By Sean Becker
March is here, which means one thing among sporting enthusiasts: the Men’s NCAA basketball tournament. At stake for the dozens of teams invited to the big dance is a chance to win this season’s national championship. More important is what’s at stake for you: bragging rights for a year around the dinner table at home or the water cooler at the office.
While we wish the players and teams well, we can’t possibly offer them any useful advice. For you, the bracket-filler-outers, we may not have any useful advice either, but that didn’t stop us from trying.
Here are some things to consider among this year’s top 10 teams (Associated Press rankings as of press time):
Gonzaga: Sure, it’s fun just saying “Gonzaga,” but the Bulldogs are a serious contender for this year’s title. After a 3-point loss in the Sweet 16 last year, this team should be ready to play. A weak conference schedule could expose them against some bigger name programs or have them fresh and ready for another run.
Villanova: Can the Wildcats repeat? The brutal Big East Conference tournament sometimes takes its toll on the survivor. Last year’s champs are an excellent shooting squad, and they have plenty of returning talent. If they can run the tournament table, they’ll be the first school to win back-to-back titles since Florida in 2007.
Kansas: Bill Self has been here before and won it all. That carries some heft this time of year, and—surprise!—the lads from Lawrence have tons of talent. The bad news? The Jayhawks shoot a subpar 64 percent from the foul line. That can prove costly down the stretch in close games.
Louisville: Like his Kansas counterpart, coach Rick Pitino has taken home titles, once with Kentucky and most recently with the Cardinals in 2013. After a recent blowout loss to Virginia, Louisville comes down the stretch with questions that need answers. Mainly, can they score consistently enough to stay deep into the bracket?
Oregon: The Ducks have a really cool looking home court and a team featuring three Canadians, a Brit and an Israeli. But the “University of Many Uniforms” doesn’t have the basketball pedigree of most of the teams on this list. They smoked Arizona in early February, but a second-round tourney flameout wouldn’t be surprising.
Baylor: After a scintillating 15-0 start to the season, the Bears have muddled through a 6-3 record since. A couple of those recent wins could have gone the other way. Their performance down the stretch, including games against Kansas and highly ranked West Virginia, will be telling. This looks like a team that peaked in December.
Wisconsin: Somehow the Badgers seem to find their way to the latter days of the tournament. They never seem to excel in any one area except winning. They may be the best team in the Big Ten Conference, but that mattered more in years past. No other team in the league is ranked near the top 10 right now.
North Carolina: Carolina lost a heartbreaker in the championship game a year ago. The Tar Heels average an electrifying 88 points per game, but the key may be their defense. They’ve surrendered over 80 points to several opponents, including 103 in an early season loss to Kentucky. With a heavily back-loaded schedule, ace coach Roy Williams might not know how good his team is until the season is over.
Arizona: The team from Tucson ripped off a 15-game mid-season winning streak, but only one win came against a ranked opponent. Granted, it was at UCLA, but you get the idea. It’s the Wildcats’ only win against a top-25 opponent aside from a season opening 65-63 win over now unranked Michigan State.
UCLA: This March marks 30 years since Steve Alford led the Indiana Hoosiers to their last national title. UCLA, also decades removed from their glory days, haven’t cut down the nets since 1995. The Bruins shoot exceptionally well and average an amazing 93 points per game. They won at top-ranked Kentucky in December. After a late January lull, UCLA bounced back from two straight bad losses. The starters log long minutes, which could mean weary legs in March.
So who is going to hoist the trophy in Phoenix come Monday, April 3? We do know it won’t be a team from Oklahoma. There’s a pretty good chance it will be one of the teams listed here. Beyond that, your guess is as good as ours. Good luck, and here’s hoping you take home the bracket bragging rights for another year.