I don’t know about you, but January was as slow as molasses, yet February moved like a top-notch action movie. All I know is the Super Bowl was a month ago today, but it simultaneously feels like a week and an eternity ago.
So, now it’s March.
The month of March is unquestionably my favorite period of sports. Period. For my money, there is no greater source of sports viewing than late-season college basketball; I don’t know if I’ve missed an NCAA Tournament game in the last six years.
I’m also happy to announce that I’ll be running a bracket pool again this year, announcing the first ever On Willie’s Mind Bracket Pool, but since I’ve run one every year since 2011, it should come as no surprise.
This upcoming week will go a long way to deciding who will be in the craziest bracket in all of sports; it’s going to produce 32 automatic bids (actually 28, because Jacksonville State, Florida Gulf Coast, Winthrop, and Wichita State took home the automatic bids to the Big Dance), which will make up 47% of the teams in the field.
While it’s nice to get into the tournament in any regard, it’s better to know going into Selection Sunday that you’re guaranteed a ticket, because for teams that rest on the “bubble” ultimately run the risk of being held out.
Now, I don’t have the wrist strength or patience to give you a look at all 32 conference tournaments, but I’m dying to give you a preview of some of the bigger ones, including a big question for each of them going into their show.
Let’s kick it:
The Atlantic Costal Conference (ACC) Tournament, Brooklyn, New York March 7th-11th, Barclays Center
Hot Question: Who can pull off the best one-week run of the college basketball season?
Last night, ESPN treated it’s viewers to one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports, and the inarguably best rivalry in all of college basketball (and I grew-up watching Cincinnati-Xavier) Duke-North Carolina.
The match-up came complete with a half-time appearance from the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan, a dirty Grayson Allen technical foul, and a downpour of big shots. We got to watch #17 Duke lose (which is always a treat) to #5 North Carolina 90-83 on the Tar Heels’ Senior Night.
Even aside from a great pair of Tobacco Road Showdown games, conference play this season in the ACC has been outstanding.
The conference boasts six teams in the AP Top 25 (#6 North Carolina, #10 Louisville, #16 Florida State, #14 Duke, #22 Notre Dame, and #21 Virginia) and ESPN’s Joe Lunardi projects that eleven of its fifteen teams could be at-large selections for the NCAA Tournament (Miami, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Wake Forest, and Georgia Tech join their ranked counterparts).
Last year, top-seeded North Carolina took home the trophy, so in the same position in 2017, the Tar Heels are clearly the favorite to repeat, which is a pretty reasonable bet.
After losing on a buzzer beater in the 2016 National Championship, stand-out juniors Justin Jackson (18.3 PPG) and Joel Berry III (15.1 PPG) lead North Carolina and the nation’s 10th best scoring offense at 85.2 PPG to a 26-6 (14-4) regular season.
However, standing on their (tar) heels are a logjam of tough teams, including the Dwayne Bacon-lead #15 Florida State Seminoles. Florida State is second in the ACC at 24-7 (12-6) and play vice grip-style defense. Although they weren’t on the radar of many heading into 2016-2017, they’ve evolved into a dark horse title contender, finishing off the season with an impressive 66-57 win against #17 Miami on Saturday.
#17 Duke, who actually beat the #15 Seminoles 75-70 on Tuesday (way back in February), will have a harder route to take the ACC tournament; following their loss to North Carolina on Saturday night, the Blue Devils fell to the 5th seed in the conference tournament bracket, which means they’ll have to play one more game than the top-four seeds in order to take home the conference crown, which would mean four-straight wins.
While the #8 Louisville Cardinals downed the #19 Notre Dame Fighting Irish 71-64 in their hometown KFC Yum! Center on Saturday afternoon, the two have earned the last two remaining byes, earning the rights to the third and fourth seeds, respectively, in the conference tournament.
The #10 Cardinals (24-7, 12-6) play tough defense, allowing 65.4 only PPG in a high-octane scoring conference, but are prone to long dry spells on offense that can bury them in the wrong moments.
