Fallen Preseason Contenders Still Capable of a March Madness Run

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystFebruary 21, 2020

Fallen Preseason Contenders Still Capable of a March Madness Run

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    Michigan State's Xavier Tillman
    Michigan State's Xavier TillmanPaul Sancya/Associated Press

    While San Diego State, Dayton and Penn State have surged into the men's college basketball Associated Press Top 10 after starting nowhere near the preseason AP Top 25, several others have gone in the opposite, much less flattering direction.

    Preseason No. 1 Michigan State is no longer ranked. Nor are No. 6 Florida, No. 9 North Carolina, No. 11 Virginia or No. 13 Texas Tech.

    Four of those fivesorry not sorry, UNC fansare still in good shape to make the NCAA tournament, though. It's now time to start wondering whether they might be gearing up for the riches-to-rags-to-riches story we've witnessed seven times over the past decade.

    When Butler went to back-to-back national championships in 2010 and 2011, it did so as a sleeper from the No. 5 and No. 8 seed lines, respectively. But the Bulldogs were also ranked 11th and 17th in the preseason AP poll for those seasons, so it wasn't ridiculous to think they were capable of a deep run.

    Michigan State debuted at No. 2 in the 2009-10 poll, dropped all the way to a No. 5 seed, but still made the Final Four. A similar story unfolded five years later, as the Spartans went from preseason No. 18 to a No. 7 seed to the national semifinals.

    Just last year, Auburn started out at No. 11, plummeted out of the rankings for six weeks and made the Final Four as a No. 5 seed.

    But the piece de resistance as far as these four hopeful fanbases are concerned was in 2014, when Kentucky (preseason No. 1; No. 8 seed in tournament) lost to Connecticut (preseason No. 18; No. 7 seed in tournament) in the national championship.

    With the way this season has played out, would you be that shocked if Michigan State and Texas Tech did something similar?

    In alphabetical order, let's take a look at where each of the four teams currently stands in the Bracket Matrix, why they've fallen short of expectations and why you should still believe in them.

Florida Gators

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    Kerry Blackshear Jr.
    Kerry Blackshear Jr.Matt Stamey/Associated Press

    Preseason AP Ranking: No. 6

    Current Position in Bracket Matrix: No. 10 seed


    What Has Gone Wrong?

    The freshmen have not lived up to expectations.

    Florida head coach Mike White put together the nation's eighth-best recruiting class, per 247Sports, but the Gators don't have a single player who belongs on the SEC's All-Freshman team.

    5-star point guard Tre Mann has been painfully inefficient, shooting 33.8 percent from the field and racking up more turnovers than assists. 5-star forward Scottie Lewis has played better in conference than he did for the first seven weeks, but he's still nowhere near the level of production expected from a top-10 recruit. Omar Payne was a top-50 recruit who has had some momentsmost notably his 19 points and 11 rebounds in a win over Auburnbut he has barely made any impact over the past three weeks.

    Virginia Tech transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. has been rock solid, and each member of the returning sophomore trio is averaging at least 10 points per game. The Gators just haven't been able to find a reliable fifth starter, and bench production has been nonexistent.

    This team has also developed a nasty habit of slow starts and early holes. In the double-overtime win over Alabama, Florida had to erase a 21-point first-half deficit. The Gators also trailed Georgia by 22 in the second half before coming all the way back in that game. But they were unable to undo ugly deficits against Ole Miss and Missouri in the two losses most responsible for their current position on the bubble.


    Why Should You Still Believe?

    Every now and again, we see flashes of what Florida was supposed to be. The big comebacks against Alabama and Georgia, the 22-point win over Auburn and the near-win at LSU were all moments where it felt like the Gators were on the verge of putting it together and tapping into that Top 10 potential.

    The common thread in those games is that at least one (usually two) of the freshmen had one of his best performances of the season.

    They don't need guys like Lewis and Payne to carry them. They just need them to show up, and then they can compete with anyone in the country.

    It's also worth noting that Florida is a jack-of-all-trades type of team. It doesn't thrive in any particular area, but it doesn't have a blatant Achilles' heel, either. UCLA was in a similar boat when it made the Sweet 16 as a No. 11 seed in 2015.

Michigan State Spartans

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    Cassius Winston
    Cassius WinstonPaul Sancya/Associated Press

    Preseason AP Ranking: No. 1

    Current Position in Bracket Matrix: No. 5 seed


    What Has Gone Wrong?

    Michigan State is still a Top 10 team as far as KenPom.com is concerned, but this is nowhere close to the type of campaign that was expected from the preseason favorite to win the national championship.

    That's at least partially because this isn't the roster the Spartans were expected to have.

    The initial Josh Langford injury news didn't come out until the day after the preseason AP poll was released. At that time, there was also still hope that Marquette transfer Joey Hauser would be ruled immediately eligible. There's a good chance they both would have been starters for the season opener had they been available, and they would have been two of MSU's primary perimeter weapons.

