As We Approach Tournament Time, Should Your Team Be Worried About its March Fate?

Evaluating how concerned teams should be about their title hopes or tournament chances with two months remaining until the NCAA tournament.
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The odds are pretty good that wherever you are is pretty cold right now. Mid-January will do that. I traveled from my home in New York to the middle of the country last week and thought maybe that would mean not returning from every trip outside feeling like I should thaw myself inside of a fire. It did not. It might have been even worse there because it was horribly windy. Spring seems very, very far away.

But March—March is a little bit closer than that. We’re less than seven weeks from the month itself and almost two months exactly from the beginning of the NCAA tournament (which incidentally is one full week before the first day of spring). Teams’ resumes are building into at-large shape, and we’re starting to get a clearer picture of who might be real contenders for the national title.

On the flip side, we’re also getting into the time period where, if things aren’t going your way, the steady march toward, um, March is cause for concern, that much closer are you to whatever final form you make take. And if you’re a fan stuck inside during the bitter heart of winter, it’s an easy time to sit around getting stir-crazy and freak out about stuff.

With those things in mind, it’s time to debut a new and potentially short-lived feature: the Worry Warthogs, in which various teams’ causes for concern are graded on a scale of one to five wild boar emojis, because wild boars and warthogs are basically the same thing. (This column’s theme song can be found here.) The concern levels are relative to expectations; some teams may be finding their legitimate title hopes in jeopardy, while others are trying to simply make the tournament at all. What they all have in common is a spate of troubling recent performances and, now, some pictures of warthogs next to their names.

Michigan State


After entering the New Year ranked No. 1, two decisive losses in three games—with an overtime trip at home against Rutgers sandwiched between them—have the Spartans trending downward. Tom Izzo’s young team is struggling with its opponents’ physicality, but the timing of this rough patch is fortunate. The Spartans do not play again until hosting Indiana on Friday, then travel to Illinois and host Wisconsin the following week. That’s about as good a get-right Big Ten stretch as they could ask for right now. Between the schedule’s leeway and Izzo at the reins, things should be looking up soon.



Standards are higher in Lawrence, where there are sixth graders who’ve never lived in a world where the Jayhawks did not claim at least part of a Big 12 title. That streak looks more jeopardized than ever in a season where the rest of the league is so strong and Kansas has lost twice at home—and came close to losing twice more there this past week, to Iowa State and Kansas State. The arrival of Silvio de Sousa may help once he gets more acclimated and up to speed, but this is still a team reliant on jump shots and lacking in scorers who can create their own offense. The Jayhawks still look like a potential second-weekend team, but the way things stand now, they won’t enter as likely Final Four contenders for the first time in years.

Arizona State


The country’s nonconference darlings are having a rough go of Pac-12 play, beginning in 2-3 with both victories being nail-biters against also-rans (Utah and Oregon State). What’s gone wrong? The Sun Devils are shooting significantly worse (41.4% in conference play vs. 50.8% in nonconference) and their defense has become lax: after allowing more than one point per possession just four times in their first 12 games, they’ve done so against all five of their Pac-12 opponents. I’d imagine before the season any Sun Devils fan would have taken simply being in the Top 25 on Jan. 15 with wins over Kansas and Xavier, but getting back toward the top of the polls will take some cleaning up, as well as getting guard Tra Holder back on track.

North Carolina


The Tar Heels are hard to peg. They lost at home to Wofford, nearly lost there to Wake Forest, lost twice on the road, then barely scraped by a very shorthanded Notre Dame team back in Chapel Hill. But there’s no real glaring weakness aside from allowing teams to take way too many threes (they make up 42.7% of UNC’s points allowed, second most in the country)—and those weren’t necessarily what caused their losses. Getting to the line and finding some more outside shooting would help, but North Carolina looks like it will settle in as a pretty good team who could be prone to an upset.




Things are getting ugly for the Golden Gophers, losers of three in a row, two of which came to Northwestern (by 23!) and Indiana before a 34-point drubbing at the hands of Purdue this weekend. Minnesota simply haven’t been able to shoot the ball, ranking 12th in the Big Ten in two-point field goal percentage during conference play and 13th from three-point range, and are getting dominated on the glass on both ends. With Jordan Murphy looking more mortal these days, this suddenly looks like it could be an uphill battle to even make the tourney.



