This is the first of three posts that will preview the NCAA tournament. This one is for people who just want to know which teams have the best shot at winning it all.
Are you ready to enjoy the best two weeks of the sports calendar? Baseball is sequestered to Florida and the southwest; the NBA regular season is in its annual “everyone argues about the MVP race all day” lull; the NFL had a little hot stove action going, but it’s dead as hell. It’s time for some good, ethical, amateur, non-profit competition!
The NCAA tournament field is (almost) set. Two play-in games tonight will complete the field of 64, but the favorites have already been picked by pundits, bloggers, and fans. This will be a team-by-team breakdown of the squads I think have the best chance to win the whole dang thing. There are no mid-majors or surprises here, just the best rosters college basketball, in all its moral bankruptcy, has to offer. That ain’t much at times, but catch Duke or UCLA on a good night and see if it doesn’t do anything for you.
(Before everyone starts yelling at me, there are no Big Ten teams on this list, because the Big Ten is ass. You can yell at me if the Badgers make the finals. Oh, no Oregon on this list, either. The Ducks did have a nice lengthy section, bragging about Chris Boucher and Jordan Bell, and now, along with Boucher, it’s gone. You should still watch the Ducks because Dillon Brooks is Dillon Brooks and he’ll probably make another buzzer-beater or something. But without Boucher, it’s hard to imagine this team making the Final Four. Also, there’s a good chance not including Louisville or Kentucky on this list will come back to bite me in the ass, but I’m okay with that.)
Looking at the top of this year’s field reveals a full slate of talented teams, but there’s no clear-cut elite unit everyone seems comfortable calling the favorite. UCLA can’t defend; Arizona’s stars go cold as fast they get hot; Duke has the highest ceiling, but it’s also a team prone to playing like Boston College for 10-minute spurts. All this means, in theory, that we should have some good-ass upsets this year. The flip-side is that these same teams are also capable of playing like all-decade juggernauts and reeling off six consecutive 10-point wins; we’ll see what we get. Regardless, you should definitely not root for them.
Unless you’ve actively cheered for one of these schools since childhood, or have a degree with their name on it, these are the teams that you, as a dutiful sports fan, should absolutely want to see lose in the most spectacular, buzzer-beating, ugly-crying-inducing manner. These teams were built to make it to the Final Four, not just with their grit and talent, but with millions of dollars from rich donors, merchandise deals, and taxpayers, to go along with the blood and sweat of their unpaid laborers. Hope for all of them to lose.
North Carolina, along with the rest of the one seeds, fit the mold shaped for them in the preseason: The Tar Heels have received excellent, consistent play from their veteran stars, Justin Jackson and Joel Berry; they dominate the boards, ranking tops in the nation with an average 43.5 rebounds per contest; they score a lot.
The top offensive threat on the team is Jackson, a lanky forward who fashioned a three-point shot in the offseason to pair with his unstoppable floaters—the addition worked out, as he walked away from the regular season as the ACC player of the year after averaging 18.1 points per game. The focal point of the offense, however, is point guard Joel Berry, who has the ability to go toe-to-toe with any point guard in the nation based on his ability to smoothly operate UNC’s high-octane attack (the Tar Heels rank 12th overall at 84.9 points per game.) With Jackson serving as North Carolina’s second-best long range specialist, forwards Luke Maye, Tony Bradley, and Kennedy Meeks have more room to work inside (Maye, however, has proven with a 39 percent long-range clip that he can step outside when needed.)
The Tar Heels can get their asses bounced in several fashions, though. For one, they tend to get themselves into big trouble when Berry is on the bench. In three of UNC’s seven losses, including Friday night’s to Duke, Berry accumulated at least four fouls and had to ride the pine for a meaningful stretch. His 24 minutes played against the Blue Devils were the fewest he played against a legitimate team outside of his team’s 28-point rout of Monmouth in December, and it showed when Duke came back from being down 12 in the second half to win 93-83. When he’s on the bench during critical stretches, Nate Britt and Theo Pinson assume the role of main ball-handlers, and while they’re both talented—especially Pinson on the defensive end—neither can push the ball and keep the offense under control at the same pace as Berry.
