March Madness will be here before we know it, and with it, so will debates over brackets, bluebloods and bubble teams. But just because we don’t have a field of 68 yet doesn’t mean we can’t open the conversation.
We gave eight Sports Illustrated college hoops writers six statements relating to either the upcoming conference tournaments or the men’s NCAA tournament and asked whether they agreed and are buying in, or don’t agree and are selling. While it’s too early to know the specifics of seedings and regions—which could change the outlook for some of these situations—our writers made their cases based on how things stand now.
Buy or sell: The national championship game will be Baylor vs. Gonzaga
Pat Forde: SELL. As much as I think those are the two best teams in a vacuum, this season is anything but. So I think something happens along the way to that clash of titans—a Big Ten team muscles into the final, most likely. Baylor may be perfectly fine by next month, but that was an extremely shaky return to competition against a terrible Iowa State team Tuesday night. If the Bears lost any of the beautiful mojo they had working all season it would be a real shame, but it's not out of the question. Also, I still wonder how Gonzaga will react when it's in a legit scrap against a legit opponent for the first time in months. (That's not a new question with the Zags, of course.)
Jeremy Woo: BUY. Is this wishful thinking? Maybe. But I really have a hard time seeing a pathway for either team to fall flat, and I wonder if the circumstances may actually prevent major upsets in matchups where one team is that much more talented than the other (a factor that tournament seeding often fails to capture). Once we all get to Indianapolis, there won’t be much for these teams to focus on besides basketball. Gonzaga and Baylor are that much better than everyone else. Maybe this is boring, but I buy it.
Jason Jordan: BUY. I almost feel like the pandemic season owes this to us. We all felt robbed back in December when the game didn’t happen, and the reality is there’s a dropoff, albeit slimmer by the week, after No. 2. Both teams will be favored to win in each of their tournament games, and I can’t imagine there’s a selection committee member that would put the Bears and Bulldogs on the same side of the bracket. Book it.
Kevin Sweeney: SELL. Baylor and Gonzaga are the two best teams in college basketball. But each team winning five straight games to finally meet after a months-long collision course is not something I’d bet on. March Madness is unpredictable, and while it would take a special performance, I believe one will go down before the title game. And maybe I’m overreacting to Baylor’s struggles vs. Iowa State, but I’m not sure they are significantly better than Michigan. I’ll take the field to claim at least one spot in the championship game.
Michael Shapiro: SELL. Gonzaga and Baylor have paced the field with a pair of undefeated seasons thus far, but doesn’t it feel a bit premature to deem this the de facto title game before the field of 68 is even set? The ACC is severely dampened this season, but multiple conferences still sport at least one viable championship contender. Both Ohio State and Michigan have the offensive polish for a deep tournament run. Alabama has blitzed SEC opponents all year with its up-tempo style under Nate Oats. I’d feel comfortable guaranteeing at least one of these teams appears in the national championship. But I’ll stop short of placing Gonzaga and Baylor in the title game with multiple weeks remaining before the tournament.
Molly Geary: SELL. I’ll be stunned if neither of these teams is in the title game. Getting both is a little trickier, even if they’ve been the best teams in men’s college basketball this season (no offense, Michigan). Just call this a hunch that one gets tripped up a tad too soon, denying all of us of the matchup we’ve been waiting for.
Elizabeth Swinton: BUY. It is difficult to predict anything other than this outcome. Baylor and Gonzaga have seemed to be on a crash course to the national championship game throughout their dominant performances this season. Michigan will be the top challenger for a Final Four upset, but as the teams stand now, Baylor or Gonzaga will be the last one standing.
Nick Selbe: SELL. History tells us that the chalk outcome rarely plays out in the NCAA tournament. Even though Gonzaga and Baylor appear to be the clear top two teams in the country, the contenders all have a blueprint to pull off an upset on the road to the title game. Michigan, in particular, looks to be right there in terms of being in Gonzaga and Baylor’s top tier.
Buy or sell: At least two Big Ten teams will make the Final Four
Forde: BUY. That's setting a high bar because I'd pick Baylor and Gonzaga to take two of the four spots. But I'm sold on Michigan as a national title threat (even with above-average/below-elite guards). I think Ohio State can guard better than it has shown lately. Iowa can shoot its way in. Illinois, if it gets the long stretches of casual play out of its system, absolutely has the talent and firepower. And I’m not going to say it’s out of the question that a second-tier Big Ten team takes advantage of a broken bracket and gets there, either. The league is so much better than everyone else that it should have a very big March.
