It’s that time of year again, when the terms “last four in,” “last four out” and “on the bubble” take on a very important meaning when it comes to determining the 68-team field for the NCAA tournament. Using ESPN’s Joe Lunardi’s most recent projected bracket for this year’s tournament, I have come up with my top five teams to watch as the actual field begins coming together.
No. 5: Xavier Musketeers (Big East)
Right now Lunardi has the Musketeers as the ninth seed in the West facing Memphis in their first game. A few weeks back, after they posted four losses in six games, it appeared the only way they were even getting in the NCAA tournament was with an outright win in this season’s Big East tournament.
That whole outlook has radically changed after back-to-back victories over St. John’s and then-No. 9 Creighton this past week.
Xavier is still just 10-6 in conference play. However, it will have another chance to play spoiler in the Big East regular season title race with a win on the road this Thursday over No. 6 Villanova. It could also be a good team to wager on with a 4-2 mark against the spread in its last six outings.
No. 4: VCU Rams (Atlantic 10)
This is the time of year when Shaka Smart’s Rams usually start to shine, and this season has been no exception. VCU is currently penciled in as a No. 7 seed in the South, facing Colorado in its first game.
It is coming off its biggest win of the year with a 67-56 victory over then-No. 10 Saint Louis to keep its regular season title hopes in the A-10 alive. This past Saturday’s win as 4.5-point home favorites, per Vegas Insider, lifted the Rams’ record to 8-3 against the spread in their last 11 games.
It would take a minor miracle to win the regular-season title with the Billikens holding a two-game lead with two games to play, but the Rams are well positioned to win the conference tournament, which would only enhance their position for the Big Dance.
No. 3: Georgia State Panthers (Sun Belt)
The Panthers have already wrapped up the regular-season title in the Sun Belt with a conference record of 15-1, and barring anything crazy happening in their last two games against Arkansas State and Western Kentucky, they should enter their conference tournament riding a seven-game winning streak.
Not only have the Panthers rolled through just about every team they have faced since a stunning loss to Troy on Feb. 15 as 10-point road favorites, but they have covered in four of the five games.
Lunardi has Georgia State entering the NCAA tournament as the No. 14 seed in the South, with Iowa State listed as its first opponent. If it can continue its dominance in the Sun Belt with an impressive run to conference tournament title, it can only help its seeding for the tournament.
No. 2: Kansas State Wildcats (Big 12)
While the biggest shakeup in the projected NCAA bracket might be Kansas earning a No. 1 seed over fading Syracuse, my team to watch in the Big 12 is rival Kansas State.
The Wildcats are coming off a huge 80-73 victory over then-No. 15 Iowa State this past Saturday as two-point home favorites. This followed an impressive 60-56 win over Texas Tech as 1.5-point underdogs on the road.
Kansas State has been put in the Midwest bracket as the No. 8 seed, with a matchup against Pittsburgh right out of the gate. This position should only improve if the Wildcats knock off Oklahoma State and Baylor down the stretch and make a deep run in next week’s Big 12 tournament.
No. 1: North Carolina Tar Heels (ACC)
This is another program that knows how to peak at just the right time with an 11-game winning streak that has elevated the Tar Heels all the way to No. 14 in the latest AP poll.
They already have a victory over rival No. 4 Duke in their pocket heading into this Saturday’s season finale in Durham, and they would love nothing more than to close things out with the sweep. North Carolina’s winning streak reached nine games before failing to cover in its last two outings.
Right now the Tar Heels are penciled in as the No. 5 seed in the South Region, with Harvard listed as their first opponent. However, there is a good chance they can continue this run to end up in far better position than that when the actual bracket is released on Selection Sunday.