Scott Fowler

Welcome to March Madness! Here’s a cheat sheet for college basketball’s best month

‘On the court, it’s vicious’: UNC’s Roy Williams on the Duke-Carolina rivalry

UNC basketball coach Roy Williams talks about the Duke-Carolina rivalry and facing what he calls the most talented team the Blue Devils have put on the court since returned to UNC as head coach.
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UNC basketball coach Roy Williams talks about the Duke-Carolina rivalry and facing what he calls the most talented team the Blue Devils have put on the court since returned to UNC as head coach.

Leaf peepers love October. Holiday planners love December.. But college basketball fans? They love March.

They love the whole month with an unbridled passion, one undimmed even by the fact that it usually ends badly for their favorite team.

On March 1st, though, there is always hope – for both your team and your bracket.

So here we are again, finally rid of that rainy February, ready for college gyms around the Carolinas to rattle with a cacophony of bouncing basketballs, squeaking shoes, blaring bands and frantic fans. Welcome to the madness of March, where the journey is the thing, even more so than the destination.

Charlotte gets to host the ACC men’s basketball tournament this year for the first time since 2008. That March 12-16 event will complete quite a trifecta for the Queen City over the past month – the NBA’s All-Star Game was in Charlotte on Feb. 17, and the CIAA tournament is ramping up right now.

But even though Charlotte gets to temporarily serve as the epicenter of both NBA and college hoops in the span of four weeks, significant college games will be played all over the Carolinas in the next month: in Asheville, Chapel Hill, Columbia, Davidson and many other gyms.

Here’s a quick cheat sheet of things to look out for – and a couple of tips on how to win your bracket:

How’s Zion? The right knee of Zion Williamson remains the story that looms over college basketball after he blew out his shoe and got hurt 36 seconds into the first UNC-Duke game. I hope he plays in the second one, which is March 9 in Chapel Hill. Knowing Zion and his family a bit after a few interviews over the past couple of years, I’d be very surprised if he shuts it down for the season due to a knee sprain or his NBA aspirations.

Duke’s Zion Williamson (1) falls to the court under North Carolina’s Luke Maye (32), injuring his right knee on Feb. 20. The two teams meet again March 9 in Chapel Hill and might play one more time the next week at the ACC tournament in Charlotte. Robert Willett

UNC-Duke 2: The Tar Heels’ 16-point win at Duke last month was an anomaly – the next game will be far closer no matter whether Zion plays or not. And it will be “vicious,” to use the word North Carolina coach Roy Williams used before the first tussle.

I spoke to former Duke star Grant Hill recently about why the rivalry is so special.

“I always felt like when I was in the state of North Carolina, it’s a Tar Heel fan base,” Hill said. “Even on campus… a lot of the employees are Tar Heel fans. You’re on the quad, you go to the cafeteria, you go to the bookstore, you got employees in there talking trash to you, talking about ‘You can’t beat Carolina.’ It’s living with the enemy, literally.”

Charlotte’s ACC tournament: It should be monstrously good, with three of the country’s top five teams in town in Virginia, Duke and UNC. Who wins? I’d put my money on Duke if Zion is healthy; Virginia if he’s not.

Wofford’s Fletcher Magee (3) is trapped in a 2017 game in Chapel Hill. Wofford upset the Tar Heels that day, however, and the Terriers are undefeated in the Southern Conference this season and a likely NCAA tournament team.

Watching Wofford: Here’s a team that doesn’t surprise anyone who follows college basketball closely, but which will surprise the casual fan. Coach Mike Young is so underrated, and he’s got Wofford ranked No. 24 in the country.

Even if Wofford gets upset in the Southern Conference tournament in Asheville – and that’s possible, because that league is very strong this year and two other talented Carolinas teams in Furman and UNC Greensboro have a realistic shot at winning the automatic bid — I think an NCAA at-large bid will be forthcoming.

Led by Fletcher Magee, a sharpshooting guard who may have an NBA future, Wofford hasn’t lost a game since Dec. 19th. You may remember that the core of this team upset North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 2017. Pick the Terriers to win at least one game in your NCAA tourney bracket. This is a team that, quite seriously, may be as good as the 2008 Davidson Wildcats, who had Steph Curry and were one errant three-pointer from making the Final Four.

Speaking of Davidson: The Wildcats are once again very good, led by coach Bob McKillop and a versatile backcourt. But in a down year for the Atlantic 10, Davidson will likely need to win the conference tournament to make the NCAA tourney. The Wildcats currently are tied for second in the A-10, behind VCU.

Davidson head coach Bob McKillop talks with Luke Frampton (34) in January. The Wildcats are tied for second in the Atlantic 10 and probably need to win their conference tournament in March to make the NCAA tournament field. TIM

The bubble: The current residence for N.C. State, Clemson and South Carolina, among others. I think N.C. State and Clemson get in, but not the Gamecocks.

The way to win your bracket: I know it’s boring, but I’ve won several brackets by doing it this way. Decide your tournament winner first and work backward. This year that winner will come from these eight teams: Duke, UNC, Virginia, Gonzaga, Michigan, Michigan State, Kentucky and Tennessee. Pick one.

Then, you have to pick about 90 percent favorites, putting at least three 1 or 2 seeds in the Final Four. Upsets are fun, but they are too hard to pick and far more likely to get you in trouble than to save you.

OK, that’s it. Enjoy March.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for the Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also is the host of the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth.”