Before the NCAA Tournament bracket was released there were a number of teams many believe to be capable of winning a national title. Given how wild the regular season was that list is longer this season than in years prior, but there’s only so much that can be determined without knowing what the paths of those teams would be. Now that we know the field of 68, which ten teams are most capable of winning the national title?
The Cardinals are the top overall seed and with good reason, given their 29-5 overall record and Big East tournament title (after winning a share of the regular season title). The Cardinals aren’t the best perimeter shooting team, with Luke Hancock being their best long-range option, but they defend well and have depth at all positions. If Russ Smith can remain under control (by Russ standards, of course), Louisville can win another six games in a row.
The Hoosiers may have lost in the semis of the Big Ten tournament but that’s just as much an issue of the matchup (Wisconsin’s won 12 straight in the series) as it was how well Tom Crean’s team played. Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo lead the way for the Hoosiers, who certainly don’t lack for depth. Three key veterans over the next couple of weeks are Jordan Hulls, Will Sheehey and Christian Watford. If they all contribute that helps make up for an off night from either Oladipo or Zeller. And if this group defends, Indiana can win it all.
The Blue Devils are 17-1 this season with their full rotation available, with stretch four Ryan Kelly being a difficult matchup offensively and a key figure defensively. With Mason Plumlee in the middle and Seth Curry on the perimeter Duke has three primary scorers on which to rely, and guards Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon will figure prominently as well. They also have head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who’s been through more than a few of these rodeos himself.
Point guard play is still somewhat of a concern for the Jayhawks but it must be noted that both Elijah Johnson and Naadir Tharpe have raised their level of play over the last month. The other key for Kansas: Ben McLemore embracing the moment as this team’s star. There will be a point in this tournament when the Jayhawks need him to make a play, and while most remember the three against Iowa State there have been moments where the freshman hasn’t grabbed the reins. With veterans such as Johnson, Travis Releford and Jeff Withey at Bill Self’s disposal the Jayhawks have plenty of experience both on the court and on the sideline.
More than a few people have rushed to discount the Bulldogs due to the number of wins against teams ranked outside of the RPI Top 100, with many of those coming against WCC opposition. But Gonzaga has the tools needed to win a national title, led by forward Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk. Olynyk went from redshirting last season to earning All-America honors, and Harris has been a dependable figure in Mark Few’s rotation for four years. The guard play is solid, and if they defend well on the perimeter the Zags can go where no prior Gonzaga team has gone before.
With an average age of 22.3 years the Hurricanes are the oldest team in the field, and they’re talented as well. Sophomore Shane Larkin leads the way at the point and the other four starters are all seniors. Kenny Kadji causes problems for opponents at the four with his ability to step out beyond the three-point line and Durand Scott and Trey McKinney-Jones are both quality options on the perimeter. The key for Miami: Reggie Johnson. While he didn’t have the best of weeks in Greensboro his talent should not be underestimated, and head coach Jim Larranaga has the experience needed to help the Canes navigate the Big Dance.
7. New Mexico
The Lobos won both the regular season and tournament titles in the Mountain West, and given their performance on the court throughout the season Steve Alford’s team should be considered a serious threat to win it all. Kendall Williams and Tony Snell form one of the best backcourt tandems in the tournament, and with Hugh Greenwood and Jamal Fenton the Lobos have some depth there as well. Inside Alex Kirk’s path is similar to that of Kelly Olynyk’s as a back injury forced him to redshirt last season. They’re not a great offensive team but due to their execution and defense, New Mexico has no issue winning “ugly.”
The Hoyas have one of the best players in the country but this pick isn’t solely about sophomore forward Otto Porter. John Thompson III’s team has matured steadily as the season’s worn on, with point guard Markel Starks and freshman D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera being two of the players who have shown the most growth. Georgetown’s solid offensively but they’re even better defensively, as their defensive efficiency is among the best in the country. And with a talent like Porter, Georgetown has a star capable of carrying the team a long way.
9. Michigan State
Keith Appling’s gone through his struggles this season but the prospect of facing non-Big Ten opponents could result in a jump in his performance. Inside the Spartans have Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix, with the latter playing very well in their Big Ten semifinal loss to Ohio State on Saturday. Freshman shooting guard Gary Harris is their best perimeter shooter, and then there’s the Tom Izzo factor. He’s been one of the game’s most successful NCAA tournament coaches over the last decade, which will only help Michigan State in tense situations.
The Wolverines didn’t finish the regular season well, losing three of their last six games, but don’t give up on John Beilein’s squad. Trey Burke has been the best point guard in the country, and with Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas the Wolverines don’t lack for shooters. Michigan was one of the most efficient teams in the country and they take care of the basketball as well. Inside Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary will need to hold their own on the glass, and if Michigan can regain some sense of balance (Burke can’t do everything) they can get rolling again.