Who’s Next? 12 NCAA Tournament Stories To Watch In 2012, Part 1

It makes sense, given its roots in the ivory towers of higher education, but no sport attracts volunteer experts quite like college basketball. Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NFL may have embraced new math, but college hoops has its own science: That thing we call Bracketology.

And in almost every interview I’ve heard and column I’ve read from these experts this season, one question has been consistently asked and answered: “Who is the next VCU?”

Following the 11th-seeded Rams’ run to the 2011 Final Four that turned Shaka Smart into a star and put every D-1 blueblood on blast, this year people want to ID early the next underdog that will shock the world. But that’s the thing with NCAA teams that come out of nowhere – you aren’t supposed to see them coming.

But we’re still going to try, right? With an eye on finding the next VCU – as well as the next North Carolina, the next Jimmer Fredette, and the next Shaka Smart, among others – here are the 2012 NCAA Tournament stories that will remind you a lot of last year:

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Player that will, as close to single-handedly as possible, carry his team to a national championship.

A: Draymond Green, SF/PF, Michigan State
Once upon a time in East Lansing, they were comparing Steve Smith to Magic Johnson because he was a tall point guard who threw flashy passes. Today, Draymond Green is actually a closer representation to what Magic once meant to the Spartans.

Green won’t be running point in the NBA anytime ever, but the 6-7, 230-pound hybrid forward has his prints on every page of Michigan State’s winning cookbook: Scoring (16.1 points, leads the team), rebounding (10.4 boards, leads the team), passing (3.6 assists, second on the team), defense (1.5 steals and 1.0 blocks, first and second on the team, respectively), and leadership (Tom Izzo told Michigan Live last week, “If they want to say Draymond coaches the team, I’m cool with that.”). This year, the senior led State to a Big Ten championship and a No. 1 seed in the West Region.

More than Smith, more than Shawn Respert, more than Mateen Cleaves, Green might just be the most valuable of all of Michigan State’s most valuable players over the years. After Magic, of course.

Double-digit seed that will make the Final Four.

A: Xavier
I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Team Zip ‘Em Up knocked off Notre Dame in the first round, then ran through Duke and Baylor to make the Elite Eight. After that, it’s anybody’s national championship.

The Musketeers have a tough, talented and experienced backcourt with senior Tu Holloway and junior Mark Lyons. Freshman wing Dezmine Wells contributes 10.2 points and a momentum-swinging highlight or two per game. Senior seven-footer Kenny Frease became famous this season for getting punched out during the Xavier/Cincinnati brawl, but don’t forget that before the fight, Frease had outplayed Yancy Gates to the tune of 13 points, 13 boards and four blocks. And it’s just a hunch, but I’m expecting one shining moment or two from backup guard Brad Redford. He only plays about 11-12 minutes a night, but the kid has a ratchet more potent than anything Tony Montana ever used.

Team that is loaded with talent but maybe light on the onions, therefore vulnerable for a frustrating exit.

A: Georgetown
I wish I didn’t have a good reason to throw my team under the bus, but the Hoyas have a track record of losing games they should win, losing close games, and face-planting on the big stage. In the last four postseasons since John Thompson III coached G’town to the ’07 Final Four, they’ve lost twice in the NCAA Tournament’s first round (or the Round of 64, whatever), lost once in the second round, and missed the Dance altogether one year (losing in the first round of the NIT). Those three NCAA exits came at the hands of a 10th seed, an 11th seed and a 14th seed.

When Georgetown clamps down on D, runs that Princeton offense with discipline, and gets a solid game from their top frontcourt guy – this year it’s center Henry Sims – the Hoyas can beat anybody. But when they go ice-cold with their jumpers, let their opponents get hot from outside, start turning the ball over and generally playing like five guys who just met in the locker room four minutes ago, you get the too-familiar image of JT3 standing there with a blank stare.

Player that will play himself into a Top-10 NBA Draft pick.

