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NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament: Narrowing the Top-Teams to 24, and Predictions

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NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Michigan vs Michigan State David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The Top Teams in the NCAA Tournament:

As the third bite at this apple, what follows is a prediction of the Sweet-16 field (with rankings based roughly on my confidence in the teams making the Sweet-16), 8 teams that might crash my predicted Sweet-16 (regardless of region), and my prediction for the rest of the tournament (Elite 8, Final Four, Champion) with any comments if I feel they are needed.

The changes from the previous entries:

I have continued to “shorten the benches” as teams’ depth charts have shifted and as the primary playing groups have tightened up (and as guys have gotten injured or come back from injury, or transferred).

Without further ado...

The TRUE depth-charts and rankings of the ACTUAL top-16 (plus 8) NCAA Tournament men’s basketball teams

(brief comments per team):

(Disclaimer: I am not a genius, have no ability to predict the future, a tenuous grasp of reality, and may have completely forgotten, omitted, or mis-depth-charted various players due to: transfers I didn’t know about or check on, legal issues, injuries, etc. please DO let me know about factual or obvious omissions and errors)

I view this as a collective exercise in debate and silliness: please offer your thoughts and critiques!

#1 Duke (Kenpom - #3)

(#1 in my pre-season rankings, #1 in my mid-season rankings)

1 - Jones, Goldwire
2 - Barrett, O’Connell
3 - Reddish
4 - Williamson, White
5 - Bolden, DeLaurier

I will save my in-depth breakdown of Duke for the Elite-8 match-up (inshallah/God willing/knocks-on-wood/cracks open another beer), but for now, know that they are a team with overweening talent in 2 players (Williamson and Barrett), with very solid, and potentially explosive, complementary guys (Reddish, Jones, Bolden, White, DeLaurier, O’Connell, Goldwire, and Vrankovic - the kid Baker, whose red-shirt K burned so that he could play a handful of minutes when Williamson was out, doesn’t appear to be in the rotation in any meaningful way... what a waste of a year). They should reach the Sweet-16 with little trouble.

#2 Virginia (Kenpom - #1)

(#12 in my pre-season rankings, #2 in my mid-season rankings)

1 - Jerome, Clark
2 - Guy, Anthony, Stattmann
3 - Hunter, Badocchi
4 - Diakite, Key
5 - Salt, Huff

Virginia is excellent. They will, despite their pace, which invites lesser teams to hang with them, break-through this year and reach the Final-Four. Before that though, they will cruise to the Sweet-16. This team is athletic, great defensively, and can really shoot the ball. If Bennett wasn’t so foolish (and let them play faster and looser), then they wouldn’t play with fire as much.

#3 Kentucky (Kenpom - #7)

(#3 in my pre-season rankings, #7 in my mid-season rankings)

1 - Hagans, Quickley
2 - Herro, Baker
3 - Johnson
4 - Travis, Montgomery
5 - Washington, Richards

A super bet to make the Sweet-16 (despite the potentially very difficult match-up with Wofford - see below), but not blessed with an easy region. This is by far the best coaching job Calipari has ever done (not particularly close), and this team really has a great set of offensive options. But they are young, and their old guys haven’t made it past the Sweet-16, so they don’t have meaningful NCAA-T experience. But they have awesome moxie (verging on Brazdeikis-levels of arrogance, for better or worse), compete hard, and really defend well. They also have three total-boss players in Herro, Washington, and Johnson. It will be interesting to see how they handle adversity - they folded in some games this year, especially when their main dudes (+ Travis) got into foul-trouble.

