NCAA Tournament 2017: Power Ranking All 68 Teams
The NCAA tournament field has been set, and we've ranked all 68 teams from bottom to top.
Whether your favorite team is a blue blood fighting for the national championship or a Cinderella just hoping to find that glass slipper, this is the time of year when thrillers, upsets and madness reign. We're here to make a little sense of it all by ranking every team that made it into the 2017 NCAA tournament.
There were three big questions to answer during this process:
- How has the team performed this season against other quality opponents?
- Is it a well-rounded team or one that simply has peak performances against the right opponents?
- Does the team have a player (or multiple players) who will strike fear into the heart of any opponent it faces?
The better the team scored in those three categories, the higher it ranked on our list—and the better it should fare in the tournament.
But who will cut down the nets in Phoenix in three weeks?
We'll find out soon enough.
68. New Orleans Privateers
Record: 20-11, 13-5 in Southland
Why They're Here: After four years of dominance, Stephen F. Austin finally released its stranglehold atop the Southland Conference, opening the door for New Orleans to lay claim to the throne.
Reason to Believe: Yahoo's Jeff Eisenberg told the story earlier this month of how Hurricane Katrina crippled this program. New Orleans was going to drop from D-I to D-III in 2009 but, after a two-year hiatus, transitioned from the Sun Belt to the Southland. The Privateers were barely even competitive for their first few years there but finally rose up and won both the regular-season and conference-tournament titles. You try telling that team it can't do the impossible.
Reason to Worry: The Privateers are one of the most turnover-prone teams in the country. They also can't shoot threes or get defensive rebounds. And they were destroyed in their games against Oklahoma State, USC and Northwestern.
March Madness Ceiling: We never expect No. 16 seeds to upset No. 1 seeds, but we really don't expect this one to become the first.
67. Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers
Record: 19-15, 14-4 in Northeast
Why They're Here: Mount St. Mary's had to rally from second-half deficits in all three of its NEC tournament games, but playing on its home court was just the advantage it needed. The Mount stormed out of intermission in the championship game against St. Francis, turning an eight-point deficit into an 11-point lead before the third media timeout.
Reason to Believe: The Mountaineers are more battle-tested than your average No. 16 seed. They opened the season with nine consecutive road games, including RPI Top 50 opportunities at West Virginia, Iowa State, Minnesota, Texas-Arlington, Michigan and Arkansas.
Reason to Worry: They lost those six games by an average of 18.2 points and only won one of their first 12. They took care of business in Northeast Conference play, but that's not saying much. Mount St. Mary's was the only team in the league to finish in the RPI Top 200.
March Madness Ceiling: The Mountaineers are likely headed for the First Four, and they could certainly beat a team like Jacksonville State in Dayton. But they are too undersized to have any hope of hanging with a No. 1 seed.
66. UC Davis Aggies
Record: 22-12, 11-5 in Big West
Why They're Here: Just seven days after losing by 30 at UC Irvine, UC Davis capitalized on the opportunity to avenge that loss in the Big West championship game. In a decade of eligibility, this is the Aggies' first trip to the NCAA tournament.
Reason to Believe: The Aggies are fairly solid on the defensive end and do a great job of getting to the free-throw line on offense, even if they struggle to convert from it.
Reason to Worry: UC Davis played one game against the RPI Top 100 and lost by 25 at California. This team was good two years ago when it had the best three-point attack in the nation, but this year's version simply benefited from a weak Big West conference. The Aggies will be one of the least efficient offenses in the NCAA tournament.
March Madness Ceiling: UC Davis could win its play-in game, but it won't be knocking off a No. 1 seed.
65. North Carolina Central Eagles
Record: 25-8, 13-3 in MEAC
Why They're Here: Apparently, the Eagles were playing possum at the end of the regular season. They lost back-to-back games to 13-16 Savannah State and 3-29 North Carolina A&T before turning around and winning the MEAC conference tournament.
Reason to Believe: In terms of percentages, the Eagles have one of the best three-point defenses and free-throw "defenses" in the country. Of course, after 19 games against MEAC opponents, that likely has more to do with the opposing offenses than N.C. Central's defense.
Reason to Worry: N.C. Central did not play a single game this season against a team in the RPI Top 85 and went 1-4 against the RPI Top 200. If the Eagles get out of the First Four, that No. 1 seed is going to be one heck of a rude awakening.
March Madness Ceiling: With the exception of play-in games and Norfolk State's shocking upset of Missouri in 2012, the MEAC's representative has not come within 10 points of beating its tournament opponent in the past 15 years. There were some MEAC teams along the way that were a threat to pull off an upset, but this year isn't one of them.
64. Troy Trojans
Record: 22-14, 10-8 in Sun Belt
Why They're Here: After earning just the No. 6 seed in the Sun Belt tournament, Troy strung together four wins in five days to get in. The Trojans last made the tournament in 2003, but this is their first time representing the Sun Belt in the Big Dance in 12 tries.
Reason to Believe: Troy has a pair of talented frontcourt players in Florida transfer DeVon Walker and Jordon Varnado—younger brother of Jarvis, who blocked shots at a ridiculous rate for Mississippi State from 2006 to 2010. Jordon isn't nearly the shot-blocker his brother was, but he was the most prolific swatter in the Sun Belt this year.
Reason to Worry: While they aren't terrible at anything, the Trojans don't have any strengths, either. They're just kind of average across the board with a slight deficiency on defense, which resulted in them losing a bunch of games by slim margins.
March Madness Ceiling: Troy played only three games against remotely quality opponents, splitting with Texas-Arlington and coming within six points of a road win against USC. The Trojans didn't get a great seed because they lost too many games, but they've got a chance to at least make things interesting in the first round.
63. Jacksonville State Gamecocks
Record: 20-14, 9-7 in Ohio Valley
Why They're Here: OVC No. 1 seed Belmont was the second-most three-point reliant team in the nation, but the long ball betrayed the Bruins in March. After sweeping Jacksonville State during the regular season, they shot 8-of-38 (21.1 percent) from downtown in their third game against the Gamecocks for their worst scoring output of the season. JSU took that gift in the semifinal and then knocked off Tennessee-Martin in the OVC title game.
Reason to Believe: A slow-paced team that rebounds well and protects the paint, Jacksonville State could muddy the game up enough to frustrate an opponent. The Gamecocks held 10 opponents to fewer than 60 points this season, including all three in the OVC tournament.
Reason to Worry: Prior to knocking off Belmont, JSU was 0-4 against the RPI Top 100 with eight losses to teams outside the RPI Top 200. Its turnover margin is awful and its three-point defense is usually a problem.
March Madness Ceiling: Getting to the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history is an excellent achievement. But don't bet on Jacksonville State to become the first No. 16 seed to upset a No. 1 seed.
62. Texas Southern Tigers
Record: 23-11, 16-2 in SWAC
Why They're Here: The Tigers have become something of a juggernaut in the SWAC, winning 16 conference games in three consecutive years. Last year, they came up short as the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament, but they eked out wins over Grambling and Alcorn State in the final two rounds to earn a bid this year.
Reason to Believe: Mike Davis doesn't mess around with his nonconference schedule, which prepares Texas Southern for what it will face in March. This year, the Tigers played Louisville, Arizona, Baylor, Cincinnati and TCU, all on the road.
Reason to Worry: They lost those five games by an average margin of 30.8 points, and their stud forward Derrick Griffin left the program at the end of December to prepare for the NFL draft. They survived in the SWAC without him, but it's tough to see them hanging with a title contender now.
March Madness Ceiling: One of these times, Texas Southern is going to sneak into the round of 32. But if it wasn't even close in 2015 after winning nonconference games against Michigan State and Kansas State, this probably won't be the year, either.
61. North Dakota Fighting Hawks
Record: 22-9, 14-4 in Big Sky
Why They're Here: North Dakota didn't have to wait nearly as long as Northwestern did to make the NCAA tournament, but for the first time since becoming a D-I school seven years ago, the Fighting Hawks are going dancing. They only won two nonconference games against D-I foes, but they owned the Big Sky, winning 17 of their last 20 games.
Reason to Believe: Quinton Hooker is a minor-conference phenom. He averaged 20.1 points per game last season and nearly matched that mark this year, thanks to a 28-point performance in the Big Sky title game. He fills up the stat sheet with rebounds, assists and steals, as well.
Reason to Worry: Not since getting smashed by Utah in November 2014 has North Dakota played anything close to the level of opponent it will face in the first round. Combine that with how overwhelming the whole NCAA tournament experience can be for a team/coach getting there for the first time and North Dakota's exit could be swift.
March Madness Ceiling: Just because they haven't been there before doesn't mean they can't win a game. It's not an upset I'll have the guts to pick, but North Dakota has better tempo-free metrics than any other team on the No. 15 or No. 16 lines.
60. South Dakota State Jackrabbits
Record: 18-16, 8-8 in Summit League
Why They're Here: In mid-January, South Dakota State was 6-13 against D-I competition with awful losses to Idaho, Western Illinois, Oral Roberts and IUPUI. Over the last 11 games of that stretch, the Jackrabbits allowed an average of 84.1 points per game. Then Mike Daum took over, averaging 30.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game while leading SDSU to wins in 10 of its last 13 games.
Reason to Believe: Daum is the real deal. Dating back to December 2015, he has scored at least 10 points in 52 of 55 games. In two games this season against Fort Wayne—the team that upset Indiana back in November—Daum had a combined 93 points and 25 rebounds and shot 17-of-33 (51.5 percent) from three-point range. This 6'9" minor-conference phenom shoots 41.6 percent from beyond the arc and 87.1 percent from the free-throw line.
Reason to Worry: The South Dakota State defense is still awful and might be the worst among any team in the NCAA tournament. Even with Daum averaging 17 points and 5.7 rebounds, the Jackrabbits went 0-3 against RPI Top 100 teams (Wichita State, California and East Tennessee State) and lost by an average of 21 points. And those teams aren't nearly as good as the national championship contender SDSU will face in the first round.
March Madness Ceiling: Even if Daum scores 40 points, it's unlikely the rest of the roster can muster the 50 points necessary to keep pace with the other team. The Jackrabbits might be the most dangerous No. 16 seed of all time, but a well-prepared No. 1 seed should still handle them with relative ease.
59. Northern Kentucky Norse
Record: 24-10, 12-6 in Horizon League
Why They're Here: The Horizon League tournament got all sorts of wild with the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 seeds all losing in the quarterfinals. This opened the door for No. 4 seed Northern Kentucky to earn the auto bid by beating the two worst teams in the conference in the final two rounds. Junior point guard Lavone Holland II rose to the occasion, averaging 18.7 points and 5.3 assists in the three wins.
Reason to Believe: For a No. 4 seed from a minor conference, the Norse are surprisingly hot, having won 12 of their last 14 games. And not that they have anything else in common with a recent Cinderella, but the last time a team earned a No. 15 seed in one of its first years of eligibility for the NCAA tournament, Dunk City happened.
Reason to Worry: Northern Kentucky did not beat an RPI Top 100 team until its final game of the regular season (vs. Valparaiso) and suffered four losses to teams outside the RPI Top 200. In their only game against a caliber of opponent they'll face in the first round, the Norse lost by 31 to West Virginia. If they've got what it takes to pull off a massive upset, they haven't shown it yet.
