March is officially here. Your office is probably hosting a bracket pool. Those of you that have a pattern of not keeping up with the world of college basketball until the most pivotal three weeks of the year and are in a pinch in order to win your pool, welcome! We are here for you with open arms. The NBA is easy to keep with (aside from the nonstop rumors that can’t even be tracked) because with load management, the cream of the crop rises come playoff time when it matters. There are only 30 teams. As CBS’s Jon Rothstein says, “It’s not anarchy. It’s college basketball.”
It’s tough for it to gain as much traction with the lower box scores and the absolutely abhorrent culture of one-and-dones, along with the rise of the top prospects coming out of foreign leagues or developmental leagues as of late. While a sport defined by characters, many of those characters are ultimately the coaches and the programs as opposed to the NBA superstars that have long-standing attachment.
If you just watch the tournament with a casual NBA-watcher brain, this is your guide to the overarching stories this year. Yes, you probably know Coach K. is gone at Duke. He’s in the past and he’s just Mr. K. now as far as we’re all concerned. Now, you won’t be able to cop out and pick them to win the whole thing as ESPN floods you with K. propaganda! And even if you haven’t been keeping up with college hoops, you’re probably aware of the Brandon Miller off-the-court situation at Alabama, who could potentially win the title. Yes, it is ugly, and yes, he has still been playing well. Expect to hear some great heckles.
However, there are much more interesting and fun storylines to go around throughout this year. Let’s break down some of the best in NBA terms.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs: A Denver Nuggets Story
A team that we’ve preeminently written off in the long-run after being disappointed time after time during the parts of the year when it matters most and is led by a versatile passing big man.
Sound like Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets? That’s because the Gonzaga Bulldogs have the exact same problem. They dominate the WCC, beating up on small west coast schools excluding the hard-fought battles against St. Mary’s and the scheduled strong non-conference games early in the year only to come up short each season, and to no fault of their own- do you realize how challenging it is to win this single-elimination tournament? Gonzaga has 4 Elite Eight appearances and was the runner-up twice since 2015, the model of consistency, they’ve just failed to take home the title every time we give them the “unbeatable” label.
We’ve had our hearts broken by them too many times beforehand that now we no longer are giving them the burden of expectations, and that might work to their advantage this year. Drew Timme came back for what feels like his “Perry Ellis” 10th season, and while he may not play the game with the same amount of offensive prowess as Jokic as a quarterback-esque figure, he still plays the inside-outside game well as the lynchpin of the Gonzaga offense as a passer and averages 21 points at a 62.4 FG%. While this may be one of the weakest Gonzaga teams under Mark Few, they’re still going to have the Timme system, a veteran backcourt, and playing without the target on their back for the first time in a while.
Golden State Warriors’ Changing of the Guard: The Blue Bloods (Except for Kansas)
The NBA Champion Golden State Warriors are not the unstoppable force that went on the 3rd quarter scoring run in the 3rd quarter and ended the game that we’ve been accustomed to. Taking a half-measure by investing in their youth in guys like Jordan Poole and Jonathon Kuminga has been a gamble that has had its highs and lows as you’re always going to trust a team with a backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, but they’ve been abysmal on the road, Curry has battled injuries, and the Poole contract may go down as a massive overpay that tore the team apart with a preseason Draymond Falcon-Punch. These aren’t your daddy’s Warriors- these are the Warriors that have floated in and out of the Western Conference play-in game all season in the twilight of this golden era and are one of the worst road teams in the NBA at 7-26.
The same thing could be said about everything you know about the perennial blue bloods of college basketball that we know as the crown jewels of the sport.
As we said before, the Mr. K. chapter of Duke has come and gone, and Jon Scheyer as the hand-picked successor that remained by his side is in. The normal hatred and animosity or deep-rooted love that you normally felt on either side of the Duke debate isn’t necessarily there apart from the jerseys they wear, and the Duke performance this year has been underwhelming at best in a milquetoast ACC. While they did end the year on a hot streak in the conference and some huge wins against UNC, they were 23-8 with a 14-6 conference record, they don’t have the traditional Paolo or Zion-esque NBA prospect that will be in the lottery aside from their bigs, Kyle Filipowski and Dereck Lively II projected to go in the mid-first round, and their “one-and-done” dominance pales in comparison to the veteran presence of Jeremy Roach in the backcourt.
Villanova is also transitioning from the Jay Wright smooth-suited assassin model of consistency where the Wildcats made a Final Four last season to now being 17-15 in the first season under Kyle Neptune with their dominant guard Justin Moore missing most of the season recovering from his Achilles injury last tournament.
