Selection Sunday is a mere six weeks away, so it’s hardly too early to start thinking about which Top 25 teams have a legitimate shot at the Final Four. Even with all the shakeups at the top of the poll in recent weeks, the prime contenders are starting to sort themselves out.
One ex-favorite that’s fallen on hard times is Louisville, down to No. 12 after a recent three-game skid. Still, point guard Peyton Siva and company proved in the 2012 tournament that a shaky regular season doesn’t exactly preclude a Final Four run, especially for a team with a top-tier defense.
Here, we take a closer look at the Cards and the rest of this week’s AP Top 25, with an eye to each team’s chances of making it through the first five rounds and punching a ticket to Atlanta for the Final Four.
The Golden Eagles have spent the last several weeks on the fringes of the Top 25, in one week and out the next. Coach Buzz Williams’ usual tough defense has served his team well, and Marquette is starting to find an offensive groove.
This is also a team that's played three overtime games in the last month, so it'll have plenty of crunch-time experience to draw on in the postseason.
Still, the Golden Eagles shoot just .295 from three-point range. For a team with only two double-digit scorers (including big man Davante Gardner), that weakness will likely leave them out of luck against postseason defenses by the time the Sweet 16 rolls around.
Just like last season’s edition, the 2012-13 Bearcats are riding a magnificent backcourt to national contention. Sean Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright not only provide top-notch scoring, but they also keep up the defensive pressure on opposing wing players.
Unfortunately for the Bearcats, the success of their formula crumbled last year against the first elite post player they faced in March Madness (Ohio State's Jared Sullinger). With forward Yancy Gates replaced by the less-skilled Justin Jackson, expect a similar result this March.
A recent four-game losing streak took a lot of the air out of what had been a terrific season for Minnesota.
The Gophers are well-stocked with star power (especially dunk-master forwards Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams), but consistency has been hard to come by.
Because coach Tubby Smith’s team is so good when everything’s clicking, it’s a great candidate to pull an upset of a higher seed (especially from a less-physical conference, such as the Pac-12).
However, the prospect of the Gophers winning four straight over two weekends to reach the Final Four is pretty tough to swallow.
San Diego State’s postseason hopes, like its entire 2012-13 performance, rest on two spectacular wing players.
Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley are combining for 32 of the team’s 70.4 points per game. Both have the length (6’5” and 6’3”, respectively) and athleticism to frustrate even the best power-conference foes.
However, the Aztecs were supposed to be a three-guard team, and unless point guard Xavier Thames climbs out of his season-long slump, it’s hard to like the team's tournament chances.
Point guard play is too important in a close game, and Franklin (who’s been doing more ball handling with Thames struggling) is looking worn down by the effort of doing Thames' job as well as his own.
As scary as Creighton’s offense is, the Blue Jays currently stand second in the Missouri Valley Conference (they are tied for first with Wichita State, which holds the head-to-head edge).
Few teams would benefit more from a favorable seed in March, but it doesn’t look like that will be in the cards for forward Doug McDermott and company.
The more difficult the Blue Jays’ road to Atlanta, the more chances they have to hit the one bad shooting night that will doom them.
Super-scorer McDermott gives Creighton a chance in every game, but against the likes of Louisville or Kansas, he simply won't have enough weapons around him.
The New Mexico Lobos have a lot of the ingredients you’d like to see in a potential Final Four sleeper.
Coach Steve Alford’s squad has size (seven-foot center Alex Kirk), experience (two juniors and a senior in the starting five) and a talented point guard (Kendall Williams).
However, the Lobos also have one glaring problem: they can’t shoot. New Mexico ranks 291st in the country in field-goal percentage (.406).
After they were held to 34 points in a loss at San Diego State, the Lobos don’t exactly look ready to beat four NCAA tournament-caliber defenses in a row.
Luck of the draw will play a major role in N.C. State’s March hopes. The Wolfpack have been invincible at home, so staying in-state for their early-round games would give them a huge boost.
Even with a hot start to the tournament, though, N.C. State’s feast-or-famine offense makes a Final Four berth an unlikely proposition.
Additionally—and surprisingly, for a team that returned five starters—the Wolfpack have flopped in close games. They've lost all three of their contests decided by three points or less.
There’s no faulting Kansas State’s defense, which keyed a monster upset of then-unbeaten Florida back in December. On offense, however, coach Bruce Weber’s team hasn’t been nearly as sharp.
