It’s been difficult to put this college basketball season into any specific box so far — and that’s a good thing. We’ve been captivated by one superstar freshman that likely won’t make the Big Dance. We’ve seen the number one spot in the polls become a game of musical chairs. In the era of the one and done, we’ve seen the game become highlighted by game-breaking upperclassmen. And of course, what kind of college basketball season would it be if there weren’t a big-name coach or two getting in trouble?
Amid all of the craziness and unlikeliness of this college basketball season, one fact has emerged: March is wide open for anyone.
And if you’re just now joining us — first of all, shame on you — but we forgive you, and welcome to the party.
Here’s a primer to make you sound like a college basketball savant during March Madness.
Player of the Year Race: Buddy vs. Valentine
The two most well-rounded college basketball players this season, for the first time in what seems like a decade, aren’t freshmen. In fact, both Wooden and Naismith Award front-runners are seniors on top 10 teams with great chances at making deep NCAA Tournament runs. Buddy Hield is Oklahoma’s senior sharpshooter, college hoops’ version of Steph Curry, who leads the nation in 3-point field goals made (124) and is second in the nation in scoring (25.1 ppg). Like Curry, Hield is known for his contagious positive attitude and his killer instinct on the court, capable of changing the game from well beyond the 3-point line, and always saving his best performances when the lights are the brightest.
Where Hield dictates the game from behind the arc, Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, imposes his will everywhere else — including from behind the arc. Valentine built his game each season in East Lansing, brick-by-brick, to become the most versatile player in the game today. Valentine’s fantastic numbers don't necessarily do his game justice (19.6 ppg, 7.5 apg, 7.4 rpg). Even though his stats are noticeable, his impact might not have been fully realized until he was sidelined early in the Big Ten Conference schedule after a minor knee operation. With Valentine running the show, Tom Izzo and the Spartans have another great opportunity at another Final Four run.
Top Freshman Likely Out of Tourney
Senior stars might be the catalyst in this year’s college basketball landscape, but the No. 1 overall pick in June’s NBA Draft will undoubtedly be LSU’s freshman phenom Ben Simmons. Simmons freshman (and likely only) campaign in Baton Rouge has been one spent under the microscope — often times unfairly. Simmons has fought off comparisons to LeBron James and Magic Johnson for his unique ability to impact the game from anywhere on the floor, all while trying to carry a less than stellar supporting cast towards March. It seems, at least at this point, that Simmons and the Tigers will be kept out of the Big Dance — unless they do some serious damage in the SEC Tournament this week in Nashville. But Simmons isn’t just making headlines for his highlight-reel dunks and his eye-popping numbers (19.6 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 5.0 apg). It was revealed last week that Simmons will not be eligible for the Wooden Award for failing to meet the required 2.0 GPA during his fall semester — which is a whole other issue all together that just magnifies the debate of “student-athletes.”
Hall of Fame Coaches Banned from Big Dance
There will be no one shining moment for two of the better teams in the country — and it’s really a shame. None of the current players from SMU or Louisville had anything to do with breaking any NCAA rules, but they are the ones being punished for the sins of their leaders. SMU is being charged for its 10th (yes, really, 10th) NCAA infraction, while head coach Larry Brown is being charged with his third (UCLA, Kansas) NCAA violation for academic fraud. The Mustangs are currently No. 25 in the AP poll and sit in second place in the American Athletic Conference.
Louisville’s situation is less cut and dry, but definitely more disgusting — an alleged recruiting and prostitution scandal involving former basketball staffer Andre McGee. Head coach Rick Pitino claims that he had zero knowledge of the alleged incidents, but university president James R. Ramsey said, “it was reasonable to conclude that violations had occurred in the past” and this decision is “in the best interest of the university.” Of course it is, but it sure isn’t what’s best for the student-athletes, especially senior transfers Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, who came to Louisville for one sole purpose: play in the NCAA Tournament.
Seniors Lead the Way
For all the talk of the one-and-done over the course of the last decade, this year, seniors lead the way. Led by Hield and Valentine, a majority of the best hoopsters this season are seniors. Five of the 10 Naismith finalists and eight of the 15 Wooden Award finalists are seniors: Hield, Valentine, Brice Johnson (North Carolina), Jarrod Utoff (Iowa), Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia), Yogi Ferrell (Indiana), Georges Niang (Iowa St.), Perry Ellis (Kansas). The chances of seeing one of these seniors ending their careers with “One Shining Moment” is pretty likely.
