The four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament are there for a reason — they’re good. Here’s a closer look at what makes them worthy of their seeding, and what few weaknesses might be exposed in the tourney:
The defending national champs entered the season as the heavy favorite and just about everyone’s pick — no, I went with Ohio State — to cut down the nets again this April.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski had two likely All-Americans back in the fold: seniors Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler.
Smith had thrived since moving off the ball, and Singler has been a well-rounded player since he arrived in Durham.
The key would be who would replace the three veterans who departed: point guard Jon Scheyer and big men Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek.
Freshman Kyrie Irving came in, and the Blue Devils didn’t miss a beat. In fact, they were an upgrade from last year’s team during the first eight games of the season — playing a fast-paced style that suited Irving’s speed up and down the court.
Then Irving went down with a toe injury on Dec. 4 in a rematch of last year’s national title game against Butler.
He hasn’t played since.
The Blue Devils still managed to secure a No. 1 seed despite boasting a resume that’s not overly intimidating.
There are a couple wins over North Carolina, a victory over Kansas State with Irving in the lineup and one against Temple.
But it’s enough.
Smith has been as productive and steady in every regard as any player in the country. He’s had to handle more ball-handling responsibilities since Irving went down, and he has been able to balance scoring and distributing. He’s exceptionally well-rounded because of his ability to also defend and lead.
Singler hasn’t been nearly as dominant as some expected this season but is still one of the best players in the nation because of his ability to play both ends of the court.
The concerns have been up front where Coach K hasn’t gotten much production, especially scoring-wise, from the Plumlee brothers.
Miles is a solid player, but younger brother Mason has a chance to be a star. Just ask Marquette, which watched him dominate in the post to the tune of 25 points and 12 boards back in November.
But that was with Irving in the lineup. Mason hasn’t been the same since.
Although Duke didn’t win the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season crown, the Blue Devils did exact a measure of revenge on rival North Carolina with a resounding win in the ACC tournament title game.
They won 30 games this year — and with or without Irving, they still have a shot at defending their title.
Why they’ll get to Houston: Been there, done that. Smith and Singler know what it takes to win a national title.
Why they’ll flame out early: Far too reliant on the 3-ball. The Blue Devils don’t have anyone they can throw it into and get a bucket down low, so they live and die with the 3-pointer.
Key to their title hopes: Irving needs to come back, which doesn’t appear likely. He started practicing a little bit this past week. The other X factor would be if Mason Plumlee can show what he did back against Marquette.
A year ago, the Jayhawks went into the NCAA tournament as the clear-cut front-runner and were shell-shocked in a second-round loss to Northern Iowa.
This is a completely different group without Cole Aldrich, Sherron Collins and Xavier Henry.
Bill Self’s team has actually found a way to slide under the radar despite a 32-2 record, another Big 12 regular-season crown and also winning the league tournament after a resounding victory over Texas in the championship game on Saturday.
This is group that has battled plenty of adversity.
It started with the NCAA suspension of highly touted freshman guard Josh Selby, which forced him to sit the first semester.
There was the tragedy involving sophomore forward Thomas Robinson — he lost both of his grandparents and his mother within a three-week span.
Starting point guard Tyshawn Taylor was suspended late in the season, and leadership has been a concern this season with Marcus Morris being asked to take the reins.
The Jayhawks still managed to earn a No. 1 seed.
The resume wasn’t overly impressive as Kansas struggled against much of the Pac-10 in the nonconference slate, pulling away from Arizona in Las Vegas and going down to the wire with both UCLA and USC in Lawrence.
Then there was the league setback at home to Texas just hours after the team learned that Robinson’s mother had passed away — and the shellacking the Jayhawks took down the road in Manhattan in mid-February from a hungry Kansas State group.
But Self has gotten this team peaking at the right time.
The versatile Morris twins — Marcus and Markieff — have carried the Jayhawks for most of the year. The duo averaged more than 30 points and 15 boards per game.
Marcus has received most of the attention, but Markieff has 11 double-doubles this season and has developed into one of the elite big men in the nation.
Senior guards Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar aren’t flashy, but they give the Jayhawks experienced guards who can shoot the ball and make quality decisions.
But the X factor might be Selby, who was regarded as one of the top freshmen in the country but just hasn’t found his stride after sitting out and then battling injuries.
Even without Selby making much of an impact, this Kansas team is dangerous. In fact, the chemistry on the court is clearly superior with Taylor, Reed and Morningstar on the perimeter and the Morris Twins down low.
Taylor had one of his best games of the season in the Big 12 title game, and Self has depth with such guys as Robinson, Selby, Elijah Johnson and Mario Little coming off the bench.
The Jayhawks may not go into the Big Dance this year as the favorite, but they have a shot to win it all.
Why they’ll get to Houston: The Jayhawks are the most talented team in the country from top to bottom.
Why they’ll flame out early: Leadership. It scares me having to rely on Marcus Morris leading this team to six consecutive wins.
Key to their title hopes: Selby — The complexion of this team changed when the athletic freshman guard was added to the mix. Selby is the one guy on this team who can create something out of nothing, but he hasn’t showed much of that thus far and has had difficulty adjusting to the college game.
Thad Matta lost the National Player of the Year Evan Turner to the NBA after last season, yet somehow the Buckeyes are more dangerous.
It’s because this Ohio State group doesn’t have a glaring weakness after the addition of a strong freshman class led by slightly rotund big man Jared Sullinger and hard-nosed, underrated point guard Aaron Craft.
