By: Charlie Schmatz ‘22
As March rolls around once again, that means one thing for sports fans: the return of March Madness, the nationwide NCAA basketball tournament that gives both Power Five and mid-major conference teams a chance to prove their worth. With the pandemic limiting the number of fans attending NCAA tournament games last year, people are ready to fill stadiums across the country and return to a typical environment this year. This edition will review teams that could make a splash in the tournament this year, capped off with my National Champion prediction.
After an unforgettable season, the defending champion Baylor Bears returned this year with a nearly completely different starting lineup. They entered non-conference play as the number eight team in the country but have since shot up to number three, proving that even with a new roster, they are among the elite. One of the most significant parts of Scott Drew’s team year in and year out has been their defense, ranking in the top 25 in defensive efficiency for a third straight season. Point guard Adam Flagler, however, has undoubtedly been the catalyst for this squad, averaging 14 points per game while at the same time knocking down numerous clutch shots for his team throughout the year. Look out for the Baylor Bears again this year, and don’t be surprised if Scott Drew hoists yet another National Championship trophy on April 5th.
Led by head coach Bill Self, the Kansas Jayhawks entered this season with one goal, to win a National Championship for the first time since 2008. Senior guard Ochai Agbaji has made his team a serious contender this year, averaging a career-high 20 points per game while shooting nearly 48% from the field. Sharing the Big-12 regular-season title with Baylor, the Jayhawks will likely enter the NCAA tournament as a one-seed. Bill Self has all the tools to win a title this year, with Agbaji and one of the nation’s top forward duos of Jalen Wilson and David McCormack controlling the paint. Although picking Kansas this year to win the National Championship might be riding the chalk, this team presents itself with a starting lineup of all future NBA players.
Coming off one of the most surprising runs in NCAA Tournament history, the UCLA Bruins returned this year with every player from their starting lineup last season. The Bruins nearly went the distance last year, beginning the tournament as an 11 seed in the First Four, and losing two weeks later on a buzzer-beater three from Jalen Suggs in the Final Four. This Bruins team, and returning guard Johnny Juzang in particular, certainly has a chip on their shoulder this year. After a loaded schedule in PAC-12 play, the Bruins have faced every ounce of competition this year, including multiple games against the Arizona Wildcats and USC Trojans. Now that this team has recognized that anything can happen in March, I believe they will play physical basketball and return to the Final Four this year. So keep an eye out for this team when filling out your bracket, and don’t make the mistake of betting against the Bruins for the second straight year.
National Champion Prediction
This is a tough year to pick a National Champion, with multiple teams moving inside and outside the top 10 throughout the season. However, I think the Kansas Jayhawks have what it takes to capture a title this year. As seen in years past, all it takes is one player to change a game, for example, Carsten Edwards in 2019. This year, I believe that player will be Ochai Agbaji. Throughout the year, he has presented himself as a clutch player, and the clutch factor goes a long way in March. Also, this team certainly has the insurance if Agbaji were to have an off-game. Year in and year out, Bill Self enters the tournament poised for a championship, and this year will be when he finally gets it.