It happens every March.
There is always an NCAA tournament team who is glaringly more dangerous than its middling seeding suggests.
In the past, it has been a freshman-heavy Kentucky team that took a few months to jell. Or an Oregon team that stumbled early but surged into March. Or tournament-proven and criminally underseeded Wichita State and Loyola Chicago teams.
The purpose of this now-annual column is to identify those opponents that NCAA men's tournament teams should want to avoid at all costs. Last year, we successfully identified Arkansas and Michigan before the bracket came out. Of course, we also swung and missed on Iowa, Loyola Chicago and South Dakota State.
This year’s list includes four teams with little in common besides the potential to induce groans from the opponents who have to face them. Let’s start with a projected No. 6 seed who went 15-3 in a power conference.
Only a year ago, Buzz Williams was distraught after Texas A&M was a surprising exclusion from the NCAA tournament. Reading from a prepared statement after the Aggies’ first-round NIT win, Williams described the selection process as “flawed” and “broken” and accused the selection committee of allowing “personal bias” to affect its decisions.
There won’t be a need for another March soliloquy this year. Texas A&M is tourney-bound, and the surging Aggies are going to be a team nobody wants to face.
Since staggering through a non-league schedule in which it lost to any team with a pulse and to two teams without one, Texas A&M has been a juggernaut. The Aggies stormed to a 15-3 SEC record, one game behind first-place Alabama. They’ve beaten Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas at home. They’ve won at Auburn and Missouri. They’ve performed like a top-five team in the nation since Jan. 1, according to Bart Torvik’s T-Rankings.
Texas A&M projects as a No. 6 seed because of its dreadful non-league strength of schedule and its losses to Wofford and Murray State, but both those losses were before Christmas. Heck, one was before Thanksgiving. They don’t have much to do with the Aggies of today, a team with an elite point guard, a proven coach and a formidable defense. That’s a team that can get to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, if not further.
Jon Scheyer’s debut season at Duke has been bumpy at times, but give him credit for getting the Blue Devils to peak at the right time. They enter Saturday night's ACC title game having won eight straight and 11 of 13 — and one of those two losses was the Virginia game in which Kyle Filipowski was robbed of the chance to win the game at the free-throw line.
If Duke is going to make a deep NCAA tournament run, its defense will be the catalyst. The Blue Devils have boasted a top-20 defense nationally over the past month-plus. The emergence of freshman Dereck Lively as an elite rim protector has made it difficult for opponents to generate clean looks in the paint.
Offense remains a work in progress for Duke, but the development of other freshmen besides Filipowski has helped. Tyrese Proctor has emerged as another capable ball-handler and shot creator in support of Jeremy Roach, while Dariq Whitehead has provided badly needed outside shooting and scoring punch since his return from injury.
Is this a national title-caliber Duke team? Probably not. Almost everything would have to break right for the Blue Devils to even return to the Final Four. But this is a team that is vastly more talented than other projected No. 6 or 7 seeds and is showing signs of clicking at the right time.
Arkansas has dropped four of five entering the NCAA tournament. The Razorbacks finished below Vanderbilt and Florida in the SEC standings. So what are they doing on this list? It’s because they’re so much more talented and so much more dangerous than other teams projected to be seeded in the 8-9 range.
Anthony Black is a projected 2023 NBA lottery pick because of his playmaking off the dribble and his ability to defend multiple positions. So is Nick Smith Jr. because of his prowess as scorer and tough-shot maker. And neither is Arkansas’ leading scorer or freakiest athlete this year. That’s this guy.
— FOX College Hoops (@CBBonFOX) March 4, 2023
So why did Arkansas lose more SEC games than it won this season? One factor was an unbalanced SEC schedule that included a total of nine games against the league’s five top teams. Another was the lingering knee injury that sidelined Smith until mid-February.
Maybe the Razorbacks’ biggest issue is their complete lack of outside shooting. It isn’t even just that they can’t shoot 3s. They don’t shoot them. Only 20.7% of their points come via 3-pointers, per KenPom, which is 357th nationally.
Still, for any team that doesn’t have a long, athletic frontline to protect the rim, Arkansas is going to be a handful. Ask yourself who you’d rather face in the round of 32 if you’re a No. 1 seed: A top-20 KenPom team with two lottery picks in its starting five, or someone like Northwestern, Providence, Missouri or Maryland?
There’s one potential NCAA tournament opponent that should strike fear into a wobbly No. 2 or 3 seed. That’s Colgate, who possesses a few characteristics that make it a scarier draw for an elite team than the average No. 14 or 15 seed.
One of those is NCAA tournament experience. The core of this year’s Colgate team was part of last year’s group that led Johnny Davis’ Wisconsin deep into the second half in the round of 64. The Red Raiders aren’t just going to be happy to be there if they get back, nor will they be intimidated by whoever they draw.
Another factor is style of play. While Colgate scores in a greater variety of ways than it did last season, the Red Raiders are still one of college basketball’s elite outside-shooting teams. They hit a national-best 41.1 percent of their 3s as a team, a formula that gives them a chance as an underdog if they can get hot at the right time.
Colgate was up and down during non-league play while adjusting to the absence of last year’s leading scorer Nelly Cummings, who transferred to Pittsburgh. The Red Raiders won at Syracuse by double figures … but also lost to the likes of Delaware, Buffalo and Cornell.
Since getting into the Patriot League, Colgate has been utterly dominant. The Red Raiders won the league by six games and they coasted by Lafayette in Wednesday’s Patriot League title game. They could make life difficult for someone next week.