Welcome to March! Six strange NCAA Tournament résumés, best turnaround stories of 2023 as the madness awaits

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Did you wake up with a little buzz in your stomach today? That’s normal. 

March is here. 

Our month of magic, madness, mania and ever-changing unchecked chaos has returned. We’ve got 11 days until we find out who’s in the bracket. Eleven days until the best tournament in sports is assembled and finalized. There will be somewhere in the neighborhood of 550 games played over the next 11 days, results that wrinkle, tear, twist and redesign the route to 2023’s field of 68. 

This day, March 1, feels so joyful each year, and the best part is: We have almost five more weeks of college basketball ahead of us. What surprises and epic moments await? Within this seasonal universe of the unknown, there are a few teams that remain enigmatic. The NET and quadrant system have a way of spitting out a few résumés each year that can be contradictory, confounding or downright misleading. I’m not just talking bubble teams; there are a good number of squads this season whose predictive metrics don’t run in step with what their overall record suggests. 

Let’s flip through a few files, shall we?

I could have doled out a dozen of my favorite strange dossiers, but I kept to half that. Here are six of the most intriguing NCAA Tournament résumés as we open the curtains on the best month of the year.

Saint Mary’s (24-6, NET: 7)

Best Ws: vs. Gonzaga, vs. San Diego State
Worst Ls: vs. Washington, vs. Colorado State
Something to frequently remind yourself in the next 11 days: NET ranking is NOT the be-all and end-all. Saint Mary’s is a classic example. No one thinks the Gaels, good as they’ve been, are one of the seven best teams in the country. But some predictive metrics, NET included, have Randy Bennett’s team as top-10 good. Being ranked seventh equates to a No. 2 seed, when in reality the committee is going to do that. Where does this team end up? (A high-major parallel: Tennessee.) How the committee winds up handling SMC (depending on if it wins or loses a potential rubber match with Gonzaga in the WCC final) will be fascinating.

West Virginia (17-13, NET: 23)

Best Ws: @ Pitt, @ Iowa State
Worst Ls: @ Oklahoma, vs. Texas Tech
The most losses of anyone projected in the field, but that’s the best and worst of being in the Big 12. The Mountaineers don’t have a win over the top four teams in the Big 12 (Kansas, Texas, Baylor, Kansas State) and carry an awkward 5-12 Q1 record and 10-13 mark vs. the top two quadrants. There are no bad losses, which is the very thing saving WVU from going to the NIT as of now. WVU finishes up the regular season at home vs. Kansas State. It’s conceivable this team challenges 2017 Vandy and 2018 Alabama as the only 15-loss teams to receive at-large bids in tournament history. 

Texas A&M (22-8, NET: 24)

Best Ws: vs. Tennessee, vs. Arkansas
Worst Ls: vs. Murray State, vs. Wofford
The highest-rated team (by far; Clemson at 62 is next) with two Q4 losses. Making matters steeper: Buzz Williams scheduled the 256th-toughest nonconference slate in the land, which is why you see a 22-8 high-major not so far off the bubble. Seed variance for the Aggies, who are two games clear and have clinched second in the SEC, is significant. This team’s best noncon win is … *checks notes* … at DePaul?

Iowa State (17-12, NET: 27)

Best Ws: TCU sweep, vs. Kansas, vs. Texas
Worst Ls: vs. Oklahoma, vs. Oklahoma State
In no danger of missing the NCAA tourney, but if ISU winds up with 14 losses, I think the projections on where this team gets seeded will be all over the place. The Cyclones have played 29 games, and 24 of them are either Quad 1 or Quad 4. That’s so volatile. There are many ways to interpret this crew, and though committee members are explicitly instructed to not weigh a team’s recent play against its seeding or selection case, ISU is 2-8 in its last 10 games. I can only imagine that will influence some on a certain level. (Let me be clear: it should not.)

Charleston (27-3, NET: 54)

Best Ws: vs. Virginia Tech, vs. Kent State
Worst Ls: vs. Hofstra, @ Drexel
You know I had to get a team from a traditional one-bid league on my list. Here’s the deal: We’re headed toward a historic decision from the committee if the Cougars do not win the CAA’s automatic bid. If Charleston (which is 28-3, but one of those wins doesn’t count because it came against a D-II team) wins two more games, then loses in the CAA title game it will have a 29-4 record vs. D-I competition. The record for most D-I wins without an at-large is Saint Mary’s (28-5) in 2018. The Cougars have a gaudy mark but barely any protein on the résumé: 0-1 in Quad 1, 2-0 in Quad 2 and 16 games (and 16-0) in Quad 4. Hofstra is the 1-seed in the CAA tourney. This could be fascinating.

