If you’ve listened to more than 60 seconds of college basketball coverage since November, you’ve probably heard the narrative of this season: It’s wide, wide open, maybe more wide open than any year before.
And if that storyline holds, we’re in line for a wild March.
Here’s the thing with this college basketball season: There aren’t any great teams. This isn’t last year, when three of the top four teams in the preseason AP Poll – Kentucky, Wisconsin and Duke — ended up making the Final Four. This is a season of with a ton of good teams, but each of them is flawed – some more than others.
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Here are seven teams whose NCAA tournament fortunes could swing wildly – teams with as good of a shot at losing in the first round as making the Final Four.
Maryland. I swear I said this well before Maryland dropped a road game last week to Minnesota, a team that hadn’t won a game in two months: The amount of talent on this Maryland team (at least among the top seven guys in Mark Turgeon’s rotation) stacks up to anyone in the country. But they have that trait that can drive a fan base absolutely bonkers: They play up to the competition as well as down to the competition. Of all the teams in college hoops, the Terps may be the one I have the toughest time explaining. My best attempt is this: Melo Trimble turns the ball over way too much. If that stops – and if these talented pieces learn to fit together better – these guys have the roster to make it to Houston.
Iowa State. I said this exact same thing about Iowa State a year ago, and what do you know: The Cyclones lost in the first round of the 2015 NCAA tournament to UAB. The dirty little secret about this Iowa State team is that, with or without Fred Hoiberg, this team is virtually identical to a year ago. Great scoring bunch, can go on runs like few other teams in college basketball, lackluster on the boards and too often lacking on defense. More than anything, I worry about Iowa State’s depth. But when this starting five is clicking – a ship that’s captained by Monte Morris, the most in-control point guard in college hoops, and a guy head coach Steve Prohm has taken to a new level – the Cyclones can beat anyone.
Kentucky. Gotta be honest: I think the chance of Kentucky making the Final Four is far, far greater than its chance at losing right out of the gate. That said, the Wildcats have lost to Tennessee and Auburn, two teams with zero chance at making the tourney, so they can lose to anyone. One of Kentucky’s Achilles’ heels used to be three-point shooting – but the way Jamal Murray and Derek Willis have been shooting lately I might even start to call that a strength. Really, this team’s success will come down to post play, specifically rebounding. With Skal Labissiere continuing to take time to adapt to the college game, and with injuries to Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee, Kentucky’s post depth is its greatest weakness. I’m not sure whether relying on freshman Isaac Humphries in the tourney is much of a strategy. Run into a team with an elite big man in the tourney – Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis? Providence’s Ben Bentil? Evansville’s Egidijus Mockevicius, if they can win the Valley tourney? – and that could spell trouble.
LSU. With each passing disappointment – losing to Alabama at home, losing at Tennessee – it’s looking more and more like LSU will have to win the SEC tournament to make the Big Dance. So the question with LSU is not whether there’s a better chance of making the Final Four or getting bounced in the first round – it’s whether there’s a better chance of making the tourney or not. That said, you think there’s any team that wants to run into the Ben Simmons show in the tourney – not matter what the round? These guys have the talent of a high seed – not just Simmons but Tim Quarterman, Antonio Blakeney and Craig Victor. I would just love to see the people who’ll have to eat crow if LSU wins the SEC tournament, is seeded 12th and makes an improbable run to the Final Four. Not gonna happen, but a man can still dream.
California. Take what I just wrote about LSU, plug in a few different names, and you’ll have the gist of how I feel about Cal. Except Cal will almost certainly be in the NCAA tournament, unlike LSU. This team took a while to figure things out, but the talent here? Wow. Freshmen Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb ought to be lottery picks, and Tyrone Wallace has a shot at being a first-rounder. The odd thing about this team? It is undefeated at Haas Pavilion – but can hardly win on the road or at neutral sites. That may be changing, as the Golden Bears picked up road wins No. 2 and 3 last week at Washington and Washington State.
Oklahoma. The Sooners may not belong in this list, if only because this team is far more consistent than most here. That said, you’ve seen what happens when Oklahoma shoots 6 of 24 on threes. (The Sooners lose to Kansas State.) And you’ve seen what happens when Oklahoma shoots 6 of 23 on threes. (The Sooners lose to Texas Tech.) The Sooners are the Golden State Warriors of college hoops. Up until their slump of the past few weeks, they were shooting three balls at a historic rate (and even taking that slump into account, the Sooners are still the top three-point-shooting team in college basketball). But this is the blessing and the curse of the NCAA tournament: 40 subpar minutes can end a season way too early. And with Oklahoma’s overreliance on making threes, one bad game could mean a way-too-early exit for the most exciting team in college hoops. Or a hot streak from long range could mean Oklahoma wins it all.
Iowa. I can boil this down to two sentences. Iowa just lost at Penn State. But Iowa has among the most impressive resumes in the country, with big-time wins over Michigan State (twice) and Purdue (twice). Here’s the rub: This team’s success rises or falls on the back of its bench. Iowa has the most experienced and reliable starting five in the nation (four seniors and a junior), but the bench is all underclassmen. When Iowa is clicking, bench players like Dom Uhl and Nicholas Baer are making big contributions. When Iowa struggles, the bench struggles: See the total of 10 bench points in the Penn State loss or the zero bench points in the Indiana loss.