March Madness Ceiling: This is a team that takes more than 42 percent of its shots from three-point range and makes better than 35 percent of those attempts. If the Norse catch fire and drain 15 or more triples, there's a chance they could pull off a shocking upset. But they'll most likely have to settle for soaking in the experience of their first trip to the Big Dance.
58. New Mexico State Aggies
Record: 28-5, 11-3 in WAC
Why They're Here: From mid-November through early February, New Mexico State won 20 consecutive games before losing three out of four. But the Aggies were able to rebound from that cold spell to win five straight by a double-digit margin, securing the WAC auto bid.
Reason to Believe: They have a new head coach, but the Aggies are no strangers to the NCAA tournament. This is their sixth trip in the past eight years. They didn't actually win any games in those previous tournaments, but senior leader Ian Baker has at least been there, done that a couple of times.
Reason to Worry: New Mexico State commits a lot of turnovers, doesn't shoot well from three and has an awful steal rate. Those are three things we typically look for when trying to find Cinderella candidates.
March Madness Ceiling: Aside from the aforementioned three categories, New Mexico State is one of the best minor-conference teams. The Aggies crash the offensive glass and do a great job defending the perimeter. It may not be the normal upset formula, but they have a chance to knock off a strong opponent.
57. Kent State Golden Flashes
Record: 22-13, 10-8 in MAC
Why They're Here: Kent State only played three games all season against the RPI Top 100, going 2-1 against MAC favorite Akron, including an upset of the Zips in the conference championship. Every game the Golden Flashes played this week was a nail-biter, beating Central Michigan in OT before consecutive wins by two-, three- and five-point margins
Reason to Believe: Big man Jimmy Hall has been one of the best-kept secrets in college basketball over the past three years. He averaged a double-double this season and accounted for 24.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game in the MAC tournament. He could be for Kent State what Kyle O'Quinn was for Norfolk State when it upset No. 2 seed Missouri in 2012.
Reason to Worry: Even with Hall doing yeoman-like work in the paint, Kent State barely went .500 against teams in the RPI 101-200 range. The Golden Flashes were also blown out by 19 by an Oregon State team that was just plain bad all year.
March Madness Ceiling: Hall could go off for 30 points and 15 rebounds, but it's going to take more than just one guy to beat one of the 10 best teams in the country.
56. Bucknell Bison
Record: 26-8, 15-3 in Patriot League
Why They're Here: Lehigh was a thorn in Bucknell's side during the regular season, handing the Bison two of their three conference losses by a combined 19 points. But Bucknell smoked the Mountain Hawks in Round 3 behind 17 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and two blocks from point forward Zach Thomas.
Reason to Believe: The Bison had a couple of quality wins over Vanderbilt and Richmond. In each of those games, all four of their primary scorers (Thomas, Nana Foulland, Kimbal Mackenzie and Stephen Brown) showed up in a big way. They have a chance when that quartet gets going.
Reason to Worry: Their three-point defense looks OK after two months of games against Patriot League foes, but teams that can shoot have had little difficulty doing so against the Bison. Wake Forest, Butler, Vanderbilt, La Salle and Princeton shot a combined 45.8 percent (44-of-96) from downtown against them.
March Madness Ceiling: It has been 11 years since Bucknell's last NCAA tournament victory, but that drought might come to an end this March. Either way, this is training for next year. The Bison don't have a single senior among their nine leaders in minutes played, so they should be one of the top Cinderella candidates in 2018.
55. Iona Gaels
Record: 22-12, 12-8 in Metro Atlantic Athletic
Why They're Here: Iona shot 28-of-70 (40 percent) from three-point range in the MAAC tournament while big man Jordan Washington extended his streak of contests with at least 15 points and five rebounds to eight. The Gaels had seven bad losses during the regular season, but they finally got things going when it mattered most.
Reason to Believe: Per usual, Iona can score. E.J. Crawford, Schadrac Casimir and Jon Severe each shoot at least 43 percent from three-point range. Deyshonee Much (37.7) and Sam Cassell Jr. (35.8) are no slouches from the perimeter, either. And their four-out, one-in offense allows Washington (33.1 points, 13.8 rebounds per 40 minutes) to go to work.
Reason to Worry: The Gaels can also give up a ton of points. They allowed opponents to score more than 85 points 10 times, including a 103-85 regulation loss to Rider just a few weeks ago. Florida State scored 99 against Iona in the Gaels' season opener, and five days later, Nevada hung 91.
March Madness Ceiling: The last two times Iona made the NCAA tournament, I talked myself into its potential to push the tempo and score like crazy en route to a first-round upset. The Gaels lost 95-70 to Ohio State in 2013 and 94-81 to Iowa State in 2016. And they're even worse defensively this year than they were last year. Maybe they'll get lucky and run into a team that misses a lot of open jumpers, but their best-case scenario is a trip to the second round.
54. East Tennessee State Buccaneers
Record: 27-7, 14-4 in Southern
Why They're Here: Despite getting swept by UNC-Greensboro during the regular season, East Tennessee State knocked off the Spartans in the SoCon championship game to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010.
Reason to Believe: The Buccaneers' nine leaders in points scored include five seniors and four juniors. In addition to being experienced, ETSU is one of the more physical teams in the country. The Buccaneers commit a lot of fouls and turnovers, but they rank in the top 15 in block rate, steal rate and free-throw rate. There's nothing about their game you would describe as "finesse," and they can be a nightmare for teams averse to contact.
Reason to Worry: Prior to beating UNC-Greensboro, East Tennessee State was 1-6 against the RPI Top 100 and was soundly defeated by Dayton in its one chance to make a statement. The Buccaneers were solid against bad teams, but can that translate to success against a high-major title contender?
March Madness Ceiling: ETSU does enough things well that it could cause some problems in the first round. But if it's going to pull off an upset, it'll be thanks to the play of T.J. Cromer, who averaged 24.7 points in the SoCon tournament. Former Indiana big man Hanner Mosquera-Perea could also be a factor as an interior defender. But this isn't a second weekend type of team.
53. Winthrop Eagles
Record: 26-6, 15-3 in Big South
Why They're Here: Winthrop has won 17 of its last 19 games, averaging better than 80 points during that stretch. The Eagles got a heck of a fight from Gardner-Webb in the Big South semifinals, but dynamic duo Keon Johnson and Xavier Cooks did just enough for Winthrop to prevail in overtime before it coasted to the title against Campbell.
Reason to Believe: If any minor-conference player is going to replicate what Stephen Curry did for Davidson in the 2008 NCAA tournament, it might be Johnson. The 5'7" shooting guard has been over-shadowed all year by Central Michigan's 5'9" Marcus Keene, but Johnson averaged 22.5 points per game, including 26.5 over the last 12 and 29.3 in the Big South tournament.
Reason to Worry: Thanks in large part to Johnson, Winthrop is one of the shortest teams in the nation, according to KenPom.com. The Eagles do have a solid 6'8" frontcourt player in Cooks (19.7 points, 13.0 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.7 blocks in Big South tournament), but he's their only option in the paint. They were minus-18 on the glass earlier this season against Dayton, and the Flyers are the furthest thing from a rebounding juggernaut.
March Madness Ceiling: Putting up points against the likes of Presbyterian and Longwood doesn't prove anything, but Winthrop scored 86 versus Florida State one game before getting 84 in an overtime win against Illinois. If Johnson and Cooks keep rolling, the Eagles could pull off at least one major upset.
52. Vermont Catamounts
Record: 29-5, 16-0 in America East
Why They're Here: One of just two teams to go undefeated in conference play, Vermont has not lost a game since Dec. 21. The Catamounts struggled against Albany in the conference championship game, but they won 16 of their last 21 games by a double-digit margin.
Reason to Believe: Led by senior Dre Wills, Vermont has one of the best two-point offenses in the country. The Catamounts don't have dominant big men, but they have a bunch of guards who can get to the rim at will.
Reason to Worry: Vermont went 0-4 against the RPI Top 125 and wasn't that competitive in early losses at Providence, South Carolina and Butler. The Catamounts have grown as a unit over the past three months, but is it enough to keep up with a No. 4 or No. 5 seed?
March Madness Ceiling: Many tuned in to watch Vermont win the early America East final on Saturday, but what they saw was not indicative of what this team can do. These aren't quite the Catamounts that upset Syracuse back in 2005 with Taylor Coppenrath and T.J. Sorrentine, but this is an efficient, slow-paced group that could cause some problems in the opening weekend.
51. Princeton Tigers
Record: 23-6, 14-0 in Ivy League
Why They're Here: The other team that went undefeated in conference play, Princeton hasn't lost a game in nearly three months. The first year of the Ivy League tournament was almost disastrous for the Tigers, who needed overtime to escape a road game against Penn in the semifinals, but they survived and advanced.
Reason to Believe: If you're buying teams like Michigan or Marquette for their ability to get and stay hot from three-point range, Princeton is one of the best squads in the country in that department. The Tigers have three starters who shoot better than 40 percent and a sixth man who shoots 39.3 percent.
Reason to Worry: Their five leaders in minutes played are all 6'5" or shorter. As a result, they were destroyed on the glass in early-season losses to BYU and California.
March Madness Ceiling: Princeton meets all the criteria we look for in a Cinderella candidate. It scheduled aggressively in nonconference play, it's red-hot, it has several three-point assassins, and it is loaded with veteran leaders. It has been four years since a No. 12 or 13 seed reached the Sweet 16, but it used to happen all the time. The Tigers have a good chance to end that drought.
50. Xavier Musketeers
Record: 21-13, 9-9 in Big East
Why They're Here: The X-Men hit a serious rough patch after losing Edmond Sumner to a torn ACL. Playing a few of those games without Trevon Bluiett didn't help matters, either. But they showed with a win over Butler in the Big East quarterfinal that they're still good enough for the Big Dance. It got dicey during that six-game losing streak, though.
Reason to Believe: Per usual, the Musketeers are outstanding on the glass. They also do a great job of getting to the free-throw line. Bluiett is a star who can carry the team, and J.P. Macura is a streaky shooter who pops off for 20 or more every now and then.
Reason to Worry: Prior to that win over Butler, Xavier hadn't beaten a team other than DePaul in more than a month. And the Musketeers weren't particularly close during that six-game losing streak, either, never finishing within two possessions. Even when they had Sumner, they were inconsistent on defense and—prior to looking a little better in the Big East tournament—were just plain bad on D without him.
March Madness Ceiling: If we discount the two-point win over Creighton after it lost Maurice Watson Jr. for the year, Xavier didn't have any great wins until beating Butler at Madison Square Garden. Maybe that one win is a sign of things to come, but it's more likely an outlier for a team that gets knocked out in the first weekend.
49. Rhode Island Rams
Record: 24-9, 13-5 in Atlantic 10
Why They're Here: Rhode Island was supposed to break its NCAA tournament drought last year, but that dream lasted all of 10 minutes before E.C. Matthews tore his ACL. With a healthy Matthews and the additions of Indiana transfer Stanford Robinson and a pair of key freshmen, the Rams played their best basketball in a while, reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999.
Reason to Believe: Rhode Island's defense is legit. The Rams rank second in the nation in both block percentage and three-point field-goal defense. That's not just a quality of opponent thing, either. They held Duke to 6-of-21 (28.6 percent) from distance and blocked seven shots. VCU was 1-of-15 (6.7 percent) and had eight shots blocked. Rhode Island blocked at least four shots in all but four games and held 15 of its opponents below 30 percent from distance.
