We have already reached our final week of Rock-M-tology for the season. The plan for this week will be to hopefully post some updates as the week progresses -- there will be a lot of Big 12 content to keep up with starting mid-week, but I'll try to give at least one update before the weekend. Then, the final bracket will be posted mid-afternoon on Sunday. I will once again be aiming to predict all 65 teams in the field; the closest I've come is 64.5*. Lunardi, I'm coming for you.
* A few years ago, I couldn't decide between two teams for the last spot (I believe it was Northern Iowa vs Buffalo), so I drew up the bracket with an empty spot, watched the tourney selection show, went back to see how I did ... and realized I'd never actually chosen between the two of them. I think UNI won the spot, meaning I was half-right. That's how I got 64.5.
Who I Like
I spend a lot of time in this space talking about underrated versus overrated, and in versus out, but the categories below never really get to who I actually like (or don't like) in terms of making noise in the NCAA Tourney. Sometimes that overlaps with overrated/underrated, but not always. So here are some teams I like, avoiding likely 1-seeds, because that's just too easy.
Texas A&M (21-8) - Since losing back-to-back games in Manhattan and Austin to start conference play 1-2, ATM is 10-3, with their only losses coming at Oklahoma State and Baylor, and at home to Kansas. They ended Mizzou's long home winning streak, they handled Baylor and Texas at home, and honestly, they've come as close as anybody to beating Kansas in the last month (a 59-54 home loss). Assuming Dash Harris can get back to something resembling full-speed, this team has steady guard play, extreme athleticism on the wings, and size. They draw a lot of fouls, which is actually a bit of a red flag for me come tourney time -- if the whistles don't come, can they still score consistently? They also don't shoot 3's very well, but they're streaky, and when they're making their 3's, they are all but unstoppable. Without a true go-to scorer, they're vulnerable, but they are hot and frightening.
West Virginia (24-6) - The way I go about ranking teams, they've ended up in the top five for most of the last month. Obviously nobody is considering them a serious contender for a 1-seed, but there's a chance they could end up by far the most dangerous 3-seed in the tourney. They foul too much (just ask Mizzou fans outside of the Missouri area, hoping to actually see the start of the MU-KU game on Saturday and having to watch 'Nova-WVU drag on instead), and their defense comes and goes, but a) their offense is outstanding, b) they are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, c) they have played one of the toughest schedules in the country, and d) their defense has come up big when it has mattered (aside from leaving Scottie Reynolds
Tennessee (23-7) - Any Mizzou fan who saw the Kansas machine up close and personal this weekend should have an appreciation for Tennessee, if for no other reason than the Vols somehow managed to beat KU without shooting 60%+. The Vols aren't great offensively, and they are terrible from the free throw line, but if their defense is clicking, you probably won't have the legs to shoot FTs very well either. They do not allow you any good looks from long-range, and they're hot, having won five of six since a 3-4 stretch in the middle of conference play. They took out Kentucky at home a week ago and ruthlessly mauled a Mississippi State team desperate for a win, in Starkville no less. The FT issue will likely bite them at some point, but they could still be a favorite to advance beyond their seed.
Wisconsin (23-7) - Let's just say that, if you're a fan of Ken Pomeroy's ratings, you're a fan of Wisconsin. Brutally efficient on offense (they're solid shooters and never, ever, ever turn the ball over) and beyond sound on defense (they don't give up many good shots, and they never give up an offensive rebound), they had a couple of hiccups in mid-February, but like Tennessee to Mississippi State, they took out a desperate Illinois team in Champaign yesterday, dominating a large portion of the game (sans a run in the second half) and pulling away to win by 15.
Who I Don't Like
Temple (26-5) - The Owls are on track for a likely 4-seed in the NCAAs, but a) their best road win was versus Seton Hall, b) they never draw fouls, c) they never force turnovers, and d) they don't have much of a bench at all. If I'm a fan of a potential 5-seed, I'm really hoping to see the Owls in Round 2. They play very good defense, and if you're not a good shooting team, they could suffocate you; but I just don't trust them much outside of Philly.
Duke (26-5) - Yes, they've underachieved in the tourney for the past decade, meaning I don't trust them any further I could throw them with Coach K's bad back. But I try to think of every season as its own entity, meaning I'm not putting them here because they got killed by 'Nova last year or lost to VCU a couple of years ago. I'm putting them here because they don't have much of a bench, because they're a shaky shooting team for a top seed, because they give up a few too many second chances, and because they really only have one good road win -- at projected 7-seed Clemson. They do well in the hustle stats (they're a great offensive rebounding team), they take care of the ball, and they don't give up good looks from 3-point range, and at this point they're as deserving as the fourth 1-seed as anybody else ... but I don't trust them at all.
