The figures with the most at stake in the men’s NCAA Tournament

There are so many reasons we love March Madness. From the shocking upsets to the nail-biting moments to the chance it gives us to gloat about winning our bracket pool, the NCAA Tournament is as rollicking a postseason ride as there is in sports.

Without a doubt, though, part of the enjoyment comes in watching the teams that go far into the tournament dig deep and band together to play their best basketball for four-to-six games in a row. It is so rewarding to watch these teams take advantage of their high-pressure opportunities on the biggest stage.

The flip side of that, of course, is that some teams will come up well short of expectations. The schadenfreude of watching a goliath that expected to win it all bow out during the first or second round is too compelling to resist.

For the top teams in the tournament, it’s a pretty simple calculus: If you make a deep run, you will be remembered fondly for years to come. Fall short of expectations, and you forever become a punch line, for other fanbases as well as your own.

That is the duality faced by the people on this list, all of whom are associated with highly-seeded teams. Here’s a look at the men who have the most to gain and/or lose over the next few weeks:

Zach Edey and Matt Painter, Purdue

Out of any team in this tournament, the Boilermakers have the most to prove. Edey and Painter are the face of the team, so they bear the brunt of that responsibility.

Last year’s first-round loss to Fairleigh Dickinson, the second-ever 16-over-1 upset, is what drives this noise. Edey is about to become the back-to-back Naismith College Player of the Year, and yet people question if a system built around him can win the biggest games. A deep NCAA Tournament run would validate Edey’s regular season accolades and, not so coincidentally, potentially improve his NBA draft stock.

Painter also has questions to answer. This is Purdue’s 15th NCAA Tournament appearance in 19 seasons under Painter and the 11th time it has been a top-five seed; in that time, the Boilermakers have gone no further than the Elite Eight and only did that once. When Tony Bennett’s Virginia squad became the first 1-seed to lose to a 16, the Cavaliers came back the next year to win it all. The pressure is on Painter to orchestrate a similarly deep run.

Armando Bacot and R.J. Davis, North Carolina

Bacot is in his fifth season with the Tar Heels. His first four years were bookended by missed tournaments (there was no NCAA Tournament in 2019-20 but North Carolina was 14-19, so it wasn’t making it), with two trips as an 8-seed in between. Of course, North Carolina made it all the way to the national final in the second of those years, when Davis joined Bacot as a full-time starter.

Bacot and Davis are the most notable players of the era in which the Tar Heels transitioned from Roy Williams to Hubert Davis, which is also the most inconsistent the team has been since at least Matt Doherty’s time in Chapel Hill. This is by far the best team of this still-developing era and the best chance these guys have of winning a national championship. Bacot and Davis, the latter a First-Team All-American this season, are experienced players who won’t accept anything less than a national championship.

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Dalton Knecht, Tennessee

Few expected Knecht to be much more than a nice addition when he transferred to Knoxville, but he has been so much more for the Volunteers. Coming from Northern Colorado, Knecht’s efficient 21.5 points per game has elevated the Tennessee offense closer to the elite level the team’s defense has been at for years.

With that, the 22-year-old has become a potential lottery pick in the 2024 NBA Draft. The NCAA Tournament has a way of elevating its stars’ draft outlooks, and when you combine that with the chance to help Tennessee break through after a near decade of close calls under Rick Barnes, there is plenty for Knecht to gain over the coming weeks.

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Kyle Filipowski, Duke

Filipowski has basically the same opportunity as Knecht, except at Duke. Like it or not, everything is bigger when it comes to the Blue Devils.

It was a surprise when Filipowski pulled his name out of last year’s NBA draft, but that decision is looking smarter and smarter. The 7-footer has improved his numbers nearly across the board and taken major steps forward in the crucial areas of 3-point shooting and defense, so he’s likely going to hear his name called earlier than he would have last year. Still, a strong NCAA Tournament could push him close to the lottery.

More immediately, Filipowski could join the list of standout Duke big men to win a national championship – players such as Christian Laettner, Carlos Boozer, Jahlil Okafor.

Kelvin Sampson, Houston

The Cougars are a great example of a “new blood,” joining teams such as Villanova, Virginia and Baylor that were not historically dominant but became consistent threats to win the national title in the last decade. The coaches that led those teams to prominence – Jay Wright, Bennett, Scott Drew – are among the most highly-regarded coaches in the sport’s recent history. That’s the list of names Sampson can join with a national championship.

In the 22 years before he took over in 2014, the Cougars made the NCAA Tournament just once, when they got bounced in the first round in 2010 as a 13-seed. Their appearance this season makes six straight tournaments and two straight No. 1 seeds, and they have made a Final Four, an Elite Eight and two Sweet 16s in that period. But oh would it be sweet for Sampson and his team to break through and win the ultimate crown.