March Madness can be cruel as one loss ruins a season.
The one-and-done format of the NCAA Tournament often leads to the best team going home without a title. Amazing seasons tend to crash and burn in the maelstrom that is March Madness. From the pages of Athlon Sports Monthly, we look at the best teams — since 2000 — to not win it all.
Will the Wildcats cut down the nets in New Orleans?
The brackets are out, and the NCAA Tournament begins in just days. The editors at Athlon Sports are debating some of the hot topics regarding the Field of 68.
If you had a choice, would you take Kentucky or the field to win the title?
Mitch Light: I’d take the field. Kentucky is, in my opinion, clearly the best team in the nation, but it’s tough to win six straight games even if you have the best players. Two years ago, the Wildcats featured the most talented roster in the nation, but lost to West Virginia in the Elite Eight. A year ago, the Cats weren’t as talented yet advanced to the Final Four for the first time since 1998. The point? Talent alone doesn’t guarantee a trip to the Final Four, let alone a national title. If you have to take one team to win it, Kentucky is the obvious pick. But if given a choice, take the field.
Mark Ross: I have become more and more of a believer in Kentucky as the season has progressed, but I will still take the field. Kentucky is immensely talented, and any team that has Anthony Davis anchoring the middle is a threat to win it all, but I think they are too young and not deep enough to do it this year. John Calipari has gone with a seven-man rotation for the most part this season, so foul trouble could be a real issue, especially if it happens to Davis or Terrence Jones. Only one player in the rotation is an upperclassman, and that’s senior guard Darius Miller, who went 7-of-17 from the field and just 2-of-9 from 3-point range in the Wildcats’ 71-64 loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament championship game on Sunday. This is the first taste of NCAA Tournament play for the rest of the young ‘Cats, and I am one who believes experience is a crucial component to having success in March. The talent’s clearly there, but you need more than that to win these next six games. Just ask the 2009-10 Kentucky team.
Nathan Rush: Kentucky has no weakness. Coach John Calipari is a master motivator who has seen it all — coming within a Derrick Rose made free throw of winning the national title at Memphis in 2008. Center Anthony Davis is the best defensive player in the nation and the likely No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones are inside-out threats who attack the rim off the dribble and can also hit open jump shots. Darius Miller is a senior leader and athletic defender. The Wildcats one “flaw” is the lack of a Rose or John Wall caliber point guard. Marquis Teaque is a ball hog, but Doron Lamb picks up the slack with his high IQ and unselfish brand of basketball. UK even has spare parts like Kyle Wiltjer and Eloy Vargas on the bench. This is the best Kentucky team since Rick Pitino left the Big Blue Nation. I’ll take the Wildcats over the 67 other teams in the field.
Patrick Snow: I feel like it’s almost crazy to take one team over the field in any NCAA Tournament, but it also feels crazy to pick against Kentucky. The Wildcats are the most talented and complete team in the tourney, and this year’s squad has been amazingly consistent. John Calipari is very controversial with his recruiting methods and powerful basketball-insider friends, but he does have this UK team playing quality defense. That may seem easy with a presence like Anthony Davis in the post, but the Cats still deserve some credit for stopping opponents. Kentucky has lost past NCAA Tournament (and the SEC Tourney title) games when it goes cold on offense, especially from 3-point range. However this UK team can win even when not shooting well because of its defensive ability. I would take the field in most years, but the gap in talent between Kentucky and the rest of the field is just too immense not to pick the Wildcats.
Braden Gall: Absolutely the field. I like Kentucky to make a deep run and play in the championship game, but if I am gambling (which, of course, we do not condone at Athlon Sports), it’s hard to not to take the 67 other basketball teams in the brackets. Vanderbilt showed the nation that Kentucky can be stopped with excellent defense and timely shooting. The Cats are the most talented team in the nation with the best player in the nation, but they can be beat if you force them to shoot from the outside, get them into early foul trouble and out-work them, which is much easier said than done.
Athlon takes a conference-by-conference look at the top players
By Mitch Light
Athlon Sports is in the business of preseason prognostications, so let’s look back at who we tabbed as the preseason Player of the Year in the nation’s top conferences and who deserves the award in the postseason.
