March Madness prep: Who are the title contenders? Can UConn go back-to-back?

You’ve devoured heaping plates of nachos and chicken wings. You’ve debated Kyle Shanahan’s overtime strategy with your friends. You’ve watched the Dunkin Donuts “DunKings” commercial more times than you care to admit.

That can only mean one thing.

The NFL is going into hibernation until Draft weekend. Welcome to college basketball season, football fans!

If the last time you paid attention to college hoops was the final note of "One Shining Moment" last April, some things will look familiar. Kentucky is still underachieving. Louisville remains a punchline. Zach Edey is still the nation’s most dominant player. UConn continues to leave a trail of destruction in its wake.

Of course, there is a lot that has changed too since the 2023-24 season tipped off in November. Here are 10 stretch-run storylines to watch to get you ready for March Madness:

1. Can UConn go back-to-back?

It has been 17 years since Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer led Florida to consecutive national titles. It has been nearly that long since any team made a serious run at back-to-back championships.

Since Florida’s heyday, a handful of reigning national champs have earned high seeds in the NCAA tournament but none has advanced beyond the Sweet 16. Many have crashed out during the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament or failed to earn a bid at all.

It would be a massive disappointment if this UConn team met a similar fate. The Huskies (22-2, 12-1) may be the best team in college basketball despite losing five of their top eight players from last year’s team and enduring injuries to starters Donovan Clingan and Stephon Castle for prolonged stretches this season.

UConn reloaded by building around its three returning standouts, floor-spacing four man Alex Karaban, playmaking point guard Tristen Newton and Clingan, an elite rebounder, rim protector and finisher at the basket. Danny Hurley landed a star-studded recruiting class highlighted by Castle, plucked prized Rutgers transfer Cam Spencer out of the portal and groomed reserves Samson Johnson and Hassan Diarra for bigger roles off the bench.

The revamped Huskies toppled North Carolina, Texas, Indiana and Gonzaga in non-league play before streaking to the top of the Big East like a bullet train. They’re deep. They’re talented. They’re hungry. And while March Madness gets its name by seldom going as expected, they’re certainly one of the teams that can win it all.

Purdue center Zach Edey (15) celebrates after hitting a three-point basket against Indiana during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in West Lafayette, Ind., Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Purdue center Zach Edey is likely the national player of the year for a second year in a row, but the question is if he and the Boilermakers can avenge their stunning loss to 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson last year. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

2. Can Purdue pull a 2019 Virginia?

For three straight years, Purdue has added to its reputation as a March underachiever.

Upset losses to 13th-seeded North Texas in 2021 and 15th-seeded Saint Peters in 2022 were precursors to a Chernobyl-level meltdown last year. Purdue infamously fell to 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson, becoming only the second No. 1 seed to suffer a first-round upset.

So how can anyone trust the Boilermakers when filling out their brackets this March?

It starts with the improved supporting cast surrounding Edey. Braden Smith has taken a leap as a scorer and playmaker. Lance Jones has been the missing piece at both ends of the floor. And Purdue is shooting 40% from 3-point range as a team, which makes it tough for opposing defenses to swarm the reigning national player of the year and live with the consequences.

Purdue (22-2, 11-2) also has the best collection of non-conference wins of any team in the country. The Boilermakers outclassed Gonzaga, Tennessee and Marquette to win the loaded Maui Invitational and also beat Arizona and Alabama away from Mackey Arena.

Then there’s the historical precedent of the Virginia team that lost to 16th-seeded UMBC in the first round of the 2018 NCAA tournament. The Cavaliers came back and reshaped their legacy, capturing the 2019 national title. Purdue is capable of doing the same.

3. Who else can win the national title?

UConn and Purdue have separated themselves from the field over the past few weeks, but they aren’t the only teams with realistic national title hopes. There are a handful of other contenders that shouldn’t be discounted.

Atop that list is Houston, 21-3 overall, No. 1 in some of the major efficiency metrics and alone in first place in college basketball’s toughest conference. Kansas State coach Jerome Tang recently called Houston the best defensive team he’s ever seen. The only question is whether the Cougars score easily enough to get to a Final Four or beyond.

Also in the mix are three perennial powers: North Carolina, Arizona and Kansas.

The Tar Heels have redeemed themselves after going from preseason No. 1 to missing the NCAA tournament last season. The Wildcats boast a fast-paced, freewheeling offense led by a guard who has gone on a March heater before. And the Jayhawks have one of the best starting fives in college basketball when healthy, but the lack of any semblance of bench depth is a glaring concern.

