This is the best time of the year for a basketball lover. The end of the college season is upon us, with conference tournaments, the NCAA tournament and the Final Four in the brutally cold Midwest city of Minneapolis. The Final Four is followed by the end of the NBA season, the NBA playoffs and, then, the NBA draft. Only after the NBA draft is complete can we finally turn our limited attention spans to football to watch five teams jockey for position for a national championship until basketball starts again in October.
Of course, basketball is the fairest, most equitable championship known to sports. The NCAA tournament is not the best way to find the best team, but there is no championship in sports that is as fair to all comers. With more than 350 Division I teams, all have the same opportunity to make the field to legitimately compete for the national championship. Football gives only a fraction of teams that chance to compete for the title. In basketball, all have the same chance.
How is that so? The automatic bid. Every team in Division I has the opportunity to win its league's automatic bid and do so among its peers that it chose to compete with. For the populist crowd that believes the NCAA tournament isn't fair to the little guy, every league gets to decide for itself how to give out its automatic bid. A league can give it to the regular-season champion, the tournament champion, through arm wrestling or through a raffle. The truth is, leagues don't really care about having their best teams go to the NCAA tournament. They would rather sell their tournaments to television for ... wait for it ... the money.
After the 32 automatic bids are determined, the 36 next-best teams are selected. Each team gets two bites at the NCAA tournament apple. Yet every year there is the populist, bleeding heart sentiment that goes with the tournament -- let the "little guy" in so we can watch more Davids take a swing at the Goliaths. This year, the cries will be even more intense because the bubble isn't just soft -- it is absolutely mush. The selection committee might have no choice but to select average teams to fill out the 36 at-large spots and to do so with teams that have lost 15 or 16 games. In other words, it might have to pick teams that are just not very good.
Here are the 19 "one-bid" leagues, no matter which team wins the automatic bid: America East, Atlantic Sun, Big Sky, Big South, Big West, Colonial, Horizon, Ivy, MAC, MAAC, MEAC, Missouri Valley, NEC, Patriot, Southland, SWAC, Summit, Sun Belt and WAC. As each automatic bid is claimed, you can knock out one team from the bottom of the top 68.
Here are the 13 leagues that might send more than one team to the NCAA field: American, Atlantic 10, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, C-USA, Mountain West, Ohio Valley, Pac-12, SoCon, SEC and WCC.
One thing is for certain: There will be bad teams in the field this season. Selection is not that important, given just how bad the bubble is. Seeding is everything this season.
If you saw Virginia's 18-for-25 shooting performance from 3-point territory against Syracuse, you saw a team shoot better than the equivalent of 100 percent from 2-point range. Virginia is a fabulous offensive team that can shoot it from multiple spots (Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De'Andre Hunter). This looks like the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament.
Killian Tillie is back and playing, and that is nothing but a good thing. In spite of its uncharacteristic performance in the WCC final, Gonzaga is the best offensive team in the nation. The Zags were good enough to win it all without the big, sweet-shooting Frenchman Tillie. With him, the Zags are significantly better. No matter what, this is a No. 1 seed.
The Tar Heels have matured into an outstanding team capable of cutting the nets down in Minneapolis. With Coby White playing at a high level and the Heels playing hard, North Carolina has won 14 of 15, including a sweep of Zion Williamson-less Duke, since getting worked by Louisville at home.
Zion is supposed to be back for the ACC tournament. If he is the old Zion, Duke can win it all. If not, Duke can be beaten by anybody in the top 20.
The Wildcats need Reid Travis back healthy to have the physicality they need to reach the Final Four. Kentucky has improved defensively and is one of just four teams in the top 15 in the nation in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
The Vols lost three of their last seven games in SEC play, but this is still a formidable team. Jordan Bone is the best point guard in the SEC and was magnificent against Kentucky in Knoxville.
The Spartans won their ninth Big Ten title under Tom Izzo and did so while banged up and injured. With Nick Ward back for the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, Michigan State has the chops to play ball for three weeks in the NCAA tournament. If Michigan State can win the Big Ten tournament, the Spartans have an outside chance at a No. 1 seed.
The Cougars are legit. Wins over LSU, UCF and Cincinnati twice are good wins but not quite No. 1 seed territory. However, Houston is Final Four-capable.