Wisconsin (16-12, NET: 74)

Best Ws: @ Marquette, @ Iowa, vs. Maryland
Worst Ls: vs. Wake Forest, @ Nebraska
If the Badgers work their way into the NCAAs, they’re going to flirt with last year’s Rutgers team for the worst NET (77) to ever receive an at-large. As I’ve written in the Court Report earlier this year, each season there’s one or two teams who sort of blend into the environment of the season and ever-so-quietly work their way into the field. Wisconsin is a prime candidate to pull this off, but obviously it needs two more Q1 wins to feel secure. I think it’s out of the field as of today (10-11 in top two quads, Q3 loss to Wake), but a win over Purdue on Thursday might clinch it the other way. 

Pat Kelsey and his Charleston Cougars might be the most polarizing bubble team in 10 days.
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Eight great small-school turnaround seasons

College basketball has 360-plus D-I schools. That’s 50-70 too many. But a redeeming feature is how, each year, there are a number of teams that finally emerge from the mud to post big turnarounds. Here are the ones you should know about. There’s no telling how many of these teams will make it to the NCAA Tournament, so let’s at the very least give them some flowers now as we ramp up for postseason play. 

Kennesaw State (23-8): I’m starting with schools that have already made program history. The Owls joined Division I in 2005. Their most wins in a season before this year was 14. Fourth-year coach Amir Abdur-Rahim coached KSU to the ASUN title and flipped an institution that went 1-28 in his first season. A big wow. First tourney bid could be coming Sunday.

Youngstown State (23-8): The Penguins joined D-I in the early ’80s and have never made an NCAA Tournament, nor have they ever won more games than this season. Jerrod Calhoun’s crew not only rates as the surprise of the Horizon League — they just won their first conference title ever. Next up: Trying to stop Antoine Davis from becoming D-I’s all-time leading scorer on Thursday night. Come on, tell me you don’t wanna see the Penguins dance. Horizon League title game is next Tuesday.

Grambling State (20-8): The Tigers, guided by sixth-year coach Donte Jackson, are a lock to have their best KenPom finish (an era that dates back to 1996-97). Right now, Grambling ranks 190th; its highest is 250, in 1998. The school has NEVER made the NCAAs. Is this finally the year it wins the SWAC? Certainly feeling like it.

Southern Miss (25-6): It took four years, but Jay Ladner has the Golden Eagles flying high. After decades in Conference USA, Southern Miss transferred to the Sun Belt this season. Here’s how that went: USM won the regular-season title, its first standalone crown in 22 years. The school has notched more wins than any year since 2013-14. David Cobb wrote a great story on ’em earlier this season. Program last danced in 2012.

San Jose State (18-12): Tim Miles is a miracle worker. The Spartans have toiled in the Mountain West’s basement since joining in 2013. But not this season. In Miles’ second year, SJSU has reached more than 15 wins for only the second time in the past 36 seasons. It’s three away from tying the school record of 21 victories and has been assured of its first .500-or-better year in conference since 1995-96. The school has only had 10 or more wins 13 times in the past 30 years! This is the winningest season for SJSU since 1980-81. 

Fordham (23-6): Keith Urgo inherited this job after Kyle Neptune left after one year for Villanova. Fordham has been a doormat for most of its existence in the Atlantic 10, having never made the NCAA Tournament since joining the league in the early ’90s. All Urgo’s done this season is tie the program record for league wins (11) and is now in striking distance of matching the all-time single-season mark of 26. A huge story in the Bronx. Might this team take the A-10’s automatic bid? 

Milwaukee (20-10): Bart Lundy was a nondescript Division II hire 11 months ago. He’s turned things around deftly in no time. The Panthers are having their best season since 2015-16 and are a viable threat to win the Horizon League automatic bid after averaging 10.3 wins the past four seasons. 

