NCAA Tournament 2019: Examining the Hottest Teams Heading into Selection Sunday

Michelle Bruton@@michelle_nflFeatured ColumnistMarch 16, 2019

NCAA Tournament 2019: Examining the Hottest Teams Heading into Selection Sunday

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    With a slew of conference tournaments underway, there's plenty of NCAA men's college basketball action ahead of Selection Sunday. 

    As a result, between the conference champions and the automatic bids that have already been handed out, we know a good amount of the Big Dance entrance already. The NCAA awards 32 automatic bids before Selection Sunday to conference tournament champions, with the remaining 36 earning at-large bids on that day. 

    Some of those automatic bids have gone to squads like the Patriot League's Colgate Raiders, which will play in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1996, and red-hot Murray State, which took down top-seeded Belmont to secure the Ohio Valley Conference title. 

    Let's take a closer look not only at the ranked and unranked conference champions that are hot heading into Selection Sunday, but also the top programs that are cruising and the unranked teams that have some unfinished business to take care of in this year's Big Dance.

    We've included squads that have either won five in a row or nine of their last 10 games.

Unranked Conference Champions

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    Daniel R. Patmore/Associated Press

    Colgate Raiders

    With their win over Bucknell in the Patriot League championship, the Raiders earned an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Colgate finished the season 24-10—the best in program history. They have to be feeling good heading into the NCAA tournament, where they track as a potential No. 15 seed.

    However, we'll see if the Raiders can keep the good vibes going. Matt Langel's squad didn't play any ranked teams, though the Raiders did play Syracuse (and lost 77-56). 


    Gardner-Webb Runnin' Bulldogs

    The Runnin' Bulldogs have to be feeling great about themselves, as their victory over Radford in the Big South tournament earns them an automatic bid to their first NCAA tournament appearance. And their wins have been decisive. Radford was the reigning Big South champion, and in the conference semifinals, Gardner-Webb toppled top-seeded Campbell in enemy territory.

    As a first-time entrant in the Big Dance and a likely No. 16 seed, the Runnin' Bulldogs may not make much noise past the first round.


    Iona Gaels

    The Gaels never sniffed a ranking this season, but no matter: Iona still showed what it could do in the MAAC with a 12-6 conference record. The Gaels bring a 10-game win streak into the Big Dance and are riding high following their 81-60 victory over Monmouth for their fourth straight MAAC title. On Selection Sunday, the Gaels figure to earn a No. 16 seed as they prepare for their fourth consecutive NCAA tourney appearance under coach Tim Cluess.


    Murray State Racers

    The Racers, cream of the Ohio Valley Conference, earned the first automatic bid this year by topping Belmont 77-65 in the conference title game. NBA fans who are hoping their team might draft Racers star sophomore guard Ja Morant this spring can watch the potential top-five pick in the tourney, and because of his talent, the Racers have first-round Cinderella power. Murray State projects as a No. 12 seed.

    Will conference rival Belmont make it in as an at-large team?


    Northeastern Huskies

    The Huskies took care of business in the CAA title game against Hofstra, picking up an automatic bid with an 82-74 victory. Coach Bill Coen ran a tight ship in the season's second half, with the Huskies winning their last seven and 12 of their last 13. Guard Vasa Pusica leads the team in points (17.8), assists (4.2) and steals per game and looks to lead his squad into March as a likely No. 13 seed.


    Northern Kentucky Norse

    The Horizon League champion Norse knocked off top-seeded Wright State 77-66 in the conference title game, punching their ticket to their second NCAA tournament in three seasons. The Norse have a collection of high scorers in sophomore guard Jalen Tate (14.0 ppg), junior guard Tyler Sharpe (14.1 ppg) and senior forward Drew McDonald (19.1 ppg), but they haven't faced strong competition. Projecting as a No. 14 seed in the NCAA tournament, this squad will likely play a No. 3 seed. 


    Saint Mary's Gaels

    The Gaels don't quite fit the criteria on the intro slide, but you'll have to forgive us for the exception. Saint Mary's drew No. 1 Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference title game Tuesday, and to say that the Gaels' chances of earning an automatic bid seemed low would be an understatement.

    Saint Mary's had fallen to the Zags in two previous meetings—a 94-46 drubbing in early February and a 69-55 March 2 decision. But Saint Mary's was unstoppable in the WCC title game, outshooting Gonzaga 45.1 percent to 37.5 percent from the field. It was the first time in program history the Gaels toppled a Top Five team, let alone a No. 1. Now, the Gaels are riding high into Selection Sunday, while the Bulldogs lick their wounds—left to wonder if a No. 1 seed is still in play. 

