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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tourney prep, it is never too early

You cannot begin getting ready for your NCAA Tournament bracket too early.

NCAA Basketball: Tulane at Houston Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

So the Gopher basketball season has done very little (nothing) to inspire excitement around the college basketball season. It is almost as if the college basketball season isn’t really happening since Gopher games seem to be a formality and the lone Big Ten matchup that may actually hurt the resumes of our conference brethren.

Personally, as a passionate college basketball fan, I am struggling to get into this season. Typically in late February I am watching random mid-major games and building excitement for the NCAA Tournament. This year? I’m counting down the days until the Formula 1 season resumes.

This is a moment of personal crisis here. (Although, I am very excited about the return of F1 and I will not apologize for this).

But believe it or not the rest of the college basketball season is happening. There are teams fighting to get into the NCAA Tournament, there are fanbases dreaming of a run to the Final Four and perhaps a championship banner.

And for Gopher fans? Well, we really should care about just 2 things. Getting ready for your NCAA Tournament bracket and hoping the Badgers end up just outside of the bubble and miss the Big Dance altogether.

In an effort to ramp up my own personal enthusiasm, I began looking at the NCAA landscape. Which teams really are Final Four contenders, which teams are potential Cinderellas, and who are the guys we are going to marvel at as they put forth individual efforts in the first weekend of the tournament?

The rest is me sharing some of the things I’ve learned and hopefully passing along the enthusiasm baton to you as we head into March and the madness that will ensue.

The Real Contenders

The first piece of this is looking at which teams are the real contenders. So I looked into KenPom efficiency stats to see which teams stand out from the rest. And eventually, I’ll take this same look but compare it to how teams are seeded to identify the under-seeded and over-seeded teams.

Below are all NCAA teams ranked above 200 in KenPom rankings and then plotted by their offensive (x-axis) and defensive (y-axis) efficiency.

And you may notice some natural gaps. The first set of teams that are separating from the pack should all be considered teams you put into your Final Four.

  • Tennessee plays ELITE defense. Now, it should also be pointed out that they have lost 4 of their last 5, including giving up 86 points to Missouri. Perhaps injuries are catching up to the Vols right now. But Rick Barnes has this crew playing defense, which always translates. Should be a very dangerous 2 or even 3-seed.
  • Houston also has been playing incredible defense under Kelvin Sampson for a few years now. They have played a challenging schedule in the non-conference but these mid-major conference teams tend to fall just short in the NCAA Tournament (see Gonzaga). But the Cougars also have the best offense in this group with an elite scorer to go with a very physical defense.
  • UCLA is once again a team that plays elite defense and has had tournament success each of the last 2 seasons.
  • Alabama is more interesting. They’ve been great all season but the distractions and potential legal action surrounding the death of Jamea Jonae Harris may really catch up with the Tide. Based on the numbers? This is a likely Final Four team if things go well off the court for them.

Up next you have the next set of teams. All of these could easily make a run to the Final Four but also all teams should try to be sure to include in your Sweet 16. Too many teams to really dive into, but here are a few things worth noting.

  • Purdue and UConn currently rank 4th and 6th respectively in KenPom standings. They don’t really stand out in that same grouping on the scatter plot, they are still absolutely Final Four caliber. Both are incredibly balanced and coincidentally are the top 2 teams in the country in terms of offensive rebounding percentage.
  • Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga are both solidly in this Sweet 16 grouping but I would hesitate to put either of them into the final weekend of the tournament. I have a long-standing theory about teams who play in weaker conferences. Are they talented enough to beat anybody? Yes. But over the course of this tournament they are just not tested by playing high-major talent consecutively.
  • The Big 12 is the toughest conference in basketball this year. So Kansas/Texas/Baylor are all going to be ready and should all make runs in this year’s tournament. The Jayhawks are currently the hottest having won 5 in a row with wins over both Baylor and Texas.
  • Lastly, don’t sleep on Shaka Smart’s Marquette Golden Eagles. Currently one of the top 5 offenses in the country while also generating a LOT of turnovers. They should finish out the season with a 6-game win streak and will be a dangerous 3 or 4-seed.

The Upset Specials

Moving on to the fun part. Identifying which teams are going to be the dangerous teams as a low-seed. Obviously, it has to be St. Thomas. I’ve been hearing all year what an incredible program this is and how the Gophers are scared of them. What’s that? They are 9-7 in the Summit League having split with the likes of Western Illinois (281st-ranked Leathernecks)? That can’t be. But I digress.