A team that started 12-0 now being 13-4 looks pretty alarming on the surface, but the Horned Frogs are being graded on a pair of curves: the quality of the Big 12 and the history of the program. It seemed obvious Jamie Dixon’s team would come down to earth a bit in league play, as its early-season schedule was set up for success, but TCU is actually incredibly close to looking like it hardly as any cause for concern at all, as its four losses are by a combined 13 points. The next two months will be a battle as they try to elbow their way into the middle of the conference, but if they continue to play at this level and a break or two goes their way, they should be fine and headed to their first NCAA berth in 20 years.



Yes, the Tide won both of their games last week, but that was the first time they’d won consecutive games since Thanksgiving week. With Collin Sexton and John Petty arriving, there were big expectations for Avery Johnson’s third season, which began with Alabama on the fringe of the Top 25. Now it’s looking like a mid-level SEC team who will have to pull off a surprise or two to even secure an NCAA invite. A win over in-state rival Auburn at home this week could go a long way toward doing so.



The good news is that the Orange’s four-game slide leads them right into the softest part of their ACC schedule, which closes out January with two games against Pittsburgh, a home date with B.C., and a trip to Georgia Tech. The bad news is that they just don’t look like much of a tournament team, struggling to score in general (109th in offensive efficiency, 294th in effective field goal percentage) and lacking shooting specifically. The zone will help them pull out a win or two that they otherwise shouldn’t, and that may score them an at-large bid, but first they need to stop their skid before it becomes a tailspin.

Notre Dame


You could make the case that the Irish are a five-warthog team, as they’ve likely lost do-everything star forward Bonzie Colson for the season and have been without point guard Matt Farrell due to an ankle injury. But Notre Dame has played admirably since the injuries, going 2-2 and nearly beating North Carolina this weekend. And really, when you lose your two high-usage stars like that, there’s only so much you can do. At this point the Irish are, in an unfortunate way, practically playing with house money. As long as they stay competitive, why worry?

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If you are wondering what exactly you are reading, this is the Monday Rebound,’s weekly Monday column on college hoops. It’s a sort of a grab-bag of news and tidbits and opinions largely aimed at catching you up on the weekend’s (and week’s) action and being generally informative. If there’s anything you like or dislike or would want to see more of here, or if you would just like to discuss your favorite La Parka GIFs, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene. Thanks for reading.

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There was some terrible news out of Texas this week that had nothing to do with basketball. On Wednesday the school announced that sophomore guard Andrew Jones, the Longhorns’ second-leading scorer, is undergoing treatment for leukemia. That night there was, at the very least, a bit of a temporary feel-good reprieve for the program, as Texas beat No. 16 TCU in double overtime, capped with an emotional celebration from coach Shaka Smart and Jones’s teammates holding his jersey aloft during a postgame rendition of “The Eyes of Texas.”

"It's incredibly heartbreaking news," Smart said on the Big 12 coaches’ conference call. "You feel a helpless feeling because you want to do things to make it better. But a lot of times, it's out of your control." The school has set up a fund for donors to help support Jones and his family with expenses as he battles the disease. As of this writing 1,174 people had contributed more than $87,000.

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High Five

1. Purdue: The Boilermakers haven’t lost since dropping back-to-back games in the Bahamas to Tennessee and Western Kentucky over Thanksgiving weekend, and this week eked out a road win over a quality Michigan team and decimated Minnesota in Minneapolis. A year after losing the Big Ten Player of the Year, Purdue is looking like the class of the conference.

2. Oklahoma: The Sooners picked up two high-quality home wins, grinding one out against No. 8 Texas Tech and coming back late to top No. 16 TCU in overtime. Trae Young was, again, out of this world, scoring 22 in the second half against the Red Raiders and totaling 43 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists against the Horned Frogs. Classmate Brady Manek added 22 against TCU, including six threes on nine tries.

