Josh Hart and Villanova's quest to repeat as national champions is just one of the storylines that will shape the 2017 NCAA Tournament
Nothing compares to the drama that unfolds inside basketball arenas each March. From underdogs shredding brackets to insane buzzer beaters, the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament delivers thrilling moments in liberal doses.
This season promises to deliver one of the most wide-open championship races we've seen in a long time. Teams like Kansas, Villanova, Gonzaga, North Carolina, Baylor, Louisville, Kentucky, UCLA, Arizona and Oregon have all taken turns dominating competition and appear well equipped to ascend to the top. It promises tons of compelling, fun games in the weeks ahead.
Here's a sneak peek at what to watch for once the field is unveiled on Selection Sunday:
Northwestern Making History
At last, Northwestern has shed an asterisk that has dogged its basketball program for ages. The Wildcats are set to claim their first-ever NCAA Tournament bid after setting a school record for victories and finishing Big Ten play with a winning record for the first time since 1968. Northwestern's rise from cellar dweller to contender is no fluke.
The Wildcats play tenacious defense and smart offense. Bryant McIntosh makes the engine hum on offense. The junior point guard led the team in points (14.6 ppg) and assists (5.4 apg) in the regular season. Scottie Lindsey and Vic Law are both talented wings who can stretch defenses with their long-distance shooting. Northwestern is capable of much more than being a feel-good story. The Wildcats have the right tools to make their first NCAA Tournament bid last beyond one weekend.
Once again, the ACC has risen to the top as the nation's toughest and deepest conference. As many as 10 teams from the league could hear their name called on Selection Sunday. How will that translate to the tournament next week?
Seven ACC teams earned bids to the 2016 NCAA Tournament. Six advanced to the Sweet 16, four reached the Elite Eight and two – Syracuse and North Carolina – made it to the Final Four. League schools posted a collective 19-7 record in tournament play. Given the strength of the ACC this year, a similar scenario could unfold in 2017.
Can Villanova Repeat as National Champions?
No college basketball team has won back-to-back NCAA titles since Florida did it in 2006-07. Only seven Division I teams have ever won two or more consecutive championships. Villanova has a decent chance of joining that exclusive group. The Wildcats claimed their fourth straight regular season Big East crown and are likely to claim a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance for the second time in three seasons.
Josh Hart is a big driving force behind Villanova's continued success. The senior guard and Wooden Award finalist is both the top scorer (18.7 ppg) and rebounder (6.5 rpg) for the Wildcats. Jalen Brunson, Kris Jenkins and Mikal Bridges are all capable inside and outside offensive threats. Villanova has enough options to make it almost impossible for teams not named Butler to shut the Wildcats down.
Unfinished Business for North Carolina
The Tar Heels came within a buzzer beater of claiming their first national championship since 2009 last April. North Carolina is hungry to finish what it started. Don't count these Tar Heels out from taking that final step from runner-up to champion.
One thing that makes North Carolina so dangerous is the sheer number of offensive weapons that head coach Roy Williams can throw at opponents. The Tar Heels have four players – Justin Jackson, Joel Berry, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks – who have scored at least 1,000 points in their careers at Chapel Hill.
Williams previously featured four 1,000-point scorers on the same roster in 2004-05 and 2008-09. Both times, North Carolina went on to win the national championship.
Final Four on the Horizon for Gonzaga?
All the pieces are finally in place for the Bulldogs to make a run to Phoenix. Mark Few has arguably his deepest and most talented roster during his head coaching tenure in Spokane. Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss is the brightest star in this dynamic group. The junior impacts the game in many different ways, averaging 16.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.7 assists per contest.
Gonzaga opened the season by winning 29 straight games before falling to BYU in its regular season finale. The Bulldogs wrapped up their 15th WCC Tournament title in 19 seasons with a 74-56 victory over St. Mary's on Tuesday. With victories over the likes of Florida and Arizona, the Zags are a lock to earn a No. 1 seed for just the second time in school history.
Three-Headed Pac-12 Monster
Two decades have passed since a Pac-12 team won a national championship. Odds are more favorable than ever for that streak to finally come to an end. Each of the league's top three teams is capable of reaching the Final Four and beyond.
Oregon and Arizona shared the regular season title. Both cause major headaches for opponents. The Ducks rank second nationally in total blocks (212) and blocked shots per game (6.84). They also feature an electric playmaker in Dillon Brooks. The Wildcats weathered early injuries and suspensions to earn a third league title in four seasons. Freshman center Lauri Markkanen exceeded all expectations, averaging 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game in the regular season. Markkanen draws tons of defensive attention away from Alonzo Trier, allowing him to pick defenses apart. Trier averaged a team-best 16.4 points per game heading into the postseason.
