Ten Burning Questions for the Final Month of College Basketball’s Regular Season

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There’s just one month left in the college basketball regular season, and only five weeks to go until Selection Sunday. A lot can change in one month, and the majority of conference races remain up for grabs. Résumés still have plenty of time to get better—or fall apart—but the clock is ticking. Here are 10 burning questions we’re asking about the stretch run.

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Could the Big Ten really send 12 teams to the Dance?

It’s early February, and a dozen Big Ten teams are firmly in the NCAA tournament mix. If you think that’s not warranted, consider that the Big Ten currently has a whopping 12 teams in the KenPom Top 40. The SEC, which also has 14 total teams, has only five of its teams in the Top 40. The ACC, which has 15 total teams, has only three teams within the Top 50.

It’s not a pipe dream to think everyone in the Big Ten except Nebraska and Northwestern could get a bid, which would set a single-season record for one conference. That record currently belongs to the Big East, which sent 11 of its 16 teams back in 2011. No conference has sent even 10 teams since. Three Man Weave currently places 12 Big Ten teams in the field, while the Bracket Matrix consensus has 11 teams in, with Minnesota among the First Four Out.

The Big Ten also has a chance to break the record for the highest percentage of teams from one conference sent dancing (set in 1991, when the Big East put in seven of its nine teams (77.8%). If the Big Ten sends 11 of its 14 teams to March Madness this year, it will set a new record with 78.6% of its teams dancing. Twelve bids would be an astounding 85.7%. There’s still time for the Big Ten gantlet to crush the hopes of any of its bubble teams, but expect to see a lot of B1G no matter what in March.

Can San Diego State run the table?

This year’s last remaining unbeaten has made it all the way to February. Only six Mountain West games stand between the Aztecs and a perfect regular season, and all are plenty winnable. KenPom gives SDSU anywhere from a 75% to 96% chance of winning each one, and a 43.3% overall chance of pulling off the feat. Its toughest remaining games both come on the road, at Boise State and Nevada. The latter is the Aztecs’ regular-season finale on Feb. 29, and seems likely to come with perfection on the line. San Diego State, which is led by All-American candidate Malachi Flynn, has a lot on the line, as it’s in the running for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. While the Mountain West competition doesn’t compare with the power conferences, it’s extremely hard to go undefeated, and this team does have strong nonconference victories over Iowa, Creighton and BYU—all top-20 teams on KenPom.

College basketball Virginia Florida Marquette Markus Howard

Will the ACC Bubble burst?

It has not been a banner year for the ACC. The conference does have up to three potential national title contenders in Duke, Louisville and Florida State, but after that, things get rough. Defending champ Virginia is squarely on the bubble, though the Cavaliers are trending the right way having won three of their last four. T-Rank gives them a 58.6% chance of making the tournament, and there’s a thin margin for error unless UVA can find a way to win one of its three remaining games against Louisville (twice) and Duke.

Elsewhere, NC State, Syracuse and Virginia Tech are the only other ACC teams that even appear in the “Others Receiving Votes” section on Bracket Matrix. Barring an ACC tournament title, all of them have a lot of work to do to earn an at-large spot in the field, and all three have squandered golden chances to improve their résumé of late. By the time we get to conference-tournament week, it’s entirely possible there could be only three or four ACC teams in even the fringes of the at-large picture.

Will Kansas or Baylor win the Big 12?

Last year, Kansas failed to win even a share of the Big 12 regular season title for the first time since 2004. Could it happen again? With one month left, the Jayhawks trail Baylor by one game in the standings. Barring a stumble down the stretch by both of these teams, this has the feeling of a two-horse race (the Bears currently lead West Virginia by three games, though the two schools do still have to meet twice). Circle KU’s Feb. 22 return trip to Waco on your calendar, especially after Baylor won for the first time ever in Lawrence back in January. That’s still Kansas’s only Big 12 loss, but road trips at WVU and Texas Tech also await the Jayhawks. Whoever emerges from the Big 12 gantlet will have definitely earned it.

Can Florida salvage a once-hyped season?

Arguably no team has been more disappointing this season than Florida. The Gators opened the season as a top-10 team, an honor that was short-lived after a loss to rival Florida State in its second game of the season. It turned out that the game exposed long-term concerns with UF, which currently stands at 14-8. That’s a perfectly respectable record, but not the one expected for a team that was once getting Final Four hype. The Gators have just one win that could be considered a marquee one: a home beatdown of Auburn on Jan. 18.

Florida is still tracking to make the NCAA tournament, and that’s where things get interesting. This remains a talented roster, one that has three former five-stars (Scottie Lewis, Tre Mann and Andrew Nembhard) and Kerry Blackshear Jr., who was last spring’s most coveted grad transfer. None of those four have truly lived up to expectations in 2019-20, which is one of the reasons Florida hasn’t as a whole. Another big reason has been the drop-off of its defense, usually a staple under Mike White. The Gators went from 16th last year to 68 this year in KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings, including sitting 10 out of 14 teams in SEC play. Florida has at times struggled on offense too, but any run down the stretch or in March likely hinges on proving it can consistently stop opponents. If the Gators can make some noise in this final month or in the SEC tournament, they’re not likely to be a team a high seed is going to be eager to face.

Will anyone play spoiler to Gonzaga?

It’s no surprise that Gonzaga is once again having its way in the WCC, but there’s a few potential landmines left before the Bulldogs can book another No. 1 seed in the Big Dance. For one thing, the WCC’s top-end this season is great, with BYU (No. 18 on KenPom, No. 28 in NET) and Saint Mary’s (No. 27 on KenPom, No. 32 in NET) both making it possible for it to be a three-bid league in 2020. Gonzaga still has to face both those teams on the road, and will in all likelihood need to beat at least one of them to win the West Coast tournament. Last season, the Gaels stunned the Zags in the WCC final, stealing an at-large bid in the process. For as good as the Bulldogs have been under Mark Few, they’ve never been a NCAA tournament No. 1 seed in back-to-back seasons. That will change this year … unless the rest of the WCC has a say in it.

