The nearly three-week national phenomenon known as March Madness is fast approaching and along with all the usual suspects, hopeful middle-of-the-pack major conference contenders and mid-major wannabes are jostling for positioning as the regular season winds down. Every year reveals a handful of teams that no one had high hopes for early in the season, and conference tournaments always produce a few surprises; 2013 should be no different. Unlike in recent seasons, when even a novice could safely predict at least one Final Four participant, this year is shaping up to literally be a crapshoot, with at least a dozen teams having legitimate national title aspirations.
Defending champion Kentucky has been up-and-down, to be expected when relying on freshmen in key roles, and their repeat hopes were probably dashed when big man Nerlens Noel went down with a season-ending knee injury in mid-February, taking away the nation’s leading shot-blocker. Definitely a “bubble team,” John Calipari’s Wildcats need at least a couple more wins to secure a spot. Kansas, runnerup to Kentucky in 2012, is safely in, but this Jayhawk squad isn’t nearly as dominant as some of Bill Self’s recent teams, and their best chance to obtain a No. 1 seed probably depends on how they fare in the Big 12 Tournament. The team that’s spent more time than any other atop the polls, the Indiana Hoosiers, are about as safe a bet to be handed one of the four coveted top seedings as any team nationwide, but they’ve stumbled in some conference matchups lately and need to regain confidence (and wins) before they can punch their tournament ticket.
The other teams that have been among the top 10 in the polls for most of the season and can’t be counted out for a deep run include Louisville, Syracuse, Georgetown, Gonzaga, Michigan, Michigan State, Duke, Miami, Florida and Arizona.
Rick Pitino’s Cardinals don’t have the can’t miss All-Americans, but they are an excellent defensive team and score just enough to usually win. Syracuse, in their final Big East season before joining the ACC next year, have experience, elite athleticism and a top-notch PG in Michael Carter-Williams. Another Big East squad that is rounding into shape at just the right time are the Georgetown Hoyas. Otto Porter, Jr., just a sophomore, has been developing into one of the nation’s top all-around players over the past month, and appears capable of carrying Georgetown well past the first couple of weekends. Gonzaga is a team that’s been operating under the national radar (as they do almost annually), but coach Mark Few may have his best-ever team this year. Big men Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris are as efficient a one-two front court tandem as any, while PGs Kevin Pangos and David Stockton keep the Zags offense humming like a well-oiled machine. PG Trey Burke heads up a star-studded Michigan Wolverine squad, with plenty of contributions from Tim Hardaway, Jr., Glenn Robinson III and freshman big man Mitch McGary. Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans seem to always play their best towards the end of the season, and this year follows the pattern. Guards Keith Appling and Gary Harris thrive on the perimeter while big men Branden Dawson and Adrien Payne take no prisoners in the paint. With Ryan Kelly’s return, Duke presents an entirely new look for opposing defenses, while seniors Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry have plenty of experience and basketball smarts to carry most teams. The surprising Miami Hurricanes haven’t hit the proverbial wall as many expected, and they might be the most experienced team in the country with a starting lineup averaging nearly 22 years of age. It’s a sophomore however, PG Shane Larkin, who directs coach Jim Larranaga’s over-achieving squad. Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators are clearly the class of a watered-down SEC, and their guard triumvirate of Boynton, Rosario and Wilbekin fully capable of playing different styles and tempos, Florida presents a formidable matchup against anyone. The Arizona Wildcats are similar to Florida in versatility and experience, and coach Sean Miller is due for some national recognition.
Several teams started out the season with big expectations, both from the experts and themselves, only to fall short and forced to scramble to get back to their once lofty level. Kentucky could be included among that group, but there are many others that also fall into that category. The N.C. State Wolfpack shocked everyone by advancing to 2012′s Sweet 16 and as a result, entered this season as ACC favorites. Several buzzer-beater losses and a healthy dose of humility later finds the ‘Pack once again underrated as tournament time nears, but with an experienced starting five and as much motivation as most teams, they may be ready to pull off a repeat of last season.
Once March Madness kicks in, all bets are essentially off. Heroes will be created in the time it takes a ball to go through the hoop while once-revered superstars will just as suddenly discover how the other half lives. Some small school will throw a huge scare into a major power and a little-known head coach will be inundated with media requests whereas before he was merely another face in the crowd. About the only sure-fire prediction about March Madness is that one team will call the season a success while 327 others will have to wait ’til next year.