NCAA Tournament 2018: Opening Odds for Every Team

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMarch 12, 2018

NCAA Tournament 2018: Opening Odds for Every Team

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    Now that the brackets for the 2018 men's NCAA tournament have been released, it's time to start legitimately asking the question of who has the best odds of winning the national championship.

    With so little separating this year's best teams from its bubble teams, much of the year was spent uttering phrases like, "Well, it depends on the draw."

    Guess what?

    Now we know the draw. Or at least we know what it could be. And we've set the odds—listed in ascending order of seed line—for each team to win six (or seven) consecutive games to become the 2018 champion.

    Two quick notes before we dive in:

    First, these odds will not match up with what you'll find at your local gambling establishment/alley. Those tend to add up to around 130 percent and are based on what Vegas thinks the general public will bet on, rather than being based on actual odds. Our numbers add up to 100 percent, so they are more realistic.

    Second, you can't actually bet on these odds. Sorry if this kills your dream of paying off your student loans or mortgage by betting large on a team with long odds. But there are plenty of casinos that would gladly take your money. And we would almost be willing to make an exception if you really want to bet on a No. 16 seed to win it all.

No. 16 Seeds

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    Pennsylvania Quakers (5,750,000-1)

    Penn does two things about as well as any team in the country: defend the three-point arc and protected the defensive glass. As a result, the Quakers defense usually holds the opposition in check. This is necessary to be competitive, though, because their offense leaves a lot to be desired. Also, most of those good numbers came on the backs of poor competition. In their one game against a tournament team, they lost 90-62 to Villanova.

          

    UMBC Retrievers (6,500,000-1)

    Vermont would have been a strong Cinderella candidate, but UMBC knocked the Catamounts out in the America East championship. Does that mean the Retrievers take their place on the list of teams putting the tournament field on upset alert? Jairus Lyles—who scored 27 against Vermont and had 55 in the first two games of the season against SMU and Arizona—will certainly give it the ol' college try.

           

    Radford Highlanders (8,000,000-1)

    Radford plays at a snail-like pace, but quality opponents have had little trouble scoring on the Highlanders. Ohio State, Virginia Tech and Nevada averaged 84.7 points in their three blowout wins over this Big South team.

           

    Texas Southern Tigers (8,500,000-1)

    Texas Southern went 0-13 in nonconference play in its well-documented six-week road trip. But those games mean nothing, because the Tigers went 15-6 the rest of the way and won the SWAC tournament. This isn't the team to do it, but if any No. 16 seed is ever going to pull off the ultimate upset, you have to think it'll be one that battles through a nonconference schedule full of tournament-caliber opponents.

           

    LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds (9,999,999-1)

    LIU-Brooklyn is only marginally a better tournament qualifier than NC Central. The Northeast Conference Blackbirds suffered 10 Quadrant 4 losses this season and didn't play a single game against anything resembling an at-large candidate, let alone a No. 1 seed.

            

    North Carolina Central Eagles (10,000,000-1)

    With all due respect, this has to be one of the five worst teams to make the NCAA tournament since the field expanded to 64 teams. Even after five straight wins in March to claim the MEAC championship, the Eagles are No. 309 in the KenPom rankings. And according to WarrenNolan.com, they went 0-1 against Quadrants 1 and 2 and won only one game against Quadrant 3 (1-7). If this team becomes the first No. 16 seed to knock off a No. 1 seed, I might never fill out a bracket again.

No. 15 Seeds

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    Georgia State Panthers (1,000,000-1)

    The Sun Belt champion won its first-round game in the 2015 (Georgia State) and 2016 (Arkansas-Little Rock) NCAA tournaments. It wouldn't be the least bit surprising if we're adding the 2018 Panthers to that list shortly. They have a mid-major superstar in D'Marcus Simonds, as well as three starters who can catch fire from three-point range.

          

    Lipscomb Bisons (5,000,000-1)

    Lipscomb is going to run and run. Then, the Bisons will run some more. But this uptempo team is probably just going to hurry its way to a blowout loss. They got smoked by Purdue, Alabama and Texas earlier this season.

          

    Iona Gaels (6,000,000-1)

    The Gaels weren't the best MAAC team during the regular season, but they're no pushover. All five leaders in minutes played have made at least 45 three-pointers this year, and Iona put up solid efforts in nonconference games against Rhode Island, St. John's and Syracuse. It's starting to feel like the boy who cried wolf, but for the fifth time in seven years, the Gaels are a legitimate first-round upset threat.

          

    Cal State Fullerton Titans (7,000,000-1)

    Cal State Fullerton becomes the eighth different program to represent the Big West in the NCAA tournament in the past eight years. Hawaii was the only one to reach the round of 32 (2016), but these Titans are no Rainbow Warriors. Don't expect them to go down without a fight, though. Literally. They lead the nation in free-throw rate and play arguably the most physical style this season.

No. 14 Seeds

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    Montana Grizzlies (3,750,000-1)

    Montana might not win any games in the tournament, but it's going to win the effort categories. The Grizzlies get a lot of rebounds and almost always win the turnover-margin battle. Just don't expect many three-pointers. And do expect a lot of fouls both ways.

           

    Bucknell Bison (4,000,000-1)

    After a 4-7 start to the season, Bucknell has won 21 of its last 23 games, including winning the final two games of the Patriot League tournament by a combined 60 points. Their best probably still isn't enough to reach the Sweet 16, but it's clear the Bison are playing their best basketball at the right time. And let's not forget they put up a spirited fight against North Carolina back in November.

           

    Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks (4,000,000-1)

    Expect a ton of turnovers when Stephen F. Austin takes the court. Per Sports Reference, the Lumberjacks rank first in the nation in turnovers forced and 351st in turnovers committed. That's the highest number in each category, and it results in a combined total of 35.4 per game. That aggressive, ugly style could turn into an upset or two. But allowing more than 25 free-throw attempts per game will end the Jacks sooner than later.

             

    Wright State Raiders (4,500,000-1)

    The Raiders have a good player with an even better name in Loudon Love. The big man averaged 16.8 points and 11.5 rebounds in his final four games and will need to be the anchor on both ends of the floor if the Horizon League champs are going to score a major upset.

No. 13 Seeds

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    Marshall Thundering Herd (600,000-1)

    It's not the Conference USA team we were expecting. Marshall wasn't even the most likely backup choice from that league. But now that the Thundering Herd are here, Jon Elmore, C.J. Burks and Ajdin Penava could lead this uptempo offense to an upset or two. And what a story that would be for a program that hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1987 and that has never won a game in the Big Dance.

           

    Buffalo Bulls (800,000-1)

    After a one-year hiatus, Buffalo is back on top of the MAC. And as always, this team got a fair amount of experience against quality opponents in nonconference play, putting up solid fights against Cincinnati, Syracuse and St. Bonaventure. The Bulls didn't actually win any of those games, but they could steal one in the tourney.

             

    College of Charleston Cougars (850,000-1)

    Charleston entered the season as one of the primary Cinderella candidates, bringing back everyone from a team that went 25-10. An early blowout loss to Wichita State followed by a bad loss to Cal Poly immediately knocked the Cougars out of sight and out of mind. But they're 24-5 since then, including winning 14 of the last 15 games. This is a team that could destroy a lot of brackets by reaching the Sweet 16.

            

    UNC Greensboro Spartans (1,000,000-1)

    Remember the name Francis Alonso. The junior has made 297 three-pointers in his career, shooting 42.2 percent from downtown. If he gets hot, the Spartans are good enough on defense to hang with any foe. Heck, he shot just 3-of-12 from the field in the season opener against Virginia, and they still hung with the Cavaliers in a low-scoring affair.

No. 12 Seeds

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    Davidson Wildcats (75,000-1)

    Less than 48 hours before the selection show, no one was expecting to see Davidson in the bracket. But after consecutive wins over St. Bonaventure and Rhode Islandits second win over the Rams this month—the Wildcats locked up a bid, stealing a spot away from the bubble.

    Now that they're here, they could be a dangerous double-digit seed. There aren't many teams in the country who can make it rain from three-point range like Davidson can. And the three-headed force of Peyton Aldridge, Kellen Grady and Jon Axel Gudmundsson could shock the world with a pair of wins.

           

    South Dakota State Jackrabbits (250,000-1)

    There isn't a more entertaining minor-conference player in the tournament than South Dakota State's Mike Daum. The big man averages 23.8 points and 10.4 rebounds while firing up 6.4 three-point attempts per game. And he makes better than 42 percent of them. 6'9" post presences aren't supposed to be this good from the perimeter. And now that he has a quality second fiddle in shooting guard David Jenkins Jr., this should be the year the Jackrabbits win a tournament game. Maybe two. But not six.

            

    New Mexico State Aggies (400,000-1)

    The Aggies darn near won the Diamond Head Classic back in December, beating Davidson and Miami before squandering a late lead against USC in the championship—despite 13 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists from Jemerrio Jones in that game. After a 28-win campaign, New Mexico State is ready to win at least one NCAA tournament game for the first time since 1993.

             

    Murray State Racers (500,000-1)

    Watch out for Jonathan Stark. Murray State's 6'0" giant has scored at least 15 points in 22 consecutive games, including three 30-point performances in the last six. If any minor-conference player is going to take over a game or a weekend completely by himself, Stark is the guy. It’s hard to believe it has been six years since the Racers were last in the tournament, but they always seem to be a viable Cinderella candidate when they do dance.

