March means a shot at history for 68 teams

March means a shot at history for 68 teams

By Jared Bergstrom, Sports Columnist

Now that the early season tournaments and non-conference games are over, the nation’s top college basketball teams have begun their real test: conference games.

Once conference play begins, teams have to be on upset alert, because nobody knows what will happen. That’s why they have a conference tournament at the end of the season, before the NCAA Tournament in March, because if teams split the season regular season meetings, the conference tournament will be the final decision.

Conference games can especially be hard in tougher conferences, such as the Big 10, ACC, SEC and the Big East. You’ll see a lot of top-ranked teams in the nation going up against each other in conference games, and, well, one of them has to win.

When the pre-season rankings came out in November, the top 5 teams (#1 Indiana; #2 Louisville; #3 Kentucky; #4 Ohio State; and #5 Michigan) didn’t surprise me much – except for the Michigan Wolverines being ranked 5th.  Now I’m not saying anything bad about the Wolverines, but I didn’t expect them in the top 5. I did, however, have them solidly in the top 10 – around 6-7.

Other teams whose preseason rankings surprised me were the UCLA Bruins (13th) and the Creighton Blue-Jays (15th). Then there were the teams that weren’t ranked in the preseason. Surprising because of their absence were the Connecticut Huskies (as they begin their first season in the post-Jim Calhoun era), the Murray State Racers (which really surprised me because of the great run they had last year) and the Virginia Commonwealth Rams.

But looking ahead to March, the only thing the teams want is to be one of the 68 teams that get selected to play in the NCAA Tournament. As always, most of the teams that get selected will be from the big conferences.

I predict that the Big 10 will have the most teams represent their conference in the Big Dance. The Big 10 teams that will make it are the Indiana Hoosiers, the Ohio State Buckeyes, the Michigan Wolverines, the Illinois Fightin’ Illini, the Michigan State Spartans, and the Minnesota Gophers. But teams to watch out for include the Wisconsin Badgers, the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Northwestern Wildcats.

At the beginning of each college basketball season, the big-shot analysts put their opinions out there, and then they often have to admit their errors later in the year. But you can bank on the following predictions coming true.

My first prediction is for Player of the Year. There are a lot of good players in the nation who can win the award, but the main contenders include Duke’s Mason Plumlee, Indiana’s Cody Zeller, Creighton’s Doug McDermott and Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum. But I feel Plumlee will get the final nod for Player of the Year.

When you look at the rankings, especially early in the season, you can find teams that are over-rated. As the season wears on, you can watch those teams plunge, making the NCAA analysts look stupid. In my opinion, the most over-rated team this year is the Kentucky Wildcats. Yes, the Wildcats did win the National Championship last year and have one of the best recruiting groups in the nation. But their No. 3 ranking in the preseason was based too much on what they did last year.

Then you have the teams that are overlooked at the beginning of the year and just don’t get the national attention that the big-name schools get on ESPN. My top under-rated team this year is the Creighton Blue-Jays. The Blue-Jays don’t get noticed because they’re in the Missouri Valley League, and no other teams in that conference get mentioned. Creighton’s ranking in the top 20 will bring attention to their conference.

Through the years, there have been some sleeper teams that have gone through the brackets virtually unnoticed until they are down to the finals. Then everyone asks where that team came from. Two years ago both VCU (then ranked 11th) and Butler (then ranked 8th) went through the tournament beating teams that should have been in the Final Four.

My bold prediction is that the Gonzaga Bulldogs is that sleeper team this year. This might surprise a lot of people, but I believe that the way that this team is playing now, they will make a big run in the tournament. And I predict Gonzaga will make it to the Elite Eight. The Bulldogs have gone under the radar so far this season because they’re in the West Coast Conference and they also haven’t played that big game yet. But watch them.

As the tournament winds down this spring, and the contenders separate themselves from the pretenders, the top 4 teams in the nation will battle it out to be crowned National Champion. My prediction is that those four teams will be the Indiana Hoosiers, the Duke Blue Devils, the Michigan Wolverines and the Florida Gators.

And the winner? The Hoosiers will end up outlasting the Blue Devils to capture their sixth National Championship.