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Mike Lopresti | NCAA.com | March 11, 2020

14 college basketball teams to keep an eye on from now until Selection Sunday

The 2020 NCAA tournament bracket, predicted by Andy Katz

March is here, and we’re close enough to Selection Sunday to hear the tournament bubble popping. But the regular season still must sort out a few things in its final week, which makes these teams particularly interesting.

Florida State

History beckons. The Seminoles joined the ACC 28 years ago and have never claimed any piece of a regular-season title. Now a half-game behind first place Louisville, they can make it happen by winning at Notre Dame on Wednesday and at home to Boston College on Saturday.

Texas

The Save Shaka Tour has been in full swing with five wins in a row, four by double figures, one by last-second bank shot. This is no longer the team that scored 44 and 45 points in two games against Baylor and lost seven of nine. Now 19-11 and with a NET ranking of 59, the Longhorns have moved into full-bubblehood, amid all the speculation about Shaka Smart’s job. Nothing stops them these days, not even getting outscored 21-2 from the free throw line Tuesday night at Oklahoma, when Matt Coleman III banked in a game-winner with 0.4 seconds left. Should Texas barge into the NCAA tournament, it would throw a spotlight on one of the truly feel-good stories of the season — leukemia survivor Andrew Jones finishing treatment in September, then averaging 12 points a game, including 22 each against West Virginia and Texas Tech.

Virginia

They’re baaaaack. The offensive malfeasance that sent the defending national champions sliding out of the rankings have been solved enough to allow the Cavaliers to put on a clinic in surviving close games. They’ve won nine of 10, with six of the victories by one possession. “Guys are making big plays down the stretch and that’s what it comes down to,” said Tony Bennett, and boy, does he understand how handy that  can be in March. Lest we forget, Virginia’s last four tournament wins in 2019 included a one-pointer, a four-pointer, and two overtime games.

Just to make sure everyone still remembers defense is the straw that stirs the Cavaliers, they applied a 52-50 throttling to Duke the other night, when Jay Huff blocked 10 of the Blue Devils’ 59 shots, and Duke had its lowest score against Virginia in 39 years. Should the Cavaliers end the regular season with two more wins — which would include beating Louisville Saturday with the ACC title possibly at stake — a long run will look very doable.

Michigan State

You could set your watch to the Spartans. Come March, they start ticking.

The preseason No. 1 team — remember? — has traveled an arduous road, from the early-season death of star Cassius Winston’s brother, to injuries, to the winter doldrums of losing six of 10 in the Big Ten, including an ugly 29-point thrashing at Purdue. Tom Izzo has been desperately seeking help for Winston and Xavier Tillman, so these numbers from the current four-game winning streak are especially heartening — Aaron Henry with 13 points, nine rebounds and five assists at against Nebraska, Rocket Watts with 21 points against Iowa, Malik Hall with 16 in the shredding of Maryland on the Terrapins’ home court, and then Watts with 18 Tuesday, as the Spartans blew past Penn State after trailing by 15 at halftime. Winston and Tillman keep leading, only now they have a gang in green following. That made three ranked teams beaten in eight days. If Michigan State adds another Sunday against surging Ohio State, the Spartans will look like a semi on a freeway downgrade.

Michigan State beats Penn State, 79-71

Kentucky

How is it even possible that Kentucky be a quiet 24-6? But between a rash of early defeats — especially that early cataclysm at home against Evansville — and all the intrigue elsewhere, the Wildcats have blossomed to relatively little national attention. Notice, please, the SEC season title that is No. 49 (!) for Kentucky. And how swimmingly things had gone since John Calipari started playing three point guards. Well, all that was perfectly true until Tuesday night, when the Wildcats blew a 17-point lead and lost at home to Tennessee. Still, they’ve come a long way since a certain night in November. 

“You know what’s amazing?” Calipari asked the media over the weekend. “When anybody talks about our season, you know what they say? Evansville, Evansville, Evansville. I’m like, are you talking about November 12th . . . when we played with two guys with the flu? That game? That’s the one you’re talking about? I mean, we did we play anybody else?”

Well, yes. They played Tennessee Tuesday. Ooops. That second half fade away underlined a cautionary note from the just-snapped eight-game winning streak. Nearly everyone they’ve played was close late. Ten of Kentucky’s 14 SEC victories have been by single digits, while the Louisville and Texas Tech wins needed overtime. A bad sign? That’s what March is for.

RANKINGS: Kentucky, Gonzaga climb in Power 36

UCLA

If the Bruins win at USC Saturday, they’ll own at least a share of the Pac-12 season title. They’re also way down at No, 76 in the latest NET rankings, right behind Davidson and Akron. Whether that says more about the Bruins, the conference or the NET is up to individual taste. But the fact the same UCLA team that lost at home to Hofstra and Cal State Fullerton and was 10-10 on Jan. 26 is even in this conversation, is slightly amazing. Since that day, the Bruins are 9-1. They have one player — Chris Smith at 13.1 — averaging in double figures. Or five fewer than Gonzaga.

UCLA defeats Arizona State. 75-72

Dayton

Can the Flyers run the table in the Atlantic 10? Can they finish the regular season unbeaten in regulation? Can Obi Toppin reach 100 dunks for the season? All will soon be revealed. They were picked to finish third in the league, but now they’re two wins away from going 18-0. Toppin is at 96 dunks. Their only two losses were months ago, both in overtime. They seem to be warming to the occasion, shooting 72.3 percent against Davidson the other night, including putting up 28 2-point attempts — and missing one  But Wednesday night might be their most difficult conference game of the season — at second-place Rhode Island.

