Sweet science of March Madness
A funny thing happened between Midnight and March Madness: College basketball suffered through a full-fledged existential crisis.
It had been a long time coming. For the past two years, realignment has ripped rivalries and leagues apart. The one-and-done rule, in place since 2006, has led to constant accusations that the game lacks talent and, most of all, continuity.
The all-in focus on the NCAA tournament sprouted assumptions that the regular season doesn't matter. The game is slower, more physical, and over-officiated within an inch of its life.
How many scorelines lived in the 50s? The 40s? The 30s? Too many.
And yet, despite all that, this season has been as fun as any in recent memory. There have been an inordinate number of tight games and exciting finishes, buzzer-beaters and court stormings.
Five straight weeks saw five new No. 1 teams. We watched five overtimes in South Bend and have sat glued to the television for entire Saturdays, whole weeks, when every game felt destined to thrill -- and usually did.
No wonder everyone kind of freaked out. The game was being criticized from every corner while keeping us glued to the television. The criticisms were valid, and yet they missed the point. Or did they? Does any of this stuff even matter? Should we value process over outcome? Should we reward pragmatism or ambition? Science or art? And what does it say that I'm asking these things in the first place?
Are we overthinking this?
When your eyes tell you one thing and your heart tells you another, things can get confusing in a hurry.
In the end, this season proved at least one thing: College basketball will always have the insanity market cornered. Even when it's bad, it's oh so good. Never is that more true -- or more widely apparent -- than in March.
Each year at this time, we fill out our bracket and make up lame excuses to leave work and gather around the nearest TV and kneel before the glory of March, where anything can and usually does happen.
It's why you're here right now, reading this. March smiles upon us all.
But we shouldn't settle for mere derangement, even come tourney time. We shouldn't have to sacrifice aesthetic enjoyment in the first 35 minutes of a game to experience the thrill of last-second heroics in the final five.
We should strive for something higher, something much harder to define, something we have to see to know.
Allure. Glamor. Beauty. Watchability, for lack of a better term.
If you're looking for crazy this time of year, you don't have to look too hard. But if you're looking for that something extra, for those qualities that elevate basketball into the sublime, you've come to the right place.
Before you dig into the field, and calculate your clearest path to bracket domination, let's rank every team in the field according to that magical alchemy that we call "watchability."
Here we value creativity, fluidity, pace, star power, eccentricity, execution, beauty and, yes, good old-fashioned success.
Here, if only for a moment, let's ditch the science and appreciate the art.
68. North Carolina A&T: Someone has to be No. 68. The Aggies play great defense but -- and we don't say this lightly -- terrible offense; they won the MEAC title game despite scoring just .86 points per trip. Guh.
67. Southern University: There's nothing beautiful about a SWAC team ranked No. 252 in adjusted offensive efficiency, you say? Maybe on the court. Off the court, after months grinding guarantee games, it is never not cool to see the smallest conferences represented at the Big Dance.
66. James Madison: Last summer's strip-mining of the Colonial Athletic Association left the conference bombed out and depleted, and last weekend, JMU stepped into the breach.
65. Liberty: How do you lose 20 games and get in the NCAA tournament? If you're Liberty, you embark on a barnstorming adventure through the Big South tournament, beating four higher-seeded teams to claim the conference title. Automatic bids are a wonderful thing.
64. Albany: The Great Danes last went the dancing in 2007; an America East title and chance to dance once more is about as good as it gets. They earned their way into the NCAA tournament after defeating No. 1 seed Stony Brook in the semifinals and on the road against No. 2 seed Vermont in the championship game.
63. Western Kentucky: You may likewise think there's nothing pretty about Western Kentucky -- which has gone 36-34 in the past two seasons, but has made a trip to the tournament each time -- but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and we happen to think Big Red's dance moves are quite winsome.
62. Florida Gulf Coast: The Atlantic Sun champ knocked off Miami in November in a 63-51 win, back before we knew Miami was going to be Miami, and also faced tournament teams in Duke and Iowa State this season. Don't sleep on the Eagles.
61. Montana: Wayne Tinkle's team shot 52.5 percent from 2 and 38.5 percent from 3 this season, both top-35 percentages nationally. The Big Sky champions only lost one league game and posted 25 wins, with narrow losses to tournament teams Colorado State and Davidson.
