As we count down the days until the NCAA Tournament, this is the time when we start to separate the contenders from the pretenders. Sometimes, momentum is all it takes to propel a team to great things. Look at the Kemba Walker-led 2011 UConn Huskies. That team was struggling down the stretch, and ended up losing seven of their last eleven regular season games. They proceeded to rattle off five wins in five days to win the Big East Tournament, and carried that momentum into the Big Dance, where they won the National Championship as a 3-seed, ending their season with 11 consecutive wins.
On the other side of the coin, now is not the time of year to start scuffling. Confidence can be key in the postseason. In a lot of postseason upsets, it’s simply due to a confident team overcoming a talent disadvantage. It is my opinion that confidence is more important than talent in March, so you need to play with confidence this time of year. Today, I’ll be looking at a few teams whose stock is rising right now, and could be very dangerous in the NCAA Tournament, and a few teams whose stock is on the downswing, and are teams that you’ll want to pay extra close attention to.
California – Expectations were quite high before the season for Cuonzo Martin’s Golden Bears. Martin was able to secure one-and-done super prospects Jaylen Brown and Ivan Raab, who paired with star senior Tyrone Wallace were expected to have Cal competing for a Pac-12 title. For much of the season, things didn’t exactly go as planned. Back-to-back losses to San Diego State and Richmond and needing overtime to beat Wyoming left people questioning how good this team actually is. Then they defeated Saint Mary’s and took Virginia to overtime in Charlottesville, losing by just one point. A 4-5 start in Pac-12 play wasn’t what they were looking for, but they had wins over Utah and Arizona. Unfortunately, Wallace missed five games due to injury, and the Bears struggled a little without him. With Wallace’s return though, Cal has won seven straight games, including blowout victories over conference-leading Oregon and USC. Tyrone Wallace is healthy and Jaylen Brown is coming into his own, and they have the potential to lead Cal to great things! They have one more chance for a big win tomorrow night when they travel to face Arizona, and they should enter the postseason as one of the hottest teams in the nation. They figure to be a 4-7 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and they will be a sleeper pick to reach the Final Four.
Seton Hall – Last season started off really promising for Kevin Willard’s Pirates, as they were 12-2, including a win over Villanova. It was all downhill from their though, as they finished 4-13 down the stretch, including a 1st round loss to Marquette in the Big East Tournament. This season started off almost identical, as Seton Hall was 12-2 going into a match-up with Villanova. The Pirates fell 72-63, and then lost three of the next four, and it was looking like they would collapse in Big East play yet again. That would not be the case though, as they have now won eight of their last nine games, including wins over Providence and Xavier. Sophomore guard Isaiah Whitehead has made incredible strides in his second season, including scoring in double digits in every conference game for the Pirates. Seton Hall looks to enter the NCAA Tournament as a 7-10 seed, and I can tell you that they are not a team I’d want to face as a 1 or 2 seed.
Michigan State – Tom Izzo might be the best coach in all of America. He rarely gets any top high school talents, yet somehow, the Spartans are consistently one of the best teams in the nation. The main reason this year is the progression of Denzel Valentine. Coming into this season, Valentine was a good passer and a solid defender, but he struggled to score consistently. Whatever he did in the offseason worked, because Valentine has become one of the best all-around players in the country, despite lacking elite athleticism. He’s a little undersized as well, but if I had to guess today, I’d say that Valentine will be the National Player of the Year. Michigan State won their first 13 games of the season before losing their Big Ten opener to Iowa. They were without Valentine for that one, but upon his return, the Spartans would lose three consecutive games, including an inconceivable home loss to Nebraska. Many were ready to write off Michigan State after that three game losing streak, but the Spartans have responded by winning eight of their last nine, with the only loss being an 82-81 overtime defeat at Purdue. Michigan State is back up to #2 in the AP Poll, and if they can continue their hot streak, they should enter the Tournament as a 1-seed, and will be a favorite to win the National Championship.
