The CBB Teams Best Built for March Madness Dominance
Duke is No. 1 in the men's college basketball AP Top 25 for a few more days, but are the Blue Devils No. 1 on the list of teams most likely to reach the Final Four?
Top 25 rankings are typically too focused on how a team has looked in the past week or two. Projected brackets, on the other hand, go to the opposite extreme by scrutinizing the full body of work at the expense of the eye test. Both are fine ways to measure a team's value, but neither gets to the heart of what we all want to know: Who is best built for a Final Four run?
Recent national champions have shown there is a wide variety of ways to build a contender. But there are some commonalities they share, including elite defense, veteran leadership in the backcourt, at least one three-point assassin, a lengthy winning streak during the regular season and a lot of quality wins.
With those criteria in mind, we've ranked the teams that seem best suited to win it all.
Texas Tech Red Raiders
Texas Tech is on its way to becoming the most efficient defense in KenPom.com history, and Jarrett Culver is a strong candidate for National Player of the Year. But beyond Culver, this offense leaves a lot to be desired, scoring 71 points or fewer in its last six games. Great as the defense may be, it's almost impossible to get through the tournament without running into a player or team that catches fire from three-point range. That would likely be the Red Raiders' undoing.
North Carolina Tar Heels
There are times when North Carolina looks great, like in December's home win over Gonzaga or last week's road victory over NC State. But there are also nights when this squad looks like it left its give-a-darn in the locker room. And it's hard to pick a team to win the national championship when it has yet to win more than five consecutive games.
Nevada Wolf Pack
Maybe the hideous loss to New Mexico was just the kick in the pants this team needed. Nevada played much better in subsequent games against San Jose State and Fresno State. And if you like to pick a national champion with a lot of experience, good luck finding any better than the Wolf Pack. They start five fifth-year seniors, and sixth man Jazz Johnson is shooting better than 50 percent from three-point range.
Speaking of experience, Buffalo has five seniors in its primary seven-man rotation, and it already has impressive wins away from home against Syracuse, San Francisco and West Virginia. The Bulls stomped the No. 4-seeded Arizona in the first round of last year's tournament, and they are ready to at least make it to the second weekend this time around.
From mid-December through the loss to Temple last week, it seemed like a lot of people were writing off Houston as "that other team trying to go undefeated." But the Cougars are stout on defense, they have a ton of veteran leadership in the backcourt and they have two certified three-point gunners in Corey Davis Jr. (36.6 percent) and Armoni Brooks (38.1 percent). Houston is a fringe championship contender at best, but it has the makings of a team that could make a deep run.
8. Virginia Tech Hokies
Statistically speaking, Virginia Tech probably belongs in the top four.
Aside from P.J. Horne, the Hokies are built almost entirely of three-point assassins—the most lethal of which are Ty Outlaw and Ahmed Hill. Both wings have shot better than 40 percent from distance in their careers, and they are averaging nearly five combined makes per game this year. Nickeil Alexander-Walker is shooting 42.4 percent. At a lesser volume (two attempts per game each), both Isaiah Wilkins and Wabissa Bede are well above 40 percent too.
The Hokies have more than enough veteran leadership in the backcourt. Hill and Outlaw are both 23 years old. Justin Robinson is a veteran senior, too. And though Alexander-Walker is just a sophomore, he has started 47 games in his career and is one of the best players in the ACC.
Virginia Tech also defends well, forcing a lot of turnovers while rarely fouling. This team has an average turnover margin of nearly 5.0—although the zone defense does permit a lot of three-pointers.
But the reason the Hokies just barely made the list is their less than daunting schedule.
Outside of a neutral-site game against Purdue, they didn't play any real competition in the first two months of the season. Moreover, they've only played two true road games, in which their offense didn't travel worth a darn. They scored 62 points in a loss at Penn State and won a hideous 52-49 game at Georgia Tech last week.
Until we see how they fare away from home against the likes of Virginia, North Carolina, NC State and Florida State, it's hard to put much faith in the Hokies.
7. Kansas Jayhawks
This is a weird thing to say about a 15-2 team with a resume worthy of No. 1 seed consideration, but things have not gone according to plan for Kansas.
Quentin Grimes is nowhere near the top-10 recruit college basketball fans were promised. California transfer Charlie Moore is almost unplayable. Marcus Garrett had a great game against Texas on Monday, but he entered that night in one heck of a sophomore slump, shooting 34.2 percent from the field. And losing Udoka Azubuike for the season to a hand injury was the toughest pill to swallow.
As a result, this often feels like a three-man team consisting of Dedric Lawson, Lagerald Vick and Devon Dotson—and Dotson doesn't even shoot much.
But it's possible that means this is an already good team that is only going to get better. And if you're going to rely almost entirely on a guard-forward duo, there aren't many better options in the country than Vick and Lawson.
Despite the struggles, Kansas has quality wins over Michigan State, Tennessee, Villanova, Oklahoma, TCU and Marquette, each of which would be a no-brainer tournament team if the Big Dance started today. The Jayhawks are much better on defense than they were when they made the Final Four last year, which is a good reason to buy stock while you can.
