College hoops fans, rejoice.
March Madness — aka the NCAA Division I College Basketball Championships — will be here before you know it, with selection Sunday taking place in scant days on March 11.
That will be followed by the First Four on March 13 and 14 and the 64-team playdown commencing on March 15 and concluding the Final Four between March 31 and April 2.
Teams have been jockeying for position in the polls and for top spot in their conferences (which may count for automatic berths in the big tournament). As of Wednesday, ACC powerhouse Virginia, which is partying like it’s 1984 all over again, are no. 1 in the polls with a 25-2 overall record.
After them, there is a cast of the usual — and some unusual — suspects.
We’ve had a look around the polls and the conferences and come up with 20 great teams worth paying attention to when play begins in earnest in three weeks. Team, conference and record (in parentheses) are listed.
20. Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns – Sun Belt (23-4)
The Ragin’ Cajuns last appeared in the tournament in 2014, when they lost in the Round of 64. Throughout their history — some of it checkered by “Death Sentence” suspensions of the program — the Cajuns have never gone further than the Sweet 16 and last made it to the second round in 1992. With a 23-4 record and top spot in the Sun Belt, 40th ranked Louisiana should cop a berth. They have lost just once in conference play and got a taste of big time basketball when they paid a visit to no. 9 ranked Clemson in December. Now, they did drop a 89-60 division to the big ACC school but it did provide them a measuring stick as well as a showcase for leading scorer and senior Frank Bartley IV, who had 14 points and six rebounds in the loss. The Ragin’ Cajuns have the 10th most potent offence in the NCAA, scoring 84.8 points per game.
19. Gonzaga Bulldogs – WCC (25-4)
Everyone’s favorite underdog team, the 2017 national runner-up Bulldogs, are having another fine season and should at least get an at large berth in the tournament. They are tied atop the West Coast Conference standings with Saint Mary’s (CA) at 25-4 and are ranked no. 43 in the nation. Of their five top scorers, four return from last year’s successful squad which lost 71-65 to North Carolina in the final. Chief among them is senior forward Johnathan Wiliams, who has 13.8 points and 8.0 rebounds per game this season. While they have absorbed losses to non-conference ranked teams like no. 2 Villanova, the ‘Dogs whipped conference rival and 28th ranked Saint Mary’s 78-65 on Feb. 10. They have lost just once in their last 16 games and are 15-1 in their conference.
18. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders – Conference USA (22-5)
Middle Tennessee has been to three tournaments in the last five years, after being absent for 24 between 1989 and 2013. While they did beat Big 10 schools in the first round the last two years in a row (Michigan State in 2016 and Minnesota in 2o17), the Blue Raiders haven’t got past the second round. Conference USA leading Middle Tennessee has turned around a so-so season that saw them at 8-4 after a loss to no. 30 Miami earlier this year, winning 14 of its last 15 games. The team has been bolstered by the return to health of leading scorer and former Alabama forward, senior Nick King. The Memphis native has logged a team leading 21.4 points per game, which is 22nd in the nation, along with 8.4 assists and 1.9 assists.
17. Arizona State Sun Devils – Pac-12 (19-7)
For the record, the Sun Devils won their first 12 games straight, including victories over no. 3 Xavier and no. 6 Kansas. That is why a team that has gone 7-7 since is ranked here as one to look out for in three weeks time. The team which has bookended their mediocre run of late with losses is conference and state rival Arizona. The no. 18 Wildcats ended the Sun Devils’ season-opening winning streak on Dec. 30 and then trumped them once again last Thursday. If the state team can’t solve the ‘Cats in the Pac-12 championship (ASU is seventh in the conference), their overall record should get them an at large bid. Former Duke superstar and now coach Bobby Hurley is guiding the team for a third season and has them on the precipice of making the tournament for the first time since 2014. The furthest they have gone in the new 64-team format was the Sweet 16 in 1995.
16. Michigan State Spartans – Big 10 (27-3)
The Spartans are on a roll, having won 11 in a row, including a statement 68-65 victory over no. 11 ranked and Big 10 no. 3 Purdue on Feb. 10. Among their victories this season, the Spartans have also beaten ranked opponents in North Carolina, while falling to that other ACC powerhouse, Duke, early in the season. Top prospect Miles Bridges, a sophomore shooting guard from Flint, is the Spartans big scorer. He has poured in 17.1 points per game, including 37.6 percent accuracy from three-point range and has chipped in 6.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists so far this season. In that big triumph over rival Purdue, Bridges had 20 points and three rebounds lead all Spartans scorers. He’ll factor huge in any tournament success for Michigan State.