Meanwhile, #22 Notre Dame (23-8, 12-6) is incredible at protecting the basketball, which is very underrated heading into the NCAA tournament. They have the 2nd best assists/turnover ratio (1.70) in the country, which is crucial, as every possession counts a little more in March.
Moving down the ACC ballot, in-state aggressors (calling them rivals would be an overstatement) #23 Virginia and Virginia Tech represent the 6 and 7 seeds in the ACC tournament.
#21 Virginia (21-9, 11-7) wears the nation’s best scoring defense, allowing just 55.3 PPG, which is a full point less than any other team allows in the country. They earned their marquee win of the season came last week, when they beat #5 North Carolina, but allowed just 43 points to one of the Nation’s best offenses.
The lesser-discussed Virginia Tech Hokies (21-9, 10-8) are currently projected as a 9-seed in the NCAA Tournament, but fans haven’t heard a lot about them so far this season. Perhaps the best thing they did for themselves was avoiding a bad loss, as well as attaining an ACC record above .500. A nice run in this tournament could bode well for coach Buzz Williams and company.
Rounding out the teams projected in the tournament by most bracket-minds are the Miami Hurricanes (20-10, 10-8), Syracuse Orange (18-13, 10-8), and Wake Forest (18-12, 9-9). These teams have all had their highs and lows, but due to old west-style stands in the battlefield of the ACC, are knocking on the door of the NCAA Tournament.
The Hurricanes aren’t the flashiest team, but coach Jim Larranaga has led the team to huge conference wins over North Carolina, Duke, and Virginia, which really rounds out a solid resume.
In a similar situation to Miami, Syracuse’s conference play is keeping them alive, which is ironic, considering the two will face off in a win-or-go-home match-up on Wednesday at 12 PM. Jim Boeheim’s 41 years coaching the Orange have lead to 1002 wins, as well as a championship in 2003. The Orange made the Final 4 in 2016 as a #10 seed, so they might be positioned for a similar run in 2017.
Wake Forest is another team that has historically carried success, but they had a hard time beating ranked teams early in the season. They’re currently considered a Last 4 In team by many.
An intersting Georgia Tech team rounds out the tournament contenders in the ACC, as their currently considered a “Next 4 Out” team by Joe Lunardi. Losses to Ohio University, Penn State and Clemson don’t look great when evaluating the Yellow Jackets, but their wins over Notre Dame, Florida State, and North Carolina make for a more interesting team.
Who wins it: Syracuse Orange
The Big 12 Tournament, Kansas City, Missouri, March 8th-11th, Sprint Center
Hot Question: Is Kansas simply ahead of the pack?
Much like the ACC, the Big 12 has been a wildly-cometative conference for the duration of the 2016-2017 season; once you thought you had the conference figured out, some bottom dweller would knock-off one of the top-ranked clubs.
Ultimately, nothing really mattered with the other squads, as once again the #1 Kansas Jayhawks ended up atop the Big 12’s standings.
Since 1997, when the conference first began competing in a basketball tournament to determine their auto-bid champion, Kansas has taken home the conference trophy half of all tournaments, winning 10 of 20.
The #1 Jayhawks have seen outstanding leadership from senior point guard Frank Mason III. Mason leads the team in points per game at 20.5 and assists per game at 5.1, plus the team has seen an outstanding season from future top-ten NBA draft pick, Josh Jackson, who’s averaging 16.4 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, while shooting 51.1% from the field.
Overall, the 28-3 (16-2) Kansas Jayhawks have dominated the Big 12 with very few slips.
Their resume-building wins include one on the road against then #4 Kentucky, at a neutral-site against #1 Duke, and a pair of wins against a Top 10 Baylor club are among the many reasons they rank #2 in RPI and #1 in SOR.
Currently billed as the top-team in college basketball, the Jayhawks will face strong opposition from teams including #10 West Virginia, #9 Baylor, and #23 Iowa State.
Bob Huggins and his #11 Mountaineers (24-7, 12-6) have been a wrecking ball at times this season, as they crushed then #2 Kansas 85-69 and #1 Baylor 89-68 on their home floor, which they protected with pride throughout the season.