No. 11 Seeds

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    UCLA Bruins (5,000-1)

    This is a team that could bust a lot of brackets. The Bruins won at Arizona and almost beat the Wildcats a second time in the Pac-12 tournament. They also won a neutral-court game against Kentucky. But because they were perceived as a bubble team for most of the season and suffered some disappointing losses, they might not be seen as much of a threat.

    They are, though. Veterans Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh have been phenomenal, and freshmen Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands have become legitimate weapons, albeit inefficient ones. A national championship is probably a pipe dream, but this could be the Elite Eight team that less than 1 percent of people correctly predict.

              

    St. Bonaventure Bonnies (12,000-1)

    There are a couple of things to really like about St. Bonaventure, and they are named Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley. That is one heck of a backcourt duo that might combine for 50 or more points on any given night. But there's not much else about this team worth writing home about. And the Bonnies even lost four games this season in which Adams and Mobley combined for at least 37 points, so they aren't a panacea.

           

    San Diego State Aztecs (72,500-1)

    The Aztecs upset Nevada at the end of the regular season and again in the Mountain West Conference tournament in the process of putting together a nine-game winning streak. They haven't had the type of success we grew accustomed to seeing from 2006-16 under Steve Fisher, but there are five former 4-star recruits on this roster. And all five starters average better than 10 points per game.

            

    Arizona State Sun Devils (75,000-1)

    When things were going well, Arizona State was the best team in the country. It won at Kansas. It beat Xavier on a neutral court. It started 12-0 and was headed for a No. 1 seed if it could just take care of business in a down year for the Pac-12. Instead, the Sun Devils lost 11 of their final 19 games, thanks to awful defense and a regression to the mean in three-point shooting.

    Let's be sure to note, though, that six of those losses occurred either in overtime or by a margin of four points or fewer, and only one was decided by double digits. It's not like they suddenly became a train wreck. If the three-point stroke can bubble back up to 40 percent, they're only a few buckets away from winning games again.

    However, let's also note that nine of those 11 losses came against teams who missed the NCAA tournament. It has been more than just a slight step backward from the days of lighting up the scoreboard against the Jayhawks and the Musketeers.

              

    Syracuse Orange (80,000-1)

    For the second time in three years, Syracuse is the most controversial inclusion in the NCAA tournament. And for some bizarre reason, that teamthe most controversial one, not necessarily Syracusealways seems to win at least a couple of games.

    This team is so anemic on offense, though, that it has no realistic shot at winning seven straight games to win the national championship, especially in a region with Michigan State, Duke and Kansas.

               

    Loyola-Chicago Ramblers (300,000-1)

    If the Ramblers had faltered in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, they would have given the selection committee a lot to think about. This team won a road game against Florida and finished the regular season with wins in 17 of 18 games. But they took care of business during Arch Madness and will be a dangerous team with second-weekend potential.

No. 10 Seeds

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    Texas Longhorns (10,000-1)

    Texas is great on defense, but it isn't that great. At any rate, the defense hasn't been good enough to consistently make up for the fact that this team can't shoot its way out of a wet paper bag. The Longhorns are the worst three-point shooting team in the tournament field, and it's not particularly close. They are also awful at the free-throw line and are just average on their two-point attempts. It's no wonder how this team suffered 14 losses and didn't have a single three-game winning streak since mid-December.

           

    Oklahoma Sooners (50,000-1)

    This inclusion has to be the most controversial in the history of bracketology. Despite Oklahoma’s  losses in 11 of its final 15 games, the experts knew the Sooners would get in. They won too many quality games and avoided bad losses well enough to stay clear of the cut line. But, man, there sure were a lot of people in the general public over the past few weeks who were angry about Oklahoma's spot in projected brackets.

    That said, this team isn't going far. Trae Young is an unbelievable talent who may start playing better again now that he's out of the Big 12 gauntlet. However, this defense is atrocious and Young's supporting cast isn't great. There's plenty of tape out there on how to bother him, and some high-seeded team is going to figure it out before long.

          

    Providence Friars (50,000-1)

    Can Providence harness the energy it discovered this week in Madison Square Garden, beating Xavier in overtime one day before taking Villanova to overtime? Playing that well on a neutral court against a pair of No. 1 seeds was one heck of an eye-opening finish to the season for the Friars. Kyron Cartwright could propel this team to an unexpected run, but don't start thinking this is 2011 Connecticut. There's a reason the Friars were on the bubble heading into the Big East tournament.

           

    Butler Bulldogs (75,000-1)

    Butler looks impressive when it shoots better than 50 percent, as it did in quality wins over Villanova, Creighton and Marquette. In the other 88 percent of games, though, the Bulldogs were just an OK team who got blown out a few too many times for comfort. This program had completely unpredictable runs to the national championship in 2010 and 2011, but that's not happening again unless they are hotter than the sun from three-point range for five straight games.

