Welcome to March. Spring, eternal life, and most importantly--college basketball. A month with no federal holidays manages to host the two least productive days of the working year. American businesses lost reportedly $13.3 billion in productivity during the 2019 tournament, a number that should climb even higher with the work from home revolution taking full force over the course of the last two years. No matter your level of sports fandom there is something intrinsically fascinating about a bracket. The rules of March Madness are simple: there are no rules, no one knows what they are talking about, no numbers or trends are perfect, and we have to expect the unexpected. However, it can be helpful to know a little bit about whats happened so far this season and some storylines that have developed through the year.
No Top Dogs
Four teams have held the AP Polls top spot this season but no one is a heavy favorite to cut down the nets in April.
North Carolina had unique season last year playing the role of Cinderella as an eight seed making a run all the way to the National Championship game before they blew a double digit lead to Kansas. With the core of Bacot, Love, and Black all returning the Tar Heels were a trendy pick to return to final four after what was a rather underwhelming 2021-2022 regular season campaign. If someone tells you who they are, believe them. UNC returned to their regular season form despite being the preseason number one. Two early losses set the tone for Hubert Davis' squad as the Heels find themselves squarely on the bubble with an uncertain future here on March first. If they get into the dance they will be seeded low, but maybe thats just how they like it.
Houston was second to hold the top spot and are a team that has quietly been one of the best programs in the country under Kelvin Sampson. The Cougars made the Elite 8 and Final 4 in the last two season and senior leader, Marcus Sasser, has been a contributor on both of those squads. Houston has the potential to win a national championship in their home city as NRG stadium will host the National Championship. Their suffocating defense, experienced guard play, and great coach has Houston as one of the favorites to cut down the nets. While being dominant, Houston was seldom tested this year as a member of AAC. Two loses looks nice on the bracket but a home loss to a struggling Temple team is blemish thats rather hard to overlook. There strength of schedule--or lack thereof-- might have impact in high leverage games in late March. Houston's toughest opponent of the year was Alabama, who beat them, and also is the next team to hold the number one spot.
Alabama is an incredibly talented team that will have the athletic advantage against arguably every team in the country. The biggest issues with Alabama have come off the court in the past weeks. Freshman star Brandon Miller has found his name involved in a murder case in Tuscaloosa. Miller allegedly delivered a gun to teammate Darius Miles who was charged with the murder. Miles is no longer with the team while police have said that Miller is not currently facing any criminal charges and continues to play for the Tide. To make matters worse Millers pregame handshake drew attention to itself as he was being frisked during introductions. Head Coach Nate Oats seems inexcusably indifferently to what happening in his program saying he "can’t control what happens outside of practice". Distraction is an understatement as we head into the most important stretch of the season. The lack of focus could certainly lead to a disappointing March.
Purdue is the last team who has held the top spot and they held it as long as anyone starting the season 22-1. Lead by 7'4" big man Zach Edey the Boilermakers had dominated most of the season. Purdue is limping into March though. Losing four of their last six leaves many questioning Purdue's ability to turn it around in time. March Madness is traditionally regarded as a guards tournament and the heavy reliance of Edey could be costly. Purdue has been one of the most consistent regular season teams but year after year cannot get over the hump. Head Coach Matt Painter has made 13 tournament, five Sweet 16, and only one Elite 8. Not to mention the Big Ten has won a National Championship since the Clinton Administration.
Defense (and Offense) Win Championships
Most statistics can be thrown out the window when it comes to a single elimination tournament of this size. Number of upsets, seeds of champions, conference success are incredibly inconsistent indicators of success. It is difficult to stake any conclusion in historical numbers. The closest thing we have to consistency comes from the data of the one and only KenPom.
95% of National Champions since 2002 have entered the tournament ranked in the top 21 on offense and the top 37 on defense in the KenPom rankings. Every team still has potential five more games, but as of now only six teams that mold. We have Houston, Alabama, Purdue, Kansas, Texas, and UConn. Historically, you would be smart to pencil any of these teams to win it all. The ability to be efficient on both offense and defense sounds like an obvious recipe for success even though most fans tend to overlook one or the other.
Some other teams that are right on the outside of that ranking that could jump into the mold are UCLA, Indiana, Creighton, and Maryland. To keep up to date with these rankings www.kenpom.com is updated daily.
New stars emerge every March leaving a lasting impact on all those who watch. Last year Doug Edert captivated fans across the country as the St Peter's Peacock spread his wings. While nearly impossible to predict who the breakout start will be, we can look at who has been a star this year and could lead a team all the way to Houston.
Drew Timme. Thats right, the Gonzaga big man is back and he still looks like he should be playing in the fraternity league he continues his historic run for the Zags. More experienced than any player in college basketball Timme looks to Gonzaga over the hump with goals of National Championship. Mark Few's squad isn't as dominant as we've seen in the past but between the experience and leadership they should not be overlooked.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. Another west coaster and another Wooden Award finalist. Jaquez is another experienced player whose game may have flown under the radar unless you stay up till the wee hours of the morning to watch the PAC-12. Jaquez can create for himself and others. His calm demeanor showcases his elite mentality and no moment seems too big. I expect Jaquez to be great on his way out of UCLA and into the NBA.
Jalen Pickett. Going off the beaten path for my third superstar. As a Penn Stater Pickett has delivered Nittany Lion fans hope to break a 10 year tournament drought. Pickett will be just the second player to average 18/6.5/6.5 in the last 30 years joining Denzel Valentine. The game seems to come to Pickett naturally. Despite being a guard he operates often out of the post and makes those around him better. Penn State will need some help in these coming weeks but any success will likely be attributed to Pickett. If the Nittany Lions sneak they will be one of the hottest teams in the country peaking at the right time.
The wait is over, March has finally arrived.