Did Michigan State get a raw deal? Yeah. If the Spartans — who (along with Purdue) won the Big 10 regular season title and took the conference tournament — didn’t deserve a #1 seed, they definitely didn’t deserve a #2 seed. Especially because that puts Duke, the top overall team in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, right in Michigan State’s Final Four path. (If seeding holds, #1 Duke and #2 Michigan State would clash in the Elite Eight.)
Meanwhile, should the selection committee have granted St. John’s, who lost in the Big East tournament quarterfinals to Marquette by a cool 32 points, the last at-large bid? With apologies to the Red Storm faithful, you can make a strong argument that no, it shouldn’t have.
All bitter gripes about the brackets, however, should last about three seconds. You can’t change anything now. So grab your pencil, print out a piece of paper and get ready make your picks. (Seriously, just to mess with the IT honcho who runs your office pool, hand him paper brackets, we’re sure he’ll love it.)
To help you along with your NCAA basketball March Madness bracket, here are 10 standout players who could carry their teams to an upset or two, if not all the way to the Final Four in Minneapolis.
Zion Williamson, Duke
Duh, I know. But even hermits have been known to fill out brackets (presumably). And just in case you’re one of those folks who only tunes into college hoops this time of year: Duke freshman Zion Williamson is simply the most freakish player in the game. “There’s never been a player on any level like Zion Williamson,” says ESPN analyst Jay Bilas.
That doesn’t mean Williamson is the best player on the planet. It’s that no one with his build — chiseled 6’7″, 284 lb. linebacker — possesses his skill set. He can jump over the backboard. And Williamson — or just plain “Zion” at this point, ala Serena, LeBron and Neymar — is incredibly fundamental: he can dribble, pass, and owns an effective shooting touch around the rim. “He’s like a mack truck,” says Bilas, “playing lead in ballet.” Let’s just hope his shoes stay intact.
#1 Duke plays the winner of the #16 North Carolina Central/#16 North Dakota State game on Friday, March 22 at 7:10 PM ET on CBS.
Fletcher Magee, Wofford
Magee — “sounds like he should be somebody’s butler,” Bilas deadpans — might be the best shooter in the country. The 6’4″ senior has hit 502 career three-pointers for Wofford, the Southern Conference champs, two shy of the NCAA D-1 record. He shoots an efficient 43% from downtown, a pretty remarkable rate for a guy who hoists an arm-tiring 11 treys a game, and 91% from the foul line.
Magee grew up studying the shot of Philadelphia 76ers guard J.J. Redick, who used to play for the Magic in Magee’s hometown of Orlando; this season, Magee passed Redick on the career NCAA three-pointer list.
#7 Wofford — of Spartanburg, South Carolina — faces #10 Seton Hall on Thursday, March 21, at around 9:40 PM ET on CBS.
Anthony Lamb, Vermont
The player of the year in the America East Conference, Lamb, a 6’6″ junior, has an unusual style in today’s basketball world, which values spreading players across the floor and jacking threes. During Vermont’s America East Conference title game win over UMBC on Saturday, Vermont would dump the ball to Lamb around the foul line, and he’d often bully his way to the basket, a testament to his strength and skill. And Lamb can shoot: he hit 1.5 threes per game this season, nearly double his per-game production from a year ago.
Besides Lamb, who averaged 21.4 points per game this season, the Catamounts feature the Duncan brothers of Evansville, Indiana: fifth year senior Ernie, junior Everett, and freshman Robin. Vermont’s the fifth team in Division 1 history with a fraternal trio on the same squad.
Catch #13 Vermont against #4 Florida St. on Thursday at 2 p.m. ET on CBS.
Miye Oni, Yale
It’s been 24 years since the NBA drafted a player from the Ivy League. Yale’s Miye Oni could end that draught. A late bloomer who had committed to a Division 3 college in high school — and was spotted by a Yale assistant coach while scouting another player — NBA scouts have made regular visits to New Haven to check out Oni’s game. The 6’6″ guard won Ivy Player of the Year honors by doing a little bit of everything; Oni averaged 17.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game.
#13 Yale will play #4 LSU on Thursday at 12:40 PM ET on TruTV. Both schools are involved in embarrassing scandals: LSU coach Will Wade was placed on leave after he was caught potentially violating NCAA rules on wiretap. Yale’s embroiled in the college admissions scandal, as a family allegedly paid $1.2 million in bribes to get a fake soccer recruit into the school. Folks made jokes on the internet.
Ja Morant, Murray St.
Zion may be the top overall pick in this June’s NBA draft. But Morant, the explosive 6’3″ point guard from Murray St., is almost certainly going top 3. A Murray State assistant coach first spotted Morant, another unheralded recruit, while stopping by a gym concession stand to grab some chips. Best snack ever: Morant’s stewardship on the Murray St. offense is now appointment TV. Morant scores 24.6 points per game on 50% shooting, which is scarily efficient for a point guard, and dishes out 10 assists per game, tops in the country.
