March is upon us: Here's what you need to know ahead of the NCAA men's tournament
Brandon Miller saga casts dark cloud over college basketball with March Madness around the corner.
Even with Victor Wembanyama, Scoot Henderson and the Thompson twins taking other routes to the NBA, college basketball’s biggest talking point entering March isn’t the projected top-five picks who won’t be playing in this year’s NCAA men’s tournament.
It’s which one apparently will be.
Alabama continues to insist on allowing Brandon Miller to play despite his alleged involvement in the Jan. 15 shooting death of a woman in the student bar district of Tuscaloosa. Miller drove to the scene with a gun belonging to Alabama teammate Darius Miles in the backseat of his car, a Tuscaloosa detective’s pretrial testimony revealed last week.
Miller arrived soon after receiving text messages from Miles stating that he needed his gun and that some sort of dispute was underway. Miles allegedly retrieved his gun from Miller’s car and gave it to longtime friend Michael Davis. Minutes later, Davis allegedly began shooting into a Jeep containing Jamea Jonae Harris, striking and killing the 23-year-old mother.
A Tuscaloosa district attorney has said Miller won’t be charged with a crime and police have treated him as a witness, not a suspect. Even so, Alabama’s apparent unwillingness to discipline Miller or hold him accountable for his recklessness has drawn public outcry, media backlash and scathing criticism from Harris’ stepfather.
The Miller controversy is unlikely to blow over anytime soon with Alabama entering the first Saturday in March with a 26-4 record and a No. 2 national ranking. This scandal will hang over the Crimson Tide like a storm cloud for as long as they keep playing and will sully whatever they accomplish in the NCAA tournament.
Whether the scrutiny will galvanize or break Alabama remains to be seen but, if anything, Miller has only raised his level of play so far. Amid chants of “lock him up,” the heralded freshman erupted for a career-high 41 points in an overtime victory at South Carolina on Feb. 22. He then followed that up with 24 against Arkansas and 17 against Auburn in a pair of come-from-behind wins.
The plight of college basketball’s best NBA prospect isn’t the sport’s only storyline worth paying attention to entering March. Here’s everything non-Brandon Miller related you need to know with Selection Sunday just over a week away.
Who will join Alabama as No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament?
It’s a near certainty that Houston (28-2) and Kansas (25-5) will stand alongside Alabama on the top seed line. Houston has ripped through its league schedule with just a single loss after notching non-league wins against Virginia, Saint Mary’s and Oregon. Kansas has a national-best 15 Quadrant 1 wins, four more than any other team in college basketball.
The more intriguing question is who the final No. 1 seed will be. That spot likely still belongs to Purdue, but the Boilermakers (25-5) no longer have such a tight grip on it after dropping four of their past seven games and narrowly surviving Wisconsin's upset bid on Thursday night.
If Purdue continues to falter, UCLA is best positioned to take advantage. The outright Pac-12 champion Bruins (26-4) close the regular season on Saturday with a showdown against Arizona at Pauley Pavilion, where they’re unbeaten this year.
Besides the No. 1 seed contenders, who else can win it all?
Maybe the better question is who can’t win it all? In a dizzying, upset-riddled season with lots of good teams but no great ones, there might be 20 teams with realistic hopes of making the Final Four and at least half that many with legitimate national title aspirations.
Watch out for surging Indiana, which has a future NBA guard in freshman Jalen Hood-Schifino, an All-American in its frontcourt in Trayce Jackson-Davis and a wealth of experience in its supporting cast. A healthy TCU is better than its seeding and will be a tough out. Same with freshman-laden Duke, which is a much more dangerous team now than it was a month ago.
And then there’s Sister Jean’s surprise national title pick. Kentucky, a reeling bubble team not that long ago, had been playing like a team nobody wanted to draw before an injury to prized freshman Cason Wallace and a surprising home loss to Vanderbilt earlier this week.
How rare would a Kansas repeat be?
Since the demise of John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty, only two men’s college basketball programs have gone back-to-back. Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer did it at Florida in 2006 and 2007 and Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill did it at Duke in 1991 and 1992.
What would make Kansas’ feat even more impressive and unprecedented is that the Jayhawks lost most of last year’s national title team. Six of Kansas’ top eight scorers from last season are gone. Only forward Jalen Wilson and point guard Dajuan Harris Jr. logged more than 9.3 minutes per game a year ago.
So how is Kansas leading college basketball’s strongest conference and on track for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament? The answer is a mix of player development and adding talent via the high school ranks and the transfer portal. Wilson has blossomed from a role player to an All-American candidate. Heralded freshman Gradey Dick is an elite shooter and a better all-around player than many realize. Texas Tech transfer Kevin McCullar is a do-it-all glue guy. And the supporting cast has gotten better as the season has gone alone.
