March Madness nears

The Super Bowl is over. The NCAA tournament is coming up. Get ready.

Belmont v Kansas

Five mid-majors who can throw your bracket into chaos


A hearty welcome to those of you just now joining the rest of us in following college basketball now that football season has ended. We’ll be running a series of posts to get all you football fans caught up on the season at-large. To read through them all, click here.

Every March there seems to be a mid-major program that goes from being a team heard of by few to being a national darling. Here are five teams, all of whom will likely need to win their respective conference’s automatic bid, to keep an eye on as we get closer to the month of March.

1) Belmont (19-4, 10-0 OVC) 

After reaching the NCAA tournament as winners of the Atlantic Sun the Bruins have made themselves right at home in the OVC. Guards Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson are combining to average 32.6 points per game, and senior forward Trevor Noack (12.5 ppg) has raised his scoring average more than ten points from last season.

Rick Byrd’s team, which has wins over Stanford and Middle Tennessee to its credit, isn’t as deep as last season’s outfit but with an eight-man rotation the Bruins are deep enough. Belmont’s an efficient group offensively (ranking 15th nationally in offensive efficiency and 8th in field goal percentage), and when combining this with their experience at key positions this is a team that can win in the NCAA tournament.

2) Akron (17-4, 8-0 MAC) 

The nation’s hottest team, the Akron Zips have won 13 straight games and are the lone undefeated team in MAC play. Leading the way are 7-footer Zeke Marshall and 6-7 forward Demetrius Treadwell, with five other players averaging between 5.8 and 9.9 points per game. The Zips are one of the nation’s most efficient offenses, ranking 28th in efficiency according to and that front court tandem of Marshall and Treadwell can give opponents fits in the paint. The key for Akron in March may be point guard Alex Abreu however, because when he’s under control and properly balances getting his own shots with putting teammates in the best position to be effective Akron is a handful.

3) Middle Tennessee (20-4, 12-1 Sun Belt) 

Kermit Davis’ Blue Raiders won 25 regular season games last season but a loss in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt tournament resulted in a trip to the NIT. So while their resume this season includes a win over Ole Miss (Middle Tennessee has lost to both Belmont and Akron), that experience and the fact that they have just three RPI Top 100 victories should keep this group motivated to grab the Sun Belt’s automatic bid.

Senior guard Marcos Knight is the lone Blue Raider averaging double figures but five others average between six and nine points per game, and this is a group that gets after it defensively. Middle Tennessee leads the Sun Belt in field goal and three-point percentage defense and they force 16.5 turnovers per game as well. If a team with shaky ball-handling draws the Blue Raiders come March, look out.

4) Bucknell (19-4, 6-1 Patriot) 

Dave Paulsen’s Bison are led by one of the best big men in the country in 6-10 senior Mike Muscala, who is currently averaging 19.0 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game (he leads the team in each category). Muscala is one of four Bucknell starters averaging double figures, and the Bison lead the Patriot League in field goal percentage.

The Bison have also performed well defensively, limiting opponents to 37.4% shooting (ranking 11th nationally), something they accomplish more with positioning as opposed to pressuring opponents into turnovers (opponents are averaging just 9.3 turnovers per game). Bucknell’s lone conference loss came to Lehigh (who won at Bucknell twice last season), so there’s no guarantee that we’ll see the Bison in the NCAA tournament. But if they can make it the Bison are capable of causing some trouble.

5) Montana (16-4, 12-0 Big Sky)

The Grizzlies had to navigate much of their non-conference slate without the services of senior guard Will Cherry due to a broken foot. But with the reigning Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year back in the fold Montana has the best tandem in the conference in Cherry and junior Kareem Jamar. Inside senior Mathias Ward averages a team-high 15.2 points per game, with the versatile Jamar being the team’s best rebounder.

With a two-game lead over Weber State the Grizzlies are in good position to grab home court for the conference tournament, something that served them well in getting to the NCAA tournament last season. With Cherry out other players gained valuable experience, and that could work out in Montana’s favor at the end of the year.

Other teams to consider: Davidson, Detroit, Lehigh, Louisiana Tech, North Dakota State, Valparaiso and Weber State. 

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej

Does the lack of a dominant team help or hurt college basketball?

Ben McLemore
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A hearty welcome to those of you just now joining the rest of us in following college basketball now that football season has ended. We’ll be running a series of posts to get all you football fans caught up on the season at-large. To read through them all, click here.

