Interpretive Dance: A Sweet finish could be in store for Cal

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 what teams are gaining and what teams are losing ground in the march toward the NCAA Tournament.  

DA BULLS (MOVING UP) 

Wisconsin Badgers (16-9, RPI: 49, SOS: 14, Current Seed: 8)

Beer, cheese, the Packers, corrupt sheriffs, busted fantasy running backs and Badger tourney appearances – that's what Wisconsin is known for. Thought to be six-feet under when the ball dropped on 2016, the Badgers are very much alive for an at-large. Credit Greg Gard. When Bo Ryan shockingly stepped down in December, Wisconsin had the look of a basement-bound team. Horrendous downfalls to Milwaukee and Marquette had it teetering on .500. A 1-4 start in Big Ten play only complicated matters. But Gard's commitment, timely tweaks and overall execution have the Badgers, winners of seven in a row, on pace to secure their 18th-straight NCAA Tournament bid. Considering how far they've come, their rebound is nothing short of remarkable. The reasons for the turnaround: 1) Tough halfcourt defense. Wisky has forced turnovers on 20.4 percent of opponent possessions in B1G play. 2) Outside touch. Since early January, the Badgers have tickled the twine netting 38.8 percent of their three-point attempts. During that stretch arc assassin Bronson Koenig drained at least three treys in a contest six times. 3) Vitto Brown. The junior forward has added a much-needed third scorer which has taken pressure off Nigel Hayes and Koenig. He's scored a combined 51 points in his past three games. Though coursing an encouraging path, Bucky isn't quite out of the woods. Brutal road matchups at Michigan St., Iowa and Purdue could run it through the ringer. Still, play .500 ball the rest of the way and an invitation to the Dance is a foregone conclusion. 

California Golden Bears (17-8, RPI: 27, SOS: 16, Current Seed: 7) 

The Golden Bears, doing their best 'Revenant' impersonation, are starting to maul the competition. In back-to-back home games, they turned Beaver State reps Oregon and Oregon St. into pelts, winning by 20 and 12 points respectively. Cuonzo Martin has assembled a potentially lethal team. Paired with talented upperclassman Tyrone Wallace, Jordan Matthews and Jabari Bird, freshmen Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, both projected NBA lottery picks, have proven indispensable. Brown has scored double-figures in 10 consecutive games. Rabb, meanwhile, has developed into a paint enforcer functioning as the club's premier rebounder/shot blocker. Opponent threes have bit the Bears at times, but they deny down low and possess the athleticism, length and balance indicative of at Sweet Sixteen contender. And don't judge them harshly for their January swoon. Wallace's five-game absence due to a broken hand explains the underachievement. With only one true road win to Cal's name (Wyoming), it must thicken away from Haas, especially down the stretch. Four of its last six games are on the road. Split in those contests and handle UCLA and USC at home, and the Bears have a reasonable chance at a No. 6 seed. Regardless of their tourney slotting, this is a squad with bracket-wrecking qualities. Remember the name when filling out your brackets. 

Texas Tech Red Raiders (16-9, RPI: 27, SOS: 3, Current Seed: 10)

Bellied up to a bar watching highlights of Texas Tech's latest top-25 toppling Wednesday night and a fellow patron blurted out "Is that Tubby?" Yes, believe it or not, the 64-year-old Smith, in his fifth head gig, is showing he still owns the coaching chops. Other than Wisconsin, no team has rocketed up the Big Board over the past week than the fine technical institution in Lubbock. During that stretch its registered wins against some of the Big 12's elites, undercutting Iowa St., Baylor and, most recently, Oklahoma. Wednesday's heart-stopper over the Sooners wasn't without controversy. Toddrick Gotcher's overly jubilant sprint up the court, with ball in hand and ticks remaining on the clock, should've given Buddy Hield one last shot. However, it was as a win and, most importantly for tourney selection exercises, a triumph over a top-10 RPI team. Match that with 'Tech's shiny No. 3 strength of schedule and it has a healthy argument for an at-large bid. Keep in mind it possesses more RPI top-50 wins than Duke, Purdue and Arizona. Punctual contributions from swingman Aaron Ross and Keenan Evans has the Red Raiders offense humming. As a team, they've totaled a blistering 1.22 points per possession in their last three games. Difficult road tilts at Kansas and West Virginia remain, but if TTU goes 3-2 rest of the way, the Selection Committee will be hard-pressed to leave it out of the field. 

