The Wednesday before Selection Sunday is finally here. Basketball fans around the globe know that means one thing: the big boys of NCAA basketball are about to get their tournament swag on.
While many fans can't wait to fill out their NCAA Tournament brackets in hope of picking the perfect bracket and becoming mega-rich (hint: won't happen), there is still much to be determined before the committee picks the field for this year's tournament. From the teams fighting to improve their seed, to the bubble teams looking to avoid the dreaded "first four out" title, the next four days of conference tournament mania will be sure to offer plenty of appetizing excitement for next week's main course.
Let's jump right in, shall we?
Favorites are the teams expected to win their respective tournaments. Contenders are the teams most likely to prevent the favorites from winning their respective tournaments. Dark horses are teams with a 5-seed or higher that could come out of nowhere to win it all.
4. Baylor Bears
The Favorite: (1) Kansas Jayhawks
KU did exactly what most people expected them to do this year: win an 11th straight Big 12 regular season title. As the 1-seed in arguably the toughest conference tournament of the year, the Jayhawks still have an uphill battle to win the Big 12 Tournament.
Star forward Perry Ellis injured his knee in Kansas' game against West Virginia and was forced to sit out the final game of the year against Oklahoma. Coach Bill Self will need a healthy Ellis for KU to be most effective in the postseason. Despite the Jayhawks' questionable depth, they're still the favorites to cut down the nets in Kansas City.
The Contender: (2) Iowa State Cyclones
The Cyclones have been as Jekyll and Hyde as any team in the country this season. They have losses to South Carolina (15-15) and Texas Tech (13-18) on their resume, yet also own wins over fellow Big 12 powers Kansas and Oklahoma. The only team to sweep Iowa State during the conference season was the Baylor Bears, who have surprised lots of people in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year.
In ISU's last two games of the season, they've shown their inconsistencies. The Cyclones scored 18 and 26 points in the first half against Oklahoma and TCU, but then Fred Hoiberg's squad exploded for 59 and 63 points in the second period of both games, respectively. When Iowa State is making shots, they're able to beat anyone in the country. When they're not, it gets ugly fast. To win the conference tourney this year, the Cyclones must avoid scoring droughts.
The Dark Horse: (7) Texas Longhorns
Rick Barnes' team began the year ranked in the top 10, and have dropped like a rock ever since. Star freshman forward Myles Turner has been a bright spot, as has sophomore guard Isaiah Taylor, but Texas simply hasn't lived up to expectations.
Despite the team not performing up to par, they still possess a ton of potential and have much to play for as they are squarely on the bubble. If the light finally comes on for the Longhorns - look out.
The Favorite: (1) Wisconsin Badgers
Madison is home to one of this year's most exciting teams - the Wisconsin Badgers. Led by the USA Today Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky, the Badgers are gunning for a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Wisconsin's three losses have come at the hands of Duke, Maryland and - Rutgers? That's right, the last place Scarlet Knights managed to hand the Badgers a loss in the Louis Brown Athletic Center back in January, but that game looks much more like a fluke than anything else. Kaminsky was forced to sit out with a concussion, and senior guard Traevon Jackson went down in the second half with a leg injury. With Kaminsky healthy, the Badgers are one of the toughest outs in all of college basketball.
The Contender: (2) Maryland Terrapins
As mentioned above, Maryland is one of three teams to knock off Wisconsin this year. In addition to their win over the Badgers, the Terrapins also hold wins over Iowa State, Michigan State and Purdue.
Maryland is led by a three-headed monster in Melo Trimble (16.1 PPG), Dez Wells (15.3 PPG) and Jake Layman (13.1 PPG). After winning their final seven games of the regular season, the turtles are looking to do anything but slow down heading into the postseason.
The Dark Horse: (5) Iowa Hawkeyes
Speaking of hot streaks, the Hawkeyes own their own six game winning streak as the postseason begins. In fact, the last team that Maryland lost to was Iowa, who laid a 71-55 beatdown on the Terrapins in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The Hawks' leader is the 6-foot-9 senior forward Aaron White. White averaged an impressive 15.9 PPG and 7.4 RPG during the regular season.
In addition to the win over Maryland, the Hawkeyes also own two victories over Ohio State and a key non-con win at North Carolina. Will this end up being the breakout year for Fran McCaffery's squad?
4. LSU Tigers
5. Texas A&M Aggies
13. Auburn Tigers
14. Missouri Tigers
The Favorite: (1) Kentucky Wildcats
John Calipari's crew did it: a perfect 31-0 season. Now, the whole world is excited to see if they'll storm through the postseason just as easily, or if they'll finally be stopped by an underdog. All fans of opposing teams know one thing - they don't want to be in Kentucky's bracket come Selection Sunday.
What makes the Wildcats so hard to beat is their length on defense. UK is allowing the third fewest points per game to opposing offenses in the nation, as well as blocking nearly seven shots a game. The one questionable aspect of the Wildcats' game is their offense, which hasn't been elite. However, with the level of defense they're playing, Kentucky probably doesn't need a great offense.
