By Mark Paulette,
In a season where top-10 teams fell at historic rates, the next three weeks in March could prove to be madder than ever. Whether you’re aiming for a million-dollar bracket or office bragging rights, here are the 13 teams you should highlight while whittling the field of 68 down to one.
The likely champions…
- Virginia Cavaliers (31-2) – The Cavaliers enter the tournament as the top overall seed as Tony Bennett’s team looks to navigate their way to the Final Four for the first time since 1984. Virginia’s offense, which is tied for 309th in the country in points per game (67.5) has made me leery of this team all season, yet that doesn’t seem to matter when you possess the nation’s top defense, as UVA does. Allowing just 53.4ppg, the Cavaliers’ D was on full display as they successfully defended their ACC regular season crown with a postseason championship. It’s time to stop doubting this team, and you should pencil Virginia in to your Final Four at the very least.
- Villanova Wildcats (30-4) – A 3-3 stretch in the middle of conference play allowed Xavier to finish the season atop the Big East. But once the theater lighting of Madison Square Garden shined down on Jay Wright and his dapper suits, the Wildcats took care of business in convincing fashion. Nova has the top-ranked offense in the country, scoring 87.1ppg, while maintaining an average margin of victory greater than +16. While ESPN’s BPI gives Virginia a 23%-21% edge of being named the champs, the Wildcats have something the Cavs don’t; star power. Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges are two of the best players in the country, and when you toss in sophomore, Donte DiVincenzo, it creates a trio that takes a backseat to no one. Those three players combine for 50ppg on average, while Nova has six players in total scoring in double figures. Like Virginia, a trip to San Antonio should be the floor for this squad.
- Kansas Jayhawks (27-7) – Kansas steamrolled the competition en route to an 11th Big 12 championship, which this year is an even more impressive note on the resume, as the conference was widely regarded as the country’s deepest in 2017-18. The Jayhawks had no problem dismantling the competition in last week’s Big 12 tourney without the help of 7-footer, Udoka Azubuike (13.7ppg/7.1rpg), who is expected back for the tourney opener against Penn. Devonte’ Graham, a rare senior at a school of Kansas’s prowess, is showing just how much a player can benefit from a full stay in college, as the guard has developed into one of the nation’s best players. The Jayhawks have size and five players averaging north of 12ppg. Like the two teams before them, it shouldn’t matter who they go up against in your bracket. Plan on hearing plenty of “Rock Chalk Jayhawk” at the Final Four.
Don’t be surprised if one of these schools wins it all…
- Xavier Musketeers (28-5) – According to ESPN analytics, Xavier is the third weakest team to be a #1 seed since 2008. Probably not the vote of confidence you were searching for if you found yourself feeling good about the Musketeers. But hell, they’re a 1-seed, that’s got to count for something. Xavier knocked off four ranked opponents during the season, and had seven wins vs. tournament teams (which includes sweeps of Butler, Creighton and Seton Hall. The Musketeers fell in the conf. tourney semifinals to Providence and may not be the typical 1-seed on the surface, but guard Trevon Bluiett is a player capable of carrying a team deep into the dance. I don’t know, not my most convincing argument, but they should get to the Elite Eight, where they’ll likely meet their doom in the form of the next team…
- North Carolina Tar Heels (25-10) – After a tumultuous middle of the season and final week, which saw UNC drop a pair of games, the Tar Heels rebounded by making a run to the ACC championship game, where they fell to Virginia. The road to the final included a victory over #5 Duke, in which UNC looked dominant at times and showed the defending champs have what it takes to make a push for a Final Four repeat. Luke Maye (17.2ppg/10.1rpg) and Joel Berry II (17.1ppg) will have to outshine the opposition’s stars if UNC hopes to sustain a lengthy title defense. The road won’t be easy, with possible matchups vs. Providence, Michigan and Xavier, but I have the Tar Heels making it to San Antonio, before falling to Virginia in an ACC title game rematch.
