As we approach the midway mark of the NCAA Men’s Basketball season, the March Madness picture is starting to get clearer by the day. Some teams that we all thought would be great just haven’t been, I am looking at you, Kentucky, and other teams that nobody saw coming are emerging as legit threats to make a run in the NCAA tournament.
In this article, we are going to break down the bubble and take a look a three teams that are going to get into the Big Dance and three teams that aren’t. Instead of trying to pretend that the season was ending today and ranking these teams with what they have already done, I am going to look forward on the schedule and project how these teams will finish the season and whether or not they will hear their names called on Selection Sunday. First, we will take a look at the teams that will be dancing in March, starting with the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Alabama Crimson Tide (7-3)
The SEC is loaded with talented teams this season, and while the Big 10 and the Big 12 are deservingly getting a lot of the national media attention in terms of which conference is the best in the nation, it could end up being the SEC that gets the most teams into the NCAA tournament this season. In a league that is so tightly contested, there are several teams that are riding right on the cut line right now; the Alabama Crimson Tide are one of them.
If you look at Kenpom, the Tide are currently ranked 37th, and while some of you out there might be saying to yourself, how can Alabama be a bubble team if they are ranked 37th, and there are 68 teams in the bracket? Let me remind you that there are 32 league championship auto-bids into the NCAA tournament, meaning that only 36 teams are going to get at-large bids to go dancing.
𝗞𝗻𝗼𝗰𝗸𝗲𝗱 𝗼𝗳𝗳 𝗡𝗼. 𝟳 𝗧𝗲𝗻𝗻𝗲𝘀𝘀𝗲𝗲 𝗶𝗻 𝗞𝗻𝗼𝘅𝘃𝗶𝗹𝗹𝗲
— Alabama Men’s Basketball (@AlabamaMBB) January 3, 2021
That means that Alabama is squarely on the bubble. If the season were to end right now, Alabama could very easily be left out. But I see the Tide figuring things out in the SEC, and by the end of the season, they are going to have enough quality wins on their resume to get into the tournament.
Alabama has 4 wins over the top-100, including a huge one in their last game, on the road against a top-10 ranked Tennessee Volunteers team. Nate Oats is a heck of a basketball coach, and after turning Buffalo into a powerhouse, he is poised to have the Tide rolling in his second year at the helm in Tuscaloosa. Alabama is projected to go 12-6 in the SEC, and that should be more than enough to get them their dancing shoes.
BYU Cougars (9-2)
There might not be a team in the country, not named Kentucky, that lost more talent from last year than the BYU Cougars. The big three from a year ago for BYU of Yoeli Childs, Jake Toolson, and TJ Haws are all gone, but Cougars head coach Mark Pope has done an admirable job of using transfers to restock his roster, and BYU is better than you might think.
The big add, literally, for BYU was big man Matt Haarms. Haarms was a grad transfer from Purdue, and at 7’3″ and 250 pounds, is one of the most imposing players in the nation. Haarms is scoring a career-high 11 points a game and gives BYU a presence in the paint with his 2.0 blocks per contest. The other impact transfer is Brandon Averette. Averette comes to BYU by way of Utah Valley University and fills up the stat sheet with 10.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 3.0 assists a game.
— BYUtv Sports (@byutvsports) December 30, 2020
This one is going to be a little controversial, as BYU is currently well outside of the NCAA picture right now, ranked just 66th on Kenpom. But the Cougars do have quality wins over St. John’s, Utah State, Utah, and San Diego State. Neither of their losses are bad, as they lost to USC and Boise State, both teams that will compete for their respective league titles.
The reason I like BYU is because the West Coast Conference is solid this year, and the Cougars are going to have plenty of time to pad their resume with quality wins before Selection Sunday. If you believe college hoops expert Andy Katz, the WCC is the 5th best conference in the country right now, and it is hard to argue that BYU isn’t the second-best team in the league behind top-ranked Gonzaga.
🚨 NEW #MM365 POD 🚨
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) December 29, 2020
BYU is going to have to take care of business in league play to have a shot, but with St. Mary’s and San Francisco both in the top-100, the Cougars could finish the year with as many as 10 top-100 wins. The real upside for the Cougars is the fact that they always seem to give Gonzaga trouble. BYU has managed to beat Gonzaga 7 times in the last 10 years, beating the Zags more than any other team in the nation. If BYU can knock off the Zags, they are mortal locks to get in as an at-large bid.
Drake Bulldogs (11-0)
While BYU and Alabama are going to leverage the strength of their leagues to get them into the NCAA tournament, the Drake Bulldogs are going to have to overcome the weakness of their league if they want to play meaningful games in March. There have been years in the past where the Missouri Valley is one of the best mid-major leagues in the country.
