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#pounditWednesday, March 22, 2023

5 hottest teams entering the NCAA Tournament

Michigan Wolverines

One helpful tool when making NCAA Tournament picks is to look at which teams have been playing the best coming into the tournament. Some teams may have winning streaks dating back to the new year; some may have just torn through their conference tournament; or they may have been a team with high expectations that struggled for much of the season before seemingly coming into their own down the stretch. No matter how you slice it, these are teams that are just hot at the right time.

Here is a list of five teams bound for the NCAA Tournament who enter the Big Dance playing some of the best basketball in the country and are definitely worthy of a long look as you fill out your bracket.

5) Vermont Catamounts (29-5)

Might as well start with the longest winning streak in Division I, right?

The Catamounts have not lost a game since before Christmas. The date was Dec. 21, and it was an away game at Butler, where they lost by a respectable 12-point margin. They proceeded to win 21 in a row, including a perfect 16-0 mark in the America East Conference, not including their three straight wins in the conference tournament. Only five of those 21 wins have been by single digits.

Basically, they’ve decimated everyone they’ve played.

If Vermont can find their way up to the 12 line, they’re bound to be a trendy pick for the traditional 5-12 upset. Even if they’re a 13, they’ll get a lot of buzz as a potential upset pick depending on their match-up.

No team is entering the tournament hotter than Vermont.

4) Wichita State Shockers (30-4)

The Shockers aren’t much of a secret anymore, as they’ve become one of those well-known mid-major darlings that have earned a reputation as a much bigger program than their conference would otherwise dictate. They’re doing it again this year under Gregg Marshall.

Wichita State has lost only four games all season and just two since the beginning of December. It’s fair to say the Missouri Valley Conference isn’t loaded with depth and talent, but Wichita State beat pretty much everyone they played, including the bubble team in their conference, Illinois State. They handled the Redbirds by 20 in the MVC title game. ranks Wichita State as the ninth-best team in the nation, with offensive and defensive efficiency both in the top 20. They will enter the tournament having won 15 in a row.

The Shockers probably will be underseeded, so their success may depend on match-ups, but they’re fully capable of knocking off a higher seed if they get the right draw in the tournament.

3) Vanderbilt Commodores (19-15)

The Commodores weren’t even in the tournament conversation at the beginning of February.

After a loss to Missouri on Feb. 11, they were 12-13 overall and 5-7 in SEC play. With their season looking lost, Bryce Drew’s team promptly reeled off seven wins in eight games, led by senior forward Luke Kornet. The quality of those wins were what really put them on the map, and even their only loss was at Kentucky — a game in which they held a double-digit lead at Rupp Arena before faltering late.

Friday’s SEC tournament win over Florida marked the third time they’d defeated the Gators this season, and those resume-building wins took them from nowhere to off the bubble remarkably quickly. They lost to Arkansas in the SEC Tournament on Saturday, but winning it would really have just been icing on the cake.

The Commodores will enter the NCAA Tournament feeling great about their play. They are 7-2 in their last nine games.

2) Duke Blue Devils (27-8)

Behind super freshman Harry Giles, veteran guard Grayson Allen, and a strong supporting cast, Duke wasn’t supposed to have much trouble this season. As it turned out, the year was more tumultuous than any of them could have figured.

Giles and his fellow freshmen Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden both missed time with injuries, leading to a longer-than-expected adjustment period to the college game. Allen’s tripping habits made him a lightning rod for controversy and criticism, and coach Mike Krzyzewski needed mid-season surgery that further rocked the boat. Duke was never in any danger of missing the tournament, but a 3-4 start in ACC play demonstrated just how hard a time they were having with the adversity. Even as late as February, they were still losing at the likes of Syracuse and Miami, and weren’t playing to what many believed was their full potential.

They are now.

Allen has put the controversies behind him and is back to his best. Tatum overcame his injury issues to become the team’s second-leading scorer. Luke Kennard has turned into a leader both on and off the court, averaging 20 points per game.

The wins have followed — and not just any wins.

Five of Duke’s last six games came against ranked opponents, and they lost only once — a seven-point defeat at North Carolina. They got their revenge by beating them by ten in the ACC Tournament, a result bookended by wins over Louisville and Notre Dame, who had been playing really good basketball at the time of their meeting.

Duke’s winning streak may not be as long as some of the other teams on this list, but the Blue Devils may be playing better basketball than anyone else right now.

1) Michigan Wolverines (23-11)

The Wolverines needed a big final month of the season to play themselves off the bubble, as they were 4-6 in Big Ten play after a loss to Ohio State on Feb. 4. They did that and more.

Michigan won nine of their next 11, with the only two losses being at Minnesota in overtime and at Northwestern at the buzzer on this wild play.

They throttled Michigan State at home by 29 points, beat Indiana at Assembly Hall, took down Wisconsin, and defeated Purdue twice. An 84-77 win over Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament has them set for a date in the final, where they’ll have every chance of clinching the automatic berth that they don’t even need anymore. Notably, they marched through the conference tournament despite some very dangerous travel issues and a whole lot of inconveniences.

Michigan has battled adversity to play some of the best basketball in the country, led by strong guard play from Derrick Walton Jr.

With a 9-2 record in their last 11 games, Michigan is a team to watch once the brackets are unveiled.


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