Why SEC and Big Ten contenders could be March Madness upset candidates and predictions for how league tournament participation will work.
Another fun-filled college basketball Saturday slate is upon us. To give you a little something to nibble on before the action starts, the Heat Check CBB staff has assembled a roundtable of trending college hoops topics.
From early March Madness upset candidates to concerns about conference tournament participation, we have it all covered below.
Which high seed is most susceptible to an early March Madness upset?
Eli Boettger: There are so many teams that deserve a mention here, especially after all the Top 25 losses we’ve seen this week. I’ll go with Illinois, though. As much as I love the dynamic Illini duo of Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, I don’t think there’s a more inconsistent team in the nation. It’s impossible to know which version of Illinois we’re going to get every night. Illinois can look like a Final Four-caliber squad when it’s firing on all cylinders and a first-round upset waiting to happen in the matter of minutes.
Connor Hope: Is Tennessee going to be seeded high enough for them to qualify for this question? If so, let’s go with them. There is little doubt that Tennessee has one of the best, if not the best, defenses in the country. It will always be a struggle and accomplishment to score 60 against the Vols, but all it takes is one hot shooting night. On the flip side, Rick Barnes’ team has been equally ineffective at scoring the ball. In fact, they have scored 65 points or fewer in 44% of their games. Are they the worst team in the top four seed lines right now? Not by a longshot, but they are definitely the one I worry about the most when it comes to adjusting to an insane scoring night from an opposing star or team.
Brian Rauf: I’m going to go with Iowa. We’ve seen how their poor defense limits their upside over the past few weeks as they’ve lost three of their last four games. Their record is also somewhat inflated based upon both the strength of the Big Ten and wins against lesser competition. The Hawkeyes are only 5-5 against KenPom top 45 teams along with 1-5 when allowing their opponent to score at least 80 points. Iowa can get hot and win a few games, yet they could just as easily lose to a very low seed unless their defense improves.
Andy Dieckhoff: I think that Brian’s onto something with Iowa, but I’m going to go in a different direction and say Alabama. This team is reliant on getting hot early — or, perhaps, not getting cold? In each of their four losses this season, the Tide have had a stretch where they missed seven consecutive shots during the first half (it actually happened again near the end of the Clemson loss). In the Crimson Tide’s wins, they’ve only missed seven straight once: in the first half of their comeback over Kentucky. So, it’s not that I don’t believe in Nate Oats’ team — but I am concerned that they might be especially susceptible to an early cold spell.
Lukas Harkins: I think I am going to go with Missouri. The Tigers are mostly projected to be a Top 4 seed at this point as a product of their excellent resume. Unlike every other team poised to land a high seed at the Big Dance, though, efficiency metrics have not bought into this team. Missouri is still ranked at only No. 34 on KenPom and two of its three losses have come to non-tournament teams. While the Tigers are one of the most experienced teams in the nation, one thing they do not have is NCAA Tournament experience on their roster. Jeremiah Tilmon is the only player in the rotation with Big Dance experience as he competed in one game (12 minutes played) during Mizzou’s last appearance, which was in 2018.
Name a team that not enough people are talking about right now.
EB: Belmont is 19-1 and seemingly no one is talking about the Bruins. How does that happen? Casey Alexander has this thing rolling and it’s looking like yet another year where the OVC power could be a trendy first-round upset candidate. This is an elite scoring team that can hit from everywhere with five different players averaging double figures. Center Nick Muszysnki could give high-major teams fits in the first round.
CH: Definitely St. Bonaventure out of the A10. It seems like the conversation right now is still centered on VCU, Saint Louis and Richmond for the most part, while the Bonnies have quietly put together the best record in the conference to date. Not only is the team one of the top mid-major defenses in the country, they also feature one of the best starting fives in the country. Despite having a relatively slow tempo, the team features five double digit scorers. Depth will likely be the downfall of this team, but it should still be talked about more as one of the best mid-major teams in the nation.
