The 10 College Basketball Teams Best Built for March Madness Dominance
Villanova is No. 1 in the men's college basketball AP Top 25, but are the Wildcats No. 1 on the list of teams most likely to reach the Final Four?
Top 25 rankings are typically too focused on how a team has looked in the past week or two. Projected brackets, on the other hand, go to the opposite extreme by scrutinizing the full body of work at the expense of the eye test. Both are fine ways to measure a team's value, but neither gets to the heart of what we all want to know: Who is best built for a Final Four run?
Based on the criteria outlined on the following slide, these are the 10 teams that appear to be in the best shape to string together several consecutive wins on a neutral court against a variety of opponents.
Teams who meet those criteria are then ranked by a combination of star power, depth and defensive prowess.
In looking at the last five national champions, there's no cut-and-dry formula for winning six straight in March and April.
Louisville won in 2013 with aggressive defense and offensive rebounding. In 2014, Connecticut defended the paint and was lethal from the free-throw line. Duke did it in 2015 by finally getting invested on defense and avoiding turnovers. Villanova was hotter than the sun from three-point range in 2016. And North Carolina cut down the nets last year because of a stout four-man frontcourt and timely buckets from Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson.
The only thing those teams blatantly had in common was a fair amount of good luck, as each one had at least one game that was basically decided at the buzzer.
But there are some similarities we can consider when looking for this year's top contenders.
No. 1 on the list is defense.
As has been mentioned quite a few times over the past several years, every national champion in the past 16 seasons has finished the tournament within the top 20 of KenPom.com's adjusted defensive efficiency. They didn't all start the tournament in the top 20, but a quick perusal of KenPom's pre-tourney data shows that all 16 did begin the tournament in the top 40. Thus, we can immediately reduce the pool of candidates based solely upon defense.
Beyond that, it appears crucial to have:
- at least one multiyear starter in the backcourt
- at least one player with a proven ability to catch fire from three-point range
- a positive turnover margin
- a bunch of quality wins and
- at least one lengthy winning streak before the end of January.
If anyone is going to repeat what Kemba Walker did in 2011, it's Oklahoma's Trae Young. But they have a turnover problem, and the lack of veteran leadership in the backcourt could be an issue. They also entered play Wednesday outside the top 50 in adjusted defensive efficiency. It's tempting to overlook those things and buy stock in the nation's most incredible player, but even Young might not be able to don Superman's cape for six straight wins.
We have to mention Kentucky because it's Kentucky, but the Wildcats don't even remotely profile as a team ready for a deep run. There's no veteran leadership, no one is reliable from three-point range, they have a negative turnover margin, and their longest win streak (seven games) didn't include a single victory over a likely tournament team. I have long maintained that Kentucky will continue to improve month over month to become a legitimate threat in March, but that improvement isn't happening fast enough.
Wichita State Shockers
Of all the teams omitted, this is the one I'll probably end up picking at least to the Elite Eight anyway.
But defense is a significant concern for the Shockers. They fare well in adjusted defensive efficiency because they block a good number of shots and own the defensive glass, but they rarely force turnovers and they cede a ton of three-point attempts. It's hard to imagine they'll go six games in the tournament without running into a team that will make them pay dearly for those open looks on the perimeter.
North Carolina Tar Heels
There's a lot to like about the reigning national champions—particularly when Luke Maye is hitting his season averages in points and rebounds—but like Wichita State, perimeter defense and turnovers forced are a major concern. They also have yet to put together a winning streak of more than five games, laying an egg at least once every couple of weeks.
Clemson meets all of the necessary criteria, but none of them emphatically so. In fact, it's tough to pinpoint any area where the Tigers are elite or to identify a player who is a threat to become an unstoppable force in March. Maybe their balanced scoring attack and lack of obvious weaknesses make it less likely they get bounced in the opening weekend, but it's hard to imagine this team knocking off multiple contenders en route to a title.
Arizona State Sun Devils
Tra Holder, Shannon Evans II and Co. can score with anyone, but this team is just not good on defense. Somewhere along the way, the offense will inevitably have a non-peak performance, and we can't trust Arizona State's defense to shoulder the load that time.
Defense has been a major issue for Xavier, as recently demonstrated by giving up 82 points at home against a St. John's team that hadn't topped 77 in any of its previous 10 games. Moreover, the Musketeers are too much of a one-man show. Trevon Bluiett can carry them from time to time, but they are painfully mortal when he's not dominating.
