There’s barely 10 days until the bracket for the NCAA tournament is announced, and if you’re as excited as I am, you’re probably already scouting the field. Here’s eight teams to watch — while these teams aren’t all favorites to make the actual Elite Eight, they’re all worth watching. Check them out:
Arizona: 23-6, 12-4 (first) in Pac-10
The Pac-10 is admittedly very weak this year, but don’t be surprised when the Wildcats grab a 2- or 3-seed after winning the conference tournament. The seeding committee likes to take momentum into account, and no one has momentum like the winners of a CT in a BCS conference.
Strengths: Forward Derrick Williams may be quiet, but he’s put up 19.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per game on .609 shooting from the field. This may be the most underrated player in the tourney field, but if the current media attention continues, he’s going to quickly become overrated. Or, in a rare occurrence, properly rated.
Weaknesses: Rebounding — ‘Zona isn’t even in the top 150 teams in Division I in the stat, and a failure to take care of the glass can really hurt a team in crunch time.
Brigham Young: 27-2, 13-1 (first) in Mountain West
Behind the ridiculous 27 points per game of senior guard Jimmer Fredette, BYU is looking to bring an extra degree of respectability to the Mountain West. Along with San Diego State, Brigham Young will likely to give the MWC two top-four seeds in the tournament.
Strengths: Fredette. Like Stephen Curry, who took his 10th-seeded Davidson squad into the Elite Eight by sheer force of will and accuracy of jumpshot, Jimmer has the ability to take over a game and show why he’s the most exciting player — and possibly the best pure scorer — in college basketball this season.
Weaknesses: Coffee, tea, sex, or an unwillingness to attend church services regularly. The Cougars looked set to grab a 1-seed before losing star forward Brandon Davies for the season thanks to an undisclosed violation of the Mormon school’s strict honor code. Now, BYU will be hard-pressed to make the Sweet Sixteen, let alone the Final Four — a fact made more evident by last Wednesday’s 18-point loss to New Mexico.
Connecticut: 21-8, 9-8 (tiedseventh) in Big East
Yes, that does say tied for seventh. But the Big East is really just that stacked this year — after being predicted to have a “down year,” the conference could very easily put 11 teams into the Big Dance.
Strengths: Kemba Walker took the Huskies from unranked to seventh in AP Top 25 at the start of the season, scoring nearly 30 points per game as Coach Calhoun’s squad knocked off Michigan State and Kentucky to claim the title at the Maui Invitational. While he’s cooled off a bit since then, Walker is still capable of dropping 25 to 30 points on a moment’s notice. He’ll get his shots, too — the Huskies are eighth in Division I in rebounding and average more than 40 rebounds per game.
Weaknesses: Like all teams based around a single star, UConn can struggle against balanced attacks from teams that can contain Walker. Occasionally, Walker will have an off night — like he did when he shot 3-14 against Syracuse — and when that happens, Connecticut doesn’t have a reliable backup option.
Duke: 27-3, 13-2 (tied-first) in ACC
Of course, Coach K’s squad is the team to watch – no matter where they stand in the national rankings, the Blue Devils will likely be one of the favorites to cut down the nets in Houston. The defending national champs graduated All-American Jon Scheyer, but they added Kyrie Irving and returned national player-of-the-year candidates Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler. Finishing the regular season 17-0 at home, Duke will play North Carolina Saturday with the ACC regular-season title on the line.
Strengths: Experience. Returning three starters from the national championship team isn’t going to hurt anyone’s chances to go deep in the tournament.
Weaknesses: The second round could be tricky for Duke, as the Blue Devils’ three losses this season have all come to middle-seeded tourney teams on the road. If they get caught against a 7-seed far enough from Cameron Indoor, Dick Vitale might have a rough night ahead of him.
Kansas: 28-2, 13-2 (first) in Big 12
What is there not to love about this team? There’s the coach, Bill Self, a classy guy that always seems to be earnestly agreeing with something. There’s the twins, Marcus and Markieff Morris, who manage to be distinguishable only in the sense that they alternate as the team’s high scorer. And there’s the freshman hotshot, Josh Selby, who managed to join a top-five
team halfway through the season and make it notably better.
Strengths: Well, there’s everything mentioned above. But there’s also Brady Morningstar, who fills the role of “nerdy-looking white guy with a killer stroke from three-point range and a funny name” as well as anyone since Ali Farokhmanesh defined the role against this Kansas team last year.
Weaknesses: Frankly, I’m not yet sure that Kansas will field its whole roster for the entire tournament. Selby missed a stretch of games at the start of the season due to eligibility issues, then missed three more for a foot injury; junior Tyshawn Taylor was only recently reinstated after his suspension for an unspecified rules violation.
Kansas State: 21-9, 9-6 (tiedthird) in Big 12
There’s not much to say about Kansas State, except that there keeps being not much to say about Kansas State, and they keep winning. Point guard Jacob Pullen has led the Wildcats to five straight wins, including home wins over Missouri and Kansas and a stunner on the road against Texas. At some point, people are going to have to stop writing off K-State just because their coach has a terrible haircut.
Strengths: Being the underdog seems to be working for the Wildcats, and that’s going to happen early for a team that’s likely to get a 7- or 8-seed. Also, Kansas State will have Pullen to rely on if they reach the later stages of the tournament.
Weaknesses: Beside the terrible haircut? Well, there is the fact that this team was written off by nearly everyone for the entire first half of the season — that happened for a reason. For one thing, K-State shoots only .438 from the field, which is enough to rank them 163rd in the division.
Michigan State: 17-12, 9-8 (fourth) in Big 10
Kalin Lucas, Draymond Green, Korie Lucious, Delvon Roe … these names have been floating around the Big Ten for a long time. The question is, then, why aren’t the Spartans even a top-three team in their own conference with that much talent and experience?
Strengths: Coaching. When it comes to the later rounds of the tournament, there’s no coach better than Tom Izzo. Of course, the Spartans would have to get to the later rounds of the tournament for that to really matter, but having a brilliant basketball mind like Izzo’s at the helm could give an underachieving team what it needs to get its act together.
Weaknesses: As mentioned above, this team has been underperforming this year. If you’re going to be reaching the Final Four, you just can’t be beating Northwestern by only three points — and you definitely can’t be squeaking past Oakland 77-76.
Wisconsin: 22-6, 12-4 (third) in Big 10
If you like slow, annoying basketball played by a bunch of good ol’ country boys, then this is the team for you. And if you don’t
, then you should take another look. Bo Ryan’s system may not be pretty, but there’s a certain beauty in the ridiculous degree to which it’s effective when led by Jon Leuer and company.
Strengths: The tractor pull. Despite using a cast of characters that looks to have been pulled directly out of a cornfield — Mike Bruesewitz, anyone? — the Badgers are playing as efficient
basketball as anyone. While Ryan’s squad ranks 296th in rebounds and only 166th in points scored, these low marks are more a result of Wisconsin’s distinctly slow pace than of any fault on the Badgers’ part.
Weaknesses: Not having any strengths. In typical Wisconsin fashion, the Badgers don’t do anything poorly, but they don’t do anything particularly well, either. If a team with a distinctive style of play can somehow force their will on the Badgers, they might run into some trouble.