The Big Dance: Breaking down the March Madness bracket
By PAT RALPH
College Contributor Network
If I am sitting next to the late Andy Williams and asked him "What is the most wonderful time of the year?", he would probably respond in his joyful tone that it's Christmas. Well Mr. Williams, with all due respect to your famous holiday song, I would say that March Madness is the most wonderful time of the year.
With Cinderella upsets, game-winning buzzer-beaters, and unforgettable moments of history sure to be delivered over the next three weeks, the month of March never fails to completely bust our brackets and give us a flare for the dramatic. Let's take a look at some of the teams and potential matchups to watch in each region.
If you're one of those people who just looked at the bracket and immediately picked Kentucky without bothering to actually go over the matchups, you probably have not watched enough college basketball this season. Yes, the No. 1 overall seed Wildcats and SEC champions are by far the heavy favorite to cut down the nets in Indianapolis and become the first team since Bobby Knight's 1976 Indiana Hoosiers to have an undefeated season. As a matter of fact, Kentucky is probably the biggest odds-on favorite to win the tournament that I have ever seen before. And yes, if the tournament was played on paper, the Wildcats' famous Blue and White platoons would just roll through the field. But thankfully for the other 67 teams in the Big Dance, we don't play the tournament on paper.
Because we play the tournament on a court and not on paper, Kentucky is not the only storyline in the Midwest Region. Almost every year a No. 12 seed takes down a No. 5 seed, and that could very well happen when the West Virginia Mountaineers square off against the Buffalo Bulls (no, not the NFL team) on Friday in Columbus, Ohio. While the Mountaineers are favored to win and had a strong season in the Big 12, what makes the MAC champions so intriguing is the man leading them to their first tournament bid as a program. Head coach Bobby Hurley, who won back-to-back national championships as a point guard with the Duke Blue Devils, knows just a thing or two about magic in March and could help lead the Bills to a big first round upset.
One team the Wildcats could and should run into on their quest for perfection are the Terrapins of Maryland, who serve as the No. 4 seed out of the Big Ten. Lead by the lethal duo of Melo Trimble and Dez Wells, along with a strong defense that rebounds the ball well, the Terrapins could give Kentucky some trouble in the Sweet 16.
If you're a fan of defensive-minded basketball, the No. 6 vs. No. 11 game between the Butler Bulldogs of the Big East and Texas Longhorns of the Big 12 should be a good one on Thursday afternoon. I like the Bulldogs to come away with the win, but the Longhorns are one of the best teams in the country at controlling the paint.
A team that I believe could meet Kentucky in the Elite Eight and is playing very well right now are the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame who come in as the No. 3 seed. Behind their red-hot shooting, the Irish were able to capture their first ever conference title when Notre Dame won the ACC tournament title last weekend. If able to continue their offensive explosion, the Irish could roll through its opponents in the region. However, Notre Dame's weaknesses on the defensive end of the floor could hurt them against Kentucky.
The bottom portion of the Midwest Region could get the most interesting because of the potential in-state battle that may arise in the Round of 32. If No. 2 seed Kansas and No. 7 seed Wichita State both win their opening games, college basketball fans will be in for a treat with a battle for the Sunflower State. While Big 12 regular season champion Kansas has been one of the top college basketball powers of all-time, the Shockers of Wichita State from the MVC have now risen to national prominence.
The best part of Selection Sunday may have been the Jayhawks' melancholy, silent reaction to being put in Kentucky's region and possibly having to see the Wildcats at the regional final in Cleveland. The Jayhawks have had their fair share of ups-and-downs this season, playing sometimes like a title contender and other times like an overrated team. If Kansas and Wichita State both advance to the second round, the Jayhawks will need to utilize their size and athleticism advantage to take apart the Shockers' top 10-ranked defense. Kansas is a team to never sleep on in March, but something tells me this team could get knocked off early before a potential showdown with Kentucky.
Without question, Kentucky is my pick to represent the Midwest region in the Final Four. Kentucky has the perfect blend of championship experience and young NBA-caliber talent, not to mention the fact that the Wildcats are extremely well-coached. I have never been a huge fan of John Calipari nor am I an advocate for the "One and Done" system, but I have a ton of respect for Calipari being able to bring together five-star players from all across the country (who could all be the best player on pretty much any other team) to play with the same winning mindset and put aside personal aspirations. Calipari knows how to manage egos as well as anyone, and that is an important part of why the Wildcats should make it to Indianapolis.
