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March Madness looms as teams jockey championship dreams

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March Madness has become a staple in the U.S. sports landscape since its creation in 1939. With 68 different teams all pining for the coveted national championship, every year is certain to bring plenty of upsets and intrigue. This March looks to be no different and right now it is anyone’s guess as to who might bring home the trophy when all is said and done.

For many, the obvious picks to win it all are the highest-ranked seeds across the board. However, many of these teams have glaring flaws that are hard to overlook. Kansas is a top seed and it is considered a heavy favorite by an abundance of experts. It has the best backcourt in the country, featuring Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham, along with top NBA prospect player Josh Jackson and highly accomplished coach Bill Self.

That being said, an injury-depleted bench and off-court issues are worrisome to Jayhawks fans. Combine those factors with the troubling loss to unranked TCU earlier in the season and there is certainly room for doubt among amateur “bracketologists.” On the other hand, Kansas also toppled both North Carolina and an extremely hot Duke team so fans should be wary of counting the team out.

Villanova is a team that is not getting much love from fans, despite being ranked No. 1 overall in the nation. The defending national champions will likely have a very tough playing field if they want to go back-to-back, including a probable Sweet 16 match with Florida, followed by a daunting Elite Eight game against Duke. Still, Villanova is flushed with elite players who can easily run the boards and become the first repeat champions since Florida in 2006 and 2007.

Gonzaga finished its season with just one loss all year, but has been dismissed as a legitimate title contender by many due to its soft schedule. According to ESPN, the Bulldogs had the weakest record by far of any team ranked in the top 20. The last time the Zags were ranked this high, they were upset by Wichita State, a ninth seed, in the second round.

This year’s team does appear to be more balanced both offensively and defensively, but bracketologists have been skeptical to predict a long run for the Zags after getting duped by their misleading seed number in 2013. Playing in a non-power conference has made Gonzaga into a bit of an enigma thus far and fans are not going to know how good it truly is until the tournament begins.

Many who doubt the legitimacy of Gonzaga as a contender turn instead to the No. 2 seed Arizona. Fans and analysts alike have recently been enamored by the program and the Wildcats have quickly become dark horse contenders to give coach Sean Miller his first title. Most East Coast fans have not seen much of the Pac-12 conference due to its late game times, but make no mistake, Arizona has quietly emerged as a dominant team. Lauri Markkanen is poised to be a top-10 pick in the upcoming NBA draft and the experienced backcourt is anchored by Kadeem Allen and leading scorer Allonzo Trier. Aside from a disappointing first-round exit at the hands of Wichita State last year, Arizona has advanced to the Sweet 16 in the three years prior.

The country knows that UNC is good, but its path to the Big Dance is easily the hardest of any one seed. Odds are that North Carolina will end up playing either Kentucky or UCLA in the Elite Eight. Either of those teams could end up being a headache for the Tar Heels. Even if they managed to survive the third round, the Tar Heels would still have both the Final Four and the championship game to go before possibly hoisting the trophy. Their path is also stacked with possible Cinderella candidates who could spell trouble for UNC and the rest of the slate. North Carolina is a solid squad, but it is worth discussing whether it is strong enough to withstand such a tough road to the title game.

Aside from the No. 1 seeds, two teams on winning streaks are garnering championship buzz. Duke started the season atop almost every poll because of its superb talent and legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski, but a myriad of injuries—even Krzyzewski underwent back surgery—and star player Grayson Allen’s peculiar antics derailed the team during the season. Right now, it appears the Blue Devils are back on track, playing their best basketball of the season, poised to make a push for the title. The odds makers in Las Vegas even have Duke as their favorite to win it all. Some analysts are still skeptical though, wondering if this Duke team is truly this good or is just riding a well-timed hot streak.

With upsets and buzzer beaters around every corner, March Madness is sure to be as thrilling as ever this year. No. 2 seeds can fall to No. 15 seeds, an 11-seed can sneak into the Elite Eight and an unsuspecting freshman can become a campus hero in a matter of seconds. Even after all of the analyzation and preparation, only one thing is for sure: expect the unexpected.

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