A Different Kind of Cinderella Story

Kris Jenkins was waiting for the ball just outside the 3-point arc, his heart pounding uncontrollably, the clock ticking down. He caught the ball and fired away, off balance to the left. The horn sounds, only cut off by the swish of the net. The crowd rushes the court and Kris Jenkins has risen to legendary status in Villanova, Pennsylvania. Jenkins has just singled-handedly ended the Wildcats’ 31-year title drought and has etched his name forever into college basketball folklore.

Nonetheless, that was last year. This is this year. Jenkins, himself knows that, saying, “What shot? I made a lot of shots.” This is the stone-cold focus required of someone who wants to go back-to-back. Who will cut down the nets this year? That remains to be seen, but now comes the fun part: speculation.

Selection Sunday revealed that the South region is stacked with the likes of North Carolina, Kentucky, UCLA, and Butler making up the cream of the crop. North Carolina is very good, but they have proven that they are not immune to losing big games, evidenced by their second loss at the hands of Duke in the ACC tournament.

Kentucky is a great team, led by star freshman Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox, and has the kind of versatility that is needed to make a deep run in March. In the past few years, however, John Calipari’s Kentucky squad has made deep runs into the Final Four only to let the bright lights get the best of them. One team not to sleep on is Butler. The Bulldogs embody the “any team can win on any given day” motto, dropping winnable games early on, but returning to defeat Arizona, Cincinnati, and No.1 seeded Villanova twice.

Some other sleeper teams here are a Seton Hall team with more experience than in years past and cinderella-favorite Middle Tennessee State. Personally, though, my money’s on UCLA to not only escape the unfairly competitive South region, but to go all the way. However, it won’t be an easy road for the young Bruins. If the bracket plays out the way it should on paper, on March 24 UCLA will face Kentucky, its toughest opponent, albeit an opponent they downed on national television during the regular season.

UCLA has a deep team, of course led by the best player in the country,  standout freshman and Future Laker Lonzo Ball. Ball has the rare ability to take a game over and play unselfish basketball in crunch-time situations, constantly making the teammates around him better. In addition, they have star freshman forwards TJ Leaf and Ike Anigbogu. The team doesn’t end with the young bloods, though.

The Bruins have lots of veteran leadership to be found in the form of sharpshooting senior Bryce Alford, shooting his career-best 43.5 percent from downtown, steady shooting guard Isaac Hamilton, sophomore Aaron Holiday, the younger brother of NBA point guard Jrue Holiday, and junior big man Thomas Welsh, who possibly has the most automatic baseline J in the nation. UCLA entered the Pac-12 tournament semi-final hot on a 10 game winning streak before stumbling late to No. 2 seeded Arizona. There is reason for optimism, however, as Ball and Leaf heal from injuries and the Bruins stay in California to take on No. 14 seed Kent State in Sacramento this Friday.

When clicking as a team, the Bruins are nearly unstoppable, holding the most assists in the nation and being the highest-scoring unit. Oh, and who doesn’t love Lavar Ball’s outlandish statements?

The East region is headed by title-favorites Villanova, led by the aforementioned Jenkins and breakout senior guard Josh Hart. One team to watch here is Virginia, who has the best defense in the country and has proven time and time again that they are not afraid to back down from anyone, though they have a tough matchup against upset-favorite UNC-Wilmington on Thursday afternoon. SMU has one of the best records in the country, but could have a trap game on their hands against either a feisty Providence team or Andy Enfield’s criminally underrated USC squad.

Florida has the potential to make some noise this year, but I am predicting the Gators to be upset by cinderella team, East Tennessee State.

Duke is an interesting team to keep your eye on this tournament because during the regular season, they suffered some early injuries to trio Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, and Marques Bolden as well as a suspension to Grayson Allen for his tripping shenanigans. With these losses early, Duke suffered some defeats on the hard court, but have returned to their usual greatness as of late, winning four games in as many days to claim the coveted ACC Championship.

Out of all the East Region teams, Duke has the easiest path to the Elite Eight and controlling their own destiny, the Blue Devils could set up a crucial meeting with Villanova on March 25. Duke and Villanova should be the two favorites here and I have Villanova ousting the Blue Devils to return to the Final Four, but if there is anything we have learned in the last two decades, it is to never count out Coach K.

The West Region is a little bit more dicey. Gonzaga, at 32-1, has the best record in the country, but somehow I am not too hot on their chances here against more practiced talent. They have some enormous bigs, but I think this could ultimately lead to their downfall against run-and-gun, three-point shooting teams down the stretch.

The number two seed, Arizona, has a relatively easy path to the Final Four, but if history has shown us anything, it is that head coach Sean Miller cannot get the monkey off his back when it matters most. I am predicting more of the same from Miller’s Wildcats as I see them falling to Florida State in the Sweet 16.

Speaking of Florida State, the Seminoles have a well-rounded group and if they can escape their first round matchup against the small school with big dreams, Florida Gulf Coast, they should make a run at the title.. I believe FSU coach Leonard Hamilton will give students of the No. 1- ranked party school yet another reason to party, with a Final Four berth. One storyline to follow is that of the up and coming Princeton Tigers, the only Ivy League team in this tournament, who have a showdown against historic Notre Dame this Thursday.

Believe it or not, I’m picking the brains over the brawn here, though sadly I think this will be the only taste of victory the Tigers experience this year. Of course, the team headlining the entire bracket is Northwestern, the feel-good team of 2017. Backed by celebrity alumni Doug Collins, David Schwimmer, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the Wildcats have Chicago on its feet after making the tournament for the first time in school history. Fueled by passion and a hunger for more, I believe this young Northwestern squad will embrace the spotlight and will shock the world with upset victories over Vanderbilt, No.1 ranked Gonzaga, and West Virginia en route to an Elite Eight appearance, before a defeat at the hands of Florida State.

The Midwest Region has some heavy-hitters that have a chance of going all the way this spring. You can never rule out No.1 ranked Kansas and their “Rock-Chalk-Jayhawk” fan base. Small forward Josh Jackson has led the Jayhawks to a 28-4 record, following in the footsteps of past Kansas legends.

Oregon is really intriguing- they have the perfect combination of size and speed to challenge any team in the country and junior Dillon Brooks, the reigning Pac-12 player of the year, has shown that he will not back down from anyone. Remember that Brooks is the same guy who hit that cold-blooded three back in December to hand Lonzo Ball and UCLA their first loss of the season. Rick Pitino and his Louisville squad are looking strong this year, but ultimately do not have what it takes to mentally beat teams like Kansas and Oregon when the game is on the line.  If I were you, I would put Iowa State on “Upset Alert” because No. 12 ranked Nevada has the potential to do some serious damage in the first few rounds, starting with the Cyclones on Thursday.

The Purdue Boilermakers have shown promise and could make a run, but similar to Louisville, I see them as a tier below the likes of Kansas and Oregon. Michigan, home of the Fab Five, is usually dangerous in March, but the Wolverines have seemed to be on hiatus these last few years, and as much as I am hoping for a change, I see the trend continuing in 2017.

Ultimately, I have Oregon narrowly taking down Kansas in the Elite EIght Round to set up a Final Four date with hated rival UCLA, in what will be the teams’ third head-to-head matchup of the season.

Well, now that the NPBA season has come to an end and you have some advice on, break out those brackets because the madness has begun! Oh, and remember me when you win $1 million on April 3.

 

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