As the Madness Approaches…
by Paul Franke | University of Michigan
Last year at this time, Duke was the No. 1 college basketball team in the country. This year they are ranked No. 5. There are certainly consistencies within college basketball, like the fact that Coack K is going to bring a Blue Devils team ready to compete for the national championship every year, but the beauty of March Madness and the weeks leading up to it lies in their unpredictability.
Just because Duke is going to be a contender does not mean in any way that the Devils are guaranteed anything in the tournament. From one year to the next, rosters undergo makeovers and rankings shuffle as easily as a deck of cards — so who has it in them to win this year? Frankly, we won’t know until that final game in April.
The past two years of March Madness have been characterized by Butler teams that defied brackets by squeaking their way into the national championship game. However, this year it seems as though Coach Brad Stevens has run out of pixie dust. The Bulldogs survived the departure of Gordon Heyward into 2010 NBA Draft; however, it seems as though the departures of Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard are simply too much for the Horizon League squad to handle.
Bulter’s six in-conference losses already exceed the program’s total losses in the Horizon League from the past two years combined. Back-to-back losses to Detroit and Cleveland State and later Milwaukee and Green Bay are not promising signs. That said, as long as the Horizon League tournament is ahead, Butler still has a chance to claim the automatic bid given to the league’s tournament champion. Although it may be unlikely, the fairy tales of the past two years have shown that ‘likely’ is a negligible term for any Butler team under the direction of Brad Stevens.
Elsewhere in the nation, the entirety of the PAC-12 seems to be spending too much time on the beach and not enough in the gym. Currently, this season has only one team in the PAC-12 (California) that has garnered any AP votes. The conference is an embarrassment. UCLA, initially projected to win the conference and contend for the national championship, is nowhere to be seen. With Reeves Nelson gone, Ben Howland has been unable to unite the troops for any sort of comeback. Arizona, another pre-season, top-25 team, has long disappeared from national title talks. Even as Cal and Washington sit atop the conference, nobody has emerged dominant to lead this motley crew of 12 teams. Come March, to see a PAC-12 team make a run would be… well, let’s just say it’s unlikely.
However, out in the Mountain West, a San Diego State team under Steve Fisher has proved that it has what it takes to make another strong run in March this year. Even with a Feb. 15 loss to New Mexico — who now leads the Mountain West Conference — and a heartbreaker to Air Force on Feb. 18, the Aztecs remain in the Top 25. Although it appears they may be “cooling off” at the worst time, there is certainly time left to bounce back from last week’s losses before March.
When Kawhi Leonard decided to go pro, on top of the losses of seniors D.J. Gay, Malcolm Thomas, and Billy White, it looked as though the season ahead would be a bleak one for the Aztecs. Yet, they have found a way to win. Sophomore Jamaal Franklin and junior Chase Tapley have shouldered much of the load by combining for over 30 points and 10 boards per game. Their performances have led the way to three wins over top-25 opponents including a signature victory over a No. 12 UNLV squad. Last season was Cinderella-esque for San Diego State, but the Aztecs are proving to the nation that they are no miracle story after all — Coach Fisher has molded this team into national title contenders once again.
Finally, in the Big East is a Georgetown team that was projected to finish at No. 10 in the Big East conference. Currently standing at No. 9 in the country, Georgetown handed a No. 4 Louisville team its first loss of the season, just last week pushed Syracuse into overtime in the Carrier Dome and now stands in the running to finish second in the Big East conference. However, the question remains of whether the Big East teams can survive in March. With the sole exception of national champion Connecticut, disappointment in March was overwhelming for the Big East last year as 11 of its 13 representing teams fell by the end of the second round.
Over the past two years Georgetown has struggled immensely in March, losing in consecutive first round appearances to No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth and No. 14 Ohio. Maybe freshman Otto Porter and the development of Henry Sims will make the difference? Regardless, the bottom line is that John Thompson III is going to have to find a way to shake things up before the tournament. This Georgetown squad can compete with any team, but if history repeats itself, Georgetown will have put together another great season for nothing.
In a world of over 6.8 billion people, with thousands of bracket makers, nobody has ever picked a perfect bracket. All teams- including Butler, San Diego State, and Georgetown- are unpredictable come March. They do call it March Madness for a reason. No matter what we think we know about college basketball, the NCAA always finds a way to keep us all unsure of what’s coming next.Paul Franke is a NGJ Contributor and a freshman studying business and economics at the University of Michigan. He's originally from San Diego, California and hopes he can survive his first Michigan winter.