No. 9 Seeds

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    Alabama Crimson Tide (200-1)

    It's funny how quickly the public perception of Alabama went from a 14-loss team possibly on the wrong side of the bubble to the Collin Sexton hype-mobile that is going to plow through unsuspecting foes in the tournament.

    The wins over Texas A&M and Auburn in the SEC tournament were impressive, especially for Sexton. But let's not forget the Crimson Tide entered the week on a five-game losing streak and had not won three consecutive games since mid-January.

    That said, among the handful of teams that might have missed the Big Dance without an impressive showing in its conference tournament, Alabama is definitely the most dangerous.

           

    North Carolina State Wolfpack (5,000-1)

    Look solely at the best wins, and NC State seems like a reasonable choice. The Wolfpack knocked off Arizona and North Carolina away from home and won back-to-back home games against Duke and Clemson. However, the losses to Northern Iowa, UNC-Greensboro, Georgia Tech and Boston College paint the picture of a team that isn't to be trusted. The Wolfpack might have a brief run in them, but they'll eventually have a dud.

          

    Florida State Seminoles (45,000-1)

    The 'Noles are better than their 11-loss record would have you believe. They beat North Carolina, Clemson and Florida this season, and they gave both Duke and Virginia a real run for their money. But given their inconsistency throughout the year and their struggles down the stretch—3-5 in the last eight games with three losses by at least a 13-point margin—there's just no good reason to believe this team is going to make history.

           

    Kansas State Wildcats (65,000-1)

    How healthy is Dean Wade? KSU's big man suffered a foot injury in the Big 12 tournament and missed the semifinal game against Kansas. Considering he leads the team in points and rebounds and is a significant contributor in assists, steals and blocks, anything less than 100 percent would be an issue. The Wildcats aren't winning the NCAA tournament even if he's healthy, but they probably aren't winning a single game if he's not. 

No. 8 Seeds

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    Missouri Tigers (50-1)

    Every year, there's one team in the No. 6-11 seed range that feels like a serious threat to win it all, despite failing to put together one of the 20 best resumes in the country.

    This year, there's no question that team is Missouri. Even before word broke that they might get Michael Porter Jr. back before the end of the season, they were already a sneaky good team with wins over Tennessee and Kentucky. And now that the Tigers actually do have the surefire lottery pick back on the court, it's hard to not love their potential.

    Even though they lost to Georgia in the SEC tournament.

    The Tigers are solid on defense, and they can make it rain from three-point range. Winning the national championship would be a big surprise, but making the Sweet 16 wouldn't be.

             

    Seton Hall Pirates (500-1)

    Save for an odd road loss to Rutgers, Seton Hall looked like one of the top teams to beat for the first two months of the season. The Pirates were 14-2 with nice wins over Texas Tech, Butler, Creighton and Louisville. And the other loss was a one-point nail-biter on a neutral court against Rhode Island.

    Where did that team go? The Pirates went 7-9 over the second half of the season and got downright embarrassed in a few of those losses.

    There's still a lot of veteran talent on the roster, but this is a dysfunctional team that would've gotten more negative attention for sputtering to the finish line if not for the more spectacular collapses of Oklahoma and Arizona State.

          

    Virginia Tech Hokies (15,000-1)

    For most of the season, this was a team that set the nets on fire on a nightly basis. Through the first 24 games, the Hokies averaged 84.7 points. In eight games since then, they have averaged just 64.9. It has been a weird transformation, but they have won games against Virginia, Clemson and Duke since embracing more of a defensive struggle.

    Whatever works, right? Just don't expect to see them approaching 100 points in a game like they did in November. And also don't expect them to last long in the tournament, because they only went 4-4 in those final eight games, despite the trio of marquee victories.

           

    Creighton Bluejays (70,000-1)

    Full-strength Creighton would have been an enticing Final Four pick, but this team hasn't been the same since losing Martin Krampelj to a torn ACL in mid-January. Good opponents have been destroying the Bluejays on the glass and in the paint since he went down. Maybe Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas can carry them to one win.

No. 7 Seeds

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    Texas A&M Aggies (150-1)

    At its peak, Texas A&M was arguably the best team in the SEC. It feels like a lifetime ago, but the Aggies started the season 11-1 with a 23-point neutral-court win over West Virginia, comfortable wins away from home against USC, Oklahoma State and Penn State, and a three-point loss to Arizona.

    The only problem is we rarely got to see Texas A&M at its peak after that, and we have no good reason to believe that team is going to suddenly surface and dominate for three weeks. The Aggies might win a game or two, but six straight? Not gonna happen.

           

    Arkansas Razorbacks (4,000-1)

    When things start going poorly for Arkansas, it spirals out of control in a hurry. Ten of the Hogs' 11 losses were by at least a three-possession margin. Seven of them were decided by 14 points or more, including the 84-66 loss to Tennessee in the SEC semifinals. And this program is notorious for struggling away from home. It only seems like a matter of time before those issues converge for an unceremonious exit.

