It's that time: the field is selected, the bracket is set, and the utter March Madness is about to begin. For heavy college basketball fans, the next few weeks will mean hours in front of the TV and the severance of some personal relationships.
So what should you watch during this year's tournament? Here are the teams, players, and phenomena to keep an eye on.
The Odds-On favorite: Kansas
The Jayhawks are the tournament's number one seed, and they're getting the best odds to win at 2/1 (only Kentucky comes close at 3/1; odds could move a bit between now and the start of the tournament).
Kansas is an experienced squad that brings depth to the table. They've got more than their share of top-notch performers with Sherron Collins, a scoring point guard who can muscle his way to the basket; Cole Aldrich, the latest in Kansas' line of gigantic, superhuman centers with pasty skin tones, a lineage dating back to Greg Ostertag; a physical beast and rebound machine in forward Marcus Morris--and, when Morris takes a breather, his identical twin Markief is waiting on the bench; and one of the two best freshmen in the nation in Xavier Henry. Kansas gets solid guard play from Brady Morningstar. These guys won a national championship in 2008; they'll try to remember how to do it again. As the field goes, Kansas appears to be a cut above.
Cinderellas and Sleepers
Cinderellas don't get predicted--they just happen. If fans saw it coming, it just wouldn't be the same thing. So, with that important caveat in mind, here are the teams that could have some space to make a run to become this year's Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Cornell: The Ivy League sends a team every year; rarely do they make a big splash. But this year could be different if Cornell makes a run. The Big Red came within a couple made baskets of taking down Kansas this season, in Kansas, and statistically they're the top three-point shooting team in the tournament: Cornell has made more threes than any other team in the field of 65--304 of them on the season, for an average of 9.8 per game. Cornell faces tough first-round opponent in Temple, the best team in a solid Atlantic 10 conference and a gritty defensive squad, but look for Cornell as an appealing upset pick.
Houston: Will 2010 mark a return of Phi Slamma Jamma? Well, probably not, but Houston is making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1992, and the Cougars would make for a feel-good winner if they can pull off a win against Maryland, the ACC regular season co-champions. Houston is coming off a win over UTEP to take the Conference USA title, while Maryland got bounced from the ACC tournament by Georgia Tech.
Siena: Another possible first-round upset, Siena rolled through Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play, and now faces a test against a cold Purdue team that's struggled after losing star Robbie Hummel to a season-ending knee injury. Purdue got blown out in the Big Ten tournament by Minnesota--a team that
did not make the field of 65 enters the tournament as an 11 seed--by a 69-42 margin. With momentum like that, Siena could have some room to advance.
West Virginia: Bob Huggins!
It's been a while since Bob Huggins had a team that was picked to go deep into the NCAA tournament. The man has a nose for recruiting athletes, and he led Cincinnati to 14 consecutive NCAA tournaments, assembling teams in the 1990s that put on vicious, snarling dunkfests over helpless Conference USA opponents, as Huggins, decked out in a warmup pullover, crouched approvingly on the sidelines. But player arrests, NCAA rules violations and a DUI arrest ultimately closed out his tenure there, and now, after a one-year stint at Kansas State, Huggins has been back at his alma mater since taking the West Virginia job in 2007. He's in the Big East now, banging with the top teams in the county, and he's back in the ranks of the national elite.
The Syracuse Zone
While nearly every other college basketball team in the country runs a man-to-man defense as its base set, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim runs the 2-3 zone. Almost exclusively.
This is unorthodox, to say the least, but it can be incredibly effective given the right combination of players who are running it. The last time Syracuse had a national-powerhouse team, it won the 2003 NCAA championships with Carmelo Anthony and Hakim Warrick providing some springy length in the wing positions of the 2-3 set. The Syracuse zone befuddles otherwise impressive offenses, and watching Boeheim's system in action is like watching a swarm of piranhas descend on helpless and confused guards as they work the ball around the arc in vain, trying to find angles and space that, magically, don't exist. A season's worth of strategy goes out the window.
As ESPN's Jay Bilas points out in the magazine's last issue (subscription required), the zone effectively forces other teams prepare their offenses for Boeheim's defense, flipping the usual script of defenses prepping for whatever offensive players come their way. Some people complain about its simplicity and hivemind-esque departure from the gritty individualism of man D, but Bilas points out that it's just good strategy. Basketball is about winning games.