This year in college basketball is different. We don’t see a dominant favorite for a national champion like we did last year with Anthony Davis and Kentucky. The No. 1 team in the country has lost on five different occasions, including Duke twice. Every team has at lost at least twice, and seven teams currently have only two losses.

So what does that mean for college basketball? Is that parity, or a sign that the quality of the game is diminishing?

For the casual fan, one who is now getting into the swing of the season after the Super Bowl, it could seem less interesting. John Calipari and the national brand he has built at Kentucky doesn’t have the same luster this season as previous teams that featured John Wall, Brandon Knight, or Davis.

Instead, they’re a team that has looked human, a collection of freshmen that had its struggles early, but is picking up steam and looking for an NCAA tournament berth.

North Carolina has worked through something similar. They likely won’t be competing for an ACC title with Duke, especially with the emergence of a tough Miami team. James Michael McAdoo was billed as the next UNC superstar and has put up good numbers, but isn’t in National Player of the Year discussions.

And all of that plays to the state of college basketball.

Though Indiana is back and the Big Ten is the nation’s best conference, the lack of a definitive National Player of the Year or king in college basketball makes it harder to draw in the casual fan. Parity works well in some sports, but it takes a more involved fan to want to tune in for Wichita State-Creighton (as great a matchup as that is) than any run-of-the-mill mid-season NBA game.

But what that parity promises is a stellar NCAA tournament. Expect shakeups like last season, where two 15-seeds knocked off 2-seeds, or years previous when Butler and Virginia Commonwealth reached the Final Four.

This March is going to be a good one.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

Key injuries to know

Ryan Kelly
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A hearty welcome to those of you just now joining the rest of us in following college basketball now that football season has ended. We’ll be running a series of posts to get all you football fans caught up on the season at-large. To read through them all, click here.

Injuries can take a season that’s on the verge of becoming special and turn it into a struggle at the drop of the hat, turning contenders into teams lucky to make it out of the first round of the NCAA tournament. Below are some key injuries you need to be aware of as we approach the month of March.

1) F Ryan Kelly (Duke) 

Losing Kelly was a significant blow for the Blue Devils, who were the nation’s top-ranked team when the senior forward went down with a broken right foot. Kelly’s a “stretch 4” with range well out beyond the three-point line, averaging 13.4 points and 5.4 rebounds per game at the time of his injury.

The Blue Devils are 4-2 without Kelly, dropping road games at NC State and Miami with the latter currently in command of the ACC race. Duke has seen a drop in their efficiency numbers on both ends of the floor but they’re still a formidable team, and they’ll be better when he returns to the court. Kelly’s out indefinitely but Duke expects him to return this season. When will that be? That’s anyone’s guess.

2) G C.J. McCollum (Lehigh) 

McCollum was well on his way to All-America status before breaking a bone in his left foot in a loss at VCU on January 5, averaging 23.9 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. Without the services of one of the nation’s best guards Lehigh, preseason favorite to win the Patriot League, saw that status handed over to Bucknell. But Dr. Brett Reed’s Mountain Hawks are tied atop the league standings with a 6-1 record, with one of the wins coming at Bucknell.

McCollum was projected to miss 8-10 weeks, which could (on the short end) put him back on the court in time for the Patriot League tournament. Lehigh can certainly win the conference without McCollum (projected to be a first round pick by many who follow the NBA Draft), and they may have to.

3) Lorenzo Brown (NC State) 

Brown missed the Wolfpack’s 79-78 loss to No. 14 Miami on Saturday with a sprained left ankle, and it’s likely that he will be on the floor when the Wolfpack visit No. 5 Duke on Thursday night. In the first meeting between the two teams Brown dished out 13 assists, and he’s generally regarded as the best point guard in the ACC.

Without him NC State went with freshmen Rodney Purvis and Tyler Lewis at the point against Miami, and while those two performed admirably in a game the Wolfpack led for most of the afternoon this team needs Brown. In spite of their maddening habit of doing “NC State things” in games they’re expected to win, Brown is the kind of point guard capable of taking them a long way in March.

4) G Dominic Artis (Oregon) 

The Ducks were the clear favorites to win the Pac-12…until Artis suffered a foot injury that has sidelined him for the last three games. Oregon’s 1-2 since Artis went down, averaging a staggering 21.7 turnovers per game. Now Dana Altman’s team is in the middle of a serious logjam atop the Pac-12 standings, and the longer their freshman point guard is out the more likely it becomes that Oregon’s Pac-12 title chances dwindle.

