March Madness. The Big Dance. Whatever you want to call it, the NCAA Division 1 College Basketball Tournament is commonly thought of as the best postseason tournament in American sports, and for good reason. With 68 of the best college basketball teams in the country playing to win-or-go-home every single game until one is left standing, there’s nothing that delivers a combination of drama, excitement, despair, and jubilation quite like the NCAA tournament. But, in addition to everything it provides on the court, what truly makes March Madness special is its ability to connect with even the most casual fans. Every year, millions of people across America fill out their own tournament bracket, predicting winners of every game, basing their predictions on anything from basketball analytics to the ferocity of each team’s mascot. This allows fans to stay interested; no matter the game or their own team’s standing, they can be invested in the outcome. With the tournament officially beginning with the play-in games Tuesday and the round of 64 starting Thursday, I’m going to start by noting four storylines to keep an eye on throughout the tournament, as well as a preview and prediction for each region of the bracket. Let the Madness begin. Four Storylines 1. The tournament is as wide open as ever. Three years ago, the lowest combination of seeds in history advanced to the Final Four, with 3-seed Connecticut defeating 8-seed Butler in the championship game, after 4-seed Kentucky and 11-seed Virginia Commonwealth (VCU) lost in the semifinals. The next year, for the first time ever, two 15-seeds defeated 2-seeds in the first round. And just last year, Florida Gulf Coast became the first 15-seed to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, defeating 2-seed Georgetown and 7-seed San Diego State in the process. However, this year’s tournament might be the craziest yet. The four number one seeds have a combined nine wins and six losses against the AP’s top 25 teams, and various proverbial favorites, such as 1-seed Arizona, 2-seed Kansas, and 4-seed Michigan State have been or are currently dealing with significant injuries. With no clear front-runner and lots of potential Cinderella stories the bracket is more than likely to be filled with upsets. 2. Wichita State’s run at perfection. The Midwest Region’s 1-seed Wichita State is the first team since UNLV in 1991 to start the tournament undefeated. However, their success has been highly criticized because of the poor nature of their schedule. No other Missouri Valley Conference team made the tournament, and they have played zero games against AP Top 25 teams, with their only notable wins coming against 5-seed Saint Louis, 10-seed BYU, and 11-seed Tennessee. Bad schedule aside, they are still a very talented and experienced basketball team, with point guard Fred VanVleet posting a 3:1 assist to turnover ratio and forward Cleanthony Early averaging 16 points and 6 rebounds per game. They also made an unexpected run to the Final Four as an 9-seed last year, and with the majority of that same team still playing, there’s no reason to think they can’t do it again. 3. Doug McDermott’s career comes to a close. Creighton senior Doug McDermott will play his last college game at some point during this year’s tournament. The do-it-all forward is averaging 27 points per game this year, is shooting 52.5% from the field and 54.4% from three-point range, and has been a First-Team All-American each of the past three years. However, even more impressively, he’s currently fifth on the NCAA’s Division 1 all-time scoring list with 3,105 career points: one of eight players to score over 3,000 points in his career. Coming out of high school, McDermott was in no way a highly-touted recruit and eventually signed to play with his dad at Creighton, a school that hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament in four years. He’s is now the consensus pick to win the Wooden Award, given annually to college basketball’s best player, and this year gave up his scholarship to become a walk-on, allowing teammate Grant Gibbs to join the team for his sixth year after being sidelined by injuries for the past couple of seasons. He is, without a doubt, the quintessential college athlete, and a great role-model for kids and athletes across the country. 4. The Year of the Freshmen. Last year’s recruiting class had been lauded as one of the best in college basketball history, and it has more than lived up to the hype. Duke’s Jabari Parker will likely be a First-Team All-American, and Kansas’ duo of Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid led a team that lost all five starters from last year to a 2-seed in this year’s tournament. Kentucky’s lineup of High School All-Americans failed to deliver on their promise as a group, but Julius Randle is more than living up to his end of the bargain, and should be a top pick in next year’s NBA draft. Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis is considered one of the better point guards in the country, leading his team to a 25-0 start. And although they might not get as much publicity, guards Marcus Foster of Kansas State and Isaiah Taylor of Texas and forward Aaron Gordon of Arizona have been critical to their teams’ successes this season. Previews and Predictions 1. South Preview: Number 1 overall seed Florida headlines the South region, with number 2-seed Kansas and 3-seed Syracuse the other big names. However, the region as a whole does not appear very strong. While Syracuse was ranked number one in the country for the majority of their 25-0 start, they have lost 5 of their last 7 games, with two of those losses coming from Boston College (who finished the year with an 8-24 record) and Georgia Tech. Kansas finished with a record of 24-9, and they are 2-3 since Embiid went out with an injury (he may return later in the tournament, but even that is not certain). 