March Madness 2014: Ranking the Hottest Teams
Going into the NCAA tournament, the most important accessory any team can have is confidence.
Predictably, nothing breeds confidence quite like winning. The college basketball season has many ups and downs, but it's crucial for the best teams to find their form in February and March so they can peak at the right time.
The following teams should all be feared headed into the Big Dance. They're ranked based on a combination of the length of their winning streaks and their ability to win big games and potentially go deep in the tournament.
After an up-and-down season, the UCLA Bruins are storming into the NCAA tournament on a roll as the Pac-12 tournament champions.
The Bruins have won five of their last six games, and their upset win over No. 4 Arizona in the Pac-12 championship game on Saturday serves notice that they are a threat to every team.
As reported by CBSSports.com, coach Steve Alford told the press after their Pac-12 title that he knows that the job is far from done: "This gives us the confidence that we not only play with anybody, but beat anybody," Alford said. "But you've got to get hot and stay hot."
Watch out for VCU. The Rams have had a wonderful run the past few weeks, winning six games in a row before falling in the final of the Atlantic 10 title game to St. Joseph's.
VCU certainly knows how to play during this month. This is its fourth conference title game in the last five years, and the Rams made it to the Final Four as the No. 11 seed back in 2011. They'll be seeded higher than that this year and could make a big impact on brackets everywhere with their high-scoring offense and aggressive defense.
The feisty Rams lead the nation in steals and just might steal a few upsets along the way in the NCAA tournament. Head coach Shaka Smart, 36, has already proven himself to be one of the best coaches in the country.
On Feb. 8 after a 16-point loss to Oklahoma, Baylor was 14-9 on the season and only 2-8 in the conference. The Bears were staring down the barrel of an NIT berth.
However, a run of 10 wins in their last 12 games, including four victories over ranked opponents, has made Baylor a team to watch this month. The Bears lost in the Big 12 final to Iowa State on Saturday but will still be full of confidence heading into the field of 68.
As ESPN.com's Myron Medcalf reported, Baylor's turnaround has been all about defense, focus and confidence—the close games the Bears lost earlier in the season have turned into emphatic wins.
Per Medcalf, senior forward Cory Jefferson had this to say after his team's win over Texas in the semifinal:
Basically, we've just tightened up on our defense and working on closing out the game.
Most of the games we have lost, when we went through the early part of the conference play, they were within, like, one to two possessions. So we were there throughout the whole game for the most part, but we just [weren't] finishing out the game, and that's basically what we've been working on.
The Tulsa Golden Hurricane haven't lost a basketball game since Feb. 6, a streak of 11 straight victories.
Now, after beating Louisiana Tech to win the Conference USA title on Saturday, the Golden Hurricanes are headed back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003.
Tulsa began the season with a 1-6 record, but since then everything has clicked. In just his second year at the helm, Danny Manning—a former Kansas basketball player—led the Golden Hurricanes to a 21-12 record, 13-3 in conference play.
As reported by The Telegraph (via The Sports Network), Coach Manning says that it's all about the defense: "The last 11 games, we have been playing at a pretty good clip defensively. We hang our hat on the defensive side of the ball. I'm very happy for all of these guys and I'm looking forward to our season continuing."
8. Iowa State
Iowa State is certainly finding its game at the right time. The Cyclones have won four in a row and eight of their last 10 games, and on Saturday they captured the Big 12 championship with a win over Baylor.
Their late-season surge has removed the stink of a three-game losing streak in January, and the fact that they beat both Kansas and Baylor in the last couple of days sends a message.
Eric Prisbell of USA Today captures exactly why Iowa State will be so feared this month:
Iowa State is on the short list of teams that opponents do not want to play in the NCAA tournament. The Cyclones are a tough, disciplined and veteran team. Coach Fred Hoiberg creates and exploits mismatches as well as any coach in the nation. When Iowa State shoots well from three-point range, it can beat any team in the nation.
The Michigan Wolverines fell to Michigan State in the final of the Big Ten tournament on Sunday, but they still carry a lot of momentum into the NCAA tournament. Prior to that loss, the Wolverines had won seven games in a row.
It doesn't matter that many of their wins, including their defeats of Illinois and Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament, have been nail-biters. Michigan knows how to win, and it showed that last year by getting all the way to the national championship.