The big question mark is perimeter shooting. Vick is outstanding, and it's possible that midseason addition Ochai Agbaji (Kansas burned his redshirt a week ago) will make a tangible impact in that department. But that's about all the Jayhawks have—a colossal shift from the past two seasons when four of the five starters were constant threats to shoot the three.
6. Michigan State Spartans
Let's start with the bad: Michigan State's turnover situation is terrifying.
The Spartans have had a turnover margin of negative-four or worse in each of their last five games. Point guard Cassius Winston coughed up the ball five times against Purdue and seven times against Penn State, producing a combined sub-1.0 assist-to-turnover ratio in his last two games.
They do everything else well, though.
In spite of the turnover woes on both ends of the court, Michigan State ranks top-10 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, putting the Spartans in a club with just Duke and Virginia. They have won 10 in a row, most of them in blowout fashion, thanks to excellent shooting, assist rates, rebounding and interior defense.
And yet, buying stock in this team feels like trusting a great pitcher who just so happens to walk the first batter in approximately 40 percent of innings pitched. Even if he wiggles out of the vast majority of those jams without allowing a run, you just feel like it's going to become a problem.
Granted, this isn't a new phenomenon for head coach Tom Izzo. The Spartans have never been a steal-seeking team. The last time they ranked higher than 190th nationally in defensive turnover percentage was in 2005. But they have at least come close to breaking even in turnover margin in the years they've made deep runs in the NCAA tournament.
That's not the case this year. The Spartans are 323rd (out of 348 teams) in average turnover margin with a mark of minus-2.8. That's the worst among all teams anywhere close to the at-large picture for the tournament. And that's why we can't quite justify putting Michigan State in the top five. But if there's any team with the talent and experience to overcome that kind of Achilles' heel, it's probably the Spartans.
5. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Now that Killian Tillie and Geno Crandall are back from injuries, there's a compelling argument to be made that Gonzaga is the most complete team in the country.
The Zags have a fifth-year senior at point guard (Josh Perkins) who is shooting 40 percent from three-point range and averaging better than 3.3 assists per turnover. Their shooting guard (Zach Norvell Jr.) has made at least three triples in five of his last six games and already has experience with making clutch shots in the tournament. The other starting guard (Corey Kispert) is no slouch from three-point range either, making 37.9 percent of his looks.
And guard play is probably the weaker half of Gonzaga's rotation, given how great Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura have been and how useful we know Tillie can be as a stretch 4. Plus, because of Tillie's injury, both Jeremy Jones and Filip Petrusev got a lot of valuable playing time, bolstering the overall depth chart.
Are the Bulldogs good enough on defense, though?
They've proved they can score on anyone, averaging 92.2 points per game, but they have also allowed more than 75 points in nearly half of their contests. The Zags don't force a ton of turnovers, and North Carolina, Tennessee and Creighton made it rain from three-point range against them. Duke only shot 43.1 percent from the field, and it still put up 87 points in Gonzaga's season-defining win.
Gonzaga was 35th in adjusted defensive efficiency as of Friday, but it is just barely hanging on to a spot in the top 50 after giving up 83 points to San Francisco.
It's not quite a 2016-17 UCLA or 2017-18 Wichita State situation in which the offense is spectacular and the defense is downright awful, but it is at least worth noting that Gonzaga's defense is a far cry from what it was two years ago, when the team reached the national championship game. It's something to keep an eye on as the Bulldogs figure out things at full strength.
4. Tennessee Volunteers
If you thought Tennessee's win over Gonzaga last month was a fluke, the Volunteers have backed it up with seven consecutive wins by a double-digit margin. The most recent win over Florida was actually a two-point game with 45 seconds remaining, but you know what they say: Good teams win; great teams cover.
Even though the Vols don't do a ton of three-point shooting (6.8 makes per game) and play at an adjusted tempo right at the national average, they have one of the most efficient offenses in the country. They have scored at least 76 points in 12 consecutive games, thanks in large part to triple-threat big man Grant Williams.
The reigning SEC Player of the Year is averaging 18.9 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, but his 3.9 assists per contest and 42.9 percent three-point shooting are what make this power forward so unguardable. He isn't quite as much of a force on the glass as Caleb Swanigan was for Purdue a couple of years ago, but he has a lot of similarities in terms of versatility and vision.
Williams is much better about avoiding turnovers than Swanigan was—a big reason this offense is so efficient—but he's also more of a defensive presence than the former Boilermaker. Williams is leading the Volunteers in steals (1.1 per game) and is a close second to Kyle Alexander in blocks (1.6).
So in addition to pacing the offense, he has played an indispensable role on a defense that has held nine of its last 10 opponents to 73 points or fewer.
This is much more than a one-man show, though.
While the Volunteers don't shoot many threes as a team, Admiral Schofield is one of the better, most cold-blooded three-point shooters in the country (44.6 percent). And as far as experience is concerned, Tennessee has five guys averaging at least 10 points per game. Each of them is either a junior or senior.