Vanderbilt – The Commodores were expected to be one of the teams contending for an SEC Title before the season started, but it didn’t really go to plan. After winning their first five games, they then lost seven of ten, which included their first three conference games, going down at the hands of LSU, Arkansas and South Carolina. After a loss to Ole Miss on February 6, Vandy sat at 13-10 overall, 5-5 in the SEC and looked likely to miss out on the NCAA Tournament despite such lofty preseason expectations. But now, the Commodores are riding a four game winning streak, which includes wins at Florida and versus Kentucky. Despite double digit losses, they look like solid Tournament team, and at this moment in time, I’d have them as a 10-seed, but an extremely dangerous 10-seed. They close their regular season with a trip to College Station to take on Texas A&M. If they win that game, they will be a lock for the Big Dance. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Vanderbilt win the SEC Tournament, and if that happens, I think they could be as high as a 5 or 6 seed in the Tournament.
Oklahoma – In no way, shape or form am I saying here that Oklahoma is not a National Championship contender. This is one of the ten best teams in the country, and in a season like this one, that’s more than enough to consider them a possible championship team. That being said, they are here because they are not the consensus #1 team in the country as they were earlier in the season. The Sooners have lost four of their last eight games, including losses to Texas Tech and Kansas State. Buddy Hield, who at one point was a lock to win National Player of the Year, has come down to Earth a little bit, and is allowing other great players to work themselves into the conversation. Early on, Oklahoma was dominating teams with three-point shooting and a dominant inside presence. Right now, they are struggling with perimeter shooting and teams are starting to dominate them in the paint. They will enter the NCAA Tournament as a 1 or 2 seed, and will be a popular pick to go all the way. But momentum is a real thing, and unless they win the Big 12 Tournament, I would be weary of putting all your money on the Sooners.
Providence – When Kris Dunn announced that he was coming back for his junior season, Friar fans started to have visions of Dunn and Ben Bentil leading Providence to a Big East Title and a berth in the Final Four. After they started this season 14-1 including a win over Arizona, it was looking like their dreams would have a good chance to become reality. They lost a couple Big East games, but then got a massive win in Philadelphia over Villanova, reminding everyone just how good they could be. Unfortunately, they have lost six of the nine games since, with the wins in that stretch coming against Georgetown twice and DePaul. Dunn and Bentil are good enough to carry Providence to a run in the NCAA Tournament, but if those two guys struggle, the supporting cast just isn’t good enough to keep the Friars going. I expect them to enter the NCAA Tournament anywhere from a 6-seed to a 10-seed, and I can say that if they are an 8 or a 9, they would probably be the last team I’d want to see in the Round of 32 as a 1-seed.
USC – As the calendar turned to 2016, one of the biggest surprises in college basketball was the emergence of the USC Trojans, led by Andy Enfield, who coached Florida Gulf Coast to the Sweet 16 back in 2013. Not expected to be a contender in the Pac-12, the Trojans started the season 15-3 with wins over Wichita State and Arizona. This team was looking like a sure bet to go into the NCAA Tournament, but down the stretch, the Trojans have become the team many expected them to be before the season. They have lost five of their last six games, and it doesn’t get easier, as their last two games are against Oregon State and Oregon. It is conceivable that this team could enter the postseason at 8-10 in conference play. That could be enough to leave them out of the Tournament altogether.
Iowa – Another huge surprise this season has been the play of Fran McCaffery’s Iowa Hawkeyes. A veteran group led by POTY candidate Jarred Uthoff started the season 16-3 and 7-0 in the Big Ten, including wins over Wichita State, Florida State and season sweeps of Purdue and Michigan State. This team was looking like the favorite to win the Big Ten, as well as a great candidate to reach the Final Four. It has been rough sledding down the stretch for Iowa though. They have lost five of their last six games, including a current four-game losing streak in which they have fallen to Penn State, Wisconsin, Ohio State and at home to Big Ten Regular Season Champion Indiana. It’s difficult to put a finger on exactly what is wrong with the Hawkeyes right now, but if the Tournament started today, I’d have a hard time trusting them to advance very far.
Keep a watchful eye on all eight of these teams over the next two weeks leading into the Big Dance. Another edition of Bracketology is coming tomorrow on the blog, so make sure to come back tomorrow to see where teams have moved this week!