Buying or Selling Each Top 10 CBB Team as a National Championship Contender
The Week 10 AP Top 25 came out Monday afternoon for men's college basketball, and the Top 10 is littered with teams who have suffered disappointing losses within the past 10 days.
Which of those teams should we trust to bounce back and make a run at a national championship, and which ones are showing fatal flaws destined to result in an early exit from the NCAA tournament?
Things always seem to get chaotic at the start of conference play. It's at this time of year that many teams are playing their first true road game and/or their toughest opponent(s) of the season.
Last year's national champion, North Carolina, opened the ACC portion of its schedule with a road loss to a Georgia Tech team that finished with 16 losses. Two years before that, Duke lost back-to-back games to NC State and Miami in early January before going 21-2 the rest of the way for a title.
In fact, five of the last nine national champions—2009 UNC, 2010 Duke, 2011 Connecticut, 2014 Connecticut, 2017 UNC—lost their first road game in conference play. Two others—2013 Louisville, 2015 Duke—were saddled with multiple conference losses well before the end of January. So if your favorite team already took a disappointing L, it's not necessarily the end of the world.
Based on how bad things looked in that loss (or losses), though, we'll let you know who you can stop buying stock in for the national championship.
10. Xavier Musketeers
Stock Advice: Sell while you still can.
Let me start out by saying that I have had a blind spot for Xavier for the past several years. I have no rooting interest for or against the program, but I just can't seem to ever figure out the Musketeers. When I buy in, they struggle. When I give up, they surge. Ask just about anyone who has covered this sport for more than one season, and the honest ones will also tell you about a team or two that always seems to elude their grasp.
With that note, allow me to extend an early congratulations to Xavier for what will be a season-defining road win over Villanova this coming Wednesday, because I'm about to tell you why this team doesn't have what it takes to win it all.
One good thing about the Musketeers is they have one of the most balanced attacks in the country. Eight players average at least 7.3 points per game, including 6'8" three-point specialist Kaiser Gates and do-it-all senior Trevon Bluiett. Seven of those eight players also average at least 3.4 rebounds per game, and the lone exception to that rule—Quentin Goodin—more than makes up for it by averaging 5.6 assists per game.
But that gift quickly becomes a curse if Bluiett is having an off night, at which point Xavier becomes a bunch of role players without a leader. Bluiett has had an O-rating of 101 or worse in six games, resulting in losses to Arizona State and Providence, as well as too-close-for-comfort home wins over Marshall, DePaul and East Tennessee State. (Xavier beat Baylor by 13 in the sixth game.)
Moreover, Xavier is not a great defensive team. The Musketeers have given up 103.9 points per 100 possessions over their last 12 games, and only once held a team below 95 points per 100 possessions during that stretch. (72 points for DePaul in an 82-possession game.) They are among the worst in the nation in turnover percentage, and despite not yet facing Villanova or Creighton, they have already given up at least 11 three-pointers in four games this season—compared to just five times all of last year.
I'm not saying Xavier is a bad team. I had the Musketeers at No. 8 in my top-30 ranking Sunday night, so I'm buying them more so than most of the AP voters. But it's hard to imagine this team winning six consecutive neutral-court games in March and April unless it improves on defense and gets peak Bluiett for three straight weeks.
9. Oklahoma Sooners
Stock Advice: If you want to bet against Trae Young, good luck with that.
There are plenty of negative/skeptical things one could say about Oklahoma to try to talk you out of buying this team as a title contender.
Outside of the occasional blocked shot by Khadeem Lattin or Jamuni McNeace, the Sooners often seem uninterested on defense. (They have given up exactly 89 points in all three Big 12 games.) They are marginally below the national average on the glass on both ends of the floor. Aside from Trae Young, there aren't any reliable free-throw shooters. And for a third-leading scorer, Brady Manek is about as reliable as the starter in an old car in the dead of winter, scoring at least 21 points in three of his last six games, but scoring a combined total of two points in 49 minutes in two of his last three.
But the Sooners also have Young, which helps alleviate whatever concerns you may have about this team.
Even in Young's worst game of the season, he finished with 29 points, five assists, four rebounds and three steals. Yes, he committed eight turnovers, but Press Virginia has that effect on everyone. And he would've had more than five assists if his teammates hadn't repeatedly missed open jumpers, as he was still working hard to get everyone else involved in the offense.
