What's the wildest dream for your team this NCAA tournament? What's its darkest nightmare? We plot out best-case scenarios and worst-case scenarios for every team in the Big Dance.
No. 1 ARIZONA
Best Case: Wildcats officially return to the elite level of the sport by winning their first national title since 1997 and second in history. Sean Miller sweats through six suits but fulfills his destiny to become a championship coach, simultaneously removing his name from the list of Best Coaches Without A Final Four. Nick Johnson does in his junior year what Miles Simon did in his – lead 'Zona to a title and be named Final Four Most Outstanding Player. Like Simon, Johnson has the help of a freshman supporting actor – but not a point guard. Forward Aaron Gordon concludes his brief stay in Tucson with a triple-double in the national semifinal. Arizona rolls easily past Weber State, survives a challenge from Oklahoma State, routs Cinderella North Dakota State and then uses the nation’s best defense to snuff out Baylor in the regional final. Arizona beats Louisville in Dallas and Michigan State for the championship. West Coast basketball gets a welcome boost in respect with its first title since the last Arizona title. Miller auctions off the perspiration-fouled suits for charity. Oh, and Arizona State is routed in its opener.
Worst Case: Miller only sweats through two suits as the Wildcats seize up offensively and are shocked by under-seeded Oklahoma State in the round of 32. Cowboys play Hack-A-Gordon and he goes 3-for-12 from the line. Johnson loses the individual battle with Marcus Smart. Center Kaleb Tarczewski has more turnovers than rebounds. T.J. McConnell misses a 3 to tie at the buzzer. Miller’s name moves to the top of the Best Coaches Without A Final Four list when Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan makes it this year. Many members of Arizona’s Gray Panther fan base figure they’ll never see another national title. Meanwhile, Arizona State upsets Texas and Michigan to go farther than the Wildcats.
No. 16 WEBER STATE
Best Case: Skilled bunch of 3-point shooters put on a dazzling perimeter display – in warm-ups. When the game starts and Arizona is in Weber’s faces, things get a little more difficult. But Randy Rahe’s team makes a better showing of itself than his last Weber squad to make the tourney – that 2007 team lost by 28 to UCLA in its first game. This time around Rahe’s bunch keeps it close for 30 minutes before losing by 15. A few days in San Diego is an added bonus, and Weber can say it had the best showing of any team from Utah after BYU is pulverized in its first game.
[Slideshow: NCAA tournament bracket breakdown – West region]
Worst Case: Even the warm-up 3s aren’t falling, and this game gets every bit as ugly as that ’07 beatdown from UCLA. Arizona has athletes you don’t find in the Big Sky Conference, and it gets the game into transition for a dunk parade on Weber. BYU somehow beats Oregon to claim state bragging rights, and Weber State flies home first thing the next day without even getting to the beach.
No. 8 GONZAGA
Best Case: Mark Few and the Zags like the view much better from somewhere other than the mountaintop. After flopping as a No. 1 seed last year, Zags relish the role reversal as a No. 8 with a chance to be the hunter instead of the hunted. After surviving a shootout with Oklahoma State on a Kevin Pangos 3 for the win, they get their shot at Arizona in the round of 32. Senior power forward Sam Dower continues his March salary drive by outplaying Aaron Gordon, and Pangos is back to being a handful after playing through a sprained ankle. David Stockton makes the pass to Dower for the winning basket as father John looks on in approval. Zags beat Oklahoma next before losing to Wisconsin in the regional final. School still doesn’t have a Final Four, but this was a run nobody saw coming and it helps alleviate the sting of last year.
Worst Case: Hunter or hunted, it doesn’t matter when your team just isn’t as good as the competition. A less-than-vintage Gonzaga squad gets the bad luck of being paired with dangerously talented Oklahoma State, with predictable results. With just one victory over a team in the NCAA field (New Mexico State in December), the Zags are not ready for the caliber of competition or level of athletes presented by the Cowboys. Frustrated with the inability to take the program from very good to great, Few quits to become a trout-fishing guide and disappears into the Pacific Northwest wilderness.