BR: Am I allowed to agree with Eli? Because of all the talk of Drake being undefeated, Winthrop being that for a while, and Loyola-Chicago’s crazy high metrics, the Bruins have simply taken care of business in under-the-radar fashion in a pretty solid OVC. If I have to pick someone different, I think many have forgotten about Western Kentucky. Losses to Charlotte and Louisiana Tech will do that, sure, but this is the same Hilltoppers team that beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa, beat Memphis, and went toe-to-toe with West Virginia on a neutral court. WKU has high level talent all over the place, led by Charles Bassey inside. They’re a team no one will want to face should they make the NCAA Tournament.
AD: We’ll see if the ‘Toppers do make the tournament — there are a ton of good teams in the C-USA including Marshall, North Texas, and UAB, who are all also in the KenPom Top 100. And maybe it’s just the Portlander in me coming out, but I’m going to go with the Blazers here. At the time of this writing, Andy Kennedy’s team has railed off five straight wins and are currently 8-1 in league play. But it’s their metrics that have me drooling. Yes, they’ve faced the 345th-worst offenses in the country, per KenPom, but I’d like to think those teams’ dates with UAB are why they’re ranked so low. The Blazers are 9th in the country in defensive effective field-goal percentage rate and turnover rate, which is reflective of their active, tenacious defense. But really, the Blazers are just a lot of fun to watch. Tavin Lovan is a great leader for this team, and Trey Jemison is a ferocious defender and rebounder.
LH: I would say Belmont but that would be tipping my hand about an article that I am currently in the process of writing. Then again, Eli already said the Bruins so perhaps he is already giving that preview. To pick someone a bit different, I’ll go with BYU. While the Cougars are not a match for Gonzaga in the WCC, they are clearly the second-best team in the conference and appear poised to land a quality seed. I currently have BYU on my No. 7 seed line and their resume might even warrant a jump from there if they continue to win their non-Gonzaga matchups. Head coach Mark Pope’s team is balanced on both ends of the floor and once again boasts veteran leadership. Alex Barcello and Matt Haarms both have loads of experience while fellow upperclassmen Brandon Averette, Richard Harward and Connor Harding have had strong seasons. Add in a punch of youth with 6-8 freshman Caleb Lohner and this could be a fun group to start buying stock in — even if Gonzaga blows them out next week.
How do you expect conference tournament participation will be handled?
EB: I truly have no idea — there’s no good way to handle this issue. On the one hand, healthy teams should be expected to participate in league tournaments on the basis of competition and TV/media revenue and bid collusion isn’t a good thing for anyone. On the other hand, it would be a PR disaster to force teams to play against their will if they have health concerns. Is it worth jeopardizing the integrity of March Madness for the sake of a few conference tournament games? I’d rather have 68 teams get to Indy as healthy as possible.
CH: With the NCAA Tournament selection committee seemingly passing the ball to conferences to figure out their tournament approach, my guess is that we will see varying levels of completeness. If teams like Gonzaga, Drake, Loyola Chicago or others finish the season well off the bubble, it wouldn’t necessarily make sense for the conference to force them to play multiple games and risk COVID limiting their participation. For smaller conferences, NCAA Tournament revenues can be extremely important, so I would expect 2-3 opt-outs, bylaws be damned. For high-major conferences, where one team doesn’t necessarily make or break their tournament performance or smaller conferences without clear at-large teams, I would imagine participation would be more or less complete.
BR: I agree with Connor. It’s going to vary across the board. I’m sure we’ll see a handful of teams opt out, especially if there are some COVID concerns with either the location of a conference tournament or a potential first-round opponent. Teams will be extremely cautious but I don’t expect the mass amount of opt-outs that some are fearing. I also don’t think the selection committee is going to punish teams that do opt out because the optics of that are terrible. However, things could get interesting if there’s a team that picks up a few big wins in their conference tournament to push themselves into the bubble conversation and will be compared with a team that opted out.
