- As we get ever-closer to March Madness, what won't people see coming down the stretch in college basketball? Our staff makes their picks.
By the end of this week, there will be just one month until Selection Sunday—the day that will determine the postseason fate for so many March hopefuls. With three-quarters of the regular season already in the books, we have a good idea of who this year's top contenders are and who the favorites are in each conference race and tournament. But even if we think we know how things will play out in this final month, there's bound to be at least one or two major surprises in store. Between now and March 17, will happen that few will see coming? We asked our staff to each make one bold prediction for the days leading up to (and including) Selection Sunday.
Jeremy Woo: Iowa State wins the Big 12 in the regular season
I remain drunk on the Cyclones’ brand of basketball. They need to start by beating Kansas State on the road on Saturday, but the only true negative blip on the radar was last weekend’s loss to TCU—no other team has truly been able to outclass them. With Kansas in a bit of flux and K-State playing with a newfound target on its back, I still like Iowa State’s chances. Inarguably, they have more talent than anybody else in the conference right now.
Eric Single: Florida State runs the table until the ACC tournament final
The Seminoles fell off the map after their 1–4 start to ACC play, but their current five-game winning streak has contained some hints at the return of the team that ripped off a 12–1 non-conference record to start the season. Saturday's overtime win over Louisville gave off that same unkillable-villain vibe that FSU exuded during its Elite Eight run in 2018, with a 10-point second-half deficit erased thanks to 22 points from 6'10" sophomore Mfiondu Kabengele. FSU's remaining regular season tests are back-to-back road games at Clemson and UNC next week, along with a visit from Virginia Tech on March 5. The Seminoles' interior size is an awkward enough matchup to tip the scales in those three relative toss-ups and put them in position to earn a double-bye in the ACC tournament, at which point they'd be red-hot and eager to recapture last year's postseason form.
Michael Beller: LSU Wins the SEC Regular Season Crown
After beating Kentucky in Lexington, LSU is one game behind Tennessee in the SEC standings. (And before you go crazy about the dubious game-winning tip-in, let me point out two things. First, it's etched in stone in LSU's win column. Second, even if basket interference were called, the Tigers would've forced overtime with Kentucky on the road. They're legit. O.K., back to the prediction). The Tigers get Tennessee on their home floor the final weekend of February, and the Volunteers still have two games remaining with the Wildcats. LSU is going to win out, Tennessee will split their games with Kentucky, and the Tigers will claim the SEC regular season title.
Joe Wilkinson: Wofford Makes the NCAA Tournament…as an At-Large Team
The Terriers are the best team no one's watched. Fletcher Magee averages 20 points per game and shoots 40% from deep for this 21–4 (13–0 SoCon) squad that ranks No. 30 in Kenpom. Some Bracketologists have them as high as an 8 or 9 seed, but under the assumption they'll snag the conference's automatic bid. Wofford really is this good, but don't sleep on the rest of the SoCon. UNC Greensboro, East Tennessee State and Furman are all imposing challengers. One of them is going to knock off Wofford in the conference tournament. The committee has disrespected quality mid-majors in recent years, but Wofford is simply too good. Their four losses: vs. UNC and at Oklahoma, Kansas and Mississippi State. They also beat South Carolina in Columbia. Get ready for the two-bid SoCon and the one-bid Pac-12.
Emily Caron: North Carolina sweeps Duke in their home-and-home series
Hear me out: the Tar Heels haven’t swept Duke since 2008–09. They’ve split the regular season series for the last three straight seasons, but this year—the year the Tar Heels are least expected to dominate the Blue Devils—my bold prediction is that they’ll walk away with two statement wins. The Blue Devils freshman four have proved almost impossible for ACC contenders to beat—they just took two wins from Virginia, who beat Roy Williams’s crew this week and then had an improbable comeback at Louisville—but Carolina is playing some of its best basketball of the season. Given the intensity of this rivalry, the history and the fact that the Tar Heels have talented seniors like Luke Maye and Cameron Johnson—who you can know would do just about anything for a win at Cameron Indoor—this could be the year. Plus UNC has freshman Nassir Little (given that he bounces back from the ankle injury he suffered Monday night against Virginia) and Coby White, who have something to prove against Duke’s dominant rookies.