Young has been for Oklahoma what Kemba Walker was for Connecticut in the 2011 Big East and NCAA tournaments. The stakes are much lower, but the fact remains that he has been carrying a team full of sidekicks on a nightly basis—a team that couldn't win 50 percent of its games this season if he was removed from the roster.
Can he keep it going and put the Sooners on his back in the NCAA tournament? Sure. Why not? Young has scored at least 26 points in 12 consecutive games and has had continued success despite the highest usage rate in KenPom history. And if and when teams decide to throw a box-and-one defense at him, Young will gladly take a step back from the scoring and just rack up 15-20 assists while still leading his team to victory.
Unless Young gets injured or clearly runs out of gas before March, there's no good reason to bet against the Sooners' winning it all.
8. Texas Tech Red Raiders
Stock Advice: Any team that can win in Phog Allen Fieldhouse is worth buying as a title contender.
While most teams are struggling on the road early in conference play, Texas Tech used its first major test in Big 12 play to lay the smackdown on Kansas in a building that rarely witnesses a loss by the Jayhawks.
Neither Zhaire Smith nor Jarrett Culver was rated higher than No. 195 by 247Sports in the 2017 recruiting class, but both freshmen had big games against Kansas. The freshman reserves finished with a combined 23 points, nine rebounds and four assists and helped pace the Red Raiders to a shocking 23-7 lead less than 10 minutes into the game.
In addition to the 12-point road win over Kansas, they smashed both Baylor and Kansas State at home by a combined margin of 40 points. They have held six of their last seven opponents to 58 points or fewer.
Chris Beard's bunch is playing some of the best defense this year. Per KenPom, the Red Raiders are No. 3 in adjusted defensive efficiency and rank in the top 15 nationally in effective field-goal percentage, three-point defense, two-point defense, steal percentage and turnover percentage.
There have already been five games this season in which Texas Tech had more forced turnovers than made field goals allowed, and only one opponent has shot better than 40 percent from three-point range. That opponent was Seton Hall (11-of-20) in TTU's only loss of the season.
While emulating Press Virginia's relentless defense, Texas Tech has been markedly better than the Mountaineers on offense. The Red Raiders have an effective field-goal percentage of 55.5, compared to 50.7 for WVU, and they do a much better job of getting to the free-throw line—though one of their only weaknesses is conversion percentage from the charity stripe.
So, yes, Texas Tech may well be the best team in the Big 12, even though most who haven't watched this team play would probably be afraid to rank the Red Raiders ahead of West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kansas.
The only negative to express about Texas Tech is that it has never been there before. The Red Raiders have only been to two of the past 12 NCAA tournaments, losing in the first round of each trip. And this program has never been to an Elite Eight, let alone a national championship. If you think that matters, maybe invest your championship dollars elsewhere. But this is one of the five best teams in the nation right now, no matter what the AP poll says.
7. Duke Blue Devils
Stock Advice: Sell until the defense proves it can be trusted in the slightest.
On offense, Duke is a delight to watch. Led by potential No. 1 pick Marvin Bagley III, the Blue Devils have scored at least 84 points in all but one game. In nine of 15 contests, they put more than 90 on the scoreboard.
Even when they aren't shooting well as a team, Bagley and Wendell Carter Jr.—as well as reserves Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier—are such unstoppable forces on the offensive glass that you often need to defend Duke at least two or three times just to get one stop. It's a big part of why Duke has been able to orchestrate so many second-half comebacks throughout the course of the season. Eventually, you just run out of gas when trying to defend this team for 40 minutes.
But the reason the Blue Devils have needed so many comebacks is because this defense is a complete disaster.
When Duke gave up a ton of points to Boston College and Florida State, we somewhat wrote it off as bad luck with three-point defense. Both the Eagles and the Seminoles drained 15 triples against Duke, even though neither team has been particularly prolific from distance this season.
In the loss to NC State, though, the Wolfpack made just two three-pointers in the first 37 minutes and still put up more points against Duke (96) than any other team this season. Whether inside or outside the arc, the Blue Devils are just generally incompetent on that end of the floor, currently ranking 108th in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom.
The bad news for Duke is that teams which play highly efficient offense and lackluster defense rarely fare well in the NCAA tournament.