Improved point guard play from Angel Rodriguez (5.1 assists per game) has helped, but the Wildcats’ only double-digit scorer is guard Rodney McGruder. The team will go as far as McGruder can carry them, but that won’t be to the Final Four.
Missouri’s record is a comparatively ugly 15-5, but three of those defeats get an asterisk as a result of the knee injury to star forward Laurence Bowers. The senior is just now settling back into the lineup, and at full strength, the Tigers are a team to be reckoned with.
Phil Pressey is one of the country’s most dangerous point guards, and the front line of Bowers and forward Alex Oriakhi has MIzzou ranked second in the nation in rebounding.
They may not get a great seed after their slow start in SEC play, but the Tigers are a team no one will want to face in March.
The Rebels feature the SEC leaders in both scoring (guard Marshall Henderson) and rebounding (forward Murphy Holloway). They’re clearly going to be a tough out in March, but that doesn’t mean their Final Four prospects look favorable.
Ole Miss got thrashed by Kentucky on Tuesday night in Oxford, largely because the Wildcats’ defense held Henderson and company to 32.9 percent shooting.
By the time the Rebels reach the Elite Eight (or even the Sweet 16), they’re highly likely to face another defense that can cut them down to size.
Like many top mid-majors, Wichita State is long on execution but short on imposing physical specimens.
The Shockers are a terrific rebounding team in the Missouri Valley Conference, but 6’8” forward Carl Hall won’t have as easy a time against the likes of Minnesota's Trevor Mbakwe or Miami's Kenny Kadji.
Wichita State’s offense is nothing special, and even standout point guard Malcolm Armstead (an Oregon transfer) is most valuable on defense.
It’s hard to picture this lineup putting up enough points to take down the cream of the Big Ten or Big East in NCAA tournament play.
For sheer muscle, there’s not a team in the country that can match up with Miami’s 784-lb frontcourt trio of Kenny Kadji, Reggie Johnson and Julian Gamble.
The Hurricanes' backcourt is no pushover, either, with senior Durand Scott providing the scoring and Shane Larkin turning out to be one of the country’s most improved point guards.
The biggest threat to the ‘Canes might be their total lack of experience in the Big Dance. If they can keep from psyching themselves out, though, their athleticism and senior leadership make them a very dangerous dark horse for the Final Four.
As usual, Michigan State’s best asset is a physical frontcourt that not only controls the glass but also plays outstanding defense. This year’s Spartans also have the advantage of a terrific veteran point guard in junior Keith Appling.
The biggest threat to MSU's chances is an offense that relies entirely on perimeter players for its scoring. If Gary Harris or Branden Dawson goes cold at the wrong time, all the defense in the world won’t save coach Tom Izzo’s squad.
A Final Four favorite to open the year, Louisville has seen its ranking and its reputation plummet after a shocking three-game losing streak in Big East play.
The Cardinals’ improved offense clearly still has some kinks to work out. Nevertheless, this will be a team to be reckoned with in the Big Dance.
Peyton Siva is a senior point guard with Final Four experience, Russ Smith is one of the best two-guards in the country and coach Rick Pitino’s defense can stand against the best in the college game.
The offense may let the Cards down before they reach Atlanta, but that’s about all that can stop them.
Experience from last year’s Final Four run will serve the Buckeyes well, but they’d happily exchange some of that seasoning for a second reliable scorer.
Forward Deshaun Thomas is leading the Big Ten with 20.3 points per game, but the rest of the offense is a hit-or-miss (and miss, and miss…) proposition.
With the defense, led by guard Aaron Craft, still a major weapon, Ohio State is too dangerous to discount in the Final Four chase.
Still, unless Lenzelle Smith Jr. or one of his teammates proves he can be counted on for more than a paltry 10 points per game, the Buckeyes will be walking a tightrope in every game against high-level opposition.
Oregon is coming off a horrific loss to Stanford. However, the absence of rising-star point guard Dominic Artis means that this defeat should be taken with a grain of salt.
Artis’ foot injury is expected to keep him out only a few games, and when the Ducks are back at full strength, they will be a scary bunch.
Artis and forward E.J. Singler keep the offense-by-committee flowing, and the attacking defense thrives on forcing turnovers.
The biggest concern for OU against top March competition will be length (or lack thereof), because star rebounder Arsalan Kazemi stands just 6’7”, with Singler an inch shorter.
Everybody’s favorite underdog isn’t going to sneak up on the 2013 March Madness field.
Butler may not stay in the Top 10 all the way through March, but with a gritty defense and lights-out guard Rotnei Clarke carrying the offense, the Bulldogs will certainly warrant another top-five seed.
