Not a hoops fan? You can still talk March Madness

Jeffrey Bissoy's March Madness bracket
MPR News producer Jeffrey Bissoy has Duke taking it all in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
Jeffrey Bissoy | MPR News

College basketball fans will be talking nonstop about step-back threes, alley-oops and the beauty of the pick-and-roll. Screams of joy and agony will erupt from living rooms and break rooms everywhere. March Madness arrives Thursday.

Fanatics of men's college basketball already have their brackets filled and team jerseys out and ironed for the tipoff. But if you don't live and breathe college hoops, it's easy to feel left out of the NCAA tournament fun.

No worries. Here's a non-fanatics guide to this year's Big Dance.

Front of the pack

These top tournament teams have a high probability of winning it all.

Duke University. With 6-foot 7-inch, 280-pound forward Zion Williamson back from injury, Duke is the favorite to win the tournament.

The Blue Devils are a nightmare for opponents unable to counter Williamson's strength and creativity off the bounce, or stop guard (and Apple Valley High School star) Tre Jones' crafty playmaking.

Mix in the versatility of RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish, and Duke is trouble for most teams. While they're far from unbeatable, Duke has only lost one game when their four freshman starters have played.

University of North Carolina. The Tar Heels are college basketball royalty and did beat Duke once this season, although Williamson took an early exit due to injury. North Carolina lost to the Blue Devils by one point in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Williamson's return.

Freshman guards Nassir Little and Coby White have been leading the pack, while senior center Luke May has been anchoring the ship.

North Carolina won it all in 2017 and came up just short in 2016. They have the talent for another championship run.

University of Virginia. A year after becoming the tournament's first-ever No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed, Virginia's back with one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country to go along with its trademark stingy defense.

The Cavaliers hope that combination will end any doubts from last year's embarrassing defeat to University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Gonzaga University. Once upon a time, Gonzaga used to be a Cinderella team. But over the years, they've emerged as perennial heavyweights in college hoops.

Led this year by all-American sophomore Rui Hachimura, the Zags enter March Madness having won 21 of their last 22 games. Don't expect them to slow down soon.

University of Kentucky. To their standards, the Wildcats have had a fairly disappointing season. They started slow and dropped three of their last 10 games, two of those losses to a tough University of Tennessee team.

While this isn't one of head coach John Calipari's best recruiting classes, there is still talent up and down the roster, including sophomore forward PJ Washington, guards Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro, and Minnesota native and DeLaSalle High School alum Reid Travis.

Raining threes

Thanks largely to the success of NBA star Stephen Curry, the three-point shot is a vital part of college hoops, with teams across the country shooting and making threes at historic rates.

As fans, there are few things sweeter than watching a shooter hit a feathery shot from deep.

If three-pointers are what you seek here are teams that make a whole lot of them: Wofford College, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Michigan State, Auburn University and Marquette University.

Old school D

I have lots of questions for people who have love defensive battles on the court. But I won't deny that a team with sound discipline on that less glamorous side of the ball is often a safe bet to win.

If grit and grind is what you seek, look no further than Virginia, Michigan, Kansas State, Texas Tech and the University of Houston.

Cinderella sleepers?

At least one team every year defies the odds in the NCAA men's basketball tournament and suddenly starts pulling off some upsets.

There may not be many this year, but here's a few that could burst your bracket.

Murray State. Led by electrifying point guard "Ja" Morant, they're a team hoping to prove that they can keep up with some of the bigger programs across the country.

Because of their weaker schedule, some analysts are unsure about how far they'll go. But as long as Morant keeps up his average 26.6 points and 6 assists per game, the Racers just might be alright.

Seton Hall. Myles Powell is the reason you'll be rooting for Seton Hall. The junior guard is putting up 22.9 points per game along with four rebound and three assists, and he's done it by tossing up three-point jump shots like Curry.

Moreover, Seton Hall is battle-tested. They best Marquette and played tight contests against defending national champion Villanova.

Auburn University. The reigning SEC champions are coming into March Madness with some steam.

While most Cinderella teams are seeded 10 or lower, the Tigers are an overlooked team poised to make a run.

Auburn's beaten No. 2 Tennessee twice this season, including in the SEC championship, where they prevailed by 20 points. They've also played matches that went down to the wire against Duke and Kentucky.

University of Minnesota. OK, they aren't really a Cinderella team. But it's Minnesota, and it's fun to think they could end up playing in the Final Four in Minneapolis in a few weeks. The Golden Gophers take on the Louisville Cardinals Thursday at 11:15 a.m.

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