NO. 9 OKLAHOMA STATE
Best Case: Cowboys got it together at the end of a messy season and enter the tournament as a dangerous No. 9 seed, as Gonzaga finds out immediately. Marcus Smart leaves all the nonsense behind and just plays, producing 20 points, five rebounds, five assist and five steals to eliminate the Zags. In a season-healing performance two days later against Arizona, Markel Brown hits a 3 at the buzzer for the major upset of the top seed. But why stop there? Oklahoma State then takes out rival Oklahoma in the Sweet 16 and Wisconsin in the regional final. Run ends against Louisville in the Final Four, but everyone walks away satisfied – even if it was delayed satisfaction.
Worst Case: Marcus Smart flops on the opening tip. Then he flops when his own teammate runs into him. Then he flops when the Gonzaga band plays. The stunt man routine doesn’t do much to help the Cowboys’ cause, and they’re upended by the more focused Zags. Thus a melodramatic season that featured a major injury, a disciplinary dismissal, a Smart meltdown in Lubbock and subsequent three-game league suspension, and a regrouping by the Cowboys ends in early defeat and major disappointment. Travis Ford replaces Thayer Evans on the Least Favorite Man In Stillwater list but retains his job, to the displeasure of many. Oklahoma adds insult to injury by making the Final Four.
No. 5 OKLAHOMA
Best Case: Underappreciated Lon Kruger may have his best team since the late 1990s, which is three jobs ago (UNLV, Atlanta Hawks, Illinois). The normally methodical Kruger has turned loose his athletic Sooners, and the result is one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the tourney. Oklahoma revs the tempo beyond where North Dakota State wants it, then capitalizes on San Diego State’s upset loss to draw New Mexico State in the round of 32. A win over the Aggies puts Oklahoma in the Sweet 16 for the first time in five years, since the Blake Griffin days. Griffin stops filming commercials long enough to see his old school play in Anaheim against rival Oklahoma State, and the Sooners beat the Cowboys for the third time this year. That alone is enough to get Kruger a contract extension, but he adds one more round of fun by knocking off Wisconsin and getting the Sooners to their first Final Four in 12 years. Only drawback is that Oklahoma didn’t beat an SEC opponent along the way, which would have made Bob Stoops’ month.
Worst Case: Good as Kruger is, he’s not been one to settle down in Bracketville for very long in quite a while. Fact is, he’s lost three straight opening NCAA tourney games and hasn’t won one since 2008. The streak reaches four when Oklahoma is upset by North Dakota State. Sooners don’t make the opposition terribly uncomfortable on offense, and the Bison carve them up. With Cameron Clark not driving and getting to the foul line as much, North Dakota State locks down on 3-point specialist Buddy Hield and stalls the OU offense. Meanwhile, Oklahoma State goes to the Final Four and Texas makes a run, too.
No. 12 NORTH DAKOTA STATE
Best Case: With a Bison upset of Oklahoma, Saul Phillips becomes the first Saul to earn a coaching victory in the NCAA tournament. (No, really. You can look it up.) He also becomes the first coach of a North Dakota school to do so. All that history is made possible because Taylor Braun is a stud who comes through in the clutch, hitting a 3 at the buzzer to beat the Sooners. Blessed with a bracket-collapse game in the round of 32 against New Mexico State, the Bison win again. Suddenly the Great Plains herd animals have stampeded into the Sweet 16, and Fargo is back on pop-culture radar for the first time since Steve Buscemi was fed into a wood chipper 18 years ago. Run ends there. Nobody feels bad.
Worst Case: The Sauls of the world remain winless in the Big Dance when Phillips’ Bison are run out of the gym by the more athletic Sooners. Taylor Braun has a rough game and nobody picks up the slack, as it quickly escalates into a blowout. NDSU fan depression deepens when they remember Craig Bohl isn’t even around to go undefeated in football again.
No. 4 SAN DIEGO STATE
Best Case: Steve Fisher is feeling '90s fresh as his Aztecs slap relentless defense and ball-control tempo on everyone in their path. That starts with overmatched New Mexico State and extends to Oklahoma, which is frustrated at its inability to get the game into transition. In a Sweet 16 game just up the highway in Anaheim, SDSU outgrinds Arizona as Xavier Thames makes just enough shots to upset the top-seeded Wildcats. Aztecs then draw Creighton in a semi-kinda-but-not-really battle of non-major programs, and they keep Doug McDermott from killing them. San Diego State makes its first Final Four, and the Fab Five boys show up to support their old coach. Aztecs bow out against Louisville, but they made history. And they get to return to San Diego when it’s over, the biggest win of all.
