Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.
Some bad news for those of you expecting the bubble to shrink in the next two weeks: the number of potential bid stealers is smaller than I can ever remember. The most likely candidates in previous years were out of Memphis-dominated Conference USA, Butler-dominated Horizon or WCC-dominated Gonzaga, but this season none of those three perennial powerhouses are locks for the dance, rendering each conference a one (or two in the WCC with Saint Mary’s) league. In fact, all three likely need to win their respective tournaments to feel safe on Selection Sunday. The Missouri Valley is also shaping up as a one-bid league for the fifth straight year and BYU, San Diego State and UNLV (playing the tournament at their home floor in Vegas) are so far ahead their Mountain West competition it’s highly unlikely any major upsets come to fruition. The same theory applies to Utah State in the WAC. One team that I do feel could snag a bid from a mediocre bubble team is Southern California out of the Pac-10 in a replay of 2009 when the #6 seed Trojans at 9-9 in the league rode DeMar DeRozan, Daniel Hackett and Taj Gibson to a surprising automatic berth. With 12 losses overall on the season – including black marks against Rider, Bradley and TCU from early in the campaign– Kevin O’Neill’s squad clearly needs to complete a sweep of the conference tournament to go dancing. Depth and consistent scoring has been a recurring issue all season, but the talent is in place with a frontcourt duo of Nikola Vucevic (17.5 PPG, 10.3 RPG) and Alex Stephenson and the growing comfort level of point guard transfer Jio Fontan, who tied a season-high with 21 points in Thursday’s upset win over Arizona. USC also has the highest defensive efficiency in the Pac-10 and limited Arizona star Derrick Williams to just eight points. Watch out for the Trojans in two weekends as a sneaky candidate to turn the Pac-10 a four-bid league.
A tip of the cap is in order for Frank Martin and his Kansas State Wildcats. Most skewered the hard-nosed coach for losing control of his program during K-State’s numerous low points –from the loss in Kansas City to UNLV sans Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly to the embarrassing blowout at rival Kansas with Gameday in the house to once-heralded recruit Wally Judge leaving the team – but it’s my opinion that Martin’s demanding style may have actually kept this team afloat while coaches that run their program with a softer hand may have had a total implosion on their hands. The combination of Martin’s constant yearning for focus, effort and execution out of his players and a senior in Pullen who flat-out refused to let his team hit rock bottom has led to a resurgence that would have been unfathomable three weeks ago. If you told me in early February that Kansas State, amidst all their turmoil and turnover, would win in Austin against what appeared to be a powerhouse Texas squad, I’d never have believed you. The Wildcats now shape up extremely well not only to make the NCAA Tournament – stellar RPI/SOS, wins over Kansas, Texas and Missouri and an ascent up the Big 12 standings – but also to make a Sweet 16-type run behind Pullen, the improving play of Curtis Kelly and the underrated contributions of Rodney McGruder.
BYU doesn’t exactly have the most glowing NCAA Tournament history. In fact, their first round victory over Florida last year was BYU’s first tournament win since 1993. The same reprieve is often played out under the bright lights of March: the softer, finesse, untested Cougars face a tough, physical, athletic opponent from a power six league and go into the fetal position. My admiration for Fredette was the singular reason I chose BYU as my second round upset pick last year to beat K-State. After an opening 10-0 run, BYU was thoroughly dismantled by the springy Wildcats and Jacob Pullen outplayed his counterpart Fredette. This trend was precisely why I believed San Diego State would take care of business last Saturday. Sure, the Cougars took care of business in a building they rarely ever lose in late January, but the Aztecs are that nightmarish matchup – a team full of bouncy, athletic, board-banging skilled players like Kawhi Leonard and Malcolm Thomas – that give the Cougars fits historically. Then BYU came out and blocked seven shots. They were barely out-rebounded. Thomas scored nine points and Leonard was limited to six field goals. Along with Fredette’s wizardry and the jump shooting ability of his teammates, I was doubly impressed by BYU’s attitude and toughness in such a raucous environment against an opponent I perceived as a matchup problem. Their zone defense was fantastic and their offensive execution – both in the halfcourt when Fredette was constantly doubled off of ball screens and in transition opportunities – was picture perfect. I’m a buyer.