15. Kentucky Wildcats – SEC (19-9)
A fairly blistering start to the NCAA DI season that saw the ‘Cats go 14-3 through mid-January has been replaced by a roller coaster ride that has seen them drop six of 11. John Calipari is going to have to rally the troops over the remaining three games of the regular schedule, even though they stopped a four-game slide earlier this month with victories over no. 31 Alabama and no. 34 Arkansas. The legendary coach has five fab freshmen leading the way this season — hence the reason they have been a little erratic — with Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander leading the team in several categories. Forward Knox, from Tampa, is a consensus top 10 NBA pick and leads in points (15.4) and minutes (32.8) per game. Gilgeous-Alexander, of Hamilton, Ontario, is also expected to be drafted in the late first, early second round and is second in points (12.9) and first in assists (4.6) and steals (1.7). Rounding out a great first-year class are Hamidou Diallo, PJ Washington, Jarred Vanderbilt and Nick Richards.
14. Texas Tech Red Raiders – Big 12 (22-6)
The last time the Red Raiders got to a Sweet Sixteen, hot-headed bench boss Bobby Knight was in charge. That was in 2005, when Texas Tech went to the Big 12 Finals and had a 22-11 record (which they haven’t replicated since). Since then, the Red Raiders have been to the Big Dance only twice, losing in the first round in 2007 and 2016. This year, Texas Tech is running with the big dogs in the Big 12, Kansas, sitting one game back in the standings and owning an identical overall record as the Jayhawks. The Red Raiders, ranked 14th in the country, beat Kansas in their own barn on Jan. 2 and have a late-season re-match Saturday night. Senior guard Keenan Evans, a holdover from the last Red Raiders squad to go to the tournament, has been dynamic this season. He leads a freshman-heavy line-up with 17.6 points per game, 3.3 assists and 1.3 steals.
13. Nevada Wolf Pack – Mountain West Conference (24-5)
It took 10 years, but the Wolf Pack finally made it back to the tournament last March, bowing to Iowa State in the first round. The Reno school is back on track to go again and no doubt hopes to get to (at least) the Sweet Sixteen like it did in 2004. The school that turned out current NBAers JaVale McGee, Ramon Sessions and Luke Babbitt is ranked 10th in the country and is perched atop the MWC with a conference record of 13-2. The Wolf Pack have lost just two of their last 15 games and seem to be rolling at the right time. Junior forward Caleb Martin, who missed all of the 2016-17 season, is the Wolf Pack’s best two-way player, leading the team in points (19.6, 50th in the nation) and steals (1.3), while sitting third in rebounds (5.1) and assists (2.4).
12. Tennessee Volunteers – SEC (20-7)
The SEC is no playground, just ask the Vols, who are second in the conference with a 10-5 record and are ranked no. 13 in the RPI poll (19th in the AP). They got their 20th win of the season on Wednesday night against third-place Florida, a number the Volunteers haven’t hit since the 2013-14 campaign, when they finished 24-13. That was also the last year they went deep at the Big Dance, losing to Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen. A look at recent competition suggests the Vols are ready to go, but still with a little work to do. They beat Kentucky earlier this month, but then lost by 11 to Georgia on Saturday. Forwards Grant Williams, a sophomore, and Admiral Schofield, a junior, are the offensive and defensive catalysts of coach Rick Barnes schemes. Williams leads in points (16.0) and is second in blocks (1.3) and rebounds (5.9) per game, while Schofield is second in points (12.4) and first in rebounds (6.2) and steals (1.1).
11. Xavier Musketeers – Big East (25-4)
The battle for supremacy in Cincinnati alone was hotly contested this NCAA season. Early in December, Cincinnati-based Xavier laid a beating on no. 12 (RPI poll) Cincinnati Bearcats, 89-76. The Bearcats are currently no. 1 in the American Athletic Conference with a 23-4 record, so it was no mean feat that the Big East leading Musketeers prevailed. The only blemishes on another stellar season were the two in-conference, home and home losses to Villanova. The Chris Mack led Musketeers have been great the last three seasons, going to the Sweet Sixteen, second round and Elite Eight in 2017. Senior guard Trevon Bluiett is the straw who stirs the drink for the Musketeers, averaging 19.2 points, and 5.6 rebounds, both team highs, while also shooting an outstanding 44.5 percent from three-point range (23rd in the NCAA).
