They call it "March Madness" every year, and usually the month is faithful to its nickname. This year could be something special.
The current college basketball season has been one of constant upsets, surprises, and shocking endings. Entering the season's final weekend, Gonzaga claims the top spot in both the AP and Coaches polls, the first time in school history that the Bulldogs have been ranked so high.
Behind Gonzaga are ten 4 or 5-loss teams that could all make a strong case to be the ones cutting down the nets in Atlanta on April 8. All this adds up to an NCAA Tournament that has a chance to be one of the best ever. Admittedly, "best" is purely subjective and there are plenty of lists on the internet that could tell you what was really the "best" NCAA Tournament ever. But a month from today, 2013 could be a candidate for such lists.
Let's take a look at some of this year's contenders, and how they relate to people you might meet playing pick up basketball.
Gonzaga: I'll talk about Gonzaga first since they're currently the nation's top squad. The Zags have emerged as the premiere mid-major team, but haven't made it past the Sweet 16 since 1999 (the year that started their streak of 14 straight tournament appearances). This is the year that Gonzaga needs to make a deep tournament run to prove that they are truly an elite team and not just a byproduct of their weak competition in the West Coast Conference. At this point, the team from Spokane is kind of like that guy who was a star on his small town high school team but hasn't really been able to hang with the big boys when push comes to shove.
Indiana: For some reason, the Hoosiers are one of those traditional basketball powers where I actually like it when they are good (unlike Duke). I enjoy their tradition, their miniature arena that somehow fits 17,400 people, and the general passion that the whole state has for the game of basketball. I even like the candy striped warm-up pants, especially since Adidas hasn't managed to add camouflage to them (yet). This team is built to win, and I think in a normal year they would be the outright favorite, but this season they would be too obvious a choice. Indiana's pick-up equivalent is the guy who led his team to three state titles in high school, only to suffer a devastating injury senior year that prevented him from receiving any major scholarship offers. After rehab and some lost passion for the game, our Hoosier hero regains his mojo and the dominant form of years past.
Miami: Miami is an interesting addition to the college basketball conversation this season. After a well-publicized dismantling of Duke in January, The basketball Canes seemed to have finally supplanted their football counterparts for the top team on campus (Even Dwyane Wade and LeBron are fans!). That victory was part of a 14-game win streak, but Miami has lost three of its last four. Next weekend's ACC Tournament will do a good deal to show what kind of performance we can expect from the Canes in the Big Dance. I see this team as that pick-up baller who shows up with a shooting sleeve and new Jordans, makes some threes and nifty lay-ups early but ultimately, everyone questions whether he is truly "sleeve worthy."
Michigan State: The Spartans seem to follow the same script every year- fly under the radar early in the season while playing a strong non conference schedule, only to emerge as a favorite to win the Big Ten and a tough out in the NCAA Tournament. They're not exactly the nation's hottest team, losing three of their last four, but those three losses were by a combined 13 points and all against top-25 opponents. MSU just strikes me as a gritty team, and they can learn a lot from losing these close games to such good teams. Tom Izzo always seems to get the most out of his team come March. Michigan State is the pick-up guy who does the dirty work- gets rebounds, plays tough defense, dives after loose balls, a non-flashy but essential member of your group of five.
Ohio State: I figured Ohio State was good enough to justify including them in this list of contenders. Deshaun Thomas has carried this team all year, with just enough help to stay competitive in the Big Ten and have a shot at a share of the conference title going into the final weekend of the regular season. Big wins over Indiana and Michigan State have breathed life into a team that a few months ago looked like an early round exit come tournament time. For this resurgence to continue, some combination of Amir Williams, Shannon Scott and Laquinton Ross has to step up and contribute consistently on the offensive end. Thomas is good for 20 points a game, but OSU's fate rests with the other four players on the court. I see Ohio State as that guy who is largely a one-dimensional player and probably wears a headband but still manages to be an asset to your team.
All in all, this year's tournament could be one for the ages, with a title that is totally up for grabs as all the top teams are equally vulnerable of being upset early. Maybe this is even the year a 16-seed finally beats a 1.
Here's to March.