Sure, I looked at the Vegas odds for which teams have the best shot at cutting down the nets in Houston at April’s Final Four. But I also looked at the polls. And I talked to coaches. And I pored over the KenPom.com analytics. And I watched way, way too much basketball.
So now, as conference play in college hoops begins, I bring you my 10 teams most likely to win it all in April. I take into account everything: not just a team’s showing in a dozen or so games so far this season but also its potential for growth over the next three months, a coach’s history at boosting his team when it matters most, injury history, a superstar’s potential to put his team on his shoulders – and, of course, my gut.
Feeling generous after the holidays, I even threw in five sleeper teams who could come out of nowhere and make the Final Four.
Enjoy. And debate. There’s one program you’ll be surprised isn’t in my top 10.
1. Kansas. Find a flaw on this team. I dare you. I know I can’t. Depth, experience, balance, shooting, explosiveness, defense – it’s all there. It’s like a Noah’s Ark of basketball in Lawrence because Bill Self has two of everything: Two point guards (Frank Mason and Devonte Graham), two stud freshmen (Cheick Diallo and Calton Bragg), two dead-eye shooters (Brannen Greene and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk) and two upperclassmen who are having their best seasons and who on any given night can be the best player on the team (Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis). It’s Self’s fastest-paced team in Lawrence, which jibes well with the new rules in college hoops. I’m feeling good about my preseason pick to win it all.
2. Michigan State. Can you imagine if Caleb Swanigan had followed through in going to East Lansing instead of opting for Purdue? These guys would be unstoppable. As it stands, Michigan State with Denzel Valentine on the court looks like one of a handful of teams who can claim to be the best in the country. Of course, he’s off the court now, which is why Sparty went to Iowa City and lost its Big Ten opener. As soon as Valentine is back, Michigan State will regain its mojo. I see freshman Deyonta Davis’ development – or at least, his becoming more consistent – as this team’s key for a run in March.
3. Kentucky. Is it crazy to put Kentucky this high, considering the uninspired performances the Wildcats put on in their losses to UCLA and Ohio State? Maybe. But it’s crazier to pick against John Calipari’s ability to bring more out of his talented youngsters by the end of a five-month season than ever seemed possible at the beginning. This pick presupposes that Calipari will be able to get something – anything, really – out of the struggling Haitian freshman big man Skal Labissiere. Add a whiff of Labissiere’s potential to Calipari’s phenomenal three guards (sophomore Tyler Ulis and freshmen Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe), then stir in senior Alex Poythress’s energy and junior Marcus Lee’s big man skills and that’s a recipe for a dangerous team in March. I see this as similar to the Wildcats team from two years ago: They’ll have some bumps along the way, but they will perform when it matters most.
Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield is the type of player who could carry a team all the way to April.
4. Oklahoma. Buddy Hield has been ridiculous this season, reaching 30 points four times. He ranks fourth in college hoops in scoring, and he’s first in KenPom.com’s player of the year rankings. With Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine out (briefly) with an injury, the player of the year race has opened up to include Hield and Providence’s Kris Dunn. Right now, Hield is the pick because his Oklahoma team ranks first on KenPom.com and the Sooners look nearly flawless. I worry a bit about this team’s depth – there’s a big dropoff after Ryan Spangler, Jordan Woodard and Isaiah Cousins – and it’s true that the Sooners have been feasting on mostly inferior competition so far (ranking 83rd in strength of schedule on KenPom.com). But Lon Kruger’s starting five has such great chemistry that, barring injuries, these guys will be around deep into March.
5. Virginia. No team in the country knows its identity better than the Virginia Cavaliers. They’ll squeeze the life out of you on defense and take the time to get a good shot on offense. They embrace this identity, too; Virginia certainly leads the nation in home-crowd appreciation for its defense causing shot-clock violations. But perhaps surprisingly, it’s on the other end of the floor where this team has shone most this year, with the nation’s most efficient offense. This experienced team’s consistency and identity travel well; the Cavs can compete against anyone, anywhere. I’m so used to calling Malcolm Brogdon the most underappreciated player in the country that I forget people are finally seeming to appreciate what the senior can do on a basketball court. So maybe I’ll move on to calling junior point guard London Perrantes the nation’s most underappreciated talent.
6. Maryland. Did you know that Maryland is one of the best shooting teams in the country? The Terps rank fourth in the nation in effective field goal percentage. Three players (Melo Trimble, Rasheed Sulaimon and Jared Nickens) shoot 38 percent or better from 3-point range. They are hugely efficient around the basket, too, especially big man Robert Carter. The main reason these guys could win it all, though, is Trimble. There isn’t a player in the country as solid in the clutch as Trimble. The Terps will be tested in a Big Ten that’s brutal at the top, but they’re as good as anyone.