          

    Nevada Wolf Pack (8,000-1)

    The ceiling sure did cave in on this team in a hurry. Losing starting point guard Lindsey Drew to a season-ending injury in mid-February has left the Wolf Pack scrambling for answers. It also left them on the wrong end of the scoreboard in two games against San Diego State. And if you can't beat the Aztecs, how can we expect you to beat the likes of the Spartans, the Cavaliers and the Musketeers?

           

    Rhode Island Rams (47,500-1)

    Rhode Island is one of many teams who we’d have felt much better about if the tournament had started a month ago. The Rams had an abhorrent 30-point home loss to Saint Joseph's in the next-to-last game of the regular season, adding to pre-existing concerns that this team simply isn't big enough to hold its own against an elite frontcourt. It won't be long before they're sent packing by some team with a strong shot-blocking presence or a dominant scorer in the paint.

No. 6 Seeds

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    Florida Gators (85-1)

    Oh, what to make of the Gators?

    They swept Kentucky. They won neutral-court games against Gonzaga and Cincinnati. They almost beat Duke and Clemson. They did beat Auburn, Arkansas and Texas A&M. That's an awful lot to like.

    But peppered in between those wins were bad losses to Loyola-Chicago, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Georgia (twice). They also got smashed at home by both Alabama and Florida State, though those don't look too bad since those are respectable foes.

    If it can harness its greatness for a couple of weeks, Good Florida has legitimate championship potential. But how long can KeVaughn Allen, Jalen Hudson and Co. go before laying an egg?

           

    Miami Hurricanes (4,000-1)

    Miami always seems to play either up or down to the level of its competition, resulting in a lot of close games against a wide range of opponents. That could be perceived as good news, because it means the Hurricanes shouldn't get blown out of any game. But with the exception of the buzzer-beating road win over North Carolina, they always had close losses to elite teams. Hard to imagine they start consistently beating those teams now.

           

    Houston Cougars (15,000-1)

    Given the number of people who were marveling about Rob Gray’s top knot during Houston's win over Wichita State in the AAC semifinals, it seems like a safe assumption that not many were paying attention to Houston throughout the course of the season and will be surprised to find it seeded so highly.

    This may be an under-the-radar team, but it's a legitimate one. The Cougars have a solid nine-man rotation led by four double-digits scorers. They're a bit undersized, but they're the furthest thing from pushovers in the paint, holding opponents below 44 percent on their two-point attempts.

    There are only two red flags here. They commit way too many fouls, and they've never been in this position before. And we're not just talking in program history, in which Houston has only been to the NCAA tournament once in the past 25 years. Just this season, the Cougars have been the plucky underdogs all year long. How will they respond to the pressure of the Big Dance?

           

    TCU Horned Frogs (45,000-1)

    TCU has turned one heck of a corner under Jamie Dixon, suddenly emerging this year as one of the better offensive units in the country. The Horned Frogs even withstood a season-ending injury from Jaylen Fisher in mid-January, remaining plenty competitive down the stretch without their starting point guard. TCU might win a game or two in its first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1998.

No. 5 Seeds

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    Kentucky Wildcats (30-1)

    The Wildcats are a huge wild card. Less than a month ago, they were on the bubble following four consecutive losses. But they finished strong, winning six out of seven to reach the SEC championship.

    In many ways—youth, offensive rebounding, blocks, free-throw rate, failure to put it all together for the first three-plus months—this team is reminiscent of the group that went from a No. 8 seed to the national championship game in 2014. Obviously, these Wildcats have a different starting point, but if they're finally clicking, there's no way we can write off John Calipari. The man has been to nine Elite Eights in the last 12 years, including five Final Fours.

           

    West Virginia Mountaineers (60-1)

    Press Virginia is always a threat. The Mountaineers are one of the best in the nation in steal percentage, block percentage and offensive rebound percentage.

    But what else is new? They've been playing this exact style for the past three seasons, and they went just 4-3 in those NCAA tournaments, failing to get any further than the Sweet 16. Granted, running into 36-0 Kentucky in 2015 and 34-1 Gonzaga last year wasn't very fair. But the fact remains that this approach has yet to produce a deep run. And this year's team isn't anywhere near as good on defense as last year's.

           

    Clemson Tigers (100-1)

    Right after losing Donte Grantham to a season-ending injury, it looked like Clemson's season was going to fall to pieces. The Tigers were blown out 61-36 by Virginia in the first game without him, and they barely survived for a road win over lowly Georgia Tech in the following game.

    But, somehow, they rallied and held it together. They beat North Carolina. They pushed Florida State to overtime on the road before falling just short. They were tied with Duke in the final two minutes before letting it slip away. And in the rematch with Virginia in the ACC semifinal, Clemson was more competitive in a six-point loss.

