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A brief guide to college basketball's most exciting month

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It’s called March Madness for a reason.

Not so much for the thrilling upsets, last-second shots and Cinderella stories, but for that infuriating feeling of tearing up your bracket after University of Maryland — Baltimore County becomes the first 16-seed ever to upset a No.1.

Or when your dark horse is actually a dud and falls in the first round. Or when your beloved team didn’t reach the Final Four like you predicted, even though they’re a 12-seed and were for sure heading for a title. It’s a frustrating time in that sense, but for basketball lovers, it’s heaven.

It’s the best of the best battling for ultimate supremacy. And everyone gets a seat at the table, even UCF this time. So no need to complain Knights fans.

Any team could win any game, despite the odds stacked against them.

Upsets will happen, legacies will be forged and insanity will most likely ensue over the next three weeks.

To get geared up for hours watching games at work or on the couch, here is a brief guide we put together of some things to watch:

Best long shot to win it all:

Vinnie: 7-seed Nevada (29-4)

This is a team that I could easily see getting bounced in the first round against Florida, or finding themselves with a puncher’s chance in the Final Four.

Led by senior twins Caleb (19.2 points per game) and Cody Martin (11.7 points per game), Nevada is a team that has been in this situation before. With their top four scorers shooting over 35 percent from 3-point range and a versatile big man in Jordan Caroline (17.3 points and 9.6 rebounds per game), the Wolfpack have the makings of a team that shouldn’t shock anyone by winning some games in March.

Pair that with a seemingly susceptible region, and Nevada could emerge as a title contender if it gets some lucky breaks.

Jacob: 4-seed Florida State (27-7)

As a former student at FSU, I may be biased, but the Seminoles have been red-hot this season and were within six points of No. 1 Duke — a team with potentially three top-5 picks — with three minutes left in the ACC title game.

The ‘Noles’ 27-win season included six wins over current tournament teams. FSU also knocked off top-seeded Virginia in the conference semis just this past weekend. After losing four of its first five ACC games, the ‘Noles finished on a 14-1 run.

FSU is a defensive-minded team with a host of veteran athletes who were on last year’s team that upset Gonzaga. If they go on a tear this year, history may repeat itself with Gonzaga earning the top seed in the West.

Underdog to root for

Vinnie: 13-seed Northeastern

For me, the underdog to get behind is the Northeastern Huskies. A 23-10 team out of the Colonial Athletic Association, the Huskies had to win their conference tournament this past week to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

Led by guard Vasa Pusica (17.8 points per game), the Huskies have five players who shoot at least 39 percent from 3-point range — meaning they are a team who could get hot quick.

Playing fourth-seeded Kansas, which didn’t win the Big 12 for the first time in 14 years, Northeastern could find itself in a good spot to knock off the Jayhawks on Thursday.

Jacob: 12-seed Murray State

Riding the shot of a future lottery pick and an 11-game win streak, Murray State has raced its way into a tournament berth with plenty of upside. The Racers are 27-4 and went 16-2 in the Ohio Valley Conference.

The main thing I like about the Racers is their seeding — since 1985, there has been at least one 12/5 upset in all but five tournaments. I’ll take those odds. But they also have one of the nation’s top players in Ja Morant, who’s averaging 24.5 points per game and is slated to be a top-5 pick in the upcoming NBA draft.

Murray State has 5-seed Marquette in the opening round and would most likely draw 4-seed Florida State in the second round, though nothing is guaranteed in March. Though their strength of schedule is questionable, they come in as one of the highest scoring teams at 83 points per game. They have Cinderella written all over them.

Most exciting athlete to watch:

Vinnie: Ja Morant, PG, Murray State

Of course there is Zion Williamson and his brute force or either of his counterparts — RJ Barrett or Cam Reddish. All of these players will most certainly be drafted in the top 10, if not the top 5, of this year’s NBA Draft and could very well lead Duke to a National Championship.

However, to me, the most exciting player to watch is Murray State guard Ja Morant. The sophomore is a bit of a do-it-all player, averaging 24.6 points and 10 assists per game while shooting 50 percent from the floor and also grabbing the second-most rebounds (5.5 per game) on the Racers.

A walking highlight reel, Morant has led his team to an impressive 27-4 record, and it’s going to be exciting to watch how far this one-man show can take his team in March.

Jacob: Ethan Happ, C, Wisconsin

It’s seems like it was just yesterday that lanky, athletic center Frank Kaminsky led the Badgers to an upset of Kentucky and a title game berth against Duke. Could this year be a repeat of history? With a similar player in Happ, there’s a chance.

Wisconsin had an up-and-down season to start, but a big win over Michigan added to its resume and helped spur a stretch where the Badgers lost just four games over the final two thirds of the season. Happ, a 6-foot-10, rangy center that fits the typical Wisconsin mold, has been a tournament staple his first three years and is averaging a career-high 17.5 points and 10.1 rebounds per game this year.

If Wisconsin can get past upset-ready Oregon, the three-time All-Big Ten first teamer could be a force in this year’s tourney.

Pick to win it all:

Vinnie: Kentucky

The way I see it, the Kentucky Wildcats have one of the easiest paths to the National Championship game. Aside from maybe 3-seed Houston, Kentucky hardly has any serious competition on the way to the Midwest final.

There, the Wildcats will likely square off with either UNC, Kansas or Auburn. After that, it’s a bit muddled as it’s anyone’s guess who will make it to the Final Four. But I believe that Kentucky is deep enough — four players averaging over 11 points per game — that it can withstand lulls and dry spells from the floor.

Aside from a 71-52 loss to Tennessee on March 2, Kentucky (27-6) hasn’t lost a game by more than four points since it was blown out by Duke in the first game of the season. When it gets to March, teams need the depth and track record that Kentucky has to overcome the randomness of one-game sample sizes.

Jacob: Duke

I know this is a boring pick, but I don’t think this year’s Duke team will follow the same path as the 2013-14 Kansas team with Andrew Wiggins that flopped in the Round of 32. I expect a pretty dominant performance from the newest sensation, Zion Williamson, and future top-5 pick R.J. Barrett.

This team is stacked and has one of the best coaches in the country. If Williamson’s shoes hold up, the Blue Devils have a case that they would’ve beaten UNC twice with other wins against Florida State, Virginia and a 34-point thumping of 2-seed Kentucky.

They averaged 83.5 points per game against one of the toughest schedules in the country. Their biggest opponent will be the hype that surrounds such a dynamic squad.

 

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