We’ve seen enough basketball this season to start doing some prognostication. Teams have shown their strengths and weakness since early November. There’s plenty of questions left lingering, but while we wait for those answers to reveal themselves on the court, let’s unpack what we can from what we’ve seen. Which teams can really make a run in March? I think there are eighteen.
Xavier: I’m on the record as a Xavier-hater this season and don’t see that changing anytime soon. The Musketeers have played nine teams currently in the KenPom top 60. They are 6-3 in those games, but five of those six wins came at home. Away from the Cintas Center, Xavier is just 1-3 against top competition. Spoiler alert: exactly zero NCAA Tournament games will be played inside the Cintas Center. Trevon Bluiett is a dangerous player (19.3 points per game) and JP Macura can get hot (despite shooting below the national average 3-point percentage this season). No other Xavier player scares me as an offensive threat. To win four games on neutral floors in March, that has to change. I’ll have my eye on Xavier at Seton Hall (Jan. 20), at Butler (Feb. 6), and at Creighton (Feb. 10).
Kentucky: It’s really hard to sleep on a team this talented. We’ve seen one-and-done heavy teams swoon in midseason, though there are real questions about this Big Blue squad. Call me a broken record, but there is real value in what a team does away from home. Kentucky is 3-4 on road or neutral courts, with no wins against top 50 teams in that sample. A lack of shooting has become a genuine concern for John Calipari’s club.
Only two teams in the nation score a lower percentage of their points from outside the arc than Kentucky (Morgan State and Pacific). Kentucky has made 89 threes this year. Villanova has made 190 threes, Kansas has made 195, and Marquette has made 221. That kind of gap means any hot shooting team can beat Kentucky. Trading twos for threes only works if you can really, really defend and the Wildcats are merely good, not great on that end of the floor.
Tennessee and Auburn: Look, we get it. You’re hot SEC teams. For now, as long as you have Rick Barnes and Bruce Pearl coaching, there are question marks. We need to see plenty more from these two before we become believers. In fact, while writing this column, they lost at Missouri and at Alabama, respectively. I KNEW YOU COULDN’T BE TRUSTED.
Ohio State: Keita Bates-Diop is a really good player, with not enough help to make a real run in March. Let’s see how the Buckeyes handle the back half of the Big Ten schedule before penciling them past the first weekend of the tournament.
Saint Mary’s: The Gaels have a very defined plan. Surround post-scorer Jock Landale with knockdown shooters and dare teams to double-team him. It’s worked, to the tune of the 3rd most efficient offense in America. Problem? Saint Mary’s sits outside the top 100 in defensive efficiency, struggling to force turnovers or contest shots. They won their Super Bowl on Thursday night at Gonzaga, taking advantage of some lazy and sloppy Gonzaga play. To pencil them past the Sweet Sixteen, I’d like to see them beat Gonzaga at home as well. And maybe in the WCC Tournament too, for good measure.
The Eighteen Contenders
18. Miami: The Canes can defend, but have trouble scoring. Some of that may just be a collective shooting drought. JaQuan Newton and Bruce Brown have both seen their 3-point percentages drop by 10 points this season compared to last year. Freshman Lonnie Walker shot 4 for 26 from outside the arc over an eight game stretch. If not it’s not just a cold streak, it likely has something to do with the Hurricanes low assist rate. So far this season, they haven’t searched for the right shot enough times down the floor. If Jim Larranaga can instill some more discerning shot selection in his young team by March, they are a factor.
17. Nevada: Wait, Nevada? Yes! Nevada!
The Wolfpack has lost just three times this season, with two of those three losses coming to top 25 ranked Big 12 teams. They shoot the lights out from all over the floor, notching 41 percent from 3-point land as a team. Four Nevada players are shooting better than 45 percent (!!) from outside on the season. One of those four is leading scorer Caleb Martin. His twin brother Cody Martin is shooting only 25 percent from deep. You can’t tell me Caleb isn’t getting an open shot every once in a while from defenders forgetting which twin can shoot.
16. Creighton: Two things win in March: defense and guard play. The Bluejays have both. The backcourt of Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas is among the nation’s best. Foster is a volume shooter with microwave-ean heat-up-ability, while Thomas is a steady going, defensive stopper. I’d like to see some road wins in the Big East to feel better about them, yet having the ability to get stops and get buckets in crunch time can carry them. (Update: A season-ending injury to starter Martin Krampelj is cause for concern. This is the second straight year the Jays have lost a starter to an ACL tear. What’s in the water in Omaha?)