Can North Carolina avoid a flameout of historic proportions?
With all but one starter returning from a team that reached the national title game last spring, North Carolina entered the season as AP voters’ runaway pick as national title favorite. Only four months later, the preseason No. 1 Tar Heels have long since plummeted out of the top 25 and need a strong finish just to make the NCAA tournament.
Entering Saturday’s regular-season finale against Duke, North Carolina is 19-11 overall and 11-8 in an unusually weak ACC. The Tar Heels didn’t have a single Quadrant 1 victory all year until taking down fading Virginia on Saturday in Chapel Hill. Even then, a split with NC State doubles as their only other victory over a surefire NCAA tournament team.
While ballyhooed college basketball teams underachieve every season, the AP’s preseason No. 1 has made the NCAA tournament every year since the field expanded to 64 in 1985. To avoid making the worst kind of history, North Carolina probably needs to either close out the regular season by defeating Duke or make a deep ACC tournament run.
Who could be this year’s Saint Peter’s?
Let’s be clear on this: There won’t be another Saint Peter’s. It might be years before another team seeded No. 15 or worse reaches the Elite Eight. Still, there are some small-conference minnows with the potential to pull an upset or two this March.
Florida Atlantic (27-3, 17-2): An FAU program with one conference title and one NCAA tournament appearance in its woeful history is enjoying its finest season. Not only did the Owls win at Florida in November, they’re also alone in first place in a strong Conference USA and top 20 in the NCAA’s NET rankings.
Oral Roberts (27-4, 18-0): Only two years after Oral Roberts upset Ohio State and Florida en route to the Sweet 16, the Max Abmas-led Golden Eagles have a chance to become a March darling once again. They’re the only team in college basketball to go undefeated in their league this season.
Kent State (24-6, 14-3): Whichever of the MAC’s top three teams claim the league’s auto bid will be a tough NCAA tournament draw. The most dangerous might be Kent State, which led both Gonzaga and Houston deep into the second half on the road earlier this season and is one of only two MAC teams to beat Toledo.
How many Big 12 teams make the field?
It seems the NCAA tournament selection committee buys the notion that the Big 12 is college basketball’s strongest league this season. Kansas, Baylor, Texas, Kansas State and Iowa State each cracked the top 12 in last month’s early bracket reveal. TCU is a lock to secure a sixth NCAA bid for the league.
The question is how many other Big 12 teams will land on the right side of the bubble on Selection Sunday. West Virginia (17-13, 6-11) and fading Oklahoma State (16-14, 7-10) both have realistic hope despite sub-.500 league records. Only Texas Tech and Oklahoma are almost certainly auto bid or bust.
Eight NCAA bids from the Big 12 would be a record not in number but in percentage. No league has ever sent 80 percent of its teams to the NCAA tournament before.
Will UCLA or Arizona secure the inside track to Las Vegas?
When the selection committee slotted UCLA behind Arizona on the No. 2 seed line in its early bracket reveal on Feb. 18, Bruins head coach Mick Cronin responded with disdain. Calling his team’s ranking “comical,” Cronin launched into a conspiracy theory insisting that the slight stemmed from more than just the Bruins’ loss to Arizona in Tucson and scarcity of marquee wins.
Cronin argued that UCLA’s placement in the bracket was “a direct result of” hurt feelings over the Bruins’ upcoming move to the Big Ten. He seemed to hint that the presence of Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke on the selection committee may have been a factor.
“When we left the Pac-12, it cost a lot of people millions of dollars,” Cronin said. “There was going to be a fallout.”
Those comments provide a compelling backdrop for UCLA’s upcoming matchup with Arizona on Saturday night in Westwood and potentially a week later in the Pac-12 championship game. The outcome of those game(s) could determine which team gets to stay in the travel-friendly West Region and potentially play its regional games in Las Vegas, where either fan base would likely overrun T-Mobile Arena.
Since the Feb. 18 bracket reveal, UCLA has improved its position. The Bruins claimed the outright Pac-12 title this past weekend when they completed a sweep of Utah and Colorado and Arizona dropped a home game at the buzzer to rival Arizona State.
Can anyone catch Purdue’s Zach Edey for National Player of the Year?
One-word answer: No.
In what was billed as college basketball’s year of the big man entering the season, Edey has flourished as many others have plateaued or faltered. The 7-foot-4 junior has been the catalyst for Purdue’s ascent to the top of the Big Ten, showcasing soft hands and good touch at the rim at one end while altering shots and inhaling defensive rebounds at the other. Edey is among the nation’s top five scorers and rebounders and is just outside the top 10 in blocks.
The closest challenger to Edey? For awhile it might have been Kansas’ Jalen Wilson. More recently, Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis has emerged. Those two may join Edey as first-team All-Americans, but they’re unlikely to overtake him in the Naismith Award pecking order.