March 1 is right around the corner and plenty of college basketball teams are starting to feel the heat. Despite the strangest season we’ve ever see, with games moved, canceled, and heavily affected by COVID-19, the selection committee will still need to sort through varied resumés to build a 68-team bracket.
This will surely be the most difficult season for the committee to sort out, given the varying number of games played and players available for many teams. It could make the stretch run of the regular season, with recency bias in full affect, the most crucial piece of the season.
With that in mind, here are five teams in need of big wins over the next few weeks before conference tournaments begin.
As crazy as it may sound to casual basketball fans, the Blue Devils are squarely on the bubble. Former highly-ranked recruit Jalen Johnson has left the program to prepare for the NBA Draft.
Coach K’s team has responded to Johnson’s departure by winning its last four games. The Blue Devil offense has turned a corner, peaking with a dominant 1.36 points per possession performance at Wake Forest. Sophomore Matthew Hurt has risen to the challenge, posting 20.8 points per game and 66.7% 3-point shooting over that four-game stretch.
Duke’s schedule gives them a real chance to climb into the bracket. The Blue Devils have three more games scheduled, all against teams perched on the bubble: Louisville, Georgia Tech and North Carolina. Duke will control its own destiny, in what could be one of the most memorable, pressure-packed stretches of Coach K’s time on the sidelines in Durham.
Late last month, the Shockers were sitting at just 8-4, a far cry from the bubble. They only had one win over a top-100 team — a less-than-impressive Ole Miss squad. Since then, Wichita State has won five straight, and Mississippi stole wins over Missouri (twice) and Tennessee, improving the Shockers’ resumé.
Wichita State’s winning streak culminated in a victory over highly-ranked Houston. It was just the Cougars’ third loss all season and it placed the Shockers as the first team out of the tournament, per Bracket Matrix.
The Shockers schedule, however, does them no favors. Their final two regular season games will come on the road next week at Tulane and Temple. Both are high-risk, low-reward matchups for Wichita State. Neither would be a major resumé aid, but both could be losses.
The Shockers need to sweep both of those games, plus a run in the American Athletic Conference tournament. If they can reach the tourney final against Houston, with wins against fellow bubble teams like Memphis or SMU, that could be enough to earn a bid.
Out west, the Cardinal have battled through this season, faced with more adversity than most teams on the bubble. Due to COVID protocols in the Bay Area, Stanford was forced to move off-campus, playing in Santa Cruz instead of Palo Alto. Injuries have been a huge issue for Stanford’s roster, which has been cobbled together for most of this season.
Head coach Jerod Haase still has the Cardinal in position to earn an at-large bid, thanks to wins over Alabama, Arizona (twice), and UCLA. A season ending trip to face highly-ranked USC could be the Cardinal’s ticket to the Big Dance, barring disaster in the Pac-12 Tournament.
If Stanford is able to earn a place in March Madness, they could be a dangerous team if healthy and continuing to play high level defense.
This year’s UConn team is following a very familiar script in Storrs. Dan Hurley has a team that plays eager, intense defense and relies heavily on a ball-dominant lead guard on the offensive end. Sounds a lot like the two UConn teams that were able to steal championships last decade, doesn’t it?
James Bouknight might not have the name recognition of a Kemba Walker or Shabazz Napier just yet, though part of that has been an availability issue. He missed eight games with an elbow injury this season and UConn went just 4-4 without him in the lineup. The Huskies’ only losses with Bouknight on the court have come at the hands of the Big East’s best teams, at Villanova and versus Creighton (in overtime).
He and the Huskies can prove themselves worthy of the tournament over their final three games. Two of those games are must-wins at home against non-tournament teams (Marquette and Georgetown). The third is a trip to Newark to face a Seton Hall team similarly on the bubble. The loser of that game will have to do some serious work at Madison Square Garden in the Big East Tournament to find a spot in the Big Dance.
Richard Pitino and the Golden Gophers have one of the most interesting resumés that the selection committee has ever been asked to evaluate. In 15 home games at Williams Arena (or affectionately “The Barn”), Minnesota has looked every bit tournament-bound. In those games, the Gophers have beaten future (potential) tournament teams like Michigan, Purdue, Iowa, Ohio State, Maryland, and Saint Louis. Minnesota is outscoring opponents in The Barn by 9 points on average, even when accounting for a 29-point blowout loss to Illinois.
Away from The Barn, Minnesota has struggled to say the least. The Gophers are 0-8 away from home, losing games on average by more than 15 points. They have just two more chances to grab a road win, at Nebraska and Penn State. If the Gophers can’t covert either of those chances into a win, they’d be attempting to be the first team to ever make the tournament without a road win. If you’re a Minnesota fan, you can’t like those odds.