The very greatest of the American sporting events is finally upon us. With respect to the Super Bowl, the Indianapolis 500, and even the World Series and NBA Finals, this is the premier event in the sporting calendar. Not limited to just one day or even however long it might take to play seven games, the NCAA tournament stretches out for three weeks. No part of those three weeks packs the excitement and visceral impact, though, of the first two frenetic days. To help get you sorted as to what is going on, we've taken the time to break down each bracket.
Our regional previews are designed to get you the information you need to help with filling out a bracket (of course) but also to highlight a few specific things in each region. We'll have a look at the teams in the wrong seeds, who to watch, who to like, who to hate, a dangerous team, the best matchup, and a player to keep an eye on.
#2 Kansas: Jayhawks apologists will point out that they played a tough schedule, won the Big 12 regular season, and had a really good RPI, but the fact of the matter is they lost 8 games including a 25 point thrashing by Temple, whom you may catch in NIT action this March. This region's own three seed, Notre Dame, managed only 5 losses while piling up a list of impressive wins itself including Duke (twice), North Carolina (twice), Michigan State, NC State, and Louisville. Also, they never lost to Temple. By 25.
#11 Texas: The Longhorns were 325th in the nation in KenPom's luck metric, which means they were unlucky. Still, they only lost to one team from outside the field, Stanford in OT, and had too many close calls to list throughout the season where the breaks didn't go their way. They did beat Iowa, Baylor, and West Virginia, the last of which was by a resounding 27 points. Some are questioning their inclusion, but if they can buckle down at the end of games, these guys have the talent to make the Sweet 16.
Easy to Like:
#13 Valparasio: Valpo is coached by their very own tournament hero of years past: Bryce Drew, who in 1999 knocked down one of the most famous buzzer beaters in March Madness history to upset Ole Miss. Will history repeat itself? No, I just told you he wasn't playing anymore, he is the coach. However, the Crusaders may get some new memories if Alec Peters gets hot. Peters is a 6'9" Sophomore who shot 46% from three this season, leading the Crusaders in field goal attempts, three point attempts, and free throw attempts. At one point this season, he had a three game stretch when he attempted 22 threes and made 16 of them. How can you not like someone so recklessly committed to chucking?
Fun to Watch:
#4 Maryland: Primarily, Maryland is fun to watch because they are not tremendously overpowering. During their 14-4 run through the Big 10, the Terps won twice by more than 10. Two times. Being in so many close games has made Maryland a team that lives on guile, though, and they make plays when they need to. It also doesn't hurt that they have an electrifying backcourt combo of Melo Trimble and Dez Wells, who combined for 42 of their 59 points in their upset of Wisconsin this year. If you enjoy watching a team that plays smart, hard, and has someone who can dunk like Dez Wells, you will like these guys.
Easy to Hate:
#1 Kentucky/#8 Cincinnati: Ah, the Wildcats. They are basically the bad guys from every childrens' sports movie you ever watched. They are good, yes, but their entitlement and obnoxiousness make them impossible to actually legitimately like. And then there are the fans. They are so hardcore and love their team so much that they have actually stopped going to the games. A conversation with a UK fan is a trip through a veritable carnival of dismissive rhetoric, half-baked opinions, and denials that their best coach ever works at Louisville now. I will not even get into Coach Calipari, the man who has literally never not been caught cheating anywhere he has coached. In the end, Kentucky makes it so easy to hate them that I have dedicated this whole paragraph to them and not mentioned how much I hate Cincinnati, a team so staggeringly hate-able that even not being coached by Mick Cronin for a while didn't make me not hate them.
#7 Wichita State: By giving them a #7 seed this year, the committee basically admitted to overrating the Shockers last year. Although they played a downy-soft schedule, this is still a dangerous team in March for two major factors. The first is that they have a group of Juniors and Seniors who have been through the wear and tear created by the tournament's schedule and made it to the Final Four. The second is Fred Van Vleet, who is a great point guard in pretty much any way you would want a point guard to be good. You can't win games in March without a point guard taking care of the ball and giving your team their best chance to score every posesssion and Van Vleet does just that.
#6 Butler v. #11 Texas
This will be the case of two teams going at it who play hard nosed defense and base a large part of their offensive gameplan on getting a lot of looks through aggressive offensive rebounding. Texas and Butler ranked 11th and 38th in the nation in offensive rebounding rate and 19th and 10th in defensive efficiency. Texas is the hardest team in the nation to score a two point basket against, because they also block shots at the highest rate in the nation. Butler is in the top 25 in three point defense and kill possessions with the 7th best defensive rebounding rate in the country. If you tune in for this game, which I highly recommend you do, you will see every rebound and loose ball fought for like it is made of gold, because that is plan a for both of these teams.
Player to Watch:
Jerian Grant- Notre Dame: Earlier I pointed out how important point guard play is in this tournament, and few teams have a better point guard than Notre Dame. Grant will be making his third trip to the tournament after an incredible senior season in which he was a unanimous selection for first team all-ACC, and was the conference's tournament MVP. Grant does a little bit of everything for the Irish, and is a large reason for them being a three seed and a top 10 team in the nation. All of this accolade, however, comes on the heels of a season last year where Grant missed every game after Christmas because of academic ineligibility. To the young man's credit, he owned up immediately, set his affairs in order, and launched one of the best individual seasons in Irish basketball history.