15. North Carolina: It’s hard not to include the team that’s been to back-to-back National Championship games in a list of Final Four contenders. Despite the Tar Heels flaws, Roy Williams is as experienced as anyone on a college sideline and Joel Berry is one of America’s most reliable point guards. Carolina has some growing too do, but you’d be a fool to count them out.
14. Oklahoma: Trae Young is the best player in the country, without question. If he plays his best, nothing stands between him and the Final Four. If teams attack him relentlessly the way Kansas State did this week (Young notched 12 turnovers), the other Sooners aren’t good enough to buoy the team against top competition.
13. Arizona State: Yes, the Sun Devils have lost four of six and sit at just 2-4 in the Pac-12. I’m still a believer based on the way we’ve seen them play this season. Three of the four loses came on the road. Three of the four came at the hands of a top-100 team, with the fourth happening in the altitude at Colorado. Arizona State’s six best players can still compete with any team in the country.
In March, when games slow down and TV timeouts feel even longer, the Devils lack of depth shouldn’t disqualify them from making a run. I’d rather bet on Tra Holder than against him.
12. West Virginia: It is often difficult to imagine a team with such a defined identity making a run deep into March. West Virginia depends on the success of its pressure defense, earning the nickname “Press Virginia.” In most years, if they run into one team with confident guards who can handle the trapping, doubling nature of the Mountaineers defense, they get bounced from the Big Dance. Last year, Gonzaga had problems with the press, yet survived thanks to a sensitive set of whistles from the zebras. West Virginia, like the Seattle Seahawks’ secondary, plays very aggressively and dares the officials to call every infraction. Last March, the refs called the bluff and called 51 fouls in that game. (Before you point out that I’m a biased Zags fan, I’ll point out that more fouls were called on Gonzaga in that game than West Virginia).
This year’s Mountaineers still have intense pressure defense, yet they have capable scorers. Senior guard Jevon Carter and junior swingman Esa Ahmad are real scoring options. Against Kansas, Carter settled for threes, couldn’t sink anything, and they collapsed down the stretch. By March, Bob Huggins needs a better solution for offense on important possessions.
11. Wichita State: For the Shockers to make a real run in March, Landry Shamet needs to play like an All-American. Right now, he’s contributing 16.3 points and 5.3 assists per game, ranked in the top ten nationally in 3-point percentage, offensive rating, and true shooting percentage. Ok, maybe he’s already playing great.
Maybe the rest of the team needs to pick up the slack? Well, Conner Frankamp leads the nation in turnover rate, recording just six turnovers this season in more than 400 minutes. Markis McDuffie is still just seven games into his season after suffering an injury. Shaq Morris has hit 15 points in seven games, included a 25 point, 7 rebound, 4 block beauty against Cal.
Maybe the Shockers are right on track.
10. Kansas: I’ve noted the issues with the Jayhawks in detail in this space, so their presence on this list may surprise you. They remain a threat for two reasons. First, previously ineligible freshman Silvio De Sousa is here to help with Kansas’ depth issues. Currently ineligible freshman, and five-star recruit, Billy Preston may not be far behind.
Second, Kansas’ big problem is often misconstrued as “They are shooting too many threes”. That’s more of a symptom than a true problem. The real issue is the lack of offensive aggressiveness. The Jayhawks are not built to attack the paint and almost never do. They don’t draw fouls, or even create shots with penetration effectively. The threes they are taking aren’t even open at times because the Jayhawks struggle to create for others off the dribble. This is a real problem, but it can be overcome. Shooting a ton of threes is dangerous. With shooters like Devonte’ Graham, Sweet Svi Mykhialiuk, and Lagerald Vick, it is a little less dangerous. Kansas could go cold, fail to attack the paint, and lose in the first round. Kansas could also get Billy Preston into the lineup and get surface-of-the-sun hot from outside, shooting their way through the month of March.
9. Gonzaga: Six Zags are averaging double digit scoring. They rank in the top 20 in offensive and defensive efficiency. They shoot the best two point percentage in the nation, thanks to a willingness to find the open man. The majority of the team experienced the rigors of a Final Four run just last year. Seems like enough reasons. Does a home loss to Saint Mary’s raise some red flags? It does, but an experienced coaching staff can likely get more out of that loss than they would have out of a win.
