Buying or Selling Each AP Top 10 CBB Team as a National Championship Contender
Baylor and Gonzaga have jostled for the top spot in the men's college basketball AP poll for the past couple of weeks, but are we buying either of those teams as top candidates to win the 2020 NCAA tournament?
By this point in the season, we usually have a good sense of which teams do—and perhaps more importantly, which teams don't—have what it takes to win the Big Dance.
This year, though, there don't seem to be any best teams; there's just a large collection of squads that sometimes look elite and other times look like they could lose to a No. 16 seed on the wrong day.
But some teams still seem more trustworthy than others.
Before we dive in, allow me to clarify that if I'm selling a team, it doesn't mean I think that team stinks or that it has no hope of winning the title. This year, just about any entrant could win it all.
Rather, what I'm buying or selling is the likelihood that the team will be on the shortlist of favorites to win the national championship come Selection Sunday and whether it has the versatility to handle any style of play it might face during the six-game path to a title.
Teams are listed in ascending order of AP Top 25 ranking.
10. Seton Hall Pirates
We may never see another player take over the NCAA tournament quite like Kemba Walker did in 2011. But if anyone could pull it off, Seton Hall's Myles Powell might be the guy.
Powell's averages are a bit skewed by games against Stony Brook and Rutgers. He left the former after just four minutes because of an ankle injury and suffered a concussion in the first half of the latter game. Remove those two outliers and Powell is putting up 25.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.6 steals per contest.
And while Marquette's Markus Howard has been a similar one-man show in the Big East, Powell's team has been much better on defense. With either 7'2" Romaro Gill or 7'2" Ike Obiagu almost always on the court to protect the rim and four guards who average better than one steal per game, the Pirates give even great offenses trouble at times.
With everything clicking, Seton Hall has won eight straight, including five against Quadrant 1 competition. Last week's road win over previously 15-1 Butler was a major statement about this team's March potential.
Can the Pirates keep it rolling this time, though?
Seton Hall was either 11-3 or 12-2 after 14 games in each of the previous five seasons, but Big East play eventually dragged the Pirates down every year—some more so than others. If we split their seasons into the first 14 games and everything thereafter, they went 58-12 in the former and 46-50 in the latter, including a 1-4 record in the NCAA tournament.
I want to believe in this team because Powell is my favorite player to watch this year. But given how hard Seton Hall is riding him—only Howard takes a higher percentage of the team's shots while on the floor—it's fair to fear this might be another season in which the Pirates run out of gas well before the finish line.
9. Villanova Wildcats
Five weeks ago, I would've said there was no way Villanova could win it all.
On offense, the Wildcats are doing their usual thing, sharing the rock well, jacking up a bunch of three-pointers and hitting better than 35 percent of them. Save for the early loss to Ohio State that immediately got out of hand—the Buckeyes started the game on a 19-3 run and never looked back—Villanova had scored at least 78 points in each of its first 10 games. Given the Wildcats' slower-than-average pace of play, that was impressively efficient.
The problem was the defense.
In addition to getting stomped out of the gate in the 25-point loss to Ohio State, Villanova gave up 87 points in a 62-possession game against Baylor. Mississippi State scored 76 against the Wildcats. La Salle got to 72. They even allowed more than one point per possession in games against the not-great-on-offense Saint Joseph's and Delaware.
When they won the national championships in 2016 and 2018, there were a few defensive duds along the way, but they generally had a solid defense to go with an elite offense. Early this year, they were bringing an average defense to support a decent offense.
That's not a championship formula.
But in the past eight games—all against KenPom top-80 teams—Villanova has flipped the script on defense, allowing 63.0 points per contest. That includes wins over Kansas and Creighton in which the Wildcats held top 15 offenses (in adjusted offensive efficiency) to 55 and 59 points, respectively.
Opponents went from making 7.4 threes per game at a 35.1 percent clip to just 3.9 and 24.2 percent. If the Wildcats keep aggressively denying the deep ball like that, they can beat anyone.
8. Duke Blue Devils
Will Tre Jones show up in March, and will Vernon Carey Jr. stay out of foul trouble?
Answers to those questions would make it a lot easier to decide whether to buy or sell Duke.