Woo: SELL. Michigan is the team that makes me feel the best right now. I’d be surprised if one of Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois or Iowa didn’t make it. But I think with the exception of the frontrunners, there’s quite a bit of parity among the top-seeded teams. I reserve the right to feel differently once we have a bracket, but my gut says no here.
Jordan: BUY. Safe bet since the options abound in the best basketball conference in the country. For me the greatest indicator that this will come to fruition is the upperclassmen leadership on the roster. Michigan, Iowa, Illinois and Ohio State have a core group that takes its cues from more experienced players. In this pandemic season that factor will matter more than ever.
Sweeney: SELL. This is entirely about bracketing rather than team quality. Since the selection committee avoids putting teams from the same conference as the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the same region, there’s a strong chance that Illinois and Iowa wind up in the same region as Baylor and Gonzaga, respectively. Spreading out the Big Ten’s four Final Four–caliber teams across four regions makes it that much tougher to send two to the Final Four.
Shapiro: SELL. This is no disrespect to the Big Ten, which sports four legitimate Final Four contenders in Ohio State, Michigan, Illinois and Iowa. But once again, the numbers game at play suggests this is a dicey proposition. It would take an injury or truly nightmarish performance to knock Gonzaga out of the Final Four. Baylor is cruising to a No. 1 seed. You can make a credible Final Four case for Oklahoma, West Virginia and Texas, as well as Alabama, Villanova and Houston if things break right. After Baylor and Gonzaga, it’s hard to guarantee the last two spots will be occupied by the Big Ten. I’ll pencil the conference in for one Final Four team at the moment.
Geary: BUY. This is tough because it puts a lot of pressure on Michigan and Ohio State (or, if the Buckeyes fall from the No. 1 seed line, on whomever the Big Ten’s top seed is in the fourth region). Anything can happen in March, but on paper, there are two Final Four spots up for grabs after Gonzaga and Baylor. Yet it’s not ridiculous to think a team like Illinois or Iowa could pick one of them off in the Elite Eight and join, say, the Wolverines on the final weekend. And while the Illini lost to Baylor and the Hawkeyes lost to Gonzaga already, in a weird way, that could lower the intimidation factor in a hypothetical Round 2. I’m going with “buy,” but with a low confidence level.
Swinton: BUY. Big Ten teams may be among the most well equipped to succeed in the NCAA tournament thanks to the level of play within the conference. Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois and Iowa all have a good shot at reaching the Final Four, so seeing at least two of those teams in the final weekend would not be a surprise. Their battle-tested edge will likely give those in the conference an advantage during the Big Dance.
Selbe: BUY. The Big Ten was the last conference to put two teams in the Final Four, pulling off the rare feat in 2015. That year the conference received seven bids, tied for the most of any league. Wisconsin made it as a No. 1 seed, while Michigan State was a No. 7 seed. In his latest Bracket Watch, SI’s Kevin Sweeney has 10 Big Ten teams in the field, easily the most of any conference. That includes two No. 1 seeds (Michigan and Ohio State) and two No. 2 seeds (Iowa and Illinois). How many teams actually get called on Selection Sunday and what they’re seeded could certainly change, but that kind of high volume of elite teams is unprecedented in recent memory.
Buy or sell: At least one ACC will reach the Elite Eight
Forde: BUY. Someone is getting there, with Florida State the leading candidate. The Seminoles got that far in 2018 and would have been one of my picks for the Final Four last year, if there had been a tournament. This is probably Leonard Hamilton’s best team. After FSU it gets a little iffy. But there are several teams that could make a run, including (don’t laugh) Duke. Of course, the Blue Devils have to make the field first.
Woo: SELL. I don’t trust Florida State’s guard play, and Virginia is Virginia. Both teams are going to keep games close with defense, and both will be vulnerable to hot shooting nights as a result. It’s an unusually down year for the conference, and I don’t see any other ACC teams making it that far. Color me skeptical.
