By: Grant Pomatto
It seems just yesterday we were watching the Duke Blue Devils cut down the nets in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. However, the new college basketball year is upon us and boy, has it been a good one so far. With the few big upsets that have happened, like Virginia, Wisconsin and Wichita State all getting beaten, it’s tough to say who could win the championship this year. But, that’s what keeps the viewers interested. As long as there are two teams competing on the floor, you don’t know the end result until the last buzzer sounds. Many teams have a shot to raise that trophy but who will walk away with it? Let’s take a look at this year’s front-runners and see where they end up.
The North Carolina Tar Heels
The tough loss in last year’s sweet sixteen matchup to the Wisconsin Badgers, showed what they had to offer. With most of the team returning to action, this lengthy and fast-paced transition team is one of the toughest teams to guard in the NCAA. With Marcus Paige, a candidate for the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) player of the year, leading the way with his calm demeanor and his lefty stroke, with the inside presence of the slimmed down Kennedy Meeks and the defensive juggernaut of Bryce Johnson, the boys in baby blue are my pick to win the ACC outright. However, the pitfalls for the Tar Heels are their free throws. Never a good free-throw shooting team, this could be their Achilles heel for the year. Everything spirals out of control for them when the ball isn’t bouncing their way. Once they get Marcus Paige back from his injury (a right broken hand suffered in practice) in 2-3 weeks, North Carolina will be more of a force to be reckoned with.
My Prediction: The Tar Heels will win the ACC league championship and will get the number one overall seed in the NCAA. Eventually, when playing a team that can make a high percentage of their shots and also play defense, the Tar Heels will run into many problems. They won’t be able to get out and run and will be forced to run a half-court offense for most of the game. And to add on top of that, their free throw game will come back to bite them when it hurts the most. Their season ends with a loss in the elite eight.
The Kentucky Wildcats
Let’s get this out of the way. Of course the Wildcats are in the talk of winning of the championship. I mean I would hope so. With Coach Calipari’s style of one-and-done players, he usually gets what he wants. I’ve got to give it to the coach though. He knows how to take all of the egos in his players and use them to his advantage. For all of last year, the team played basketball like it should be played, with the extra passes to open players, diving for loose balls, playing as a team. The man had two platoons for Pete’s sake. That was last year however, which ended in their only loss (reaching the final four for the fourth time in the Calipari era) in the season to none other but the Wisconsin Badgers. With losing seven of his top scorers from last year to the draft, Calipari looks to start anew. No more platoon squad. Led by the sophomore point guard, Tyler Ulis, the starting five will get most of the action and most of the points which might cause problems if the starting five is off of their game. They showed to us Tuesday night however against Duke (74-63 win) that they are still a little hurt of not winning the entire thing last year.
My Prediction: With no team in the SEC beside LSU to beat them, I see the Wildcats winning the SEC championship and given a number one seed in the NCAA tournament. The Big Blue is still one of the top teams in the country even after losing most of their best players last year. Look to have another fantastic season. But they will come up short. Foul trouble to the starting five and the underdevelopment of the true freshmen of the team will knock them out of the tournament, but not until they get to the sweet sixteen.
The Michigan State Spartans
The Spartans have been one of the nation’s best teams since the start of Tom Izzo’s tenure started. The Michigan State team this year might actually be more talented and deeper than last year’s team. The Spartans will hope to build off of the surprising run to the Final Four last year and hope to take the next step as a team. The good news is that with some returning players, the team should be good yet again. With the Big Ten conference being one of the toughest in the nation, the Spartans will have their hands filled with competing with Maryland, Indiana, Purdue, and Wisconsin. Nonetheless, there are question marks. Since the start of last season, the Spartans lost a total of four players, three of which graduated and one deciding to play ball somewhere else. Along with that, notably, some areas of concern will be at the free throw line and the Spartan’s ability to force turnovers.
My Prediction: Finish 3rd in the Big Ten regular season, 2nd in the Big Ten Championship, eventually gaining a number three seed in the tournament. With Brandon Dawson and Travis Trice departing, it’s all up to Denzel Valentine, the senior, to lead his Spartans to victory. This time around, Michigan State won’t be the weakest team in the Final Four and move passed this round to the championship game. But they’ll be heartbroken and watch from the sidelines as the other team cuts down the nets and hoists the trophy.
The Maryland Terrapins
The Terps defied expectations last year going 28-7 and returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010. Now, behind Mark Turgeon, the Big Ten Coach of the Year: enters their second year in the Big Ten conference, but this time as favorites. There won’t be many easy games for the Terps this season in conference play. The Big Ten could end up as the country’s best conference and realistically can put eight to nine teams in the dance. Maryland atop of the conference is arguably the most talented team in the league with the help of sophomore point guard Melo Trimble, senior forward Jake Layman, freshman center Diamond Stone, and Duke transfer senior Rasheed Sulaimon. Despite the loss of Dez Wells from last year, Maryland finds itself with an extremely talented team that should present match-up nightmare problems for opposing coaches.
My Prediction: 1st place in the Big Ten regular season and Big Ten conference tournament champions, leading to a number one seed in the NCAA tournament. Make no mistake, this year’s team is fully capable of making it to Houston, which is exactly where I see them heading eventually into the national championship game to take on Michigan State. The Maryland Terrapins will be the new national champions when it is all said and done.
Look, nobody ever knows who’s going to win this thing until that last buzzer of that final championship game goes off. That’s why they call it March Madness. Maryland could easily get upset in one of the first few rounds or they can make it all the way. It all depends on how each individual team plays. Basketball is a pretty simple game when it comes down to the basics. Score more points than the other team and you’ll win the game. Pass the ball, shoot the ball, play defense. All of these things go into a winning team. Any team is given a chance in the big dance if they get the basics covered. Then it all comes down to pure skill and who can get stops, who can get boards, and who can get buckets. You all know my pick. Now what’s yours?