The madness of March will be in full swing soon, with all the power conference tournaments wrapping up as Selection Sunday strikes. Before the official NCAA tournament bracket is released, it's always interesting to predict how the action will unfold.
Some teams perhaps deserving of a bid will not get in, while other perceptibly overrated big-name programs will get nods.
As wacky as this college basketball season has been, though, it is particularly important to become acquainted with the mid-major squads and also distinguish the contenders from the pretenders.
Here are some updated predictions for the Big Dance just ahead of the deadline for those on the bubble to punch a ticket.
Belmont Bruins, Iona Gaels and Akron Zips
Led by Ian Clark, the Bruins are among the most explosive offenses in the country. They shoot a whopping 49.4 percent from the field, which is a testament to their offensive efficiency. Belmont ranks 15th in the nation in assists per game, and shoots just under 39 percent from beyond the arc.
Since the three-point line is such an equalizer in March Madness and is a huge strength of this Bruins team, they will likely be a very tough out, and could run to the Sweet 16 very easily.
It was a bit of an ugly regular season for Iona, but the Gaels came out on top in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament, beating Manhattan by three in the final.
Lamont Jones is third in the NCAA in averaging 23 points per game for the fast-paced Gaels. If they can keep the pace up, they have all the makings of pulling off a stunner in the early going.
Then there are the Zips of Akron, who overcame the arrest of starting point guard Alex Abreu to still win the MAC tournament over a dangerous Ohio Bobcats team. This is a squad that knows how to score, but one that can put the defensive clamps on.
Bobcats star D.J. Cooper was limited to just three points and didn't make a single field goal as the Zips held Ohio to 17 percent shooting in the second half of a 64-45 victory.
Cooper even sent out a classy tweet to the Zips after the number they did on him.
Dj cooper @Djcoop5
Congrats to Akron- they over came alot of adversity on an off the court this year. Best of luck in the tourney.3/17/2013, 2:50:36 AM
Now that the Zips have the automatic bid and a nice roll going, they feel they can beat anyone. At least, that was implied in the aftermath by Akron center Zeke Marshall (via AP, h/t ESPN).
I'm trying to win the NCAA tournament, honestly. I feel like there's nothing that can stop us. You've seen the adversity we had to go through with losing our starting point guard and we were able to do what we needed to do to get our wins. And that's why I feel like in the NCAA tournament that's what we're going to do.
All three of the listed squads are going to be scary for higher seeds to face in their first games, especially with all of them winning their conference tournaments.
Surprise Early Exits
Syracuse Orange, Michigan Wolverines and Miami Hurricanes
Maybe the Orange aren't the biggest surprise there, but they are a seriously flawed squad that managed to reach the Big East championship game. Unfortunately, Syracuse collapsed and were outscored by 30 in the second half against Louisville.
Guard play is vitally important for the NCAA tournament, and the tandem of Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams simply isn't efficient enough. If teams clog the lane and neutralize C.J. Fair, there's a good chance that the Orange will be upset early on.
As difficult as the Big Ten has been this year, the Wolverines won't be one of the squads to make a Final Four run despite likely being in line for a No. 3 seed.
Trey Burke is the only truly reliable player in crunch time, freshman Glenn Robinson III isn't consistent against better competition and the Michigan defense is a serious problem. That was on display in its most recent loss to the Wisconsin Badgers in the second half, as the Wolverines yielded 51 points.
The Miami Hurricanes, on the other hand, play stellar defense and are enjoying a wonderful season in head coach Jim Larranaga's second year.
However, the Hurricanes struggle to score at times, and could easily be beaten by an upstart with strong three-point shooting. Another big key in the tournament is closing out games.
Since Miami shoots just 67 percent from the charity stripe, any lead it has late will be in jeopardy.
New Mexico Lobos, Saint Louis Billikens and Virginia Commonwealth Rams
The Lobos have an RPI ranking of No. 2 in the country, which shows just how formidable the Mountain West Conference is. Their strength of schedule ranks third, giving more traction to that notion.
The big red flag with New Mexico is its 42.2 percent shooting, but Steve Alford's squad will grind it out with the best of them. The fact that the Lobos have won so many games in spite of that is impressive, and anytime they get hot from the floor, few teams will be able to match them.
Don't discount the Billikens, either. Although they don't boast the schedule that the Lobos do, they did just convincingly knock off Butler in the Atlantic 10 Conference semifinal.
The staggeringly putrid shooting percentages of forward Cody Ellis (.326) and guard Kwamain Mitchell (.383) may scare some away from picking this team, but Saint Louis has a chance to really make some noise as a prospective top-five seed.
Another A-10 team to be wary of picking against is VCU, if for no other reason but that Shaka Smart has coached them to the Final Four before. Not that such a thing will happen this time around, but the Rams are still going to be a tough out thanks to their constantly-pressuring defense and strong, balanced offense.
Treveon Graham can score from anywhere on the court and is the catalyst for the VCU attack. Big man Juvonte Reddic gives the Rams much-needed size on the inside, puts up 14.3 points and snags over eight rebounds per contest.
VCU will face the Billikens on Sunday in the conference tournament final, and that will be a big measuring-stick game for both.
Indiana Hoosiers, Michigan State Spartans, Kansas Jayhawks and Louisville Cardinals
A discouraging loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament is more due to the wear and tear of that sort of competition for the Hoosiers than anything else. The same goes for Michigan State, which dropped its semifinal matchup to the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Both will benefit from the extra rest and make it to Atlanta. Indiana is one of the most versatile and best offenses in the country, led by superstars Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller.
The Hoosiers have also picked up their defense down the stretch, and if they can continue staying disciplined on that end of the floor, they have all the makings of a Final Four team.
Tom Izzo seems to always have the Spartans peaking at the proper time. Anytime Michigan State finishes in the top two in the Big Ten during the regular season—which happened this time around—NCAA tournament success typically follows. Six Final Four appearances in those nine previous occasions prove that.
Kansas has freshman sensation Ben McLemore to create a great dynamic with senior leaders Jeff Withey and Travis Releford. The Jayhawks rolled to the Big 12 Conference tournament title after a horrific loss to Baylor in the season finale.
Consistency is still a concern, but the Jayhawks should be favorites to land a No. 1 seed and have an ideal path to college basketball's promised land.
Then there are the hard-nosed, Rick Pitino-coached Cardinals. It's never wise to count them out, especially since they won their third Big East tournament in five years. Louisville is playing sensationally.
Should freshman Montrezl Harrell even come close to producing the 20 points and hustle he did against the Orange on Saturday night, the Cardinals will be all the more difficult to top.
National Champion: Kansas Jayhawks
The fact that Bill Self's bunch was able to win the Big 12 title game so easily with McLemore notching just five points reflects how strong this team can be even when all cylinders aren't firing.
As inconsistent and troubled as the Jayhawks have been at times in 2012-13, it looks as though they are finally piecing everything together. The incumbent contributors remember the bitter disappointment of last year's national title loss to Kentucky, and should be driven to get back there.
Freshman forward Perry Ellis came off the bench for 12 big points against the Wildcats, and proved that he could step up on the big stage to deliver key buckets. He netted 23 points on 10-of-12 shooting in the previous game versus Iowa State, too.
If Ellis can keep that momentum going and the Jayhawks can find ways to win even when McLemore struggles, there are going to be very few competitors for Kansas.
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