Player to watch: Lonzo Ball-UCLA Bruins
The UCLA Bruins will go as far as their freshmen stud point guard Lonzo Ball can take them. Ball leads the NCAA with 7.6 assists per game—a PAC-12 freshman record—and is a dangerous scorer to boot. His ugly-but-effective shot has taken the basketball world by storm. Despite being labelled as “wrong” by many experts, Ball’s eccentric form is paying dividends for the Bruins. His 41 per cent three-point rate is one of the best in the country and his 71.7 per cent two-point conversion rate is mind-boggling. Despite being a first-year, Ball has done more than any other player in the nation to carry his team to March Madness. With him on the court, the Bruins tout the tournament’s most dangerous offence by a significant margin. They have the best effective-field goal percentage of any team in more than a decade and lead the nation in points per game. Despite being the third seed in the South, Ball’s presence makes UCLA one of the trendy picks to win it all.
Biggest disappointment: Baylor Bears
Led by junior forward Johnathan Motley, the Baylor Bears started the season 20-1, including a blowout victory over the then fourth-ranked Oregon Ducks. Since then, the Bears have gone into hibernation, losing five of their last ten games. Things didn’t get any better in the Big 12 tournament with the Bears falling 70-64 to the Kansas State Wildcats in the first round. The team ranks second in the nation in offensive rebounding, but turnover problems have spelled disaster for Baylor. If they can make it past the New Mexico Lobos in the first round, they’ll find trouble against the Southern Methodist University (SMU) Mustangs. Unlike the Bears, the Mustangs enter the tournament riding a 24-1 winning streak and with lights out three-point shooting—meaning Baylor could be in trouble. After being upset by the Yale Bulldogs last year in the round of 62, the Bears shouldn’t be trusted to go far in this years tournament.
Sleeper: Maryland Terrapins
The Maryland Terrapins are possibly the biggest boom-or-bust team in this year’s tournament. With 13 contests this season ending within a two-possession margin, they have experience playing in close games. They have impressive wins against teams like the Purdue Boilermakers, but also some too-close-for-comfort victories against low quality opponents. As a result, they haven’t been able to solidify status as serious contenders. Fortunately for the Terps, they have one of the nation’s most clutch guards in Melo Trimble and face a relatively easy path to the Elite Eight. While the loss of power forward Michal Cekovsky hurts the team on defence, the ice in Trimble’s veins and Maryland’s fourth-quarter grittiness makes them a dangerous sleeper candidate in this year’s tournament.
Champions: Duke Blue Devils
Led by five-time national champion Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski, the Duke Blue Devils are perennial title contenders. Small forward Jayson Tatum and guards Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen make up Duke’s scary triple-headed scoring monster. When they’re on the court together, the Blue Devils are almost unstoppable. They clinched the ACC championship with notable victories against the Louisville Cardinals, North Carolina Tar Heels, and Notre Dame Fighting Irish. If Allen can control his emotions and kick his known tripping habit, the junior guard has the skills to take over any game. Senior forward Amile Jefferson will have to control the paint for Duke, but the team’s lethal three-point scoring makes up for their lack of inside strength. Though the Villanova Wildcats could give Duke trouble in the Elite Eight, Coach Krzyzewski and company have the pieces to come out of the East. The Gonzaga Bulldogs have become a powerhouse, but having played an easy schedule in 2016-17, the Bulldogs might be more bark than bite. The finals are always a toss up, but with an experienced team and the NCAA’s best coach, the Blue Devils should oust the UCLA Bruins and cut down the nets in Phoenix.