Markus Howard or Myles Powell?

Big East fans have been truly spoiled this year. Not only does their conference provide quality and compelling matchups night in and night out, but the race for Conference Player of the Year features two dynamite talents who are not just two of the best in their league, but two of the best in the country. We’re talking, of course, about Seton Hall’s Myles Powell and Marquette’s Markus Howard. Both are seniors, and both should be NCAA-tournament bound.

Powell is a tough, gritty scoring guard who stars for his home-state team, and he’s averaging 22 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists. Howard is the most explosive scorer in college basketball, leading the country with 27.9 points per game (he also adds 3.1 assists and is shooting 39.6% from three). Howard is the flashier of the two, having scored more than 30 points in 10 of his 21 games so far this season. But Powell is the leading cog for the Big East’s current first-place team, and could lead the Pirates to their first regular-season title since 1992-93. KenPom.com’s National Player of the Year standings currently has Howard at No. 4, and Powell at No. 7. Watching these two duke it out both on a conference and national level for the rest of the season will be a treat.

Which mid-majors could be a March dark horse?

If you’ve been even semi-following this college basketball season, you likely know that in addition to annual powerhouse Gonzaga, San Diego State and Dayton are two teams outside the power conferences that are also looking very much legitimate. The Aztecs are No. 1 in the NCAA NET rankings, while the Bulldogs and Flyers both land in the top five. They won’t sneak up on anyone in March, but that doesn’t mean we won’t get our annual darkhorse or Cinderella candidates from the mid-major level. The list of teams that could go dancing and have a chance at an upset (or two) includes (but is not limited to) the WCC’s BYU and Saint Mary’s, Missouri Valley’s Northern Iowa, the Ivy League’s Yale, the A-10’s VCU and Rhode Island, the SoCon’s East Tennessee State, the Atlantic Sun’s Liberty and—of course—the Southland’s Stephen F. Austin, which famously already beat Duke in Cameron Indoor this season.

Any of the above teams would likely get anywhere from a fair amount to a lot of upset love should they appear in the bracket in March, and for good reason. BYU, Saint Mary’s and Northern Iowa are all Top 40 teams on KenPom; Yale, Rhode Island and VCU are in the Top 50, East Tennessee State beat LSU and Liberty has four starters back from a team that already pulled off a first-round upset a year ago. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot to lose down the stretch. Too many slip-ups could cost a team a seed line or two, even if it goes on to win its conference tournament. And the road to an upset is generally a lot harder as a No. 14 seed vs. as a No. 12.

Can Tulsa really win the AAC?

Unbeknownst to a lot of the country, the Golden Hurricane quietly took the lead in the AAC race thanks to a six-game winning streak that was snapped Thursday night by UConn. Tulsa now finds itself a half-game behind Wichita State and Houston after that outcome, but since it’s tied in the loss column, it controls its own destiny. Where did this team come from? The Golden Hurricane went 18-14 last season (8-10 in AAC play), and were picked to finish 10th in the preseason AAC poll. This season didn’t get off to a great start either, as they dropped games to UT Arlington and Arkansas State before Christmas. Now, though, Frank Haith’s team is 7-2 in the American, with wins over Wichita State, Houston and Memphis, the last of which was by 40(!) points. According to T-Rank, Tulsa has been the 28th-best team in the country since Jan 1.

The secret sauce has been its three-point defense, which ranks seventh nationally and first in the AAC, with opponents shooting a dismal 24.9% from the outside. The two AAC games the Hurricane have lost were the two where the opponent shot better than 35% from the perimeter, including UConn’s 10-for-22 effort on Thursday. Here’s the thing, though: Tulsa gives up an exceptionally high number of threes. It ranks 343rd nationally in defensive three-point rate and last in the conference. Teams have much more influence on how often their opponents shoot threes than on how well those opponents shoot, which suggests Tulsa’s ability to sustain this elite perimeter defense should come with a degree of skepticism.

Still, the Golden Hurricane have other things going for them: Three players (Brandon Rachal, Martins Igbanu and Jeriah Horne) average double figures; they’re an experienced bunch, starting four juniors and a senior; and they keep their fouls down and force a good number of turnovers. Odds are that Tulsa is not going to win the AAC—and it will need to win the league tournament to go dancing. But the longer this team stays in the race, the greater the odds it can at the very least play spoiler to someone else.

Will anyone emerge from the Pac-12’s crowded standings?

If you thought the Big Ten race was tight, check out the Pac-12. Eight of its 12 teams have 3–5 conference losses, meaning that even a team like .500 UCLA is only two games back of first. Colorado, Oregon and Arizona all lead the pack with three losses, though the Buffaloes and Ducks are a half-game up at 7-3. USC, Arizona State and Stanford are all lurking at one back in the loss column. The conference has definitely rebounded since last season’s debacle, when it sent three teams to the NCAA tournament, but it's unclear whether any of its three best teams (Oregon, Colorado and Arizona) this year have what it takes to get to win it all. Bracket Matrix currently views the Ducks as a No. 4 seed, and the Buffs and Wildcats as No. 6 seeds. That would make the conference’s road to Atlanta tough, but there’s still time for any of those three to create separation down the stretch and go on a Pac-12 tournament run. Just look at last season, when Oregon rolled into March Madness having won eight straight and proceeded to make the Sweet 16 as a No. 12 seed.

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