UCLA possesses a high-powered offense that could take the Bruins back to the Final Four for the first time in a decade. Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf are a dynamic inside-out duo and Bryce Alford is a lethal shooter from the perimeter. Ball led the nation in assists (7.8 apg) during the regular season and the Bruins boasted the nation's top scoring offense (91.3 ppg) over the same period.
Seeing the Jayhawks reign atop the Big 12 has joined death and taxes in the realm of life's certainties. Kansas is fresh off claiming its 13th consecutive Big 12 regular season championship. The scary thing for opponents? This could be the most dangerous team that head coach Bill Self has assembled, which is saying something. It all starts with the playmaking abilities of Frank Mason III and Josh Jackson. Both players are Wooden Award finalists and a thorn in the side of even elite defenses.
Mason, a senior guard, has taken a quantum leap forward in his final collegiate season. He averaged 20.5 points, 5.1 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game during the regular season and has been piling up national player of the year honors left and right. Jackson has been electric in his debut season. The freshman forward is dangerous on the wing, totaling 16.4 points per game during the regular season while shooting 37.7 percent from distance.
Future NBA Stars
March is a great time to binge watch games featuring players who will be tearing it up for NBA teams as soon as next season. UCLA guard Lonzo Ball and Kansas forward Josh Jackson are the most obvious examples. Both Ball and Jackson are widely projected as top-five picks in the 2017 NBA Draft and stand out as energetic players and dynamic scorers. Ball excels at creating plays and running a potent offense. Jackson is a menace on defense, disrupting shooters and ball handlers with equal ease.
They aren't the only ones who will grab the spotlight. Kentucky guard Malik Monk is a lethal shooter who can go on scoring binges. Duke forward Jayson Tatum is a versatile all-around threat. North Carolina forward Justin Jackson has boosted his outside shooting this season to pair with strong passing and defending abilities. These players all have the tools to make an impact right away in the NBA.
One notable NBA prospect who will be absent is Washington guard Markelle Fultz. The freshman is likely to be selected No. 1 overall in the upcoming draft, but his season with the Huskies won't conclude with an NCAA Tournament run. The Huskies finished 11th in the Pac-12 this season despite getting 23.3 points, 5.9 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game from Fultz during the regular season.
Bracket Busters Lurking
It's no secret the bubble for potential at-large teams ended up being weaker than usual this season. Still, that doesn't mean there's a shortage of plucky dark horses in the field that can tear your bracket to shreds once the first two rounds are done. Wichita State, St. Mary's and SMU are defensive behemoths no team will want to see in their bracket.
The Shockers won a share of the regular season Missouri Valley Conference title after clobbering a string of opponents by double digits. They rank second nationally in scoring margin (19.6 ppg) behind Gonzaga. The Gaels from the West Coast Conference muck up offenses with a deliberate, efficient pace. They rank second nationally in scoring defense (56.5 ppg) behind Virginia. SMU breezed to an American Athletic Conference (AAC) title behind a five-guard lineup that picks offenses and defenses apart with equal precision. The Mustangs allowed just 59.4 points per game during the regular season – ranking third nationally.
Michigan, Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Miami all made incredible runs in their respective conferences to get off the bubble. The Cowboys offered the most impressive turnaround of the group, winning 11 of 12 games to overcome a 0-6 start in Big 12 play. All four teams are rolling and are dark horse picks to advance to the Sweet 16 at a minimum.
Where Did the Mid-Majors Go?
This season has been punctuated by a definite dearth of worthy at-large candidates outside of the power conferences. Besides VCU, St. Mary's and Middle Tennessee, there are few mid-major teams that have assembled a resume worthy of at-large inclusion. Mid-major leagues that traditionally produce multiple bids have fallen off the map in 2016-17.
The Mountain West Conference could be a one-bid league for the second straight year after traditional powers San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV all suffered through mediocre seasons. BYU did not live up to expectations in the West Coast Conference, depriving that league of a potential third NCAA bid. Outside of Dayton, VCU and Rhode Island, the Atlantic 10 featured a collection of middling to awful teams. Wichita State and Illinois State were both hampered by the weakness of the remaining Missouri Valley Conference teams.
All of it added up to weak at-large resumes for a majority of the teams from those leagues even if they belong in the NCAA Tournament mix. The end result? Multiple mediocre at-large teams drawn from power leagues that may have not been under serious consideration in past seasons.
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.