March Madness Favorites: No Clear #1

Not every voter uses the same guidelines and metrics, but college basketball polls are generally supposed to reflect teams’ resumes to date. They’re based on what you’ve done, not what you’re going to do. This list is different. This is not a list of the top 25 college basketball teams based on resume; this is a list of the 25 teams most likely to win the 2017 National Championship.

The standings will change week-to-week, but you won’t see the drastic changes that occur in the Coaches Poll and AP Poll. One loss, quality or otherwise, is just that: one loss. Unless there’s reason for long-term concern, I won’t be overreacting.
What will drop a team down my list? Injuries, suspensions, and internal conflicts will result in an immediate and severe drop. Again this isn’t where we are; it’s where we’re going.


Two of the top five teams in most rankings, Gonzaga and Villanova, suffered losses last week. North Carolina went down on Monday night. The same can be said for Top 10 teams Louisville and Arizona. That said, we have arrived at the point in the season where the best teams are known, and one game does not dramatically impact how we feel about them. Teams that are sputtering, like Duke and Wisconsin, have been adjusted. Keep an eye on surging programs like Butler and Wichita State.

 

Top 25 Nat’l Championship Contenders (2017)

1. North Carolina

The Heels beat Louisville and Pitt last week and entered Monday’s game with Virginia holding a two-game edge in the ACC regular season standings. Though they lost a low scoring, slow tempo game to the Cavs, if they beat Duke on Saturday, they’ll clinch the league. They are a lukewarm favorite, but the best team in the best conference should be the chalk.

2. Gonzaga

BYU, a pretty good team beat them at the Kennel. So what? Are we sure a loss wasn’t a good thing? The Zags will likely play tournament games in Salt Lake City and then San Jose. They have big wins early over Arizona and Florida. Some pressure is now released. The media will back off. They can concentrate on prepping for the Big Dance at this point.

3. UCLA

The win over Kentucky early on put them on our radar. After losses to Oregon and Arizona it wasn’t clear whether they were good enough. They have avenged both of those setbacks and are rolling.

4. Kansas

The Jayhawks weren’t impressive, but they found a way Monday night against Oklahoma. That has been their thing all season: doing enough in crunch time to win. Kansas is dominating what is a pretty good league. That said, they tend to win by fairly slim margins.

5. Villanova

The defending champs lost to Butler last week, but rebounded to crush Creighton. They are deep and battle tested. Hopefully non-conference wins over Purdue and Notre Dame are enough seasoning come the NCAA Tournament.

6. Oregon

While winning twice last week is great, they needed a dramatic rally to get by Cal, and barely held off a mediocre Stanford squad. Great guard play is awfully important this time of year, particularly in tight games. Oregon has a terrific backcourt.

7. Duke

Their talent is perhaps the best in the country, but back-to-back losses at Syracuse and Miami have us wondering. They shouldn’t be tied for fifth in the ACC, but between Coach , and a loaded roster, dismiss them at your own peril.

8. Kentucky

John Calipari is not Mike Krzyzewski, but like K, he must be respected. The Cats have not been dominant despite an incredibly talented roster, but they sure did look good against Florida on Saturday without De’Aaron Fox. Kentucky is the class of the SEC; it is unclear how good that makes them.

9. Arizona

They split with UCLA, and lost their only game to Oregon, but 26-4 is a great record, and they have the look of a team that can make a run. The Cats do everything well, and having a lottery pick like Lauri Markkanen leading the way is a big positive.

10. Louisville

After falling to North Carolina, they crushed Syracuse on Sunday. In typical Rick Pitino fashion, they play great defense and will be a tough out. Coming out of the ACC means the Cards are battle tested.

11. Florida

Though they fell to Kentucky, Florida dominated a solid South Carolina team last week. They are balanced and strong defensively.

12. West Virginia

A one-point win over TCU is just that, a win. On Monday, WVU let a lead slip away against Baylor. Bob Huggins finds a way to grind out victories, and remember, teams in the Big 12 get to see his press with some regularity. In the NCAA Tournament, if an opponent isn’t prepared, they will cave to the 40 minutes of full-court pressure.

13. Virginia

We’re a sucker for teams that play great defense. UVA may not have the scorer that propels them to the National Title, but they guard like crazy and make life difficult. Monday night’s win over UNC is proof positive that, on their best day, they can lock up anybody.

14. Florida State

The Seminoles benefited from playing cellar-dweller Boston College last week, and barely won at Clemson, which is better than its record. Duke and Miami are big tests this week for a very talented, but young FSU squad.

15. Purdue

The Big Ten is a mess. Are the good teams legitimate, or is the whole league mediocre? There is no shame to losing to Michigan on the road, like Purdue did last week, but their good wins don’t feel that good anymore. A tight early season loss to Villanova and victory over Notre Dame make us think they are solid if not spectacular.

16. Wisconsin

Losers to both Ohio State and Michigan State on the road last week, the Badgers are still 22-7. Nigel Hayes is a terrific player, but losing four of five certainly makes us skeptical. What happened to the team that was allowing just over 60 points a game?

17. Baylor

Take the good with the bad. Scott Drew has won a lot of games at Baylor, but deep tournament runs have been few and far between. After getting outplayed by West Virginia for 30 minutes on Monday, the Bears got it together and found a way. They are good enough to win it all, yet it wouldn’t be surprising to see an early exit either.

18. SMU

The Mustangs have one loss since December 1, and it came by two points at a 25-win Cincinnati team. They are one of the best defensive teams in the country. You can still see a lot of Larry Brown’s influence.

19. Butler

The Dogs beat Villanova and Xavier on the road last week. That’s as good a week as any team in the country has put together this season. These are the same guys that beat Arizona, Utah, Cincinnati, and Indiana early in the year. The Big East isn’t deep, but the top teams are underrated.

20. Wichita State

Gregg Marshall’s team was not good early on, but it takes time to adjust to losing arguably the best back court in the country. The Shockers are crushing people now, and though they have few marquee wins, they sure do look the part right now.

21. Notre Dame

The Irish have won five straight, but haven’t played the top ACC teams in awhile. They should beat Boston College on Wednesday; then they have a good barometer game Saturday at Louisville, whom they beat in early January.

22. Cincinnati

The Cats suffered a surprising loss at UCF on Saturday, and now they sit a game behind SMU in the league standings. They have no great wins, no truly bad losses, and like most Mick Cronin teams, play great defense.

23. Iowa State

Tuesday’s test at Oklahoma State is a good game for both teams at this stage. The Cyclones have won five straight and boast wins over Baylor, Kansas, and Miami. They finish the regular season Friday night at West Virginia. We will learn a lot this week.

24. Saint Mary’s

The Gaels have three losses, and two are against Gonzaga. Their best wins are Dayton, Stanford, and BYU. They are a tough read, but coach Randy Bennett has had sustained success. St. Mary’s is one of the top defensive teams in the NCAA.

25. Oklahoma State

Coach Brad Underwood beat West Virginia in the big dance last year as the head coach at Stephen F. Austin. All he’s done in his career is win, and OK State appears to be back on track in his first campaign. The Cowboys have won 10 of 11. We’ll know a lot more after games with Iowa State and Kansas this week.


Photo Credit: Zeke Smith [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.