Emu Devine
Head Copy Editor

March Madness is finally returning! After the sudden cancelation of the 2020 NCAA basketball men’s and women’s tournaments (you know why), postseason competition is back this year in a bubble format. In a season, postseason, and year never experienced before, it’s hard to say what to expect out of this year’s top college teams. However, there are still surefire Final Four teams as well as some strong lower-seeded schools who can still win some rounds given the circumstances. With that being said, let’s look into some of the most interesting teams and probable winners in this year’s tournaments!

Starting with the men, there’s already some major issues teams are dealing with due to players out because of the coronavirus. Villanova, one of the best teams of the past half-decade, are dealing with a potential six-man rotation at the start of the tournament due to injuries and coronavirus protocols. Having only one bench player sounds like a disaster in the making, and poor adapting to COVID-19 restrictions and socially-distanced games has already forced one of the best teams in college basketball history, Duke, out of the tournament for the first time in 26 years. With that being said, Villanova is playing so short-handed that most people are expecting their first round opponent Winthrop, a school most people have never heard of, to win out due to their much healthier roster.

On the other hand, returning players can potentially make all the difference for some teams. UConn, an overall seventh seed, is on track for a deep run despite its ranking (and, I promise, I’m not biased). With star player James Bouknight returning from injury near the end of the regular season, Connecticut’s been playing like a top five team in the nation. The same is true before Bouknight got knocked out for eight games, as they started the season 10 – 2, with  both losses extremely close. The team already has the talent to knock out 10-seeded Maryland, paving the way for a showdown against Alabama. A historically mediocre playoff team, Alabama’s two seed is the highest they’ve been ranked in almost 20 years. With UConn’s healthy star and Alabama’s so-and-so performance in the tournament even a few years ago, it’s very plausible that Connecticut, always a threat, will have an easy path to the Sweet Sixteen. A similar situation is primed for six seed, and local favorite, USC to progress to the Sweet Sixteen; with their most likely second round opponent Kansas dealing with coronavirus protocols, it’s easy to imagine USC beating the short-handed team and progressing past the second round.

Besides probable upsets, there are still some close teams whose games could go either way. A quickly-improving UC Santa Barbara has a solid chance now of knocking off five seed Creighton in the first round, even with their overall record throughout tournament history being 1 – 5. Another SoCal team, San Diego State, is also one to watch, but is looking at a similar game to Creighton, not UCSB. Taking on Syracuse, another team that can always pose a threat, San Diego is going to have a rough time getting past the first round, let alone getting to the Sweet Sixteen despite being a five seed. 

There are two major potential upsets that stick out: Virginia and West Virginia. Both being a three seed, neither’s chances are looking good when compared to their talent. West Virginia ended their season on a brutal losing streak, and, with no momentum, look weak against their first round opponent Morehead State, which is a solid team. Virginia, on the other hand, are still the defending champions with the cancelation of last year’s tournament, but don’t fare much better. After bowing out of the ACC tournament because of COVID-19 restrictions, the team has dealt with player absences and have not played any games for an extended time now, and their matchup against an arguably under-seeded Ohio isn’t good news for them.

Now, on to potential champions. Like I just said, defending champion Virginia stands no chance of going back-to-back, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting teams to watch! Standing out among potential winners are, obviously one seeded, Gonzaga and Illinois, both with riveting stories to motivate them. Gonzaga is the more practical choice, being top-seeded for the better part of a decade but never quite being able to win it all. In such a strange season and bubble postseason, the circumstances could be right for the school to bring home their first championship in five decades. Illinois, on the other hand, is riding their best season since 2005, and potentially could win their first ever NCAA tournament — their first national tournament of any kind since the ’40s. Despite being, historically, one of the best college basketball teams, Illinois also has had a lot of trouble going the distance. However, this year, not only do both teams seem ready, but an Illinois vs. Gonzaga game seems like the most likely finals matchup, giving a game for the ages.

The women’s tournament tells a different story, one of high competition at the top tier that quickly drops off below. All four one seeds are strong favorites in their own way, with a couple of closely ranked two seeds that could easily go the distance. Besides that, upsets aren’t going to be as common. However, there are still some close and interesting games to watch! Some first round slugfests are going to include an eight vs. nine seed matchup in South Florida vs. Washington State, arguably the most evenly-matched game in the tournament, alongside a seven vs. ten seed matchup with Alabama going up against North Carolina. 

If you’re looking for major upsets,  there’s still some interesting first round matchups. The biggest is South Dakota vs. Oregon, where the sixth seeded Ducks are expected to have a rough time against a solid, all-around team in South Dakota. A similar situation could be brewing in Michigan’s first round game against the 11 seed Florida Gulf Coast, but neither team is expected to go the distance regardless.

Who are the plethora of potential champions then? Taking care of the elephant in the room , UConn is, once again, a one seed. With 11 NCAA championships and the best record this year, the best team in college sports history (again, not biased) is poised to get to the Final Four as a bare minimum. Their biggest strength may be their biggest weakness, however, as the team is led by the best freshman class in school history. Although their insane talent and potential bodes well for the next three years, having up to three starters with no tournament experience leads to a high chance they’ll choke in the final couple rounds. They also have an, albeit much smaller, risk in the early rounds, as their Hall of Fame head coach Geno Auriemma was diagnosed with COVID-19 last week, causing him to at least miss the first game.

Besides them, the most likely winner is the top-ranked Stanford, outperforming almost everyone else during the regular season. The other two one seeds, North Carolina State and South Carolina, have much harder competition in their regional brackets and have the lowest chance of getting to the Final Four. Two second seeds, Maryland and Texas A&M, are the other two most likely to go the distance. Maryland has the best offense in college basketball right now, and it’ll be an uphill battle to contain them to say the least. Besides that, Texas A&M has one of the best chances for bringing the championship back to Texas; they’re the best overall team, only a decade out from their last championship, and stand right next to UConn in terms of best record. They also rely on their high synergy and chemistry, and have one of the strongest bench lineups. With seemingly no major weaknesses, the only thing in their way is bad luck. In all honesty, though, the most obvious and most likely finals matchup is still Stanford vs. UConn pitting two powerhouses together and UConn getting that far for the millionth time.

The past year has been rough to say the least. It took most of it for sports to even recover enough to play at all. On top of that, March Madness, the most fun and entertaining, time of year has been gone for far too long, and the anticipation leading up to it is killing everyone. Regardless of who wins, the upset, the dramatics, and when literally everybody loses the bracket challenge, college basketball’s ability to finally bounce back is a win across the nation and illustrates a fight against a disease we’re finally starting to win. So, get the TV ready, and enjoy the nonstop basketball games with the first NCAA tourney in two years!

 

Featured Image: Courtesy of NCBNews

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