By Kyle Beery
This wild roller coaster of a college basketball season is barreling towards the finish line. There are less than three weeks left until Selection Sunday and no ride has been wilder than Oklahoma’s.
The Sooners went from a trendy preseason pick maybe capable of making a little noise near the middle of the Big 12, to a top-10 team destined for March glory on the shoulders of an unheralded freshman, and now back to down to earth with the brutal reality of missing the tournament altogether remaining a possibility.
Trae Young has been, without a doubt, the most captivating player in the country this season. When he’s on, oh boy, is it fun to watch. But as we’ve seen over the last several weeks, when he’s struggling, the Sooners struggle mightily, as is evident with their current six-game losing streak.
For the better part of the season, Young wasn’t the be-all-end-all for Oklahoma’s success. He has a solid supporting cast around him. But lately, it hasn’t felt that way. Maybe it’s just the toll of a long season wearing on the team and they’re capable of getting out of the funk.
But maybe not. Young’s turnover crux and his indecision whether he wants to be a scorer or facilitator have really haunted the Sooners during this skid. A 30-point loss at Kansas Monday night in which he scored a season-low 11 points on a dismal 3-of-11 from the field, showed that Oklahoma is anything but a lock for the tourney. There’s time for Lon Kruger to get his troops in order, but the ice is growing ever thinner in Norman.
On the flip side of things, John Beilein’s Michigan Wolverines are trending the other way. Wining five of their last six, the Wolverines are slowly climbing back up the seed lines, and if they get hot — as they did at the end of last season — they are capable of earning a top five seed, and making some March noise along the way.
Michigan ranks in the top 40 in effective field goal percentage (a KenPom metric that gives more weight to made three-pointers) and in the top 20 in KP’s adjusted defensive efficiency. The Wolverines just held one of the country’s most efficient offenses to 62 points when they beat their rival Ohio State Buckeyes.
Michigan definitely has a lot to work on, as was evident in the team’s loss at Northwestern, but they are definitely headed in the right direction at the right time. Of course, any momentum could potentially be taken away by the long layoff between the end of the Big Ten Tournament and start of the NCAAs, with the conference tourney taking place at Madison Square Garden a week earlier than usual.
As for the rest of the country, there has been a good deal of shuffling since my last projected bracket. And surely there’s going to be more. But this is where the field stands as of now. As a reminder, these projections are based off what has happened so far this season, and not what might happen. NCAA Tournament Selection Committee bracket principles were used to create this bracket, — including the use of the newly implemented quadrant system. Conference champions are listed in ALL CAPS.
SOUTH REGIONAL — Atlanta — Thursday, March 22 & Saturday, March 24
- Virginia remains the No. 1 overall seed, while Purdue has fallen down a line after suffering three straight losses before bouncing back with a narrow win over Penn State on Sunday. Both teams are clearly still in contention for spots on the top line come Selection Sunday.
- Oklahoma’s six-game skid has dropped them all the way down to a 9-seed. As alluded to, the Sooners will need to right the ship soon to re-solidify their tournament resume.
- Tennessee and Ohio State, both going through rough patches, are both teetering on the line of geographic protection — the top four seed lines get geographic preference and the committee tries to place them as close to home as they can for both weekends in the tournament.
- Cincinnati has lost two in a row to Houston and Wichita State after rattling of 16 straight wins, but the Bearcats still have a good shot of winning the American and getting a favorable seed.
EAST REGIONAL — Boston — Friday, March 23 & Sunday, March 25
- Villanova put a (maybe temporary) halt to any discussions about them not being worthy of a 1-seed last weekend. The Wildcats dismantled Big East challenger Xavier for Big East supremacy, getting back into the driver’s seat for not only a conference title, but a spot on the top line.
- Nevada is another team that just keeps inching up the ranks. The Wolf Pack capitalized on their last opportunity for a regular season quality win by winning at Boise State; now it’s just a matter of finishing business in the Mountain West Tournament and hoping teams ahead of them stumble down the stretch.
- Wichita State’s win over Cincinnati served as a reminder that the Shockers are one of the best teams in the country when they’re in a groove. They shot 53 percent from the field in the win over Cincy and Landry Shamet reminded us that the Shockers aren’t a team to be taken lightly. We should all be looking forward to the season finale on March 4 when the Bearcats visit Wichita.
- Another AAC team is starting to make some noise. The Houston Cougars are ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2005, fresh off a big win over Cincinnati. As long as they can avoid a slip-up in the season’s final weeks, the Cougars should be in the dance and will be capable of pulling a few upsets.
