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March Madness finally returns,and it's almost anyone's game

By CHRIS SIERS ~ sports@t-g.com
Posted 3/16/21

Exactly one year ago, news broke there would be no NCAA tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the year since has been anything but normal, sports found a way to persevere and the athletics world is about to be entertained with one of the most enjoyable times of the year-the NCAA tournament...

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March Madness finally returns,and it's almost anyone's game


Exactly one year ago, news broke there would be no NCAA tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the year since has been anything but normal, sports found a way to persevere and the athletics world is about to be entertained with one of the most enjoyable times of the year-the NCAA tournament.

It's a tournament unlike any we've seen in recent years. If teams are forced to drop out due to positive COVID tests, standby teams are ready to fill in.

It's also the first time bluebloods Duke and Kentucky will both miss the tournament since 1976.

It's certainly not the tournament field basketball fans have come to know over the past 45 years.

All season long, Gonzaga and Baylor have dominated the polls and are the top favorites to reach the national championship game.

But who else can make a postseason run?

Aside from Baylor and Gonzaga, it's perhaps the most wide open tournament in our lifetimes that have various teams that are able to make a deep postseason run with some March magic.

***No. 1 Michigan

The Michigan Wolverines earned the No. 1 seed in the East region and have spent the better part of the season inside the AP top 25 top five rankings-and deservedly so.

Michigan has lost just four games this season, three of which were to ranked opponents.

The Big 10 has been among the tops of the college ranks all season long.

One of Michigan's losses came to Illinois, who also earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

It's interesting the Wolverines' last No. 1 seed in the tournament came in 1990s when Juwan Howard was playing for Michigan.

Now, the Wolverines return to the No. 1 seed status with Howard as its coach.

The Wolverines are led by Hunter Dickinson, who averages 14.2 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.

Michigan has a relatively easy path to the Elite Eight, but could run into trouble against possible opponents Florida State and SEC champion Alabama.

Still, the Wolverines look to be a safe bet to make a run late into the tournament.

***No. 2 Iowa

Staying in the Big 10, the Iowa Hawkeyes have been another team that has the potential to make a deep run.

Led by Luka Garza, the Hawkeyes will go as far as their star power will carry them.

Garza has widely been regarded as one of the top players in the NCAA this season, and rightfully so.

He's averaged nearly 24 points per game and carried the Hawkeyes to a No. 2 seed in the loaded West region.

It's no easy path to reach the Elite Eight, or even the Final Four with possible opponents like Gonzaga, Kansas, Virginia and Oklahoma all in the same region.

Still, this is a team that won 21 games this season and that was no accident in what's been a loaded Big 10 conference.

Iowa is a team that can get hot and ride the momentum to at least the second weekend in the tournament.

***No. 1 Illinois

As if the Big 10 hasn't had enough recognition this season, Illinois was another team that benefited from rising the ranks in a loaded conference slate.

Winning 23 games this season, Illinois went on to outlast Ohio State in the Big 10 tournament championship and is playing as well as anyone in the nation.

While Luka Garza may have gotten all the spotlight, Ayo Dosunmu has quietly put together a stellar season, leading the Illini with 20.7 points per game.

Illinois, as the No. 1 seed in the Midwest region, certainly has a target on its back.

Illinois should cruise past the first two rounds, but a possible Sweet 16 matchup against Oklahoma State should be concerning.

Even if the Illini get past Oklahoma State in the Sweet 16, potential Elite Eight meetings against Houston or West Virginia stand problematic from a matchup perspective.

Still, this is a team that is built to last well into the second weekend of the tournament.

***No. 4 Oklahoma State

There's perhaps no hotter team in the nation than Oklahoma State entering the NCAA tournament. Beginning late in February, the Cowboys began a run over eight games that included a 6-2 record, with all six wins coming over ranked opponents.

In fact, Oklahoma State's win over the lowest-ranked opponent was against No. 18 Texas Tech.

Oklahoma State's only losses in the run came against No. 3 Baylor and No. 13 Texas in the Big 12 championship game.

It's been a ride led by presumable No. 1 NBA draft pick Cade Cunningham, who averages over 35 minutes and 20 points per game.

While Oklahoma State did lose to Texas in the Big 12 title game, it should be noted it was Oklahoma State's fifth game in nine days.

Oklahoma State gets a first-round game against an underrated Liberty program, but if the Cowboys can survive the first round, the matchups favor a battle-tested Cowboy squad.

