The 10 CBB Teams Best Built for March Madness Dominance
As the calendar flips to a new year, wandering eyes are starting to peer at the 2021 NCAA men's basketball tournament.
Gonzaga and Baylor have established themselves as the class of the country, but several other programs look like national championship contenders. And in March Madness—a single-elimination format loved for its upsets—the ideal bracket or some helpful results can propel a top team toward becoming the top team.
However, that success all hinges on having the right roster.
The following teams, based on their health, performance and experience, are best positioned for a deep tournament run.
10. Illinois Fighting Illini
Dosunmu is the key facilitator with averages of 23.0 points and 5.0 assists, while Cockburn controls the post at 16.9 points and 9.9 rebounds per game. Illinois can also lean on Andre Curbelo, who has provided 9.7 points and 4.5 assists per contest off the bench.
Although the Illini don't attempt a bunch of threes, all of Dosunmu (42.1 percent), Trent Frazier (39.6) and Da'Monte Williams (67.9) are efficient. If high-volume shooter Adam Miller (34.0) can improve his rate, that's a major bonus for Illinois.
Two nagging problems are free-throw percentage (68.1 percent, 220th nationally) and turnover rate (16.5, 153rd). If seen simultaneously in March, that would be tough to overcome.
Still, the best-case scenario of Dosunmu and Cockburn leading a strong offensive team is appealing.
9. Creighton Bluejays
Creighton hasn't matched preseason expectations. But the Bluejays are 8-2, only losing to Kansas and Marquette. They clipped UConn, Xavier and Providence by a combined nine points recently as they continue to grind out wins.
You can argue either way on Creighton right now.
Depending on the night, lead guard Marcus Zegarowski might be fantastic or a cold shooter who commits too many turnovers. The offense doesn't look as smooth as usual, resulting in fewer assists, more turnovers and some tougher shots.
But again, the Jays keep winning. It certainly helps to have four quality long-range shooters in Zegarowski, Mitch Ballock, Denzel Mahoney and Damien Jefferson.
If Zegarowski finds some consistency and helps settle a talented roster, Creighton will be a respected team in March.
8. Iowa Hawkeyes
To the surprise of approximately nobody, Luka Garza has propelled a fantastic Iowa offense. The front-runner for National Player of the Year has netted 27.5 points per game with a scorching 62.5 field-goal percentage, including a 48.7 percent long-range mark.
The rotation is stacked with contributors, ranging from Joe Wieskamp's 14.5 points per game to CJ Fredrick's 10.9 points per game to Connor McCaffery's 4.1 assists per game.
Iowa's problem is on the opposite end.
Opponents shoot 35.6 from the perimeter (260th nationally) and grab offensive rebounds at the 25th-highest rate. Against the wrong opponent, that's a deadly combination.
However, there's no guarantee Iowa will encounter the perfectly wrong matchup in March. Garza and this offense, on the other hand, will be a challenge for most teams to contain.
7. Kansas Jayhawks
One month from now, Kansas may have a significantly different perception. It's still early enough to believe the Jayhawks can correct their shortcomings given the talent on the roster.
The list of concerns, though, is curiously long.
Kansas has a good group of perimeter players—Jalen Wilson, Ochai Agbaji, Marcus Garrett and Christian Braun—yet they've been unable to pair hot shooting with excellent defense. The potential is there, but saying that exists on paper is less important than seeing it on the court.
The Jayhawks also need to deal with limited frontcourt depth and a reserve unit that could be light on impact scorers.
Nevertheless, they're 8-2 and clawing out quality wins. The next month should reveal a lot more about Kansas.
6. Wisconsin Badgers
Wisconsin has an intriguing mix of efficient offense, tough defense and a slow tempo executed by an experienced roster.
All five starters—D'Mitrik Trice, Brad Davison, Aleem Ford, Nate Reuvers and Micah Potter—are seniors and averaging 10-plus points. They all shoot 39-plus percent from the perimeter except for Ford, who is a decent fifth option at 34.0 percent.
According to KenPom, the Badgers are a top-10 team on both ends of the court. Offensively, they're second in turnover percentage (11.2) and 11th in three-point percentage (41.4). And the defense is 24th in opponents' effective field-goal percentage (43.4).
The defensive excellence comes at a price, of course. Wisconsin is 274th in offensive rebounding rate, so it's paramount the Badgers create and take open shots.