And while the league isn’t awful this year, they are very top-heavy, with Loyola-Chicago and Drake currently their only teams ranked in the top-100. Most people see the Ramblers as the far better team of the two, but these teams did split their season series last year, so I’m not sure there is as big of a gap between them as a lot of people think.
What Drake is going to bring to the table is a bunch of wins. They won’t be an overly impressive group of wins, but will the NCAA selection committee really deny a team that could go 26-1 or 25-2? And it’s not just that the Bulldogs are winning that is impressive; it’s how they are winning. Drake is winning by an average margin of a whopping +21.6 points, 6th best in the nation, trailing elite teams like Gonzaga, Baylor, and Tennessee.
Drake has been outperforming the betting market in a major way as well, as they are an almost unheard of 9-0 against the spread this season. If the Bulldogs keep blowing every team they play out, and they win north of 90% of their games, I am not sure that they can be denied a spot in the tournament.
The other reason I like Drake is that with how the Valley is scheduling games this year due to COVID-19 restrictions, they will get both of their games against conference kingpin Loyola-Chicago at home. That’s going to give them a really great opportunity to pick up at least one, if not two, quality victories over the Ramblers.
RT if your team is starting the new year undefeated 🙌💯 pic.twitter.com/HiIf0iEfnf
— FOX College Hoops (@CBBonFOX) January 1, 2021
Drake looks every bit the part of a Cinderella. They are a small school that wins a lot, but doesn’t get much national media attention, and they love to jack up 3-pointers. The Bulldogs hit 41.9% of their shots from deep as a team, the 7th best in the country, and if you leave them open, they are going to devastate you. The NCAA tournament is at its best when the glass slipper fits, and right now, Drake is my pick for a March Madness bracket busting run.
Kentucky Wildcats (2-6)
This one might seem like a no-brainer based on their awful record, but when you look at how consistently Kentucky has made the NCAA tournament over the years, seeing the Wildcats get left out of the dance would still be shocking. Going all of the way back to 1992, the Wildcats have missed the NCAA tournament just twice.
The last time Kentucky didn’t make the tournament was 2013. That disappointing season came on the heels of one of the best teams of all time in 2012, where they won a national title, an NCAA record 38 games, and put a record six players into the NBA draft, including the only time ever that two teammates went first and second overall. When I look at this 2020-21 Wildcats team, it reminds me a lot of that 2013 squad.
New year. Fresh start. pic.twitter.com/RkhRNxhwmc
— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) January 1, 2021
The Wildcats lost five players to the NBA and had to start completely over this year. Just like they do this year, Kentucky had the consensus top recruiting class in the country in 2013, with guys like Nerlens Noel, Willy Cauley-Stein, Archie Goodwin, and Alex Poythress. Despite all of that talent, that team struggled to win games and missed the tournament. In 2020-21, Kentucky had what some people claimed could be the best recruiting class ever, yet they have struggled to win games.
John Calipari is known for his ability to recruit future NBA draft lottery picks, and this team is chalked full of them. The problem for Coach Cal is that he is also known for getting gutted by one and done players every year. The NBA doesn’t care that Kentucky can’t win games, and players like BJ Boston and Terrence Clarke are going to be first-rounders next year no matter how well Kentucky plays this year.
You would think that with this much talent, the Wildcats will turn it around at some point, but the losses are really starting to pile up. In their last game, Kentucky needed double overtime to beat a bad Mississippi State team.
Mississippi State has basically been a bye game for the Wildcats under Calipari as he has never lost to the Bulldogs once. After seeing them struggle so badly against a team that doesn’t have a player that would make their roster, I’ve decided to sell all of my Kentucky stock this year. In a season that is eerily reminiscent of the last time Kentucky missed the NCAA tournament, I see it happening again this year.
North Carolina Tar Heels (6-4)
Back-to-back blue bloods on the chopping block? After just telling you why the winningest team in college basketball history, the Kentucky Wildcats, are going to miss this year’s NCAA tournament, I am now going to tell you why the 3rd winningest program ever is going to be sitting out in March as well.
North Carolina had a dumpster can fire of a season last year. They had a bunch of talent, including one of the top freshmen in the nation in Cole Anthony, but that didn’t stop them from finishing the season a very disappointing 14-19.
With the NCAA tournament canceled at the last minute, the Tar Heels didn’t have to suffer through the pain of officially missing out on the NCAA tournament, but make no mistake, this team wasn’t going to hear their name called on Selection Sunday.
