It could be a short stay in the Tournament for Mike Krzyzewski and the defending champion Duke Blue Devils
This season has been arguably the most competitive in NCAA basketball history. The playing field was as level as it has ever been. The four No. 1 seeds have a combined 23 losses on the year, an NCAA Tournament record. With all of this parity during the regular season, and with no team in the field without weaknesses, this year’s Tournament is guaranteed to deliver its fair share of March Madness.
Many teams with impressive starts to the season have since shown they are capable of losing in any given matchup. As a matter of fact, preseason No. 1 Maryland may be the most vulnerable of all the teams in the field. Let’s take a look at eight teams that are limping into March, and a few reasons why you should avoid picking them to go far on your bracket sheet.
No. 5 Maryland
The preseason No. 1 team in the USA Today Coaches Poll has lost five of its last eight, including a setback to Minnesota, which went 8-23 this season. That shocking result back on Feb. 18 represented the Golden Gophers’ first win in 14 games and was one of just two conference victories (2-16) they would get all season. Maryland put up a fight against eventual Big Ten Tournament champion Michigan State in the semifinal, but the Terrapins are slumping at the exact wrong time. Something else that does not bode well for their Tournament chances is a vast discrepancy when it comes to their home record (20-1) compared to how they have done on the road or in a neutral site game (5-7).
No. 4 Iowa State
There was a lot of hype surrounding this Iowa State squad coming into 2016 but the Cyclones just haven’t been able to figure things out. Inconsistent play was consistent, and they ended the final third of their season on a poor note (5-7 over last 12 games). They’ve beaten some of the best teams in the field (most notably Kansas), but with the 257th-ranked defense in the country they are primed for another early exit. Will 2015’s first round upset loss to UAB prove to be a lesson, or will Iowa State experience a similar fate in 2016?
No. 6 Arizona
This is one of the weaker Arizona teams in recent memory. Couple this with the fact that both squads in the First Four matchup of No. 11 seeds — Vanderbilt vs. Wichita State — started the season ranked inside the top 20. Whether it’s the Commodores or the Shockers, it figures to be a tough opening game for Sean Miller’s Wildcats. Since the inception of the play-in games in 2011, at least one of the First Four winners has gone on to win again in the round of 64 (VCU, South Florida, La Salle, Tennessee, Dayton). Arizona could be the next higher-seeded team to fall prey to this trend.
No. 7 Iowa
Simply put, Iowa isn’t as good of a basketball team as people once thought. The Hawkeyes burst onto the scene with two wins against Michigan State in January. However, Spartans star Denzel Valentine didn’t play in the first matchup, and he was fresh off of knee surgery the second time the two teams met. Now losers of six of the last eight, including setbacks to Penn State (16-16) and Illinois (15-19), the Hawkeyes are reeling coming into the Tournament. Which Iowa team will show up?
No. 4 Duke
The Blue Devils had an up and down year, most notably falling out of the AP Top 25 for the first time in close to a decade. This ended the longest active streak in college basketball, and although Duke is once again ranked, this team is a far cry from the one that cut down the nets last year. The Blue Devils must score a ton of points in order to win games, and relying so heavily on shots to fall is dangerous in March. Their last time out on the floor they were up 16 points in the second half against Notre Dame, before a seven-minute scoreless drought allowed the Fighting Irish to climb back in and eventually overtake Duke in overtime. In games where Mike Krzyzewski’s team has failed to reach 70 points they are just 1-6, with the lone win coming on a controversial buzzer beater against Virginia. Duke better hope it can get hot and stay hot (and stay out of foul trouble), otherwise it could be a quick Tournament for the defending champions.
No. 2 Oklahoma
Oklahoma isn’t exactly slumping, although it is not very reassuring for a No. 2 seed to lose five of its last 11 games. A lot of experts like Oklahoma to make a deep run coming off of a strong campaign in the uber-competitive Big 12. I am not one of those people. The Sooners rely far too much on Buddy Hield to score. As we saw in the Big 12 Tournament loss to West Virginia (Hield: 1-8, 6 points), if Hield can’t get his looks and put points on the board the Sooners struggle. After the game Hield said he had never seen defense like that before, and hopes he doesn’t have to see it again. I’ve got some bad news for you. If VCU gets past Oregon State (which I believe they will), you will see another stingy defense that runs the full-court press very well. Regardless of which team it plays, Oklahoma better be on upset alert.
No. 6 Texas
The Big 12 was the most complete conference in 2016 from top to bottom. So it may be surprising that I have three teams from the conference on this danger list. Furthermore, first-year Longhorns head coach Shaka Smart is a proven Tournament guru. However, Northern Iowa played Smart’s VCU teams each of the previous four seasons he was there, so the two are quite familiar. The Panthers have proven they are good enough to beat anyone in the country with wins over North Carolina, Iowa State and Wichita State (two). Although Northern Iowa went through a very ugly stretch in the middle of the season, it has rebounded to win its last six games. Texas must be wary of Panthers senior guard Wes Washpun, who will be the key in this game. Get ready for a hard-fought, low-scoring battle that could truly go either way.
No. 2 Xavier
The Big East must be viewed by the NCAA Selection Committee as if it still has the same level of competition it once did when powerhouse programs like Syracuse and UConn were members. It doesn’t. There is a reason the new Big East has failed to send a team past the Sweet 16 in each of its first two years. Xavier is the sole team to even make it to the second week, and the Musketeers only had to beat Ole Miss and Georgia State to get there. This year’s Tournament will be no different; the highest seeded non-conference opponent that a Big East team has defeated is No. 5 Purdue (Butler). The Big East has no wins against any team among the top four seeds in each region. A potential matchup with Wisconsin in the second round could be the end of Xavier’s 2016 Tournament run.
(Buddy Hield photo courtesy of Getty Images)