MIDWEST REGIONAL — Omaha — Friday, March 23 & Sunday, March 25
- Michigan State pulled off the biggest comeback in Big Ten history on Saturday, erasing a 27-point deficit at Northwestern. It’s hard to argue that a win like that doesn’t make the Spartans the most dangerous team in the country — especially in a one-and-done scenario in March — now that they have it in their minds that they can come back from any situation.
- Xavier’s loss drops them down a line, but they’re not out of contention for a 1-seed if they can win the Big East Tournament. North Carolina is slowly creeping up into the 2-seed neighborhood, having won five in a row. A tough schedule down the stretch could either make or break their case for a 2-seed.
- Kentucky and Florida are both interesting cases. Clearly, neither team has been play its best ball as of late, but both own some very nice wins that are lifting them up. But both also have some bad losses that could come back to haunt them on Selection Sunday.
- Butler is definitely on the bubble, but wins over Villanova and Ohio State are nice bright spots on the resume, but one thing is for sure: the Bulldogs are far more deserving than the 12-seed that Jerry Palm has them projected as.. The Bulldogs can’t let too many more losses stack up, but with Kelan Martin and Kamar Baldwin, this can be a very scary team to face in the first weekend of the tournament, no matter the seed.
WEST REGIONAL — Los Angeles — Thursday, March 22 & Saturday, March 24
- Kansas is back up to the 1-line. Rather quietly, the Jayhawks have been improving over the last few weeks. This weekend’s showdown at Texas Tech will serve as a “proof shot,” if you will. If they can win that and all but wrap up at least a share of a 14th straight Big 12 regular season title, they’ll be sitting pretty.
- Auburn’s hopes of a 1-seed may have died with an ugly loss at South Carolina over the weekend. But the Tigers are very much in contention for a 2-seed, especially if they can finish the season strong and have a good showing in the SEC Tournament, a league that could get as many as eight teams in the dance.
- It seems like quite the rarity to have Louisville on the bubble, but that’s right where the Cardinals are. The last time they missed the tournament for reasons other than an NCAA-imposed postseason ban was 2006. But David Padgett’s first year at the helm may have the same fate if they can’t get things in order soon.
- As previously mentioned, Michigan has been climbing up the ranks. They sit as my lowest 6-seed, but the gap between Wolverines and Rhode Island — my lowest 5-seed — isn’t big at all. Just keep winning, and they may reach that point by the end of the year.
Last four byes
- Kansas State – The Wildcats picked up a win over Iowa State this weekend, but it wasn’t enough to move them out of this section of the bubble.
- Texas – The Longhorns completed a season sweep of Trae Young and Oklahoma over the weekend and to put a halt to a three-game losing streak.
- Virginia Tech – The Hokies blew out Georgia Tech on Saturday. Not a great win, but at this point, any game that isn’t a loss is a good win.
- Providence – Fresh off beating Villanova, the Friars lost at Butler on Saturday, missing a real opportunity to bolster the resume.
Last four in (First Four @ Dayton March 13-14)
- NC State – The problem with being a potential 10-bid league like the ACC is this year, is there’s a lot of action on the bubble. No room for error with a team like NC State, who will have a tough stretch to finish the season.
- UCLA – The Bruins got a nice win over Oregon, but tensions will be high all the way up until Selection Sunday for a team that owns just four wins against quadrants 1+2.
- USC – Same story for USC. They’ll need to avoid any more losses because their remaining games are against either bubble teams or non-tournament contenders.
- Syracuse – A win at Miami was maybe the lifeline this team needed. It was their first road win all season against a team that is solidly in the field.
First four out
- Boise State – The Broncos are clinging to life. Any slip-up, and their at-large dreams are toast.
- St. Bonaventure – The bubble got a lot more crowded over the weekend, when the Bonnies got a very nice quality win over Rhode Island. Their best path to an at-large bid is likely winning out and hoping for chaos on the rest of the bubble.
- Marquette – A win at Creighton was a shot of life for the Golden Eagles, who had lost five of six games prior. They still need to finish strong to have a shot, though.
- Nebraska – The Cornhuskers were quietly humming along under the radar, and just when they did enough to get into the projected field, they turned around and lost to Illinois. That’s a brutal loss for Nebraska.
Next four out
- Utah – The Utes have won seven of nine, with their only two losses in that stretch coming on the road, one of which was at Arizona. There’s still time, but they’ve got to go now, and go hard.
- Washington – The Huskies are in a similar boat, but a three-game skid will be hard to recover from at this stage in the season.
- Baylor – Beating the top team in the conference can do wonders for a bubble team. The Bears’ win over Texas Tech kept hope alive, but time is running out.
- Penn State – Much like Nebraska, Penn State was gaining steam in the Big Ten with a win over Ohio State, but then they had a setback against Purdue. Not nearly as bad as losing to Illinois, but the Nittany Lions have a brutal stretch to end the year.