- Duke Blue Devils (26-7) – When looking at pure talent, Duke’s roster is the crème de la crème in college basketball. Marvin Bagley III (21.1ppg/11.5rpg), Grayson Allen (15.7ppg/4.5apg), Gary Trent Jr. (14.3ppg/4.2rpg), Wendell Carter Jr. (13.8ppg/9.3rpg) and Trevon Duval (9.9ppg/5.5apg) are as potent of a starting-5 as there is to offer in this year’s tournament. An ACC semifinal loss to UNC, who they had defeated the weekend before, kept the Blue Devils from creeping into a top-billing. But because of the five players I mentioned, the coach roaming the sidelines, and just the mystique of facing Duke, there’s no reason they can’t beat any team in the country on any given day. That being said, I have them losing in the Elite Eight to Kansas. Maybe it’s just because I hate Allen’s bratty face.
Seven teams with the ability to bust your bracket…
- Purdue Boilermakers (28-6) –
Why they could: Purdue has the fourth-highest chance at winning the national championship according to ESPN BPI (Virginia: 23%, Villanova: 21%, Duke: 11%, Purdue: 10%). I shouldn’t have to say much more.
Why they probably won’t: The Boilermakers went 0-3 vs. top-15 teams between the regular season and Big Ten tournament. A run to the National Championship would require knocking off three top-10 teams.
- Cincinnati Bearcats (30-4) –
Why they could: The regular and postseason American Conference Champs, Cincinnati has the nation’s second-best defense (57.2papg) capable of suffocating any offense, no matter the opponent. Oh, and they’re no. 5 on that BPI percentage thingy, coming in behind Purdue at a 9% chance to win it all.
Why they probably won’t: A possible Sweet 16 matchup with SEC runner-up’s, Tennessee, would be followed by a showdown vs. UVA in the Elite Eight. Virginia vs. Cincy may wind up as a 1940’s 47-45 throwback where the first team to 50 wins, but I’d put my money on a more battle-tested Cavaliers squad in this hypothetical matchup.
- Michigan Wolverines (28-7) –
Why they could: Despite being the 4-seed in the Big Ten tourney, the Wolverines channeled their furry namesakes and shredded the field to pieces. Counting the conference tourney, they now own four wins over top-8 teams in the rankings.
Why they probably won’t: They did the same thing last year in capturing the Big Ten title to become everyone’s sexy pick. This year, before breaking out the maize and blue, know that the heat turns up in the Sweet 16 where a potential showdown with UNC looms.
- Michigan State Spartans (29-4) –
Why they could: The Spartans’ spent part of the year atop the polls and their postseason background speaks for itself. Plus, a star like Miles Bridges is a nifty commodity to have this time of the year.
Why they probably won’t: 1. That postseason background also has blemishes like not making out of the first weekend each of the last two tournaments. 2. Bridges’ penchant for disappearing in big games.
- Wichita State Shockers (25-7) –
Why they could: Coach, Gregg Marshall, is used to making a lot more out of a lot less this time of year. This season, however, he has his most talented squad which averages 83ppg and has players like Landry Shamet and Shaq Morris who have that ‘take over’ gene.
Why they probably won’t: Ready for my actual objective take? It’s something I rarely like to do. The Shockers defense is meh at best, ranking 152nd in the country. They also have a strange knack for going scoreless for five minutes at a time. With Wichita, it’s a matter of Jekyll or Hyde showing up to the arena that day, and in the same bracket as Villanova and potentially Purdue, that spells trouble.
- Arizona Wildcats (27-7) –
Why they could: They’re basically professionals (badum tish)…you know, cause of the FBI money probe? That raincloud aside, AZ certainly has the talent to make a deep run, led by Deandre Ayton (20.3ppg/11.5rpg) who is a man among boys. He’s worth every penny. (It’s just too easy.)
Why they probably won’t: To save time, they’re going to lose to this next team in the second round…
- Kentucky Wildcats (24-10) –
Why they could: Just when you think Kentucky doesn’t have a pulse, they stroll out and win the SEC tournament like it’s no big deal. This team wasn’t even ranked heading into conf. tourney week and all they did was dispose of the red-hot Crimson Tide by 23 and then knock off #13 Tennessee in the championship game. Love him or hate him, Calipari knows how to win. Last week’s heroics have put the Wildcats in position to make some major noise in the big dance.
Why they probably won’t: The aforementioned second round showdown with Arizona will be hard enough to get past, but should they do so, Virginia will be waiting in the Sweet 16.
There you have it, 13 teams to keep a watchful eye on during the madness soon to come.
Mark Paulette is the executive producer of The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show