Isaiah Hicks is another determining factor for whether the Tar Heels are bound for an appearance in a national championship. When he plays at a 20-10 level, which he proved he can do somewhat consistently in his last three games, it opens the offensive glass up for Meeks and Bradley. North Carolina has lost just one game—the semifinals loss to Duke—when Hicks goes for over 10 points.
The Blue Devils have the most momentum of any team heading into the tournament; they’re second only to UCLA in terms of offenses that can instantly end your season with a hot five-minute stretch. They knocked off Louisville, North Carolina, and Notre Dame while looking like the offensive juggernaut everyone thought they would be at the outset of the season.
When Duke is on—specifically, when Luke Kennard and Jason Tatum are on—the Blue Devils are nigh unbeatable. Kennard and Tatum combined with a healthy (and not psycho) Grayson Allen or a hot-handed Frank Jackson constitutes the best offensive trio in the nation. Add in Amile Jefferson’s pivoting, defense, and rebounding, Matt Jones’s perimeter defense, and a slowly blossoming Harry Giles off the bench and you have a Final Four team. Sometimes.
See, the Blue Devils are prone to shooting themselves in the dick. I don’t know if they contracted it from N.C. State or developed it on their own, but they have shown an affinity for costing themselves wins this year. They only scored 50 points in a loss to Miami, which was preceded by a loss to Syracuse. And that was after they somehow lost to a hapless N.C. State team at Cameron Indoor. They even got their ass kicked by Florida State. The caveat here is that the Blue Devils have been popping players (and coaches) in and out of their roster all season due to various injuries and suspensions.
The teams that showed up in the bad losses, though—the disorganized offense with three heads going three ways; the atrocious, why-yes-please-amble-through-the-lane defense; the frustrating kicking and screaming—are the Duke teams you have to watch out for tournament time, because if they show up, even for a half, it’ll be Mercer all over again. I know that would make most people very happy, but it would be a real shame for disgusting Duke fans like me, considering the Blue Devils just started getting good again.
I haven’t been able to watch many of Gonzaga’s games live, but the games I did tune in to watch live were the three Saint Mary’s contests. Saint Mary’s is a talented squad with some rapid-fire perimeter ball movement and on-ball defense that would make your high school coach cry, but man, every time, come the second half, Gonzaga absolutely worked them. In transition, in the half-court, through the post, on the outside—the Bulldogs beat the brakes off the Gaels.
Mark Few’s squad is a complete unit—five players average at least 10 points; four of them also haul down five rebounds per game. Their spacing is precise and they have a reliable stud in Nigel Williams-Goss, who is good for 16.9 points 5.7 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per night. Then there’s Przemek Karnowski, the wall of a man who dominates the paint every night. The 7-foot-1 Polish native is on pace to finish his career as a 60-percent shooter from the field; he proved he can be the team’s top offensive threat in its win against Arizona (an Allonzo Trier-less Arizona, I should note), when he went for 18 points.
This team is deeper, more talented, and more polished than any team Mark Few has had before, and if there was ever a year to bet on Gonzaga finally making it to the Final Four, it’s this one. And yet, we haven’t seen the Bulldogs reel off consecutive wins against top-tier talent, and in a tournament where you have to be able to win against the best, even on an off-night, that makes Gonzaga’s chances a little more suspect than those of the other top seeds.
If you follow Kansas’s lead and ignore all the troubling allegations of sexism surrounding its athletic department, the Jayhawks enter the tournament as the most impressive team in the nation. Playing in a conference with two of the top defenses in the nation in West Virginia and Baylor has helped to steel this squad, which trots out an impressive guard trio and a future NBA stud down low.