Self is Mr. Consistent
Bill Self has already been named USA Today’s National Coach of the Year, and after winning his 12th consecutive Big 12 regular season conference title, I’d say he’s earned it. This season’s Jayhawks aren’t what you might expect from a typical Kansas squad either. There is no Joel Embid or Andrew Wiggins on this team. But there are players like Wayne Seldon, Perry Ellis, and Frank Mason Jr., guys who aren’t afraid to grind you down on both ends of the floor, never worried about personal accolades. This team might be Self’s toughest since he’s been in Lawrence, a team tough enough to win a league title in the best conference by two games.
Big 12 is Big Brother
For years, it was Kansas and everyone else. Well, Kansas is still the class of the Big 12, but now everyone else is pretty darn good too. The Big 12 separated itself as the best conference in college hoops this season. Currently, the conference has six teams in the AP Top 25 and is likely to get seven teams into the NCAA Tournament. Kansas and Oklahoma are going to go pretty far on a lot of your co-workers’ bracket sheets, and rightfully so. But West Virginia as well as Texas, Baylor and Iowa State are all capable of making deep March runs of their own.
Several March Staples Won’t Be Dancing
Outside of Louisville and SMU, several other well-known basketball programs are likely going to be left out of the Big Dance. According to ESPN’s resident bracketologist Joe Lunardi, top-tier programs like Connecticut, Syracuse, Pitt, Michigan, Florida and Ohio State are likely on the outside looking in come Selection Sunday — barring deep conference tournament runs of course. But the big boys aren’t the only ones who could be left out. A few very good mid-majors could be left out as well, victims of attrition and the silliness of the automatic qualifier. Valparaiso, Saint Mary’s, Saint Joseph’s, Saint Bonaventure, George Washington and Tulsa could all be headed to the NIT.
Big East Could Have Two Final Four Teams
It’s unlikely that both Xavier and Villanova are No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, but the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the Big East tourney could very well meet in the Final Four. Oh, we should hope to be so lucky. Both ‘Nova and X are extremely well rounded and can put up points. In their only meeting on Feb. 24, the two put on one of the most entertaining games of the season thus far, a 90-83 Musketeers win. Although Xavier beat Villanova just a couple of weeks ago, the Wildcats still won the very balanced Big East by two games. Both teams are led by exceptional coaches, Xavier’s Chris Mack, in the mix for National Coach of the Year, and Villanova’s Jay Wright.
Tom Crean: From Hot Seat to Coach of the Year
Whew. What a ride this season has been for Indiana and head coach Tom Crean. It started with handwritten apologies sent out to former Hoosier players, bad losses to UNLV and Wake Forrest at the Maui Invitational, a blowout defeat to Duke, and the loss of second-leading scorer James Blackmon Jr. to a knee injury as the Big Ten schedule was beginning. But the Hoosiers, led by senior point guard Yogi Ferrell and junior forward Troy Williams, rallied and beat the likes of Iowa (twice), Purdue, Maryland and Wisconsin on their way to the outright Big Ten title — even after losing starting guard Robert Johnson to injury late in the season. Over the course of the season, the Hoosiers locked down defensively and found an offensive chemistry unlike we’ve seen in the Big Ten (outside of maybe Michigan State). The mix of veteran leadership and regular input from freshman studs Thomas Bryant, OG Anunoby, and Juwan Morgan have Hoosier fans thinking about another banner, and oddly enough, singing the Big Ten Coach of the Year’s praises.
Pac-12 is Sneaky Good
Not to sound like Bill Walton here, but the Pac-12 is the best conference that stays up too late for the rest of us to love. The “Conference of Champions” currently has four teams in the AP Top 25, but could see as many as seven squads make the Tournament. Oregon, led by National Coach of the Year candidate and Pac-12 COY Dana Altman, is in prime position to make a Final Four run, while Utah, Arizona, and Cal all have the potential to win multiple games and leave their own mark on this year’s edition of March Madness.
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.
(Buddy Hield photo courtesy of Getty Images)