Selection Sunday is drawing near, college hoops fans.
Which means those March Madness brackets everyone has been holding onto can start getting filled, very soon.
This week marks the end of conference regular seasons, as DI championships are contested. The winners will move on to the tournament, while bubble teams will have to wait and see if their records and strength of schedule merit inclusion.
As always, it’s a crap shoot to try and determine, even a week early, just who outside the AP Top 25 will hear their school’s name called to join the chosen 68.
As of Monday, the top school in basketball was Virginia, which has held the AP, Coaches Poll and RPI no. 1 ranking for several weeks now. The ACC juggernaut will be among as many as nine conference schools to get an invite to the Big Dance.
What we like looking into, though, are the schools who don’t rate as much attention, and who, given the nature of the tournament, could knock off a big dog.
The folks at TeamRankings.com have a great up-to-the-minute Bracketology tracker, rating school’s odds of getting a bid. We’ve looked at schools in the lower tier, to see who might provide upset specials (with record and bid odds in brackets).
16. Utah Utes (19-10; 28 %)
The Utes are the no. 3 seed in the Pac-12 tournament and will play the winner of Oregon vs. Washington State on Thursday. With their low odds of being included in the four predicted bids coming out of the Pac-12, they’ll have to get to at least the semi-finals for consideration. Should they get in, the Utes have played AP ranked teams very tough this season. Even though they have lost to now no. 18 Arizona twice this season, the last defeat was by a single point (74-73). This came two days after beating then no. 21 Arizona State 80-77 in OT. Utah is led by senior point guard Justin Bibbins, who has averaged 14.4 points, 2.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.3 steals this season. He was on the 2015 Utes team that went to the Sweet 16.
15. Kansas State Wildcats (21-10; 29%)
The last time the Wildcats were a true Cinderella team, at no. 11 in the Midwest Region, was 2008. During that March Madness, they knocked off no. 6 USC by a count of 80-67, before dropping a 72-55 decision to no. 3 Wisconsin in the second round. Their best finish since was an Elite Eight appearance in 2010, when they were a second seed and lost to Butler. This year they should get in, despite low odds, as there are seven predicted bids for the Big 12. K State, ranked no. 62 in the nation and no. 4 in the Big 12, plays no. 20 TCU (fifth in the Big 12) on Thursday in the conference quarter-finals. At large bids will be hotly contested, for sure. The Wildcats have a potent 1-2 punch in the back court with junior guards Dean Wade (16.7 PPG, 6.4 rebounds) and Barry Brown (16.6 PPG, 3.5 assists).
14. Texas Longhorns (18-13; 30%)
The Big 12 is a battlefield and Texas is looking to come out of it as unscathed as possible. The 48th ranked team in the nation is also the no. 7 seed in the Big 12 tournament. The Horns get no. 10 Iowa State in the first round of the conference championship. Should they win that one, they’ll have to tangle with no. 2 seed (no. 22 nationally) Texas Tech in the quarter-finals. Thus, the Longhorns will have to upset a major player, we think, just to maintain a hold on one of seven projected March Madness bids. At worst, Texas will have to play Texas Tech very tough and keep it a close game should they lose. The Longhorns have been good all year against ranked opponents, including a 1-1 record against Texas Tech, as well as two victories over Oklahoma (no. 37) and a 1-1 mark versus no. 31 West Virginia.
13. Washington Huskies (20-11; 10%)
It’s not outside the realm of possibility that the Huskies grab one of four predicted Pac-12 bids, however, they are in tough. They are 7th ranked in the conference (63rd nationally) and take on no. 10 Oregon State in the first round of the Pac-12 championship. If they survive that tilt, they will have to face no. 2 seed USC (34th ranked nationally) in the quarter-finals. Not an easy path, we say. However, the Dogs have played very well against teams far above them in the rankings. They beat Kansas (which is no. 5 in the NCAA rankings) on Dec. 6 and Arizona State and Arizona back-to-back in early February. Not in the Huskies favor, and considering their 10 percent chance of getting in, is the fact they haven’t been to the tournament since 2011, when they were a no. 7 seed in the East Regional.
12. New Mexico State Aggies (25-5; 59%)
The Aggies odds, despite having a superb 25-5 record, are a direct result of playing in the “second tier” Western Athletic Conference, which will likely get one bid only. They are ranked 41st in the country (per RPI) and draw Chicago State in the WAC championship quarterfinals on Thursday. They did make the tournament last year and are defending WAC champions, so we like their odds. The Aggies have knocked over one big team outside the WAC this season, and that was a 63-54 triumph over the now no. 22 ranked Miami Hurricanes on Dec. 23, 2017. Senior guard Zach Lofton is the offensive catalyst on a well balanced N.M. State team, with 19.6 points per game, while senior forward Jemerrio Jones is the defensive stalwart, posting 12.7 rebounds per game, which is second overall in the NCAA.
