Ranking the NCAA Championship Contenders as Regular Season Enters Final Month
The college basketball regular season is nearing its close and as we head toward conference tournaments and ultimately the NCAA tournament, the contenders are beginning to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. But with only a month to play, there is no clear favorite to take home a national championship in March.
As the NCAA tournament selection committee nears its day in the spotlight, the focus tends to shift toward teams on the bubble solidifying their resumes with hopes of sneaking into the big show.
With the current revolving door of teams at the top of the polls, however, conference play has also been a major barometer for teams hoping to establish their position as a title contender.
These nine teams have shown the guts so far this season needed to make a deep run in March.
9. Georgetown Hoyas
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The Hoyas entered the season unranked and much like last season, they have proven their doubters wrong in the early goings.
Georgetown is led by sophomore forward Otto Porter Jr., who's inside-outside game has him in the team lead for points and rebounds per game.
He has also made the second-most three-pointers on the team while shooting at a 46 percent clip, which is a much-needed boost for a team that ranks second to last in the Big East in points per game.
The team looked to be in trouble when it recently lost second leading scorer Greg Whittington for an indefinite amount of time, but the team has come up big since then.
In the seven games Whittington has missed, Georgetown is 6-1, with wins over No. 25 Notre Dame and No. 11 Louisville.
The Hoyas look to be for real, and if they can keep getting strong play from guys like Nate Lubick, they could go on a run in March.
8. Creighton Bluejays
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The No. 16 Bluejays entered the season with high hopes with star Doug McDermott returning for his junior season.
McDermott's 24.0 points and 7.3 boards a game lead his team and are good enough to have him on the midseason watch list for the Naismith Award.
Beyond McDermott's stellar performance this season, Creighton has been led by solid play from guard Grant Gibbs, who's 5.8 assists per game is tops in the MVC.
None of their three losses this season have been to ranked teams, which may be a reason to turn away from the Bluejays, but Wichita State is always a threat in the Mountain Valley Conference and Boise State was fresh off a tough four-point loss to 12th-ranked Michigan State, so they have some talent.
They've struggled to maintain focus at times this season, but any time you have a guy like McDermott to turn to in the late moments, you have a shot to make a run in the tournament.
7. Ohio State Buckeyes
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Ohio State comes in as another team fresh off a Final Four berth in last season's tournament, but unlike the Cardinals, the Buckeyes lost many of their core members from last season.
With Jared Sullinger and Will Buford gone, the team has looked to leading scorer and rebounder Deshaun Thomas and leading assist man Aaron Craft for their veteran leadership.
Ohio State has had its lapses in its four losses this season, most notably their late-game collapse against No. 4 Duke, and are only 2-4 against RPI top-50 teams this season.
The team has good balance, however, and will have plenty of tests coming up to prove that it's overcome its early season struggles against top teams. The Buckeyes play five more ranked teams this season, including two against top-ranked Indiana.
If they can do what they did against Michigan in those games, Ohio State will be riding high into March and have the guns to win it all if they get on a run.
6. Miami Hurricanes
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The Hurricanes have one of the most balanced teams in the field this season, and they have shown that they can hang with the star power of other teams in the ACC.
They don't do anything particularly well, but the balanced attack behind Durand Scott, Kenny Kadji and Reggie Johnson, among others, has led the team to a top-ten ranking this season.
The team struggled before ACC play, as all three losses came before the conference season began, but the loss to Florida Gulf Coast is long gone for this squad.
Their coach has experience leading a team deep into an NCAA tournament, and that will be valuable as the team pushes forward toward postseason play. If they can keep coming up with performances like their blowout against Duke, the Hurricanes will be a contender this season.
5. Kansas Jayhawks
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The Jayhawks have been a consistent team for the majority of the season, with only a few speed bumps along the way.
They have, for the most part, taken care of business this season, save for their recent collapse against Oklahoma State.
Ben McLemore is for real, though, and the team shoots a full two points higher than any other team in the Big 12 from the field.
They're clearly the class of the Big 12 that's having a down year and should sail to a Big 12 title if they can get by Kansas State in their second meeting.
Kansas is coming off a national title game berth, and even with the loss of Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson, they have shown they're the class of the Big 12 and a good choice to go all the way in March.
4. Michigan Wolverines
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The Wolverines are fresh off their loss to now No. 1 Indiana, but their second loss of the season came at a packed Assembly Hall, where the home-court advantage was certainly in play as Indiana got off to a huge start.
The Wolverines showed a lot of pluck in that game in their comeback effort, even though it fell short in the end.
Michigan is the top-shooting team in the Big Ten, and guards Trey Burke, Nick Stauskas and Tim Hardaway Jr. can each shoot the lights out of the building on a good night.
Michigan has been one of the more consistent teams this season because of its depth of guards, with both of its losses coming by single digits against ranked teams.
The Wolverines will have another shot at Indiana when they meet in the final game of the regular season, a game that will likely go a long way toward deciding the Big Ten champion.
Michigan made a run at Indiana in Bloomington, and it will look to answer back at home in early March and make a statement going into Conference, and NCAA tournament play.
3. Louisville Cardinals
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The Louisville Cardinals entered the season with high expectations for this year's campaign, with a veteran core of starters returning from last year's Final Four squad.
The team got as high as No. 1 in the country before a three-game slide against tough Big East foes knocked them down a few pegs.
Two of those losses were by one possession, however, and both Russ Smith and Peyton Siva had uncharacteristically poor shooting days in the loss to Villanova.
Led by senior Peyton Siva and junior Russ Smith, who along with sophomore Chane Benahan were on the preseason watch for the Player of the Year, this team has the ability to beat any team.
Given how they bounced back from their losing streak with wins against No. 23 Pittsburgh and No. 24 Marquette, the Cardinals have shown they have the capacity to make it back to the last four, or maybe even farther.
2. Florida Gators
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The Florida Gators find themselves at the top of a down SEC conference with the fall from grace of John Calipari's Wildcats from last year's title team.
Their two losses this season came against an underrated Kansas State team and in a two-point game against No. 7 Arizona.
They are undefeated in conference play and it's hard to see where the Gators could slip up going forward, with a Missouri team they trounced earlier this season being the only ranked opponent left on the schedule.
This is an incredibly balanced team, and it needs all its pieces to be working within the offense to succeed, which could hurt Florida come March.
The lack of competition will be another negative for this team, which won't be as battle-tested as others going into the Big Dance, but with the way this team is playing, the competition may not even matter.
1. Indiana Hoosiers
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The Indiana Hoosiers entered the season as the top team in the nation, and with the season winding down, they find themselves right back on top.
Their preseason Naismith candidate, Cody Zeller, has played like an MVP all season, leading the team in points and boards and making the big plays for the Hoosiers when they've needed them.
Indiana's losses both came against unranked teams at the time the games were played, but Butler has since jumped into the rankings and Wisconsin is still a top-50 RPI team.
Indiana has plenty of tests coming up in the tough Big Ten, but the Hoosiers have shown so far why they're the top team in the nation and why many have them going all the way come March.