Things to keep an eye on heading into March Madness

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With the girls state basketball tournament concluding this week, and the boys tournament gearing up next week, it’s been a friendly reminder that the most exciting few days in all of sports is nearly upon us.

March Madness is right around the corner, and this year’s NCAA men’s tournament is shaping up to potentially be one of the wildest yet.

Nineteen times this year a team ranked in the top five has lost to an unranked team.

Compare that to fourteen times a year ago. And keep in mind how strange last year’s tournament was, with 13-seed Ohio University making it all the way to the Sweet 16, where the Bobcats gave top-seeded North Carolina all it could handle.

North Carolina State, an 11 seed, also made it to the Sweet 16 in the Midwest Regional, and nearly upset 2-seed Kansas.

I had the pleasure of attending that Midwest Regional in St. Louis, and those two Sweet 16 games were both great games.

Not to mention 15-seeds Lehigh and Norfolk State knocking off 2-seeds Duke and Missouri, respectively.

As we approach the final few weeks of the regular season, here are a few things I’ll be keeping my eye on as we enter the 2013 edition of March Madness.

• Big East Tournament

The Big East Conference Tournament has long been one of my favorite sporting events to watch, just because there are so many strong basketball schools, many of which need to pull out a win or two in the conference tournament to secure a spot in the field of 68.

Plus, it just doesn’t get any better than a big-time sporting event in Madison Square Garden.

This will be the last year the tournament will hold the same significance for me, though, since the league appears to be falling apart.

The “Catholic 7” are wanting to break away as soon as after the conclusion of this season, and teams like Louisville and Notre Dame are already slated to leave the conference to join the ACC.

This year, the conference is once again logjammed at the top with teams who could make a deep run into the NCAA Tournament.

I can’t wait to see who will take the title in the final year before all those teams go their separate ways.

And all the while, I’ll be hoping for another game as great as the 2009 game between Syracuse and Connecticut that went six overtimes. I watched that entire game from tip to finish that night, and I’ll never forget it.

• Missouri Valley

The Missouri Valley Conference has been downright frustrating this year.

Every time you think you have the conference figured out, someone upsets one of the top teams in the conference and turns the whole conference race upside down.

Wichita State and Creighton are currently deadlocked at the top of the conference, with Northern Iowa sitting third. Drake enters the weekend in eighth place, but with one game left, can still finish sixth.

I think this has the potential to be one of the most entertaining conference tournaments in the country.

There’s a lot of quality basketball in this conference, and a lot of quality players including Doug McDermott of Creighton, UNI’s Anthony James, Jake Odum of Indiana State, Colt Ryan from Evansville and Illinois State’s Jackie Carmichael.

The tournament coined “Arch Madness” has the potential to be just that — madness.

• Top dogs?

It seems like no team has wanted to be the No. 1 team in the country this year. No one has really stood out as the team to beat this year.

Indiana has probably looked like the most deserving of that title, but even the Hoosiers have had some head-scratching performances.

A team I’m not sleeping on, though, resides out on the west coast.

I’ve watched just about every Gonzaga game that has been televised this year, and I believe they are a legitimate contender for the national title.

They’re deep. They can score on the perimeter. They can score in the post. They can play defense. They can shoot.

What is there not to like about Gonzaga?

The front line of Elias Harris, Kelly Olynyk, Kevin Hart, Sam Dower, Przemek Karnowski and Guy Landry Edi is a front line that I believe can compete with any team in the country.

The backcourt isn’t too bad either, with sharpshooting Canadian Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, Jr.

Plus, when you can bring John Stockton’s son off the bench, that’s not bad either.

• Saint Louis

How could I leave my alma mater off my list of things to watch?

The Billikens have exploded onto the national scene in recent weeks with wins over ninth-ranked Butler, 24th-ranked Virginia Commonwealth and at 15th-ranked Butler.

They also own a win over 20th-ranked New Mexico, coached by former Iowa coach Steve Alford, earlier in the season.

It’s a great story what the Billikens have done this year, having dealt with the death of coach Rick Majerus earlier in the season.

They’ve carried on the spirit of coach Majerus, however, taking his teachings and applying them on the court.

Under interim head coach Jim Crews (who better get the job after this season), the Billikens are currently 22-5 and playing some of the best ball in the country in recent weeks.

National experts are starting to fall in love with the Billikens and praise them for their defense, shooting abilities and depth.

Hopefully, my Bills will continue their strong play and make a memorable run in this year’s tournament.

I know “Big” Rick will be looking down upon them.

•••

Contact the writer:

Twitter: @scottvicker

Email: svicker@crestonnews.com

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