Buying or Selling Each Top 10 CBB Team as a National Championship Contender
The latest AP poll for men's basketball was released Sunday, revealing Duke, Michigan, Tennessee and Virginia in the top four spots once again. With the 2018-19 season now halfway complete, those appear to be the top candidates to win the national championship.
But which Top 10 teams are worth of buying as a title contender and which ones already seem poised for an early exit from the 2019 NCAA tournament?
Whether we are buying or selling a team is a fluid situation. A team we aren't in love with today could change that with an impressive performance or two this week. Conversely, even undefeated Michigan and Virginia could be one dud away from showing some fatal flaws.
But if the tournament started today, the teams we're buying are the ones that look good enough to pencil into the Elite Eight regardless of the draw as well as the ones worth considering picking to win it all.
To best shuffle up the order of those being bought and sold, teams are presented alphabetically rather than by current ranking.
Duke Blue Devils
Let's begin with the obvious: We're buying Duke's national championship potential.
You're welcome to believe that betting on Duke to win it all at +170 odds (bet $100 to win $170) is an unwise investment, due to the innate randomness of the single-elimination NCAA tournament. After all, the No. 1 overall seed hasn't won the NCAA tournament in any of the past five years. As far as the probabilities are concerned, getting undefeated Michigan (+900) or Virginia (+1100) odds is probably the better play.
But if you don't believe that Duke can/should win the national championship, you're delusional. There's no other explanation for it.
That isn't to say the Blue Devils are perfect. They can be beaten. Their three-point shooting and free-throw shooting leave much to be desired. They were a bit flustered by the aggressive, physical defenses of Texas Tech and Auburn, struggling to score (by their standards) in both of those games. And you never know when all those starting freshmen will start to hit the fatigue wall—particularly RJ Barrett, who shoulders such a heavy load in every game.
But they're sort of equal and opposite to the Villanova teams that won two of the last three national championships. Where Villanova was loaded with veteran players who could make it rain from three-point range, Duke is a young team that mostly lives in the paint. What makes them equal, though, is that a whole bunch of things need to go wrong in order for them to lose.
One of the best teams in the nation (Gonzaga) shot 53 percent from three-point range on a neutral court against Duke, and it still needed a flurry of blocked shots in the final minute to hang on for a two-point win.
And that was two weeks into the season when this freshman-heavy team was still getting its feet wet. It's going to take even more of a Herculean effort to beat Duke in the Big Dance.
Gonzaga went 13-2 in nonconference play with an outstanding neutral-site win over Duke, a quality road win over Creighton and a pair of hard-fought losses to Tennessee and North Carolina.
And now the Zags are healthy.
Killian Tillie—the stretch 5 who ranked second on the team in points, rebounds and blocks per game last year as a sophomore—made his long-awaited season debut Saturday after recovering from a stress fracture in his foot.
In the same 43-point win over Santa Clara, Geno Crandall—who averaged 16.6 points, 3.6 assists and 2.1 steals last season at North Dakota—also made his first appearance in more than a month due to a broken hand.
Gonzaga was already dangerous with a seven-man rotation in which freshman Filip Petrusev and scoring-averse senior Jeremy Jones needed to play a lot of minutes. But with Tillie and Crandall back, this might be the best team in the country.
For most teams, one cannot make that statement without some troll firing back, "Uh, ever heard of Duke?!" But Gonzaga beat Duke even without Tillie, so, yeah, this team could definitely win the national championship.
The one major concern to watch out for has been Gonzaga's three-point defense. The year-to-date numbers (29.9 percent) are better than the national average (34.0 percent), but that's largely thanks to the dreadful likes of North Dakota State, Denver and North Alabama throwing up brick after brick in blowout losses to the Zags. But Creighton, Tennessee and North Carolina were a combined 39-of-88 (44.3 percent) against Gonzaga in the first half of December.
If and when those lapses in perimeter defense rear their ugly head, the Bulldogs might be in some trouble. But they've also averaged 93.6 points per game, so they might be able to just score their way through it regardless.
Even before the news broke Sunday that Udoka Azubuike is out for the rest of the season with a torn ligament, Kansas was penciled in as a team we're selling.