60. Cincinnati: We saw the Bearcats a lot this season, and it was clear from the start that Mick Cronin's was a team that was about as much fun to play as it was to watch, which is to say: not. When you're slow-paced and combine genuinely great defense and genuinely awful shooting (31.7 percent from 3, 45.3 percent from 2, 64.9 percent from the free throw line), you tend to get glazed eyeballs, ours included. The only thing Cincinnati does well on offense is rebound its misses. They had lots of practice.
59. Villanova: Despite an early-season home loss to Columbia, the Wildcats worked their way into the tournament. How? By knocking off the Big East's elite in Philadelphia. Jay Wright's team beat Louisville and Syracuse (in the span of five days, no less) and, later, Georgetown, and what might be most impressive about all of this is the Wildcats managed to get those wins despite posting one of the nation's highest turnover rates and some of the nation's worst shooting percentages.
58. California: After months out of the picture, the Bears did well to get in the tournament, winning seven impressive Pac-12 games in a row, including victories at Arizona and Oregon and over UCLA. Allen Crabbe is well worth your time, but in general Mike Montgomery-coached teams are more pragmatic than artistic.
57. Pacific: We always talk about the best players you've never heard of; Bob Thomason, who is retiring at the end of his 25th season, is the coach's equivalent. Thomason leads the Tigers to the NCAA tournament for the fifth time.
56. New Mexico State: Had expectations held, this tournament bid would belong to Denver, and I'd currently be advising you to strongly consider the immensely underrated Pioneers as your deep-bracket Cinderella. Alas, New Mexico State emerged from the WAC tournament. The Aggies' subsist almost entirely on defense and drawing fouls. It's not pretty.
55. Minnesota: Stocked with NBA-level athletes, including the flying human freak show that is forward Rodney Williams, you would assume the Golden Gophers would be a much more enjoyable outfit. You know what happens when you assume? You make an otherwise promising 15-1 team lose 11 of its next 16 games and sputter to the finish in utterly bleak, confusing fashion. (We think that's how that saying goes.)
Look: If you want to watch someone squander their immense talent, watch "Liz & Dick." For most, witnessing the Gophers' inevitable early-round exit will just be depressing.
54. Notre Dame: The Irish's combination of efficient offense and unusually lenient defense should translate to enjoyable basketball. Instead, this being Notre Dame, the Irish play at a painfully slow pace, only without the hard-edged effectiveness of down-tempo king Wisconsin.
53. Middle Tennessee: The Blue Raiders live! MTSU was 28-4 overall and 19-1 in the Sun Belt when it fell to FIU in the semifinals of the Sun Belt tournament last week. It was generally assumed Kermit Davis' team would thus miss the tournament, but they received a reprieve from the committee. Their top-25 efficient defense offers some major upset potential.
52. Akron: Nothing about what the Zips do -- great interior defense and dominant offensive rebounding, mostly -- translates into pretty basketball. But it does translate into success, which is why Akron was able to get past Ohio in the MAC final despite the recent loss of point guard Alex Abreu to a marijuana trafficking charge.
51. Colorado: The Buffaloes didn't really excel in any one area, production-wise; their best skill is defending well without fouling. But the backcourt of Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker, and the rebounding of Andre Roberson, can make them a threat to just about anyone.
50. Boise State: The Broncos don't play on an all-blue hardwood (which is a shame, really) but what they did do this season -- spread the floor and launch 3s -- has been enjoyable in its own right. You never know what you're going to get from star guard Derrick Marks, who has alternated brilliance (13-of-18 shooting against Colorado State on March 2) with hideousness (4-of-22 on Thursday night against San Diego State) on a game-by-game basis.
49. La Salle: The Explorers lived well under the radar for most of the season, but they were (until Temple's resurgence) the fourth-best team in the A-10, led by the offensive firepower of senior guard Ramon Galloway. Also, their coach is a doctor. True story.
48. Harvard: Last season Harvard went to its first NCAA tournament since 1946; this season the 3-pointer-happy Crimson lost two stars to a widely publicized academic scandal and still managed to win the Ivy League.
47. Illinois: For a team that essentially plays four guards (Tyler Griffey is the rare 6-foot-9 player that attempts more 3s than 2s) and fires at will from distance you'd think Illinois would be a little bit more crisp. Instead, the Illini have gone in and out of phases -- some successful, others less so -- and despite the big upsets, the mixed results don't really alter the perception of this team.