Jones has been much more of a scoring threat than he was last season, but he couldn't get into any sort of rhythm in the two losses last week. He took 31 shots and only scored 29 points, in part because the free-throw line has been quite the adventure for him in ACC play (52.2 percent).
Combine the point guard's lackluster performance with Carey's 23 minutes against Louisville, a shrunken total because of foul trouble, and it's a small miracle that Duke had a chance toward the end of that one.
When Carey comes out, the Blue Devils are forced to go with either Matthew Hurt, Jack White or Javin DeLaurier at the 5. That's fine for short spurts, but those guys can't survive in that role for long. Hurt is a defensive liability, White is a bit undersized (listed at 6'7", 222 lbs), and any time both DeLaurier and Jordan Goldwire are on the floor, opponents only need to worry about guarding three scoring threats.
Despite those concerns, how could you not buy stock in Duke with the way Cassius Stanley has been playing this month?
Stanley played well early in the season when the Blue Devils were No. 1 in the AP poll, but a knee injury limited him throughout December, and he just started looking like himself again a few weeks ago. Once considered the team's third scorer behind Jones and Carey, Stanley is averaging 16.2 points per game in January, often featuring a dunk (or two) that makes one wonder if he's even more of a high-flying sensation than Zion Williamson was.
When Duke's Big Three shows up, it can beat anyone.
7. Dayton Flyers
For the third consecutive year, Dayton has one of the nation's best two-point offenses. The Flyers ranked second in two-point percentage in each of the past two seasons with a mark of 59.5. This year, they are No. 1 at a 61.6 percent clip. The next-closest team isn't even at 57 percent.
Dunk machine and National Player of the Year candidate Obi Toppin is at the forefront of that interior assault, making 68.9 percent of his two-point attempts. But Trey Landers (68.1 percent) and Ryan Mikesell (65.8 percent) are almost as efficient—albeit with much lower usage ratings.
Unlike the past two years, though, Dayton is also an above-average three-point shooting team, connecting on 37.2 percent of its tries from deep. All five starters shoot better than 31 percent and average more than two attempts per game. Sixth man Ibi Watson has been lethal off the bench, shooting 47.3 percent.
As a result, the Flyers lead the nation in effective field-goal percentage and rank second in adjusted offensive efficiency. It's hard to imagine this team will bow out of the NCAA tournament before the Sweet 16.
Does Dayton have the chops and defense to consistently beat the big boys in the latter stages of the tournament, though?
The Flyers took both Kansas and Colorado to overtime on neutral courts, but they couldn't win either game. Their best victories were neutral-site wins over Saint Mary's and Virginia Tech, which are, by far, the least impressive best wins by a Top 10 team. Aside from arguably the road game against VCU next month, nothing left on Dayton's schedule will come anywhere close to supplanting those two victories.
That doesn't mean the Flyers are incapable of beating a Final Four-caliber team, but it does mean I'm unwilling to bet they'll do so four times in the span of about 10 days, which is what it takes to win the whole shebang.
6. Louisville Cardinals
It's funny how one game can completely change how we feel about a team's potential.
Before winning at Duke this past weekend, Louisville was mired in quite the five-game slump. It started with back-to-back losses to Kentucky and Florida State. The subsequent 74-58 win over Miami looks all right at first glance, but that was a five-point game in the final five minutes, at home against arguably the third-worst team in the ACC. The Cardinals followed that mediocre effort with road games against Notre Dame and Pittsburgh, trailing by multiple scores in the final five minutes of each one before eking out victories.
But then they went into Cameron Indoor, shot 50 percent from three-point range, held Duke to 6-of-25 shooting from beyond the arc and shattered their previous season high with 13 steals in a 79-73 victory.
In an instant, everyone was ready, willing and able to forget about the struggles Louisville had leading up to that game.
What happens when the Cardinals don't dominate the three-point battle, though?
No matter how good your regular-season three-point defense might be, you're going to run into a red-hot team or four in the NCAA tournament. Just last year, Virginia held opponents to 27.3 percent shooting from three-point range during the regular season, and then it allowed 36.2 percent during the tournament, including Purdue, which went 14-of-32 in the Elite Eight.
In the aforementioned losses to Kentucky and Florida State, those opponents shot a combined 18-of-38 (47.4 percent) from downtown.
