The #1 seed Florida Gators ran over the world in a sparkling 32-2 season and have won their last 26 games. With all of Kentucky’s SEC dominance, you’d think going undefeated in the SEC was a blue grass accomplishment. Crazy thing is that it’s never happened before Florida did so this year, and the Gators 61-60 tournament championship win vs. the Wildcats stamped the Gators name on Southeastern Conference history emphatically. Senior PG Scottie Wilbekin, the SEC Player of the year, could be the reason a team losing in the Elite 8 three straight years crashes the Final Four with hopes of giving head coach Billy Donovan his third NCAA Title.
He’s that point guard that does it all to get his team that "W". Florida has everything a team needs to win every single night. Patric Young wipes anything coming weak in the paint; Will Yeguete is the player every team needs regardless of his stat line; Casey Prather will light it up, but doesn’t need to and sophomore Michael Frazier III has the range unlimited. Add a coach that is the next coaching legend focused only on a championship standard and Florida will be very difficult to catch sleeping. That all being said, put this hungry team in the Elite 8 and hopefully we’ll get a matchup that potentially could be a classic for the rights to Arlington.
Kansas Jayhawks freshman Andrew Wiggins grew up quick fast under a universe sized spotlight entering the year. The player everyone wanted to see started slow, but when it mattered most, Wiggins showed and proved he is everything we’d thought he’d be. The freshman is targeted by many pro teams and it seems natural the NCAA tournament is where he will go off before becoming a NBA megastar. Joel Embiid’s back is a major concern, but something tells me Wiggins will put this team on his back and will 2nd seeded Kansas (24-9) into the Elite eight. Embiid missed the last two regular season games and the entire Big 12 tournament with a stress fracture in his back, so it’s not like the Jayhawks have no idea how to win without their star center. Don’t snore on backup Tarik Black. Black was dominated by Iowa State center Georges Niang in the conference semis loss to Iowa State, and if Embiid can’t go, expect Black to play the type of inspired ball Bill Self needs him to play when the heat is the hottest. With all the talk of Embiid and Wiggins, look for sophomore Perry Ellis to build off his 30 point performance vs. the Cyclones and put his name on everyone’s tournament lips.
This is an interesting bracket because 3rd seeded Syracuse could be the team shocking everyone. After reeling off 25 straight wins, the Orange lost 5 of their last 7 and basically fell off. Jim Boeheim has been around far too long to allow this team to exit the tournament early as many expect. Don’t think they’re losing in Buffalo of all places and also expect this team to be there and fight through what they see as a regular season failure. The regular season no longer matters and star freshman PG Tyler Ennis is the key. He was thrust into the role of leader after Michael Carter-Williams' NBA departure gifted Ennis with a starting point guard spot, and now that the tournament is here, check his play in particular.
Look at how he manages the offense, interacts with his iconic coach and speaks with his teammates on game breaks. Senior C. J. Fair is on his last go-around and historically we’ve seen seniors play with a passion seizing the moment, and that type of emotion controlled or otherwise, is what makes March Madness great. Trevor Cooney’s shooting ability is a Jim Boeheim staple and though he’s cooled off a bit because of more defensive attention, you know he’s going to catch fire like every Syracuse shooter of his ilk has done this time of year. Syracuse is a scary team and though a 27-5 record says this team is no underdog, a blessing in disguise could be the aforementioned end of year rough patch. I had a coach say to me, “Beware of the guy with the taped ankle”. Syracuse might be mentally wounded, but the Final Four team of a year ago is looking to exact revenge on the tournament field in the here and now.
The 4th seeded UCLA Bruins (26-8) are another squad having the talent and skill to get to the Final Four. Defeating Arizona in the Pac 12 tournament should have opened everyone’s eyes to the prowess of Westwood. Twenty years ago, the Bruins lost an opening round game to the same Tulsa team they open the tourney against. The next season they won the National Championship. Tyus Edney is director of basketball operations and best believe he’s in this team’s ear about deterring a potential misstep. Tulsa is a tough defensive squad and sophomore lead guard Kyle Anderson, the Pac 12 tournament Most Outstanding Player, will have to use all of his physical ability to get the Bruins off quick and crush a Golden Hurricanes team talented enough to upset anyone in the field.
Anderson is a triple-double threat every time out and averaged 14.9 points, 6.6 dimes and 8.8 boards. Anderson led the conference in double-doubles with 16. He’s not just some 6-foot-9 cat that can play ball. Anderson is a special talent and an efficient leader. Think Jalen Rose and Michael Carter-Williams recently, and of course Magic Johnson and Steve Smith in the past. It’s difficult for teams to matchup with tall guards and when baskets are needed, these players have the ability to shoot over the top or get to the cup whenever they want. Add a defensive advantage because of wingspan and now it’s difficult for the opposition on both ends of the court. Steve Alford has done well with his 8-man rotation this season. Jordan Adams is a scoring beast and on March 6th, passed the 1,000 point mark at the legendary university. His team leading 17.2 points and also his 5.3 boards are a perfect complement to Anderson because he’s consistent. Both players earned first –team All-Pac 12. Adams has scored in double figures in 28 of 33 games at UCLA. This is a team that puts up 81.8 points, so expect UCLA to go over the century mark in the early rounds. It also helps that Alford has a capable son to come off the bench and get buckets. Freshman Bryce Alford gives his Pop 8.8 points with range from his hometown of Albuquerque and 2.7 assists as well. He and Zach LaVine both made the Pac 12 All-Freshman team. This is a team that is coached well and disciplined enough to execute whatever Alford calls from the bench. Even in this bracket, UCLA because of how it gets up and down the floor is matchup hell waiting to burn up the scoreboard and scorch the egos of any team before them.
What are you gonna do Shaka? Is this the year Smart’s VCU team becomes a juggernaut or maintains its national perception of this era’s Cinderella? The 26-8 Rams face a touch opening matchup with a 31-2 Stephen F. Austin squad that couldn’t care less what the definition of a Cinderella is. The Lumberjacks have won 28 straight and haven’t lost since what, Thanksgiving? VCU’s Melvin Johnson is doubtful for the opener because of a sprained knee suffered vs. GW early in the A-10 tournament and the story isn’t told of his impact when referencing his 10.5 points off the bench. He’s hit 39.5 percent of his three attempts and that’s a big loss for a team not knowing how long he’ll be out. The Atlantic 10 tourney runner-up is the team many say will lose in the always dramatic 5 vs. 12 pairing. Treveon Graham is their top player and the Rams get balanced scoring from every position. This is a defensive unit pressuring the ball at every instant, so what matters most is if the Rams can score the rock off opportunities their “Havoc” defense presents. I’m not as down on VCU as many seem to be, but the entertaining South is a bracket that might lead to their March Madness demise a little too prematurely.
Ohio State and New Mexico are dangerous teams with the Lobos being more dangerous with the monstrous Cameron Bairstow down low. Kendall Williams is also slept on talent for NM, so make sure you check out his game.
Florida, UCLA, Syracuse and Kansas get to the Sweet 16. Kansas will be tested by Bairstow if Embiid can go or not.
UCLA upsets Florida and Kansas outguns Syracuse to get into the Elite 8.
Kansas beats UCLA in the regional final in Memphis and becomes the South representative in the Final Four in Arlington, Texas.