As we proceed into the final week of Conference Tournament play, fans and critics alike will be treated to some of the most contentious and thrilling college basketball competition before March Madness commences. Aside from the Big 10 Conference, the Pac-12, ACC, Big 12 and SEC Conferences still have to progress through their respective tournaments to discover where their programs will be seeded come Selection Sunday. For some, these brief tournament affairs are a just a delectable appetizer that will allow them to become supremely prepared for the grueling yet highly anticipated postseason affair that is just on the horizon. However, for many others, these conference tournaments are vital in strengthening their resumes to become apart of a beloved national event with limited spots in which to be placed.
1. Virginia Cavaliers
Winning a highly improbable contest over Louisville last week, the Cavaliers epitomized the tenuous hold that most programs have had on being the top team in the country this season. While their defense is the most efficient unit in college basketball, their anemic offense could cause them some serious problems if they are forced to come back at some point in the NCAA Tournament.
2. Xavier Musketeers
Similar to their conference rivals in Villanova, the Musketeers success is predicated on their prolific offense scoring early and often. Although Xavier has the ceiling of a National Title contender, their porous defense is atrocious enough for them to be one of the many programs that could be forced to exit the NCAA Tournament far sooner than they would like.
3. Villanova Wildcats
When this offense is clicking, it is nearly impossible to stop and keep up with. However, when the Wildcats shooters are having trouble seeing the ball go through the net, they are susceptible to being taken down by nearly any opponent they face. Come tournament play, this will be one of the hardest teams to project in terms of postseason success.
4. Duke Blue Devils
Although some fans and critics will be pessimistic of the Blue Devils tournament success because of their inconsistent play at times, the fact that this program can turn on the competitive burners at any time to beat elite programs is highly impressive. If their defense can continue to be disciplined and physical while their offense is able to make clutch shots down the stretch, they could be poised to win their sixth National Title.
5. Michigan State Spartans
Clearly, the Spartans possess the elite athletes and coaching to cruise through the NCAA Tournament to win a National Title. However, in recent weeks, the Spartans have looked uninterested and hasty when it comes to taking ill-advised shots. For this program to avoid a first weekend upset in March Madness, they need to slow down the pace of play while avoiding careless turnovers when attempting to go for a home run play in transition.
6. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Now dominant on both offense and defense, the Bulldogs currently look like a program that could feasibly make another run at getting to the National Title game. Although some may harp on the Bulldogs for playing a decidedly easy schedule every year, their competitive nature and versatility give them a great chance to go far in the NCAA Tournament.
7. Michigan Wolverines
Between their tireless and effective defense and their clutch shooters that can make crucial shots from beyond the perimeter, the Wolverines have the look and confidence of a program that seems destined to go far during March Madness. Although the Wolverines have struggled when it comes to actually winning a National Title, they may have the competitive balance to win it all this year.
8. Cincinnati Bearcats
If their defense can be as great as it was when it held a dynamically gifted offense in Wichita State to 61 points come March Madness, the Bearcats could explode onto the scene as a serious Final Four contender. Although they may not possess the prolific shooters of today’s competitive offenses, the Bearcats have the length and strength to garner rebounds while making shots at the rim.
9. Purdue Boilermakers
Clearly, the Boilermakers need some production from their athletic guards if they hope to make a serious run at a National Title. Although the Boilermakers loss to Michigan in the Big 10 Tournament championship game was not horrible, it did expose them to being a hasty shooting team when their initial shots do not go through the hoop. For this program to be successful going forward, they need to play with more poise and confidence when their streaky shooters are struggling to hit shots.
10. Kansas Jayhawks
As has been the case in years past, the highly talented Jayhawks at times look like a National Title contender but then just easily regress to the point of looking like a team that could lose in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. If their offense falls flat as it did against Oklahoma State come March Madness, the Jayhawks could once again underperform when it matters the most.
11. Texas Tech Red Raiders
Halting a four-game losing streak by defeating TCU last week, the Red Raiders are a program that has the defensive prowess to go far. However, their relatively anemic offense is a bit of a concern and will have to be much better if they hope to go far in both the Big 12 and NCAA Tournament.
12. Tennessee Volunteers
Although their offense has done barely enough from a competitive standpoint, their cerebral and relentless defense is currently performing at its peak and will be the catalyst for their success or failure in the NCAA Tournament (have held their opponents to 65 points or less in their last four games). If the Volunteers can prove that their defense can be this consistently dominant in SEC Tournament play, they could easily become a trendy pick to make it an Elite Eight berth.