Artis is questionable for games this week against Colorado and Utah (Colorado has one of the league’s best perimeter defenders in guard Spencer Dinwiddie), and if he can return at full strength Oregon will be a factor in the league race.

5) F James Southerland (Syracuse) 

It’s an academic issue rather than an injury that has Southerland sidelined for the Orange, and it’s anyone’s guess as to when the senior forward will be able to return to the court. One of the best sixth men in the country, Southerland is also a capable three-point shooter on a team devoid of any other consistent options in that department.

Without him freshman Jerami Grant has received more playing time and taken advantage of it in some spots, most recently scoring 14 points and in a 63-47 win over Notre Dame, but the Orange need Southerland back if they’re to have a shot at getting to the Final Four.

Some other injuries to keep an eye on include:

G P.J. Hairston (North Carolina): Suffered a concussion in a win at Boston College on January 29 and missed Saturday’s game at Virginia Tech.

G Xavier Thames (San Diego State): Starting point guard has dealt with back issues all season long.

F Aaron Jones and G Nick Williams (Ole Miss): Jones (torn ACL) is done for the season while Williams (foot) will miss a significant amount of time for the Rebels.

F Greg Whittington (Georgetown): Academically ineligible so he won’t be back this season; Georgetown is 6-1 in his absence however.

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej

Five sleepers and five upset specials to keep an eye on

Nerlens Noel Reginald Buckner
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A hearty welcome to those of you just now joining the rest of us in following college basketball now that football season has ended. We’ll be running a series of posts to get all you football fans caught up on the season at-large. To read through them all, click here.

It’s never to early to start thinking about the NCAA tournament bracket and your office pool. In fact, I’d say that’s the reason that 75% of the people that watch college basketball on any given night are doing it. Scouting.

I get it.

Trust me.

It’s been four years since I haven’t finished in the money in a tournament pool. So book mark this page, and consider it my gift to you: a guide of who to focus on while you “scout”.

Five lower seeds that can make a tournament run:

Kentucky Wildcats: Kentucky’s on pace to end up getting somewhere around an eight or a nine seed. If I’m John Calipari, I’m hoping for a seven or a ten seed. Or lower. I don’t know if the Wildcats have the horses to knock off one of the top four teams in the country, but I think they certainly will be good enough to make the Sweet 16, regardless of seeding. They are starting to show some signs of growth, and with (at least) four lottery picks on the roster, I’m not ready to write this group off yet.

VCU Rams: The Rams play such a unique and tough-to-prepare-for style, they can spring an upset on a team with a back court that’s uncomfortable going against their pressure. The key for VCU is and always will be turnovers in the full court; given their lack of size, half court defense is not a strength for Shaka Smart’s club.

Pitt Panthers: The Panthers are almost certainly going to be underseeded as a result of their embarrassing non-conference schedule. And trust me when I tell you this is a good basketball team. They can defend, they are excellent at getting to the offensive glass, they pass the ball well and they have an underrated back court. You don’t want to see the Panthers in the second round of the tournament.

St. Louis Billikens: Tough, physical, half court defense. That’s how St. Louis wins game. And that’s out a team with less athleticism and less talent can win a basketball game. And, like Pitt, thanks to a couple of questionable losses this year, the Billikens are probably going to be seeded lower than they should be.

Long Beach State 49ers: LBSU isn’t going to be getting a seeding much better than 14 or 15, but this is a group with high-major talent and athleticism. James Ennis is legit, and he’s got a slew of talent — Michael Caffey, former top 25 recruit Keala King, DePaul transfer Tony Freeland, West Virginia transfer Dan Jennings — around him.

Five higher seeds that may bow out early:

NC State Wolfpack: NC State doesn’t defend at all, their star point guard has a bum ankle and has been up-and-down all season long, and their most talented player struggles when trying to take a game over and has been ineffective down the stretch. There’s so much to like about NC State this season, which is why it’s frustrating to see them struggle.

Minnesota Golden Gophers: I just don’t trust Minnesota offensively. So much of what they do relies on their ability to get to the offensive glass. Good teams are going to be able to keep them from getting there; it’s going to depend on the matchup. I don’t trust Minnesota to be consistent. They lost four in a row at the end of last month, and needed an impressive choke-job from Iowa to avoid losing to the Hawkeyes.

Creighton Bluejays: The Bluejays are a much-improved defensive team this season, yet they still rank 81st in the country in defensive efficiency, according to Kenpom. Throw in the fact that this is a team that survives because of their ability to shoot the basketball, and they are a risky play. On the nights those threes go down, they’re going to be tough to beat. On the nights they don’t, the Bluejays can be beaten.