It seems as though David Lighty, who came into Columbus with Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr., has been there forever — and he has become one of the more underrated players in the country.
Lighty does it all — scores when necessary, rebounds, defends — and leads. Fellow senior Jon Diebler is one of the elite perimeter shooters in the nation, shooting nearly 50 percent from beyond the arc — and junior William Buford is a versatile scorer who is one of four guys who can stroke the ball from the perimeter.
But the difference in this team is the addition of Sullinger and Craft.
The Buckeyes have the inside presence they were sorely lacking a year ago, and Matta also has a pure floor leader this season instead of Turner, who was forced to run the team simply because of a lack of other options.
Sullinger is a highly touted freshman who has lived up to the hype, dominating in the paint with his scoring ability and his rebounding prowess. He has been a double-double machine who has also done a terrific job blending in rather than walking in and demanding attention.
With Sullinger on the court and shooters spread throughout the floor, it’s the ultimate game of “pick your poison” for opposing coaches. Do you double-team the big man and leave a shooter open or try to guard Sullinger with one defender?
There’s no simple answer.
Craft has been as nearly as critical to the Buckeyes’ success as Sullinger. He doesn’t look the part, but he runs the team, is a terrific defender, makes shots when necessary and is the final piece to the puzzle.
The Buckeyes go only seven deep, but that’s truly all you need in March — and Matta isn’t one to wear down his players during the season with grueling three-hour practices.
They have a veteran, serviceable big man in Dallas Lauderdale who starts the game but logs only about 16 minutes. Another frosh, Deshaun Thomas, comes off the bench and gives Matta another scorer, averaging 7.8 points in about 14 minutes a game.
Ohio State finished 32-2 and won the Big Ten tournament on Sunday afternoon. The two losses were on the road against Wisconsin and Purdue, a pair of Top 25 teams.
The Buckeyes went into the season as just another top-10 team, chasing the defending national champion Duke Blue Devils. But Matta & Co. finished it with the bull’s-eye on their backs.
This is a team not just capable of cutting down the nets in Houston, but one many people now expect to win it all (especially since Duke is without Irving on the court).
They have a stud down low, good shooters and they defend. Maybe as important as anything else, their pieces just seem to fit together perfectly.
Why they’ll get to Houston: The Buckeyes have guards, shooters, an inside presence and chemistry. And they also have two of the best defenders in the nation with Lighty and Craft.
Why they’ll flame out early: This is a team that has remained healthy all year long, but it goes only seven players deep. If one of their key guys gets hurt or gets into foul trouble, the Buckeyes can be had.
Key to their title hopes: Diebler — Sure, there are other guys who can make shots, but when Diebler is on, these guys are virtually unbeatable.
They aren’t glamorous, don’t have that big-name star and they rarely blow you away with their play.
The Pittsburgh Panthers just win.
Jamie Dixon has done a terrific job since he inherited this program from Ben Howland in 2003, although the detractors continue to point to the lack of a Final Four appearance.
This might be Pittsburgh’s best shot yet.
The Panthers were picked to win the Big East before the start of the season and wound up claiming the regular-season title in the toughest league in America.
It’s no surprise that this is a team built on experience and toughness since that’s the way Howland built the program and the way Dixon has continued to run it.
The backcourt is clearly this team’s strength, but there’s enough balance and big bodies up front to enable Dixon to play a variety of different ways.
The Panthers can grind you out in the half-court — as they have been known to do in the past — and can also push the ball in the open court.
Junior Ashton Gibbs leads the team in scoring and can really fill it up from the perimeter. His backcourt mate, senior Brad Wanamaker, is as underrated as anyone in the country.
Wanamaker is the team’s leader while also averaging a dozen points and more than five assists and rebounds. Gibbs made 48 percent of his trifectas this season.
Fifth-year senior Gilbert Brown brings athleticism and an improved perimeter shot, and big man Gary McGhee, another senior, has made vast strides — and has become one of the elite post defenders in the country and a capable scorer.
Dixon also starts Nasir Robinson, who does a little bit of everything.
However, McGhee is the anchor of a group that is relentless on the glass and outrebounds its opponents by more than 10 a game.
There’s no shortage of depth coming off the bench, as well. Travon Woodall filled in admirably for an injured Gibbs earlier this season, Dante Taylor is a former McDonald’s All-American and J.J. Moore could be a star down the road. Big man Talib Zanna, who started at the beginning of the season, is coming off an injury but has plenty of upside.
If you are looking for the “wow” factor, go look elsewhere.
This team doesn’t have the sex appeal of, say, a Duke, Kansas or Ohio State. But it wins.
The Panthers won 27 times this season, won the Big East regular-season crown and were knocked out of the conference tournament in the semifinals by eventual champion UConn.
Dixon’s team earned a No. 1 seed. Now it will try and make history and become the first squad in the history of the program to advance to the Final Four.
Why they’ll get to Houston: The Panthers are tough, have no shortage of experience and have won in the best league in America.
Why they’ll flame out early: If Gibbs doesn’t make shots from the perimeter, the Panthers could struggle. Brown has shot a good percentage this season, but he’s not a lights-out shooter.
Key to their title hopes: As much as Gibbs making perimeter shots is critical, so is the presence of McGhee in the lineup. He stabilizes this team on the defensive end and is also key for the Panthers’ dominance on the glass.