March Madness 2017: The 10 hottest teams ready for a deep NCAA Tournament run
Kansas, Kentucky, UCLA and Wichita State are among the hottest teams in college hoops
There’s something to be said for catching fire at the right time in March. Single-game elimination tournament play, be it conference tournaments or the NCAA Tournament, provides an opportunity for any team to turn a losing streak around and change its season.
But those examples -- like 2016 Syracuse (losers in five of their last six going into the Big Dance) -- are few and far between compared to teams that enter the tournament playing their best basketball. Kemba Walker and UConn won five games in five days in the Big East tournament before going on their national title run in 2011; Dayton won nine of its last 10 games in the regular season before its Elite Eight run in 2014; and in 2015 it was Duke’s 11-game winning streak to the close the regular season that laid the foundation for their title run.
So with that in mind, here’s a look at some of the hottest teams in the country: What’s been going well, the next challenge on the schedule and how far we can expect each team to go in March.
1. Vermont (28-5)
Streaking: 20 wins in a row
Up next: America East championship game vs. Albany (Saturday, March 11)
Outlook: The Catamounts are carrying the nation’s longest winning streak but it won’t amount to much if they can’t seal the deal in the conference tournament on Saturday afternoon against Albany to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012. Vermont’s had some heartbreak at the 11th hour before, but that was prior to the arrival of prolific freshman Anthony Lamb (57 points in two America East tournament games). Vermont should win and enter the tournament in an upset-friendly spot on the 12-, 13- or 14-seed line.
2. Wichita State (30-4)
Streaking: 15 in a row
Up next: NCAA Tournament (seed TBD)
Outlook: Gregg Marshall and the Shockers don’t have to sweat on Selection Sunday thanks to a dominant performance in the Missouri Valley Conference title game against Illinois State. The same can’t be said for whoever draws Wichita State in the field, since the team’s RPI rating could end up placing this white-hot team as a double-digit seed. Throw in Marshall’s experience in this position and you have to consider Wichita State among the most dangerous teams in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
3. SMU (27-4)
Streaking: 13 in a row
Up next: AAC Quarterfinals vs. Temple/ECU (Friday, March 10)
Outlook: Tim Jankovich deserves Coach of the Year consideration for finishing strong with this limited roster (just seven scholarship players) and putting SMU in a spot to make the most of its return to the postseason after an NCAA ban in 2016.
4. UCLA (28-3)
Streaking: Nine in a row
Up next: Pac-12 Quarterfinals vs. USC/Washington (Thursday, March 9)
Outlook: It’s been more than a month since UCLA’s last loss and the Bruins have been beating the best, taking down Oregon and Arizona in their current run. One reason for concern would be T.J. Leaf’s ankle injury, which clearly impacted the Bruins in the regular-season finale against Washington State. No matter what happens in the Pac-12 tournament, UCLA’s finish to the season should be reason enough to like its chances to make the Final Four.
5. Kentucky (26-5)
Streaking: Eight in a row and nine of 10
Up next: SEC Quarterfinals vs. Georgia/Tennessee (Friday, March 10)
Outlook: The Wildcats’ late-season run contributed to capturing their fifth regular season title in eight years with John Calipari. Like UCLA, there are some major injury concerns given the up-and-down health status of guard De’Aaron Fox, but Kentucky has proven over the last 10 games that it has tapped into a winning formula.
6. Kansas (28-3)
Streaking: Eight in a row
Up next: Big 12 Quarterfinals vs. TCU/Oklahoma (Thursday, March 9)
Outlook: Spoiler -- Kansas is my national title pick. The Jayhawks were my pick for our midseason reset and they’ll be my pick when our expert brackets are revealed on Sunday night. What stands out from Kansas’ hot streak is how many times they’ve been able to rally back from deficits and play well in clutch situations -- seven of the eight wins have been by 10 points or fewer and five have been by five points or fewer.
7. Middle Tennessee (27-4)
Streaking: Seven in a row, 17 of 18
Up next: Conference USA Quarterfinals vs. WKU/UTSA (Thursday, March 9)
Outlook: Right now, Middle Tennessee is sitting on the bubble as an at-large team thanks to wins against Vanderbilt, UNC-Wilmington and Ole Miss in non-conference play. If they can finish the job and win the Conference USA Tournament, the Blue Raiders are going to be one of the most dangerous mid-major teams to watch in the tournament.
8. Florida Gulf Coast (26-7)
Streaking: Seven in a row, Atlantic Sun conference tournament champs
Up next: NCAA Tournament (Seed TBD)
Outlook: Dunk City is back in the big dance thanks to a dominant showing in its conference tournament, winning three straight by double-digits to extend its winning streak to seven games. Staring down a potential 14-seed in the tournament, FGCU will have its hands full trying to extend that streak with another Cinderella run.
9. Oregon (27-4)
Streaking: Six in a row, eight of nine
Up next: Pac-12 Quarterfinals vs. Arizona State/Stanford (Thursday, March 9)
Outlook: Pac-12 Player of the Year Dillon Brooks has been the steady force during Oregon’s strong push at the end of the year, clinching the No. 1 seed in the Pac-12 tournament. His knack for hitting huge shots under pressure is going to be a big reason why believers will pencil the Ducks in for another deep run in the NCAA Tournament. But so should the team’s stellar defensive play, led by Chris Boucher, over the course of the conference season.
10. Providence (20-11)
Streaking: Six in a row
Up next: Big East Quarterfinals vs. Creighton (Thursday, March 9)
Outlook: By winning six in a row, Providence might have played its way into the tournament. The key for the Friars is avoiding a bad loss in the Big East tournament. We’re not looking at Ed Cooley’s team as a potential giant slayer in the NCAA Tournament (yet), but a deep run in Madison Square Garden and a potential meeting with Villanova is not out of the question.
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