Michael Shapiro: Indiana Makes the NCAA Tournament After All
Want the pre-tournament festivities to get truly crazy? How about Indiana rebounds from nine losses in its last 10 games to make the field of 68? It’s certainly a long-shot, but a late-season resurgence is by no means out of reach. The Hoosiers have already logged wins over Louisville, Marquette and Michigan State, with home battles against Purdue, Wisconsin and the Spartans remaining on their schedule. Archie Miller and Co. are one of the few teams who could sneak into the tournament with a sub-.500 conference record. The Hoosiers are 4–9 in the Big Ten entering Saturday’s matchup at Minnesota, with seven conference games remaining. Go 5–2 and snag another Quadrant 1 win, and Indiana could miraculously return to the tournament for the first time since 2016.
Molly Geary: Neither Villanova Nor Marquette Wins the Big East Tournament
Plenty of its teams haven't been officially eliminated yet, but let’s be real: the Big East is a two-team race. After Villanova (11–1) and Marquette (10–2), only two other teams even have a .500 record, with six sitting at 5–7 or worse. Not coincidentally, there’s a considerable kenpom and NET rankings gap between the Big East’s clear top two teams and the rest, making it seem very likely that either the Wildcats or Golden Eagles will also hoist the conference tournament title. So why do I predict someone else will swoop in to steal the hardware? For one thing, single-game elimination tourneys are hard, and all it takes is one bad game to knock you out. While both ‘Nova and Marquette are solid teams, they’re behind the level of the top team or two in most of the other major conferences—one of the reasons the Big East is having a down year—and have questions on defense. The rest of the league may not be daunting, but it’s feasible to see flawed-but-capable teams like St. John's, Seton Hall, Butler or Creighton pulling off an upset or two.
Tristan Jung: Grand Canyon overthrows New Mexico State to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever
The Lopes have come agonizingly close to beating New Mexico State twice this year, and they always say it's hard to beat a team three times in one season. Dan Majerle's team is still a bit inconsistent, but they match up well with New Mexico State on the basis of talent, and I think they can finally get over the hurdle this year. GCU should roll through the WAC tournament to the final. From there, anything is possible. New Mexico State is due to drop one of these conference tournaments, and GCU will be desperate. Stranger things have happened in March.
Max Meyer: Someone Besides Washington Wins the Pac-12 Tournament
As of Feb. 13, Washington is three games ahead of every other Pac-12 school in the conference standings. There are then nine teams that have between five and seven wins in conference play. So it’s a foregone conclusion that the Huskies are going to win the Pac-12 tournament right? Wrong.
Washington should have the conference’s only at-large bid locked up, which means this year’s Pac-12 tournament will be bonkers with 11 teams trying to steal a spot in the tournament. Simply put, there will be teams hungrier in Vegas than the Huskies because there’s more on the line for them.
In terms of potential teams that can pull off the upset, the two I’m keeping my eye on are Arizona State and Oregon State. ASU just knocked off Washington in Tempe, and the Sun Devils could have the highest ceiling of any Pac-12 team thanks to their strong collection of talent (at least for Pac-12 standards). The problem with ASU is that it is also the most inconsistent team in the conference: the Sun Devils have beat Kansas, Mississippi State and Washington while also losing to Princeton and Washington State.
Oregon State, meanwhile, is a veteran-laden team that I think can match up well with Washington. The Beavers have the top scoring triumvirate in the Pac-12 in Tres Tinkle along with brothers Stephen Jr. and Ethan Thompson. Adding seven-foot JUCO transfer Kylor Kelley has been massive for the team’s interior defense, which is important when going up against Washington’s Noah Dickerson. Oregon State doesn’t have much depth, but if its starting five plays well, the Beavers can beat anyone in the Pac-12.
Alex Briseno: Kansas State will have to share the Big 12 title—with Kansas
To those of you who are cautiously waiting for Kansas State to slip up, don’t look any further than the Wildcats’ matchup with Iowa State this weekend. After coming up one point short in the first meeting, the Cyclones will hand the Big 12 leaders their first conference loss since Jan. 5. However, Kansas State matches up with the worst teams in the conference—West Virginia and Oklahoma State—next week, so don’t expect things to fall apart all at once.
That will happen less than two weeks from now when Kansas State drops back-to-back games, one at Allen Fieldhouse and the other against Baylor. The Wildcats will finish 13–5 in the Big 12, which is just enough room for Kansas to slide back into the top spot. Now that the Jayhawks are starting to find their footing without veterans Udoka Azubuike and Lagerald Vick, they have plenty of time to make things interesting.
While it is entirely possible the Big 12 won’t see a team make it to the Elite Eight, nothing is stopping this conference from going off the rails in the regular season. Kick back and relax as Kansas finishes the season 5–1 to complete a 13–5 conference record, allowing the Jayhawks to get a share of its 15th-consecutive regular season title.