By Steve Silverman
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The talk surrounding this year’s NCAA Tournament from the sharps is that the No. 1 seeds are vulnerable and this is the year that a 16-seed could take down Kansas, North Carolina, Virginia or Oregon.
That’s very doubtful, but the point has been made that the tournament is wide open and the elite teams are not as elite as they have been in the past.
A year ago, John Calipari and Kentucky came into the tournament as the odds-on, undefeated favorite to win the title.
They did not, as they were taken down by a strong Wisconsin team that was ultimately beaten in the title game by Duke.
Kansas (30-4) is the top-seeded team in the tournament, and while it doesn’t have the resume that Kentucky brought last year, head coach Bill Self has a team that old-school basketball fans will appreciate.
You won’t find the Jayhawks’ players at the top of anyone’s NBA draft list, but Kansas shares the ball like few other teams. Leaders like Perry Ellis (16.7 points per game), Wayne Selden Jr. (13.3 ppg) and Frank Mason (13.1 ppg) can make crucial plays at key moments.
The Jayhawks don’t intimidate you, but Self’s guys have often found a way to win when the game has been on the line with defense, passing and the ability to knock down the clutch shot.
It will be tough to beat Kansas, but Michigan State (29-5) will find a way to do it if the two teams meet for the title.
Tom Izzo and the Spartans got to the Final Four a year ago, and while they had done all the little things right to get to that level, they were crushed by Duke in the national semifinals.
That defeat does not go away. Michigan State has certainly gone about its business in impressive fashion this season, but as the tournament gets underway, the Spartans know they laid an egg last year against the Blue Devils.
So now, Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello have another opportunity, and the Big Ten conference tournament champions are playing their best basketball at the right time.
Those three players are all seniors, and senior-led teams have become quite rare in recent years. The most talented players tend to leave college basketball after their freshman or sophomore season, but not Izzo’s Spartans. The theme of unfinished business has kept Valentine & Co. on campus, and they clearly have the right leader on the bench.
Valentine is averaging 19.4 points, 7.6 assists and 7.6 rebounds per game. He is competing with Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield (25.0 ppg) for the Wooden Award as the college game’s best player.
There is little doubt about Hield’s explosiveness and talent, but he can’t match Valentine in all-around ability. Valentine is a scorer, a ball handler, a brilliant passer and a rebounder that has the instincts to be in the right position to wall off his man and come down with the ball.
He is also a brilliant defender that has the instincts of an NFL All-Pro free safety. He knows when to make a play on the ball, and when to double-team.
Valentine is a brilliant all-around player and he will flourish at the next level. He will likely go midway in the first round of this summer’s NBA draft, and he is a winning player. One of his best friends is Golden State’s Draymond Green, and Valentine may have a similar impact on winning when he gets to the next level.
Forbes is one of the Spartans’ most improved players this season and he is a remarkable outside shooter. Forbes is averaging 14.4 points, and he his connecting on a Steph Curry-like 48.4 percent of his shots from 3-point range. If there’s a note of caution with Forbes, it’s that he was shooting better than 50 percent from behind the arc prior to last weekend’s Big Ten Tournament.
Costello is a leave-it-all-on-the-court warrior who is one of Izzo’s toughest players. Costello is averaging 10.4 points and a team-leading 8.4 rebounds, and has a hockey player’s mentality. He will gladly take an elbow to the chops if it means he comes down with the rebound.
There will be no stopping the Spartans this time around. They will earn their trip to the Final Four, and this time Izzo’s crew will end up cutting down the net.
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