Oregon Ducks: How healthy is Dominic Artis? That’s the biggest concern for Oregon right now, because without him, the Ducks simply cannot protect the ball. Already in the bottom third of the country when it comes to turnover percentage, Oregon has seen that number dip to 29.8% — literally the worst in the country — in the last three games without him.

Butler Bulldogs: I realize that it’s sacrilegious to say that Butler might get knocked out of the tournament early. I’m not happy about doing it. But here’s my thought process: Butler is good, but they don’t play the kind of defense that we expect out of Butler teams. They can struggle against teams that defend them physically (ahem, St. Louis) and I don’t love Butler’s point guard situation. But thanks to wins over Indiana, Gonzaga, Marquette and North Carolina, Butler looks like they could be in line for a three or a four seed, depending on how the A-10 plays out.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

Contenders and Pretenders

Kenny Boynton

A hearty welcome to those of you just now joining the rest of us in following college basketball now that football season has ended. We’ll be running a series of posts to get all you football fans caught up on the season at-large. To read through them all, click here.

Out of any season in recent memory, there are more contenders this season than there have been in recent years. There does not appear to be a great team as of now — although Florida is doing everything they can to convince us otherwise — as opposed to a handful of really good teams that have the pieces to win six straight games in the tournament but a fatal flaw that could leave them exposed in the right matchup.

Here are the nation’s five leading contenders and pretenders:

Contender: Florida Gators

We wrote on the Gators earlier today, so I won’t go into too much detail here. The long and short of it is that Florida is as tough defensively as any team we’ve seen in the last decade, and they can just as effective playing man, going zone or throwing on a press, That’s a nightmare to prepare for, especially when they have an offensive attack that rivals Michigan and Indiana.

Pretender: Arizona Wildcats

Arizona is 19-2 on the season and carries with it a No. 7 national ranking. They are a good basketball team that could end up winning the Pac-12. But that gaudy record is the result of some lucky breaks: Nick Johnson’s game-saving block against San Diego State, Sabatino Chen’s game-winner that was incorrectly waved off, Florida playing like a high school JV team in the final minute. There is nothing about the roster makeup of the Wildcats that scares a championship-caliber team.

Contender: Indiana Hoosiers

The Hoosiers have arguably the most talented player in the country on their roster in Cody Zeller, and he isn’t even the MVP of this team. Victor Oladipo is. That’s how good Indiana is. They are still scoring like they did last season, only now they have a defense that ranks in the top 20 and one of the best on-ball defenders in the country in Oladipo.

Pretender: Duke Blue Devils

Duke is currently sitting at No. 4 in the country, but that has as much to do with what they did at the start of the season — rolling through the Battle 4 Atlantis, where they beat Louisville, VCU and Minnesota — than what they have done recently — which includes a 27 point loss to Miami. Duke is missing Ryan Kelly, who is a key piece on both sides of the ball. Duke will be a pretender until he’s back in the lineup.

Contender: Michigan Wolverines

John Beilein’s club is the most potent offensive attack in the country and led by the most dangerous point guard in the country in Trey Burke. The Wolverines have a typical John Beilein-esque roster makeup in terms of their versatility, but instead of having guys like Zak Novak and Stu Douglass on the wings, they have NBA prospects in Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III.

Pretender: Kansas Jayhawks

Ugh. It kills me to say this because I picked Kansas to win the title this year, but I just think they have too many concerns offensively. They don’t have a point guard, as Bill Self made quite clear. Their star player can’t create on his own. They don’t have a viable low-post scoring threat. As good as Kansas is defensively, I just see them having issues scoring against good teams.

Contender: Louisville Cardinals

Louisville was the No. 1 team in the country and a popular pick as the best team in college hoops as recently a two weeks ago. But then they went out and lost three games — by a total of 13 points — and dropped to 12th in the country. Three close losses changes that much about how a team is viewed? Louisville’s pressure is unmatched, and as long as they avoid extended droughts offensively, they’ll be fine.

Pretender: Ohio State Buckeyes

Deshaun Thomas may be the best scorer in the country. Aaron Craft may be the best defender in the country. Beyond that, there’s a lot of ‘meh’ when you look at Ohio State’s roster. Craft is too often forced into the role of secondary scorer, and that’s not how you want him to play. No interior scoring presence hurts as well.

