The Redshirt Senior: Looking ahead to the NCAA tournament
As conference play in men’s college basketball keeps moving forward, the picture starts to look a bit clearer regarding which teams have a chance to make it far in the postseason. Some teams that shined early in the season have struggled against teams from their own conference (like St. John’s University), while other teams have come on strong in recent weeks (like the University of Louisville). Which teams from the power conferences will make the NCAA Tournament and have the potential to go far?
Starting off with the easternmost, alphabetically first and objectively best conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference has remained relatively consistent with preseason expectations at the top of the conference.The University of Virginia, Duke University and the University of North Carolina were all projected to finish at the top end of the conference after being ranked as a one, two and two-seed in last year’s postseason play. We won’t go into what happened to Virginia during said postseason play; everyone’s quite aware. These three teams have a combined record of 50-7; Virginia’s only loss came at Duke, Duke lost to Gonzaga and Syracuse, and three of North Carolina’s four losses have been to teams ranked in the top 15 in Adjusted Efficiency, per KenPom.com. I predict Virginia will win the conference — the Cavaliers can most likely beat Duke on a neutral court, with Duke, North Carolina, Louisville and Virginia Tech University receiving high seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Louisville jumped to national attention after demolishing North Carolina in Chapel Hill, 83-62, giving head coach Roy Williams his worst home loss since coming to North Carolina, and Virginia Tech is undefeated at home this season with only three losses on the road so far.
Moving on to possibly the best conference in college basketball this season, the Big Ten could also send a high number of teams to postseason play. If the season ended right now, both the University of Michigan (started the season 17-0) and Michigan State University (two of the team’s three losses have come by five points or fewer) could have a case to be one-seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Speaking about other quality teams, Purdue University ranks seventh in the country with an Adjusted Offensive Efficiency of 120.6 points per 100 possessions, and the University of Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ is one of three players in the Big Ten to average a double-double.
The Big 12 is in an interesting position this season. For a conference which is known for its high scoring football, its basketball has been very defensively oriented. The median adjusted defensive efficiency team rank in the conference is 22, while the median adjusted offensive efficiency team rank is 51.5. The Big 12 also boasts the best defensive team in the country in terms of efficiency, as Texas Tech currently allows 84.1 points per 100 possessions. It’s also worth watching if any team will finally dethrone Kansas University as the Big 12 Champion, a title the Jayhawks have held since 2005. I expect Kansas and Texas Tech to be joined in the postseason by Iowa State University, who just came off a ranked win against the University of Mississippi. Baylor University and the University of Texas at Austin are on the bubble right now, but Baylor, led by graduate transfer and former Yale player Makai Mason, is on a hot streak (four straight wins), and Texas has wins over North Carolina and Purdue, so I expect both these teams to be in the conversation come March.
The best team in the Southeastern Conference right now surprisingly isn’t the University of Kentucky. It’s the University of Tennessee, the current number one team in the AP Poll. Tennessee arguably has the best frontcourt in college basketball with the duo of forwards Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield; Williams and Schofield are first and fifth in the SEC in points per game with 20.2 and 16.6, respectively. The top of the SEC consists of Tennessee, Kentucky and 25th-ranked Louisiana State University, all of whom are currently undefeated or have only one loss in conference play. The remainder of the conference that will make the tournament — and there is a surprising number of them for a conference considered strongest in football — will probably only be lower seeds, including Mississippi State University, Auburn University, Ole Miss and the University of Florida.
Since the original Big East split up, the “new” Big East has sent an average of 5.6 teams to postseason play. This year, the Big East is looking weaker and could potentially only send four teams to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014. The two top teams in the conference are defending national champions Villanova University and Marquette University. Marquette’s starting point guard Markus Howard is averaging 24.6 points per game and has scored above 40 points three times this season; he’s scored 45 twice and 53 in an overtime game against Creighton University. Villanova has dropped two games in a row twice this season, so people may have forgotten about them, but the Wildcats are undefeated in conference play so far, so they should not be brushed to the side so easily.
My opinion on the Pac-12 has already been made clear. It’s quite possible that only the conference champion will make the postseason; as of right now that team looks to be the University of Washington.
As for who I think can make the championship game, it’s hard to tell right now. It’s difficult to bet against Virginia even considering what happened last year. Virginia is still playing its painfully slow, suck-the-life-out-of-you defense as it has been since Tony Bennett arrived in 2009, but the Cavaliers on offense are much better than in years past, currently ranked second in the country in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency. If the Cavaliers can make it past the first round, it should be smooth sailing.