Now that we know the 7'0" junior will no longer be available, it's time for a fire sale on Jayhawks' national championship stock.
Azubuike has already missed five games this season, and the results were far from reassuring. Kansas lost two of those games to Arizona State and Iowa State and darn near lost at home to both New Mexico State and Villanova. The only game the Jayhawks won convincingly was against South Dakota—and the Coyotes were the worst team Kansas has played thus far.
As it turns out, when you're a bad three-point shooting team, it's hard to win without your best shot-blocker, offensive rebounder and angry dunker.
The Jayhawks still have plenty of talent on the roster. Dedric Lawson's National Player of the Year campaign will pick up steam in earnest with Azubuike out. Lagerald Vick will become an even more pivotal part of the offense than he already was. And while the freshman class hasn't lived up to the hype, we're still talking about three top-40 guys who could catch fire at any moment—one of whom (David McCormack) figures to be headed for a huge boost in playing time at center.
Until that happens, though, this team's poor perimeter play will keep it from winning a title.
No one on the roster is averaging so much as three assists per game in what has become a combination of hero ball by the guards and/or "just let Lawson do his thing." Vick is the only shooter who can be trusted—though Quentin Grimes, one of those freshmen, has been showing signs of life lately. And the perimeter defense has been torched for at least a dozen made three-pointers in five of 14 games played.
It's hard to imagine a six-game stretch in March and April when those things don't become an insurmountable problem.
Michigan's defense is impeccable. Both Charles Matthews and Zavier Simpson have remarkable instincts and footwork along the perimeter, forcing an above-average number of turnovers while also allowing virtually no space for three-point attempts. And Jon Teske's emergence as a legitimate rim-protector makes it just as difficult for opponents to score in the paint.
Michigan has allowed just 55.6 points per game, and only one of 15 opponents (South Carolina, oddly enough, given its offensive woes) has scored more than 67 against the Wolverines.
But while we will be selling the elite defense of Texas Tech due to a lack of offense, the Wolverines are plenty good enough at scoring to beat anyone—as evidenced by blowout wins over Villanova, North Carolina and Purdue.
Matthews (14.2 PPG), Ignas Brazdeikis (16.0) and Jordan Poole (14.1) are each capable of carrying the scoring load on any given night, and Isaiah Livers—though he has missed the past two games due to back spasms—might be the best sixth man in the entire country.
And though Simpson and Teske don't typically do a ton of scoring, the former runs the offense with nearly six assists (and fewer than two turnovers) per game, and the latter patrols the offensive glass and serves as enough of a threat down low to help keep the shooters open for threes.
When it all works in unison, it's frighteningly good. Even without Livers, the Wolverines have won their last two games against Penn State and Indiana by a double-digit margin. They shut down Penn State's anemic offense, and the Michigan offense jumped out to an early 32-13 lead over the Hoosiers and never looked back.
And the scariest part of all is that John Beilein's teams are typically much better in March than they are for the first few weeks of the season. If this undefeated team improves any more, we'll need to start seriously considering the potential for a 40-0 season.
Michigan State Spartans
This is the one Top 10 team that I bounce back and forth on the most.
On the negative side of things, the all-too-familiar turnover woes are still a problem. In Michigan State's five Tier A games on KenPom.com, it committed 86 turnovers while opponents have only committed 45. The Spartans were negative-six or worse in turnover margin in each of those games.
As a result, they lost to Kansas and Louisville, fell behind Texas by a 25-6 margin, trailed Ohio State by nine points early in the second half and never managed to create much separation against Florida. They went 3-2 in those five quality games, but none of the wins left us thinking, "Oh yeah, that team is going places."
And yet, there's so much talent and experience on this roster—not to mention Tom Izzo's knack for getting to the Final Four at least once every five years (the last time was 2015)—that it would feel foolish to ever write this team off.
Josh Langford is one of just two top-20 recruits from the 2016 class still playing college hoops. (The other is Duke's Marques Bolden.) Cassius Winston and Nick Ward were both top-50 recruits that year, too, putting Michigan State in the rare position of having three juniors who were borderline one-and-done prospects coming out of high school.
