The NCAA tournament isn't just about the transcendent national-title experience that one team feels at its conclusion. It's also about the journey all 68 teams took to get to the Big Dance and the magic they create when they come together. Which do you remember more: Duke cutting down the nets last April or Wisconsin proving that Kentucky (then 38–0) was beatable after all? Can you name the four starters who surrounded Shabazz Napier in Connecticut's 2014 title run? Or how about who won it all in '13, when Florida Gulf Coast dunked its way to the Sweet 16?
Despite what coaches may say, very few schools are capable of winning the national championship. But every team believes it can create its one shining moment. Here are four stories about four players, teams and coaches out to achieve something special over the next three weeks.
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Pressure? Denzel Valentine is used to it by now. His father, Carlton, played for Michigan State. He grew up in Lansing going to Michigan State games. The best player in school history, Magic Johnson, is also the best player ever from Lansing, and Valentine has been compared to Magic since middle school. Now the senior has one last chance to lead Michigan State to a national title, just like Magic.
It is tempting to say that Valentine has to block all of this out when he takes the floor this month. But that isn't how he operates. He will take it with him; he loves the expectations and revels in trying to win for people other than himself. His brother, Drew, a fine college player at Oakland University, is on that list. So is senior Spartans sharpshooter Bryn Forbes, Valentine's best friend as a kid. And so is Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, with whom Valentine is close. Valentine has three weeks to accomplish the greatest feat of his life. Everybody from his brother to Magic will be watching—and Valentine loves that. By Michael Rosenberg
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An NCAA championship would be meaningful to Kansas coach Bill Self because, to put it succinctly, he obsesses over it. It is the thought in the back of his mind. It is the thought in the front of his mind. It is the thought that fills every sub-cellular space between every synapse in his skull. Never mind the 12 straight Big 12 regular-season titles, or the 382 wins he has amassed in Lawrence alone. "There's only been one game," Self said before this postseason run began, "where the win has felt as good as the losses have felt bad."
That, of course, is in reference to the national title game on April 7, 2008, when Kansas stormed back to beat Memphis 75–68 in overtime. Self wants to feel that sensation again. The prospect of it keeps him going even though there is little else the Jayhawks haven't accomplished under his watch. Back-to-back exits in the NCAA tournament round of 32 surely drive Self and his players, but not like the feeling of one victory that surpasses everything else. By Brian Hamilton
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In the one-and-done era, eight college freshmen have gone on to be selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft. All of them played in the NCAA tournament. Will that trend change this year? LSU freshman forward Ben Simmons, who has long been considered the No. 1-in-waiting, won't take part in the Big Dance after his Tigers suffered through a mediocre regular season and an embarrassing flameout against Texas A&M in the SEC tournament semifinals.
Duke forward Brandon Ingram, however, has punched his ticket to the field. Ingram entered college as a consensus top-five prospect, and he has slowly climbed to No. 2 on many draft boards and is now within striking distance of Simmons. Could a strong showing catapult him to the top in June? By David Gardner
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Stony Brook didn't begin playing Division I basketball until 1999. It took until 2016 for the Seawolves to secure their first berth in the sport's marquee event, the NCAA tournament. How did they finally do it? By winning the America East tourney behind a masterful performance from star center Jameel Warney, who scored 43 points to spark an 80–74 victory over Vermont.
The next day, fans filled Stony Brook's arena to watch as the Seawolves learned their first-round opponent would be No. 4 seed Kentucky, a blueblood program brimming with future NBA talent and supported by a massive fan base. The Seawolves are heavy underdogs, but now that they have finally reached college basketball's biggest stage, can they pull a stunner and extend their welcome? By Chris Johnson