Men’s NCAA tournament starting to take shape

Senior guard Jamal Shead celebrates after beating Iowa State as the Cougars look to win their first title of National Champions. // Photo courtesy of University of Houston

Note: All stats are updated by the time this article was written on Feb 26. 

March signifies one of the most exciting tournaments in all of sports. March Madness is the time of year when tournament favorites make runs or Cinderellas emerge. 

The current defending champions, the University of Connecticut (UConn) Huskies, have their eyes set on repeating as National Champions. They currently have a 25-3 record, including a 15-2 record in conference play. The Huskies have been dominant on both sides of the ball, enabling them to compile several ranked wins throughout the course of the season. They are tied with the Purdue Boilermakers with the most Quad 1 wins in the nation. UConn is led by one of the best offensive playmakers in the nation,  senior Tristen Newton. His versatile skill set has allowed him to become the team’s leading scorer and rebounder while also leading the team in assists. 

Freshman Stephon Castle and senior Hassan Diarra have proven to be defensive mismatches for opposing defenders with their impressive scoring abilities. While the men’s National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) tournament is always filled with uncertainty, the Huskies have thus far indicated they have what it takes to defend their title.

Another team poised to make a deep run are the Purdue Boilermakers. After being bounced in the first round a year ago, they have emerged as one of the nation’s best teams. Purdue holds a 25-3 record on the season and is built around one of the nation’s best big men: senior Zach Edey. Edey imposes his presence in the paint as the team’s leading rebounder and scorer while also shooting an efficient 62.7%. The Boilermakers can hurt teams on offense from multiple ways. With Edey, they can hurt teams in the paint, but they are also the nation’s best 3-point shooting team and can torch opposing defenses from beyond the arc as well. Purdue has also been led by sophomore Braden Smith’s excellent two-way play. He is the team’s leading scorer and leads the team in steals. Purdue returns much of its talented 2023 roster in hopes of redeeming themselves after last year’s unexpected early exit. 

The Houston Cougars moved into first place in the Associated Press (AP) poll for the first time all season. After Purdue and UConn, Houston has the third most Quad 1 wins and holds a 24-3 record on the year. The Cougars are a defensive juggernaut, yielding the fewest points per game in the nation. Houston is led by the senior  guard tandem of L.J. Cryer and Jamal Shead. Cryer leads the team in scoring while Shead has been  a two-way playmaker for the Cougars as he leads the team in assists and steals. Houston plays fundamentally sound on both sides and limits their own turnovers while forcing turnovers
 with their stifling defense. 

As a result, they lead  the nation in turnover margin. Houston has been a perennial national championship contender and their continued dominance this year has put them in prime position to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. 

However,  the NCAA tournament has a way of elevating several Cinderella teams that upset their highly-ranked opponents. One of the teams to watch are the Florida Gators. The Gators are 19-8 on the year and have notched four Quad 1 wins on the year. 

They have collected multiple upset wins against good competition and much of their team is upperclassmen who will be ready for the big stage. 

The McNeese State Cowboys are also a team with the potential to be one of this year’s Cinderella teams. Regardless of how his LSU tenure ended, McNeese head coach Will Wade brings playoff experience from coaching  multiple LSU teams that made deep runs in the NCAA tournament and conference championship appearances. The Cowboys are one of the best three-point shooting teams in the nation. On the other side of the ball, their stifling defense  creates  turnovers and ranks  in the top three in steals per game. 

This year’s NCAA tournament has a strong field of both favorites and underdogs that promises to make this an exciting tournament. The teams officially selected for the tournament will find out on Selection Sunday, which falls on Sunday, March 17.