The college basketball season is winding down to Selection Sunday. Conference championships will be played to fill the 32 automatic bids for all conference winners in their respective tournaments. For those who haven’t followed too closely to the sport until its most infamous month, we have a guide to the six things you should know going into the prime time of the college basketball season.
1. STATE OF MICHIGAN ON THE RISE?
The state of Michigan have many teams trending up at the right time.
- Oakland and Western Michigan are on nine- and seven-game win streaks respectively.
- Central Michigan touts one of the nation’s most prolific scorers in Marcus Keane; averaging 29.4 points per game. Also an interesting fact, despite being the third-highest scoring offense in the NCAA, the Chippewas have a below .500 record and have lost six games in a row.
- Even the likes of Eastern Michigan are on a two-game winning streak headed into their season finale on Friday before tipping off their conference tournament on March 9.
- Both Michigan and Michigan State are 4-2 in the last two weeks (at the time of this writing), both having beaten Wisconsin in that stretch; Michigan also with a win over Purdue during that time. The Wolverines and Spartans seemingly overcame their bubble status with these marque wins and, despite a road hiccup for both squads on Wednesday, look well on their way to being a tough out come tournament time.
It is a distinct possibility the state of Michigan could get as many as four teams into the NCAA tournament and they all seem to be hitting their stride at the perfect time.
2. THREE-HEADED PHOG MONSTER
The Kansas Jayhawks have already secured another Big XII title under the reign of Bill Self. Traditionally, Kansas has always been a powerhouse yet has severely underperformed come tournament time.
In Self’s tenure at Kansas (since 2003), the Jayhawks have reached the Final Four only twice despite receiving a No. 1 seed six times and a No. 2 seed three times. Some have even gone far enough to speculate whether Self truly is as good of a coach as his regular season accolades would indicate.
This season could be a very different narrative for Self however. He is showcasing a guard trio of junior Devonte’ Graham, freshman Josh Jackson and senior Frank Mason III. The triple threat of guards are averaging 49.8 points per game combined — 62.4 percent of their team’s output — and also account for 12.2 assists per game as well. Mason III in particular has become the front-runner to win the Wooden and Naismith awards for the best player in the country for his stellar play down the stretch for the Jayhawks.
The Kansas NCAA Tourney story under Self has been written in disappointment, but that could change with a backcourt better than any other in college basketball.
3. THE NEW ACC IS THE OLD BIG EAST
According to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s most recent bracket projections as of March 2, two-thirds of the ACC would be in the NCAA tournament — that is 10 out of 15 teams. Of the teams in his First Four Out and Next Four Out, Lunardi also has Georgia Tech and Clemson.
This accounts for a type of production output that basketball fans haven’t seen since the heyday of the Big East Conference. By comparison, the prediction bracket only has half of the Big Ten (14 teams total) and less than half of the Pac-12 making the field.
Of the fifteen teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference, only two of them are currently under .500 — Boston College and N.C. State — and of those two, only B.C. is unable to finish about that watermark. The league currently has seven teams in the top 25 and eight teams with at least 20 wins. Again for comparison, the Big Ten currently has only Purdue and Wisconsin in the top 25 and only five teams with 20+ win seasons.
Needless to say, the ACC tournament is bound to be a thrilling one and could bring back fond memories of the epic Big East battles at Madison Square Garden.
4. MAKING SENSE OF THE BIG TEN
As was illustrated above, the B1G has had its fair share of troubles this year.
- No disrespect to Northwestern, who has had a remarkable season, but there is a reason Northwestern is going to its first NCAA tournament this year.
- Indiana started the season looking like world beaters; defeating the likes of Kansas and North Carolina in the non-conference. Now the Hoosiers are two games over .500 and 6-11 in the Big Ten; some of it having to do with key injuries.
- Wisconsin and Purdue both are below the top 15 in the polls and haven’t shown any level of consistency that leads anyone to think they can go far in the tournament.
- Maryland started the year with only four losses through February 18, but have since lost three of their last four since then.
The wild inconsistency of the league has many speculating just how far the traditionally-powerful Big Ten can go in the dance. While Wisconsin has the history, their up-and-down play doesn’t build any confidence and they are currently on a 1-4 skid. Purdue hasn’t ever shown they can sustain any regular season success in the NCAA tournament with past teams better than this year, and it seems unlikely this squad will do the same despite the stellar play of double-double machine Caleb Swanigan.
The other teams could have miracle runs like Michigan State did in 2015 as 10-seed but for the betting men in the room, don’t have high hopes for any Big Ten school this year.
5. “MID-MAJORS” RULE THE RANKINGS
While the phrase “mid-major” may apply to some conferences (Atlantic 10, Missouri Valley Conference) better than others (American Athletic Conference, Big East Conference), the fact remains those ‘stuck’ in that category have had a fantastic year.
Gonzaga have proven to be a powerhouse yet again in the WCC and almost finished undefeated if not for those shifty Cougars from Provo. In the Big East: Butler, Creighton and defending champion Villanova have all been AP Top 25 stalwarts all season. And the AAC schools, most notably Cincinnati and Southern Methodist, have equally impressed and continue to show the upper tier quality of that makeshift conference.
Of the 25 slots currently, seven of those have been granted to “mid-major” schools. In the ESPN RPI, nine programs fit in the Top 25 including Villanova and Butler in the Top 10. And according to the BPI Top 25, seven of the “little guys” fill out that poll, including the defending champions at No. 1. In addition to Butler and ‘Nova, the other common criminals were Cincinnati, Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s, SMU and Wichita State.
Regardless of which poll you put the most value in, college basketball fans should be wary of running into any “mid-major” team this year because they keep getting stronger, not only with each game but each season.
6. 6. PAC-12 MAY FINALLY BE THE ‘CONFERENCE OF CHAMPIONS’
Bill Walton finally doesn’t sound like a homer this year in college basketball.
The forever-illustrious Walton has touted the name “Conference of Champions” for the Pac-12 for years despite no team finishing in the Final Four since UCLA in 2008. This year has been a very different narrative however despite the league still having porous seasons from Oregon State and both Washington-based programs. However, the three world beaters — Arizona, Oregon and UCLA — have done more than enough to make up for the lack of quality that the ACC has from top to bottom.
The clashes between those three basketball heavyweights have been instant classics and the race to the title has been an extremely fun one. Players of the caliber of Lauri Markkanen and Alonzo Trier for Arizona, Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey for Oregon, and Lonzo Ball, T.J. Leaf Thomas Welsh for UCLA have played in this round robin of heavyweights. Of the five games these teams have played against each other, three of them were decided by five points or less and the average win margin was 9.6 points (being skewed heavily by Oregon drubbing Arizona by 27 points in their only meeting). These games have been competitive and have had championship levels of excitement and energy, personified best by last Saturday’s epic clash between UCLA and Arizona.
The Pac-12 tournament is sure to be a blast and it will be a real gift to see these three schools face each other possibly for the last time this season. We may be seeing a West Coast renaissance growing before our eyes in 2017.