5 Teams Soaring into the NCAA Tournament
Let’s turn things around a bit and look at the other end of the spectrum – teams performing at a high level entering the tournament.
No, I’m not going to mention the obvious Wichita State Shockers or other major teams that just won three straight games to win their conference tournaments. Instead, the goal here is to look at some under-the-radar squads who have turned it up a notch down the stretch, and are riding momentum into this year’s tournament.
Oklahoma State, 9 Seed
5-2 Over Their Last 7 Games
We’ve touted Oklahoma State a whole lot over the last week or two, and it’s mostly because they have a talented star in Marcus Smart who can take them deep in the tournament as a nine seed. Smart was suspended earlier in the season for shoving a fan, and around that time and during the suspension, the Cowboys went on a seven-game losing streak. On February 17th, Oklahoma State sat with just a 16-10 record.
But they’ve gotten better as a team since Smart’s return, winning five of their last seven – their only two losses came in overtime against two-seeded Kansas and three-seeded Iowa State.
Despite being a nine seed, OK State comes in as our 13th-best team in terms of nERD with a 31st-ranked offense and 36th-ranked defense. They’ve been tested fairly well in the Big 12, too, seeing the 31st-hardest schedule in college basketball this year.
If not for their tough draw in the tournament, Oklahoma State would have a good chance to go to at least the Sweet 16. But an underrated Gonzaga team (20th in nERD) will meet them in the first round, and if they win, Oklahoma State will then have to face numberFire’s nERDiest team, Arizona.
Baylor, 6 Seed
10-2 Over Their Last 12 Games
The six seeds in this year’s tournament are very intriguing. You have the defensive-oriented Ohio State Buckeyes in the South region, ranking in our top 20 in terms of nERD. And then in the Midwest, you’ve got a UMass team that we see as vastly overrated.
Baylor’s kind of in the middle, deserving of a six seed but capable of doing damage in the tournament. They enter the Big Dance having won 10 of their last 12 games, including victories over Iowa State, Kansas State and Oklahoma State. The Bears are a great rebounding team because of their height, led by 7’1’’ Isaiah Austin and 6’9’’ Cory Jefferson, and, naturally, they’re good at blocking, finishing 20th in the country this year in blocks.
The Bears come in as our 30th-ranked team with one of the best offenses in the country, but despite their height, they can be porous on defense. It will be interesting to watch a potential matchup between them and Creighton, the best offense in the land, in the Round of 32.
Tulsa, 13 Seed
11-0 Over Their Last 11 Games
You can look at this Tulsa team and think that they’re a mess. They went 0-2 against top-25 teams this year, rank 84th in nERD, played the 92nd-hardest schedule and rank 137th offensively.
But Tulsa, winners of the Conference USA Tournament, have won 11 straight games after starting the season 1-6. It was literally a tale of two halves for the Golden Hurricane, as they’ve lost just three games since 2014 hit.
As noted, the team’s offense isn’t very strong, but the defense ranked 32nd in the country this year. Their first-round matchup is against a very solid UCLA team, but because UCLA’s strengths are on the offensive side of the ball, don’t be surprised if you see Tulsa keeping the game close.
North Dakota State, 12 Seed
14-1 Over Their Last 15 Games
North Dakota State not only has won 14 of their last 15 contests, but they’re entering the tournament on a 9-game winning streak as well, blowing out their competition by more than double-digits in 6 of those contests.
Their resume is an interesting one, seeing the 108th-ranked strength of schedule, losing their only top 25 matchup to Ohio State and ranking 68th in nERD. But their offense is good, grading fourth in the country, and no team has a better field goal percentage than the North Dakota State Bison.
Any 12/5 upset is attractive to folks filling out brackets, and I’d only assume that this will be a favorite one. Oklahoma, North Dakota State’s opponent on Thursday, has a pretty bad defense that the Bison may be able to take advantage of.
North Carolina State, 12 Seed
5-1 Over Their Last 6 Games
NC State whooped Xavier last night in their play-in game despite being the worse team analytically. As a result, the Wolfpack got their fifth win in six games, and will have a shot at continuing their surprising late-season surge with a victory against Saint Louis on Thursday night.
In essence, NC State's potential in the tournament will be up to star forward, TJ Warren. Warren scored 25 points - 16 in the second half - against the Musketeers last night, and hasn't scored fewer than 20 points in a game since the team's January 11th loss to Virginia. He's a top player in the country, leading the Wolfpack offense to score at least 66 points in each of their last nine games.
Though they're the worst at-large bid in the tournament according to our metrics, it's hard to not recognize that this team looks a lot different than it did when conference play began. They started ACC play losing three of four, and were 7-9 in the conference entering March. Now they're riding high, and will attempt to upset a Saint Louis Billikens team that will push the offense much more than Xavier's defense did last night.
Honorable Mention: New Mexico State