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The Dagger

Interpretive Dance: Illinois one of five postseason sleepers that could burst a bubble

The Dagger

Still recuperating from your midweek bar crawl? Are you nostril deep in term paper research? Have no fear, fellow bracketeers. As a companion to the Bracket Big Board, the I.D. is here to highlight all the college hardwood action from the week that was and preview the most pivotal matchups of the weekend. Unlike McLovin’s Hawaiian driver's license, there's nothing fake about this I.D. …

Heart-stopping action, buzzer beaters, wild, unpredictable outcomes – the madness of March has officially arrived.

Though half the country remains blanket-wrapped attempting to stave off the latest bone-chilling polar vortex, the college hardwood is heating up. Evidenced last weekend, topsy-turvy days are here again. On Saturday alone, 10 ranked teams were felled by lesser opponents, the most "upsets" on a single day since Jan. 18, 2003. Perennial powerhouses Kansas, Louisville, Michigan St., Syracuse and Kentucky were not immune. As a result, haggard bracketologists, hooked up to caffeine drips, burned the midnight oil as they tried to sort through the insanity.

With the heart of the conference tournament season about to tip off, what occurred last weekend could only be the beginning. In an age dominated by parity, saying this year’s Big Dance will be completely nuts may sound cliché, but if the recent volatility is a harbinger of wackiness to come, postseason tournaments will leave us all drop-jawed.

It's no wonder why Quicken Loans is giving away a billion bucks for a perfect bracket.

Every year, mini-dances from the Atlantic 10 to the West Coast yield a surprise or three. Last March, a couple of desperate teams, most from high-major leagues, caused bubble-minded coaches to apply an extra deodorant layer. Vanderbilt and Utah, for example, were two schools that made stirring runs.

What underdogs could burst bubbles this season? Here are five spoiler schools capable of ruining others' Selection Sunday:

Illinois Fighting Illini (17-13 overall, 6-11 Big Ten) – Roughly three weeks ago, the Illini were in the midst of their worst losing streak in nearly 40 years. A mixture of upperclassmen underachievement, youth inexperience and horrendous shooting had them trending toward a forgettable finish. At 4-10, dead last in the Big Ten, Illinois seemed it would end the season quietly. Throughout the slump, head coach John Groce continuously preached patience, telling his young team to believe in the process. And that it did. Winners of three of their last four, including critical road upsets at Minnesota and at Michigan St., the Illini, with the Michigan three-point bonanza the exception, are playing their best ball since being ranked in December. Clamping down on D, they’ve forced numerous turnovers and successfully challenged shots. Sparked by fab freshmen duo Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, they’ve also improved substantially on offense. When sporting its "A" game this is a team that can hang with anyone in the conference.

Marquette Golden Eagles (17-13 overall, 9-8 Big East) – The always energetic Buzz Williams has sweat through several shirts losing a number of close games to feeble competition, but winners of five of their last eight the Golden Eagles are starting to take flight. Buffet closer Davante Gardner is an untamed beast. Built like a Humvee at 6-foot-9, 290 pounds, he’s a handful to contain down low. His ability to bang inside coupled with Jake Thomas’ smooth outside stroke, makes Marquette extremely dangerous. Collectively, the Eagles have guarded well in Big East play forcing turnovers on 19.5 percent of opponent possessions. Ranked north of 200 in effective field-goal percentage offense, putting ball into basket is often problematic, but if they execute at the level they did against Xavier (1.35 pts/poss) and Georgetown (1.14 pts/poss) they are certainly capable of blazing a trail to the Big East title game.