46. LIU Brooklyn: While we can't exactly recommend "play really fast, score a bunch of points, and who needs defense anyway?" as a viable strategy, this is the Blackbirds' third-straight NCAA tournament appearance, so what do we know?
45. Pittsburgh: The Panthers have been stacking quality efficiency numbers all season -- some metrics see them as a top-10 team -- but they've struggled to notch the wins to support that sort of confidence. What they are for sure is, well, Pittsburgh: A (very) slow-paced team that rarely takes 3s and dominates the offensive glass. Same as it ever was.
44. Valparaiso: March Madness legend Bryce Drew makes his return to the NCAA tournament field this season, his first appearance as a coach, thanks to the efficient forward tandem of Ryan Broekhoff and Kevin Van Wijk.
43. Oklahoma: Lon Kruger Being Lon Kruger doesn't quite have a ring to it, but it's true: Kruger's made a really impressive coaching career from the pursuit of controlled, smart, fundamental basketball. Fellow coaches love it; most viewers shrug. That said, senior forward Romero Osby had a quietly fantastic year.
42. Davidson: When Bob McKillop's team stumbled in November and December, it was easy to forget this was his best team since that Curry guy -- what was his name again? -- was haunting the gyms of the Southern Conference. Led by efficient star Jake Cohen, Davidson went 19-1 in its final 20 games and played smooth, mistake-free offense in the process.
41. Oregon: You can't say enough about the job Dana Altman did in just his third year at Oregon; the Ducks' post-Ernie Kent rebuild is already ahead of schedule. Unfortunately -- save the defensive brilliance of Rice transfer Arsalan Kazemi, who is one of the nation's best rebounders and steals artists -- you can't say anything about the Ducks' aesthetic qualities. On defense, the Ducks are fearsome; on offense, no Pac-12 team turned the ball over more often. That combination led to more than a few sloppy games. Bill Walton was not impressed.
40. Wichita State: The Shockers reloaded faster than anyone expected, a reload that featured the insertion of forward Cleanthony Early, who won two junior college player of the year awards before he arrived in Wichita. Early has provided a smattering of brilliant moments since. The Shockers rebound better than most teams on both ends of the floor, which is good, because that was their best trait. After the initial (sorry) shock win at VCU, anything seemed possible. Now, not so much.
39. Belmont: Beyond the fact that Rick Byrd's Belmont program is perennially good, with a hyper-efficient star in Ian Clark, and leaving aside their status as a fantastic mid-major sleeper you should consider for a Sweet 16 appearance, Belmont shot the highest percentage in the country this season -- 57.1 percent -- from inside the arc.
38. Bucknell: Mike Muscala is the best player you've never heard of. Well, until now, obviously. Now you've heard of him. You've not only received a hot bracket tip; you've crossed over from one era of your life (pre-Muscala) to another (post-Muscala). How do you feel?
37. Kansas State: I hate to break it to you, but if you're looking for visually stimulating hoop, go elsewhere. That hadn't been Frank Martin's modus operandi at K-State since the glory days of Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente, and when the Wildcats brass hired Big Ten veteran and man-defense enthusiast Bruce Weber this offseason, it was only reasonable to expect more of the same. That's been the case. And guess what? It's worked! It hasn't been pretty to watch -- K-State turns you over on defense and works you on the offensive glass, neither of which translates to graceful play -- but it has been effective.
36. Colorado State: Do you like rebounding? Yes? Good! You will like Colorado State. The Rams rank No. 1 in the country in defensive rebounding percentage and No. 2 in the country in offensive rate; no other team comes close to matching that sort of glasswork hegemony on both ends of the floor.
35. Northwestern State: Watchability is more than simply getting up and down the floor, but in a sport that grows slower and more conservative every year, there is something to be said for teams that just get out and fly. No team was faster in 2012-13 than the Southland Conference champs.
34. Arizona: Had we posed this premise in October, or even early January, we would have said the Wildcats would have to be near the top of the list. They were young and still figuring it out, sure, but they simply had too much talent, too much size, too much athleticism to not be both really good and must-see TV. Unfortunately, thanks to some bafflingly inconsistent defensive play and a lack of a facilitator at the point guard position, they've more frequently been neither.
