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.
Flip the calendar from January to February and the entire sports world starts to focus on college basketball. February is a month of familiarity in the NCAA, where many games are rematches and every team knows exactly what their opponents are going to run. It is the month when coaching and experience are the most important indicators of team success.
Below is this week’s list of the top 25 teams. As the intro states, the standings will change week-to-week, but you won’t see the drastic changes that occur in the major polls. For instance, North Carolina’s loss to Miami may have bumped them down other rankings but not here.
Gonzaga moved to number one in the AP Poll rankings, but a lack of competition in their conference means we won’t know how they’ll stand up against stronger teams. Instead, Louisville and Oregon are continuing to look better, and could have what it takes comes March.
Top 25 Nat’l Championship Contenders (2017)
1. North Carolina (Last week: 1)
An embarrassing loss in Coral Gables, FL. doesn’t change the outlook for the Tar Heels one bit. Miami has a great defense and Jim Larranaga’s team played its best game of the season. Things like this are going to happen over and over again in the ACC.
Note that UNC shot 29% from three-point range in the loss. To beat the Heels, teams must force them outside and hope they shoot with similar inaccuracy. This should be a good week for UNC with home games against Pitt and Notre Dame.
2. Louisville (Last week: 5)
When Quentin Snyder went down, the thought was that the Cardinals would have to survive the heart of the ACC schedule without him and get healthy by March. Instead, the team has thrived in his absence.
Everybody knows Louisville is one of the best defensive teams in the country, but most don’t know how dangerous they are on the offensive end. The roster is loaded with athletic guys who can finish at the rim. Virginia coach Tony Bennett seems to be the only guy who can figure out how to get the Cardinals in half-court sets and frustrate them into lousy shot selection. Louisville visits Charlottesville next Monday night.
3. Oregon (Last week: 8)
Dillon Brooks is healthy and this Oregon team is getting really good, really fast. We know the Ducks will show tremendous improvement in the final two months; Dana Altman’s teams always do.
Oregon is coming off the most difficult weekend on the Pac-12 schedule; the Rocky Mountain trip to Utah and Colorado. Despite dropping the game in Boulder, the Ducks proved how excellent they are on this trip. Their length and athleticism is unmatched in college basketball. Look for a dominating performance Saturday, when Arizona rolls into Eugene.
4. Gonzaga (Last week: 3)
The only undefeated team in college basketball has won seven games in a row by at least 19 points. Playing in the West Coast Conference doesn’t provide a competitive schedule throughout January and February, but this unquestionably is one of the premier teams in the game.
The Bulldogs have neutral court wins over Florida, Iowa State, and Arizona. Next up is a trip to Provo, Utah to face BYU; maybe the Cougars can keep it within 20.
5. Wisconsin (Last week: 4)
Wisconsin is this year’s Rodney Dangerfield of college hoops. Despite an 18-3 record and leading the Big 10, experts don’t seem to give the Badgers much respect. They aren’t always visually pleasing but they win games and will be a force in March. Sophomore Ethan Happ has developed into an elite player on both ends of the floor. The 6’10 center is shooting over 60% from the field.
6. Duke (Last week: 2)
It’s a funny week to start dropping the Blue Devils down the rankings because they did really well. First, they came from behind and won with a gutsy performance at Wake Forest; then showed flashes of brilliance while defeating Notre Dame in South Bend. The problem is we’re now moving into February and from a continuity perspective, this team still has a long way to go.
Duke plays only once in the next 10 days; a home game against Pitt which is about as easy as it gets in the ACC. This is a crucial time frame for the development of this team.
7. Villanova (Last week: 7)
The Wildcats were outplayed by Virginia for 35 minutes but found a way to win at the buzzer. Nova shouldn’t lose another game in the regular season; the toughest test is a February 11th trip to Xavier. X just lost it’s point-guard and will have a tough time keeping pace with Villanova. The defending national champs are on cruise control to a top-seed in the NCAA tournament.
8. Kansas (Last week: 6)
Kansas had a good week on the court. It had a completely excusable loss at West Virginia before defeating Kentucky in Rupp Arena.
The Jayhawks dropped a bit this week because of off-court issues. Carlton Bragg has been suspended indefinitely (although probably not for too long) which leaves the rotation a little light in the front-court. Bragg was found with drug paraphernalia during a rape investigation which allegedly took place in the dorm which houses several players. This is a story that could end up ruining a lot more than just the season.
