Guest colum: One man's take on NCAA

March Madness breakdown: Zion, Cinderellas and players to watch

Parred down version of bracketology lesson for men's basketball tournament
By Jameson Davis | Mar 20, 2019
Jameson Davis

Ever since the days of Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill, Duke has been the most polarizing program in college basketball. Some people loved the egalitarian offense of the late-1980s-mid-1990s teams, while others favored the more recent “one-and-done” teams featuring the top freshmen from throughout the country. Duke haters cringe at the constant floor-slapping and omnipresent media coverage. Typically there aren’t many college basketball enthusiasts who just feel “meh” about Duke.

This year, Duke again has been the center of attention in the college basketball world, albeit for a different reason. Zion Williamson, a 6-foot 7-inch 275-pound freshman from South Carolina has taken the nation by storm with his supreme athleticism and unrelenting power. His teammates have granted him the nickname “Zanos” in reference to Marvel Comics villain “Thanos”. Zion, however, is not a villain by any means. He seems like a great kid, a player who revels in his teammates' success as much as his own. Unfortunately, a freak occurrence during Duke’s matchup against arch-rival North Carolina has made him the center of a nationwide debate.

Click to read Davis' thoughts before last year's tournament.

No more than 30 seconds into the game, Zion planted his left foot and his shoe literally exploded. His left foot burst through the sole of his sneaker so violently it left the Duke crowd (including special guest Barack Obama) speechless. Thankfully the injury was simply a grade 1 Medial collateral ligament sprain, but the debate has centered on whether Zion, the certain No. 1 NBA draft pick this coming June, should even return to play for Duke this season.

The argument against Zion returning focuses on two main points. One is the risk of further injuring his knee, and therefore his chances of remaining the top draft pick in June. While the other is that since NCAA athletes do not get paid, there really is no upside for Zion returning to provide labor for free.

Regarding the former point, Zion does have a chance of re-injuring his knee if he comes back, I cannot argue against that. However, Zion will need to continue playing basketball in preparation for the NBA draft anyways, whether that is playing pickup games or working out with other high-level draft prospects. No matter what, in any of these circumstances, there would be a risk of Zion’s shoe exploding and him re-injuring his knee.

The issue is that he is currently playing basketball for free, for people who, in turn, make a boatload of money. Now if you want to argue that Zion is too valuable to play basketball for free anywhere, I get where you are coming from. But you’re never going to be able to mitigate all of the risks, no matter what. Let’s say Zion injured himself playing for Team USA, would people be as upset that he got injured while playing for free? I didn’t hear many people angry after Paul George broke his leg playing for free on Team USA.

As we now know, Zion is back (and looks better than ever). He led the Blue Devils to an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship and helped Duke secure the tournament’s number one overall seed. We haven’t seen a college player captivate the public the way Zion has possibly ever. He is as unique a prospect as we have seen, and if he leads Duke to a national title, he will go down as one of the greatest basketball players to ever play at the college level.

While Zion and Duke are the belle of the proverbial ball, there are 67 other teams in the dance. For your consumption, I wanted to highlight teams that have a real chance to take home the trophy, along with Cinderellas, New England teams and the most exciting players to watch.

The favorites (other than Duke)

Virginia

Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers have been the model of consistency in college basketball for the past few regular seasons. This is Bennett’s 10th season coaching the Cavaliers and their sixth straight NCAA tournament appearance and seventh straight season winning at least 23 games. The Cavaliers “pack-line” defense stymies opposing offenses akin to a boa constrictor slowly squeezing the life from its prey. However, what is often remembered about a team’s overall success is its performance in the tournament. Last year, top-ranked Virginia lost to 16 seed UMBC, becoming the first top seed to lose to a 16th seed in the history of the tournament. Virginia tends to slow the pace of a game to a crawl, which works against most teams, but also creates less margin of error for the Cavaliers themselves. If an opposing team is hot from 3-point land, Virginia is susceptible to an early round exit.

This year’s team features a bit more offensive talent, led by projected top-10 pick Deandre Hunter and a solid backcourt of Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy. In the case that Virginia falls behind early, it will be very interesting to see if Bennett decides to switch up the pace on both ends. Even with the aforementioned regular-season success, there is a great deal of pressure on coach Bennett and the Cavaliers to prove that they can advance deep into March playing such a slow, low-pace version of basketball.

North Carolina

While other “Blue Blood” programs have gone the one-and-done route regarding recruiting talented freshmen who then bolt for the National Basketball Association a year later, North Carolina has found success with lower-rated recruits who stay for multiple years and improve greatly under Roy Williams' tutelage. Cam Johnson, Luke Maye and Kenny Williams are examples of mid-level recruits (Maye was a walk-on) who have grown into top-tier players in the ACC. Coach Roy Williams employs a break-neck offensive pace, that has freshman point guard Coby White speeding down the court in search of open teammates. The Heels are deep and talented, usually wearing down their opponents in the second half. The combination of talent, depth and experience could prove valuable for North Carolina, which is in search of its fourth title in the Roy Williams-era.

