There is no dominant team in college basketball. Or so the vast majority of commentary and analysis throughout the 2018 season would have you believe. Some used the word “parity.” Others used “chaos” to describe dizzying weeks of upsets suffered by the sport’s bluebloods.
And heading into the 2018 NCAA tournament, that sentiment largely holds, at least in that there is no runaway favorite. There are at least six very legitimate title contenders. They, along with dozens of other Final Four hopefuls, are the teams you’ll read about below, ranked 1-68, and placed into eight distinct tiers.
But there is one that has stood above the rest.
There is one that, if its jerseys read “Duke” or “North Carolina” or “Kansas” or “Michigan State,” would absolutely be considered college basketball’s dominant team. One that went 31-2 while none of its peers managed fewer than four losses. One that triumphed at Cameron Indoor Stadium and twice over the defending national champs. One that won a demanding ACC by four games, the first to do so since 2000 Duke.
This is a team that, statistically, compares favorably to the top-ranked team in college basketball from three of the previous four seasons, and pales only to one that had Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Willie Cauley-Stein and the Harrison twins. One that had John Calipari, and an undefeated record until the Final Four.
This is the team that leads our 1-68 list, which is ordered not based on talent, and not based on regular season performance, but rather based on chances to cut down nets in San Antonio on April 2. The team most likely to do that is Virginia.
TIER 1: THE FAVORITES
1. Virginia (1)
Leave your preconceptions stemming from past NCAA tournament shortcomings at the door. Leave your misconceptions equating slow basketball to inept offense there as well. Virginia plays at a snail’s pace for two reasons: 1. It works for the shots that fuel its deceivingly efficient offense, and 2. opponents spend full shot clocks searching for those same shots against the Cavaliers, and more often than not come up empty.
Statistically, Virginia has the second-best defense of the past 17 years in college basketball, just 0.002 adjusted points per possession behind Calipari’s Memphis. It has added turnover-forcing to its already stocked defensive arsenal. As a result, Tony Bennett’s pack-line defense is as suffocating as ever. And there’s nothing to suggest it won’t continue to be. The Cavs played 16 games against NCAA tournament teams this season, and held 12 of 16 opponents – including Duke, North Carolina and Clemson twice – under a point per possession.
So no, they haven’t been to a Final Four since 1984, and no, their roster isn’t overflowing with NBA lottery picks. So what? The ACC regular-season and tournament champs are damn tough to score against, and damn tough to beat.
2. Villanova (1)
Jay Wright just keeps churning out contenders. It’s remarkable. Villanova has claimed a top-two seed five years in a row now, and hopefully killed off the “can’t win in March” narrative two years ago with an unforgettable title run.
The consistency is extraordinary, and perhaps the best emblem of Wright’s role in it is the cyclical succession of upperclassmen stars. Josh Hart, a role player as a freshman, took the mantle from Darrun Hilliard and then Ryan Arcidiacono. Hart has now passed it off to Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges, who themselves were secondary or tertiary options on the national championship team.
Now they’re the catalysts for what at one point this season was a historically prolific offense. That offense has wobbled at times during conference play, against opponents familiar with Wright’s schemes and personnel. But, led by Brunson and Bridges, and supplemented by the likes of Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman, it’s more capable of six consecutive explosions than any other in college basketball.
3. Duke (2)
The starting five – Trevon Duval, Grayson Allen, Gary Trent Jr., Wendell Carter and Marvin Bagley – could all be first-round NBA draft picks in three months. When they’re clicking, they’re the nation’s best.
But they’re irritatingly unpredictable. The lone senior among them, Allen (ever heard of him?), embodies that. He’s gone for 20-plus points 10 times this season, but has also been held to single digits on eight occasions. His volatility is well documented. And Duke’s zone – Mike Krzyzewski’s cure for an ailing defense – is an improvement but still imperfect. The Blue Devils, therefore, have the widest range of possible outcomes in this three-team top tier.
TIER 2: THE TRUE CONTENDERS
4. Michigan State (3)
The Spartans have all the ingredients of a Final Four team, and perhaps an eventual national champion. They have the Hall of Fame coach (Tom Izzo) and the savvy facilitating point guard (Cassius Winston). They have the bully down low (Nick Ward) and floor-stretchers aplenty. They have the lottery pick (Jaren Jackson) and the lottery pick who came back for a second go-around (Miles Bridges). So what don’t they have?
Two things. One is a track record. A 2-4 record in just six games against NCAA tournament teams is the main source of skepticism. The Spartans could prove that skepticism to be unfounded. But it’s legitimate.
The other is a top-two seed. As a result, the Spartans will likely have to go through the team directly above them on this list and the one directly below them just to get to San Antonio.
5. Kansas (1)
The Jayhawks were Final Four-caliber each of the past two seasons, but were out-dueled by the eventual national champions in 2016, then by scorching-hot Oregon in 2017. This year’s team might actually be a small step behind those two top-seeded squads, but is absolutely capable of doing what they couldn’t. Devonte’ Graham might be the most accomplished player in college hoops. Svi Mykhailiuk, the 20-year-old senior shooting over 45 percent from deep, has had his long-awaited breakout. Udoka Azubuike is a menace around the rim at both ends. And the “Bill Self, choke artist” narrative is worn out.
