Men's Basketball

Tournament breakdown: Kentucky’s quest is the top story

Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein
Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein AP

Midwest

Can Kentucky go the distance? The Wildcats enter the NCAA Tournament with a perfect 34-0 record, the sixth team to enter the bracket without a loss since Indiana’s perfect run to a championship in 1976. Last season, Wichita State was 31-0 going into the tourney but was upset by Kentucky in the third round. The Wildcats have navigated a tough schedule and multiple close tests this season and have responded well each time. Even though the Midwest features tough teams like Kansas, Notre Dame and Maryland, not making at least the Final Four would be a major letdown for Kentucky.

Best team: Kentucky. Unless the winner between Hampton and Manhattan or the winner between Purdue and Cincinnati can pull off the greatest upset of all time, the Wildcats should cruise into the Sweet 16. Kentucky is overflowing with talent and depth and puts multiple future NBA stars out on the court every game.

Upset alert: No. 6 Butler pulled a tough opening matchup against No. 11 Texas. The Longhorns struggled in conference play but have great size down low and have two potential high NBA draft picks in freshman big man Myles Turner (6-foot-11, 240 pounds) and sophomore guard Isaiah Taylor, who leads Texas in scoring with 13 points a game. This game could be a defensive battle, with Texas entering with a size and athleticism advantage.

Must-watch matchup: No. 4 Maryland vs. No. 13 Valparaiso should be a fun game to watch, and the teams match up well. The Crusaders, who can clamp down on defense, are on a roll with 10 wins in their last 11 games. The Terrapins had won eight straight games, including 59-53 against No. 1 seed Wisconsin, before losing to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament.

Most exciting player: Kansas sophomore guard Wayne Selden Jr. has been streaky — scoring 20 points against Baylor and 25 against Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament but putting in just seven against TCU and zero against Oklahoma in the previous two games. Still, Selden has turned in big shots and highlight-reel dunks for the Jayhawks this season and will have more of an opportunity to impress with leading scorer Perry Ellis banged up entering the tournament.

Difference maker: Willie Cauley-Stein’s numbers won’t blow anyone away — he averages 9.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks a game. But he is Kentucky’s defensive anchor, as the Wildcats are third in the nation, giving up just 54 points a game. Cauley-Stein has incredible athleticism and size (7-foot, 240 pounds), and he always seems to come up with a defensive play when needed.

Team heating up: No. 3 seed Notre Dame has won five straight games, and nine of 12, including a run to the ACC tournament title. The Irish, led by senior guard Jerian Grant, can light up the scoreboard (averaging 78.8 points a game) and swept Duke and North Carolina with a 6-0 record against the those two combined this season.

High seed with toughest path: The Terrapins. If Maryland can avoid an upset from Valparaiso, the Terrapins would still have to play either West Virginia or Buffalo. The Mountaineers, who utilize a full-court pressure defense, would be extremely tough to prepare for in one day.

West

While Kentucky steals much of the spotlight, Wisconsin and Arizona have both been solid all season. Each team has just three losses (Wisconsin’s coming to Duke, Rutgers and Maryland, while Arizona lost to UNLV, Oregon State and Arizona State). The Badgers and Wildcats are both solid on both sides of the ball, and either one would be a safe bet for the Final Four for anyone filling out a bracket. Arizona was in the running for a No. 1 seed for much of the season and has won 11 in a row.

Best team: Wisconsin is a veteran group featuring two seniors, a junior and two sophomores in its starting lineup. The Badgers have a tight rotation — just six players have started games, and coach Bo Ryan used just seven players in the Big Ten championship win against Michigan State.

Upset alert: No. 6 Xavier should be wary of its opening matchup, whether it’s BYU or Ole Miss still standing as the No. 11 seed after the play-in game. Xavier was 9-9 in Big East play, including three losses to No. 1 seeded Villanova by a combined 42 points. BYU has the No. 2 offense in the country with 83.6 points a game. And even though Ole Miss struggled down the stretch with four losses in its last five games, the Rebels have shown potential. Ole Miss took Kentucky to overtime and beat Arkansas by 14 points.

Must-watch matchup: If top teams can avoid upsets, the West bracket will deliver marquee third-round showdowns, with No. 4 North Carolina against No. 5 Arkansas and No. 7 VCU vs. No. 2 Arizona. VCU coach Shaka Smart, who led his team to the Final Four in 2011, knows how to get the most out of his players, and the Rams could give Arizona some trouble.

Most exciting players: If North Carolina plays Arkansas, set your DVR. Arkansas junior Michael Qualls and North Carolina junior J.P. Tokoto have provided some of the top highlight dunks of the year already. They should have plenty of flash left for the NCAA Tournament.

Difference maker: Wisconsin senior forward Frank Kaminsky will most likely win the Wooden Award as the nation’s top player after averaging 18.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists a game. But Kaminsky’s demeanor and machine-like execution make it seem like he’s hardly there. He sets the tone for the Badgers and fills the stat sheet effortlessly. His skill and consistency make it too easy to take him for granted.

Team heating up: Not only is Arizona on an 11-game winning roll, the Wildcats have won big in many of those games. Arizona has outscored opponents by a combined 242 points since losing to Arizona State on Feb. 7. That hot streak includes a 28-point victory against Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game. Freshman forward Stanley Johnson leads the way with 14.1 points a game.

High seed with toughest path: No. 3 seed Baylor will have to stop two quality scorers in its opening-round game. R.J. Hunter is averaging 20.1 points a game, and Ryan Harrow is adding 19.4 a game for No. 14 seeded Georgia State, which just won the Sun Belt title. After the Panthers, Baylor could face Xavier, BYU or Ole Miss.

