March Madness never disappoints, but prospects for a fresh-faced, vertiginous ride seem even more promising this year. The main reason: a freshman class some analysts have declared as the best in the sport's history.
Those newcomers, along with some unexpected rising teams – always a staple of the NCAA basketball tournament's allure – have the hoops-happy salivating at the prospects of Selection Sunday (March 11, CBS), when the 65 schools invited to the tournament will be announced.
Thirty-one schools will earn automatic bids, with the remaining spots awarded by the selection committee.
No one doubts the prospects of Ohio State and Texas, schools boasting the best freshman players in the country. Ohio State spent much of the year ranked near the top of the weekly polls. When the Buckeyes nabbed the No. 1 spot late last month, it marked Ohio State's first top ranking in men's basketball since 1962. The Longhorns can't match those rankings, but a solid 22-win season in the rugged Big 12 all but assures them of a post-season bid.
Seven-foot center Greg Oden leads Ohio State, though his freshman year may be his last. His prospects for a pro career are strong enough that many experts consider Oden's chances of a sophomore jinx impossible. This season, Oden lived up to mammoth expectations, swatting shots and scoring inside despite playing with an injured wrist all season.
As good as he is, Oden, whom many scouts consider to be a lock as the top NBA draft pick if he decides to leave school this year, isn't the nation's best freshman. That honor belongs to Kevin Durant, a sinewy forward with a résumé boasting nine games with 30 or more points this season.
"They are absolutely phenomenal," says ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale. "They are great team players. I really expected them to be as good as advertised – and they have been."
They're not alone, either. All across the country, first-year players fill the highlight reels, eliciting cheers – as well as attendant fears of an early departure for the NBA.
Traditional power North Carolina boasts three stellar freshmen: Ty Lawson, Brandan Wright, and Wayne Ellington. At Villanova, it's freshman guard Scottie Reynolds, who recently set a single-game school record for a first-year player by scoring 40 points. Out west, seven-footer Spencer Hawes of Washington draws as much attention from pro scouts as he does from defenders in the paint.
Even the small schools have gotten in on the act. At Davidson College in North Carolina, frosh guard Stephen Curry, the son of retired NBA veteran Dell Curry, led the Southern Conference in scoring this season. He also led the Wildcats to an NCAA berth with a win this past weekend in the conference tournament.
Analysts cite a variety of factors for the freshmen uprising.
"Kids have played so much more basketball by the time they get to college now than they used to," says CBS analyst Seth Davis, noting the summer camps, traveling all-star teams, and myriad other options for youth and prep players. "They're a lot stronger and a lot more mature. It's all kind of converged."
Davis believes that this year's tournament – which begins with the play-in game March 13 and gets going in earnest two days later – features the perfect blend of newcomers and traditional powers. UCLA, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke, and Louisville, among others, represent the latter. And, of course, a more recent powerhouse, defending national champs Florida, looms large with a veteran-laden roster led by Joakim Noah, a comparative graybeard as a junior.
When the ubiquitous NCAA tournament brackets begin circulating through millions of offices next week, expect many TV talking heads to advise would-be basketball prognosticators to take a long look at Winthrop University. The tiny South Carolina school has been to seven NCAA tournaments in the past nine years, but, until recently, was viewed as first-round roadkill. Not anymore. Last year, SEC power Tennessee held Winthrop off with a late shot to survive a first-round scare. Now analysts say coach Gregg Marshall and Winthrop stand a chance to become this year's version of George Mason, which rode its glass sneakers all the way to the Final Four last year.
Then again, maybe a bigger school known more for football than basketball might upstage such notions. Texas A&M, led by senior guard Acie Law and fiery coach Billy Gillispie, reached the second round in 2006 and spent much of this season nestled in the Top 10.
Talk of bracket-busters leads Mr. Davis to sum up March Madness's popularity in blunt terms. "Two words: office pools," he says. "It's a great sporting event, but it's also a great gambling phenomenon."