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.
North Carolina lost to Virginia, but a road loss to a good team that you don’t match-up with overly well doesn’t mean you aren’t still the favorite. As March rolls on, I’m starting to watch more closely for details and indicators that help to assess a team’s long-term viability.
With that said, this week Gonzaga moves down a pinch, and the three Pac-12 favorites get bumped up. There’s also some love for the Big 12. It seems like the second-tier teams from the nation’s second-best conference aren’t getting the credit they deserve.
Here’s a look at this week’s top 25.
Top 25 Nat’l Championship Contenders (2017)
1. North Carolina (Last week: 1)
Micro-analyze at your own peril. A week where you lose at Virginia and beat Duke is much better than two victories over middling teams. UNC’s upside is the highest in the country. At their best, they are the top dog. That said, if they fail to win the ACC Tournament, they could fall to a number two seed. Whether a one or two, nobody wants to see the Heels in their bracket.
2. UCLA (Last week: 3)
The Bruins look the part. They have an explosive offense, perhaps the top pick in the NBA draft in freshman guard Lonzo Ball, and are rolling. Aside from tight wins over title contenders Oregon and Arizona, the Bruins are absolutely mauling their competition.
3. Kansas (Last week: 4)
The Big XII is good, and Kansas is running away with it, again. They tend to win close games, like Saturday’s five point win over Oklahoma State in Stillwater. But it’s the victories that count, not the style points.
4. Villanova (Last week: 5)
They’ve done nothing wrong throughout the regular season, but aside from out of league wins over Purdue and Notre Dame, they have few marque victories. That’s not to say the Big East isn’t solid, but they lost to second place Butler twice. Avenging those two L’s in the tournament would up bettors confidence.
5. Oregon (Last week: 6)
It is possible that they played their best ball too early, but even since that manhandling of Arizona, Oregon has just one loss. A setback at UCLA by three points, and wins in tight contests at Cal and Stanford isn’t the end of the world. Having Dillon Brooks at the end of the game solves a lot of problems.
6. Arizona (Last week: 9)
If you are bullish on UCLA and Oregon, there is little reason not to like Arizona. The Pac-12 is top heavy, but Arizona’s only four losses this year are to the Bruins, Ducks, Butler and Gonzaga. They are excellent on defense, and Lauri Markkanen feels a lot like Dirk Nowitzki.
7. Gonzaga (Last week: 2)
The loss to BYU wasn’t all that bothersome, but a horrible half against Pacific was. Sure, the Zags blew out UOP in the WCC quarterfinals, but they didn’t seem like a Final Four team. They have talent, probably will win the league tournament on Tuesday, and should be the top seed in the west. That said, other teams feel more battle tested. Gonzaga may have already peaked.
8. Duke (Last week: 7)
Last week they beat Florida State and lost on the road to North Carolina. Why should the Devils be dropped for that? The fact Florida State, Louisville, and Notre Dame have one more ACC win than Duke doesn’t mean the Blue Devils upside isn’t higher. Coach K and company have lost three of four. We’ll see how they do when the games really matter.
9. Kentucky (Last week: 8)
Nobody thinks the SEC is great, but eight straight wins is impressive. However, it is very possible that masked in wins over mediocre teams, is John Calipari’s young group coming together and starting to figure it out. They have one bad loss all year. Like Duke, nobody is excited to see the Cats in their bracket.
10. Louisville (Last week: 10)
Five of six ACC losses came on the road, and they bounced back from a setback at Wake Forest with a good win over Notre Dame. Rick Pitino teams always play defense, and recently their offense has started to kick into gear.
11. West Virginia (Last week: 12)
West Virginia lost at Baylor and beat Iowa State last week. It’s important to remember the Mountaineers style: 40 minutes of full court pressure is easier for teams in the Big XII to prepare for since they see it regularly, compared to other NCAA Tournament teams who aren’t used to it. Reaching the tournament final would up bettors confidence.
12. Virginia (Last week: 13)
Do they miss Malcolm Brogdon? Yes. Can they win without him? Yes. The Cavs have nine losses, but beat North Carolina last week, and play elite defense. Not to mention having London Perrantes on both sides of the ball down the stretch would be a plus.