33. Saint Louis: When you think of aesthetically pleasing basketball, your first thought is almost certainly not of the Saint Louis Billikens, and for good reason: SLU carries on the mantle of deceased former coach Rick Majerus, who crafted a tight defensive group that thrives on fundamentals, limits turnovers at all costs and does its best offensive work at the foul line. It's all incredibly effective, but none of that is particularly exciting. That said, we do award credit for Dwayne Evans' throwback game, all head fakes and guile. When you are as good as Saint Louis is, endearment can stand in for the sizzle reel.
32. UNLV: Dave Rice's stated goal upon taking over at UNLV last season was to put the Runnin' back in Runnin' Rebels, and he's largely succeeded. The only problem is this team, thanks to some iffy guard play, isn't nearly as polished on the offensive end as you'd hope. The good news? Freshman forward Anthony Bennett is a talent worthy of a top-five NBA draft pick, and he displays that talent every time he takes the floor. NBA scouts will be watching the Rebels this March; you should, too.
31. Syracuse: Syracuse can go either way. When the Orange are on, when they're invading passing lanes and creating fast breaks, they're as fun as any team in the land. Plus, watching 6-foot-6 point guard Michael Carter-Williams control a game with brilliant passing is always worth the price of admission. But when Syracuse is slowed to a half-court crawl, they rely on sheer size and athleticism to create most of their points around the rim.
30. Butler: With the possible exception of Gordon Hayward, the Bulldogs have never been fun to watch in the way, say, North Carolina is fun to watch. Butler is fun to watch for different reasons. For one, it is genuinely fascinating to watch Brad Stevens scout and execute in single-elimination games; there isn't a coach in the country better at scouting opponents and taking away what they do best in single-elimination games. For another, Butler is Butler. No game is ever over, no buzzer-beater is too far-fetched, no Final Four run too unlikely. You miss Butler's games in March at your own peril. You've been forewarned.
29. New Mexico: The Lobos are like Captain Beefheart. We can recognize Don Van Vliet as a genius without particularly wanting to listen to Trout Mask Replica all that often, just as we can acknowledge that New Mexico is a very, very good basketball team that are not particularly enjoyable to consume visually. Then again, if Kendall Williams is making 10 3s -- as he did at Colorado State on Feb. 23 -- all bets are off.
28. South Dakota State: Nate Wolters, America. America, Nate Wolters. And you thought the Muscala introduction was revelatory. Many of you are probably already familiar with Wolters' work, which includes 12 games scoring at least 25 points, including a 53-point effort against IPFW on Feb. 7.
27. San Diego State: The Aztecs belong near the middle of this list, and we'll tell you why. On the one hand, they're the prototypical great-defense-so-so-offense group, which often leads to low-scoring physical affairs. On the other hand, Jamaal Franklin plays for San Diego State, and Jamaal Franklin did this. In a close game. Yeah.
26. Wisconsin: Higher than you thought, huh? At various times, Bo Ryan's Wisconsin teams have become the poster children for "What's Wrong With The Big Ten" and "What's Wrong With College Basketball," when in fact the opposite is true. Sure, the Badgers play slow -- per KenPom.com, this season's adjusted tempo of 62.3 (rank: No. 306) puts last season's Badgers, who burned just 58.5 possessions per game (rank: No. 345) to shame. But Wisconsin doesn't just play slow. The Badgers also play well. They run their stuff, they get good shots, they never turn the ball over and they get back on defense, and through all this they control the terms on which each and every game is played. If you like quality execution no matter how deep the shot clock goes, I think you have to enjoy watching Wisconsin. (OK, OK, maybe not all the time. A little goes a long way.)
25. Saint Mary's: Fear the Gaels, and watch them too. Saint Mary's snuck into the tournament after a month-plus spent on the bubble, mostly because the Gaels lacked marquee wins. What they don't lack, however, is offense; Matthew Dellavadova is one of the best point guards in the country, and Saint Mary's one of its most efficient (and underrated) offensive teams.
24. Marquette: Why should you watch Marquette? To see what Buzz Williams will come up with next -- and we're not just talking about his wardrobe. Last season, the Golden Eagles featured two senior stars and ranked in the top 20 in the country in pace; this season both of those players are gone, Marquette was one of the slower teams in the Big East, and the Golden Eagles still won a share of the Big East title. This group may not be quite as riveting as Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder in the open court, but they have their own unique charms.
