlem Shake” in student sections, which replaced last year’s silly and wonderful “Party Rock Anthem.” If you think college basketball is dying, you haven’t been paying attention. So, since it’s March, it’s time you should.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com