Senior big man Nathan Adrian has lead the West Virginia defensive campaign with pride, as his presence has been incredible for the Mountaineers, as the team was able to control some incredible offenses throughout the year. However, a marquee road win evaded the team the season.
One of the teams that stood its home ground against the Mountaineers are the #11 Baylor Bears, who started conference play undefeated, but were met with six losses when it was all said and done.
For #9 Baylor (25-6, 12-6), pre-confrence wins over Louisville, Oregon, and Xavier paved the way for what was to be a big year for Bears basketball. Junior forward Johnathan Motley leads the team in scoring at 17.5 per game, but his 10 rebounds per contest added to an incredible season.
Arriving later to the party than the rest were the annually-pesky #23 Iowa State Cyclones (20-10, 12-6). Senior guard Monte Morris, who has been a part of prior successful NCAA Tournament runs leads the team with 16.2 point and 6.2 rebounds per game. Wins over Baylor and Kansas were key marks on the Iowa State season, but overall, the team hasn’t shown a whole lot of killer instinct.
Making for an interesting mix at the bottom half of the conference are Oklahoma State (20-11, 9-9) and Kansas State (19-12, 8-10). Oklahoma State’s Juwan Evans is really the lifeblood of the Cowboys, averaging 18.7 points and 6.3 assists per game. The Cowboys fell just 5 points short of knocking-off #1 Kansas on Saturday night during a 90-85 Senior Night loss, but are currently projected as a #7 seed in NCAA Tournament.
Kansas State on the other hand, has made noise, with a few narrow losses to conference opponents, are more on the outside looking in come selection Sunday. They’ll have work to do in the tournament, as they’re currently projected by many as a “First 4 Out” team.
Ultimitlay, this will be Kansas’s tournament to lose, as they’re playing the hottest of any team in the conference heading into this week’s tournament. While it’s not inconceivable to see any of the teams mentioned above knocking off the Jayhawks, the short, 40 minute drive from Lawrence, Kansas to the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri will do a lot of good for the home-anchor Kansas.
Who wins it: #1 Kansas Jayhawks
The Big East Conference Tournament, New York City, New York, March 8th-11th, Madison Square Garden
Hot Question: Who can be this year’s Cinderella?
Since the new-Big East took over for the old-Big East in 2014, we’ve seen the conference produce some sort of underdog, who we really get to know during the conference’s tournament.
In 2014, we saw a 23-12 Providence Friars club sneak up to win the Big East tournament before going onto a nail-bitting loss to 6-seed North Carolina 79-77. Then, in 2016, we saw a 25-9 Seton Hall team climb the latter to knock-off the top-seeded, eventual National Championship-winning Villanova Wildcats 69-97, but were then upset in the NCAA Tournament by 11-seed Gonzaga.
2016-2017 was another great year for Jay Wright and his defending National Champion #2 Villanova Wildcats. The Wildcats, who have an incredible veteran roster to go along with a 27-3 (15-3) record, which gives them the top seed in their conference tournament slate, but with a conference tournament championship, may give them to the top seed in all of college basketball.
Senior guard Josh Hart, who has seen plenty of success in his Wildcat career, leads the team with 18.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, all while shooting 53.6% from the field. Sophomore guard Jalen Brunson, who averages 14.8 points and a team-leading 4.3 assists.
The road back to the top wasn’t an easy trip for Villanova, in fact, you could call it ice cream, because it was rocky.
Ranked second in the Big East with a record of 23-7 (12-6) are the #18 Butler Bulldogs, who you might remember from two runs which were within a few seconds of brining a national crown to Hinkle Fieldhouse.
Butler has a ton of solid wins this year in addition to their two wins over Villanova, they knocked-off #8 Arizona, Vanderbilt, Northwestern, #22 Cincinnati, and #9 Indiana in non-conference action.
