It's officially March so it's time to look at NCAA Tournament sleepers
The four No. 1 seeds won’t be set until a week from Sunday on March 11 but it’s officially March 1st so it’s time to start thinking about who is going to win it all this year. Kansas took the title a year ago and looks like a favorite to do it again this year, while Houston could play in front of a home crowd if they can get to the Final Four. As you may have guessed already, this year’s Final Four is in… Houston.
We know that Houston, Alabama and Kansas are all probably going to be No. 1 seeds when the brackets come out and Purdue, who has lost four of their last six games, UCLA, Arizona, Baylor and Tennessee will be battling it out for the other No. 1 seed.
But with so much parity in the NCAA these days it’s possible we could see a Final Four without any No. 1s this year. And, in case you were wondering, the four No. 1 seeds have all made it to the Final Four just one time, in 2008 when North Carolina, UCLA, Memphis and Kansas all did it.
Tarheels on the bubble +3600
Speaking of North Carolina, they made it to the final game against Kansas last year, lost only one starter and were the preseason No. 1 team in the country. They won their first five games and then lost to Iowa State, Alabama, Indiana and Virginia Tech and later lost to Pitt (twice), Virginia, Duke, Wake Forest, Miami and NC State, and finish up with Duke on Saturday. They haven’t been seen in the rankings forever and are just hoping to make the tournament at this point. If they happen to sneak their way in somehow, I’d think they’d be worth throwing some money at in case they get hot. It was around this time last year they started to make their move and they got all the way to the big dance before falling to Kansas. They’re truly a bubble team and will have to beat Duke on Saturday, as well as perform well in the ACC tournament to get in. But anything is possible for Hubert Davis’ squad.
Hoosiers making noise at the right time - +2600
I was bullish on No. 15 Indiana in my last NCAA preview column and they’ve made some moves since then, the biggest being a win at Purdue on Feb. 25. They finish on Sunday with a home game against Michigan and look like a No. 4 seed heading into the tournament after beating Purdue twice this season. You need a workhorse to win it all and Trace Jackson-Davis is just that, averaging 20.3 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.8 blocks this season. Jalen Hood-Schifino went off for 35 points in their last win over Purdue but he’s a bit inconsistent and scored just eight points in Tuesday’s loss to Iowa. But I like picking No. 4 seeds in my brackets and I will continue to ride the Hoosiers for as long as they last in the tourney.
Volunteers may be underrated in the SEC +1500
The No. 12 Volunteers are 21-8 and are coming off of wins over South Carolina and Arkansas with a final date on Saturday at Auburn, which they need to win. They’ve lost to Florida, Vandy, Missouri, Kentucky and Texas A&M in February alone, but also knocked off No. 1 Alabama on Feb. 15. But they also suffered a major blow on Wednesday when it was announced that starting point guard Zakai Zeigler suffered a torn ACL and won’t play in the tournament. Sophomore Jahmai Mashack will take over the point guard duties and the Volunteers have dealt with injuries all season, as G Josiah-Jordan James, F Julian Phillips, G Santiago Vescovi and G Tyreke Key have all missed games this year. Vescovi is their leading scorer at just 12.4 points per game and only forward Olivier Nkamhoua, Zeigler and James average in double figures, around 10 ppg. The loss of their point guard hurts but Tennessee is still a decent sleeper pick after losing just eight games this season. They should enter the tournament as a No. 3 seed.
St. Mary’s looks like a fun gamble +2100
St. Mary’s is No. 17 and boasts a 25-6 record after falling to Gonzaga on Saturday. They’re led by senior guard Logan Johnson at 14.7 ppg but he’s been going off lately, scoring 31, 34, 27, 29 and 27 points in five of their last six games, four of which were wins. G Aidan Mahaney averages 14.6 ppg, G Alex Ducas is at 12.3 ppg and C Mitchell Saxen averages 11.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.2 blocks for the Gaels. They lost to No. 1 Houston in a close one back in early December and beat No. 12 Gonzaga in overtime on Feb. 12. St. Mary’s figures to be a No. 5 seed in brackets and could make some noise in the tournament.
Wildcats not dead yet +2900
Kentucky is currently ranked No. 23 and are 20-9 in a disappointing season. They could be a No. 6 seed and they’re heating up at the right time for coach John Calapari. Coach Cal only has one National Championship to his credit but his Kentucky teams are always loaded and they can match up with anyone in the tournament. They’ve won four straight games beating Mississippi State, Tennessee, Florida and Auburn and still have to play Vandy and Arkansas before playing in the SEC Tournament. Senior forward Oscar Tshiebwe has been hot, scoring between 16 and 25 points in his last five games, four of which were wins. Tshiebwe leads the team with 16.4 ppg and 12.8 rebounds, G Antonio Reeves averages 13.4 points, F Jacob Toppin is at 12.1 points and 6.8 rebounds and G Carson Wallace averages nearly 12 ppg. February losses to Georgia, Arkansas and Kansas were all painful for the Cats but they’ve also had some nice wins lately. It’s weird to see teams like Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina struggling just to get into the tournament but once they’re in, it’s hard to bet against them. And the payout would be huge if Kentucky can figure this out.
Marquette heating up at the right time +3300
Marquette is 23-6, ranked No. 6 in the country and should get a No. 2 seed in the big dance. They’ve won five straight games, including wins over No. 16 Xavier and No. 19 Creighton and finish up the regular season on Saturday against St. Johns. They have a fairly balanced scoring attack with G Kam Johnes leading the way at 15 ppg, G Tyler Kolek and F Olivier-Maxence Prosper both average 12.6 points, and F Oso Ighodaro scores 11.9 per game. The Golden Eagles could make a statement by winning the Big East Tournament but either way, they’re going to be a high seed and the odds would give you a big pay day if they are able to pull off a March Madness Miracle. They won it all in 1977 and were a finalist in 1974 and a semi-finalist in 2003.