#4 North Carolina (Kenpom - #6)

(#4 in my pre-season rankings, #8 in my mid-season rankings)

1 - White, Woods
2 - Williams, Robinson
3 - Johnson
4 - Maye, Little
5 - Brooks

Williams still hasn’t really done a whole heck of a lot of coaching with this crew, but they have gotten better as individual performers over the course of the season (except for Little, who is still malingering and/or shackled on the bench for the most part). White (who has REALLY improved over the course of the season as a decision maker) is outstanding, Johnson is their most important guy, Maye will kill you like lead-paint if you let him, and Brooks, Williams, and Robinson are great complementary guys. This team won’t scout their opponents, and whoever they face in the Sweet-16 will have a GREAT chance to knock them off (Auburn or Kansas), but they should get there pretty comfortably (assuming UNC realizes that Washington plays a zone, and assuming that UNC hits their shots against Washington’s zone - UNC beat Syracuse at home by only 8 points).

#5 Virginia Tech (Kenpom - #11)

(#31 in my pre-season rankings, #10 in my mid-season rankings)

1 - Robinson, Alexander-Walker
2 - Bede
3 - Hill, Wilkins
4 - Outlaw, Horne
5 - Blackshear

If Robinson is truly healthy and playing well, then this is a danger team for Duke. Va Tech has a tricky match-up against St. Louis. Pundits writing off SLU should check themselves because many of Va Tech’s losses came against teams that were: offensively challenged and/or teams that scrap it up and defend well (i.e. SLU’s MO): Penn State, Virginia x2, Louisville, Clemson, FSU x2. Still, they should win - they shoot the leather off the ball, and Blackshear is delightful (total Izzo kinda guy).

#6 Michigan State (Kenpom - #4)

(#11 in my pre-season rankings, #6 in my mid-season rankings)

1 - Winston, Loyer
2 - McQuaid
3 - Henry, Brown
4 - Goins
5 - Tillman, Ward, Kithier

You know the story. This team has been through the ringer, lost 2 of its top 7-or-8 players for the season, had other starters miss multiple games with injuries, brought along a relatively green freshman class, and still managed to win the regular season and tournament championships in the toughest league in the country. We have the best point guard in the nation (other than maybe Ja Morant, not that Izzo or any Spartan would trade Winston for him), a terrifying front court in terms of dynamism, defense, and rebounding, a lights-out shooter/all-defense 2-guard, and 3 secondary/reserve freshmen guards/wings who have played their best ball of the season down the stretch, and none of whom are afraid. MSU has one of the toughest roads to the Sweet-16, with a prospective 2nd round match-up against Louisville (#17 in Kenpom - do the math) or a dangerous Minnesota team, and easily the toughest path to a Final-Four. But if you are doubting this team at this point, then you haven’t been paying attention. Assuming MSU has found a way to get rest while prepping well (especially Winston, who, frankly, should not practice at all this week outside of shoot-arounds and walk-throughs), then this team will be fully mentally locked in and 100% ready for whatever comes their way. PPTPW has been inscribed on this team’s collective soul.

#7 Tennessee (Kenpom - #8)

(#6 in my pre-season rankings, #5 in my mid-season rankings)

1 - Bone
2 - Turner, Bowden
3 - Schofield, Pons
4 - Williams, Fulkerson
5 - Alexander, Walker jr

This team worries me. There is simply no way they should have laid such an egg vs Auburn. They remind me of some recent MSU teams a bit - they are really good, but are putting tons of pressure on themselves. I hope they rise to their own expectations, but they need to play loose and enjoy themselves in order to really get to where they want to go. Every one of their losses have come on the road or at neutral venues, but they only lose to really good teams. The only problem: both Iowa and, especially, Cincinnati have the potential to rise to the occasion and blow their doors off. Still, Tennessee is a favorite to reach the Sweet-16 because they have quality depth, shot makers, and a low-post beast in Williams. The key for them is have Turner do less than he often tries to do, and getting consistent looks through their offense (no hero ball please Turner, Schofield, and Bone...).