Who are the teams that are legit threats in the Tourney?

  • I’ll start with the obvious one, Florida Atlantic. But here’s a little secret...don’t pick the Owls. Everyone is going to and they are going to lose. This is not sour grapes because Bryan Greenlee is their point guard and I kind of liked him as a solid Big Ten PG (maybe backup). But this is the classic trendy upset pick that doesn’t pan out when everybody picks it. And frankly, I predict North Texas upsets them in the CUSA Tournament and gets the auto-bid.

So what teams are worth paying attention to? Well, I tend to look at 2 factors for smaller-conference teams in the tournament. I look for teams that force a lot of turnovers and teams that shoot the three well. When you chart this, some teams stand out.

  • Sam Houston State and Stephen F Austin stand out among everybody else in this little category, the problem is that the Bearkats are currently 2nd in the WAC while the Lumberjacks are 4th. So they both have some work to do if they want to represent the WAC in the NCAA Tournament. The current top seed is Utah Valley.
  • Colgate is leading the Patriot League, but more importantly, they are the best three-point shooting team in the country. They are dominating the Patriot, leading the league by 5 games, but they’ll likely end up being a 15-seed, making a first-round upset rather challenging. But keep an eye on the Raiders when the brackets are released.
  • Belmont is out of the Missouri Valley and the Bruins are an elite 3-point shooting team. They are also currently sitting at 4th in the MVC, but should they get in...maybe.
  • VCU and Dayton are the class of the A10 this season. The Rams are top 5 in the country in forcing turnovers, they could be a very intriguing 12 or 13-seed.
  • Oral Roberts is leading the Summit and is looking like a dangerous team. They are currently 14th in the country in 3-point shooting, but more importantly, they don’t turn the ball over, they don’t foul teams, they are 16-0 in the Summit and they have a 7’5” center who blocks shots and rebounds. This is your really dangerous 12-seed.
  • Lastly, I’ll mention Iona out of the MAAC. The Gaels are dominating their conference, they play great defense and their coach is Rick Pitino. Keep an eye on this 13 or 14-seed.

But what about solid mid-major teams? The other at-large teams from the conferences getting 2 or 3 bids.

  • Boise State is a good one to take a look at. KenPom has the Broncos ranked 26th overall and they are looking like a potential 11-seed. That puts them dramatically underseeded. Balanced scoring with 3 guys averaging 13.5 ppg or better. They are a top-10 defense and finish with great defensive rebounding.

The Big-Time Players

How about looking at some teams that have an elite player to perhaps carry them?

  • Liberty has Darius McGhee as a senior guard who has spent all 5 years playing for the Flames. He currently is averaging 22.5 ppg and is shooting over 41% from three. He is a career 2,500 point scorer and currently is leading the Flames to a fist place tie with Kennesaw State in the ASun. But should they get out of the ASun, this could be a dangerous team.
  • Memphis also has an elite scorer going for them. Kendric Davis has bounced around but is spending his last year as a Tiger and averaging 21.3 and nearly 6 assists per game. He pairs with 6’9” Deandre Williams who averages over 17 points to form a dangerous duo.
  • UNC-Asheville has a big man who is dominating the Big South. Drew Pember is scoring over 20 points, grabbing more than 9 rebounds and is shooting 38% from three. He also has a guard mate, Tajion Jones, who is averaging nearly 15 points, over 5 rebounds and is shooting 45.7% from three (with 188 attempts!). Asheville will be a 16-seed, but they may also be kind of scary.
  • I mentioned that Oral Roberts has a 7’5” big man, but I didn’t mention their leading score, Max Abmas. The senior has spent all four years as a Golden Eagle and will very soon go over 2,500 points. This year he is averaging 22.8 to go with 4.7 rebounds and his hitting over 38% of his threes. This team looks like they’ll solidly be a 12-seed and should be worth looking at as an upset pick.

OK, that was a lot though certainly not exhaustive.

The regular season is nearing a close and conference tourneys are right around the corner. These teams mentioned here are meant to be less predictive and more of a list of teams worth trying to watch over these next few weeks. Then you can make your own decision how you feel about them in your coming brackets.

Happy college basketball season!