Reason to Worry: Rhode Island's aggressive defense results in a lot of fouls—similar to the dilemma West Virginia often faces. The Rams have no problem going 10 deep and don't have anyone averaging three personal fouls per game, but they typically give up more free throws than they attempt. And they don't shoot well from three-point range or the free-throw line, so those opposing trips to the charity stripe add up in a hurry.
March Madness Ceiling: Rhode Island has some sleeper potential, but only if the offense shows up. Hassan Martin has been a one-man wrecking crew with points, rebounds and blocks lately, but no one else has been scoring with any consistency or efficiency. The Rams seem likely to be involved in one of those 57-53 first-round games filled with more drama than buckets.
48. Providence Friars
Record: 20-12, 10-8 in Big East
Why They're Here: Based on what Ed Cooley has accomplished at Providence over the past six years, the school should just hand him a blank check and beg him to stay forever. One year removed from losing dynamic duo Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil as well as key reserve Junior Lomomba, the Friars had no business winning 20 games this year. Yet Cooley led them to a third-place finish in a good Big East conference and a fourth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.
Reason to Believe: Prior to an early exit from the Big East tournament, Providence finished the regular season on a six-game winning streak. Things weren't pretty in the middle of the year, when the Friars lost seven out of 10, including bad losses to Boston College, DePaul and St. John's, but they've been playing great lately.
Reason to Worry: Outside of three-point specialist Jalen Lindsey, no one on the team scores efficiently. Rodney Bullock averages 15.7 points per game, but it takes him more than a dozen shots to get there. Kyron Cartwright's ratio of points to shots is even worse. As a result, the team isn't much better than the national average on offense.
March Madness Ceiling: How does one put a ceiling on a team that has played 12 consecutive games decided by 12 points or fewer? Whether the Friars are playing Villanova or DePaul, it's not until the final two minutes that things are decided. They could pull off an upset or two just by sticking around long enough for the other team to choke.
47. Creighton Bluejays
Record: 25-9, 10-8 in Big East
Why They're Here: After an 18-1 start, Creighton was a mess after losing starting point guard Maurice Watson Jr. to a torn ACL. The Bluejays did more than enough in the first 10 weeks of the season to earn a bid, but their run in the Big East tournament could be proof they can back up that bid, too.
Reason to Believe: Even without Watson around to deftly set them up with open looks, the Bluejays are still a sensational three-point shooting team. During a seven-game stretch from late January through late February, they shot a combined 76-of-160 (47.5 percent) from downtown. And everyone on the floor is a threat to shoot it. Even 6'11" freshman center Justin Patton occasionally steps beyond the arc (8-of-14).
Reason to Worry: Despite the aforementioned great shooting, Creighton went 3-4 in those games because it is a disaster on the defensive end. Patton blocks some shots, and Khyri Thomas has been known to create turnovers, but the Bluejays simply cannot stop opponents from scoring with any regularity. Moreover, Creighton is awful on the glass. Take out its four games against St. John's and DePaul, and Creighton's rebounding margin in Big East play was minus-6.8 per game.
March Madness Ceiling: With a team that has made at least 10 three-pointers in nearly half of its games, anything is possible. Back in November in the Paradise Jam tournament, the Bluejays caught fire for three nights and shot 44-of-80 (55 percent) from downtown. If that offense shows up again, a trip to the Sweet 16 is possible.
46. Florida Gulf Coast Eagles
Record: 26-7, 12-2 in Atlantic Sun
Why They're Here: With a little bit of Dunk City flare, Florida Gulf Coast stormed back into the NCAA tournament field for the third time in five years. The Eagles cruised through the Atlantic Sun tournament with the ease you'd expect to see in a No. 1 seed that had won 16 of its last 18 games.
Reason to Believe: With a transfer (Brandon Goodwin) starting at point guard and their best returning player (Marc-Eddy Norelia) out with a broken hand, the Eagles opened the season by holding second-half leads at a neutral site against Florida and on the road against Baylor and Michigan State and taking care of business against a good Texas-Arlington team. It had a few hiccups over the past three months, but FGCU proved early and often it can hang with the best teams in the country.
Reason to Worry: In each of those four early games, the Eagles shot well from three-point range. Through 14 games, they were shooting 42.2 percent as a team. But over the last 19 games, they're shooting 29.7 percent. They've shot 37.5 percent or worse in all but three of those games. Goodwin and Demetris Morant are excellent inside the arc, but Florida Gulf Coast is not equipped to mount a comeback.
March Madness Ceiling: Even if this program hadn't gone on that miraculous Sweet 16 run in 2013, it'd be tempting to pick the Eagles to pull off an upset. Four of their seven leading scorers began their careers with bigger schools before transferring to FGCU. Another first-round win is plausible, and a second trip to the Sweet 16 isn't entirely out of the question.
45. USC Trojans
Record: 24-9, 10-8 in Pac-12
Why They're Here: Following two years in the basement of the Pac-12, Andy Enfield and USC reached the NCAA tournament in 2016. The Trojans are back again this season. They lost four transfers, had two players (unsuccessfully) declare for the NBA draft and played half of this season without key big man Bennie Boatwright. But they started 14-0 and did just enough in Pac-12 play to get in.
Reason to Believe: USC has an aggressive defense but somehow gets a lot of blocks and steals without committing fouls. In their final 13 games, the Trojans allowed 173 free-throw attempts (13.3 per game) while tallying a combined 164 blocks and steals (12.6 per game). They make you work for your buckets.
Reason to Worry: The Trojans have not been playing well lately and have proved nothing in road and neutral environments. They had great home wins over SMU and UCLA, but they were blown out at Arizona, Oregon and UCLA by an average of 22.7 points. They also got smoked by 22 at Utah, lost at Arizona State and needed overtime to beat 18-14 Wyoming in Las Vegas. Even games at bottom-feeding Oregon State and Washington were a struggle.
March Madness Ceiling: Road/neutral records are often overblown, but USC's inability to perform outside the Galen Center is a legitimate concern. The Trojans have a dandy of an eight-man rotation, but it seems unlikely they can win back-to-back games against quality opponents on a neutral court.
44. Kansas State Wildcats
Record: 20-13, 8-10 in Big 12
Why They're Here: The selection committee loves teams that prove they can play away from home, and Kansas State did so on many occasions this season. The Wildcats won at Baylor before beating the Bears a second time in the Big 12 tournament. They also won road games over Oklahoma State, TCU and Colorado State and might have scored wins away from home against Kansas and West Virginia if the referees had let them.
Reason to Believe: The Wildcats have had terrible luck defending the three, but they do a great job of protecting the paint and forcing turnovers. If that defensive three-point percentage (38.3) regresses to the mean in the NCAA tournament, Kansas State could upset a few opponents by holding them to 60 points or fewer.
Reason to Worry: Playing at Oklahoma in a game that bracketologists thought they had to win, the Wildcats laid a massive goose egg, losing by 30. For every great win they have, there's a questionable loss to balance the scales.
March Madness Ceiling: In case we weren't sure from the regular season, Kansas State reminded us in the Big 12 semifinal against West Virginia that it has a tendency to occasionally be downright awful on offense. And it's hard to trust a team that doesn't have a go-to scorer or an ability to reliably score as a team. But their proven ability to get up for games away from home could be worth at least one win.
43. Arkansas Razorbacks
Record: 25-9, 12-6 in Southeastern
Why They're Here: With three JUCO transfers, Arkansas was one of the biggest unknowns coming into this season. But Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford have been great, providing the Razorbacks with their top two assist men and ranking as the team's second- and third-leading scorers. As a result, Arkansas bounced back from a .500 2015-16 season to finish third in the SEC.
Reason to Believe: The Razorbacks are deceptively potent on offense. They don't have any great shooters, but they crash the offensive glass and get to the free-throw line often. As a result, they have an efficient attack despite mediocre shooting percentages.
Reason to Worry: Arkansas has troublesome defensive rebounding, free-throw rate and turnover percentage figures, which means the Razorbacks have a tough time ending defensive possessions. Physical teams with quality big men have given them a lot of trouble.
March Madness Ceiling: Regardless of what records against the various RPI buckets say, Arkansas has only two moderately impressive wins (at South Carolina, at Vanderbilt) and had two hideous losses (vs. Mississippi State, at Missouri). And against the best competition, the Razorbacks weren't even competitive. They were soundly swept by Florida and got stomped by Kentucky, Oklahoma State and Minnesota. They might win their opener, but good luck against the real competition.
42. Northwestern Wildcats
Record: 23-11, 10-8 in Big Ten
Why They're Here: It has been some kind of year for sports in the greater Chicago area. Not five months after the Cubs ended a World Series drought of more than a century, Northwestern punched its first ticket to the Big Dance in the 79th iteration of the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats did not make things easy with six losses in their final nine regular-season games, but wins over Wisconsin, Michigan, Dayton and Wake Forest proved to be enough.
Reason to Believe: Anchored by the shot-blocking duo of Dererk Pardon and Gavin Skelly, Northwestern is a difficult team to score against. The Wildcats have taken more than their fair share of losses over the past six weeks, but they have held 11 of their last 13 opponents to fewer than 70 points and have given up 75 or more just twice all season.
Reason to Worry: In addition to the fear it could be in a "Just overjoyed to be here" frame of mind? Northwestern is average on offense. It has great turnover and assist rates and converts well from the free-throw line, but beyond those fundamentals, the Wildcats have subpar shooting percentages that have gotten worse throughout the season. After shooting at least 40.9 percent from the field in each of their first 12 games, they shot a combined 40.7 percent over their next 17.
March Madness Ceiling: The feel-good story of the year, Northwestern will have the emotional support of probably every fanbase aside from the one it is facing. Will that be enough for even one win? The Wildcats might get out of the first round, but this isn't a second weekend team.
41. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Record: 24-9, 11-7 in Big Ten
Why They're Here: The biggest story in the country was Northwestern finally making the NCAA tournament, but the second-biggest story (that went egregiously un-discussed) was Minnesota going from 8-23 to 24-8. The fact that Richard Pitino did not win national coach of the year should be a sign that we need to define and change the criteria for that award.
Reason to Believe: The Golden Gophers were a disaster on defense last season, but Illinois State transfer Reggie Lynch and freshman Eric Curry transformed them into one of the best rim-protecting defenses in the nation. And with those guys patrolling the paint, Minnesota's guards were able to extend the floor and better defend the perimeter. After allowing opponents to shoot a brutal 38.2 percent from downtown last year, the Gophers improved to 30.3 percent this year.
Reason to Worry: Defense is great, but the Gophers don't force many turnovers and aren't great on the defensive glass, so opponents can still score against them. And they're one of the worst shooting teams in the field with an effective field-goal percentage of 48.6. Minnesota was held below 60 points five times this season and had three losses in which it scored 50 or fewer.
March Madness Ceiling: The Gophers offense has been bad, and particularly so away from home. Minnesota did have a pair of high-scoring wins over Purdue (91 in overtime) and Maryland (89), but even with those games included, it averaged 66.2 points away from home. That's not going to cut it for long in the tournament. The Gophers might block their way to the Sweet 16, but it's almost impossible to go further than that without offense.
