by Peter Walsh
No. 4 Louisville Cardinals
There’s been an uproar about Louisville’s 4-seed since the brackets were announced considering the Cardinals are the defending champs, won 14 of their last 16 games and dominated in the AAC Tournament. Despite the seeding, the Cardinals are still in a great position to return to the Final Four. Russ Smith, Luke Hancock, Montrezl Harrell and Wayne Blackshear are all back from last year’s team and head coach Rick Pitino has all his cards in place to repeat as National Champions.
No. 1 Wichita State Shockers
You’ve heard it all from the pundits by now. The Shockers haven’t played anyone, they’re in a weak conference, as soon as they play a good team on a neutral court, they’ll get blown out. Well what you haven’t heard from the pundits is that this team is for real and can beat anyone, anywhere, anytime. Head coach Gregg Marshall has his roster playing with a chip on their shoulder and nearly all of last year’s Final Four team is back for another run. Sophomore point guard Fred VanVleet is as good as any floor general in the country and senior forward Cleanthony Early can play on any team in the country. Even with a 34-0 record and a No. 1 seed, the Shockers are being slept on.
Sleeper: No. 8 Kentucky Wildcats
The best freshman class in modern recruiting history stumbled through the regular season after being ranked No. 1 in pre-season polls. Coach Cal has been visibly frustrated with his team and the players (except Julius Randle) haven’t been as good as advertised on the collegiate level. But the talent level is undeniable. The Wildcats looked downright disinterested at times during the regular season but on a grand stage, the young Cats may rise to the occasion in attempts to boost their draft stock. If Kentucky plays together and keeps the team goals in mind, they can give Wichita State problems in the second round. If not, Cal will be going home early in March for the second straight season.
No. 13 Manhattan over No. 4 Louisville
The Cardinals are a trendy Final Four pick but the Jaspers of Manhattan are no pushover in the second round. Head coach Steve Masiello is a Rick Pitino disciple, was an assistant at Louisville and knows Pitino’s gameplan better than anyone. The Jaspers play a fast-paced, high-scoring brand of basketball, press for the majority game (just like Louisville) and are led by Rhamel Brown (3.7 blocks per game) and senior guard George Beamon (19.1 points, 6.6 rebounds per game). Manhattan is 10-1 in its last 11 games and will give Louisville all they can handle.
No. 10 Arizona State over No. 7 Texas
Led by explosive sophomore point guard Jahii Carson and senior center Jordan Bachynski, the Sun Devils have the look of a Sweet 16 team. Texas has been up and down all season and Rick Barnes doesn’t have a great track record in the NCAA Tournament—he hasn’t advanced past the second round since the ‘08 Tournament and completely missed the Big Dance last season. The Jahii Carson-Isaiah Taylor point guard matchup will be the key to this game, and whoever has the better game will likely lead their team to a win.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Jahii Carson, G, Arizona State
Likely the fastest end-to-end player in college basketball, Carson is an explosive point guard who has the ability to score at will and distribute the rock. Though undersized, he uses his impressive bounce and lightning-quick first step to get to the rack. Earlier this season, the Mesa, AZ, native went for 40 against UNLV and showed the scoring prowess that has made him a fan favorite. Carson has nearly single-handedly turned around the Sun Devils program and has a lot riding on his shoulders this month. The point guard will almost surely be declaring for the NBA Draft and will need a big game against Texas to bolster his stock and get on the national radar.
Fred VanVleet, G, Wichita State
Lightly recruited coming out of Rockford, IL, VanVleet took home Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year after leading the Shockers to an undefeated regular season. Averaging 12.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game, the point guard is as smooth as any player in the country and can take over games as a facilitator and a scoring threat.
George Beamon, G, Manhattan
A senior from Long Island, Beamon plays hard every single night and leaves it all on the court. The Jaspers’ leading scorer and rebounder, Beamon is also a good defender thanks to his long arms and tenacity. The Jaspers press with reckless abandon for much of the game and Beamon is tough to stop when he’s in transition after a steal. Manhattan has its eyes set on an upset of Louisville and a big game from Beamon is necessary to make it happen.
Jabari Parker, F, Duke
The ACC Rookie of the Year lived up to the billing, and shattered a few records along the way in what was likely his lone season in Durham. The ACC’s second leading scorer and top rebounder, Parker is as versatile an 18-year-old as you’ll find. He’s proven to be much more athletic than people thought while also very disciplined and efficient. Whether it is from behind the arc, 13-feet away or in the paint, Parker can score in every way imaginable. And he so happens to be on the cover of SLAM 177.
Montrezl Harrell, F, Louisville
Standing at 6-8 with a 7-3 wingspan, Harrell is a physical power forward with supreme athleticism and an unlimited motor. He punishes opposing teams by roaming the baseline for drop-offs and put-backs. Harrell is mobile and fluid in the open floor, catches the ball with strong hands and finishes above the rim. One of the elite interior players in the country, Harrell has the size, skill and motor to single-handedly anchor Louisville down low. He’s a future pro, and will look to impose his will over the next few weeks.
Call me crazy, but I believe in the Shockers. Wichita State plays a physical brand of basketball and has enough talent to beat any team in the Midwest—including Louisville. Last year’s Final Four run was no fluke and even though the selection committee did the Shockers no favors with their draw, Wichita State will move on to Texas.