Hate 'em or love 'em, these are the storylines to track. As much as we'd love to let the games decide the storylines, that's never the case. Most results can and should and will dictate the things that you read and what you react to. But before we tip off with the 64 squads in place, there are a few awesome angles to consider. Let's list them out.
And I'm sparing all the possible second- and third-weekend matchups, Because while Kansas-VCU meeting again would be fun to see, it's far from a guarantee. So let's not get ahead of ourselves. Over the next five days, here will be the on-the-surface talking points. And then the games will give us another two dozen to consider. That's the best part!
-- Indiana next big step. The apogee for the Hoosiers requires the big leap to make a Final Four. Last year, it was Christian Watford's shot to beat UK in December, then the competitive season in the Big Ten that led to an NCAA berth -- and then a Sweet 16 appearance. Now, eyes and expectations are on Atlanta. Fans hope for a national title this year and will come to demand one in the next two if it doesn't happen in three weeks.
-- Marshall Henderson, what will you do next? First will come the day-before press conferences, which for Ole Miss will be Thursday. We'll get some quotes from the 22-year-old journeyman who is no everyman. Then the game against Wisconsin. The Badgers will probably implore Henderson to jack up shots from 23 feet. He'll oblige. If a few fall, he might actually mime being a badger as ways of a playful taunt. Before a game begins, he is the star of this thing. We just don't know how quickly he'll burn out.
-- Roy Williams possibly coaching against his old team. This is the headliner. Plus: two bluebloods in KU and UNC, to boot. But, yeah, fans and especially media really slop up these kind of favors and coincidences (and they are coincidences) cobbled by the selection committee. I think it's such a tease that Villanova's going to win and prevent it from happening. On some very tiny level, Roy Williams will be thankful for that, if that's the case. He really, really, really does not want to coach against Kansas. No matter what, Roy, DON'T WEAR THE STICKER.
-- The Mountain West must step up. This league has exactly zero Elite Eight showings since it came into existence in 1999. With five bids this year, can one team break through and earn three wins? I think it happens.
-- College basketball as a sport in trouble. Just gave myself vertigo because I can't halt the eye rolls that I give. This is a narrative that is tiresome, lazy and really the worst kind of drive-by commentary that pundits can offer. ESPN just had its highest-viewed season for college hoops. Did you notice the discussion of our sport actually happened to be more prominent in January and February than in the past five years? And much of that discussion was good.
You'll get no argument from me that hoops needs tweaking and can be better -- but so does every other sport. Yes, scoring is down. Yes, the familiar names aren't as prevalent. Yet we still watch the games, love the tournament and will be thrilled by this month again. Can the columns decrying all that doesn't work with college hoops instead take a minute to realize it's doing as well -- relatively speaking -- as any other sport in America? I expect this tournament's ratings to break some records for CBS, too.
|Tubby Smith might need more than even one win. (USATSI)|
-- Coaches with jobs on the line. When this kind of weight is a backdrop to NCAA tournament games/performances, of course, we're going to have more urgency. So Tubby Smith, Ben Howland, etc., will be interesting watches. In many ways, it's unfair -- and dumb -- to judge or decide a man's future based on how his team plays in one, maybe two games in this tournament. But that's how athletic directors often work, and sometimes the moves are warranted. Sample size aside, sometimes it is materialization of culmination in a culture that needs changing.
-- Saint Louis playing out the rest of this year for Rick Majerus and continuing to win. I wrote on the team's winning streak following Majerus' death here. And since then, the team has lost just once in regulation. Incredible. If the Billikens are able to reach the Sweet 16 -- and then beat Louisville? Look out. That will be the No. 1 story of this tournament at that point, maybe even over everything except the champ when it's all said and done. It will be everywhere.
-- The NCAA tournament is only this popular because of gambling. In related news, food is only popular because it solves hunger.