Tennessee

Another veteran laden team is the Tennessee Volunteers. Rick Barnes' group ranks in the top-30 in offensive and defensive efficiency, and every core player is either a junior or senior. The Volunteers like to run their offense through Southeastern Conference player of the year Grant Williams, who prefers to get the ball in the high post and attack the basket or create for others. His co-star Admiral Schofield is a rock-solid wing player who shoots 40 percent on 3-pointers, he also has one of the best names in the entire tournament. If you are looking to select a winning team in your tournament pool, Tennessee may be a wise choice, as many people will overlook it in favor of Duke, North Carolina and Virginia.

Kentucky

After getting embarrassed by Duke in its opening game, Kentucky went from being a preseason favorite to an afterthought. However, John Calipari has conducted one of his best coaching jobs this season. Taking a group of talented freshmen and combining them with experienced players to create one of the most complete and steady teams in the country. Sophomore P.J. Washington has emerged as one of the best all-around players in America, while freshmen Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro and Ashton Hagans have matured and improved into NBA prospects. The Wildcats play with pace and have the frontcourt depth necessary to withstand foul trouble and potential injuries during the tournament. If the Midwest region shakes out as planned, Kentucky would meet North Carolina in the regional final, which would give the Wildcats the opportunity to exact revenge on the Tar Heels after their epic regional final game in 2017.

Gonzaga

It’s amazing how consistent winning can change the public’s stance on a mid-major program in a negative manner. That is what has happened to Gonzaga. The Bulldogs have transcended the West Coast Conference and the underdog label with their continued dominance. However, for all the sustained success that Gonzaga has experienced, it is still judged too critically by what happens in conference play, which creates a predicament. Dominate the competition, and the Zags are perceived to be untested. Stub a toe, and, oh, it proves they’re overrated and fatally flawed. They can’t win, even though they keep winning. This year’s version is the only team in the country to beat a fully-healthy Duke team. They have a dynamic frontcourt duo in Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke, and an experienced point guard in Zach Norvell. If Mark Few’s team finds a way to cut down the nets in April, the perception of Gonzaga (along with other mid-majors) will be altered forever.

Michigan State

Tom Izzo has a team full of grown men. While the Spartans have had numerous injuries to key players, they were able to beat their rival Michigan for a third time this season while claiming a Big Ten Championship. Cassius Winston is the best all-around point guard in the nation, and Nick Ward and Kenny Goings lead a deep frontcourt that defends the rim and rebounds with vigor. Spartan fans were upset that Michigan State landed a two seed, and was placed in top overall seed Duke’s region, but this veteran-laden team has as good a chance to make a run to the Final Four as anyone.

Michigan

Death, taxes and John Beilein in March. In my opinion, the Michigan coach (along with Villanova’s Jay Wright) is the best “in-game” tactician in the country. Following a trip to the national championship game last year, Beilein has another Wolverine team hungry for a deep postseason run. Led by point guard Zavier Simpson and fervent freshman Ignas Brazdeikis, Michigan is a rugged bunch which excels on the defensive end of the floor. The only question with the Wolverines is who will step up in crunch-time on the offensive end, as they lack a true “go-to” scorer. Isaiah Livers emergence off the bench could be a tournament changer for the boys in Maize and Blue.

Cinderellas

Wofford

Little Wofford, founded in 1854 in Spartanburg, S.C., by Methodist minister Benjamin Wofford, cannot hurt you and your bigness. It has but 1,600 students. However, it also has the best shooter in the tournament, Fletcher Magee (more on him later). Wofford upset North Carolina last year and dominated South Carolina this year. The Terriers went 18-0 in conference play against a surprisingly talented Southern Conference that almost had three representatives in the big dance. Wofford finished the season ranked 20th in the Associated Press poll, and probably deserved a five or six-seed. Instead they were given a seven-seed and have to face a gritty Seton Hall team that looked fantastic during the Big East Tournament. If Magee and the Terriers can get by Seton Hall, Kentucky will be waiting in the wings, and whoa-baby would that be a matchup for the ages.

UC Irvine

Not a whole lot about UC-Irvine makes sense. The school  is based in Orange County, California and their mascot is an anteater. There is no connection between Irvine and the large South American sloth, there certainly aren’t any anteaters in California (well maybe in zoos). Somehow this team rattled off 30 wins this season and are currently on a 16-game winning streak. The Anteaters are a great defensive team, ranking as the number one team in the country at defending two-point shots. The Anteaters face off against Kansas State, who may be missing their best player, Dean Wade. If you want to get weird, similar to an anteater, take UC-Irvine to pull the upset in the first round.