In addition to that trio, seniors Kenny Goins and Matt McQuaid have both been starters for the majority of the season. And with the exception of the Middle Tennessee debacle in 2016, when have you ever known an upperclassmen-heavy, Izzo-coached team to lay an egg in March?
We're going to find out a whole heck of a lot more about this team in the next four weeks. Between now and Groundhog Day, they'll host Maryland and Indiana, travel to Penn State, Nebraska and Iowa, and play one of each against Purdue. The Spartans should be favored in all seven games, but if they can go 5-2 or better, it's full steam ahead on their national championship potential.
Nevada Wolf Pack
Before the season began, I thought Nevada should go 34-0 in the regular season and could go 40-0.
With five fifth-year seniors in the starting lineup, the amount of experience on this roster is second to none. And we saw during its three-game stay in last year's NCAA tournament just how unstoppable Nevada can be once it gets rolling. Only Sisten Jean Dolores Schmidt and Loyola-Chicago could end that run.
But after two months—and fresh off a hideous 27-point loss to New Mexico—it's fair to start wondering if this team will ever put it all together this year.
Perhaps that's harsh criticism of a team that was undefeated until a few days ago, but our New Year's resolution for Nevada was that it stop playing so many nail-biters and just blow out the teams it should be blowing out.
The Wolf Pack played a decent nonconference schedule in that they only faced two teams outside the KenPom top 200, neither of which currently rank 250th or worse. But they have only played one game against a team currently projected by the Bracket Matrix to be in position for an at-large bid, rallying from a 12-point second-half deficit to narrowly defeat Arizona State on a neutral court.
In addition to a lackluster platter of best victories, Nevada's offensive execution is concerning.
Basically everything runs through Caleb Martin and Jordan Caroline, neither of whom is a particularly efficient scorer. Martin is averaging more than nine three-point attempts per game, but he's only making 32 percent of them. Similarly, Caroline is almost averaging a double-double, but he's shooting just 48 percent inside the arc. And as we saw in the loss to New Mexico, when the going gets tough, those guys start jacking up even tougher shots.
This team is also just average on the glass and its zone defense is vulnerable to the three-ball, as demonstrated in the close calls against Grand Canyon, South Dakota State and Akron.
There's still potential here, but Nevada is much further from a finished product than any of us were expecting.
No team has been more consistently impressive than Tennessee. That doesn't necessarily mean the Volunteers have been the most impressive team, but their complete lack of letdowns through two months is more than a little noteworthy when considering their potential to play well for six consecutive tournament games.
On neutral courts against equal-caliber teams, the Vols picked up an outstanding win over Gonzaga and took Kansas to overtime before suffering their only loss of season, proving they belong on the same tier with the title contenders.
Against KenPom top-100 opponents Georgia Tech, Louisville and Memphis, Tennessee won each game by at least a 10-point margin, controlling the first with defense and enjoying offensive explosions in the other two. And in eight games against teams outside the KenPom top 100, Tennessee's average margin of victory is 30.5 points, including eviscerating Georgia 96-50 in the SEC opener.
Even though no one outside of Admiral Schofield shoots that well from distance, this is one of the most efficient offenses in the country, thanks in large part to the top-ranking assist rate. Tennessee moves the ball fluidly, probing the defense to find good interior looks while rarely committing turnovers. In fact, on top of assisting on 69 percent of made buckets, the Vols have the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the country.
Those stats often get overlooked because they don't show up as SportsCenter highlights, but averaging nearly two assists per turnover—while also blocking more than six shots per game—is a fantastic way to contend with anyone.
Throw in the fact that this is a veteran team (two seniors, three juniors and a sophomore in the primary six-man rotation) with one of the top midseason candidates for National Player of the Year (Grant Williams), and only a fool would be selling stock in Tennessee.
Texas Tech Red Raiders
There's no denying that Texas Tech's defense has been absurdly good. The Red Raiders are leading the nation in both two-point and three-point field-goal defense. They're also third in turnover percentage and eighth in block percentage and have yet to allow 70 or more points in any of their 14 games.
Add it all up and Texas Tech has an adjusted defensive efficiency of 83.3—3.4 points ahead of the next-closest team this season (Duke) and 0.9 points ahead of the next-closest team in KenPom history (2008-09 Memphis).
