The 15 Teams Who Could Win March Madness 2018

If the only college basketball storyline you’ve been following this year is the recruiting scandal, you missed a fascinating regular season, largely characterized by teams and players coming out of nowhere to become the cream of the crop, case in points: the Player of the Year race is led by a freshman (Trae Young) who wasn’t even a top-20 recruit; the #1 team in the nation (Virginia) wasn’t in the preseason top 25; and two preseason top-ten teams have fallen out of the rankings entirely (Kentucky, USC).

Now just days away from Selection Sunday and (what I’m calling) Bracket Monday, time is running out to get acquainted with the viable contenders. Here are the nuts and bolts of every team that has a legitimate chance at winning the national title, and why they have a shot at pulling off six straight wins in the tourney.*

*The chances that the eventual national champion is not on this list are slimmer than the chances that [INSERT NAME OF FIVE-STAR RECRUIT] didn’t get paid to go to [INSERT NAME OF BLUE-BLOOD SCHOOL]. Notable schools left off include: no. 13 Tennessee, no. 16 Auburn, and no. 17 Ohio State. Think they should be among the contenders? Yell at me in the comments or on Facebook.

Arizona Wildcats

Regular-season record: 24-7 (14-4 PAC-12)

Best wins:

  • Texas A&M (67-64, neutral)
  • Utah (94-82, road)
  • Arizona State (77-70, road)

Worst losses:

  • SMU (66-60, neutral)
  • Colorado (80-77, road)
  • UCLA (82-74, home)

Why they can win it all: Going alphabetically has the added advantage of starting with arguably the most interesting team in the country. Arizona’s season went from promising (preseason #3) to concerning (three straight losses at the Battle 4 Atlantis) back to promising (17-1 over the next 18 games), and only then did things get truly fascinating. In late February, lead guard Allonzo Trier was suspended for a second failed PED test, and head coach Sean Miller became embroiled in a massive recruiting scandal. For a while, it looked like the Wildcats would be without both for the remainder of the season.

But Trier successfully appealed, while Miller vehemently denied all the allegations and was backed by the university. Now both are back in the fold and Arizona has the potential to make a deep run. While Trier (18.9 PPG, 3.3 APG, 40.4 3P%) and Rawle Alkins hold down the backcourt, potential #1-overall NBA draft pick Deandre Ayton (19.9 PPG, 11.4 RPG, 1.9 BPG) terrorizes in the post.

The weak spot is, unfortunately, at point guard, where the 5’11 Parker Jackson-Cartwright is a couple steps below the point guards who usually wind up cutting down the nets. That said, the attention that Ayton and Trier demand will make his life a whole lot easier, and Arizona will have the two best players on the floor almost every time they take the court.

2018 national championship odds (from BetOnline): 20/1 (+2000)

 

Cincinnati Bearcats

Regular-season record: 27-4 (16-2 AAC)

Best wins:

  • Wichita State (62-61, road)
  • UCLA (77-63, road)
  • Memphis (62-48, road)

Worst losses:

  • Florida (66-60, neutral)
  • Houston (67-62, road)
  • Xavier (89-76, road)

Why they can win it all: At their best, Cincinnati plays suffocating defense. They sit second on KenPom in defensive efficiency (behind only Virginia), and just held Wichita State’s fifth-ranked offense to 61 points in Kansas.

Outside of their loss to Xavier in the Crosstown Shootout, when they were run out of the building, they didn’t lose by more than six points all year, and all of their losses were to teams in the top-50 of the RPI. (I swear I hate the RPI as much as you do, but that still says something.) Every pundit will tell you that you can’t win in March without a respectable offense, as well. No one can argue that Cincinnati operates at an elite level on the offensive end, but they do have an elite guard in Jacob Evans (13.5 PPG, 40.4 3P%) who can get a bucket when they need it.

The 2014 UConn team led by Shabazz Napier had a similar dynamic. Evans isn’t quite the scorer Napier was, and he doesn’t have a Ryan Boatright as his running mate, but the Bearcat defense is also substantially better than the one UConn was sporting.

