As March Madness Ramps Up, Who To Watch

With the men's NCAA basketball tournament set to begin this week, host Michel Martin speaks with Pablo Torre, a reporter at Sports Illustrated, for a preview of what teams to watch out for and what teams may be going home early.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the health care overhaul is the top priority in Washington this week. If approved, it could affect millions of patients in the future. But how about future doctors? We've called two young physicians in training to hear their views in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk about a different malady, March Madness, when 65 teams begin battling it out on the hard courts to win the NCAA Men's and Women's Basketball Championships. Already this year's tournament looks very different with some perennial powerhouses shut out of the competition.

To hear more, we are joined by our regular sports contributor Pablo Torre. He's a sports writer for Sports Illustrated magazine. Welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. PABLO TORRE (Sports Writer, Sports Illustrated): Hey, Michel.

MARTIN: So, it's been an atypical we're going to talk about the men first, no particular reason. Just, you know, talk about the men first. It's been an atypical year in college basketball for the men. These big names like UCLA, UConn and UNC are not in the tournament, and in place, big teams like Wofford, North Texas and Robert Morris. What's up with that?

Mr. TORRE: Yes. I mean, every March Madness season there are these teams that no one's heard of. That's not the real surprise. But you're absolutely right. Not having UNC, which won the tournament last year in Detroit, the national championship game; not having UCLA, maybe no story program in college basketball; not having UConn, which looked like a powerhouse midway through the season is surprising.

And so, yeah, there is a little bit of education that needs to go on with college basketball fan and all the amateur gamblers that'll be coming out of the woodwork this week. And, yeah, there's a little bit of homework you got to do, a couple of smart picks. But, yeah, you can no longer rely on picking those old, historic big names so much anymore.

MARTIN: I'm going to ask you for the smart picks in a minute. But people pay a lot of attention to the seeding of the teams. The four number one men seeds this year are: Kansas, Duke, Kentucky and Syracuse. But all of them have shown, would you agree, some degree of vulnerability this year?

Mr. TORRE: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I would say three out of the four seeds at least fit that profile. But one team that is the overwhelming favorite and if you talk to the pundits, you go on Twitter, you listen to all the prognostications that flood the airwaves - have flood the airwaves over the past 24 hours, Kansas is really the most seemingly invulnerable team of them all.

They have the strongest profile. You know, they didn't go wire to wire this year as far as reigning atop of the pole, but probably have the strongest profile. They have some kids who won the national championship already. A couple of years ago, Sherron Collins, their point guard has won it. Cole Aldrich, their center, has won it already. And Bill Self, their coach, obviously was there before.

The other three seeds, Kentucky, Duke and Syracuse all have flaws. But Kansas is really the hands down favorite to win this thing.

MARTIN: Now, who's the Cinderella story likely to be this year?

Mr. TORRE: You know, it's funny, as you said, you know, you're missing some of the big powers, have some new names. There really isn't a dominant Cinderella candidate. There are a couple of good choices. But honestly, this bracket is probably going to be ringed in chalk as far as just picking the higher seed. I think that's maybe the most efficient strategy, honestly.

But I will throw out a couple of names out there. The first one is going to be Siena from Upstate New York. They're facing Purdue, a four seed and Siena is a 13 seed. And the reason you like them is Purdue actually lost its best player prior to the NCAA tournament run. And so, that would be Robbie Hummel.

And so, Siena has a good chance. Purdue has weakened. They have kids who won an NCAA tournament game in each of the past two years. They're led by three strong seniors. And so, you look at them just sort of make a little bit of a run. That's my one candidate coming out of that south region and they have the potential. If they make a George Mason like run, an unprecedented streak to the Final Four, they would knock off Duke in that sense. And so, I really like Siena to do that.

Other than that, you know, there are a couple of nice picks. I think people are looking at Cornell out of the Ivy League as kind of the as kind of almost a novelty pick. They've got some hype over the past season. But I think there they run into Temple in the first round, which is maybe the worst possible matchup.

Cornell's coach is the understudy, is the protege of Temple's coach Fran Dunphy out of the University of Pennsylvania. So, I think that matchup is horrible. And so actually the Cinderellas in this tournament don't have too much ground to stand on, unfortunately, for all the obsessed fanatics out there.

MARTIN: I'm sorry, I was filling out my sheet. Hold on a second there. So, okay, I'm back. Okay, now, what about the women's basketball championship, the NCAA women's field is announced tonight. Now, is the University of Connecticut, it had such an amazing run going undefeated for the season winning 72 games straight. I mean, do they have a lot to even bother, you know, ho hum? Just wait for the end.

Mr. TORRE: You almost should take that attitude. And you hate to say it because March Madness, anything could happen. But let's remember, let's first of all recognize how insane UConn's run is. I mean, they are in a different sport than the rest of these teams. And not only did they win 72 straight games, but they did it by at least 10 points in every one of them. They were not challenged. They ran a completely untrammeled, completely unimpeded through the women's games so far, and they won it last year.

So the really, as far as all the things you look for as to a potential champion, you really look to UConn. And, sure, there are some other good teams out there, there are some great characters out there. Brittney Griner obviously is one name that has been in the news recently. You look at Louisville maybe, but UConn is just a dynasty, you know, a dynasty in the making, a dynasty that's already been made. So it's really just incredibly incredible story.

MARTIN: Well, we'll call you immediately if there's an upset just to gloat.

Mr. TORRE: Yes. And don't hold me accountable for any of these picks.

MARTIN: Oh no, that's not going to work. Pablo Torre is a writer for Sports Illustrated and a regular contributor to TELL ME MORE, and he joined us from Scottsdale, Arizona. Thanks, Pablo.

Mr. TORRE: Thanks, Michel.

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