That's no big surprise if you've been following Chris Beard's career. Last year's Red Raiders were fourth in adjusted defensive efficiency. And when he led Arkansas-Little Rock to 30 wins in 2015-16, the Trojans ranked fourth nationally in scoring defense. No one has ever questioned this coach's ability to get his guys invested on defense.
But when push comes to shove, can this team score?
Jarrett Culver is exceptionally talented, but he can't do all of the scoring. Deshawn Corprew ranks second on the team in offensive rating, but he has been held to four points or fewer in four of his last five games. Davide Moretti is third on the team in both O-rating and points per game, but he entered Big 12 play on an eight-game streak of single-digit scoring efforts.
Texas Tech defended well enough to beat Duke, forcing 19 turnovers and limiting the Blue Devils to 15 percent three-point shooting. The Red Raiders held Zion Williamson and Co. to just 69 points—their lowest output of the season and just the second time scoring fewer than 84 in a game. And yet, Texas Tech lost by 11 because Culver (25 points) was the only guy who bothered to show up on offense.
At some point during the tournament, Culver is going to have an off night or an opponent is going to actually make some three-point shots. When either one happens, the Red Raiders will be vulnerable. If both things happen on the same night, they might lose by 20 to UMBC.
Save your "first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed" remarks for someone who cares about the past, because it's time to go all-in on this year's Cavaliers.
If you were a little wary at the end of nonconference play, that's understandable. Virginia only played four games against KenPom top-100 teams, and it didn't win any of them by a margin of more than eight points. In particular, the home scare against VCU was disturbing, as the Wahoos shot 29.5 percent from the field.
But they made it through unscathed before just obliterating a pretty good Florida State squad to open ACC play. Before the Seminoles starters outscored Virginia's managers 16-0 in the final two minutes, it was a 65-36 beatdown for the ages. And Virginia hardly got anything out of Ty Jerome or De'Andre Hunter on offense, so it could've been even worse.
There's not much difference between this year's Virginia and the one that earned the No. 1 overall seed last year with a 31-2 record. The Cavaliers lost Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins, but Kihei Clark and Braxton Key have filled those voids without missing a beat. And both Jerome and Hunter have become more efficient in bigger roles, meaning there's a case to be made this team is even better than it was last season.
They just need to avoid the injury/illness bug for once.
Virginia lost Hunter right before the start of last year's tournament. Wilkins had an upper respiratory illness that severely limited him in the 2017 dance. Justin Anderson broke his finger late in the 2014-15 season. And in the one recent March that the Cavs were healthy, Syracuse went on a seven-minute, 27-7 run in the Elite Eight that probably deserves it own 30 for 30 documentary at some point.
Eventually, that luck needs to turn in Tony Bennett's favor. And this team is deep enough and talented enough to break the curse.
Virginia Tech Hokies
Led by Ty Outlaw (51.6 percent from three-point range), Nickeil Alexander-Walker (47.2 percent) and Ahmed Hill (46.8 percent), Virginia Tech has had the most lethal offense in the nation. The Hokies are first nationally in effective field-goal percentage, second in three-point percentage and fourth in adjusted offensive efficiency.
They play at a slow pace, so all that offense has only resulted in one game with 90 or more points scored. But in recent games against Maryland-Eastern Shore and Notre Dame, they shot a combined 62.7 percent from the field and 56.8 percent from downtown while averaging 1.42 points per possession.
Even though UMES is one of the worst teams in the country, that type of efficiency over the course of 80 minutes of basketball is just ridiculous.
Here's the thing, though: Virginia Tech is 0-1 in true road games (lost at Penn State) and has only played two games against KenPom top-50 teams—the loss to Penn State and an 89-83 shootout win over Purdue.
The Hokies were in a similar situation last season, thriving against what was predominantly a pathetic nonconference schedule prior to regressing to become just a middle-of-the-pack ACC team.
The good news is this team appears to be defending and rebounding much better than last year, but we cannot responsibly condone investing in this team until we see how things hold up in road games against Virginia and North Carolina over the next two weeks. If the Hokies win either game—or simply avoid getting blown out of either one—we'll be more willing to buy national championship stock. Until then: hard pass.