2018 national championship odds: 20/1 (+2000)

Duke Blue Devils

Regular-season record: 25-6 (13-5 ACC)

Best wins:

  • Michigan State (88-81, neutral)
  • Miami (83-75, road),
  • North Carolina (76-64, home)

Worst losses:

  • St. John’s (81-77, road)
  • Boston College (89-84, road)

Why they can win it all: Duke has been able to score all season. Freshman forward Marvin Bagley may be the most dominant player in college this year, and senior Grayson Allen (yes, he’s still there) can takeover games when he needs to.

Their problems early on were mostly defensive. Since switching to a 2-3 zone, though, the Blue Devils have verged on elite at the defensive end, albeit against some suspect competition. They enter the ACC tournament as the only team in the nation that ranks in the top ten in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They are very quietly second in the country in rebounding (42.0 RPG). March Madness champs almost always excel at both ends of the floor, and now Duke has the potential to do just that.

If Coach K can finally solve the mystery of why Allen tends to disappear when Bagley is on the floor, Duke should be the out-and-out favorite.

2018 national championship odds: 6/1 (+600)

 

Gonzaga Bulldogs

Regular-season record: 28-4 (17-1 WCC)

Best wins:

  • Ohio State (86-59, neutral)
  • St. Mary’s (78-65, road)
  • Texas (76-71, neutral)

Worst losses:

  • San Diego State (72-70, road)
  • St. Mary’s (74-71, home)

Why they can win it all: Mark Few lost his three leading scorers from last year’s national runner-up (Nigel Williams-Goss, Przemek Karnowski, Jordan Mathews) plus lottery pick Zach Collins. Yet, somehow, the 2018 Zags still have a ton of experience. Junior point guard Josh Perkins balled-out in the title game last year; senior forward Johnathan Williams is one of the more underrated bigs in the nation; and sophomore Frenchman Killian Tillie — potentially a future first-rounder — is a 6’10 power forward who’s knocking down 45.7% from three. Add in some progress from sophomore wing Rui Hachimura — another NBA-bound prospect — and Gonzaga certainly has the talent and veteran presence to make another run.

While they looked completely overmatched when they played Villanova on a neutral (losing 88-72), they also played well away from home thereafter, completely routing Washington in Seattle (97-70), BYU in Salt Lake City (79-65), and St. Mary’s in Moraga (78-65).

2018 national championship odds: 25/1 (+2500)

 

Kansas Jayhawks

Regular-season record: 24-7 (13-5 Big 12)

Best wins:

  • West Virginia (71-66, road)
  • Texas Tech (74-72, road)
  • Kentucky (65-61, neutral)

Worst losses:

  • Washington (74-65, neutral*)
  • Oklahoma State  (84-79, home)
  • Arizona State (95-85, home)

Why they can win it all: An excellent, experienced backcourt is a sine qua non of (almost all) March Madness champions, and the Jayhawks have one of the best — perhaps the best — point guards in the country: Devonte Graham (17.6 PPG, 7.2 APG, 42.3 3P%). Flanked by wing Svi Mykhailiuk (15.3 PPG, 45.1 3P%) and two-guard Lagerald Vick (12.2 PPG, 5.0 RPG), Bill Self’s backcourt can matchup with any other in the nation.

Yes, there are huge questions in the frontcourt once you get passed Udoka Azubuike (13.7 PPG, 7.1 RPG). Silvio De Sousa (4.3 MPG, 2.1 PPG) was not the mid-season savior Kansas fans were hoping for when he became eligible in the second semester. But the Jayhawks still rebounded from a sluggish start to win their 14th straight Big 12 title … by multiple games. If they don’t have to play a Michigan State-type team — i.e. one that can annihilate them on the glass and hang with them on the perimeter — Kansas has the ability to shoot its way to the Final Four and beyond.

2018 national championship odds: 16/1 (+1600)

*The Washington game was a de facto home game, played in Kansas City, MO.

