Break out your dancing shoes.  March Madness 2018 is here.  Beginning Thursday, the mania will commence.  America’s productivity will falter.  Attention spans will lapse.  Water cooler talk will include analysis of Virginia’s “Packline” defense, whether Kentucky is the most dangerous team in the tournament, Villanova’s relatively easy path to the Final Four, and so much more.

Below are thoughts to prepare you for making your selections in this year’s tournament:

Sleepers

  • Arizona (South).  Deandre Ayton is the best player in the tournament, hands down.  Only a freshman, the 7-1 250 lbs phenom is the closest resemblance to Shaquille O’Neal the NCAA has ever seen.  In fact, he’s better.  With a potent offense around him (four players average over 12 ppg), Arizona is set to make a deep run.  Look for them to upset Virginia in the Sweet 16.
  • Gonzaga (West).  Although this team lost their starting front court that brought the Bulldogs to the finals last year, Mark Few has an arguably more well-rounded team this year.  With five double digit scorers and top offensive efficiency metrics, Gonzaga is poised to open some eyes down the stretch.  Their athleticism is as impressive as it is versatile.  Pick them to go the distance, all the way to the title game once again.
  • Villanova (East).  Why are the 2016 National Champions a sleeper you might ask?  Because they’re almost too consistent, too perfect, and too far under the radar.  With so many people focused on the talented freshman phenoms around the country (I’m talking about you, Deandre Ayton), it is easy to lose track of Jay Wright’s group that truly plays team basketball.  Although do not underestimate the individuals.  This team has budding NBA talent in its starting 5, and when they heat up, there is not a team in the country that can stop them.

Early Upsets

  • Charleston Cougars (Midwest). The Cougars enter the tournament as one of America’s hottest mid-majors, having lost only one game since mid-January. They do not commit turnovers and Grant Riller (18.7 PPG) is as talented as they come. Be bold and pick them to upset a beleaguered Auburn team.
  • South Dakota State Jackrabbits (West). The Dauminator (Mike Daum), who averages 23.8 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 85.6 percent on free throws, 42.1 percent of his 3-point attempts, is one of the best players in the country, but barely gets air time because of where he plays.  Daum aside, this squad possesses elite offensive talent (39.2 percent from beyond the arc, 27th in the country).  Plan for the Jackrabbits to spoil some dreams.
  • Davidson (West). Yes, you heard it here first.  Davidson’s three point barrage will eliminate Kentucky in the first round.  If you are going to call the predictable 12-5 upset, call it here.  Davidson has peaked at the right time, steamrolling the competition on its way to the Atlantic 10 title.  They rarely take a bad shot, they have one of the best players in the country (forward Peyton Aldridge, who averages over 21 ppg), and their tempo slows down high-flying teams like Kentucky.  Perfect matchup for a major upset.

Toughest Matchups and the Most Vulnerable

  • Virginia (South).  This team has arguably the greatest defense in NCAA history.  The “Packline” infuriates opponents, frustrating their outside game, ball movement, and ability to find seams to operate.  But what Virginia has in defense, it lacks in an offensive safety net.  Nobody on the roster is capable of taking the reins and bailing them out if they fall behind late.  Moreover, Virginia’s offense is not suited to push the tempo if needed.  A potential encounter with a hot Kentucky team or a freakishly talented Arizona team in the Sweet 16 is likely enough to derail Tony Bennett’s hopes and dreams.
  • Xavier (West).  Each time they faced Villanova, they lost.  Although they are winners of 13 of their last 15, they are terribly inconsistent at the defensive end (both losses to Villanova total a 40 point deficit).  Their offensive firepower could carry them deep into the tournament, but look for Missouri, Gonzaga, Michigan, or North Carolina to take them down well before the trip to San Antonio.
  • Duke (Midwest).  Watch out for Grayson Allen’s butt-check tripping!  After a disappointing appearance in the ACC tournament, Duke is riding a low.  It finds itself in a packed region with the likes of Michigan State and even Oklahoma.  Tre Young’s final salvo may be the greatest Duke has ever witnessed, so if they face him, they must take him seriously.  Marvin Bagley III and the rest of the crew are talented beyond belief, but they will need to play perfect to compete all the way to the Final Four.

Final Four Predictions:

  • Villanova (East)
  • Michigan State (Midwest)
  • Gonzaga (West)
  • Arizona (South)

Champion: Michigan State (depth – two lottery picks in Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. – and one of the nation’s best in offensive and defensive efficiency; a no-brainer!)

Let the dancing begin!

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