Selection Sunday is exactly one month away. That means it’s time to start sorting out who’s a real threat to reach the Final Four, and who’s a fraud. Every year, people say “this is the hardest year to pick” when the bracket comes out, and yet, I can’t remember a year where so many highly ranked teams have glaring fatal flaws that could send them home early. Everyone is going to pick Kentucky and for good reason. They’re absolutely loaded. They’re probably the one team in the country that could lose a borderline NBA player in Alex Poythress and not even flinch. Hell, Kentucky has more McDonald’s All-Americans than any NBA team. They could easily finish the year without a loss and no one would be surprised. After Kentucky though, things get interesting. So let’s get down to business and rank the top 12 teams in the country at the moment.
12. Notre Dame
This team more than any other highly ranked team has red flags all over. Notre Dame has Jerian Grant, and that’s the main reason they are so good. But Notre Dame doesn’t play defense. Their signature win came at home against Duke when Jerian Grant was casually pulling up from half-court in the middle of the shot clock. But 10 days later, Duke hung 90 on Notre Dame in Cameron, dropping the Fighting Irish by 30. That pretty much sums up the apprehension regarding Notre Dame. They can score the ball with anyone in the country, but if you take Grant out of the game, or if Notre Dame’s shooters aren’t hitting, they’re toast. Their defense won’t keep them in games. And it’s pretty hard to stay hot for 6 straight games. Notre Dame is basically Creighton from last year. Creighton hit a ton of 3’s and they had arguably the best player in the country in McDermott. So some people picked them to go far, making more of a bet on McDermott than Creighton. That didn’t really pan out. You can bet on Grant this March, but just remember it’s been awhile (like, 12 years) since Mike Brey got Notre Dame out of the first weekend.
I’ll show my hand up front: I don’t know that much about Utah, and I don’t think anyone does. What do people know? Well, they have a really point guard in Delon Wright, they have have amazing numbers on KenPom, and they took Kansas to the wire in December. Other than that, they’re a total wild card. They’ve beaten up on a mediocre Pac 12 conference, but were also embarrassed by Arizona on the road. Their non-conference schedule is underwhelming, but they did beat Wichita State. It’s a little unfair to put them ahead of Notre Dame, who has some more quality wins, and Utah could be a complete fraud, but for now, we’ll leave them here. This will probably be a team most people pick to get knocked out early, but who the hell really knows much about Utah right now?
10. Wichita State
Surprise! This is a legitimate team and somehow they’re sliding under the radar, just because they’re not going 35-0 like last year. The Shockers have what you want in the tournament: a great veteran backcourt and a proven coach. Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker might be the best backcourt in the country. Wichita is hard to gauge because really good teams have no incentive to schedule them. That leaves Wichita with a weak non-conference schedule. There are probably three important games they played in the non-conference: Seton Hall, Utah, and George Washington. Yeah I know, they lost the latter two, and Seton Hall is a bubble team. But Gregg Marshall knows how to win the tournament, and his backcourt has more experience in important games than almost anyone. I wouldn’t want to face these guys in March.
Ya know how Notre Dame scores the ball great but doesn’t play defense? Yeah, well Louisville is the opposite. They have a 1st round NBA pick in Montrezl Harrell, but something just doesn’t seem right. He isn’t the focal point of their offense. He disappears at times this year. He apparently stripped himself of his captaincy. Things just seem fishy over there. Louisville has a top 10 defense in the country, but who have they beaten? They kind of just beat up on bad teams and lose to the good teams. Seriously, they beat Ohio State and Indiana, two second tier Big 10 teams. But they lost to Kentucky (not holding that against them), Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, and N.C. State. When they’ve been tested in the ACC, they’ve come up short. I don’t think this team has anywhere near the offensive firepower to make a deep run, but their defense should at least keep them in games.
Thank God no one reads what I write, or else Virginia fans would freak out over this. Virginia has had a great season so far, but you can’t take away Justin Anderson and expect them to be fine. For a team that already has a difficult time scoring the ball, losing Anderson is nearly fatal. The bigger problem might be their tempo though. Only American plays at a slower pace than Virginia! Yeah, they’re winning right now playing that tempo, sure. But in March, a super slow tempo is the easiest way for an inferior team to stay in a game. Combine the slow tempo and potential scoring woes, and things get dicey. UVA is a running football team. If they get behind, they could be toast. Without Anderson, they barely scrapped by Wake Forest at home! And yeah, they got behind in that game, but Wake is a team that is below .500. If UVA gets behind to a real team, it’s trouble.
