College basketball, you might have heard, is beset by scandals these days. The FBI is investigating under-the-table payments handed over to high-profile recruits. Assistant coaches have been arrested. One Hall of Fame head coach lost his job. The probe could topple other high-profile head coaches, and bring down storied programs. Clearly, a dark cloud envelops the 2018 NCAA Tournament ahead of its official start on Thursday, March 15 (the First Four play-in games begin Tuesday, March 13).
Shut up and pass me a March Madness bracket.
Let’s face it: as long as the American public is afforded a chance to participate in the mild gambling exercise that is March Madness, college basketball can overcome almost any controversy thrown its way. The NCAA’s outdated amateurism rules — which restrict college athletes from seeking market-based compensation beyond an athletic scholarship and some spending cash — created the pay-for-play brouhaha. Without these restrictions, there’s no black market, and federal dollars aren’t being directed towards helping the NCAA regulate its schools. The NCAA generated more than $1 billion in revenues in 2016-2017. The men’s basketball tournament contributed $761 million to that haul.
Is anyone going to boycott a March Madness office pool because a recruit may have been offered $100,000 for his services? Very, very doubtful.
So as scandal takes a backseat to the March Madness brackets, here are six NCAA Tournament storylines worth watching:
Will Grayson Allen Hip-check Someone Else?
As per custom, Duke — which plays Iona on Thursday in Pittsburgh as March Madness begins — suits up one of the most divisive players in the country: senior guard Grayson Allen, who intentionally hip-checked a North Carolina player during the ACC tournament on Friday, inflaming social media. In case you’re unfamiliar with Allen, he’s a fine player with a sordid history of taking cheap shots at other teams. Since he goes to Duke, you’re pretty much constitutionally mandated to despise him.
Duke, however, might have bigger problems than Allen’s tripping habits. The Blue Devils are loaded with NBA prospects — Duke’s starting lineup features four freshmen who could all be in the pros next season. But rival North Carolina knocked Duke out of the ACC tournament, in the semis, and in that game Duke’s zone defense in particular was frighteningly lethargic. The Blue Devils better start gelling, or they could find themselves back home in Durham for the Sweet Sixteen.
Can the Slowpokes From Virginia Make Some Noise?
Virginia, on the other hand, always plays team ball: what the Cavaliers lack in big-name talent, they make up for in defensive effort. That’s why Virginia’s the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Coach Tony Bennett has defied basketball convention, which says push the pace and jack three-pointers, à la the Golden State Warriors. Virginia milks the shot-clock, and forces teams to play at its plodding tempo. The style’s not always thrilling. But it’s effective.
Bennett, who’s in his ninth season at Virginia, has built the Cavaliers into a power. But he’s failed to reach a Final Four. This could really be the year. Virginia opens against No. 16 University of Maryland, Baltimore Country (UMBC) on Friday.
Will the Jackrabbits Finally Break Through?
You know you’ve asked yourself this question, because Summit League champ South Dakota State University is making its third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, and fifth trip to the big dance in seven seasons, and has the best nickname in the tournament — the Jackrabbits — and thus deserve to pull off an upset. Case closed.
The beauty of March Madness is that it offers sports fans the opportunity to watch exciting players they’d otherwise never see. America, meet Jackrabbit Mike Daum, a versatile scorer who’s averaging a double-double — that’s double digits in points (23.8) and rebounds (10.4) — and shoots an admirable 42% from three-point range. Fifth-seeded Ohio State, which faces the No. 12 Jackrabbits in Boise on Thursday, might get to know him all too well.
Will Villanova, Beasts of the Big East, Reign Again?
When the Big East broke up in 2013, and basketball powers like Connecticut, Syracuse, Louisville, and Notre Dame joined other conferences, many experts figured the remnants of the split — a new basketball-centric league consisting of mostly smaller Catholics schools — would be a new Big East in name only. The pundits were mistaken. Villanova won a national title three years later, and this season, two of the four top seeds — Villanova and Xavier — are Big East schools. Nova’s coming off a conference tournament championship, and point guard Jalen Brunson — who scored 31 against Providence in the Big East title game — is one of the craftiest players in college basketball. On Thursday in Pittsburgh, the Wildcats will face the winner of the LIU-Brooklyn/Radford “First Four” play-in game in the first round.
Oklahoma, Not OK
Oklahoma lost 8 of its last 10 games. But the selection committee forgave the Sooners, and offered them a spot in the NCAA Tournament while Oklahoma State — which beat Oklahoma twice and also defeated top-seeded Kansas twice in the regular season — is bound for the consolation NIT. Oklahoma’s inclusion doesn’t make much sense until you remember that $761 million number. The men’s NCAA Tournament is a money machine, ratings drive revenues, and big-stars drive the ratings. Oklahoma freshman guard Trae Young averages 27.4 points per game, tops in the country, and his shoot-from-anywhere style has drawn comparisons to Stephen Curry. The 10th-seeded Sooners play No. 7 Rhode Island on Thursday in Pittsburgh, which is apparently the hot-ticket site. If the Sooners prevail, they’ll likely play Duke in the second round, setting up Grayson vs Trae.
Give the committee members some credit. Fairness may not be their forte, but they know a sizzling matchup when they see it.
Beware (Arizona) Wildcats Spurned
Arizona is one of the schools playing in March Madness that’s embroiled in the FBI investigation. ESPN reported that FBI wiretaps caught Arizona head coach Sean Miller discussing a $100,000 payment for freshman star Deandre Ayton, who could be the number one pick in this year’s NBA draft. Miller denies ever discussing a payment for Ayton; Arizona’s leadership is standing behind Miller, permitting him to coach the rest of the season. Ayton and his family have denied discussing or soliciting payments. (ESPN has stood by the report.)
The adversity has galvanized Arizona. The No. 4 Wildcats, who play No. 13 Buffalo on Thursday in Boise, romped through Pac-12 Tournament: Ayton dominated the in the final, scoring 32 points and grabbing 18 rebounds in a 75-61 victory win over USC.
If Arizona cuts down the nets in San Antonio, host city of the Final Four, will the NCAA have to strip the Wildcats of their title? Again, please shut it. Where’s my bracket?