Below Butler and Villanova are four clubs with 10-8 conference play records who have quite a bit of parity between their clubs season; this group is made up by Creighton (23-8), last year’s darlings Seton Hall, Providence (20-11), and Marquette (19-11).
Creighton, who are better known for the days of Doug McDermott, are still lead by Doug’s father, Greg McDermott (who once pretended like he was going to let me interview him, but dropped it after he was done leading me on for a high school paper bit… I’m not holding a grudge, but I am), but were bruised by a season-ending injury to senior guard Maurice Watson Jr., who was averaging 12.9 points and 8.5 assists per game.
Since, the team has found new leadership and under a junior guard, Marcus Foster, who was named to the All-Big East team yesterday in correspondence with his 18.5 points per contest. For the Blue Jays, success will likely be on the back of Foster.
The Marquette Golden Eagles, who will enter conference tournament play winning four of their last five, have wins over #7 Creighton and #1 Villanova earlier in the season, although their road to 19-11 came with some ugly losses.
Without a true star, losses to Pittsburgh and St. John’s don’t look tremendous on a resume, although Pittsburgh’s recent win over #17 Florida State made that one a bit easier to stomach.
While they didn’t knock-off Florida State, the Seton Hall Pirates are looking to capture some of last year’s magic, as they’re currently projected as a 10-seed in the NCAA tournament, but an early exit in the Big East tournament could spell doom for the Pirates.
For the pack of teams, cool starts and hot finishes make up their season’s story.
On the other hand, perhaps the biggest shocker of the Big East comes from the Xavier Musketeers, who were ranked as high as #7 this season, but after star guard Edmond Sumner’s season ended with a terrible knee injury, fell from grace, losing six games in a row before rebounding with a 79-65 win at DePaul.
However, Xavier will be a team to keep an eye on, as their freshman guard Quinten Goodin could be due for a breakout in the Big East tournament.
In tandem with first-team All-Big East forward Trevon Bluiett, who averages 18.0 PPG, the Musketeers may be able to muster the same sort of offense they had towards the start of 2016-2017 if Goodin can get push the team with some new batteries.
Xavier is currently projected as one of the “Last 4 In” by Joe Lunardi, so at least one win in the Big East conference tournament will do wonders for the Musketeers.
Who wins it: Marquette Golden Eagles
The Big Ten Conference Tournament, Washington, D.C., March 8th-12th, Verizon Center
Hot Question: Who survives the mess?
I don’t have the right answer to this question, even though I’ll try. The Big 10, which is annually one of the top conferences in college basketball, has jumped off of a cliff in 2017, as they only posses three teams with AP Top 25 stature, #16 Purdue, #24 Maryland and #25 Maryland, yet Wisconsin and Maryland seem to have fallen on hard times.
The #16 Purdue Boilermakers (25-6, 14-4) appear to be a clearcut favorite for the Big 10 tournament title, as they’ve won 8 of their last 10 games heading into postseason play, which has included wins over #17 Maryland and a pair of wins over #25 Northwestern to their credit.
2016-2017 lead way to the breakout of Caleb Swanigan, a sophomore forward who averaged 18.7 points and 12.6 rebounds per game, which put him as an easy choice for Big 10 Player of the Year honors.
Wins over #21 Notre Dame and #13 Wisconsin, as well as very emphatic wins over many of the teams that it you have to beat if you’re going to get my vote of confidence heading into March.
Not only should the Boilermakers be a favorite in the Big 10 tournament, but could be a significant threat in the actual NCAA Tournament, but then again, who knows, because the Big 10 made no real sense this year.
While Purdue has at least been somewhat consistent in their play, #24 Wisconsin and #25 have been consistent shoulder-shruggers.
The Badgers (23-8, 12-6) came into 2016-2017 conference play steaming, as they started off play 10-1 with no real sign of flaw. However, an injury to senior guard and leading scorer Bronson Koenig, who averages 14.2 PPG, set the team back a bit.
Although Koenig has since returned to the Wisconsin starting line-up, a team that once appeared destined to stand atop the Big 10 collapsed down the regular stretch losing five of their last seven games, which put them at third in the conference standings.