Last year, UCLA (No. 2 on offense; No. 85 on defense) lost in the Sweet 16 and Oklahoma State (No. 1 on offense; No. 155 on defense) was eliminated in the first round. The year before that, the Blue Devils were No. 4 on offense and No. 86 on defense and were bounced in the Sweet 16. In 2014, Duke was No. 1 on offense and No. 86 on defense and lost in the first round to Mercer. That same year, Creighton (No. 2 on offense; No. 124 on defense) was blown out in the second round.
The one exception to the rule was Notre Dame (No. 2 on offense; No. 99 on defense) coming one last-second shot away from beating undefeated Kentucky and reaching the 2015 Final Four, but the Fighting Irish had a bunch of close calls in the early rounds just to get to that point.
All that to say: Do not bet on Duke unless it starts figuring things out on defense. This team is loaded with talent and fun to watch on offense, but without defense, it's unlikely to make the Final Four.
6. Purdue Boilermakers
Stock Advice: You should invest in the hottest team in the country, but no one would blame you for being wary of trusting Purdue.
Were this any other program in the country, everyone would be all-in on Purdue. The Boilermakers have won 11 consecutive games, with each of the past seven coming by a double-digit margin—including a 15-point win over Butler on a neutral floor. They also have the 89-64 win over Arizona in the most talented seventh-place Battle 4 Atlantis game of all time, as well as a 15-point true road win over Marquette.
Sure, they lost in overtime to Tennessee on a neutral floor and followed it up the following day with a four-point loss to Western Kentucky, but the Boilermakers have been on fire since then. Purdue is No. 9 nationally in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. The only other team in the top 19 in both categories is Michigan State.
Purdue is above the national average in all 18 sections of the "Four Factors" and "Miscellaneous Components" on KenPom. In eight of those areas, Matt Painter's guys rank in the top 25 nationally. In other words, there are no clear weaknesses and there are a lot of strengths.
But a lot of people seem to be having difficulty getting past the fact that this is still Purdue we're talking about.
The Boilermakers have had more than their fair share of successful regular seasons lately. They finished in the Top 20 of the final AP poll in six of the last 10 years. At the end of all that hard work, they are 9-8 in the NCAA tournament since 2008, and they haven't reached the Elite Eight since 2000.
Three years ago, they blew a late lead in a first-round OT loss to Cincinnati. The following year, they did the same thing against Arkansas-Little Rock. And though Purdue did reach the Sweet 16 last season, it was slaughtered 98-66 in that regional semifinal. For whatever reason, this team can't seem to play its best in March.
Perhaps if Purdue wins at Michigan on Tuesday night, more people will be willing to judge this team based on its current success rather than its past failures. Regardless, with a roster so talented that guys like Ryan Cline and Matt Haarms have to come off the bench, this team clearly has the ability to win it all.
5. Wichita State Shockers
Stock Advice: Don't spend any more money, but don't sell what you've got, either.
After a weekend of unadulterated chaos, it might be tempting to cling to Wichita State as something of a life raft to prevent you from drowning in an ocean of parity. While so many title contenders either lost or almost lost, Wichita State beat Houston and South Florida by a combined margin of 56 points.
"Thank heavens! The one team we can count on!"
Maybe so, but we need to see more evidence before recommending an investment in a team that gave up at least 43 points in one half in six of nine games earlier this year.
It's great to see the Shockers blowing out Houston and South Florida—unless, you know, you root for one of those two teams. Markis McDuffie is already making a tangible, positive impact after missing the first 11 games of the season, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. Since his return, Wichita State has held each of its opponents to 65 points or fewer.
But let's also be sure to consider the circumstances.
Three of those four games came at home, with the one exception being a road game against a Connecticut team that has looked lost on offense for the past 1.5 seasons. The only KenPom top 125 team the Shockers faced during that stretch was Houston, and they had such a scoring explosion in the first half of that game that the Cougars lost their will to fight before halftime.
Were Landry Shamet and Co. beating the tar out of SMU, Cincinnati and UCF, we'd be tripping over our own feet to thrown money at Wichita State's championship odds. As is? The only thing that has changed in the past three months is that the Shockers have gotten healthy against teams unlikely to reach the NCAA tournament.
4. Michigan State Spartans
Stock Advice: Hold steady and don't fret too much about the loss to Ohio State.
As previously mentioned, it's not uncommon for eventual championship teams to lay an egg on the road early in conference play. And while the margin was a little ugly throughout, losing to an Ohio State team that has been surging for more than a month is hardly a disaster.
Considering the Spartans do not play road games against Purdue or Michigan this season, you could easily make the case that the road game against the Buckeyes was the fourth-toughest game on their schedule for the entire regular season, and the most difficult beyond November. Another reasonable conclusion to reach is that it's the last game Michigan State will lose.
It seemed like everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Keita Bates-Diop had 32 points while helping limit Michigan State's starting frontcourt to just 14 points and 12 rebounds. Miles Bridges missed seven of his first eight shots. Cassius Winston struggled to find his stroke. The bench—normally one of Michigan State's biggest strengths—accounted for four points in 54 minutes of use.
And when things started to swing Ohio State's way, it snowballed in a hurry. The Buckeyes went on a 20-2 run during a 127-second stretch spanning halftime, including a deep three banked in by Andrew Dakich, a technical foul on Tom Izzo, a couple of bad turnovers and some poor clock management.
Aside from that two-minute sequence, Michigan State out-scored Ohio State by two points. And it's hard to imagine we'll ever see this team completely break down like that again.
Perhaps the most bizarre part of the game is how easily Ohio State scored in the paint. The Spartans were previously leading the nation in both two-point field-goal defense (they still are by a wide margin) and block percentage (now No. 2), but the Buckeyes shot 54.5 percent inside the arc and only had only shot blocked.
This game was doomed from the start, and it's one that we're ready to write off as an anomaly.
After all, Michigan State had won each of its previous five games by at least a 30-point margin, including blowing out Maryland on Thursday. The Spartans should immediately get back to those winning ways with three consecutive home games against Rutgers, Michigan and Indiana. Barring another blowout road loss, that game against Ohio State will barely even be a blip on the radar, rather than the moment when things turned for the worse.
3. Virginia Cavaliers
Stock Advice: Buy enough to make Virginia your top ACC investment, but don't go overboard.
Despite not receiving a single vote in the preseason AP Top 25, Virginia has been steadily climbing to its current spot in the Top Five. Not too shabby for a team that so many prematurely wrote off after losing London Perrantes and three noteworthy transfers in early April.
(Let the record show that we had Virginia at No. 23 in our way-too-early Top 25 and ranked the Wahoos at No. 16 in our preseason Top 25. Anyone who claims he or she was first on the Virginia bandwagon probably owes us a royalty fee.)
As always, defense is the name of the game in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers lead the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. They held North Carolina to 49 points in their most recent game. They have limited 13 of 15 opponents to 60 points or fewer, seven of which failed to even score 50.
One big change from previous years is that Virginia is also forcing turnovers at a high rate. This program's highest national rank in steal percentage in the past five years was 138th last season, tallying a steal on 9.1 percent of defensive possessions. Normally, the Cavaliers relentlessly contain and force bad shots, but don't necessarily hunt interceptions. This year, Virginia is No. 25 with steals on 11.4 percent of defensive possessions. The Cavaliers are also rank in the top 30 in block percentage and are No. 4 in defensive effective field-goal percentage.
We'll see how well it holds up through the rest of conference play, but there's a case to be made that this is the best defense of the KenPom era (dating back to 2001-02). Virginia's 84.5 adjusted defensive efficiency is nearly identical to Kentucky's mark during the 38-1 season three years ago.
Virginia is pretty solid on offense, too. Kyle Guy, Devon Hall and Ty Jerome are each shooting better than 44 percent from three-point range. The Hoos rarely turn the ball over and don't have many shots blocked. If they could get to the free-throw line a little more often (14.3 attempts per game), they'd easily rank in the top 25 in adjusted offensive efficiency.
But will this be the year that it finally pays off in the NCAA tournament?
Virginia has lost before the Final Four to a lower-seeded team in three of the past four dances. The one exception was a 26-point loss to fourth-seeded Florida when UVA was a No. 5 seed. No matter how many times people say "Defense wins championships," it never comes close to ringing true for these guys.
In a season where no one has been particularly reliable away from home, though, Virginia's defense should travel nicely in March. With any luck, the offense will show up for a few weeks, too.
