With the NCAA men’s tournament starting today, several Knicks players have rooting interests during an expected frenzied March Madness.
Following the NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida, few expected the 2020–21 season to be completely normal. Still, if someone told you last summer that the New York Knicks would be sitting at 20-21 in March with a real shot at making the playoffs, it’d be shocking to hear that you believed them. When considering what has become normal the last few years, March is usually the time of year where the Knicks’ inability to produce comes to center stage. The team won one game in March during the 2018–19 season.
Usually, this is the time of year where those who follow the Knicks closely turn their attention a little bit more closely to the college game to prepare for the high lottery picks the team would be hoping to secure. Again, this is no normal year. Not only do the Knicks’ games have high stakes as the team tries to continue to stay in the mix for the playoffs, but also some of the traditional college blue bloods have fallen off this season due to weaker recruiting classes and general COVID-19 weirdness.
For the first time since 1995, the Duke Blue Devils will not be featured in the NCAA tournament. After an extremely middling season, Duke’s greatest hopes at making the tournament lied in making a great run during the ACC tournament, but a coronavirus outbreak caused their season to end prematurely. Now, current Knicks role player Austin Rivers and budding star R.J. Barrett find themselves with no rooting interest in this year’s tournament.
Equally surprising is the Kentucky Wildcats’ absence from this year’s tournament field. Kentucky more recently missed the tournament in 2013, but the team was a little more competitive during that season. This year was the first time ever that Kentucky failed to make it to the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament. Fortunately, the Knicks have already gotten a lot out of the front office’s ties to Kentucky, but this does not really bode well for what is to come. Perhaps it all fell apart for the Wildcats when the Knicks hired longtime Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne before the start of this season. Other members of the organization with connections to Kentucky include 2021 All-Star Julius Randle, Nerlens Noel, Rookie of the Year candidate Immanuel Quickley, and Kevin Knox.
Despite how odd of a year this is in recent Knicks history and NCAA tournament history, many Knicks players do have a rooting interest in teams that will try to cut down the net in early April.
UNC (no. 8 seed, South Region): Theo Pinson, Reggie Bullock
Fan-favorite Knicks bench player and 2017 NCAA tournament champion with the North Carolina Tarheels Theo Pinson recently took to Twitter to describe how bizarre the usually dominant ACC has been this year:
A Georgia Tech vs. Florida State ACC championship game…. just don’t sound right😂😂 and does not sound entertaining lol
— Theo pinson (@tpinsonn) March 13, 2021
Based on Pinson’s social media, he still is very invested in the success of UNC’s basketball program. He is, however, not the only Knicks player to have played at the prestigious UNC-Chapel Hill. Starting small forward Reggie Bullock also played there for three seasons, reaching the NCAA finals in 2011 and 2012. Bullock, a North Carolina native, was also named to the All-ACC Team in 2013.
This year’s Tarheels will have their work cut out for them, however, as they face a strong Wisconsin team in the first round and will likely have to play no. 1 Baylor in the second round. While I would not count on UNC to make too far of a run this year, following Pinson in the media as the Tarheels go for their seventh NCAA men’s basketball championship in program history will be an enjoyable ride itself.
Colorado (no. 5 seed, East Region): Alec Burks
In his first season with the Knicks, backup guard Alec Burks has had an up-and-down year but has provided some great shooting off the bench, averaging 11.8 points per game while shooting 38.6% on threes. When Burks suited up in Boulder for the University of Colorado, however, he was a complete star, averaging 19 points per game over two seasons for the Buffaloes. Burks won numerous accolades in his time there, including Big 12 Rookie of the Year in 2010 and selections to the All-Big 12 and All Big-12 Tournament teams in 2011.
This year’s Colorado team will face Georgetown in the first round, who is fresh off an incredible run through the Big East Tournament. Georgetown may have a bit of an extra chip on its shoulders after the controversy that happened with their coach, Knicks legend Patrick Ewing, and Madison Square Garden security last week, but they will have their hands full with an experienced Colorado squad. All four of Colorado’s top scorers are upperclassmen. The winner of this matchup will have to play the winner of Florida State and UNC-Greensboro and could ultimately have to face Michigan or Alabama to make it through to the Final Four.
USC (no. 6 seed, West Region): Taj Gibson
Knicks veteran center and Brooklyn native Taj Gibson played three very solid years at USC from 2006–09. His defensive dominance helped him earn selections to two All-PAC-12 Teams and 2009 PAC-12 Defensive Player of the Year, amongst other honors. That Gibson has been a successful defensive center in the NBA comes as no surprise, and the Knicks are now the third franchise where he has connected with defensive genius Tom Thibodeau.
Gibson’s Southern California Trojans will face the winner of a first-round play-in game and could wind up facing Kansas in the second round. A player to watch for the Trojans is Evan Mobley, a 7’0″ 19-year-old who is currently averaging 16.8 points and 8.6 rebounds per game in his first NCAA season. Tankathon currently has Mobley ranked in its Tier 1 of draft prospects, ahead of G League standouts Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga.
Michigan (no. 1 seed, East Region): Ignas Brazdeikis
Though Ignas Brazdeikis has only appeared in four games for the Knicks so far this year, his school looks like they will have the best odds to win all of March Madness this year. Fanduel Sportsbook currently has Michigan at +600 to win it all, tied with Baylor and trailing only Gonzaga at +200. The Wolverines have been incredibly strong this year, with all four of their losses coming from the loaded Big Ten conference.
While Brazdeikis has not gotten much run professionally, he was a standout in one season at Michigan, averaging 14.8 points and 5.4 boards per game during the 2018–19 season. He also led Michigan to a 17-0 start that year. The Wolverines would ultimately fall to Texas Tech in the Sweet Sixteen, but not for a lack of trying by Brazdeikis. In a game that finished 63-44, Brazdeikis put up 17 points and a career-high 13 rebounds.
Michigan could potentially face Colorado in the Sweet Sixteen, so Brazdeikis and Burks could face a little friendly competition in the locker room. Plenty of Knicks players, however, will have to sit idly by and watch the tournament with no rooting interest this year. As mentioned previously, Duke and Kentucky missing the tournament account for six players (Barrett, Rivers, Quickley, Randle, Noel, and Knox). Derrick Rose (Memphis), Elfrid Payton (Louisiana-Lafayette), Mitchell Robinson (Western Kentucky), and Obi Toppin (Dayton) all also saw their teams miss the tournament this year. Though the tournament should be exciting this year, what is more exciting is that for the first time in a while, Knicks fans will be able to enjoy it for the quality of basketball, rather than to scope out the potential number-one pick that could be joining the team next year.