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#pounditSunday, August 9, 2020

Five college basketball teams peaking in time for March Madness

Tom Izzo

College basketball spends four and a half months allowing teams, fans, and media to sort things out. There are debates about the eye test, a full season resume, and what to expect from a team in the future.

Some teams, regardless of how they looked around Thanksgiving, are starting to round into form. In a sport with the wildest single elimination playoff format, getting hot at the right time can mean everything.

These five teams are hitting their stride just as March heats up and could be dangerous in the Big Dance.

5. BYU Cougars

On December 6, BYU was 6-4 on the season and ranked as the 62nd-best team in the nation, according to KenPom. Since then, the Cougars have turned things on by winning 18 of their 21 games and rising into the KenPom top 10. All three losses came on the road versus the three other strong teams atop the West Coast Conference, with two of the games being decided by one possession.

The timing of BYU’s turnaround is no coincidence. Big man Yoeli Childs missed the first nine games due to a suspension. His return, and growth into superstardom, has sparked the Cougars. When he missed four games with an injury, it was noticeable, resulting in two of BYU’s losses. Since the start of February, Childs is averaging 23.4 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, peaking with a 38-point, 14-rebound performance against Pepperdine last week.

The BYU team that has a healthy and dominant Yoeli Childs is a legitimate threat to win games deep in March.

4. Wisconsin Badgers

The middle of the Big Ten has been a muddy mess most of this season. Teams have seen wild swings up and down, with wins on the road coming at a premium. Each team fighting to stay viable in the conference has had brief moments of excellence and struggled for stretches. It was inevitable, however, that some middling Big Ten team would figure itself out and get hot.

That appears to be Wisconsin.

The Badgers have won seven straight, finally starting to look as sharp offensively as many expected Wisconsin to look preseason. The winning streak is in part due to a scheduling quirk. Five of the Badgers’ seven wins have come at home in Madison. In Wisconsin’s early-season trouble in conference, five of its six losses came on the road.

Regardless of where the games occurred, winning seven games in a row in the nation’s best conference is notable. Greg Gard’s offensive system is starting to gel, with scoring options at nearly every position on the floor. The emergence of Ohio State transfer Micah Potter, who sat out first semester play, has made life easier for every Badger and makes Wisconsin a far more dangerous team.

3. Michigan State Spartans

Tied with Wisconsin atop the Big Ten standings, Michigan State is finally starting to show why it was the preseason No. 1 team in the AP Poll.

Sparty has won five of its last six, with the lone loss coming at home against Maryland. The Spartans avenged that defeat Saturday with a win in College Park before winning again up the road at Penn State.

The most significant change for Michigan State has been the development of freshman Rocket Watts. He averaged just 6.8 points per game in November and December, but has nearly doubled that to 12.2 points per game in February and March. Even in that stretch as he’s gotten more aggressive, his shot has still not been consistent. If he grows into the secondary scorer that this Michigan State team has always needed, Sparty’s chances to dance to the Final Four become much more potent.

2. Providence Friars

No list of disappointing teams made in the middle of this season would have been complete without the Friars. With a group of returning contributors and UMass transfer Luwane Pipkins joining the fold, expectations were high in Providence.

When the Friars were just 11-10 in late January, many were baffled. They weren’t defending like most Ed Cooley-coached teams and couldn’t find consistent scoring.

Since then, the Friars have won seven of nine, including road victories at Butler and Villanova. Pipkins has been a revelation of late, scoring 20.6 points with 40 percent 3-point shooting in Providence’s last five games.

The Friars have battled from the outside-looking-in, to the bubble, to a fairly safe bet to be a terrifying second round match-up for a top ranked team.

1. Dayton Flyers

No team in college basketball is hotter than Dayton. The Flyers have won 18 in a row dating back to December 23. You can quibble about Dayton’s schedule over that period, but there’s no questioning how sharp the Flyers have looked.

Going undefeated in the 9th best conference (per KenPom) is worth praise. The Atlantic-10 is not full of pushovers. Dayton is 12-2 against Quadrant 1 and 2 opponents this season.

The Flyers are more than just likely National Player of the Year Obi Toppin too. Toppin is college basketball’s most exciting show on a nightly basis, though he’s surrounded by a crop of talented, smart, effective teammates. Jalen Crutcher is a great playmaker who drives the Dayton offense; Ryan Mikesell is a match-up nightmare; and Trey Landers is one of the nation’s hardest working glue guys.

Dayton’s haters had the Flyers road date with Rhode Island circled for weeks, expecting the Rams to give Dayton a serious challenge. Dayton won by 27 in a game that was never close. The Flyers are the real deal.

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.

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