By: Matt Meusel
With Selection Sunday just over two weeks away, we are hitting one of the best sports stretches of the calendar year.
Nothing compares to college basketball in March. You get goosebumps just thinking about it.
Now we’ve reached a point in the season where we can start to whittle down which schools have a real chance of making it to the Final Four in Atlanta.
February’s importance can be compared to Saturday in golf tournaments.
“Moving day.” It’s where teams make their push in conference play to set themselves up for success down the stretch, and with February now complete, we have a good sense of the college basketball landscape.
Maybe the two best teams in the nation helm from the Big 12 — the Kansas Jayhawks and Baylor Bears. They’ve split their two regular season matchups and are on a crash course to play again in the Big 12 championship, and maybe for a fourth time in Atlanta.
In their second meeting in Waco last Saturday, the Jayhawks survived a late push from Baylor for a 64-61 victory. The storyline from that game was Kansas’s Udoka Azubuike. He was able to bully his way through the Baylor defense all day long, putting up 23 points and hauling in 19 rebounds.
Azubuike is a complete throwback player in today’s age of fast pace and three-point shooting. He shot 11-13 in the win that snapped Baylor’s 23-game win streak in the Big 12, and 8 of those 11 made baskets were dunks. Baylor had no answer, and Azubuike’s performance put the rest of the country on notice.
Gonzaga, San Diego State and Florida State have emerged as the group of teams in a threatening second tier.
Let’s start with the Gonzaga Bulldogs, who were a game away from winning the whole thing back in 2017. They were recently upset by BYU, which lowered their national buzz a bit, but don’t let that distract you from just how good this team is.
Their only other loss on the season was to Michigan, which came all the way back in November. Then the Bulldogs won 19 in a row.
Sophomore forward Filip Petrusev has been sensational for the Zags. He’s averaging 17.5 points and 7.8 rebounds and has been the key guy in crunch-time situations. The 6-11 Serbian has flown under the radar all season as most Gonzaga stars do, since their games start late on the West Coast and their conference doesn’t provide big time matchups to create national buzz.
Bulldogs head coach Mark Few cannot be forgotten either. Gonzaga has made the NCAA Tournament every year since Few took the job in 1999. His leadership has landed him with the likes of Mike Krzyzewski, Bill Self, and Tom Izzo as one of the best coaches in the country.
San Diego State is the other West Coast team that has garnered a lot of national buzz in 2020. The Aztecs are currently the no. 5 team in the country behind stellar three-point shooting. Malachi Flynn, Matt Mitchell, and Jordan Schakel are names you need to know heading into March. They’ll shoot anybody out of the gym, and it’s why they have just one loss.
The Aztecs also have a 6-10 stud who shoots 33.3 percent from behind the arc and 60 percent from the field. That’s Yanni Wetzell, who does just about everything well for SDSU. The New Zealand native can knock it down from long range one time down the court and take you off the dribble and slam it on your head the next.
Shifting back to the East Coast — and specifically the ACC, which has had one of the whackiest years ever — it’s not North Carolina or Virginia that can win the national championship, but the Florida State Seminoles.
Coming off a 15-point win against Louisville, head coach Leonard Hamilton has pushed all the right buttons to propel FSU to first in the ACC.
The Noles are 14-3 in the ACC and their leading scorer Devin Vassell is 25th in the conference in the scoring. That’s called team basketball and that wins in March. FSU has been to the Elite Eight and Sweet Sixteen in the last two seasons and looks like they have the pieces to take the next step.
Obi Toppin has put Dayton and the A-10 on the map this season by averaging just under 20 points per game, and is bound to be lottery pick this June. The Flyers are no. 4 in the country and will be a fun team to follow for the next month.
The team that will give Florida State the most trouble in the ACC will most likely be Duke. Vernon Carey and Tre Jones will be one of the most unstoppable duos in the NCAA Tournament, but their inexperience and defensive woes will be their biggest issues.
There’s no doubt the Blue Devils can score, but they currently rank 142nd nationally in points allowed per game and just gave up 113 to 12-15 Wake Forest in a double overtime loss.
Plus, there always a few sleeper teams that get hot and make a Final Four push. Seton Hall, Creighton, Louisville and Michigan are all teams to fear come NCAA Tournament time.
Buckle up. The next five weeks are always special and will provide incredible basketball filled with chaos.
This. Is. March.