There's another junior just getting back into the mix too. Lamonte Turner has only played in six games because of injury, but he shot 39.5 percent from three-point range last season. If he (and everyone else) can stay healthy, Tennessee is going to have one heck of an eight-man rotation for the tournament.
This program has never been to the Final Four before, but it is a better national championship candidate than most.
3. Duke Blue Devils
Duke has more talent than any other team. If you find someone foolish enough to disagree, kindly point that person in the direction of any remotely reputable NBA mock draft from the past seven months, in which Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish are all projected top-five draft picks.
The last (and only) time a school had three top-10 draft picks in the same year was when Florida—fresh off back-to-back national championships—had No. 3 Al Horford, No. 7 Corey Brewer and No. 9 Joakim Noah in the 2007 draft. Three players from the same team in the top five would be a bit ridiculous. Tre Jones is a borderline lottery prospect as well.
So the Blue Devils are loaded with talent, and they are one of the best defensive teams in the nation, ranking first in steal percentage, second in block percentage and third in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. That's one heck of a punch when considering championship potential—plus, they already have a bunch of quality wins.
However, where is the veteran leadership in the backcourt? Who is the three-point assassin? And is there enough depth to withstand foul trouble or an injury?
Basically, everything we were worried about before the season started is still of at least minor concern. And Monday night's home loss to Syracuse proved all of these issues are still there.
The depth is less of a problem than expected, given the emergence of Jack White and Marques Bolden, as well as the continued quality play of Javin DeLaurier. But Barrett and Jones have been averaging over 30 minutes per game because backcourt depth is nonexistent (Jones only played six minutes against the Orange because of an injury that has sidelined him indefinitely).
Both guys played all 40 minutes against Florida State and combined for 78 out of a possible 80 minutes against Texas Tech. That's a lot to ask of freshmen.
And while Reddish clearly has the potential to become a go-to perimeter scorer, he has yet to string together more than two good shooting performances in a row. Can he be trusted to come through in the clutch in March?
2. Michigan Wolverines
If defense wins championships, Michigan has as good of a shot as anyone this year.
The Wolverines do an impeccable job of defending the perimeter without fouling, ranking top-five nationally in both defensive free-throw rate and defensive three-point attempt rate. Opponents average 4.9 made threes and 7.6 made free throws per game against Michigan, which adds up to just 22.3 points. Even snail-paced, defensively elite Virginia gives up 23.2 points on threes and free throws, so that's incredible.
And it's not like the Wolverines are bad at defending the paint either. They rank top-20 nationally in both defensive rebounding percentage and two-point field-goal defense. Jon Teske has unexpectedly become a force for them down low.
On offense, the Wolverines rarely commit turnovers, and they go through stretches in which they get hotter than the sun—like when they scored 50 first-half points against Northwestern on Sunday or 30 in the first 10 minutes against Indiana the weekend before that.
Consistently finding that scoring rhythm has been a bit of an issue, which stems from letting the least efficient scorer in the primary six-man rotation (Charles Matthews) take the highest volume of shots. But one could argue that it's because of Matthews' driving and willingness to shoot that the likes of Jordan Poole, Ignas Brazdeikis and Isaiah Livers are often open to drain three-pointers.
The bigger issue to consider is Michigan's lack of depth.
Livers is a Swiss army knife off the bench, able to play any position 2 through 5. But he is all the Wolverines have for reserves. Seventh man Eli Brooks can steal some minutes, giving Matthews or Zavier Simpson the occasional respite. However, his stat line from the past four games is 51 minutes, four points, four assists, five rebounds and four turnovers. He isn't a guy head coach John Beilein can turn to in case of emergency.
Fouls shouldn't be an issue, as no Wolverine has fouled out of a game yet this season. But it's rare for a national champion to bank on just six players for the entire tournament run.
1. Virginia Cavaliers
If you've already thrown in the towel on the boys who cried "Wahoowa," I probably won't be able to change your mind. Virginia checked all of the boxes last year as a Final Four-caliber team before promptly getting destroyed by No. 16-seeded UMBC in the first round.
After so many years of watching Virginia fail to back up its seeding, picking this program to win a single game is going to come with some trepidation—let alone picking the Cavaliers to reach the national championship.
But as far as this season is concerned, there might not be a team that better fits the anatomy of a champion.
Both Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy take care of the three-point assassin and multiple-year starter categories, and De'Andre Hunter can stroke it on occasion too. The undefeated Cavaliers have the lengthy winning streak checked off, and wins over Wisconsin, Maryland and Florida State all look great.
This is a top-five team in adjusted defensive efficiency, per usual, and it ranks top-25 in average turnover margin despite playing fewer possessions per game than every other team. The Cavaliers also have an impressive amount of depth, as eighth man Jay Huff was the MVP of Saturday's win over Clemson.
Virginia has everything we're looking for. And unlike last year, when the offense often felt like "Guy or Bust," UVA has three legitimate scoring weapons.
As a result, this team is top-10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, which was also the case when it reached the 2016 Elite Eight—its best tournament run under head coach Tony Bennett. This team is equipped to win it all, provided it is able to believe in itself after last year's debacle.