40. South Carolina Gamecocks
Record: 22-10, 12-6 in Southeastern
Why They're Here: After a somewhat shocking omission from the 2016 NCAA tournament, South Carolina scheduled more aggressively, picked up better wins and avoided bad losses well enough to go dancing for the first time since 2004. The Gamecocks struggled late in the year, but nonconference wins over the likes of Monmouth, Michigan, Syracuse and Vermont kept them in good shape.
Reason to Believe: South Carolina is a force on the defensive end. Led by Sindarius Thornwell and PJ Dozier, the Gamecocks rank in the top 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency, turnover percentage and three-point field-goal defense. They play at a much faster tempo than annual defensive juggernaut Virginia, but that didn't stop the Gamecocks from holding 12 opponents to 60 points or fewer while only giving up more than 76 points four times—one of which was a four-overtime game.
Reason to Worry: Aside from Thornwell, South Carolina is just plain bad on offense. Even with him averaging 21 points per game and shooting almost 40 percent from three-point range, the Gamecocks rank outside the top 300 in effective field-goal percentage and are only marginally better than the national average in adjusted offensive efficiency. Also, their aggressive defense inevitably results in a lot of free throws for the opposition.
March Madness Ceiling: South Carolina is good enough to beat the middling seed it will draw in the first round, but it probably doesn't have enough offense to win a neutral-court game against one of the eight best teams in the country.
39. UNC-Wilmington Seahawks
Record: 29-5, 15-3 in Colonial Athletic Association
Why They're Here: UNC-Wilmington got back most of the key pieces from a team that earned a No. 13 seed and gave Duke a run for its money in last year's NCAA tournament. The Seahawks were one of the best mid-major programs for most of the year and shot their way to the Colonial's auto bid.
Reason to Believe: The Seahawks lead the nation in offensive turnover percentage. They also have one of the best two-point attacks in the country, thanks in large part to Devontae Cacok, who is shooting 79.9 percent from inside the arc. UNC-Wilmington averaged 91.3 points per game in the CAA tournament.
Reason to Worry: This is one of the smaller teams in the country. Of the six guys who played more than eight minutes in the CAA title game, two are 6'0", one is 6'2", two are 6'5" and Cacok is 6'7". Opposing teams have had no difficulty scoring against UNC-Wilmington's interpretation of a frontcourt. Three tournament-caliber opponents—Clemson, ETSU and MTSU—shot a combined 69-of-120 (57.5 percent) on two-pointers.
March Madness Ceiling: The Seahawks could be a Sweet 16 team. When guys like Chris Flemmings, Denzel Ingram and/or Ambrose Mosley get cooking from the perimeter, this offense can put up some ridiculous numbers. But the moment they run into a dominant big man like Caleb Swanigan, Ethan Happ, Bam Adebayo or Jock Landale, they're going to get eaten alive in the paint.
38. Marquette Golden Eagles
Record: 19-12, 10-8 in Big East
Why They're Here: In Year 3 under Steve Wojciechowski, Marquette is back. The Golden Eagles announced their return with a 24-point thrashing of Vanderbilt on opening night and later in the season recorded a pivotal win over Villanova and sweeps of Creighton and Xavier. A couple of bad losses and a mediocre computer profile kept them on the bubble all year, but this is a team that could shoot its way to a couple of tournament wins.
Reason to Believe: Marquette has one of the most potent offenses in the nation. Freshman point guard Markus Howard is shooting an almost unfathomable 54.9 percent from three-point range while averaging close to five attempts per game. Group him with Andrew Rowsey (45.4 percent), Sam Hauser (45.2) and Katin Reinhardt (38.4), and the Golden Eagles lead the country in three-point percentage.
Reason to Worry: Though 6'10" Matt Heldt has made a lot of progress as a sophomore, Marquette's only interior scoring and shot-blocking presence is Luke Fischer—and he gets in foul trouble constantly and is averaging 11.5 fouls per 40 minutes over his final five games of the regular season. And while the Golden Eagles held Villanova to 6-of-34 shooting (17.6 percent) from downtown in their biggest win of the year, that was an extreme outlier for a team that has allowed nearly half of its opponents to shoot better than 40 percent from distance.
March Madness Ceiling: Marquette has scored at least 90 in a game nine times this season, including going over the century mark three times—all in regulation. Four of those nine games came away from home, so this team can clearly score anywhere. That makes the Golden Eagles a real threat to reach the Sweet 16, even though everything other than their collective three-point stroke makes it tough to trust them to beat anyone.
37. Maryland Terrapins
Record: 24-8, 12-6 in Big Ten
Why They're Here: Maryland never solidified itself as a contender. Its best wins were back-and-forth battles decided by slim margins. Even the victories against unimpressive teams like American, Towson and Richmond were too close for comfort. But the Terrapins minimized their losses and put together a nice computer resume, even if they didn't quite pass the eye test.
Reason to Believe: Clutchness cannot be measured and might be a load of hooey, but Melo Trimble always seems to have ice in his veins when it matters. Three years ago, Kentucky sleepwalked through the entire season only to have Aaron Harrison hit three-point dagger after three-point dagger in the tournament. If anyone is going to replicate that run, it's Trimble.
Reason to Worry: What does this team do well? No, really, I'm asking. Its best stats are two-point defense and shot-blocking, but that's factoring in the 17 games before big man Michal Cekovsky fractured his ankle. Without him, the Terrapins are just kind of average at everything. And they finished the regular season with losses in five of their final nine games.
March Madness Ceiling: Maryland played 13 games that finished within a two-possession margin, including seven decided by a single bucket, so it is the official coin-flip team of the 2017 NCAA tournament. The Terps proved they can eke out a quality win over Oklahoma State or lose in heartbreaking fashion to Nebraska or Purdue. But maybe heads will come up three or four times in a row for a decent run.
36. Nevada Wolf Pack
Record: 28-6, 14-4 in Mountain West
Why They're Here: After getting swept by Fresno State during the regular season, the Wolf Pack avenged those losses by eliminating the Bulldogs in the MWC semifinals. Nevada probably would have been worthy of an at-large bid if necessary, but it also took care of business against Colorado State in the MWC championship game.
Reason to Believe: The Wolf Pack have several players with legitimate NBA potential. Sophomores Cameron Oliver and Jordan Caroline have been sensational, as have seniors Marcus Marshall and D.J. Fenner. With three major-conference transfers sitting out and preparing for next season, this could be the start of a MWC dynasty.
Reason to Worry: Nevada only played one game all season against the RPI Top 50, and it was an 18-point, season-opening loss at Saint Mary's. The Wolf Pack beat a ton of teams in the RPI 51-100 range, but are they ready to move up a notch in the tournament?
March Madness Ceiling: Of all the teams from one-bid leagues, this is the one most tempting to ride regardless of draw. MTSU and UNC-Wilmington are solid Cinderella candidates, but Nevada has the talent to reach the Elite Eight, as long as the long ball doesn't fail them now.
35. Virginia Tech Hokies
Record: 22-10, 10-8 in Atlantic Coast
Why They're Here: For a team that hasn't been to the NCAA tournament in the past decade, Virginia Tech's big year flew below the national radar aside from a brief appearing in the AP Top 25 after a win over Duke. The Hokies had a rather awful nonconference schedule, but they made up for it with nice wins over Virginia, Miami and Wake Forest.
Reason to Believe: Virginia Tech got back most of its key pieces from last season, but it also gained a pair of crucial redshirts. Both Ahmed Hill (knee) and Ty Outlaw (heart condition) missed the entire 2016-17 season, but they have been two of the best weapons on one of the nation's top three-point shooting teams, particularly as of late. Over his last seven games, Outlaw is 28-of-43 (65.1 percent) from beyond the arc.
Reason to Worry: The Hokies are not good on defense. In ACC play, they allowed 78.2 points per game despite playing at an adjusted tempo on par with the national average. It's a good thing they shot so well from three-point range during the regular season, because there was a 50 percent chance they lost when they didn't score at least 80 (7-7).
March Madness Ceiling: In large part because of the aforementioned nonconference SOS, Virginia Tech's seed wasn't quite as high as perhaps its caliber of play deserved. Had the Hokies gotten a No. 5 seed, they'd be a serious threat to reach the Sweet 16. As is, they're likely going to face a title contender in the second round—a matchup that should end poorly for VT.
34. Miami Hurricanes
Record: 21-11, 10-8 in Atlantic Coast
Why They're Here: With a pathetic nonconference SOS and a 4-5 start in ACC play, Miami was arguably on the wrong side of the bubble in early February. But the Hurricanes won six of their next seven games—including back-to-back victories over Virginia and Duke—to move comfortably into the field and become a threat to do some damage.
Reason to Believe: Miami tried to run a bit early in the season, but it has found a comfort zone in rock fights. The 'Canes averaged just 60.7 possessions in their final nine games—and that includes a 59-possession overtime game. They've also discovered something of a secret weapon in freshman Dejan Vasiljevic. The three-point specialist is averaging 8.1 points off the bench in his last eight games.
Reason to Worry: With occasional exceptions—Virginia and Wisconsin, for example—grind-it-out teams never seem to fare well in the tournament. Over the last six years, teams that finished the season ranked in the bottom 20 nationally in tempo have a combined NCAA tournament record of 27-28. Take out the Badgers and Cavaliers, and that mark drops to 10-20 without a single trip to the Sweet 16. Granted, there are a few Nos. 15 and 16 seeds on that list, but it includes 2014 No. 3 Syracuse and seven other teams that earned a No. 8 seed or better.
March Madness Ceiling: Miami seems like a team that has been tested enough to survive a few rounds. The Hurricanes didn't have any bad losses all year, so it seems unlikely they will have won games over North Carolina, Duke and Virginia just to get bounced by a double-digit seed.
33. VCU Rams
Record: 26-8, 14-4 in Atlantic 10
Why They're Here: Despite bad losses to Georgia Tech, Davidson and (especially) Fordham, Virginia Commonwealth's resume somehow stayed strong all year. The Rams had three nice home wins over Princeton, Middle Tennessee and Dayton and came close against Baylor at a neutral site. Because of VCU's Final Four run in 2011, it always gets extra consideration as a team that could make a deep run.
Reason to Believe: The Rams do still have a great turnover-forcing defense. It's not quite as formidable as it was during the four years Briante Weber led the nation in steal percentage, but VCU records a steal on one out of every nine defensive possessions. Thanks to Justin Tillman and Mo Alie-Cox, the Rams are also a better two-point shooting team than they have ever been in the KenPom era.
Reason to Worry: Among the eight regulars, JeQuan Lewis (37.9 percent) is the only three-point shooting threat—and he's barely shooting 33 percent over the past two months. It's a bit like those North Carolina teams for which Marcus Paige was the only option from beyond the arc, except instead of making up for it with elite offensive rebounding and three-point defense, VCU sometimes gets 10 or more steals in a game.
March Madness Ceiling: With the exception of a loss to Illinois that included a hideous final five minutes, the Rams haven't been blown out of a game all season. If they can turn up the defensive intensity and fluster the opposition, they could win a couple of games.
32. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
Record: 30-4, 17-1 in Conference USA
Why They're Here: Save for one early February hiccup at UTEP—which it avenged in a big way in the C-USA semifinals—Middle Tennessee has been flawless for more than two months. The Blue Raiders were an unexpected Cinderella story as a No. 15 seed last year, but they're going to be a trendy Sweet 16 pick after the regular season they just had.
Reason to Believe: The Blue Raiders played only five games against the RPI Top 100, but they won four of them and nearly won on the road against VCU. In wins over Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Belmont, they averaged just 5.7 turnovers. And in Jacorey Williams, Giddy Potts and Reggie Upshaw, they have three legitimate scoring weapons who can also rebound and defend.
Reason to Worry: Outside of one home game against Louisiana Tech (KenPom No. 90), MTSU will have gone nearly three full months between games against teams in either the RPI or KenPom Top 100. That didn't stop the Blue Raiders from shocking Michigan State last year, but one has to worry a little bit about teams from noncompetitive leagues.
March Madness Ceiling: The Final Four might be a bit of a stretch, but who thought George Mason or VCU would get there? At the least, this team has second weekend potential.
31. Vanderbilt Commodores
Record: 19-15, 10-8 in SEC
Why They're Here: The Commodores started slowly. They went 7-6 in nonconference play, sat at 8-10 in mid-January and 12-13 in mid-February. But they won three games against Florida and knocked off Iowa State, South Carolina and Arkansas in the process of going 11-5 down the stretch. Their fantastic strength of schedule kept them in the bubble conversation, and they capitalized when it mattered most.
Reason to Believe: If nothing else, Vanderbilt is battle-tested. It played 14 games against the RPI Top 50 and 25 against the RPI Top 100. Most ACC teams didn't even come close to the latter mark. Granted, the Commodores didn't even win half of those games, but they won a lot and came within single digits in the majority of the losses.
Reason to Worry: Three wins over Florida are nice, but what in the name of James Naismith happened in Vanderbilt's 20-point loss to Missouri? It's one thing to be challenged by a bottom-feeding conference foe in a road game. We could even excuse a buzzer-beating loss. But the Commodores were eviscerated in the final 10 minutes of that one.
March Madness Ceiling: Vanderbilt lives and dies with the three. It attempts 48.6 percent of its shots from beyond the arc, more than any other team that made the tournament. If Matthew Fisher-Davis and Co. are feeling it, the Commodores could win a few games.
30. Dayton Flyers
Record: 24-7, 15-3 in Atlantic 10
Why They're Here: Over the summer, it seemed like Dayton was going to have one of the best frontcourts in the country. Senior Kendall Pollard, transfer Josh Cunningham and freshman Kostas Antetokounmpo were all going to be major factors. But Antetokounmpo was ruled ineligible, Pollard missed the first six games and Cunningham missed nearly three months. Yet, the Flyers won the A-10 and had their best season under Archie Miller.
Reason to Believe: In Pollard, Charles Cooke and Scoochie Smith, Dayton has three senior leaders who are capable of taking over a game. Cooke transferred from James Madison after the 2013-14 season, but the other two have now been to four NCAA tournaments. If experience means anything in March, it's a big advantage for Dayton.
Reason to Worry: Though they have scored a ton lately—81.7 points over their final nine regular-season games—the Flyers were nothing special on offense early in the season. Against their five toughest opponents in November, December and January, they failed to score more than 68 points in a game and totaled 324 points in 329 possessions.
March Madness Ceiling: Dayton is the barrier between the Final Four contenders and the rest of the field. The Flyers don't seem like a team that could reach the national semifinals, but of all the squads we've encountered thus far on the list, it would be least surprising to see them get there—both because of their talent this year and because they have five tournament wins in the previous three years.
29. Seton Hall Pirates
Record: 21-11, 10-8 in Big East
Why They're Here: Seton Hall was all sorts of bubbly in mid-February, but it won five of its final six games in the regular season, including a road win over Butler and home wins over Creighton and Xavier. Hard to believe the Pirates lost do-it-all shooting guard Isaiah Whitehead from last year's team and barely lost a step.
Reason to Believe: Angel Delgado is a double-double phenom. Save for a pair of games away from home against Villanova, Seton Hall's junior power forward has tallied at least 10 points and 10 rebounds in every contest since the beginning of December. He was good in his first two seasons, but if Seton Hall had won a few more games, he would have been first-team All-American good this year.
Reason to Worry: Outside of incredible offensive rebounding by Delgado, Michael Nzei and Ismael Sanogo, this team can be a mess on offense. No one shoots better than 37.7 percent from three, and Myles Powell (81.7 percent) is the only free-throw shooter better than 73.5 percent. Four times this season, the Pirates were held to 54 points or fewer.
March Madness Ceiling: Both Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez are streaky shooters. The former had 41 in a game four weeks ago, and the latter scored at least 23 in a game six times. If one gets hot in the tournament, Seton Hall could reach the Sweet 16. If both get hot for four games, well, you do the math.
28. Michigan State Spartans
Record: 19-14, 10-8 in Big Ten
Why They're Here: The Spartans lost a ton of games, but that's because they pushed themselves to the limit. Within the first three weeks of the season, they played Arizona, Kentucky, Florida Gulf Coast, Baylor, Wichita State and Duke. It makes no sense that isn't the No. 1 nonconference SOS in the country, but those November games were intended to prepare this team for March.
Reason to Believe: Though it has been more than two months since the Spartans won more than two consecutive games, freshman Nick Ward is having a late season breakout, and Miles Bridges has become more consistent in displaying his lottery pick-worthy talent. Add in the national leader in assist rate (Cassius Winston), and Michigan State has a three-headed monster made up of first-year players.
Reason to Worry: Michigan State has never been a turnover-forcing team under Tom Izzo, but the Spartans are also struggling to hold on to the ball this year. They rank outside the top 300 in both offensive and defensive turnover percentage and have an average turnover margin of minus-3.2. In losses, it has been even worse (minus-4.1). A team like West Virginia, South Carolina or VCU could eat them alive.
March Madness Ceiling: There's another bubble team with a slightly higher ceiling, but Michigan State is the one team in the Nos. 6-11 seed range that no one wants to face. The Spartans will be a popular pick to reach the Sweet 16, and they have Final Four potential if they put it all together.
27. Saint Mary's Gaels
Record: 28-4, 16-2 in West Coast
Why They're Here: Saint Mary's struggled to get going against Gonzaga in the WCC championship game, but unlike last year, its resume was good enough for an at-large bid. This was one of the toughest teams to rank, and seeding the Gaels was likely one of the biggest dilemmas for the selection committee.
Reason to Believe: The Gaels went 28-1 against teams other than Gonzaga. They're the best defensive rebounding team in the country, and they rank in the top 15 in about a dozen other categories. Jock Landale is one of the best big men in the nation regardless of conference affiliation. And the heart of this rotation has been playing together for two full years, as there weren't any seniors on last season's 29-win team.
Reason to Worry: ESPN's Scott Van Pelt put it best on his midnight SportsCenter show: "The metrics love them, and I believe they're good, but they played Gonzaga three times and they got beat three times by double digits." Moreover, the Gaels' best win of the season (at Dayton) includes the major asterisk that the Flyers played that game without both Kendall Pollard and Josh Cunningham. The numbers look great, but did three wins over BYU really prove anything?
March Madness Ceiling: The West Coast Conference has not produced a Final Four team since San Francisco in 1957, and this team is far from a favorite to break that drought. But, at times, the Gaels look capable of doing it. But it's tough to gauge their NCAA tournament potential from blowouts against the likes of Portland and San Diego. Similar to teams like Butler or Florida State, Saint Mary's could win anywhere from zero to four games without it shocking anyone.
26. Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Record: 19-13, 9-9 in Atlantic Coast
Why They're Here: The overall record isn't great, but note that there was a point in mid-February when Wake Forest was 1-11 against the RPI Top 50 and 0-7 in those games that were decided by seven points or fewer. Prior to season-ending wins over Louisville and Virginia Tech, this was a good team that couldn't seem to close the deal against quality opponents. Now that the Demon Deacons have broken the seal, they are dangerous.
Reason to Believe: Wake Forest has a breakout star of a big man (John Collins), an excellent and efficient point guard (Bryant Crawford) and a pair of three-point assassins (Keyshawn Woods and Austin Arians). The Deacs even have a blood connection to back when the team was consistently great (Randolph Childress' son, Brandon) if you're into that type of thing. Aside from more regular-season wins and a better defense, they've got everything you can want in a Final Four contender.
Reason to Worry: That defense isn't a minor issue. Six times this season, the Deacons have scored more than 80 points in regulation and lost, including a 99-94 game at Duke. Wake doesn't force turnovers, and both its defensive two- and three-point field-goal percentages are worse than the national averages. Every game the Demon Deacons play feels like a race to 85.
March Madness Ceiling: Each year, there's at least one team that barely sneaks into the field yet is regarded as a major threat to advance to the national semifinals. Last year, it was Wichita State and Gonzaga. The year before, D'Angelo Russell's Ohio State was the sleeper. And who can forget Tennessee in 2014? This year, that team is Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons are liable to lose in the first round—there's a reason they lost 13 games—but they have a ton of talent and appear to be peaking at the right time.
25. Cincinnati Bearcats
Record: 29-5, 16-2 in American Athletic
Why They're Here: At this point in Mick Cronin's tenure, it's a given that Cincinnati is going to have one of the better defenses in the country. The Bearcats always block shots, force turnovers and pound the offensive glass. The main variable has been scoring, but this is the most efficient offense they've had in more than a decade.
Reason to Believe: One major shortcoming of Cincinnati since Sean Kilpatrick graduated in 2014 has been the lack of a go-to scorer. So Cronin went out and got a guy who can carry the offense, signing N.C. State transfer Kyle Washington. While playing just 25 minutes per game in a slow-paced system, Washington has still posted 13.3 points and 7.0 rebounds per game. He should help the Bearcats put up a respectable number of points in the tournament for a change.
Reason to Worry: The Bearcats don't have any great three-point shooters, and virtually the entire roster is shaky from the free-throw line. Whether they're trying to protect a two-possession lead or come back from a two-possession deficit, there's no one who you clearly want to have the ball late in a game.
March Madness Ceiling: On defense alone, Cincinnati could win a couple of games. The AAC is nothing special, but the Bearcats held seven of their final eight regular-season opponents to 60 points or fewer. But in the previous six years, Cincinnati is 4-6 in the NCAA tournament with just one trip to the Sweet 16. Maybe Washington can make a difference, but anything beyond the Elite Eight would be a surprise.
24. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Record: 20-12, 9-9 in Big 12
Why They're Here: If Oklahoma State wasn't on a three-game losing streak, it would have been tempting to put it even higher on this list. Outside of maybe Frank Mason III and Lonzo Ball, if there's one lead guard in the country who can do a good Kemba Walker or Shabazz Napier impression by carrying his team to six straight wins, it's Jawun Evans.
Reason to Believe: Evans hit a bit of a rough patch midway through the season after an injury to his non-shooting shoulder, but he has been on fire lately—and so have the Cowboys. Since Jan. 23, Evans is averaging 21.0 points and 7.5 assists while Oklahoma State is 9-4 with close losses to Baylor, Iowa State (twice) and Kansas. You'd have a hard time convincing me there has been a better team in the past decade that failed to spend a single week in the AP Top 25.