Ranked Conference Champions

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    Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press

    Wofford Terriers

    With their decisive 70-58 win over UNC Greensboro in the Southern Conference title game, the Wofford Terriers earned an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. They head into the Big Dance on a 20-game winning streak and project as a No. 7 seed. No. 6 wouldn't be out of the question, either. That 20-game streak included a sparkling 18-0 record against conference foes. As a result, Mike Young's squad heads to its fifth NCAA tourney in 10 years. 

    It's lonely for the Terriers in the group of ranked programs who have already clinched a conference championship. This time last year, the ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs had clinched the West Coast Conference title, but this season, unranked St. Mary's took that honor. The Big Ten's ranked Michigan Wolverines had also earned an automatic bid, but this year, that conference tournament will run right through Sunday.

Unranked Teams with Unfinished Business

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    UC Irvine Anteaters

    The Anteaters have been on a roll, winning their last 15 straight. Saturday night, they'll vie for the Big West title and an automatic against Cal State Fullerton. Even if they don't clinch the conference, the Anteaters' resume looks solid enough. They project as a No. 13 seed in the NCAA tournament. But with a strength of schedule ranked 268th, the question lingers whether UC Irvine can make noise against top programs. 


    Oregon Ducks

    Though inconsistent through the regular season, the Ducks found their footing late and have cruised to a 22-12 record and seven-game win streak, including a 79-75 overtime winner against Arizona State to advance to the Pac-12 final.

    The Ducks didn't face many top opponents, but they did earn a Quadrant 1 victory in their only game against a ranked foe—an 80-65 win over then-No. 15 Syracuse in mid-November. The Ducks' NCAA tournament hopes were on life support just a month ago, but a Pac-12 title would give them an automatic bid 


    Utah State Aggies

    The Aggies have a chance to lock down the Mountain West title Saturday night when they face off against San Diego State in the conference championship, but even without a title to their name, the Aggies are in great shape heading into Selection Sunday. With a NET rating of 30, the Aggies have cruised to a nine-game win streak and have taken 16 of their last 17 contests. They figure as a No. 10 seed.


    New Mexico State Aggies

    The Aggies have won 18 in a row, which is the nation's second-longest winning streak. They play Grand Canyon in the WAC tournament title game Saturday night. Without a single Quadrant 1 victory, the Aggies might need to secure an auto bid to make the NCAA tournament. 

Top Programs Cruising

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Florida State

    The No. 12 Seminoles have been on a tear, winning 15 of their last 16, including upsetting No. 2 Virginia in the ACC tournament semifinals. It all culminates in a title-game clash with No. 5 Duke on Saturday night, but even if Florida State can't pull out the ACC title, its fortunes look strong heading into Selection Sunday.

    The Seminoles project as a No. 4 seed, and with eight Quadrant 1 wins under their belt, they're fit to tango with any team that shows up on their dance card. 


    Houston Cougars

    The No. 11 Cougars have gone a stellar 9-1 in their last 10 games and have only dropped two on the season for a shining 30-2 record. Along the way, Houston took down quality programs in Oregon (65-61), LSU (82-76) and Cincinnati twice. They could earn as high as No. 3 seed.


    Michigan State Spartans

    The Spartans continued to prove why they're the cream of the Big Ten crop and the No. 6 team in the nation Friday, as they cruised past the Ohio State Buckeyes in the conference tourney. The Spartans project as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament and have an opportunity to make noise there, after second-round exits the last two years.

    Tom Izzo's squad has faced its share of adversity, losing junior guard Joshua Langford for the season to a foot injury in late January and only recently getting junior forward Nick Ward back from a broken hand. But Ward's return came at the perfect time for Sparty to make a run. 


    Auburn Tigers

    Auburn has won seven straight, including a win over Tennessee (a projected No. 2 seed). The Tigers will hope to stay hot in Sunday's SEC title game. 


    Buffalo Bulls

    Buffalo doesn't immediately come to mind as a top program, but at 30-3, it is worthy of mention. The Bulls, ranked No. 18 in the AP poll, have won 11 in a row and play in the MAC tournament title game Saturday night. After making the round of 32 last year, they are primed for a run to the second weekend. 


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