Northwestern State (20-10): I see you, Corey Gipson. In his first season as a head coach, Gipson took over for Mike McConathy, who was at NWSU for 22 years. The school was .500 or worse the past seven seasons. This year, the Demons will finish second in the Southland and have a chance to dance for the first time in a decade.

In addition to these sweet flip-the-script stories, there are two other mid-major teams to keep an eye on for one big reason: they’ve never made the NCAAs but are positioned well to win their league tournaments. Those teams are Mark Madsen’s Utah Valley Wolverines (22-7) and Mike Magpayo’s UC Riverside Highlanders (20-10). 

2023 college stars who all used to be … Shockers

Arguably one of the five most valuable transfers in the sport in 2022-23 has been Arkansas’ Ricky Council IV. The Razorbacks junior forward leads the team in points per game (16.6). Council has something in common with a lot of other notable performers this season in that they started their careers at Wichita State before moving on to greater personal success. Most are likely headed for the NCAA tourney later this month.

Council played at WSU the past two seasons, opting to leave following the Shockers’ letdown 2021-22 campaign. The year before he got there, the program had a batch of future D-I stat-stuffers. That ’19-20 Wichita State team was a projected 11-seed at the time the NCAA Tournament got canceled. The following offseason, Greg Marshall was fired after a report from Stadium prompted public scrutiny and an investigation into Marshall’s abusive coaching behavior. Had Marshall comported himself properly, it’s possible Wichita State would still be a nationally relevant program. 

Here’s who was on the 2019-20 roster, and how they’re doing these days. 

Jamarius Burton, Pitt: The Panthers, who are atop the ACC after being picked 14th in the preseason, are one of the most surprising stories in high-major hoops. Burton is a First Team All-ACC-level player averaging 15.5 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.4 assists. He had a stop-over season at Texas Tech before heading to Pitt in the spring of 2021.

Erik Stevenson, West Virginia: Four schools/conferences in five years for this guy. Stevenson went from Wichita to Washington to South Carolina to WVU. Stevenson’s averaging 15.2 points on 40% 3-point shooting; he’s put up 96 points in his last four games. 

Morris Udeze, New Mexico: Udeze played four years at Wichita State, landing in Albuquerque as a grad transfer. After starting the season 14-0, the 21-9 Lobos are a bubble team (on the wrong side of it) at the moment. Nevertheless Udeze is the hoss in the middle, averaging 16.1 points and 9.3 rebounds. 

Grant Sherfield, Oklahoma: The shooting guard’s playing time and production spiked when he left for Nevada in 2020. He’s a Sooner this season and has met the hype. Oklahoma (14-15) is not an NCAA Tournament candidate, but Sherfield’s been dependable: 16.3 points and a 40.6% 3-point shooter.

Dexter Dennis, Texas A&M: A four-year factor for the Shockers, Dennis is a grad transfer at A&M this season, averaging 8.9 points and 5.6 rebounds as a starter for a 22-8 Aggies squad that will dance for the first time in five years. 

Jamarius Burton has uplifted Pitt to the top of the ACC.
Icon Sportswire

@ me

The Court Report’s mailbag! Find me, toss a Q and I’ll answer some each week.

Safe to say the way Alabama has mishandled the Brandon Miller/Jaden Bradley situation will be used against Nate Oats’ program in recruiting moving forward. Doesn’t mean Oats still won’t get five-star talent to Tuscaloosa, but he’s made his job a lot harder with his comments and actions in the past week-plus.

The answer is Duke. Former Triangle scribe Bret Strelow tracked this for years and years. Given Duke’s national profile and the relative rarity in how often it would lose on the road, it left the program vulnerable to the highest rate of court-storms. However, Purdue is in Duke-like territory this season, having watched students flood the floor in seven of the past eight road losses. The only exception? The Izzone faithful kept their feet in the bleachers after the Spartans won at the buzzer over Purdue on Feb. 26, 2022.

This was Duke’s existence dating back to the ’90s.

Maryland is a program finding new sunshine under Kevin Willard; the Terps ran the table at home in league play. There is a case here, and I’m willing to listen. But given that Purdue began the season outside the rankings and will win the league, Painter’s probably getting it. And if not him, well … Northwestern was picked near the bottom of the league, and now it’s going to the NCAA Tournament. 

