Rising Teams Capture College Basketball

Matt Washuta

It seems like just yesterday we were getting our first taste of promising freshmen like Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins, but the NCAA tournament is just over a month away. Since many of you will undoubtedly be filling out your brackets, contemplating which 12 seeds will beat five seeds, which team will become your “Cinderella” or just deciding which teams have cooler jerseys, it’s time to outline some of the biggest storylines and teams to watch out for in the NCAA tournament.

Syracuse is the undisputed best team in the country right now, led by do-it-all senior C.J. Fair. Fair has been a supporting cast member to stars like Michael Carter-Williams, Dion Waiters and Kris Joseph, but he has come into his own this season. He is an intelligent player who can score and pass from all over the court, while his biggest weakness has to be his reluctance to shoot at times. Fair is flanked by Jerami Grant, Trevor Cooney and freshman standout Tyler Ennis. Syracuse is balanced, yet has a star. Combine that with Jim Boeheim’s revered two-three zone defense and the Orange have to be the favorite in the tournament.

One team that many people will be scratching their heads over is fourth-ranked Wichita State. The Shockers have taken the role of the most notable mid-major from VCU and Butler after their improbable run to the Final Four last year and undefeated start this year. Cleanthony Early burst onto the national scene during last year’s tournament and has cemented himself as a starter this year, leading the Shockers to a 25-0 start. Wichita State, though, has played a dearth of talented teams this year and will undoubtedly be an early upset pick by the masses, and I tend to agree. The Shockers have not played a ranked team this year and could be overwhelmed the first time they play a challenging team in the tournament. Don’t get too ambitious; I can’t see them becoming the first one seed to fall to a 16 seed, but I’d peg the Shockers to fall in the Sweet 16.

13th-ranked Creighton is used to being in situations similar to Wichita State, but is playing in a major conference this year: the Big East. The Blue Jays boast National Player of the Year candidate Doug McDermott as their key to success. McDermott has the size, touch and experience to be successful in the tournament. It helps to have a star player who is proven to have the ball in the tournament, and McDermott gives the Jays just that. Creighton has proved their promise on the court as well; just look at their recent 28-point dismantling of number six Villanova. The Wildcats have been one of the most impressive teams in the country, but in this game Creighton cemented themselves as a clear-cut contender in the NCAA tournament.

A sleeper in the tournament could be the 21st-ranked Wisconsin Badgers. Bizarre might be the only way to describe the season so far for Coach Bo Ryan’s Badgers. After starting 16-0 with impressive victories over Florida, Iowa and Illinois, Wisconsin crashed hard with five losses in six games. They have since bounced back, beating Illinois by 12 and upsetting number nine Michigan State this past weekend. It has been an up and down season for Wisconsin to say the least, but if they can recapture the form that catapulted them to a 16-0 start, they could be a dark horse that no team wants to see in the tournament. Bo Ryan runs a style of play that attempts to muck up the game into a slow, defensive battle. Many teams that Wisconsin plays in the Big Ten are used to this style, but it can throw off unfamiliar teams in the tournament.

March Madness is one of the most exciting times of the year for sports, and it is just over a month away. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really seem that preparation for the tournament helps one pick a bracket that well due to all the upsets. But a little background knowledge can’t hurt. Enjoy this last month of stress-free college basketball before you start pulling your hair out about how your pick to win the national championship lost in the second round.

Contact Matt Washuta at [email protected]