When most fans think “March Madness,” the NCAA tournament comes to mind. For hoops junkies, however, the real action starts in earnest this week.
The Oklahoma Sooners are one of probably about two dozen teams hanging around near the so-called bubble to some degree. Between now and Sunday, all will get a chance to work their way towards or away from the field of 65 in the final games of the regular season.
Meanwhile, some of the mid-major conference tournaments kick off, with the first games in the Atlantic Sun, Horizon and Patriot League tipping off on Tuesday. The first bid to the big dance will go out on Saturday to the winner of the Ohio Valley.
Here are a couple stories to watch this week, starting with the Sooners’ faint hopes of hearing their names called on March 13 when the participants in the NCAA tournament are announced.
Sooners stop the swoon?
The good news for OU is that Porter Moser’s team didn’t play its way out contention over the weekend. The Sooners allowed a double-digit lead to melt away in the second half before storming through overtime for a 66-62 victory over the Oklahoma State Cowboys. The W kept the Sooners inside the top 50 of the NCAA’s NET rankings and added a fifth Quadrant 2 win to OU’s resume, which is pretty beefy for a 15-14 team.
Unfortunately, OU probably sits below the cut line for the NCAA tournament as of now. Through Sunday’s games, only two of the 98 projections tracked by the 2022 Bracket Matrix included the Sooners in the final 65. As such, OU definitely does not want to drop both of its matchups this week: a home game versus West Virginia on Tuesday and a trip on Saturday to Kansas State, another Big 12 team on the bubble. In fact, losing just one would likely leave the Sooners needing two wins in the Big 12 tournament to have a shot at an invite.
Frankly, just having this team in contention for a bid reflects well on the Moser regime. The Sooners defend well, checking in at 38th overall in kenpom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, and score well enough inside the three-point arc to give good opponents trouble when they can slow down games. The squad is still painfully short of consistent outside shooters and players who can finish consistently off the dribble. As such, it seems unlikely that the Sooners will do enough in the next two weeks to make the dance.
The rest of the Big 12
Up in the top half of the Big 12, the standings are crowded in no small part due to the fact that Kansas has to play three games this week – two dates with TCU on Tuesday and Thursday before hosting Texas on Saturday. Three wins by the Jayhawks would clinch a regular-season crown and the top seed in the upcoming conference tournament.
Interestingly, the Big 12 could secure two No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. Bracket Matrix lists KU as a clear pick for the one line as of now. Baylor is also knocking on the door of a one seed following the Bears’ win over the Jayhawks over the weekend. Beating Texas and Iowa State this week can only strengthen Baylor’s case.
Don’t rule out the possibility of Texas Tech climbing up to a two seed in March Madness, either. The Red Raiders have joined KU and Baylor in the top 10 of kenpom.com’s rankings, and they’re probably competing for a spot on the two line with a Purdue team that has looked wobbly on occasion this year.
Check out the Mountain West
If you’re looking for fun late-night games this week, give the Mountain West a shot. Four MWC teams will probably make the NCAA tournament – Boise State, Colorado State, San Diego State and Wyoming – and all could do some damage.
Notably, the Broncos and Aztecs are two of the best defensive teams in the country and play at a methodical pace. Teams like Gonzaga and Arizona don’t want to see them in the round of 32.
The Rams and Cowboys, on the other hand, each have one of the most underrated players in the country. Averaging 19.4 points per game this season, CSU power forward David Roddy (6-6, 255 pounds) uses his burly frame to abuse defenders in the post. Wyoming center Graham Ike scores 20.7 PPG and snags 9.8 rebounds per game, giving the Cowboys an effective pairing to go with wing Hunter Maldonado.
Expect at least one of these four teams to be playing in the Sweet 16.
The Providence Friars are closing out what has to be one of the strangest good seasons for a college basketball team in recent memory.
On paper, we’re talking about a solid team that ranks 39th overall in kenpom.com. That would put them in the same ballpark as Indiana or Mississippi State or Wake Forest.
By record, however, coach Ed Cooley has a monster on his hands. PC currently sports a 24-3 record and sewed up the Big East’s regular-season crown over the weekend by smashing 72-51. That rendered the Friars’ game against Villanova on Tuesday night meaningless in the conference standings.
You could also make the case that PC is benefiting from circumstance. Three of the team’s Big East contests got wiped out by COVID-19, including road games versus Creighton and Seton Hall and a home date with UConn.
The Friars have a 10-1 record in games decided by five points or fewer, too. If you think winning is a skill, PC is pretty skillful. If you think that is a statistical anomaly, this squad, which will probably find itself seeded on one of the top four lines, is begging for an early exit.
Final Four (Plus Two)
It seems silly to pick the final four teams standing a month from now without knowing which teams will be slotted where. When you consider how strong the field appears to be this year, it gets even harder without seeing the bracket.
But let’s take a stab at a pool of six teams from which the Final Four will come, anyway. And, no, not many surprises in this group.
Even after the loss on Saturday at Saint Mary’s, the Zags still have the caliber of team that can win the whole shebang. This team doesn’t feel as well-rounded as the 2021 group, though, because the backcourt lacks anyone on par with Jalen Suggs. The guards still might be good enough to get it done when matched with a one-two punch line Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren on the front line.
The defeat at Colorado this weekend was a stinker, but don’t that dampen your enthusiasm for the Wildcats. First-year coach Tommy Lloyd has a filthy collection of international prospects who play a wide-open game with an edge. Fun team to watch.
Coach John Calipari’s last two teams didn’t live up to standards in Lexington, but this squad represents a return to normalcy. West Virginia transfer Oscar Tshiebwe is arguably the most valuable player in the country, and he has turned UK into the best offensive rebounding team in the country. All those extra chances on the offensive end start to add up in tournament play. The Wildcats really need guards Shaver Wheeler and TyTy Washington playing at 100% if they want to make a deep run.
The Red Raiders didn’t miss a beat following the departure of coach Chris Beard. His lieutenant Mark Adams kept Tech playing relentless defense this season. The emergence of forward Bryson Williams gives the Red Raiders the closest thing they will have to a go-to scoring option, which remains concerning. Still, this team plays tournament-style basketball.
This looks like the shakiest pick of these six, as the Wildcats have been anything but dominant this season. The veteran backcourt of Collin Gillespie and Justin Moore still gives Nova a big edge at this time of year. Gillespie has been particularly icy in key spots for the Wildcats. It also counts for a lot in tournament play when a team shoots free throws so well.
Clearly, Mike Krzyzewski’s final team at Duke isn’t one of his vintage units. It nevertheless features enough nice pieces, such as star forward Paolo Banchero, to make the Blue Devils dangerous down the stretch. One key thing to watch: How do some of the, ahem, “intangible” factors that tend to affect the outcomes of NCAA tournament games come into play in Coach K’s last dance?