The Wolverines are not deep but can really defend. With better rebounding, Michigan is Elite Eight good.
The Red Raiders have improved on the offensive end more than any other team among the top 20 in the past month. Texas Tech has topped 80 points in six of its past nine games, in part due to the great play of Jarrett Culver and in part due to the improved play of Davide Moretti and Matt Mooney. Texas Tech hasn't lost in more than a month.
By the end of the Big Ten tournament, Purdue will likely have two players who have hit more than 100 3s: Carsen Edwards and Ryan Cline. The Boilermakers take care of the ball, rebound it well and take good shots. That's a good formula for winning games and sharing a Big Ten title.
12. LSU Tigers
Who knows what will happen with this team, given the uncertainty that goes with the suspension of Will Wade. The SEC Champs* are very talented and very good. Tremont Waters is among the best guards in the country, and he plays at both ends of the floor.
Buzz Williams has done a remarkable job with Justin Robinson out and perhaps not coming back this season. Kerry Blackshear Jr. is one of the best big men in the country, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker is one of the best offensive players in the nation. With Robinson, the Final Four was a legit goal. Without him, the second weekend would be a great success.
14. Nevada Wolf Pack
The Mountain West did not offer Nevada much resistance outside of Utah State. Jordan Caroline has had a fabulous season, and Caleb Martin and Jazz Johnson have been the outside attack for the Wolf Pack. No team is older and more experienced, which could make the difference in NCAA tournament play.
15. Auburn Tigers
Bruce Pearl's team has been up and down, but if Jared Harper, Bryce Brown and Chuma Okeke shoot the ball well, Auburn is a tough team to beat. The big question is whether Auburn can turn people over in the tournament. Auburn is No. 1 in the nation in forcing turnovers, with a 25 percent turnover percentage.
Jay Wright has done a remarkable job ... again. The Villanova culture won the Big East title this year more than anything else. Only two Big East teams finished above .500 in conference play: Villanova and Marquette. Amazing.
The Golden Eagles were in the driver's seat with four games remaining but lost all four heading into the Big East tournament. But now that the regular-season hay is in the barn, it is all about getting refreshed and getting Markus Howard, Sam Hauser and Joey Hauser with fresh minds and fresh legs. Marquette can still win in March. This is a good team.
If Dean Wade is healthy, the Wildcats can play with anyone. But Wade is doubtful for the Big 12 tournament because of an ailing foot, and it's worth wondering whether he's going to be right for the tournament. K-State is talented, but Wade's status means there's a high degree of volatility here.
It's hard to quietly play a stretch of 12-1 basketball in the ACC, but that's the case for a Florida State team that enters the conference tournament with a head of steam. Mfiondu Kabengele (13.1 points, 5.7 rebounds per game) is a matchup problem at both ends. FSU allowed league opponents to make just 41.9 percent of 2s.
The Cards have lost seven of their past 10 games but have put together a solid résumé. Louisville has not been the same team since the second-half collapse against Duke. Still, Christen Cunningham has been among the best point guards in the league in ACC games, and Jordan Nwora was one of the very best players in the league. Louisville has the ability to be in the second weekend but needs to get over the scars of the Duke loss.
21. Kansas Jayhawks
This is not the same team that put together this stellar résumé. Kansas lost Udoka Azubuike and Lagerald Vick, and after a 15-2 start, the Jayhawks finished 8-6 down the stretch.
22. Buffalo Bulls
The Bulls are really good and can beat almost anyone. This is a team of tough competitors who know how to play and know how to win. Stumbles against Bowling Green and Northern Illinois on the road are the only blemishes on a pretty sterling résumé.
The great inside-outside combo of Bruno Fernando, a first-team all-Big Ten performer, and Anthony Cowan can compete against anyone. If Maryland takes care of the ball, the Terps can win their way into the second weekend.
The Bearcats are solid at the guard spots and can score a bit better than in years past. The rebounding and defense are both very good, and Cincinnati is among the best offensive rebounding teams in the country. Losses to Houston and UCF heading into the American Tournament were unpleasant but perhaps a good reminder that margins are slim.