Which team is under the most pressure in this final week of the regular season?
Patrick Snow: I think the West Virginia Mountaineers are under a ton of pressure if they want to make a fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. Bob Huggins’ club is currently tied for ninth in the rough Big East, and WVU has not been playing quality ball down the stretch. After starting the season at 15–5 overall and 5–2 in league play, the Mountaineers have lost seven of their last nine games. Those seven defeats include four home games, and WVU suffered a very tough loss last Friday after blowing an 11-point halftime lead against Marquette. Seniors Truck Bryant and Kevin Jones have led the team all season but have been inconsistent lately. WVU travels to South Florida on Saturday to face a Bulls club that has been very tough this season. A quality road win in the last regular-season game could be the difference-maker in getting the Mountaineers off the bubble, instead of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Huggins’ return to Morgantown.
Mitch Light: There’s a bunch of options here, but I will go with Northwestern, which is scratching and clawing to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. The Wildcats are currently 17–11 overall and 7–9 in the Big Ten with an RPI of 43. They close the regular season with a home date with Ohio State on Wednesday and a tricky road game at Iowa on Saturday. If they beat Ohio State, they will be a virtual lock for the Tournament. If not, however, Bill Carmody’s club will head to Iowa City in must-win mode against an Iowa team that beat Indiana and Wisconsin in its last two home games. There’s no denying that this will be a stressful week for everyone associated with Northwestern basketball.
What conference tournament are you most looking forward to?
Patrick Snow: I am very excited for the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament this weekend. We all know the success that the CAA has had in recent NCAA Tournaments, producing two Final Four teams over the last six years — George Mason in 2006 and VCU in 2011. Even though three league squads (Drexel, VCU and George Mason) have 23 wins or more, I’m not sure that multiple teams will be invited to this season’s March Madness. That fact will make for a very exciting and pressure-packed league tourney. Three other CAA teams — Old Dominion, Delaware and Georgia State — have double-digit win totals in league play, so it should be wide open in Richmond. Drexel is the top seed on the strength of 17 consecutive victories, while fifth-place Delaware has won eight straight CAA games. VCU and George Mason will also be tough outs, as the CAA tourney figures to produce an electric atmosphere with multiple teams trying to reach their NCAA Tournament goal.
Mitch Light: I think the Missouri Valley Tournament in St. Louis — or Arch Madness, as it’s called — will be fun to watch. The league has two very good teams at the top in Wichita State (16–2) and Creighton (14–4) and then incredible balance with five teams finishing in a tie for third place at 9–9 in the league. Wichita State is the obvious favorite, but Creighton boasts the Valley’s best player in sophomore forward Doug McDermott, the son of head coach Greg McDermott. Looking for a sleeper? Indiana State was a bit of a disappointment this season with an 8–10 league record, but Greg Lansing’s club returns most of the key players from last year’s team that won the MVC Tournament title.
Nathan Rush: The SEC Tournament is must-see TV. Kentucky is the prohibitive favorite to win the national championship. But can the Wildcats cruise to the SEC crown, as they have in each of John Calipari's first two seasons at UK? If they are tested in a do-or-die tournament setting, how will Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the young Cats react? Also, the SEC has two of the more intriguing NCAA Tournament wild cards. Both Florida and Vanderbilt have the firepower to make a run in March. But if the Gators and Commodores don't get hot at the right time, either (or both) could easily stagger early in the Dance. UF and VU are hit or miss. But which is it? Then there's Alabama, a well-coached club that can stifle just about any offense on the right night. There is plenty of NCAA Tournament insight to be gleaned from the SEC Tournament — which, coincidentally, is in New Orleans, the site of this year's Final Four.
The Wildcats win an important SEC match-up 78-58 over the Gators
By David Schuman
It’s getting a little repetitive to say at this point, but John Calipari has one hell of a team on his hands. That fact was proved yet again Tuesday night, when the No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats (24-1, 10-0 SEC) ran No. 7 Florida (19-5, 7-2 SEC) out of Rupp Arena. The ‘Cats will only be shedding crocodile tears for these Gators though.