Of all the No. 1 seeds in the tournament, by far the least talked about are the Big East champion Villanova Wildcats. Villanova seems to be the popular choice among "experts" to be the first No. 1 seed to lose and potentially not even advance to the second weekend of March Madness because Villanova does not play in a high-exposure Power 5 conference, yet the Wildcats come into the tournament with a 15-game win streak and is maybe the hottest team in the nation. And last time I checked the Big East has six teams in the Big Dance, so the Power 5/lack of exposure argument has been rendered invalid.
While the Wildcats should win their first round matchup over Villanova alum Fran O'Hanlon and the Lafayette Leopards, their second game may not be as easy going up against the winner of LSU-NC State. Both teams can match up well and play physical with Villanova, as both teams have proven this season their ability to play with any team in the country when performing at their best. However, Villanova's superiority on the defensive end should be the difference maker against either team.
Another fun and intriguing 5 vs. 12 matchup featuring two mid-majors comes when Northern Iowa takes on Wyoming on Friday in Seattle. MVC champion Northern Iowa has one of the best players in the country in Seth Tuttle, who is sure to put on a show during the tournament. Not to mention, MWC champion Wyoming has their own star player in Larry Nance Jr. who can also get the crowd going. Both teams rank in the top ten defensively in the nation, so don't tune in if you are looking to watch a shootout. Whichever team comes out on top in this game should advance to the Sweet 16, as the No. 4 seed Louisville Cardinals' offensive struggles would play right into the hands of either Northern Iowa or Wyoming. Villanova's ability to score and make threes could be the difference in a matchup against either team in the Sweet 16.
The bottom half of the East Region is highlighted by the No. 2 seed Virginia Cavaliers, who were snubbed a No. 1 seed despite winning the ACC regular season title. We'll come back to this issue in a few minutes. Virginia comes into the tournament with maybe the best defense in the country, but banged up with injuries and struggling. Virginia will all but likely get a tough task in the Round of 32 if they face off against Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans of the Big Ten, who eliminated the Cavaliers in the Sweet 16 last season and understand what it means to win in March better than anyone else.
A Virginia-Villanova Elite Eight would be a great defensive battle to watch, with the first team to 60 points likely winning the game. If Virginia is able to get fully healthy and keep the Wildcats cold from three and out of the paint, the Cavaliers could be a serious threat to Villanova. However, I do believe Villanova's offense can find a way to crack through Virginia's lockdown defense.
One intriguing team that could make a deep run and is playing well right now is the Providence Friars, also out of the Big East. The Friars have probably the best player in the region in NBA prospect Kris Dunn, and Providence is a team that has played Villanova three times and played the Wildcats very well. If Providence is able to crack through the first weekend and capture a Sweet 16 win, the Friars would come into the Elite Eight vs. Villanova feeling very confident.
If you have watched the Wildcats at all this season, you have seen why this team has the makings for a Final Four run. The Wildcats do not have the sexiness or flash like that of Kentucky, nor does Villanova inhabit an exuberant amount of professional talent up and down the lineup. But the Wildcats are well-coached by Jay Wright, mentally-tough, and strong defensively, all qualities that are commonly found in championship-caliber teams. Most importantly, I truly think this team can play with and even beat Kentucky in the national title game. Because of this, I believe Villanova will represent the East Region in Indianapolis and reach their first Final Four since 2009.
Okay, so back to my gripe with Virginia not getting a one seed. The Duke Blue Devils, who captured no conference titles nor went any further than Virginia in the ACC Tournament, somehow got a one seed. Yes, Duke beat Virginia during the regular season, but so did Louisville and North Carolina. Yes, Duke did beat UNC twice, Louisville, Notre Dame, and Wisconsin, all of whom except for Wisconsin were beaten by Virginia at some point this year too. I just do not understand how a team that did not win any conference titles this season gets a one seed. I guess that's the perks of being Duke. Nothing we can do about it.
Duke enters the South Region having played very good basketball over the last month of the season, outside of their loss to Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament. Being the No. 1 seed in the South bodes well for Duke, as the last time the Blue Devils were in this situation Duke cut down the nets as regional champions in Houston (the same place the regional is at this year) and as national champions in...wait for it...Indianapolis! back in 2010. The Blue Devils have arguably the best player in the country in Jahlil Okafor, who is well on his way to possibly being the No. 1 overall pick in this summer's NBA Draft. With Coach K in command at Duke, the Blue Devils always stand a great chance at winning a national title. However, the issues on the defensive end of the floor are of serious concern for this Duke squad.
The Blue Devils could face a strong defensive team in the Round of 32 against San Diego State, one of the best in the nation. St. John's looked at first to be a team that could make some noise in the tournament after finishing the regular season strongly, but the suspension of big man Chris Obekpa looms as large as his presence did on the floor for the Johnnies.