Reason to Worry: The Cowboys finished the regular season ahead of UCLA in adjusted offensive efficiency, but they are a laughingstock on defense. They have given up at least 90 points nine times, including in a home game against Central Arkansas. They also allowed Division II Rogers State to score 85 against them. If Oklahoma State were to play UCLA in the NCAA tournament, it might be a race to 120 points.
March Madness Ceiling: It is next to impossible to reach the Final Four without playing defense, but Oklahoma State has the ability to shoot its way to at least a few straight wins. It is 12-0 when scoring at least 89 points, including blowout wins over Wichita State and Arkansas. But the Cowboys may run into a team that does everything in its power to take away Evans, holds the entire offense in check and blows them out the way Baylor did to Doug McDermott and Creighton in 2014.
23. Purdue Boilermakers
Record: 25-7, 14-4 in Big Ten
Why They're Here: The Big Ten regular-season champ is usually a lock for a spot in the Top 10, but that league's elites weren't strong enough to produce a surefire title contender. But the Boilermakers did win a neutral-court game against Notre Dame and nearly scored victories over Villanova and Louisville. A couple of close road losses to Iowa and Nebraska may have obscured those early-season results, but they did happen.
Reason to Believe: For some reason, people love to complain about Purdue's guard play. But the Boilermakers rank fourth in the nation in assist rate and fifth in three-point percentage, per KenPom. Caleb Swanigan is the workhorse in the paint, but he's no one-man show.
Reason to Worry: Purdue's defensive numbers look good because it owns the glass and doesn't commit fouls, but the Boilermakers do not block shots or force turnovers. Their goal is to limit you to one relatively uncontested shot and hope you miss it. But in their four regular-season Big Ten losses, opponents did not oblige, shooting a combined 50.6 percent from the field and 43.6 percent from three. Purdue averaged 1.0 blocks and 8.3 turnovers forced in those games.
March Madness Ceiling: Every year is different for every team, but it's hard to get over the fact that Purdue is 2-4 in the NCAA tournament in the past six seasons, including an active streak of two first-game exits. In eight prior trips to the Big Dance, head coach Matt Painter has never reached the Elite Eight. This team has Final Four talent, but can it escape its past?
22. Michigan Wolverines
Record: 24-11, 10-8 in Big Ten
Why They're Here: Despite losing Caris LeVert and a bunch of role players who transferred, Michigan had a season reminiscent of those 2013 and 2014 teams that won a combined eight NCAA tournament games. A pair of February wins over Wisconsin and Purdue suggest this team could make some noise.
Reason to Believe: If you like efficient, three-point shooting offenses, there aren't many better than Michigan's. All six of the Wolverines' leaders in minutes played have attempted at least 91 three-pointers, including 6'11" Moritz Wagner, 6'10" D.J. Wilson and 6'8" Duncan Robinson. Five of those six guys are shooting better than 37 percent, and the sixth is Zak Irvin (32.1 percent), who was one of the team's most lethal long-range weapons three years ago as a freshman. The squad has made at least 10 triples in 15 games.
Reason to Worry: As great as Michigan is at making threes, it's just as likely to give them up. Opponents don't shoot the long ball at anywhere near the rate the Wolverines do, but Michigan's three-point defense (38.1 percent) is abysmal. And with so many guys hunting shots from the perimeter, the Wolverines are a terrible offensive rebounding team.
March Madness Ceiling: It's difficult to put a ceiling on teams that take and make a ton of three-pointers, but Michigan's best three-point performance of the season (14-of-26 at UCLA) resulted in an 18-point loss. That was an extreme circumstance, but defense is a concern. The Wolverines went 4-10 when they allowed more than 65 points. They might win their opener, but it won't be long before an offense sends them packing.
21. Florida Gators
Record: 24-8, 14-4 in Southeastern
Why They're Here: After a two-year hiatus, the Gators are back in what had become their customary spot near the top of the SEC standings. Led by underappreciated duo KeVaughn Allen and Canyon Barry, the Gators averaged 81.8 points over the final 12 games of the regular season.
Reason to Believe: The Gators get after you on the defensive end. Teams facing Florida have the worst assist rate in the country, per KenPom, commit a lot of turnovers and struggle from three-point range. Despite playing at an above-average tempo, Florida has held 10 opponents to 60 points or fewer.
Reason to Worry: Outside of a trio of close losses to Vanderbilt, Florida's resume is one of the best in the country. But the Gators haven't quite been the same since losing John Egbunu to a torn ACL in mid-February. Opposing big men are now facing minimal resistance against what used to be one of the better shot-blocking teams in the country.
March Madness Ceiling: Outside of spanking Kentucky in Gainesville, Florida's resume mostly consists of wins over decent teams and close losses to good teams. The Gators should at least make it to the Sweet 16, but it's unlikely they'll string together wins against title contenders.
20. Wisconsin Badgers
Record: 25-9, 12-6 in Big Ten
Why They're Here: Wisconsin might have been in the Top 10 in early February, but losses in five of its final seven regular-season games raised major red flags about the Badgers. After Iowa had a similar collapse last year, it was annihilated by Villanova in the second round. Then again, when Connecticut crashed and burned late in the 2011 season, it won the national championship.
Reason to Believe: Despite a rough finish, Ethan Happ remains one of the most dominant big men in the country—don't ask him to make a free throw, though. He leads the Badgers in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. When he's playing well, he is a one-man, two-way machine that gives Wisconsin an edge over any opponent.
Reason to Worry: Wisconsin is one of the worst free-throw shooting teams in the nation. Happ and Nigel Hayes lead the team in free-throw attempts by a wide margin, and they shoot a combined 53.8 percent. The Badgers have also had miserable luck defending the three. Over their final 14 games of the regular season, their opponents shot 41.8 percent from distance.
March Madness Ceiling: Preseason rankings mean diddly-squat at this point, but there's a reason Wisconsin was a Top 10 team in November. The Badgers have more than enough talent to make a deep run—if and when everyone shows up. And with that finally happening again in the Big Ten tournament, they have Final Four potential.
19. Butler Bulldogs
Record: 23-8, 12-6 in Big East
Why They're Here: Butler swept Villanova and boasts wins over Arizona and Cincinnati on its long list of RPI Top 50 wins. But the Bulldogs also lost to Indiana State and St. John's and dropped a home game to Georgetown. They could beat anyone in the country. They could lose to anyone.
Reason to Believe: One of the reasons Butler got all those quality wins is it values the rock. Led by senior point guard Tyler Lewis, the Bulldogs rank in the top 10 nationally in fewest turnovers committed per game. Also, their physical style tends to pay dividends on the perimeter. And when opposing teams shoot 38.5 percent or worse from downtown, Butler is 21-3. When foes shoot below 30 percent, the Bulldogs are 11-1.
Reason to Worry: Without a dominant big man, Butler is average on the glass and can be pushed around in the paint. In their eight losses, the Bulldogs' opponents shot 52.7 percent from the field by getting to the rim with relative ease.
March Madness Ceiling: Butler's ceiling was permanently removed when it went to back-to-back title games in 2010 and 2011. Given the litany of quality opponents the Bulldogs have beaten this year, it wouldn't surprise anyone if they won six in a row. When you defeat the reigning national champion—and current favorite to win this year's title—twice in one season, you earn at least that much respect.
18. Florida State Seminoles
Record: 25-8, 12-6 in Atlantic Coast
Why They're Here: The 'Noles started 18-2 with wins over Duke, Louisville, Virginia, Florida and Notre Dame. They sputtered to the finish line with ugly losses to Georgia Tech, Syracuse and Pittsburgh, but that hot start was enough for them to secure the No. 2 seed in the ACC tournament. Florida State is inconsistent, but it does have a ton of quality wins.
Reason to Believe: This, by far, is head coach Leonard Hamilton's most athletic and best defensive team of the past few years. Florida State is also one of the better squads in the country at avoiding turnovers, which wasn't true about any of Hamilton's first 14 seasons with the 'Noles. With five regulars who are 6'8" or taller, size alone gives Florida State an edge over most opponents.
Reason to Worry: This team has no identity. It'll shoot 30 threes in one contest and barely bother with them the next. It's played 85-possession games and 57-possessions games. That makes the Seminoles tougher for opponents to prepare to face, but "jack of all trades, master of none" teams don't typically make it to the final weekend of the NCAA tournament.
March Madness Ceiling: If you think you've got a good read on Florida State, you're fooling yourself. The Seminoles are just as likely to reach the Final Four as they are to lose by a dozen in the first round. They're content to play at their opponent's preferred pace, trusting that their athleticism will be enough to carry them to victory. More often than not, though, it does. A national championship would be a big surprise, but reaching the national semifinals falls within the realm of possibility.
17. Virginia Cavaliers
Record: 22-10, 11-7 in Atlantic Coast
Why They're Here: Along with Louisville and West Virginia, Virginia is one of those teams no one wants to face because of its pace and defense. The Cavaliers are No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency and dead last in adjusted tempo, per KenPom, though, similar combinations over the past five years weren't enough to get them to the Final Four.
Reason to Believe: Virginia held nine of its last 14 regular-season opponents to 55 points or fewer, including a 53-43 win over one of the most high-powered offenses in the nation (North Carolina). Even on nights when they're struggling on offense, that defense can keep the Cavaliers in any game.
Reason to Worry: Virginia's offense is fatally dependent on a pair of first-year shooting guards. Senior leader London Perrantes has been more assertive over the past month, but Darius Thompson and Marial Shayok have vanished. The Wahoos need Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome to make buckets in order to succeed. But they're both hit or miss, combining for zero points on 12 shots in back-to-back losses to North Carolina and Miami. Not surprisingly, those were Virginia's two lowest-scoring games.
March Madness Ceiling: Between Virginia's inability to live up to its seed line in the past three NCAA tournaments and its inability to score over the past four weeks, the ceiling feels a couple of rounds lower than it was in 2016. But a trip to the Final Four is well within Virginia's grasp. Don't forget: Midway through ACC play, the Cavaliers were one of the top candidates for a No. 1 seed. Trying to play a game against Villanova in the middle of that gauntlet of a conference schedule just got the better of them.
16. Baylor Bears
Record: 25-7, 12-6 in Big 12
Why They're Here: Since their red-hot first two months to climb to No. 1 in the AP poll, Baylor has cooled off considerably. The Bears won just five of their final 10 regular-season games, thanks in part to losses to Kansas State and Texas Tech that helped keep those teams on the bubble. But this is still a dangerous squad that already proved in November it can win up to five consecutive games against NCAA tournament participants.
Reason to Believe: Most of February was a warning sign against expecting the Bears to go deep into the tournament, but they ended the month with a nine-point win over Press Virginia, despite playing without starting point guard Manu Lecomte. Johnathan Motley gets most of the love, but there's minimal drop-off in talent from the top to the bottom of Baylor's nine-man rotation.
Reason to Worry: Turnovers are a serious problem for the Bears. Over the final five games of the regular season, they were a combined minus-30 in turnover margin. And it was because they coughed up the ball 29 times in their first game against West Virginia that everyone sold their stock in them.
March Madness Ceiling: Even while Baylor racked up that awful turnover margin, Motley averaged 21.4 points and 12.2 rebounds in the last five games of the regular season. He'll get his, and he might single-handedly carry Baylor to a few wins. But I have a hard time believing a team that runs a zone defense and ranks outside the top 300 in the nation in offensive turnover percentage, per KenPom, can be trusted to win six in a row. Eventually, a good backcourt will rain threes and force turnovers, but maybe that won't be until the Final Four.
15. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Record: 25-9, 12-6 in Atlantic Coast
Why They're Here: In what has become par for the course over the past few years, Notre Dame defied lackluster preseason expectations by finishing near the top of the ACC. I'll throw myself under the bus here by noting I picked the Fighting Irish to finish 10th in the loaded conference. But some great wins over Louisville and Florida State proved Notre Dame belonged in the Final Four conversation.
Reason to Believe: We might as well call them the fundamental Irish, because they lead the nation in free-throw percentage and rank second in offensive turnover percentage. This team doesn't have NBA talent or much depth, but Notre Dame closes that gap against superior rosters by never beating itself. The Irish are also one of the better three-point shooting teams in the country and take a ton of shots from the perimeter, so they can put points on the board in bunches.
Reason to Worry: Even though Bonzie Colson is a 6'5" double-double machine, Notre Dame frequently gets smashed on the glass. In eight regular-season losses, its average rebounding margin was minus-12.5. The Irish even lost a game to Florida State in which they shot 15-of-21 from three-point range because they were abused on the boards (32-23) and had 11 shots blocked.
March Madness Ceiling: Notre Dame has become the new Michigan State in that its perceived tournament ceiling is usually one game short of reality. It's like the Fighting Irish have an attic we keep forgetting to include in projections. Because they shoot well and play smart, they have legitimate Final Four potential. But they need to get a little lucky with their draw to pull off such a run, as a dominant frontcourt would likely send them packing.
14. Iowa State Cyclones
Record: 23-10, 12-6 in Big 12
Why They're Here: With Monte Morris averaging close to six assists per turnover, Iowa State surprised a lot of people by finishing in a tie for second place in the Big 12 after losing Georges Niang, Jameel McKay and Abdel Nader to the pro ranks. The Cyclones didn't do much outside of conference play, but you have to be good to win a dozen Big 12 games.
Reason to Believe: Iowa State plays some of the cleanest basketball ever. The Cyclones rarely commit or draw fouls and almost never commit turnovers. They're also one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country. When they get cooking on offense, it's downright beautiful.
Reason to Worry: This is not a good rebounding team on either end. They can usually get away with it when they're raining threes, but in two games against Baylor this season, the Cyclones were minus-37 on the glass. That'll be a major problem if and when they struggle to find their stroke on a neutral court.
March Madness Ceiling: The Cyclones had some great victories, but they've had trouble stringing together quality wins. Right after stomping Miami, they lost to Gonzaga. Three days after a road win over Oklahoma State, they lost to TCU. Likewise, they kind of nullified their huge road win over Kansas with a loss to Texas three days later. They could reach the Elite Eight, but that might be it.
13. Wichita State Shockers
Record: 30-4, 17-1 in Missouri Valley
Why They're Here: RPI and SOS were not Wichita State's friends for most of the season, but it has been clear for months that this is one of the better teams in the country. You might not recognize any of the names with Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet out of the picture, but this new batch of Shockers is just as capable of winning it all.
Reason to Believe: In 20 games since the start of 2017, Wichita State has one road loss to Illinois State, one eight-point win at Drake and 18 victories by a margin of at least 12 points. Granted, the Missouri Valley is a far cry from the ACC, but it has (excluding the Shockers) one top-60, two top-100 and six top-175 teams, according to KenPom. It's not a terrible league, but Wichita State's consistent dominance made it look that way.
Reason to Worry: Outside of a 2-1 record against bubbly Illinois State and a road win over a Colorado State team that was without its star (Gian Clavell), Wichita State has not beaten anyone worth mentioning. Defense and rebounding have been sensational against the likes of Southern Illinois and Northern Iowa, but the four teams that beat the Shockers—Louisville, Michigan State, Oklahoma State and Illinois State—shot a combined 48.3 percent from the field and 42.2 percent from three while grabbing 32.4 percent of their own misses.
March Madness Ceiling: Neither Conner Frankamp nor Landry Shamet performed well in Wichita State's four losses, combining for just 12.8 points while shooting 9-of-33 (27.3 percent) from downtown. Over the last 12 games, though, the starting backcourt has averaged 26.8 points while shooting 66-of-123 (53.7 percent) from beyond the arc. If that duo stays hot, there is no ceiling on what Wichita State can do for the next three weeks.
12. SMU Mustangs
Record: 30-4, 17-1 in American Athletic
Why They're Here: Two years removed from snapping a tournament drought of more than two decades, the Mustangs are ready for their deepest run in at least half a century. Considering they haven't even reached the Sweet 16 since 1967, that's not saying much, but they might win more games in this tournament than they have in the last 50 combined (three).
Reason to Believe: SMU ranks top 10 in the nation in three-point percentage, assist rate, defensive free-throw rate and total rebounding margin. The Mustangs can beat you in any number of ways, which is probably why they finished the regular season with 23 wins in their final 24 games. Prior to the conference tournaments, Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye was tied with Villanova's Josh Hart for the national lead in win shares.
Reason to Worry: Aside from a home win against Cincinnati, SMU does not have a single victory over a team in the NCAA tournament field. The Mustangs also have one of the shortest rotations in the nation, rarely playing more than six guys. Foul trouble isn't often an issue for them, but one whistle-happy referee or one aggressively physical opponent could send them packing.
March Madness Ceiling: Lack of depth is a serious concern, as is the fact they haven't played an RPI Top 30 team other than Cincinnati since November 2014. But this is a good squad that has won 14 of its last 23 games by a margin of at least 15 points. The Mustangs won't be a popular pick to reach the Final Four—let alone win it all—but if things break right and the refs are nice, there's a chance.
11. West Virginia Mountaineers
Record: 26-8, 12-6 in Big 12
Why They're Here: For the past few years, West Virginia has been a wild card you could understandably rank anywhere from 5-35. But this team feels like more of solid threat than an "anything can happen with the right draw" situation. The Mountaineers swept Iowa State during the regular season, winning both games by a double-digit margin. They smoked both Baylor and Kansas and won at Virginia. They're far from invulnerable, but they can beat anyone.
Reason to Believe: The 'Eers rank top two in the nation in defensive turnover percentage and top five in offensive rebounding percentage for the third straight year. Unlike the past two seasons, though, this team can both score and defend in the half court. Six of the primary 11 guys finished the regular season at 36 percent or better from three-point range and seven players blocked at least 10 shots, including Sagaba Konate's 5.2 per 40 minutes.
Reason to Worry: Head coach Bob Huggins has no fear of going 12 or 13 deep with his rotation, and no one on the roster is irreplaceable. So foul trouble isn't a problem in the traditional sense. But West Virginia's aggressive style puts the opposition on the free-throw line way too often. The Mountaineers have given up at least 20 points from the charity stripe eight times, including 33 in a loss to Kansas. They also allow opponents to corral a ton of offensive rebounds, mitigating the huge advantage they have on their offensive glass.
March Madness Ceiling: West Virginia has not won more than three consecutive games since back when it was playing the likes of Western Carolina, VMI and UMKC. However, as far as KenPom is concerned, this has been one of the five best teams in the nation for more than two months. The Mountaineers are good enough to win it all, but are they consistent enough?
10. Oregon Ducks
Record: 29-5, 16-2 in Pac-12
Why They're Here: The Ducks struggled early in the season as Dillon Brooks recovered from offseason foot surgery, but this team has been outstanding at full strength, winning 25 of its final 27 regular-season games. Beyond the top three teams, the Pac-12 is mediocre at best, but Oregon blew out Arizona in their only regular-season meeting and played a pair of instant classics against UCLA (one win, one loss).
Reason to Believe: Prior to losing Chris Boucher to a torn ACL during the Pac-12 tournament, Oregon was the best shot-blocking team in the nation. Losing Boucher will hurt, but both Jordan Bell and Kavell Bigby-Williams are outstanding shot-blockers, as well. If Bigby-Williams can make an impact in his newly expanded role, the Ducks might be able to survive for a few weeks without Boucher.
Reason to Worry: The entire team has a bit of a tendency to fall in love with the long ball. That's fine when shooting 16-of-25 (64 percent) in a statement win over Arizona, but the Ducks attempted 34 threes against just 23 twos in their loss to Colorado. And in the loss to UCLA, they started 6-of-12 from downtown to open up a big lead, shot 28.6 percent the rest of the way, yet just kept firing. Five Ducks average more than three attempts per game, even though Brooks (41) is the only one shooting better than 40 percent.
March Madness Ceiling: Between Gonzaga's 29-0 start and UCLA's exhilarating-to-watch style getting most of the national media's allotment of attention for teams west of the Rockies, Oregon was underappreciated all season. But a few months of disrespect isn't much of a reason to doubt this team's ability to win it all.
9. Louisville Cardinals
Record: 24-8, 12-6 in Atlantic Coast
Why They're Here: The Cardinals took some lumps on the road in ACC play, but who in that league can claim otherwise? They won regular-season games over Duke, Kentucky, Purdue, Wichita State and Notre Dame and could be a team that wins six in a row. Louisville self-imposed a ban from last year's postseason, but it has averaged 3.8 wins in its last four trips to the Big Dance.
Reason to Believe: If "Defense Wins Championships" is one of your favorite mantras at this time of year, Louisville is one of your top candidates to win it all. Even after a pair of late-season anomalies (90 points allowed to Virginia Tech; 88 to Wake Forest), the Cardinals have one of the six most efficient defenses in the nation for the ninth time in 10 years. Donovan Mitchell is an outstanding perimeter defender, and Anas Mahmoud (4.4 blocks, 2.0 steals per 40 minutes) is practically a 7'0" stop sign in the paint.
Reason to Worry: Defense is great, but scoring is rather important too. And Louisville's half-court offense is far from championship grade. The Cardinals rank 138th in three-point percentage, 151st in two-point percentage and 233rd in free-throw percentage. They're 21-2 when scoring more than 70 points but 3-6 when putting up 70 or fewer.
March Madness Ceiling: When Mitchell and Deng Adel both show up for a game, Louisville is unbeatable. When each sophomore posts an O-rating of 90 or better—which isn't asking much—the Cardinals are 17-0 and win by an average margin of 19.4 points per game. When one struggles, they're 6-5. When both struggle (or don't play), Louisville is 1-3. If that duo can get and stay good for three weeks, Louisville has a chance to cut down some nets.
8. Arizona Wildcats
Record: 30-4, 16-2 in Pac-12
Why They're Here: The Wildcats navigated injuries and suspensions as well as any team in recent memory, winning 27 regular-season games despite playing just 10 with a full deck. Factor in Ray Smith's torn ACL in the preseason and Terrance Ferguson's decision to play overseas instead of starring for the Wildcats for one year, and head coach Sean Miller deserves one heck of a raise for the job he has done.
Reason to Believe: Playing without both Allonzo Trier and Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Arizona almost won a neutral-court game against Gonzaga in December. At full health, the Wildcats won at UCLA by an 11-point margin and entered the month of February as one of the trendy picks to win the national championship. Led in three-point attempts by a 7'0" freshman phenom (Lauri Markkanen), Arizona goes through stretches where it is simply unguardable.
