The national outlook in February shapes up very differently than it was predicted in November.
In three months, several preseason Coaches Poll teams have faltered, with former No. 1 Michigan State nearly falling out of the top 25 this week and preseason No. 11 North Carolina all but out of the postseason picture.
Yet there are teams that have surprised. San Diego State, for instance, was an afterthought in November and now remains undefeated as a projected No. 1 seed in USA TODAY Sports’ latest bracketology.
Here’s a look at six teams that didn’t crack the preseason top 25, and are Final Four sleepers.
Dayton. The Flyers are 21-2 behind national player of the year front-runner Obi Toppin (19.6 ppg, 7.8 rpg), having won 12 in a row. They also have a dynamic guard in Jalen Crutcher (14.5 ppg, 5.2 apg) and nearly all five starters average double figures while ranking second nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency (per KenPom). Of Dayton’s two losses, Kansas (in overtime) and Colorado (a two-point decision) they looked like a team that can thrive in the second weekend of the NCAA tourney and still be playing in April. They’re currently a No. 2 seed on the projected bracket.
Florida State. The Seminoles (20-4) fell to Duke on the road Monday night but even in the loss showed how they’re a force to be taken seriously. Coach Leonard Hamilton has a balanced offensive roster led by the backcourt of Devin Vassell (13.4 ppg) and Trent Forrest (11.6 ppg). This is a team that beat Louisville on the road by 13 points, and currently holds a profile worthy of a No. 3 seed.
West Virginia. Coach Bob Huggins finds a way to make his “Press Virginia” teams suffocating on the defensive end, and it’s no different this season with the Mountaineers (18-5) ranking second nationally in defensive efficiency (per KenPom) and third in field goal percentage defense (allowing opponents just 37% shooting). Offensive outbursts can propel surprise March Madness runs, but smothering defenses tested in a dominant power conference like the Big 12 can mean second-weekend success in the Big Dance.
Penn State. The Nittany Lions (18-5) have emerged as a contender in a crowded, chaotic Big Ten. They’ve won six in a row, including road victories over Michigan and Michigan State. They’ve also beaten Iowa, Maryland, Ohio State, Syracuse, Georgetown and Yale for a highly impressive tourney résumé (top-20 NET, 11 Quadrant 1 and Quadrant 2 wins) worthy of a No. 5 seed. Lamar Stevens (17.6 ppg, 7.0 rpg) has breakout ability, (33 points in a Feb. 8 win over Minnesota).
Colorado. The Pac-12 was atrocious last year. It’s vastly improved this year and the Buffaloes (19-5) lead the league standings after being left out of the preseason top 25. A projected No. 6 seed, Colorado is a resilient squad which can be key for March success; the Buffs overcame a 16-point second half-deficit in a win over Stanford last weekend. Colorado won its first matchup against top contender Oregon in early January. A rematch on the road Thursday could be telling of this group’s outlook.
Butler. When Brad Stevens left the Bulldogs (18-6) in 2013 for the NBA, it seemed as though it was inevitable the program would dip. Then when Chris Holtmann left for Ohio State thee years ago, a similar forecast could have been expected. But LaVall Jordan had this team surging in the first two months with only a one-point loss to No. 1 Baylor on its profile before a mid-January losing streak. The Big East remains crowded, but the Bulldogs’ overall credentials have them well positioned at the No. 4 line. If they can rekindle their winning momentum, they’ll have an ideal bracket outlook and path to advance in NCAAs.
Houston. The Cougars (19-5) just obliterated Wichita State, a projected tournament team, on Sunday by 33 points and are leading the American Athletic Conference. Coach Kelvin Sampson has a roster with nearly all five starters averaging double-figure scoring. Guard Quentin Grimes (12.3 ppg) is a Kansas transfer who has found new life on a better suited team, and could be a March standout. One thing this team does well is controlling the glass, leading the nation in rebounding margin (10).
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.
NCAA seed projections are courtesy of USA TODAY Sports veteran bracketology Shelby Mast @BracketWAG.
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