4-seed UCLA, 5-seed VCU, and 6-seed Ohio State are good but not great teams: UCLA is a great offensive team but not so great on the defensive end, and VCU and Ohio State way better at defense. The bottom of the region is also pretty weak, although 7-seed New Mexico is 20-3 since December 21 and 9-seed Pittsburgh has one of the better players in the country in guard Lamar Patterson. Prediction: As the top overall seed in the tournament, Florida was given a relatively easy path by the selection committee, and there’s no reason to think they won’t make good use of it. While Kansas might be the most talented team in the region, Embiid’s injury could result in an early upset. VCU is always a potential dark horse with their havoc-inducing defense and New Mexico could make a run if they get past Kansas in the second round; however, Florida’s experience will keep them alive and get them to the Final Four. 2. East Preview: The East region might not be the strongest in the tournament, but it could certainly be one of the most unpredictable. 1-seed Virginia won the ACC regular season and tournament championships for the first time in program history, but only received the fourth 1-seed after 2-seeds Michigan, Wisconsin, Kansas, and Villanova all lost in their conference tournaments. Villanova is the 2-seed in the East, and while they have an impressive 28-4 season record, their only Top 25 win is a four-point home victory over Kansas. 3-seed Iowa State and 4-seed Michigan State have been the popular picks after winning their respective conference tournaments, but American Athletic Conference teams, including 5-seed Cincinnati, 7-seed UConn, and 8-seed Memphis have performed better than their seeding would indicate. 6-seed North Carolina is always solid and Roy Williams is one of the better coaches in the game, but 10-seed St. Joseph’s and 11-seed Providence have momentum after upsetting VCU and Creighton in their respective conference tournaments. Prediction: With a variety of teams capable of making a run, it’s anybody’s guess as to who will make it out of the East region. Michigan State is finally healthy and should advance to the Sweet Sixteen, but Virginia’s rock-solid defense will prove too much for them. Iowa State and Villanova are good picks, and Providence could surprise some people as a potential Cinderella. However, UConn has that perfect combination of great guard play, experience, and stardom in AAC Player of the Year Shabazz Napier that will get them to an Elite Eight meeting with Virginia and eventually into the Final Four. 3. West Preview: 1-seed Arizona headlines a balanced West Region. 2-seed Wisconsin is a solid all-around team: possibly the best in the Big Ten this season despite not winning either the regular season or tournament championships. 3-seed Creighton features probable Wooden Award winner Doug McDermott, and 6-seed Baylor followed a 1-7 stretch with a 10-2 finish to the season. 11-seed Nebraska might be the surprise team of the country this season, finishing fourth in the almighty Big Ten after being projected to finish dead last at the start, and 7-seed Oregon finished their regular season by beating Arizona. The team to watch, however, might be 9-seed Oklahoma State. Star point guard Marcus Smart was suspended three games for punching a fan during the middle of the season, and the Cowboys proceeded to lose all three of those games. They are 5-2 since his return, however, and could be a major challenge for Arizona should they get past 8-seed Gonzaga in the first round, not an easy task in and of itself. Prediction: Arizona certainly has the potential to win it all, but look for Smart to carry his team past the Wildcats and to defeat 4-seed San Diego State in the Sweet Sixteen. While Baylor is talented, they are very inconsistent, which could pose a problem against Nebraska’s spectacular defense. Wisconsin is the most balanced team in a very balanced region, and their experience and Bo Ryan’s coaching acumen will lead them past Creighton and Oklahoma State and into the Final Four. 4. Midwest Preview: Easily the strongest region in the tournament, featuring three of last season’s four Final Four teams, the selection committee is making 1-seed and undefeated Wichita State earn a return trip to the Final Four. 2-seed Michigan was in position to grab the last 1-seed until a loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament championship game, and 3-seed Duke has the potential to beat anyone in the country. Much like Michigan State in the East, however, 4-seed and defending national champion Louisville has been a popular pick to win the region after capturing the AAC’s tournament championship. In addition, 8-seed Kentucky, while very inconsistent, has a plethora of future NBA draft picks, and 5-seed Saint Louis’ lockdown defense led them to a 25-2 start to the season and close losses to both Wichita State and Wisconsin. Whoever wins the play-in game between Iowa and Tennessee will be a very dangerous 11-seed, and 13-seed Manhattan would be a potential Cinderella had they not drawn a tough Round of 64 matchup with Louisville. Prediction: Wichita State is smart, tough, and experienced, but they just don’t have enough physical talent to matchup with Louisville and star guard Russ Smith. Duke could lose as early as the Round of 32 game against Iowa or Tennessee, but even with a win they will have a hard time with Michigan: a team that has improved since a 10 point loss at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, one of the toughest venues to visit in the country. However, Michigan is susceptible to talented forwards, which Louisville has in sophomore Montrezl Harrell. The hype surrounding the Cardinals is well-deserved; they will make it out of the Midwest region and reach the Final Four. 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