To say this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament has been topsy-turvy would be an understatement. You had one of the prohibitive favorites in Michigan State upset in the first round as they fell to No. 15 seeded Middle Tennessee State. We also saw Texas lose a heartbreaker to Northern Iowa on a last-second half-court prayer and national powers Duke, Kansas, and Kentucky came up short in their quest to cut down the net once again for their hall of fame coaches.
In the end, we have one team that most of America expected to be here in the North Carolina Tar Heels, two teams in the Villanova Wildcats and Oklahoma Sooners that had the talent but analysts were unsure how they would fare against potential tough match-ups within their respective regions and finally a team in the Syracuse Orange who many felt didn’t even deserve a spot in the field of 68 but have proven that great coaching and timely scoring can take you a long way.
Before we break down each team’s individual shot at cutting down the nets on Monday evening, we look at how each team stacks up against another in three key categories: the backcourt, frontcourt and coaching.
Oklahoma– When you have the best player in the country playing shooting guard its hard not to put you at the top of the list. Buddy Hield has done a great job of continuing his hot play in the regular season which led to him being named Big 12 Player of the Year into the post season. He joins NCAA Tournament greats; Larry Bird, Glenn Rice, and Dennis Scott as the only four players to lead their team to the final four averaging 25 or more points per game. But as great as Hield is by himself, the play of Isaiah Cousins (11.3 ppg and 5.3 assists per game) and Jordan Woodard (16.7 ppg) make this an even more dangerous position for head coach Lon Kruger and the Sooners.
But the continuity that this trio has built was developed over time. In this era of one-and-done in college hoops, programs are fortunate to have players stay on campus for more than one season, so to see the Sooners have three upperclassmen with the skill set of Hield, Woodard and Cousins is a breath of fresh air for the college game that is in need of older stars.
2. Villanova: Like Oklahoma the usage of the three guard starting line-up forces opposing defenses to adjust to the Wildcats which normally doesn’t bode well as ‘Nova has been playing some of its best basketball in years. Ryan Arcidiacono is the heart of the trio but if you focus all your energy on him, Josh Hart or Jalen Brunson will make you pay as well.
3. North Carolina: Marcus Paige has not filled up the box score like Hield has, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t capable — ask Indiana about him! Joining him at the other guard is sophomore Joel Berry II. The sophomore guard has taken advantage of his expanded role this season and tripled his scoring output as well as assists and rebounds.
4. Syracuse: Jim Boeheim first championship was thanks to a special freshman, maybe it will be another one in Malachi Richardson that gets him his next one. The youngster from Trenton, NJ turned a halftime pep talk from his coach into a 21-point second-half outburst that sparked an improbable comeback over a conference rival to send them to Houston. Travis Cooney isn’t your traditional point guard but his experience in running the Boeheim offense has played major dividend over this four game stretch as well.
North Carolina: Brice Johnson is the frontcourt equivalent to Buddy Hield — a talented player that used his senior season to take his game to the next level. Prior to this season when people talked about the 6’9 power forward from Orangeburg SC it was usually with the adjectives disappointing, under-achieving or lackluster. But this year the mental switch turned on and we saw the Johnson that everyone expected out of high school. In the four games of the tournament Johnson is averaging 21ppg 9.8 rebounds per game and 3.5 blocks while shooting 63% from the field — and he appears to be getting better as each game increases in importance. But he isn’t doing it alone. Like Hield, Johnson isn’t doing it alone as sophomore Justin Jackson and junior Kennedy Meeks seem to have recognized the importance of the tournament stage and have stepped up their game as well.
2. Syracuse: Senior Michael Gbinije is the go-to guy for the Orange and while Richardson received all the accolades for getting Syracuse to the Final Four, it was Gbinije that led the team to the regional finals. Facing teams with size up front in Gonzaga and Middle Tennessee State, the 6’7 forward did not back down as he led the team in scoring both games with 20 and 23 points respectively. Junior Tyler Roberson is the muscle up front as he leads the team in reboundings having pulled down 11.8 per game during the tournament.
3. Villanova: The Wildcats have talent up front as Kris Jenkins and Daniel Ochefu have shown glimpses of being able to dominate during the tournament. But is it more about them being that good or are they just taking advantage of the mismatches they have come across on the road to the Final Four. Against a Kansas team that matched its physicality, Ochefu and Jenkins combined for 23 points on only 8-of-18 shooting. But against a guard-oriented Miami team, the duo poured in 38 points on 15-of-21 shooting.
4. Oklahoma: Because the Sooners are so reliant on its guards, forwards Khadeem Lattin and Ryan Spangler get lost in the shuffle. But if you sleep on them too hard it could cost you. Spangler has the uncanny knack to be able to grab a timely offensive rebound that leads to an open shot for one of his teammates and against former Big 12 foe Texas A&M, both he and Lattin picked up the scoring slack with 10 points each which helped overcome a poor shooting performance from Cousins.
Syracuse: Sometimes it’s when you don’t expect something that it comes to be the biggest blessing. Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim was 90% sure that his team wasn’t going to make the tournament due to their late season tumble — the team lost five of its finals six games. But sometimes all you need is a chance to prove your harshest critics and that’s what the Orange got when the tournament committee made them a No. 10 seed. Known more for his defense, it could be Boeheim’s faith in Richardson to take over in the second half offensively against Virginia that could propel this year’s tournament run into legend status for the ‘Cuse.
2. North Carolina: With all that talent in Chapel Hill… they could coach themselves… or could they? While I take personal issue with his late game strategy against the rival Duke Blue Devils, you cannot deny that Roy Williams has done a good job managing the national expectations for the program as well as the talented roster. You don’t know the type of team you have until they are forced into a corner and after surrendering an 11 point lead to Notre Dame in the regional finals, Williams realized that he has a team capable of gutting out a tough win.
3. Villanova: Jay Wright has always had the bad wrap of not being able to get out of the first weekend of the Big Dance despite having a lot of talent on the “Nova roster. Maybe it was the pressure to live up to the regular season hype or the fact that everyone expected them the falter. But this season it didn’t happen. Maybe it was the loss to Seton Hall in the Big East Championship game that took the edge off and allowed the team to play relaxed throughout this tournament run. Whatever it was, it worked and maybe this is the year that the Wildcats get back to the title game for the first time since its last championship in 1985.
4. Oklahoma: For a coach that has found success at each of his coaching stops — not including the Atlanta Hawks… who probably still have fans waiting on that ticket refund — one would think that he would have reached this perch of success a lot faster in Norman, but that didn’t happen. He has always been great with the X’s and O’s and maybe it was a matter of his roster, specifically his guards, finally catching up with what he was trying to teach them.