The push toward the NCAA Tournament next month is heating up with teams all across the nation in College Basketball looking to build their case and strengthen their resumes for the tournament selection committee with Selection Sunday less than four weeks away.
In this week’s article, I decided to talk about the teams at the top and the fact that this year’s NCAA Tournament could be as wide open and unpredictable as it has been in quite some time. There are plenty of smaller conference, mid-major squads with the potential to be dangerous come March, and it is looking more and more as if there is not as much separation between the absolute best teams in college basketball and the rest.
As of right now, I would consider Virginia, Villanova, Michigan State and Purdue to be the best squads in the country, yet there are clear flaws with each team heading into the tournament. Virginia is currently No. 1 in the country and the Cavs’ stifling defense has been suffocating opponents all season, ranking them Top 5 in points allowed, field goal % defense and 3 point shooting % per game so far this season with Tony Bennett, head coach of the Cavs, doing more outstanding work with this program.
The Cavaliers are 23-2 SU and remarkably have retained pointspread value for much of the season with a 16-5-1 ATS record in 22 lined games. They are coming off their first loss since Dec. 5 at West Virginia when another in-state foe, Virginia Tech, knocked them off, 61-60 in OT on Saturday. That game illustrated the weakness in Virginia’s game. They defend as good if not better than any other team in the land but they are only a middle of the pack rebounding team; and maybe even bigger than that, UVA sometimes has issues finding that go-to, clutch-scoring option during crunch time in the latter stages of a close game.
Kyle Guy, Devon Hall and Ty Jerome are all solid scorers but there is some question about whether or not that trio can drain big shots late in games. Shot selection and late game offensive execution was the problem for Virginia on Saturday, which kept them from notching a win against Virginia Tech. Villanova (23-2 SU, 17-8 ATS) is having yet another strong season under head coach Jay Wright but the Villanova’s biggest issue right now is their health not necessarily anything in terms of execution on the court.
The Wildcats have lost guard Phil Booth (11.6 points per game, 28.2 minutes per game) to a hand injury for an indefinite amount of time and forward Eric Paschall (10.1 ppg, 28.9 minutes per game) is also out with a concussion, and he is a key cog in the Nova front line. Villanova suffered only their second loss of the season last week when they were beaten by St. John’s by a score of 79-75, although they did rally from an early deficit in their most recent game to get past Butler, 86-75. The one knock on Villanova is lack of quality depth.
This is not one of the deeper Villanova teams as only six players in Jay Wright’s rotation average more than 14 minutes on the floor per game and we’ve seen the Wildcats look more vulnerable as these recent injury situations have surfaced. Villanova, when at full strength, has a terrific backcourt with the likes of Booth along with Jalen Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo, but until they get all their missing pieces back there will always be a question of whether they have it in them to go all the way and become national champions.
In the Big Ten, Purdue and Michigan State are in a dead heat and both have legitimate Final Four and title potential but both aren’t without their flaws. Purdue has tremendous inside, outside scoring balance possessing a very good backcourt in Carsen Edwards and Dakota Mathias and plenty of interior size and length in the low post with Vince Edwards along with center Isaac Haas, but Boilermakers head coach Matt Painter has been critical of his team’s lack of defense at times particularly during this recent stretch.
Purdue’s overall numbers on defense are still quite strong but lately their late game situational defense has been lacking as they allowed both Ohio State and Michigan State to get open looks against them in suffering back-to-back losses in conference play over the past week. That seems to be their weakness right now.
For Michigan State, their own defensive play has also declined despite the fact that from a talent perspective offensively they are loaded, and leading the way is sophomore guard Miles Bridges who drained the game-winning perimeter shot to beat Purdue on Saturday. The Spartans are also one of the top rebounding teams in the country, which helps them get second and third chance opportunities and also extra possessions with the basketball.
The main issue for Michigan State, even more than anything on the court, is what is currently taking place off court with the sexual assault scandal plaguing the university. With all that is swirling around the program in relation to that, the Spartans have really not put together 40 strong minutes of basketball in recent games prior to beating Purdue. Combine that with Michigan State’s lofty power rating and record and you can understand why the Spartans have been burning money for their backers at a 2-7-2 ATS clip in their last 11 Big Ten games.
Do the Spartans have it in them to devote the utmost focus and execution on the court over the next two months in their pursuit of a national title despite all that is going on off the court? That is the biggest hurdle in their way.
The point of all this is to stress how this could be the year where a lesser major conference team can get hot in March and potentially ride that momentum to a Final Four, maybe even a title, and the same can be said about some dangerous Mid-Major squads that have the potential to give the “flawed favorites” a run for their money in more ways than one.
Searching for value on the NCAA Tournament futures board could yield significant profits in 2018 in a year where there is no dominant, unbeatable team in the current college basketball landscape.