Michigan Wolverines

Regular-season record: 28-7 (13-5 Big Ten)

Best wins:

  • Michigan State (82-72, road)
  • Michigan State (75-64, neutral)
  • Purdue (75-66, neutral)

Worst losses:

  • Northwestern (61-52, road)
  • LSU (77-75, neutral)

Why they can win it all: John Beilein could squeeze 70 PPG out of Ben Wallace, Dennis Rodman, and a sack of organic Michigan soybeans. This year, the offensive wizard has an elite defense (sixth overall in efficiency) to go along with an underrated attack led by German big-man Moritz Wagner. They took some questionable losses midseason but absolutely rolled down the stretch, blasting through two legitimate top-ten teams en route to winning the Big Ten tournament (MSU, Purdue). Point guard Zavier Simpson is getting better and better as the year goes on, and if he keeps playing at this level in March Madness, Michigan will be a brutally tough matchup for anyone.

2018 national championship odds: 12/1 (+1200)

Michigan State Spartans

Regular-season record: 29-4 (16-2 Big Ten)

Best wins:

  • Purdue (68-65, home)
  • North Carolina (63-45, neutral)
  • Notre Dame (81-63, neutral)

Worst losses:

  • Michigan (82-72, home)
  • Michigan (75-64, neutral)

Why they can win it all: As long as they don’t play Michigan, Sparty should be just fine in the tournament. Aside from Duke, they’re the most balanced team in the nation, sporting the 11th-ranked offense and 9th-ranked defense. Turnovers have been their biggest weakness all season, but point guard Cassius Winston is taking better care of the ball lately, and Tom Izzo has extra time to clean things up thanks to the Big Ten tourney running a week earlier than usual.

When they’re rolling, the Spartans have one of the highest ceilings. They own blowout wins over North Carolina, Notre Dame (when Bonzie Colson was healthy), and a respectable Nebraska team (86-57, home). Their frontcourt is the deepest in the nation and features top-end talent in the form of Jaren Jackson Jr., who’s in the conversation to be a top-three pick. They also shoot it well from three (41.3%, third in the nation), Winston is an assassin from deep (52.6%, third in the nation), and Miles Bridges can get you buckets when things breakdown. The result is that MSU can beat you in a number of ways, and they will if they don’t beat themselves.

2018 national championship odds: 7/1 (+700)

North Carolina Tar Heels

Regular-season record: 22-9 (11-7 ACC)

Best wins:

  • Duke (82-78, home)
  • Michigan (86-71, neutral)
  • Tennessee (78-73, road)

Worst losses:

  • Wofford (79-75, home)
  • NC State (95-91, home)
  • Miami (91-88, home)

Why they can win it all: It’s an oft-told story, but that’s because it’s true: almost every March Madness champion has a top-tier, veteran point guard. Is there any player in the country who fits that bill better than UNC’s Joel Berry? A key member of both the 2016 national runner-up team and last season’s national championship team, Berry has taken an even bigger role in the offense in his senior season, leading the team with 17.8 PPG and launching nearly 15 shots per game (up from 11.2 last year).

Meanwhile, Luke Maye, who played hero versus Kentucky in 2017, has stepped up (17.7 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 46.3 3P%) and Pitt transfer Cameron Johnson (13.2 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 2.3 APG) has emerged as a do-everything wing.

Some of UNC’s losses are really bad. Wofford at home stands out as one of the worst in program history, and they were held under 50 points by both Virginia (61-49) and Michigan State (63-45). But the wins are almost as noteworthy. Routing Michigan on a neutral is looking more and more impressive as the year goes on, and not listed above is a double-digit win at Davidson (85-75), which finished the regular season third in the A10 and 54th overall on KenPom. Even though the Tar Heels aren’t built in the usual UNC mold and are missing that one dominant frontcourt player, they still get after it on the glass and lead the nation in rebounding (42.7 RPG)

2018 national championship odds: 20/1 (+2000)

Purdue Boilermakers

Regular-season record: 28-6 (15-3 Big Ten)

Best wins:

  • Arizona (89-64, neutral)
  • Michigan (70-69, road)
  • Louisville (66-57, neutral)