Utah Utes (20-9 overall, 9-8 Pac-12) – The Huntsman Center is where winning streaks go to die. The Utes, 18-2 at home this year, have routinely upended top competition, including the likes of BYU, UCLA and Arizona St. Road trips have been rather unkind, but the neutral environment in Sin City could bring Larry Krystowiak and company a bit of good fortune. Sound on both ends of the floor, the Utes rank top 55 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They aren’t the most prolific long-distance team around, but Delon Wright and Jordan Loveridge do a good job penetrating the lane and converting opportunities. Collectively, they’ve scored 54.9 percent of their attempts inside the arc, the ninth-best mark in the nation. Additionally, towers Dallin Bachynski, Jeremy Olsen and Renan Lenz are excellent rebounders and shot-blockers, making it tough to net buckets against them in the post. Utah will need to pack its home game for the short flight to Vegas. Do so, and it could definitely channel Cinderella.

N.C. State Wolfpack (18-12 overall, 8-9 ACC)– For those unfamiliar, T.J. Warren is arguably one of the best one-man shows in all of college basketball. Witnessed against Duke earlier this year and in his 41-point demolition of Pitt Tuesday night, the man feeds off the spotlight. Eleven times this season he’s swished 25 or more points in a game. When he and three-point specialist Ralston Turner are working in synchronicity, State is a bugaboo. Overall, the Wolfpack commit few turnovers, crash the offensive glass and ceaselessly attack the rim. More than 62 percent of their points are scored inside the arc, the highest mark in college hoops. Defensively they are highly suspect giving up 1.05 point per possession. They also struggle at the charity stripe, making late-game situations adventurous. Still, if Warren can carry his guys and State plays at least average defense, it could rock the ACC tourney.

West Virginia Mountaineers (16-14 overall, 8-9 Big 12) – For all intents and purposes this season was widely considered a rebuilding year for Bob Huggins and his Mountaineers. His very young squad was expected to take its lumps, finishing near the bottom in the Big 12. However, just below .500 in league play, it's surprised. Sophomore Eron Harris has developed his game rapidly, pouring in 17.6 points per game, many of those buckets coming from three-land (41.8 3PT percent). He and senior point-man Juwan Staten comprise one of the best backcourts in the league. Overall, the Mountaineers protect the ball incredibly well, splash often from three and execute efficiently on offense. Defense is an ongoing issue and Terry Henderson’s ongoing back problems are worrisome, but if it exhibits a fiery hand WVU has a legitimate shot to make a run.

Rehearse your choreographed moves one last time. Get into costume. And press "play" on your boombox. It's time for an Interpretive Dance …

MARKET MADNESS

Here are this week’s biggest bracket bulls and bears:

DA BULLS (MOVING UP)

Virginia Cavaliers (25-5, RPI: 9, SOS: 30, Current Seed: 2)
Crowned ACC champs for only the second time since the days this author donned flowing locks and grooved to "No Diggity" (1995), the Cavs have played with class, a certain calculated style and boast quite the profile. Naysayers will contest their favorable unbalanced schedule – they only played Duke and Syracuse once – benefited them greatly. However, this is a well-coached squad, one that presents a matchup nightmare for numerous tourney-bound teams. Just ask Syracuse. Stifling defense is what makes Virginia tick. It employs a methodical, snail-paced tempo, pressures the ball and strangles opponents near the basket. On the year, it's allowed just 0.89 points per possession, the third-lowest total in the country. Because they bleed the shot clock and relish games scored in the 50s, most automatically assume Tony Bennett's kids are challenged offensively. That observation couldn't be further from the truth. Joe Harris and sophomore sensation Malcolm Brogdon are energy efficient producers. They protect the basketball, are willing to make the extra pass and take smart shots. As a whole, Virginia nets 1.13 points per possession, well above the 1.04 D-1 average. It's not the prettiest brand of ball, but the Commonwealth will be a dark-horse Final Four candidate, presumably as a No. 2 or No. 3 seed. No doubt.