Old Dominion

While Old Dominion doesn’t quite measure up to Wofford and UC-Irvine as a viable Cinderella team, they will certainly be a sentimental pick after reading about their head coach Jeff Jones. After defeating Western Kentucky in the Conference-USA final, Jones announced that he has been battling prostate cancer since his initial diagnosis in 2015. As the confetti fell from the rafters of the Ford Center, Jones was visibly emotional, as he buried his face in a towel. While Old Dominion will be the certain underdog in their first round matchup against Purdue, most people will be cheering for Jones and his Monarch team.

Other potential Cinderellas: Belmont, New Mexico State, all three New England teams.

Speaking of ….

New England teams

Vermont

Coach John Becker has quietly run the most consistent program in New England basketball over the past decade. Led by America East player of the year Anthony Lamb, the Catamounts defeated UMBC a year following a loss to the UMBC team which eventually upset top-seeded Virginia. One reason to root for the Catamounts is the story of redshirt sophomore Josh Speidel. Speidel suffered a traumatic brain injury and slipped into a coma following a car accident in 2015. Coach Becker has honored Speidel’s scholarship and kept a roster spot for the Indiana native. While he may never play again, Josh Speidel remains an incredible source of inspiration for the Catamount team.

Northeastern

The Huskies of Northeastern currently hold the title as the premier basketball program in the city of Boston. Bill Coen leads this veteran team to their ninth NCAA tournament appearance in school history. Northeastern plays at a snail’s pace and shoots lots of 3-pointers, which is a recipe for upsetting a higher-seed. Even though a matchup against perennial powerhouse Kansas seems daunting, this Jayhawks team is very beatable, and the Huskies are peaking at the right time, winning seven straight games. If Serbian-born point guard Vasa Pusica and the rest of the Huskies limit possessions and make a decent percent of their 3-pointers, they could very well pull the upset Thursday afternoon.

Yale

James Jones, Yale’s head coach, is the longest running men’s basketball coach in the Ivy League. He’s also the 11th longest running coach in the country. The Bulldogs are led by junior guard Miye Oni, who could be the first Ivy League player drafted since 1995. The last time Yale was in the tournament, it upset Baylor 79-75. This year the Bulldogs will face a similar physical team in LSU. You really cannot find two schools that are more opposite than the Bulldogs and Tigers. In this game I give the edge to Yale, whose players will be desperate to prove that they are actually talented and not simply spoiled trust-fund children whose actress moms forked over $200,000 to secure them a bench spot.

Players to watch (other than Zion)

Kyle Guy/Ty Jerome (Virginia)

The two backcourt mates for the top overall seed Virginia Cavaliers may look similar in stature, but their styles of play are quite different and represent the regions they hail from. Guy, a 6-foot 3-inch former Mr. Basketball from Indiana, is your prototypical Hoosier guard. He is one of the premier shooters in the country and really can do it all on offense. Jerome’s grittiness and flair is emblematic of his New Rochelle, N.Y. upbringing. Jerome is a smooth ballhandler and creative shot maker who learned his moves playing on NYC playground courts.

Coby White (North Carolina)

The bounce of his hair is akin to his style of play. The speedy North Carolina point guard has a staccato nature to his play. White collects outlets passes and bolts up the floor, probing for opportunities to attack the defense. More times than not, he finds them. White recently surpassed Michael Jordan on North Carolina’s all-time freshman scoring list. While he has the aptitude to shoot from all over the court, White is at his best when he’s attacking the hoop. His ability to split through double-teams and finish with either hands makes him one of the premier scoring guards in the country.

R.J. Barrett/Cam Reddish (Duke)

Yes, Duke has other talented freshmen this year. Barrett and Reddish are two players who have skill sets that may prove better suited for the NBA. Barrett entered Duke as the number one-ranked high school player in the country, rated even higher than Zion. While Zion’s greatness has overshadowed Barrett, the Canadian native was first-team all-conference and led the Blue Devils in scoring. Reddish, on the other hand, is a smooth, lanky wing player who has somewhat underachieved this season, but shows intermittent flashes of greatness. If Reddish, Barrett and lockdown defender Tre Jones all play to their potential during the tournament, Duke may steamroll the competition en route to a sixth national championship.

Cassius Winston (Michigan State)

In my opinion, Michigan State’s Cassius Winston is the best all-around point guard in America. A gritty Detroit native, Winston slithers past defenders and delivers perfect cross-court passes. What Winston lacks in athleticism, he more than makes up for in the form of leadership, toughness and his cerebral nature of play.