The Jayhawks backcourt of Frank Mason, Devonte’ Graham, and Legerald Vick can overwhelm opponents in a hurry—with Mason leading the way, the trio goes for 41.3 points per night, and Graham and Mason combine to serve up 9.4 assists per game. Next to those guards is Josh Jackson, a versatile 6-foot-8 forward that plays out on the wing, where he keeps defenders somewhat honest with a 37.7 percent three-point clip and routinely dunks people into the soil from which they came.
If you’re looking to poke holes in Kansas’ title hopes, you can start with where they came from. I’m not here to play ACC elitist, but suffice to say the Big 12 is similar to the Pac-12 in that it has three extremely good teams, a big cliff, and then the rest of the conference. There were some fine teams after that cliff, but the Big 12 was not, as Fran Fraschilla would have you believe, “the Bataan Death March.” Kansas beat up on the teams it was supposed to beat up on, but half of their regular season conference games ended within five points.
Also, the Jayhawks’ last game was a defeat at the hands of a 15-loss TCU team. So go ahead and start rooting for a first-round loss to N.C. Central or second-round bouncing via Miami.
Last year, the Wildcats were able to play underdog in the title game because they drew a legendary blueblood opponent in UNC. They were, and are, in fact just as talented as any of college basketball’s royalty, and proved as much even before Kris Jenkins’s dagger.
This year’s team is similar when it comes to star power. Josh Hart is rivaled only by Luke Kennard and Frank Mason in terms of his ability to consistently provide offense for a full 40 minutes, and Jalen Brunson is a dynamo—a left-handed wizard dishing out dimes and bumping his way into the lane so he can drop in a short-range fallaway jumper.
Their biggest scare of the season came in the Big East semifinals against Seton Hall. Had Angel Delgado not pushed his baby hook just a little too hard, the Pirates would have secured a much-needed upset and played in the Big East finals. The Wildcats scratched out a 55-53 win—thanks to a last-minute put-back from Hart—but the performance was concerning given the fact that Nova hung a combined 168 points on Seton Hall in their first two matchups of the season.
Villanova is a fairly solid three-point shooting team, and it excels at running opponents off the line, holding teams to 31.5 percent from long range. Come tournament time, though, the Wildcats will miss having Daniel Ochefu in the paint—with the since-graduated 6-foot-11 forward and his nightly 7.5 rebounds gone, Villanova has dropped from being the eight-best defensive rebounding team in the nation to No. 150. This is important because the Wildcats are a volume shooting team from deep, taking 26.7 treys per night, and they really, truly suck on the offensive boards (don’t bother telling Seton Hall, though.)
Aside from Desi Rodriguez picking a shitty time to play some ball-watching defense, Villanova’s work on the offensive glass has been underwhelming. Their 8.5 offensive rebounds per game ranks 281st in the nation. This works fine for Wright’s squad on nights when they’re connecting; not so much on the off-nights. In its three losses, the Wildcat’s three-point attack was shut down—they shot 25, 17.6, and 23.1 percent from deep in losses to Butler, Marquette, and Butler again; against Seton Hall, they shot 26.3 percent. The key to beating Villanova, on paper, is simple: Run their uber-talented backcourt off the three-point line, pray to god that Brunson and Hart are having a bad day, and beat the hell out of them on the interior. Simple.
Even though all their stars not named Allonzo Trier played like shit in their second game against UCLA, the Wildcats proved last Friday night that their lineup still possesses the balance and talent necessary to take head coach Sean Miller to his first Final Four. It also helps when Lauri Markkanen hits his threes.
This team is scary as hell, because unlike UCLA, Arizona can play some defense in back-to-back games and not have it be heralded as some monumental accomplishment. Offensively, both their front and back courts boast enough talent to win them games they don’t deserve to win. The aforementioned Trier is one of the best guards in college basketball—he’s long, lanky, expressive, explosive, emotional, and grossly talented. He has the first-step quickness to beat defenders to the rim and the accuracy to keep them honest when he’s hovering around the three-point line.
