Heading into the final week of the regular season, every program that is either a shoe-in or on the bubble to make the NCAA Tournament will attempt to bolster their respective resumes before the start of the postseason. While the allure and importance of March Madness are understandably on the minds of several programs at this point, conference tournaments are just as vital to not only garnering a better seed in the national tournament but can also serve as a catalyst for programs that are looking to guarantee themselves a coveted spot amongst the 67 other teams that will participate in March Madness. As the intensity ramps up exponentially with every game being the difference between playing an extended season or starting the offseason early, every program that has ambitions of playing deep into March (and possibly into April) will be supremely determined to make a name for themselves down the stretch of the regular season.
1. Virginia Cavaliers
Since losing to Virginia Tech a couple of weeks ago, the Cavaliers have manhandled their respective opposition with a crushing defense that is as physical as it is opportunistic. While their ineptitude offensively could make them upset prone during the NCAA Tournament, their incredibly consistent defense should be able to protect them from being exposed in the postseason.
2. Michigan State Spartans
Hitting their stride defensively (have held six of their last seven opponents to 65 points or less), the Spartans are obviously eager to get to the postseason to be one of the four teams to make it to the Final Four. However, with an elite roster rife with dynamic playmakers, Tom Izzo and company will look to seal the deal with a National Title victory.
3. Xavier Musketeers
While their dreadful defense cannot be ignored (75.4 PAPG), their relentless offense has allowed them to win emphatically more often than not (85.2 PPG). As long as the Musketeers can be supremely accurate from the field (49.8 FG%), they may have what it takes to overcome their defensive shortcomings to make a run at a coveted National Title.
4. Duke Blue Devils
Holding their last four opponents to under 60 points, the Blue Devils have finally transformed into an all-around dominant basketball program that has all of the pieces and elite coaching to go far in the NCAA Tournament. With a bench that has continued to flourish down the stretch of the season, the Blue Devils are both deep and exceptional from a competitive standpoint.
5. Kansas Jayhawks
Taking down both West Virginia and Texas Tech in two of their last three games, the Jayhawks once again clinched at least a share of their 14th straight Big 12 title. Although their defense is less than great, they have done enough in that regard to help their dynamic offense click consistently when it matters the most.
6. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Defeating BYU over the weekend, the Bulldogs officially clinched another West Coast Conference Title. A great rebounding unit that has looked incredibly consistent on both offense and defense in recent weeks, the Bulldogs may have what it takes to make it to another National Title game.
7. Villanova Wildcats
Losing a shootout to Creighton on Saturday, Villanova was once again exposed as a relatively inept defensive program. Although their offense is more than capable of taking them to the National Title game in April, their inability to stop their respective opponents could see them being upset prone during the start of the NCAA Tournament.
8. Purdue Boilermakers
Since losing three games in a row, the Boilermakers have since bounced back emphatically as they have won their last three contests with an impressive blend of a cerebral defense and a prolific offense that never quits. If the Boilermakers can continue to establish their competitive identity in the Big 10 Tournament, they have a chance of going very far in the NCAA Tournament.
9. Cincinnati Bearcats
Although their defense has looked a bit wonky in recent weeks, the Bearcats have largely been an intimidating force that has effectively utilized their size to both block and steal the basketball consistently (eight SPG, six BPG). If the Bearcats can continue to attack the glass ferociously, they could quickly return to form and become a trendy pick to make it to the Final Four.
10. North Carolina Tar Heels
The best rebounding unit in college basketball, the Tar Heels have consistently converted those extra opportunities into valuable points as their young shooters are beginning to heat up. If Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams can continue to be deadly shooters from the field, the Tar Heels will be an extremely tough out come March Madness.
11. Wichita State Shockers
With their dynamic offense currently firing on all cylinders (have scored 84 points or more in five of their last six games), the Shockers are now looking like a deadly scoring program that could go far in the NCAA Tournament. Although their defense leaves a lot to be desired (71.1 PAPG), their potency when it comes to shooting the basketball may be enough for them to overcome this noticeable weakness.
12. Ohio State Buckeyes
While the Buckeyes are noticeably anemic offensively (76.1 PPG), they at least have a strong defense that flashes moments of being elite (66.6 PAPG). Given that they have capable shooters in Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate, the Buckeyes have all of the pieces to make to an Elite Eight, they just have to put everything together to become consistently competitive.
