By: Christopher West - WSS Mad Man
For a variety of reasons, I’ve watched more non-local basketball than usual this year. I haven’t ventured down the road towards being a total weirdo that constantly watches Sun Belt Conferences games and stays in on Friday night because I might be able to catch an Ivy League game on an obscure channel. But I’ve seen most of the big conference teams play at least a time or two this year, so more than any other year of my life, I actually have opinions on a lot of the teams in the NCAA tournament.
Now, I fully recognize that if you’re like most people, you’re really only interested in watching games that help make your bracket look better. But if you’re actually looking for some interesting tidbits in this tournament that don’t necessarily involve you winning money off your pals (though I certainly hope that happens, as well), I’m here with a few tips of the teams, players and games you should be watching. So here are my semi-informed suggestions for things you should be on the lookout for this weekend:
Five Fun Teams to Watch
LSU: The Tigers head this least because they were the team on this list that I got really excited to watch whenever I saw their name pop up on my on-screen channel guide, despite them not necessarily being all that good. Lack up depth is an issue for LSU, but their top 4-5 guys are pretty strong. I’m not even close to exaggerating when I say that there’s not a better tandem of big men in the country than Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey. If you watch Sportscenter a lot, you may recall seeing Martin complete a between-the-legs dunk during a game. It was an insanely stupid thing to do during a tie game against a conference rival, but seems awesome now, given that it worked out. Rounding out the top-4 on the team are guards Tim Quarterman and Keith Hornsby. Quarterman didn’t even start at the beginning of the year, but is now a jack-of-all trades for the Tigers. And Hornsby (who I’ll talk more about in another section) is the classic streaky player who spends most of his time jacking up threes whenever he has the chance. You might not see the most sound decisions coming from LSU, but if you watch them play, you will walk away entertained.
St. John’s: You know that super-athletic dude you went to high school with who dominated every pick up game that he played in, but only logged about 7 minutes per game as the third guy off the bench for your actual school team? St. John’s is basically that guy if he was an entire team. The Red Storm is a super-talented, super-athletic squad that coach Steve Lavin has instilled virtually no discipline in. Their chances for success took a hit when forward Chris Obekpa, St. Johns’ shot-blocking sensation and noted proponent of short shorts was suspended for two weeks starting this past Sunday, meaning that he’ll only play if the Red Storm make the Final Four (and that’s not happening). But they’s still got their star forward Sir’Dominic Pointer, who is long, athletic, and named Sir’Dominic (that has to count for something, right?), as well as a couple of guards who could each go for 20 points on any given night. Their draw against defensive-minded San Diego State will be an interesting matchup, given the extreme contrast in styles. But don’t be surprised if St. John’s talents its way to a first round win before getting pummeled by a Duke squad that is similarly athletic, but has fairly extensive experience with the concept of discipline.
Villanova: Okay, so you’re a basketball purist. And you don’t like that I’m filling this list with teams that are fun to watch because they’re up tempo and sport a lot of talent, but are perhaps lacking in terms of how they approach the game. Well, I’ve got team for you, too–Villanova. Yeah, they’re a 1-seed, but it’s entirely possible you missed them due to the Big East exiling most of the conferences games to Fox Sports 1 this year. The Wildcats stand for that old adage that the whole is often better than the sum of its parts. I don’t want to make it sound like Villanova does not have talent, because honestly, guys like JayVaughn Pinkston, Daniel Ochefu, Tyler Ennis and Ryan Arcidiacono (or any of the rest of the main rotation guys who I can’t immediately name, really) are all good. Heck, Arcidiacono was Big East co-Player of the Year this season. But none of them individually jump off the page at you. They just play smart, solid, team basketball. You can circle their potential second-round matchup versus LSU as a battle for college basketball’s soul. And if Villanova manages to take that game, you old school basketball fans will be able to sleep securely knowing that everything is still right in the world.