6. North Carolina (2)
Carolina won the 2017 title primarily on the backs of four big men, only one of whom attempted a 3-pointer all season. The other three departed Chapel Hill with strands of nylon in their caps. The result? Roles on Tobacco Road have been reversed – kind of.
While Coach K and Duke have gone to a double-big starting lineup for the first time since 2013, Roy Williams is legitimately playing stretch-fours, and even stretch-fives! The Tar Heels are shooting more 3s than ever before under Williams (by a wide margin), and former walk-on-turned-Elite Eight hero Luke Maye has been their best player.
They’re still more interior-oriented than the average Division I team, and their front-court depth is one of their distinguishing strengths. But their newfound balance – and two wins over Duke for the first time since 2009 – make them a very intriguing candidate for a repeat.
TIER 3: THE WILD CARDS
7. Arizona (4)
Seriously, the Wildcats have been pretty ordinary in a worse-than-ordinary Pac-12. Yes, they won the conference – regular season and postseason – but they struggled with opponents they shouldn’t have been struggling with. They lost to some as well. They’re flawed, especially on the defensive end. And in their one game against a team expected to progress to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament – vs. Purdue on a neutral floor – they lost by 25.
However … with all of that being said … Ayton is playing the most monstrous, fear-inducing basketball of his life. The realization had to set in for prospective opponents watching the Pac-12 tourney from afar: Holy s—. How do we stop this guy? And even beyond Ayton, Arizona’s starting five is one of the country’s best.
Perhaps they just got tired of the Pac-12 mediocrity storyline. Perhaps the allegations against head coach Sean Miller woke them up. Perhaps, after years of coming up short as a favorite, the Wildcats could finally get Miller to his first Final Four as an underdog.
8. Kentucky (5)
Who’d have thought that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – the one relatively unheralded four-star recruit on a roster stacked with five-stars – would be Kentucky’s saving grace? The 6-foot-6 combo guard kept a raw, inexperienced team afloat for much of the season, then led the Wildcats to the SEC tournament title this past weekend. They’ve won seven of eight, and Gilgeous-Alexander might have already played himself into the lottery.
The other side of his brilliance, though? Part of it has come out of necessity. Many of his more highly touted classmates have underperformed, and that’s why Kentucky isn’t anywhere close to the top-five team it was in the preseason. Or at least it hasn’t been … until now?
Calipari’s crew was awesome at the SEC tournament in St. Louis, and there aren’t many reasons it can’t continue to be. That’s why it, along with Arizona, remains a wild card. These two teams aren’t better than Michigan or Purdue. But they have more upside.
TIER 4: THE FRINGE CONTENDERS
9. Michigan (3)
There was no near-death experience this year. There was, though, another Big Ten tournament title run that seemed to foretell of more March success. And while the Wolverines no longer have their late-clock assassin, Derrick Walton, they have by far their best defense of the John Beilein era.
10. Purdue (2)
The Boilermakers’ inside-outside attack, with five 3-point marksmen (all 39 percent or better) around 7-foot-2 giant Isaac Haas, fluctuates between unstoppable and maddeningly impotent. It’s far more often the former, though, and breakout star Carsen Edwards gives Purdue a perimeter dynamic it lacked last year.
11. Xavier (1)
Easily the most vulnerable of the No. 1 seeds. Behind Trevon Bluiett, Xavier has rotation depth, but not the top-end quality of, say, Kansas or Michigan State. It won just one game against a top-six seed all season, and might be an underdog against Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 if that matchup materializes. Speaking of which …
12. Gonzaga (4)
A four-loss, fourth-seeded Gonzaga team previously would have been viewed with skepticism – as unproven, perhaps overrated, maybe even fraudulent. After last year’s legitimizing NCAA tournament run – and even despite losing four of their top six players from that squad – the Zags are once again a Final Four threat.
13. Cincinnati (2)
14. West Virginia (5)
15. Wichita State (4)
This was supposed to be Gregg Marshall’s best, or at least second-best team at Wichita State. It turned out to be perhaps his worst of the last seven years. But that doesn’t mean the Shockers can’t live up to their name. They or West Virginia could be a very tough out for Villanova in the Sweet 16.
16. Tennessee (3)
17. Texas Tech (3)
TIER 5: THE LONG SHOTS
18. Ohio State (5)
19. Florida (6)
Swept Kentucky. Lost to Vandy. Beat Gonzaga, Cincinnati and very nearly Duke. Lost to Ole Miss. This Florida team can seem Jekyll-and-Hyde-y – which isn’t the worst thing if you’re looking for a surprise Elite Eight pick, but a potential first-round matchup with UCLA looks a lot like a toss-up.