The Cyclones have lost six of eight heading into the Big 12 tournament. There is a major difference in performance when Iowa State changes ends. With the ball, Iowa State can score at will. On defense, Iowa State's opponents can score at will. To win in March, the latter has to change.
26. UCF Knights
The Knights finished the season strong, with wins at Houston and against Cincinnati, both ranked teams. Tacko Fall has been more aggressive and effective, and Collin Smith has added scoring punch down the stretch. UCF will be difficult for teams that have not seen Fall before to deal with.
27. VCU Rams
The Rams are interesting. VCU is really good on the defensive end, forcing turnovers, pressuring the ball, pushing up on shooters and making it hard to run offense. But VCU turns the ball over at a high clip and struggles to make perimeter shots. VCU has won a dozen straight games, just not against stellar competition.
28. Wofford Terriers
This team could make a splash in the tournament much like Davidson did in 2008. There is no Stephen Curry, but there is a Fletcher Magee, one of the best shooters in recent college basketball history. Magee is capable of hitting eight or nine 3s in a game, and if he does, Wofford will beat you. Wofford hasn't lost since before Christmas, and the only losses have been to North Carolina, Oklahoma, Kansas and Mississippi State. Pretty impressive.
The Aggies have the Mountain West Player of the Year in Sam Merrill, the Defensive Player of the Year in Neemias Queta and the Coach of the Year in Craig Smith. With wins over Nevada, Fresno State and Saint Mary's, Utah State has a solid résumé. If you have studied the Aggies, you know this is a quality team that can play with almost anyone.
The Badgers' biggest wins were over Maryland, Michigan and Iowa (twice). Wisconsin defends very well and has a star in Ethan Happ, but Happ's inability to hit free throws and perimeter shots is a problem in tournament play. The rest of his game, however, is magnificent.
31. Iowa Hawkeyes
Nobody has played more exciting basketball in February than Iowa. Every time the Hawkeyes played, Jordan Bohannon made plays to pull off an unlikely win. Then, Fran McCaffery was suspended after his ridiculous rant at an official after a 90-70 loss at Ohio State, and Iowa didn't win again. Iowa lost five of six to end the regular season.
32. Syracuse Orange
The Orange struggled to score during the regular season, but Syracuse will be a tough team to prepare for in the postseason if you are not used to seeing the Orange zone. Frank Howard and Tyus Battle need to lead the team on the offensive end. Scoring droughts are not unusual, so offense needs to be generated from defense.
33. Mississippi State Bulldogs
The Bulldogs have a nice nonconference résumé, with wins over Clemson, Saint Mary's, Dayton and Cincinnati. The SEC wins were solid, and the metrics favor Mississippi State on the offensive end of the floor. But for turnovers, the Bulldogs are among the more efficient teams in the SEC.
34. Baylor Bears
Baylor overachieved for much of the year but lost its final three games in Big 12 play and dealt with a lingering toe injury to top scorer Makai Mason (14.6 points per game). Scott Drew's Bears have to get healthy if they want to keep playing.
Wins over Kansas and Utah State are the Sun Devils' only wins over certain NCAA tournament teams. Arizona State gets to the foul line and does a good job on the glass. Remy Martin and Zylan Cheatham have both been solid for Bobby Hurley, and Luguentz Dort has had an excellent freshman season.
36. Clemson Tigers
The Tigers have lost some close ones. Otherwise, they would easily be on the right side of the bubble. But with a 9-9 record in the ACC, Clemson needs a win over NC State in the ACC tournament to feel in any way secure.
It is hard to believe, but if Washington doesn't win the Pac-12 tournament, the Huskies could be sweating out Selection Sunday. Washington is 24-7 but doesn't have a win over a team that is guaranteed to be in the NCAA field. That is strange. Washington is a tournament-caliber team, but the Pac-12 didn't do the Huskies any favors.
38. Florida Gators
The Gators are the poster children for why this bubble is so ridiculously soft. Florida is good on the defensive end but does not score easily. The Gators have some good players but have been very inconsistent. At 17-14, Florida can sneak in, but the Gators had better play well in the SEC tournament.
