By Arnie Leshin
Men’s college basketball March Madness has taken another turn.
Usually, there’s a clear favorite or a few other quality teams with the key ingredients. Consider it parody or just a larger field in the hunt.
There’s Purdue, which was No. 1 until moving down to No. 5. There’s Alabama, which was No. 1 but has dropped to No. 2. There’s Kansas and UCLA hanging around as the 3 and 4 teams, and right below the Boilermakers are Virginia, Arizona, Texas, Baylor and Marquette.
There, you’ve got the present top 10.
And on Wednesday night, after streaking Northwestern had made its way in the rankings to No. 21, and in a clash of Chicago schools, unranked Illinois came from 16 down to stun the visiting Wildcats before a packed house.
Besides, who know how the rankings will look when the March Madness field is announced? Who will make it out of the bubbles watch?
Let’s take North Carolina, a familiar postseason program. It has been up and down, ranked twice but lost its spot shortly after, and now getting around losing five of its last six starts. The Tar Heels are currently 17-11, and have a must-win game Saturday against unranked Notre Dame.
Then they come up against No. 6 Virginia and play at unranked Florida State and Duke, both must wins if there’s any chance of them making another March run.
Mississippi State is 18-10, unranked and seeking its first NCAA bid since 2019 while coming off a three-point defeat versus Kentucky, and in overtime to Missouri, with both unranked. It can make a big statement against No. 25 Texas A & M on Saturday before finishing against South Carolina and fell double-outsider Vanderbilt.
Southern California is 19-8 and have returned two of its top players off the injury list as it tries for its first bid since 2009. The Trojans are at Utah Saturday night before playing No. 7 Arizona and Arizona State the final week of the regular season.
New Mexico is 20-8 overall but in a tie for fifth place in the Mountain West Conference at 7-8 with San Jose State, and have four other teams ahead of them, so if this conference can squeeze in five, the Lobos might make it, except they are home Saturday night to first place No. 22 San Diego State.
Oklahoma State is 16-12, not exactly an impressive record, but so unranked bubble teams Texas Tech and West Virginia. How the Cowboys fare down the stretch will determine how many Big 12 teams make the field, except they have lost their last three in a row.1
Others to watch are Syracuse at Pittsburgh who go at it on Saturday afternoon. The Orange are 17-12 and have lost some tight ones, and you have to wonder if long-time head coach Jim Boeheim will soon call it a career.
The Panthers are also 17-12 and coming off a close win over Georgia Tech and have quality wins over North Carolina State, Northwestern, and North Carolina
Then there are hopefuls like Wisconsin at Michigan at noon Sunday and Rutgers at Penn State at 4:30 the same afternoon, both on the tubes.
A strong finish versus the Badgers and tournament-bound Illinois and No. 14 Indian could get the Wolverines in.
Rutgers has been on the plus side of the bubble the last few weeks and beating Penn State could damage the Nittany Lions bid.
That’s it for now, a March Madness up for grabs and a number of bubble hopefuls trying to sneak in.