The 2014 NCAA Tournament was one for the ages, filled with bracket-busting upsets, buzzer-beating finishes and star players rising up.
This year’s bracket could be even better.
It’s got Kentucky trying to make history, two players running neck-and-neck for national player of the year honors and a group of mid-majors poised to capture the nation’s attention with a magical run.
Here’s a few things to look for when the main bracket fires up on Thursday:
Kentucky. Hampton coach Edward Joyner Jr. said he would need to have Jesus on speed dial for a chance to beat the Wildcats. The rest of the bracket may be asking for the number if the Pirates don’t pull off the upset.
Duke. The Blue Devils lost to No. 14 seed Mercer last season. Anchored by player-of-the-year front-runner Jahlil Okafor, expect a much deeper run.
Wisconsin. The Badgers reached the Final Four last season and with Frank Kaminsky back, there’s a decent chance they’ll make it two straight years.
Villanova. The Wildcats pulled off one of the NCAA Tournament’s greatest upsets by taking down Georgetown 30 years ago, but it won’t be nearly the upset if they win this year’s title.
Arizona. The Wildcats came within a last-second shot of reaching last year’s Final Four. They may be even more talented this season as a No. 2 seed.
Okafor, Duke. Big, agile, good out-of-the-post passer, match-up nightmare — there’s a reason he’s the front-running candidate for player of the year.
Kaminsky, Wisconsin. Frank the Tank decided “he’s gonna do more” and has made the most of it. Shooting skills make the 7-footer an even worse matchup problem than Okafor.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky. Best player on the best team swoops in from high up for dunks and blocked shots.
Jerian Grant, Notre Dame. Creates lots of points, whether for himself or by dishing to teammates.
Justin Anderson, Virginia. His broken pinky seems to be fine, though the Cavaliers have lost two of their last three games.
Stanley Johnson, Arizona. Makes the game look easy sometimes, especially for a freshman.
Kentucky vs. anybody. When history is being made, you want to watch. John Calipari’s “next five in” platoon system is almost unheard of.
San Diego State vs. St. John’s, Friday. If you like physical, defensive basketball, this is the game for you.
SMU vs. UCLA, Thursday afternoon. Mustangs coach Larry Brown against one of his many former teams.
Michigan State vs. Georgia, Friday. Tom Izzo’s Spartans are a No. 7 seed and again a trendy pick to make a run.
Louisville vs. UC Irvine, Friday. The Cardinals are favored, but tune in to see 7-foot-6 Mamadou Ndiaye for the Anteaters of Cal-Irvine.
West Virginia vs. Buffalo, Friday. Bobby Hurley is no stranger to the NCAA Tournament and his Bulls are a trendy upset pick against Bob Huggins and the Mountaineers.
Wichita State vs. Indiana, Friday. Hoosier Nation watching to see if Tom Crean’s crew can oust a Shockers team that feels slighted by its No. 7 seed — and could be looking ahead to a potential matchup with Kansas in the next round.
UNDERDOGS TO WATCH
Over the years, we’ve watched Steph Curry, Dunk City, the Butler Bulldogs and mighty Mercer catch the nation’s attention with mid-major runs through the bracket. Here’s a few more underdogs to keep an eye on in this year’s bracket:
Valparaiso. Coach Bryce Drew had his shining moment against Ole Miss in the 1998 tournament. The gritty Crusaders could make some noise in this year’s bracket behind Alec Peters.
New Mexico State. Cut down on the turnovers and the Aggies have a chance. They open against Kansas, which will play without forward Cliff Alexander. Still a longshot, but you never know.
Davidson. No Steph Curry, but still light it up from 3.
4.91-to-1_Turnover-to-assist ratio by Iowa State’s Monte Morris, more than a point higher than anyone else in the nation.
11-10_Odds of Kentucky winning the national title, according to Westgate Las Vegas Superbook.
24_Years since Northeastern last made the NCAA Tournament.
39_Years since a Division I team finished a season undefeated. Kentucky is 34-0 entering this year’s bracket.
80.8_Points per game by Eastern Washington, third nationally and highest among NCAA Tournament teams.
1-in-17,000 –Odds of picking a perfect first round, according to DePaul math professor Jeff Bergen. About the same as a satellite falling out of the sky and hitting someone.
1-in-9.2 quintillion_Chances of picking a perfect NCAA Tournament bracket. Bergen had to write the number with 18 zeroes down just to figure out what to call it. So you’re saying I’ve got a chance …
Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga. Heady, steady point guard of the ultra-efficient Zags.
Kevin Ware, Georgia State. Has made a name for himself beyond that gruesome leg injury with Louisville two years ago.
Seth Tuttle, Northern Iowa. Does everything for the Panthers, telling coach Ben Jacobson coach what to do based upon what he’s seen on the court.
Tyler Harvey, Eastern Washington. Led the nation in scoring with 22.9 points per game, might score a point or two in the tournament.
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