Jordan: SELL. It’s not a strong sell for me, but today I’m saying “sell.” I have maintained throughout the season that I think Florida State has what it takes to make the Final Four, but that 19-turnover performance that resulted in a loss to Georgia Tech still has me perplexed. Yes, they’ve performed well for the most part since, but negative tendencies are often exposed in March. The other contender for that type of run is Virginia, and the hard truth is it’s just not talented enough this season.
Sweeney: BUY. I’ll take any and all Florida State stock currently available. Multiple COVID-19 pauses have made the Seminoles’ season disjointed and prevented them from getting significant national attention, but this FSU club has multiple future pros and has looked excellent lately. They may not have a takeover scorer, but the trio of MJ Walker, Raiquan Gray and Scottie Barnes is so dangerous and the ’Noles have the potential to continue to improve defensively into March.
Shapiro: BUY. It’s been a dismal year in the ACC by all accounts. Duke and North Carolina are shells of their former selves. Virginia hasn’t defeated a ranked team in over a month. But perhaps this gloom and doom will subside in the coming weeks. There still remains a smattering of second-weekend contenders in the ACC. Tony Bennett’s squad sports a crop of veteran contributors and a stifling defense (per usual). Florida State’s length on the perimeter could stifle opponents in March. Both Clemson and Virginia Tech are frisky enough to go on a run given a favorable position in the bracket. I’m skeptical any of these teams can actually win the national title. Can one of them sneak into the Elite Eight? I don’t see why not.
Geary: BUY. I’m kicking myself for not choosing the Seminoles in the Magic Eight, but at the time, there was a bit too much uncertainty with them coming off a COVID-19 pause and having played only 13 games. By my count, FSU has proven itself as the best team in the ACC, and Leonard Hamilton teams have been tough outs in March given how difficult it is to prepare for their mix of length and ability. The ’Noles are the conference’s best NCAA tournament hope.
Swinton: SELL. Florida State and Virginia have held their places atop the ACC, but both teams may fall short of having the necessary weapons to make it to the Elite Eight. The Cavaliers have relied on their staunch defense while FSU sports the stronger offensive threat. The Seminoles have the potential to go the deepest in the ACC since they are more well balanced, but stiff competition may keep any team in the conference out of the Elite Eight.
Selbe: BUY. I'm buying; just don't ask me to pick which team. Each team at the top of the conference has its flaws, though Florida State appears to be the class of the league. The Seminoles are strong offensively and shoot nearly 40% from deep as a team, but don't rank among the nation's best on the defensive end.
Buy or sell: Villanova will win the Big East tourney for the fourth straight time
Forde: SELL. Villanova is probably the best team in the league. It unquestionably has the best coach. It has experience. It has shooters. It has ballhandlers. But these Wildcats are a cut below some of the elite Jay Wright teams of recent vintage. They're not great athletically, which has exposed them a bit at the offensive end. They've lost their last two road games by an average of 13.5 points, which is a warning sign to me. I'm down for an upset in the Garden.
Woo: BUY. This is one of the more boring Villanova teams I’ve seen in recent years. The Wildcats aren’t dripping with NBA talent this time around, but they’re still the most cohesive unit in the Big East, and I ultimately trust them on a neutral floor in a high-stakes game. This is a group that’s been together a while, particularly relative to the field, and I think this is the type of season where I’d bet on those types of teams more often than not.
Jordan: BUY. The Wildcats have been the most consistent and have the most weapons. Naturally, you’ll bring up the beating Creighton gave ’Nova earlier this month, and, sure, Marcus Zegarowski seems to be getting back to form, but the Bluejays have a tendency to play to the level of their competition. And, as a result, they have some head-scratching losses and close games this season. That’s made me hesitant on their ability to dethrone Jay Wright & Co.
Sweeney: BUY. I have my concerns about how the Wildcats will fare in the NCAA tournament thanks to a mediocre defense, but they are still clearly the class of the Big East and will feel right at home at MSG. A primary reason for Villanova’s recent conference tournament success has been Jay Wright’s ability to adjust after playing a team multiple times, and that was on full display this week when the Wildcats blew out St. John’s after losing to the Red Storm a few weeks before.
