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Ben Billman’s NCAA Basketball Mailbag

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Scottie Lindsey completes a slam dunk for the Northwestern basketball team. Photo: Rachel Dubner/The Daily Northwestern

Selection Sunday is less than two months away. Conference play is heating up, and NCAA tournament resumes are being built.  There is to better time than right now to begin answering important questions about college basketball teams and conferences. Each week, I will be fielding questions from friends, family, and colleagues. I will choose some of the best questions and answer them in a mailbag format. Feel free to send me questions about your favorite college basketball team or conference, and I will be glad to answer them.

Q: Is this the year Northwestern finally breaks through and makes the NCAA tournament?

A: There has not been much to cheer about in the history of Northwestern basketball, but the team is in great position currently to get a bid. They are in the top 40 in the RPI rankings right now. They have nice wins over Dayton and Wake Forest, and all four of their losses have been in close games to good teams.  The wildcats are 4-2 in the Big Ten. If they can get to 10 conference wins, they should be in good shape to make their first NCAA tournament. I like their chances.

Q: How many NCAA tournament bids will the SEC receive?

A: Kentucky is by far the best team in the SEC, and there is no question they will get a bid. It gets murky with the other 13 schools. Florida and South Carolina both look like solid teams that should finish second and third in the conference.  They both sit in the top 25 currently. If the SEC is going to get a fourth team in the tournament, one team must rise out of the middle of the pack and win 12 or 13 conference games. This group includes Alabama, Georgia, Auburn, Mississippi State, Arkansas, and Ole Miss. The SEC will get three bids for sure and maybe four if the right scenario occurs.

Q: Which mid-major teams look like the biggest threats come tournament time?

A: Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s are in a mid-major league, but they aren’t mid-major teams. They will be excluded from this conversation. The two teams that immediately jump out are Illinois State and UNC-Wilmington. Illinois State is 15-4 overall with a 7-0 record in the Missouri Valley Conference. They have a top 30 RPI ranking, and their biggest win came against perennial MVC powerhouse Wichita State. Their four losses were early in the season, and they look like a team that will be tough to beat down the stretch. UNC-Wilmington is currently 17-2 overall with a 6-0 record in the Colonial Athletic Association. They have a top 40 RPI ranking, and both their losses came against teams in the top 50 of the RPI. Don’t forget that UNC-Wilmington took Duke down to the wire last year in the first round of the NCAA tournament. They know how to win, and they will be a team to avoid in March.

Q: Who is the best team in a loaded ACC?

A: The Atlantic Coast Conference is as strong as any conference ever. Other than Boston College, every team has a good opportunity to receive an at-large bid to the tournament if they can finish at least 9-9 in conference play. As far as which team is the best, that is hard to determine right now. Florida State, North Carolina, and Notre Dame are all 5-1 in conference play. Louisville, Virginia, and Duke are all very good, but they all have flaws that hold them back from being the best. At this point, I would have to go with North Carolina. They obviously are coming off a runner-up finish last year, and two of their three losses so far are against Kentucky and Indiana. Since the calendar turned to 2017, they have looked nearly unstoppable. They have double-digit wins over NC State, Florida State, and Syracuse in the past two weeks. The Tar Heels are my choice as the best team in the ACC.

Q: Is this the year the Pac-12 finally returns to the Final Four?

A: The Pac-12 has not sent a team to the Final Four since 2008 when UCLA went for the third straight season. The past decade has been frustrating for west coast teams. Other than Arizona and Oregon, no other school has made much noise past the first weekend of the tournament. That should change this season, and I expect a Pac-12 team to compete for a title. Arizona, Oregon, and UCLA all look like teams that can go far in March. Arizona has a balanced team and has won 10 games in a row. Their only losses were in close games to Butler and Gonzaga. Oregon began the season 2-2 but has since reeled off 14 straight victories. The Ducks have lots of scorers, and they know how to win in March after a run to the elite eight last season. UCLA has been nothing short of great so far this year. Lonzo Ball is a star. The Bruins have one loss, and it came on a buzzer beater at Oregon. As of right now, UCLA looks like a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. If I had to pick one of these teams to make the Final Four, I would have to choose Oregon. The depth and experience of this team should garner them a #1 or #2 seed in the tournament with games close to home. Look for the Ducks to break the Pac-12 drought.

By Ben Billman

Ben Billman is currently a doctoral teaching assistant at the United States Sports Academy. He lives in Mobile, Ala. with his wife Jennifer and son Derrick. He is originally from Indiana, and therefore has a deep love for the game of basketball. Reach him at bbillman@ussa.edu

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