10. Arizona Wildcats – Pac-12 (21-6)
It certainly doesn’t hurt the Pac-12 leading Wildcats that they not one, but two, potential NBA first round picks in freshman DeAndre Ayton and Junior Allonzo Trier. Ayton, a 7’1″ forward and the Wildcats leading scorer with 19.7 points, has been rated as high as no. 1 for the upcoming draft, while point guard Trier, second in points with 19.6, is rated late first round. Rounding out a significant starting trio is fellow highly regarded future pro and shooting guard Rawle Alkins, who is a prospective early second round selection. These three have propelled the Wildcats to some big victories this season, including two over highly ranked cross-state rivals the Arizona State Sun Devils. On Feb. 15, Ayton poured in a game high 25, with 16 rebounds, while Trier had 19 and Alkins 10 as the ‘Cats slipped by the Sun Devils 77-70. The Wildcats have been as far as the Elite Eight three times in the Sean Miller era and haven’t won a NCAA championship since Lute Olsen took them there in 1997. It may be their time.
9. Cincinnati Bearcats – American Athletic Conference (23-4)
The last time the Bearcats were national champions, current coach Mick Cronin wasn’t even born yet. The school’s last championship was in 1962 and Cronin didn’t make an appearance until 1971. He’s been bench boss since 2006-07 and has taken one of the NCAA’s most storied programs to seven tournaments in a row, the best finish coming in 2012 when they lost in the Sweet Sixteen to Ohio State. Until back-to-back losses in its last two contests (to Houston and Wichita State) Cincinnati had winning streaks of seven straight to open the season, and then after consecutive losses to Xavier and Florida, the Bearcats reeled off 16 wins in a row. This is a deep, well-rounded team that doesn’t rely on any one man to do it all, rather spreading around scoring between guys like junior guard Jacob Evans (13.7 PPG), and senior forwards Gary Clark (12.8 points, 8.7 rebounds) and Kyle Washington (11.3 points, 1.4 blocks).
8. Purdue Boilermakers – Big 10 (24-5)
February hasn’t been kind to Purdue, as the Boilermakers have suffered three of their five losses on the season this month. They were all in a row and came at the hands of Big 10 rivals Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin. Head coach Matt Painter, though, still has some time to steady his troops in advance of a berth in March Madness and the Big 10 championship. This is a team that went to the Sweet Sixteen and returns all five starters from that run to this year’s club. Chief among them are leading scorer Carsen Edwards and leading rebounder Vincent Edwards, no relation. The former, Carsen, has 17.4 points per game and is shooting just under 40 percent from three-point range. The latter, Vincent, a senior from Ohio, has logged 14.9 PPG and 7.8 rebounds. The 98-66 thumping that Purdue took at the hands of the Kansas Jayhawks in the 2017 Sweet Sixteen should serve as motivation for this crew.
7. Rhode Island Rams – Atlantic 10 (22-4)
Little Rhodey isn’t so small in the basketball picture. It’s been 20 years since Cuttino Mobley and the Rams made it all the way to the Elite Eight, a season they finished at 25-9. This year, Dan Hurley (Bobby’s brother) has the Rams in first in the Atlantic-10 and firing on all cylinders going into the final three games of the regular slate and the Atlantic 10 championship. The only knock against the Rams in an otherwise superb season is the fact they haven’t done well against ranked out of conference teams, suffering losses to Nevada, no. 1 Virginia and Alabama. This is another team that is all about balance, as they have just two scorers in double digit scoring, Jared Terrell and E.C. Matthews, but also seven players with greater than 17 minutes average floor time per game. Rhode Island lost in second round to Oregon in 2017.
6. North Carolina Tar Heels – ACC (22-7)
The ACC championship alone will be a battle of the mighty this year. The top three teams in the conference, Virginia, Duke and defending national champion North Carolina are ranked (per the RPI), first, fourth and fifth in the nation, respectively. The Heels are doing just fine this season, if a little uneven at times. They have had some big victories, including wins over Duke and Ohio State, but also crushing losses at the hands of tiny Wofford and to no. 1 Virginia. No matter, as coach Roy Williams, who has won three titles since taking over in 2003, will have his boys ready to roll when the basketball season kicks into high gear. Returning from the national champion team are second leading scorer Joel Berry II, who had 22 points in the 2017 final against Gonzaga, as well as Luke Maye, the team’s top scorer and senior forward Theo Pinson. The Tar Heels should not be taken lightly, by anyone.
