We have entered the dog days of February and the madness is only a month away. This is the time of the year contenders separate themselves from the pretenders. Below is a list of teams that have the best chances of advancing to the Final Four and winning a national championship. These teams include programs that have coaches with a winning history and the recipe that will lead them to Arlington in early April.
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10. Wichita State Shockers
No matter what year it is, there is always one non-power conference team that sneaks into the Elite Eight, ruining every bracket fans predicted. In this case I don’t think the Shockers will be surprising anyone this year because they are that good. Wichita State sits at 24-0, ranking No. 4 in the country, ninth in the RPI and 12th in the BPI. The Shockers could easily enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated due to their weak conference.
Wichita State leads their conference in both offensive and defensive efficiency. But what makes them a serious title contender is their play on defense. The Shockers play great help defense and don’t allow opponents to score in the paint. Wichita State force 40 percent of its opponents shot to be taken from 3-point range because of the help defense that eliminate teams from getting easy looks around the basket. They rebound the ball well, grabbing 39 per game, 19th in the country, to prevent second chance points. Fred VanVleet has a 3.9 assist-to-turnover ratio, which is a big reason why the Shockers are so efficient on the offensive end of the floor. Don’t be surprised if the Shockers are a one seed come Selection Sunday.
9. Kentucky Wildcats
Kentucky just has way too much talent to leave off this list. Their youth is a big concern come tournament time but Kentucky looks like its finding its groove. Kentucky is getting better as they gain experience. Their losses this year are all against quality opponents: Michigan State, Baylor and UNC and LSU on the road.
The Wildcats are dangerous because of their strength down low. They are seventh in the country in rebounding, grabbing 41.7 a game. They rebound the ball on 42.5 percent of their missed shots, resulting in 17.3 second chance points a game. Kentucky is led by star freshman Julius Randle, who averages 16 points and 10 rebounds a game. They score 80 points a game as a team (27th in the nation), shooting .476 percent from the field.
However, to win a championship for John Calipari‘s young group, it will come down to their guard play. The Harrison twins will need to be better leaders on the floor and James Young will have to shoot the basketball well. Kentucky has two games against Florida left this season before the SEC Tournament. If Kentucky can continue to improve, no one will want to matchup against them in the NCAA Tournament.
8. Michigan Wolverines
The Wolverines have weathered the storm without top forward Mitch McGary. Michigan won 10 straight games after losing to Arizona in mid-December, beating Wisconsin and Michigan State on the road as well as taking care of business verse Iowa at home.
Michigan can downright score the ball. They score 118.3 points per 100 possessions, best in the Big 10. Nik Stauskas leads the team with 17.3 points per game, shooting a deadly .447 from 3-point range. Glen Robinson III has struggled at times this year but if he can play consistent basketball, he gives Michigan another threat to score.
It’s shocking that Michigan leads the Big 10 at 9-1 even with their struggles on defense. According to Luke Winn of Sports Illustrated, Michigan’s defensive efficiency is a lousy 105.3, ninth in the Big 10 and 75th in the country. The Wolverines have the experience needed in the tournament after last year’s run to the National Championship Game, but their defense will have to be better if they want to return to the Final Four. We will learn a lot more about Michigan in the coming week as they have some tough games left on their schedule.
7. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Marcus Smart passed up on being a top three pick in last year’s NBA Draft to come back to college and win a national championship. After a hot start, the Cowboys have struggled, losing three straight and five of their last nine. However, I still believe the Cowboys are a serious title threat. The Cowboys play in–by far–the best and deepest conference in the country in the Big 12.
Oklahoma State’s problem is their lack of effort on defense. They rank 75th in defensive efficiency and have to realize defense will lead them to a championship. They average 19.6 transition points per game, best in the Big 12 and 16th in the country. Le’Bryan Nash and Markel Brown give Smart two players who can score the ball around him. Nash can be dominate in the low post and Brown is athletic and can create his own shot. With that being said, if the Cowboys want to win it all, Marcus Smart has to start shooting better. He averages 17.3 points per game but is only shooting .282 from 3-point range, something Smart showed he had improved on early in the season. The Cowboys will be tested every night in the Big 12 and if they can be more consistent on defense and play with more enthusiasm, I think they can be the team they were earlier in the year.
6. Arizona Wildcats
Arizona suffered its first loss of the season Saturday night, but the bigger wound was losing Brandon Ashley for the season. Arizona looked like it was by far the best team in the country, beating Duke and Michigan on the road early in the year, as well as being 10-1 verse the RPI Top 100 but the loss of Ashley has them falling on this list.
However, I do think Arizona has enough to win it all. They have played fantastic defense all year, letting up only 86.3 points per 100 possessions, best in the nation. The Wildcats are one of five teams to not let up more than 75 points this season.
Arizona is also very efficient on the offensive end of the floor. They have had four players score in double-figures in 14 of their first 20 wins. They have weapons all of the floor, led by floor general T.J. McConnell‘s 5.6 assists per game. Nick Johnson has been consistent from three, shooting .367 percent, and do-it-all guy Aaron Gordon is a lock to be a lottery pick in June.
Arizona should run through an overrated Pac-12 conference and be a No. 1 seed despite the loss of Ashley. Arizona will be a tough out in March because of their ability to rebound the ball offensively and play good defense, but their lack of depth might be their Achilles’ heel.
