Meet the college's new basketball forces that can dominate March


North Carolina threatens to miss the postseason. Kentucky looks up at LSU and Auburn in the SEC. Defending champion Virginia is in the bubble. The traditional Big Ten state of Michigan doesn't even host its conference.

The programs we've seen as owners of the sport have declined. Instead of the blue blood that usually dominates entertainment – and yes, Kansas and Duke remain national championship factors – college basketball has given us fresh faces with fresh faces.

Meet Baylor, Dayton and San Diego State. Who are you asking?

Get to know the teams that could dominate March, three programs that have three defeats and three Final Four rides together, and none in the past 50 years.

State of San Diego

The Aztecs are the only unbeaten team that hasn't even reached the postseason a year ago. The Aztecs danced six times in a row between 2010 and 15 and reached Sweet 16 under former coach Steve Fisher in 2011 and 2014. The school produced a guy named Kawhi Leonard. You may have heard of him. He was on the team the last time a season started 20-0 in 2010/11. It is not played at a power conference, although Mountain West is a quality league with double-digit wins over the expected tournament teams Creighton and Iowa.

Defense is the Aztec business card. They occupy sixth place on the adjusted defensive and keep Creighton at a season low of 52 points. Luke Garza, Iowa's national player of the year, scores nine points against him. But don't confuse this group as being aggressively challenged. There is an average of 75 points per game, which is impressive considering that it runs so slowly. The turnaround from a year ago, when the state of San Diego finished fourth in the mountain west, is no accident. It played the transfer game well. Former Washington state security guard Malachi Flynn leads coach Brian Dutcher's team with goals and assists. Vanderbilt transfer Yanni Wetzell has deployed a 6-foot-10 force behind the basket.

MaCio Teague
MaCio TeagueAP

In twelve league games, the state of San Diego prevailed eight times in the double-digit range. It is very likely that it is the first team since Kentucky to take part in the NCAA tournament unbeaten in 2015.


Only Baylor was immune to the # 1 virus and managed to hold this spot for three weeks on Monday, unlike the six teams before. The bears defeated five ranked teams and mistreated Kansas on the street when they suffered a 0-17 drought at Allen Fieldhouse. Like San Diego State, Baylor does it with defense, keeping Arizona, Butler, Texas Tech and Kansas in season lows in points.

The list is a diverse mix. There are no five-star recruits. The linchpin of the defense is the great Freddie Gillespie, an edge guard who started his career at Carleton College, Division III, Minnesota. Transfers Davion Mitchell (Auburn) and MaCio Teague (UNC-Asheville) have excelled, and in the second year Jared Butler has become a sought-after star. The bears are so profound – eight players play double-digit minutes in minutes on average – that Tristan Clark, the leading rebound and second-scorer of last year, was seventh in minutes and points after a knee injury in the second half of the season.

You do everything well. Baylor defends at a high level, does not turn much (29th in the sales differential) and is strong in the glass (29th in the rebound margin). It's no coincidence that it hasn't lost to Washington since November 8 and won 18 games in a row.


The seventh flyers have not been rated as high since 1968. That was also the last time they had an All-American. It is no coincidence that this team has both a high rank and such a player.

Obi Toppin, a mega-experienced 6-foot-9 striker from Brooklyn, is a top 10 pick, high-level goalscorer and rebounder who has improved across the board between his first year and second season. He was easily recruited by Mount Zion Prep and was not classified. In two wins over Georgia and Virginia Tech in the Maui Invitational, he scored an average of 24.5 points and nearly led Dayton past Kansas in the title game. This and the loss of overtime for Colorado are the Flyers' only setbacks. Chances are, he will be the best prospect of the tournament.

Toppin is only part of this open-minded team, which is one of the most important crimes in the country. Dayton is fourth in the country (82.7), fifth (18.7) and leader in the offensive. Three of the top four goal scorers shoot at least 40 percent from the depth and six different players have led them in the ranking. After a breakdown, Dayton is the third team that Anthony Grant, an alum of the school, joins VCU and Alabama for the NCAA tournament.

Game of the week

No. 10 Seton Hall, No. 8 Villanova, Saturday, 2.30 p.m.

This showdown lost some of its glamor on Saturday when each team, both major favorites, was hit by double-digit losses at home. Even before this match, nobody has an easy game. Great Eastern leader Seton Hall visits Georgetown, and Villanova, who lags the pirates game, will be No. 16 Butler. But they remain the top teams in the conference and this has become the league's best rivalry. Seton Hall and Villanova met in the final of the Big East tournament in two of the last four years – and could see each other again in March in the garden.


A prediction of the first four seeds in the NCAA tournament (listed in order):

1. Baylor, Kansas, Duke, Gonzaga

2. State of Florida, State of San Diego, West Virginia, Dayton

3. Louisville, Maryland, Oregon, Seton Hall

4. Auburn, Illinois, Creighton, Villanova

Watch camp

Up: Big Ten

The Big East record is in danger. In 2011 eleven teams took part in the tournament, more than ever at a conference. The Big Ten are able to question this brand. Of the 14 teams in the league, 12 are – yes, 12! – are in the top 52 of the NET ranking. The same 12 are among the top 42 reviews. Six of these teams are among the top 25 on the Associated Press list. Remember: Michigan, ranked 11th with the state of Ohio, has won four Quadrant 1 victories. Tenth place Purdue owns a router over the second-placed state of Michigan. I have a proven doubt about the strength of the league at the top, but there is no doubt about its depth. It can be a record.

Top: Markquis Nowell

At the top of his Twitter page is: "Underestimate me so that I can embarrass you." By now the sun belt should have received the message. The 5-foot-7 New Yorker from Bishop Loughlin High School in Brooklyn takes the conference by storm and leads Arkansas Little Rock to the basement a year after the conference ends. For the second time, the Trojans, who won six games in a row, lead in points (17.2), templates (4.7) and thefts (2.3). One day he sinks a game-winning 3-pointer, the next time he distributes 13 assists.

Marquis Nowell
Marquis NowellAP

Below: Butler

The bulldogs were one of the biggest surprises in the first half of the season. They were selected to land near the Big East and entered the conference season with only one loss. This was 1 point behind Baylor. Her defense was suffocating, her offense precise. But the leap of the league season – and injuries to key players – have taken their toll. Butler has lost four out of six games and is almost ninth at the conference. The lack of point guard and top defender Aaron Thompson (wrist) was particularly debilitating and put additional pressure on senior star Kamar Baldwin to orchestrate and defend the opposition's top perimeter scorer.

Below: UConn
I'm not feeling the same fear from Big East coaches about UConn's return as when the news was first released. The Huskies would be the worst team in the league this year. You have a consequence win against Florida and are 2-6 in mediocre AAC. Overall, the NIT seems to be a longshot at 11-10, apart from a big goal. UConn has some good pieces for the future – newcomers James Bouknight and Akok Akok look like players – and coach Dan Hurley is expected to be good at recruiting. However, this is a larger renovation than expected. Patience is required at Storrs, especially when Hurley's program moves into a much better league next season.