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The Dummies' Guide to March Madness 2014


For any fan just getting into college basketball in time for championship week and office pools: What took you so long?

You have some catching up to do. By waiting until the final weeks, you’ve missed a historic season. Certainly, every season is historic for one reason or another, so maybe this season will be among the most memorable even before the NCAA Tournament.

Just think of the seasons 2013-14 resembles. Wichita State is the first 34-0 team since 1991 when Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV team went undefeated before losing in the Final Four to Duke. But perhaps the Shockers’ run has been more reminiscent as the last undefeated run by a Missouri Valley Conference team.

The Shockers, who reached the Final Four last season, don’t have anyone close to a Larry Bird type, but they are the best team out of the Missouri Valley since the Sycamores met Magic Johnson and Michigan State in the 1979 championship game.

Speaking of historic names, Creighton’s Doug McDermott has passed many of them on his march to 3,000 career points. Among them: Danny Manning, Tyler Hansbrough, Larry Bird, Bill Bradley, Stephen Curry, Wayman Tisdale and David Robinson. By the time he’s through, he’ll be only the third player to be a three-time consensus first-team All-American.

Or maybe another touchstone for this season is 2006-07, one of the most intriguing seasons for freshmen during the one-and-done era. That year, Texas’ Kevin Durant and Ohio State’s Greg Oden were the subject of a season-long debate of who should go No. 1 in the Draft while leading two of the nation’s best teams.

This season, it’s Duke’s Jabari Parker and Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid playing a part in a similar storyline.

So if you’re just jumping into the season this week, that’s OK. Given what we’ve seen so far, you haven’t seen the endgame to Wichita State’s season, McDermott’s college career or the freshmen’s career trajectory.

You may need to catch up a bit, but that’s what you’ll learn here.

Wichita State is the story of the NCAA Tournament
No matter what happens in the Tournament, Wichita State has done something truly special. The Shockers’ next win for 35-0 will be a record, passing UNLV’s 34-0 start in 1990-91. Most impressive for Gregg Marshall’s team, the Shockers have rarely lost focus. Nearly every team that puts together a lengthy unbeaten stretch to start the season loses focus or buckles under the pressure of challenging 1976 Indiana, the last undefeated team in the sport. Oddly enough, Wichita State has been a divisive team among hardcore fans at large. The schedule, they argue, diminishes the accomplishment. At this point, forget what kind of ranking Wichita State deserved and didn’t deserve and enjoy watching a team making a bid for history.

Doug McDermott is capping a fantastic career
McDermott will leave Creighton with one of the greatest careers in college basketball history. He became the sport’s eighth 3,000-point scorer, passing Oscar Robertson and Danny Manning down the stretch of his senior season. More than just a scorer, he’ll be in an elite group of players with 2,750 points and 1,000 rebounds along with Robertson, Manning, Larry Bird, Tyler Hansbrough and Hank Gathers. More than just an accumulator of statistics, he joins Patrick Ewing and Wayman Tisdale as the only three-time first-team consensus All-Americans. And he’s done all this while stepping up in conference affiliation from the Missouri Valley to the Big East and while playing for his father. All that’s missing is a trip to the Sweet 16.

The Year of the Freshman has played out in fascinating ways
This season promised the best freshman class since 2007, at least considering that not all of them were concentrated on a single John Calipari team at Kentucky (more on that later). Duke’s Jabari Parker delivered as an All-American and a potential No. 1 overall pick. So did Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins, even if he had an uneven season overshadowed by another freshman on his own team. That freshman, Joel Embiid, has a ceiling that’s been compared to Hakeem Olajuwon. Arizona’s Aaron Gordon has been a defensive stalwart on a team with national championship aspirations. Syracuse point guard Tyler Ennis has been magical in late-game situations.

Kentucky’s one and done may be their NCAA Tournament hopes
See anyone missing from the list of great freshmen this season? How about the majority of the nation’s best signing class, one that included six McDonald’s All-Americans. Julius Randle deserves to have his name listed with Parker, Wiggins, Ennis and others, but the rest of this class in Lexington has been a disappointment. A team loaded with potential draft prospects lost five games in a weak SEC this season. Kentucky is the first preseason No. 1 team to fall to No. 25 in the polls since Indiana went unranked in 1979-80. Suddenly, the Wildcats will be known for the wrong kind of one and done.

Louisville has a chance to repeat
The Cardinals are seeking to become the second program to repeat since 1992, joining Florida in 2006-07. The Cardinals may not be one of the national championship favorites, but they have a better chance to repeat than many of the recent defending champions. Being in the field in the top half of the bracket is more than former champs at Kentucky, Connecticut and North Carolina can say. The Cardinals return Russ Smith and last year’s NCAA Tournament most outstanding player Luke Hancock. This team isn’t perfect, but it is among the national leaders in offensive and defensive efficiency.

North Carolina has gone from the most confusing team to the hottest team
The Tar Heels opened the season with one of the most bizarre resumes of any team in college basketball. They defeated preseason top four teams Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky but lost to Belmont, UAB, Wake Forest and Miami. Now, North Carolina is simply good. The Tar Heels reeled off 12 consecutive ACC wins, their longest conference win streak since 1986-87. If Carolina can win 12 in a row in the ACC, how many can the Heels win in March?

Syracuse started 25-0 but might not make it out of the first weekend
The Orange started 25-0, but they don’t look anything like a team that’s going to reach the Final Four, or even the Sweet 16. Syracuse had a flair for the dramatic near the end of its win streak, defeating Duke in an overtime classic, taking out Pittsburgh with a deep 3 from Tyler Ennis, and beating NC State by 1 thanks to a late steal. Since then, Syracuse lost teams you won’t even find in the NIT — Boston College and Georgia Tech.

Billy Donovan is building a Hall of Fame career
The Gators have their best teams since Joakim Noah and Al Horford led the Florida to back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007. Donovan may not be thinking much further than the Elite Eight, where his team has stalled the last three years, but his team is capable of putting the coach in elite company. Only five coaches have won three or more national titles — John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Adolph Rupp, Jim Calhoun and Bob Knight. Donovan may already be a Hall of Famer. This Tournament could erase any doubt.

Virginia had its best season since Ralph Sampson
For all the fascinating stories in the ACC this season, none may have been more unlikely than Virginia’s first outright conference title since 1981 when the legendary Ralph Sampson was still on campus. The Cavaliers may have benefitted from an unbalanced schedule, but they enter the postseason on a hot streak fueled by a stifling defense.

The Pac-12 has a real national championship favorite
The Pac-12 might not be back to being a conference on par with the Big Ten or ACC, but the league does have a national champion for the first time since UCLA reached the Final Four three times in a row from 2006-08. Arizona has a veteran core led by Nick Johnson and Duquesne transfer point guard T.J. McConnell to go with one of the major freshmen of the season in Aaron Gordon. Sean Miller has reached the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight in his last four NCAA Tournament trips at Arizona and Xavier. This may be the season he reaches his first Final Four.

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