Worst Case: All that defense cannot camouflage a laboring offense, and scoring points is the name of the game for a deep NCAA tournament run. Scattershooting Aztecs misfire from the foul line, the 3-point line and everywhere in between in a grim first-round loss to New Mexico State. Down three late, ball ends up in the hands of Winston Shepard outside. He’s 6-for-34 for the season from 3-point range but has to hoist it – with predictable results. Coupled with New Mexico’s first-round loss to Stanford, it’s another wipeout for the Mountain West. Fisher decides it’s time to go sit on the beach full-time and retires. Fans join him instead of going to games anymore.
No. 13 NEW MEXICO STATE
Best Case: America falls in love with 7-foot-5, 355-pound Sim Bhullar, who may be the largest free-standing structure in the United States. The pachydermal center averaged 14.6 points, 10.6 rebounds and 3.3 blocks over the Aggies’ last seven games as his game grew into his body. (Little brother Tanveer, 7-3 and 335 pounds, is redshirting this season. Much respect to mom for birthing both.) But the Aggies are much more than just a giant novelty act – they’re a balanced, high-scoring team that forces offensively challenged San Diego State into a shootout it cannot win. From there New Mexico State gets a date with stylistically similar Oklahoma and it takes down the Sooners, too. As rival New Mexico is flaming out early again, the Aggies are strutting into their first Sweet 16 since 1992. Marvin Menzies becomes the latest Pitino acolyte to make a name for himself, but he’s developed an affinity for desert over the last seven years and stays devoted to the cause in Las Cruces.
Worst Case: The problem with a 7-5, 355-pound center is that he can be run off his feet, and San Diego State does exactly that with its athletic big men. And the problem with being the champion of a completely stripped-down WAC is that you’re nowhere near prepared to handle a team as good as the Aztecs. Beating Grand Canyon and Cal-State Bakersfield does not make a team battle-hardened. After a solid beating from San Diego State, Menzies decides seven years is way too much desert for this lifetime and gets out. Meanwhile, New Mexico goes to the Final Four.
No. 6 BAYLOR
Best Case: Like all Bears, Baylor did some winter hibernating – losing eight out of 10 from Jan. 7 to Feb. 8. They’ve been awake and hungry since, winning 10 of their last 12 and reminding everyone why they were picked to finish third in the Big 12. Team with undeniable talent and imposing size enters the Dance full of confidence, and that is bad news for old Big 12 opponent Nebraska in the first round and for Creighton thereafter. (As a No. 6 seed, Baylor was given dubious geographic preference in San Antonio, which won’t sit well with the Bluejays.) In Anaheim, the Bears throw off Wisconsin with their zone and stymie Arizona with their length. Blessed with an even better location in Dallas, Baylor takes down Duke and Florida to win it all. Mouthy fan base (surprisingly foul-mouthed, for a Baptist school) finally has a legitimate reason to crow as the school wins its first national title. Scott Drew finally sheds label as a strategy-deficient talent accumulator – but immediately starts accumulating even more talent for the future. Dynasty blooms on the Brazos.
Worst Case: Baylor gonna Baylor. Talent and size only go so far – not far at all, actually – as the Bears lapse back into haphazard execution and half-hearted effort against Nebraska. Cornhuskers find creases in the Baylor zone and frustrate them with deliberate tempo. Frustration doubles when Bears go 8-18 at the foul line. Drew jumps around a lot on the sidelines but doesn’t make any adjustments that work. Baylor is eliminated in the round of 64 and remains without an NCAA tourney victory since 2012. Mouthy fan base switches the subject to football. Isaiah Austin turns pro along with three seniors who leave, and the Bears are a long way from being confused with a blooming dynasty.
No. 11 NEBRASKA
Best Case: The wit and wisdom of coach Tim Miles get broad national run when the Cornhuskers turn their first NCAA bid since 1998 into an extended stay. It’s the first extended stay in program history as the Cornhuskers enter the Dance 0-6 all time. But behind the fearless offensive game of Biblical shepherd Terran Petteway (the beard, the hair, the headband – all he needs is the crook), the Huskers win twice. They shoot holes in Baylor’s zone, then win the Cornhusker State Showdown over Creighton in the round of 32. Miles could win gubernatorial votes with the John Deere crowd from Chadron to Beatrice after Nebraska beats the elitist Omaha private school for the first time since 2010. Huskers tap out in the Sweet 16, but it’s officially the greatest season in school history.