Beyond that, there are four SEC teams with both issues and upside.

Will Auburn wilt away from home? Can Tennessee score enough to get Rick Barnes to a second career Final Four? Can Kentucky or Alabama string together enough stops to reel off four-plus NCAA tournament wins in a row?

Lastly, don’t write off Duke despite slightly underwhelming results so far. The Blue Devils miss the rim protection and toughness of Dereck Lively, but Kyle Filipowski is the most skilled big man in the country and the perimeter corps is deep and talented.

4. Which team has been college basketball’s biggest surprise?

When a panel of media members picked South Carolina to finish last in the SEC last October, head coach Lamont Paris quickly made it clear how little those projections actually matter.

“Here’s what I’ll say about picks,” Paris said at SEC media day. “There were 14 picks last year. Does anybody know how many of those were right? Zero. Not one team last year was picked in this spot and then finished in that same spot.”

South Carolina has further torn those preseason projections to shreds the past three months by emerging as college basketball’s most pleasant surprise. The Gamecocks (21-3, 9-2) have surged to No. 11 in the AP Top 25 and to the top of the SEC standings, buoyed by recent upset victories over Kentucky and Tennessee.

While South Carolina went 11-21 in Paris’ debut season, the second-year head coach did not merely run it back with all the same players. He surrounded star Meechie Johnson with an all-new supporting cast featuring instant impact transfers in Ta’Lon Cooper, Myles Stute and B.J. Mack.

A modest non-conference schedule gave South Carolina time to jell and develop the selfless, team-first culture that Paris values. Now, coupled with Dawn Staley’s undefeated, top-ranked women’s team, South Carolina is becoming a basketball school.

Other surprises: Washington State, BYU, Utah State

Southern California coach Andy Enfield reacts to a basket by Stanford during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024, in Stanford, Calif. (AP Photo/Nic Coury)
Andy Enfield's USC Trojans have been one of college basketball's biggest disappointments this season. (AP Photo/Nic Coury)

5. Which team has been college basketball’s biggest disappointment?

Only a few months ago, USC boasted a newly minted No. 21 preseason ranking, a talent-laden backcourt and aspirations of challenging Arizona for the Pac-12 title.

Now, the Trojans would need to win their final seven games of the season just to finish above .500.

USC bottomed out last Saturday night at Stanford when it surrendered 25 consecutive first-half points and lost by 31 to a Cardinal team that is 12-11 this year. The Trojans fell to 9-15 overall and 3-10 in Pac-12 play, tied for last in the conference with Oregon State.

Injuries have certainly played a role in USC’s struggles. The Trojans are 0-3 in games that both Boogie Ellis and Isaiah Collier missed and 1-3 in games without one or the other. Bronny James also missed the first eight games of the season while recovering from sudden cardiac arrest and did not enter the starting five until mid-January.

And yet to blame USC’s nosedive entirely on injuries is to ignore the reality of the situation. A team that had more preseason hype than any other in Andy Enfield’s tenure is underachieving wildly and there appears to be no salvaging the situation.

Other disappointments: Arkansas, Indiana, Michigan

6. Who are the most interesting bubble teams?

Here are three with a lot at stake:

  • Gonzaga (18-6, 8-2): Upsetting Kentucky last Saturday didn’t secure Gonzaga’s place in the NCAA tournament. It just kept the Zags in the running for an at-large bid. To avoid missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in Mark Few’s 25-year tenure, the Zags may need to win out the rest of the regular season, including Quadrant 1 road games at San Francisco and Saint Mary’s. Or they would need to capture the WCC’s auto bid by winning the league tournament.

  • Villanova (13-11, 6-7): How can Villanova be within striking distance of the bubble with such a pedestrian record? Marquee non-league wins over North Carolina, Texas Tech, Memphis, Maryland and UCLA go a long way. The trouble is that Villanova also lost to the likes of Penn and Drexel out of conference and is sub-.500 in Big East play. The Wildcats will need to stack wins between now and Selection Sunday to improve their chances of sneaking into the field of 68.

  • Washington State (18-6, 9-4): Since 1941, only Tony Bennett, Kelvin Sampon and George Raveling have guided Washington State to an NCAA tournament. Kyle Smith is on pace to join that list. Washington State has won eight of its last nine games to surge from way off the radar to the favorable side of the at-large cut line if the season ended today. Five of the Cougars’ final seven regular-season games are at home, which puts them in strong position to solidify their first NCAA bid since 2008.

