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.
For instance, the Atlantic Coast Conference is historically good and its members will have a difficult time staying atop national rankings because they’re all certain to lose several games.
As you will see below, the ACC is well represented on this list, as it will be through March. We may end up with a rare phenomena, where the biggest favorites to win the title don’t end up being number one seeds. That’s because the ACC’s top teams – which will be the most battle-tested come March – may all end up with too many losses to be seriously considered for the top line.
What will drop a team down my list? Injuries, suspensions, and internal conflicts will result in an immediate and severe drop. (Sorry Creighton.) Again this isn’t where we are; it’s where we’re going.
Top 25 National Championship Contenders (2017)
1. North Carolina
The Tar Heels came within a buzzer-beater of winning last year’s title and they’re better this season. UNC is still the best offensive rebounding team in college hoops and this year’s version is considerably better at knocking down the three-point shot. It’s a long, athletic group which continues to improve as a defensive unit. If coach Roy Williams can avoid crucial game-day miscues, he may end up with his third championship trophy in Chapel Hill.
Murphy’s Law has struck Durham and it’s starting to be questionable if the Blue Devils will ever get healthy before season’s end. (Only Matt Jones and Luke Kennard have played in every game for Duke.) My guess is they will and, when they do, they will be on the extra-short-list of teams capable of winning it all. The team is young and will unquestionably have its share of struggles in the next six weeks. However, come Selection Sunday, no one will want to see the Blue Devils in their region, and that’s for good reason. Their ceiling is higher than any team in the nation.
If the Zags win in Moraga against St. Mary’s (where they’ll be about a 2.5-point favorite), they’re going to go unbeaten in the regular season. Despite a trio of impressive Pac-12 teams, an undefeated Gonzaga squad will earn the top seed in the West. This will set-up a potentially epic Elite Eight game against one of those Pac-12 teams (okay, now I’m getting a bit ahead of myself).
For some reason, folks don’t realize it yet, but Wisconsin is clearly the class of the Big Ten. Coach Greg Gard has a similar style to his mentor Bo Ryan. The Badgers always show tremendous improvement from November to March. This team possesses a togetherness and hunger to thrive in the spring, and they have the ability to win it all.
The Cardinals are caught in the middle of the ACC storm and now have to play without point-guard Quentin Snider for an extended period of time. Louisville will lose a few but will be a force by March. It has the second-ranked defense nationally and has several guys capable of making athletic plays going toward the basket. The program has been through an embarrassing time period and Rick Pitino is focused on a deep postseason run to numb some of that pain.
You can’t watch the Jayhawks play without hearing the announcer say “they have the best backcourt in the country.” All those announcers are correct but the talent doesn’t stop at guard. Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham will lead KU to another Big-12 regular season title and a number one seed in the big dance. The Bill Self’s March history will come into play.
The defending champs have the potential to repeat. Josh Hart is a first-team All-American and he’s surrounded by teammates who can also fill it up. Preseason concerns about rim protection haven’t manifested to date. This team is elite offensively and ferocious defensively. The Big East may be a little less competitive than anticipated but Villanova is still on pace for a number one seed.
Dana Altman is one of the premier coaches in basketball and has a roster loaded with talent. Star wing Dillon Brooks had surgery on his foot in the offseason and has re-aggravated the injury. The national champion is probably one of the seven teams already mentioned but if Brooks can return to 100% (his injury isn’t as bad as originally feared), the Ducks also have championship potential.
This is the cutoff line. You’ll hear experts say X number of teams are capable of winning it all. Many will say 12 to 15. I say eight. UCLA has six great players and the most outstanding offense in college basketball. Freshman Lonzo Ball is a contender for national player of the year and the Bruins are capable of outscoring anyone on a given night. But do they have the defensive chops and depth to go all the way? I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Getting lit up for 96 at home by Arizona doesn’t bode well.
UK will roll through the SEC and likely end up as a number one seed. Like always, John Calipari has terrific athletes and he convinces them to play top-notch team defense. Is there enough consistency on the offensive end beyond De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk to win a title? Probably not. Three-point shooting is also going to be an issue.
UVA is a beautiful team to watch play basketball. Tony Bennett’s crew plays team defense at the game’s highest level and it carries over to the offensive end as well. A lack of scoring options has notoriously haunted them in the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. They’re always a good shooting team, but is there anyone who can create for himself against an elite defense?
Sean Miller is my current choice for coach of the year and it would be fitting if this becomes his first Final Four team. The Wildcats’ most outstanding offensive player (Allonzo Trier) has finally been cleared to play and, consequently, the ceiling is much higher. UCLA, Oregon, and Arizona will be battling one another atop the Pac-12 all season.
13. West Virginia
WVU started 15-2 before dropping back-to-back games against Oklahoma and Texas Tech. Bob Huggins has an experienced group and they’re leading the nation in turnovers created. “Press Virginia” is a pain in the neck to play against because of their ability to wear you down. With Huggins at the helm, this bunch is capable of a deep run in March.
Caleb Swanigan is a beast on the interior and this Purdue team has guys who can knock down shots from outside. They’re good enough to be a threat to anyone but must avoid taking nights off. The Boilers are too good to lose at home to Minnesota or at Iowa.
15. Notre Dame
The Irish have been creeping up the standings playing typical Mike Brey basketball. They’re an excellent shooting team and always seem to save their best play for the closing moments of games. They lack height, though, and I still think Matt Farrell is playing over his head.
The Bears have overachieved at 18-1 and currently own as solid a resume as any team in the nation. They’re long and athletic defensively and Johnathan Motley has become a truly elite player.
This is a typical Mick Cronin team. They play elite team defense and find enough offense to win games … a lot of games. They’re shooting the ball a lot better this year than in year’s past, which will give them a real chance to make noise in March.
18. Florida State
Dwayne Bacon and Xavier Rathan-Mayes are giving the folks in Tallahassee something to cheer about. Jonathan Isaac is getting NBA scouts all hot and bothered. Great rim protection and solid shooting makes the Seminoles formidable on both ends.
19. St. Mary’s
The Gaels could lose only five games all season and three of them will be to Gonzaga. St. Mary’s is led by Jock Landale but it has an array of elite shooters and rebounders, and a ton of experience.
Who is the second-best team in the SEC? Well, it’s Florida or South Carolina; take your pick. The Gators will return to the NCAA tournament because of harassing team defense and an improving offense.
The Bulldogs are an overachieving team with a great resume. They have defeated Arizona, Cincinnati, Indiana, Villanova, and Xavier.
I fully expect Dayton to make a run in the NCAA tournament. The Flyers are experienced, well-coached, and deep. This group of seniors has established a culture of winning and they’ll go out with a bang.
23. South Carolina
The Gamecocks are best nationally in defensive efficiency but don’t have enough guys who can consistently score.
The Cats are dancing for the first-time in school history. It’s 2017 and it’s really happening.
25. Iowa St.
It’s a great senior class but they haven’t figured out how to win the close ones. They are a dangerous team because they take care of the ball and lots of guys have the ability to score. Maybe they can find a way to put it all together when it counts.
Dropped out this week: Creighton, Indiana
Projected top seeds:
2. North Carolina
Photo credit: By English: D. Myles Cullen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons