The One Seed: Kansas – The Jayhawks are hot. After ending the regular season with a devastating 81-58 loss at Baylor, which cost them the outright Big 12 title (they shared it with Kansas State), Kansas rolled through the Big 12 tournament with an average margin of victory of 19.6. Freshman phenom Ben McLemore leads the team with 16.4 points per game and will look to Elijah Johnson, who was fourth in the Big 12 in assists, to spread around the ball. McLemore will also need the help of Jeff Whitey and his 8.4 rebounds per game. Kansas’ only concern is its depth, as their bench only runs about two-men deep.
Other Teams to Watch: No. 4 Michigan – At one point, the No. 1 team in the country, losses to No. 1 seed Indiana and a crushing Big Ten tournament loss to No. 5 seed Wisconsin have Michigan playing head games. Michigan sports an extremely young team, with freshman Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary all playing a critical role. While this youth often provided energy, the freshman often couldn’t stand the pressure. Michigan lost every Big Ten road game against ranked opponents. If Tim Hardaway Jr. catches fire, Michigan can beat any team in the country. But Trey Burke cannot shoulder the burden alone. If coach John Beilein has his team ready, Michigan can make the Final Four, but if the Michigan team that lost to Penn State shows up to the tournament, Michigan fans could be looking at another early exit. Hardaway and Robinson III each scored 21 in Michigan’s opening-round defeat of South Dakota State. Hardaway will need to capitalize on that momentum to make a deep run.
No. 2 Georgetown – The Hoyas came off an overtime loss to No. 4 Syracuse in the semifinals of the Big East tournament, but that should not dampen their motivation. Otto Porter Jr. and his 42.7 percent three-point shooting will keep Georgetown going strong. Georgetown won its only matchup with No. 1 seed Louisville this season, and at one point played a part in the endless debate over who should be ranked No. 1. The Hoyas will likely face a big Sweet Sixteen test against No. 3 Florida, but if they win that game, they have what it takes to make it to the championship.
Potential Cinderellas: No. 5 Virginia Commonwealth opened the 2011 tournament in a play-in game and ended it in the Final Four. While their No. 5 seed is not quite as low as the No. 11 they had that year, Coach Shaka Smart has his team primed for another deep run. After narrowly losing the Atlantic 10, if VCU can take care of Akron, they’re most likely looking at a matchup with a Michigan team that shows up inconsistently for big games. VCU opened the tournament by demolishing Akron 88-42. This sets up an excellent matchup with the Wolverines in Auburn Hills on Saturday
No. 11 Minnesota has been streaky all season, but the Golden Gophers could make a deep run. Minnesota has one of the most confusing resumes in the country, sporting wins against No. 1 seed Indiana and No. 2 seed Michigan State, as well as losses to Big Ten basement-dwellers, Nebraska and Northwestern. The Gophers are anchored by fifth-year senior Trevor Mbakwe, who scored 10 points per game and provided the leadership needed for Minnesota to make it through the Big Ten season. Minnesota will also need stellar performances by the Hollins brothers, Austin and Andre. If Mbakwe and the Hollinses can put up big numbers to pull off the first-round upset over No. 6 UCLA, they could go deeper than anyone expects.
Region MVP: Michigan’s Trey Burke is still a factor in the National Player of the Year debate and is certainly the best player in the region. Burke was second in the Big Ten in scoring with 19.2 points per game, only .3 PPG behind Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas, and led the league with 6.7 assists per game. He was also second in the nation with an assist/turnover ratio at 3.31. Burke will likely leave college after the tournament and is projected to be a low Top 10 NBA draft pick. If Burke can carry Michigan as well as he did for most of the season, he could boost his draft stock and take the Wolverines to the Final Four.
The Coach: Kansas’ Bill Self has an incredible resume, including the 2008 national championship and last year’s runner-up team. Bill Self could win his 300th game with Kansas during this tournament and has over 500 wins over the course of his career. Self will look to join the ranks of the nation’s elite coaches with another Final Four appearance.