    Could this team still have a deep run in it?

    Stranger things have happened. The Tigers do still have a sensational defensive presence in the paint in Elijah Thomas, as well as three guards who can catch fire in any given game. But there's no question the ceiling is lower than it would've been with Grantham.

           

    Ohio State Buckeyes (125-1)

    One month ago—right after the marquee road win over Purdue and blowout of Iowa—Ohio State's odds would have been a lot better than this. But in their final five games, the Buckeyes lost to Penn State twice (once by 23 points), lost to Michigan by a dozen, beat Rutgers and barely squeaked by in two overtimes against Indiana.

    In other words, they did not look one bit like a team that's about to win six straight games against opponents increasing in difficulty. The time off to recharge the batteries should be a good thing for Ohio State, but truth be told, we all may have overhyped this team in the first place because we were so surprised to see it beating quality opponents a few months after firing Thad Matta.

No. 4 Seeds

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    Gonzaga Bulldogs (15-1)

    It's kind of hard to believe that Gonzaga lost Nigel Williams-Goss, Zach Collins, Przemek Karnowski and Jordan Mathews from last year's team and still has legitimate national championship potential.

    This team isn't nearly as dominant, especially on the defensive end. But the Zags have been crushing it lately. They enter the NCAA tournament on a 14-game winning streak, including an active run of four straight wins by at least a 14-point margin.

    Beating up on the WCC doesn't prove much of anything to a lot of folks, but Gonzaga was darn good in nonconference play, too. It won games against Ohio State, Creighton and Texas and lost to Florida in a double-overtime game. And in case you haven't watched Killian Tillie and Co. lately, rest assured that they are even better now than they were in the first four weeks of the season.

    Even though Arizona, Kentucky, West Virginia and Wichita State were all projected in the No. 4-5 range, this is the one team that every No. 1 seed was hoping to avoid facing in the Sweet 16.

            

    Arizona Wildcats (20-1)

    We've seen teams in every sport use the "Nobody believes in us" mantra as motivation for big wins. Is the "Us against the world" attitude going to be enough to propel Arizona to a national championship?

    Heaven knows it propelled them to a successful regular season. It was a down year for the Pac-12, but the Wildcats did work in that power conference, winning both the regular-season and conference-tournament championships.

    If you somehow missed it all, Arizona was named in the FBI probe when that news first broke during the preseason. Shortly thereafter, the Wildcats lost Rawle Alkins to a foot injury that would sideline him for the first nine games of the season. Then, Allonzo Trier was ruled ineligible for two games for "the reappearance of a trace amount of a banned substance." Last, but certainly not least, was the ESPN report of a wiretapped conversation of head coach Sean Miller discussing a $100,000 payment for a recruit presumed to be Deandre Ayton.

    It's just been one PR nightmare after another for the Wildcats, but they managed to persevere and are now at full strength for what feels like the first time all season. And let's not forget: Arizona was among the preseason favorites to win the national championship, ranked No. 3 in the preseason AP poll. If this team is playing motivated and up to its potential, look out.

           

    Wichita State Shockers (80-1)

    Wichita State had a top-15 defense last season, brought back basically everyone and now has a defense that ranks outside the top 100. It makes no sense.

    The Shockers did get better on offense and are lethally tenacious on the glass, but that defense is a major issue. And it certainly wasn't improving by the end of the year. They gave up at least 77 points in five of their last eight games. This is a good team, but it never came close to living up to its potential.

           

    Auburn Tigers (999-1)

    It's a shame Auburn lost Anfernee McLemore to a nasty ankle injury in mid-February. Just one week prior to that, the Tigers were No. 5 overall in the selection committee's top-16 reveal, and they won a home game against Kentucky in the first game after that. They were headed for a No. 1 seed!

    But once their star defender went down, their season quickly went up in flames. Auburn lost four of its last six games and completely no-showed in the second half of the SEC tournament game against Alabama. It's tough to give odds this long to a team seeded this high, but there's no way the team we've witnessed for the past three weeks is making a run to the national championship.

No. 3 Seeds

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    Michigan State Spartans (9-1)

    Michigan State is a top-10 team in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. It also ranks top five in the nation in: Assist rate, block percentage, three-point percentage, offensive rebound percentage, two-point field-goal defense and effective field-goal defense. That's an awful lot of things the Spartans do incredibly well.

    We've spent the entire season warning you that turnover margin could be Michigan State's downfall, and that's still a serious concern. But, come on, who doesn't have an Achilles' heel this year? If you don't think the Spartans are one of the top five candidates to win the national championship, you're only fooling yourself.

             

    Michigan Wolverines (25-1)

    For the fourth time in six years, John Beilein's guys are undeniably playing their best basketball in March.

