THE STARTING FIVE: March Madness II – the comeback

Carter Landis, Sports Editor

So, last year, I predicted the NCAA Tournament, but everything I predicted was wrong. This year, it won’t be that way. I’ll do the same four categories that I analyzed last year, with a little bit of deeper research. The comeback starts now.

Biggest Impact Player: TJ Leaf, UCLA forward
For the UCLA Bruins, all the focus on the freshman class has been on point guard Lonzo Ball, and for good reason. Ball looks to be a top three pick in the upcoming NBA draft. But because Ball garners all the attention, forward TJ Leaf flies under the radar. However, his special play should not go unnoticed. Leaf is averaging 16.2 points per game and 8.3 rebounds per game, also shooting 45% from three point range. UCLA plays in the same region as the likes of North Carolina and Kentucky, who have dominant big men, so the Bruins will need Leaf to step up big and prove he should be recognized for being just as impactful to the team as his teammate Ball.

Biggest Sleeper Team: Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders
Everyone has taken notice of Middle Tennessee State, right? After the shocking upset over heavy title favorite Michigan State last season, the Blue Raiders are back in the tournament for the second year in a row, this year as a 12-seed as opposed to last year when they were a 15. Many experts are picking them to make a surprise Cinderella run. Coach Kermit Davis will have his players primed and ready to take on 5-seeded Minnesota in the first round on Thursday, and MTSU is ready to establish themselves as a constant in the big dance.

Team that could be upset: Gonzaga Bulldogs
Every year, Gonzaga gets hyped up as a Final Four team, and every year, they disappoint. This year seems to be no different. Earning a #1 seed after coasting to a 32-1 record, and featuring a Wooden Award candidate in Nigel WIlliams-Goss, an NBA draft prospect in Zach Collins, and a nightmarish 7’1, 300 pound presence at center in Poland native Przemek Karnowski, it’s easy to fall in love with Gonzaga. But the Bulldogs haven’t advanced past the Elite 8 since 2015 since their surprise run to the Final Four in 2013. It’s a wise bet to look past their record and count out Gonzaga.

National Championship Prediction: Kansas over Duke
Bill Self, Coach K, Frank Mason, Jayson Tatum, and one game for all the marbles. The Jayhawks are led by Wooden Award favorite Frank Mason III, who is averaging 20.8 points per game on the season, complemented by the talented freshman Josh Jackson (16.4 PPG, 51% FG), sharpshooter Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (40% 3PT FG), and the multidimensional Devonte’ Graham (1.5 steals per game). Boasting a 28-4 record, Kansas is a heavy title favorite. The Blue Devils, however, are riding a four game winning streak and an ACC tournament title. Led by Jayson Tatum (16.9 PPG, 7.3 RPG), with dynamic scorer Luke Kennard (20.1 PPG, 44% 3PT FG) and the fiery Grayson Allen (14.1 PPG), the Devils are a scary team for anyone to have to match up with. When the ball tips off, Kansas will come out of the gates firing, and Duke won’t be able to keep up. They’ll make a game of it late, but won’t ever be able to make up the big deficit. Kansas wins the title, and Frank Mason III wins Most Outstanding Player.