The parity in college basketball this year is unprecedented. If you asked 10 people that actively indulge in the sport who they feel is the best in the country, you might get 10 different answers. The usual suspects — Michigan State University, University of Kansas, University of North Carolina — and other teams are there, but that doesn’t mean things are as clear as, say, last year was when most pundits had (at least) Duke University, University of Kentucky and University of Wisconsin as some of the favorites to cut down the nets. Ultimately, that just makes for a wild, wild March with selection Sunday looming on the 13th.
Tier 1 – The “Favorites:” Kansas, Villanova University, North Carolina, University of Virginia, Xavier University, University of Oklahoma, Michigan State University, University of Maryland.
These are the teams I see as the no. 1 and no.2 seeds, or a no. 3 seed at the lowest. Last year we saw Duke, Wisconsin and Kentucky as three of the four final four teams; all three of these schools were one seeds. If you’re looking to further that trend and go with “chalk,” then these are the teams to look at. There are two Big Ten Conference teams (Michigan State, Maryland), two ACC teams (North Carolina, Virginia), two Big 12 Conference teams (Kansas, Oklahoma), and two Big East Conference teams (Villanova, Xavier). This could make for intriguing matchups in the conference tournaments that largely start next week. The winner of each one of these conference tournaments will likely enter the March Madness field as a no. 1 seed and a strong favorite to reach the NCAA Final Four.
Top Players on each team: Perry Ellis (Kansas), Daniel Ochefu (Villanova), Brice Johnson (North Carolina), Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia), Trevon Bluiett (Xavier), Buddy Hield (Oklahoma), Denzel Valentine (Michigan State), Melo Trimble (Maryland)
Tier 2 – Something to Prove: University of Miami (FL), University of Kentucky, University of West Virginia, University of Iowa, Iowa State University, Duke University, University of Oregon, University of Arizona.
These teams just missed the mark. The list includes four teams (Kentucky, Iowa State, Duke, Arizona) that entered the season ranked in the top-15. Kentucky will enter the SEC tournament as the favorite, and thus has a chance to snag as high as a two seed for the big dance. The same is true for both Oregon and Arizona, who will go into the Pac-12 Conference Tournament as the odds on favorites. The rest will hope to be playing spoiler in their conference tournament, but don’t be surprised if they do. Miami has beaten Virginia, West Virginia has beaten Kansas, Iowa State has beaten Oklahoma and Kansas, Iowa has beaten Michigan State twice and Duke has beaten North Carolina and Virginia. Yeah, the gap between favorite and “something to prove,” isn’t very large.
Top Players on each team: Sheldon McClellan (Miami), Tyler Ulis (Kentucky), Devin Williams (West Virginia), Jarrod Uthoff (Iowa), Georges Niang (Iowa State), Brandon Ingram (Duke), Dillon Brooks (Oregon), Ryan Anderson (Arizona)
Tier 3 – The Sleepers: University of Texas at Austin, Indiana University, University of Utah, University of California, Berkeley, Texas A&M University, Wichita State University, University of Dayton, Purdue University.
There are some really good teams in this tier. Wichita State was a preseason top-10 team, California and Indiana were in the top-15 and Utah and Purdue were in the top-25. Some have slightly overperformed (Texas A&M), some have underperformed (California, who is coming on strong lately) — but all of these teams are dangerous. Texas is my favorite team being slept on, coach Shaka Smart has had success in the tourney before and he’s got his team playing well earlier than expected; look for the Longhorns to make some noise. Indiana could nab a Big 10 regular season championship, and Utah and California will look to put a lot of pressure on Oregon and Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament.
Top Players on each team: Cameron Ridley (Texas), Yogi Ferrell (Indiana), Jakob Poeltl (Utah), Tyrone Wallace (California), Jalen Jones (Texas A&M), Ron Baker (Wichita State), Dyshawn Pierre (Dayton), A.J. Hammons (Purdue).
Tier 4 – The Dark Horses: Syracuse University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Texas Tech University, Monmouth University, Providence University, University of Connecticut, Butler University, Saint Mary’s University.
This tier features two basketball behemoths (Syracuse, Connecticut), a team with one of the best players in the country (Providence), two former Cinderella’s (VCU, Butler) and the team with the best bench celebrations in the nation (Monmouth). This is the list of teams that you’ll want to look at if you want to make some even bolder picks with your bracket than just the sleepers. VCU largely plays like they did with Shaka Smart, which is always a problem for teams. Syracuse once again has a solid two-three zone to go with its three-point shooting. Saint Mary’s has been going for Gonzaga’s jugular all season long, and Tubby Smith has Texas Tech playing surprisingly good basketball as of late.
Top Players on each team: Michael Gbinije (Syracuse), Melvin Johnson (VCU), Zach Smith (Texas Tech), Justin Robinson (Monmouth), Kris Dunn (Providence), Daniel Hamilton (Connecticut), Roosevelt Jones (Butler), Emmett Naar (Saint Mary’s).
Bonus 5 – Teams likely out of the tournament (as of now) that could wreak havoc if they get in: Louisiana State University, Gonzaga University, University of Washington, Oregon State University, University of Alabama.
Two teams from the state of Washington, a second Pac-12 school, a football school and the school with the odds on favorite to be the first selection in the next NBA draft. It would be a real shame if LSU doesn’t find its way into the field. Tigers freshman Ben Simmons averages a double double a game but it has only been good enough for a 17-12 season thus far for LSU, not to mention he’s now without his second leading scorer for the rest of the season. Two other elite players might be missing the tourney in Kyle Wiltjer at Gonzaga and Gary Payton II at Oregon State. That football school, Alabama, is rolling at the right time now too and has wins over both Wichita State and Notre Dame. Then there’s the youthful Washington Huskies that have played their way out of the tournament lately. Regardless, if any of these teams get in it’ll mean a scary double digit seed potentially making some noise in March.
Top Players on each team: Ben Simmons (LSU), Kyle Wiltjer (Gonzaga), Andrew Andrews (Washington), Gary Payton (Oregon State), Retin Obasohan (Alabama).