Yesterday, we took a look at the six teams that can legitimately be called national title contenders as well as the three teams that are a small tweak or two away from joining them.
Those nine teams should be the consensus best in college hoops.
Today, we’re going to take a look at the rest of the teams around the country. Here are eight teams that are seriously flawed but dangerous enough to win six games come March.
FLAWED BUT DANGEROUS
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: There is not team in the country that has as many tough shot makers on their roster as Nevada does. Jordan Caroline, Caleb Martin, Cody Martin. All three of those guys are capable of taking a game over and carrying Nevada to a win, and what makes that so relevant is that that trio — particularly Caroline and Caleb Martin — can do it regardless of the defense that is being played on them. Case in point: The Wolf Pack reached the Sweet 16 last season as an iso-heavy, jump-shooting team with wins over Texas and Cincinnati, two of the top ten defenses in college basketball.
When they get it going, they have the horses to beat anyone in college hoops.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: Realistically, how often will the Martin Twins and Jordan Caroline go into their unguardable mode? Will it be often enough for a team that likely won’t end up as a top two seed to win four games in March, let alone the six games they need to win to win a national title? That’s a tough ask.
The other part of this is that Nevada just is not as talented as people think they are. Where is the NBA player on this roster? Both of the Martin twins and Caroline are fifth-year seniors that would have left school last year if there was a demand for them at the next level. They’re back in school. Nevada is loaded with veterans and grad transfers from smaller programs, but there’s a reason those guys were at smaller programs to begin with. Jordan Brown is a McDonald’s All-American, but if he going to be a one-and-done player if he can’t beat out Trey Porter for a starting spot?
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: The tournament needs to start. I’ve said this before, but I wonder just how much Nevada actually cares about the regular season. They’ve won the Mountain West already, and the three best players on the roster probably wish they were playing in the NBA right now. What they haven’t done is get past the Sweet 16, so I wonder if we’ll see a different Nevada team show up once the postseason kicks off.
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: Markus Howard is not the only guy on this team that can takeover a game.
Howard is, as we’ve discussed many times in this space, the single-most dangerous scorer in college basketball. He’s popped off for 45 points twice this season, and that doesn’t include when he broke his own Big East record by scoring 53 points in a win at Creighton this month. The issue with Marquette is what happens on the nights that he doesn’t play well or runs into one of the nation’s elite defenders, and we now know: Sam Hauser can win them a game. He went for 31 points at Georgetown on the night where Howard injured his back, and he went for 25 points in the next game when Howard looked like he was still slowed with the injury.
If the Golden Eagles have an answer when Howard is not living his best life, they become much more dangerous.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: Part of the reason that I was so high on Marquette coming into the season was that I thought the addition of Joseph Chartouny was the piece Marquette was missing. His addition would give them another perimeter defender and a playmaker that would allow Howard to move off the ball. As it turns out, Chartouny is not as good as we expected defensively and has been a turnover machine.
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: The big thing with this group is the turnovers. They rank 225th nationally in turnover rate, which is part of the reason that they’ve dropped from being a top 12 offense to the No. 39 offense, according to KenPom. I’m not too worried about that side of the ball, however, because I think we all know what their ceiling is offensively, and with their defense much improved this year, they don’t need to be quite as hyper-efficient to win games.
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: They are just so dangerous when they get it rolling offensively. It came in a loss, I know, but we all saw what they did in the second half against Kentucky, turning a 16 point deficit into a lead in the span of about 15 minutes. Bryce Brown is arguably the best shooter in America when he gets it going, and Jared Harper has been dominant at times as well.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: No team in the country gambles more defensively than Auburn does. They lead the nation in defensive turnover rate, they lead the nation in block rate and they’re fourth nationally in steal rate. The problem with that is that it has led to them giving up too many open threes, too many layups at the rim and too many free throws. Their defensive possessions either end up in a turnover or points for the other team, which is not the best way to beat the elite of the elite — the reason that pressing teams have a limited upside is that they rely on forcing their opponents to make mistakes, and the thing about really good teams (who typically have really good guards) is that they don’t make too many mistakes.
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: Chuma Okeke and Anfernee McLemore need to get back to being the players they were early in the season. What makes those two so valuable is that they are both versatile defenders with some size, strength and athleticism that can protect the rim, rebound the ball and stretch the floor offensively. McLemore hasn’t quite looked like himself coming off of last year’s horrific ankle injury, and Okeke’s work on the defensive glass is nowhere near what it was a season ago.
VIRGINIA TECH (+6000)
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: The Hokies have what may amount to the best backcourt in the ACC and are the nation’s third-best three-point shooting team. It’s really as simple as that. The combination of Justin Robinson and Nickeil Alexander-Walker gives Buzz Williams a pair of elite playmakers that thrive in ball-screen whom he can surround with 40 percent three-point shooters. You can’t ask for much more than that, and on the nights when they get it rolling, they are going to be able to score with anyone.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: They haven’t exactly done anything of note this season. Yes, that win over Purdue is going to hold up well because Purdue’s computer numbers will get inflated playing in the Big Ten, but that’s their only win that matters right now. They also lost to Penn State (who is 7-12 on the season, 0-8 in the Big Ten and has not beaten another team in the top 100 on KenPom) and in the last nine days got embarrassed by both Virginia and North Carolina.
Granted, all three of their losses came on the road, but at this point all the positivity I have regarding Virginia Tech stems is a theory. They’ve done nothing on the court to prove themselves a top ten team to date.