Nevada Wolf Pack
Nevada has several great shooters, rarely commits turnovers and is loaded with veteran talent. The only cause for concern is a lack of top-notch wins. But when the Wolf Pack went on the road against Texas Tech and forced overtime, it said a lot about what this team brings to the table. A Mountain West Conference team has never made the Final Four, but don't be shocked if this one changes that.
With the exception of the lengthy win streak, Gonzaga meets all of the criteria. However, all of their quality wins* came in the first three weeks of the season. Since then, the Bulldogs have been blown out by Villanova, lost to San Diego State and had too-close-for-comfort wins over North Dakota and San Francisco. Despite last year's run to the championship, it's tough to buy this Gonzaga team getting back there.
*Written before Thursday night's game against Saint Mary's.
10. Arizona Wildcats
In truth, this list should probably only be nine teams. Arizona is more of a talent-heavy wild card than a team that statistically resembles any recent national champions.
However, 10 is a nice round number, and it's not difficult to make the case for this team to finally carry Sean Miller to his first Final Four.
With the exception of Duke, no team has a Big Three on par with Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins and Deandre Ayton. Though Ayton hasn't been anywhere near the stretch 5 he was advertised to be, all three of those guys can score from just about anywhere in its half-court offense. And when Trier gets cooking, he's one of the most unguardable scorers in the country.
Since Alkins returned from offseason foot surgery, the Wildcats have been better on the defensive end of the floor. By no means are they great at getting stops, but his arrival provided more than just an offensive boost.
In addition to the better-but-still-lackluster defense, the big question mark for Arizona is its bench.
When Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Trier, Alkins, Ayton and Dusan Ristic are on the floor together, Arizona has a clear talent advantage over every opponent it has faced. It's not the most defensively dominant lineup in the country, but that offense ought to do whatever it darn well pleases.
But once the Wildcats start subbing in their young reserves, all bets are off.
Perhaps if Emmanuel Akot, Ira Lee and Brandon Randolph start playing up to the potential of their recruiting rankings, the Wildcats will emerge as a clear favorite to reach the Final Four. Until that happens, though, this team will likely remain a cut below the real threats to win the championship.
9. Cincinnati Bearcats
The problem I expect many will have with including Cincinnati on this list is that the exact reasons the Bearcats belong are the same reasons they would have been on it in each of the previous seven seasons. Yet, all they have to show from those trips to the NCAA tournament is one Sweet 16 appearance and three first-round flameouts.
Per usual, this team is outstanding at blocking shots and crashing the offensive glass. This is the sixth consecutive season the Bearcats have ranked in the top 12 nationally in block percentage as well as the top 25 in offensive rebound percentage. They are also top-25 in adjusted defensive efficiency for the eighth straight year.
Defensively, this is their best season to date. They're usually near the top of the national leaderboard but never quite this high. They have an adjusted defensive efficiency of 86.2, which is their first sub-90 mark since the Bob Huggins-coached team that earned a No. 1 seed in 2002.
But on offense, Cincinnati remains entirely unappealing, aside from the offensive rebounding.
Gary Clark has finally become a bit more assertive as a senior, but the team still has absolute duds from time to time—like scoring 49 against UCF in its most recent game. Of course, Cincinnati won that game by limiting the Knights to 38 points. Similar story with the 55-53 win over Temple earlier in the month.
If the Bearcats are struggling to score against those team, though, what's going to happen when they repeatedly face tournament-caliber opponents?
Unless you count Buffalo as the projected auto bid from the Mid-American Conference, Cincinnati has only played two games against teams expected to make the NCAA tournament—losses to Xavier and Florida. And the usually strong defense was nowhere to be found in that battle with the Musketeers.
In other words, the jury is still out on the Bearcats until we see them play two games each against Houston and Wichita State in American Athletic Conference play. But based on defensive metrics alone, Cincinnati has to be on the list. In both 2016 and 2017, all four Final Four teams entered the tournament ranked in the top 30 in adjusted defensive efficiency. It's a stone-cold lock that Cincinnati will be one of those 30 teams this year.
8. West Virginia Mountaineers
Just like Cincinnati, the biggest reason it's hard to put any faith in West Virginia is that the Mountaineers are stylistically and statistically similar to previous seasons that didn't produce deep runs.
