NCAA Tournament 2018: The Hottest Teams Heading into Selection Sunday

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistMarch 10, 2018

NCAA Tournament 2018: The Hottest Teams Heading into Selection Sunday

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    Abbie Parr/Getty Images

    Every college basketball team wants to enter the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship feeling confident thanks to recent performances, but several programs are simply on fire.

    And this isn't limited to power-conference and/or top-ranked schools, such as Virginia or Gonzagathough they're included too!

    Loyola-Chicago and South Dakota State will carry double-digit winning streaks into the Big Dance. Plus, a few other programs have a chance to continue a torrid finish that helped them secure a surprise conference tournament title and the coveted automatic bid.

    The list is broken into four sections, since more than a handful of conferences have not finished their tournaments. We've highlighted league champions as well as teams still fighting for the crownplus one more Big Ten school.

Unranked Conference Champions

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    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Bucknell Bison: 2018 opened with a loss to Boston U., but that's almost the only negative for Bucknell during this calendar year. The Bison have posted an 18-1 record since then, only falling to Lehigh on the road in overtime. Bucknell clipped Loyola (Md.) before crushing Boston and Colgate en route to a Patriot League crown.

    College of Charleston Cougars: After a 3-3 start to Colonial Athletic Association action, College of Charleston turned around its season by making a habit of winning close games. During an ongoing 14-1 run, the Cougars have recorded nine victories of seven points or fewer. They even clipped Northeastern in overtime to earn the CAA's auto bid.

    Lipscomb Bisons: The Atlantic Sun program dropped three of its first four conference outings yet hasn't done much losing in the last seven weeks. The Bisons boast a 12-1 record since Jan. 20 and rank among the nation's leaders in two-point field-goal percentage during this stretch, per Basketball-Reference.com.

    Loyola-Chicago Ramblers: One of the season's best stories, Loyola (Missouri Valley Conference) heads into the tournament with a 28-5 record and 10-game winning streak. The Ramblers sport the country's fourth-highest field-goal percentage this season, but holding opponents to a 40.6 mark from the field is the pivotal part of the winning streak.

    Murray State Racers: Murray State's perimeter defense has been outstanding all year, limiting teams to the 10th-worst three-point percentage (30.6) in the nation. Since the Ohio Valley champions' current 13-game winning streak began, that conversion rate has been a meager 26.3.

    Radford Highlanders: Capped by Carlik Jones' buzzer-beater to claim the Big South championship, Radford is headed to the NCAA tournament for the first time in nine years. As a bonus, the clutch shot also extended the Highlanders' winning streak to seven games.

    South Dakota State Jackrabbits: Not only does South Dakota State love shooting threes, the Mike Daum-led roster is extremely efficient beyond the arc. The Summit champion Jackrabbitswho've won 19 of their last 20 gamesown the 12th-best three-point clip (40.3) in Division I.

    UNC Greensboro Spartans: The Spartans are 16-2 in their last 18. They've notched 14 victories by a double-digit margin, and the only losses are by a combined five points. During this stretch, opponents have mustered a mere 39.3 shooting percentage against the Southern Conference champions.

Ranked Conference Champions

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    Gonzaga's Killian Tillie
    Gonzaga's Killian TillieAssociated Press

    Gonzaga Bulldogs: The eye test hasn't been as friendly for Gonzaga all season, but the win column sure looks pretty (30-4). Last season's national runner-up hasn't lost since mid-January, rattling off 14 consecutive victories. Plus, the Bulldogs rolled through the West Coast Conference tournament with three triumphs of 14-plus points.

    Michigan Wolverines: Following a 5-4 stretch from Jan. 9 to Feb. 6, Michigan has found some offense, turned up the defense and stopped losing. John Beilein's club is a perfect 9-0 since Feb. 11, defeating each of Ohio State, Michigan State and Purdue during that stretch. In 2016-17, a torrid finish and Big Ten tourney run preceded a strong NCAA showing for the Wolverines. Might history repeat itself?

Unranked Teams with Unfinished Business

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    Trae Bell-Haynes
    Trae Bell-HaynesStacy Revere/Getty Images

    Hampton Pirates: After the first game in February, Hampton held a 9-14 overall record with a 4-4 mark in Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference play. That sure doesn't sound like a tournament team, but 10 consecutive wins has changed that perception. The Pirates can secure an automatic bid with a triumph of North Carolina Central in the MEAC final.

    St. Bonaventure Bonnies: Rhode Island ran away with the Atlantic 10 title because St. Bonaventure dropped four of its first six conference games. But while Rhode Island limped to the finish, the Bonnies rattled off 13 straight wins and positioned themselves for an at-large NCAA berth no matter what happens the rest of the way in the A-10 tournament.

    Vermont Catamounts: Key sophomore Anthony Lamb's two-month absence began after Vermont held off Quinnipiac on Dec. 21. No worries, though. The Catamounts are 20-1 since that date thanks to Trae Bell-Haynes, the two-time America East Player of the Year. Lamb is back, and Vermont is a victory over UMBC away from returning to the Big Dance.

Top Programs Cruising

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    Michigan State's Miles Bridges
    Michigan State's Miles BridgesAssociated Press

    Michigan State Spartans: Yes, the Spartans fell to Michigan during the Big Ten tournament. Still, that was MSU's first loss since mid-Januaryalso to Michigan. Between those contests, Miles Bridges and Co. registered 13 straight wins. The team shot a scorching 43.0 percent from three-point range during that stretch. For context, William & Mary ranks first nationally with a 43.4 mark on the year.

    Virginia Cavaliers: By no means is it shocking that college basketball's top-ranked team is a hot team. Nevertheless, Virginia is 29-2 on the season, winners of six straight games and 21 of the last 22. The Cavaliers are rightfully known for defense, given their 84.2 adjusted efficiency is tied for the lowest in the 17-year KenPom.com era.

    Xavier Musketeers: While rival Villanova coughed up a couple of games down the stretch, the Big East power accounted for Xavier's only misstep during the last 14 outings until an overtime loss to Providence in the conference tournament. The Musketeers rode a high-scoring offense that averaged 84.6 points to 12 victories and a regular-season conference crown in the closing eight weeks.

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