Unpredictable UConn most fascinating team
Connecticut has beaten Alabama and Iowa State on the neutral court, defeated Providence and Creighton, and is the only team to lose to Marquette since mid-January. It also has losses to lower-tier Big East rivals St. John’s and Seton Hall and is one of only two teams (Tennessee is the other) in the NET’s Top 16 with multiple upsets in league play with seven conference losses.
It was great and in the middle of a bad stretch of late. The Huskies can beat anyone, but they can also lose to anyone. The roof is a national championship and the floor is empty for a third straight March. As the fourth seed, it is the betting favorite to win this week’s Big East tournament.
There may not be a more exciting team to follow this month than Dan Hurley’s Huskies.
Hurley has elevated the program in five years, assembled top-notch recruiting classes and will reach its third straight NCAA Tournament when the pairings are announced next Sunday. But they have high hopes for Nutmeg State. Strong regular seasons are not enough. Neither finished fourth in league play.
They appear to be flying at the right time, entering this week’s Big East Tournament, riding a five-game winning streak after cooling off Villanova on Saturday night in Philadelphia. Then, last year’s team also seemed poised to implode, winning seven of eight games before a tight BIG EAST Tournament semifinal loss to Villanova before suffering an upset loss to 12th-ranked New Mexico State in the dance.
As of late, March has not been kind to UConn, which has lost back-to-back years as the top seed in the big tournament and has a 2-2 record in the conference tournament since returning to the Big East.
This group definitely has breakout potential. It’s deep and extremely talented, led by potential NBA first-round pick Jordan Hawkins. UConn is one of only two teams, along with Houston, ranked in the top 12 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. It is 12-6 in Quad 1 and 2 games and its last three losses have come by a combined seven points. It ranks second nationally in rebounding margin, led by the 1-2 center punch of Adama Sanogo and Donovan Klingon, and has more offensive firepower than recent UConn teams.
The Huskies are outright Final Four contenders and could be as high as a three-seed. They will almost certainly be sent to Albany for the first weekend, and could be in Madison Square Garden for the second weekend. The school’s best march since winning it all in 2014. But just like the last two years there is another disappointing finish. That ugly stretch happened in January, when they lost six of eight games.
Under Hurley, UConn has yet to show it can handle the pressure of March. Few teams will be under the microscope like the Huskies and few coaches will face as much scrutiny as Hurley. It’s time to hit the stores.
Dream of dancing
Some championship week expectations: A rubber meeting between No. 10 Gonzaga and No. 17 St. Mary’s in the WCC title game. Second matchup between red-hot Hofstra and College of Charleston in the CAA. Fordham is making a run in the Atlantic-10 tournament and marooning the Barclays Center. Oral Roberts and Max Abmas closed out an impressive season in the Summit League and returned to the tournament, where they reached the Sweet 16 two years ago. Iona and Rick Pitino navigate the MAAC, and St. John’s gives its fans a reason to smile, even in a trying season, just for one day. Chalk it up to mid- and low-key tournaments, as it leads to more upsets in the NCAA tournament. It’s one of the best weeks on the sports calendar, with the NCAA tournament, the start of the baseball postseason and the NFL regular season. Everyone, except the bottom four of the Ivy League, can dream of being a part of Madness.
game of the week
Big 12 Tournament, Wednesday-Saturday
The Big 12, by far the best league in the country, will not miss four days of games at T-Mobile Arena in Kansas City. At least 70 percent of the conference will reach the NCAA Tournament, and on-the-bubble Oklahoma State could make it 80 percent. All eight teams will dance in the quarter finals. Even Oklahoma, which finished last in the league, owns double-digit wins over ranked rivals Alabama, Kansas State and TCU.
Predictions of the top four seeds in the NCAA Tournament (listed in order)
1. Alabama, Kansas, Houston, UCLA
2. Purdue, Texas, Baylor, Arizona
3. Marquette, Gonzaga, Tennessee, UConn
4. Kansas State, Virginia, Iowa State, Xavier
The Bruins must be the No. 1 seed in the West by beating eighth-ranked Arizona on Saturday night to extend their win streak to 10. Four of their losses — to Arizona, USC, Baylor and Illinois — all came to projected tournament teams. . They have top-notch seniors in Tiger Campbell and Jaime Jacks Jr., the nation’s second-ranked defense by efficiency and peaking at the right time. UCLA won the Pac-12 by four games — the largest margin since Stanford in 2004.
A week ago, after the Rooters blew a 19-point, second-half lead at home, the NCAA Tournament seemed like a long shot. But the Nittany Lions beat Northwestern and fell by 16 points to No. 21 Maryland, giving Penn State its fifth Quad 1 victory. It has now won five of its last six games under impressive second-year coach Micah Shrewsberry, and can realistically dream of reaching the tournament for the first time in 12 years.
Down, down, down
It has been an extended stretch of mediocrity for Ed Cooley’s 20th-ranked Friars. No. 19 Xavier and shorthanded Seton Hall aren’t the only two home losses this week. In early February, they have lost five of nine games. Above all, Providence hasn’t proven capable of beating anyone of note on the road — it’s 6-8 away from the Amica Mutual Pavilion — and the rest of its games will be in relatively unfamiliar fields. It doesn’t feel like a team ready for a big march.
ACC Barring a tournament title, North Carolina would become the first Associated Press No. 1 seed not to reach the NCAA Tournament since expanding to a 64-team field in 1985. It falls entirely on the coach. With four returning starters from last year’s national runner-up, Northwestern’s key transfer addition Pete Nance, the basement should have been the Sweet 16. Not NIT. Not seventh in the woeful ACC. Not having a disastrous 1-9 record in Quad 1 games. This ultra-talented group that meshed so well late last year never quite came together. Davis will have to respond to this huge disappointment that will forever be on his resume no matter what happens in the rest of his coaching career.