Iowa State: College basketball’s favorite destination for players thinking of transferring is finally ready for prime time this year. You want guys who can score at the drop of a hat? I give you Georges Niang and Monte Morris. Need an athletic rim protector with cool hair? Meet Jameel McKay (a Milwaukee Pulaski grad who, along with backup guard Matt Thomas, of Onalaska, gives us Wisconsinites a couple of guys to root for). Prefer your coach to resemble your cool uncle who agreed to coach your basketball team back when you were 12 years old? I think you’d like Fred Hoiberg.
The Cyclones can get up and down the floor with anyone, but have a bit more substance than some of the aforementioned teams that just try to out-athlete you to death. The only thing keeping me from seriously considering Iowa State as my national championship this year (aside from the fact that Kentucky is everyone’s prohibitive favorite) is their tough road to the Final Four. SMU, Gonzaga, in-state rival Iowa, and Duke are each potentially in Iowa State’s path, and I’d be glued to the screen for any of those games. You should be, as well.
Kentucky: Yeah, I’m with you. I generally hate Kentucky, too. But we need to remember some things about the Wildcats: One, they don’t make the rules. And if stopping in for a year of college before heading to the NBA is a legitimate path for a college player, we can’t be too upset that one school has found a way to attract all those guys and make it work within the current framework.
Two, regardless of how all of the players got there or how long they’re there, Kentucky is putting an insane collection of talent on the floor that no self-respecting basketball fan should ignore. Three, the fact that John Calipari has gotten an entire roster full of guys who would be the focal point of virtually any other college basketball team out there to thrive playing limited minutes as part of a platoon system is nothing short of amazing. We live in an era where we constantly criticize athletes for having out of control egos. So shouldn’t cynics like you and me be begging for more stories like Karl-Anthony Towns, the potential #1 overall pick in this year’s NBA draft, who’s totally cool with his coach telling him that he can only play 21 minutes per game?
Okay, Kentucky’s fans are insufferable. And it feels sometimes like they’re exploiting someone else’s bad rules for their personal game. But at the end of the day, the Wildcats have assembled a historic amount of talent and their coach is successfully using his roster in a way that seems like it should be objectively impossible given the potential egos involved. Rather than complain about all that’s wrong with Kentucky, wouldn’t it be nice to sit back and enjoy those things as they pursue perfection?
No? Okay then–let’s just consider them one of the most interesting villains of all time, then.
Five Players With Interesting Back-Stories
Kevin Ware, Georgia State: Remember that Louisville guy who completely shattered his leg on a freak play during the Final Four a few years back? He’s a Georgia State guy now. If you can’t root for a redemption story for a guy whose injury was so horrific that it caused his nearby teammates to immediately burst into tears, who can you root for?
Keith Hornsby. LSU: Popular, laid-back musician Bruce Hornsby has a son. His name is Keith, he’s a tatted-up millennial who also happens to be a player who jacks up a lot of three-pointers for LSU. And while I think he looks like he’s probably a complete douche, the dude definitely has some game. Next thing you’re going to tell me that Jack Johnson has a cousin who’s a beast of a post player for UC-Irvine...
Tanner Johnson, UC-Irvine: Just kidding–no such person exists (at least not to my knowledge).
Matt Stainbrook, Xavier: Stainbrook is personally interesting to me because a friend of mine pointed out that he bears a mild resemblance to me (i.e., he’s a sort of dumpy-looking post player with unkempt brown hair and doesn’t necessarily look like he should be out there), save for the fact that he’s a pretty solid basketball player. But to the rest of the world, Stainbrook is the guy who awesomely gave his scholarship to his brother and picks up a few extra bucks in his spare time driving for Uber. It has taken every ounce of self-control for me in the past few months to not go to Cincinnati and just start requesting rides in hopes of landing in Stainbrook’s car.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky: It’s unclear how this was allowed to happen, but apparently Kentucky’s most important player is a junior. I presume that the NCAA must have granted Cauley-Stein some sort of waiver, since everyone knows that no one is allowed to play at Kentucky for more than two years. As college fans, let’s just be happy that we get to see him as the engine of the most imposing team ever this year, and not as another talented dude stuck playing for the Philadelphia 76ers during their lost season.