9. UCLA (Last week: 9)
Back-to-back losses have resulted in the calming of the national media’s obsession with the Bruins. Some folks who seemed certain the Bruins were heading to the Final 4 have not been talking about them much this week. Look, this is an offense that is capable of putting up triple-digits on any given night. The Bruins can never be counted out but their deficiencies in defense and depth can be tough to overcome.
10. Kentucky (Last week: 10)
UK had a tough week, losing at Tennessee and then getting beat at home against Kansas. It faces another tough test Saturday when it travels to Gainesville FL. for a showdown with the red-hot Florida Gators. It’s the same Kentucky we’ve been seeing all season; excellent guard play with inconsistency inside. The Cats have a lot more talent than anyone else in the SEC and should have a good February. However, a deep run in March is becoming more and more questionable.
11. Arizona (Last week: 12)
The Wildcats have quickly gone from vastly underrated to somewhat overrated. Winning in Pauley Pavilion and getting your best scorer back will do that. An impressive showing Saturday in Eugene will result in climbing the rankings, but it’s not a likely scenario.
12. West Virginia (Last week: 13)
West Virginia’s press destroys teams that don’t take care of the basketball. The match-up with Iowa St. is a terrible one for the Mountaineers. Traveling from Morgantown to Ames is tough and few teams handle the ball as well as the Cyclones.
13. Virginia (Last week: 11)
The slight drop isn’t because UVA lost at Villanova; it’s how they lost. The Cavaliers dominated the game but couldn’t rely on anyone to score in the closing minutes. It’s the same thing that has traditionally haunted them in March and the problem is even more extreme this season.
14. Purdue (Last week: 14)
Losing at Nebraska wasn’t surprising. It was the second of back-to-back challenging Big 10 road games and was an obvious spot for a clunker. This is a really interesting week for the Boilers. A home game against Northwestern and a trip to Maryland will present Purdue with a favorable opportunity to pick-up two impressive resume builders. Look for a 2-0 week.
15. Cincinnati (Last week: 17)
The team has 12 wins in a row and counting. This may be Mick Cronin’s best team yet. They’re playing their traditionally excellent defense and filling it up for outside. Sophomore Jacob Evans and freshman Jarron Cumberland are both shooting over 40% from three-point land.
16. Florida (Last week: 20)
What a week for the Gators. They put up 106 points at LSU and then won at Oklahoma by 32. The Gators are on fire and host Kentucky Saturday. This is an interesting choice if you’re looking for a longshot in March. Buy the future ticket this week because it they knock off UK, value will be lost.
17. Baylor (Last week: 16)
Every poll in the world has the Bears ranked higher than this one. They’re resume is impressive but they’re not as good as it looks. With trips remaining to Kansas, Oklahoma St, Texas Tech, Iowa State, and Texas, the Bears will lose plenty down the stretch.
18. Notre Dame (Last week: 15)
The Irish have lost three in a row and travel to Chapel Hill Saturday. Mike Brey is terrific and he’s getting the most out of this team but the ceiling is only so high.
19. Florida State (Last week: 18)
The Noles are coming off a brutal week, with double-digit losses at Georgia Tech and Syracuse. All ACC teams are bound to hit a rough patch. We’ll see how FSU comes out of this mess.
20. Northwestern (Last week: 24)
Two games remain against Purdue and one with Wisconsin. The Wildcats will find out the hard way that they’re not quite a Big 10 championship contender. Nonetheless, it’s a historic season in Evanston.
21. St. Mary’s (Last week: 19)
Nobody takes care of the basketball and gets good shots quite like the Gaels. This team is so discipline that covering huge numbers can be a challenge. They should have some flat spots in the three games leading up to the showdown with Gonzaga.
22. Dayton (Last week: 22)
Four starters on this squad will be at least 22-years old when they play in the NCAA tournament. If the Flyers win at Rhode Island, they could run the table in the Atlantic 10. They’ve given up less than 70 points in all but two games since November 25th.
23. SMU (Last week: unranked)
SMU is playing well on both ends. Shake Milton, Semi Ojeleye, and Sterling Brown are all shooting above 40% from the three-point line. Tim Jankovich has done a great job of continuing the winning since Larry Brown left Dallas.
24. Butler (Last week: 21)
The Bulldogs may be the biggest beneficiary of the unfortunate injuries Creighton and Xavier are dealing with. Butler has each team remaining on the regular season schedule and is now clearly the second best team in the Big East.
25. South Carolina (Last week: 23)
A good week with an impressive win against Auburn and Missouri. They are also still number one in the nation in defensive efficiency.
Dropped out this week: Iowa St.
Projected top seeds:
2. North Carolina
Photo credit: Phil Roeder “NCAA Basketball” (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/]