We still have five weeks to go until March, and seven weeks until Selection Sunday on March 15. Moving parts will continue to shift across the chessboard. A team in the top 25 of the (meaningless) polls will lose two or three games late in the season and approach the bubble if not crash all the way down to the NIT. Automatic bids will be plucked by unlikely teams. Struggling squads will get hot in the final week of the regular season, snag two or three wins in a conference tournament, and slide into an unlikely First Four game. These are the rhythms and plot twists of a college basketball season — a wide swath of teams should not feel assured of a tournament ticket, and other teams on the margins shouldn’t feel that their hopes are gone.
However, with only one week until February, the season has advanced the point where the makeup of the tournament field is coming into view — not a perfect view, but something we can begin to make sense of. One big storyline is this: A lot of familiar faces could find themselves in the NIT, while some schools — with names both big and small — appear ready to go Dancing after several years away from the action.
First, consider a few teams in very good position to return to Bracketville after a prolonged absence. Five years isn’t that long in the larger run of history, but at a place such as Maryland — with a supremely rich basketball heritage — that’s an eternity spent away from the NCAAs. Yet, this season, no-longer-embattled coach Mark Turgeon has finally been able to assemble a group of Terrapins that can perform at a high level. Beware the ides of March… and Fear The Turtle.
A team with a substantially longer NCAA drought is Wyoming, which memorably defeated the Dan Dickau Gonzaga team in Albuquerque in 2002 after the Zags were angry at their shockingly low No. 6 seed. That was Wyoming’s last NCAA appearance and victory, but the Cowboys sit at the top of the Mountain West and look like a strong bet for an at-large bid if they fail to win the MWC Tournament. The Cowboys — who have one of the best courts in the country according to TSS basketball writer Steve Fetch — will add a splash of color to this year’s tournament if they’re able to make it.
Oregon State is not assured of anything regarding March Madness, but a program that once stood for excellence in the Pac-12 under the Ralph Miller regime is very much in contention for a spot in the field of 68. That in itself rates as an eye-catcher at this point in the season.
Yet, while some new faces are either headed toward the tourney or at least have a chance to play their way in, several brand names in the sport are currently on the outside looking in… and under immense pressure to change the trajectory of their respective seasons.
Yes, Memphis has won NCAA tournament games in consecutive seasons, but only single games. The Tigers owned copious quantities of talent yet couldn’t get out of the first weekend of the Dance. This year, with many veterans no longer around, Memphis has faltered, sinking into the middle tier of a mediocre American Athletic Conference. Josh Pastner isn’t on the hot seat right now, but he’s going to set himself up for a toasty 2015-2016 season if he can’t radically reshape the next seven weeks in Memphis.
Speaking of Memphis, that’s the city where UCLA’s NCAA tourney run ended last March against Florida. Both the Bruins — a No. 4 seed last year — and the Gators, owners of a 21-0 SEC record a season ago, are highly unlikely to make the NCAAs. Both will need to catch fire and very likely beat the goliath in their respective leagues — Arizona for UCLA and Kentucky for UF — in order to merely have a decent shot at the Dance floor. It is especially startling to see Florida as a likely NIT team after four straight runs to the Elite Eight or better.
Defending national champion Connecticut is likely headed for the NIT unless the Huskies can win the AAC Tournament in March. UConn has taken on a lot of water and might not be able to scoop it out of the boat in time to get safely to the shores of Bracketville.
In the West, New Mexico — a stalwart alongside San Diego State in the past several incarnations of the Mountain West Conference — is fighting an uphill battle in the attempt to get to March with a Dance card. The Lobos, who happen to play Wyoming tomorrow in a matchup of MWC schools headed in opposite directions, need to beat the Cowboys if they want to have a realistic shot at making the tournament.
It’s been a fascinating season in college basketball, and we’re little more than halfway through, with the stretch run still a few weeks away from starting (along with our Bubble Watch here at The Student Section). More plot twists await, but right now, familiar faces are occupying some unfamiliar places in college basketball.
It’s as different as the Atlanta Hawks and Golden State Warriors leading their NBA conferences.
What a year this could turn out to be in the realm of American basketball.