A couple things… Kansas has a lot of talent. And they’ve played the second hardest schedule in the country so far. And tell me, who’s Kansas’ best player? That might be what makes them so dangerous. One night it’s Perry Ellis. Next night it’s Wayne Selden. And then sometimes it’s Frank Mason. The Jayhawks are loaded. Even scarier is that the young guns Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander, both of whom will be in the NBA sooner rather than later, are starting to look comfortable. The only thing that gives me pause: Kansas lost by 32 to Kentucky and 25 to Temple. Losing those games is fine, but really good teams usually don’t suffer losses like that. If Kansas played Kentucky again, I’d bet the spread wouldn’t be so wide. And as far as the Temple game… yeah, I’ve got nothing. That one is a mystery.
I want to really like this team. They’ve got size, athleticism, future NBA players, and a great coach. That is a recipe for tournament success, but they don’t have a single impressive win away from home. They beat Gonzaga (their only loss) in overtime. They demolished Utah. Aaaand, that’s about it for their impressive wins. Arizona is a good all around team though. They’re not one of these teams that has one obvious fatal flaw. I’d feel a lot more comfortable picking them to reach the Final Four if they were in the Big 10 or Big 12 and were tested every night. But being in the Pac 12, we’re left assuming that beating up on UCLA, Stanford, and Oregon is impressive. I’m not ready to go there yet.
I’ll just say it: I WANT TO BE ALL IN ON THE ZAGS. I’ve been burned by them in the past, and I thought I was past that stage of my life, but apparently not. Hear me out before dismissing the Zags. Kyle Wiltjer is one of the best players in the country. He’s 6’10 and can light it up inside and out. Kevin Pangos is a little overrated in all likelihood, but he is a very good player. Arvydas Sabonis’ kid is good, and not because he’s Arvydas Sabonis’ kid. He’s a legitimate 6’10 freshman who shoots 70% from the field. Look, the Zags are a wild card. You don’t have to believe in them. But at least take a look. They have a lot of size and a lot of experience. Who’ve they beaten? Okay, okay… YOU GOT ME THERE. But hey, they took Arizona down to the wire on the road. No one else can say that. If Gonzaga was ever for real, it’s this year. I think.
Full disclosure here: I’m a Georgetown fan, and thus a Big East fan. But that’s not why Villanova is so high on this list. They’re 9-1 vs the RPI top 50. That’s just impressive. They’re very balanced. Any one of their starters can be their best player on any given night. The Big East could be full of teams that will bow out in the 1st round of the tourney, but even if that’s the case, Villanova is tested more often than not in the Big East. The only real pushover is Creighton. The only real caveat is that Villanova seems to much less talent than any other team on this list. They don’t have a Jerian Grant or Delon Wright. But what they lack in future NBA players, they make up for in balance.
Speaking of balance… Read this bit on Wisconsin to get a feel of how balanced and potent their offense is. We know about Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. Those guys are pros. But Wisconsin is much more than just those two. They need Traevon Jackson if they’re going to be real threats to win it all. Bronson Koenig is a fine replacement, but Jackson is a better player. These guys took Kentucky down to the wire last year. They’re seasoned, they’re balanced, and they’re talented. Sign me up. Only thing that gives me pause? Defense. Their defense is a little down compared to most Bo Ryan teams. Usually Final Four teams are not outside the top 50 in defense, and right now, Wisconsin is 71st.
One of the only teams that most people could envision taking down Kentucky. Okafor and Tyus Jones get all the publicity, but don’t short change Quinn Cook. The guy is quietly having a fantastic season, and is explicably being left off of the ACC Player of the Year lists. Yeah he shouldn’t win over Okafor or Jerian Grant, but he should get consideration. Duke has been noticeably better since kicking Rasheed Sulaimon off the team. They beat Wisconsin and Virginia on the road. Those might be the most impressive wins any team has had this year. It’d be every NBA scout’s dream to see how Okafor played against Kentucky and the bigs they have. Like Wisconsin, Duke’s defense be the fatal flaw. They’re 58th in defense right now. That’s horrid for a top team. We’ll see if their post-Sulaimon success is temporary, and if they’ll end up missing his wing defense in the tournament.
The “perfect season” talk is heating up. Kentucky is so far ahead of the field, but they’re not invincible. They’re the best team in the country and it’s not close, but the SEC is embarrassingly weak. Who’s really going to test the Cats? They should finish the regular season undefeated. However… anyone who saw the recent Florida and LSU games realizes that Kentucky is beatable. Obviously Kentucky has had its share of beat downs, but since the new year, Kentucky has squeaked by in four games. Mississippi, Texas A&M, Florida, and LSU were all games that could’ve gone the other way. They’re so much more talented than everyone else in the country, but the tournament is a whole different animal, and the those four teams are the types of teams Kentucky would see in the 2nd round of the tournament. I want to see a real team test Kentucky. I want to see how they respond when legitimate top team punches them in the mouth. If I was a Kentucky fan, I’d be hoping for a loss before the tournament, a la at Indiana for the Anthony Davis team. Being undefeated is a lot of pressure for anyone, let alone a bunch of freshmen and sophomores.