Storylines, sleepers to watch: 68 teams look to write their chapter during March Madness

James Madison is a popular upset pick in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, while Arizona has some people skeptical because of their recent struggles in the postseason. (Graphic by Bobby Hurley/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – March is the time of the year where stories are written and legends are made. These moments can happen to any men’s basketball team throughout the field of 68 and are hiding in plain sight. Here are some storylines and Cinderella teams that can make headlines across the country.

Arizona Wildcats to the Final Four

The Wildcats have been the subject of jokes when it comes to March Madness early exits in the past few seasons. People around the country pick them in their brackets and the Wildcats often disappoint. Most notably, there was an early exit last season to the Princeton Tigers, the No. 15 seed. Arizona can have a different fate in 2024 because of two very important factors.

For one, the Wildcats, seeded No. 2 in the West Region, have March Madness experience littered throughout their roster. Star guard Caleb Love and versatile forward Keshad Johnson have played in the last two national championship games. Even though Johnson was in a San Diego State uniform and Love in a North Carolina uniform, the duo can bring valuable experience to an already older team. Don’t forget that Pelle Larsson and Oumar Ballo were both key bench contributors during the Wildcats’ 2022 Sweet Sixteen run that ended in a loss to the Houston Cougars.

Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd knows experience is invaluable this time of year.

“It matters a ton,” he said. “First off, they were significant contributors to teams that made it to the championship game. That tells you they’re really good players. It takes really good players to have great seasons, and they’ve been awesome all year.”

Ultimately, an X-factor in the Wildcats’ potential run could be their point guard play in Kylan Boswell and Alabama transfer Jaden Bradley, which has been up and down all season. When these two are playing well, Arizona is hard to contain both offensively and defensively.

The second factor that could fuel a postseason run is the draw Arizona got in this year’s bracket. The Wildcats should breeze past the feel-good story Long Beach State, seeded No. 15, in Thursday’s opening game, setting up an intriguing second round matchup against either Dayton or Nevada. Both teams will try to slow down the pace as Nevada and Dayton are both 230+ in adjusted tempo on the season, according to Kenpom. The Wildcats should overmatch either squad with their depth and athleticism on the perimeter.

After that, the Wildcats could not face a team below a No. 6 seed until the Elite Eight. The No. 3 seed Baylor Bears will have tough matchups with No. 14 Colgate and the winner of No. 6 Clemson vs. No. 11 New Mexico. On the other side of the West Region, No. 1 seed North Carolina has incredible guard play with RJ Davis and interior presence with Armando Bacot. The Tar Heels have a lot to prove after failing to make the tournament last season with Davis, Bacot and Love all on the roster.

If all goes as planned, Wildcat nation could be in full effect in Los Angeles for an Elite Eight matchup between Love and his former team for a chance at the Final Four. Sounds like a movie? That’s March, and look for the Wildcats to make it to State Farm Stadium in Glendale and the Final Four for the first time since 2001.

South Region chaos

Chances are when predicting a bracket, the more you know about college basketball the worst you will do when it comes to the South Region. There can be some big upsets in this section of the tournament because of the favorable matchups that the lower-seeded teams received.

The most glaring of these options is the trendy No. 12 pick over No. 5 with the James Madison Dukes facing the Wisconsin Badgers in Brooklyn. Picking the Dukes over the Badgers is popular but it is popular for a reason. James Madison has won 31 games this season including a road win versus Michigan State. The Dukes score 17.9 points a game off turnovers, and there are some question marks concerning how well the Wisconsin guards can handle ball pressure. James Madison is 17-0 when it shoots 37.5% or better from the 3-point line this season. Wisconsin has the worst 3-point percentage defense in the NCAA tournament, giving up 37.1%. All signs are pointing to the Sun Belt Tournament Champion to knock out the Badgers.

The most intriguing first round matchup of the Round of 64 is No. 13 seed Vermont Catamounts versus No. 4 seed Duke Blue Devils. The Blue Devils opened the betting odds as -11.5 point favorites but this matchup should be much closer than expected. The Catamounts have been close to breaking through and winning a game in the NCAA Tournament for the past few seasons and could do it this year because of Duke’s weaknesses.

The Blue Devils’ backcourt can be streaky and inconsistent because of their age and lack of NCAA Tournament experience. Vermont’s defense is stout, only giving up 63 points per game and it has a lot of bodies to throw at Duke center Kyle Filipowski. If the Catamounts pull the upset, it sets up No. 12 James Madison versus No. 13 Vermont for a chance to go to the Sweet Sixteen.

