College basketball fans, start your brackets.
March Madness kicks into high gear this week with the start of the NCAA tournament, the time hoop heads circle the calendar like it’s Christmas.
This year’s run through the field of 68 should be a blast – an undefeated team in the bracket, a wide-open field and a heavy dose of great players.
So stock up the fridge, work on that fake cough to call in sick and dig the remote from under the couch cushions. It’s time to roll.
Florida. No. 1 overall seed should get some props, especially one that plays defense as the Gators do.
Wichita State. Final Four last season, unbeaten so far this one. All you need to know.
Arizona. The loss of Brandon Ashley hurt and so did a loss to UCLA in the Pac-12 championship game. Not enough to keep the Wildcats from earning a No. 1 seed.
Virginia. No. 1 in the East Region after sweeping the ACC regular-season and tournament titles.
Louisville. Defending champs are somehow a No. 4. A little secret: They’re better than that.
Michigan State. The Spartans aren’t highly ranked, but never count out a Tom Izzo team, especially one that won the Big Ten tournament.
Doug McDermott, Creighton. Pretty much everyone’s player of the year will be playing in the NCAA tournament for the final time. Expect big things.
Jabari Parker, Duke. He has been not only been the best of this year’s heralded freshman class, he’s one of the best no matter what year.
Shabazz Napier, UConn. About the only thing the Huskies’ do-everything guard doesn’t do is drive the team bus. Wouldn’t be surprised if he did at some point.
Russ Smith, Louisville. He is still Russdiculous.
Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati. Playing on a defense-first team hasn’t kept him from scoring 20 points a game.
Nick Johnson, Arizona. The junior whose coach couldn’t get a callback from elite summer camps has become one of the best two-way players in the country.
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State. He may have been suspended for a confrontation with a fan and has been accused of flopping, but the dude can play.
TOP OPENING MATCHUPS
Oregon vs. BYU, West Regional, Friday in San Diego. Ducks and Cougars combined to score nearly 200 points in their first meeting this season.
Kansas State vs. Kentucky, Midwest Regional, Friday in St. Louis. The Wildcats from Kentucky are peaking at the right time. The Wildcats from the Little Apple have a score to settle – they’re 0-8 all-time against Kentucky.
Gonzaga vs. Oklahoma State, West Regional, Friday in San Diego. The Zags are underrated. The Cowboys have Marcus Smart
Arizona State vs. Texas, Midwest Regional, Thursday in Milwaukee. The Longhorns average more than 15 offensive rebounds per game and the Sun Devils have 7-foot-2 center Jordan Bachynski in the middle.
Harvard over Cincinnati, East Regional. The 12th Crimson pulled off an upset by knocking off New Mexico last season and have pretty much everyone back. This is has been the most popular upset pick of the bracket.
Providence over North Carolina, East Regional. The Friars, the 11th seed, took themselves off the NCAA bubble by winning the Big East, one of the toughest tournaments in the game. The sixth-seeded Tar Heels have been inconsistent most of the year, following big wins with disappointing losses.
Saint Joseph’s over UConn, East Regional. The Hawks won nine of their last 11 games and have big man Halil Kanacevic. UConn won 26 games but could be vulnerable.
N.C. State or Xavier over Saint Louis, Midwest Regional. The Billikens limped down the stretch, losing four of five after a 25-2 start.
Iowa or Tennessee over UMass, Midwest Regional. The selection committee raised a few eyebrows by making the Minutemen a No. 6 seed after they lost seven of their final 15 games.
3 – Straight years a team with a losing record has made the field of 68. Cal Poly, at 13-19, got in by winning the Big West tournament as the No. 7 seed.
9 – Years since a preseason No. 1 didn’t get a 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Kentucky is 8 in the Midwest.
16 – Years since UMass had made the NCAA tournament before getting in this season.
18 – Teams that have entered the NCAA tournament undefeated. Seven went on to win the title, the last one Indiana in 1976.
26 – Straight wins by top overall seed Florida.
34 – Years since Virginia had won the ACC tournament before this season. The Cavs also won the regular-season title for the first time since 1981.
133 – Games of scoring in double figures by Creighton’s Doug McDermott, an NCAA record.
355 – Weight of Sim Bhullar, New Mexico State’s 7-foot-5 center.
Several teams enter the tournament with key players out or ailing:
Brandon Ashley, Arizona. The versatile sophomore forward went down for the season after injuring his right foot against Cal last month. The Wildcats have adapted, earning a top seed anyway.
Joel Embiid, Kansas. The powerful freshman forward missed the Big 12 tournament with a back injury and could miss the first weekend of the NCAAs.
Mitch McGary, Michigan. Speaking of backs, McGary, the Wolverines’ big man, missed the entire Big Ten season because of his.
Spencer Dinwiddie, Colorado. The Buffaloes sneaked into the bracket despite limping to the finish after their leading scorer went down with a torn ACL on Jan. 12.
Kyle Collinsworth, BYU. The Cougars’ playmaking guard tore his ACL in the WCC championship game and is out for the NCAAs.