We’re this close to yet another pulse-pounding, heart-stopping NCAA Tournament. So, what (and whom) can we count on? Where is our Cinderella hiding? We continue by traveling through the South.
Justin Jackson, North Carolina
This year, Justin Jackson finally turned into the player that scouts thought he would be coming out of high school. After Marcus Paige left, UNC needed someone to step up and become the elite scoring threat that Paige was. Jackson is that man. The big difference for Jackson has been his three-point shooting. He hit 63 three-pointers total during his freshman and sophomore seasons. This season, he’s knocked down 90.
While top-seeded UNC is a loaded team, they’ll be counting on Jackson and his scoring ability to lead them.
Lonzo Ball, UCLA
I actually think Lonzo Ball’s father, LaVar Ball, is doing his son a favor with all the wild statements he’s been making. Instead of being a distraction to his son, he’s taking the attention away from him. That way, Ball can just focus on the tournament. Also, there’s nothing wrong with a father being confident in his kid, especially when that kid is Ball.
Arguably the nation’s top player this past season, Ball is already NBA-ready. He can drain Steph Curry-like three-pointers. (No, he is not Steph Curry, but he is capable of hitting very deep shots). His passing is already at the NBA level. UCLA is a team that has a lot of veteran players. It says a lot that a freshman like Ball can come in and dominate the way he has.
Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky
Monk attracts most of the media’s attention, but Fox is just as important to the Wildcats’ success. Most years, this freshman duo would be touted as the best backcourt in the country. However, teams like Villanova and Kansas also have loaded backcourts with veteran players who have been around for more than just six months. That said, the Wildcat kids are no slouches to the competition.
Fox runs the offense and is an above average rebounder for his position. He averages just about as many rebounds as he does assists. Monk is the scorer. His 47-point eruption against North Carolina was one of the best moments from this past season. If UCLA and Kentucky can take care of business this weekend, the rematch between the two super powers would be great. Fox/Monk versus Ball, Round 2? Yes, please.
Gregg Marshall (Head Coach), Wichita State
Ron Baker and Fred Van Vleet are long gone. Wichita State? They’re still here, and they’re back in the NCAA tournament—this time as a 10-seed. Head Coach Gregg Marshall wasn’t about to allow two star players leaving ruin what he’s built. Possibly the most under-seeded in this year’s dance, the Shockers have their sights set on a rematch with Kentucky, their opponent in the second round of the 2014 tournament.
Marshall entered that game looking to prove he was better than the great John Calipari. With his Shockers being undefeated at the time, and the Wildcats being doubted for their poor season (poor season by Kentucky’s standards), it seemed like the time was now for Marshall. It wasn’t.
Now, Marshall and the Shockers are one win away from sweet revenge against the blue blood kings of Rupp Arena.
Searching for Cinderella
Middle Tennessee State
Searching for Cinderella in this region was tough. With UNC, Kentucky and UCLA being at the top of this bracket, finding a dark horse can seem impossible. So I landed on the school that did the impossible last year. As a 15-seed, they took out heavily favored Michigan State and their first-team All-American Denzel Valentine.
This year, they take on a Minnesota team that has to be thinking about what the Blue Raiders did to their conference mate last season. Watch out for Middle Tennessee, they’re used to playing the roll of Cinderella.
The Bruins are finally ready to return to the Final Four. This is the best team they have had since Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love left campus. No team is perfect, but this one may be close. They have their superstar in Lonzo Ball. Stud shooters are littered across the court, whether it is Bryce Alford, Aaron Holiday or Isaac Hamilton. Thomas Welsh is a great rim protector and TJ Leaf may be the best player in the country who never gets talked about.
This is a complete team, and they have proven they can win anywhere. The Bruins’ win at Rupp Arena against Kentucky may have been the best win any team has had all season.