Last year’s whirlwind cancellation of The NCAA tournament left basketball fans worldwide disappointed and craving the action of March Madness. However, after a season of playing with COVID-19 precautions in place, teams feel more prepared to compete. Three almost certain number one seeds are Gonzaga, Baylor and Michigan, with several Big Ten teams battling for the fourth spot. But what strengths and weaknesses of each team could lead to a national title?
Gonzaga is the last undefeated team in the NCAA and a clear choice as a number one seed. Coach Mark Few’s roster is undoubtedly strong, featuring standout freshman and projected number one NBA draft pick Jalen Suggs and scoring leaders Cory Kispert and Drew Timme. However, Gonzaga’s place in the otherwise drowsy West Coast Conference has allowed them to come out on top with ease, and many are interested to see how they fare against top rated teams from tougher, more stacked conferences.
After a 94-89 overtime win against West Virginia, Baylor clinched its first ever Big 12 championship. Their guard heavy lineup, with Jared Butler, MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell at the forefront, has beaten tough Big 12 opponents with their balanced scoring numbers. Baylor’s biggest strength, though, is their defense which aims to keep the ball out of the middle of the court and thus forces plenty of turnovers and bad shots. Baylor’s experienced group of core players gives them an edge, and analysts believe their physicality and on-court toughness can lead to success. They hope to continue their winningest season in school history in the NCAA tournament.
After a three week COVID-related pause in their season, Michigan has continued to play at an elite level, and they won their first Big Ten championship since 2014. Their success can be attributed to the combination of their deep bench and the guidance of head coach Juwan Howard. Experienced seniors like Isaiah Livers, Eli Brooks and Columbia transfer Mike Smith combined with the young talent of sophomore Franz Wagner and 7”1 freshman Hunter Dickinson create a dynamic force on the court. The real spark in this Michigan team, however, stems from Howard, a passionate Michigan alum in his second year as coach after over a decade working for the Miami Heat. Michigan’s shooting accuracy and ability to create space have allowed them to steamroll over solid Big Ten opponents like Iowa and Ohio State; however, as their recent weak performances against Illinois and Michigan State show, they are not infallible and need to double down on defense for a shot at the title.
The Big Ten has no shortage of championship contenders, with Iowa and Illinois trailing just behind Baylor in the March Kenpom ratings, at numbers four and five, respectively. Iowa’s Luka Garza presents a defensive challenge in the lane as well as an ability to rack up points effortlessly. Illinois’ Komi Cockburn and Andreé Curbelo have been playing at an extremely high caliber, even blowing out Michigan 76-53, especially notable while lacking star guard Ayo Donsunmu due to a face injury.
Any of these teams have the ability to come out on top, as well as to be unexpectedly eliminated. After all, what is March without a few surprises?