Who Will Burst Your March Madness Bracket?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it's the most wonderful time of the year.
By Ray Glier
After a college basketball season that saw the Maui Invitational held in the mountains of western North Carolina (Asheville) and an NCAA tournament team (Iona) benched for 51 days, we’ve somehow made it. Teams have now gone from “on the bubble” to “in the bubble.” All 67 games of the men’s basketball tournament are scheduled in Indiana, with teams isolated to reduce travel and possible exposure to COVID-19. We don’t know which teams will be bounced by Cinderellas and which, if any, will fall ill, but we do know we’ll meet some compelling players over the next three weeks. Before you finish your bracket, let today’s Daily Dose fill you in on the surprise underdogs who will capture your attention and the hidden X factors from top teams. Let the madness begin.
the next shabazz
Shabazz Napier carried UConn to a shocking title in 2014. Who could reprise his feat?
Alabama: Jahvon Quinerly. Do you have Alabama fatigue from football? Is more coming? The Crimson Tide have shot all the way to a No. 2 seed on the back of really good two-way players — they’re smooth shooters and gritty defenders who display uncommon quickness. Sophomore guard Quinerly, a transfer from Villanova, is part of an effort to shine a light on New York City– area basketball and is on a hot streak after being named SEC tournament MVP.
LSU: Cameron Thomas. Asked his favorite place on the floor to score, Thomas replied: “Everywhere.” This 6-foot-4 freshman guard from Virginia is not just a prolific scorer (22.6 points per game) who can carry a team on his back, but for the No. 8 seed Tigers, he literally bleeds in the pursuit of victory. Before he jets off to the NBA, he may be able to will a historic run for the oft-overlooked Tigers.
UConn: James Bouknight. Kemba Walker … Napier … Bouknight? The Huskies just seem to create these kinds of players in a lab: gritty big-city guards (NYC for Walker and Bouknight, Boston for Napier) who play with a chip on their shoulder from being undersized and underrecruited. Now Bouknight is impressing NBA scouts with his versatile and unpredictable style. He was sidelined for six weeks with an elbow injury and UConn slumped, but the Huskies are hot with him back in the lineup and pouring in points. UConn comes in as a No. 7, the same seed Napier’s squad had in 2014.
Mount St. Mary’s: Damian Chong Qui. No, the 12-10 champions of the Northeast Conference are not making a title run, and probably won’t make it out of Thursday’s “first four” matchup with Texas Southern for the right to be waxed by Michigan. But the 5-foot-8 Baltimore native, who joined the Mountaineers as a walk-on and now puts up 15.1 points per game, has a made-for-March story: Chong Qui’s mother was murdered when he was 4 and his father was paralyzed in a shooting. And yet here he is on the biggest hoops stage, a survivor.
top contenders’ x factors
Gonzaga: Anton Watson. Undefeated Gonzaga has been the king of this college basketball season, but if we’re searching for weaknesses, start with defense. The Zags were lit up for 53 points in a half by BYU in the West Coast Conference title game. They gave up 90 to Kansas, 82 to West Virginia, 88 to Iowa, 88 to Portland. They’ll need freshman guard Jalen Suggs, a projected top-five pick in the NBA draft, to give them some needed toughness. But if Gonzaga scratches too hard on defense and gets in some foul trouble, it is going to turn to its thin bench, starting with the physical 6-foot-8 sophomore Watson, a hometown hero who is coming back from offseason shoulder surgery and putting up 7.2 points per game.
Baylor: Matthew Mayer. Oh there you are. Baylor’s 6-foot-9 guard had his best back-to-back of the season with 18 points against West Virginia and 19 against Oklahoma State in the last week of the regular season. The No. 1 seed Bears are coming at you with the best backcourt depth in the tournament and have the data to prove it: They lead the country in 3-point field goal percentage and are sixth in turnover margin. Baylor will need Mayer and his fellow guards at their best to overcome questionable rebounding.
Illinois: Kofi Cockburn. The man in the mask, Ayo Dosunmu, has been the Illini’s do-everything best player this season, but even when he was out with a broken nose — requiring him to now play with a black face mask — Illinois kept rolling. Why? Cockburn, the 7-foot, 285-pound bruiser who could bang with Big Ten trees like Iowa’s Luka Garza and is putting up 17.6 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. Sure, March Madness is a guard’s game, but no one else in the Midwest region has a post presence like the Jamaican big man.
a needed tossup
Parity at Last. If you think women’s college hoops is nothing but UConn, you haven’t been watching lately. Baylor, Notre Dame and South Carolina won the title in the last three non-pandemic seasons. Can the parity expand? Yes. This year features Texas A&M, Louisville, Stanford, Maryland and North Carolina State — all with legitimate shots at the title.
Texas A&M: N’dea Jones. The entire tournament will be played in the San Antonio region, which means A&M and its “social butterfly” star Jones, who dreams of owning her own recording studio one day, will benefit from staying out of airplanes. Jones is part of a dangerous ensemble cast, in which no one player hogs the spotlight, blossoming from simply a rebounder to a multi-talented offensive star who’s got WNBA written all over her. At least before the music career.
N.C. State: Elissa Cunane. This 6-foot-5 center leads the team in skill and inspiration. Her motivation to drive the Wolfpack comes from her father, who was paralyzed in a biking accident when Cunane was 2 years old. She would help him during his rehab and learned the mental toughness to succeed at the highest levels of college hoops, where she puts up 16.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game.
