ACC regular-season champion Virginia stumbled down the stretch before dropping out of the conference tournament because of COVID
The NCAA Tournament is the ultimate sprint, requiring a champion to win six games in just two weeks. March is the ultimate exercise in building momentum, and going into the field without any can prove especially challenging.
Results heading into the Tournament are not necessarily predictive of how the Big Dance will unfold, but turning things around from a poor regular-season finish is a tall order.
Note: Teams are listed in alphabetical order.
After playing its way into a top-20 ranking, Creighton heads into the NCAA Tournament 3-3 in its last six with two against teams of a KenPom ranking of 55 or lower. That's not an aberration, either: Creighton dropped five games this season to teams currently at 55 or worse, suggesting the Bluejays are vulnerable to an upset.
Marcus Zegarowski and Damien Jefferson can shoot the 3-pointer effectively enough to push Creighton to the second weekend or beyond, but if they go cold, the Bluejays are not a great rebounding team. That could be an Achilles heel.
Florida heads into the NCAA Tournament having lost three of four, two of which were by double digits. Both of those defeats were to the same Tennessee team, but a more concerning trend than the losses is Florida's performance on the glass. The Volunteers and Missouri both grabbed double-digit offensive rebounds, continuing a season-long issue vexing the Gators. They have given up offensive boards on more than 31 percent of defensive possessions.
First-round opponent Virginia Tech isn't dominant on the offensive boards, but the Hokies are excellent in keeping teams from getting second chances. Those opportunities could doom Florida to a brief NCAA Tournament stay.
Missouri comes into the Tournament having dropped six of its last nine, three of which were against opponents not in the NCAA Tournament. Looking at a larger sample size, Missouri's season-long 3-point shooting has been shaky. The Tigers are not especially reliant on hitting long-range shots. but will need to make it from deep to keep defenses from packing the paint.
Missouri benefits from drawing an opening opponent in Oklahoma that hit a similar slump late in the season, but as for getting to the second weekend, the Tigers have to reverse course considerably.
Lon Kruger-coached teams often exceed NCAA Tournament expectations, but this year's Sooners will have to reverse a dismal finish to the campaign if they're to advance in the Indiana bubble.
Oklahoma closed out the regular season on a four-game losing streak, which only ended in a six-point, Big 12 Tournament win against an Iowa State team that struggled all season. Umoja Gibson is the kind of shooter who can carry his team to a Tournament win or two, but on the flip side, Oklahoma has struggled when it comes to defending the 3-pointer.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Rutgers' first NCAA Tournament in 30 years could be a short trip. The Scarlet Knights limped into the field over the course of a brutal final month, going 4-5 since Feb. 10 with three losses by double-digit margins. Rutgers played a challenging schedule in the loaded Big Ten, to its credit. But the Scarlet Knights' last win over a team in the NCAA Tournament field came on Jan. 28 against Michigan State.
An excellent final month of the regular season and the return of several key players had UCLA heading into this campaign the favorite to win the Pac-12. Despite losing perhaps the best of those returners, Chris Smith, early in the campaign to a knee injury, the Bruins remained in the hunt for conference championship until a collapse in the final two weeks.
The absences of Jalen Hill and Cody Riley for the final month disrupted UCLA's rhythm and stripped it of its interior prowess. Hill has not returned since last playing on Feb. 6. While Mac Etienne has shown flashes of brilliance since gaining eligibility late in the campaign, the Bruins have lacked a consistent offensive identity.
Of these teams, USC is arguably the most difficult inclusion. The Trojans have a potential No. 1 overall pick in the summer's NBA draft with big man Evan Mobley, and elite-level pro prospects can elevate their games in a way few competitors can match. USC's late-season struggles are less about Mobley, however, and more inconsistent scoring around him.
Against Colorado in the Pac-12 Tournament, Tahj Eaddy's 11 points represented the Trojans' only other double-figure scorer. One of Drew Peterson or Isaiah Mobley will need to emerge. In a tight game, USC has been awful at the free-throw line all season. That's a concern this time of year.
Defending national champion Virginia coming into the NCAA Tournament off a COVID-19 protocol shutdown makes for a unique challenge on its own. How the Cavaliers respond to the abrupt end to their pursuit of an ACC title sweep will determine how far they advance in the Big Dance.
Heading into the ACC Tournament, Virginia had rebounded with wins over Miami and Louisville, but had dropped three straight before that — two of which came against opponents not in the NCAA Tournament field.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.
(Top photo courtesy of Virginia Cavaliers Facebook page)