5. Duke Blue Devils
The Blue Devils are probably the most interesting team on this list. They have showed flashes of dominance but have played lackadaisical and without enthusiasm at times. What makes Duke so scary is they are blessed with offensive weapons. Jabari Parker, my choice if I had the first pick in June’s NBA Draft, has the low post game, midrange game, and the handles to take it coast-to-coast to dominate a game start to finish. However his jump shot hasn’t been finding the net lately so Duke will rely on him to dominate the post. The Blue Devil don’t really need him to hit the three anyway; Rasheed Sulaimon, Andre Dawkins and Rodney Hood can knock the long ball down consistently.
Duke scores over 81.9 points per game and is shooting 55.2 percent from the field. Coach K might have his deepest team ever. Duke can play to totally different lineups, at times running 10 deep. Amile Jefferson has anchored an undersized team down low and only gets better every game. Quinn Cook has struggled of late but is a veteran floor general that Duke will need to play better.
Duke can light it up and get contributions from someone new each night. But the key to Duke’s success is playing good defense. When Coach K brought out the full-court press, it sped up the game in favor of the Blue Devils and led to easy buckets. If Duke can implement the press during the tournament and knock down their shots, there one of the toughest teams in the country to beat.
4. Florida Gators
Florida has quietly been one of the most impressive teams in the country this season. The Gators have depth, experience and the talent to play in Arlington. Florida is fueled from its terrific defense. Florida is letting up the fewest points per game in the country (57.4) and only allow 23.1 points in the paint per game. The Gators also let up just 89.9 points per 100 possessions and the addition of freshman Chris Walker will only make Florida that much tougher on both ends of the floor.
Florida plays a mix of defenses and throws off opposing offenses. Their efficient on the offensive end with their dribble penetration and Patric Young is a beast down low. Florida has five players that average double-figures in scoring. Casey Prather and Michael Frazier II have done a good job knocking down shots from deep, giving the Florida Gators more spacing on offense.
Florida scares me because they don’t play in a good conference… therefore it is tough to get a read on them. Their toughest tests will be two matchups with Kentucky but besides that Florida may not lose another game. However, Florida may be the most athletic team in the country and will only continue to improve with freshman stud Chris Walker.
3. Michigan State Spartans
The Spartans are probably the scariest team to play against when they are healthy. The loss of Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson left Sparty wounded down low, but the Spartans have fought hard in their absence. Tom Izzo is the last thing you want to see in March and, without a doubt, Izzo’s squad will be the most experienced team in the tournament.
State is very versatile on the offensive end. They can score at will inside, shoot the ball from the outside and get up and down in transition when needed. They have great spacing on the floor and have length that give opponents a fit on offense. Michigan State is 8-1 in the second-best conference in America and once Payne and Dawson return, they will be the clear favorite to with the Big 10.
Gary Harris deserves to be a top 15 pick in June and has been exceptional this season, scoring 18.4 points per game and has really improved driving to the basket. State will be a very scary opponent come March once healthy. The Spartans depth is only improving with the injuries they have suffered this season and they’ll be that much better in March. I’ll be shocked if the Spartans aren’t in Arlington for the Final Four.
2. Kansas Jayhawks
Kanas was the hottest team in the country until it fell to Texas on Saturday, beating five straight ranked teams in their last six games. Kansas is a young team but has showed signs of greatness. They have a deep roster and any player on the roster can breakout on any given night. They average 84.9 points per game and 120.7 points per 100 possessions.
Andrew Wiggins has played big in big games, which is a good sign, since he will need to be like that come tournament time. Wiggins is averaging 18.8 points per game and eight boards against top-25 teams, as the Jayhawks problems aren’t on offense.
They have a flock of NBA talent with Joel Embiid, Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis. Junior point guard Naadir Tharpe had 22 points on Monday at Baylor, proving Kansas can get big games from anyone. However, Kansas is inconsistent at times on defense and has a problem with turnovers on the offensive end. Kansas turns the ball over in 21.1 percent of their possessions. Joel Embiid turns it over 23.8 percent of the time he possesses the ball and yet Kansas is still scoring 84.9 a game–imagine if they stop turning the ball over? If Embiid can improve as a low post passer, Kansas will be in the National Championship Game.
1. Syracuse Orange
Syracuse sits atop the polls for the first time this season and it’s well-deserved after holding off Duke in overtime on Saturday night. Syracuse is off to its best start in school history and is led by its stifling zone. Syracuse’s 2-3 zone has been exceptional this season, only allowing 20.3 points per game in the paint. Syracuse forces a turnover in 15.3 percent of opponents’ possessions.
Syracuse doesn’t ever play a tough non-conference schedule but they do have a big win over old Big East foe Villanova and have proven they can be king of the ACC with wins over Duke and North Carolina. The Orange’s offense is led by junior C.J. Fair, who averages 16.7 points per game, but the supporting cast has shinned in some big games. Trevor Cooney scored 33 points, knocking down nine 3-pointers Monday against Notre Dame.
Syracuse has the veteran leadership and experience it takes to win a national championship. They are consistent in their zone and are a big problem for teams to adjust to in the NCAA Tournament. However, I think the play of freshman point guard Tyler Ennis is the key to Syracuse making it to the Final Four. According to Luke Winn of Sports Illustrated, Ennis against top-100 opponents has an offensive rating of 126.3, shooting 50.6 percent from inside the three-point line and 82.5 percent from the free throw line. In games against non top-100 opponent, Ennis is only 31.8 percent from inside the arc and 47.8 from the line. If Ennis can keep shinning in big games–14 points and nine assists against Duke on Saturday–Syracuse will be the toughest team to beat in the country, hands down. With tough games against Pittsburgh, Duke and Virginia left, Syracuse has a chance to put together a resume for the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Who do you think will make this year’s Final Four?
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