Region Champion: No. 1 Kansas should win the region. Barring a Sweet Sixteen upset by Michigan, Kansas has one of the easiest roads to the Final Four out of any No. 1 seed and looks to return to the championship and forget last year’s loss to Kentucky.
The One Seed: Indiana spent much of the season as the No. 1 team in the country. The Hoosiers are trying to get over a Big Ten Tournament semi-final loss to Wisconsin, but Tom Crean will have his team ready. The team rests on the shoulders of Cody Zeller, who averages nearly a double-double, with 16.9 points per game and 8.2 rebounds. Zeller isn’t the only Player of the Year candidate for the Hoosiers, though. Victor Oladipo led the Big Ten in field goal percentage at 59.9 percent and could challenge Zeller for Tournament Most Outstanding Player if Indiana makes the championship game. Oladipo came alive at the end of the regular season, and the Zeller-Oladipo combination rivaled Hardaway-Burke as the best one-two punch in the Big Ten.
Other Teams to Watch: No. 2 Miami (Fla.) comes into the tournament on fire. Miami wasn’t considered a factor for the national championship coming into the season, but a Jan. 23 90-63 beatdown of then a No. 1 ranked Duke served as their coming-out party. Miami went on to win both the ACC Regular Season and Tournament Championships, and many, myself included, believe that Miami should have been a No. 1 seed. One of Miami’s greatest strengths is its depth, with eight players averaging over 15 minutes a game. This depth will be critical to staving off tournament fatigue and making a run at the Final Four.
No. 4 Syracuse was a No. 1 seed last year before a disappointing upset at the hands of Ohio State. The Orange lost in the Big East Tournament final to Louisville, but coach Jim Boeheim won’t let that keep his team down. The Orange have four players averaging 12 or more points per game, but the X-factor in the tournament will be Michael Carter-Williams and his 7.7 assists per game. Syracuse has no concerns about depth and will certainly challenge Indiana in their likely Sweet Sixteen matchup. Syracuse opened the tournament with one of the best defensive performances of the season, destroying No. 13 Montana, 81-34, while holding them to just 20.4 in field goal percentage.
Potential Cinderellas: No. 10 Colorado has a chance to make their mark on this tournament. Colorado may have had a shaky season, but Spencer Dinwiddle could lead this team to new heights with his 15.6 points per game. The key to Colorado’s potential is its depth, as they have four players that average over 10 points per game and six that average over 20 minutes. If Colorado can continue to spread out the scoring, they have a chance to make an impact and improve upon last year’s second-round exit.
No. 12 California made their mark in this year’s wide-open Pac-12, finishing one game out of first place. However, the momentum they built up towards the end of the season was dampened by their regular season ending loss to middling Stanford, as well as a first-round Pac-12 tournament exit, falling to Utah in overtime. Cal’s opening round game against UNLV will provide them with a winnable game, but their lack of momentum and inconsistent play could cause the clock to strike midnight early on this Cinderella hopeful. So far, Cal is doing its job, opening the tournament with a 64-61 upset of No. 5 UNLV.
Region MVP: Indiana’s Cody Zeller might not be a risky pick as region MVP, but he is simply one of the best players in the country. Zeller’s ability to crash the boards makes him one of the most dangerous players on the court, and with Oladipo at his side, Zeller can carry Indiana all the way to the National Championship.
The Coach: Miami’s Jim Larranaga took last year’s second-round NIT losers and made them ACC Conference Champions. The former George Mason coach, now in his second year at Miami, is used to crashing the dance, having made the Final Four in 2006. Larranaga remains untested coaching big-school college basketball on the national stage, but if his performance in games against Duke and Michigan State is any indication, he is up to the challenge.
Region Champion: Miami has the depth. They have the scoring. They have the coaching. Not only do I predict that Miami will be the regional champion, I predict they’ll be the National Champion. Miami is the hottest team in the country, and despite late losses to Duke and Clemson, I expect their four-game win streak to last six more.
Happy March. Let the Madness begin.
Photo courtesy of Eric Upchurch