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NCAA tourney: 10 things to watch for
Starting at 12:15 p.m. Eastern today, when No. 14 seed Valparaiso tips off against No. 3 seed Michigan State to begin the 75th NCAA tournament, much of America who made the awful decision to actually go to work will conduct a grand workplace ruse. There will be 2½-hour lunches. There will be surreptitious Internet radio and constant score updates. There will be out-of-office appointments that begin in the middle of the afternoon and last until the buzzer — er, that last until the end of the work day. There will be tens of millions of dollars of lost productivity.
It will be a beautiful thing.
It will also be a dizzying thing, keeping track of 32 games over two days.
To keep you focused, here are the 10 most important things to pay attention to — the 10 things that will make this March go mad.
1. Rick Pitino’s brain. Some would say it’s the Louisville players who are the biggest reason the Cardinals are well-deserving of the No. 1 overall seed. That’s not true. More than Pitino's having some really talented basketball players, the reason for Louisville’s success this season is that his players seem to be telepathically aware of what their coach wants. Pitino’s constant pressure feels like a swirling defensive dance, where the opposing ball-handler seems to always have two Louisville defenders on him, especially in transition. It’s a thing of beauty. This Louisville team isn’t just the No. 1-ranked team in defensive efficiency this season on KenPom.com. This Louisville team also has the most efficient defense since basketball stats guru Ken Pomeroy started analyzing these sorts of numbers, way back in 2003.
2. Cody Zeller’s toughness. Zeller, the sophomore 7-footer for No. 1 seed Indiana, was everyone’s pick for preseason player of the year but has taken the back seat in the past few months to his dynamic teammate, Victor Oladipo. But make no mistake: The Hoosiers will live or die on Zeller’s shoulders. He’s had a propensity to disappear for stretches this season. At his worst – specifically, the game where the Hoosiers were upset at Minnesota, where Zeller scored only nine points and grabbed seven rebounds – Zeller gets manhandled by a bigger, more physical defender like Minnesota’s Trevor Mbakwe. At his best, Zeller is a 20-point, 10-rebound guy who wills his team to victory. This could be a problem, especially against a tough, physical Miami team that Indiana could meet in the Elite Eight.
3. Upsets, upsets, upsets. It’s been the year of the upset: TCU over Kansas, Penn State over Michigan, Cal Poly over UCLA and just about everybody over Kentucky. Will it continue through March Madness? You better believe it will the first two days, because it always does. (Don’t be surprised if three 11 seeds – Minnesota, Bucknell and Belmont – make it into the weekend games.) And all of these upsets are a wonderful byproduct of greater forces in the college basketball landscape. “The first (Butler) team that I was a member of as the director of basketball operations was beating Wake Forest 43-10 at halftime in the first round of the NCAA tournament game,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said Wednesday. “People at that time called those upsets. Now they call it parity.”
4. Scoring. It’s down, one of the lowest-scoring college basketball seasons in decades. Will the excitement of March Madness cause coaches to loosen up for a more exciting, offensive-minded game? Unlikely. Some sports pundits who are in dire need of a fresh angle will write that all this defensive-minded basketball is one more example of the death of college basketball. They will be wrong. Because defense can be exciting. (See: Louisville, VCU.) And because there will be upsets and buzzer-beaters, heartwarming stories, guys who fall flat on their faces, small-school wonders who’ll revel in their brief time in the spotlight and stars who will become household names the next few weeks. The excitement of the tournament will, once again, remind even the most casual fans why we love college hoops.
5. Ryan Kelly’s shooting touch. There may be no player in the country more important to his team than Ryan Kelly is to Duke. When Kelly was out, Duke went a mediocre 9-4. With Kelly in the lineup the Blue Devils were undefeated until they lost in the ACC tournament to Maryland. Kelly’s mere presence on the court means a lot to Duke. A 6-foot-11 forward who can pick and pop and hit the three, Kelly helps spread the floor and make the Duke offense run. But he’s got to make his shots. When he does, Duke can do great things. A couple of weeks ago, Kelly made 10 of 14 three-point attempts, and Duke avenged its 27-point loss to Miami from earlier in the season. Against Maryland, Kelly went 3-for-11 from three and Duke lost to an inferior team.
6. Mid-major magic. First of all, a caveat: Perennial NCAA tournament teams like Gonzaga, VCU and Butler aren’t mid-major schools. They’re every bit as major in basketball as schools in any of the power six conferences. But the tag sticks, so as March rolls around, mid-major magic will be in the air. This could be a year when we see an unusually high number of mid-major teams in the Sweet 1, or even further. Gonzaga is a No. 1 seed in the easiest region. Saint Louis had been many pundits’ dark horse Final Four pick – until the brackets came out, and Saint Louis was a 4 in the toughest region. Creighton is one of the highest-scoring teams in the nation, with Player of the Year candidate Doug McDermott. No. 11 seed Bucknell has one of the most dominant 7-footers in the game in Mike Muscala. High-scoring 11 seed Belmont has tons of experienced upperclassmen and one of the better backcourts in the nation in Ian Clarke and Kerron Johnson. VCU isn’t just the most fun team to watch in the country, with their Havoc Defense – they’re also a legitimate threat to go deep.
7. The new Katherine Webb. Remember Katherine Webb, whose 15 minutes of fame as Brent Musburger’s BCS title game crush in January led to a surge of fame that might outlast that of her boyfriend, Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron? Of course you do. The NCAA tournament will have its own Katherine Webb when Florida Gulf Coast plays Georgetown on Thursday. FGCU’s head coach, Andy Enfield, is married to supermodel Amanda Marcum Enfield, who has been on the covers of Maxim, Elle and Vogue. Reggie Miller is among CBS’ announcers for the game. Maybe he’ll pull a Musburger and hone in on the stands if it’s a boring game.
8. The Big Ten. The Big Ten has been the best conference in college basketball this season, not to mention the most varied in style. It has a run-and-gun team (Indiana), a team with a remarkable traffic-directing point guard (Michigan), a slow-down-the-tempo winner (Wisconsin), a big physical team (Michigan State) and a defensive juggernaut (Ohio State). It’s feasible the Big Ten could get three of these teams in the Final Four. Which would be a break from its history. The Big Ten has won only one national title in 23 years.
9. Big-time scorers. In 1970, Austin Carr of Notre Dame popped off for 61 points in an NCAA tournament game against Ohio. That remains the single-game high for any player in the NCAA tournament, and one of only six times a player has scored more than 50 in a single game in the tournament. The highest single-game scorer since 2000 was Gerry McNamara of Syracuse, with 43 points against Brigham Young in 2004. Who has a shot at dropping more than 40 in a game this year? Nate Wolters of South Dakota State scored 53 points in a game earlier this year. Creighton’s Doug McDermott scored 41 against Wichita State earlier this month, and Duke’s Ryan Kelly scored 36 against a stout Miami defense that same day. All of them are capable of a historic performance. So are Kansas’ Ben McLemore, Iona’s Lamont Jones, Temple’s Khalif Wyatt, and Minnesota’s Andre Hollins.
10. Tournament-defining players. Is there one player who can put an entire team on his back like Kemba Walker did in 2011 with national champion UConn? Yes. His name is Otto Porter, and he plays for Georgetown.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.
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