7. North Carolina. I might be completely off on UNC, and the preseason No. 1 team in the AP Poll might end up as the best team in the country. And when this team goes on a run, it looks like the best team in the country. For some reason, though, I’m hesitant about the Tar Heels. Whether it’s their maddening inconsistency or injury concerns (Marcus Paige and Kennedy Meeks) — or just the fact that all the parts don’t seem to add up to a better whole — I’m not ready to call UNC the favorite to win it all. But it’d be silly to think that a team with this sort of depth and talent can’t use its breakneck pace to run over teams in March.
8. Xavier. I knew these guys were going to be really, really good when I visited in the preseason and saw one of the most athletic teams in the country, now unencumbered by the talented but plodding Matt Stainbrook, who graduated last year. Now, they run and they gun. But even just before the season began, it didn’t seem like coach Chris Mack knew how the point guard position was going to look. Well, it turns out he hit a home run with redshirt freshman point guard Edmond Sumner, who has turned this team’s biggest weakness into one of its biggest strengths. The Big East is going to be a gauntlet this season. I count seven teams who could make the tournament (and yes, struggling Georgetown is still very much in that mix). But right now, even with Jay Wright’s recent history at Villanova and even with Providence’s phenomenal start to its year, you’d have to pick Xavier as the team to beat – especially since Sumner’s New Year’s Eve injury does not appear serious.
Isaac Haas is one of two big men who give Purdue opponents fits.
9. Purdue. With more reliable point guard play, Purdue would be my pick to win it all. That’s how good this team’s defense is, ranked No. 1 in defensive efficiency on KenPom.com. When you play Purdue, you will play all 40 minutes with a seven-footer under the hoop, with Isaac Haas and A.J. Hammons working you over in shifts. Those two have been among the best big men in the country this season, and freshman Caleb Swanigan has been a monster on the boards. It will be interesting to see how coach Matt Painter handles the point guard position moving forward. Will he shift more toward sophomore P.J. Thompson, who has outperformed senior Johnny Hill? If Thompson takes his play to the next level, Purdue will be a trendy pick in a lot of brackets come March.
10. Iowa State. You’re wondering why Duke isn’t on this list, aren’t you? Well: The point guard issues are very real, Grayson Allen has shirked from the biggest lights, and while Brandon Ingram is an absolute stud, Amile Jefferson’s injury is a very big concern. Instead, I’m tossing in my favorite flier, and that’s Iowa State. Why? The Cyclones have the most reliable point guard in the country in Monte Morris, an elite defensive big in Jameel McKay and an unguardable Georges Niang. And Iowa State’s tight road loss to a great Oklahoma squad over the weekend actually makes me believe in this team more. Do the Cyclones have flaws? Yes. And those flaws start and end with defense. But with the right matchups – and with Matt Thomas coming on like he has been in replacing the injured Naz Mitrou-Long’s 3-point shooting abilities – Iowa State can make a run to the Final Four or further, even without great depth.
You never know when a ninth-seeded Wichita State can make a run to the Final Four, or a seventh-seeded UConn can go all the way, or an eighth-seeded Villanova can win it all. Here are five teams who could come out of nowhere to wind up in Houston.
Providence. Do not underestimate the ability of one transcendent player (Kris Dunn) to put a team on his shoulders and take that team all the way. See: Kemba Walker, 2011; Shabazz Napier, 2014. The only question here was whether Providence ought to be in my top 10 instead of my sleeper list. We all know about Dunn, but his complementary pieces – namely, Ben Bentil and Rodney Bullock – have been great surprises for coach Ed Cooley.
California. Freshmen Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb could both be lottery picks. Senior point guard Tyrone Wallace could be a first-rounder. Junior Jabari Bird could blossom into one too before all is said and done. This team has loads of talent. The fact the Bears pushed Virginia into overtime on the road then beat Davidson, Colorado and Utah at home indicates these guys are starting to figure it out.
West Virginia. Never count out what Bob Huggins’ talented PressVirginia team – with the most frenetic system in college hoops – can pull off in a tournament format. So hard to prepare for.
Iowa. I know there’s a big, fat asterisk next to Iowa’s home win over No. 1 Michigan State because the Spartans’ player of the year candidate, Denzel Valentine, was sidelined with injury. But still: Iowa doesn’t have a bad loss on the season and it just beat Purdue on the road. When it lost at Iowa State, on one of the toughest home courts in college hoops, the Hawkeyes were the better team for 38 or so minutes. They start four seniors and a junior, and there’s some great underclassman contributors, namely Dom Uhl and Nicholas Baer. And I’d like to point out one more time that I did not believe Jarrod Uthoff could be The Guy for Iowa going into the season – but I was wrong, wrong, wrong. He’s been an absolute stud. With the right matchups in the tournament, Iowa could make a run.
Dayton. Two words: Archie Miller. Dude can coach anybody up. Two more words: Dyshawn Pierre. Dayton’s best player is finally eligible, though Miller was somehow able to coach the Flyers to a 9-2 record without him. If you’re looking to put a mid-major in your Final Four come March go with these guys — if you even consider Dayton a mid-major — or with Valparaiso.