Zavier Simpson (Michigan)

An absolute bulldog, yet listens to Backstreet Boys. Meet diminutive (only in size, not heart) Michigan point guard Zavier Simpson. The junior guard is the undisputed leader of a Wolverine team that has a real shot at returning to the Final Four for a second consecutive year. While Simpson won’t blow you away with his athleticism or marksmanship, he’s added unique wrinkles to his game that baffle opponents. This year he has brought back the old-school hook shot that kisses off the top of the backboard and softly falls through the hoop. Look out for this shot during the tournament, as it will most certainly have Bill Raftery and other older-generation broadcasters falling out of their seats with delight.

P.J. Washington (Kentucky)

Kentucky during the John Calipari tenure has become synonymous with the one-and-done rule that the NCAA mandated in 2006. However, this year’s Kentucky team (one that has a few talented and likely one-and-done freshmen) is led by a seasoned sophomore by the name of P.J. Washington. A 6-foot 8-inch forward from the Dallas area, Washington is a great example of a player who vastly improved his game (and NBA draft stock) by remaining in school another year. Although he isn’t as physically imposing as guys like Zion Williams and Grant Williams, Washington has little weaknesses in his game. He has range out to the three-point line, is a cerebral passer, as well as a sound defender and rebounder. While NBA scouts salivate over Washington’s ability to contribute immediately at the next level, Calipari must find solace in the fact that when times get tough in the tournament, he can count on P.J.

Fletcher Magee (Wofford)

If you fancy a mid-major player who launches shots with no conscious, look no further than Wofford’s Fletcher Magee. Magee has made 502 career 3-pointers, only two short of tying the all-time career mark set by Oakland’s Travis Bader in 2014. Magee slithers around teammate’s screens and contorts his body in order to get off a shot that makes even his teammates wonder if he’s actually taking a smart shot. Many times Magee’s legs are sprawled in the opposite direction of the hoop, and his shoulders are anything but squared to the basket. Magee says although his form may seem unorthodox, he practices those types of shots every day, and with Magee surpassing J.J. Redick, Jimmer Fredette and Steph Curry in all-time 3-pointers, you’d be silly not to believe him.

Ja Morant (Murray State)

No player aside from Zion Williamson has done more to elevate his draft stock than Murray State’s Ja Morant. Morant went from a secondary option his freshman year, to a finalist for the Wooden Award (nation’s top player). Coming out of high school, the University of South Carolina was the only major Division I school to offer Morant a scholarship. Instead, he decided to attend Murray State University in Kentucky. Going to a smaller school allowed Morant to develop his skills at a higher rate, and get many more repetitions as a dominant ballhandler and orchestrator of the offense. Morant has been compared to John Wall and Russell Westbrook, as his premier athleticism jumps off the screen in the form of thunderous dunks and cobra-quick crossovers. It will be very interesting to see how Morant performs under the bright lights of the NCAA tournament, especially against a good team in Marquette, which will have a few days to prepare a defensive scheme to slow him down. Many NBA scouts will be watching this game in Hartford, and I would recommend you tune in as well.

Caleb/Cody Martin (Nevada)

Dick and Tom Van Arsdale, Jason and Jarron Collins, Marcus and Markieff Morris. What do all of these tandems have in common? They are all sets of twins who played together in college.

We have our latest set of identical twins in Nevada’s Caleb and Cody Martin. The brothers transferred from North Carolina State two years ago and have been the lynchpins in the Wolfpack’s ascendance to the top of the Mountain West Conference. Both stand at 6 feet 7 inches, but have very different skill sets. Caleb is a high-flying scorer who can take over the game offensively, while Cody is more of a facilitator and also a better defender than his twin. If Nevada is to make a run to the Final Four this year, the Martin twins will be a major reason why.

Tacko Fall (UCF)

There’s tall, and then there’s Tacko Fall tall. The UCF center stands at 7 feet 6 inches, towering over teammates and opponents. The tallest player in both college and NBA, Tacko Fall can dunk without even leaving his feet, and can play “keep away” by simply holding the ball over his head. He left his family in Senegal at the age of 16 to come to America and focus and basketball and school. Initially, basketball wasn’t even his primary sport. Like his idol Hakeem Olajuwon, Fall loved to play soccer. The footwork necessary to excel in soccer has now been transferred to the hardwood, as he is much more nimble than one would expect such a massive human to be. An interesting subplot of the tournament would be the potential second round matchup between Fall’s UCF team and the Duke Blue Devils. If Zion Williamson attempts to dunk over this mountain of a man, we will have our “when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object” moment, and I will be thrilled to see the outcome.

Jameson Davis graduated from Camden Hills Regional High School in 2005. He helped the Windjammers win state Class B basketball championships in 2002 and 2005. He graduated from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and also has a masters in business administration. He can be reached by email at jameson.davis4@gmail.com.

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