This article is part of our College Hoops Barometer series.
March is just around the corner, meaning all eyes will descend upon the college basketball world. Let's take a quick look at some storylines we are following as the calendar turns to embrace the madness.
1. There will be no undefeated teams heading into the big dance. San Diego State, the last of the unblemished, succumbed to UNLV on Saturday by a score of 66-63. As alluded to in prior articles, this may be a blessing in disguise for the Aztecs, as the pressure of maintaining an undefeated season has gone by the wayside, leaving the focus elsewhere.
2. Watch out for BYU. The Cougars just dismantled Gonzaga behind 28 points and 10 rebounds from man-child Yoeli Childs. BYU has reeled off eight-straight victories. If Childs can stay on the court (he's battled injury this season), the Cougars could be a difficult out in the 3-5 seed range.
3. Barring a miracle in the ACC Tournament, the North Carolina Tar Heels will miss the big dance for the first time in 10 years, and just the third time this century. It will be odd for an NCAA Tournament to be played without that Carolina blue.
4. Dayton has a 17-game winning streak and two total losses on the season, aforementioned San Diego State has one loss, and Gonzaga has two. It will be interesting to see where teams outside the Power 5 Conferences are seeded. Gonzaga has earned a No. 1 seed in the past, but how will the resumes of the Aztecs (Mountain West) and Flyers (Atlantic 10) be viewed?
5. Keep an eye on some repeat performers in the upset portion of the NCAA Tournament. Liberty currently leads the Atlantic Sun and won a 12-5 trap game over Mississippi State in the tourney last season. It looks like either 2018 Final Four darling Loyola Chicago or former Cinderella Northern Iowa will represent the Missouri Valley Conference. Stephen F. Austin is 24-3 on the season; the Lumberjacks have been to the tournament four times since 2014 and secured upset wins twice.
Now let's turn the focus to players making an impact as the calendar turns to the most exciting month of the year.
Udoka Azubuike, C, Kansas – Kansas missed out on at least a share of the Big 12 regular season title last season for the first time since 2004. However, the Jayhawks flexed their muscle in a tight win over Baylor, once again asserting themselves as top dog in the conference. The Jayhawks have been led of late by their senior big man, as Azubuike collected 23 points, 19 rebounds and three rejections in the 64-61 thriller over Baylor. He followed that performance up with another dominant double-double, tallying 19 points and 16 rebounds in an 83-58 thrashing of Oklahoma State. Azubuike leads the Big 12 in rebounding and field-goal percentage by wide margins, and is second in blocks behind TCU's Kevin Samuel. Kansas is riding a 13-game winning streak and has ascended to the No. 1 spot in the polls. The interior presence of Azubuike has been vital during this stretch.
Trayce Jackson-Davis, F, Indiana – Is the Big Ten the best conference in college basketball? As of right now, they could see as many as 10 teams in the big dance. The Hoosiers appear to be firmly on the bubble at this time but wins over Minnesota and surprising Penn State will certainly help their cause. Jackson-Davis was dynamic in those two victories, tallying double-doubles in each contest. That included a monstrous 27-point, 16-rebound performance in the triumph over the Golden Gophers. That's nine double-doubles on the year for the 6-foot-9 freshman, including three in his last four outings. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Indiana is 9-0 when Jackson-Davis records a double-double. Indiana still has some work to do, but the Hoosiers should be in capable hands with Jackson-Davis.
Luwane Pipkins, G, Providence – The Friars are making a push for the NCAA Tournament, and Pipkins has been the catalyst for Providence's recent three-game winning streak. Over that span, the UMass transfer is averaging 17.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.0 steals. After coming off the bench for six games, Pipkins was reinserted into the starting lineup, and the move has paid immediate dividends. Providence is now 9-6 in Big East conference play; two of their last three victories even came against ranked opponents in the form of Seton Hall and Marquette. Pipkins poured in a season-high 24 points in the win over the Golden Eagles.
Trent Forrest, G, Florida State – Forrest can impact the game in a variety of ways, but his increased scoring of late has raised his value even more. Forrest has scored in double figures in seven-straight outings for the Seminoles, who once again look poised for a deep run in March. During that seven-game string, Forrest is also managing 4.7 boards, 4.0 assists and 2.6 steals per contest. He swiped a staggering eight passes in a loss to Duke on February 10, the only loss for FSU during that stretch. He nearly had an unconventional triple-double with 18 points, nine rebounds and the eight steals. Forrest is second in the ACC in thefts. The Seminoles have a deep, balanced squad, but Forrest is the motor, and he is either first, second or third in every major category on the team.
