Shaka Smart: Marquette 

Shaka burst onto the scene in 2011, leading the VCU Rams to their first Final 4 in program history, including a signature victory over Bill Self and the Kansas Jayhawks in the Elite 8. Since then, Shaka has yet to get back to the second weekend of the big dance, but that is likely to change this season. After being picked 9th in the Big East Preseason Poll, Marquette has been one of the best stories in College Basketball this season, currently sitting at 21-6 overall and by themselves in first place in the Big East.  

This is just one season after Shaka led the Golden Eagles to their first NCAA Tournament since 2019, in his first season on the job. The thing that makes this Marquette team really impressive, is the fact they lost each of their two leading scorers from last season in Justin Lewis and Darryl Morsell and are still in this position. Tyler Kolek, has played at a Big East Player of the Year type level, as he is currently leading the Big East and is second overall in the country in Assists per game at 7.6.  

In addition, Kolek has added the dynamic of shooting the ball from long range, shooting the three ball at a 38.8% clip, after only shooting 28% from three last season. In addition, guys like Kam Jones and Oso Ighodaro have really taken the next step as complementary pieces around Kolek and this Golden Eagles offense is among the best in the country. Getting consistent stops on the defensive side of the floor will be the #1 priority for this Marquette team in March, but I trust Shaka Smart’s team to play tough and physical basketball, especially in the most important games of the season. This is the time for Shaka to get back to his first second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, since his original breakthrough at VCU in 2011.  

Mike Boynton Jr.: Oklahoma State 

Boynton is one of the most underrated coaches in the sport, leading Oklahoma State to a #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament and advancing in the big dance back in 2021. In addition, Oklahoma State easily could have made the big dance last season, if it wasn’t for a questionable punishment given to the program by the NCAA. The Cowboys weren’t playing their best basketball in the beginning of the season, taking four losses in non-conference play, including against Southern Illinois and Sam Houston State. In many instances, these are the type of losses that can keep you out of the NCAA Tournament for good.  

The start of Big 12 Conference play wasn’t particularly good either, with the Pokes starting off 1-4 and their backs were really against the wall, especially in a very tough Big 12 Conference. Since that 1-4 start, Oklahoma State is 7-2 with two victories over Iowa State, a victory over TCU and the only two losses were against Kansas and at Texas. There aren’t many teams in the country playing better basketball right now, and the dynamic duo of Bryce Thomspon and Kalib Boone can put up buckets against anyone in the country. Thompson has been a guy known for putting the ball in the basket since the beginning of his college career at Kansas, however Boone is someone who has really stepped up recently. The Senior had 27 points in the Pokes’ narrow loss to Kansas on Wednesday, and even scored 25 points in Oklahoma State’s victory over TCU on February 4th.  

This scoring punch has been much needed, following the loss of Senior Guard Avery Anderson III for the season with a wrist injury. Boynton is a coach that will break through sooner rather than later, and this team that is playing their best basketball at the perfect time, can definitely be the one to do it.  

Mick Cronin: UCLA 

Mick led UCLA to the Final 4 in only his second season on the job in 2021, and has been a hire that couldn’t have aged any better up to this point. While there were plenty of questions about the fit of a hard-tough nosed guy like Mick, recruiting some of the best and most talented players in the country to play for him, those have been dismissed based on everything he’s accomplished so far in Westwood. This season, UCLA brought back a legitimate core made up of a handful of players that are still around from that miraculous Final 4 run in 2021.  

There aren’t many better players in College Basketball right now than Jamie Jaquez Jr., who has played in over 120 games throughout his college career, with over 1500 points during that stretch. Jaquez has really elevated his game so far this season, including a masterful 25-point, 12 rebound performance in UCLA’s victory against Oregon on Saturday night. Also, there aren’t many Point Guards in the country more reliable Tyger Campbell. Another Senior with plenty of NCAA Tournament experience, Campbell is currently 4th in the Pac 12 in assists per game and is a maestro in the mid-range. UCLA has an uncanny formula to win games, that includes playing elite defense and hitting a handful of mid-range jump shots.  

One major difference between this UCLA team and the Bruins we saw two years ago, is the development of Jaylen Clark. Only averaging 2.5 points in 9 minutes per game as a Freshman, Clark has burst onto the scene as one of the best and most versatile, valuable players in the sport. As one of the elite defenders in the sport, Clark not only leads the Pac-12 in Steals per game with 2.7, but that also ranks third in all of College Basketball. Clark has also shown his ability to contribute on the offensive side of the floor, averaging 13.2 points per game and hit the game winning three-pointer with under 10 seconds left to give UCLA the victory over USC on January 5th. Clark isn’t even the only premier defender on this Bruins team, considering Freshman big man Adem Bona is 4th in the Pac 12 in blocks per game with 1.5. I believe in this Bruins team to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament based on their combination of coaching and experience.  

