Aside from the Virginia Cavaliers and possibly the Purdue Boilermakers, there are hardly any programs that look the part of a National Title contender. With that being said, there is still plenty of time for many of these highly talented albeit noticeably flawed programs to rectify their weaknesses so that they can make a competitive run in the NCAA Tournament. Of course, besides the obviously elite programs that exist, there is a multitude of dark horse programs from lesser-known conferences that have a strong chance of making a splash in the postseason. Programs such as Cincinnati and Wichita State are quietly honing their respective skill sets and could quite possibly surprise college basketball fans and pundits alike in a little over a month. Regardless of your rooting interests or convictions about where all of these unique and competitive programs currently stand, this is the time where college basketball becomes incredibly intriguing as March Madness approaches it’s highly anticipated start date.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. Duke Blue Devils (4)
Although the Fighting Irish could be considered justifiably as a struggling program, they have actually been incredibly competitive during their current five-game losing streak (all five losses were by single digits). With a strong defense (65.9 PAPG) that is tenacious when robbing the opposition of opportunities (seven SPG), the Fighting Irish have been able to be highly competitive in spite of their anemic offense (76.6 PPG). While the Blue Devils are coming off of a devastating loss to the Virginia Cavaliers, this is still a program that is exceptional offensively. On top of that, the Blue Devils defense has been steadily improving and they have proven to be particularly capable of taking away high percentage shots when they are in a 2-3 zone. Even though the Fighting Irish are known for playing Duke tough every year, the Blue Devils are loaded with talented athletes that are playing well enough on defense to allow their prolific offense to work its magic in what should be a bounce-back win.
Final Score: Fighting Irish 74 Blue Devils 84 Spread: Duke -14.5
Kansas Jayhawks (7) vs. Kansas State Wildcats
More often than not, it has been fairly easy to buy into the notion that the Jayhawks are once again an elite program that is simply working through some kinks en route to the NCAA Tournament. While their offense has proven to be highly proficient for the most part, there have been some occasions where the Jayhawks have quickly relinquished a double-digit lead and are forced to make clutch shots down the stretch to win. Although the Wildcats are certainly envious of the Jayhawks electric playmaking capabilities, they are also content with their much more methodical and consistent style of basketball. Underrated defensively (66.6 PAPG) the Wildcats are tenacious when it comes to taking the ball away from their opponent (eight SPG). Despite a less than great offense (76 PPG), the Wildcats do take high-percentage shots consistently although at a much slower pace than most programs do. Although the Jayhawks have the personnel and coaching to take it to Kansas State, the Wildcats have looked like the more consistent program over the last couple of weeks and should be able to shock the Jayhawks by controlling time of possession while making the most of their opportunities near the basket.
Final Score: Jayhawks 75 Wildcats 78 Spread: Kansas -1.5
Baylor Bears vs. Oklahoma Sooners (12)
Losing five of their last six games, the Baylor Bears have been victims of losing tight games to great teams (four of their last five losses were by 10 points or less). Although the Bears have the size of a potent rebounding team, they lack a consistent defense with which to hold off their respective opponents. Ultimately, the Bears have what it takes to win against anyone that they play, they just have to be disciplined and focused during crunch time. Conversely, the Sooners have an established identity as an elite scoring team that for whatever refuses to play anything that resembles decent defense. While a win over Kansas last week was impressive, the Sooners are just as susceptible to going cold offensively and allowing the likes of Alabama to take advantage of their putrid defense. As this is a Big 12 contest, it should be a fairly close affair with both programs scoring in bunches throughout. However, the Sooners offense is much more gifted, which will allow them to win a close game in the end.
Final Score: Bears 81 Sooners 86 Spread: Oklahoma -6.5
Penn State Nittany Lions vs. Michigan State Spartans (5)
Although a 15-8 record would be unimpressive for most programs, for the Nittany Lions, it is an impressive accomplishment as this program has been marred by one throwaway season after another. Thanks to their efficient and opportunistic defense (66.8 PAPG, six BPG, eight SPG), the Nittany Lions have been anything but a cupcake conference opponent. Obviously, the Spartans could not be more different from their respective opponent. Not only do they have the pedigree of a highly successful program, they also have the exceptional athletes and coaching to be near or at the top of the Big 10 standings every season. However, the Spartans have not always looked like the best team within their conference as they needed some crucial stops and scores in crunch time to take out Maryland on Sunday. While the Nittany Lions proved that they can compete with and defeat reputable opponents as they took out Ohio State last week, the Spartans pose way too many problems on offense and defense for Penn State to deal with consistently.
Final Score: Nittany Lions 68 Spartans 82 Spread: Michigan State -12.5
Louisville Cardinals vs. Virginia Cavaliers (2)
Despite losing their head coach and one of their star recruits due to another scandal, the Cardinals have actually held their own in the ACC. Although their overall numbers on offense and defense do not jump off the stat sheet as being particularly impressive, they have played nearly all of their opponents tough regardless of whether they win or lose. If the Cardinals can find ways to score more consistently, they could be a late-blooming program that makes a splash in the ACC Tournament. Of course, the historically great defense of the Cavaliers has rarely faltered this season and just came off a thrilling victory against one of the best offensive program in the country in the Blue Devils. While the Cardinals have to be given a tremendous amount of credit for playing better than most expected them to, they really don’t stand a chance against a Cavaliers program that could arguably be considered the best team in college basketball.