Another jaw-dropper in the South Region potentially could be the No. 1 seed Houston Cougars going down in the Round of 32. The Cougars will either face Nebraska or Texas A&M, both of which pose challenges in different ways.

No. 8 seed Nebraska has shooters who can get hot at any time. Keisei Tominaga from Japan is a flamethrower who has exploded for multiple 30-point games this season, including 71 3-pointers. The key matchup that can give Houston trouble in this game is center Rienk Mast. Mast is a roll-and-pop threat who shoots 34.2% from beyond the line and could be a matchup nightmare for a primarily switching defense that will swap guards onto bigs.

Texas A&M, seeded ninth, also pose difficulties for the Cougars because they can match up with Houston athletically. The Aggies tied Florida for first in total rebounding in the SEC – they both averaged 42.7 per game – and can test Houston’s ability to score with the Cougars living off offensive rebounds and second-chance points. Combine that with the fact that Houston snuck by with a 70-66 win versus Texas A&M earlier this season on a neutral court and there are ingredients of an upset.

The South Region will be must-see TV and whoever survives to make the Final Four will have deserved their place.

Oregon senior center N’Faly Dante celebrates in the final seconds of the Ducks’ upset of Arizona in the Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament. Could Oregon be a sleeper team in the NCAA Tournament? (Photo by Dominic Contini/Cronkite News)

Tournament momentum on display

Momentum and confidence, for good or for bad, are some of the most apparent reasons March Madness runs get extended or cut short. This year’s Championship Week was unbelievable with five teams stealing bids to the Big Dance in NC State, New Mexico, Oregon, University of Alabama at Birmingham and Duquesne. These squads are hot and playing well at the right time of year.

Keep an eye on No. 11 seeds New Mexico and Oregon to make some noise. The Lobos have one of the best backcourt trios in the country with Jaelen House, Jamal Mashburn Jr., and Donovan Dent. These three players are hoopers and can score in bunches, making them one of the most entertaining teams in the entire country. They have the firepower to not only knock out No. 6 seed Clemson Tigers but to be a bracket buster in the bottom of the South Region.

The Ducks beat UCLA, Arizona and Colorado in three days to steal their ticket to this year’s tournament. At the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas, the Ducks found unity and role allocation within their roster. Guards Jackson Shelstad and Jermaine Couisnard made key shots and center N’Faly Dante went 12-12 from the field in the Pac-12 championship game. Dante is making his first NCAA Tournament appearance in his fifth season as he was hurt in the Ducks’ 2020-2021 campaign to the Sweet Sixteen.

“That’s something I wanted to do since I got into college. First time I was there I was hurt so I don’t think there’s anything to be nervous about, just do whatever I can for the team to win,” Dante said.

While some teams have positive momentum from their conference tournaments, some fell short and were one and done. The Kansas Jayhawks were bounced in their first game of the Big-12 Tournament with a 72-52 loss to Cincinnati, which is currently in the NIT. The Jayhawks, seeded No. 4, have other injury concerns with star wing Kevin McCullar Jr. being ruled out for the entire tournament and center Hunter Dickinson dealing with a shoulder injury that kept him out of the Big-12 Tournament. The Jayhawks are trending toward upset-watch.

Another interesting statistic about conference tournament results is that no team has ever won a national championship after losing its first game in the conference tournament. Notable teams that fall in this category are No. 2 Tennessee, Creighton and Kentucky, both seeded third in their regions, and Duke, Kansas and Alabama, all with No. 4 seeds. These teams can advance but it might be wise to show some hesitation over any of them ultimately cutting down the nets in Glendale.

If all the upsets this season and in the conference tournaments are any indication, March Madness fans are in for a crazy experience. Brackets will be burned, buzzer-beaters will be made and only one thing is for sure. No one knows what is going to happen between Thursday, when the Round of 64 begins, and April 8 at State Farm Stadium, when the nets get cut down and the wild ride comes to a thrilling end.

Bobby Hurley(he/his/him)
Sports Digital Producer, Phoenix

Bobby Hurley expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Hurley has interned at the Sun Devil Radio Network.

Sports Digital Producer, Phoenix

Dominic Contini expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and minor in digital audiences. Contini aspires to be a content creator and has interned for the social media teams of ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Sporting News, Fiesta Bowl, Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee and Arizona State Athletics.