Injuries, late-season struggles and end-of-game woes are all cause for buyers to beware
Much of the beauty that emanates from the NCAA Tournament is its unpredictability. A team can fall short of regular-season expectations, yet catch fire in March to win it all. Recent examples like UConn in both 2011 and ‘14 show how vital late-season momentum can be.
In that same vein, negative trajectory can often correlate to early exits. Flipping the proverbial switch for a six-game run is exceedingly difficult, as the flaws that hamstrung a team for several months of the regular season eventually surface in the Big Dance.
While any of the following squads could defy regular-season tumbles and right the ship for the Tournament, they find themselves at considerable disadvantages for a variety of reasons.
No. 11 Arizona State Sun Devils (Midwest Region)
Arizona State rides the deepest slide of any team in the field of 68, with perhaps one exception (more on that in a moment). The Sun Devils blazed to the best start in program history, going undefeated in non-conference play with blowout wins over San Diego State and West Region No. 1 seed Xavier, as well as the always-rare win over Kansas at Phog Allen Fieldhouse.
After legitimate conversation about Arizona State's worthiness to be ranked No. 1 in the country, the Sun Devils began Pac-12 play and subsequently went 8-11. They were competitive in defeat, losing every game save the early, Pac-12 Tournament exit to Colorado by single digits. However, single-digit losses to Oregon State and Stanford twice do not bode well for NCAA Tournament competition.
Arizona State's skid is especially pronounced now at five defeats in six games. The Sun Devils' KenPom.com No. 124 adjusted defensive efficiency has been exploited — they've given up at least 77 points in four of those games — but their streaky, outside shooting has also gone cold of late. A First Four matchup with zone-defense experts at Syracuse suggests a quick exit.
No. 5 Clemson Tigers (Midwest Region)
Clemson exceeded most expectations set for the Tigers ahead of the season, finishing 23-9 with some marquee wins. Defensive tenacity has carried Clemson this far, all the way to a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. However, with offensive limitations since Dante Grantham's ACL tear in January, Clemson's dropped six of 13, including five of its past eight games.
In those six losses, Clemson failed to hit 60 points. By contrast, this was a team regularly hitting in the 70s and 80s with Grantham, including 79, 78 and 71 in wins over Ohio State, NC State and Florida.
The five-line is historically a tough spot, as a No. 12 seed has won at least one such matchup in every Tournament but two since 2001. Clemson draws a difficult matchup with New Mexico State, the nation's No. 14-ranked team in adjusted defensive efficiency. Those offensive woes could be especially pronounced for the Tigers down in San Diego.
No. 8 Creighton Blue Jays (South Region)
March means hotly contested basketball, with outcomes going down to the wire. Few teams in college basketball this season know more about wild finishes than Creighton, which was involved in six games decided by six points or fewer down the stretch.
The Blue Jays' familiarity with close finishes might help their NCAA Tournament aspirations, but a shaky record in that stretch suggests otherwise. Starting with a one-point defeat of DePaul on Feb. 5, Creighton went 2-4 in such contests. The Blue Jays finished 4-6 in their final 10, with one of those wins coming against Division II member Bemidji State.
The 46 points to which Creighton held Bemidji State also stand as an outlier in the Blue Jays' play on defense. Behind outstanding guard Marcus Foster, who faces his former team in Kansas State in Round 1, Creighton is the nation's No. 10 scoring offense at 84.3 points per game. But in five games over the final month of the regular season, Creighton opponents notched at least 83 points.
No. 9 Florida State Seminoles (West Region)
Florida State cruised along through Christmas, losing just once in that initial stretch of the season — and that was by a single point to NCAA Tournament snub Oklahoma State. However, the Seminoles are just 9-10 since Dec. 30.
Some of the wins are very impressive; Florida State beat North Carolina and split with Clemson and Miami. However, half of their defeats came against teams not included in the Tournament field at all.
The Seminoles are inconsistent, capable of impressive scoring outbursts behind talented freshman forward Mfiondu Kabengele. But they also are prone to defensive lapses, having surrendered at least 76 points in eight of their losses.
No. 6 Miami Hurricanes (South Region)
Jim Larrañaga — famous for coaching NCAA Tournament overachievers — doesn't have a slumping team heading into this dance. At least, not in the sense of other teams included here. The Hurricanes won some big games down the stretch, including a road victory at North Carolina on Feb. 27, and a one-point win over Virginia Tech on March 3.
Miami's stormy NCAA Tournament forecast is more based on the news Sunday that the Hurricanes will be without star Bruce Brown when they face red-hot Loyola, the Missouri Valley Tournament champions.
Breaking: “There’s no chance Bruce will play Thursday”- Jim Larrañaga pic.twitter.com/FRNBFBdB2O— Josh White (@_JoshRWhite) March 11, 2018
The Hurricanes looked like Final Four contenders with Brown healthy, but since he injured his foot in late January, their play has been inconsistent. An outstanding Ramblers defense should give a Brown-less Miami fits in the First Round.
No. 10 Oklahoma Sooners (Midwest Region)
Referring to previous entry Arizona State, the only team heading into the Tournament on a decline as long is Oklahoma. The Sooners took the nation by storm through the first two months on the otherworldly play of freshman guard Trae Young. Young led the nation in both points and assists wire-to-wire, but his production plummeted as opposing teams learned how exploit Oklahoma's reliance on a single player.
The Sooners won just twice since the end of January, and only once against a fellow NCAA Tournament team. In a conference where 70 percent of members made the field of 68, that's a bad look.
Oklahoma's high turnover rate (ranked No. 96 nationally in turnover percentage per KenPom.com) and poor rebounding point to an early NCAA Tournament exit.
No. 7 Rhode Island Rams (Midwest Region)
Had it not been for a torrid, second-half rally last March, the Oregon Ducks would not have reached their first Final Four since the 1930s — and Rhode Island would have advanced to its first Sweet 16 since ‘98.
The 2017-18 Rams are more experienced, deeper and talented than last year’s squad, but after sewing up an at-large bid with three months of excellent play, Rhode Island stumbled to close the season. URI had to rely on that at-large cachet to get into the field, losing a heartbreaker in the Atlantic 10 Tournament Championship Game to Davidson. It was Rhode Island's second loss to the Wildcats in a little over a week, totaling just three points. However, the Rams are 2-3 in the last two weeks, with the third loss coming by 30 points to Saint Joseph's.
In the rematch at the A-10 Tournament, URI survived in a 90-87 decision. Saint Joseph's head coach Phil Martelli quipped afterwards, "That's pretty good. It took 90 to beat us."
A team that can get up and down the floor like the Hawks — or Oregon, as it did in its rally a season ago — could give Rhode Island trouble. The Rams draw Oklahoma, listed above, so that's a favorable opening matchup; at least, unless the Sooners start hitting offensively. As the No. 4 scoring offense in college basketball, that's a distinct possibility. With a matchup against Duke, the nation's No. 3 offense in adjusted efficiency, likely looming in the second round, Rhode Island would have to advance past a track meet opening weekend to get to the Sweet 16.
No. 7 Texas A&M Aggies (West Region)
Snake-bitten by injury, talent-laden but erratic, a number of factors have gone into Texas A&M's disappointing 2017-18. The Aggies climbed into the top 10 of the rankings early on, using a blowout win over West Virginia as a launching pad. However, numerous roster shake-ups doomed Texas A&M to a miserable stretch midway through the season. The Aggies recovered sufficiently enough to earn their way into the field of 68, but a 3-4 stretch heading into the NCAA Tournament exemplified the chaos of their season.
Texas A&M dropped three straight games in late February before going on a three-game run to close the regular season — which led into a one-point loss to Alabama in the SEC Tournament, the result of a late-game defensive miscue.
While the Aggies have been wildly up-and-down, they face a Providence team on a roll of late. Ed Cooley's Friars reached the Big East Tournament title game and took East Region No. 1 Villanova to the wire.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)