March Madness is quickly approaching, and the 2016 NCAA Tournament should be typically unpredictable. With some of the best teams in college basketball suffering losses each weekend, there is plenty of room for a few surprise teams to make deep runs towards the Final Four, so it might be best to start doing research now before filling out brackets.
Villanova has been the nation’s No.1 team for three weeks running, replacing Oklahoma after the Sooners lost to Iowa State on Jan. 18. Oklahoma became the fifth No.1 team to lose before February, and that’s the first time that’s happened since 1949. Kansas is the only team that started the season in the top five and remains there.
There’s been plenty of parity in college basketball this season, and a few underrated teams stand out as potential surprises in March Madness.
The Wildcats haven’t lived up to expectations this season, going 21-7 after starting the year as the nation’s No.2 ranked team. But even though Kentucky’s record isn’t overly impressive, they should still be considered one of the top contenders to win the national championship.
Kentucky is hitting their stride at the right time, winning five of their last six games, suffering their only loss in that stretch to Texas A&M because of a wacky finish that was influenced by a technical foul against Isaac Humphries. They have the best record in the SEC, and freshmen Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe are only getting better with experience. This year could be reminiscent of two years ago when Kentucky underachieved in the regular season, but made a run to the national title game.
Few coaches know how to get the most out of young talent like John Calipari. Expect the freshmen to finish the regular season strong as they prepare for a big push in the tournament.
It’s difficult to call the Jayhawks underrated, since they are the country’s No.2 team and one of the favorites to cut down the nets at the end of the season. But even though they are expected to do big things this March, Kansas might be better than many experts think.
With a 23-4 record, Bill Self has a team with the No.1 RPI and shooting 49 percent from the field. Three of their losses have come against teams ranked in the top 17, and they sit atop the best conference in college basketball. The Jayhawks have seven wins over then-ranked opponents, including two victories over No.3 Oklahoma. Kansas shares the best title odds with Michigan State, but they should be the sole favorites.
Self may be changing his philosophy on not taking too many shots from beyond the arc due to a pair of sharpshooters. Wayne Selden Jr. is draining three-pointers at 42.1 percent, while Brannen Greene converts at 54.7 percent.
The Shockers haven’t played as well as the experts had predicted at the start of the season, but it would be a big mistake to dismiss them during March Madness. Wichita State may not get a high seed, but there's a good chance Gregg Marshall's squad will advance beyond the first weekend of the tournament.
The Shockers have the best record in the Missouri Valley Conference, and they’ve dominated most of the mid-majors they’ve faced. They slumped to four losses in their first six games, but have been victorious in 16 of their last 18 contests. With a very deep roster, the Shockers can be troublesome to any team that overlooks them.
Keep an eye on guard Fred VanVleet. The senior came up big last year in three tournament games.
The Utes are ranked No.22 in the nation with a 21-7 record, and they could be very dangerous in the NCAA Tournament with wins over Duke and Temple, and recent road victories over USC and UCLA. Utah also has one of the most unguardable players in college basketball, giving them a chance to go far in March.
Jakob Poeltl is the biggest reason why Utah has been successful this season, averaging 18.1 points and 9.0 rebounds per game. As the center position becomes less and less relevant, Poeltl is proving to be a rare gem. The sophomore is a dominant seven-footer, which seemingly doesn’t exist anymore, and he continues to improve. In his last eight games, and all against Pac-12 competition, Poeltl is averaging 19.7 points off 74 percent shooting.
Utah has four other players that average at least nine points per contest, and they are tied for the most wins in the Pac-12. With three games remaining before the Pac-12 tournament, Larry Krystkowiak's squad may sneak into a No. 4 seed if they maintain their hot streak, and could do plenty of damage in the NCAA tournament.
Ranked No.23 in the AP Top 25, Notre Dame is just about where they were expected to be at the start of the season. They are not among the top contenders to win the national title, but the Irish are built to make a run in the tournament. Head coach Mike Brey, who is in 16th season, has a squad with recent wins over traditional powers Duke, North Carolina, and Louisville.
The Fighting Irish are led by a strong backcourt, and good guard play is crucial to going deep in March. Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia are combining to average 29 points and 8.2 assists per game. Vasturia is hitting 40 percent of his shots from behind the arc, and Notre Dame is making 37.8 percent of their threes as a team.
This is a very battle-tested team that has overcome some lumps. If the Irish get hot, they can beat anyone in the nation.