March Madness: Six teams that are peaking as NCAA tournament nears
We’re now less than two weeks away from Selection Sunday.
IT'S MARCH! pic.twitter.com/hK1Rm6ryWm— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 1, 2017
When you're filling out your brackets (you can set up your groups now), identifying teams with momentum will be key. A quality win in early November may seem the same as a quality win in late February, but you’d be wise to put more stock in the latter. You want teams that are playing their best ball now.
Here are six squads that are peaking at the perfect time:
As usual, Wichita State is running through the MVC. The Shockers haven’t lost since Jan. 14, when they dropped a game at Illinois State – and Wichita buried ISU by 41 points the next time the two squared off.
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The Golden Gophers started off 15-2, the darlings of a watered-down Big Ten. Then they lost five in a row, including ugly losses at Penn State and Ohio State. But Minnesota has turned things around in a big way. The Gophers are riding a seven-game win streak and are one of the most pleasant surprises in the nation.
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In 2015-16, Minnesota finished 8-23. The Gophers are 22-7 now, and that winning percentage could soar. Minnesota ranks third in the country in block rate, and Reggie Lynch and Jordan Murphy combine to swat 4.4 shots per game. The Gophers under Richard Pitino are even better in defending the 3-point line. Foes make just a tick above 30 percent of their 3s, a top 10 mark. Minnesota struggles to make perimeter shots, but it has hard-nosed guards that make plays. What a comeback.
After a Feb. 4 loss to Ohio State, Michigan was reeling. The Wolverines were 14-9 with an uninspiring 4-6 mark in Big Ten play. Since then, Michigan has won five of six games. The Wolverines have beaten some quality foes during that stretch, too, including Purdue, Wisconsin and Michigan State. Two of those three wins were by 10 or more points.
John Beilein’s pace-and-space song-and-dance offense is working wonders once again. The Wolverines rank eighth in adjusted offensive efficiency and boast four scorers who average at least 10 points a game. Sophomore center Moritz Wagner is the secret sauce. The stretch-five is hitting 42.2 percent of his 3s, and during this six-game stretch, he’s averaging 16.3 points on 44.4 percent shooting from deep.
The Wolverines can score, but they needed to improve defensively in order to become threats in March. Well, they've done it. Michigan has held opponents under 65 points in four of its last six outings. If that continues, nobody will want to face the Wolverines.
People can scoff at the AAC, but what SMU has done since December is impressive any way you slice it. The Mustangs are 21-1 during that span, their lone loss by two points at Cincinnati. During the run, SMU has beaten four top 50 KenPom teams with ease. The Mustangs are sound on both ends of the floor.
SMU plays at a snail’s pace, but the Mustangs are efficient. They're up to 19th in adjusted offensive rating after struggling to score early in the season. They rank fourth in offensive rebounding percentage, retrieving almost 40 percent of their misses. Semi Ojeleye, Sterling Brown and Ben Moore are each averaging more than six boards apiece. This team is physical, skilled and well-coached. SMU is going to be a tough out.
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The Jayhawks’ experience has helped them in close games. Frank Mason is a Naismith candidate (if not the frontrunner), Devonte’ Graham is an outstanding two-way guard, there aren’t five more talented players in America than Josh Jackson and Bill Self is on the sideline. Kansas has cruised to yet another Big 12 title, clinching a share with three games left. Blend all that together and you have the No. 1 team in the nation, heading into March on a seven-game winning streak.
The Cyclones have all the necessary ingredients to make a deep run in March. They made the Sweet 16 last year. They have a stud point guard in Monte Morris. Matt Thomas, who made seven 3s Tuesday night, is a knockdown shooter. Deonte Burton looks like Julius Randle lite. Plus, they’re playing their best ball in February, winning six in a row.
Morris can shoot, score and pass, but what makes him special is his intelligence. Iowa State turns the ball over on a miniscule 13.9 percent of its possessions, second in the nation. That caution with the ball also gives the Cyclones a puncher’s chance at upsetting Press Virginia in Morgantown on Friday night. Having Morris also gives ISU a huge edge in close, late games. Iowa State has won four games by single-digits in this run, including a three-point win over Kansas on the road in overtime on Feb. 4.