23. NC State: If you're looking for a deep pick in your office bracket pool, you might look elsewhere; we're still not sure we trust NC State, particularly NC State's defense. If you're looking for quality television, prepare the DVR. T.J. Warren, C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell form one of the most dynamic frontcourts in college basketball, and Lorenzo Brown, Rodney Purvis and Scott Wood are lethal on the perimeter. The Wolfpack have done what they've done this year in spite of their defense, not because of it, which in the end only means more offense. Yes please.
22. Oklahoma State: We've seen the Cowboys grind a few games to a halt here and there, and when their shots aren't falling, things can get ugly in a hurry. But it has been a real joy to watch Marcus Smart step in and lead right away. And his backflips are pretty good, too.
21. Kansas: At their best, Bill Self's Kansas teams are a joy: a mix of stifling defense with rhythmic high-low motion offense. That has not been this season. The Jayhawks have stamped out challengers primarily on the defensive end, where Jeff Withey remains the nation's best shot-blocker, but the offense has had some real stinkers -- including a loss at TCU that Self called the "worst team Kansas has ever put on the floor since Dr. [James] Naismith was there." Kansas hasn't been that bad in a while, but it's true that the defense is the star of the show, save one: redshirt freshman Ben McLemore, a gifted shooting guard with NBA athleticism and an incomprehensible wingspan, who is capable of just about anything with the ball in his hands.
20. Michigan State: You may think Tom Izzo's team is all defense and rebounding, and to some extent you're right, but that hasn't precluded the Spartans from giving us thrills. Adreian Payne can leap out of the building, Keith Appling had arguably the dunk of the season Friday against Iowa, Branden Dawson is a terror in the open court and Derrick Nix might just be my favorite player in the sport. The once-overweight forward, who is now a key piece on a national title contender, bumps and prods and scoots, almost always-leading to a left-handed shot. There's nothing elegant about his game. It is the antithesis of beauty. And yet somehow, in his case, that only makes it more fun to watch. Plus, if you're not watching Izzo and the Spartans in March, what are you watching?
19. Missouri: The Tigers might not be everything we expected when Frank Haith unveiled what might have been the most talented transfer class of all time, and they had their share of issues winning on the road in SEC play. But the fact remains that Phil Pressey, flaws and all, is one of the most compelling guards in the country -- just as capable of carrying his team with 15 assists as he is of saddling it with poor decisions down the stretch.
18. Iona: Former Arizona shooting guard Lamont "MoMo" Jones -- who helped down Duke in the Sweet 16 two years ago -- is still here, the Gaels still wield one of the best offenses (No. 20 in adjusted efficiency) and worst defenses (No. 257) in the country, and this week their entire coaching staff will be coaching in tracksuits, their lucky charms. What more do you need?
17. Ole Miss: If you haven't heard of Marshall Henderson, I have four words for you, which you should now begin feeding into the Google machine: "Marshall Henderson Auburn Gif." For the rest of you, here's what Henderson said after the Rebels beat Vanderbilt in the SEC semifinals Saturday night: "The last couple of NCAA tournaments you've seen a Steph Curry and Jimmer Fredette, and I'm trying to be them -- get a run and try to make a name for myself and get this money." OK, four more words: Marshall Henderson is awesome.
16. Temple: There isn't much we can guarantee you about Temple. When a team loses to Canisius and beats Syracuse in the span of four December days, or when it plays five straight -- yes, five straight -- one-point games in early February, anything and everything is on the table. But we can guarantee this: For better or worse, Khalif Wyatt and the Owls are always thrilling.
15. Ohio State: If we were talking two months ago, we might have put Ohio State No. 68. OK, that may be a bit drastic, but the fact is the Buckeyes played the large majority of their season as a very good (but not great) defensive team that lacked any scoring outside of star forward Deshaun Thomas. (To wit: At Michigan State on Jan. 19, Thomas scored 28 points while no other Buckeye scored more than six.) That was an ugly team. But now? This team? That one that won the Big Ten championship Sunday? This team is playing such good defense, particularly on the perimeter, they've made watching weak-side rotations a rip-roaring time. We're not even kidding.
14. Georgetown: This may seem high for a team that plays some of the slowest basketball, and most ruthless defense, in the country, for a team that held opponents to 50 or fewer points nine times this season, and actually won a game 37-36. (Nov. 30, home vs. Tennessee. This really happened! In 2013!) But the fact of the matter is you have to see star forward Otto Porter Jr. play. You can look at his immense stats, and you can read breathless draft projections all day, but if you don't tune in, you can't see all the little things -- the passing, the screens, the movement, the frightening defense -- the Hoyas' star does to help his team win.