Reason to Worry: Arizona's defense leaves something to be desired. The Wildcats don't commit many fouls, and—with one major exception in a blowout loss to Oregon—they defend the three-point arc well. But in their final six regular-season games against Pac-12 opponents that aren't terrible, they allowed 55.5 percent two-point shooting while blocking 2.7 shots and forcing just 10.3 turnovers. A team committed to pounding the paint could pound Arizona.
March Madness Ceiling: Trier and Markkanen are the alpha dogs, but the Wildcats have five wings who can score from anywhere and a pair of big men who patrol the paint. One huge thing working in Arizona's favor is that all eight regulars shoot 72 percent or better from the free-throw line. Also, the momentum of back-to-back victories over UCLA and Oregon to win the Pac-12 tournament can't hurt.
7. Kentucky Wildcats
Record: 29-5, 16-2 in Southeastern
Why They're Here: It would be irresponsible to rank the Wildcats any lower than eighth, since they have made the Elite Eight in five of the last seven years. This hasn't been anything close to their most dominant season under head coach John Calipari, but that just means they're one threat to win the national championship rather than the threat.
Reason to Believe: Not since the days of Jimmer Mania at BYU has there been a player who can shoot his team to victory quite like Kentucky's Malik Monk. And this guy loves to rise to the occasion. In 11 regular-season games against "Tier A" opponents on KenPom, Monk averaged 22.5 points and shot 42 percent from beyond the arc. Similar to Buddy Hield at Oklahoma one year ago, when Monk's on fire, his team is tough to beat.
Reason to Worry: Outside of an early run against the likes of Cleveland State and Tennessee-Martin, Monk has yet to string together three consecutive games with an O-rating of at least 115. It's fun to watch when he's raining threes, but in more than half of his games, he shoots 33.3 percent or worse from downtown. Both De'Aaron Fox and Isaiah Briscoe can get to the rim with regularity, and Bam Adebayo has become a force of nature in the paint. But is there enough offense to withstand Monk's inevitable cold night(s)?
March Madness Ceiling: Without a doubt, the Wildcats have the talent to win a national championship. And despite our nationwide infatuation with their freshmen, this might be the most senior-heavy rotation (Derek Willis, Dominique Hawkins and Mychal Mulder) that Calipari has had in more than a decade. But can they avoid the turnover bug that pops up every few games? Can they stay engaged on defense and on the glass for three weeks? Kentucky is a near-lock to reach the Sweet 16, but I'd be a little afraid to bet my bracket life on this team's winning a title.
6. UCLA Bruins
Record: 29-4, 15-3 in Pac-12
Why They're Here: A horrific nonconference SOS kept the Bruins from getting the No. 1 seed befitting of their record and dominance, but they're a threat to win it all regardless of their starting point. Similar to when Michigan State and Louisville were No. 4 seeds that ranked among the favorites to win the 2014 national championship, UCLA could be the most popular pick this year.
Reason to Believe: Not since perhaps UNLV or Loyola Marymount in the early 1990s has there been a more incredible offense. It may not hold up through Selection Sunday, but as of March 6, Bryce Alford, TJ Leaf, Lonzo Ball and Thomas Welsh were respectively ranked 4th-7th nationally in O-rating among players used on at least 16.5 percent of possessions, according to KenPom. It's one thing to have one or two great scorers pacing an efficient offense, but UCLA's entire team is lethal.
Reason to Worry: The defensive effort has been better over the past month, but it's still a weakness. Case in point: Oregon went ice cold from three-point range in the second half against the Bruins and still scored 79 points in a 67-possession game. If and when UCLA shoots below 50 percent in a game, will it do enough on the other end to advance?
March Madness Ceiling: There's no cap on what the Bruins can do. They lead the nation in points per game and have the best effective field-goal percentage in more than a decade. You're welcome to be concerned about the defense or the threat of regression in the form of an awful shooting night on a neutral floor, but you know Ball could lead this team to a national championship.
5. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Record: 32-1, 17-1 in West Coast
Why They're Here: Despite losing four starters from last year's team, Gonzaga had one of the most efficient seasons in the KenPom era of college hoops. The Bulldogs had a streak of 21 consecutive wins by a double-digit margin and nearly became the third team in the past four years to enter the NCAA tournament with an undefeated record. Don't you dare call them a Cinderella.
Reason to Believe: Unlike years past when Gonzaga has been a one- or two-man show, this team is loaded with options. Nigel Williams-Goss is a legitimate candidate for National Player of the Year, but Mark Few has three former major-conference transfers in his starting lineup and a freshman off the bench (Zach Collins) who has to be one of the top candidates for national sixth man of the year. The trio of Collins, Przemek Karnowski and Johnathan Williams III is the furthest thing from a standard mid-major frontcourt.
Reason to Worry: Aside from a couple of games against Saint Mary's, Gonzaga hasn't played anyone worth mentioning in more than three months. At least they finally faced a challenge in the regular-season finale against BYU, but did blowing out the likes of Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount help prepare the Zags for the competition they'll face after the first weekend of the tournament?
March Madness Ceiling: Northwestern finally made the NCAA tournament. Is this the year Gonzaga finally reaches the Final Four? The defense isn't quite as elite as the advanced metrics want you to believe—in five regular-season games against RPI Top 50 opponents, Gonzaga allowed 325 points on 321 possessions—but there are so many weapons on this offense that the Bulldogs can score at will. They won't be a trendy pick to win it all, because people apparently want to believe the Zags have been a disappointment in March for 15 straight years, but they're on a short-list of teams that could win six in a row, regardless of the draw.
4. Kansas Jayhawks
Record: 28-4, 16-2 in Big 12
Why They're Here: It took the Jayhawks a while to get there, but they finished the regular season at No. 1 in the AP Top 25. It's their eighth consecutive year in the Top 10 of the final AP poll and their fifth time in the Top Three in the past eight years. Until further notice, Kansas has a spot reserved as one the five annual favorites to win the national championship.
Reason to Believe: After some poor shooting for the first two months of the season, surefire 2017 lottery pick Josh Jackson has become one of the best three-point weapons for the Jayhawks. They now have five regulars shooting better than 37.5 percent for the season to go along with a pair of rebounding studs in Landen Lucas and Carlton Bragg Jr. Hard to argue with this seven-man rotation.
Reason to Worry: Everyone knows that Kansas has now won 13 consecutive Big 12 titles, but did you know the Jayhawks have missed the Sweet 16 more than twice as often (five times) as they have reached the Final Four during that run (twice)? And they have had a nasty habit of just barely doing enough to win, overcoming a deficit of at least eight points in 10 of their final 17 regular-season wins. You could point to that as proof they can rally, but it's a bit disturbing how often they dig those holes. Also, they are awful from the free-throw line (66.6 percent as a team).
March Madness Ceiling: With the runaway favorite for National Player of the Year at their disposal, the Jayhawks are one of the top candidates to win it all. Frank Mason has been so great in close contests that any conversation about his next dose of late-game heroics should be prefaced with "when" rather than "if." At the very least, Kansas' four-year Final Four drought ought to come to an end this year.
3. Duke Blue Devils
Record: 27-8, 11-7 in Atlantic Coast
Why They're Here: Things haven't gone according to plan for a squad that was supposed to rival 2014-15 Kentucky for the honor of best team of the past decade, but Duke is still one of the top candidates to win it all. Injuries have kept most of the roster from reaching its potential, but there haven't been any torn ACLs or anything of the sort. The Blue Devils still have the eight players they were expected to dominate with, and they may have found their groove in the ACC tournament.
Reason to Believe: The seven-game winning streak that began in late January was a vivid glimpse into what this team can do. Luke Kennard has been sensational all season, but he can't be a one-man show. When Grayson Allen is both shooting well and passing often, when Jayson Tatum is taking smart shots and when Amile Jefferson is defending and rebounding, there's not a team in the country that version of Duke cannot beat.
Reason to Worry: Allen and Jefferson have been hobbled by foot injuries for most of the season and rarely both show up on the same night. Even when Jefferson is out there and healthy, he's pretty much all the Blue Devils have in the paint, which could be their kryptonite. And for as great as they can look on offense, it's hard to trust a team that doesn't play much defense and was held to 50 points in a recent loss to Miami.
March Madness Ceiling: Duke is always a threat to win the national championship, but is this one of the iterations that gets the job done (2010; 2015) or one that loses in the first round (2012; 2014)? One way or the other, look for Allen to be the deciding factor. Duke has been at its best when he's committed to getting open looks for his teammates.
2. North Carolina Tar Heels
Record: 27-7, 14-4 in Atlantic Coast
Why They're Here: Some team technically had to win the loaded ACC, but it easily could have come down to a tiebreaker between six of them. Rather, North Carolina won by a two-game margin, despite beginning conference play with a loss to Georgia Tech. The Tar Heels already looked like a title contender in the first half of the season. Getting Theo Pinson back from injury elevated them to one of the favorites.
Reason to Believe: Outside of leading the nation in rebounding margin, the Tar Heels don't have any fortes. But, more importantly, they don't have any weaknesses. They prefer to push the tempo and dominate the paint, but they can win games with or without three-pointers at any pace. There's not a team or style that stands out as an obvious problem for North Carolina.
Reason to Worry: Isaiah Hicks has to stay out of foul trouble. He didn't play in the first loss to Duke because of a hamstring injury and averaged 7.0 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.2 fouls in UNC's other regular-season losses. In the 26 regular-season wins, though, Hicks accounted for 12.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.9 fouls. A few early whistles against the senior power forward would be a problem.
March Madness Ceiling: North Carolina's ceiling is the roof. Even though they lost Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige to graduation after last year's run to the championship game, the Tar Heels are loaded with talented veterans who have been there before. Both Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson are junior guards who have spent significant chunks of the season in the National Player of the Year conversation. Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and Tony Bradley might be the best frontcourt in the country. The Tar Heels aren't quite our favorites to win it all, but there's not a team more capable of a deep run.
1. Villanova Wildcats
Record: 31-3, 15-3 in Big East
Why They're Here: The reigning national champions spent the entire season ranked in the top four of the AP Top 25. Were it not for a few bad shooting nights against Butler and Marquette—combined 18-of-84 (21.4 percent) from three-point range—the Wildcats would have had an undefeated regular season. Their combination of current talent and past tournament experience makes them the team to beat.
Reason to Believe: Josh Hart is the most valuable player in America, according to KenPom.com. And the versatile senior has a dynamite supporting cast that defends without fouling and is lethal on one- and two-point attempts. Eric Paschall's evolving into an efficient offensive weapon over the past month could be the catalyst that pushes Villanova to six more wins.
Reason to Worry: You don't need a 10-man rotation to win a title, but it's tough to win six in a row without a little bit of depth. With Phil Booth out since mid-November, this has been a seven-man team for more than three months. And with Darryl Reynolds out for a couple of weeks, they were recently only going six deep. Particularly for a team that shoots so many three-pointers, fatigue could be a factor.
March Madness Ceiling: The Wildcats will go as far as the long ball carries them. Over the past five seasons, they are 68-1 when shooting at least 39 percent from three-point range. But even if that shot betrays them—like it did in the Elite Eight against Kansas last year—the Wildcats have enough defenders and scrappers to eke out a win. Opposing teams will need to both catch Villanova on an off night and play a near-perfect game to knock the Wildcats out of the tournament.