I absolutely believe Rick Pitino would take the Texas job if offered. Pitino told me there’s “20 or 30” states he will never live in, but I can’t imagine Austin, Texas, qualifies. That said, I don’t think Pitino is high atop Texas’ list. 

Patrick’s Q here is about 25-5 Gonzaga, which wraps up its regular season tonight at home against Chicago State. If the Zags win both of their WCC tourney games and the title game is over Saint Mary’s, that puts them at 28-5 with a 12-4 Quad 1/2 record, though there is the Quad 3 loss to LMU. I would give Gonzaga a No. 2 seed in that scenario, and I think it can get a 2-seed if it wins out and beats SMC in the championship game. But the Zags would rather be a No. 3 and get geographic protection. A low 2-seed might ship them to an unwanted region.

Ready for this? Purdue still ranks ahead of Kansas in multiple advanced metrics. Michael brings up a good point, though. Best win for the Boilers in the past three months is, I guess, at Michigan by five. Second-best is over Maryland by three at home in an uneasy game. A lot of people are about to sell on this team, and it’s justifiable. I’m not there yet, personally. Maybe the losses have allayed the pressure. Maybe?

Actually, no. Though it’s unlikely, Iowa State (which I’d barely have as a No. 7 right now) would have a compelling 4-seed case if it wins at Baylor this weekend, then runs the table up to Selection Sunday. But this is all moot: I cursed this team after tweeting on Jan. 24 “You do NOT want to see that team in the NCAA Tournament.” 🫣 

Final shots

• Before we fully move into March here, I have to note something that quietly happened on Feb. 19: Division I shrank from 363 to 362 programs. The University of Hartford, which induced itself into independency this season after leaving the America East in 2022, played its final game as a D-I program. The Hawks lost 75-53 at Chicago State, finishing 5-23. They are 362nd at KenPom. The school’s president, Greg Woodward, who announced last week that he’ll be leaving the school in June, opted to pull the school from Division I after Hartford made its one and only trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2021. Cruel and unnecessary.  
Coaching tracker SZN is here, and my annual post with news and scoops can be found here. It will be updated near-daily over the next five weeks.
• Blind item not in the tracker: There’s a head coach of a program whose team is well on its way to the NCAA Tournament, and buzz has built behind the scenes in recent weeks over this coach’s alleged willingness to move elsewhere. (No, Kentucky fans, I’m not referencing John Calipari.) Will be interesting to see if this winds up happening. (If it happens, I’ll let you know who it is.)
• Now this I find totally fascinating: Check the names of who is on the NIT selection committee for 2023. Make the actual selection committee more like this, please:

• Charleston coach Pat Kelsey signed a five-year contract extension this week. That won’t prevent Kelsey from being courted by big programs. A source told me his restructured buyout is just north of $1 million, which will not be a hurdle if a power-conference school truly wants to lure him away.
• Charleston ended its season tied atop the CAA standings with Hofstra, and like Kelsey, Pride coach Speedy Claxton got a new deal. Claxton has won 44 games in his first two seasons as a head coach. He, too, could nevertheless still be chased by a bigger program. But unlike Kelsey, Claxton is an alum at his current post. 
• No writer covers the Pac-12 better than John Wilner. Here’s his take on the viability of Gonzaga joining the Pac-12. My read: not likely. 
• The buzz out of FSU is that Leonard Hamilton will not be retiring after this dismal season. Florida State is 9-21; this is just the third time in program history the Seminoles have lost 20 or more games, and their next loss will set a single-season record. 
• Duke hasn’t been a standout team, but a dose of perspective: Jon Scheyer’s 22 wins are already the most for a first-year Blue Devils coach in history, and he’s almost certainly getting to at least 25. He also just became the first first-year ACC coach to go undefeated at home (16-0). No matter what happens in the next few weeks, Scheyer passed the test in Year 1.
• Let’s wrap with some more small-school love. I recently took a short trip over to Fairfield U to catch a Stags home game. The Stags play in the MAAC and haven’t made the NCAAs since 1997. I’d bank on that changing in the next 3-6 years. The reason: the $52 million facility upgrade the program completed in 2022. I haven’t been to most small-school arenas, but I can’t imagine there are 10 better than what Fairfield is working with these days. Love these small-school environments.

Fairfield University

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