March Madness tips off on Thursday, ushering in two of the best sports days of the year as 32 games will be played in 48 hours from coast to coast on Thursday and Friday. Can a mid-major team win a national title this year? Which conference will reign out west? Can the Big Ten win its first title in 13 years? Here are ten things to look for during this year's tournament.
1. Can a mid-major school win the national title?
Gonzaga, with Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris, has a dynamic high-low combination that can carry the Bulldogs to the Final Four and possibly beyond. The Bulldogs luckily did not get teams like Georgetown, Miami, or Duke in their bracket and their big men, combined with timely shooting from their guards, make them legitimate contenders to win it all. Though Gonzaga has the third-longest streak of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances (behind only Kansas and Michigan State), they are still disrespected by those who think they play in a weak conference, have not been tested, and will wilt under the white-hot klieg lights in March.
Saint Louis, out of the tough but vastly underrated Atlantic-10 Conference, may be the hottest team under the radar. In addition, the Billikens are playing for their late coach Rick Majerus, and that may give them an extra boost down the stretch of games and against potential opponents like Louisville in the Midwest Regional.
2. Pac-12 versus Mountain West
The Pac-12 feels disrespected. Its conference champion Oregon is just a No. 12 seed, pitted against an Oklahoma State team some think should have been a No.3 or No. 4 seed. The Mountain West Conference has been getting tons of due praise, and this tournament may signal which conference will reign out west.
UNLV will play California on Thursday in a MWC/Pac-12 battle. But a potential battle between Arizona and New Mexico in the second round has fans salivating.
Arizona and New Mexico are the most talented teams in their respective conferences. They have the most rabid fan bases. New Mexico's Tony Snell and Mountain West Conference player of the year Kendell Williams make the Lobos a legit Final Four contender. Arizona's Nick Johnson, Mark Lyons, and Kevin Parrom give them a legitimate chance to beat any team in the nation. If Arizona does not get upset in the first round and these two teams clash this weekend, it will be a statement game for bragging rights.
3. A-10 Strength
Do not be surprised if teams like Saint Louis, Butler, VCU, Temple, and La Salle make deep runs in the tournament. They have been toughened by a conference with teams that feature different styles of play and tempos that make each of these teams better prepared than teams from conferences in which all the teams seem to play alike.
Being the top-ranked team this year was the most dangerous position to be in for college basketball teams. With so much parity, the difference between two teams in the tournament is not as great as in tournaments past, which means the top-ranked teams have even less room for error or off nights.
5. Big Ten
The Big Ten has often come up small on the grandest stage that is the NCAA tournament. The last time the conference won an NCAA title was in 2000, when Michigan State had Mateen Cleaves. The conference is the best in the land, and Big Ten teams play a suffocating brand of defense. Ohio State's Aaron Craft is indisputably one of the best defenders in the nation. Michigan's Trey Burke and Indiana's Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo are likewise three of the 10 best players in the nation. But do Big Ten teams seem like they play better defense on paper because most of their games are against other Big Ten teams that can struggle mightily on offense for long stretches? The NCAA tournament will provide these answers.
6. Saint Louis
After head coach Rick Majerus passed away last winter, head coach Jim Crews has done a superb job of
Dwayne Evans, Kwamain Mitchell, and Cody Ellis lead a team that played a variety of styles--methodical Butler, VCU's "havoc," and Temple's toughness--in the A-10 that makes them tournament ready in addition to the upperclassmen that make up its rotation.
Keep an eye on playmakers like Creighton's Doug McDermott, South Dakota State's Nate Wolters, Iona's Lamont "Momo" Jones, Georgetown's Otto Porter, Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart, Kansas's Ben McLemore, Indiana's Victor Oladipo that can carry their teams on any given night.
In an era of one-and-dones (see: Kentucky), teams with upperclassmen have advantages over teams seemingly always in transition. This is one of the reasons mid-major teams have been doing better in the NCAA tournament as of late. Louisville, led by senior point guard Peyton Siva, Miami, led by a mix of upperclassmen and savvy leaders like Shane Larkin, Colorado State, a team that starts all upperclassmen, and Saint Louis, a team whose whole rotation is composed of upperclassmen, may have the intangibles that will make the difference in close games.
9. Breitbart News/Value Add Computers
The computers are becoming even more sophisticated in ranking teams and predicting how teams--and their top players--may perform. In a tournament with a lot of parity, there may be a premium on these "numbers" and "metrics." Here is how the Breitbart Sports/Value Add computers rank each of the teams for Thursday's games and for the tournament. These will be handy guides to have around when watching this year's games.
10. Unpredictable One Shining Moments
What makes March Madness great, though, and must-see television are the unpredictable moments, upsets, buzzer-beaters, plays and underdogs that nobody can possibly predict. Lorenzo Charles. Tyus Edney. Christian Laettner. Tate George. Bryce Drew. Jim Valvano. Rollie Massimino. Princeton. Detroit Mercy. Arizona 1997. Gonzaga and Casey Calvary. In the end, there are no computers that can predict the shining moments during the next three weeks that will become indelible.