Buying or Selling Every Top 10 CBB Team as a Legit Title Contender
Your time to shine is coming soon. Accurately choosing the NCAA champion could be the difference between winning and losing a bracket competition at your home, job or elsewhere.
However, the Big Dance rarely goes according to plan, and several Top 10 programs should not be trusted in the tournament.
That will inevitably lead to some conclusions of "hating the team," but there's an important distinction between a championship contender and a likely Sweet 16 qualifier.
Based on current information—injuries can change outlooks—we're confident a few Top 10 teams will not be cutting down the nets. The rankings reflect the most recent AP Top 25 poll.
10. North Carolina Tar Heels
No program has reached the national championship game in three straight seasons since 1996-98 Kentucky, so if historical patterns are your thing, go ahead and count out North Carolina.
Last season, the Tar Heels dominated the rebound column. Every key rotation player except Nate Britt averaged at least three boards, and that collective strength allowed them to control second-chance opportunities on both ends all season long.
While that hadn't been the case in 2017-18 until recently, UNC has amassed a 40.0 to 26.6 average finish on the glass during a five-game winning streak. Tethered with a slight uptick in three-point efficiency, the Heels look dangerous again.
North Carolina's shaky perimeter defense is a real reason for concern. Should the Tar Heels continue performing at this level through the ACC tournament, they'll be an intriguing choice in March.
Verdict: Close to Buying
9. Purdue Boilermakers
For some, the mere thought of trusting Purdue can be scary. In nine NCAA appearances under Matt Painter, the Boilermakers still haven't advanced beyond the Sweet 16.
The 2017-18 squad seemed to begin shifting the narrative, toppling Arizona and Louisville in nonconference play and opening Big Ten action with 12 consecutive victories. That terrific start has helped Purdue rank tied-sixth nationally with a 41.7 three-point percentage and 23rd in opponent field-goal percentage.
However, a season of close games has finally caught up to the Boilers. In February alone, Purdue has fallen to Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin by four points or less—and edged Rutgers and Penn State by two and three points, respectively. Northwestern and Maryland have pushed Painter's team for 40 minutes, too.
The Boilers have a championship-caliber roster that can compete with any team in the nation. But the frustrating trend of squandering leads in the second half and needing a hot finish to avoid a loss against all competition makes Purdue a risky pick.
8. Kansas Jayhawks
Can you rely on Kansas to connect on 37.5 percent of its three-point attempts in six consecutive games? Because when the shots are falling, the Jayhawks look the part of a contender.
Devonte' Graham is averaging 17.6 points and 7.2 assists, Svi Mykhailiuk has buried a career-best clip (44.9) from distance and both Lagerald Vick and Malik Newman are dangerous shooters. When the Jayhawks knock down 37.5-plus percent beyond the arc, they're 14-0.
Yet below that mark, Kansas is a meager 8-6.
Due to suspect depth in the frontcourt, Bill Self's squad is largely dependent on the success of the perimeter players. But if Mitch Lightfoot and Silvio De Sousa can solidify the frontcourt behind Udoka Azubuike, the streaky shooters won't be as problematic.
Verdict: Tentative Buy
T-6. Texas Tech Red Raiders
At full strength, Texas Tech defeated each of Baylor, Kansas and West Virginia. That's an impressive list of victories for any school, and the victories happened largely because of an outstanding defense.
The Red Raiders are No. 3 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom. Their opponents have trudged to the eighth-lowest field-goal percentage in the country, though the number has gradually climbed since Zach Smith's injury.
Unfortunately for Texas Tech, it's now playing without Smith and Keenan Evans. The team recovered from a 1-3 stretch immediately following the former's absence and rattled off seven consecutive wins, but Evans' toe injury is a major complication.
He averages 18.2 points and 3.3 assists per game, both of which lead the Red Raiders. If Evans isn't healthy, Texas Tech just doesn't have enough scoring to survive a six-game stretch.