Pairing Trier with the likes of Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Kobi Simmons, Kadeem Allen, and Rawle Alkins makes for a really, truly insane lineup in terms of sheer talent. Adding a 7-foot, sweet-strokin’ Finn almost makes it unfair. Markkanen hits 43 percent of his threes, pulls down seven rebounds per game, and, as of the Pac-12 tournament, has started really moving his feet on defense. This will definitely be his first and last season in Tucson.
The frontcourt isn’t quite as polished and explosive outside of Markkanen, who very well fits both of those descriptors, but 7-foot junior Dusan Ristic and 6-foot-10 sophomore Chance Comanche complement their 7-foot Finnish teammate nicely, adding a combined 17.1 points and 9.3 boards. Comanche in particular has really come along this season, turning into a rim-protector with an increasing post arsenal. None of Arizona’s bigs are built to stop a more fluid big man like, say, Creighton’s Justin Patton, but they stopped T.J. Leaf, and that’s not for nothing. If they do get SMU in the second round, look for Semi Ojeleye to be a problem.
Do you know who my favorite player on UCLA is? It’s not Lonzo Ball, T.J. Leaf, Bryce Alford, or Isaac Hamilton; it’s Thomas Welsh. All this motherfucker does is drop baby hooks and nail 15-to-18-footers, and he does it all game long. His shot is smooth as hell, and his defense ain’t terrible—nobody on UCLA is going to be accused of actually playing defense, but Welsh does fine for his part. He’s almost never higher than option No. 4 when he’s on the court. This team is nuts.
Watching UCLA run the floor is a thing of beauty; it starts with Ball. He can single-handedly (when that single hand has a healthy thumb) maneuver himself or the ball to any spot on the court he wants. He is efficient, both as a distributor and a scorer, and his basketball IQ, paired with a score-now offensive scheme, grants his shooters (Bryce Alford and Aaron Holiday) open treys, his post men (Leaf, Hamilton, and Welsh) easy layups, and him nearly any shot he wants. The offense goes as Ball goes because he’s the connecting piece. When he’s not going at full thumb strength or is on the bench—as seen in the Bruins’ loss to Arizona—the crisp passes and the barrage of buckets tends to slow down. Of course, identifying that “Disrupt Lonzo Ball” should be the main objective of any UCLA opponent the easy part, doing it is another story.
One area teams can focus on aside from Ball is UCLA’s other long range specialists, namely Holiday and Alford. Alford is usually good for his 15 points per game, but he’s prone to big swings in both directions—he has five games of scoring over 20 and two of scoring over 30 while also carrying seven single-digit games. Throughout the course of the tournament, should UCLA make it to the second weekend, he seems likely to have a down game, like his five-point outing against Arizona in the Pac-12 semis. In three games during the 2013 tournament, he went for seven, nine, and then two points; in 2014 he went for 27, 22, and then eight. If teams can run the Bruins off the line like the Wildcats did (4-of-25 from long range), UCLA’s stop-and-pops will slow down, forcing them to look inside. Having at least one big man with some fouls to give is also a useful asset when facing the Bruins—if teams can force Leaf to carry the team or at least get him in foul trouble.
Like I said, fuck all these teams. They’re supposed to be here; nothing about them winning a national title is exciting or particularly Good. And yet, we’ll most likely see some combination of at least two of them in this year’s Final Four. Out of this group, I’m inclined to go with Arizona as my pick to make a run (Duke was a close No. 2, of course, but I don’t have enough faith in this year’s team to think six in a row is happening.) I recognize Arizona’s offensive flaws, but I think the Wildcats’ path isn’t that difficult—winning the West (likely) means beating Saint Mary’s or VCU, Florida State or Maryland, and then Gonzaga or Notre Dame, which is very doable for them.
I hope North Dakota kicks their ass in Round One.