3/7/2017 0 Comments
by Alex Langer
The most wonderful playoff season in all of sports is just around the corner. Today (March 7), many of the NCAA men’s basketball conference tournaments, including the Pac-12 Conference tournament, begin. After these tournaments crown a champion, the bracket is released. After Americans proceed to fill out their brackets in NCAA-sponsored gambling pools, March Madness begins.
In my first series for this site, in September 2015, I examined the various playoff formats of the major American sports, and argued that March Madness, while far more variable than other playoff formats, is far less mad than the hype would make it seem. To summarize: while No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament only win their bracket and make the Final Four 37% of the time, No. 1 and No. 2 seeds put together make up 66% of the representatives in the Final Four. Thus, if you are looking for a team to bet on to win it all, focus on the top eight teams seeded in the tournament.
At the beginning of this college basketball season, I wrote an article exploring two archetypes of team construction (i.e. how to build a championship-caliber college team). In that article, I examined the Villanova Wildcats, fresh off their NCAA Tournament victory, and the Kentucky Wildcats, who boasted one of the top-ranked recruiting classes in the nation. Villanova’s team consists of solid, albeit unspectacular players who play for coach Jay Wright for three or four years, allowing his team a cohesiveness only made possible by countless hours of practice and repetitions between players who spend years together. Kentucky’s team, on the other hand, is made up of the NBA stars of tomorrow, and relies on a simple offensive system designed to allow talented players the freedom to overwhelm with their ability. In that article, I concluded that the Kentucky model was more uneven—while it was more likely to produce a title-winning season, it was also more likely to implode. In comparison, Villanova’s system was more stable, but generally had a ceiling of the Elite Eight. In this article, I check back on those archetypes, and in doing so, explore which teams are looking ready for a March run. (I will not make a prediction as to who will win, because predictions are dumb and any prediction I make will be little more than wild mass guessing. Also, if I am right, why would I fill out your bracket for you?)
Right now, there are about twelve teams in the running for the top eight seeds. In order from lowest to highest, they are: Duke, Baylor, Butler, Louisville, Kentucky, Arizona, North Carolina, Oregon, Gonzaga, Villanova, UCLA, and Kansas. Of these teams, you can generally put Duke, Louisville, Kentucky, Arizona, UCLA, and Kansas in the one-and-done club. Butler, Oregon, Gonzaga, and Villanova are more likely to have multi-year stars. When we look at these teams right now, a few things stand out. First, Duke was the preseason No. 1 team, and boasted the second-ranked recruiting class in the nation. Duke has lost seven games, including back-to-back games, and to say that their season has been a roller coaster would be an understatement. Their top recruit, Harry Giles, has been hurt and has shown little of the talent that had him at the top of draft boards before the season. Their best player, Grayson Allen, the preseason Player of the Year pick, has been in the news more for tripping opponents than his play on the court. At least three times this season, Duke has been declared done. And yet, they are still the most talented team in America. They will get a No. 3 seed, and though No. 3 seeds have a tough road ahead of them, Duke is still in position to win it all. They just took a winding road to get there.
At the other end of the spectrum is a team like Kansas. The Jayhawks had the top-ranked recruiting class in the nation, and unlike Duke, their recruiting class gelled immediately. Kansas has lost three games all season, won the Big 12 regular season, will probably win their conference tournament, and should be the No. 1 overall seed. Their season featured close calls , but also heroics from their senior point guard, Frank Mason III. (It’s somewhat ironic that Kansas’ season has been defined by a senior player. Some might say that Bill Self has perfected the blend this year). Their top recruit, forward Josh Jackson, has transitioned from a small forward/shooting guard hybrid into an über-small power forward in Kansas’ lineup. Their combination of veteran guard play and dynamic athleticism from Jackson have them poised to make a run.
Two teams full of veteran players looked poised to make the Final Four as well. Villanova spent much of the non-conference season as the No. 1 team in the nation, and now sits at No. 2 in the AP poll. With none of the dramatic peaks and valleys of Duke or Kentucky, Villanova quietly put together a 27-3 season and should earn the No. 1 seed in the East bracket. That said, the team lost multiple players to graduation last year, and did not bring in transcendent talent to replace it. Villanova has a nonexistent bench (they typically play six or seven players major minutes) and several of their players are streaky. Villanova has to play their best each time out on the court if they plan on repeating as national champions. They don’t have the luxury of a team like Duke, or even Arizona, both of whom boast multiple McDonald’s All-Americans in the starting lineup and on the bench, any of whom can put together a massive game. The benefit of Villanova’s system, its stability, is also its weakness. Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, or UCLA are all capable of playing at heights that Villanova just can’t reach.
The other team that spent much of the season at No. 1, Gonzaga, is in a similar situation to Villanova. Gonzaga may have their most talented team ever, and this team is a legitimate title contender. They have a veteran big man in Przemek Karnowski capable of drawing double-teams on every possession, and multiple guards who can hit threes. However, they have not been tested. Their most impressive win came against Arizona, when the Wildcats were missing their best player, Alonzo Trier, due to PED suspension, and playing their first game without their starting point guard, junior Parker Jackson-Cartwright. They will play teams at every stage in the tournament, far and away better than all but two or three teams that they have played to this point in the season. (Gonzaga even complained about coming to the University of Portland, no one’s idea of a powerhouse, two days after their last game, to play a snow makeup. Pac-12 teams play on one day of rest every week). It is quite possible that Gonzaga, when faced with the gauntlet of the NCAA tournament, will have a bad day shooting and bow out quietly. (It is also possible that they will finally make the Final Four, and my many friends who graduated from Gonzaga will take the opportunity to rub this article in my face).
It is hard to make predictions about March Madness based on the season. In general, a No. 1 or No. 2 seed will win their bracket. In general, teams need NBA-caliber guards capable of taking over a crucial game. These teams show that, after the roller coaster of the non-conference and conference seasons, the same names we thought would be in contention in November are still alive in March. Duke, Kentucky, Villanova, and Kansas were all mentioned as potential champions in my article before. If I had to make a prediction, I would wager that a team like Duke or Kansas, with talent at every position, has a better chance of navigating the minefield of the tournament than teams like Villanova and Gonzaga. While the cohesive talent of those teams served them well in the regular season, it might cause them trouble when they face a team playing out of its mind in the second or third round. Duke and Kansas have multiple players capable of defeating teams single-handedly. Every year, it seems the champions have a game where they look to their best player to win it all for them. That being said, Duke is perfectly capable of forgetting how to shoot and losing to a No. 12 or No. 15 seed on the first weekend and going home early. March Madness mocks my puny efforts at understanding it. That being said, while one or two of these contenders will likely fall early, providing fuel for their rivals for the next nine months, the majority of these twelve teams will be playing on the second weekend, for a chance at a Final Four banner.
 I am using Mark Titus’ power rankings, which although arbitrary, largely match the kenpom ratings system that most college coaches trust as gospel. https://theringer.com/college-basketball-power-rankings-kansas-ucla-villanova-b6f6504599b6#.67op0ct7t