The recent bitter cold makes it a bit difficult to believe, but we are not all that far away from the craziest time of the sporting year—March Madness. In just a few short weeks the conference tournaments will conclude, the selection committee will make their decisions, the bracket will be set, and we’ll be ready to tip off an undoubtedly exciting three-week road to the most wide-open national championship in all of Division I athletics. With the excitement mounting and the “bracketologists” beginning to refine their picks, we might as well start looking at some early dark-horse teams. Of course, matchups will be key when we get to March, and it is quite possible that these teams can suffer a poor draw and early exit. But, with a few lucky bounces, you could be watching these unranked underdogs dance their way into the Sweet 16.
Texas is currently 17-8 with a 6-6 record in a tough Big 12 conference. They’ve haven’t backed down from their difficult schedule, and though they have eight losses, seven of them came from teams which are ranked in the nation’s top 25 (the lone exception being an overtime loss to Stanford). The biggest knock against Texas is that they have lacked a defining win up to this point. The closest we have seen have been a 55-54 road win at #24 UConn early in the season, and a commanding 77-50 win over #16 West Virginia about a month ago. With that being said, you can bet that they still have February 28th circled on their calendars when they head to face a top-ten Kansas Jayhawks team in hopes of avenging a 13-point loss last month. If they are going to be able to get that big win against Kansas, or against any other top-tier team, the key for the Longhorns will be controlling the paint. They are first in the country in blocks per game, third in defensive rebounding, and fifth in offensive rebounding. If they can dominate the inside like they are capable of, opposing teams are statistically destined to go cold shooting from the floor eventually. That is when Texas will have a chance to make their move.
Michigan State Spartans
Lackluster is perhaps the single best adjective to describe the performance of the Spartans so far this season. They are 17-8 overall with an 8-4 record in the Big Ten. They have not played poorly, but they are also clearly not on the level that the Michigan State faithful has grown accustomed to seeing of their boys in green. They have dropped a few games that they were undoubtedly good enough to win against teams like Nebraska, Illinois, and most alarmingly, Texas Southern. However, Saturday’s big win over the Ohio State Buckeyes could give this team just the spark they need to get back to the level of play they are capable of achieving. It would be hard to believe that a coach as good as Tom Izzo won’t be able to squeeze a little more success out of this squad, especially with kids like Branden Dawson and Travis Trice who have had the privilege of spending four years playing at MSU. Mix them in with talent from Denzel Valentine (who appropriately had a big night on that Valentine’s Day win over the Buckeyes), and they are dangerous. If the Spartans are able to dial up the same level of play that they brought to the court against Ohio State, the remainder of their Big Ten opponents could be at the beginning of a long list of teams with the unfortunate task of playing Michigan State.
San Diego State Aztecs
The Aztecs are the epitome of a mixed bag. Watching them play, it is undeniable that their defense, on any given night, can go up against anybody. At an average of 53 points allowed per contest, San Diego State is 3rd in the nation in this category. The have dominated mediocre teams like CSB, who they held to 27 points, and UCRV, who they held to 33 points. Even ranked opponents like Utah and Wyoming only managed to put up measly sums of 49 and 52 points respectively. Of course, the fact that this team remains unranked should immediately lend itself to the fact that even though their defense is stellar, their offense could limit them. They are in the basement of most offensive statistical categories, but it should at least be noted that their half-court tempo is at least partially responsible for deflating some of their numbers. They don’t have a dominant true scorer on their roster, but with that being said, great defense beats great offense every time over the course of a tournament. Everybody will go on hot streaks shooting the ball; some will more than others, but everybody will eventually. It’s much more difficult to just fall into a defensive cadence and get stops when it matters. The Aztecs can get stops. If they can get a little luck, they may punch a ticket for an extra plane ride.
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