While the basketball world will be focused on Salt Lake City this weekend and the NBA All-Star game festivities, my eyes, which tend towards looking at where actual games of consequence will be played, will be focused on the college game. With roughly a month left before the 68 March Madness berths are announced, this provides many people looking for action a chance to focus on who are the contenders, who are the pretenders, and why we should even care when it’s been clear that the top two picks in the NBA Draft aren’t even playing college basketball this year.
Of course, the oddsmakers are springing into second gear themselves, because, after all, with no NBA games to take bets on, all the more reason to focus on colleges, not to mention revised prop bets for who’s gonna emerge as champion. Here’s how Yahoo! Sports’ Frank Schwab handicapped the field yesterday:
The top three are three programs who have never won an NCAA tournament. Houston is the favorite at 6 to 1 at BetMGM, followed by Alabama and Purdue at 8 to 1. A little bit after, that we get to some brand-name programs, Arizona, Kansas, UCLA, Baylor, which just won a championship a little bit ago.
But there’s one team I’m honing in on for the NCAA tournament right now, and that’s Alabama. I think they have what it takes to win it all this season. They have a great freshman there, Brandon Miller, great size. They have balance on offense and defense. They can win on the road. They won at Houston earlier this year, which is a heck of a win.
I just think Alabama has all the tools you need to win in March.
So, as if on cue, here’s what went down last night in Knoxville, as Chase Goodbread of the hometown Tuscaloosa News told his elephant-loving readership:
For the last six weeks, the Crimson Tide (22-4, 12-1 SEC) appeared to have broken up with its turnover problem. Valentine’s Day, it would seem, reunited the mismatched pair. That’s how it appeared Wednesday night anyway, as Tennessee, with the No.1 defensive efficiency ranking in the nation, forced 19 turnovers while Alabama’s defense came up with only eight of its own. It was the first thing UA coach Nate Oats mentioned in his opening remarks after the game. Tennessee outscored Alabama 26-2 off turnovers, an advantage that Oats described as the game’s most telling stat.
So much for a leader in the clubhouse. Indeed, this season has been as competitive and as turbulent as any. Attention now shifts back to Purdue, which was #1 recently, and possesses who can only be described as the Canadian answer to Victor Wembeyama, 7’4″ center Zach Edey. Houston has also had stints on top, though playing in the slightly less competitive American Conference diminishes some of their value, and, let’s face it, they lost to Temple. Temple has better doctoral candidates than basketball players most years of late.
Sports Illustrated’s Kevin Sweeney has his own take on the eight to watch, which includes the likes of the Creighton Blue Jays, a team with nine losses in the current incarnation of the Big East, which is a far cry from the version that produced many previous champions. But Sweeney makes an impassioned and informative case to put them on our radar, despite the fact that Omaha will never be confused with anything Eastern:
The Bluejays entered this season with sky-high expectations, were humbled by a six-game losing streak in November and December, but have gotten healthy and now look like the team we envisioned in the preseason.
Center Ryan Kalkbrenner is one of the most impactful players in the country. He missed three of Creighton’s six losses dealing with an illness, and his return has coincided with the Jays winning 11 of 14 games. He’s an elite rim protector defensively, but his impact on Creighton’s offense is also notable thanks to the pressure he puts on the rim as a lob threat in pick-and-roll situations. Per Hoop-Explorer, as of Tuesday the Bluejays were a remarkable 28.8 points per 100 possessions better with Kalkbrenner on the floor than off when facing top-100 opponents.
So I’ll probably check them out. To be fair, I have tended not to watch FOX’s college basketball coverage. I tend to move toward those outlets more readily available online, and for me ESPN and CBS’ games are more easily accessible. But the Big East still has a special place in my heart, as does their clever resurrection of the music that NBC used for the NBA in the 1990s, John Tesh’s powerfully uplifting “Roundball Rock”.
Come on, I know you remember it, or at least heard about it from your dad.
If ever there was a soundtrack for the road to March Madness worthy of blasting your car speakers for, this is it.
Enjoy the ride.