1. The Big Ten could put five teams in the Sweet Sixteen
A little more than a week ago, the Big Ten Conference appeared to be a race for second place. Michigan State was unbeaten in conference play and the class of the league. Fast-forward to today, and the Spartans are in the midst of a three-game losing streak and a tie for first place in the conference.
Illinois (17-8, 9-3) is surging, after beating the Spartans over the weekend then Wisconsin on the road Tuesday night. Purdue and Ohio State (8-3 in the Big 10) are both a half game behind the Illini and Spartans for the league’s best record. Wisconsin, at 8-4, is in fifth place but only a game behind the leaders.
Every one of those five teams has played a quality out of conference schedule and proven they can win on the nation’s biggest stage. Of those five teams, all are likely to be top five seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
2. The Big East could put four teams in the Elite 8
While not as deep as it was last year, the Big East has four of the nation’s best teams this season, and they are all playing like it right now. Georgetown has recovered from earlier struggles and sit in fourth place. This past Saturday, they were most impressive in beating conference leader Villanova at home.
Despite the loss by the Wildcats, they still look very strong and are easily the deepest team Jay Wright has had with the program. Scottie Reynolds has developed into a real leader for this team, rather than just the most talented player.
Syracuse is also extremely dangerous. They are tied atop the standings with Villanova at 10-1. The biggest concern for the Orange involving the tournament is inexperience at point guard. Brandon Triche has surprised everyone with his steady play as a freshman (9.5 ppg, 3.1 apg,), but history tells us it’s near impossible to win a championship with a rookie at that position.
The Orange also shoot 65% from the foul line as a team…not the most comforting of statistics for Syracuse fans. Still, it’s hard to argue that at 23-1, the Orange are not one of the best three or four teams in America.
West Virginia will also make a strong push in March. The Mountaineers are one of the more lengthy teams in the country, although they lack physicality inside. De’Sean Butler, Kevin Jones, and Devin Ebanks are all stars on the wing, and fit in perfectly with Coach Bob Huggins’ trapping defensive schemes. West Virginia traditionally plays very well during the postseason, and this is the most talented team the program has had in years.
3. Cinderella Alert: Siena, Butler, Northern Iowa
The Siena Saints, who knocked off Ohio State in the first round of last year’s NCAA Tournament, are riding high again this season. The Saints are 21-4 and 14-0 on the season. In the non-conference schedule, they faced both Georgia Tech and Temple on the road. Those types of games will prepare them well for the tournament.
When they make the big dance, you’ll be sure to hear about the Saints’ reserve player, Just-in’love Smith. He’s only played in four games, but that’s too cool of a name to keep off the air.
They’ll be known as a Cinderella, but if Northern Iowa makes it deep into March, it would not be that much of a surprise. The Panthers are 12-1 and in first place in the Missouri Valley Conference, which has produced several bracket busters this decade.
The Panthers are ranked no. 18 in the AP poll, so they have been recognized for their strong play thus far. They beat Boston College earlier this season on a neutral court, and they should easily earn an at-large bid should they falter in the conference tournament.
Butler also falls under a similar category as Northern Iowa. The Bulldogs were ranked in the top 20 of every preseason poll you could get your hands on. Now ranked 15th in the country, Brad Stevens’ team has recovered from a few disappointing early-season losses to be 21-4 and 14-0 in the Horizon League. Their best win so far this season came against Ohio State in December, but the Buckeyes were without Evan Turner.
All three of these programs hail from little-known conferences, but they have been on cruise control over the past month and a half and could make serious noise during March Madness.