11. Louisville Cardinals (19-12; 26%)
Wednesday night’s game against Florida State in the second round of the ACC tournament will probably be make or break for the Cardinals. The ACC does get nine bids, but Louisville is ranked ninth in the conference and has a pretty average 19-12 record. Even still, Louisville has to be emboldened — and unnerved — by a narrow 67-66 loss to no. 1 Virginia on March 1. They led the game 64-59 with 14 seconds left and 66-62 with 0.9 seconds remaining, but still somehow managed to lose. They can get a measure of redemption in Brooklyn by knocking off the Seminoles, who they were 1-1 against in 2017-18 and then bushwhacking Virginia in the quarter-finals. They are 46th ranked in DI basketball and feature a show-stopper in junior forward Ray Spalding. He has recorded 12.0 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks for the Cardinals.
10. Nebraska Cornhuskers (22-10; 81%)
When the Huskers lost to eventual Big 10 champion Michigan in the conference quarterfinals on Friday, it was both a blessing and a curse. The no. 4 Cornhuskers were slight favorites over no. 5 seeded Michigan, having whipped them 72-52 earlier in the season, but the Wolverines are now ranked higher in the RPI at 13th. Both Michigan and Michigan State are guaranteed spots in the tournament, as has Purdue. Which leaves Nebraska and Penn State battling for the fourth bid spot allocated to the Big 10. In Nebraska’s favor, then, was a victory over the Nittany Lions in the last game of the Big 10 regular season on Feb. 25. So, should the Cornhuskers get the bid, they have the ability to upset. They beat Michigan on Jan. 18 and lost an early season squeaker to Big 12 power Kansas in December.
9. Temple Owls (16-14; 19 %)
The Owls tournament bid odds took a couple of recent hits with losses to UConn and Tulsa. Yet, we like the fact that Temple goes into the AAC tournament with a chance to face no. 12 ranked Wichita State (no. 2 in the AAC) in the conference championship quarterfinals. That hinges on them beating no. 10 Tulane in the first round, but Temple has beaten the Shockers (81-79 in OT on Feb. 1) and lost a narrow one (93-86 on Feb. 15). The Owls were last in the tournament in 2016, when second leading scorer Shizz Alston Jr. was a freshman (he played two minutes in the lone game Temple played against Iowa) and forward Obi Enechionyia was a sophomore. Obi played 33 minutes that game and had four points, five rebounds and a block (he leads the team in that category with 1.7 this year).
8. UCLA Bruins (20-10; 88%)
The Bruins, at this point, are not a locked down favorite to win the Pac-12 championship, nor, at 88 percent, be an automatic bid for the tournament. UCLA is the 38th ranked team in the nation, as well as the no. 4 seed in the Pac-12, gaining a bye to the conference quarterfinals on Mar. 8. They will face either no. 5 Stanford or no. 12 California in a pivotal game. The Bruins split the season series with Stanford 1-1, and swept California, so the odds are good they’ll prevail. Given their future seeding at the Big Dance, UCLA can play spoiler. They beat no. 17 Kentucky this year, as well as no. 18 Arizona. Leading the way for the Bruins, in any upset scenario, will be Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate, Aaron Holiday. The younger brother of NBA players Jrue (New Orleans) and Justin (Chicago), is averaging 20.1 points, 3.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game for the Bruins.
7. Providence Friars (19-12; 77%)
If the Friars want into the tournament, the door is wide open. Ranked no. 5 in the Big East and 43rd nationally, Providence faces no. 4 Creighton (35th nationally) in the conference tournament quarterfinals on Thursday. The two teams split their season series, with the Friars coming out on top in their last meeting on Jan. 20, 85-71. A harbinger of potential things to come was represented in a shocking 76-71 victory against no. 2 Villanova on Valentine’s Day. It was revenge for a 89-69 thumping the Friars took at the hands of the Wildcats three weeks before. Also in Providence’s favor was the season series split with no. 3 ranked Xavier, who they beat in early January. The Friars went to the tournament in 2017, but lost in the First Four to USC, 75-71.
6. N.C. State Wolfpack (21-10; 90%)
The mighty ACC could have as many as nine projected bids for March Madness, which leaves N.C. State in a very good position heading into the ACC championship in Brooklyn. Yet, with a 21-10 record, they will most likely catch a ninth seed in the NCAA tournament. Ranked fifth in their conference, the Wolfpack will await the winner of the Boston College vs. Georgia Tech first round game. From there, the winner of their second round game will have to square off with Clemson, the 11th ranked team in the NCAA. The Wolfpack have stared down some big competitors this season, splitting with North Carolina, as well as beating Duke in their lone meeting and Arizona in an early season out-of-conference match. Their last trip into the tournament, the Wolfpack lost in the Sweet 16 in 2015. Perhaps, though, this edition might want to channel the 1983 Cinderella winning club, coached by Jim Valvano. That team was seeded sixth in the West Region and went all the way.
