SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Scott Gleeson breaks down the conference tournaments.
USA TODAY Sports
Call it the calm before the storm — or madness, rather.
A week from Selection Sunday, several teams already have earned their automatic tickets to the NCAA tournament, including Big Ten tournament champion Michigan.
Now, the most enticing major conference tournaments are on tap this week, and they always serve as perfect appetizers for the main course that is the Big Dance.
It’s early, but March Madness is underway and only going to heat up. Here’s a look at some wild-yet-conceivable predictions for the coming weeks — before all the seeding is solidified.
A No. 4 seed will win the national title
Big Ten tourney champ Michigan looks like it’s just getting started. The Wolverines, winners of nine in a row, showed the strength of an NCAA tournament No. 1 seed with the way they took down projected No. 2 seeds Michigan State and Purdue. There’s no question Michigan is peaking at the best time, and now it’s shot up to a projected No. 4 seed in USA TODAY Sports’ latest bracketology. With top seeds winning the national championship in each of the last three seasons, this surely could be the year to buck that trend.
Surging Michigan is the perfect example of a red-hot team that has the pieces to go all the way. The Wolverines put it all together after figuring it out from November to January. So much pre-tournament talk goes into credentials and full body of work. What really matters is how good a team is right now. And the Wolverines are really good. This is the best defensive team that coach John Beilein has ever orchestrated and this group also has a fluid, balanced offense that bodes extremely well for the NCAAs.
And it’s not just Michigan. If you look at the No. 4 line, teams hovering around it all include dark horse title contenders. Florida (the Gators are coming on strong and just steamrolled Kentucky), West Virginia and Texas Tech (two dangerous Big 12 teams), Arizona (a preseason title contender before FBI probe distractions), and Wichita State (which just fell to Cincinnati in the AAC finale but has a tournament-ready roster that’s more battle-tested in its first year in a power league).
Usually circling a No. 4 seed on a bracket is gutsy. Not this year.
Surprise teams will win the Big 12, ACC tournaments
Regular-season champion Kansas has the No. 1 seed in the Big 12 tournament. However, based on the way the Jayhawks looked Saturday in a blowout loss to Oklahoma State, it’s clear that tournament — which features nine of 10 NCAA tourney-caliber teams — won’t be lacking upsets or suspense. Texas Tech and West Virginia are two dark horse Final Four teams that could put together a strong run in Kansas City, while TCU is a nice underdog to bet on. But there are a handful of bubble teams — Kansas State, Baylor, Texas and Oklahoma State — that easily could play spoiler.
As for the other premier conference tournament, look for Virginia, which likely already has locked up the top overall No. 1 seed in the NCAAs, to go down early. Duke is fighting for a No. 1 seed, but could also fall victim to a team that gets hot. Best bets for surprise runs are N.C. State (the Wolfpack has beaten Duke, North Carolina and Clemson), Miami (the Hurricanes have won four in a row, including a buzzer-beating win over North Carolina), or Notre Dame (the Irish just got their best player, Bonzie Colson, back healthy).
Michael Porter Jr. will give us what we’ve been missing
Before Oklahoma’s Trae Young dazzled and Duke’s Marvin Bagley III put together a monstrous freshman campaign, Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr. was the main attraction of the freshman class. Then he suffered a seemingly season-ending injury in the first game of the season, killing all the buzz. Now, the talented forward is poised to come back in the SEC tournament — giving hoops fans a glimpse of his skill set for the first time and also making the Tigers a sleeper team to do things in the SEC and NCAA tourneys.
A mid-major not named Gonzaga will go to the Sweet 16
There are some dangerous mid-majors out there this season. And forecasting some of these teams as Sweet 16 capable is probably being modest.
- Rhode Island (a projected No. 9 seed) has hit a rough patch but dominated the Atlantic 10 for much of the season, and is looking to build off last year’s near-Sweet 16 finish that ended with a narrow round of 32 loss to Oregon. E.C. Matthews and Jared Terrell are back from that squad.
- Nevada (a projected No. 8 seed) has excelled in the Mountain West and has a versatile forward in Caleb Martin (19.5 ppg).
- Loyola-Chicago (a projected No. 10 seed) has a top-five defense and a well-spaced offense loaded with sharpshooters. The Ramblers also have a great inside-out game behind freshman Cameron Krutwig.
- Middle Tennessee State (a projected No. 11 seed) already has put on the glass slipper in the last two NCAA tournaments with first-round upsets, and is poised for even bigger things. Nick King (21.2 ppg, 8.2 rpg) has emerged as an offensive weapon.
- Saint Mary’s (a projected No. 11 seed) has beaten Gonzaga and is only on the bubble because of the down West Coast Conference. Big man Jock Landale (21.3 ppg, 10.5 rpg) has put together an All-American season.
A bubble team will go on a deep run
Syracuse barely got into the field of 68 in 2016 and turned that into a Final Four run. Look for something similar to happen in 2018. Here’s a look at some bubble teams that could stage surprisingly deep tourney runs should they notch their at-large bid.
BUBBLE WATCH: Weekend’s winners and losers among fringe teams
► Arizona State (Currently projected No. 10 seed). Bobby Hurley’s Sun Devils underachieved in the Pac-12 regular season but have dynamic guards and beat Xavier and Kansas in non-conference.
► N.C. State (Currently projected No. 8 seed): The Wolfpack’s profile speaks for itself. Wins over Arizona, Duke, Clemson, North Carolina. Plus, they’ve got momentum as winners of five of six. Whichever No. 1 seed has N.C. State on its side of the bracket, that’s a tough draw.
► Oklahoma State (Currently one of the first four out): A team that finished second to last in the Big 12 also beat projected No. 1 seed Kansas twice. The Cowboys have also beaten the likes of Texas Tech and West Virginia, so there’s no shortage of giant-slaying capability. It’s just a matter of putting it together. It wouldn’t be surprising if a below-average team from the Big 12 went far in March.
► Marquette (Currently a projected No. 12 seed): The Golden Eagles have won four of their last five and have an explosive scorer in Markus Howard (20.9 ppg).
Follow Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson
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