For the fourth straight year, West Virginia ranks among the nation's best in steal percentage and offensive rebounding. Bob Huggins doesn't get 5-star recruits, but he does always seem to have a dozen guys willing and able to give max effort to force turnovers and create second-chance opportunities.
In theory, it's the perfect strategy. West Virginia averages about a dozen more field-goal attempts per game than its opponents, and it does so without a significant disparity in free-throw attempts. WVU's field-goal percentage is only marginally better than what it allows on defense, but it still scores 15.5 more points per game than its opponents.
And yet, it keeps going up in smoke in the tournament when the Mountaineers go ice-cold in its half-court offense and run into a point guard who doesn't gift-wrap them a bunch of turnovers.
Based on what we've seen in West Virginia's last three games, it's looking like that problem will rear its ugly head once again in March.
The Mountaineers eked out a 57-54 win over Baylor on an off night from Jevon Carter. With his improved play and Esa Ahmad back from his 16-game suspension, they looked more competent early on against Texas Tech and Kansas. But late in the game when the time came to execute its half-court offense, West Virginia looked hopelessly lost, blowing double-digit leads in the second half of both losses.
That's a disproportionate amount of negative discussion about a team that I'm trying to sell to you as one of the 10 best in the country, but it's necessary to justify why the Mountaineers are only ranked No. 9 in spite of a defense that has been turning everyone over for the past four years. If and when they start to show some positive strides with their half-court offense, they'll climb higher on this list.
7. Texas Tech Red Raiders
If defense wins championships, how could you not pick Texas Tech to make a deep run?
The Red Raiders have held all but one opponent to 76 points or fewer. They rank top-40 in the nation in virtually all the defensive metrics on KenPom except for free-throw percentage (not much you can do about that) and free-throw rate. But they don't even commit many fouls (17.1 per game). Rather, because free-throw rate is based on the number of field goals attempted, Texas Tech's impressive percentage of turnovers forced and defensive rebounds skews that number a bit.
But where Cincinnati and West Virginia are elite on defense and just so-so on offense, Texas Tech has also been solid on offense (besides Wednesday's dud at Texas). Keenan Evans is the star of the show and one of five seniors logging significant minutes, but freshmen Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver are the biggest reason this team has made such a leap in Chris Beard's second season as head coach.
The one big question, though, is three-point shooting.
You can certainly win a title without being a great three-point shooting team. North Carolina did so last year. Louisville did it in 2013. But the Tar Heels had Justin Jackson and Joel Berry II. Louisville had Luke Hancock and Russ Smith. They weren't great from distance as a team, but they had guys who could be counted on for some big buckets.
Who is that guy for Texas Tech?
Evans was a 43 percent shooter last year, but he has regressed to 31.9 percent this year. Yet, he entered Wednesday tied for the team lead in triples with just 23 in 17 games. Sooner or later, every team that wins a title has to simply shoot its way to a win, and that's a tough sell for a Texas Tech squad without a serious perimeter weapon.
6. Kansas Jayhawks
With each passing week, it's getting easier to believe Kansas will get back to the Final Four for the first time since 2012, even though this is probably Bill Self's least talented team since becoming the head coach of the Jayhawks in 2003. Heck, with Dedric Lawson, K.J. Lawson and Charlie Moore all sitting out as transfers and 5-star Billy Preston still not appearing in a game, there's a case to be made that Kansas has more talent off the court than on it.
Nevertheless, the Jayhawks have rebounded from home losses to Washington and Arizona State in December. They appear to be putting it all together for a 14th straight Big 12 title and a ninth consecutive year as either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Three of the five starters are shooting better than 42.5 percent from three-point range while a fourth starter (Udoka Azubuike) is leading the nation in effective field-goal percentage. Despite average offensive rebounding and one of the worst free-throw rates in the nation, the Jayhawks are still remarkably efficient on offense.
The small-ball approach hasn't resulted in a major problem on the defensive end, either. Kansas does struggle a bit on the defensive glass, but it's well above the national average in blocks, steals and field-goal defense.
The only area in our criteria where Kansas isn't in great shape is lack of a long winning streak.
The best Kansas has done was seven consecutive victories to open the season. But the Jayhawks always play a challenging nonconference schedule before entering the rigors of the Big 12. Though the loss to Washington was a big surprise, we're not concerned that this team has yet to go more than a month between losses.