13. Wichita State Shockers
Sure, the loss to Cincinnati over the weekend was not pretty from an offensive perspective for the Shockers. However, Wichita State somewhat proved that they are capable of playing a brand of defense that, while not elite, is capable of doing enough to allow their exceptional offense to tick consistently whenever they have the basketball in their possession.
14. Ohio State Buckeyes
Losing a nail-biter to Penn State during the Big 10 Tournament last week, the Buckeyes are currently going into the NCAA Tournament with a sour taste in their mouths. However, Ohio State still has a physical defensive unit and several underrated shooters that are deadly when it comes to taking and making mid-range shots from the field (48.5 FG%).
15. Auburn Tigers
Despite losing three out of their last five games, the Tigers are still an offensive powerhouse that has what it takes to continue to defy their lowly preseason expectations. If their shooters can show off their confident persistence when it comes to making shots from anywhere on the court in SEC Tournament, the Tigers may have what it takes to overcome their defensive shortcomings.
16. Arizona Wildcats
Since the Wildcats were ousted by an FBI probe which allegedly caught head coach Sean Miller offering a prospective player impermissible benefits, many have wondered if this type of adversity will help galvanize or crush the competitive continuity of this maligned program. If their offense can be as prolific as it has been throughout the season, the Wildcats could very well live up to their preseason expectations as being a Final Four contender.
17. Clemson Tigers
While the Tigers may be an ill-advised program to pick to go far in the NCAA Tournament, their perseverance this season, particularly on defense, should be commended completely for overcoming injuries and low expectations. A strong performance in the ACC Tournament could put the Tigers back on the map as being a sleeper contender that could make it to the Elite Eight if they are placed in a favorable quadrant of the final tournament bracket.
18. West Virginia Mountaineers
Although the Mountaineers are still struggling mightily when it comes to holding down their opponents defensively, they are at least asserting themselves on the offensive end of the court (80.4 PPG). While the Mountaineers do not necessarily have to go far in the Big 12 Tournament to be considered a compelling March Madness competitor, if nothing else their performance in the games to come this week could be vital in bolstering their confidence for postseason play.
19. North Carolina Tar Heels
Losing a heartbreaker to Duke on Saturday did little to assuage the concerns of fans and pundits alike that the Tar Heels lack of an intimidating defensive presence will be overcome by a prolific scoring unit. With that being said, the Tar Heels can finish off the season on a high note if they can bounce back furiously during the ACC Tournament.
20. Saint Mary’s Gaels
Unfortunately for the Gaels, their impressive efficiency on the defensive side of the court (63.8 PAPG), has been overshadowed by the championship caliber performances of the Gonzaga Bulldogs in recent weeks. However, the Gaels lack of deserved recognition could serve them well down the stretch of the West Coast Conference and beyond.
21. Nevada Wolfpack
Although the Wolfpack’s final regular season contest against San Diego State did not go as planned, this is still a program that possesses the ideal offensive playmakers that can both shoot and pass the ball with impressive consistency (83.5 PPG, 16.4 APG). Considering they are shooting 40.1% from beyond the arch, the Wolfpack is a program that will be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament as long as their offense is firing on all cylinders.
22. Houston Cougars
Coming into their own as a dynamically competitive program that can score with impressive efficiency (78 PPG) while relentlessly smothering their opponents defensively (65.2 PAPG), the Cougars are poised to go far in the American Athletic Conference Tournament and possibly in the NCAA Tournament as well. If the Cougars can continue to attack the glass as viciously as they have throughout this season (39.2 RPG), they have the intriguing versatility to at least get out of the first weekend come March Madness.
23. Loyola-Chicago Ramblers
Handily winning the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament over the weekend, the Ramblers emphatically clinched their first NCAA Tournament berth since 1985. Although they struggle to score consistently and are not particularly intimidating as a rebounding program, the Ramblers possess a crushing defense (62.2 PAPG) that could very well carry them beyond the first round of the tournament.
24. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
While losing to Marshall at home during their final regular season game was not ideal, the Blue Raiders are still an intriguing defensive program that could once again come out of nowhere to become an upset-minded team during March Madness. Assuming they can win the Conference USA Tournament, the Blue Raiders could garner themselves a better overall seed in the national tournament and strike fear in their much higher ranked opponent.
25. Rhode Island Rams
Losing back-to-back contests to the likes of Saint Joseph’s and Davidson, the once defensively stout Rams are struggling to hold their own in a conference that was clearly theirs to lose at one point during the regular season. With A-10 Conference tournament play starting this week, the Rams need to win every game they play in handily if they hope to be seeded favorably in the NCAA Tournament.