The various mock brackets composed around the nation likely will change quite a bit in the next three weeks. But with Selection Sunday less than a month away now, the ebbs and flows of the 68-team NCAA tournament field are getting more interesting — and more real.
There will be arguments about who should get those four coveted No. 1 seeds, a contentious debate in a year in which no team has convincingly risen above the pack. There will be a scramble as other squads vie for better seeding and a more favorable path to advancement.
As intriguing as any competition will be that of the ever-fluctuating bubble, capable of sending hot teams on a wild run or abruptly ending a once promising season. As always, there are several surprises hovering firmly in that will-they, won’t-they territory. Four of those teams should be pretty familiar to Gophers fans.
Texas Tech (16-9, 6-7 Big 12): Don’t look now, but former Gophers coach Tubby Smith’s Red Raiders have lit the Big 12 on fire in the last week and a half. Texas Tech certainly has had its fair share of troubles — namely, dropping eight of 10 from Jan. 6 to Feb. 6. But since then, the Fighting Tubbies have launched as impressive a winning streak as there has been anywhere in the country, beating three consecutive ranked teams, including No. 3 Oklahoma on Wednesday. ESPN.com has the Red Raiders as one of its last four in, and opportunities to improve their résumé remain. Texas Tech still faces No. 2 Kansas and No. 10 West Virginia on the road. Seize one of those and at two of the remaining three and they will be dancing.
Wisconsin (16-10, 8-5 Big Ten): When Bo Ryan abruptly retired in December, placing the Badgers in the hands of longtime assistant Greg Gard, Wisconsin looked doomed. But wonder of all wonders, the Badgers, who haven’t missed the tournament since 1998, appear to be back. The renaissance of Ryan’s legendary swing offense assisted in a seven-game winning streak before Thursday’s loss at Michigan State, with victories at Maryland and against Indiana and the Spartans at home. CBSSports.com and ESPN.com differ about just how safe Wisconsin is, but the Badgers probably will hang on the right side of the bubble if they can win three of their next five games.
Michigan (19-8, 9-5 Big Ten): After a .500 season in which the Wolverines were marred by injuries, this season was supposed to be better. But bad luck has struck again — star guard Caris LeVert has sat out 11 of the past 12 games because of a mysterious lower leg injury, and Spike Albrecht had to end his career due to hip trouble — and Michigan can’t get over the hump. The Wolverines have lost four of six games vs. ranked opponents in that span and are clinging to a spot in the First Four. Luckily, the remaining schedule holds games against Wisconsin, Maryland, Iowa and Northwestern. Win three of those four and they are probably in.
Clemson (16-10, 9-5 ACC): Remember on Nov. 30 when the Gophers topped the Tigers 89-83 at Williams Arena? The Gophers have only two victories since, while Clemson has reeled off 12, including a five-game streak in January that included beating Louisville, Duke and Miami. Suddenly, a team that was totally off the radar in November and picked to finish 11th or lower in the ACC in most preseason predictions is on the verge of its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011 — but there is work to be done. CBS left the Tigers out of its most recent bracket while ESPN has them dangling in the “first four out” category. A home date with No. 7 Virginia on March 1 will be very important, and Clemson might have to take care of business elsewhere to feel comfortable.
WEEKEND GAME TO WATCH
No. 3 Oklahoma at No. 10 West Virginia, 3 p.m. Saturday (ESPN)
What’s going on with the Sooners? Well, they are finally starting to look human, shooting under 32 percent from three-point range in each of their three losses over the past four games. Meanwhile, West Virginia is hiccupping too, and beat up heading into this matchup with Daxter Miles Jr. missing the Mountaineers’ loss at Texas on Tuesday due to a strained hamstring, and Jaysean Paige leaving that game because of a sprained ankle. The momentum would be big for both teams.
NUMBERS TO KNOW
4 No. 1 and 2 seeds in CBSSports.com’s projected bracket that lost Wednesday and Thursday (Oklahoma, North Carolina, Iowa and Maryland).
7 Big Ten teams projected to make the tournament, according to both CBSSports.com and ESPN.com.
Moments after the Gophers overpowered No. 6 Maryland to break a 14-game skid, Joey King went on camera and conducted his postgame interview with tears streaming down his face as he thanked fans for coming out night after night to watch a team that had been 0-13 in Big Ten play and spoke of his awe in the underclassmen’s ability to keep fighting. The Gophers likely will go through more struggles before this season is over, and we’ll all discuss where they fell short. But one thing the game itself needs more of is the raw emotion we saw from King. That pure, uncut pride and passion is the best of what we all love about sports, after all.
BIG TEN POWER POLL
Michigan State (22-5, 9-5 Big Ten): The Spartans are certainly the conference’s steadiest team at the moment, winning six of their past seven games.
Wisconsin (16-10, 8-5): The Badgers might be teetering on the NCAA tournament bubble, but they look like one of the best teams in the conference right now.
Indiana (21-6, 11-3): The Hoosiers aren’t exactly the beacon of consistency, yet they are sitting at the top of the league standings.
Purdue (21-6, 9-5): A.J. Hammons has finished with double-doubles, including 18 points or more, in three of the Boilermakers’ past five games.
Iowa (20-6, 11-3): In the past three games — two losses and a poor performance vs. the Gophers — Jarrod Uthoff and Peter Jok have combined to score a whopping 58.7 percent of Iowa’s points.
Maryland (22-5, 10-4): According to analyst Ken Pomeroy’s website, Thursday’s loss to the Gophers was statistically the worst the Terrapins have suffered since … well, since Kenpom.com started tracking these things in 2002.
Ohio State (19-8, 9-5): When the talent on the Buckeyes roster finally comes together, it could be scary.
Michigan (19-8, 9-5): Caris LeVert was back — for a single game. Now he’s out again, and the Wolverines are still short on answers.
Penn State (13-13, 4-9): It’s been a good two weeks in State College, with the Nittany Lions downing two of the league’s leaders in Indiana and Iowa at home.
Nebraska (14-13, 6-8): Without Shavon Shields in the lineup, the Huskers haven’t made it to the 65-point threshold.
Northwestern (17-10, 5-9): The Wildcats are 5-1 against the conference’s bottom half and 0-8 against the top half.
Illinois (12-14, 4-9): Things just keep getting uglier in Champaign, where injured forward Leron Black was arrested for pulling a knife on a bouncer at a nightclub.
Gophers (7-19, 1-13): The Gophers shook off the winless shackles in style, besting a top-10 team at Williams Arena for the first court-rushing of the Richard Pitino era.
Rutgers (6-20, 0-13): The Scarlet Knights are left alone in the basement leading up to Tuesday’s matchup at Minnesota.