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Mike Lopresti | NCAA.com | February 25, 2021

The intriguing race to Selection Sunday begins now with the conference tournaments

2021 NCAA tournament: March Madness bracket predicted by Andy Katz

Here comes March. We know this because conference tournament play begins Thursday night — rolling out the first balls: the Horizon League — which means teams will now start exiting this stop-and-go-and-stop-and-go season. The gun lap is officially at hand, with Selection Sunday but a fortnight away.

But until then, here are 19 reasons, with names of all sizes, to pay attention to.

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Gonzaga . . .

Waiting for the Zags to finish a perfect regular season is like waiting for dawn to break. We’re all pretty sure it’s coming. They need only finish up a little West Coast Conference regular season business and then sweep through the league tournament. Now would be a good time to mention Gonzaga is winning its WCC games by an average of 25.4 points. The Zags have not trailed in nearly 172 minutes of game time, and in 10 home victories have been behind for precisely 50 seconds. We could go on, but you get the picture.

Baylor . . .

Could there be two unbeaten teams going into the NCAA tournament for the first time in 45 years? Baylor is going to have to put on a truly impressive final dash. Starting Saturday, the Bears get Kansas, West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech in nine days. Then they’ll pretty much have to do it all over again in the Big 12 tournament.

Georgia Tech . . .

Journey back with us to late November. The Yellow Jackets opened the season by losing in four overtimes to Georgia State. Two days later, they were upset by Mercer. For a while there, it looked as if they were going to finish last in the state of Georgia, let alone the ACC. Then they beat Kentucky and North Carolina and Florida State and Clemson and Virginia Tech and now they’re 12-8 and pushing for attention. They could be set up for a truly compelling bubble game next Tuesday against the team from Durham with the coach who just turned 74. . .

Duke . . .

It’s come to this for Mike Krzyzewski and the gang. If the rejuvenated Blue Devils can beat Louisville at home and then win at Georgia Tech and North Carolina, they’ll be 14-8 and maybe everyone can stop talking about 1995 and their last dance-less season. A loss in any is problematic. Think the Tar Heels would enjoy booting Duke off the bubble? Think kids like Christmas?

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Kentucky . . .

The beleaguered 8-13 Wildcats still are on course for their second losing season since 1927, but they have won three in a row and if that keeps up against Florida and Mississippi, just try to keep your eyes off them in the SEC tournament. Just try.

Texas Tech . . .

Between a recent losing streak and a flurry of postponements, the Red Raiders have won only three games in 43 days. They might want to rediscover some mojo, starting Saturday against Texas. Lest we forget as time goes by, Texas Tech lost the last NCAA Tournament game played; the 2019 national championship overtimer with Virginia.

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Michigan State . . .

The 12-9 Spartans are about out of runway, and the final part of their schedule is brutal. But they looked like the gritty, grinding, grunting Michigan State of old in taking down Illinois. If they could manage to beat Ohio State Thursday night, then Maryland, then Indiana, the two-game set with Michigan at the end would be absolutely fascinating.

Cleveland State . . .

Picked to finish seventh in the Horizon League, the Vikings ignored all that to go 16-4 in conference play and tie pre-season favorite Wright State for the title. Their two meetings in January are a little fuzzy, as far as giving an idea of what might happen if they play in the Horizon tournament. Cleveland State won their first game by two points. The next night the Vikings lost by 36.

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Drake . . .

All right, who has the Bulldog voodoo doll with the pins stuck in it? Drake was humming along at 18-0, then came a loss, followed by foul fate. Leading scorer Shanquan Hemphill broke his foot and will be gone for weeks. Point guard Roman Penn broke his foot and is lost for the season. The Bulldogs are still 23-2 but will have their hands full with Loyola Chicago in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. If that doesn’t work out, they’ll need to rely on the kindness of the NCAA selection committee.

Belmont . . .

The Bruins are 24-1 and missed the chance for some selection committee-friendly non-conference wins because all the ones they scheduled got wiped out by the pandemic. An at-large bid is no sure thing, so they need to take that shiny record for a spin in the perilous Ohio Valley Conference tournament and not skid into any guardrails.

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Oregon . . .

This ought to give a full picture of the Ducks’ potential: Five Pac-12 games in nine days, three on the road.

Colgate . . .

The Raiders must be good, because the NET rankings keep telling us they are. They’re No. 11 in the latest, higher than every team in the ACC except Florida State. The problem is, they never get to play. They’re 11-1 with two more games slated this weekend with Holy Cross. Of course, Holy Cross. If those two games are completed, that will be their fifth and sixth meetings this season. Six of Colgate’s 13 regular season games will have been against one team. Sooner or later, you would think, they'll have to play 13-2 Navy in the Patriot League.

Big South tournament . . .

It’d be a shame if Winthrop puts together a 20-1 season and then doesn’t even make the NCAA field because of a stumble in the Big South tournament. That would seem unlikely, since they won the league’s season title by five games. But UNC Asheville was a real pest, losing to Winthrop by four and two points. Who knows what the 10-9 Bulldogs might do, since they’re the kings of pause? They haven’t played since Jan. 29, and if they do make it to their Big South quarterfinal against Longwood March 1, it will be their first game in 31 days.

Bellarmine . . .

First year in Division I, picked to finish last in the ASUN, but look who’s won 10 league games in a row and shares the conference lead with Liberty. And look what two teams are playing Saturday on Bellarmine’s home court — you know it better as Freedom Hall, Louisville’s old digs — to decide the ASUN season title. Just because the Knights are not eligible yet for the NCAA Tournament doesn’t mean they can’t have one shining moment.

Wichita State . . .

The Shockers have played their way into NCAA Tournament discussion by winning six in a row to go 13-4, including over No. 6 Houston. This is not the place they were supposed to be after a messy start to the season with coach Gregg Marshall and the program parting ways. Isaac Brown: Interim coach of the year! They’ll need to win on the road at Tulane and Temple to keep in a favorable spot on the bubble.

Richmond . . .

Once upon a time, the Spiders beat Kentucky in Lexington and were in the top-25. A steady drip of Atlantic 10 losses has them 13-5 now, and needing a fast finish to ignite tournament talk. It’d be nice to see them in March, if only to watch Jacob Gilyard — the nation’s steals leader by a lot — swipe opponents’ passes. The Friday game at Saint Louis is a must.

Connecticut . . .

Reunited with their Big East pals this season, the Huskies are 11-6 and in need of making noise against Marquette, Seton Hall and Georgetown at the end to have a chance on Selection Sunday. The last NCAA Tournament game UConn won as a Big East team was the 2011 national championship game against Butler.

SWAC . . .

Know what two teams haven’t lost yet in 2021? Yeah, yeah, Gonzaga and Baylor. But Prairie View A&M and Jackson State too. Prairie View A&M has gotten in only eight games this calendar year and Jackson State seven, but they’ve won them all. Together they have nine games scheduled in the next 10 days in a rush to the finish line, but none against each other. They can say hello at the SWAC tournament.

The Big Ten tournament . . .

We’ve heard all season about its strength, its depth, its relentless demands. When you see four teams in the top seven of the NET rankings, who’s to question? Now they’ll all be in Indianapolis for a week with both the No. 1 seeds and last bubble spots on the table, while all around them, the NCAA will be scheduling PCR tests and hanging the Please Wear Your Mask signs to get the city ready for a March Madness like none other. Somehow it all fits.

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