(Photo Courtesy of USA Today)
With the Super Bowl now in the books, a fair number of football fans will now turn their attention to college basketball. For those fans that are just tuning in, there are more than a few national championship contenders this season. Since KenPom started tracking college basketball statistics in 2002, no national champion contender has ever finished outside the top 40 in either offensive or defensive efficiency. In fact, the average national champion has finished the season with an average ranking inside the top 10 in both of these categories. They have also had an average of the 13th toughest schedule by strength of schedule, and finished with an average overall ranking of third in the final rankings. Using this information, I will aim to give all the contenders for this year’s national championship, including the fringe candidates, candidates who may not be healthy enough, and the obvious candidates as well. The “Outside Shot” Candidates Cincinnati The Bearcats have done well this season, despite losing major pieces in Gary Clark and Jacob Evans from last year’s team. However, they only rank 30th in offense and 39th in defense, and have the 141st ranked schedule. If things break right, this team could make a run in March, but a title is highly unlikely.
Marquette This is arguably the best team Wojo has ever had at Marquette, with one of the best scorers in country on the roster in Markus Howard. The defense is also among the best Marquette has fielded under Wojo. The offense is only 26th however, and the defense is only 35th. Like UC, if things break right for Marquette they could make a deep run in the tournament, but a title would be a surprise.
Baylor Baylor ranks in the top 30 for both offense and defense, but also rank outside the top 20. Like most teams in this section, they could possibly make a deep run, but even reaching the title game isn’t likely. Florida State This Florida State team made an Elite Eight run last season, and still have the core of that team this season. Their offense barely cracks the top 40 (37th) though, which keeps them out of the legitimate threat category for now.
Nebraska Nebraska is a balanced team, with the offense (28th) and defense (32nd) ranking within four spots of each other, but neither is truly top tier when compared to the other contenders. They also haven’t made a tournament appearance since 2014, so there isn’t any recent history to judge how the team would perform in the tournament. Wisconsin The Badgers have a top tier defense, which ranks sixth in the country. However, the offense ranks only 27th. They have a greater shot to win the title than most teams in this category, but the offense may not be enough to get them over the top. Louisville Louisville is coming off a rough season in which they missed the tournament, but new head coach Chris Mack has the Cardinals squarely in the tournament right now. They rank 15th overall in KenPom, but the offense (16th) and defense (27th) may not be enough come tournament time. The Teams Affected by Injuries Michigan St. Michigan State would be definitively in the title discussion, if not for a season-ending injury to Joshua Langford, who was averaging 15 points per game for the Spartans, and back-to-back losses to Purdue and Indiana. They still rank in the top ten in both offense (6th) and defense (9th), and fourth overall, but the true effects of the injury on the team still aren’t known. Kansas The loss of Udoka Azubuike hit the Jayhawks hard, as he was by far their best big man, and Silvio de Sousa, who would have provided depth, was recently ruled ineligible through the end of next season. The offense also only ranks 25th. Bill Self has a history of tournament success, so a deep run is still possible, but it’s hard to imagine a title for Kansas this season. The “Close, but Not Quite” Candidates Michigan Michigan, despite losing Moe Wagner, is still a dominant team this season. Zavier Simpson, Charles Matthews, Ignas Brazdeikis, Jordan Poole and Jon Teske have all stepped up in their roles. Michigan is the top defensive team in the country, but the offense is lacking. The Wolverines are only 42nd in the country on offense. If they can up their offensive game, this team is a real threat to win. Until then, they’re not. Tennessee Tennessee is in a similar boat to Michigan. The Volunteers are the second best team in the country on offense, and Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield are both having fantastic seasons. Williams is even a national player of the year candidate. However, the defense is only 44th in the country. If the defense improves, then, like Michigan, Tennessee is a real title threat. Until then, they likely aren’t. Gonzaga Gonzaga has the top offense in the country. They have a proven coach in Mark Few who led the Zags to the tournament final just two years ago. However, the defense is only 37th in the country. They are like a better version of Tennessee in this sense. Where Tennessee has the edge of over Gonzaga is strength of schedule. Gonzaga’s SOS is only 104th in the nation, which would be by far the lowest since KenPom started keeping stats. They are still capable of making a deep run, but the lack of true tests and a defense that’s on the low end of the contenders could keep them from winning this year. Nevada Nevada came into the season as a consensus top 10 team and regarded as the best mid major squad. They haven’t quite lived up to that billing, but the Wolf Pack are still a top 20 team with an offense that ranks 24th and a defense that ranks 20th. They made the Sweet 16 in last year’s tournament, and this year’s team seems to be better. Like Gonzaga though, Nevada has a strength of schedule outside 100 at 102. This is capable of a very deep run, but probably not a title. Buffalo Buffalo is fresh off an upset of Arizona in last year’s tournament, so we know they can perform on that stage. However, both the offense and defense rank in the 20s, 24th and 28th respectively, so a title run may be a tall task, but a deep run is not out of the question. Iowa State Iowa State ranks 12th overall, and have the 13th ranked offense and the 19th ranked defense. The Cyclones also have a top 50 strength of schedule and enough top end talent they could play spoiler to one of the top teams. They may not be able to win the title, making the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight is absolutely possible for this team. Definite Threats Virginia The top ranked team in KenPom, Virginia looks even better this year than they did last year, when they earned the top overall seed in the tournament. Both the offense (5th) and defense (2nd) rank inside the top five, and they’ve only lost one game to this point. That game was a two point loss, on the road, against Duke. The last time Virginia had both offense and defense ranked in the top 10, 2016, they made the Elite Eight. The Cavaliers are a very real threat to win it all this year, more so than they’ve ever been. Duke Duke is just behind Virginia in KenPom rankings, with both their offense and defense ranking fourth in the country. This is as talented of a team that Coach K has fielded in Durham, but the one thing that could trip them up is their youth. They rank 347th in the nation in experience, with the average player having less than a year of experience. Even still, this team is capable of dominating on both ends of the floor, has two national player of the year candidates in Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett, and arguably the best coach in college basketball history. They are absolutely a threat to win it all. North Carolina North Carolina is a few spots lower in the overall rankings than their ACC counterparts, but the Tar Heels are still a dangerous team. They rank in the top 15 on both offense (11th) and defense (14th). They have 6th best strength of schedule, multiple seniors who play major roles, and a coach who led them to a title two years ago. They may not be on the level of Virginia or Duke, but in a one game scenario they could beat either and are a definite title contender. Virginia Tech The Hokies are 8th in the overall rankings, have a top ten offense (7th) and a top 20 defense (16th). They may not have the resume of the other three teams in this category, but Virginia Tech has been very good all season, save for their loss at Penn State. They could make a run at the title, and have the top level talent to do so. Kentucky Kentucky did not start off the season well, getting blown out by Duke in their first game of the season. This is not the same team, however, as Kentucky has transformed since they lost the conference opener. They have won every game since then, and only one win was by fewer than eight points. They rank eighth on defense now and are 17th on offense. They are even younger than Duke, but the Wildcats seem to be putting everything together. If they can keep this up through March, they could give Calipari his second title at Kentucky.
*All stats are official on KenPom as of Monday, February 4th.*
Donnie Menke is currently a writer for "Banners on the Parkway" on SB Nation covering the Xavier Musketeers. Donnie is also a huge Xavier Basketball & College Basketball fan. If you want to discuss this article with Donnie, Find him here