T-6. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Last season's national runner-up is positioned well for another low seed during what will be Gonzaga's 20th straight NCAA appearance.
In a considerable change from 2016-17, though, it seems likely most analysts will be advising against the Bulldogs rather than for them. Gonzaga waltzed through the West Coast Conference last season but has been unimpressive in league action this year.
The team's ability to control the glass—especially on the offensive end—is crucial, but the lack of consistency beyond the arc will be problematic in the Big Dance. The Zags are shooting just 35.1 percent from three-point range in conference play.
Lots of wins? Yes. However, struggles putting away teams such as San Francisco, San Diego, Pacific and Pepperdine really aren't encouraging for the future.
5. Duke Blue Devils
Duke is fun!
Ranked No. 2 in adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom, the ACC powerhouse boasts a scoring attack capable of competing with anyone. Marvin Bagley III is a Player of the Year candidate, and five Blue Devils are averaging 10-plus points.
However, problems start if they're unable to control the glass. Four of Duke's five losses have occurred when an opponent grabbed 29-plus percent of available offensive rebounds.
It's possible the Blue Devils could avoid strong rebounding teams for the entire region. Nobody knows the draw until Selection Sunday! Dismissing Duke would be foolish.
But that's a glaring issue for a supremely talented roster.
Verdict: Tentative Sell
4. Xavier Musketeers
We'll analyze the Musketeers, we promise. But the most important question is one that can answered yet: Does Xavier's road to the Final Four include a matchup with Villanova?
If yes, oh no. Over the last two seasons, Villanova is 4-0 with the smallest margin of victory over Xavier being a mere 16 points.
Otherwise, maybe! Trevon Bluiett is averaging career-best marks of 19.8 points and 2.6 assists, while J.P. Macura and Kerem Kanter both have 20-point potential for the Musketeers. They tied-sixth nationally with an offensive efficiency of 121.5, per KenPom.
Along with that shaky defense, Xavier's propensity for close games is troublesome. Consistently winning tight matchups is impressive—especially given the issues on defense—but that's not sustainable in the tournament when competition is consistently high.
3. Villanova Wildcats
History says not to trust Villanova. During a five-season streak of NCAA bids, the program has only survived the opening weekend once.
But these 'Cats sure look appealing yet again.
Player of the Year contender Jalen Brunson spearheads an offense with six guys averaging double figures. The team's 128.9 offensive efficiency leads D-I, per KenPom, and six Wildcats are shooting above 40 percent from beyond the arc while attempting two-plus per game.
Recent injuries to Eric Paschall and Phil Booth have illuminated the long-present depth issue, and Villanova has clearly felt their absences in losses to St. John's and Providence. But Paschall is back, and Booth is on track to return soon.
Should there be a setback in his recovery, Villanova will find itself on upset watch yet again. If Booth is healthy for the tournament, though, he'll solidify a well-rounded contender.
Verdict: Health-Dependent Buy
2. Michigan State Spartans
Michigan State is occasionally dreadful at protecting the basketball, having committed 17-plus turnovers in seven games. Per Basketball-Reference.com, that's the most among Top 25 schools.
Knowing that, it should make this easy: Sell!
But then you remember the Spartans are elite on offense. They boast the highest assist rate (69.4) in the nation and top-10 marks in both effective field-goal and offensive rebounding percentage—all while having the sixth-most efficient defense, per KenPom.
MSU can get in trouble when the team starts settling for jumpers. When the ball moves—and it does regularly—the Spartans thrive.
1. Virginia Cavaliers
If the other team can't score, it won't win. Pretty simple, right?
Virginia is prone to droughts on offense, but Tony Bennett's vaunted defense is ruthless. The Cavaliers lead the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and the 82.8 rating is the lowest mark in the 17-year history of the data (84.2, 2009 Memphis).
Though the periodic troubles on offense are mildly concerning, they don't happen often enough to cause panic. Unless the opponent is efficiently shooting a high volume from three-point range, Virginia won't let a game run away.
And in clutch moments, we'll trust this defense.