The Big Dance is finally here. While 65 teams have been invited to the NCAA Tournament, only a handful has a realistic chance at claiming the national title during the first week of April.
College basketball fans have grown accustomed to most of the teams on the list, like Kansas, Maryland and Duke, but programs such as Cincinnati, Oklahoma, Gonzaga, Illinois, Oregon, Arizona, Florida and Alabama have the talent and experience to make some serious waves in the coming weeks.
Kansas navigated the Big 12 regular season without a loss, the first time that’s ever been done. They were the top scoring team in the country, averaging 93 points per game during the regular season, while hitting 54% of their field goal attempts. Kansas has four players averaging 14 points per game or more. The Jayhawks have star-power, with Drew Gooden and Nick Collison in the paint and versatile swingman Kirk Hinrich on the perimeter.
Maryland starts three seniors and a junior, along with talented sophomore forward Chris Wilcox. The backcourt is one of the best in the country, with senior Juan Dixon playing alongside junior point guard Steve Blake. Senior center Lonny Baxter is the first option with Wilcox a monster on the offensive boards.
Duke has the best player in the country in junior guard Jason Williams. Of course, Williams doesn’t have to do it alone. Center Carlos Boozer is one of the toughest rebounders in the country and swingman Mike Dunleavy is tall and versatile enough to take over a game if Williams isn’t hitting. Add athletic guards Dahntay Jones and Chris Duhon to the mix, and Duke is still a very serious threat to win it all.
Cincinnati has been the power of Conference USA since the league’s inception, but this may be Bob Huggins’ best team. The Bearcats have Steve Logan, the best guard to play for Cincinnati since Nick Van Exel. The team’s second scoring option is swingman Leonard Stockes and they have some outstanding athletes up front like center Donald Little and freshman forward Jason Maxiell.
Oklahoma was Kansas foremost challenger in the Big 12. The Sooners lost just four times during the regular season, led by guard Hollis Price and forward Aaron McGhee. Oklahoma’s schedule included games against Michigan State, Maryland and Connecticut, as well as the Big 12 slate.
Gonzaga enters this tournament as something of a favorite. Despite playing in the mid-level West Coast Conference, the Zags have proven themselves by playing Illinois, St. Johns, Texas and Marquette. They have one of the top point guards in the nation in senior Dan Dickau and one of the best rebounding teams.
Illinois seems to be the only team in the Big 10 with a legitimate chance to reach the Elite Eight or beyond. The Illini were ranked in everybody’s Top 5 to begin the season, but injuries and a very difficult schedule knocked them off the radar for a while. Still, Illinois has some terrific upperclassmen in Frank Williams, Corey Bradford, Lucas Johnson and Brian Cook, and should be hard to beat over the next few games.
Oregon has been a major surprise, but no longer is catching anyone napping. The Ducks turnaround has been led by Freddie Jones, one of the better scorers and athletes in the Pac 10. Oregon also gets great play from a couple of sophomores in point guard Luke Ridnour and swingman Luke Jackson. Both players average more than 15 points per game.
Arizona overcame a number of personnel losses over the off-season to remain one of the top teams in the country. The Wildcats got a big jump in play from forward Luke Walton, who has become one of the nation’s most efficient players. Walton’s versatility allows guard Jason Gardner to freelance and rain three-pointers on opponents.
Florida came into the season with high expectations, but the rigor of a SEC schedule has hurt their ranking. With Udonis Haslem, Brett Nelson and Matt Bonner, Florida has some serious offensive weapons. Head coach Billy Donovan knows how to use his deep bench.
Alabama beat Florida in the regular season meeting this year and has maybe the best forwards in the country in Erwin Dudley and Rod Grizzard. The Tide have great depth with nine players averaging at least 10 minutes per game, and seven scoring nearly seven per contest.
Odds courtesy of LVSC.