3. Ohio State: This should be the week that gets the Buckeyes into the rankings. They beat Maryland and Rutgers this week by 22 points apiece and big man Keita Bates-Diop continued to build his All-America case by averaging 23.0 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks over the two games.

4. Villanova: The win at St. John’s was probably closer than the Wildcats would have liked, but the 24-point win over Xavier was their second most impressive of the season (after their 16-point beating of Gonzaga in early December). Phil Booth and Donte DiVincenzo each had 20-plus-point games last week, showing off the secondary scoring power that can make Villanova so hard to contain.

5. Rhode Island: The Rams are the Atlantic 10’s lone undefeated team, with the closest of their five wins being last Tuesday’s 72-65 win at Saint Louis. Their 14-point home win over a talented St. Bonaventure squad should affirm them as the clear alpha in an A-10 down year. Dan Hurley’s team is small—there’s almost never more than one player on the floor taller than 6’5”—but mighty.

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Top of the Classes

Senior: Chandler Hutchison, Boise State guard

Hutchison’s shot wasn’t falling in Wednesday’s win at Fresno State (he shot 3-for-12) but he sank 15-of-18 free throws to finish with 21 points (and 10 rebounds). On Saturday he regained his stroke, making seven of 10 threes and 15 of 21 field goals overall in a 44-point effort against San Diego State.

Junior: Luke Maye, North Carolina forward

The Tar Heels got back on track with two wins this week thanks in large part to Maye, who set career highs in points (32) and rebounds (18) against Boston College and then contributed 18 points, 11 rebounds and three steals against Notre Dame.

Sophomore: Luwane Pipkins, Massachusetts guard

The 5’11” Chicagoan followed a 44-point, five-assist explosion in Wednesday’s win over La Salle with 27 points, seven rebounds and six assists in the Minutemen’s defeat of Saint Joseph’s.

Freshman: Trae Young, Oklahoma guard

At a certain point—maybe after a third 40-point game?—perhaps Young shouldn’t be considered a freshman anymore. Over the Sooners’ two wins this week, the country’s leading scorer and assist-giver averaged 35.0 points, 8.0 assists, 6.5 rebounds and 2.5 steals.

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Bests of the Best

Each week, we’ll get to know a standout player a little better by asking them about some of the best things in the world. This week we welcome Wichita State guard Landry Shamet, who is averaging 15.8 points and 5.0 assists and whose 135.9 offensive rating ranks ninth in the country. So, Landry, tell us about the best...

...sports movie. “I would say He Got Game, with Jesus Shuttlesworth—just the fact that it’s actually Ray Allen, and Denzel has always been one of my favorite actors. It’s just been kind of one of my favorite movies growing up. Whenever it’s on TV, I watch it, then I’ve got the DVD of it at my house too.”’ve ever felt on a basketball court. “Even though I didn’t play well, my first NCAA tournament win, against Dayton last year. Even just touching the court for the first time and seeing my mom there, it was pretty cool. Just looking up and seeing her and being in an NCAA tournament, it was a dream come true. It was surreal and cool to briefly soak in that moment.”

...player to impersonate growing up. “Derrick Rose, his like 2010 to 2014, when he was healthy and kind of changing the NBA. If people ask me who my favorite player is, I always say 2010-11 Derrick Rose, the MVP season. I just loved watching how athletic he was. Obviously, I wasn’t as athletic as he was when I was younger, but I would try to vary my finishes and get creative protecting the ball from the defense.”

...condiment for a hot dog. “I don’t know how common this is, but I’d say barbecue sauce. I’m a big barbecue sauce guy. Mustard is a close second. I eat brats more than hot dogs, but those are about the same thing, or close to it. I’m from Kansas City and that’s a big barbecue spot. That’s kind of my thing. So one time I just figured why not and put barbecue sauce on there. It just kind of stuck.”

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As the scandal turns...

