When we await the start of basketball season, it seems to last an eternity. But when it finally arrives, the season flies past us faster than we realize. It seems like just yesterday that the 2014-15 season was starting off, but in fact it was more than three months ago when we first saw the Hoosiers take to the court in Hoosier Hysteria. Some things have stayed the same around college basketball since then. The Kentucky Wildcats still haven’t lost a game. Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky is still one of the standout players in the nation. Some things have changed, though. Northern Iowa has been a surprise taking down the mid-major powerhouse Wichita State on Jan. 31 by a 70-54 margin. After starting off the season strong, Maryland has struggled losing its last three road games.
But who are the teams that are flying under the radar? Who could be making some noise come March? I’ve picked out the five teams I think could turn some heads come tourney time.
1. Oklahoma St. (17-7)
The Cowboys have been inconsistent. No doubt about that. For a team that has six wins against the RPI top 50 including two against Texas and one against Kansas, they also have five losses in that same category. Not to mention some bad losses to South Carolina and Kansas St, both by 10 or more points. But what the Cowboys do have is Le’Bryan Nash and Phil Forte III who are both averaging 17 points per game. Though Oklahoma St. is No. 21 in the nation, it sits at fifth in the Big 12. In their next three games, the Cowboys have some chances for big wins (and big losses). They play at TCU and then take No. 14 Iowa State and No. 21 West Virginia on at home. If they can win all three, they’ll have some momentum going into their last three games of the regular season, one of which is West Virginia again, this time on the road. Momentum is a big thing in basketball. Let’s see if they can take it into the Big 12 tourney and potentially improve their seeding going in.
2. Iowa (15-8)
The Hawkeyes are in a critical position. This should seem familiar for them as well. Last year they barely snuck into the tournament but lost their play-in game to Tennessee. Currently, Joe Lunardi has them as a nine seed. However, a 15-8 record is no lock. The Hawkeyes have a lot going for them heading into this final stretch. First off, they just thumped Maryland at home by 16 points. That will look good in the eyes of the committee. For a team I thought would struggle without Roy Marble, it has been a delightful surprise. The schedule doesn’t look too bad from here on out either. Iowa’s toughest road game remaining is Indiana, but the Hawkeyes have a host of winnable home games as well. The Big Ten tournament can offer a lot to a team like Iowa should it find itself on the brink. A couple of wins and it could be in. The Hawkeyes also have no losses outside of the RPI top 100, which is a boost.
3. Arkansas (18-5)
Unless you’re Kentucky, you aren’t going to get much love or attention in the SEC. However the Razorbacks currently boast a 7-3 conference record. Arkansas is mediocre against RPI top 50 teams with a 3-2 record and its strength of schedule is 70. While it may not be as simple as “win and get in,” this team has put itself in a good position here at the end of the season. Of the Razorbacks’ remaining eight games, five of them are on the road, including one at Kentucky. If Arkansas can avoid a slide, it will likely find itself dancing in March. Look for Bobby Portis to lead this team as he has done all season. The sophomore forward is averaging 17.7 points per game while playing only 29 minutes a game. He is also shooting an efficient 56.2 percent from the field. We’ve seen teams with stars make it far in the tournament. Steph Curry with Dayton, Kemba Walker with Connecticut, Gordon Hayward and Matt Howard with Butler. Portis has a decent supporting cast. Why not the Razorbacks?
4. Baylor (18-6)
Having taken down ranked Iowa State and West Virginia teams earlier this season, the No.16 Baylor Bears have some good wins against the RPI top 50. Though they have an equal amount of losses, five, they have opportunities to improve their resume. Three more ranked Big 12 opponents await them including a matchup this Saturday at Kansas. The Bears have a SOS of eight which means their six losses aren’t as bad as they appear at first glance. Four of the team’s players average more than 10 points a game. Three have more than 20 blocks this season. Offense wins games, defense wins championships. Will this Baylor team be hoisting a trophy? That’s unlikely, but it is definitely a team that can slide through the early rounds and make a run.
5. Providence (17-7)
The Friairs have been a surprise this season with six wins against the RPI top 50 and only four losses. One of the biggest wins came against Notre Dame on Nov. 23. The Friars have had lost to some bad opponents including three teams outside of the RPI top 100. LaDontae Henton leads the Big East Conference in scoring with 20.4 points per game. Kris Dunn adds a nice complement to Henton in the backcourt averaging 15.7 points per game and dishing out seven assists per game. The Friars have two more matchups with Villanova and a home game against Butler. If Ed Cooley can help this Friars team win at least two of those three and prevent any more big collapses against weaker teams, Providence could be in the tournament for the second straight year. The last time the Friars made the tournament in back-to-back years was 1989-1990.
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