The Gophers do not score efficiently but have some very good players, most notably Jordan Murphy, one of the best rebounders in Big Ten history. Murphy is a respected player who always delivers. A 9-11 record in Big Ten play should not be in the mix for an at-large bid, but this is not a year full of qualified teams. Average can be good enough this season.
The Pirates are just like Indiana, but they have a better conference record and did not have the same extended swoon. Seton Hall has beaten Kentucky, Maryland, Marquette and Villanova and has only a few losses that make you raise your eyebrows. The metrics don't favor the Hall, but Myles Powell can take over and beat you.
With a healthy Markell Johnson, NC State is capable. But if not for a very soft bubble, this team would be sweating out Selection Sunday. With a loss to Clemson in the ACC tournament, it could be over for the Wolfpack.
42. Ole Miss Rebels
This team has really good guards and the SEC Coach of the Year in Kermit Davis. That said, Ole Miss is not trending in the right direction heading into the postseason, having lost four of the past six, including losses to Kentucky and Tennessee at home.
43. Temple Owls
Shizz Alston and Quinton Rose are very good guards, and Temple has wins over Houston and UCF on a résumé without a ton of losses to offset some good wins. Only losses to Tulsa and Penn stand out as less than ideal.
Randy Bennett has another terrific shooting team and another slate of games that make you scratch your head. The win over Gonzaga on Tuesday is the one that stands apart, but like Belmont, you know Saint Mary's can play. In fact, the Gaels' next-best wins might be their close losses to Mississippi State and LSU.
A maddening team, especially on the defensive end, St. John's has some really good wins and some equally confounding losses. Wins over Villanova, Seton Hall and Georgetown were followed by losses to those teams, but two wins over Marquette might get St. John's into the field. Jekyll and Hyde were more consistent.
46. Belmont Bruins
The Bruins can play. Dylan Windler is one of the best players in the country and will be drafted in June, right before we turn our attention back to football for a couple of months. Belmont is 26-5. The best win and the only win over a tournament team is Murray State, and then there are the two wins over Lipscomb. Belmont should be in the field, but it will require basketball judgment to justify it.
47. Indiana Hoosiers
The Hoosiers are the strangest team ever under legitimate consideration for an at-large bid. Indiana has 14 losses heading into the Big Ten tournament, including five losses to teams that will not be in the NCAA tournament field. Indiana also has good wins over Marquette, Louisville, Wisconsin and Michigan State. However, there is such a thing as too many losses. Indiana has too many losses.
48. Texas Longhorns
Similar to Indiana, Texas has had some good moments this season. The Longhorns have beaten North Carolina, Purdue, Kansas, Baylor and Iowa State but have lost to Radford, Georgia and TCU. Texas has too many losses.
Creighton has gotten itself into the NCAA tournament discussion by winning five in a row entering the Big East tournament, but Greg McDermott's team likely still has some work to do at Madison Square Garden. The Bluejays are here in large part because they're sixth in the nation in effective field goal percentage (56.9).
50. Oklahoma Sooners
Oklahoma was never above .500 in Big 12 play at any point this season, and it ended up with the No. 7 seed in the 10-team conference. But the Sooners do have a recent, decisive win over Kansas to their credit, and Christian James (14.5 points, 6.4 rebounds per game) is one of the country's good seniors.
OSU is 2-6 in its past eight games entering the Big Ten tourney but is about to get forward Kaleb Wesson (14.6 points, 6.7 rebounds per game) back from a team suspension and still has a chance. The Buckeyes desperately need a win over Indiana in an 8 vs. 9 game on Thursday in Chicago.
52. Oregon Ducks
The Ducks are not reaching the NCAA tournament without a run to the title in the Pac-12 tournament, but they've won four in a row -- including a win at top-seeded Washington last week -- and have the ability to make that run. Payton Pritchard (12.2 points, 4.3 assists per game) is a nice player.
When you have a lottery pick such as Ja Morant, you can beat somebody in the NCAA tournament. Murray State is more than Morant, but Morant is the difference-maker. Murray State played Alabama and Auburn to six- and five-point losses, respectively.
54. Butler Bulldogs
The Bulldogs are just one game over .500, but the metrics systems like them, thanks to wins over Ole Miss and Florida and the absence of a lot of truly bad losses. With Kamar Baldwin (17.5 points, 5.0 rebounds per game) leading the way, they are capable of making a run at Madison Square Garden.