And before that turnover-fueled performance against Duke, Louisville's only win over a projected NCAA tournament team was the home game against Michigan in the ACC/B1G Challenge—which came at a brutal point in the Wolverines' schedule, just a few days after they had to play Iowa State, North Carolina and Gonzaga in the span of 52 hours in a ballroom in the Bahamas.
I'll likely have a change of heart if Louisville plows through the next month as it should. (The road game against NC State on Feb. 1 figures to be the only legitimate challenge for a while.) For now, though, other teams in the Top 10 look like safer bets.
5. Florida State Seminoles
This is the highest the Seminoles have been ranked since December 1972, but they've earned it. They have won 16 of their last 17 games—a stretch that began with a 12-point road win over then-No. 6 Florida, and which includes a 13-point road win over then-No. 7 Louisville.
This run has been fueled on the defensive end. Florida State is averaging 10.8 steals over its last 15 games, and it is also one of the best shot-blocking teams in the country.
Let's be sure to emphasize "team" there too. While most of the leaders in block percentage have one big man swatting away at least two shots per game, it's a group effort for the Seminoles, who have five players with at least 10 blocks. Even if you can manage to avoid turning the ball over on 20 percent of possessions, getting up clean shots against this defense is so tough because the rejections come from everywhere.
The points also come from everywhere, as the 'Noles have eight players who average from 5.7 to 13.2 points per game. With that many options, it's impossible to stop them all.
So if you want to buy stock in this team because of that diversification on offense, the momentum-shifting defense and the aforementioned quality wins, that's understandable.
However, we've been down this road with this team too many times, and it never ends in the Final Four.
The sheer volume of steals is a new wrinkle that perhaps makes a difference, but the idea that Florida State can thrive with great athletes, rim protection and no true go-to scorer is hardly a new one.
In both 2009 and 2019, the Seminoles punctuated a solid year by upsetting the No. 1 team in the semifinals of the ACC tournament, but they couldn't make a deep run either year. In 2012, they had two wins each over Duke and North Carolina, won the ACC tournament, earned a No. 3 seed and lost in the second round. They also earned a No. 3 seed in 2017 and got smoked by Xavier in the second round.
Maybe like Virginia last season, this will be the year Florida State breaks through and ends the stigma that its style of play doesn't work as well in the tournament as it does in the regular season. But it's more likely the Seminoles' Final Four drought extends to 48 years.
4. San Diego State Aztecs
San Diego State (20-0) is the only undefeated team left in men's college hoops, and these Aztecs are no joke.
All but two of their wins—a five-point game at BYU and a bizarre two-point game at home against San Jose State—have been decided by at least nine points. They have also held every opponent to 73 points or fewer.
There were some legitimate challenges in the mix too. In addition to the game at BYU, San Diego State beat Creighton and Iowa on back-to-back nights in Las Vegas and won games away from home against Utah and Utah State.
Malachi Flynn is a National Player of the Year candidate, and he has a supporting cast every bit as good as the one Kawhi Leonard carried to a 34-3 record in 2010-11.
Earlier in January, I wrote a column about San Diego State's real chance of going undefeated.
But one thing I intentionally omitted from the column was that as far as Mountain West Conference history is concerned, you'd have to be out of your mind to think anyone from this league could win a national championship.
Since its inception in the 1999-2000 season, the MWC has sent 49 teams to the NCAA tournament. Not one has made it to the Elite Eight, and 33 of them were eliminated in their first game. Even though it is often a multi-bid league, it has been woefully unable to figure out how to win in March.
The Big Ten (2000, Michigan State) and Pac-12 (1997, Arizona) have had championship droughts roughly that long, too, but at least those conferences have put quite a few teams into the Final Four during those two decades. It's probably unfair to cast doubts on this San Diego State team because of the conference's consistent failures, but it's a concerning factoid all the same.
3. Kansas Jayhawks
If you have placed (or tentatively plan to place) a bet on Kansas to win it all, two terrifying factors are in play: free-throw shooting and occasional turnover woes.
The latter isn't as much of a concern as it seemed to be in the Champions Classic, when Duke's aggressive perimeter defense forced 28 Kansas turnovers. But that carelessness has flared up often enough to make one worry it might rear its ugly head in the tournament. In addition, the Jayhawks committed at least 20 turnovers against both Colorado and Stanford.
