Buying or Selling Every Top 10 CBB Team as a Legit 2019 Title Contender
Slowly but steadily, the 2018-19 men's basketball season is nearing March Madness, the most important time of the year.
Teams in the Associated Press Top 10 rankings have showed they are upper-tier programs and have championship aspirations. But several of those top-rated schools won't end up making that run to the final.
Yes, the next few weeks may alter the perception of these teams. Injuries, in particular, have a nasty way of turning a title favorite into a next-tier contender, and conference tournaments can vault teams from being a doubt to a trendy pick.
These verdicts are based on how the roster stands right now while factoring in potential returns from injury.
Rankings reflect the most recent AP Top 25.
10. Michigan State Spartans
At full strength, Michigan State would be a popular Final Four pick. However, the Spartans are not at full strength―and can't be in 2018-19.
After losing 15-point-per-game scorer Joshua Langford to a season-ending left foot injury, MSU is now without Nick Ward. The veteran big man is dealing with a hairline fracture in his left hand, and there's no guarantee he returns for the NCAA tournament.
Those two absences account for 30.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game. Langford also averaged 2.2 three-pointers while converting at a 40.3 percent clip.
Tom Izzo has conjured up memorable March moments in the past, but the Spartans are too short-handed for magic this season.
9. Houston Cougars
Competition level is the obvious concern with Houston. That doesn't mean it's not a reasonable element to discuss.
Yes, the Cougars have defeated Oregon, LSU, Utah State and Cincinnati. That's an impressive group of victories for an American Athletic Conference team. It's notable all four matchups were at home. Houston won't have that luxury during March Madness.
Seven of Houston's 13 AAC games have featured margins of 10 points or fewer, and four were on the road. The typical drop in offensive efficiency on road/neutral courts is emerging as a glaring issue for a program with an average strength of schedule.
Houston has obvious upside with stifling defense and tremendous rebounding, but the Cougars are short of a championship-caliber team.
8. North Carolina Tar Heels
Defending the perimeter is one awful Achilles' heel for the Tar Heels. Four of UNC's five losses have coincided with the opponent connecting on 40-plus percent of long-range attempts.
But the Heels sure can score.
According to KenPom.com, North Carolina ranks seventh in adjusted offensive efficiency while running at the sixth-fastest tempo. The team's 38.6 three-point clip is 21st in the country, and ball movement―five players average multiple assists and the team has the third-most assists―is key to that success.
While the potential of an opponent catching fire is real, the Tar Heels have an offense built to overcome that anyway.
7. Michigan Wolverines
Doubt the Wolverines at your own peril; John Beilein engineered two stunning postseason runs in 2017 and 2018, reaching the Sweet Sixteen and the national championship game, respectively.
This season, Michigan has thrived on both ends of the floor despite a six- or seven-man rotation. Beilein's squad has committed the eighth-fewest fouls and third-fewest turnovers in the nation. The Wolverines do a great job limiting "free" points.
Perimeter defense is also essential to Michigan's success, and that strength is important when the Big Dance finally arrives. Last season, for example, U-M surrendered a paltry 27.5 three-point clip during its run to the final.
The ugly truth, though, is the Wolverines have encountered a rough stretch on offense since late January. Over the last nine games, they're averaging less than a point per possession.
Perhaps we should realize we've seen this movie before, but Michigan has much to prove as the regular season winds down.
Verdict: Tentative Sell
6. Nevada Wolf Pack
Experience does not mean everything. Nevertheless, Nevada's starting lineup only features fifth-year seniors.
For good measure, sixth man Jazz Johnson is a junior and backup guard Corey Henson is a senior. The only underclassman in the rotation is Jordan Brown, a 5-star freshman.
Since an abysmal trip to New Mexico on January 5, the Wolf Pack are 10-0 with a 22-point average margin of victory. That 27-point loss appears to have served as a much-needed wake-up call. They've allowed a meager 31.4 percent three-point rate during the stretch, too.
The level of competition will increase in March, yet with a roster this experienced and productive, Nevada has our attention.
5. Tennessee Volunteers
No program has ever reached the Final Four until it does. Your initial reaction understandably may be "Thanks, Captain Obvious."
History isn't a fan of Tennessee, however, and the 2018-19 team is inconsistent against top competition. The Vols knocked off Louisville and Gonzaga but lost to Kansas and got thumped by Kentucky. Those are the caliber of opponents UT must navigate several times in March to make a serious run at a championship.
Count us out.
Plus, this simply isn't a three-point shooting team. While relatively efficient as a unit (36.3 percent), the Vols have the 24th-lowest three-point attempt rate in the country. They've buried 10-plus triples only twice this season.
That weakness will catch up with Tennessee against better teams.
4. Kentucky Wildcats
We've stressed the value of three-point efficiency, and Kentucky is no better than average hitting from or defending the perimeter.
But UK's wins are difficult to ignore.
The Wildcats already boast seven victories over top-30 KenPom teams in Tennessee, North Carolina, Louisville, Kansas, Auburn, Mississippi State and Florida. That number could rise to 10 even before Kentucky reaches the SEC tournament.
As long as John Calipari's squad is healthy, UK has proved it's capable of defeating any tier of opponent below Duke. And if the bracket falls perfectly, the 'Cats might not encounter them until very late.
3. Virginia Cavaliers
Virginia is really, really good.
However, the trouble with having the nation's absolute slowest tempo (353th, per KenPom) is clear: A small sample size automatically leads to higher variance. And when the competition level rises, that shrinks the margin for error even more.
The promising note for Tony Bennett's club is that Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and DeAndre Hunter are exceptional from three-point range. Given the team's undeniable strength on defense, that combination could propel the Cavaliers through the second weekend.
But all an upset requires is one subpar performance offensively, and the limited number of possessions will doom the Wahoos. Five of their six NCAA tourney losses under Bennett have included fewer than 60 points, and the other was still just 62.
2. Gonzaga Bulldogs
This offense is outstanding.
Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke are both averaging 16-plus points while shooting above 60 percent. Zach Norvell, Josh Perkins―who averages 6.8 assists per game―and Corey Kispert each attempt at least 3.9 triples per game and convert at a combined 36.2.
Yes, part of that can be attributed to playing in a weak league, and Gonzaga lost at North Carolina and to Tennessee on a neutral court. Additionally, the Bulldogs are without versatile big man Killian Tillie due to a foot injury.
Tillie will be sidelined for the regular season, and his availability for the NCAA tournament is a question. With him, the Zags will be a contender. Without him, Gonzaga will be a popular pick to be upset.
Verdict: Tentative Buy
1. Duke Blue Devils
If a team is trailing a ranked opponent in that school's building by 23 points with 10 minutes remaining and rallies to win, that team is special.
Forget the names on the back of the jersey; what Duke accomplished at Louisville last week was spectacular. That type of resilience will only positively impact the Blue Devils in March. No matter if they're trailing, they'll believe a comeback is possible.
But it sure doesn't hurt to have Zion Williamson―the likely national player of the year―and RJ Barrett leading the way. They're both scoring at least 22 points per game, with potential lottery picks Cam Reddish and Tre Jones in supporting roles.
Plus, unlike last season, defense is not a problem for Duke. The 2018-19 squad ranks first nationally in blocks and fourth in steals. Opponents are also shooting a measly 29.7 percent from long distance.
The absence of a high-efficiency three-point shooter may be problematic, and if Duke loses, that's probably the category to check first. Still, the combination of pure talent and great defense makes Mike Krzyzewski's team the championship favorite.