A week from now, there will be a bracket, 68 teams with the same dream.
March Madness will officially be here, and everyone will try to predict the teams that will stun us and blow up everyone’s office pools.
But you don’t have to wait until the pairings are released to get a head start.
Below is an early look at five teams that will not land top-four seeds but are worth keeping an eye on once the bracket is revealed:
For those who watched the Mountain West Conference title game, the Aggies became a popular sleeper. Trailing powerhouse and fifth-ranked San Diego State by 16 points early in the first half, Utah State rallied for a dramatic victory on senior sharpshooter Sam Merrill’s step-back 3-pointer in the final seconds. The Aggies already had wins over Florida and LSU, so it’s obvious they won’t be intimidated. Remember, Utah State reached the tournament last year, and it returned its top four scorers, highlighted by the 6-foot-5 Merrill and skilled 7-foot sophomore center Neemias Queta. Due to a 39 NET rating and just five Quad 1 and 2 wins, Utah State will likely be a double-digit seed. Thank us later.
One of the odder résumés you will see. Wins over Seton Hall, Creighton, Marquette (twice), Villanova and Butler. Losses to Northwestern, Penn, Long Beach State and College of Charleston. Left for dead after a dreadful non-conference season, the Friars rebounded to go 12-6 in the Big East and close with six straight wins in which their offense suddenly became explosive, averaging 77.0 points per game and shooting 40.8 percent from 3-point range, to match a stingy defense. Coach Ed Cooley’s team has a lockdown perimeter defender (David Duke), senior leadership with Alpha Diallo, Kalif Young and Luwane Pipkins, and is 24th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage at 33.0. A projected seven-seed that plays a physical brand of basketball that could be tough to adjust to, Providence has the scoring depth and size to pull a few upsets.
The Cougars have 10 wins away from home — essential for a tournament sleeper — and are battle-tested, having handed No. 2 Gonzaga one of its only two losses, defeating AAC power Houston and Mountain West Conference Tournament champion Utah State, and playing San Diego State tough in a five-point, early-season loss. This is a team of men — double-figure scorers Yoeli Childs, TJ Haws and Jake Toolson are all seniors — that shoots a nation’s-best 42.3 percent from 3-point range, and of its seven losses, five are by seven points or fewer.
Eastern Tennessee State
The Buccaneers haven’t lost since Jan. 29, own 12 victories away from home and of their 11 straight wins, six are by double figures. This projected double-digit seed is deep — eight players average at least 5.5 points per game — tenacious defensively (8.4 steals a night) and the bright lights of March won’t faze them, having beaten LSU and played Kansas tough on the road. ETSU nearly got to the tournament last year, pushing Wofford — which knocked off Seton Hall in the first round and nearly upset Kentucky in the second round — in the SoCon title game. And this year’s team is nearly identical, just a year older.
It may finally be clicking for this talented group that underachieved most of the year. Consecutive home wins over Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA landed the Trojans the fourth seed in the Pac-12 Tournament. Between forward Onyeka Okongwu and Jonah Matthews, USC has a terrific inside-out tandem that is difficult to handle. The likely seven-to-eight seed can be streaky — it has won five games in a row twice this season — and is entering the postseason hot, with five wins in seven games.
Games of the Week:
Big East Tournament (at Madison Square Garden, Wednesday-Saturday)
Arguably the best conference in the country takes the Garden stage for the 38th straight year and it promises to be a can’t-miss event. The league has three Final Four caliber teams — No. 8 Seton Hall, No. 11 Creighton and No. 14 Villanova — that finished in a three-way tie atop the conference. Seton Hall and Villanova could meet in the semifinals Friday night, with the winner facing Creighton in the title game on Saturday. But what makes this league so terrific is its depth. As long as Xavier doesn’t fall to perennial cellar-dweller DePaul on Wednesday night, the league should send seven teams to the dance. Ninth-place St. John’s recently hammered Creighton and fourth-place Providence defeated the three teams that finished ahead of the Friars in the standings.
