Although there may be some fans and critics that are already anticipating the sheer insanity that is March Madness, February is the month where the great and underrated programs truly make a name for themselves. Although it would be perilous to put a tremendous amount of stake into what happens this month, this is the time where resumes are fully fleshed out as the resilient programs separate themselves from the worn out pretenders. For the true college basketball aficionados, this is the time to watch and analyze contests from the mid-major conferences to see which relatively unknown teams are on the rise. More often than not, a team that is just starting to find its footing now will be well set up to make a run in the NCAA Tournament as they establish a satisfying form of competitive continuity. With the home stretch of the regular season starting now, which programs have what it takes to finish strong to become the next intriguing and exciting Cinderella story of March Madness?
West Virginia Mountaineers (19) vs. Oklahoma Sooners (17)
While the Big 12 has arguably been the most competitive conference in college basketball this season, some of the well-known teams that play within it are struggling mightily to establish themselves as true National Title contenders. For the Mountaineers, they are currently playing their worst basketball of the season as they have scored more than 80 points only twice in their last seven games (won both games). Worse still, the Mountaineers once formidable and relentless full court press has been mostly inept as they have relinquished 70 points or more in five of their last seven games (all losses). However, the Sooners have been awful on defense as well, something that they have shamefully failed to rectify this season. With their offense looking completely lost and ineffective against Alabama most recently, the Sooners could be on the verge of free-falling through the Big 12 standings if continue to put off addressing their obvious blemishes. While the Sooners possess the most exciting player in college basketball on their roster in Trae Young, the Mountaineers have a more complete team that has shown that they are more than capable of stifling their opponent while scoring in productive bunches throughout a given contest.
Final Score: Mountaineers 82 Sooners 70 Spread: Oklahoma -2.5
Tennessee Volunteers (15) vs. Kentucky Wildcats (24)
This season, the SEC has been rife with several surprise success stories. In particular, the Volunteers have grown tremendously from being wildly inconsistent on both sides of the court, to being efficient and consistent when it comes to playing unselfish basketball (17.2 APG). With a defense that has progressively become one of the more impressive units in the country (67 PAPG), the Volunteers certainly have the look of a sleeper March Madness team that could be poised to make a deep run in the tournament. Although the Wildcats have the talented roster with a proven coach to lead them, they have still struggled to be anything more than a very good rebounding team. While their length and athleticism are impressive, the wavering effort level and lack of physicality of the Wildcats youthful roster has cost them several games that they should have won. Even though the Wildcats have proven more often than not that they can catch fire and play great basketball down the stretch of the season, the Volunteers are simply more disciplined and competitively consistent for the time being.
Final Score: Volunteers 78 Wildcats 72 Spread: Kentucky -2.5
Virginia Cavaliers (2) vs. Florida State Seminoles
What is there to say about the Cavaliers that has not already been stated? Their dominant defense is both effective and exciting to watch, especially when you consider the multitude of programs that have conformed to playing average defense while putting all of their resources and efforts into developing one-dimensional, long-range shooters. Even though the Cavaliers average below 70 points per game, their adeptness at controlling the pace of play while relinquishing very few turnovers has worked unbelievably well for them this season. Although the Seminoles may not appear to pose much of a threat to the Cavaliers, their offense has actually been fairly versatile and effective albeit on an inconsistent basis. In this particular contest, the Seminoles unpredictability combined with their capable athletes could allow them to keep this game close to what is a superior opponent. However, the Cavaliers have rarely revealed any chinks in their defensive armor, a facet which the Seminoles will find difficult to penetrate with any type of consistency.
Final Score: Cavaliers 68 Seminoles 59 Spread: Virginia -3.0
Ohio State Buckeyes (14) vs. Purdue Boilermakers (3)
With a defense that has been their saving grace on more than one occasion (66.2 PAPG), the Buckeyes have held their own in a top-heavy Big 10 Conference. Offensively, what the Buckeyes lack in productivity (77.4 PPG) they more than makeup for with smart shot selection (49.1 FG%), something that has allowed them to remain consistently competitive. Although the Boilermakers have not looked particularly dominant in their last couple of wins, there is no denying that this team has the size and personnel to maintain their consistent ways on both offense and defense (84 PPG, 64.2 PAPG). While the gritty defensive style of the Buckeyes is capable enough to test Purdue, the Boilermakers are too dynamic and efficient to be defeated by Ohio State on their home court.
Final Score: Buckeyes 73 Boilermakers 78 Spread: Purdue -9.5
Texas A&M Aggies vs. Auburn Tigers (8)
Sadly, the Aggies’ impressive rebounding prowess (42.2 RPG) has been for naught this year in a conference that has been more competitive than it has been in years past. Although the Aggies are not particularly bad on offense or defense, it has been their inability to impose their immense size on their opponent, which has prevented them from becoming the exceptional program they were expected to be this year. Conversely, the Tigers have defied all expectations this season as they are comfortable at the top of the SEC standings with just one conference loss on their resume. With a relentless offense that can score quickly and often (86 PPG), the Tigers have been able to overcome their issues defensively (72.6 PAPG). Even though the Aggies have the rebounding skills to take away possessions from the trigger-happy Tigers, they lack the tenacity in other crucial areas that are necessary to take down the established shooting identity that Auburn possesses.