What is concerning, though, is the thought of what would happen against a team like Arizona, Duke, Michigan State or Purdue that has multiple dominant big men. The good news is we'll get a sneak peek of those possible pairings next Saturday when Kansas faces Texas A&M's Tyler Davis and Robert Williams in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge.
If the Jayhawks hold their own and win that game comfortably, it would erase all doubt about whether they can win it all this year.
5. Michigan State Spartans
Based on the criteria given, Michigan State probably should not be in our top 10. The Spartans are a nightmare when it comes to turnover margin, they don't start anyone older than a sophomore and they only have one high-quality win—on a neutral court against North Carolina—this entire season.
But in every other regard, it's almost impossible to not trust this team to make a deep run.
Led by Jaren Jackson Jr., the Spartans rank No. 1 in the nation in block percentage, two-point field-goal defense, and defensive effective field-goal percentage.
In the past decade, there have only been five teams to rank top-10 in all three of those categories as well as top-20 in adjusted offensive efficiency (Michigan State ranks 13th). Of those five teams, the 2009 Connecticut, 2011 Kentucky and 2015 Kentucky teams reached the Final Four, and the 2008 Kansas and 2012 Kentucky teams won the national championship. So, that's a good sign for the Spartans.
Another good sign is star power. Though Villanova proved two years ago that you don't need a lottery pick to win a title, it certainly doesn't hurt that Michigan State has two such players in Jackson and Miles Bridges. And while Nick Ward probably won't be a first-round pick this June, he's the type of guy who can take over a game on either end of the floor while getting the opponent's top big man in foul trouble.
Despite a lack of quality wins, it was just two weeks ago that it felt like Michigan State might skate through Big Ten play without a single loss since it had won 14 consecutive games by a double-digit margin.
Yes, the turnover margin is a major concern. The Spartans are effectively giving away their massive advantage in field-goal percentage and rebounding by coughing up the ball too often and rarely recording steals. But they are undefeated when minus-five or better in turnover margin. It's not unreasonable to think they could at least protect the ball that well in March.
4. Duke Blue Devils
Like Michigan State, Duke maybe should not be in the top 10 based on the primary criteria considered. The Blue Devils check all but one of the boxes, but their struggles on defense are a serious red flag.
The good news, though, is that things are improving on that end of the floor.
After giving up 92.7 points per game and 120.9 points per 100 possessions in their first three ACC games, the Blue Devils have brought those numbers down to 66.0 and 90.4, respectively, in their last three.
Yes, those games came against Pittsburgh, Wake Forest and an often offensively anemic Miami, but it's not like the first three were against 1990-91 UNLV. Duke was a disaster against three teams outside the top 40 in adjusted offensive efficiency and looked a lot better against three teams who aren't collectively that much worse.
In particular, the encouraging part was the end of the game against Miami when Duke switched to zone and simply destroyed the Hurricanes.
For 32 minutes, it looked like Miami had uncovered the blueprint for beating Duke. And then for eight minutes, the Blue Devils looked like the most unbeatable team in the country—which is often the case when Mike Krzyzewski finally admits defeat and switches to zone.
So here's the question: Does Duke play zone for the majority of the NCAA tournament or will it continue to dig itself huge holes to climb out of by playing man-to-man for too long?
Duke doesn't need to be elite on defense to win a title. It just needs to be competent enough to occasionally get stops and stifle big runs before it has a chance to start snowballing. That's the luxury of having unguardable big men and an offense that has scored at least 83 points in all but one game this season. But we need to see that competence more than once in a blue moon before we can feel even remotely safe picking the Blue Devils to win it all.
3. Virginia Cavaliers
Is this the year Virginia finally lives up to its seed line?
If so, it should at least reach the Final Four, because the Cavaliers are in fantastic shape for a No. 1 seed with a 16-1 record and in sole possession of first place in a loaded ACC.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that Virginia leads the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency and also plays at the slowest adjusted tempo. Since Tony Bennett became the head coach in 2009-10, that has been this team's modus operandi. The Cavaliers are also an efficient offense, though that often gets overlooked since they play so many games in which the combined total doesn't even reach 130 points.