13. Iowa State: We all love eccentric offensive schemes (provided it doesn't take things too far: we're looking at you, Grinnell) and when Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg decided to use 6-foot-7 point-forward Georges Niang in the role vacated by Royce White, the end result was one of the 10 most efficient offenses in the country. The Cyclones score in droves, defend only in scattered spurts, and get out and run -- save trading for former North Carolina guard Ty Lawson, you couldn't nail the recipe for thrilling games any better.
12. Memphis: The Tigers' romp through Conference USA didn't offer them many nationally televised opportunities after November, and when they did show up (at Xavier), they hardly impressed. But Saturday's double-overtime C-USA title game against Southern Miss offered a glimpse of what Memphis fans have been seeing for months.
Not only are the Tigers playing very well, Joe Jackson is leading a speedy, balanced group with talent to spare. Whether or not Josh Pastner gets his first NCAA tournament win this week, we're betting the game will be an enjoyable one.
11. North Carolina: Whether they're the 2009 juggernaut or rebuilding a year after, UNC under Roy Williams almost always deserves your attention, because he unflinchingly demands his talented recruits get out and go. After early struggles, Williams went small, point guard Marcus Paige gained confidence, and this Tar Heels group added some punch to its pace.
10. UCLA: Watchability? Ben Howland? These two phrases should never be in the same column, let alone the the same paragraph. But here we are: Chastised by a near-firing last spring, Howland is a reformed man. He has his young, talented Bruins running and gunning -- sometimes giving up too much on the defensive end but often making it back with Shabazz Muhammad and Co. in transition.
9. Miami: For a team that doesn't often try to push the pace, the Hurricanes can be electrifying. It begins with the defense, which has been the secret to Miami's success all season, and those defensive stops quickly translate into Shane Larkin running at opposing defenders in the secondary break, with Durand Scott on one side and Kenny Kadji on the other.
People have cooled on Miami since their three-point loss at Duke (which was sandwiched by losses at Wake Forest and versus Georgia Tech), but people seem to forget the Hurricanes gave the single best performance of any one team in Jan. 23's 90-63 romp of the Blue Devils. It's a real second-weekend tournament team, and maybe more.
8. VCU: You no doubt remember VCU's run from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011, and how much giddy joy accompanied every Rams win. Things are a little bit different now. That Rams team was just OK for months, and went inexplicably nuts on offense at the best possible time.
This Rams team forces the highest number of turnovers in the country; Shaka Smart's high-pressure "havoc" system that helped VCU unnerve so many teams en route to the Final Four has found the perfect muses in Briante Weber and Darius Theus, who finished the season ranked first and fifth in steals rate nationally.
The Rams hassle opposing offenses for 40 minutes, and Theus, Weber, Treveon Graham and the rest turn those turnovers into easy scores. If you find enchantment in chaos, this is the team for you.
7. Creighton: If you've ever seen Grant Gibbs whip a swerving ping-pong serve of an entry pass to Doug McDermott, and if you've ever seen McDermott finish said pass, or frankly, if you've ever seen McDermott do anything on the offensive end of a basketball court, then you don't need me to continue. And if you haven't? Remedy this situation immediately.
6. Florida: For much of the season, Florida has been the nation's efficiency darling, the only team in the country ranked in the top five in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. Florida is so much better defensively than last year's team -- which, let's remember, nearly blew past Louisville in the Elite Eight -- that they're sure to be a trendy pick for the Final Four this season. The Gators have one fatal flaw: They don't get to the free throw line enough. This is worrisome for tournament play -- when those jumpers stop falling, what then? -- but for our purposes, it's actually pretty great. Fewer stoppages in college basketball? Where do we sign up?
5. Duke: The Blue Devils have a score to settle. A year ago this week, the worst Duke defense in 15 years was shredded by 15th-seeded Lehigh's C.J. McCollum in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Schadenfreude was the order of the day.