Kevin Keatts: NC State 

Despite a nightmare 2022 season that featured a last place finish in the ACC, Kevin Keatts is one of the more underrated coaches in the country and is significantly better than people realize. The former UNC Wilmington Head Coach, led NC State to the big dance in his first season on the job in 2018 and has knocked on the tournament door a handful of times outside of that. In a similar way to Oklahoma State, the guard trio of Jarkel Joiner, Terquavion Smith and Casey Morsell has the ability to hit shots and keep the Wolfpack in any game they are in. Smith decided to return to school after putting up phenomenal numbers as a Freshman last season, despite NC State not having a ton of success.  

Sometimes all it takes is just to get one key player to return to school and hitting the transfer portal to turn things around and that’s exactly what Kevin Keatts did. Each of these three Guards alongside big man D.J Burns, are averaging in double figures scoring the basketball and we still have yet to see the best version of NC State. La Salle transfer Jack Clark, just returned to the court after suffering a core muscle injury in December. Clark is one of NC State’s premier and more versatile defenders and will make a big difference, returning to the lineup. One factor I usually look towards when determining if a team can have success in the big dance, is the ability to win on the road.  

NC State has proven they have the ability to win away from their home gym, with two very impressive road victories over Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, this season. NC State has also been really solid at home with a 6-1 record in their building during ACC play, and that will be tested on Sunday in their rivalry game against North Carolina. This game will be a massive opportunity for the Wolfpack to show just how good and dangerous this team is. NC State has not won an NCAA Tournament game since their run to the Sweet 16 in 2015, and that is something that is likely to change this season.  

Buzz Williams: Texas A&M 

If you were to ask any College Basketball fan which team in the SEC is in second place and only one game behind Alabama, odds are they wouldn’t say the Texas Aggies. However in the middle of February, that is exactly how things stand and Buzz is looking to punch his ticket to the big dance as Head Coach of the Aggies for the first time. The season didn’t start great for Texas A&M, dropping games during non-conference play to Murray State and Wofford. In many cases these losses are so damaging that they flat out prevent you from getting a bid to the big dance. However, the Aggies are 11-2 in SEC play and have really used their homecourt to their advantage. Texas A&M is 7-0 at home so far during conference play with victories over Missouri, Auburn, Florida and Arkansas.  

In addition, the Aggies will have two monster home games remaining against Tennessee and Alabama, which are both monster opportunities to move the needle. The one thing not everyone may realize about the Aggies, was this team started playing their best basketball at the perfect time last season and showed some real signs of progress during the SEC Tournament last season. To wrap up 2022, Texas A&M won their final 4 games of the regular season and pulled off another three wins to start off the SEC Tournament, before falling to Tennessee in the title game.  

Two of these wins came over the same Auburn team that won the conference regular season title and Arkansas who ended up going to the Elite 8. Texas A&M has a core group of players that decided to come back to school that signed to close last season, including Tyreece Radford, Wade Taylor IV, Henry Coleman and others. Buzz Williams is a coach that got to the second weekend at both Marquette and Virginia Tech, so no one should be surprised when the eventual breakthrough comes at Texas A&M. 

Brad Underwood: Illinois 

I would rank Underwood towards the top of the most underrated coaches in the country list, and it is only a matter of time until he breaks through in the big dance. Underwood was able to win multiple NCAA Tournament games during his time at Stephen F. Austin, and even got Oklahoma State to the big dance in his one and only season in Stillwater. Despite making each of the last two NCAA Tournaments with Illinois, Underwood is still looking to break through and while this Illinois team can be frustrating at times, this may be the year to do it.  

The Fighting Illini have caught some really tough breaks in each of their prior tournament appearances under Underwood. Primarily, Illinois was a #1 seed after winning the Big Ten Tournament, and caught a brutal break drawing a very under seeded Loyola Chicago team in the Round of 32. Last season, after advancing to the Round of 32 for the second straight NCAA Tournament, Illinois drew the same Houston team that just made the Final 4 a year prior and were ranked in the Top 10 if not better in most metrics.  

There is no doubt this season’s Illinois team can be very hit or miss, with victories over UCLA, Texas, Rutgers at Wisconsin and others. However, they also got run off the floor by Missouri, Penn State twice, Indiana at home and others. On their best night’s guys like Terrence Shannon Jr, Matthew Mayer, Coleman Hawkins and others can help this Illini team compete with any team in the nation and I’d be willing to take the risk that this is finally the year Underwood breaks through in Champagne. For an Illini team that has been very inconsistent for the majority of the season, there is still plenty of basketball left to turn things around and for this Illini team to start playing their best basketball. This team’s ceiling is way too high to not eventually break through.  

Zachary Krull
Zachary Krull

Zac Krull has covered College Basketball for the last 2 years while working with Aaron Torres of Aaron Torres Media and recording his own Zac Krull Sports Podcast. Currently, Zac is writing as a contributor for Aaron Torres online with weekly articles and working as a producer for the BETQL Network. Zac graduated from SUNY Cortland in 2021 with a degree in Sports Studies.