The Men’s NCAA basketball tournament begins this week, an extravaganza of hoopla, gambling, and basketball.
There are 68 teams, but only a few have a real chance of winning it. The eventual winner will likely come from one of the four No. 1 seeded teams in their regions. I don’t bet on sports. Machine tools are my game, but I love basketball and I find the four highest ranked teams and their coaches especially provocative this year.
The No. 1 seed overall in the tournament is Gonzaga. If you do not follow college basketball, you probably have never even heard of the small Jesuit college in Spokane, Washington, which is pronounced with a hard “a.” Basketball has put the Gonzaga Zags on the map, thanks to Coach Mark Few. He came to the school in 1999, and the team has made the NCAA tournament for 22 straight years.
And never won it.
But this year many think it will be different. The team is talented and experienced, and there are no traditional powerhouses with elite first round NBA picks to challenge them. This year it is the Zags with the NBA-ready players. Sophomore center Drew Timme, senior forward Corey Kispert, and guard Jalen Suggs, who has three cousins who played in either the NFL or NBA. If he turns pro after this season, it’s quite likely he will be a top 5 NBA pick.
Baylor is second among the four No. 1 seeds, although many believe Illinois may be just behind Gonzaga. The Bulldogs from Waco, Texas, were never known for basketball until Scott Drew turned the program around. He inherited the worst scandal in college basketball history. In 2003, Carlton Dotson shot and killed his roommate, Patrick Dennehy. They were both forwards on the Baylor team.
The investigation into the case revealed rampant drug use and cash payments by coach Dave Bliss to members of the team. Baylor basketball received penalties extending 10 years out.
Baylor looked for a new head coach, who was as clean as Tide and who was clueless enough or brave enough to step into an impossible situation.
It turned out to be Scott Drew, who had replaced his father at Valparaiso University in Indiana. Drew was considered as pure as a college basketball coach could be and naive enough to take a job where failure was a given.
Baylor stunk for several years, but Scott Drew showed he could coach rejects and eventually he recruited guys with talent. For the last several years, Baylor has won 20 games a season, and this year they were undefeated much of the season, finishing with only one loss. Their guard, Jared Butler, is a first-team All-American.
Illinois is coached by Brad Underwood, the epitome of the hard boiled, vagabond coach who has bounced from Hardin-Simmons to Daytona Community College, to Stephen F Austin, to Oklahoma State, and, finally at age 57, to head coach of the Big Ten Tournament Champion, Illinois. Underwood looks a little like Gene Hackman in Hoosiers.
He’s seen it all and understands the game. And he really can recruit. His brute of a center, Kofi Cockburn, 7ft tall, 285 muscular pounds, is a rebounding monster. Super sub guard Andre Corbelo is from Puerto Rico via Long Island. But the top player is All American guard, Ayo Dosunmu of Chicago.
He is a potential top 5 NBA pick and is probably the best player to come from the Windy City since Derrick Rose. Ayo is a terrific all-around guard, but what I like most about him is that he loves to take the last shot in a close game and usually makes it.
The fourth best team in the NCAA tournament is Michigan. Their head coach is a 19-year NBA veteran, Juwan Howard, who played on the great Fab Five Wolverines team. Howard, from Chicago originally, is in his second year of college coaching.
Many saw him as a celebrity hire, but they underestimated the man. Howard is another basketball zealot, up at 5:30 a.m. to start his day. While playing, he took less money in one of his contracts to play for Pat Riley in Miami because he wanted to play for a coach who would push him to become the best player he could be.
Howard inherited a mediocre team, but he recruited a 7ft tall center with excellent footwork, Hunter Dickinson, from Arlington, Virginia, and a transfer grad student from Columbia University of all places, Mike Smith. Add in Germany’s Franz Wagner and some good role players and Howard’s team can beat anybody
Gonzaga has the hype and three future NBA players. It’s Mark Few’s best team. Baylor and Michigan are capable of getting to the final game. Personally I think this is Illinois’ year.
Questions: Do you usually root for the favorites or the underdogs?
Which teams are you picking in your Men’s NCAA Tournament bracket?