    These Wolverines were kind of terrible in November. They lost a neutral-court game to LSU and got smashed by North Carolina a little over a week later. They also had a major hiccup in January, losing by 20 to Nebraska. But they finished the year on a nine-game winning streak, including four wins in four days in the Big Ten tournament, knocking off Michigan State and Purdue in Madison Square Garden.

    This is easily the best defensive team that Beilein has had at Michigan. We always think of this team as playing at a slow pace, rarely committing turnovers and shooting a lot of three-pointers. That's all still true. But the Wolverines are also fifth in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency.

    A lot of teams have gotten the "No one wants to face this team right now" designation from the national analysts, but it rings truer with the Wolverines than any other. If they're able to maintain their momentum through the 10-day layoff, there's not a hotter team in the tournament.

           

    Texas Tech Red Raiders (32-1)

    Of all the teams that could realistically win the tournament, Texas Tech is the biggest dark horse. Certainly from the perspective of recent history, the Red Raiders are the odd men out. They have played in only one NCAA tournament in the past decade, and their last tournament win was in 2005. In school history, they have never made it deeper than the Sweet 16.

    But there's a first time for everything, right?

    Chris Beard's group plays relentless defense, forcing turnovers, blocking shots and contesting many others. The Red Raiders held 13 opponents below 60 points and limited five to 50 points or fewer.

    They have one of the most valuable players in the country in Keenan Evans, and he's no one-man show—though they are a bit helpless when he doesn't at least have a decent game. Freshmen Jarrett Culver and Zhaire Smith have been way better than advertised coming out of high school, and former transfers Brandone Francis and Niem Stevenson have both emerged as players who can change the game with a few three-pointers.

             

    Tennessee Volunteers (48-1)

    Now that Clemson, Ohio State and Auburn have tapered off a bit, can we all agree that Tennessee was the biggest surprise of the 2017-18 season and that Rick Barnes deserved drastically more recognition for National Coach of the Year? The Volunteers were supposed to be one of the three worst teams in the SEC, yet here they are, arguably the conference's best chance to reach the Final Four.

    Save for a pair of 90-point anomalies at the beginning of SEC play, Tennessee's defense has been ridiculously good. The Vols crash the offensive glass. They share the rock about as well as any team in the country. And they have four players who have made at least 40 three-pointers while shooting better than 38 percent.

    They won't be a trendy pick to win it all, but the Volunteers might be your best value bet.

No. 2 Seeds

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    Duke Blue Devils (8-1)

    Duke is back and is the runner-up favorite to win the national championship.

    You can complain that the zone isn't perfect, but it's a heck of a lot better than the alternative. Gary Trent Jr. legitimately might be the worst defender among all starters at major-conference programs, Wendell Carter Jr. can't guard anyone more than seven feet from the rim and Marvin Bagley III gets more lost than Carmen Sandiego in ball-screen action.

    Duke's last eight opponents averaged just 60.1 points per game, even though all eight of those opponents either made the NCAA tournament or were smack dab on the bubble until the bitter end. And Duke doesn't need to hold teams to 60 points in order to win. It just needs to not give up 80 points, given the way Bagley, Trent and Grayson Allen have been shooting lately.

    Nothing is guaranteed in this tournament, but heading into Selection Sunday, Duke was arguably the only team you could feel comfortable with penciling into the Final Four, regardless of its draw. The sheer amount of talent on this roster makes it hard not to believe a deep run is imminent.

           

    North Carolina Tar Heels (13-1)

    Though North Carolina has stockpiled quality wins like no other team, it wasn't until the February win over Duke that it felt like this team could win the title. And when the Tar Heels beat their loathed rivals for a second time in the ACC tournament, a second straight national championship became even more of a realistic possibility.

    The big problem for North Carolina is that when it looks bad, it looks really bad. The Heels scored just 45 points in a loss to Michigan State in the PK80. They lost at home to Wofford. (Wofford!) And they were absolutely shredded with three-pointers in losses to Clemson, NC State, Miami and Virginia Tech. As soon as you start to believe in them, they do something dreadful to make you reconsider.

    And yet, we're talking about a team that had regular-season wins over Duke, Clemson, Michigan, Tennessee and Ohio State and made a four-day run to the ACC Championship Game. And they've done a much better job of defending the three-point arc over the past month or so. If that's not a title contender, what is?

             

    Purdue Boilermakers (28-1)

    If the tournament started at the beginning of February instead of mid-March, Purdue would have been the favorite to win it all. At the very least, it was the Boilermakers, Villanova and Virginia sitting on top of the college basketball world. But Purdue lost four of its final nine games and lost some of its luster.

    How much of that was just fatigue, though?