Oregon Ducks (21-8, RPI: 31, SOS: 36, Current Seed: 9)
It's been an uneven season for the Fighting Daffies. They raced out to a 13-0 start, beating the likes of Georgetown, Illinois and BYU en route to a top-10 national ranking. Then their true colors surfaced. Losers in eight of their next 10, the much improved Pac-12 cooked the Ducks, trending it toward the NIT. Credit to Dana Altman, he told his club to stay the course. That confidence booster eventually ignited a turnaround. Winners of six straight, including triumphs over a suspension-laden UCLA team on the road and home against Arizona St., Oregon finally has its head above water, sporting a 9-8 league record. During the streak, the Ducks have torched the nets, cashed in at the line, limited turnovers and clamped down defensively. Most importantly, UNLV transfer Mike Moser has finally established himself as a consistent contributor in the post. Over his past seven contests he's averaged 18.3 points and 11.3 boards per game. If his game carries over into the second season, it would be no stretch to think Oregon could win a game or two in the Big Dance. Keep in mind, of its eight downfalls, only one was by double digits (96-83 vs. Cal). Currently projected to land on the No. 9 line, the Quackers are an opponent no No. 8 or No. 1 wants to see.

Baylor Bears (20-10, RPI: 41, SOS: 9, Current Seed: 8)
More Teddy Ruxpins than ferocious grizzlies, the Bears were in deep hibernation just weeks ago. At 2-8 in Big 12 play, they had fallen several branches down the ugly tree. Recall this was a team many considered to be a legitimate contender to Kansas and Oklahoma St. in arguably the most loaded conference in the country. Now winners of six of their past seven games, the Bears have officially crawled out of the cave. Exhibiting stiffer defense, generating plentiful second-chance opportunities and killing it from three, they've started to live up to the preseason promise. Given Baylor's extreme length – Cory Jefferson, Isaac Austin and Rico Gathers, all 6-foot-8-plus, comprise an intimidating front line – above average depth and Brady Heslip's ability to plunge daggers from long-range (45.6 3PT percentage), it's a scary projected No. 7-9 seed that could topple Goliath. Remember it when the brackets are unveiled next week.

Also Flaming: Arkansas, Oklahoma St., Nebraska, Dayton

DA BEARS (MOVING DOWN)

Michigan St. Spartans (22-7, RPI: 23, SOS: 20, Current Seed: 4)
This year, the only ladder Tom Izzo may dance on is the one in a television commercial. Traditionally, the Spartans peak in March, leaving broken hearts and dashed dreams in their aftermath. However, this season, they've headed in the opposite direction. Beleaguered due to a constant flow of injury misfortune, they've dropped six of their past 10 games, capped by a humiliating effort against Illinois in East Lansing last Saturday. Izzo vows his team will make a deep tourney run, but his confidence is artificially inflated. Though everyone is finally active, State is far from 100-percent healthy. Branden Dawson is still working his way back from a broken hand and Keith Appling continues to deal with ongoing wrist pain. The former should shake off the rust in short order, but how the latter performs offensively is critical to Sparty's postseason success. Time is also working against it. Can MSU realistically jell with two regular season games and an unknown amount of Big Ten tourney games left? It seems unrealistic. With the turnover bug biting and the Spartans' defense unraveling, it could easily fall victim to Cinderella. Be wary.

Kentucky Wildcats (22-8, RPI: 19, SOS: 10, Current Seed: 8)
Unrest in Lexington? Talk to any die-hard Kentucky fan and they'll happily voice their disappointment. John Calipari's recruitment of one-and-done players simply isn't working. Kansas, which fielded an entirely new starting lineup to start the year, was able to reload without losing its punch. However, the 'Cats, throwing one weak jab after another, have. The consensus No. 1 team preseason has officially hit rock bottom. Last weekend's embarrassing road loss to then 10-win South Carolina has Kentucky soul-searching. This is a team that can still defend and, thanks in large part to Julius Randle's gifted skill set, ranks No. 1 nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, but its lack of cohesiveness and high number of self-inflicted wounds explain its precarious position. Turnovers, especially committed by point guard Andrew Harrison, and awful three-point shooting (32.2 3PT percentage) have caged the 'Cats. Essentially, they don't have the toughness or glue guys necessary to advance deep in a single-elimination format. Ousted by Robert Morris in the opening round of the NIT last year, they are likely to suffer a similar fate as a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament this season. Hey John, five stars aren't everything.