If all falls their way, the 'Pokes could get a favorable Sweet 16 matchup against No. 1 Illinois.

Either way, as long as Cunningham continues to deliver, the Cowboys could be a Final Four team.

With backup like Kalib Boone and Avery Anderson to help Cunningham, there's no reason to think otherwise.

***No. 3 West Virginia

It's been a mixed bag of results against West Virginia. Early in the season, the Mountaineers lost a key component of the roster and coach Bob Huggins had to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, to the tune of his roster being a guard-heavy rotation, instead of relying on depth in the paint.

While WVU did lose nine games this season, just two came to an unranked opponents-Florida and Oklahoma.

WVU has close losses to Gonzaga (87-82), Oklahoma in double overtime (91-90), and an overtime loss to Baylor (94-89).

WVU has relied on the savvy play of guard Miles McBride, who averages over 15 points per game, but also is reliant on forward Derek Culver, who averages nearly 15 points and 10 rebounds per game.

Simply put, the Mountaineers dominate the boards.

What's been the Achilles Heel has been inconsistency shooting at times.

If guards Taz Sherman and Sean McNeil can provide consistency shooting, WVU has enough depth to match up with nearly every team in the country.

Don't be fooled by a quarterfinal loss in the Big 12 tournament to Oklahoma State.

Due to COVID-related rescheduling, WVU played four games in nine days, two of which were against Oklahoma State, while the other was an overtime loss to Baylor.

They also get a favorable three seed in the Midwest region and should cruise past the first two rounds to a Sweet 16 matchup against No. 2 Houston. The winner of that game has a chance to make a Final Four appearance.

***No. 3 Arkansas

There maybe isn't a bigger surprise in the SEC this season than the Arkansas Razorbacks.

Arkansas has been a team that's red-hot in conference play and sits poised to push into the Sweet 16 or even Elite Eight, as long as the Razorbacks can get past a possible second-round meeting against Texas Tech.

This season, Arkansas has built quite the resume, racking up notable wins against Tennessee, Missouri and Alabama.

Arkansas won nine-straight games until LSU snapped the streak in the SEC tournament semifinals.

Moses Moody has been the steady source of offense for Arkansas, piling up over 17 points per game and tallying over 33 minutes.

Arkansas should roll past a first-round game against Colgate, but facing a talented and deep roster against Texas Tech in the second round could be problematic.

If Arkansas can survive against the Red Raiders, the Razorbacks have potential to bust some brackets into the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight.

***No. 5 Tennessee

There may be no team loaded with talent like Tennessee in the SEC.

Ripe with talented freshmen and veterans alike, the Volunteers have struggled with consistency this season.

The highlight of the Vols' season came in an 80-61 blowout win against Kansas in the SEC-Big 12 challenge.

Since then, it's been a mixed bag of results for the Volunteers.

The guard play of Jaden Springer, Victor Bailey Jr. and Shelbyville native Keon Johnson have been the source of the Volunteers' success this season.

This is a roster that can match up with anyone on the court-if the offense is consistent.

Springer has led the Vols with over 12 points per game, while Johnson and Bailey have both averaged over 11 per game.

When the seedings came out, Tennessee was cast as the dreaded five seed in the traditionally cursed 12-5 matchup.

While five seeds are often a popular pick for a first-round upset, Tennessee certainly has the ability to beat Oregon State, but a second-round meeting against Oklahoma State could be a matchup issue trying to overcome Cade Cunningham.

If Tennessee can survive the first two rounds, the Volunteers have enough depth to play spoiler down the road.

But that all relies on consistency shooting the ball.

***No . 2 Alabama

While the early season was certainly chalked full of mixed results, something started clicking for the Alabama Crimson Tide towards the end of December.

The Tide rattled off 10-straight wins, which was ended in the Big 12-SEC challenge in a 66-61 loss to Oklahoma.

Since then, Alabama closed the season with a 10-2 record, which included the SEC championship win over LSU.

Alabama certainly has played with and beaten the best of the SEC, but the question remains how well the Tide can stack up against out-of-conference competition.

The Tide is certainly playing as well as anyone and with star talent like Jaden Shackleford, Alabama sits poised to turn heads in March.

He leads four Crimson Tide players who average over 11 points per game.

As the No. 2 seed in the East region, Alabama gets a favorable first round matchup against Iona.

It's not until a potential Sweet 16 meeting against Texas could things get dicey for the Tide.

Still, there's enough talent on this roster to withstand the majority of teams in the tournament.