    By the end of their 19-game winning streak, the Boilermakers looked completely gassed. Not too surprisingly, the condensed Big Ten schedule seemed to have a negative effect on this jump-shooting team. Some have speculated that the long layoff between the end of the Big Ten tournament and start of the NCAA tournament could screw up the rhythm for these teams, but let's also consider the possibility that 10 days' rest is exactly what the doctor ordered for Purdue.

    If this team can get back to playing like it did in December and January, the sky's the limit. But that's a big "if," since we haven't seen top-notch Purdue in six weeks.

             

    Cincinnati Bearcats (45-1)

    Cincinnati plays outstanding defense that ranks second only to Virginia in efficiency, but the big question here is: Who have you beaten? The Bearcats did finally get a marquee win at Wichita State to end the regular season, but a road game against UCLA was about the best they could boast through the first 30 games.

    That doesn't mean the Bearcats can't beat anyone, but if you're going to pick a team to potentially win three consecutive games against No. 1 seeds in the second half of the tournament, you might want to pick one that has actually beaten one at some point during the season.

No. 1 Seeds

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    Villanova Wildcats (7-1)

    A testament to how unpredictable this tournament is going to be, Villanova is our favorite to win it all, even though we're deathly terrified of what will happen in the one inevitable game when the Wildcats aren't on fire from three-point range.

    However, peak Villanova is better than peak everyone else. The Wildcats slaughtered Xavier twice, made mincemeat of Gonzaga on a neutral court and had at least one win by a margin of 16 or more points against Creighton, Butler, Seton Hall, Marquette and Providence. There were many times this season when it felt like Villanova's opponent was beaten before it even got to the building.

    But the game against Tennessee back in the Battle 4 Atlantis is an indication of both the ceiling and the floor for the Wildcats. They were outscored 29-14 during an eight-minute stretch late in the first half and trailed by 12 at the intermission. They came out and immediately went on a 23-2 run, coasting to victory. As long as those types of wake-up spurts show up for the next three weeks, Jay Wright should be cutting down the nets for the second time in three years.

            

    Virginia Cavaliers (10-1)

    Defense wins championships, but does Virginia have enough offense to get the job done?

    The Cavaliers have not allowed an opponent to score more than 68 points in a game this season, but it's worth noting that prior to the 71-63 ACC championship win over UNC the last time they scored more than 68 points against an opponent not named Louisville was 20 games ago.

    Yes, Virginia won almost all of those games, but the margin for error is so slim when you're constantly playing low-scoring games. It used to be that the underdogs in the NCAA tournament would try to muck up the game and draw out possessions to improve their odds of beating more talented opponents. Even though Virginia has been doing this for years, it's still a bit of a weird approach that has not produced a Final Four appearance for the program.

    The risk for Virginia is running into a red-hot shooter, a la Malachi Richardson two years ago. The Wahoos are definitely one of the top five candidates to win it all, but they're also one 25-point performer away from getting ousted.

            

    Xavier Musketeers (14-1)

    As long as they don't eventually run into Villanova, you've got to like Xavier's chances. The Musketeers won 28 games. They have one of the most efficient offenses in the country. And they still have Trevon Bluiett.

    Early on in the season, you couldn't have paid me to take a Xavier futures bet to win the title. For the first two months, they were Bluiett, J.P. Macura and a bunch of role players who rarely made an impact. It was enough to win a lot of games against so-so teams, but not nearly enough to suggest that this was a team that could hang with the likes of Duke and Michigan State.

    But then Kerem Kanter and Quentin Goodin became double-digit scorers, Naji Marshall turned into a bit of a stat-sheet stuffer and the Musketeers suddenly had a nine-man rotation worthy of national attention.

    Despite being deemed one of the best teams in the country by the selection committee, Xavier won't be one of the Vegas favorites to win the national championship, simply because the general public isn't going to bet on Xavier. But after six trips to the Sweet 16 in the last 10 years, they should finally break through for the first Final Four in program history. From there, anything's possible.

             

    Kansas Jayhawks (18-1)

    This line is probably going to get more attention than any other, but if you're not a Kansas fan, are you seriously buying this team as a title contender?

    The Jayhawks already have no depth, and their lone horse in the paint (Udoka Azubuike) sat out the Big 12 tournament with a knee injury. If that lingers in any way, shape or form, there's almost no chance this team wins a title.

    Then there's the three-point dependency. When they shoot better than 37 percent, they're undefeated in 18 games. Anything less than that and it's a coin flip, winning eight games and losing seven. Considering that's nearly half of their games, it's a safe assumption they'll shoot worse than 37 percent at least once.

    And what about the defense? Kansas has given up at least 80 points eight times this season, including games against Texas and Texas Tech, who aren't exactly renowned for explosive offenses.

    There are just too many red flags here. The Jayhawks earned their No. 1 seed, but their odds of winning six straight games are well behind those of the other squads on the top line.

                         

    Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.