TERRE HAUTE, IN - FEBRUARY 03: Indiana State Sycamores Center Robbie Avila (21) passes during the college basketball game between the Drake Bulldogs and the Indiana State Sycamores on February 3, 2024, at the Hulman Center in Terre Haute, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Robbie Avila has Indiana State in consideration for an NCAA Tournament berth and in the top 25 for the first time since the Larry Bird days. (Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

7. What mid-major minnows can swim with the big fish in March?

Here are four with Cinderella potential:

  • Indiana State (22-3, 13-1 MVC): For the first time since the days of Larry Bird, Indiana State is back in the AP Top 25. This time, the Sycamores’ star is Robbie Avila, the goggles-wearing, fastbreak-leading future cult hero of March Madness if the Sycamores make a run.

  • Grand Canyon (22-2, 12-1 WAC): This might be the WAC’s strongest team since New Mexico State nearly toppled Final Four-bound Auburn in the first round of the 2019 NCAA tournament. Grand Canyon owns a home win over San Diego State and has obliterated all league opponents besides Seattle since starting WAC play.

  • McNeese State (22-3, 11-1 Southland): McNeese State endured plenty of backlash for hiring Will Wade on the heels of a cheating scandal. Now the Cowboys are reaping the rewards. They beat VCU, UAB and Michigan in non-league play and hold a commanding two-and-a-half-game lead in the Southland Conference. TCU transfer Shahada Wells has been dominant.

  • Princeton (17-3, 5-2 Ivy): Someone dangerous is coming out of the Ivy League this year. It might be Princeton, which followed up last year’s Sweet 16 appearance with an impressive season-opening win over Rutgers. Or it might be Yale or Cornell, both of whom own home wins over Princeton and are ahead of the Tigers in the Ivy League standings.

8. Can anyone besides Zach Edey make a run at national player of the year?

In a word, no.

The reigning national player of the year has been even better this season.

On offense, Edey scores at will around the basket, draws fouls in bunches and gobbles up second-chance opportunities. When help defenders come to double him, he’s excellent at finishing through multiple bodies or picking out the open perimeter shooter.

On defense, Edey is a deterrent for opposing drivers and his improved conditioning and mobility has made him a more capable defender in space. He still has limitations — he operates in deep drop coverage on ball screens and he can get beaten down court in transition — but he has made it much tougher for opponents to attack him.

9. Who are college basketball’s best NBA prospects this season?

The combination of a lackluster incoming freshman class and the allure of alternative paths to the NBA has drained college basketball of its usual array of high-end, can’t-miss prospects. There are no Paolo Bancheros, no Chet Holmgrens, not even a Brandon Miller.

The byproduct has been uncertainty over who this college basketball season’s best future pro will be.

It might be Baylor’s Ja’Kobe Walter, a potential 3-and-D wing whose upside is tied to whether he grows into an elite shooter and if he develops as a playmaker off the dribble. Or it might be Colorado’s Cody Williams, who intrigues scouts with his potential as a versatile point-forward and his ability to defend multiple positions. Or it might be Kentucky’s Rob Dillingham, an explosive Trae Young-esque scorer and playmaker who projects as a defensive liability.

There are also a few options if NBA front offices prefer a more NBA-ready prospect rather than taking a big swing on a high-upside freshman. Duke’s Kyle Filipowski is the most skilled big man in college basketball, and UConn’s Donovan Clingan projects as a formidable defensive center who can score around the rim.

10. What coaches are in danger of getting fired at the end of the season?

There is already one major-conference vacancy. DePaul fired Tony Stubblefield in January, citing the program’s 28-54 record in his dismal two-plus seasons at the helm.

Louisville appears unlikely to give second-year head coach Kenny Payne another chance after he has followed up a 4-28 nightmare of a debut season with only modest improvement. Athletic director Josh Heird said in late December that Payne needs more “deposits in the bank” to retain his job. Since then, the Cardinals have started 3-10 in the ACC, tied for last with Georgia Tech and Notre Dame.

Besides Payne, there are a few other coaches who also may need a strong finish to save their jobs.

Could Stanford possibly keep Jerod Haase if he finishes his eighth season on the Farm without an NCAA tournament appearance? Could Washington move on from Mike Hopkins as his team slips out of NCAA tournament contention yet again? And could there be a change at Ohio State and Michigan, both of whom are struggling this season and appear to be trending downward?