Best team: Louisville
The Cardinals have a real chance to win it all because they have all the things championship teams need. There is the first-rate backcourt of Donovan Mitchell and Quentin Snider. There is the incredible length on the front line with 6-7 Deng Adel, 6-10 Ray Spalding and 7-footer Anas Mahmoud. They have one of the best defenses in the country, which includes a throttling press. And of course there is the Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino, who has taken seven teams to the Final Four and won two national championships.
Best potential matchup: Michigan vs. Louisville
Michigan enters the tournament red hot with 10 wins in their last 12 games. After a scary incident where the Wolverines’ plane slipped off the runway — fortunately there were no injuries — they arrived galvanized for the Big Ten’s conference tournament and then won it. Michigan plays five starters who can all make three-pointers and the team ranks among the top 25 in three-pointers made per game. Though Michigan doesn’t usually commit turnovers, they would have their hands full in a second-round matchup against Louisville and its withering press. The Cardinals are No. 6 in defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com. And coach Rick Pitino is excellent at preparing his teams for the second game in a weekend.
Best bet to spring an upset: Rhode Island
Coach Dan Hurley has a real shot to win his NCAA Tournament debut against Creighton. The Rams actually started the season with a national ranking, but got untracked by injuries. Now they are healthy and rolling with five straight wins to finish the regular season and three they needed to win the Atlantic-10 conference tournament and make it into the draw. URI beats teams by disrupting their offenses with a hard-nosed defense. First-round opponent Creighton is a very accomplished offensive team, but has not been the same since point guard Maurice Watson was lost to a season-ending knee injury.
Best go-to guy: Josh Jackson, Kansas
Jackson is a superlative athlete who, at 6-8, can play three positions. This season he is averaging 16.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists for the top-seeded Jayhawks. He is a matchup problem because of his speed against big men and his size against guards and he is a voracious and aggressive rebounder. The freshman will be a lottery pick in the coming NBA Draft and could be among the top three picks.
Best coaching matchup: Miami vs. Michigan State
The book on Michigan State’s Tom Izzo is written: he went into the Hall of Fame last year and is one of the best coaches in NCAA Tournament history with seven trips to the Final Four and a national championship in 2000. Miami’s Jim Larranaga, a New Yorker, may be one of college basketball’s most underrated coaches. Remember that he was at the helm when George Mason reached the Final Four. His team is young with tough guards who play a perimeter game and the Hurricaines love to crash the offensive glass.
Best guard/playmaker: Monte Morris, Iowa State
Cyclones coach Steve Prohm says of Morris “there is not a better true point guard in the country” and the 6-3 senior out of Flynt, Mich., completed a great four-year career in the Big 12 by scoring 17 points and leading Iowa State to the conference title on Saturday. Morris averages 16.3 points and can score on the three-point line, where he makes 39 percent, as well as on the drive. He is symbolic of the Cyclones’ execution style of play. He averages 6.1 assists and led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio.
Best big man: Caleb Swanigan, Purdue
Swanigan came back for his sophomore season motivated after he did not fare well at the NBA combine while considering entering the draft. It powered him to a Big Ten Player of the Year season. The 6-9 forward/center averaged 18.5 points and shot 53 percent from the field. He also averaged 12.6 rebounds but there is more to his game than just that. He is a deft passer, averaging 2.9 assists, and he can even step out to the three-point line where he makes 43 percent of his shots. He enters the NCAA Tournament after a season that included 26 double-doubles and will very likely be an NBA first-round pick if he comes out after the season.
Best player you’ve never heard of: Jordan Washington, Iona
The 6-8 senior is averaging 17.9 points and 7.4 rebounds and was just the MVP of the MAAC’s conference tournament. He has scored over 25 points in a game eight times this season. He has a big-time motor, probably because he almost didn’t end up playing college basketball. He was going from Indian Hills CC to Arizona State when he was arrested for theft and had his scholarship offer pulled. Iona coach Tim Cluess gave him a second chance and he has taken full advantage of it. Washington plays with a lot of emotion and it can get the better of him, but he is the perfect forward for Iona’s high-scoring offense with the ability to score inside and also run the floor.