The seven teams that can win the NCAA Tournament
By Mark Titus
FOX Sports College Basketball Analyst
THE OPENING TIP
We did it. We really, really did it. Over the course of last summer, I conditioned myself to believe there wouldn’t be a college basketball season at all in 2020-21, much less an NCAA Tournament. But almost a full year to the day after Rudy Gobert’s positive test shut down the entire sports world, hope is not only on the horizon but also feels like it’s finally at our fingertips. Almost two million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are being administered every day, cases are going down, and the three best words in college basketball are being shouted from the rooftops all across the country …
MARCH IS HERE!
It feels like a lifetime ago at this point, but the last time we saw college basketball being played in March, Fred Hoiberg was almost fainting on the bench in the Big Ten Tournament as the St. John’s mascot sat alone in Madison Square Garden staring into the abyss. So it would be one of the more drastic understatements of my life to say that it was a sight for sore eyes to have this March start with an outstanding Oklahoma State vs. Oklahoma game on Monday, Baylor and West Virginia giving us the game of the year on Tuesday, and Illinois providing the encore with the most impressive win of the season by dominating Michigan in Ann Arbor without Ayo Dosunmu.
Now that Michigan has been humbled a little bit and Baylor dropped a game at Kansas over the weekend, what does the national title picture look like? I was a very early adopter of the "Gonzaga vs. the field" train of thought, but Baylor and Michigan have been dominant enough since December to make me cool off from that a little. I still think the Zags are clearly much better than everyone else (they have four players who are top-five nationally at their position), but by no means am I naive enough to assume that anything is guaranteed in the NCAA Tournament, especially given the circumstances of this year’s tourney.
Instead of trying to weigh odds or split teams into tiers, I’m going to get right to the heart of it and give you my list of teams that I believe are good enough to win the national championship. That is to say, if a team NOT on this list ends up cutting down the nets in April, I would be absolutely shocked.
GONZAGA BULLDOGS (24-0)
Why they can win it all: Isn’t it obvious?
BAYLOR BEARS (18-1)
Why they can win it all: Not to sound too repetitive, but ... isn’t it obvious?
MICHIGAN WOLVERINES (18-1)
Why they can win it all: Even after Tuesday’s 76-53 loss to Illinois, it’s still quite obvious that Michigan has the talent to cut down the nets.
ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI (16-6)
Why they can win it all: This is where it gets interesting. Following a loss to Michigan State last week, many people were down on the Fighting Illini. But beating a Michigan team that many thought was the best in the country? In Ann Arbor? Without Dosunmu? Yes, this team can win it all.
WEST VIRGINIA MOUNTAINEERS (17-6)
Why they can win it all: The Mountaineers are the only team that has given Gonzaga anything close to a scare this year. They also gave Baylor all it could handle on Tuesday, swept Texas Tech and have wins at Texas, vs. Kansas and at Oklahoma State. A Bob Huggins team with a bunch of guys who can score is a team that can beat anyone, and they don’t necessarily need their A-game to do it.
IOWA HAWKEYES (18-7)
Why they can win it all: It isn't exactly a secret if you’ve been watching Iowa lately, but if you haven’t, maybe it will come as a surprise to learn that the Hawkeyes are playing decent defense now. Oh, and they still have an outstanding offense fueled by the guy who is going to win National Player of the Year.
ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE (19-6)
Whey they can win it all: Alabama hasn’t been playing its best basketball of late, but I’m still throwing the Tide on here because the SEC champs check all the boxes I like to see checked with my NCAA Tournament teams: They play elite defense, they shoot (and make) a ton of 3-pointers, and they have a guard in John Petty Jr. who is (probably) going to play NBA minutes at some point in his life, which is another way of saying they have a guy who is talented enough to single-handedly bail them out if everything else goes awry.
I’ll throw in two wild cards with Oklahoma State (Cade Cunningham is as good as advertised, and the Pokes have been sneakily playing out of their minds lately) and UConn (this is going to be the weirdest tournament of all time, and nobody thrives in weird NCAA Tournaments like UConn does), even though the rational part of my brain says neither one of them has a prayer of hosting a trophy in April.
Meanwhile, I’ve more or less given up on the idea of Houston, Villanova, Wisconsin, Creighton, Virginia or Texas winning it all. The ACC being so bad this year gives me pause about Florida State and Clemson, who could definitely make deep runs but don’t strike me as teams good enough to win six NCAA Tournament games in a row. I don’t believe in Ohio State’s defense, Kansas’ offense or Oklahoma’s overall individual talent. I’m out on Purdue as a title team because that program simply can’t seem to big win games in the NCAA Tournament. I’m out on Texas Tech because they have a tendency to play to the level of their competition, and I’m out on San Diego State and Loyola-Chicago because they’re San Diego State and Loyola-Chicago.
The only team that has a legitimate gripe in not being on my list is Arkansas, which is absolutely red-hot and very well could play its way into the mix in the next week or so. But the stench of the Hogs losing by 31 at Alabama in January is only now starting to wash off, and I’m going to need a little longer before I throw them on the list. I’m definitely a believer in Arkansas, but I need to see what happens in the SEC Tournament before I buy all the way in.
Happy March, everyone!
BIG TEN STAT OF THE WEEK
The last time the calendar flipped to the month of March, a gut punch of unprecedented proportions brought us back down to earth not long after. In an effort to calm any lingering anxieties, let’s focus on the positives and get the good vibes flowing. Here are some things to help with that.
1. Texas State interim coach Terrence Johnson driving to the gym to celebrate with his team after the Bobcats clinched the Sun Belt title on Saturday after COVID protocols kept him off the bench for the game
2. Wichita State busting out confetti cannons to celebrate Isaac Brown's having his interim tag removed with a five-year contract
3. Josh Pastner’s entire existence
4. UC Riverside freshman Oliver Hayes-Brown’s mullet
5. Villanova’s Jermaine Samuels sliding on the Hinkle Fieldhouse floor from the 3-point line to the base of the basket
6. The emergence of a 7-foot-9 Nigerian named Abiodun Adegoke, who is surely going to end up going to Purdue so he can satisfy the law of college basketball that states that Purdue must always have a gigantic dude on the roster
7. Sports journalist Mark Titus finally getting some damn respect in this industry by being referenced in an EXTREMELY prestigious textbook about ethical leadership
And shout-out to the Liberty Flames in general for having a nine-game win streak heading into the Atlantic Sun Tournament this week!
THIS WEEK IN TITUS & TATE
At long last ... March is finally here! Tate and I reacted to 18 of the Top 25 teams in the nation losing last week, including Scott Drew’s Baylor Bears. We also touched on the Gonzaga Bulldogs being the only undefeated team in college basketball, and Tate, once again, tried to explain what’s going on in the ACC after North Carolina beat Florida State, then lost to Syracuse. Plus, is this a "must-win" year for the Big Ten?
See you next week!