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: The Hokies have to be better defensively. Getting to the defensive glass more will help, but the big thing is running people off of the three-point line. Virginia shot 13-for-24 from three against them. North Carolina shot 16-for-34. As a team, they rank 198th nationally in defensive three-point percentage. Monmouth — who is 286th on KenPom — is the only team in college basketball that gives up a higher percentage of points allowed from beyond the arc.
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: Are you going to be the guy betting against the team that has won two of the last three national titles?
We knew at some point that the Wildcats would figure it out, and it looks like they have. They’ve won seven straight games since losing at Kansas and are the only undefeated team left in the Big East. Some of that is due to their inexperienced role players getting more comfortable with what Jay Wright is asking of them — specifically, Collin Gillespie has really been shooting the ball well — but the big difference is that both Eric Paschall and Phil Booth have played like all-americans for the last month. During this winning streak, Booth is averaging 20.9 points, 5.4 assists and 5.1 boards while shooting 49 percent from three while Paschall has posted 20.6 points, 7.7 boards and 2.3 assists while shooting 42.6 percent from three.
When those two playing like that, Villanova can hang with anyone.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: This entire seven-game run has come against six Big East teams not named Marquette as well as UConn. That’s not exactly a murderer’s row. We know about the issues facing the Big East conference this season. Before league play started, we said that there probably wasn’t a top 25 team in the conference, and now that Villanova is running roughshod over a bunch of teams that we know aren’t top 25 teams, we’re supposed to believe this team is suddenly as good as the Villanova teams of the last three years?
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: The biggest thing with this group is that they can’t simply be a two-man team. Jermaine Samuels, Cole Swider (when he gets healthy), Dhamir Cosby-Rountree. They have to be impact players. Beyond that, Villanova just needs to be better defensively. They currently rank 88th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. That’s not good enough.
IOWA STATE (+4000)
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: Iowa State has a roster that is built precisely the way that modern basketball is supposed to be played. They have five perimeter players (Marial Shayok, Nick Weiler-Babb, Tyrese Haliburton, Talen Horton-Tucker, Lindell Wigginton) that can on or off the ball — running ball-screens and spacing the floor with their shooting — who are all switchable defensively. They have a pair of big bodies (Michael Jacobson, Cam Lard) in the frontcourt that can score 1-on-1 in the paint, rebound the ball and protect the rim. They have NBA talent on their roster, and are probably the most talented team in the Big 12.
They create matchup problems offensively and have just enough size and versatility defensively that they can matchup well enough with just about anyone.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: Injuries keep sapping their depth. I’m not sure there is a team in college basketball that has dealt with more key pieces missing significant stretches of games than the Cyclones have, and where this really shows up …
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: … is with Wigginton and Lard. At one point during Big 12 play last year, Lard was playing like the best big man in the conference. Wigginton was thought to be the best returning perimeter player in the conference. Lard has dealt with off-the-court issues (he was suspended to start the year) and an ankle injury and has yet to play more than 16 minutes in a game this season. He had five fouls in six minutes against Kansas on Monday. Wigginton has been equally ineffective. He’s shooting 31.9 percent from three and 37.5 percent from the floor and looks like a man devoid of confidence. Iowa State needs those two to play like they’re capable of if they have any hope of reaching their ceiling.
TEXAS TECH (+3000)
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: They are, quite simply, the best defensive team in college basketball. As of today, they rank No. 1 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric as well as No. 1 in raw points-per-possession allowed. That defense isn’t going anywhere.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: The Red Raiders are really struggling to get anything going on the offensive end of the floor. Jarrett Culver has been sensational this season, but he’s more or less the only player that Chris Beard can rely on to create shots for his team. Personally, I think Culver is good enough to do that. People that I’ve talked to around the Big 12 think so. I’m sure Beard thinks so. The problem is that the only person that doesn’t realize just how good Jarrett Culver is is Jarrett Culver.
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: With the way that Texas Tech can defend, they don’t have to be great offensively to be able to make a run in March. Remember, in 2017, a South Carolina team that was not as good as this Texas Tech team reached the Final Four and lost to Gonzaga by four for the right to get to the national title game. This is doable, but the only way that can happen is if Culver decides to start playing like a guy that can take over games and has NBA teams considering him as a top ten pick. He makes teammates better, he’s a tough finisher around the rim, he can create out of ball-screens and he’s more-than-capable as a shooter. When he starts playing like that, Tech will snap out of this three-game losing streak.
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: It literally does not matter what Syracuse does during the regular season. Jim Boeheim has proven this over and over again, sneaking into the NCAA tournament when we did not think he deserved to be there and then putting together a run that no one saw coming.
There’s a reason for this, too. That zone that the Orange play is so difficult to figure out if you’ve never seen it. There is so much length and so much size that it’s almost impossible to pass through the zone. They don’t let you get the ball to the short-corner. If you get the ball to the high-post, all those arms makes it like trying to play basketball in the middle of a bush. They dare you to shoot over the top of the zone, but you never get shot in rhythm and their length allows them to contest even when it looks like they’re playing off you.
There isn’t a team in the country that they can’t frustrate, and that’s what makes them such a nightmare to see in March.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: They still can’t shoot. Elijah Hughes is shooting 35.7 percent from three this year, and he’s far and away the best shooter on the team. Boeheim’s three best weapons offensively — Tyus Battle, Oshae Brissett, Frank Howard — all shoot under 30 percent from three. That’s not their only issue offensively, either. Howard is this team’s point guard, but he can be turnover prone. Ask Tre Jones.
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: Nothing’s going to change. This is who Syracuse is.