As reported by CBSSports.com, Michigan coach John Beilein thinks there's a reason for his team's good fortune:
I feel so fortunate right now. You look at so many of our games down the stretch here, they've ended just like this and the ball keeps bouncing our way. You only can have that type of luck if you have guys like these guys sitting next to me. They make enough smart plays to keep you in the game, and some games the ball will just bounce your way.
6. New Mexico
New Mexico has won nine of its last 10 games, and with an upset over San Diego State in the final of the Mountain West Conference championship on Saturday, it is officially ready for the NCAA tournament.
The Lobos are ranked No. 20 in the nation and amassed a 27-6 record with outstanding rebounding (they rank eighth) and selfless play.
This was their third straight conference title, and the way they were able to grit out the win over their higher-ranked opponent bodes well for the Lobos' chances against anyone.
Virginia has surprised everyone this year by winning 16 of its last 17 games and capturing both the regular-season ACC title and the ACC tournament title.
On Sunday they made a big statement by taking out Duke in the ACC title game to win their first ACC tournament championship since 1976.
Despite their successes this season—Virginia had won 13 in a row before dropping the regular-season finale to Maryland—the Cavaliers still don't feel like they get the respect they deserve.
Luckily, as C.L. Brown of ESPN.com reports, they like it that way:
Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon added it didn’t matter how much they’ve won, they play better when they find an angle.
"I think so, that’s what we pride ourselves on and that’s how we try to play every game regardless of how far we go in whatever tournament or in the ACC," Brogdon said. "We try to pride ourselves in having a chip and being hungry every game."
The defending national champion Louisville Cardinals are clicking when it counts. They have won five games in a row and 12 of their last 13 to become one of the most feared teams headed into the NCAA tournament.
This dominating stretch at the end of the season has captured Louisville the regular-season and tournament titles in the American Athletic Conference.
The Cardinals are ranked No. 5 in the country, and five of their last eight wins have come over ranked opponents. With momentum on their side, they have a great shot at playing throughout the month of March.
Rick Pitino knows how to get his team to play the best when it matters most.
3. Stephen F. Austin
You might not have heard of them, but Stephen F. Austin has the second-longest winning streak in college basketball right now; the small school from Texas has won 28 straight games. To put that in perspective, the last time they lost was the Saturday before Thanksgiving.
Still, because they play in the Southland Conference, the Lumberjacks weren't guaranteed a spot in the NCAA tournament until they won their conference tournament on Saturday.
John Walters of Newsweek reports that Stephen F. Austin feels the lack of national attention it has received is disrespectful. Per Walters, Brad Underwood, the first-year head coach at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas, said:
To go 18–0 in conference, I really haven’t fully grasped that yet. We’ve done it along with two other teams. Florida went 18–0, and they’re ranked number one. Wichita State went 18–0, and they’re ranked number two. We did it, and we’re [unranked].
Even though the press isn't paying attention, their opponents should.
The Florida Gators are the No. 1 team in the country for a reason; they have won 26 games in a row and became the first team to ever go 18-0 in the SEC in the regular season.
On Sunday they captured the SEC title in a tight game over Kentucky to make them 21-0 against conference opponents this year.
As Edward Aschoff of ESPN.com noted after the Gators routed Missouri, it hasn't always been easy, but Florida's greatest strength is its ability to adapt:
When a team outscores an opponent 43-20 in the second half, it has made a pretty strong statement about making a second-half adjustment.
The Gators have done that all season. It’s why they’re the No. 1 team in the country and will likely leave Atlanta with the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. This team has had ugly first halves before but has the maturity to forgive and forget.
1. Wichita State
It doesn't get much hotter than undefeated.
Wichita State did what few thought it could by going 34-0 to complete a perfect regular season. The Missouri Valley Conference champions have forced the nation to pay attention to them this year, but many still dismiss their feat due to the quality of their opponents.
Eric Prisbell of USA Today reports the 2013 bracket-busters—the Shockers made the Final Four—are working hard to keep that chip on their shoulder:
By remaining undefeated, the Shockers remain polarizing, attracting criticism because of a conference schedule perceived by some as soft. And they use that criticism to remain edgy and angry rather than tight. They're trying to remain the hunters, rather than the hunted, despite likely earning a No. 1 seed this Sunday.
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