It’s the best time of year. March Madness kicks off later this week, featuring 52 games this week that will trim a field of 68 all the way down to 16 by next Monday. There will be Cinderella teams, entertaining games and shots that make one fan base elated, and another disappointed. But the tournament doesn’t end there. The three week event will crown college basketball’s national champion on April 8th. Who are the real threats to win it all?
The criteria: I heard on ESPN radio that going into the tournament, every national champion in the KenPom era entered the tournament with both offense and defense ranked in the top 30, and at least one of those two ranked in the top 15. I confirmed this through my own research, and that is the criteria used here. Each contender has both their offense and defense ranked in the top 30 and at least one ranked in the top 15. This list also features teams that just missed the cut, who either had both offense and defense ranked in the top 30, but neither in the top 15, or who had a unit ranked in the top 15 but had the other outside the top 30.
National Championship Contenders: Duke O: 6, D: 6 With Zion back, this team is the obvious favorite to win the title. Before he got hurt, Duke was the clear cut best team in the country. Now, with him back, a strong supporting cast, and one of the best coaches in college basketball history, the top overall seed in the tournament is the biggest threat to win it all. RJ Barrett is a National Player of the Year candidate himself, and Cam Reddish and Tre Jones make Duke the most talented team in the country. If they can stay healthy, most teams will struggle to keep up. Virginia O: 2, D: 5 The Cavaliers were the first 1 seed to lose to a 16 seed last season, but don’t count on that to happen again. Virginia is fully healthy, have a star in DeAndre Hunter, and are in a region that favors their style of play. They made the Elite 8 in 2015, but Tony Bennett is still missing a Final Four. This year is probably his best chance yet. North Carolina O: 7, D: 10 The Tar Heels have been the best team in the country over the last month. They also have multiple NBA first round prospects, an experienced leader in Luke Maye, and a head coach in Roy Williams who has as much experience as almost anyone. They can struggle with perimeter defense though, and if they meet Auburn in the Sweet 16, it could spell trouble. If they can survive that matchup, or avoid it entirely, a national championship is a very real possibility. Gonzaga O: 1, D: 16 Gonzaga lost in their conference tournament final to St. Mary’s, but that’s their lone bad loss. Their only other losses came against North Carolina and Tennessee. They also have one of the best wins of the season, beating a fully healthy Duke in the final of the Maui Invitational. Their defense could hurt them in a matchup later in the tournament, but making the second should be no problem for them and they’re a strong threat to make the Final Four, and win it all if Duke can’t win their region. Michigan O: 18, D: 2 Michigan has looked like the best team in the country at times this year, but the offense has been inconsistent. They have the defense to give Gonzaga problems in a potential Elite 8 matchup, and could give any team in the country fits if the offense is clicking. Keeping the offense at a high level will be key for the Wolverines this March. Michigan State O: 4, D: 8 Michigan State seems destined to make the Sweet 16. After that, what happens with the Spartans is anyone’s guess. The team has had injuries all season, with Joshua Langford suffering a season ending injury, and Nick Ward missing significant time with a hand injury. Once Ward got healthy, Justin Ahrens suffered a devastating ankle injury with will have him out the rest of the year. But, they have Cassius Winston, the Big Ten Player of the Year, leading the charge and still have versatility on both ends. This team could lose early, or win big. They’re the biggest question mark among the elite right now. Kentucky O: 13, D: 12 The Wildcats are a different team now than they were at the beginning of the season, and with Reid Travis healthy, they have National Championship potential. The defense for Kentucky is elite, but as with Michigan, the offense may cause them bow out earlier than they should. PJ Washington, Keldon Johnson, and Tyler Herro will need to be elite for Kentucky to have a chance at the title. Kentucky could also be hurt by the fact there are two other legitimate contenders in their region, North Carolina and the next team on the list, Houston. Houston O: 24, D: 13 Houston only lost three games combined in their conference regular season and tournament, and their league, the AAC, sent four teams to the tournament. The offense will need to avoid performances like the one in the AAC title game, but the defense is good enough that they should be able to keep all games close to the end. Their region won’t do them any favors, but if they can win it, Houston will have as good of a shot as any in the Final Four. Virginia Tech O: 11, D: 25 Virginia Tech meets the KenPom criteria of a national championship contender, they are getting a key player back in Justin Robinson, and they have an elite coach in Buzz Williams. They were also a crazy buzzer beater away from the ACC semifinals. However, they have a major obstacle in their way of a potential title run: a likely matchup against Duke in the Sweet 16. The Hokies did beat Duke in the regular season, albeit when Duke was not at full strength. They’re good enough to give Duke a run or even steal the game, but it’s not likely.
Just Missed: Tennessee O: 3, D: 34 Tennessee has one of the strongest resumes in the country, finished second in the SEC regular season and tournament, have an elite offense, a possible first team All-American in Grant Williams, and a top tier coach in Rick Barnes. But, the defense is going to catch up to them at some point. They seem likely to make the second weekend, but they could run into problems stopping teams in the Sweet 16 and beyond, particularly a good three point shooting team. Texas Tech O: 36, D: 1 Texas Tech is very similar to Tennessee. They won a share of the Big 12 regular season title, ending Kansas’ 14 year run, they have a top five draft prospect in Jarrett Culver, and an elite coach in Chris Beard. They have the best defense in the country, but the offense, outside of Culver, is not good enough to win a national championship. In particular, a potential Sweet 16 matchup against Michigan could spell trouble, as they have comparable defenses, but Michigan has the better offense most nights. Purdue O: 5, D: 32 Purdue may not even make it out of the first weekend. If they face Villanova in the Round of 32, it could cause significant matchup problems for Purdue. They also have a history of losing before they’re supposed to in the tournament. Carsen Edwards is one of the best offensive players in the country, but if he has to do it by himself Purdue will be in trouble early. If they do manage to make the Sweet 16, Tennessee is likely the draw, and would likely knock the Boilermakers out. Florida State O: 31, D: 9 Florida State plays incredible defense. They’re talented, have a good coach, and made an Elite 8 run just last season. However, the offense comes and goes too much for them to be a national title threat. They have experience against tough teams, beating Virginia in the ACC tournament semis and hanging with Duke into the second half of the finals. They could very well beat Gonzaga and Michigan or Texas Tech to make the Final Four. But winning the championship may just be above this teams ceiling. Louisville O: 29, D: 17 Chris Mack has this Cardinals team ahead of schedule, and well to make the tournament in a year they weren’t supposed to. Louisville is even the favorite to beat Minnesota in the Round of 64. But the top end talent likely isn’t enough for Louisville to advance any further. They would likely face Michigan State in the Round of 32, a battle Louisville wouldn’t be favored to win. Buffalo O: 19, D: 29 Buffalo ran circles around the MAC this year, going 16-2 in the regular season and winning the conference tournament. They are a 6 seed this year, and will face the winner of Arizona State and St. John’s who face off in the first four. But a potential gauntlet of Texas Tech, Michigan, and Gonzaga or Florida State just to win the region would probably be too much for them. If they would survive that, they could possibly have Duke or Michigan State waiting in the Final Four. Buffalo is a very good team, but they probably aren’t good enough to win a national title.
(photo courtesy of footballscoop.com)
Donnie is a college basketball contributor for Banners on the Parkway. If you wanna talk Hoops with Donnie, Give him a follow!