As the regular season starts to wind down and conference tournaments begin to start up, let’s take a look back on an incredible college basketball season. There were plenty of upsets (and March just began) and dark horses that came out of seemingly nowhere to be in contention either nationally or in their conference.
If we start on the National level, there is one name currently ranked no. three in the nation after beginning the season unranked: Dayton. The Flyers have had a tremendous season, surpassing every expectation that people had for them while only losing two games to get where they are today. Those two losses came against two good teams in a Kansas team that was ranked fourth at the time and a close upset at home against Colorado. Yes, other than those two games they haven’t played anybody super good, but they have been consistently blowing opponents out of the gym. The Flyers are looking to remain undefeated in conference play as they finish out the regular season, and a loss won’t cost them the Atlantic-10 regular season title, but it will definitely cost them a number one seed in the Big Dance. This team is for real and anyone who will have to play them in the tournament should come ready to go. The Flyers don’t mess around.
Another team that seemed to come out of seemingly nowhere was San Diego State. Unlike Dayton, San Diego State was even allotted one vote to begin the season which, in hindsight, seems like a major lapse in judgment. It didn’t take long for the Aztecs to climb the rankings after beating the likes of Creighton and Iowa. After reaching a peak of fourth in the nation and going undefeated the entire way, the Aztecs fell at home to UNLV by three points. This loss meant the undefeated season had to come to an end, but the lone bright spot after the loss was that the team only fell one spot in the rankings to fifth in the nation. Look for the Aztecs to be a strong opponent in the tournament and make a run.
If we shift gears to look at things on a conference level, we see one conference that has seen some major shakeup from last year: The Big Ten. I know that I wrote about the change a couple of weeks ago, but after that article, it seemed as if the Big Ten was reverting back to normal: Illinois, Rutgers and Penn State started to lose some games and Michigan State, Maryland and Ohio State picked themselves back up from tough losses for some major wins. Things shook back out and with every team in the conference down to just two games left in the regular season, the regular season title is still up for grabs. Maryland is sitting atop the standings at the current moment, with Michigan State, Illinois and Wisconsin all just one game behind them, with Penn State and Iowa just one more game back from that group. This is a dramatic shift from last year when Michigan State and Purdue were sitting head and shoulders above the remainder of the field. One team in particular who took a major leap from last year to this year were the Fighting Illini.
When the regular season came to an end last season, the Illini were sitting among the bottom four in the conference, nine games back from the top. While the disappointment of the bad season still lingering the team then had to consider potentially losing their star freshman, Ayo Dosunmu, to the NBA. However, after being told that he would benefit drastically from an extra season at the college level, Dosunmu decided to stay at Illinois. This began a domino effect from there, the team was able to land the 7-foot center, Kofi Cockburn, who has been a dominant big man in the Big Ten as a freshman this season. From there, the team hit practices hard, gearing up for what seemed to be the season that they would finally be able to make it back to the NCAA tournament. However, after losing their third game of the season to No. 21 Arizona at the time by 21 points, the team didn’t look for real. Even after winning the majority of their out of conference games, they still weren’t being looked at as for real. And then the conference games began. They lost their first conference game to Maryland by a single point on the road, at a time when the Terrapins were ranked third at the time and then beat a number five Michigan team. And the rest was history. The team thrived with Dosunmu’s clutch playmaking ability and leadership and as the season is coming to a swelling point, they are looking to keep it going. This is a team that should be on everybody’s radar once the tournament begins.