13. Baylor (Last week: 17)
Trusting Scott Drew is tough. That said, his resume speaks for itself. The Bears have played two tight games with Kansas, beat West Virginia last week, and knocked off Oregon, Michigan State, Louisville, and Xavier early on.
14. Florida (Last week: 11)
The Gators have lost two of three, but falling at Kentucky is certainly not shameful, and a loss at Vandy on senior night by two points isn’t the end of the world either. They had won nine straight, including victories over UK and South Carolina. A trip to the SEC Championship Game feels likely, and a top three or four seed seems reasonable too.
15. Florida State (Last week: 14)
Being a part of a three way tie for second place in the loaded ACC is a large accomplishment for FSU. Can they make a run in the league tournament? If they reach the finals, a top three seed is just about guaranteed in the big dance. The Seminoles have split their last six games, but a tight loss to Duke, and a win over Miami last week are nothing to frown at.
16. Purdue (Last week: 15)
Are they the best of a down Big 10, among the top of an underrated league, or something else entirely? Winners of eight out of nine, the Boilermakers won the regular season title by two games. A win over Notre Dame, and close losses to Villanova and Louisville early on lead us to believe they’re Sweet 16 material.
17. SMU (Last week: 18)
What can you say, they are manhandling less than high end opponents, and their only loss since the start of December came by two points to a very strong Cincinnati squad. The Mustangs are committed to defense, and have scored a lot of points lately. The question will be how good, or bad, is the American Athletic Association?
18. Wichita State (Last week: 20)
The Shockers weren’t overly impressive in non-conference games, but they have 30 wins, and just destroyed Missouri Valley competition throughout the regular season and in tournament play. Wichita is top 25 in the country in points scored, points allowed, total rebounds, and total assists. But while that might be the case, their MVC opponents aren’t of the strongest opponents.
19. Butler (Last week: 19)
A week after beating Villanova and Xavier on the road, Butler fell to Seton Hall. They knocked off Arizona, Utah, Cincinnati, and Indiana early in the year. If their league wasn’t the Big East, there would be a lot more discussion of the Dogs as Final Four candidates.
20. Cincinnati (Last week: 22)
After a surprising loss at UCF last week, Mick Cronin’s defense minded blue collar bunch stuck it to Houston and Uconn, holding each side to less than 50 points. A poor man’s Virginia, the Bearcats will suffocate just about everyone, but the question is if they can score enough to win NCAA Tournament games.
21. Notre Dame (Last week: 21)
Though the Fighting Irish have won six of seven, they failed to make a statement on the road at Louisville over the weekend, falling 71-64. Though finishing in a tie for second place in the ACC sounds great, they have only one decent win, against Florida State at home, in recent memory.
22. Iowa State (Last week: 23)
The Cyclones look the part. They won a test last week at Oklahoma State, and played competitively on the road at West Virginia. ISU has wins over Baylor, Kansas, and Miami. If you like the Big XII, you probably think Iowa State is dangerous.
23. Saint Mary’s (Last week: 24)
How good is BYU? St. Mary’s beat them three times, while Gonzaga went just 1-1 against the Cougars. However, while the Zags won all sorts of out of conference duels, the Gaels best wins besides BYU are Dayton, and Stanford. St. Mary’s is one of the top defensive teams in the country. If they beat Gonzaga in Tuesday’s WCC Championship Game, we will take notice.
24. Maryland (Last week: unrated)
The Terps looked like contenders before three straight losses including two at home. They fell at Wisconsin, and then lost in College Park to Minnesota and Iowa. However, last week Maryland won at Rutgers and then held off Michigan State. The Big 10 Tournament is in Washington, DC. If Maryland can make a run in front of a partial crowd, they’ll have momentum heading to the big dance, and Melo Trimble is the type of guard who can take over a big event.
25. Wisconsin (Last week: 16)
They are trending in the wrong direction with five losses in the last seven tries. However, they stuck it to Minnesota over the weekend, and beat Maryland during the ugly string. Early on, the Badgers won games that don’t look so good now. Still, any team that limits opponents to 61.6 points a game, and has a special senior like Nigel Hayes is dangerous.
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