13. Auburn Tigers
As is usually the case with a high-powered offense that refuses to play competent defense, the Tigers have become victims of being too one-dimensional. Although they have recovered nicely when sustaining questionable losses to inferior opponents the Tigers need to be at least slightly more resilient defensively lest they get ousted early in the NCAA Tournament.
14. Michigan Wolverines
Currently, on a five-game winning streak, the Wolverines are playing their best basketball at the right time, particularly on the defensive end of the court (have held their opponents to 63 points or less in four of their last five games). If Michigan can continue to play with this type of competitive grit and fearlessness going into March Madness, they could easily dispatch any overconfident opponents that stand in their way.
15. Texas Tech Red Raiders
Losers of their last three games, the Red Raiders all but gave away their chance of winning a Big 12 regular season title. Relinquishing 70 points or more in their last two games, the Red Raiders need to quickly rectify their defensive lapse if they hope to regain their footing heading into postseason play.
16. Rhode Island Rams
Aside from a loss against St. Bonaventure a couple of weeks ago, the Rams have looked like a versatile program that can win consistently with either an efficient scoring attack (47.3 FG%) or an opportunistic defense (eight SPG). As they have done throughout this season, the Rams will continue to play impressive basketball heading into the NCAA Tournament where they could make a compelling run towards a Final Four appearance.
17. Clemson Tigers
As their offensive warts begin to become more noticeable with each passing week, the Tigers’ still elite defense has struggled mightily to keep this team competitive against reputable competition. However, the Tigers have fared well when facing adversity and could very well rectify their recent fallacies by finishing their regular season schedule with a with a three-game winning streak.
18. Tennessee Volunteers
While their once formidable defense has looked relatively inconsistent as of late, the Volunteers have been able to persevere in late game situations offensively to avoid becoming victims of their recent struggles. Despite these issues, the Volunteers are only one game back from securing an SEC Title and could put the pressure on the current leader (Auburn) by winning their final two contests of the regular season.
19. Nevada Wolfpack
Officially, winners of the Mountain West regular season title, the Wolfpack have been clicking impressively on offense during their current five-game winning streak (have scored 80 points or more in four of their last five games). Shooting 47% from the field, the Wolfpack are a feisty offensive program that could make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
20. Arizona Wildcats
With Sean Miller understandably absent from the sidelines in the Wildcats loss to Oregon over the weekend, Arizona is in serious trouble of being ousted early in the NCAA Tournament. Considering Allonzo Trier’s current suspension due to PED use and Deandre Ayton being implicated by the FBI because of receiving impermissible benefits from Arizona, the Wildcats are in desperate need of some playmakers that can carry the load going into the postseason.
21. West Virginia Mountaineers
Handily defeating both Baylor and Iowa State last week, the Mountaineers have slowly begun to establish themselves as a physical rebounding program that has the athletes to drive to the basket relentlessly (38.6 RPG). With two games left in the regular season against Texas Tech and Texas, the Mountaineers will look to finish their season strong heading into the Big 12 Tournament.
22. Saint Mary’s Gaels
Unsurprisingly, the Gales finished their season on a high note by winning their last three games and are poised to make a deep run in the West Coast Conference Tournament. As long as their defense can be as stout as it was during the regular season (63.8 PAPG), Saint Mary’s could very well take down Gonzaga in a conference tournament that most fans will miss out on.
23. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
While the Blue Raiders may not be particularly efficient offensively (75.1 PPG), they are at least consistent when it comes to hitting their free throws when the charitable opportunities become available to them (75.4 FT%). With an impressive defense that has carried them throughout the season (65.3 PAPG), the Blue Raiders are an intriguing underdog program that could be poised to make it to the Sweet Sixten during the NCAA Tournament.
24. Kentucky Wildcats
Still wildly inconsistent on the defensive end of the court, the Wildcats have actually established some type of competitive continuity as a capable scoring unit (have scored 80+ points during their current three-game winning streak). Considering this is a John Calipari coached program, the Wildcats could very well make a surprising run at a National Title if they can continue to build off their recent successes.
25. St. Bonaventure Bonnies
Although winning the A-10 Conference regular-season title may be out of the question for St. Bonaventure, the Bonnies have quickly become one the more prolific offensive programs in college basketball over the last few weeks. They may not always be consistent on the defensive end of the court, but the resilient Bonnies are more than capable of making some noise in their respective conference tournament.