5. Duke Blue Devils – ACC (23-5)
Any team coached by Mike Krzyzewski has a chance at greatness. Coach K, who has an overall record of 1,021-276 since taking the reins of the basketball factory in 1980, has missed the tournament just once in the last 34 years. His teams have won it all five times and have gone to the finals on three other occasions. This season, Duke, led by no. 1 rated prospect (as of this week) Marvin Bagley III, sit second in the ACC behind Virginia. The Blue Devils have won their last four in a row, after falling in back-to-back games to St. John’s and hated foe North Carolina. Bagley III, a freshman revelation, has kept is A-1 status as a future pro intact by leading his team in scoring (21.2 PPG, 25th overall in the NCAA), while adding 11.4 rebounds, which is eighth best in college hoops. He is capably backed by top NBA prospects like senior guard Grayson Allen (15.6 points, 4.5 rebounds), freshman forward Wendell Carter Jr. (14.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.2 blocks) and freshman guard Gary Trent Jr. (45.5 percent three-point shooting, 13th in the NCAA). The Blue Devils will be tough to beat.
4. Auburn Tigers – SEC (24-4)
Normally a football powerhouse, the Tigers are treading ground they haven’t been over in 15 years and that is a potential SEC championship and deep run in the tournament. Auburn went to the Sweet Sixteen in 2003 and last won a conference title in 1999. This year they are first in an ultra-competitive SEC, considering that powerhouse Kentucky is in a six-way tie for third with a 8-7 conference record. That the Tigers are ranked seventh nationally and have a 12-3 conference record is nothing short of miraculous, considering that first round NBA prospect Austin Wiley and sophomore forward Danjel Purifoy were both ruled ineligible this season due to NCAA rules infractions. Coach Bruce Pearl has gotten the most out of the rest of a decent cast, including leading scorer and junior shooting guard Bryce Brown (16.4 points to lead the team). The team’s overall record this season was helped greatly by a 14-game winning streak.
3. Kansas Jayhawks – Big 12 (22-6)
The usual suspects, including the Kansas Jayhawks, are listed here for a good reason. Kansas has won a title in the last 10 years, as have list-mates, Duke (twice), North Carolina (twice), Kentucky and Villanova. Not only have the Jayhawks won, but they have also been to a final in 2012 and the Elite Eight three times in that span under Bill Self. Kansas has been a tough nut to crack in the Big 12 this season, beating third place West Virginia home and home as well as in-state rival K-State. They lost to second place Texas Tech on Jan. 2 and can get revenge Saturday night on the road against the Red Raiders. The season didn’t get off to a fine start, player personnel wise, when highly rated prospect (potential NBA second round pick) and freshman forward Billy Preston left the program under suspicious circumstances stemming from a car accident. The team has had no ill effects, though and is capably fronted by outstanding senior point guard Devonte Graham, who has 17.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and 7.2 assists (seventh in the NCAA) per game.
2. Villanova Wildcats – Big East (25-3)
They aren’t the only Wildcats to do great things this season — or on this list, for that matter — but the Villanova version will be very fun to watch. These ‘Cats won a title in 2016 and from that team they have seven still in the line-up. A redshirt freshman that year, guard Mikal Bridges is this year’s headliner. The junior from Pennsylvania is a blue chip potential NBA first round pick who plays well at both ends of the floor for the nation’s top offence. He is second in scoring to fellow returnee Jalen Brunson with 17.1 points per game and has also recorded 2.1 assists, 1.6 steals (best on the team) and 1.1 blocks per game. Also back from that 2016 championship club are third leading scorer Donte DiVincenzo, Eric Paschall, Phil Booth and Tim Delaney. The Wildcats are poised to win a second straight Big East tournament championship and maybe a return to at least the Final Four. The fact they owned rival Xavier in home and home victories (89-65 on Jan. 10 and 95-79 on Feb. 17) bodes well for Villanova.
1. Virginia Cavaliers – ACC (25-2)
The Cavaliers aren’t the highest scoring team in the NCAA — far from it at 67.6 points per game, 306th overall — but they play withering defence. The Cavs have won games because they have limited opponents to a NCAA low of just 52.7 points per game, which is 4.4 PPG lower than next best Cincinnati. In fact, Virginia held high octane North Carolina (83.4 PPG, 22nd overall) to just 49 points in a 61-49 victory earlier this year. Even better, they limited the ninth ranked team in the nation, Clemson, to a paltry 36 points in a 61-36 victory on Jan. 23. And it’s not like they lead the NCAA as a team in any defensive category like rebounds, steals or blocks. Rather, coach Tony Bennett has got his charges to by into a system that has limited opponents to well under 1.0 points per possession. The Cavaliers have already won the ACC regular season championship, but will be in tough with Duke and UNC for conference championship honors. Expect this defensively excellent team to thrive come tournament time.