A: Austin Rivers, SG, Duke
Rivers’ arrival at Duke was just a little less celebrated than Grace Jones‘ entrance in Boomerang. But the 6-4 shooting guard wasn’t consistently spectacular throughout the year, and as of this week he is slotted 16th on the mock draft boards at NBADraft.net and DraftExpress.com, and 21st on MyNBADraft.com. Lately he’s been heating up, though. Rivers dropped 29 points and six threes against North Carolina on Feb. 8 – including the game-winner to beat the buzzer – and since then has averaged 17.4 points in his last 10 games while the Blue Devils have gone 8-2.

The last sequence of Duke’s ACC semifinal loss to Florida State was telling: Rivers wants to take the big shot now, and more importantly, his teammates expect him to take the big shot. The Blue Devils have Baylor, UNLV, Notre Dame, Xavier, Colorado, South Dakota State and Lehigh in their half of the South Regional – and will play their first two games in Greensboro, N.C. That’s a favorable path to the Elite Eight, during which the freshman sensation could play his way (back) into a single-digit draft slot for a team like Cleveland or Toronto.

Big-name player that will play himself out of the NBA Draft’s first round.

A: Tyshawn Taylor, PG, Kansas
Same school, same position, entirely different scenarios. Selby came to KU as five-star recruit, but never really fit into Bill Self‘s program. Selby could’ve at least left a good impression on NBA scouts with a strong Tournament, but he was a non-factor: Playing 14 minutes per game, he racked up 15 points and four assists. Total. The one-time Lottery prospect dropped to the 49th overall pick.

Taylor has battled for four years to earn his star status and Self’s trust, but where Selby didn’t do enough to help his pro stock, Taylor’s problem might be doing too much. He’s on a hot streak, averaging 21.8 points in Kansas’ last five games and settling into the first round of several mock drafts. Should he revert to his bad habits of playing out of control and forcing things, though, he could cost the Jayhawks a spot in the Final Four and cost himself a guaranteed NBA contract.

Team that began the season in everybody’s Final Four, underachieved just enough to fall of everybody’s Final Four by March, then makes the Final Four anyway.

A: Ohio State
Can you call a team that went 13-5 and finished second in the nation’s toughest conference an underachiever? Not really, but in many respects, the Buckeyes failed to live up to their preseason potential. After all, a lot of prognosticators had OSU pegged for the Final Four and perhaps a national championship – but after losing three of their final seven regular-season games and then dropping the Big Ten title game to Michigan State, now Thad Matta‘s team goes into the tournament as a 2-seed, with Syracuse and Florida State getting just as much Final Four buzz out of the East Region.

Take a good look at the Buckeyes, though. They have arguably the best scoring big man in the country in Jared Sullinger, a more than capable inside-outside scoring complement in Deshaun Thomas, an outside shooter who can slash in William Buford, a playmaking and defensive-pest point guard in Aaron Craft, and a talented bench. A run to the Final Four and beyond is completely within Ohio State’s grasp.

Big-name player everybody is waiting to see, who can’t possibly live up to the expectations now because they’re so high.

A: Anthony Davis, PF, Kentucky
Jimmer had a damn good 2011 Tournament. He lit up Wofford for 32 points and seven assists, slapped 34 and six (with seven threes) on Gonzaga, and scored 32 against Florida, while leading BYU to the school’s first Sweet Sixteen in 30 years. But you remember Jimmermania – it was like Linsanity without the extra NYC layer of smug. Living up to the hype for Jimmer would’ve meant pulling a Larry Bird and taking BYU to the national title game, starting a rivalry with Kemba Walker that culminated in 2025 with Kemba wearing a wrinkled warm-up and telling us: “There will nevah … evah … be another Jimmah Fredette.”

Anthony Davis hasn’t been subject to that kind of manic Jimmer-type hype, but UK’s freshman power forward is expected to clean up on national awards and has moved to the No. 1 spot on every NBA mock draft. He’s been so dominant defensively, earlier this season Yahoo! Sports left an erroneous headline on their site for at least six hours claiming Davis had blocked 18 shots in one game – which they left up because it was actually believable. For the fan who’s so far only heard of Davis and not yet seen him at work, they’ll be expecting triple-doubles of the points-rebounds-blocks variety for every Wildcats game. Anything less will be something of a letdown. It’s not fair to Davis, but that’s the madness of March.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2…

What story lines are you most looking forward to in March Madness?

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