Kansas State (24-6) - Nice Gary Pinkel Special pulled this weekend by Frank Martin, who signed a lucrative contract extension at the same time his team laid an egg. I actually don't dislike KSU tremendously ... it's just that, as with Duke, I simply don't trust them. They're big and physical, and with the streakiness of Pullen and Clemente, they could absolutely beat anybody in the NCAA field (except Kansas, I guess) on the right night ... but they rely a lot on drawing free throws, and if Pullen and Clemente aren't hot, they can bring the team down in a major way. Nothing between Final Four and 2/15 upset will surprise me with this team.
Purdue (26-4) - Then again, nobody likes them right now, and for obvious reasons. They're still going to be a tough out without Robbie Hummel, and they'll benefit from being a little overseeded (whereas they might only be a 4- or 5-seed without Hummel, they're still looking like they'll get a 2 or 3) and seeing lesser opponents because of it, but obviously it's going to be tough sledding for the Boilers.
Ohio State (24-7) - As long as they can play their starters 40 minutes a game, they're as good as just about anybody in the country. But their complete lack of a bench will almost certainly backfire on them at some point.
Gonzaga (25-5) - Lunardi and Jerry Palm have them at the 5-6 seed level, and I just don't see it. I had to compromise to bring them up to a 7.
Rhode Island (21-8) - Probably not fair to put them on here -- they're clearly out after laying an egg against UMass over the weekend -- but Lunardi still had them in as of Friday, and I have no idea why. They were out before their trip to Amherst.
Pittsburgh (24-7) - If the committee really isn't considering Last 12 Games much, then Pitt should still probably be paying for their late-January cold streak. I had them in the neighborhood of a 5- or 6-seed, but Lunardi and Palm both had them at 3 over the weekend.
New Mexico (28-3) - They just keep going back and forth for me. Two weeks ago, I just didn't see the committee giving them the 3-seed that everybody projected them to have. Then they went and beat BYU, and I relented. Now Lunardi and Palm both have them as a 2? For a team 40th in KenPom's rankings? A team whose four best wins were against BYU twice, ATM, and California? Can't do it. I like them at a 3, but that's all I can do right now. Beat BYU a third time while others falter, and we'll talk.
Illinois (18-13) - I really disagreed with Lunardi's Friday bracket. He had Illinois at a 10 then, while I already had them out. Palm doesn't even have them in his First Four Out list, and I'm the same.
Utah State (24-6) - Always.
Texas (23-8) - Again, Last 12 doesn't matter much now, and Texas should still be getting a bit more credit than they are getting for the butt-kicking they did in the season's first 2-3 months. They're not significantly underrated, but I still have them fighting for a 6-seed, at least if they win a couple in the Big 12 Tourney.
Wisconsin (23-7) - I have Wiscy in the 3-4 seed range, and both Lunardi and Palm have them at a 5. As mentioned above, I like them quite a bit.
Baylor (23-6) & Texas A&M (21-8) - Seriously, can the Big 12 please get a little respect here? These two teams looked as good as almost anybody in the country over the last few weeks, but Lunardi had BOTH of them as 6-seeds on Friday. SIX?? I almost have Baylor as a 2 and ATM as a 3!
BYU (27-4) - This time I have a qualm with Palm, who had them a 6-seed this morning. I had to talk myself out of giving them a 3-4.
Memphis (23-8) - If coffee is for closers, then pour a cup for Memphis, who knocked off UAB on the road, then came home and whooped a salty Tulsa team at home to finish an unexpected 13-3 in Conference USA. They blew a chance to lock down an NCAA bid when they lost at home to Gonzaga a few weeks ago, but they're certainly in the mix for one of the final couple of spots now.
Notre Dame (21-10) - While you're at it, pour a HUGE mug of coffee for the Irish, who have now defeated Pittsburgh, Georgetown (on the road), UConn and Marquette (on the road) in their last four games. They went from "Not Under Consideration" two weeks ago to "Safely in for the moment" in record time.
Tennessee (23-7) - Good time to win five of six and take out one of the sure-thing 1-seeds.
Maryland (22-7) - Since losing to William & Mary and seeing their bubble spot on life support, the Turtles have gone 15-3, with losses only at Duke, at Wake Forest and at Clemson. They went from bubble to potential Top 4 seed very quickly.
Louisville (20-11) - They basically have only two really good wins this year ... and both of them were against 1-seed Syracuse. Taking them out in your final game is one way to erase the egg you laid at Marquette mid-week. An 11-7 record in the Big East means they're pretty obviously in at this point.
