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March Madness Diary, Preview

12 March 2014 By Justin Thau, Columnist No Comments

Over the coming weeks, March Madness diary entries will be pouring into the Towerlight as threes keep raining down from the likes of Duke, Wichita State, Creighton, and Michigan. It’ll mostly be Duke, though – that’s all they’ve been good at under the 34-year reign of emperor-coach Mike Krzyzewski. From now on, I reserve the right to refer to him as either Coach K or that coach from Duke because I think even ol’ Mikey K would admit it’s unfair for sportswriters to have to spell his name over and over again.

Did I mention how Duke is only good at three-point shooting and annoys every living soul that watches them except for a slight majority of their fans? Sure, they have Wooden Award candidate Jabari Parker, who may or may not be one of a handful of college players that can dunk whenever he wants, but other than him, Duke is one-dimensional on offense, much like they have been for the better part of the last 40 years.

If you’re just skimming and still haven’t noticed how much shade I cast on Duke, here’s your fair warning: Duke fans beware. My shade will only get worse as the weeks progress. If you like Duke even slightly, look away for parts of these columns – unless of course you’re into the whole masochism thing.

Anyway, as much as I loathe Duke and everything about Duke, there are many other juicy, enticing storylines as March Madness approaches its fever pitch. First of all –

BREAKING NEWS: Kansas center Joel Embiid is expected to be out at least two weeks with a stress fracture in his back. Embiid showed up with fellow freshman Andrew Wiggins at Kansas this year and stole the show for much of the season. He’s been the driving force for a Kansas team that, despite a couple lulls in focus, has proven to be a Final Four contender. Now with Embiid out until the second week of the tournament at the earliest, Kansas’ title hopes have taken a serious hit.

So let’s give Kansas a puncher’s chance at the title this year, especially if Embiid miraculously risks his high lottery pick status and dollar signs in order to join the team in the later rounds. Who else is in the mix?

I’d venture to say that the field of potential title winners is fairly large this year. The current AP top five and arguably most consistent teams all year – Florida, Wichita State, Villanova, Arizona, Louisville – have played in mildly weaker conferences. Some have used this argument to render Wichita State’s perfect season illegitimate. I disagree with that assessment on the basis that winning 34 consecutive Division I games is impressive no matter who you are playing. Louisville may have the best pedigree of this group having won the title last year. Oh, and Russ Smith is dangerous. He might be a deciding factor come tournament time.
Still, the “Who have you played?” argument definitely casts doubts on how strong these top five teams are heading into conference tournament play. Then there are the strong teams that have had some hiccups along the way – Duke, Michigan, Syracuse and Wisconsin. Michigan has been especially impressive after losing preseason All-American Mitch McGary early in the year and key starters from last year’s title game team like Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr.

Syracuse has gone AWOL of late, its confidence obviously shaken after finally relenting its previously undefeated season in a loss to Boston College and following that loss up with a tough loss at Duke. Wisconsin has showed title-esque defense all year, but do either Wisconsin or Syracuse have enough firepower to comeback from a large deficit or play offense effectively for six games in a row? Not likely if you ask me.

Perhaps a team that’s been on the cusp of title contention will breakthrough these next few weeks. Maybe it’ll be North Carolina, or Creighton, or perhaps San Diego State. North Carolina has been very good during the last month, racking up 12 wins in a row until losing to Duke this past Saturday. However, they will go as far as the likes of Marcus Paige and James Michael McAdoo will carry them. Paige is going to have to be dynamite and McAdoo is going to have to show shades of his hall of fame uncle Bob if North Carolina is going to make a run. Creighton will clearly go only as far as Wooden Award finalist Doug McDermott will take them (I mean, he’s only the eighth player ever to go for 3,000 points in a career, so anything’s possible).

If I had to pick a sleeper right now – in these infant stages of March Madness – it’d have to be San Diego State. They’ve got the coaching pedigree: Steve Fisher won a national championship at Michigan in 1989 and led the Fab Five to two consecutive championship games in 1992 and 1993. They’re finally starting to get noticed nationally, having gone 27-3 in the regular season and winning the Mountain West regular season crown. They’re ranked No. 8 right now, but it certainly feels like they’re under everyone’s radar. Oddly enough for a Steve Fisher-coached team, it’s their defense that could lead them to a title this year: San Diego State has given up the second-fewest points per game, surrendering a mere 57.2 PPG over the regular season.

At any rate, the field of title contenders this year is quite inclusive. Who will make the run to win it all? Who will flounder amidst high expectations? Who will shock the world this time around? (Sorry, Wichita State – you fulfilled that pun’s prophecy last year. You ain’t shockin’ nobody this year.) Will Duke woefully wilt come tournament time, incapable of hitting threes and needing Jabari Parker to score 50 to win their games? Only time will time! We’ve just scratched the surface of the madness that is March college basketball. Stay tuned.


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