Worst losses:

  • Western Kentucky (77-73, neutral)
  • Wisconsin (57-53, road)

Why they can win it all: Like Big Ten rival Michigan State, Purdue’s ceiling is sky high. Isaac Haas is a 7’2″ leviathan who feasts on all but the best bigs in the country. When defenses double him in the post, which most have to in order to contain him, easy looks open up for the likes of Carsen Edwards (18.5 PPG, 41.2 3P%), Dakota Mathias (12.4 PPG, 46.4 3P%), and PJ Thompson (7.1 PPG, 43.8 3P%), who have the Boilermakers sitting second in three-point percentage nationally (42%).

Purdue didn’t lose a single game by double-digits, and five of six were by four points or fewer. If a few bounces had gone their way, they’d be entering Selection Sunday with half as many losses and be a shoo-in for the one-line. Winning six straight games is a near impossible task for every team this year — no one squad stands head and shoulders above the rest like, say, 2012 Kentucky — but Purdue will be more than competitive in any hypothetical matchup, and maybe those bounces will go their way next time.

2018 national championship odds: 12/1 (+1200)

Texas Tech Red Raiders

Regular-season record: 23-8 (11-7 Big 12)

Best wins:

  • Kansas (85-73, road)
  • TCU (83-71, road)
  • Kansas State (66-47, road)

Worst losses:

  • Seton Hall (89-79, neutral)
  • Iowa State (70-52, road)
  • Oklahoma State (79-71, road)

Why they can win it all: Remember how I said UConn’s 2014 title team was a good comparator for Cincinnati? They’re an even better comp. for Texas Tech. The Red Raiders are third in defensive efficiency and a lowly 51st on offense, but they have an even better go-to scorer than the Bearcats: point guard Keenan Evans, who is pouring in 17.4 PPG, hitting 84% from the line, and nailing every big-time shot that comes his way …

Keenan Evans is a better understudy to play the Shabazz Napier role than Cincinnati’s Jacob Evans.

Tech let the Big 12 title slip away with a four-game losing streak late in the year, but that coincided with Evans suffering a foot injury. When he’s been at full strength, the Red Raiders have inarguably been one of the best teams in the nation, both in and outside of Lubbock.

Their success this season was made all the more impressive by the fact that Zack Smith, their best frontcourt player, missed 14 games. Despite being eased back into the lineup (21.1 MPG, 6.2 PPG), he has the potential to boost Tech at both ends, coming off a junior season where he averaged 12.1 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game.

2018 national championship odds: 25/1 (+2500)

Villanova Wildcats

Regular-season record: 27-4 (14-4 Big East)

Best wins

  • Gonzaga (88-72, neutral)
  • Xavier (95-79, road)
  • Tennessee (85-76, neutral)

Worst losses

  • St. John’s (79-75, home)
  • Providence (76-71, road)

Why they can win it all: It’s pretty simple, really: they have NBA-level talent (Mikal Bridges); they have an experienced point guard in the running for national Player of the Year; they have a handful of holdovers from their 2016 title-winning team; and they have the best offense in the nation.

In fact, they have the most efficient offense college basketball has seen since the 2015 Wisconsin Badgers. Their defense isn’t perfect — not by a mile — but when this team is hot, it’s temperature rises higher than anyone’s.

2018 national championship odds: 6/1 (+600)

 

Virginia Cavaliers

Regular-season record: 28-2 (17-1 ACC)

Best wins:

  • Duke (65-63, road)
  • North Carolina (61-49, home)
  • Miami (59-50, road)

Worst losses:

  • Virginia Tech (61-60, home)
  • West Virginia (68-61, road)

Why they can win it all: The Wahoos are the top-ranked team in the nation and are going to be the #1-overall seed in the tournament. Tony Bennett has had some phenomenal defenses in his time at Virginia, and this may be the best yet. Their 83.9 defensive efficiency rating is the best in the history of KenPom (which dates back to 2002) and their impenetrable pack-line held 22 of 30 opponents under 60 points. There’s no reason why that elite defense shouldn’t travel.