#8 Purdue (Kenpom - #10)

(#41 in my pre-season rankings, #9 in my mid-season rankings)

1 - Edwards
2 - Cline, Hunter jr
3 - Eastern
4 - Eifert, Wheeler
5 - Haarms, Williams

Purdue should make the Sweet-16. The two questions: will Painter go “full-Painter” and, more importantly, but inextricably linked to the first question, will Edwards go “full-Edwards?” If Edwards stops chucking the ball like he is playing in the Moneyball league, then Purdue has a real shot. Cline is a sniper, Eastern has really begun to find himself a bit, and they have 4 competent big men. The problem is that too-much runs through Edwards. They need to run more sets for Cline, Eifert (who is a good shooter, but has receded into the hedge down the stretch), Wheeler, and Williams. And they really need Haarms to keep playing aggressively on both ends. Despite a tricky 2nd round match-up against either Nova (who could easily punk Purdue with their calm execution and veteran experience/coaching disparity), or St Mary’s who would be on a serious run of confidence, and have the guards and big guy to cause Purdue problems, Purdue will make the Sweet-16.

#9 Texas Tech (Kenpom - #9)

(#16 in my pre-season rankings, #15 in my mid-season rankings)

1 - Mooney
2 - Moretti, Edwards
3 - Culver, Corprew
4 - Owens, Francis
5 - Odiase

I freaking love this team. They will make the Sweet-16 (and the Final-Four). They have great shooting (Mooney and especially Moretti), defend at the highest of levels, have a go-to guy in Culver, have moxie out-the-wazoo, two great big-guys, and some real punch off the bench in Edwards, Francis, and Corprew (all of whom can shoot, handle, and create). If you like making bets, bet on this team.

#10 Michigan (Kenpom - #5)

(#10 in my pre-season rankings, #4 in my mid-season rankings)

1 - Simpson
2 - Poole, Brooks
3 - Matthews
4 - Brazdeikis, Livers
5 - Teske, Davis, Johns

Despite MSU making UM look rather pedestrian in three match-ups this season, this UM team is still good (it’s why they pushed our guys so hard in those three oh-so-sweet victories). That being said I would be really uncomfortable if I were them looking at their second round match-up against either Nevada (a dangerous team with a ton of talent and length - assuming Caroline is healthy), or Florida (a team that is finally starting to play its best ball of the season, who has finally found some shooting, can still defend really well, and who has a very good point guard in Nembhard). Still, MSU can’t have fully robbed UM of its mojo...right?

#11 Florida State (Kenpom - #14)

(#17 in my pre-season rankings, #31 in my mid-season rankings)

1 - Forrest, Nichols
2 - Walker, Vassell, Savoy,
3 - Mann
4 - Cofer, Gray
5 - Koumadje, Kabengele

I still really like this team, even though they are deeply flawed. They have non-stop athletes and length, hot-and-cold shooting, mind-blowingly bad turnovers, and offense issues (“What are they running?” “Why are they running that?” and, “That was not supposed to happen!” are basically their fans’ fight songs/chants at this point). All of that being said, they are tough, have zero back-down, and they have Leonard Hamilton (who the basketball gods MUST bestow favor on this year, and if not now, then maybe never). Kabengele is a delight, and Gray and Walker are future stars. They should make it to the Sweet-16.

#12 Auburn (Kenpom - #13)

(#13 in my pre-season rankings, #33 in my mid-season rankings)

1 - Harper,
2 - Brown, McCormick
3 - Doughty, Dunbar,
4 - McLemore, Purifoy
5 - Okeke, Spencer III, Wiley

I have liked this team all season, and in the SEC-tourney I finally saw the team I thought I would see all season. They shoot it, they play fast, they force turnovers, and they have great defensive potential, in general, when they don’t play stupidly and when they commit to rebounding. They are also finally getting healthy (Wiley has been in and out of the line-up all season, but looked very good vs Tennessee and is a real difference maker if he is healthy), and their guys who missed time this/last season (McLemore and Purifoy) are coming on strong down the stretch (especially Purifoy, who had a great SEC-tourney). IF their front court plays like it can, then they should cruise to the Sweet-16, and are a great dark-horse bet for a Final-Four run (they match-up REALLY well vs Kansas and UNC).

