March Madness is officially here. No, the NCAA tournament hasn't started yet, but with countless teams vying for the last few spots in the field, the action is already moving at a blistering pace.
Though several teams sit on the infamous bubble, many of them are there thanks to great play late in the year rather than wilting down the stretch. A few of those teams have huge winning streaks in recent weeks and could have a chance of securing a spot with a championship in the conference tournament.
Along with the bubble term in March, Cinderella is a phrase those around college basketball are familiar with—especially those filling out brackets and looking for upsets.
Programs like George Mason, Butler and Florida Gulf Coast have risen to popularity thanks to notable runs in March. While there might not be an unknown name on this list, each of the teams have a chance to make a name by surviving in the tournament.
Here is a look at several teams that have a chance to not only make the field of 68, but knock off a higher-ranked team and possibly make a run at a Sweet 16.
Providence (20-10, 10-7 Big East)
There's this guy who plays for Providence and gives defenders nightmares. That man is named Bryce Cotton, and he's one of the best pure-shooting point guards in the country.
With his recent play in big games, the senior has put his name in the hat for All-American votes, according to Kevin McNamara of The Providence Journal:
All-America voters: Bryce Cotton 25 pts, 9 asst, 7 Rebs. In what must be a record he's now played all 50 minutes in 4 double ot games.— Kevin McNamara (@KevinMcNamara33) March 5, 2014
Cotton has averaged just a shade below those numbers with 21.7 points and 5.9 assists per game along with playing an average of 40.2 minutes per game—there's only 40 minutes in a college basketball game.
While Cotton is the big name on the team, LaDontae Henton has been a force down low despite his 6'6" stature. With 13.4 points and 7.3 rebounds per game—16 points and 9.3 rebounds in his last three games—Henton has been just as deadly in the paint or behind the arc.
Then there's the glue that holds the team together in Ed Cooley. Cotton spoke about how influential the third-year head coach has been throughout the year, per Terrence Payne of NBC Sports:
He’s done a really good job of bringing a lot of new attributes out of me, character traits I didn’t think I’d ever show. [...] Coming in I was more a lead by example guy, quiet, kept to myself. He brought to my attention, the importance of bringing along some of the younger guys. He forced me to not only be a vocal leader, but an emotional leader as well.
The Friars have played the final stretch of games with little room for error. And with a pivotal awaiting them in Omaha against No. 13 Creighton, they might have another resume win to solidify their chances at getting into the tournament.
After playing an entire four-year tenure under the radar, Cotton and his teammates have a chance to dazzle in the dance.
Baylor (20-10, 8-9 Big 12)
It hasn't been the easiest road for the Baylor Bears, but they have nearly solidified a spot in the field thanks to outstanding play late in the season.
Baylor has won six out of its last seven, culminating in a huge win over No. 16 Iowa State, 74-61, on Tuesday night. That win all but solidified a berth for the Bears, according to ESPN's Joe Lunardi:
The pressure that comes along with attempting to make the field hasn't been too much for the Bears thanks to the phenomenal play down low by Cory Jefferson. While the senior forward can shoot from outside—he's 11-of-27 this season from behind the arc—his play in the paint has been a catalyst for Baylor's success.
With an average of 13.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, Jefferson leads the team in both categories. Thanks to an outside scoring threat in Brady Heslip—shooting .468 from three this season—the Bears have experience and a great shooting touch from the two seniors.
Thought Selection Sunday hasn't started, the Bears clearly don't lack any confidence about the fact that they'll be playing late in March. The program's official Twitter account shared what their interesting Adidas jerseys will look like for the tourney:
This team could be the highlight of March Madness—literally and figuratively.
As time has proven over the years, teams with veteran leadership typically do well in the tournament. And with the Bears peaking at the right time heading into March Madness, they are primed for a run.
Missouri (21-9, 9-8 SEC)
For a team that has been known over the years for its outstanding guard play, Missouri has become a legitimate contender this season thanks in large part to improving on that style.
Junior guard Jabari Brown has not only been a legitimate scorer for the Tigers, but he's as consistent as they come. Much like Cotton, Brown never takes a night off, averaging 36.9 minutes this season.
As for the scoring touch, Brown hasn't scored less than 10 points in a game throughout the season, as he's averaging 20.1 per game. The junior spoke about the team's mentality following an 85-66 win over Mississippi State, per Tod Palmer of The Kansas City Star:
"You always want to bounce back after losses. This is March now, and we don’t want to lose any games in March. March is our money time, and we’re trying to make the most of it."
The team also has an elite presence down low with Earnest Ross (13.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg) to go along with another elite scorer in Jordan Clarkson (18.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 3.5 apg).
Despite losses to teams like Kentucky and Florida in the beginning of February, Mizzou has rattled off wins in five of its last seven games with fellow bubble teams Tennessee and Arkansas.
But in order for the team to make a run in the tournament, they'll need to win their season finale against Tennessee and potentially make a run in the conference tournament. Joe Lunardi of ESPN currently has the Tigers out of the NCAA bracket heading into the final game.
With the type of scoring on the court every game for the Tigers, it makes for a deadly combination that can contend with any team in the tournament. If Mizzou can secure a bid with a decent finish in the SEC tournament, it will be a difficult out when the brackets are finally set.