Saddiq Bey, F, Villanova – Bey has the size and skill set to be an impact player at the next level, as he continues to ascend during his breakout sophomore campaign. Over his last six contests, Bey is averaging 18.7 points per game. He has scored at least 20 points in four of those six outings and is shooting close to 50-percent from three-point range during that time frame. Bey is certainly no one-trick pony, though, as he dished out seven assists in a thrashing of DePaul on Feb. 19, while snatching eight rebounds against Temple on Feb. 16. His versatility has been key for a Wildcat squad that is rather thin, so it remains to be seen if Bey will eventually hit a wall due to playing such heavy minutes and carrying such a heavy burden. As of now, though, the Wildcats have won four in a row, and Villanova once again appears poised to make some noise in March.
R.J. Nembhard, G, TCU – A groin injury sidelined Nembhard for TCU's last game, a 65-59 loss at Iowa State on Tuesday. The sophomore is second on the team in scoring and dishing, and fourth on the squad in rebounding. The Horned Frogs have fallen on hard times of late; after beginning the season 13-3, TCU has limped to a 2-10 record the rest of the way. Senior Edric Dennis should fill the minutes vacated by Nembhard should the latter miss any more time, while freshman P.J. Fuller and leading scorer Desmond Bane will also pitch in. The Horned Frogs are terribly thin without Nembhard, who could be lost for the remainder of the regular season at the very least.
Franz Wagner, G/F, Michigan – The younger brother of former Wolverine Moritz Wagner, Franz is a freshman who appears to have gained the trust of first-year coach Juwan Howard. After not playing in the first four games of the season, Wagner has started every contest for the Wolverines, and he has been playing heavy minutes since the calendar turned to the year 2020. Wagner has been particularly potent of late, averaging 14.0 points and 5.3 rebounds over the last three contests, all wins for Michigan. That includes a career-high 22 points in a win at Purdue on Saturday. Wagner is hitting 42.9 percent from downtown during the last three tilts. With a slighter build and more of a guard's handle as compared to his older brother, Franz will be asked to handle a complementary scoring role alongside Isaiah Livers, Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske and company.
Malik Williams, C, Louisville – Williams played his way into the starting five for the Cardinals, only to suffer an ankle injury early on in his third-straight start, forcing him out for the remainder of Monday's clash with Florida State. He was seen sporting a walking boot on his left foot. In the six games prior to being injured, Williams was averaging 13.3 points and 6.8 rebounds per contest. That included a double-double against Syracuse on February 19. Look for Steven Enoch to return to the starting lineup if Williams misses additional time. Enoch started the first 26 games of the season but had seen his production dip in the beginning of February, which resulted in the swap with Williams. Now it appears Enoch may get his starting slot back by default.
John Petty, G, Alabama – Petty suffered an arm injury during Tuesday's loss to Mississippi State, and his status is unknown moving forward. Petty had been one of the few constants for the Tide prior to the injury, averaging 15.0 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.6 dimes per contest. Petty was second in scoring and dishing, and first in rebounding. Kira Lewis Jr. went off for 29 points with Petty sidelined, and Lewis should continue to see extremely high usage. Over the last six contests, Lewis is averaging a robust 22.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 2.0 steals. Senior James Bolden could also see an uptick in minutes if Petty has an extended absence, as Alabama attempts to make a late push for inclusion in the bracket.
Nick Rakocevic, F, USC – It's been a down season for Rakocevic, whose numbers have dipped across the board as compared to his figures from his junior campaign. Consistency has been the issue for the senior, who can notch a dominant double-double one game, then seemingly barely register an appearance. Truthfully, his numbers still aren't that bad, with averages of 11.0 points and 8.5 rebounds per contest on the year. However, he had 15 double-doubles last year, while accumulating just eight thus far this season, including only two such outputs over his last 12 full games. Add in a bout with an undisclosed illness – which caused him to depart after just five minutes Sunday and leaves him questionable at this juncture – and Rakocevic has had a slightly disappointing year for the Trojans.