Kentucky, while they DID turn their season around after massively underperforming despite bringing back Wooden Award-winner, Oscar Tshiebwe, has felt miserable all season. There have been “FIRE CALIPARI” signs, lineup debates regarding their backcourt of Sahvir Wheeler and Cason Wallace, and your normal Big Blue Nation drama in a year where they finished 21-10 and third in the SEC.
UNC, after their miracle run last season hanging the banner by digging Coach K.’s grave and running it back with their core of Bacot, Love, Davis, and Black, had the most apathetic and uninterested team on offense and will miss the tournament in spite of being the preseason AP #1.
Don’t let the jerseys fool you, folks. (Except for Kansas, who still looks like they could possibly repeat with Jalen Wilson being THE face of college basketball in his junior year and averaging 19.7 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 2.5 assists as the consummate professional).
Purdue Boilermakers: The Sixers Curse
NBA fans know that no matter how dominant Joel Embiid has been playing when healthy, no matter the stretches that James Harden has actually looked committed to playing basketball as opposed to focusing on off-the-court extracurriculars, the Philadelphia Sixers are burdened with the reality that you’re never going to trust Doc Rivers with “deer in the headlights” face trying to craft a game plan for a team like Boston or a roster with Giannis Antetekounmpo. There have been premature confetti drops, Kawhi Leonard buzzer-beaters, and embarrassing shenanigans regarding their draft picks. They just never will instill that same sort of fear that the other organizations that have accumulated that trust do until a miraculous change occurs.
The same could be said for the Purdue Boilermakers.
Zach Edey is the face of college basketball this season as a 7’4 moose of a man that averages 21.7 PPG and 12.8 rebounds on the year, and will win the Wooden Award. Purdue has been at or near the very top of the AP
poll all season long at 28-5 with Edey being a weapon in the paint that essentially no one has had a plan for with Matt Painter making his mark as one of the most impactful college coaches of the decade.
And it feels like just another Purdue season.
Purdue has the same “regular season team that does nothing to instill fear in you” stench of the Sixers with the domineering big man that one team creates a formula to stop and everything shuts down. Edey is the 5th 7-foot-plus big man they’ve built around, and while he may be the best of the bunch by far, they’ve still never made the Final Four, including losses to North Texas and St. Peter’s in the process.
While Purdue may be consistent in a season where absolutely no one has been able to prove that they can be trusted, are you really going to fear the engineering school when one big man like Trayce Jackson-Davis figures out how to take out their one Incredible Hulk weapon? We’ve seen it before, and it’s turning into Gonzaga syndrome.
New York Knicks: The Big East is Back
The 2023 New York Knicks have out of nowhere become the darlings of the NBA season in terms of how much fun they are. In a year where they passed on Donovan Mitchell to pay Jalen Brunson, RJ Barrett, refused to give up their youth, and continued to employ Tom Thibodeau, the expectations for the season felt like a half-measure where they’d be fighting for the 6th-seed. However, trading for Josh Hart to pair him with college teammate Brunson, the sucker punches they’ve been able to throw at teams like the Celtics twice during this 8-2 stretch, and the rise of Immanuel Quickley being the 6th Man of the Year favorite completely juxtaposes the apathy we associated with Julius Randle and the media surrounding the squad. They’re 5th in the East, but are capable of doing one thing better than many of the other middling teams: they play with enough heart to withstand playing against teams more talented than they are in the most fun way possible.
Similarly in the Conference where the tournament is played in that same legendary arena of Madison Square Garden, the Big East has played some of the most exciting games and efficient basketball that is just plain great for the sport. UConn came out of the season looking like maybe the best team in the league, took their lumps on a cold stretch after getting a little too sure of themselves in expectations, and now feel like they’ve found their footing again- they’ve got frontcourt depth with Sonogo and Clingan backing him up as a 7’2 secret-but-not-secret weapon, and when they’re not turning the ball over or taking confident heatchecks, the best scoring backcourt in basketball in Andre Jackson Jr. and breakout player Jordan Hawkins.
Marquette, Big East champion, embodies the Knicks’ defiance of expectations- picked to finish 9th in the league preseason after losing many returners and players to the transfer portal, have played with a chip on their shoulder all season under Shaka Smart, and #2 overall in adjusted offensive efficiency. It’s team-oriented, selfless basketball, and a great story after they haven’t made the Sweet Sixteen since 2012.
Creighton and Xavier are also Final Four contenders that have the ball humming on offense in such a stylish fashion, Xavier averaging over 82 points per game and leading the conference in assists while Creighton has one of the most-loaded and balanced starting lineups with the entirety of the 5 averaging double figures.
The Knicks being good is fun for basketball. The efficient Big East is fun for basketball.