The consistent theme of enjoyable 5 vs. 12 matchups continues in the South, where Utah and Stephen F. Austin will face off on Thursday in Portland. Both teams, especially the Lumberjacks of Stephen F. Austin who won the Southland Conference, can put up points in a hurry. However, Utah's prowess on the defensive end could be the difference in this matchup and propel the Utes of the PAC-12 through the South Region.
The fact that UCLA made the NCAA Tournament is a crime; Temple should be in. As a result, I truly hope and think SMU's defense will make UCLA wish the Selection Committee did not put the Bruins up against Larry Brown and the Mustangs.
The two most intriguing teams to watch for in the South are No. 2 seed Gonzaga and No. 3 seed Iowa State. Both stand a great chance at meeting up in the Sweet 16 for what would be a fantastic contest, as both teams rank in the top 15 in the nation in total offense. For those who love a high-scoring affair, this potential Sweet 16 matchup could be the game for you. However, Gonzaga's defense is far better than that of Iowa State's and could prevent the Big 12 tournament champion Cyclones from displaying their full array of offensive talent.
The team Gonzaga has this year gives the Bulldogs their best chance ever at reaching the Final Four because of their beautiful blend of high-octane offense with strong defense. In an Elite Eight matchup with Duke, Gonzaga would have no problem scoring with Duke and could utilize their defensive strengths in keeping Okafor and the Blue Devils in check. As a result, I think the WCC regular season and tournament champion Zags will be going to the Indianapolis to represent the South Region at the Final Four. The talent and skill of Mark Few's team this season makes them incredibly fun to watch and a force to be reckoned with here in the Big Dance.
In case you were wondering, Gonzaga is not the only non-No. 1 seed I have advancing to the Final Four. On that note, I am sorry Wisconsin fans. I truly enjoy watching the Bo Ryan Badgers and would have them going to Indianapolis otherwise, but...well I'll explain in a little bit.
Looking to return to the Final Four for a second straight season just like Kentucky, the Badgers captured both the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles on their way to claiming the No. 1 seed in the West Region which was the same region the Badgers won last season. Led by big man Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin stands a great chance at returning to the Final Four and hopefully winning the title this time.
I'm usually all about a deep run from the Oregon Ducks of the Pac-12, who come into the tournament as the No. 8 seed in the West. But a matchup against Wisconsin in the Round of 32 does not bode well for the Ducks hopes of making a run into late March.
One team that has played particularly well as of late and could derail the hopes of Wisconsin are the North Carolina Tar Heels of the ACC, who enter the West Region as the No. 4 seed and would matchup against the Badgers in the Sweet 16. The chances of a high-scoring affair are likely between these two teams, but Wisconsin's top 10 defense and the matchup nightmare of Kaminsky serve as a huge advantage against a defensively challenged team in North Carolina.
The team that I do believe can take out the top-seeded Badgers in the West Region are the No. 2 seed Arizona Wildcats, who captured both the Pac-12 regular season and tournament title. Part of me still thinks Arizona deserves a No. 1 seed over Duke, but I've moved on to bigger and better arguments. Unlike during last year's tournament, the Wildcats are now fully healthy and playing their best basketball at the right time of the year. Arizona's starting lineup and roster overall is more athletic and versatile than that of Wisconsin, as well as the fact that Arizona matches up well with Wisconsin on both ends of the floor.
Think back to that epic Elite Eight game last year in the West Region between the No. 1 seed Wildcats and No. 2 seed Badgers. Wisconsin pulled it out in overtime over Arizona, but who knows if the result had been the same if Arizona was fully healthy. When at full health and playing their best, Arizona might very well be the best team in the country. Arizona's balanced offensive attack should prove to be the difference against strong defensive teams like VCU and Baylor in the earlier rounds, but I believe it could come down to their size and athleticism as the advantage over Wisconsin.
A rematch of last year's Elite Eight would be a game for the ages and, very possibly, the best game of the 2015 NCAA Tournament. Both teams, extremely well-coached, will grind it out on both ends of the floor and get after it with a Final Four berth on the line. While Kaminsky may be the best player in the game, I think a healthy Arizona squad this time around takes the cake. And of course, playing in Los Angeles is a virtual home game for Arizona. Let's keep our fingers crossed and hope neither teams loses this weekend.
And so there you have it: three Wildcats and one Bulldog in the Final Four in Indianapolis. Enjoy that, animal lovers.
Pat Ralph is a junior at Villanova University. He has a passion for Philadelphia sports, especially the Phillies and Eagles, as well as Villanova Basketball and the New York Knicks. Follow him on Twitter @Pat_Ralph