This year, it looked like Roy Williams was ready to get right back on track as the Tar Heels started the season out ranked 16th in the preseason AP Poll. But after winning their first three games of the season, North Carolina has lost four out of their last seven and they are struggling.
— Carolina Basketball (@UNC_Basketball) December 31, 2020
The losses to Texas and Iowa are certainly understandable, but losses to NC State and Georgia Tech, two teams that very likely won’t be playing in the NCAA tournament this year either, have North Carolina fans wondering what went wrong.
The Heels best win on the year, over Kentucky, isn’t looking so hot right now, and North Carolina is very light on quality victories as they dive into conference play. The ACC is always tough, and this year is no different. But with North Carolina showing that they can’t be trusted away from home, they are 0-3 in true road games, and all four of their losses have come away from Tobacco Road, I don’t see a lot of success in the short term for Roy’s boys.
— Carolina Basketball (@UNC_Basketball) January 2, 2021
North Carolina barely gutted out a one-point home floor win over Notre Dame in their last game, to a team that is going to finish near the basement of the ACC, and it’s looking like this Tar Heel team isn’t nearly as improved as we thought they would be. I guess the theory of addition by subtraction with Cole Anthony bolting to the NBA, wasn’t all that accurate and that losing your best player might actually be a bad thing.
There is a lot of time for North Carolina to turn things around, and if they can manage to go even .500 in the ACC, they are getting in, but I just don’t believe in this team. Roy Williams had led the Tar Heels to the tournament in fifteen of his sixteen seasons as head coach before last year’s debacle, and if things don’t get better in a hurry, it’s going to be another disappointing season in Chapel Hill.
Purdue Boilermakers (7-5)
The Big 10 is the best conference in the country right now, and to be honest, I am not sure it’s even all that close. The league had an astounding nine teams ranked in the top-25 of this week’s Ap Poll. In a league that has so many great teams, somebody is going to be the odd man out. I think that team is the Purdue Boilermakers.
Purdue got gutted by the unexpected loss of two grad-transfers, and head coach Matt Painter is left trying to piecemeal together a roster in the toughest conference in the country. After playing a joke of a non-conference schedule, the Boilermakers find themselves in a position where they are going to have to win a lot of game in league play if they want to play their way into the tourney. Purdue didn’t pick up a single quality win in the non-conference, and the start to Big 10 play has not been overly kind to the Boilermakers either.
— Purdue Mens Basketball (@BoilerBall) January 3, 2021
When you look at the three conference losses for Purdue, they all came on the road, and they all came to good teams. Nobody is going to fault them for losses to Illinois, Rutgers, or Iowa. The problem for Purdue is that all of the Big 10 teams are good, and it’s not going to get any easier. They have managed to protect their home floor with wins over middle of the pack teams Ohio State and Maryland, but are they going to be able to hold off the top teams in the league in West Lafayette?
Last year, Purdue played the 6th toughest schedule in the nation. This year, they are again going to play one of the toughest slates of any team. They are too well-coached to lose every game, and by the end of the year, they are going to have a decent collection of signature wins. The problem is that they are also going to have more than their share of losses too. Last year, Purdue finished 16-15 with nine wins over the top-100. Conventional wisdom tells us that wasn’t going to be enough to punch their dance card.
🔥 🏀#B1GMBBall has 9️⃣ teams in this week’s @AP_Top25 for the FIRST TIME EVER!
Poll➡️ https://t.co/CZ0ggPuy2C pic.twitter.com/cvxh4fJHAX
— Big Ten Men’s Hoops (@B1GMBBall) December 28, 2020
I see this season playing out very similarly to last year, as they are going to have some great wins, but too many losses to be seriously considered. Kenpom has Purdue going 15-12 overall and 10-10 in the Big 10. If that projection comes true, they will finish somewhere between 9th and 11th in the league.
The Big 10 is really, really good, but they aren’t getting eleven teams into the tournament good. In most leagues, this team does enough to get a bid. In the Big 10, Purdue is a hard-luck loser that sits home in March.
For those of you out there that are just starting to check in on college basketball this year, as college football wraps up their season, you might be surprised to see this list of teams. College basketball royalty like Kentucky and North Carolina will miss the tournament while small conference teams like BYU and Drake will get to see if Cinderella’s slipper fits? Absolutely.
Doing your homework in January always pays off in March, and you need to take notice of these under and over-performing teams now, to be ready to fill out your bracket in a couple of months. Thanks for reading, and make sure that you swing by TheSportsGeek’s college hoops betting page, where we bring you high level picks and analysis each and every day!