This season, the Blue Devils tidied up their defense without losing the faster-than-average spread offensive attack coach Mike Krzyzewski has been flirting with off and on since he came back from his first stint with Team USA (where he coached alongside Mike D'Antoni). Meanwhile, Mason Plumlee might be the most athletic 7-footer in the country, Seth Curry is a crafty lights-out perimeter shooter, and Ryan Kelly -- who recently returned from injury with a 36-point masterpiece against Miami in his first game back -- looks endearingly like your goofy cousin, if your goofy cousin also shot 48.6 percent from beyond the arc.
4. Michigan: From a sheer effectiveness standpoint, the Wolverines have issues. They're still too reliant on jump-shooting for their scoring, for one, and their defense -- never their best feature, but a manageable one -- has been at its most porous in the past three weeks. Those are issues for you to consider for your bracket.
In the meantime, the Wolverines remain utterly engrossing to watch each and every time they take they court. Trey Burke's sophomore season was a twice-weekly master class in the art of the point guard, and when Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas are hitting 3s and Glenn Robinson III is running at the rim on the break, John Beilein's team truly is a sight to behold.
3. Gonzaga: The Gonzaga trolls -- people who argue the Zags aren't for real because they don't play in a power-six league -- clearly don't watch the Zags play very often. If they did, they would abandon that hopeless position, and along the way, as a bonus, they would realize the Zags are one of the more cohesive and well-run offensive groups in the country. Center Kelly Olynyk can rightly be called the nation's best big man and Elias Harris is a fully-formed inside-out threat. Watching those two pick apart defenses with crisp interior passing -- and watching them work with point guard Kevin Pangos, who shoots, handles and dishes equally well -- is a treat you owe it to yourself to indulge.
2. Louisville: Never forget: Defense can be beautiful, too. There are different kinds of defense -- there is smart, stay-in-front-and-don't-foul half-court defense, and then there is we're-going-to-break-your-spirit psychological warfare, which brings us to the Louisville Cardinals. Rick Pitino's team has held opponents to the fewest points per possession for the past two seasons now, and this season the Cardinals are even better than they were a year ago.
What makes them special is their ability to switch between schemes on the fly like a 13-year-old Xbox Live opponent switches settings in NBA 2K13. Russ Smith and Peyton Siva can lull opposing point guards to sleep for 15 minutes before springing a sudden, Pitino-cued half-court trap. They can play zone or man or a little of both at the same time.
They force turnovers and get easy points, and if you beat them, have fun getting that shot over center Gorgui Dieng at the rim. Smith (whom Pitino nicknamed "Russdiciulous" in 2011-12) is one of the nation's pure joys to watch; you really do never know what you're going to get. And now that the Cardinals play quality offense as well as defense (as opposed to last season), there is nothing to counter the once-ugly other side of their play.
Watching Louisville dismantle an opposing offense -- as they did during the 44-10 second half run that buried Syracuse in the Big East curtain call Saturday night -- and you can't help but think of a pack of velociraptors. When they're hungry, when they pounce, they're cunning and brutal. And, yes, beautiful too.
1. Indiana: And so we arrive at the summit: The Indiana Hoosiers are the most watchable team in the NCAA tournament.
Much of this list was difficult. This was a no-brainer. The Hoosiers' Big Ten regular-season title was remarkable not only because IU won an outright victory in the best league in the country, but because IU was successful as the fastest team in the slowest league of the past decade, a place where entertaining basketball has long since been pounded into cultural submission.
Even when they slow it down, Indiana's star power is fun to watch: Victor Oladipo is the most exciting player in the country (and it isn't even close); his missed dunk -- again: missed dunk -- against Michigan Feb. 2 was one of the most exciting I've seen all year.
When IU's offense -- the most efficient in the country this season -- is on, when Oladipo is scrambling ballhandlers and forcing turnovers, when IU is racing out on the break and swinging the ball from side to side, when Hulls whips the extra pass to the wing, the Hoosiers are much more than a good way to kill two hours. They are the Copacabana scene in Goodfellas, or the back half of Abbey Road, or a David Foster Wallace essay. They are complex kinetic perfection. Everything fits.
The Hoosiers -- who defend at a top-20 level, but aren't nearly as fearsome as, say, Louisville or a Georgetown -- are hoping they can win a national title this way, hoping offensive brilliance is enough in 2013. Whether they're right or wrong, this has been a profoundly ambitious and idealistic project.
And so, whether Indiana is playing with your bracket's fate on the line, or in a silent Assembly Hall, shoe squeaks ringing through the concourse, above all this team deserves one thing: to be seen.
Enjoy the tournament, everyone.
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