It’s no big secret that college basketball is largely dominated by the East Coast and the Upper Midwest. Villanova, North Carolina, Duke, Michigan State, Kansas, and Kentucky have pretty much undeniably been the top programs of the decade, and in some cases of all of college basketball history.
And with the slight exception of Kansas, they all fall into these regions – as to occasional powers like Michigan, Indiana, Virginia, Georgetown, Syracuse, and others. It’s simply how the sport seems to be arranged, just as football is strongest in the limited regions of the Deep South and Midwest.
For much of the 2018-19 season, it has looked as if this power balance will remain intact and ultimately produce a national champion from the East Coast or Upper Midwest. However, some cracks are starting to emerge.
Tennessee (we’ll count them as an eastern team), which held the number one ranking in basketball for several weeks, has struggled recently, losing to Kentucky and LSU, and very nearly Ole Miss. This has prompted Volunteers outlets to speculate as to what’s going on with the team, when in reality things might be pretty simple: Tennessee had played an incredibly weak schedule en route to the number one ranking, and the season has caught up to them.
Duke has long been considered the best team in the 2018-19 field, but the recent injury to Zion Williamson has everyone from media members to bookmaking sites wondering if they’re still a safe bet to win the NCAA title. Williamson will evidently be back soon, but the Blue Devils have slipped without him and it can be hard for a team to get over this kind of interruption and incorporate even a great player back into the lineup with similar success.
North Carolina, Kentucky, and Michigan State have all come on very strong of late – North Carolina with a winning streak including a victory at Duke (albeit with Williamson out), Kentucky with the aforementioned victory over Tennessee, and Michigan State with a win over its rival Michigan on the road.
These, however, have not been considered dominant teams, which is to say if they’re the ones that are hot coming into March, the power conferences of the East and Midwest aren’t necessarily putting their typical strength forward. They’re good teams, but not great ones.
All in all this speaks to a lot of vulnerability, and opens the door for a potential rare run from a more western team come March Madness. And there are a few teams to keep your eye on.
Gonzaga – The Zags have arguably their best team yet under Mark Few, and have had a remarkable season despite some injury trouble. They beat Duke very early on in Maui, though they did lose games to both Tennessee and North Carolina not too long after. Still, a typically weak conference slate has allowed Gonzaga to run the table and look like an absolutely elite squad while doing it. They’ll be in line for a likely 1-seed and a nice path to the Final Four, and are undoubtedly the favorite from the West.
Nevada – The Wolf Pack have had a little bit of an odd season. Hyped as a sort of unorthodox contender and potential top-five team heading into the season, they sort of became an afterthought for no apparent reason. But it might be time to pay attention to Nevada again. The team is now 26-2, head coach Eric Musselman is in the running for national coach of the year, and this looks like a team that could do damage in March. Depending on seeding, it may just take one strong upset of one of the aforementioned struggling powerhouses to give the Wolf Pack a path to the Final Four.
Texas Tech – Calling teams from Texas “western” is a stretch, but the West has to take what it can get in college basketball, and the Lone Star State isn’t typically included in the region that produces more traditional contenders anyway. At any rate, Texas Tech is a formidable team thoroughly capable of a Final Four run. The Red Raiders have the best defense in the country and a bona fide NBA lottery prospect in Jarrett Culver.
Houston – The same caveats about Texas apply here, but beware of Houston. This is a team that seems destined to be overlooked in March, to everyone else’s peril. A 3-seed in Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket projection at ESPN, Houston is 27-1 with a balanced team, numerous talented guards, and one of the best defenses you’ll see. They haven’t played great competition, but they know how to win, which counts for a lot come tournament time.
Now, the safe bet is still that one of the traditional powers mentioned above pulls it together and cuts down the nets. We also didn’t mention Virginia, which may be the best and most well-rounded team in the country, but has lost twice to Duke, raising questions about its viability against the best of the best. Still, there are better chances for some of these less traditional contenders than it looked like a month or so ago.
As always, it’s going to be a very interesting tournament season.
This article was written for News4usonline by Alex Bell