Worst Case: Miles is still witty but in a self-deprecating way, and he doesn’t look terribly wise after the Cornhuskers are blown out by Baylor. Huskers struggle with the Bears’ size, and can’t make enough shots against their zone. After one particularly bad call, a fan throws his hat onto the court and stops play. Turns out to be Bo Pelini, who has to be restrained from rushing the floor – which causes an entirely different set of issues. Miles gets so skinny in the offseason that he has to be put on a protein shake diet to keep from winning the World’s Thinnest Coach title over Mike Cronin, Tom Crean and Johnny Dawkins. Oh, and the elitist Omaha private school goes to the Final Four.
No. 3 CREIGHTON
Best Case: Doug McDermott has a Steph Curry tournament, plus one – a supernova, superstar shooting display that leads his team to its first Final Four. Whereas Curry maxed out in the elite eight, McDermott gets the Bluejays over that hump. They dispatch Louisiana-Lafayette easily, handle in-state rival Nebraska yet again and defeat Wisconsin to reach the Elite Eight. Oklahoma State does Creighton the favor of eliminating Arizona, so McDermott doesn’t have to face that defense and lights up the Cowboys instead. Jig’s up when Creighton meets Louisville in the Final Four, as the Cardinals perpetrate bird-on-bird crime on the Bluejays’ backcourt. But McDermott goes out as one of the college game’s greatest scorers and a transcendent figure in Creighton history. As an added bonus, Bluejays go much farther than disliked old Missouri Valley Conference rival Wichita State, which busts out in the round of 32.
Worst Case: Pretty as Creighton is on offense, it is porous on defense. Bluejays can survive that way against a Louisiana-Lafayette team that is willing to trade baskets, but it doesn’t work against rival Nebraska in the second game. Huskers lock in on McDermott’s supporting cast of perimeter shooters and let him have his points. It’s a major upset and a painful end to McDermott’s career against a team the Bluejays have owned in recent years. To make matters worse, Wichita State wins the national title.
No. 14 LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE
Best Case: Good teams make their own luck, so the saying goes. The Ragin’ Cajuns made plenty to get here, winning their last four games by a total of nine points – including one-point wins in the semis and final of the Sun Belt tournament. Buoyed by that close-game confidence, UL-L stays cool in the final minutes of a surprisingly close game against Creighton. Elfrid Payton scores the game-winner on a pull-up jumper at the foul line, and coach Bob Marlin is headed to the tattoo parlor again. He was talked into one tat if his team made the NCAA tourney, and now by all rights he’ll have to follow that up with another for winning a game. Baylor prevents Marlin from ending up looking like Chris "Birdman" Andersen by eliminating the Cajuns in the round of 32, but that’s quite enough to celebrate in Lafayette for a long time to come.
Worst Case: A team that thrives at the end of close games doesn’t have much of an advantage when it is being blown out. Creighton blasts UL-L from the start, with McDermott on a mission and nobody capable of slowing him down. Lafayette gave up 113 to Louisville in December, and the Bluejays go for triple digits as well. Basketball-blighted state of Louisiana fails to even notice that the Ragin’ Cajuns made the tournament.
No. 7 OREGON
Best Case: Selection committee continues to throw wildcards at the Ducks: last year it was the absurdly low 12 seed that worked to their advantage and yielded a Sweet 16 run; this year it is pairing them with an absurdly over-seeded BYU team that just lost one of its best players to a torn ACL. Oregon gratefully accepts the walkover first game, then aims its quick tempo at deliberate Wisconsin. Badgers aren’t the defensive sticklers they’ve been in the past, and the matchup works in Oregon’s favor. For the second straight season, the Ducks are in the Sweet 16 and toting around the rickety trophy from the 1939 national championship as a talisman. But this time there’s no eventual national champion waiting for them; it’s only Creighton, and Dana Altman’s current school outscores his old school. In a regional final matchup with league rival and top seed Arizona, Oregon repeats its March 8 triumph to reach its first Final Four since the Tall Firs won the first one. Louisville shows up to end the Ducks’ season again, but Phil Knight is so excited he donates the money for three hovercrafts so basketball players never have to walk to class.