8. Cincinnati: Defense. Defense. Defense. Ranked second in the nation on that end of the floor, due to some otherworldly athleticism and tenacity. The difference between this team and your usual Bearcats club? Jacob Evans and Gary Clark are real scorers.
Most Cincy teams struggle to find points. Mick Cronin knows he can count on Evans and Clark to produce offensively this season. Cincinnati has lost just twice, consecutive games in early December at Xavier and to Florida on a neutral floor. If your favorite team meets the Bearcats in March, good luck. This team will outwork their counterparts for 40 minutes every game.
7. Texas Tech: Earlier this week, I wrote, “If the Texas Tech bandwagon was an actual wagon, I’d have a bridle in my mouth and be pulling the train behind me like a beast of burden.” Despite that, the Red Raiders have lost two of their last three games. Both losses came on the road to worthy Big 12 opponents. Texas Tech will be a threat to advance in March as long as they are one of America’s best defensive teams. For now, that’s still very much the case.
6. Arizona: If you ignore Arizona’s trip to the Bahamas, the Wildcats would be 15-1 with their only loss coming at Colorado (the top ranked home-court advantage on KenPom). Since Rawle Alkins returned from injury, Arizona has looked like one of the best teams in the country. The Wildcats are as talented as anyone. Deandre Ayton is Shaq with a jump shot. When his motor gets going, he’s unstoppable.
5. Duke: Coach K starts four freshman who will be first round draft picks and Grayson Allen. That’s about all I need to say. Marvin Bagley is a monster. He could make the Final Four on his own.
4. Michigan State: Much has been made of Miles Bridges, a 6-foot-9 athletic specimen, sliding to the small forward position this season. He now plays alongside freshman phenom Jaren Jackson and behemoth center Nick Ward, clogging things up in the lane. Bridges is shooting 5.8 threes per game and sinking just 33 percent of them. Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t that much of a change for Bridges. He took 5.1 threes last season, but he made 38 percent of those attempts.
It’s hard to say exactly how Michigan State should handle this game of big-man-three-card-monty, but I can say confidently that no one is better suited to find the answer than Tom Izzo. Until he does find an offensive answer, the Spartans still lead the nation in blocking shots and preventing 2-point baskets. It’s not like the offense is really all that broken. Sparty leads the country in assist rate too.
3. Virginia: Playing Virginia is like wrestling a boa constrictor. It won’t be quick. It won’t be flashy. It will, however, be impressive and effective. The Pack Line defense is not an easy system to rely on, but it works because Virginia has the athletes and the coaching staff to pull it off. Opponents are shooting under 30 percent from outside the arc and just a tick over 40 percent inside the arc against Virginia. Every team that lines up against the Hoos needs to be prepared for a slogfest with an onslaught of body blows.
Making things even scarier, this Virginia team can get hot offensively. Devon Hall, Ty Jerome, and Kyle Guy are three of the best shooters in college basketball. Not just three of the best shooting teammates, those three are individually among the best shooters anywhere in the sport. Defending this team requires a remarkable amount of quickness and perfect close-outs on every open shot. Virginia patiently waiting not just for good shots but for great looks makes that task all that much more difficult.
2. Purdue: Matt Painter has built something in West Lafayette. His Purdue team has an embarrassment of riches up and down the roster. Most teams want one senior who is endlessly reliable on both ends of the floor. Purdue has Vince Edwards and Dakota Mathias. Most teams want a few good outside shooters. Purdue has five guys making 39 percent or better this season. Teams would love a point guard who can initiate their offense. Purdue has PJ Thompson and Carsen Edwards. Every coach wishes he had a 7-footer with skills. Isaac Haas and Matt Haarms are both freaky tall and sneaky talented. The Boilermakers are ranked in the top six in Division I in offense and defense. They haven’t lost since Thanksgiving. Find me a flaw. I’m still looking.
1. Villanova: Best offense in the nation. Two All-Americans. Only loss came at Butler when the Bulldogs shot 15-22 from outside the arc. The only two ways the Cats get bounced is if someone can shoot like Butler did that day or maybe if they run into a dominant big man. Omari Spellman is young and learning defensively. He’s also the only relevant Villanova player taller than 6’7. Villanova would struggle with a real dominant post player in March. We’ll see how they do with two cracks at Seton Hall’s Angel Delgado.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, SALTMoney.org, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org
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