In similar fashion, #25 Maryland (24-7, 12-6) has flirted with the bottom of the Top 25 all season, simply because they failed to stay hot week in and week out.
The Terrapins have a tremendous junior guard in Melo Trimble, who leads the team in scoring at 16.9 PPG, can be lights-out at the end of games, but can miss a lot of open shots during the first 35 minutes of a games.
Lacking a big non-conference win may do some harm for Maryland, who currently rank 55th in strength of schedule and 44th in BPI.
Now, the four and five seeds in the Big 10 tournament are surprises by most regards, as the Minnesota Gophers and Northwestern Wildcats are likely to go March dancing come Selection Sunday.
Minnesota (23-8, 11-7) started off playing great basketball, as their lone non-conference loss came at Florida State, where they lost by just 8. At one point, it looked like the hot start may have been wasted, as they lost five in a row to conference opponents before winning eight of their last nine.
For Northwestern (21-10, 10-8), March Madness is a new feeling; the school that produces some of the best sports writers in the country has never produced a team to compete in the NCAA Tournament, but it appears their fortune has changed this year.
The Wildcats knocked-off Michigan 67-65 on a buzzer beater early last week that to many, solidified their bid for the tournament. Early season wins over Wake Forest and Dayton make them an interesting team, because it may hint at some poise against non-conference tournament teams.
Oh yeah, and that team they knocked off, that team who’s name I’m not supposed to mention (because they’re Voldemort if you consider Ohio State Harry Potter), the Michigan Wolverines are a team that is in a bit of a tricky situation heading into conference play.
With an early-season win over a solid SMU team, the Michigan Wolverines (20-11, 10-8) have just a handful of credible wins on their resume. Senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. leads the team with 14.5 points and 4.5 assists, but there isn’t a tremendous amount of sunlight on this Wolverines team.
Their neighbor in East Lansing the Michigan State Spartans (18-13) have lead a very disappointing 2016-2017 by head coach Tom Izzo’s standards; the annual title contenders are at risk of missing the tournament for the first time since 1997.
While the Spartans last won the championship in the year 2000, a club lead by Jason Richardson, they’re typically at least a Final Four threat by this time of the calendar year. Early season losses to #10 Arizona, #2 Kentucky, #20 Baylor, and #5 Duke made for a tough 4-4 start to the year for Izzo & Company.
Really, anyone could win this thing. I have yet to be convinced that even teams like Illinois, Iowa, even Ohio State could make a run. It’s really up to who can not suck for a couple days, something which most of these teams are incapable of doing.
Who wins it: Minnesota Golden Gophers
The Pacific-12 Conference (PAC-12) Tournament, Las Vegas, Nevada, March 8th-11th, T-Mobile Arena
Hot Question: How big of a target is on UCLA’s back?
If you’ve tuned into SportsCenter over the last few months, they’ve added a new name to their rotating daily storylines around sports. The new addition to the list that includes Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliot, Draymond Green, LeBron, and Odell Beckham Jr. is a freshman guard for the #3 UCLA Bruins.
Lonzo Ball, who can be seen above, wearing #2, is going to be one of the top-2 picks in the NBA Draft come June. However, he has led the Bruins (28-3, 15-3) to the nation’s #1 scoring offense, which averages 91.3 points per contest.
This is coach Steve Alford’s first chance to coach a Ball son, as father LaVar Ball has taken it upon himself to guarantee all three of his sons will be UCLA Bruins following their high school careers (which for you Friday Night Lights fans out there may remind you of a certain McCoy family).
Personally, if I were on the roster of another Pac-12 team, I would take the cockiness of the Ball regime personally, as there’s nothing better than beating someone who claims themselves as the best at something (look no further than the Dallas Mavericks’4-2 defeat of the LeBron/Wade/Bosh Miami Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals).
To go along with their #3 ranking in the AP Top 25 poll, the Bruins actually find themselves in third place in the Pac-12 behind #7 Arizona and #5 Oregon.
