March Madness has arrived again, this year bringing with it heightened excitement and unpredictability thanks to plenty of championship contenders and potential thrilling upsets. Most seasons, the crop of realistic title hopefuls is relatively limited, but this March there is no clear-cut favorite. The most turbulent, infamously difficult-to-predict postseason of the year is more wide open than ever, leaving the nation’s best teams and humble underdogs with comparable championship aspirations. The excitement is palpable.
Defending champion Villanova University enters as the number one overall seed looking to make its way through a brutal East Region and repeat, with the majority of its talent from a year ago remaining intact. The Big East’s leading scorer Josh Hart and last season’s championship game hero Kris Jenkins return hungry for the school’s third title. However, an already difficult path to the championship is only made more difficult by having a target painted on its back as last year’s victor.
Duke comes into the tournament as the hottest team in the country after winning four games in as many days to capture the ACC tournament crown. Its late-season surge can be credited to the recent emergence of freshman phenoms Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles. Tatum led the Blue Devils in scoring in each game of the ACC tournament, with Giles contributing off the bench. Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen will also need to perform if Duke hopes to stay hot and capture a sixth championship crown.
It’s impossible to mention Duke without talking about its historic rival and last year’s runner-up, University of North Carolina, who returns as the number one seed of the of the South Region seeking revenge for a heartbreaking buzzer-beater defeat. Four of five starters returned for 2017 including talented juniors Joel Berry and Justin Jackson, a duo that has combined to average 32.9 points per game, headlining a Tar Heel team that’s as deep as it is talented.
In the West Region, Gonzaga Universty and University of Arizona hold the top two seeds – both of these historic programs possess realistic expectations of a Final Four appearance. Gonzaga managed as impressive a season as any, defeating six teams in the top 25 to finish with a 32-1 record, yet it is flying under the radar after a late-season upset loss to Brigham Young University. Arizona features a strong roster once again this year, led by Allonzo Trier and Lauri Markkanen. The Wildcats are coming fresh off of a Pac-12 tournament title after outpacing the explosive offenses of University of California – Los Angeles and University of Oregon.
Both those West Coast teams are two of the most talked about contenders in the field due to their acclaimed stars. UCLA’s Lonzo Ball could potentially be the first pick of the NBA draft, while Oregon’s Dillon Brooks has performed sensationally in crunch time, landing two buzzer beaters to defeat UCLA and Cal earlier this year. However, injuries sustained during the Pac-12 Tournament may prove costly – Ball injured his hand in the semifinals against Arizona, and the Bruins struggled without him. Oregon’s Chris Boucher, a key defensive piece and three-point shooter, tore his ACL against Arizona and will not be available during March Madness.
Kansas holds the top spot in the Midwest Region, and it is overwhelmingly favored to return to the Final Four. The Jayhawks captured their 13th consecutive Big 12 regular season title this year under the guidance of Head Coach Bill Self, the shape of consistency, and they are seeking their second title under their historically successful coach.
While all these teams have legitimate shots at cutting down the nets in early April, they still have to win in March – upsets are what draw people to the tournament, making this arguably the most surprising postseason tournament in sports. Underdogs are bound to come from nowhere and make surprising stories of their own, bringing countless title hopes of the higher seeds to a screeching halt. My advice: sit back and enjoy the madness.