In the first round, Morant will duel with one of the country’s other top point guards, Markus Howard of #5 Marquette, around 4:30 PM ET on Thursday on TBS. Grab some more chips for that one.
Tacko Fall, University of Central Florida
Ja Morant, Fletcher Magee — this year’s tournament fields an impressive All-Name Team. Tacko Fall’s another name you won’t forget. The 7’6″ University of Central Florida center shot 75% from the field this season, and swatted away 2.5 shots per game for the Knights, who finished 23-8. That’s right: Fall’s 7’6″, with a 10-foot, 5-inch standing reach, meaning he need not jump to dunk the basketball.
In one of the season’s sweetest moments, Fall was reunited this season with his mother, whom he hadn’t seen in the seven years since he moved to the U.S. from Senegal.
#9 UCF takes on #8 VCU on Friday at around 9:40 ET PM on CBS. The winner most likely gets Duke in the second round.
Ethan Happ, Wisconsin
Ethan Happ, the 6’10” senior center, this season became the first Big 10 player in more than 35 years to score over 2,000 career points and grab over 1,000 rebounds. Don’t discount his passing — Happ has also assisted on 37% of his teammates’ field goals while he’s on the floor, a fantastic rate for a big man.
Happ’s a bit of a throwback, the rare tall pro prospect who doesn’t jack three-pointers — he finished his career 1-16 from downtown. Still, don’t discount the damage Happ, a second team All-American, and his Badgers can inflict on their opponents these next few weeks.
First test for #5 Wisconsin is #12 Oregon, the Pac-12 tournament champions, on Friday at 4:30 ET on TBS.
Eric Paschall, Villanova
One-and-done college players like Zion, who stay in college for a year before leaving for the NBA, rightfully steal most headlines. They tend to be phenomenal. But it’s nice to see players who stick around at college, like Happ and Villanova’s Eric Paschall, get their due. Remember the Wildcats, last year’s national champs? They lost four of their top six players to the NBA this season, but thanks in large part to Paschall — the relatively undersized senior 6’8″ power forward who memorably shot 10-11 from the field against Kansas in last year’s national semifinals — the Cats still won the Big East regular season and tournament championships.
‘Nova’s not a favorite to repeat as national champions. But beware of any team with a skilled bruiser like Paschall, who’s eager to prove that he’s ready to play at the next level, no matter his height.
#6 Villanova opens up its title defense against #11 St. Mary’s on Thursday at 7:20 ET on TBS.
Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga
Hachimura, a 6’8″ junior, is a projected NBA lottery pick: he’d be the first native of Japan ever selected in the draft. As a freshman at Gonzaga, for the 2016-2017 Zags team that reached the national championship game (before falling to North Carolina), he didn’t see much action. Hachimura missed practice time with his teammates to learn English in tutoring sessions (he also picked up the language through TV shows like The Vampire Diaries).
Since then, he’s blossomed. In one of the best regular season games of the season, in Hawaii back in November, Hachimura helped show that Duke — a team that some pundits were predicting would finish with a perfect record this season — could indeed be felled. In a thrilling 89-87 win for Gonzaga, Hachimura scored 20 points, with seven rebounds, five assists, and three blocked shots. Gonzaga could face Duke again in the national semifinals.
But first, on Thursday at 7:27 ET on TruTV, the #1 ‘Zags must advance past either #16 Farleigh Dickinson or #16 Prairie View A&M, who play in the “First Four” on Tuesday night in Dayton.
De’Andre Hunter, Virginia
A financial services firm called 361 Capital on Monday released a note —titled “The Psychology of Undermining March Madness Brackets” — applying behavioral research to tournament picks. (Makes sense: the firm’s clients surely want to win their bracket pool’s prize.) As one of its “behavioral biases that can bust a bracket,” the company pointed to “the gambler’s fallacy,” a misconception that an abnormal event is less likely to occur in the future because it just happened in the past. So, 361 Capital warns, don’t feel #1-seeded Virginia is immune to another historic upset at the hands of a #16 seed, just because UMBC crushed the Cavaliers a year ago.
With all due respect to the financial outfit, throw your psychological buzzwords off the court. Virginia’s not going to fall in the first round again, because this year, the Cavaliers have De’Andre Hunter. The 6’7″ sophomore swingman from Philly missed last year’s tournament game due to an injury. But this season, Hunter has emerged as Virginia’s best NBA prospect in the school’s resurgence under coach Tony Bennett over the last decade.
Virginia will try to move on from last year’s nightmare against Gardiner-Webb on Friday, at around 3:10 PM ET on TruTV. With Hunter, a third-team All-American, on the floor, they’re more than likely to avoid another disaster. That’s no fallacy, gambler’s or otherwise.