It’s that time of year, when office productivity plummets all across America. When recovering gambling addicts can’t help but return to their old ways. When Sally, Bobby and Sue are sent to the elementary school principal’s office for running a bracket pool on the playground. When your girlfriend, your mother and your sister all out-pick you, embarrass you and make you feel like you’ve never watched a day of college basketball in your life.
It’s March Madness once again, and this year, just like every other March, anything can happen once the first of 67 games tips off Tuesday.
Of course, the burning uncertainty in all those bracketologists’ minds out there is, “Who will it be this year?” History has proved there’s no easy answer to this question, as schools like Butler and VCU, two Final Four squads from 2011, highlight the fact that there’s no standard formula for predicting success in the Big Dance.
However, there are a handful of teams that have already distinguished themselves as contenders for the national crown.
Both No. 1 Kentucky and No. 2 Syracuse have separated themselves from the rest of the pack all year long.
The Wildcats have a lineup chock-full of NBA prospects, a prime-time coach in John Calipari and just one blemish on a near-perfect record by way of a buzzer-beating loss to Indiana on Dec. 10. However, the most dangerous thing about this Kentucky team isn’t their talent level or their nationally acclaimed coach. It’s that the Wildcats have demonstrated the ability to fight through adversity and win — even on an off night of basketball.
Kentucky should have lost its SEC semifinal matchup against Florida on Saturday, as the Gators had the Wildcats on the ropes until the final buzzer. But the perseverance Kentucky showed against the Gators is a good sign for its title chances in the Big Dance, where just about every game comes down to the wire.
The Orange are also a serious threat to make a championship run. Even though the team is coming off an upset loss to Cincinnati in the semifinals of the Big East tournament, the Orange are one of the most dangerous teams because of their depth. Both the starters and the bench have the capacity to beat you, and center Fab Melo provides Syracuse with a dominating presence on both ends of the floor.
Melo is the team’s rock when it comes to rebounding and defense, as the team’s lone regular-season loss to Notre Dame came when the center was suspended. Just as it did during their championship run in 2003, Syracuse will again rely on a “Melo” to guide them to the crown this year.
Maybe it will be surging SEC-bound Missouri, who captured the Big 12 title as a parting gift, which makes the biggest impact on the tournament. The Tigers are led by high-scoring point guard Kim English, who dropped 19 points against Baylor on Saturday to help the school secure its second conference championship in the last four seasons. Though they have played second fiddle to fellow Big 12 powerhouse Kansas all season long, the Tigers have the experience and the steel veins needed to advance deep into the NCAAs.
Or maybe, by some outlandish chain of events, Colorado will be this year’s Cinderella story. The Buffaloes are coming off an unlikely conference championship in their first year in the Pac-12, as a CU squad that was picked to finish in the cellar of the standings ended up grabbing the woeful conference’s automatic NCAA bid (the school’s first since 2003). Who’s to say they won’t ride the wave of momentum from their improbable run in the conference tournament by winning at least a few games on the national stage?
But maybe it will be one of the little guys again, one of the teams from a mid-major conference that nearly everyone eliminates from their bracket by the second or third round. The fact that Butler was able to make it to the championship game two years in a row illustrates just how maddening this tournament can be. This year, Ohio (MAC champion), Davidson (Southern Conference champion) and Memphis (Conference USA champion) are among a handful of mid-majors that could be the next Cinderella.
Maybe it won’t be any of these teams. That’s the beautiful thing about March Madness — you never know who’s going to be cutting down those nets until it actually happens.
Reach the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org