March Madness 2014: Breaking Down Teams on Rise as NCAA Tournament Approaches

Tim DanielsFeatured ColumnistMarch 5, 2014

CHAPEL HILL, NC - FEBRUARY 20:  Kennedy Meeks #3 and Marcus Paige #5 of the North Carolina Tar Heels celebrate after a win over the Duke Blue Devils at the Dean Smith Center on February 20, 2014 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. North Carolina won 74-66.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

One of the biggest factors during March Madness is how a team is playing at that moment. Most of the rankings systems, both using voters and statistical formulas, are based on an entire resume.

However, a hot team heading into the NCAA tournament is very dangerous.

Connecticut during the 2010-11 campaign is a perfect example. The Huskies held a 21-9 record, including a mundane 9-9 mark in conference play heading into the Big East tournament. They proceeded to find their stride, winning both the Big East and NCAA titles.

As Selection Sunday inches closer, let's examine a trio of teams trending in the right direction at a perfect time. If any or all of them can continue that progress heading into the Big Dance, they are capable of making some serious noise.


North Carolina

North Carolina looked like it was fading out of contention in early January when it lost four times in a five-game stretch, with three of those losses coming against then-unranked teams.

The Tar Heels have since won 12 straight, highlighted by a triumph over rival Duke.

Marcus Paige has led the charge by averaging over 17 points per game during the streak. That includes a 35-point outburst in an overtime win against NC State. Those type of performances, especially in regards to the efficiency from outside the arc, are key for UNC.

One thing his hot shooting has done is lead teams to play more zone. That was certainly the case in a close call against Notre Dame last time out. After the narrow win, head coach Roy Williams spoke with reporters about the changing looks:

If you look at our percentages, we're not a good 3-point shooting team. Really, it's the first time in 26 years coaching I've ever been concerned about a zone. I always loved it when teams played zone because we had great movement and we could shoot the crap out of the ball. Zone never bothered us. This year, people think that's the way to play us.

Paige shoots nearly 40 percent from long range, but no other regular contributor is better than Leslie McDonald at a subpar 30 percent. If teams start leaning even more heavily on the zone, McDonald could become the ultimate X-factor.

The senior guard shot 38 percent from three-point range two seasons ago, but has dropped off in each of the last few years. He'll likely need to take advantage of the open looks against the zone for Williams' concerns to fade and the Tar Heels to keep rolling deep into the tournament.

With Brice Johnson and James Michael McAdoo making plays down low, the talent is definitely in place for North Carolina. It all comes down to beating the zone the Heels are sure to see a lot more of moving forward.



The only loss Virginia has suffered since the start of 2014 was on the road against Duke by four points. Wins over that span include North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Syracuse. The Cavaliers also carry a 13-game winning streak into their regular-season finale.

Virginia has sported a strong defense all season. The biggest change, which has led to the terrific run, has been finding more consistency on the offensive end. Losses like the 48-38 old-school battle with Wisconsin earlier in the season have turned into wins in the second half.

The ratings systems have taken notice. ESPN Stats and Info indicates that the Cavaliers have been the top-rated team in college basketball since January:

Come tournament time, getting defensive stops inside the final 10 minutes is essential to success. Virginia will be able to get those key plays to keep the opponent at bay. It's shown in recent weeks that it can score at the other end when needed as well.

Much of that offensive success is thanks to the likes of Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris.

Don't sleep on London Perrantes, though. He's a player that's emerging as a weapon on the perimeter and could come up with some very big shots in the coming weeks.



Wisconsin is an interesting case. It came out flying, winning often in dominant fashion en route to a 16-0 start. The Badgers then lost five of their next six games. They looked completely out of sorts in a loss to Northwestern at the end of January.

The next game was a turning point.

Even though they came up short against Ohio State, the Badgers played a much better game overall aside from their outside shooting. That has since returned, which has led to a seven-game winning streak.

During the run, Wisconsin has knocked off three ranked opponents. It all comes back to efficiency on the offensive end. When Bo Ryan's group is clicking on all cylinders, it has so many options on that end of the floor that the opposing defense is at a loss.

The team's top five scorers are all threats from beyond the arc, but also aren't afraid to attack the rim and get to the free-throw line. It leads to a lot of ball movement through quick passes and the players are patient enough to wait for a good look to open upa common characteristic of Badger teams.

For Wisconsin, the deciding factor heading toward the Big Dance will be its defense. As mentioned with Virginia, late stops are the name of the game. That's even truer when operating at a slow pace like the Badgers do.

If they continue to makes strides on that end of the floor, as has been the case for the past month, a long stay in the tournament will be in the cards.