After a couple more weeks of pandemonium in the college basketball world, the buzzers for March Madness are primed to be beaten and a discernable sense of chaos and anarchy is swirling its way through the chilly February air.
Since Valentine’s day, NCAA Basketball has been anything but a love fest. Top-ranked teams have been toppled, courts have been stormed, comebacks were capped off and haymakers were hurled in conference play between coaches. All tell-tale signs that March Madness is gearing up for its most wild commencement yet.
Let’s dive into the Power 5 Conferences and check in on their seasons, and which teams are primed to make the tournament.
A perennial power conference in basketball the ACC has been described as cannibalistic this year. The possibility for a Coach K curtain call at the end of this season has Duke (24-4) and the Blue Devils playing up to par like title contenders with lots of star power and great ball-handling, but outside of them, the conference has been neck and neck for the next few key spots. Notre Dame (20-8) has put together a balanced season and played well in South Bend, with only a few games left in conference play the Fighting Irish should hold this position. That is unless there happens to be some magic in those Carolina blue uniforms in Chapel Hill. UNC (20-8) made very little noise through the first part of the season dropping seven straight Quad 1 games, but have played well in the ACC and they have one more chance to reclaim Tobacco Road on March 5th. Wake Forest (21-8), Virginia (17-11), and Miami (20-8) all still fight to squeak out a few more victories and earn a bid.
The Big 12 conference slate this year has made me reminiscent of those old western films where a tough guy walks into a saloon, only to be proven not as tough as they thought they were by another rough and tumble cowboy who doesn’t care for the disrespect. The top three teams in this league have all taken shots at each other and shots from some of the cellar dwellers as well. Kansas (23-4) looks to lock down a #1 seed heading into March Madness, with defending national champion Baylor (23-5) hot on their trail. The Jayhawks have a team full of efficient athletes that have kept their field-goal percentage at a nationwide fourth-best 49.8% on the year.
Baylor pulls down 12.9 offensive boards a game and has only taken one bad loss on the season to Oklahoma State, who sits at the bottom of the league. They will take on the Jayhawks on Saturday the 26th.
The Red Raiders of Texas Tech (22-6) have one of the more complete rosters in college basketball and have won 4 four straight. Mark Adams has his defense playing lights out in Lubbock as the Red Raiders are the new number one in defensive efficiency. Their dominance in the paint can’t be understated either, seeing as how they have scored more than every team they have faced this season from inside the lane. The Longhorns have had an up and down season in conference play during Chris Beard’s first year in Austin, but have some quality ranked wins versus Kansas and Tennessee. Texas is 20-8 overall and will likely lock up a seeding of 4-8 in the tourney. Iowa State (19-9) have had a rough stretch during Big 12 play but still might make a run to the dance. TCU has found themselves slipping over a three-game skid, but they’ve cracked the top 60 NET rankings and sit at #53 after playing well in Fort Worth.
Another premier basketball league that has brought all the action you want to see at this point in the season. Middle America produces great basketball fans, amazing basketball atmospheres, and elite basketball talent. These proven facts are on display every night in Big Ten play. Purdue (24-4) has only one loss at home this year and holds on close to its one victory margin in conference standings. The Boilermakers shoot 50.25% from the floor and are in the top ten of most team offensive categories. Wisconsin (22-5) and Illinois (19-8) have the same number of conference losses as Purdue, but the Fighting Illini own the head-to-head matchup with a 13-point victory at Illinois earlier this month. The Badgers made headlines last week after a kerfuffle of monumental proportions at the conclusion of their game with the projected #9 seed Michigan Wolverines (15-11). Wolverines head coach Juwan Howard, of “Fab Five” fame, was suspended for the remainder of the regular season and fined $40,000 after punching Wisconsin assistant Joe Krabbenhoft’s face during a confrontation near the scorer’s table during the handshake line. This incident has sparked widespread debate about sportsmanship and competitiveness within college basketball. Just another week in the Big Ten, but that punch from Juwan Howard likely wouldn’t even have been called a foul during his playing days. In other news from the Big Ten, the conference is planning to send the most schools of any conference to their respective regional locations after selection Sunday. Tom Izzo and Michigan State (18-9) sit behind Rutgers (16-11) with the Buckeyes of the Ohio State University ahead of the pair. Ohio State took down Illinois in an important game this past Thursday. The Hawkeyes of Iowa are 19-8 and boasts the NCAA’s best assist to turnover ratio at 1.8, they might make some noise during the conference tournament. Indiana (16-9) in conference standings has dealt with peaks and valleys through this early winter slate, the Hoosiers have suffered on the road all season but might chalk up more victories to claim a spot, although they only have one more favorable game.
This conference has seen its fair share of cannibalism as the 14 teams have taken turns trading body blows, this conference has been no stranger to multi-bid years, and could send as many as six or seven teams when all is said and done. Auburn (25-3) has had a historic season, peaking earlier this month at #1 in the AP Top 25 Polls and shutting down their competition defensively by denying over 8 shots in every matchup. With some of the best talent in the country, the Tigers’ historic season could end with a bus full of banners to hang in the rafters. Currently, Auburn sits at #3 in the nation, with only two losses in conference play. They are led by a talented frontcourt with size and tremendous skill, as well as a quality bench rotation.