Butler also benefits from having a bona fide center (6’11” Andrew Smith) and a terrific clutch playmaker in forward Roosevelt Jones. As long as the offense stays viable, the Bulldogs will keep winning.
But, as Illinois showed in Maui, if the opposing defense can clamp down on Butler’s secondary options, even the brilliant Clarke can’t win a game by himself.
Arizona has already played an entire Big Dance-worth of fantastic finishes, winning buzzer-beater thrillers against Florida, San Diego State and Colorado.
Senior leadership from guard Mark Lyons and forward Solomon Hill has a lot to do with that success, but so does a strong rebounding effort from freshmen Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski.
As explosive as Lyons has been in the clutch, though, the Xavier transfer is likely to be Arizona’s downfall.
His dreadful 1.1 assist-to-turnover ratio leaves the Wildcats without a true point guard, and it’s only a matter of time before they face a postseason foe who can exploit that deficiency.
The rise of surprise star Kelly Olynyk at center has made Gonzaga a decidedly stronger team than the one that bowed out against Ohio State in last year’s round of 32.
Whether these Bulldogs have improved enough to survive into the Final Four, though, is another question entirely.
The Zags’ offense has been both balanced and prolific, and the defense (led by ball-hawking guard David Stockton) has turned in some sensational performances.
Still, it’s tough to shake the fact that Gonzaga has faced only three ranked teams, putting together a 1-2 record in those contests.
There aren’t a lot of impressive individual names on the Syracuse offense, but guard Michael Carter-Williams has star power enough for everyone. The national leader in assists has steadily improved his scoring while setting up a capable supporting cast.
Carter-Williams is also fifth in the country in steals, which is just one reason that Syracuse’s always-potent 2-3 zone is even tougher than usual this season.
For all the sophomore’s extraordinary talent, though, his woeful shooting percentages (.365 from the field, .280 from beyond the arc) make every close game a white-knuckle experience for coach Jim Boeheim.
Duke’s entire postseason prognosis depends on what happens with senior Ryan Kelly’s injured foot. If Kelly is 100 percent by the start of the tourney, the Blue Devils are a national title contender. Without him, they’ll be lucky to make the Elite Eight.
Mason Plumlee is still a leading Wooden Award candidate, but he’s gotten pushed around at times in ACC action.
Without Kelly to anchor the defense and provide another three-point threat, Duke just doesn’t have enough reliable forwards to compete with the country’s best teams.
Odds: 20-to-1 (without Kelly), 4-to-1 (with Kelly)
No opponent in the 2013 calendar year has come within 15 points of the Florida Gators. The key to that success has been a suffocating defense that ranks second in the country in points allowed.
Florida’s offense isn’t all that vulnerable, either, with the dynamic backcourt of Scottie Wilbekin and Kenny Boynton running the show.
The Gators will probably be the least-welcome Elite Eight matchup in the country because preparing for coach Billy Donovan’s press in just a single off-day is a nearly impossible task.
The one real knock on the Hoosiers thus far is that they haven’t shown much away from Bloomington.
Assuming, though, that they continue to play at their current level in a punishing regular-season finish (at Michigan State, at Minnesota and at Michigan in the last five games), they look every bit the national title contender.
Forward Cody Zeller leads an enormously deep and balanced offense (the top scoring unit in the nation), while guard Victor Oladipo anchors a defense that’s only a hair less impressive.
Having a 5’11” freshman at point guard is an obvious red flag, but Yogi Ferrell has played respectably against bruising Big Ten defenses.
It’s no accident that Kansas has the country’s longest winning streak at 18 games and counting. The Jayhawks’ defense, led by shot-blocking machine Jeff Withey, is overpowering enough to win most games essentially by itself.
Thanks to the rise of guard Ben McLemore, of course, the defense isn’t alone anymore. The sweet-shooting redshirt freshman is the key to KU’s title hopes.
As long as he keeps the Jayhawks from stalling out on the offensive end, they’re a virtual lock for the Final Four.
The Wolverines stand third in the country in field-goal percentage, and their offense is every bit as frightening as their .510 shooting would suggest.
With four serious three-point threats and a potential Wooden Award-winning point guard in Trey Burke, Michigan has an offense that can intimidate even the toughest defenses.
Coach John Beilein’s squad isn’t as devastating defensively, but the length of 6’6” wings Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III allows them to match up effectively with a wide variety of offenses.
It’s not easy to win a national title by shooting opponents into submission, but Michigan seems to have the rare offense that’s equipped to do just that.