On offense, the Cavaliers are a little better than you might think, sitting 39th in efficiency and 30th in three-point percentage (38.9%). While they don’t have anyone on the level of Malcolm Brogdon in terms of a player who can get you a bucket late in the shot-clock, Kyle Guy (13.9 PPG, 38.3 3P%) is a former McDonald’s All-American with decent iso skills and a pure stroke, while Ty Jerome (10.6 PPG, 41.2 3P%) and Devon Hall (11.9 PPG, 44.7 3P%) are both lights-out from deep. In essence, they have the potential score enough to win six in a row. They also have the potential to score 39 points, but one of these years, the percentages are going to work out in Bennett’s favor and Virginia will make a deep run. Why not 2018? They already made acquaintance with Lady Luck in Louisville, after all …

2018 national championship odds: 6/1 (+600)

 

Wichita State Shockers

Regular-season record: 24-6 (14-4 AAC)

Best wins:

  • Cincinnati (76-72, road)
  • Baylor (69-62, road)
  • Tulsa (72-69, road)

Worst losses:

  • Oklahoma (91-83, home)
  • SMU (83-78, home)
  • Temple (81-79, road)

Why they can win it all: The Shockers are another team with experience and talent up and down the roster. Sophomore point guard Landry Shamet (14.6 PPG, 5.2 APG, 44.0 3P%) is a potential first-round NBA draft pick who runs the offense to near perfection, and 6’8 Shaq Morris (14.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 41.9 3P%) provides an interior presence while also possessing range that has to be respected. Their struggles defensively — and those struggles have been huge — don’t make a lot of sense. They ranked 13th in defensive efficiency last season, returned much the same team, and are now outside the top 100.

But last year’s defensive prowess is exactly why you should have some confidence in this team. They’ve shown they can play good enough defense to hold good offenses under 70, including Notre Dame (67-66 loss, neutral), Houston (81-63 win, home), and Marquette (80-66 win, neutral). Gregg Marshall has a tremendous track record as a defensive coach, and his potential to right the ship is palpable.

2018 national championship odds: 25/1 (+2500)

West Virginia Mountaineers

Regular-season record: 22-9, (11-7 Big 12)

Best wins:

  • Virginia (68-61, home)
  • Kansas State (77-69, road)
  • Texas Tech (84-74, home)

Worst losses:

  • Oklahoma State (88-85, home)
  • Iowa State (93-77, road)
  • Kentucky (83-76, home)

Why they can win it all: I got nothin’. :s

This is how they ran their offense last year when they needed a bucket. I don’t expect much different from Hugs and company this year.

2018 national championship odds: 25/1 (+2500)

Xavier Musketeers

Regular-season record: 27-4 (15-3 Big East)

Best wins:

  • Cincinnati (89-76, home)
  • Butler (98-93, road)
  • Creighton (72-71, road)

Worst losses:

  • Providence (81-72, road)
  • Villanova (95-79, home)

Why they can win it all: The advanced metrics don’t love’em, but Chris Mack’s team just wins. They played in a lot of tight games and almost always found a way to get it done, like with this miracle four-point play against Georgetown. After winning their first Big East title the Musketeers’ experienced core of Trevon Bluiett, JP Macura, and Kaiser Gates is ready to better last season’s run to the Elite Eight.

It was a struggle to even fill out the “worst losses” section. Two of their four losses came against Villanova, a legit title contender themselves. But therein lies the rub: Nova was unquestionably the best team they faced all year, and the Wildcats ran them off the court both times. Unless you get extremely lucky on your road to the title game, you have to beat at least one team on Villanova’s level to win the national championship.

2018 national championship odds: 20/1 (+2000)

 

AlexanderP

Alexander is the MTS editor-in-chief. Frank, Alex, and Geoff brought him in when they realized that their betting expertise far surpassed their grammatical abilities. He loves overanalyzing college basketball trends. Talking to him during the first weekend of March Madness is like talking to a wall. A very focused wall, but a wall nonetheless.