Atlantic 10 Tournament (at Barclays Center, Wednesday-Sunday)
All eyes will be on National Player of the Year contender Obi Toppin and third-ranked Dayton after it became the first Atlantic 10 school to go undefeated in the league since George Washington 14 years ago. The Flyers are in play to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament if they can win this one. But, if someone can knock them off, a bid-stealer is in play, since a second team, such as Richmond or Rhode Island, from this league may have a hard time getting an at-large bid.
A prediction of the top four seeds in the NCAA Tournament (listed in order):
1: Kansas, Gonzaga, Baylor, Dayton
2: San Diego State, Creighton, Florida State, Villanova
3: Maryland, Kentucky, Duke, Seton Hall
4: Louisville, Oregon, Michigan State, Wisconsin
Up: Steve Pikiell
There are rebuilding jobs and there was Rutgers. Pikiell inherited a program that hadn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 1991, hadn’t won 20 games in a single season since 2003-2004 and had lost more than it won for 10 consecutive years. Now, in his fourth year, he’s got the Scarlet Knights dancing. He’s done it his way, by developing overlooked recruits and playing hard-nosed, intense defense. Yes, I know some Bracketologists still aren’t sold, even after Rutgers dismantled No. 9 Maryland at home and earned a huge road victory at Purdue to close out the regular season. The Scarlet Knights now have four Quadrant 1 victories, six wins over projected tournament teams and a NET rating of 32. They will be part of the madness. Take a bow, Steve Pikiell.
In late January, the Badgers didn’t even look like a tournament team. Now, they aren’t only going dancing, but they shared the Big Ten regular-season crown with No. 16 Michigan State and Maryland and are projected as a high as a four-seed. Wisconsin closed by winning nine of its last 10 games, beating the likes of Michigan State, No. 19 Ohio State, Rutgers and No. 25 Michigan. Forward Micah Potter, a 6-10 transfer from Ohio State who had to sit out the first semester, has been pivotal in this run, averaging 10.0 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.0 blocks per game.
Up: Tony Bennett
Virginia is the only ACC team to beat the big three of No. 7 Florida State. No. 10 Louisville and No. 12 Duke. It ended up finishing second, a year after losing its top three scorers and starting 2-4 in the league. This has arguably been a more impressive coaching job by Bennett than last year’s run to the national championship. Would it surprise anybody to see the 22nd-ranked Cavaliers, winners of eight straight games, a team nobody wants to see in its region, play deep into the month?
Down: Seton Hall
Look, the Pirates still earned a share of the Big East title. They are still going to be a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, as long as they don’t fall to Marquette in the opening round of the Big East Tournament on Thursday. The season was always about March, anyway, and getting to the second weekend of the field of 68. Still, Seton Hall led the conference by three games at one point. It was up two with a week to go in the regular season. This team should be the No. 1 seed in its conference tournament. Looking back now, that home loss to on-the-bubble Xavier on Feb. 1 was the difference. Falling at home to Villanova and at Creighton is nothing to be ashamed of. But Myles Powell and Co. need a big week at MSG just to get their swagger back for the tournament they will ultimately be judged upon.
Down: Archie Miller
It was unnecessary, a cheap shot that made him look petty. You can quibble with ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s projections, but to compare his new show to “Sesame Street,” calling it a “children’s show,” and say Lunardi is like Oscar the Grouch and can “Go back into the trash can,” as Miller did after Saturday’s loss to Wisconsin, was a low-rent, classless move. If Indiana wasn’t on the bubble, but safely in the tournament, Miller wouldn’t even care what Lunardi thought about his program. As a coach, you represent your school and your players. This didn’t shine a bright light on anyone from Indiana, and certainly not the man leading its flagship program.
The mid-major league in our backyard used to own Monday night locally. Everyone would tune in, especially because Iona has played in the championship game the last seven years. It gave the conference a spotlight. This year, the tournament won’t even begin until Tuesday. The championship game will be held on Saturday, overshadowed by all the high-major conference tournaments. The MAAC moved its location this year from Albany to Atlantic City, and Boardwalk Hall was booked this past weekend for the New Jersey State High School Wrestling Championships. It’s a shame for the players and the coaches. The league whiffed badly here.
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