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Six March Madness Storylines to Watch

The play-in games are over, and the field is set. Three of our Kid Reporters, who will be attending NCAA tournament games, examined a handful of intriguing story lines that you should follow.

Is Cinderella dressed in yellow?

Can No. 13 seed Valparaiso outlast fourth-seeded Maryland? The Crusaders were originally predicted to finish fourth in their conference, but after winning the Horizon League tournament, the team earned a spot in the Big Dance.

Valpo’s stingy defense may be a tough test for Maryland. The Crusaders are led by 6’10” rim protector Vashil Fernandez, who was the Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year. His shot-blocking ability (he’s ranked seventh in the country, with 98 total) has changed the course of many games. Alec Peters leads the team in scoring (16.7 points per game) and rebounding (6.8).

Maryland finished second in the Big Ten standings but lost in the conference tournament semifinals to Michigan State. Though the Terrapins are considered favorites, Sports Illustrated picked the Crusaders to advance. Don’t blink on Friday afternoon (4:40 p.m. ET, TNT) because you may miss them emerging as this year’s best underdog story. – Matt Collins

Or is Cinderella an Anteater?

For the first time in the program’s 38-year history, the University of California at Irvine Anteaters have made it into the tournament. UCI is seeded 13th in the East and will play the 2013 champion Louisville Cardinals Friday (4:10 p.m. ET, TBS). 

Easy pickings for the Cards? I don’t think so. The Anteaters have height, including MamadouNdiaye, who at 7’6” is the tallest Division I college basketball player in the nation. He uses his height to his advantage: He set a Big West Conference single-season record with 106 blocked shots in 2013–14. (He was injured for part of 2014–15.)

The Cardinals will have to look out for sophomore Luke Nelson, a scrappy guard who had 17 points in UCI’s win over Hawaii in the Big West tournament title game. Nelson, a top recruit from England, will be central to the Anteaters’ offense. 

UCI had lost in all four of its previous Big West title game appearances. Now the Anteaters can channel their momentum and excitement into swatting shots, sinking field goals, and enjoying the ride. The chances that an Anteater Cinderella story will unfold are slim, but as we know, anything can happen in March. – Isabel Gomez

How strong are the 12 seeds?

Over the last three years, the NCAA tournament has seen a peculiar pattern emerge: 12th-seeded teams are upsetting fifth-seeded teams more often than ever before. In 2012, two of the four 5–12 matchups ended in upset: VCU beat Wichita State, and South Florida beat Temple. 

One year alone is a fluke. But in 2013, three of the four 12 seeds moved on to the round of 32. Oregon, Cal, and Ole Miss defeated Oklahoma State, UNLV, and Wisconsin, respectively. 

History repeated itself in 2014 when three more five seeds went down in the round of 64. Cincinnati fell to Harvard, VCU lost to Stephen F. Austin, and North Dakota State handed Oklahoma an early ticket home. 

By comparison, only two 13 seeds have beaten four seeds in the first round since 2012: Ohio over Michigan in 2012 and La Salle over Kansas State in 2013. 

This year, No. 12 seeds Buffalo, Wofford, Wyoming, and Stephen F. Austin seem on paper to be no match for West Virginia, Arkansas, Northern Iowa, and Utah. But don’t count them out when filling out your brackets. – Evan Bergen-Epstein

Will Arizona and Wisconsin meet again?

In last year’s tournament, the Wisconsin Badgers beat the Arizona Wildcats 64–63 in overtime to advance to the Final Four. The Wildcats may have a chance at revenge this year, as the brackets are perfectly set up for these two teams, who are both 31–3 going into the tournament, to meet in Los Angeles in the Elite Eight. 

The major factor in last season’s win for the Badgers was Frank Kaminsky, who was recently named Sports Illustrated’s Player of the Year. In last season’s Badgers-Wildcats game, Frank the Tank had a double double, with 28 points and 11 rebounds. He singlehandedly scored more points than the Wildcats did in the second half. Can he do it again this year as a senior?  

One of the Wildcats’ key weapons this season is freshman Stanley Johnson, a small forward and shooting guard who leads the team with 14.1 points per game. If everything goes as I predicted in my bracket, we will see this rematch, and the Badgers will prevail again. – Isabel

Will the Leopards leap into the history books?

Can a No. 16 seed finally beat a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament? Can the Lafayette Leopards, making their first trip to the tournament since 2000, dance their way to a win against top-seeded Villanova? 

The matchup is especially interesting because Fran O’Hanlon, Lafayette coach and former Villanova basketball player, will attempt to lead his team to a win against his alma mater. 

Leopards point guard Nick Lindner earned Patriot League tournament MVP after scoring 71 points over three games. Seth Hinrichs, Joey Ptasinski, and Dan Trist are career 1,000-point scorers, and Lafayette ranks in the top 10 nationally in all three offensive efficiency categories.   
Villanova, a Big East powerhouse, won 15-straight games heading into the Big Dance. The Wildcats are currently third in the power rankings, while Lafayette sits at 297. Will the Leopards make history? Tune in Thursday (6:50 p.m., TBS). – Matt

Does UCLA deserve to be dancing?

Selection committee members left fans and analysts scratching their heads when they selected UCLA as a No. 11 seed and didn’t require the Bruins to play a First Four game in Dayton for a shot at the next round. 

As USA Today basketball analyst Patrick Stevens recently pointed out, UCLA was 2–8 against top 50 teams and 1–8 on the road against top 200 teams this season. Stevens did not even have UCLA in his 68-team tournament prediction. 

While the selection committee does take recent trends in wins and losses into account, UCLA’s last 10 games don’t beg to be noticed: the Bruins went 6–4. While UCLA is 48th in rating percentage index (RPI), a measurement of strength of schedule coupled with how a team does against that schedule, Colorado State seemingly was more worthy of UCLA’s spot, ranking 29th in RPI. Only Missouri State in 2006 ranked higher in RPI and missed the tournament. 

Colorado State is also the only team to be ranked in the top 30 in RPI and miss the tournament since the bracket expanded to accommodate 68 teams. This mistake of a pick could end badly for the Bruins on Thursday, as UCLA will be facing a tough SMU squad hungry for a statement win (3:10 p.m. ET, truTV). – Evan

Photos: Michael Hickey/Getty Images (Valparaiso), Jae C. Hong/AP Photo (UC Irvine), rant Halverson/Getty Images (Wofford), Harry How/Getty Images (Wisconsin), Jamie Squire/Getty Images (Lafayette), Joe Scarnici/Getty Images (UCLA)

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