In a social media-driven society where news cycles have eternally short life spans, March Madness appears to have been way ahead of its time. The first four days of the NCAA Tournament and Twitter go together like Nas rhymes and a D.J. Premier beat. All day and deep into the night, we jump around from game to game, led by whatever topic happens to be trending at the time. It’s always been like that; our Twitter accounts simply facilitate the process.
At the same time, there’s also a throwback nature to the NCAA Tournament. Many of us are too young to have witnessed World Series games that were played during the day, and that won’t likely happen again anytime soon. But no matter how old you are, there’s a good chance you felt the rush of attempting to sneak a listen to the AM radio on your walkman in between classes, while furtively marking X’s or O’s on your bracket.
Factor in how easy it is to fill in a bracket, and literally everyone you know gets caught up in that first week, regardless of whether they’ve watched a game all year. As with most things, technology has changed the process, giving us apps to check scores and our picks. But the dynamic isn’t all that much different, and those first four days are likely the last vestiges of that kind of experience.
By the Final Four, most of the people who no longer have a shot at winning their pools have turned their attention elsewhere. But many memorable stories –Bryce Drew, Hampton beating Iowa State, Northern Iowa stunning Kansas, Princeton taking down UCLA – will come from those first few days. Be sure to take a step back and savor this week, since there’s literally nothing else in sports like it, in so many ways.
FACTORS TO WATCH:
Midwest Region of Death
After making the 2013 Final Four, taking Louisville to the limit and then going undefeated the following season, Wichita State predictably earned a No. 1 seed – but in one of the most loaded regions in recent memory. They could potentially play Kentucky – who took No. 1 Florida to the limit on Sunday – in the second round. Also in the region is near-No. 1 seed Michigan, always formidable Duke and Louisville, perhaps the hottest team in the country.
The general opinion is that the selection committee had it in for the Shockers, preferring to stack the deck with more established programs that might pop a better television rating. Is that anything more than a wild conspiracy theory? I would hope not. But my opinion has always been that teams always have to beat whoever is in front of them, regardless of how early in the tournament they play them. If Wichita State truly is as good as their record and peripheral statistics indicate it is, then it will make it all the more sweeter if they make it to Arlington.
First, a caveat: If you use this column for bracket help, do so at your own peril. I’ve won exactly one bracket pool, and it was in eighth grade. I’m now 34.
That said, here’s my take:
- Florida hasn’t lost in more than three months, and their South region seems perfectly suited for a Final Four run. Lower seeds UCLA and New Mexico are hot, but No. 2 seed Syracuse and Kansas limped to the finish line. To boot, the Jayhawks might not have their star center, Joel Embiid, and they certainly won’t have him healthy. Don’t be surprised if the Lobos get the best of them.
- Arizona is No. 1 in a seemingly favorable West region, though a potential second-round game against rejuvenated Oklahoma State and Marcus Smart is no joke, and No. 3 seed San Diego State is never an easy out. Not to mention, the best player in the country, Creighton’s Doug McDermott, looms. But defense usually prevails in March, and even without injured Brandon Ashley, the Wildcats have by far the best in the country.
- Two titans who had their share of injuries and other various struggles early, Michigan State and Louisville, are riding high. If you’re interested in playing the hot hand, a potential second-week East Region game between Virginia and Michigan State provides two of the hottest. As for the Cardinals, their schedule left something to be desired, but their 12-1 record since February is filled with blowouts.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
— FLA$H!? (@GB_DEEMON) March 16, 2014
Duke is by no means a perfect team; they have point guard issues and very little down low. But Jabari Parker is a special player often compared to Carmelo Anthony in talent and role, and one individual standout can often take you a long way. The Midwest region is tough, but much of that is on the other side of the bracket from the Blue Devils.
In terms of someone you probably haven’t seen play: I won’t tell you Louisiana-Lafayette will beat Creighton in the first round. And I know if you tune in, it’ll be for McDermott. But keep an eye on the Ragin’ Cajuns’ Elfrid Payton, one of the most exciting point guards in the country and likely a future NBA player.
Trey Mason isn’t the best player on Arizona – he scored five points this season – but wearing a pristine pair of LeBron James’ first sneakers, the Air Zoom Generation “First Games,” made him a March sneaker legend.