Dayton (19-11) - Heading into Valentine's Day weekend, Dayton was 17-6 and pretty easily in the Field of 65. They've since lost five of seven (and four of five) and are almost certainly out. They almost stole a season-saving upset at Richmond on Thursday but didn't ... and then they went and lost to SLU at home. An 8-8 A10 record does not get you into the field, no matter how solid the A10 is this year.
Mississippi State (21-10) - While Ole Miss was winning the games they should and sneaking onto the right side of the bubble, Mississippi State was losing at Auburn and getting thumped at home by Tennessee in a must-win.
Georgetown (20-9) - Pretty bad time to lose four of six, though they looked great in creaming Cincy at home in Austin Freeman's return.
UConn (17-14) - From way out, to safely in, back to way out for the Huskies, who lost three in a row to end the regular season.
Illinois (18-13) - The Illini has a major opportunity to rack up a big win or two in the season's final weeks, but instead they lost five of six (four of the losses were by double digits), rank 75th in RPI (one spot below Illinois State), and rank 56th in Ken Pomeroy's rankings (one spot below Murray State). This is not a tourney team.
Last 8 In
Quite a bit of fluctuation this week.
Georgia Tech (18-11) (Last Week: Safely In)
Florida (20-11) (Last Week: 6th-Last In)
St. Mary's (24-5) (Last Week: 5th-Last In)
Notre Dame (21-10) (Last Week: 3rd Out)
San Diego State (20-8) (Last Week: Last In)
Memphis (23-8) (Last Week: 7th Out)
Ole Miss (21-9) (Last Week: 1st Out)
UAB (23-7) (Last Week: 7th-Last In)
8 9 Out
Arizona State (22-9) (Last Week: 4th Out)
Illinois (18-13) (Last Week: 2nd-Last In)
Seton Hall (18-11) (Last Week: 5th Out)
Washington (21-9) (Last Week: Not In Consideration)
South Florida (19-11) (Last Week: Not In Consideration)
UConn (17-14) (Last Week: 3rd-Last In)
Dayton (19-11) (Last Week: 4th-Last In)
Mississippi State (21-10) (Last Week: 2nd Out)
Rhode Island (21-8) (Last Week: 6th Out)
8 - Big East
7 - ACC, Big 12
5 - SEC
4 - Mountain West, Big Ten
3 - Conference USA, Atlantic 10
2 - West Coast
Midwest Region (in St. Louis)
1 Kansas vs 16 Troy
8 UNLV vs 9 Louisville
in Oklahoma City
5 Maryland vs 12 Ole Miss
4 Michigan State vs 13 Cornell
6 Texas vs 11 Utah State
3 Pittsburgh vs 14 Sam Houston
7 Florida State vs 10 UTEP
2 Ohio State vs 15 Vermont
West Region (in Salt Lake City)
1 Duke vs 16 Winthrop / Jackson State
8 Missouri vs 9 California
5 Vanderbilt vs 12 Notre Dame
4 Temple vs 13 Kent State
in San Jose
6 Texas A&M vs 11 Florida
3 New Mexico vs 14 Wofford
7 Gonzaga vs 10 Georgia Tech
2 Villanova vs 15 ETSU
South Region (in Houston)
1 Syracuse vs 16 Lehigh
8 Northern Iowa vs 9 Wake Forest
5 BYU vs 12 UAB
4 Tennessee vs 13 Siena
in San Jose
6 Butler vs 11 St. Mary's
3 Purdue vs 14 Oakland
7 Richmond vs 10 Marquette
2 Kansas State vs 15 Morgan State
in Oklahoma City
East Region (in Syracuse)
1 Kentucky vs 16 Quinnipiac
8 Oklahoma State vs 9 Virginia Tech
in New Orleans
5 Georgetown vs 12 Memphis
4 Wisconsin vs 13 Murray State
6 Xavier vs 11 San Diego State
3 Baylor vs 14 Weber State
in New Orleans
7 Clemson vs 10 Old Dominion
2 West Virginia vs 15 UCSB
My At-First-Glance Final Four
Kansas, Villanova, Syracuse, West Virginia (ugh, three Big East teams)
Second glance: Michigan State, Texas A&M!, Tennessee, Kentucky
Missouri's inevitable path to destiny™ (ahem)
California, Duke, Vandy, Villanova, Kansas, Syracuse
Ironically, Mizzou was a 7-seed until I couldn't fit them in the bottom half of the bracket (Texas screwed Mizzou yet again), so I bumped them to an 8 ... and they got an infinitely better draw (Duke) instead of what they would have had as a 7 (Villanova).