5. Florida State Seminoles (20-10; 60%)
Like their ACC counterparts Louisville, Florida State is capable of upending big clubs, as well as being a major disappointment. Now, they didn’t suffer a huge collapse in a conference regular season game like Louisville had against no. 1 Virginia, but the Seminoles have played inspired and not-so-inspired hoops in 2017-18. Fittingly, then, FSU will do battle with Louisville in the second round of the ACC tournament, with the winner jumping into a tilt with Virginia in the quarterfinals. The ‘Noles have beaten top clubs like Florida, North Carolina and Clemson this season, but have been in a funk lately, winning just four of nine since the end of January. The Seminoles will rely on their NCAA 30th most potent offence to subdue their opponents, with three of their starters — Terance Mann, Phil Cofer and Braian Angola — all averaging over 13 points per game. With a 10th seed staring them in the face, the Seminoles can play spoiler by scoring in bunches.
4. Butler Bulldogs (19-12; 67%)
Under “NCAA Basketball Cinderella Team” in the sports dictionary, it says “see mid-major Bulldogs, Butler University.” In the early part of this decade, the Bulldogs went to two straight finals, the first in 2010 as a no. 5 seed with Gordon Hayward leading the way, eventually losing to no. 1 Duke in the final. Then, in 2011, the eighth-seeded Bulldogs, featuring future NBA guard Shelvin Mack, took their upset-minded ways all the way to the final again, losing to UConn. This year, the 45th ranked Bulldogs head into a Big East tournament showdown with rival Seton Hall on Thursday, with one of seven likely conference bids on the line. In the tradition of elite players leading Butler squads, senior forward Kelan Martin is averaging 21.2 points per game, which is 24th best in DI hoops. And like Bulldogs teams of yore, this edition has beaten some of the best, including Villanova.
3. Virginia Tech Hokies (21-10; 66%)
The danger for a highly ranked team like the Duke Blue Devils, is to look past a possible ACC tournament game against no. 7 ranked (50th ranked nationally) Virginia Tech. That is a likely scenario, as the Hokies await the winner of Notre Dame and Pittsburgh in the first round and the Blue Devils the winner of that contest. In the last month, the Hokies have won and lost against Duke, with their triumph a big one (74-52) and their defeat to the Blue Devils narrow (64-63). Virginia Tech has also subdued Clemson, no. 1 Virginia and no. 6 North Carolina in the new year. Therefore, with a 66 percent shot at a lowly 11th seed (as of Monday), this Hokies team ought to be scaring the living daylights out of elite clubs entering March Madness. This team can score in bunches as they have five starters in double digit scoring and average 80.1 points per game (47th in the NCAA).
2. St. Bonaventure Bonnies (24-6; 97%)
The Bonnies, ranked no. 2 in the Atlantic 10 and a solid 21st in the nation, could be ready to wreak havoc on the Big Dance, where they have been just six times in school history. The last visit came in 2012, when St. Bonaventure lost to Florida State in the second round. This season, a team led by top prospect Jaylen Adams has performed admirably, winning its last 12 games in a row, including a statement 77-74 triumph over A-10 foe and 16th ranked Rhode Island on Feb. 16. That could have been the prelude to a conference final, as no. 1 Rhode Island and the no. 2 Bonnies have a free pass to the quarterfinals on Friday. As for Adams, who is a projected second round pick in this year’s NBA draft, he has the ability to elevate his team’s game on any given night. He is tied for 37th in NCAA scoring with four other players at 20.5 points per game and is a lofty 13th in three-point shooting, nailing them at a rate of 47.7 percent.
1. Loyola-Chicago Ramblers (28-5; 100%)
The tournament odds say 100 percent, but Loyola-Chicago is still a mid-major from the second tier Missouri Valley Conference. Yes, they have clinched their first appearance in the tournament in 33 years by winning their conference championship on the weekend, but in our eyes they are the true Davids of the upset-special teams here who may or may not face the Goliaths up top. The last time the Ramblers were in it, they lost to Patrick Ewing and the runner-up Georgetown Hoyas in the Sweet 16 in 1985. This time around, the Ramblers have the aptly named Clayton Custer as their team’s scoring leader and defensive threat. This team can defend well giving up just 62.2 points per game, which is fifth best in DI basketball, just behind Virginia and Cincinnati. Over the course of this season, the Ramblers, who will likely grab an eighth seed, beat Florida and lost just once in their last 18 games. We smell an upset or two with this club.