Shapiro: BUY. Creighton sprinted past Villanova with a 16-point win in Omaha on Feb. 13, riding a 25-point effort from point guard Marcus Zegarowski. But when the Big East tournament arrives, I still have trouble picking anyone but the Wildcats. Villanova ranks fifth in the nation in offensive efficiency. Only two teams turn the ball over at a lower rate. This is a balanced scoring attack with numerous capable playmakers, and in a pinch, Jay Wright’s team can grind out possessions and win ugly. If we see a rematch between Villanova and Creighton in the Big East title game, the result could very well be flipped.
Geary: SELL. The Big East has some sneaky landmines that could rattle the bracket. Plus, Creighton, when it’s on, can score with just about anyone, and UConn could be a tough potential semifinal opponent for ’Nova now that James Bouknight is back (and, maybe, big man Akok Akok). I don’t think there’s any Big East team that is its far-and-away No. 1 this year, though it certainly won’t be surprising if the Wildcats take home the hardware again.
Swinton: BUY. The Wildcats have had their bouts of vulnerability this season, which caused them to drop to No. 8 in the latest AP Top 25 ranking. Creighton is right on Villanova’s heels at No. 13 and convincingly beat the Wildcats, 86–70, earlier this season. Still, Villanova has been dangerous from three-point range and cannot be counted out, so another Big East regular-season and tournament titles are theirs for the taking—but Creighton and potentially Seton Hall will have something to say about it.
Selbe: SELL. Villanova isn’t head-and-shoulders ahead of the pack in the Big East like in past years. The Wildcats have tightened up defensively since getting rolled by Creighton, though I'm still not convinced they've solved all their issues on that end of the floor. Creighton and a fully healthy UConn—who gave Villanova a tough game with James Bouknight back in the lineup—will be popular picks to cut down the nets.
Buy or sell: USC will go the farthest of Pac-12 teams in the Big Dance
Forde: BUY. Aside from a blip last week against Arizona, USC has dominated the Pac-12 in February. Everyone else has wobbled at least a little this month, but not the Trojans. They are 6–1 in the month, with five of those wins by double digits. USC leads the league during conference play in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and Evan Mobley is a star. But don't sleep on Santa Clara transfer Tahj Eaddy, who has given USC a much-needed boost in the backcourt. The only issue with this team: The only guy on the roster who has played in an NCAA tournament game is Wofford transfer Chevez Goodwin, who played 17 minutes in the 2019 tourney.
Woo: BUY. I’d be lying if I said I felt great about this, but Evan Mobley is just such an equalizer against teams that have similar or lesser talent, and it does feel like USC has built up some credibility, albeit the Pac-12 is not particularly good this year. I think it would be disappointing if the Trojans didn’t make the Sweet 16. I also don’t trust their guards. I think UCLA is pretty solid, but certainly not as reliable. I don’t buy USC as Final Four material at all, but having the best defensive player in the country really covers for a lot of problems.
Jordan: BUY. As the top defensive team in the league who doubles as the top rebounding team that boasts the top rim-protector (Evan Mobley), the Trojans are built for March. Offensively, the Trojans are the second-most efficient team in the league, draining 46.9% of their field goals and they have senior leadership in the backcourt in Tahj Eaddy. No coach will rest easy seeing USC in their bracket next month.
Sweeney: SELL. USC has clearly been the Pac-12’s best team this season, but come March Madness I’ll bet on Oregon to make the deepest run. Oregon is the league’s most talented team, loaded with dynamic playmakers in the backcourt like Will Richardson and Chris Duarte, and versatile pieces up front like LJ Figueroa and Eugene Omoruyi. The Ducks dealt with injuries and COVID-19 issues that prevented them from having a full roster for much of the season, but now that they are healthy, I certainly wouldn’t want to see them in my quadrant of the bracket.
Shapiro: BUY. You could make an argument for USC’s crosstown rival in UCLA, but I like the makeup of Andy Enfield’s squad. The Trojans are the lone Pac-12 team to rank in the top 20 of both offensive and defensive efficiency, per KenPom. They limit fouls better than any team in the conference, and only Oregon State sports a better opponent three-point percentage. Center Evan Mobley is a likely top-five pick with a dominant defensive ceiling. Veteran guards Tahj Eaddy and Drew Peterson are adept scorers late in the shot clock. USC’s balance is its greatest strength. In an imperfect conference, the Trojans are the best bet to make a deep tournament run.