20. Houston (6)
21. Clemson (5)
It’s not as if Donte Grantham’s ACL tear torpedoed their season, but the Tigers are no longer a threat to win more than two games without their second-leading scorer.
22. Miami (6)
Advanced stats and bookies aren’t too enthusiastic, but anybody who watched Miami over the final two weeks of the regular season is. The first-round matchup is admittedly tricky – more on that later – but if nothing else, pick the Hurricanes so you can root for delightful 5-foot-7 freshman guard Chris Lykes.
23. Auburn (4)
Auburn and its draw are emblematic of why it’d be unwise to cram your bracket with upsets. It’s the weakest of the top-four seeds by some margin, but, as you’ll see, it was blessed with a 13-seed that grades out worse than one 16-seed. That’s just how things seemed to work out this year, the vulnerable against the harmless, the armed underdogs against the armored giants.
TIER 6: THE VERY LONG SHOTS
24. TCU (6)
25. Texas A&M (7)
26. Missouri (8)
The Tigers aren’t the 26th best team in the country – not even with a half-fit Michael Porter Jr. But hey, there’s a non-zero chance Porter morphs into the second-coming of Kevin Durant in time for Friday night. After all, he’s only played 25 minutes all season. The unknown tied to his health, but also to his ability, makes Mizzou’s tourney campaign all kinds of unpredictable.
27. NC State (9)
28. Virginia Tech (8)
29. Creighton (8)
30. Butler (10)
31. Seton Hall (8)
There’s almost no separation between these three Big East teams. They won 10 games apiece in conference play, tournament included. They’re No. 27, 25 and 26 in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. They’re all slight favorites to win in the first round, but none has the firepower to do much thereafter.
32. Nevada (7)
33. Rhode Island (7)
The Rams aren’t playing particularly good basketball right now. But a friend sent me a text back in early January, more than two months before the bracket was revealed, saying he “liked Rhody to upset Duke in the tournament.” And, well …
34. UCLA (11)
35. Davidson (12)
America, meet the new Cinderella. Same as the old Cinderella.
36. Texas (10)
37. Syracuse (11)
The Orange aren’t good. Seriously, they’re one of the worst at-large teams in the field. They’re an underdog against reeling Arizona State at the First Four. But we’ve seen this movie before, haven’t we?
38. Kansas State (9)
39. Alabama (9)
Collin Sexton turned into Russell Westbrook for one breathtaking coast-to-coast sprint to beat Texas A&M, then for a stunning 28-3 early second-half run to topple top-seeded Auburn. If not for him? Alabama would enter the tournament – the National Invitational Tournament, that is – having not won since Feb. 13.
TIER 7: NOPE, NOT HAPPENING
40. Arkansas (7)
41. Providence (10)
Impossible to know if a rip-roaring (and pants-ripping) Big East tournament tear, in which it took down Xavier and very nearly Villanova, was a sign of things to come or an outlier in an otherwise pedestrian season.
42. Florida State (9)
43. Loyola-Chicago (11)
The Ramblers’ four-around-one offense, which runs through slick-passing freshman big Cameron Krutwig in the high post, could give opponents fits. It and an energetic, fundamentally sound defense are why Loyola leads our list of five potential Cinderellas. There’s a reason the point spread in that Miami matchup is just 2.5. [Insert eyes emoji here]
44. St. Bonaventure (11)
45. San Diego State (11)
46. New Mexico State (12)
Jemerrio Jones is, statistically, the best rebounder in the country. He’s also 6-foot-5.
47. Murray State (12)
48. Arizona State (11)
49. Oklahoma (10)
Trae Young is a very good basketball player. This is not a commentary on him. But his teammates? The less said, the better. The Sooners haven’t won away from home in 2018.
50. UNC Greensboro (13)
The Spartans are led by seventh-year head coach Wes Miller – yes, the same Wes Miller who played under Roy Williams at North Carolina. And yes, that should make you feel old if you have fond memories.
51. South Dakota State (12)
Mid-major legend Mike Daum has a bit more around him this year. He also still takes over 36 percent of his team’s shots when he’s on the court. But nobody has a problem with that, because he makes 43 percent of the ones he takes from beyond the arc.
TIER 8: DEFINITELY NOT
52. Buffalo (13)
53. Marshall (13)
54. Stephen F. Austin (14)
The Lumberjacks still wreak defensive havoc, turning opponents over on more than a quarter of their possessions, but they don’t quite have the giant-killing capabilities that Brad Underwood’s teams had.
55. Montana (14)
56. Georgia State (15)
57. Bucknell (14)
58. Penn (16)
If too many people talk about it, it won’t happen. So keep your mouth shut.
(What’s “it”? Hint)
59. Charleston (13)
TIER 9: ABSOLUTELY NOT
60. Lipscomb (15)
61. Wright State (14)
62. Iona (15)
63. Cal State Fullerton (15)
64. Radford (16)
65. UMBC (16)
66. LIU Brooklyn (16)
67. Texas Sothern (16)
68. North Carolina Central (16)
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