St. Louis Billikens (25-5, RPI: 22, SOS: 74, Current Seed: 5)
Next to the Clydesdales and Cardinals, there's nothing more beloved in St. Louis than the Billikens. Sorry Sam Bradford. Since Rick Majerus' passing nearly two years ago, Jim Crews has done a marvelous job carrying on the legendary coach's legacy. Loaded with seniors, all of whom were recruited by Majerus, the Atlantic 10 pacesetter is a team that rebounds terrifically and sells out defensively. It ranks inside the top 30 in several defensive categories, including three-point percentage D, turnover percentage and defensive efficiency. Unfortunately, sloppy ball-handling and atrocious outside shooting has triggered a small slide. Losers of three straight, one of those missteps inexplicably at home to Duquesne, the Billikens are again looking vulnerable despite a laudable overall record. Point blank, this is a team that doesn't possess the firepower on offense to survive and advance beyond the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Jordair Jett, Dwayne Evans and Rob Loe are incredibly tough, but if matched against a team loaded with athletes they will struggle. For example, VCU, which disposed the Billies 67-56 last week in Richmond, completely outmatched them. If St. Louis wants to taste Sweetness for the first time since the Eisenhower administration, it must find an offensive groove quickly.

Also Laming: Pittsburgh, California, Minnesota

SOWING THE SEEDS

This segment sifts through the bountiful weekend slate to highlight five titanic games that will bear the greatest impact on a team's "Bracket Big Board" standing.

1. North Carolina at Duke
The first time these familiar rivals met, Carolina fans left the Dean Dome grinning from ear-to-ear. Roaring back from a double-digit deficit with about 14 minutes remaining, the Heels outscored the Devils 25-13 over the final 10 minutes to secure the win. Duke spreads opponents out in an attempt to generate space. Because of their sensational long-range game and Jabari Parker's ability to attack the rim, it's a scheme that's worked brilliantly this year. Still, Carolina's length, athleticism and nose for the ball around the rim play into Duke's weaknesses. As always, this will be a seesaw battle, but, at Cameron, the Devils, off a head-scratching loss at Wake Forest, take the day.

Prediction: Duke 75 North Carolina 71

2. Arizona at Oregon
As discussed above, the Ducks have been on one wild ride. However, owners of a six-game win streak, thanks in large part to Moser's beastly efforts, Oregon is firmly in the field of 68. Currently projected as a No. 9 seed, it could easily rocket to a No. 7 with a triumph over mighty Arizona. If the Ducks execute at the level they've exuded in recent weeks, they will skin the 'Cats. Their often torrid three-point shooting and contributions at the free-throw line can really frustrate the competition. Arizona defends wonderfully, but I'm riding the hot hand.

Prediction: Oregon 74 Arizona 71

3. New Mexico at San Diego St.
Over the past month, the Aztecs have slammed on the brakes. Though they've played more controlled, they haven't taken advantage of what they do best – converting turnovers into quick points. They showed flashes of that style against San Jose St., Fresno St. and UNLV, but if another back-alley brawl breaks out against the Lobos, they will be in trouble. Cameron Bairstow's scoring prowess combined with Alex Kirk's shot-blocking ability are problematic for San Diego St. Without a reliable scorer outside Xavier Thames, it's drought prone. New Mexico's disciplined nature also doesn't play into the Aztecs' hands. For all the marbles in the Mountain West, the Lobos emerge champions.

Prediction: New Mexico 60 San Diego St. 57

4. Missouri at Tennessee
Among Selection Committee members, the pleasant exchange between the Tigers and Vols could be viewed as a play-in game. The winner solidifies its standing as an at-large team. Meanwhile, the loser would need a storied run in the SEC tournament to even re-enter the at-large discussion. In the first matchup in Columbia, a foul fest occurred. The two teams combined for 44 hacks and 55 free-throw attempts. Mizzou bested Rocky Top 75-70, but, in the rematch, the script will likely flip. The Vols' unmitigated energy on the offensive glass should greatly exploit a Tigers interior that's woefully under-performed in recent weeks. Unless Jabari Brown chips in 30-plus and Earnest Ross drops in multiple threes, Missouri's tournament hopes will be dashed.