Geary: BUY. I actually think Colorado is underrated, but the Buffaloes are currently a No. 7 or No. 8 seed in most brackets, and that’s a tough road facing a potential No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the second round. USC has good metrics (No. 12 on KenPom) and a staunch interior defense led by Evan Mobley. They can make life difficult for opponents in March.
Swinton: BUY. Colorado’s defense has stood out in the Pac-12, but USC may be more well equipped for the long haul thanks to its superior offense. The Trojans have blossomed into a balanced team with viable threats on both sides of the ball. Colorado, Oregon and UCLA will likely have more difficult roads ahead in the Big Dance, leaving USC the best shot at being the last team standing from the Pac-12.
Selbe: BUY. The Trojans play the best defense of any team in the league and have the best player in Evan Mobley, so they'll likely be a darkhorse Final Four pick for those brave enough to pencil them through. USC is the only Pac-12 team that currently has a shot at being seeded No. 4 or higher. The Trojans are one of six teams to be ranked among the top 20 in offensive and defensive efficiency, per KenPom, a group that includes Gonzaga, Baylor, Michigan, Illinois and Houston.
Buy or sell: At least one of Duke, Kentucky or Michigan State will end up dancing
Forde: BUY. Duke has the best chance at the moment, but all three are surging. Kentucky will be the most talented team in the SEC tournament, and should play with the desperation of a team knowing it needs to win the thing to advance to the Big Dance. Tom Izzo in March must never be discounted, especially now that he seems to have pieced together a new rotation that is paying dividends.
Woo: BUY. I kind of think Duke gets in. How far they will go, I have no clue. But the pressure appears to be off the Blue Devils right now, and they have a pretty winnable schedule left. I do not think Kentucky is winning the SEC tournament. Michigan State has the most résumé opportunities left, but there just isn’t much reason to buy them as a salvageable situation at this point. What a funny year this has been.
Jordan: BUY. Duke is on a four-game winning streak with the best chance to win out with games against Louisville, Georgia Tech and North Carolina. If they’re able to finish the regular season 3–0 they should be in a strong position to slip into an at-large bid. Kentucky’s still got Florida and Michigan State has to see No. 4 Ohio State. Not good for the Cats and Spartans.
Sweeney: SELL. Duke’s recent hot stretch made me think hard about this one, but I just can’t quite get over the hump to say they’ll find their way in. The problem for all three of these bluebloods hasn’t been putting together one good performance; it has been stringing together five in a row. That’s likely what all these teams need, and I’m just not sure the consistency is there for one to rattle off a ton of wins late and sneak in.
Shapiro: BUY. Kentucky and Michigan State still face relatively uphill climbs considering their sub-.500 conference records, but come Selection Sunday, I expect Mike Krzyzewski’s crew to be in the field of 68. The Blue Devils enter Saturday’s matchup with Louisville as winners of four straight, including a much-needed victory over Virginia. If Duke can win two of three against Louisville, Georgia Tech and North Carolina, a 25th-straight tournament appearance is almost certainly on the horizon.
Geary: SELL. Duke and Michigan State’s remaining schedules are a double-edged sword—key opportunities to bolster their résumés but plenty of pressure to produce wins. The Blue Devils are in the best spot right now, and if anyone gets in, I think it will be them. Bid-stealers could shrink the bubble, so there’s a bit too much that needs to go right at the moment for me to feel good about this.
Swinton: SELL: Duke and Michigan State are both making a push for an NCAA tournament bid as the Blue Devils have won four straight and the Spartans recently defeated No. 5 Illinois. Kentucky has also won three straight but will need an SEC tournament crown to make it. Duke and Michigan State have the best shot at bids, but the talent on the bubble may be too strong for them to earn a spot at this point of the season.
Selbe: BUY. The Blue Devils have a look in their eyes as if they’ve flipped a switch, and they’ll have opportunities to bolster their tournament chances with games against teams that are either currently penciled into the field or on the bubble: Louisville, Georgia Tech and North Carolina. As for Kentucky and Michigan State, I think it’s too late for a miracle turnaround. The Spartans will at least have chances to pick up impressive wins, with three games against Michigan and Ohio State on the docket. But the Wildcats sustained too much résumé damage with early-season losses, so their only hopes appear to be winning the SEC tournament.