Head coach of the #7 Arizona Wildcats (27-4, 16-2) Sean Miller has lead another impressive defensive team, which ranks 28th in the country allowing just 64.3 points per game, which is great, considering their conference may hold the highest concentration of scorers in the country.
Conference play went well for the Wildcats, but they had their pair of losses to Oregon and UCLA, although they were able to take a split with the Bruins.
Their freshman guard Lauri Markkanen, who leads the team with 15.2 PPG (and also hails from Finland) is likely headed to the NBA Draft as a lottery selection following the tournament, but there’s no reason he shouldn’t be expected to create a huge impact in the field of 68.
The #5 Oregon Ducks (27-4, 16-2), who are best known for their bizarre uniforms and turbo-charged football team, finished atop the conference due to their win over Arizona earlier in the season. The Ducks average 79.2 PPG, but only allow 64.7 PPG, which gives them the 9th-best scoring margin in college basketball.
What’s perhaps a tad bit troubling are the non-conference losses by the Ducks, who fell to a bad Georgetown team and at Baylor. The Baylor loss is what it is, but come time for the full postseason tournament, those losses are something to make note of when filling out a bracket.
Three others to keep an eye on heading into the Pac-12 tournament are Utah, USC, and California, to which conference play has been less fruitful than the top-3.
The Utah Utes (20-10, 11-7), who seem to annually curse my bracket in some way, be it an early-exit or surprise run, are currently considered out-of-the-picture for the tournament, as they’re lacking a key win to their resume.
The Utes failed to win non-conference games against #13 Butler and at #18 Xavier that would’ve done a lot for their chances, plus an ugly, non-conference, home loss to Bill Russell’s alma mater, San Francisco University 89-86, may be the key factor that keeps them out of the dance. However, a win over any of the top-3 teams may put them back in contention, but a conference tournament home run would seal the deal.
Fruit is much fresher for the Trojans of the University of Southern California (23-8, 10-8), who started off undefeated in non-conference play, but quickly suffered a loss at then #21 Oregon.
Andy Enfield, who is best known for his run with Florida Gulf Coast University, which as a 15-seed upset 2-seed Georgetown and 7-seed San Diego State in 2013, is coaching the Trojans for his fourth season and is looking to make back-to-back NCAA Tournaments for the first time in his tenure.
USC does have a win and a loss to UCLA in the book, which will make for an interesting split should they see each other for a third match-up. They’re currently considered one of the “Last 4 In”.
Just around the corner from USC and UCLA are the pesky California Golden Bears (19-11, 10-8), who failed to knock-off one of the conferences top-3, which results in them being considered one of the ‘Next 4 Out’ by Joe Lunardi.
The Golden Bears HAVE to knock-off one of those top-3 if they want any shot at making the NCAA Tournament, so expect them to come charging, especially at a team like UCLA, who narrowly escaped the Golden Bears on their own floor 81-71 in early January.
Overall, the playing field is likely set for one of those top-3 teams, but any of the top six seeds in this tournament can benefit from at least a win or two in this set of games.
Who Wins It: #7 Arizona Wildcats
The Southeastern Conference (SEC) Tournament, Nashville, Tennessee, March 8th-12th, Bridgestone Arena
Hot Question: Does Kentucky have the stamina to keep-up with the comebacks?
While 2016 may have been a bit of an overall letdown for football in the Southeastern Conference, the 2016-2017 basketball slate has been very kind.
Atop the conference are two familiar faces, one more than the other, but familiar none the less. The #8 Kentucky Wildcats and #17 Florida Gators stand atop the SEC standings, which seems to be a recurring habit for the pair.
It’s no surprise that John Calipari’s #8 Kentucky Wildcats (26-5, 16-2) are once again at the top of the SEC AND in the top tier of teams in all of college basketball; the formula for the Wildcats, who acquire top tier recruits who play one season before contributing at a high level in the NBA does wonders.
This season’s team has a pair of intriguing freshman guards in Malik Monk, who leads the team with 21.2 PPG, and De’Aron Fox, who leads the team in assists at 5.0 per contest, but also adds 15.5 PPG of his own.