    However, neither Langford nor Hauser has played (nor will play) a minute this entire season. This has turned Michigan State into something of a two-man show with Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman shouldering what is otherwise a deep rotation of role players.

    It's a mighty fine duo, and Michigan State has one of the better defenses in the country. But if either Winston or Tillman is struggling from the field, it feels like the entire team can't shoot.


    Why Should You Still Believe?

    January, February, Izzo, right?

    Ten years ago, Michigan State debuted at No. 2 in the AP poll, sputtered to a No. 5 seed and went to the Final Four. Five years ago, the Spartans underperformed for much of the season, even lost a home game to Texas Southern and still went to the Final Four as a No. 7 seed.

    As long as they get into the tournamentwhich they willthey're a threat for a deep run.

    And while Winston's National Player of the Year campaign hasn't gone according to plan, there aren't many players better suited for all-or-nothing games than the senior point guard.

    Also, Rocket Watts is slowly but surely starting to live up to the hype. The top-40 overall freshman has already had games with 16 and 21 points this month. His previous high was 12. If he continues to emerge as a clear No. 3 offensive option, look out.

Texas Tech Red Raiders

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    Jahmi'us Ramsey
    Jahmi'us RamseyEric Gay/Associated Press

    Preseason AP Ranking: No. 13

    Current Position in Bracket Matrix: No. 8 seed


    What Has Gone Wrong?

    Like Michigan State, Texas Tech is still in the good graces of KenPom. In fact, prior to the loss to Oklahoma State on Saturday, the Red Raiders were in the exact same position in the KenPom rankings (13th) as where they opened the season in the AP rankings.

    But you wouldn't know it from their projected seed, which is largely a product of their inability to win close games against quality opponents.

    They did have relatively comfortable wins over Louisville and West Virginia, but they're only 2-8 in Quadrant 1 contests. That includes three overtime losses, two losses by three points and a five-point loss to Baylor.

    It has been a different issue in every close loss, too.

    Against Kentucky, Texas Tech couldn't buy a three-point bucket, shooting a season low 3-of-19. In the Baylor game, the Red Raiders got destroyed on the glass. Against Oklahoma State, they both struggled on the glass and gave the Cowboys way too many free throws. In the DePaul loss, they committed too many turnovers. They couldn't stifle Creighton's offense. And, well, there's no shame in losing by three at Kansas.

    If even one of those games had gone the other direction, Texas Tech would likely be sitting pretty as a projected No. 6 seed right now. Instead, the Red Raiders need to be careful down the stretch to make sure they even get into the tournament.


    Why Should You Still Believe?

    Like last year's team that went to the national championship, Texas Tech has one of the most efficient defenses in the nation. Opponents barely shoot 40 percent from the field and commit 16.5 turnovers per game against the Red Raiders.

    And despite losing four of its five leading scorers, Texas Tech's offense isn't markedly worse than last year. Freshmen Jahmi'us Ramsey and Terrance Shannon Jr. are both averaging double digits, and Kyler Edwards has taken a huge step forward as a sophomore for a team that has actually increased its scoring average by a fraction of a point.

    The apparent inability to win close games is concerning, but this is clearly a team that can hang with anyone. If the Red Raiders' last-minute luck changes in March, they could at least reach the Elite Eight for a third straight year.

Virginia Cavaliers

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    Tomas Woldetensae
    Tomas WoldetensaeRyan M. Kelly/Getty Images

    Preseason AP Ranking: No. 11

    Current Position in Bracket Matrix: No. 11 seed


    What Has Gone Wrong?

    This was one of the worst shooting teams in the country for the first three months of the season.

    In the Cavaliers' first six losses, they went a combined 26-of-116 (22.4 percent) from three-point range and averaged 51.3 points. No matter how good you are on defense, that's no way to win ball games.

    They have also been drastically sloppier with the ball than usual. The Cavaliers ranked in the top 20 in offensive turnover percentage in each of the past five seasons, but they are well outside the top 200 this year.

    Combine those two factors, and things are liable to get ugly. Between the two losses by double digits to Purdue and South Carolina, Virginia committed 35 turnovers and made 34 field goals.

    A drop in efficiency was to be expected after the departures of Kyle Guy, De'Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome, but nobody thought things would get this bad.


    Why Should You Still Believe?

    The reigning national champions are still outrageously good on defense, and the offense has turned a corner with a major assist from the emergence of Tomas Woldetensae.

    The junior is 28-of-60 (46.7 percent) from three-point range over his last seven games, six of which were Virginia wins. No other Cavalier has more than 28 made triples in the entire season, and Woldetensae was only 20-of-62 (32.3 percent) prior to this breakout. His recent surge is a significant development for a broken offense, to say the least.

    Virginia has averaged more than 63 points per game during that seven-game stretch. That still isn't much compared to the national average, but it's a lot better than the 55.5 it was putting up for the first 18 games. And for a team holding opponents to around 52.5 points per game, 63 is going to do the trick more often than not.


    Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.