The free throws are the bigger issue, because it makes Kansas' most impactful player (Udoka Azubuike) virtually unplayable in the latter stages of close games. At some point, the career 39.8 percent free-throw shooter will either be forced to shoot free throws on every possession or forced to the bench because he's leaving too many points at the charity stripe.
In spite of those potential problems, Kansas has felt like the semi-favorite to win it all throughout the first 2.5 months of this wild season. The Jayhawks seem to lose to a quality opponent just as soon as we're ready to anoint them as the clear team to beat, but they never fall far and keep bouncing back.
That all starts with the consistently solid play of point guard Devon Dotson. Save for the Jan. 11 loss to Baylor in which he suffered a hip-pointer injury and wasn't quite himself, Dotson has scored at least 13 points in every game, and he usually has multiple assists and multiple steals. He is the steadying force for this team that Frank Mason III and Devonte' Graham were in recent years.
Defense is also a huge part of it, as the Jayhawks are neck-and-neck with Virginia for the title of most efficient D.
Eight of Kansas' last nine opponents have been held to 60 points or fewer, and the Maui Invitational championship against Dayton—which shot a blistering 16-of-33 from three-point range—was the only time a team has put up more than 68 on KU. That type of night-in, night-out effort on defense bodes well.
2. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Gonzaga is in great shape to get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but this team isn't anywhere near as good as it was last year or three years ago.
Not that there's anything wrong or disqualifying about the current score. Connecticut was below 24 in both 2011 and 2014 when it won it all. But it's worth noting that this defense is not as good as we've grown accustomed to seeing.
Gonzaga is 37th in adjusted defensive efficiency, which would be its worst rank since it finished 44th in 2010-11.
We'd be willing to write off the 82-64 loss to Michigan as an outlier if it had been the only poor performance, especially considering the Wolverines were hotter than the sun at that point. But Gonzaga also gave up 80 and 81 to Arizona and Cole Anthony-less North Carolina, respectively, and allowed Washington to shoot 50.9 percent from the field.
West Coast Conference play is starting to skew the numbers back in Gonzaga's favor. The Bulldogs have beaten their past four opponents by a combined score of 377-235, limiting them to 78.1 points per 100 possessions.
But aside from the home game against a BYU team that was playing without its star (Yoeli Childs), those opponents are a far cry from what Gonzaga will face after the first round of the NCAA tournament.
This offense is arguably the nation's best, but there's a reason no team in the KenPom era (since 2001-02) has won it all with a defense ranked outside the top 20. The three games in February against Saint Mary's (two) and BYU might change the narrative, but investing in this defense is a frightening proposition.
1. Baylor Bears
Perhaps the biggest testament to how weird this season has been is that it's late January and we're still not sure if the No. 1 team is all that good.
I mean no disrespect to Baylor. This is an outstanding defensive squad that owns the offensive glass and consistently finds ways to win in spite of its frequent shooting woes. The Bears already have five victories over KenPom top-25 teams, including the back-to-back road victories against Texas Tech and Kansas earlier this month, which put them on the radar for first-place votes.
But as far as star power and championship odds are concerned, this isn't the Zion Williamson-led Blue Devils that spent all of last season ranked in the AP Top Five, nor is it the unguardable Villanova team that started out 22-1 before winning the 2018 title.
Rather, Baylor is a less aggressive version of Press Virginia at its peak. Heck, as of Tuesday night, Baylor's adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency ranks on KenPom—26th and fourth, respectively—were the same as West Virginia's from the 2016-17 season. Baylor doesn't force as many turnovers, but it also doesn't commit nearly as many fouls and does a better job of forcing bad shots.
That said, for a few years there, it felt like Jevon Carter could've led the Mountaineers to a national championship. And Texas Tech was one bad call away from winning it all last year with an elite defense and an oftentimes mediocre offense.
That formula has worked in the past, and it may well be the most reliable formula in a season when even the best offenses have had a few serious duds. The old adage is that defense wins championships, and Scott Drew's switch from zone to man-to-man might be what gets Baylor to the Final Four for the first time since 1950.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.