March is upon us, and the madness of the NCAA tournament is just a few weeks away. But up until Selection Sunday on March 17, there’s a wide array of story lines to monitor in the final games of the regular season and conference championship week with automatic and at-large bids to the field of 68 are on the line.
Here’s a look at five March story lines to follow as the season winds down:
1. Battle for No. 1 seeds. There are eight teams in contention for the four coveted top seeds in the NCAA tournament. A lot of factors come into play as these teams fight it out in the final weeks, including the selection committee’s reliance on its new metric, the NET. Gonzaga, a projected No. 1 seed, seems to be the beneficiary of the NET — ranking first in the metric that weighs in-game statistics and is aimed to gauge how good a team is outside of what’s on paper with scheduling and notable wins and losses.
The current top No. 1 seeds are Virginia and Duke from the ACC. The Cavaliers have only lost to the Blue Devils this season and are on a mission to avenge last year’s historic first-round loss to No. 16 seed Maryland-Baltimore County — the first time that’s ever happened. The major difference for Cavs this year is elite catalyst De’Andre Hunter, who gives coach Tony Bennett a go-to scorer he hasn’t previously had.
New to the No. 1 line this week is Kentucky. Of all the teams in the country that have improved since November, coach John Calipari’s group has grown the most — going from a team that lost to Duke by 34 on opening night to one that just hammered Tennessee by 17.
Among the No. 2 seeds, North Carolina and Michigan State might be best positioned to move up. Both have stellar credentials and ample opportunity. The Tar Heels host Duke and then play in the ACC tournament to build up its résumé. The Spartans boast a nation-leading 11 Quadrant 1 (top-30 home, top-75 road) wins and continue to make an argument over top seed contenders with far less.
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2. Zion’s return. Despite a bevy of opinions from NBA players and NCAA pundits arguing the NBA draft’s likely No. 1 pick should shut it down following a scary right knee sprain last week, coach Mike Krzyzewski said Williamson “wants to play” and “loves being at Duke” but will be listed as day-to-day while being cautious with the injury’s recovery.
“It’s an injury you can get over in a shorter period of time,” Krzyzewski said, implying Williamson will be back by the ACC tournament or at worst NCAA tournament. There’s just a protocol that we have to go through to make sure he’s completely ready.”
The NCAA selection committee will assess Duke’s profile on Selection Sunday. If Williamson looks limited in the ACC tournament or hasn’t yet returned, the committee could drop the Blue Devils in spite of a portfolio worthy of a No. 1 seed.
3. Kansas’ historic streak on the line. The Jayhawks have won 14 consecutive Big 12 regular-season titles. The run will end if they don’t win their final three regular-season games and front-runners Kansas State and Texas Tech both don’t lose. While this Kansas team has been hard to read, losing to Texas Tech by 29 one night then beating Kansas State by 15 the next, this is the closest coach Bill Self has come to the streak ending in his tenure. Kansas’ best player, Dedric Lawson, averages a double-double and will be a key name to watch this March.
4. A softer bubble this year. Usually, the NCAA tournament bubble makes it difficult for the selection committee to choose between a plethora of borderline teams. Not this year. Instead the committee will have a hard time finding teams that are worthy, with one of the softest bubbles in recent memory opening things up for teams with weak profiles to get in.
Wofford is a mid-major that surprisingly sits comfortable as a projected No. 8 seed, meaning if it loses the Southern Conference tournament’s auto bid it will still likely get in as at-large. North Carolina State has one of the worst non-conference schedules in the entire country but is relatively safe as a No. 11 seed heading into the final two weeks. Arizona State, a projected No. 11 seed, has lots of résumé stains and plays in a Pac-12 that’s having one of its worst overall seasons in league history. And Indiana has lost 12 of 14 games but somehow still remains in consideration for an at-large bid. As always, fringe teams will be sweating on Selection Sunday but it’s worth noting that the teams that squeeze in this year usually would be NIT-bound.
5. Cinderella watch. Small conference tournaments start up next week and while they won’t have the same spotlight as some of the power conferences a week later, they’re important to monitor when considering which mid-majors could be busting brackets this March. While it’s hard to fathom another double-digit seed will go all the way to the Final Four as Loyola-Chicago did last year, there are plenty of upset-capable mid-majors that will be in action next week. The key will be for them to win their conference tournaments as expected so that they can nail down the No. 12 or No. 13 seed that’d position them to put on a glass slipper. Here’s a look at the teams with major Cinderella potential:
Furman (22-6) or UNC-Greensboro (24-5): The Southern Conference could be the first league not ranked in the top-10 conferences (based on overall RPI or NET) to have multiple teams in the field if either can beat Wofford and win the conference tournament.
Belmont (23-4) or Murray State (23-4): Should Murray State win the Ohio Valley tournament, then we’re possibly looking at another two-bid mid-major league. The Bruins have an at-large case. The Racers, however, likely won’t get the call from the committee if it doesn’t get the automatic berth – even with standout guard Ja Morant, who is projected to go among the top picks in NBA draft.
Lipscomb (22-6): Currently a projected No. 12 seed, the Bisons, led by guard Garrison Matthews, are the Atlantic Sun tournament favorite and could be in prime position to be another 12-over-5 upset winner.
Old Dominion (22-6): B.J. Stith (18.1 ppg) and Ahmad Caver (17.1 ppg) combined for a dynamic backcourt duo on this Conference USA leader that beat Syracuse. The Monarchs, sporting a top-10 defense in the nation, are currently a projected No. 13 seed.
South Dakota State (23-7): The Jackrabbits, a projected No. 15 seed, have the goods to be this year’s biggest bracket-buster behind big man Mike Daum (25.8 ppg, 11.8 rpg), who fuels the inside-out game for a team that ranks third nationally in three-point field goal percentage (41.4%).