Arkansas: Chelsea Dungee. She is one of the most scintillating scorers in college hoops — with a rambunctious personality to match her flashy pro-style game. Dungee puts up more than 22 points per game and hits 38 percent from 3, as she’s carrying the Razorbacks to a No. 4 seed, primed for a run. Read more on OZY.
UConn: Paige Bueckers. Oh yeah, the Huskies. The program that sets the standard in women’s hoops has its youngest team in 32 years, but that doesn’t mean they’re slipping. Bueckers, a Minnesota native, may be the best freshman ever to play for UConn, dropping 30-point games as easy as rolling out of bed in the morning. The Huskies are back to championship status as a No. 1 seed with this freshman-led team. But they will have to at least start their run without legendary Coach Geno Auriemma, who tested positive for COVID-19 and is in quarantine.
old blood, new blood, (no) blue bloods
A Moses Will Lead Them. Once March mainstays, Georgia Tech and Arkansas have spent recent decades in the hoops wilderness. Now they’re back, with Georgia Tech making the dance for the first time since 2010 and No. 3 seed Arkansas with its best team since their 1995 title game run, and it’s thanks in large part to a couple of players named Moses. Georgia Tech’s 6-foot-9 senior, Moses Wright, the program’s first ACC Player of the Year since 1990, is an imposing frontcourt presence and a late bloomer from Raleigh, North Carolina, who didn’t attract any recruiting buzz out of high school. Moses Moody is the Razorbacks’ 6-foot-6 freshman guard, an in-state hero from North Little Rock who is the key to the Hogs’ perimeter play, at 17.4 points per game with a killer 3-point stroke.
The Real Old Blood. Oklahoma State is an intriguing team because of its freshman superstar Cade Cunningham, the expected No. 1 pick in the NBA draft with the potential to power a Carmelo Anthony-style one-man championship run. The program hasn’t won a March Madness game since 2009, but the Cowboys aren’t new kids on the block. In fact, in a tournament that lacks its traditional powers, they’re the ultimate throwback: Oklahoma State was one of college hoops’ early powerhouses, the first program to win back-to-back NCAA titles in 1945 and ’46 under the legendary Henry Iba.
Phi Slama Jama in Reverse. The last time Houston was this good, they were dubbed “Phi Slama Jama,” the best team never to win a national title, featuring the supreme offensive talents of Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon. The current No. 2-seeded version, meanwhile, are fierce defenders who rebound and secure the ball. The Cougars are led by Quentin Grimes, who was going to be a star at powerhouse Kansas until he wasn’t, and transferred to Houston. The Cougars would be a legitimate title threat if they had a better offense, but their shooting (152nd in the country in field-goal percentage) is a ball and chain on their terrific defense (second in points allowed per game).
Wither the Blue Bloods? Did we mention no Duke or Kentucky? That’s right, both schools put up stinkers this year (13-11 and 9-16, respectively) despite all their high school All-America talent. If you think it’s strange to have a March Madness without two of the winningest (and most polarizing) programs in the game, you’re right. The last time both schools were not in the tournament was 1976, when Indiana finished 32-0 and won the crown — the last undefeated college hoops team. If it wins out, Gonzaga would finish 32-0 … in Indiana … to win the crown and secure its position as a legitimate “blue blood” program.
will the big ten shrink again?
Two-Decade Drought. Despite featuring its share of great teams and transcendent players, the Big Ten last won a men’s national title with Michigan State in 2000 — falling short in national title games in 2002 (Indiana), 2005 (Illinois), 2007 (Ohio State), 2009 (Michigan State), 2013 (Michigan), 2015 (Wisconsin) and 2018 (Michigan). If the conference is ever going to cut down the nets again, this is the year, with four top-10 contenders and all games played in the heart of Big Ten country. Aside from Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn (see above), here are the key players to know.
Michigan: Brandon Johns. No. 1 seed Michigan may be the most vulnerable of the Big Ten contenders. The Wolverines are crossing their fingers that senior star Isaiah Livers can somehow play again after being diagnosed with a stress fracture in his right foot. It will mean the Wolverines likely will have to get through dangerous LSU in the second round to give Livers a week to heal. To do so, they’ll need Livers’ fill-in, 6-foot-8 forward Brandon Johns, to give them a lift. Johns has been known as a rebounding and energy guy, but he’ll have to score a bit to help the Wolverines survive and advance in Juwan Howard’s first NCAA tournament as a coach.
Iowa: Jordan Bohannon. The Hawkeyes have their big man Luka Garza, the Big Ten Player of the Year, but what makes them extra formidable is an offense that moves the ball and assists teammates all over the floor (19.1 per game, first in the country). The glue is fifth-year senior guard Bohannon, who leads the team in assists (4.5 per game) and sticking up for the fiery head coach Fran McCaffery.
Ohio State: Duane Washington Jr. We keep looking for an elite skill with this team — shooting, defense, 3s — but can’t find it. There is something to the Buckeyes, though. They have determination, hustle, spirit. And the tank is filled game to game by Washington, the bouncy Michigan native who is the emotional heart and soul of the team … and puts up 16 points per game. If the Buckeyes are the last Big Ten team standing, he’s why.