Among the various transactions uncovered by the FBI’s investigation into college basketball recruiting, perhaps the most consequential thus far has been Louisville’s funneling of $100,000 to the family of five-star recruit Brian Bowen, which led to the firings of coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich and opposing lawsuits between Pitino and the school. (Prison time, should any of those arrested come to serve it, would obviously be of greater consequence than any of this, but whether the charges lead to any remains to be seen.) But while Pitino and Jurich remain out of work, Bowen has found a landing place: this week he was admitted to South Carolina, where he will seek reinstatement from the NCAA.

This new home raised many an eyebrow. After all, South Carolina was the previous employer of former Oklahoma State assistant Lamont Evans—indicted on charges in the probe—who worked under Gamecocks coach Frank Martin both at that school and at Kansas State. Martin’s computer was also searched by the FBI as part of its investigation, though he has not been named at all in connection to the scandal. Martin spoke to CBS Sports about his choice to take Bowen, explaining: “I chose to be in education; that's who I am. That's why that kid is in school right now. I'm not into the phoniness of this business. You give him a chance. That's what education is about.”

Bowen’s reinstatement application should be an interesting one, and the NCAA’s ruling will almost certainly carry a penalty, should he be reinstated at all. It’s yet another case to keep an eye on in the coming months.

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Social Media Post of the Week

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Assigned Viewing: Middle Tennessee at Western Kentucky, Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on Stadium via Facebook Live

If you’re looking to get an early jump on your Cinderella studies, it will be a good idea to get yourself familiar with these teams. Both 5-0 in Conference USA, if one or both winds up in the tournament, they will be strong candidates to pull off an early upset. Middle Tennessee has done so for the past two seasons, stunning Michigan State (as a 15 seed) in 2016 and beating Minnesota last March. Western Kentucky, meanwhile, can boast high-major talent (wing Darius Thompson transferred from Virginia, big man Dwight Coleby from Kansas) and wins over Purdue and SMU. Plus you’ll get to see two of the most enjoyable characters in college hoops: Middle Tennessee guard Giddy Potts and WKU mascot Big Red.

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Before You’re Dismissed...

• As referenced above, Minnesota forward Reggie Lynch was found “responsible” by the university for two incidents of sexual misconduct. The handling of the situation has been lacking in several ways—Lynch was permitted to play while under investigation, which coach Richard Pitino has explained as being consistent with university policy—but it got even worse when Lynch’s attorney, Ryan Pacyga, compared the current climate of sexual assault allegations to “the hysteria when World War II started, and we had the Japanese internment camps.” The woman from one of the cases released a statement, which can be read here, criticizing Pacyga for cavalierly discussing details of her attack.

• The latest in the strange case of a soured friendship turned NCAA violations case at Georgia Tech: coach Josh Pastner is suing former friend Ron Bell and Bell’s girlfriend for defamation and claiming they planned to blackmail and extort him. It’s been a strange, disappointing season in Atlanta.

• This story from Jesse Dougherty on Mya Fourstar, a high school basketball star trying to make the rare jump from Fort Peck Indian Reservation to Division I, is really worth your time.

• If you didn’t catch it last week, here’s a good look from SI’s Chris Johnson at the best Wooden Award candidates besides Trae Young.

• I saw this clip of Washington coach Mike Hopkins without any context and enjoyed it so much I refuse to find any.

• With new reports that the NCAA is considering allowing transfers to play immediately, here’s my column from September arguing why that is a fair and logical move.

• As of this writing, the Big 12 was investigating what appeared to be a punch thrown at a Texas Tech fan by West Virginia forward Wesley Harris after the Red Raiders beat the Mountaineers. This will yet again rouse the usual arguments about rushing the court, which is a fun thing I love to see, but absolutely cannot result in incidents like this. And while yes, if court-storming were banned this wouldn’t have happened, the onus is on the wrongdoer. Better policies should be put into place to better establish separation between opposing players and fans before we stop the practice entirely.

• How’s this for ambition: in discussing what he’s looking for in a college, five-star recruit Scottie Lewis told Adam Zagoria, “When I put the ball down, I want to be able to own [an NBA] team, so from an academic standpoint, how can you help me do that?” That’s one of the best recruiting quotes you’ll see all year.

• But seriously, that Mike Hopkins clip.