East

Much drama will come out of the East. With a loss to North Carolina in the ACC tournament semifinals, Virginia whiffed on its chance at a No. 1 seed. Instead, the Cavaliers are a No. 2 and just one of many teams in the East with a chance to make a deep run. There are also many opportunities for upsets, with No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 5 Northern Iowa facing tough defenses in Albany and Wyoming, and No. 7 Michigan State going up against a No. 10 Georgia team that showed it could challenge Kentucky earlier this season.

Best team: Northern Iowa faces a tough test in Wyoming (and the No. 12 vs. No. 5 mystique), but the Panthers know how to pull together and play as a team. Northern Iowa has used the exact same starting lineup — three seniors with a junior and a sophomore — in all 33 games this season (the Panthers are 30-3). Northern Iowa doesn’t score a lot of points but is No. 18 in the country in field-goal percentage and No. 4 in points allowed. Senior guard Seth Tuttle leads the way with 15.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists a game.

Upset alert: No. 14 Albany knows how to win, and No. 3 Oklahoma has had tough offensive stretches this season — the Sooners are No. 167 in the nation in field-goal percentage. Albany, which is No. 33 in the country in points allowed, has lost just once in 2015 (the Great Danes are 24-8 overall but have won 19 of their last 20 games).

Must-watch matchup: Don’t miss the second-round showdown between North Carolina State and LSU. Both have been frustrating at times but are always good for late-game heroics. The teams have combined for eight overtime periods this season. Eight of LSU’s 10 losses have been by eight points or less with six by four points or less.

Most exciting player: Junior Virginia guard Justin Anderson has built a well-rounded highlight package this season. He has put-back dunks, spot-up threes, alley-oop dunks and many powerful blocks. Anderson, who scores 12.3 points a game, plays with high energy that sparks the Cavaliers.

Difference maker: Louisville junior forward Montrezl Harrell holds the Cardinals together. He leads the team with 15.7 points and 9.5 rebounds a game. But it’s Harrell’s effort that sets him apart. He has played all but one game this year (starting all 31 he has played in) and is averaging 34.6 minutes a game. When Louisville needs to force a turnover or come up with a big rebound, Harrell is the first player sliding across the floor after the basketball.

Team heating up: Virginia may have lost two of its final three games, but lost by a combined six points to Louisville and North Carolina. But before that? Virginia had won nine straight on its way to securing the ACC regular-season championship.

High seed with toughest path: No. 1 seed Villanova has quietly won 15 straight games and was never really challenged en route to the Big East regular-season and tournament titles. Yet, the Wildcats’ third-round opponent will have a great shot at making Villanova the first top seed to exit. LSU has great size in the paint with Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey and athletic quick-firing guards in Keith Hornsby and Tim Quarterman. North Carolina State would also be a tough matchup with guards Trevor Lacey (a junior scoring 15.8 points a game) and Ralston Turner (senior scoring 13.2 points) setting the tone.

South

With Jahlil Okafor, projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft and the only freshman ever to be named ACC player of the year, Duke is the top dog in the South. But the Blue Devils have a history of choking in the NCAA Tournament. Last season, Duke was a No. 3 seed but lost to No. 14 Mercer. In 2012, Duke had the No. 2 slot and was upset by Lehigh.

Best team: No. 3 Iowa State is the type of resilient team that shines when the tournament begins. The Cyclones are fun to watch with a lightning-quick fast break and have won five straight, winning the Big 12 tournament title. Iowa State, led by Georges Niang and Jameel McKay, recorded three straight double-digit comeback wins to take the Big 12 tournament crown.

Upset alert: Since 1990, at least one No. 12 seed has upset a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament in all but two seasons. This year should provide at least one such upset, and why not in the South, where Stephen F. Austin already has experience. The Lumberjacks were a 12 last year when they knocked off No. 5 VCU in the second round. Junior guard Thomas Walkup (15.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.7 assists a game) will lead SFA against a tough Utah team. No. 2 seed Gonzaga should also be on high alert. If the Bulldogs can make it past North Dakota State, they will have to face either Iowa, a tough, defensive team, or Davidson, which can light up the scoreboard.

Must-watch matchup: No. 6 SMU could be on the path to something special. The Mustangs, who haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1993 and haven’t won a tourney game since 1988, won the American Athletic Conference title in their third year under coach Larry Brown. SMU was 27-10 last year but was left out of the NCAA Tournament. The Mustangs and their fans will be hungry for a win but will have to take on a UCLA team that is always dangerous in the postseason.

Most exciting player: Utah senior guard Delon Wright, who scores 14.7 points and dishes out 5.3 assists a game, has a knack for getting to the basket. With his ability to get into the lane and either find a teammate or get the roll on a twisting layup, Wright is one of the best guards in the country. His intensity on defense and hustle power the Utes. Wright’s finishing ability makes him nearly impossible to stop.

Difference maker: Gonzaga forward Kyle Wiltjer is scoring 16.7 points a game to go with six rebounds and 1.9 assists. His versatility on offense makes him a matchup nightmare for other teams.

Team heating up: No. 13 Eastern Washington might not be able to upset No. 4 Georgetown, but the Eagles are going to score a lot of points. Eastern Washington secured the Big Sky championship with a furious comeback from 11 down in the final 6:15 against Montana in the title game. The Eagles average 80.8 points a game, No. 3 in the nation, but are No. 328 in the nation on defense, giving up 73.6 points a game).

High seed with toughest path: No. 4 Georgetown will spend a lot of energy chasing Eastern Washington around. The game could turn into a track meet. Then, in the third round, Georgetown would have either Utah or Stephen F. Austin, two disciplined squads, waiting.

— Brent Shirley

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