Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Patrick Hruby (writer, Sports on Earth and The Atlantic), Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), and Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic) predict the winners, losers, and most compelling characters of March Madness.
March Madness is here. And this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament figures to be particularly maddening. Parity rules. Last year's star-studded Kentucky squad is a distant memory. (Robert Morris? Ha ha). There is no clear-cut title favorite, no standout superstar, no mid-level seed that couldn't get hot and make a Final Four run, no top seed that couldn't go cold and make an early exit.
So yeah: This should be fun.
In honor of the tournament's brutal, wonderful finality, let's cut to our picks and predictions:
Upset special: No. 11 Belmont over No. 6 Arizona. The good news for the Wildcats? A multi-season rebuild from the tumultuous, protracted end of the Lute Olson era is nearly complete, and coach Sean Miller's program is a season or two away from legitimate national title contention. The bad news? Arizona's 14-0 start and No. 3 ranking are a distant memory, and the Wildcats are spectacularly ill-equipped to handle the Bruins. Arizona finished last in the Pac-12 in three-point field goal percentage defense (and 274th nationally, bleah) and was consistently torched from beyond the arc by smaller, quicker squads—in part because shoot-first point guard Mark Lyons is a defensive sieve; in part because the Wildcats' trio of heralded freshman big men (Grant Jerret, Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski) handle high ball screens like, well, freshmen; in part because Miller stubbornly insists on playing a paint-clogging, jump shot-allowing pack line defensive scheme. Meanwhile, undersized Belmont ranks No. 12 nationally in three-point field goals per game (8.5) and No. 18th in three-point percentage, and the Bruins' sweet-shooting trio of guard Ian Clark (46.3 percent three-point percentage), swingman J.J. Mann (38.4 percent) and stretch power forward Trevor Noack (41.8 percent) figure to give the Wildcats fits.
Bracket buster: No. 11 Saint Mary's. The Gaels had to win a play-in game against Middle Tennessee to advance to the
first second round, but that only shows how poorly they were seeded. Only don't take my word for it: ask the number-crunchers at ESPN.com, who like St. Mary's three-point shooting and offensive rebounding and give the Gaels a top 25 power rating—22 spots ahead of shaky first round opponent No. 6 Memphis. Besides, St. Mary's has history on their side: two years ago, they shocked No. 2 seed Villanova en route to the Sweet Sixteen.
Paper tiger: No. 3 Florida. Here's the thing about the Gators: they have the talent and defensive prowess to reach the Final Four, and maybe even win the title. But they're mediocre—as in 0-6 in games decided by single digits—in close, pressure-packed situations, including an epic come-from-ahead road loss to Arizona that saw Florida blow a 11-point lead with less than two minutes to play. Why so maddening? Guard Kenny Boyton prefers bad shots to good ones. The Gators have a tendency to ignore NBA-bound center Patric Young, whose ripped, Colossus-at-Gainsville physique might be the most intimidating in college basketball. And the Southeastern Conference—which the Gators dominated—was as bad in basketball this season as it was good in football.
Dark horse: No. 8 North Carolina State. The perplexing Wolfpack underachieved for most of the regular season, but on the basis of size, experience, versatility and talent—forward C.J. Leslie and combo guard Lorenzo Brown are future NBA players, while all-ACC forward Richard Howell is a ferocious rebounder—are the sort of low seed that can make a deep run.
Best-kept secret(s): Bucknell center Mike Muscala, a 6-foot-11 senior who averages 19 points and 11.2 rebounds per game and is good enough to lead his team to a first-round upset of mid-major darling Butler; Miami point guard Shane Larkin, who gets more attention for being the son of former Major League Baseball star Barry Larkin than for being one of the country's top playmakers.
Player to watch: Indiana guard Victor Oladipo, a rapidly improving, highlight-producing Swiss Army Knife shooting guard who at one point this season was being non-hyperbolically compared to a college-age Michael Jordan. And that's just when Oladipo is missing dunks.
Sideline story: Florida Gulf Coast coach Andy Enfield is (somehow) married to model Amanda Marcum—a strong contender to follow in the footsteps of Katherine Webb and end up on a second season of Splash. Assuming there is, in fact, a second season of the celebrity diving show.
Dream matchup: An Indiana-Louisville title game would not only match the nation's best offensive (Hoosiers) and defensive (Cardinals) teams, but also two of college basketball's blue-blood programs. Oh, and as an added bonus, it would tweak spoiled and annoying rival Kentucky fans counting down the days until their school welcomes another top-rated recruiting class. (In the meantime: Robert Morris? Ha ha).
Championship pick: Miami. In a why not? season, why not a school traditionally known for powerhouse football? The 'Canes are tough and tested; coach Jim Larranaga once led George Mason to a Final Four. Best of all, a Miami victory would be a karmic fork in the eye to the increasingly infuriating NCAA. What's not to like?