Prediction: Tennessee 77 Missouri 68

5. Harvard at Yale
It's only wise to feature basketball's brainiacs in this space. For starters, they are the future check writers of the world. Secondly, if the Crimson exact revenge on Yale, which beat them in overtime back in early February, they will be the first team to officially dance. Harvard, which ousted New Mexico in the opening round of the NCAAs last year, retained most of its roster from last year's Cinderella squad. Led by Laurent Rivard, the Crimson are better equipped to pull an upset than they were this time a year ago. They've improved tenfold defensively, enticing more turnovers while limiting teams to under 0.95 points per possession. Also potent on offense, they are a viable bracket buster candidate yet again.

Prediction: Harvard 67 Yale 59

Last week's record: 3-2
Overall record: 19-6

Other Notable Games: Michigan St. at Ohio St., Oklahoma St. at Iowa St., SMU at Memphis, Baylor at Kansas St., Connecticut at Louisville, Kentucky at Florida, Colorado at California, Syracuse at Florida St., Wisconsin at Nebraska, St. Louis at UMass

MID-MAJOR HALL OF FAME

What underrated player earned his bust?

John Brown, High Point, F – Plain name, but insanely good game. That's Brown in a nutshell. Rarely seen playing in the underpublicized Big South, the southpaw is a formidable post presence who's developed into one of the most efficient scorers in the country. Blessed with a complete game, he undresses assignments whether on the post, off the bounce or on 18-foot jumpers. He's eclipsed the 25-point threshold in 27 of High Point's 29 games this season. He's also a high-motor defender, chipping in nearly two blocks and two steals per game. If the Panthers, the top-seeded team in the Big South tourney, punch a ticket, they will do so because of Brown's utter domination.

HIGH-MAJOR WALK OF SHAME

What high-profile player took a long, embarrassing walk home?

Nic Moore, SMU, G – George W. Bush, Jerry Jones, Michael Finley, Tony Romo, Jason Witten ... the stars were out at Moody Wednesday night. Sadly, Russ Smith, and Moore, rained on their parade. Larry Brown's leading scorer has had a marvelous year. His assertiveness inside the arc, laser vision and lethal accuracy from downtown have sparked SMU to its finest season in nearly a quarter century. But he picked the wrong time to have his worst game of the year. Against Louisville he finished with only five points and an ugly 1:1 AST:TO ratio in 19 foul-plagued minutes. Despite the misstep, the 'Stangs remain a dangerous team. With the Final Four in their backyard they will be motivated to perform. However, if SMU wants to send a message, it can ill-afford for Moore to log another dud.

BRACKET RACKET

Each week, per your tweets, the Noise will attempt to get inside the mind of Selection Committee chairman Ron Wellman.

Shooting from the hip, I have better odds beating bearded Brett Favre in an arm-wrestling match than the Cowboys do blazing a trail to the Final Four. Marcus Smart has played brilliantly of late, doing the little things necessary to get his team over the hump. On the whole, they've played superb defense over the past couple weeks (0.91 points per possession allowed). However, Okie State doesn't possess the space eaters down low to survive and advance over a multi-game stretch. It's dangerous, but not particularly frightening.

Iowa St., conversely, does own the characteristics of a team that could square dance its way to Dallas. Nearly everyone on the Cyclones roster is an accomplished three-point shooter. Collectively, nearly 39 percent of their points are scored from behind the arc. They also protect the ball well and are above average defensively. Add in Melvin Ejim, Georges Niang and Dustin Hougue's strong rebounding and mid-range skills and DeAndre Kane's lane-penetrating ability, and they are a matchup problem for many. They've struggled down the stretch failing road tests at Kansas St. and Baylor, but the upside is clearly there.

Foes with overwhelming size have bested them this season, but in the right bracket Iowa St. would be an attractive No. 3 or No. 4 capable of stealing the show.

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