March is finally here, and folks are beginning to narrow down the teams they think have a chance to win the NCAA tournament. For better or worse, one popular indicator of future success is identifying the hottest teams in the country.
For the momentum enthusiasts out there, here are seven teams that are peaking at the perfect time.
Michigan State Spartans
The word ‘duh’ comes to mind. Michigan State seems to do this every year, and I highlighted the main reasons for the Spartans’ turnaround a few weeks ago.Here are the main points: Izzo used the beginning of the season to toy around with his rotation until he found the perfect mix, and he seems to have found it. The Matt Costello, Deyonta Davis, Eron Harris, Bryn Forbes and Denzel Valentine lineup might be the most complete in college basketball; it has no glaring weaknesses to exploit. And, of course, that Valentine guy is really, really good.
Since suffering through a three-game losing streak in mid-January, the Spartans have won eight of nine games with their only loss coming at Purdue in overtime. And it’s not just the fact that Michigan State is winning; the fashion in which it’s doing so is remarkable.
The Spartans have an absurd plus-18.9 point differential in their last nine games. Against Big Ten competition, that’s out of this world.
California Golden Bears
No coach is going to be excited to face Cal in March. The Golden Bears have the most talented freshman duo in the country in Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, and despite inconsistent starts, these two have lived up to the hype and then some in the past month.
Cuonzo Martin’s squad has reeled off seven Pac-12 wins in a row, blowing out the likes of Oregon, UCLA and USC during that span. Cal hasn’t lost since Ty Wallace returned from injury, and the Bears have been an offensive juggernaut in their past seven games, scoring at least 75 points in every contest.
Brown is a freakish athlete and defender, and now that he’s making outside shots, Cal is virtually impossible to guard. In his past six games, Brown has drained 10 triples. He had made a total of 18 up to that point, and you might not find a first five with more raw talent than Brown, Rabb, Wallace, Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird.
Talent plus momentum will be a tough combination to argue against later this month.
Staying out west, Jakob Poeltl and the Utes have found their stride as of late, too. Poeltl has a good shot at winning Pac-12 Player of the Year honors, and Utah surrounds him with at least three shooters at all times. That’s a tough formula to stop. The Utes have won 11 of their last 13 games including a big home win against Arizona on Saturday.
A big reason for Utah’s improvement has been Jordan Loveridge’s newfound consistency. The senior forward has reached double figures in each of his last seven games; prior to that, he had only reached that plateau in three of his last 15 games.
Poeltl is a stud. We know this, and have for a while.
But the Utes will go as his supporting cast does, and that group is picking up steam as the season rolls on.
With two of the better big men in the nation (Damian Jones and Luke Kornet); one of the most explosive point guards in college basketball (Wade Baldwin IV) and shooters flanking them (Riley LaChance, Matthew Fisher-Davis, Nolan Cressler), it made no sense why the Commodores were struggling so mightily early on in SEC play. They seem to have rectified those issues, winning six of their last seven games.
One big reason for Vandy’s improved play is Jeff Roberson’s increased playing time (14.5 ppg in his last five games). In theory, Jones and Kornet would form a monster front line – Jones is a two-way stud, and Kornet is a 7-1 rim-protecting force that shot 40 percent from 3-point land last season.
But as much as Kornet’s defense has improved (he’s swatting 2.8 shots per game compared to 1.1 last season), his outside shooting has regressed, as he’s below 30 percent from deep this season. In other words, he needs to operate in the paint to be effective, which overlaps with Jones’ territory.
That’s where Roberson comes in handy. The sophomore is making 48 percent of his 3’s while rebounding and defending at a high rate, and the offense has morphed from a post-up outfit into a Baldwin IV/Jones spread pick-and-roll machine. Baldwin IV thrives in that environment. It took longer than Commodore fans expected, but their team is playing very well as of late. We’ll see if they can keep this up.
Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks
The Lumberjacks are a perfect 16-0 in conference play this season and lost just once in the Southland Conference last year, which is a huge credit to Brad Underwood and his staff. The question for Stephen F. Austin is how it will compete against better competition. The Lumberjacks lost to Arizona State in non-conference play and got blown out by Baylor on the opening night of the season – but that was more than three months ago.
Time will tell if these guys are contenders or pretenders, but they gave Utah a tough game in the NCAA tournament last season. Perhaps their conference success will spark a run in 2016.
Here’s to you, Greg Gard. As it seems like 80 percent of college basketball is adopting the four-out, one-in offense, the Badgers casually start three power forwards and often play four bigs at once. They’ve won 10 of 11 games. Wisconsin has beaten the likes of Michigan State, Indiana, Maryland, Iowa and Michigan during that stretch.
The Badgers are stout defensively, ranking 18th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. After a sluggish start, Nigel Hayes is embracing the primary role in the swing offense, and Vitto Brown and Ethan Happ are rapidly improving each game.
Would you expect any less from a Wisconsin team?
The Jayhawks have won 10 in a row and captured their 12th consecutive Big 12 title with relative ease after it looked like they could be in danger of doing so.
Oh, and in a year where it’s harder than ever to win on the road, Bill Self’s team routed No. 23 Texas by 30 in Austin on Monday night. The box score explains their recent dominance better than I possibly could.