NCAA field coming soon to a pool near you
SHEPHERDSTOWN — Some new faces will be invading the 68-team NCAA men’s basketball tournament this year.
But does anybody believe Buffalo or Wofford can really win the much-anticipated tournament?
What about the freshmen-laden rosters where some of the players are in college to major in basketball until called to the NBA after one season on campus?
Gonzaga, from way out in the state of Washington, has never won the national championship, but the Bulldogs are always in the field.
The Zags lead the nation in scoring and they annually dominate their conference, and as of March 2 were ranked No. 1 in the polls. But a No. 1 ranking doesn’t get you any points on the scoreboard.
Rui Hachimura scores 20.7 points a game, and fellow six-foot-eight forward Brandon Clarke claims 8.5 rebounds. Josh Perkins, at six-foot-three, is the point guard with 6.7 assists a game. Coach Mark Few quietly goes through every regular season piling up the wins, but then Gonzaga fails in the national tournament.
Virginia is another team that does not chase the fanfare like Kentucky or Duke. Virginia’s rising star was darkened considerably last year, when it became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed, when the University of Maryland Baltimore County beat the Cavaliers in the opening round.
Only two losses blot the Virginia record, and leading scorers Hunter De’Andre and Kyle Guy seem consistent enough to avoid what happened last season if the Cavaliers gain another No. 1 seed.
The health of six-foot-seven freshman Zion Williamson will be critical to any success Duke might enjoy. But six-foot-seven freshman R.J. Barrett is the leading scorer at 23.3 compared to Williamson’s 21.6. Two other freshmen — six-foot-eight Cam Reddish and six-foot-two Tre Jones — also carry much of Duke’s load.
The poster child for freshmen who stay only one year is Kentucky, and the Wildcats have Tyler Herro (14.2 points), Keldon Johnson (13.6 points) and Ashton Hagens (7.6 points) as major contributors, but the leading scorer is sophomore P.J. Washington at 15 points and 7.8 rebounds a game. Graduate student Reed Travis transferred to Kentucky this season and scores 11.3 points and gets 6.9 rebounds a game.
It’s possible some more lightly regarded conferences will be given more than one bid to the tournament. Teams have Old Dominion, Nevada, Houston and Iowa State that they don’t ordinarily have to be concerned with in March.
The Big 12 Conference where West Virginia has chased elusive wins this season could receive eight bids for its 10 teams. Only West Virginia and Oklahoma State have played themselves out of contention for at-large bids and need a conference tournament championship to be invited.
When office workers, work colleagues and friends fill out their tournament brackets, what would they do with Belmont, Murray State and Virginia Commonwealth?
Defending champion Villanova needs to hitch a ride with Cinderella if it wants to be crowned again in early April.
Michigan State has a peppery and resourceful coach in Maestro Izzo. North Carolina can always find the ways to meander through NCAA brackets toward the Final Four. Michigan has John Beilein to guide its fortunes, and Marquette can take cues from its loyal Wisconsin followers who would forego cheese, bratwurst and beer for Lent if that’s what it took to win the national championship.
There is no clear favorite this season. Only a slew of at-large bidders who have stepped in enough pot holes to dim their lights and have them scrambling just to qualify for one of the last bids.