Domantis Sabonis, Gonzaga: He’s foul prone and only gets 20-25 minutes per game for Gonzaga as a freshman, but he’s super-active and efficient when he’s in the game. He’s also the son of Soviet hoops legend Arvydas Sabonis, who many consider to be in the argument for best basketball player of all time before injuries robbed him of his athleticism. This, of course, seems unfathomable to most Americans who only saw the elder Sabonis with the Portland Trailblazers, at the point when he looked more like my friend Andy’s out-of-shape insurance agent dad than a sports icon. In any event, the genetics situation worked out better for Domantis Sabonis than, say, Marcus Jordan, and he’s a key cog for the best team in the country that no one fully trusts.
Five Potentially Great Games That May Happen During the First Weekend
BYU vs. Mississippi:
(Note–while I wrote the following paragraph two days before the game, I didn’t have the chance to submit it until a day afterward. In case you’re skeptical of my suggestions and need a reason to continue reading, let’s just say there was frantic announcer yelling going on after about every third play in this one.)
In general, the “First Four” games are nothing to write home about. But I might actually tune into BYU and Mississippi. I still don’t think either team is all that incredible, but when there are three guys on the floor capable of scoring 30 points on any given night (I’m referring to BYU’s Tyler Hawes and ___, and Mississippi’s Stephon Moody, of course), that’s definitely worth my time on a night when NIT games or actually living my life are my only other options. (Note–while I wrote this paragraph two days before the game, I didn’t have the chance to submit it until a day afterward. In case you’re skeptical of my suggestions and need a reason to continue reading, let’s just say there was a lot of frantic announcer yelling going on during this one.)
Iowa vs. Gonzaga:
I don’t want to come off as a guy who’s implying that Gonzaga didn’t earn its 2-seed, because the Bulldogs totally deserve all the accolades they’re getting. It’s just that Iowa has quietly been playing some pretty good basketball of late (save for an early exit from the Big Ten tourney). The Hawkeyses will be completely outclassed at the guard spots, and their coach is always a ticking time bomb. But all I’m saying is that if Aaron White and Jared Uthoff get going and Adam Woodbury pokes enough key guys in the eye, this one could be a lot more entertaining than a typical 2-seed vs. 6-seed matchup in this potential Sunday matchup.
Virginia vs. Michigan State:
Virginia vs. Michigan State:
Michigan State sometimes hurts itself by not rounding into form until March. But you know who gets hurt more than Michigan State when the Spartans pull a low seed? Every team that has to play Michigan State. A matchup like Virginia-Michigan State should be played with a trip to the Final Four on the line. Instead, due to the Spartans’ slow start, it’s probably being played on Sunday, just to get to the second weekend. Get ready for a war, and get ready to watch some of the best played basketball you’ll see all year. It’s not every day that coaches as outstanding as Tom Izzo and Tony Bennett square off.
LSU vs. Villanova:
LSU vs. Villanova:
Like I said above, if you like smart, understated, team basketball, you’re rooting for Villanova. If you like flash and excitement, even if the consistency isn’t always there, you’re cheering for LSU. A lot of purists will be upset if LSU triumphs in this one. And let me tell you right now–if LSU gets to this game (their opening round game against NC State will be another good battle), such a triumph is not out of the question.
SMU vs. UCLA:
SMU vs. UCLA:
Ever since the moment in the selection show when Doug Gottlieb crapped all over UCLA and the choice to put the Bruins into the tournament, they’ve been the popular team to bash. No, this UCLA team probably shouldn’t have made the tournament. And no, Steve Alford does not have one of his better squads this year. But UCLA’s guys can now play the “no respect” card, and will be playing with a chip on their shoulders against an SMU team that I personally think is the best 6-seed in the field, but which is lacking in terms of wins over top-25 teams.
VCU vs. Ohio State:
VCU vs. Ohio State:
Yeah, I went over my self-imposed limit of five games. Like you don’t want to see how D’Angelo Harrison does against VCU’s havoc defense. I don’t see either of these teams going far, but this should nonetheless be a fun pairing.
Happy hoops watching to all. May all your brackets be perfect!
Happy hoops watching to all. May all your brackets be perfect!