Worst Case: BYU somehow sucks it up without injured Kyle Collinsworth and surprises an Oregon team that believes it has cakewalk into the round of 32. Defensively apathetic Ducks fall behind early and let Tyler Haws go off for 40, failing to get enough stops to mount a legitimate comeback. Defeat is embarrassing enough that Phil Knight withdraws plans to provide players with platinum-plated iPads, telling them they’ll have to rough it with the regular factory-issue models. Hovercraft plans also remain on hold. Meanwhile, Pac-12 rivals Arizona and UCLA both make the Final Four and the Wildcats win it all.
No. 10 BRIGHAM YOUNG
Best Case: Cougars must find a way to circle the wagons after losing No. 2 scorer, leading rebounder and leading assist man Kyle Collinsworth in the West Coast Conference tournament final. Jimmer Fredette supplies a motivational speech harkening back to his senior year, when the team lost Brandon Davies at the end of the season and still made the Sweet 16. Inspired, Tyler Haws has a Jimmerian 40-point game against the lax Ducks defense to power a major upset by a team that by all rights should have been a No. 12 seed. Fans go on a celebratory binge by finding a Milwaukee cafeteria that serves all-you-can-eat jello, and chase it with apple juice. Cougars return to Earth enough two days later when they can’t beat Wisconsin, but that’s 40 minutes farther than the most optimistic projections. Cougars fans offer Utah condescending congratulations on its NIT bid.
Worst Case: Despite Jimmer’s best motivational effort, team has no chance without its most versatile player and gets plowed from the get-go by a very athletic Oregon squad. Haws takes 25 shots but only makes seven. Beaten-down fans find no consolation jello in the mean, beer-soaked streets of Milwaukee. Haws goes pro.
No. 2 WISCONSIN
Best Case: Dogmatic iconoclast Bo Ryan finally gets the validation he’s been missing, guiding the Badgers to his first national championship. They do it the Ryan Way: prudent shots produced by crisp ball and player movement; foul-free defense; disciplined tempo; assiduous attention to fundamentals and details. But Ryan tweaks the formula to play a little faster and freer, with a slight step back in defensive mentality in exchange for more firepower. The old-new cocktail tastes delicious as Wisconsin advances through crowd-friendly Milwaukee and moves on to Anaheim. The Badgers shoot 63 percent against Creighton in the Sweet 16, then slay Arizona on a Frank Kaminsky 3 in the final seconds. At age 66, Ryan at last has the Final Four that justifies his know-it-all attitude – but he’s not done there. Wisconsin gets No. 8 seed Kentucky and refuses to send the Wildcats to the line enough to be beaten, then meets familiar rival Michigan State in the title game. Jim Delany is in all his glory over the all-Big Ten final, and the Badgers prevail 51-49 in the lowest-rated championship game since black-and-white TV. Despite the lack of artistic merit, the title counts. Even Jen Bielema tweets something nice in Wisconsin’s direction.
Worst Case: Who are you kidding? Bo Ryan is never going to the Final Four and certainly never winning a national title, and Oregon reinforces that cold fact in the round of 32 by sprinting right past the unnaturally lax on-ball defense of the Badgers. Jen Bielema fires off another #karma tweet, then enters witness protection. Delany gets his all-Big Ten final without the Badgers, as Michigan and Michigan State square off. Know-it-all attitude still intact, Ryan insists his program will win it all one day and vows to keep coaching until he is 80 – which is a good thing if you like winning 25 games a year but a bad thing if you like playing basketball in April.
No. 15 AMERICAN
Best Case: Streaky team – one that lost seven of its first 10, won its next 11, lost five of its next eight and then won the Patriot League tourney – shows up with its positive momentum still intact. Disciplined, glacially paced Eagles give heavy favorite Wisconsin a taste of its own medicine, slowing the game to a sleepwalk. Even the Badgers are exasperated, but the tempo allows American to stay in the game into the final minute. Tony Wroblicky layup to tie rolls off the rim and Wisconsin escapes, but American knows it has a keeper in first-year coach Mike Brennan.
Worst Case: After an eight-day layoff, the positive momentum is all gone. American is back in struggle mode, with guards that handle the ball as if it’s ticking. Wisconsin quickly applies the sleeper hold, and the Eagles struggle to reach 40 points. Tourney proceeds apace, and within 48 hours nobody remembers American ever participated.
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