So far, though, that's rarely been an issue.
5. Tennessee Volunteers
Tennessee is ready for a rock fight.
While playing at a slow tempo, the Vols have ceded a measly 37.0 opponents' field-goal percentage and just 55.0 points per game. They're atop the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom, largely thanks to Yves Pons, an ever-switchable weapon and the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
That defense can control a game against any opponent, though Tennessee is relying on it pretty heavily.
Other than Santiago Vescovi and maybe Josiah-Jordan James, the Vols lack efficient perimeter shooters. Victor Bailey Jr., given his volume, is an X-factor on the outside, but Tennessee is 320th in three-point attempt rate and 121st in conversion rate.
Yet if the Vols can merely avoid a miserable three-point night, the defense will typically provide a great chance to win.
4. Texas Longhorns
After smashing Kansas by 25 points on the road, Texas has affirmed itself as a serious threat this season.
The Longhorns have a trio of experienced guards in Matt Coleman III, Courtney Ramey and Andrew Jones who are each scoring 11.9-plus points per game. While it's not a perfect measurement, their collective assist average jumping from 8.2 last season to 10.5 helps show the team's improved ball movement, too.
But the focal point of this roster is defense, which is a product of three athletic bigs. Greg Brown, Kai Jones and Jericho Sims are all 6'9" or taller and capable of switching out to the perimeter. Texas has the country's fourth-best defense, per KenPom.
The Longhorns' downfall could be an ice-cold showing from the perimeter, especially since Andrew Jones (27.3 percent) and Brown (26.8) are high-volume shooters with low efficiency. If they're just average while Coleman (39.0) and Ramey (45.0) are off, that's an issue.
Like Tennessee, though, the Longhorns can lean on an elite defense to atone for some offensive struggles.
3. Villanova Wildcats
After an early overtime loss to Virginia Tech, Villanova has been steadily excellent. Jay Wright's team, as of now, looks like the top threat to Gonzaga and Baylor.
As usual, the offense leans on perimeter scoring. Four players attempt at least 4.9 threes per game, and both Collin Gillespie and Caleb Daniels convert them at 43.8 percent or better. Villanova is 36th nationally with a 58.8 true shooting percentage.
Led by Jeremiah Robinson-Earl at 16.2 points per game, four players are averaging 12.6-plus points. The Wildcats rank fourth in adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom.
Right now, the concern is positive coronavirus tests. Villanova hasn't played since Dec. 23 and won't through Jan. 13.
Once the 'Cats are healthy and can safely return to the court, they'll be a force in the Big East.
2. Baylor Bears
Baylor is often among the top-ranked defenses, and that's holding true in 2020-21 with KenPom's No. 6 unit. The enormous change this time around is the Bears' dynamic offense.
Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell, Adam Flagler and LJ Cryer are averaging four-plus three-point attempts and hitting 42.9 percent or better. MaCio Teague has buried 37.8 percent of his five triples per game, and Matthew Mayer has a 47.4 percent clip at 2.1 attempts per game. Baylor leads the country with a 43.8 three-point percentage.
Throw in Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, Flo Thamba and Mark Vital each snaring two-plus offensive rebounds per game and Baylor has an ideal modern offense. Shoot threes, make a bunch and grab the misses.
Plus, the Bears have forced the ninth-highest turnover rate in the country and allowed just 62.6 points per game.
Baylor's competition level will rise in Big 12 play, but the earliest returns are championship-worthy.
1. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Baylor has thrashed a softer schedule, but Gonzaga has stacked up terrific wins over Kansas, West Virginia, Iowa and Virginia.
With no hesitation, the Zags are the championship favorites.
Corey Kispert has scored a team-high 21.6 points per game, but Drew Timme is close behind at 18.4. Star freshman Jalen Suggs is averaging 13.9 points, 5.4 assists and 2.4 steals. They're the foundation of an incredibly deep roster.
Joel Ayayi would be the leader for "Glue Guy of the Year" if such an award existed and could be handed to someone providing 12.2 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.4 steals per game. Andrew Nembhard, Anton Watson and Aaron Cook highlight the rest of the rotation, which may see a few other contributors emerge in conference play.
Perimeter scoring and defending are slight—seriously, slight—concerns, but this offense is flat-out overwhelming.
All stats, unless otherwise indicated, courtesy of Sports Reference.