Contender: Michigan State Spartans

Typical Tom Izzo. Sparty is big, they are tough and they are physical. They rebound the ball and they defend. Most importantly, they have a pair of guards in Keith Appling and Gary Harris that are a threat to go for 20 on any given night.When Tom Izzo has a good team, you don’t want to get caught betting against him.

Pretender: Gonzaga Bulldogs

This one hurts, too. I really like this Gonzaga team. They are as good as they have been since Adam Morrison was stache-ing it up in Spokane. They have a pair of big men that are an awful lot of fun to watch in Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris. Kevin Pangos is as good of a shooter as you are going to find. They just don’t defend well enough — especially when Olynyk is on the floor as the same time as Pangos and David Stockton — to stop good teams with elite guards.

Michigan sophomore Trey Burke sits atop CBT’s National Player of the Year rankings

Trey Burke
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A hearty welcome to those of you just now joining the rest of us in following college basketball now that football season has ended. We’ll be running a series of posts to get all you football fans caught up on the season at-large. To read through them all, click here.

Honorable Mentions

Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State (17.8 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists per game)

Franklin has continued his upward trajectory this season for the Aztecs, who will need him down the stretch in a loaded Mountain West race.

Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State (20.0 points, 6.2 rebounds per game)

The most impressive part of Thomas’ performance this year is that, as the only go-to scorer on this Ohio State team, opponents gameplan to contain him, but he still puts up 20 points per game.

Cody Zeller, Indiana (16.3 points, 8.3 rebounds per game)

With the emergence of Victor Oladipo, Zeller has seemed to take a back seat, but his production is just as consistent. Without his double-double of 19 points and 10 rebounds, the Hoosiers would not have beaten No. 1 Michigan on Saturday.

Russ Smith, Louisville (18.4 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists per game)

Smith has worked to channel his at-time erratic playing style last season into full-on production this year. The Cardinals have hit a rough patch, of late, but he is averaging 19 points in his last two games, both Louisville wins.

Otto Porter, Georgetown (14.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.8 blocks per game)

The do-everything guy for Georgetown has stepped his game up since Greg Whittington has been out of the lineup. A huge double-double of 17 points and 12 rebounds led the Hoyas to a win over Louisville on Jan. 26.

Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse (12.6 points, 8.6 assists, 4.9 rebounds per game)

Many picked Carter-Williams to be one of the breakout stars in the country this season and he has delivered. Syracuse has been at a disadvantage without James Southerland, who is out with academic issues, but Carter-Williams is the engine of the Orange offense.

Ben McLemore, Kansas (16.4 points, 5.4 rebounds per game)

McLemore is the center of the Jayhawks’ offensive attack and is the star that coach Bill Self needed after a run to the Final Four last season.

The Countdown

5. Victor Oladipo, Indiana (14.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.3 assists per game)

Oladipo might not have the gaudy numbers to show it, but if we’re talking about value, there are few players more valuable to their teams than Oladipo is to Indiana. Not only an offensive threat, Oladipo brings energy and is one of the nation’s toughest defenders. He was key to Indiana’s ability to slow down a big-time Michigan offense and get a win Saturday.

4. Jeff Withey, Kansas (13.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.2 blocks per game)

Withey’s ability to affect the game on both ends of the floor is what makes him so valuable to this Kansas team. His domination around the rim changes the way Kansas is able to play defense and, in concert with McLemore on the offensive end, the inside-out combination drives the Jayhawks.

3. Mason Plumlee, Duke (17.6 points, 10.8 rebounds per game)

The weight of Duke’s NCAA tournament hopes falls heavier onto Plumlee’s shoulders after the injury to forward Ryan Kelly, but he has continued to produce. If Duke wants to make a run deeper than the Round of 64 and Kelly remains out, the way Plumlee plays will likely steer the ship for the Blue Devils.

2. Doug McDermott, Creighton (24.0 points, 7.3 rebounds per game)

McDermott has scored in double figures in all but one game for the Bluejays this season, including a 39-point outing against Missouri State, which he followed with a 31-point game against Northern Iowa. His team is 20-3, including 9-2 in a tough Missouri Valley Conference. If his production keeps up, like many believe it will, Creighton will keep winning.

1. Trey Burke, Michigan (18.2 points, 7.2 assists, 3.1 rebounds per game)

Burke is the engine of an offensive attack that features a number of weapons for the No. 3 Wolverines. He is a simultaneously a scorer and a facilitator. He has worked to become the best player in the country at his position and is showing how wise it was for him to spurn the NBA Draft and return to Ann Arbor for his sophomore season.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_