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Three under-the-radar threats to make noise in March Madness

Butler could be a team to watch in March. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The top teams in men’s college basketball are starting to assert themselves. No. 1 Baylor went undefeated in January, including a big win over No. 3 Kansas, and hasn’t lost since early November. No. 2 Gonzaga, No. 4 San Diego State, and No. 6 Dayton are also perfect in the new year, while No. 5 Louisville handed No. 7 Duke its third loss of the season.

All seven of those teams should feature prominently when March Madness brackets are filled out next month. However, it’s not too early to search out contenders flying below the radar that could also make an appearance in this year’s Final Four. Here are three to watch.

(Seed projections are an average based on 99 bracket projections tracked by Bracket Matrix.)

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No. 19 Butler, Big East (18-5, 6-4)

NET ranking: 12, projected seed: 4

The Bulldogs have eight Quadrant 1 wins in 2019-20 including Wednesday night’s buzzer-beater against No. 10 Villanova at home. Senior Kamar Baldwin, a preseason all-Big East first team selection and a recent Big East player of the week, is averaging 16 points per game (18.7 points per game against Big East opponents) and accounting for more than a third of the team’s shots per night, the 12th largest share of a team’s offense in the country. Baldwin, along with the efficient shooting Sean McDermott (66 percent effective field goal rate, 16th best in the nation), help make Butler one of the more efficient offenses in the country (24th per Ken Pomeroy’s college basketball ratings).

Since the tournament expanded to 68 teams in 2011, 26 of the 36 Final Four teams have ranked 25th or better in Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive rating on Selection Sunday. That offense, combined with good closeouts against jump shooters (0.8 points allowed per possession that ends in a jump shot, per Synergy Sports, ranking in the 95th percentile), makes Butler a threat in this year’s tournament.

No. 23 Arizona, Pac-12 (16-6, 6-3)

NET ranking: 8, projected seed: 6

According to the 62 rating systems audited by Kenneth Massey, Arizona is the 12th best team in the nation. Some of those systems are more bullish than others, including the NCAA’s NET rating (eighth overall) and Pomeroy’s college basketball ratings (11th overall). Since the tournament expanded to 68 teams in 2011, 23 of the 36 Final Four teams have ranked 12th or better in Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency rating on Selection Sunday.

The Wildcats’ offense is scoring 115.6 points per 100 possessions after adjusting for strength of schedule (eighth best in the country) and has room to improve with Stone Gettings’s recent promotion into the starting lineup. The 6-foot-9, 230-pound stretch-four is shooting 50 percent from beyond the three-point line (11 for 22) and is proving to be a tough defender on the perimeter as well. He, along with 6-foot-11 Zeke Nnaji, provide Arizona with a strong presence against both spot-up shooters and post-up players, limiting half-court offenses to a scoring rate of 37 percent (79th percentile).

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Ohio State, Big Ten (15-7, 5-6)

NET ranking: 16, projected seed: 7

The Big Ten is stacked this year. The conference has 11 teams in the NCAA tournament field in Patrick Stevens’s latest bracketology, with Minnesota giving the conference a chance at a record 12 teams in the Big Dance. The Buckeyes got off to a shaky start in league play, but they can be projected to finish 11-9 in the conference. They’re also one of two teams in the conference with an adjusted offense and defense efficiency rating in the Top 25, according to Pomeroy. (No. 16 Michigan State is the other.)

Ohio State’s overall adjusted efficiency rating (plus-22.3) is also the 12th best in college basketball this season and the third best in the conference. Since the tournament expanded to 68 teams in 2011, 28 of the 36 Final Four teams have had an adjusted efficiency of 22 net points or more on Selection Sunday.

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