Still, a bit more than half of the season is complete, and some NCAA tournament regulars appear to be in for long slogs to the finish line, while other teams long absent from the bracket harbor realistic hopes for inclusion in the field of 68.
A look, then, at each group — five teams everyone is accustomed to seeing in the bracket scuffling in 2020, and five with a chance of ending long NCAA tournament droughts in two months.
(All rankings, records and statistics entering Saturday’s games.)
Crashing: North Carolina (NET ranking: 119; KenPom ranking: 87; nine bids in a row)
The Tar Heels are 8-8 after losing to Clemson at home for the first time in forever. In 17 of Roy Williams’s first 31 seasons as a head coach, his teams lost less than eight games for the year. Only once has one of his teams dropped more than 12. This is just about terra incognita for Ol’ Roy.
North Carolina will be far better off on a game-to-game basis once freshman point guard Cole Anthony returns from knee surgery. Still, the Tar Heels are already in a hole after home losses to Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Clemson (not to mention last month’s loss to Wofford at the Dean Dome). They have a lot of work to do to climb back into the postseason conversation.
Party crashing? Rutgers (NET: 22; KenPom: 28; last bid: 1991)
Yes, Rutgers (13-4, 4-2 Big Ten) looks like it’s for real. Yes, that concept takes some getting used to. But Coach Steve Pikiell’s Scarlet Knights are built on a miserly defense, one that held up well even when junior guard Geo Baker missed three games with a broken thumb.
Baker returned in Wednesday’s defeat of Indiana, and sophomore wing Ron Harper Jr. has made a healthy jump in his second season. With the Big Ten littered with plenty of capable teams but few or no elite ones, the Scarlet Knights have no shortage of opportunities for quality victories the rest of the way.
Crashing: Iowa State (NET: 67; KenPom: 56; seven bids in eight years)
The good news for the Cyclones: They’re the highest-ranked team in the NET without a winning record. The bad news? They’re 8-8 after dropping four of the last five, including a New Year’s Eve debacle against Florida A&M.
There aren’t many easy outs in the Big 12, which will make the next two months a challenge. But at least Iowa State has sophomore guard Tyrese Halliburton, who is averaging 15.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 7.8 assists even after struggling against Baylor and Kansas. According to College Basketball Reference, only two players have maintained those averages over a full season since 1992-93: California’s Jason Kidd in 1993-94 and Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine in 2015-16.
Party crashing? DePaul (NET: 63; KenPom: 67; last bid: 2004)
The 0-4 Big East start is not encouraging for the Blue Demons (12-5), who picked off Iowa, Minnesota and Texas Tech in nonconference play. Still, DePaul hasn’t been its usual Big East self — which is to say, generally overmatched — while losing its last four by a combined 20 points.
A turnaround probably needs to start on a three-game homestand beginning Saturday against Butler, but the Charlie Moore-led Blue Demons at least have some hope.
Crashing: Syracuse (NET: 77; KenPom: 53; nine bids in 11 years)
Probably the team with the most hope for this season among those “crashing,” the Orange (10-7, 3-3 ACC) is coming off consecutive victories over Virginia and Boston College. Syracuse hasn’t done anything especially bad so far, but it doesn’t have much in the way of high-end accomplishments, either.
The relatively down ACC will both help and hurt Coach Jim Boeheim’s team. While the league has plenty of potential pitfalls, its top tier appears to hold only three teams. Unfortunately for wing Elijah Hughes and the Orange, Syracuse will only get one shot at each of Duke, Florida State and Louisville in the regular season.
Party crashing? Duquesne (NET: 55; KenPom: 81; last bid: 1977)
The Dukes aren’t overwhelmingly accomplished, having played no Quadrant 1 games yet. They’re 15-2, though, and have rolled to a 5-0 start in Atlantic 10 with defeats of Saint Louis, Davidson and three programs in the midst of rebuilds (Fordham, George Washington and Saint Joseph’s).
Duquesne would have to pile up a bunch of victories to harbor at-large hopes, but it's not to be underestimated in a tournament setting under Coach Keith Dambot. Led by Marcus Weathers (13.9 points, 8.2 rebounds per game) and point guard Sincere Carry (11.5 points, 3.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists per game), the Dukes are likely to win more than 21 games in a season for the first time since 1962.
Crashing: Cincinnati (NET: 64; KenPom: 48; nine bids in a row)
The Bearcats (10-7, 3-2 American) were one of the nation’s most reliable teams under Mick Cronin, certain to make a postseason appearance but unlikely to go far over the last decade. Cincinnati made it out of the first weekend just once during its nine-year streak, and Cronin scooted across the continent to UCLA after last season.
This year’s Bearcats have already dropped games to Bowling Green (on a neutral court), Patriot League favorite Colgate (at home) and Tulane (away), and their most noteworthy triumphs are Connecticut, Tennessee and Vermont. Cincinnati isn’t finished in Coach John Brannen’s first season, but its margin for error has already narrowed.
Party crashing? Furman (NET: 89; KenPom: 83; last bid: 1980)
A darling of the early stages of last season, the Paladins (15-5, 5-2) are one of several quality teams in the deep Southern Conference. It’s one-bid territory — which sets up the SoCon’s as one of the most exciting league tournaments come March — and the likes of East Tennessee State, UNC Greensboro, Western Carolina and Wofford, which beat the visiting Paladins on Friday night, will have a say, too. But after landing an NIT berth last season, Furman could go a step further in 2020.
Crashing: Kansas State (NET: 103; KenPom: 103; eight bids in 10 years)
This one doesn’t look surprising in retrospect. The Wildcats graduated three senior starters with long track records of production, and there wasn’t enough in reserve to replace them.
The nutshell description of K-State’s season to date: An elite defense is now merely decent, and what was a decent enough offense has cratered. The Wildcats (7-9, 0-4 Big 12) are a combined 0-9 in Quadrant 1 and Quadrant 2 games, and still have two games apiece left against Baylor, Kansas and West Virginia.
Party crashing? William & Mary (NET: 101; KenPom: 128; last bid: never)
The Tribe saw part of its nucleus scatter after the firing of longtime coach Tony Shaver last March. But former George Mason assistant Dane Fischer has done wonders in his first year in Williamsburg, leading William & Mary to its first 6-0 start in conference play since 1982-83.
It helps to have one of the best mid-major players in the land in senior forward Nathan Knight (20.3 points, 10.6 rebounds per game), and Wisconsin transfer Andy Van Vliet (14.5 points, 9.1 rebounds per game) helps form an imposing front line.
The Tribe (14-5) is part of the Forgotten Four (along with Army, St. Francis of Brooklyn and The Citadel), schools that have been part of Division I since its inception but have no NCAA tournament appearances. Having already taken down Hofstra and Northeastern on the road and College of Charleston at home, William & Mary will be a factor in March’s Colonial Athletic Association tournament in Washington.