Final Score: Aggies 78 Tigers 86 Spread: Auburn -6.5
Duke Blue Devils (9) vs. North Carolina Tar Heels (21)
By their standards, both Duke and North Carolina have looked underwhelming in games where they should have won handily. However, the Blue Devils are at least fortunate enough to have a talent-laden roster that is highly prolific offensively. Although Duke has been better defensively in their last few contests, they still look out of sorts when playing man-to-man defense, something that will need to be fixed for them to go far in the NCAA Tournament. Losing three of their last four games, the Tar Heels have gone from being decent to dreadful on defense in the span of just two weeks. Whether it’s leaving a man wide open outside of the perimeter or lacking the tenacity to garner defensive rebounds, the Tar Heels lack the size and confidence to intimidate their opponents. While this will undoubtedly be highly competitive and contentious, Duke has the better athletes and the imposing size needed to prevent the Tar Heels from the snatching rebounds off of the offensive glass.
Final Score: Blue Devils 88 Tar Heels 86 Spread: Duke -1.5
UCLA Bruins vs. Arizona Wildcats (13)
Although the Pac-12 may be lacking in depth and intriguing competitors, these programs are at least competitive enough in their respective ways to make this a compelling contest. Scoring just under 83 points per game, the Bruins are a highly capable offense albeit somewhat streaky from game to game. However, the Bruins most notable problem has been their porous defense (75.8 PAPG) and propensity for turning over the ball carelessly (12 TPG). While the Wildcats may not be much better on defense (71.8 PAPG), their offense has been a bit more consistent in conference play as their shooters are highly proficient at taking open shots from the field (51.4 FG%). Given that both teams have struggled to reach their elite potentials this season, this could very well be a high-octane shoot out that is decided at the buzzer. In that regard, the Wildcats have a slight advantage given that their offense is a bit more effective and reliable.
Final Score: Bruins 87 Wildcats 91 Spread: Arizona -9.0
Butler Bulldogs vs. Villanova Wildcats (1)
To say that the Wildcats have overcome serious adversity since losing guard Phil Booth for the season would be a bit of an overstatement. With that being said, losing a strong two-way player while having a roster that lacks depth is still difficult situation to overcome especially when you consider that the Wildcats have barely faltered in conference play since then. However, the Wildcats have to feel a bit nervous that they are facing the lone opponent who handed them their first and only loss of the season. Although Butler has gone from being competitive to inconsistent to competitive again, their ceiling offensively is extremely high and is ultimately what allowed them to dispatch the Wildcats several weeks ago. Even with the Wildcats missing a key starter this time around, head coach Jay Wright is intelligent enough to make sure that his team deprives the Bulldogs of taking easy shots from the field in the rematch.
Purdue Boilermakers (3) vs. Michigan State (4)
Despite the overall rankings of these two programs, the Boilermakers actually have a two-game lead in the Big 10 Conference over the perennially elite Spartans. The Boilermakers efficient guard play combined with the contributions from versatile big man Isaac Haas has allowed them to be exceptional both offensively and defensively this season. However, the Boilermakers may be looking at their mirror image on the court this week as the Spartans are equally versatile and effective on the court. As the best passing team in college basketball (20.2 APG), the Spartans are patient yet opportunistic when it comes to moving the ball quickly to the open shooter, of which they have several. Although the Boilermakers have been slightly more consistent during the course of the season, the Spartans defense has looked close to flawless in their last few games, a skill that will allow them to stifle Purdue’s offense just enough to secure a close victory.
Final Score: Boilermakers 66 Spartans 69
Gonzaga Bulldogs (12) vs. Saint Mary’s Gaels (11)
Although the West Coast Conference may lack notable competition, the rivalry between the Bulldogs and the Gaels is one of the most underrated and entertaining rivalries in college basketball. For the Bulldogs, their success is predicated on taking smart, mid-range shots (50.5 FG%) while attacking the glass to take away opportunities from their opponent (40.2 RPG). While the Gales may not score as many points per game as the Bulldogs do, they actually possess extremely accurate shooters that can make baskets from within and beyond the arch (52.4 FG%, 42 3P%). On top of that, the Gaels have a top tier defense (64.2 PAPG), which was vital in beating Gonzaga the first time around. Considering how the first game in this rivalry turned out, another close and intense affair should be expected. However, Gonzaga’s efficient offense should be able to persevere in round two, thereby securing themselves the top spot in their conference.
Final Score: Bulldogs 79 Gaels 78 Spread: