Kansas must shake off a disappointing regular season to make a Tournament run
Unpredictability defines the NCAA Tournament, hence its magic. The road to a national championship is the same for each of the 68 teams in the field: Get on a roll, win six games in a row (seven for the First Four participants), cut down the nets. Easy enough, right?
Well... maybe not. Trying to accomplish this during a slump or while trying to find consistency amid tumult makes winning six in a row an even more cumbersome prospect. Some of the nation's most high-profile teams tip off March Madness with red flags in the form of either late-season skids or season-long turbulence, or worse yet, a combination of the two. These are teams that when filling out your bracket should give you pause.
Note: Teams are listed in alphabetical order.
A win over Michigan last month to kick-start a four-game streak came to a screeching halt on Feb. 16, when Iowa dropped a one-point heartbreaker at home to Maryland. That defeat was the first in a 1-5 finish to the regular season, as the Hawkeyes' Tournament forecast tumbled.
Two wins in the past months came against teams not in the field of 68: Indiana and Illinois. Conversely, Iowa lost as many games to non-Tournament teams in the same stretch, dropping decisions to Rutgers (at home) and on the road vs. Nebraska.
Iowa boasts a diverse lineup of scoring threats, with Tyler Cook, Luka Garza, and Jordan Bohannon all averaging double figures. But an adjusted defense of No. 112 in the nation leaves the Hawkeyes vulnerable.
This writer's preseason choice for No. 1 came into 2018-19 with a ton of talent and sky-high promise after reaching the Final Four a season ago. Instead, Kansas saw the end of its Big 12 regular-season championship streak punctuate a thoroughly up-and-down campaign.
While the streak's end is a weighty narrative in college basketball circles, it's merely the byproduct of a larger issue with the Jayhawks. Kansas has been a roller-coaster ride throughout this campaign, including a 5-3 finish over the final weeks of the regular season into the Big 12 Tournament. Of those three losses, all were by double digits.
While few teams in the field have the amount of sheer talent to match the Kansas roster, the Jayhawks' inability for it to click renders a return Final Four trip a tough task.
Kansas State Wildcats
To say co-Big 12 regular-season champion Kansas State is slumping wouldn't be entirely accurate; not in the traditional sense, at least. The Wildcats rallied from a road loss to rival Kansas to win their final three heading into the Big 12 Tournament, then dispatched of TCU before a loss to eventual champion Iowa State. The four-point decision against the Cyclones ended a four-game winning streak, but only one of which came with Dean Wade out of the lineup. Wade's availability for the opening round is questionable.
Bruce Weber on @YahooSports gives an update on Dean Wade: "He's going to evaluated tomorrow by our team physician." He's been in a boot and getting treatment 3/4 times a day. "I hope we have him."— Pete Thamel (@PeteThamel) March 17, 2019
K-State reached the Elite Eight with Wade injured a year ago, but asking that particular lightning to strike twice may be a tall order for Bruce Weber's team. Wade is K-State's most highly rated offensive player per KenPom.com. Losing him from an offense already ranked a paltry No. 102 nationally makes for a tough draw against UC Irvine's No. 58 adjusted defense.
Marquette Golden Eagles
A 12-seed knocks off a No. 5 virtually every NCAA Tournament en route to the Sweet 16. Ohio Valley Conference champion Murray State could be poised to do just that, if Marquette's late-season struggles continue.
The Golden Eagles hit the skids down the stretch, winning just once in their final six games. If their any positives to be gleaned from the 1-5 finish, Marquette played four of those against three NCAA Tournament teams — including the one that it won, vs. St. John's in the Big East Tournament. However, explosive scoring guard Markus Howard sustained an injury at Madison Square Garden, which could impact his touch against Murray State and fellow stat sheet-stuffer, Ja Morant.
Nevada Wolf Pack
One of the most fun stories of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, Nevada loaded up after its Sweet 16 run to garner some genuine Final Four talk in the offseason. And the Wolf Pack lived up to the lofty expectations early, romping into 2019 with an unblemished record.
But late-season losses to Utah State and underachieving San Diego State (twice) relegated Nevada to a disappointing No. 7 seed, and a brutal bracket. Up first is a dangerous Florida team with the nation's No. 14 adjusted defense. The Gators' style of play is not conducive to rallies, which Nevada has had to do through repeated slow starts.
Ohio State Buckeyes
That Ohio State landed a bid in the NCAA Tournament at all came as something of a surprise. It's been a month of heartache for the Buckeyes since Valentine's Day when a home loss to Illinois kicked off a dismal, 3-7 stretch to send them limping into the Big Dance. Ohio State's wins in that time against similarly slumping Iowa, a bad Northwestern team, and a de facto elimination game in the Big Ten Tournament against Indiana.
Ohio State's high turnover percentage (18.7 percent of possessions) is a chief cause of inconsistent offense. Giveaways can be a blueprint for disaster in the NCAA Tournament.
A rout of Kansas earlier this month sealed Oklahoma's spot in the field of 68 — at least, that's an easy assumption to make, after the Sooners followed up with disappointing performances against Kansas State and West Virginia.
The lopsided loss to K-State and a one-point heartbreaker against last-place West Virginia in the Big 12 Tournament, immediately after a historic blowout of Kansas, is a telling snapshot of Oklahoma's season. The 19-13 Sooners have been up and down.
Lon Kruger's team is more balanced this season than last when Trae Young played just one Tournament game before OU unceremoniously bowed out to Rhode Island. Christian James, Kristian Doolittle and Brady Manek all average from 11.2 to 14.4 points per game. But these Sooners also are prone to offensive dry spells and feature an adjusted offensive efficiency ranking of No. 73 per KenPom.com.
Regular-season champion of the much-maligned Pac-12, Washington stubbed its toe in confounding fashion late in the campaign. A loss to previously conference winless Cal didn't doom the Dawgs' aspirations to reach a first NCAA Tournament since 2012 but does serve as an ominous indicator of the Huskies' volatility.
Mike Hopkins has a veteran squad with arguably the best defender in college basketball, Matisse Thybulle. Washington also has a talented big man in Noah Dickerson and a solid point guard in David Crisp. The Huskies have enough firepower to surprise but have too often failed to live up to their potential.
(Top photo courtesy of @KUHoops)