By the way, Dayton is practicing gender equity in owning the Atlantic 10. The women are 15-1, So the Flyers are 31-1 against the league, male or female.

North Carolina

NASA reports clear signs of life on the barren planet of Chapel Hill. North Carolina’s formerly tepid offense just scored 85 points against North Carolina State, 92 against Syracuse and 93 against Wake Forest. The struggling Tar Heels suddenly woke up one day and had turned into Gonzaga. Garrison Brooks is on fire, Cole Anthony is healthy, and they combined to average 51 points a game in those three wins. So maybe North Carolina doesn’t finish last in the ACC for the first time in history, as it looked only a week ago. Maybe the Tar Heels can cause some real trouble here at the end, especially in the conference tournament. Let’s see what happens Saturday at Duke.

Duke

Speak of the Blue Devils. They’ve dropped three of four, none of them against ranked teams. The defense melted against Wake Forest and the offense stalled at Virginia, which is how Duke could score 101 points in one game, allow only 52 in another — and lose both. It’s conceivable the former No. 1 Blue Devils could be seeded fourth in the ACC tournament. Mike Krzyzewski doesn’t seem worried. “I do think the experience of playing a game like this helps us,” he said at Virginia. And Duke has two home games left — North Carolina State and North Carolina — to regain some momentum. Or not.

REWIND: Duke among four top-10 teams to fall Saturday

Providence

When February started, the Friars were on nobody’s mind. They were 12-11, and included on the resume was a seven-day monsoon of bad news in December when they lost to Penn, Long Beach State and Charleston. But while they went into February like a lamb, they came out like a lion. The win at Villanova on Saturday made them 5-0 in the month against top-25 opponents. They’re suddenly 17-12, with a No. 44 NET ranking. Win their final home games against Xavier and DePaul this week, and they could really force their way into the conversation in the committee room on selection weekend. “We’re playing for our lives,” coach Ed Cooley said.

Kansas

The Jayhawks’ remarkable 14-year run as Big 12 season champions ended last year when they finished alllll the way down in third place. The universe is back in order, and they take a one-game lead into the final week. They can clinch a share against TCU Wednesday and win it outright with another Saturday at Texas Tech. James Naismith, buried not far from Allen Fieldhouse, could rest again. But that’s not the big question this week in Lawrence. How’s Udoka Azubuike’s ankle?

Clemson

The season has been special in so many mysterious ways. The Tigers have wins over Duke, Florida State and Louisville, meaning they are 3-0 at home against ACC top-10 opponents (and, alas 3-3 against the rest of the league). They ended the 0-59 agony at North Carolina. They beat North Carolina State, North Carolina and Duke in consecutive games, something they had not accomplished in 53 years. Brad Brownell became the school’s all-time winningest coach. As junior Aamir Simms said after the Duke upset, “2020 is starting to feel like our year.”

But all that, and they’re still only 15-13. Is it too late to parlay such booty into an NCAA Tournament bid? Maybe not. The No. 73 NET ranking isn’t great, but if Clemson could finish strong against Virginia Tech Wednesday and Georgia Tech Friday and then pick off a team or two in the league tournament, it might not be mission impossible.

New Mexico State

Two teams share the nation’s longest winning streak at 18 games. Dayton is one of them, and ranked No. 4 by the Associated Press this week. New Mexico State is the other, and got two votes, same as Liberty. Oh, well. The Aggies are too busy steamrolling the WAC to be troubled by polls. If they win at home Thursday against California Baptist, it’ll be 34 consecutive wins against league teams. We might as well call this school New Mexico Streak. The Aggies have won at least 10 games in a row in four consecutive seasons.

Purdue

Neil Armstrong’s alma mater is big on engineering. Maybe some of them can explain the Boilermakers, because basketball logic can’t. This is the team that has smashed No. 5 Virginia and No. 8 Michigan State by 29 points, and No. 17 Iowa by 36. And then led the Hawkeyes again by 21 in Iowa City Tuesday night, before breezing in to win by nine. That has a very sound No. 35 spot in the NET rankings. That has run off seven consecutive wins against Indiana, its longest streak over the ancient rivals to the south in 48 years. But it is also the team that has had to fight to stay above .500 at 16-14.

This pretty much describes the Boilermakers’ season: One night, they’re scoring 69 points against Virginia, the stingiest defense in the land. Another, they’re putting up 104 on Iowa. But then another they’re scoring 37 at Illinois. The whole game.

“The one thing about being inconsistent is that you had to play well to get that tag. If you don’t do that (sometimes) you’re just a bad team,” coach Matt Painter said after beating Indiana. “All those experiences, you hope to get that level of consistency and we just haven’t. Winning a game, you haven’t arrived. That answer really lies with how we play at Iowa and we play against Rutgers.”

Iowa went fine. Now comes Rutgers, who slapped around Maryland Tuesday night. Win that one, make some noise in the Big Ten tournament, and then we’ll talk. If not, the Boilermakers will be contenders for other things — highest NET ranking not to get into the NCAA bracket. And enigma of the year.

In the first week of March, it’s time for questions such as that.

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