The Contender: (2) Arkansas Razorbacks
The Razorbacks are a scrappy bunch that use head coach Mike Anderson's "40 Minutes of Hell" style to their advantage. Arkansas figured to be the one SEC team that might trip up Kentucky during the regular season, but the Wildcats pasted the Razorbacks 84-67 in Rupp Arena on February 28.
Arkansas doesn't own a win over a ranked team this year, which may come back to bite them in March when they go on to play tougher competition. What the Razorbacks do have is one of the best young big men in the country in Bobby Portis. The 6-foot-11 forward averaged 17.8 PPG and 8.7 RPG and only scored less than 10 points once during the season in a game against North Texas, when the sophomore battled foul trouble. Portis and the Razorbacks might just be able to give Kentucky a better game if they get another chance outside of Rupp Arena.
The Dark Horse: (6) Ole Miss Rebels
The SEC really is weak this year, isn't it? With Florida drastically underachieving, I had to go with Ole Miss as my dark horse. The Rebels took down Creighton when they were ranked in the non-con and battled Kentucky to their best game of the year - an 89-86 overtime Wildcat victory in Lexington.
Ole Miss is a guard-oriented team. Their top three scorers come from the perimeter. In the overtime loss to Kentucky, their starting guards combined to go 9-15 from the three-point line. They'll need more outings like that to advance deep into the SEC Tournament.
6. Miami Hurricanes
7. NC State Wolfpack
10. Pitt Panthers
The Favorite: (1) Virginia Cavaliers
Head coach Tony Bennett has created a fantastic defensive squad in this year's Cavaliers. Virginia allows the fewest opponent points per game of any team in the country (50.3) and also rebounds well.
The Cavaliers' only losses of the year have come at the hands of ranked teams. Duke was the first to hand Virginia a loss back on January 31 in a 69-63 loss at home. Then, the Cavaliers dropped the last game of the season on the road at Louisville 59-57. Despite these two losses, Virginia is a balanced team that can easily frustrate opponents, and is the favorite to win the ACC Tournament crown.
The Contender: (2) Duke Blue Devils
Controversy crept into the Duke basketball world when guard Rasheed Sulaimon became the first player to be dismissed from the program under Coach K's tenure. The good news is, the Blue Devils kept their eyes on the prize en route to the most impressive list of road victories of any team this year. Duke owns road wins over Michigan State, Wisconsin, Louisville, Virginia and North Carolina. Wowza!
Freshman center Jahlil Okafor is the engine for this year's team, and was easily chosen as the USA Today Freshman of the Year. The 6-11 Okafor nearly averaged a double-double at 17.6 PPG and 9.2 RPG.
Coach K's squad currently holds an 11-game win streak. Will they be able to ride the wave through the conference tournament?
The Dark Horse: (5) North Carolina Tar Heels
North Carolina's season hasn't been the greatest under North Carolina standards, but the Tar Heels still have reasons to be optimistic about the postseason. Roy Williams' squad is one of the best rebounding teams in the nation, averaging the second most rebounds per game (41.8) and fourth most defensive rebounds per game (27.4) in all of America. North Carolina scores a lot of points and gives up a lot of points, which can be both exciting and frustrating for fans to watch.
Junior guard Marcus Paige is UNC's star player. Many pegged him as a preseason All-American, and while his numbers aren't that great, it's much more of a testament to North Carolina's balance more than anything. The Tar Heels have four different players averaging double figures, and J.P Tokoto is just over a point away from joining that group (8.7 PPG). UNC is always a dangerous team to play in the postseason.
2. Oregon Ducks
3. Utah Utes
4. UCLA Bruins
12. USC Trojans
The Favorite: (1) Arizona Wildcats
You like teams that have lots of scoring options? I present to you exhibit A: the Arizona Wildcats. Arizona's top six scorers are all averaging between 9.3 and 13.9 PPG. Not too shabby.
Sean Miller's team has only lost three games all year, with all coming on the road against unranked teams (UNLV, Oregon State, Arizona State). However, the Wildcats do own four victories over ranked foes, which somewhat makes up for their losses on the road. The most impressive win of the year came again Gonzaga, a game that Arizona won 66-63 in overtime. The Wildcats are another team looking to cement themselves as a 1-seed in the eyes of the selection committee, so they're the favorite to win the Pac-12 Tournament.
The Contender: (3) Utah Utes
Utah is a very accurate team from the field, hitting at a clip of 48.6 percent. They also rank in the top 25 in blocks at 5.1 per game. The knock against Utah is they've only won one game against a ranked opponent, which was a 69-68 overtime victory at home over an overrated Wichita State team.
The Utes are led by senior guard Delon Wright. Wright played arguably his best game of the year in Utah's victory 67-59 victory at Washington State, when he went for 18 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists. Wright will have to continue to play well for Utah to make noise in the postseason.
The Dark Horse: (6) Stanford Cardinal
At 18-12, Stanford is another team on the bubble. The Cardinal picked up good wins earlier in the year at Texas and Washington, but both of those victories have lost their luster as the season has gone on.
Stanford is home to one of the best pure scorers in all of college basketball in Chasson Randle. Randle averages 19.1 PPG and shoots nearly 90 percent from the charity stripe. The senior guard has gone for 30+ on three separate occasions this year, and will be the focus of all opponents' game plans should Stanford go on a run and make the NCAA Tourney.