DA BEARS (MOVING DOWN) 

Oregon Ducks (20-6, RPI: 3, SOS: 2, Current Seed: 3) 

Less than 10 days ago there were few ripples on the pond. With a top-three strength of schedule and RPI and numerous signature wins, the Ducks were in position to compete for a No. 1 seed. But one road trashing in Berkeley and unexpected slide at Stanford later, and the former Pac-12 pacesetter is on the verge of becoming foie gras. Tied atop the league pecking order with Arizona, and with Utah, Colorado, USC and Cal nipping at their heels, Oregon is no longer a lock even for a top-three overall seed. Make no mistake, despite its recent slide, this is still a club capable of stringing together multiple postseason wins. Equipped with bouncy bigs and smooth, speedy guards, the Ducks present ample matchup problems. Dillion Brooks and Elgin Cooks, who combined average 30.5 points per game, are established scorers. Their contributions along with Tyler Dorsey's outside accuracy (40.2 3PT%), Travis Benjamin's versatility and Chris Boucher's shot-blocking ability make the Quackers balanced. Lapses on D are responsible for their recent decline, but if Dana Altman can reverse the trend, they should sprint to the finish line. Their next three, against Oregon St. and the Washington schools, are at the Knight Center. A pair of road bouts in LA round out the regular season. Assuming Oregon can go at least 4-1 over that span and show respectably in the Pac-12 tourney, it should seal a No. 3 or a No. 2 seed. 

Wichita St. Shockers (19-7, RPI: 49, SOS: 91, Current Seed: 8) 

Unable to dodge the scythe, the Wheat Shockers, a near at-large lock just two weeks ago, have themselves in a perilous position. Crippling losses to Illinois St. and Northern Iowa, a pair of 100-plus RPI black eyes, leaves Wichita with zero margin for error. Secondary measurements, like KenPom.com, view the Missouri Valley rep fondly (Rank No. 11), but a meatless resume should have Shocker Nation feeling squeamish. A 17-point take down of Utah in non-conference action is its only top-85 KenPom win. Stumble again, and reputation alone won't save it. To prevent another catastrophe, engine-drivers Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker must shoot the rock better. Against the Redbirds and Panthers they were a hideous 4-for-29 from three. Wichita regained its legs versus New Mexico St., and the Selection Committee will surely take into account its myriad early-season injuries, but securing the Valley's auto bid is almost a necessity. Similar to a St. Joe's or St. Mary's, the quality wins just aren't there. Still, if they can sneak into the field, watch out. Baker and VanVleet's experience and the Shockers' rigid defense (No. 2 in D efficiency nationally) could threaten a big boy if they land on the 8/9 line. 

South Carolina Gamecocks (21-5, RPI: 34, SOS: 117, Current Seed: 8) 

Sliced and diced by the competition, the Gamecocks were turned into a nacho topping versus Kentucky and, unbelievably, Missouri. Though spanked by the Wildcats on their home floor, the lopsided loss wasn't completely unexpected. Big Blue's rich talent and stalwart D completely overwhelmed them. Whether in zone or man, they simply couldn't slow down Tyler Ulis and Jamaal Murray. In that contest South Carolina yielded a season-worst 1.25 points per possession. Equally deplorable on offense, it doesn't take a brainiac to understand why it suffered the 27-point defeat. What's most puzzling, and potentially troubling, was USC's downfall to Mizzou, which prior to delivering the shocker special was 2-10 in SEC action. Frank Martin's club did coax 17 turnovers in the game, but once again failed miserably on the offensive end, netting 0.89 points per possession. When at their best, the Gamecocks put up a wall defensively. They generate tons of offensive boards, draw contact and get to the line. However, on the other end, they often fall asleep at the wheel. Duane Notice and Michael Carrera are the only true outside threats on roster and Sindarius Threadwell is wildly inconsistent. Because of their horrid non-conference strength of schedule and with only one quality opponent left on the schedule (Florida), an unfavorable seed, presumably in the No. 7-9 range, awaits. 

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