AD: Well, I’ll start by saying that I don’t agree with Roy Williams’ recent comments about “opting out” just being another term for “quitting” or however he phrased it. That said, for those teams that Connor mentioned above … what happens when those teams opt out? It feels strange to be the one banging the high-major drum, but if these mid-major “locks” are jumping from the auto-bid line to the at-large line, that causes a squeeze that goes against the natural order. Then again, maybe it’s high time we finally stop letting the eighth-place team in the Big Ten punch a ticket to the Big Dance. At least for one season.
LH: I want the 31 auto-bids and 37 other best teams in the country to make their way to Indianapolis healthy. I might work in healthcare, but I certainly do not consider myself to be a public health expert. As much as people want to criticize the NCAA or conference leaders — and it is sometimes warranted — I am sure that they will both have plenty of experts in the conversation regarding the plan for league tournaments. I think we will see different conferences apply different tactics but I am mostly just hoping that everyone is able to be safe in the process. There have been some discussions of possible “opt-outs” and where there is smoke, there’s fire. How that will be handled, though, remains to be seen and I’ll leave the answers to those more suited to find solutions. This is my copout answer for really having no idea what would be a feasible and safe solution for all.
Top 25 upset pick for Saturday?
EB: I’ll take USC over No. 21 UCLA. The Bruins are 9-1 in the Pac-12 but it’s not a sturdy nine wins by any means. Seven of UCLA’s nine league wins have come by six points or fewer. Its last three victories against Washington, California and Oregon State (a combined 9-25 in the Pac-12) were by five, four and five points, respectively. UCLA is a hard team to trust despite the record while USC is turning the corner and playing its best basketball of late.
CH: Eli is cheating. USC is the better team and a 3-point favorite over UCLA. Give me that Oklahoma State home victory over Texas. The Longhorns have lost two in a row at home after struggling to keep a healthy roster and coaching staff together. Traveling to Stillwater is never easy, but given the Cowboys’ desperation to pick up a few more solid wins before March, it will be even tougher. The first game between the two teams was decided by one possession in Texas’ favor, and I expect this game to be similarly competitive.
BR: There are two I have my eye on, but I’ll go with Kentucky over Tennessee. It’s at Rupp Arena and Kentucky played relatively well in losses to Missouri and Alabama. Look, I know they’re not perfect, but with the way Tennessee is playing, the Wildcats might only have to score 50 to win this game. The Vols have been atrocious offensively and Kentucky’s length and athleticism won’t make things any easier. This will be an ugly, low-scoring game but I like the Wildcats by a couple of buckets.
AD: I’m gonna say Valpo over Drake. It pains me deeply, and I hope I’m wrong, but this seems like a trap game. Drake went through three straight tough battles before finally kicking it back into high gear in their last contest against Illinois State, cruising to a 95-60 win to stay undefeated. And in just five days, Drake begins a stretch of four consecutive games against Northern Iowa and Loyola Chicago, so you wouldn’t blame the Bulldogs for starting to eyeball those matchups. But in the middle lies Valpo, a sneaky-okay team that gave Purdue and Vandy runs for their money early on and recently topped Bradley in 2OT. In reality, this result wouldn’t make a lick of sense, but that’s kind of why it makes perfect sense, no?
LH: I will go with Oklahoma State over Texas. The Longhorns are a very good team and deserving of a Top 10 ranking but they have also stumbled a bit as of late. They went just 1-3 over their recent four-game homestand with the lone win coming over Kansas State, who might be the worst power conference team in the nation. While their three losses all came against teams ranked in the Top 15, the Longhorns should have been able to come away with at least one victory. There is a decent chance that Texas comes out guns-blazing and dominates in this game to get back on track, but I think Oklahoma State has a pretty good chance of victory. The Cowboys have been very hit-or-miss this season but have wins over Texas Tech and Kansas to prove their ability to show up for “the big one.” Cade Cunningham will be determined to lead this upset bid in Stillwater after a disappointing loss to TCU.