5 surprising teams that could reach the Final Four
As March approaches, the conversation around college basketball focuses on two areas: the top of the bracket, and the bubble. Everyone is eager to figure out the top seeds and the last teams in the tournament. That does a disservice to one of the most interesting groups of teams in college basketball. There’s a huge chunk of teams that aren’t contending for a top seed, should safely reach the Big Dance, and have a real chance to be a factor in March.
Every year we see teams seeded in the meaty middle of the tournament emerge with an upset or two and find their way to the second or even third weekend of play.
These five teams stand out as the kind of clubs that won’t be top-three seeds but could make a Final Four run.
5. Northern Iowa
We’ll start with our boldest pick, the current leaders of the Missouri Valley Conference. If the Panthers fail to win the MVC’s automatic bid at Arch Madness in St. Louis, they’d head to the bubble with a real chance at a double-digit seed as an at-large selection.
Northern Iowa sits at 23-5, with four of its losses coming in heated road games in conference play. In non-conference play, the Panthers showed themselves worthy of tournament buzz. They won at Colorado and defeated South Carolina on a neutral court. NIU lost to West Virginia in the game’s final moments, with a head-scratching call going against the Panthers to swing the potential outcome.
Northern Iowa is led by AJ Green, a shifty point guard who can score and make plays for others. To date this season, he’s averaged 19.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game, on top of 40 percent 3-point shooting on 7.6 attempts. Green’s shooting is just one piece of a high-powered Panther offense, which ranks 17th in offensive efficiency and 3rd in 3-point shooting.
If they get hot in March, the Panthers can outscore anyone. In a season full of parity, a double-digit seed could poke through any of the bracket’s four regions. There’s no reason that couldn’t be Northern Iowa.
When January came to a close, Illinois was hovering atop the Big Ten standings and looked like a real threat to be the conference’s standard bearer in March.
The Illini started February with four straight losses, seemingly removing them from consideration for a deep postseason run. Looking deeper at those four games changes that opinion, though. The first loss came on the road versus a ranked Iowa team. Illinois then dropped back-to-back home games to top-10 KenPom teams, Maryland and Michigan State, by a combined 10 points. The fourth loss came at Rutgers, who is 16-1 at the RAC this season. Illinois also played that game without leading scorer and offensive catalyst Ayo Dosunmu.
With Dosunmu in the lineup, the Illini are one of the toughest teams in the nation’s toughest conference. That’s a surefire way to prepare for a run in March.
The Buffaloes haven’t reached the second weekend of tournament in over 40 years, last reaching the Sweet Sixteen in 1969. These Buffaloes are good enough to end that streak.
Colorado defends well, ranking in the top 20 nationally in defensive efficiency. It’s the Buffaloes’ offense, though, that is a cause for optimism. Colorado has one of the nation’s most balanced attacks, with six players averaging more than seven points per game. The Buffs can attack any matchup and exploit anything a defense throws at them. Juniors Tyler Bey and McKinley Wright have the talent and experience to lead this team deep in March Madness.
The list of teams that rank in the top 25 of both offensive and defensive efficiency contains mostly names you’d expect. Kansas, Baylor, San Diego State, Michigan State, and Arizona can all boast those rankings, but are joined somewhat surprisingly by Houston.
The Cougars won 30 games and reached the Sweet Sixteen last season, yet lost four starters from that team. Kelvin Sampson has his team responding on both ends of the floor. The Cougars are 21-7, with their four conference losses coming by a combined six total points. With just a few different bounces of the ball, Houston would be looking at a higher seed and an easier path to a run in March.
No matter their seed, the Cougars’ stingy defense can smother anyone. The emergence of freshmen Caleb Mills and Marcus Sasser as real scoring threats as the season has progressed has made Houston more dynamic offensively. The young pair have combined for 26 points per game in February and could be the spark that elevates Houston to new heights.
Until Saturday, the Bluejays were one of the most underrated teams in college basketball. That may no longer be the case, after Creighton slaughtered Butler, leading by as much as 35 points in the second half.
Creighton’s offense is one of the most dangerous units in college hoops. Marcus Zegarowski can slash, score, and create plays for others. Ty-Shon Alexander can score from anywhere and against any defender. Denzel Mahoney is one of the most aggressive downhill drivers in the sport. And Mitch Ballock is one of the best pure shooters anywhere. These Jays can score a lot, score efficiently, and put together a scoring run in a hurry.
If Creighton’s defense continues to improve, as it has as the season has progressed, there’s no question they can knife through the bracket to Atlanta.
Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.