As Selection Sunday and the ensuing madness that occurs afterwards draws closer, nerves and excitement have slowly begun to reach a boiling point. Pundits and experts have already started predicting contenders and sleepers for the big dance. Meanwhile, struggling teams have less than three weeks to determine how to break out of their respective funks.
So much is made of momentum in sports, especially for March Madness. While momentum is not the deciding factor of a possible tournament run (see South Carolina and Oregon last season), it certainly does not hurt to establish a sense of urgency by making a run in conference tournament play.
There are several teams across the country that need to right the ship during conference tournament play. Let’s take a look at a couple of teams that need to see an improvement of play in order to avoid an early exit during March Madness.
Coach Chris Beard has done a marvelous job in turning this Texas Tech team into a contender this season. He rightfully deserves to be in contention for Coach of the year. However, with that being said, Beard has the unenviable task of getting the Red Raiders back on track. Tech has lost four straight games, blowing their opportunity to capture the program’s first Big 12 regular season title.
The Red Raiders seemingly lost their way in their 59-57 loss at Baylor. Keenan Evans, Tech’s star senior guard, did not play in the second half as he left the game with turf toe. Without Evans running the offense, Beard’s squad lacked a consistent scoring threat at the end of the game. Texas Tech’s blueprint for winning games all season long as been to play tough, gritty defense while scoring through Evans.
Much to the horror of Tech fans across the nation, the play of Evans was severely affected by his turf toe. Evans’s productivity dropped off significantly while playing through the turf toe. In Tech’s 79-71 loss to Oklahoma State, Evans was limited to 2 points on 14 percent shooting from the field. In Tech’s biggest game of the season, a 74-72 loss to Kansas, Evans struggled again, only scoring 6 points on 17 percent shooting.
It may seem illogical to place so much weight on the shoulders of one player, but Evans is a semi-finalist for the Naismith award. A healthy offense entirely alters the method opposing teams approach defending this Tech offense. With turf toe, Evans has to wear a different shoe size to increase support and that has limited his explosiveness and ability to create separation off the ball. While other Tech players such as freshmen Jarrett Culver and Zhaire Smith, Beard needs Evans healthy if Texas Tech wants to make a run in March Madness.
Much like Chris Beard, Coach Bruce Pearl has masterfully crafted Auburn into a surprise contender this season. Despite losing Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley, Pearl has coached Auburn to an impressive 12-5 SEC record and 24-6 non-conference mark. However, after Auburn’s 76-66 win over Kentucky, Auburn has dropped three of four.
Auburn lost sophomore Anfernee McLemore to a season-ending injury in their 84-75 loss at South Carolina. This was a crucial blow to a team that lacked front court depth before the injury. McLemore, a 6-foot-7 forward, played a crucial role in defending the rim for Auburn. While he was not an offensive juggernaut, his size, strength and athleticism on defense allowed Pearl to play small ball.
This injury has forced Pearl to turn to freshman Chuma Okeke for increased playing time. Okeke played well in Auburn’s 72-66 loss to Florida, scoring 12 points and hauling in 10 rebounds. However, he struggled to efficiently put the ball in the basket against Arkansas, scoring 5 points on 25 percent shooting.
The biggest problem Auburn has encountered of late has been the shooting inefficiency of Bryce Brown. In Auburn’s 91-82 loss to Arkansas, Brown only scored 12 points on 31 percent shooting. Brown struggled in Auburn’s loss to Florida as well, scoring 6 points on 25 percent shooting. Brown averages 15.9 points per game. If Auburn wants to make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, Brown needs to snap out of this shooting slump.
Featured image by Butch Dill/AP.
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