1. Kansas City Royals. The tournament committee has created a possible second-round matchup of hoops royalty — Kansas vs. North Carolina, in the second round, in Kansas City. As a reward for their 29-5 record and Big 12 conference tournament championship, the Kansas Jayhawks received the top seed in the South region, and home games, in effect, during the first two rounds (Kansas City is some 40 miles east of the KU campus in Lawrence). If North Carolina, an 8-seed, beats Villanova in the first round, the Tar Heels will likely face Kansas in the next game (Kansas faces 16th-seeded Western Kentucky, who won the Sun Belt conference tournament, in the first round. Will a 16-seed finally knock off a number one this year? The Hilltoppers are unlikely to pull it off playing in front of all those Jayhawks fans).
What’s more, North Carolina’s coach, Roy Williams, was the head coach at Kansas from 1988 to 2003. Williams had great teams at Kansas, but never won a title: he left for North Carolina after his team lost in the 2003 championship game to Carmelo Anthony and Syracuse. He’s since won the 2005 and 2009 titles with the Tar Heels, while Kansas coach Bill Self led the Jayhawks to a championship in 2008 (Kansas beat UNC in the national semifinals that year). Give the committee credit for setting up some early round intrigue in KC.
2. The Jackrabbit. South Dakota St. point guard Nate Wolters is the best player in the tournament you’ve likely never heard of. He’s averaging 22.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 5.8 assists per game. and has NBA-level talent. Since 2010, no college player has produced more points — via a field goal, free throw, assists, or offensive rebound — than Wolters.
In the first round, his Jackrabbits will face Michigan in Auburn Hills, Michigan. The Wolverines feature a backcourt of Trey Burke, a candidate for national player of the year, and Tim Hardaway Jr., son of the former NBA star. If you like good guards, don’t miss this game.
3. Butler Is Served? For years, Butler has snuck up on the “major” college basketball powers to enjoy great tournament success. In 2013, Bucknell is looking to flip the script: the Patriot League champs, who memorably upset Kansas back in the 2005 tournament, face Butler in the first round. This should be a great game, thanks to Bucknell big man Mike Muscala, who averages 19.0 points, and 11.2 rebounds, per game. Muscala is second in the country in player efficiency rating (PER), an advanced calculation of a player’s per-minute, per-possession productivity; this stat is a dependable measure of a player’s overall value. Last year, Lehigh, out of the Patriot League, shocked Duke in the first round: don’t be surprised if the conference pulls off an upset two years in a row.
4. Spirit of St. Louis. The St. Louis University Billikens, who won the Atlantic 10 conference championship on Sunday, are playing with heavy hearts: their gregarious coach, Rick Majerus, died of heart failure in December. “His fingerprints are everywhere, absolutely,” said interim St. Louis coach Jim Crews. The fourth-seeded Billikens open up their tournament on Thursday, against New Mexico State. On Sunday, St. Louis was so eager to see their seeding that, after winning the Atlantic 10 title in Brooklyn, the team stopped off at a Best Buy in Secaucus, NJ, while en route to nearby Teterboro airport, to watch the Selection Show. The Geek Squad let them lounge on couches.
5. Duke Bedeviled? If second-seeded Duke survives its opening round game against Albany — remember, the Blue Devils lost to Lehigh last year — they may meet Creighton in a second-round game worth circling on your printable bracket sheet. Creighton is led by senior Doug McDermott, the 6’8″ scoring machine who averages 23.1 points per game, shoots 56.1% from the field, and 49.7% from three-point range. McDermott is also the son of the team’s coach, Greg McDermott. Much like Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum, who scored 30 points in Lehigh’s win over Duke last year, McDermott is more than capable of taking over a game, and almost single-handedly sending a major power home. For the legions of Duke haters out there, McDermott could be the man this weekend.