Final Score: Cardinals 56 Cavaliers 71 Spread: Virginia -9.5
Houston Cougars vs. Cincinnati Bearcats (8)
A contest that could hover under the radar because it pits two teams from the American Conference against each other, the Cougars against the Bearcats could realistically be a defensive grudge match worth watching. Holding their last two opponents to under 60 points scored, the Cougars have gone from being a very good defensive program to a great one that can shut down prolific offenses consistently (see the win against Wichita State). However, while the Cougars should be praised for their resilience, the incredibly consistent Bearcats have hardly received any praise for their legendary accomplishments on defense (56.2 PAPG). On top of what they do on defense, the Bearcats are fantastic at attacking the glass (40.3 RPG) and can actually move the ball fairly fluidly to their open shooters (16.7 APG). Undoubtedly, this will be a tight and low scoring affair, with both teams relying heavily on their defenses to get the crucial stops they need to win. However, the Bearcats are a bit better at rebounding, an aspect that will allow them to get the extra opportunities necessary for them to win down the stretch.
Final Score: Cougars 60 Bearcats 64 Spread: Cincinnati -9.5
Creighton Blue Jays vs. Villanova Wildcats (1)
By the end of the regular season, the Crieghton Blue Jays will either be near the top of or at the very bottom of the Big East standings. Although their offense is highly productive and unselfish (86.5 PPG, 18.5 APG), their defense has let them down on several occasions (72.9 PAPG). However, when it comes to competing against another program that plays their same style, the Blue Jays always have a great chance to come out on top. While the loss of guard Phil Booth is detrimental to the Wildcats from a scoring perspective, it also deprives them of a versatile player that can both rebound and play defense effectively. Worse still, the Wildcats lack the necessary depth to replace Booth, an aspect that will come back to bite them against legitimate competition. As the Blue Jays are the healthier team with a gifted offense, I have to give them a slight edge over a Wildcats program that is most likely going to sustain some losses against some of the better opponents in their conference.
Final Score: Blue Jays 86 Wildcats 80 Spread: Villanova -13.0
Texas Tech Red Raiders (10) vs. TCU Horned Frogs
At one point, it appeared that the Red Raiders had gone completely cold defensively as they lost three of four games during a two week period. However, Texas Tech has since rebounded convincingly as they recently dispatched both Oklahoma State and South Carolina, two unranked programs that are capable of scoring the basketball consistently. Similar to the Sooners, the Horned Frogs have been the victims of poor defensive play, which has effectively overshadowed their impressive capabilities on offense (86.6 PPG, 77.5 PAPG) Granted, the Horned Frogs were able to do enough defensively to take down West Virginia last week, but that victory appeared to be more of an anomaly than an actual sign of things to come. Although it’s possible that the Horned Frogs could find a way to suppress the average offense of the Red Raiders, Texas Tech has proven to be resilient on defense throughout the season and will most likely be able to prevent TCU from doing anything productive offensively.
Final Score: Red Raiders 77 Horned Frogs 69 Spread: TCU -4.5
BYU Cougars vs. Gonzaga Bulldogs (14)
Fair or unfair, these two programs are only allowed to be featured in the limelight when they either play each other or Saint Mary’s. However, this is not to say that both BYU and Gonzaga are pretenders in any way from a competitive standpoint. Allowing just 65.3 points per game, the Cougars have done enough defensively to make up for an unproductive offense that has held this team back from being truly great (75.4 PPG). Although Gonzaga has an average defense (69.7 PAPG), it has been their exceptional offense that has allowed them to be highly competitive within and outside of their conference. Adept at both rebounding (40.2 RPG) and moving the ball (17.1 APG), the Bulldogs are highly capable of garnering extra opportunities and usually make the most of them on the offensive end of the court. While the Cougars have the strong defense needed to keep this contest close, Gonzaga simply has too much firepower on offense for the Cougars to overcome in the end.
Final Score: Cougars 73 Bulldogs 79 Spread: Gonzaga -11.5
Arizona Wildcats (9) vs. Washington Huskies
Currently, atop of the standings in the Pac-12, the Arizona Wildcats have impressively overcome their early season woes to become one of the best offensive programs in the country (81.7 PPG). With four of their five starters averaging double-digit points per game, the Wildcats have a plethora of prolific scorers that are highly accurate when shooting from within the arch (50.9 FG% as a team). While the Washington Huskies are currently third in the conference standings, they have rarely been featured in the national spotlight. While they are average to poor on offense and defense from a statistical perspective, they have been able to play well enough late in games to overcome some of their obvious deficiencies. Although the Wildcats would be remiss to overlook the vastly underrated Huskies, Arizona has enough talent and notable shooters to stave off any late-game heroics that Washington attempts to execute down the stretch of this contest.
Final Score: Wildcats 87 Huskies 82 Spread: Arizona -5.5