2. West Virginia Mountaineers
Stock Advice: Buy a little, but be wary of the curse of the best conference.
We often talk about how important it is for a team to be "battle tested" by March. The theory is that it's almost impossible to survive six must-win games of increasing difficulty if you've spent the bulk of your season fattening up on cupcakes.
What we don't talk about nearly enough is the opposite extreme. Heck, I don't know that anyone has ever pointed this out, but keep it in mind when filling out your bracket in two months: In the last 12 seasons, the highest-rated conference on KenPom.com has sent a combined total of 81 teams to the NCAA tournament. Only four—2008 UCLA, 2012 Ohio State, 2013 Michigan, 2016 Oklahoma—reached the Final Four, and none of them won the title.
Tough to say what causes this conference-wide collapse in March. Maybe it's fatigue from facing two brutal opponents per week for nine weeks. Maybe it's an acquired lack of concern about winning every game, since you can lose seven conference games and still earn a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. Perhaps it's just a coincidence from a tournament in which 94 percent of teams don't reach the Final Four. Either way, it's something to consider with West Virginia and the rest of the Big 12, which is clearly the best top-to-bottom conference in the nation.
Right now, the Mountaineers look great. They have won 14 consecutive games, including quality victories over Virginia and Oklahoma. Per usual, they are forcing turnovers at just about the highest rate in the nation and are crashing the offensive glass like their lives depend upon it. Better yet, they're just one week away from getting Esa Ahmad (11.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG last year) back from a 17-game suspension. That should be quite the boost for what is already one of the top teams in the country.
However, in addition to the aforementioned overall concern about the Big 12 this March, we haven't liked what we've see from West Virginia away from home.
Jevon Carter and Co. have played seven games outside of Morgantown. They won only one of those games—a blowout of UCF—by more than a double-digit margin. The Mountaineers only beat Marist by six points on a neutral court, needed a frantic comeback to beat Missouri three nights later and never really pulled away from a Pittsburgh team that hasn't beaten anyone good all season. Worst of all, they got destroyed by a short-handed Texas A&M in the season opener in Germany.
The Mountaineers play at Texas Tech and at TCU in the next two weeks and have huge road games against Oklahoma and Kansas in February. Perhaps after those games, we'll feel a little better about Press Virginia's chances to win a title.
1. Villanova Wildcats
Stock Advice: Keep a diverse portfolio, but make sure Villanova has the highest percentage of your investing dollars.
Villanova suffered its first loss of the season two weekends ago at Butler. While Duke, Michigan State and others just looked plain bad in early conference losses, the Wildcats lost on a night when the Bulldogs would have beaten anyone in the country.
Butler shot 15-of-22 from three-point range with five different players making multiple triples. Moreover, the three guys who played without attempting any threes were a combined 8-of-10 from the field. The Bulldogs did just about anything they wanted on offense, absurdly putting up 101 points in a 72-possession game against the No. 1 team in the nation. Villanova shot 72.2 percent from inside the arc, committed only four turnovers and still trailed by as many as 23 points in the second half.
But what else is new when Villanova has to travel to Hinkle Fieldhouse, right? Last year, the Wildcats won 19 of their first 20 games, and the one exception was a dud at Butler. Villanova did win the three previous road games against Butler, but not one of them was decided by more than five points—one of which required overtime.
Now, I will point out there are some legitimate concerns about Villanova's defense. In addition to giving up 101 against Butler, the Wildcats gave up 90 points to Marquette and 85 to DePaul. With their undersized lineup, they have struggled to protected the defensive glass. And with the exception of Mikal Bridges, it sometimes seems like they're just conserving energy on defense to prevent fatigue on a short rotation.
Led by Jalen Brunson and Bridges, though, Villanova is just so darn good on offense. The Wildcats are No. 2 to Duke in adjusted offensive efficiency, but only because the Blue Devils get all of the offensive rebounds. Villanova is average on the glass, but it leads the nation in effective field-goal percentage and ranks sixth in turnover percentage.
There's always a chance that offense goes cold at the wrong time in March. We've seen it happen in the second round in three of the last four tournaments. But there's also a good chance the Wildcats get and stay hot for six games for a second title in three years. That's good enough to make them the favorites to win it all at this point.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.