Peaking in March is the goal for men’s college basketball teams. In a season made up of bizarre scheduling and difficult rhythmic dynamics due to COVID-19, being a late-surging team is the best scenario a week from Selection Sunday.
Enter Oklahoma State.
The Cowboys (18-7, 11-7 Big 12) dispatched West Virginia 85-80 on the road Saturday to continue its late case for strong NCAA Tournament seeding. The most compelling part? They did it without their best player. Cade Cunningham, the projected No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, rolled his left ankle in Thursday’s loss to Baylor but is expected to be back next week for the Big 12 tournament.
In the past several weeks — largely behind Cunningham’s heroics — OSU has vaulted from a projected No. 7 seed to a No. 4 seed in the latest USA TODAY Sports bracketology. Following another Quadrant 1 (top-25 home, top-75 road) victory, the Cowboys just might be in the mix for a No. 3 seed.
Many teams like Oklahoma State have surged late after establishing team identities late in the season due to COVID-19-related challenges. Bubble teams Duke and Michigan State are among that group. But how OSU has thrived, going 6-1 since mid-February.
Despite receiving a one-year postseason ban in June for penalties committed by former assistant Lamont Evans, the NCAA’s delay on an answer to OSU’s appeal means the Cowboys are set to play in March Madness — where they’ll be one of the most dangerous teams in the country.
Oklahoma State. With the key victory over West Virginia without Cunningham and fellow starter Isaac Likekele, Oklahoma State has now won six of seven, with its only loss to Big 12 regular-season champion Baylor in that span. The Cowboys’ portfolio keeps getting more impressive. They now have eight Quad 1 wins, a top-30 NET score and a top-10 strength of schedule.
Illinois. The Fighting Illini (20-6, 16-4) are on the inside track to secure a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday thanks to a 73-68 win over Ohio State. The victory was revenge for a Jan. 16 loss to the Buckeyes and showed Illinois’ prowess on defense – holding OSU scoreless for the game’s final 3 1/2 minutes.
Loyola-Chicago. The Ramblers (23-4, 16-2 Missouri Valley) are well positioned to secure an at-large bid should they lose the Missouri Valley’s automatic bid. After a 65-49 win over Indiana State in the Missouri Valley Conference semifinals, Loyola is now in the No. 8 or No. 9 seed range. Coach Porter Moser has himself another dangerous team this March. While this group of Ramblers isn’t as gifted offensively as his 2018 Final Four squad, it’s exceptional on defense — leading the nation with 55.4 points allowed.
Alabama. The Crimson Tide (21-6, 16-2 SEC) finished out the regular season strong as the SEC champion and captured a school record of 16 conference wins by dispatching Georgia 89-79. Jaden Shackelford typically carries this team, but Jahvon Quinerly paced the Tide with 18 points off the bench. Coach Nate Oats’ team still has an outside chance of landing a No. 1 seed but right now sits at a comfortable No. 2.
USC. The Trojans (21-6, 15-5) knocked off rival UCLA thanks to a game-winning three-pointer in the closing seconds by Tahj Eaddy. The win likely pushes USC from a projected No. 5 seed up to a No. 4. Coach Andy Enfield has a group that could be dangerous in March.
Creighton. The Bluejays (18-7, 14-6) were coming off two consecutive wins and a bad week that saw coach Greg McDermott apologize to his team for racially insensitive comments. A 93-73 win over a mediocre Butler team is a step in the right direction. Creighton’s positioned to get a No. 6 seed and could build that up to a No. 5 or No. 4 seed by going all the way in a Big East Tournament that will be wide open.
Virginia. The Cavaliers (17-6, 13-4) started the day as a projected No. 5 seed and are close enough to vault ahead to the No. 4 seed spot with a 68-58 win over Louisville in the ACC finale. While the conference has been down this year, it’s also been Virginia that’s been out front. Coach Tony Bennett’s group is righting the ship after three consecutive losses to beat Miami and now Louisville. A deep ACC Tournament run could be the difference between a first-round upset or advancement now.
Villanova. The Wildcats (16-4, 11-3 Big East) fell to Providence 54-52 in a low-scoring Big East tilt just days after losing their best player, Collin Gillespie, for the season with an MCL tear. While Villanova still will claim the Big East regular season title, this loss hurts coach Jay Wright’s team in its NCAA Tournament seeding, as does the loss of Gillespie. Entering the day as a No. 3 seed, there’s a chance this group slips to a No. 4 seed.
Ohio State. The Buckeyes are reeling in the wrong direction this March, having lost four in a row following their loss to Illinois in a Big Ten showdown with two teams fighting for the final No. 1 seed. OSU hasn’t been shooting it well and that’s largely a reason for the skid. Usually a strong three-point shooting team, the Buckeyes were 9-for-29 vs. Illinois and 5-or-17 in the previous loss vs. Iowa.
Florida State. The Seminoles (15-5, 11-4 ACC) were on pace to win the ACC regular-season title outright but then lost to middling ACC team Notre Dame 83-73. Now Virginia has a shot at tying FSU. Coach Leonard Hamilton’s team started the day as a projected No. 3 seed in bracketology but now they likely will dip to a No. 4.
West Virginia. The Mountaineers lost to a depleted Oklahoma State team without its best player, so that’s not a good sign for coach Bob Huggins’ group. WVU couldn’t stay in front of the Cowboys’ Avery Anderson III (31 points) and while this is one of Huggins’ most gifted offensive teams, the defensive discipline is not as top-tier as it has been in the past in Morgantown.
Missouri. The Tigers (15-8, 8-8) were coming off a big win over Florida earlier this week bu couldn’t ride that momentum in an 86-80 loss to LSU. After a strong start to the season, coach Cuonzo Martin’s group has been relatively inconsistent by losing five of the last seven. That will likely show up on the seeding lines come Selection Sunday. Missouri is a projected No. 6 seed-going-on No. 7 seed based on a rough February and early March. Feels so long ago now that Mizzou was one of the top 16 teams in the NCAA’s top-four seeds reveal a month ago.
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson