The 10 CBB Teams Best Built for March Madness Dominance
Although conference action will sharpen the perception of the best men's college basketball teams, the 2019-20 season has a relatively clear group of top contenders.
The upset-filled start has created more uncertainty than usual but has also exposed teams without the optimal depth, shooting or playmaking skills of a typical championship squad. Though a few of these title-worthy groups have encountered rough moments, they have a roster built to succeed in March.
It's true that having a talented group guarantees nothing about the future. That lesson is evident every season.
But it sure is advantageous to have a strong foundation with elite defense, veterans in the backcourt, a terrific three-point shooter and a handful of quality wins. That, and just plain talent.
San Diego State Aztecs
Why not the Aztecs?
San Diego State has enjoyed a 16-0 start with Washington State transfer Malachi Flynn leading the way. He's averaging 16.1 points, 4.9 assists and 1.7 steals per game, and the Aztecs have three other double-digit scorers.
But the roster also checks several of the boxes that are important for deep tournament runs.
SDSU has four Quadrant 1 wins and recently upended Utah State—the likely top MWC competition—on the road. Flynn, Matt Mitchell, Jordan Schakel and Adam Seiko all have a 39-plus three-point clip and have attempted multiple threes per game. KJ Feagin and Trey Pulliam also averaged at least 2.5 assists.
The Aztecs won a few marquee nonconference games and have a star scorer alongside a well-rounded shooting team and multiple playmakers. That, both on paper and the court, has looked great.
Standout freshmen are valuable, but this Butler rotation is almost entirely composed of upperclassmen.
Kamar Baldwin is averaging 14.7 points and 2.9 assists per game, while fellow senior Sean McDermott has averaged 11.8 points with a torrid 44.7 three-point mark. Junior guard Aaron Thompson has a team-high 5.3 assists per game, and classmates Bryce Nze and Jordan Tucker have combined for 18.3 points and 10.5 rebounds.
That experience, along with sophomore starter Bryce Golden, is an important reason for Butler's defensive prowess.
The Bulldogs rank fifth nationally on that end, per KenPom.com. They've ceded the ninth-lowest three-point clip, 10th-lowest effective field-goal percentage and 14th-lowest percentage of offensive rebounds. They force tough shots and limit second chances.
And the result is a highly encouraging 14-1 start.
This version of the Auburn roster isn't as flashy as last season's Final Four group, but a stronger defense has propelled the Tigers to a 14-0 start anyway.
Austin Wiley has developed into a dominant rebounder and superb shot-blocking presence, and the 6'11" center is an important piece of the offense. Plus, all five starters and sixth man Anfernee McLemore are averaging at least 3.9 rebounds per game.
And if you like seniors, Auburn is your team.
Five of the Tigers' top six players are seniors, and freshman Isaac Okoro is the second-leading scorer.
Auburn's main weakness is a quiet reserve group. But if Jamal Johnson continues to hit threes at a great clip (42.9 percent) and guard Devan Cambridge offers a bit more production, the Tigers should be a confident, veteran-led team heading into March.
Baylor holds a 12-1 record yet hasn't showed its highest potential. That will only happen if big man Tristan Clark regains his previous form.
Last season, Clark scored 14.6 points on a 73.7 percent field-goal clip and swatted 2.4 blocks per game before a knee injury ended his year. He's managed nine appearances in 2019-20, offering underwhelming averages of 4.6 points and 2.4 rebounds.
But if he's healthy, Baylor can be outstanding.
Freddie Gillespie has filled the frontcourt spot admirably, allowing a versatile group of guards to shine. Jared Butler, MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell headline the offense, while Mark Vital is a terrific defender and Devonte Bandoo is a superb three-point shooter.
Although Baylor is prone to cold offensive streaks, defense has atoned for that problem. Perhaps as Clark returns to health, his presence will reduce how often those stretches appear.
Oregon is somehow incapable of beating Colorado on the road, falling to 0-9 in Boulder after a 74-65 loss to begin Pac-12 play. Good thing the NCAA tournament doesn't travel there, right?
The Ducks have otherwise enjoyed an admirable start behind National Player of the Year candidate Payton Pritchard. After an inefficient junior year, he's shooting just under 50 percent from the field with a 37.4 percent long-range clip.
Oregon's 39.2 three-point percentage is a top-25 mark in the country. Will Richardson and Anthony Mathis are terrific from the outside, and No. 2 scorer Chris Duarte is capable of catching fire.
If 5-star freshman N'Faly Dante can find a comfortable role, he'll offer a boost to the frontcourt that leaned heavily on Francis Okoro to begin the year.
In a season without an overwhelmingly strong team, overall talent might be enough to propel the Wildcats.
Is it likely? No. Plausible? Yes. Kentucky, after all, has victories over Michigan State and Louisville despite an inconsistent year.
Ashton Hagans is a reliable passer and Nick Richards is usually a good rebounder, but they'll have quiet scoring nights. Tyrese Maxey may score five points or 25, while both Immanuel Quickley and EJ Montgomery could have two or 22. Freshmen forwards Keion Brooks Jr. and Kahlil Whitney are irregular scorers too.
But, my word, that's so much talent. John Calipari has two months to develop these players—and maybe somebody will start hitting threes for the perimeter-troubled team.
Rule out the 'Cats in January at your own risk.
Michigan State Spartans
Michigan State's shaky opening to the campaign doesn't change the perception of a championship-worthy roster.
And, most importantly, the Spartans are starting to flourish.
While navigating an unsteady road to 8-3, they averaged 78.8 points with a 32.2 three-point clip and 46.2 mark overall. Since then, however, MSU has raised its scoring average by nearly 10 points while hitting closer to 40 percent of its threes during five wins.
Cassius Winston, the team's engine, has contributed 19.4 points and 6.3 assists per game. Xavier Tillman is averaging a double-double in points and rebounds, and both Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown have made important second-year strides.
Henry, Brown and the reserves' continued growth into larger roles is vital to MSU's long-term success, but Winston's presence will always give the Spartans a chance.
Despite having played nine Quadrant 1 or 2 opponents already, Kansas still sits in the early stage of Big 12 action with a 12-2 record.
Much of the credit belongs to Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike.
Dotson leads the team with 18.6 points, 4.5 assists and 2.4 steals per game, and Azubuike has turned in 13.1 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per contest. They're the driving forces of a roster that has excelled on the defensive end.
Junior guard Marcus Garrett's effectiveness and versatility are pivotal to Kansas' having the country's second-best defense, per KenPom.
Kansas has a problem with turnovers and is hoping for a reserve—mostly Isaiah Moss or Christian Braun—to emerge as a consistent scorer. But the Jayhawks are off to a promising start.
Led by Filip Petrusev at 16.6 points per game, Gonzaga has seven players who average nine-plus points. The 17-1 Bulldogs lead the country in scoring and assists, and they're 19th in three-point rate.
It's pretty obvious why they're here, right?
Sure, Gonzaga has shortcomings. The team ranks 300th nationally with a 65.6 free-throw percentage, and all four matchups with Quadrant 1 opponents ended in a tight victory or loss. That's not extremely encouraging when considering a six-game run through the NCAA tournament.
But between Petrusev, Corey Kispert and Killian Tillie, the Zags have high-ceiling scorers. Ryan Woolridge and Joel Ajayi are both averaging at least 3.9 assists, and Drew Timme and Admon Gilder are valuable complementary pieces.
Gonzaga has the talent to make a championship run.
Duke Blue Devils
Star power isn't an issue for Duke, which has a half-dozen top-40 prospects from the last two recruiting cycles. The young roster toppled Kansas on a neutral site and Michigan State on the road with only an upset loss to Stephen F. Austin as a blemish.
One bad night shouldn't be held against the Blue Devils.
Vernon Carey Jr. is the nation's standout freshman, providing 18.1 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game. Sophomore guard Tre Jones has adapted nicely to a featured role with averages of 14.3 points, 7.2 assists and 2.2 steals.
Matthew Hurt and Cassius Stanley have settled into the starting lineup as double-digit scorers, and Joey Baker is shooting 41.5 percent from three. Plus, though freshman Wendell Moore Jr. (hand) is listed as out indefinitely, he's expected to return this season, per Steve Wiseman of the News & Observer.
Throw in four juniors and seniors in the rotation, and 14-1 Duke has a deep roster that is thriving on both ends of the court.