Bryan Altman, CBS Local Sports

This is the third of five articles covering the best teams in college basketball. While there will be 64 teams entered into the NCAA Tournament, half of them won’t make it through to the second round. Here are the upper-echelon teams, all of which have the potential to make a deep run into the tournament this year.

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(Note: All rankings are based on AP Poll as of March 2)

Outside of the top 10 is usually where brackets are won and lost. Two, three and four seeds can either bomb out in spectacular fashion in the early rounds or can make deep runs into the tournament and even win the entire thing. So here are the teams to really watch closely as we move closer and closer to tournament time.

11. Northern Iowa – 27-3

While Northern Iowa may not be a trendy pick they’re ranked No. 11 in the country for a reason. Let’s see why.

Coach/Conference – Ben Jacobson (9th season) – Missouri Valley Conference

Recent Tournament History – Sweet 16: 2010

Best Player – Seth Tuttle – Tuttle has been a revelation for the Panthers this season. He was named the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year this week and is leading his team in points, assists, rebounds and minutes played per game. 

Important Victories – (8) Wichita State – Beating the Shockers at home at the end of January was a big win for the Panthers and definitely gave them top 15-worthy credentials. 

Important Losses – (8) Wichita State – The loss to the Shockers wasn’t a surprise and meant both teams held serve at home during the regular season. Now it’ll more than likely come down to a neutral turf battle between the two teams to decide the Missouri Valley Conference.

Big Question – How far can they go? – Unfortunately, the sky more than likely isn’t the limit for Northern Iowa but if they can make a run to the Sweet 16 or further it’ll be a major accomplishment for a program that has only done that once before.

12. Notre Dame – 24-5

The Fighting Irish have proven their mettle in ACC play this season and have to be taken seriously as tournament season approaches.

Coach/Conference – Mike Brey (15th season) – ACC

Recent Tournament History – Eliminated in second round 2011, 2012 and 2013 – Missed tournament in 2014

Best Players- Jerian Grant, Pat Connaughton – Notre Dame’s offensive is impeccably balanced but Grant and Connaughton stand above the rest. Grant leads the team in scoring while Connaughton isn’t far behind and leads the team in rebounding. Plus, Connaughton is quite simply a stellar athlete. He was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles as a pitcher in the fourth round and is thought to be capable of pursuing a career in either basketball or baseball when his college days are done. 

Important Victories – (3) Duke, (18) UNC – By beating Duke and UNC, Notre Dame proved to the rest of the ACC that they aren’t to be taken lightly this season.

Important Losses – (2) Virgina, (3) Duke – After beating Duke at home, a loss on the road wasn’t shocking but to lose by 30 points was slightly unsettling. Losing to No. 2 ranked Virginia by only six points is a pretty decent loss as far as losses go.

Big Question – Can they show strongly in the ACC tournament? – If Notre Dame can build some confidence against some of the best talent in college basketball a deep tournament run is highly possible.

SOUTH BEND, IN - JANUARY 28: Demetrius Jackson #11 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates with teammates in the second half of the game against the Duke Blue Devils at Purcell Pavilion on January 28, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Duke 77-73. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

13. Utah – 22-6 

The Utes aren’t exactly a seasoned team when it comes to March Madness but with Delon Wright running the show and a strong regular season anything is possible.

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Coach/Conference – Larry Krystkowiak (4th season) – Pac-12

Recent Tournament History – Eliminated in first round 2009

Best Player – Delon Wright – Delon Wright is a special player and has been the engine driving the Utes all season. If Utah have a magical run in them it’ll be thanks to Wright in all likelihood. 

Important Victories – (8) Wichita State – One glaring issue with Utah is their lack of signature wins – and it’s not for lack of opportunities. However, beating Wichita State does lend Utah some level of respectability.

Important Losses – (5) Arizona – Utah’s biggest obstacle in the Pac-12 is Arizona and losing at home and on the road to them isn’t exactly reassuring should the two teams meet in the Pac-12 tournament or beyond.

Big Question – Can they beat the Wildcats? – For the Utes, expectations are low even with a No. 13 ranking but with a high seed and a possible Pac-12 championship anything is possible. 

14. Baylor – 22-7

The Big 12 is rife with talented teams and the Bears have more than held their own this season. They have some solid showings in the NCAA Tournament the last couple of years to their credit and will be looking to take another step forward.

Coach/Conference – Scott Drew (12 season) – Big 12

Recent Tournament History – Elite Eight: 2010, 2012 – Sweet 16: 2014

Best Player – Taurean Prince – Prince has been a great story both on and off the court. He and his father were homeless for a period of time while Prince was in high school but Prince has rebounded to become the Bears’ most reliable player game in and game out.

Important Victories – (17) Iowa State, (20) West Virgina – It’s been feast of famine for the Bears in the Big 12 this year but they have proven themselves against worth top 25 opponents by going 6-4 against them this year – including wins over Iowa State and West Virginia twice each.

Important Losses – (9) Kansas, Oklahoma State – It seems that Kansas and Oklahoma State have the Bears’ number this year, which could be problematic in the Big 12 tournament. 

Big Question – Can they repeat last year’s impressive Big 12 performance? – Baylor lost in the Big 12 championship to Iowa State but made a splash in the Big-12 tournament by beating Texas, Oklahoma and TCU.

WACO, TX - FEBRUARY 21: Taurean Prince #21 of the Baylor Bears reacts after a made basket by Rico Gathers #2 against the Kansas State Wildcats on February 21, 2015 at the Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

15. Oklahoma – 20-8

Coach/Conference – Lon Kruger – Big 12

Recent Tournament History – Elite Eight: 2009 – Eliminated in second round: 2013. 2014

Best Player – Buddy Hield – Hield has been one of, if not the top player in the Big 12 this year and Oklahoma goes as he goes. Hield leads the team in points per game with 17.2 and is one of the top rebounders too averaging 5.4 rebounds per game. 

Important Games – It’s really tough to pick a few important wins and losses for Oklahoma because they’ve played so many good opponents and have lost and beaten nearly all of them. The beat West Virgina then lost to them, beat Iowa State then lost, beat Baylor then lost so what’s the pattern? Their wins all came at home while their losses all came on the road, which makes them a talented team but not elite. They could however, change that stigma on Saturday night.

Big Question – Can they beat Kansas and end on a high note? – This game is vital for the Sooners in many ways. Firstly it will give them a winning record this year against ranked opponents, which is definitely a confidence booster. On top of that, a confidence booster is definitely something they could use with the Big 12 tournament and the Big Dance coming up right around the bend.

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