Points overall have been plentiful for the bunch, as the Wildcats are averaging the nation’s fifth-best number with 86.8 PPG.
Success has been a little tricky at times for Kentucky this season despite escaping with only five losses, none of which came against a bad team. Their dangerous habit lately has come via a tough route of getting behind by a large-ish margin early, only to come back and take control as the game goes on.
One of the teams who were able to expose this flaw once on their home flow Rupp Arena, but were taken down in Rupp Arena later were the #17 Florida Gators (24-7, 14-4). The Gators are currently considered a 4-seed, but could move up to a two or three line if their conference tournament goes well.
The resume is fairly solid for the Gators; no bad losses with wins over Miami, Seton Hall, #8 Kentucky, and a pair against Arkansas.
Florida doesn’t do anything especially well, but their jack-of-all-trades mentality is one that will do them a lot of favors in bracket play.
Like many other conferences, a logjam of middling clubs make up the remaining ranks of the SEC. Teams who could still make some noise in the ears of the selection committee are the Arkansas Razorbacks, South Carolina Gamecocks, Ole Miss Rebels, Alabama Crimson Tide, Vanderbilt Commodores, and Georgia Bulldogs all have some sort of capacity to enter the ranks of the NCAA Tournament, or pull of an upset in their conference play.
One of the more surprising stories this season have been the Arkansas Razorbacks (23-8, 12-6), who are lead in scoring by a senior guard Dusty Hannahs, who scores 14.6 per contest.
The Arkansas game plan is best explained by the nation’s 28th ranked scoring offense, which produces 80.6 points per contest.
Their 11-1 non-conference slate allowed them to absorb some losses at the start SEC play, where in their first four games took losses to Kentucky, Florida, and Mississippi State to start 1-3, but then rebounded winning 11 of their last 14.
While the Razorbacks were able to get hot late, the South Carolina Gamecocks (22-9, 12-6) fell victim to a cold spell at the end of the season. The team currently ranks as a 7-seed in Lunardi’s bracket draw.
Senior guard Sindaruis Thornwell has been the big ticket for the Gamecocks, as his team-leading 21.2 PPG have been part of the lifeblood that’s lead the pesky Gamecocks to key wins over #25 Michigan, #18 Syracuse, and #19 Florida throughout their campaign.
One of the teams not getting as much consideration for the NCAA Tournament, thus giving them a lot to prove heading into their conference bracket will be the Ole Miss Rebels (19-12, 10-8).
Ole Miss took a beating earlier in the season, as their non-conferences to Middle Tennessee, Virginia Tech, and #12 Creighton weren’t a great way to start a season. What they have going for them is the play of a junior guard in Deandre Burnett, who leads the team with 16.5 points and 3.2 assists per game.
The Rebels will have to look for other options than Burnett if they want to take home their tournament crown, although it’s not ruled out.
Alabama (17-13, 10-8) and Georgia (18-3, 9-9), while standing at powerhouses in football, will have a big hill to climb if they want to make this tournament, or even win their own tournament.
The Crimson Tide are missing a win against a top-tier opponent, although their 33rd-ranked scoring defense could help them in a game against a team like Kentucky, who they were able to hang with in a game they lost by a narrow 67-58 margin.
Georgia was almost able to gain a huge win when they lost 82-77 against then #13 Kentucky, but bad losses to Clemson, Oakland, and Marquette don’t do the Bulldogs a whole lot of favors.
Finally, a team that clung to life in the SEC, but are currently in position to be one one of the “Last 4 Byes” in the NCAA Tournament are the Vanderbilt Commodores (17-14, 10-8), who won 7 of their last 10 games, including a huge 73-71 win against #12 Florida to field them in a great spot.
Vanderbilt is playing their best basketball at the right time of the season, and although their 6-6 non-conference record doesn’t do a whole lot of favors for their overall record, their poise at #Kentucky, where they lost by a close 73-67 and win over #12 Florida prove them to be a formidable opponent.