Big Blue Nation and the perennial powerhouse Kentucky Wildcats (22-5) have bounced back into contention this year after an uncharacteristically average finish to last season, where they failed to make the Field of 68. Kentucky is #6 in the Top 25 and #3 in the NET. Some injuries to their guard rotation haven’t even stopped this team that is loaded with depth. Statistically, in seventh place for total rebounds, the Wildcats have a team full of streaky shooters, glass cleaners, and great perimeter defense. These Wildcats are certainly a team to watch out for when the games are in full swing. They will have their hands full this weekend with a test in Fayetteville to take on one of the hottest teams in basketball.
The Arkansas Razorbacks (22-6) rode a nice high into this season after making an Elite Eight run and the last surviving member of the SEC in the 2021 NCAA Tournament. Then the daydreams came crashing down after one blowout loss and an embarrassing defeat to Hofstra. Then the skid continued after they dropped their first three conference games. All was gloomy in the Ozark Mountains until an eight-game winning spree, that included wins against a ranked LSU squad and #1 Auburn at home put the national spotlight back on this talented team. The Hogs have won 12 out of their last 13 and have put on a clinic for defensive prowess and strategy. Arkansas leads the country in free throw attempts and free throw makes, meaning they are not afraid to take it to the rim from spots one through five. Arkansas has a few more tests to finish off the season, but you would be hard-pressed to find a team that is hotter than the Hogs.
In Knoxville, Rick Barnes has coached the Volunteers (20-7) to a 20-win season and is tied with Arkansas for the third spot on the podium as of now. With stifling defense and the ability to get to the rim, Tennessee who is ranked #9 in the NET, good for second best in the SEC, could be brewing to make some noise as well. For the rest of the conference, there are those who might have a shot and those who do not.
Alabama has severely underperformed in conference play this year and dropped a few close games on the road. But their quality wins against Gonzaga and Houston earlier this year help their case. A talented Tide team does have a shot to lock up a four or five seed in this tournament, providing they win the majority of their final matchups.
Florida (7-8), LSU (7-7), South Carolina (17-10) and Mississippi State (16-12) are all fighting for big wins to seek the attention needed for a bid to play, but each of those teams has truly struggled away from their home court. LSU’s hot start helped them stay in contention, and their defense has the most steals in college basketball. The upper echelon of this conference might end up all advancing to the Sweet 16 if the matchups are favorable, and the SEC dominance in football might have a new partner in crime.
On the western coast of our nation, basketball has always had the edge of which of the three major American sports is the most revered. The premier league in this region has shown some excellent basketball this season and is looking at another multi-bid year. After a miraculous run to the Final Four during last year’s tournament, the UCLA Bruins (20-5) were expecting to re-establish their claim as a blue-blood school and reclaim college hoops’ greatest prize. While they are not currently in the top two spots in the PAC-12 they have split their matchups versus the conference leaders. The Bruins are a more conservative team and take care of the ball extremely well, their team is tied for fifth place in fewest turnovers.
In the desert plains of Tuscon, the Arizona Wildcats (25-2) are also longing for a return to prominence on the biggest stage. They have only failed to win two games all season and sit at #2 in the NET rankings. The Wildcats play an unselfish and technically sound style of ball, competing with an 11th best 1.51 assist to turnover ratio, and they also lead Division one in assists per game with over 20. This brand could prove to be a key factor in their success come March.
In the Pacific Northwest, the Oregon Ducks (18-10) season has not always been what it was “quacked” up to be, yet there are some bright spots that fans in Eugene, and those who love flashy uniforms, can hold on to. The Ducks stole both games against UCLA and took down USC as well.
Southern California is sunny and the basketball at USC (24-4) has taken great steps forward this year for their program and has compiled a solid record in the conference and on the road as well. The Trojans are in the top 10 statistically of rebounds per game, and their grit on the court makes for an entertaining game more often than not.
The NBA legend and broadcaster Bill Walton is a staple of PAC-12 basketball and recently voiced his opinion that he could foresee nearly eight teams from this conference making the tournament. It is worth mentioning a few things: Bill Walton is an avid supporter of both medical and recreational marijuana, and other than the four teams that were discussed in this section, this league is filled with average basketball teams. Take Bill’s words with a grain of salt, and divide his number of teams to be given a bid by half to get a more realistic feel.
At this point in the season streaks and patterns are begging to develop and beginning to be destroyed. With the greatest prize right in their sights, it’s only a matter for these teams in Power conferences to assert their dominance. They have the money to build the palisades that house tens of thousands of fanatics leaving their coliseums bursting at the seams. All in all, Power conferences will likely make up 25 out of 68 teams, yet as we know no patch on your jersey or number by your name matters in March. It’s about the determination to succeed, and all of these teams possess that trait.
Selection Sunday can’t come soon enough!
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