-- Marcus Smart and Ben McLemore: Big 12 freshman whiz kids who can carry their teams deep into the tourney. I don't know if there will be a freshmen-doing-well-in-the-NCAAs storyline, but I do think these two will have some parallel narratives.
-- The officiating and video reviews in end-of-game situations. I covered the inevitability of this problem popping up here. And we've already seen a few examples of it in the conference tournaments, most notably the finish between Murray State and Belmont, which went on for nearly 10 minutes in regulation's waning seconds before we got to overtime in the Ohio Valley championship.
This is the type of story that isn't a story until we have one game that most of the nation is keyed on and a team loses in a way that seems unfair because of the stagnant play that rears its head near the end of games. Part of that is the over-allotment of timeouts. The other factor is the Pavlovian aspect of the zebras heading over to the table and peeking at the review monitor just a little often and for far too long.
-- The perfect retirement party. This is one of my five favorite stories of this year's opening weekend. Last year, Pacific learns its coach, Bob Thomason, will retire following his 25th season with the school. So the players reward him with his fourth and final trip to the NCAA tournament. And I think they'll keep it close against Miami on Friday afternoon.
-- Bryce Drew coaching Valpo and the highlight you'll see extra-often this year. You probably already have come across it a dozen times by now. It's already a top-10 all-time March Madness clip as it is. I don't even need to link it. Now just picture this: Michigan State 66, Valpo 65, eight seconds left. Valpo ball. Can you even stand the thought? We can't get something that good; we don't deserve it as a society.
-- Belmont and Davidson: trendy upset picks again. Check your pool. You'll notice at least half the brackets have one of these two teams winning in the Round of 64. With good reason. Rick Byrd's Bruins and Bob McKillop's Wildcats are as good as they've ever been.
-- The pressure is on, Gonzaga. Mark Few has built up a top-15 program. Gonzaga is no mid-major. But the team has only made two Sweet 16s since 2001, and the Zags' return to the regional finals has been a long time coming. Minimally, that's where this team needs to find itself. If it doesn't, expect haranguing headed their way. This is my national title pick.
|Pastner is seeking his first tourney victory. (USATSI)|
-- Can Josh Pastner get that first NCAA tournament win? His 0-fer record with Memphis is a sticking point with Tigers fans. Pastner's team is at 30 wins and will get Saint Mary's after beating MTSU. If Memphis loses, look out. It's not totally out of the picture that Pastner could change jobs.
-- Can Frank Haith get that second NCAA tournament win? After falling to 15th-seeded Norfolk State last year, just keep an eye on the conversation if Mizzou falls to Colorado State (which I think it will). Haith's only win came in 2008, when Miami was a No. 7.
-- Father-son connection returns to the tournament. Creighton coach Greg McDermott and his son, Doug, are back and you probably know the deal. But we don't see this story play out all that often. So let's enjoy it while we have, because we especially don't see a man coach his son who happens to be one of the 10 best players in the game. It could be another 15 years before this happens again.
-- Does Duke bow out early again? You know Duke hasn't made a Final Four as anything but a one seed in 16 years? And the Blue Devils have had their share of early exits. Visions of 2012 crop up immediately. Duke is in the same exact spot in the bracket, both in seed and actual location -- left hand side, toward the middle -- as when it got beat by Lehigh a year ago. Nobody's picking Duke to get out of the Midwest, either. It's strange.
-- Naters Gonna Nate. OK, so maybe that's only big from my end. But rest assured the Jackrabbits will be beloved if they pull off the 13-over-4 against Michigan and Nate Wolters is the one who spurs it. If any 13 beats a No. 4 seed, it will be the sixth straight year that has happened. Wolters is one of a few potential stars who can have that Stephen Curry moment.
And when those outcomes happen, a whole new batch of headlines follow. We love the stories just as much as the games. Let's hurry up and get to gettin'.
For more college basketball news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnCBB on Twitter, like us on Facebook and subscribe to the thrice-a-week podcast on iTunes. You can follow Matt Norlander on Twitter here: @MattNorlander.