55. TCU Horned Frogs
TCU is another team that enters the conference tournament without much momentum, as Jamie Dixon's group is 2-6 in its past eight. But a decisive win at Texas in the regular-season finale gives the Horned Frogs hope. Desmond Bane (15.2 points per game) has to play well for TCU.
56. Furman Paladins
Furman is going to be an interesting case for the selection committee, as its win against Villanova back on Nov. 17 still looks very good on the résumé. The Paladins also lost to Wofford and UNC Greensboro twice each. They made 56.9 percent of their 2-point baskets this year, which was top-10 in the country.
The Aggies have won 16 straight games since losing their WAC opener at Cal Baptist on Jan. 3, and there's every reason to expect them to keep the streak alive in the conference tournament. Senior Eli Chuha (9.9 points, 6.8 rebounds per game) is good around the rim for a team that likes to slow you down.
The Spartans played well against Wofford in the Southern Conference title game, but it was not to be. The six losses on their résumé are all to quality teams (Kentucky, LSU, Furman, Wofford three times), but the lack of a truly distinctive win could hurt them.
The Crimson Tide will have to make some noise in the SEC tournament if they want to get back to the NCAAs, and they'll have to start by beating Ole Miss. Whatever happens, the future is bright for an Alabama team led by point guard Kira Lewis (13.9 points per game), the youngest regular in Division I basketball at 17 years, 11 months.
The Buffaloes are another group that could make a run in a wide-open Pac-12 tournament -- they're 8-3 in their past 11 games entering the tournament and have a winnable game against Cal in round one. Tyler Bey (13.4 points, 9.6 rebounds per game) is an underrated player nationally.
61. Lipscomb Bisons
This is a good team worthy of consideration, but Lipscomb lost twice to Belmont. At the very least, Belmont has to get into the field before Lipscomb. The Bisons' selection would give a national audience a chance to witness the skills of guard Garrison Mathews (20.1 points per game), who has been a double-digit scorer in 22 straight games, including against probable tournament teams Louisville, Clemson and Vermont.
The Huskies are in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015 after handling CAA regular-season champion Hofstra in the conference final on Tuesday. Bill Coen's squad has a good player in senior Vasa Pusica (17.6 points per game), the Serbian guard and San Diego transfer.
The Catamounts opened the door to history when they were upset by UMBC in the America East final last year, and they'll have a chance to avenge that defeat against the Retrievers on Saturday. Anthony Lamb was the league's player of the year after leading the conference in scoring (20.8 points per game) and rebounds (8.0 per game).
John Brannen's Norse are in the tournament for the second time in three seasons after winning the Horizon League final on Tuesday. Senior Drew McDonald (19.3 points, 9.5 rebounds per game), who was on the team when NKU gave Kentucky all it could handle back in the 2017 tournament, will get another opportunity in the spotlight.
65. Liberty Flames
The Flames got the college basketball world's attention when they hammered UCLA back in December. The Atlantic Sun tournament champs are going to play slowly (they're 349th in adjusted tempo, per KenPom), and they're going to make shots -- 56.9 percent on 2s and 77.9 percent at the line are both top-10 nationally.
66. Bradley Braves
Bradley won three close, low-scoring games to take the Missouri Valley Conference crown, and tight, half-court defense is going to be its M.O. in the NCAA tournament as well. MVC opponents shot just 31 percent from 3-point range against the Braves, and Bradley allowed just 39 made 2-point baskets in the entire conference tourney.
67. Iona Gaels
Tim Cluess has Iona in the tournament for the fourth straight year and sixth time in the past eight, and this group of Gaels can really score. Iona has four double-figure scorers, and point guard Rickey McGill (15.5 points per game) and forward E.J. Crawford (17.9 points per game) have each reached double-figures in their past eight games.
The Bulldogs are going dancing for the first time in school history, and a team that beat both Georgia Tech and Wake Forest in the nonconference is not going to fear a bigger-conference foe. Tim Craft's group shoots it well: 37.7 percent on 3s and 53.8 percent on 2s heading into the NCAA tournament.