The NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament is such a compelling sporting event in the United States because it showcases some of the most dramatic basketball games of the year. No matter what the seed (unless you're a sixteen seed playing the one seed, good luck), any team can win on any given day. The unpredictable nature of the tournament often creates intriguing storylines, such as the deep tournament runs of cinderella teams like George Mason, VCU, or Wichita St. With the first round games starting today and the Round of 64 beginning on Thursday, this year's NCAA tournament figures to be no exception.
The main headline of the 2015 season has been the stellar coaching and play by the currently undefeated and number one overall seed, Kentucky Wildcats. John Calipari, a major proponent of the one-and-done trend that has dominated recruiting over recent years, has formed a team that leans on the talent of prospective NBA draft lottery picks. The veteran leadership and experience of forward Willie Cauley-Stein and twin guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison is a major bonus, especially when faced with the many foreign challenges that come with tournament play. To be honest, at 34-0 it is Kentucky's tournament to lose, but here's a rundown of some of its challengers.
Other than the Wildcats, there are a number of elite teams that can contend for a national championship. College basketball's blue bloods such as Duke, University of North Carolina, Arizona, and Kansas as well as Wisconsin, Villanova, Virginia and Gonzaga all have realistic chances at challenging Kentucky.
(1) Duke: With one of the most hallowed programs and coaches in college hoops, the Blue Devils are practically always capable of deep tournament runs. In addition to having the best offensive freshmen in the country in Jahlil Okafor, Duke is battle-tested, exhibiting impressive road wins against UNC, Wisconsin, Louisvlle and UVA. If that isn't enough evidence, guards Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook alleviate some of the offensive pressure with tremendous penetration and shooting.
(1) Wisconsin: An odd but obsessed basketball team had their hearts broken in last year's March Madness when they were defeated by the all-freshman Kentucky Wildcats in the Final Four. Ever since, Wisconsin, led by senior Frank Kaminsky, has been determined to get back to the the big dance and compete for a national championship. The badgers turn the ball over less than any other team in the NCAA. The loss of senior point guard, Traevon Jackson is certainly a downside for the Badger's push in March, however, his injury did not seem to be a factor during the regular season as Wisconsin only lost one game to a talented Maryland team.
(2) Arizona: Defense wins championships. Allowing the fewest second-chance points in the NCAA, Sean Miller's Wildcat team is just as talented defensively as they are offensively. Arizona is in a tricky West region where potential upsets loom on the horizon, but if they can make it to the Final Four to play Kentucky, I see no better team to attempt to knock-off the undefeated. Their impenetrable defense along with budding Duquesne University transfer T.J. McConnell running the point and athletic forwards would certainly cause problems for any team.
Over the past several years, there have been teams from outside the top four seeds to perform well into March; after all, last year's national championship game featured the seven seed, and eventual champions, Connecticut Huskies against the eight seed Kentucky Wildcats. These are the few teams that could find themselves dancing on the final weekend.
(5) West Virginia: Led by coach Bob Huggins, the West Virginia Mountaineers will provide headaches for any opposing team because they press for the entire game. The defensive change-up shook ball-handlers loose on 28.2% of their possessions. As a five seed, the Mountaineers start the tournament against a tough Buffalo team that finds itself in the tournament for the first time ever, but a win could set them for a head-on collision with the number one overall seed in the Sweet 16.
(6) Southern Methodist University: SMU is probably most known throughout the world of sports for the death penalty they received in football in 1987, the same year their current basketball coach, Larry Brown, won an NCAA title. SMU has the only coach to ever win an NBA and NCAA title, a top 25 rank in assists per game and field goal percentage, and their first American Conference title in a convincing win over defending national champion, UCONN Huskies. In other words, they are dangerous.
(10) Ohio State: Entering the tournament as a ten seed, the Buckeyes had a sub-par season. However, they remain a threat in the West region because of one player, D'Angelo Russell. With a style of play that is NBA-ready, Russell has an innate feel for the game that will be rivaled by few during tournament play. The problem for this Ohio St. team has been their lack of consistency, but a win against a VCU team hindered by injury could certainly give OSU the jump they need to make a deep run. Russell is the truth, check out his highlight tape here.
Last year, seven double-digit seeded teams advanced to the Round of 32, and of those seven, three teams moved on to the Sweet 16. You can never be so sure of any one match-up because of the threat these following teams pose.
(12) Stephen F. Austin: In the 2014 NCAA Tournament, the Lumberjacks knocked off Shaka Smart's VCU team. Finding themselves with the same seed as last year, this current team is arguably better. The Texas team has lost one game since November 24th, has the most assists per game in the nation, the fifth ranked field goal percentage in the nation, and the ninth most points per game among D-1 teams. Whether the Lumberjacks can make it past Utah and standout point-guard, Delon Wright, remains to be seen, but be wary of how you choose this game.
(14) Georgia St.: NBA prospect R.J. Hunter, former Kentucky starter Ryan Harrow, and comeback kid Kevin Ware make up the veteran trio of starting guards for a Panthers team that dominated the Sun Belt Conference this year. Their first round matchup against three seed Baylor is a potential upset because of the Bear's inability to get to the free throw line as well as their poor field goal percentage, ranked 189th nationally. If Baylor gets off to a slow start this game could have an interesting finish.
Part of the enjoyment of March Madness is the prospect of picking every game in the tournament correctly. With the plethora of intricately, and sometimes carelessly, filled out brackets in mind, InTheRough has created its own March Madness bracket group through ESPN's Tournament Challenge. Compete with InTheRough staff and basketball fans alike by joining the group here! Brackets can be filled out until the tournament's tip-off Thursday night.