As winter comes to a close, college basketball fans prepare for a new beginning: the NCAA Tournament. The event is a single-game elimination tournament composed of the 68 best college basketball teams. The games are played mainly during March, explaining the nickname “March Madness.” On Sunday, March 12, fans will gather around their screens to see if their team has qualified for this prestigious competition. What is fascinating about this year’s tournament is that there is no clear frontrunner. Fans will struggle to choose a winner when filling out their brackets.
As of now, the #1-ranked team in the country is Gonzaga, out of Spokane, Washington, whose record was perfect until a recent loss to Brigham Young University (BYU). Gonzaga, aka the Bulldogs, play in the West Coast Conference, which features consistently good teams, such as the powerhouse programs of BYU and St. Mary’s. However, critics of Gonzaga will say that they have benefited from a weak conference schedule and may lose to a lower-ranked team early on in the tournament. This result is definitely possible, for in 2014 undefeated mid-major school Wichita State was upset in the Round of 32. What could help Gonzaga is that they are led by experienced players. One particular veteran is Przemek Karnowski, a 7’1, 300-pound player from Poland. Now a fifth-year senior, Karnowski has played more games than any other player in Gonzaga history.
The more likely contender for the championship is sitting right behind Gonzaga at #2: Villanova. The Philadelphia school won the 2016 tournament and has much of its championship team returning, including sophomore Jalen Brunson, senior Josh Hart, and the hero of last year’s final, senior Kris Jenkins. The Wildcats have suffered just three losses, two of which occurred versus the competitive Butler Bulldogs. While Nova’s victories over teams like Virginia, Notre Dame, and Creighton are not necessarily superior to Gonzaga’s wins over teams like Arizona, Florida, and St. Mary’s, Villanova’s tournament experience and strong conference schedule should help them go farther in this year’s March Madness.
Some of the most interesting teams every tournament season are the ones propelled by young talent: freshmen and sophomores. One particular college that fits this description is UCLA. The Bruins have dominated this season with NBA draft hopefuls Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf, two of the most talented freshmen in the country. Although rivals Oregon and Arizona could hinder UCLA in the upcoming Pac 12 Conference Tournament, UCLA could be a serious threat in the NCAA Tournament. In one of their first games of the season, UCLA defeated Kentucky. Since then, Kentucky has fluctuated in success, but their young talent holds great tournament potential and the team looks strong heading into the postseason. Led by high volume scoring freshman Malik Monk (averaging 21.1 points per game) Kentucky has a serious shot at the chip. For the Wildcats, it is just a matter of avoiding mistakes. If the freshmen can work together, mature, and lead the team to a few early wins, there is nothing stopping John Calipari’s team from winning another title.
Two curious cases this season are the injury-plagued teams from North Carolina: the North Carolina Tar Heels (UNC) and Duke Blue Devils. For UNC, key players like Joel Berry II and Isaiah Hicks have dealt with debilitating injuries, and starting shooting guard Kenny Williams is out for the rest of the season. For Duke, freshman Harry Giles has yet to catch fire after going arthroscopic knee surgery in October. The formerly projected number one pick did not play a game until December 19th and has not played more than 19 minutes in one game. In addition, key veteran players Grayson Allen and Amile Jefferson have been dealing with suspensions and injuries throughout the year. If both North Carolina schools can overcome these injury bugs, they definitely both have the talent and the coaching to make a deep run at the title.
While this team will most likely not make it out of the first two rounds of the tournament, the Northwestern Wildcats may accomplish more than every other team on the court. They are the only major conference team who has never made the tournament. As of now, the Wildcats project to be a 9th seed in the tournament. For a team who has been outshined and overwhelmed by their perennial rivals in the Big Ten Conference, this year could reverse all of the failures the university has encountered in its long basketball history.
For dedicated college basketball fans or just regular people who enjoy filling out brackets come tournament time, this year figures to have an exciting couple of weeks that are truly up in the air. Full of talented but undeveloped teams, anything can happen in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
Graphics: Justine Umali