Who wins it: #8 Kentucky Wildcats
Listen kids, we’re already 5000+ words into this bad boy, so you can jump off now, but who are we kidding, if you’ve stuck around this long, you’re not going any where. We’ll keep these short and sweet, but I do applaud you for your patience. I wrote this over two days and honestly I’m probably still going to get my tail handed to me in my actual bracket pool. So for what it’s worth…
The American Athletic Conference Tournament, Hartford, Connecticut, March 9th-12th, XL Center
Hot Question: Can a team NOT named Cincinnati or SMU emerge?
Listen, the #15 Cincinnati Bearcats (27-4, 16-2) and #12 Southern Methodist Mustangs (27-4, 17-1) are fantastic. I believe these teams should be ranked more towards the top ten than they are, like both should probably be in the top ten. They are clear favorites in their conference tournament and, write it down, one of these two teams will be playing in the Elite 8. Houston, who were killed at Cincinnati last week, are a team that were once considered a potential tournament threat: not any more. The tournament will be played in Hartford, Connecticut, which you would think favors the UConn Huskies, but they were killed 67-47 by Cincinnati on Sunday.
Who wins it: #15 Cincinnati Bearcats
The Mid-American Conference (MAC) Tournament, Cleveland, Ohio, March 9th-11th, Quicken Loans Arena
Hot Question: Which one of these teams is going to ruin my bracket this year?
As I used to attend one of the schools in this conference, Ohio University, I can attest that one of these schools are probably going to find a way to knock-out some team you put in your Elite 8; I don’t know how they do these things, but they find a way to do it. Atop their conference standings are the Akron Zips, but that conference will probably produce some other team that’s desperate to make sure you lose your bracket pool. ESPN likes the Kent State Golden Flashes, but hey, that’s their thing. I’m going to pick my own winner, which I hope you give me support with, but you probably shouldn’t because part of me still thinks Ohio State might win the NCAA Tournament.
Who wins it: Ohio Bobcats
The West Coast Conference Tournament, Las Vegas, Nevada, March 2nd-7th, Orleans Arena
Hot Question: How forreal are #4 Gonzaga and #19 Saint Mary’s?
Once again the West Coast Conference, which is that thing #4 Gonzaga and #19 Saint Mary’s play in will produce a pair of teams in the NCAA Tournament… Gonzaga, the home of the Bulldogs and Saint Mary’s, the home of the guy your friends like, Matthew Dellavadova (I’m tied of writing this, so I have no idea if I got that name right… so if I did, I earn all the points). The two are likely to meet for another match-up on Wednesday night, as their playing semi-finals games tonight; Gonzaga takes on Santa Clara at 9 PM, while Saint Mary’s takes on BYU, which will be a battle of Christians versus Mormons… who knew?
It will be important to keep an eye on the impending Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s match-up, as both of these teams have a potential to make a run in the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs own a John Wooden Award-finalist in junior guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who leads the team in points and assists averaging 16.4 points and 4.7 assists per game, but also adds 5.6 rebounds per.
Winner: #4 Gonzaga Bulldogs
The Ivy League Conference Tournament, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, March 11th-12th, The Palestra
Hot Question: Who’s studying the
Finally, we wrap this bad boy up talking about the most competitive conference in the country, the one we’ve all had our eyes on, getting up early and staying up late to watch, watching their hearts break and lives made with ours… SMART KIDS WHO CAN SHOOT! This four-team tournament will lead to the trophy which I believe goes to the group who can multitask studying and hooping the best; a skill which I’ve not come close to perfecting. This tournament is a crap shoot, but the tournament will be made up of Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and Penn, none of which I even considered bothering with a college application because I’m too smart for them, but yeah… smart kids are going to win another trophy… and I’m not… but I typed up 5800+ words about a bunch of people who play a game… whoppity-freakin-doo.
By the way, I’m well aware that one of these teams will find a way to beat at least one of the teams I have in the Final 4, because sports logic goes out the window shortly after the Super Bowl and comes back by the NBA Playoffs.
Who wins it: Harvard Crimson