They have veteran leaders in Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins. They have great shooters in Hall, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome. They already have two eight-game winning streaks this season. They have seven wins against Group 1 or Group 2 opponents. And they have one of the best turnover margins in the country. Virginia meets all of the criteria with room to spare.
Here's the hard part: Try to not let disappointments in recent seasons dissuade you from trusting the Cavaliers.
Last year, Wilkins was limited by an upper respiratory illness and didn't even play in the loss to Florida. Considering he has been Virginia's most valuable player for the past three seasons, that was a huge issue to try to overcome. The year before that, the Cavaliers were up by 14 on Syracuse in the second half when Malachi Richardson and the Orange went on one of the most absurd four-minute runs in NCAA tournament history. And in 2015, a Justin Anderson injury kept Virginia from playing its A-game over the final 12 games.
In other words, there have been some extenuating circumstances that led to Virginia's departures in the past three years. If this team can stay healthy and avoid running into a team catching fire like a game of NBA Jam, the Cavaliers have a great chance of reaching the Final Four for the first time since 1984.
2. Villanova Wildcats
Once upon a time, Duke and Michigan State were in a tier of their own, head and shoulders above the rest of the country. Six weeks and four combined losses by those teams later, now it feels like Villanova and Purdue are the clear teams to beat.
Trying to separate those two teams for the purpose of this ranking was no easy task.
Villanova's offense is just plain incredible. Rob Dauster of NBCSports.com had Jalen Brunson at No. 2 in his player of the year rankings on Wednesday, and he included a video of what makes the point guard so uniquely dangerous: post-up moves. Not only is he a wildly efficient shooter both inside and outside the arc, but he can probe the paint before finding an open teammate on the perimeter.
Because of what Brunson does as both a scorer and a creator, Villanova leads the nation in both adjusted offensive efficiency and effective field-goal percentage. As for the former, only 2014-15 Wisconsin has finished a season with a higher number than Villanova currently has; as for the latter, no team in the KenPom era has finished a season with a higher percentage than Villanova's.
But, in the spirit of nitpicking, Villanova's defense could be better, and this isn't a great rebounding team. However, the Wildcats are improving in the former and don't much need the latter when they make what often feels like every shot that they take.
Villanova has six players averaging at least 10 points per game, each of whom has made at least 10 three-pointers this season. And for seventh and eighth members of the rotation, Collin Gillespie and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree are great assets to have.
It's hard to imagine a scenario where Villanova goes cold from the field as an entire team. Of course, that's also how it felt before the Wildcats were eliminated in the second round in three of the last four tournaments—proof that there's no predicting what will happen in March.
1. Purdue Boilermakers
Does Purdue have a weakness?
That's not a rhetorical question that I'm about to answer. I legitimately don't know what this team's weakness is, if one exists. Every other team in the country has some kind of problem, even if it's a somewhat trivial one. But the biggest complaint you can make about the Boilermakers is that they have struggled in the NCAA tournament in recent years, which means nothing.
Five members of the primary eight-man rotation shoot better than 38 percent from three-point range while each averaging at least three attempts per game. Each of those five also averages at least two assists per game; they are a lethal quintet of guys who are a threat to either pass or shoot every time they touch the ball.
And the reason all that perimeter play is able to happen is because Isaac Haas and Matt Haarms comprise the best one-two punch at center that I can ever recall. Those 7'2" and 7'3" behemoths block a lot of shots and alter twice as many; that's when they aren't both busy converting on better than 60 percent of their two-point attempts on offense.
I've made this observation in a previous article, but it bears repeating. On a team's KenPom profile, there are sections called "four factors" and "miscellaneous components." Between those two sections, there are 18 total areas in which a team's national rank are given—things like block percentage, rebounding percentage and free-throw rate that I reference frequently.
Well, Purdue ranks in the top 150 nationally in all 18 categories, ranks in the top 50 in 10 of them and in the top 10 in five of them. As a result, Purdue is No. 6 in adjusted offensive efficiency and No. 5 in adjusted defensive efficiency. No other team ranks top-12 in both.
There's a lot of season left to be played, but only seven teams in the past decade have entered the NCAA tournament ranked in the top six nationally in both categories. Three of them (2012 Kentucky, 2010 Duke and 2008 Kansas) won the national championship. Two others (2015 Kentucky and 2008 UCLA) reached the Final Four. Expect Purdue to do the same.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.