#13 Iowa State (Kenpom - #16)

(#9 in my pre-season rankings, #22 in my mid-season rankings)

1 - Weiler-Babb, Wigginton
2 - Haliburton
3 - Shayok
4 - Horton-Tucker
5 - Lard, Jacobson, Conditt

I love this team too - the Big XII version of Va Tech, but more loveable and with more personality. They can shoot it, have moxie, have a bunch of guys who can drive and create, and I really like their big-dudes. They have little depth, but Wigginton is maybe the best 6th man in the tournament, and in a tournament that usually favors guard-dominant teams, this crew has to like their chances. This is a team that could shoot its way past Houston and UK, and one that I am betting will at least make it to the Sweet-16.

#14 Wisconsin (Kenpom - #12)

(#23 in my pre-season rankings, #17 in my mid-season rankings)

1 - Trice
2 - Davison, Pritzl
3 - Iverson, King
4 - Reuvers, Ford, Thomas
5 - Happ

Here they are, your least-favorite group of scrappers. Thing is, vs most teams they will have decided match-up advantages, and though I love KSU Dean Wade’s foot is giving me PTSD. In a rock-fight with KSU I 100% go with Wisconsin, who has good match-ups all over the court, and especially at the 4, where Reuvers will be shooting over fools all day. If Iverson plays consistently and aggressively, and if Trice and Davison can provide just a bit of shooting, then this team could even push UVA in a rematch of their earlier loss to the Cavaliers (Wisconsin lost by 7 - thank you pace - but shot like absolute shit and turned it over a lot; I would not like seeing that match-up again if I were UVA).

#15 Syracuse (Kenpom - #35)

(#9 in my pre-season rankings, #22 in my mid-season rankings)

1 - Howard
2 - Battle, Boeheim
3 - Hughes
4 - Brissett, Dolezaj
5 - Chukwu, Sidibe

I am not doing this to appease the basketball gods and to over-hype Syracuse so that we don’t have to play them in the Final-Four...far from it. This Syracuse team is good, they have just been sand-bagging the regular season (and ACC tourney). They have tons of battle-tested and experienced guys; they have length and shooting; they can beat anyone on any given day (or lose to anyone...). But they are going to clown Gonzaga because Gonzaga ain’t all they are cracked up to be, and because Gonzaga only has 3 good 3pt shooters, and because there is no way that those guys will have good days vs that Cuse zone. Hachimura and Clarke will struggle to score, and the Cuse guards will dominate their respective match-ups on offense.

#16 Maryland (Kenpom - #24)

(#27 in my pre-season rankings, #20 in my mid-season rankings)

1 - Cowan
2 - Ayala, Smith jr
3 - Morsell, Wiggins
4 - Smith, Lindo
5 - Fernando, Bender

But, but, but, but, Belmont... but, but, but, Temple... but, but, but, LSU... wrong. UMD is going to the Sweet-16. Belmont is a souped-up Iowa, and their frosh of the year center is hobbled coming into the tourney (not a good situation going up against Fernando) and their best player Windler is a straight-forward cover for Smith. Temple ain’t beating Belmont, and LSU is super talented, but worse in the grit and fight categories and karma don’t mess around (they have been super fortunate in close games, and, well... Will Wade...). Maryland gets a home game against MSU and I predict their run ends there.

The potential wild-cards (regardless of region):

#17 Nevada (Kenpom - #25)

(#5 in my pre-season rankings, #13 in my mid-season rankings)

1 - Johnson
2 - Martin, Henson
3 - Martin
4 - Caroline, Thurman
5 - Porter, Brown

Brown’s complete disappearance from the playing rotation is bizarre - the kid was supposed to be a beast. But this team is really talented, long, with solid shooting, swagger, and experience (Johnson is a junior, Brown is a freshman, the rest of their rotation are seniors). If they can get past Florida, then they can get past Michigan - they have length and decent match-ups with both teams.

#18 Florida (Kenpom - #28)

(#29 in my pre-season rankings, NR in my mid-season rankings)

1 - Allen
2 - Nembhard, Locke, Okauru
3 - Hudson
4 - Johnson
5 - Hayes, Bassett, Stokes

Again, this team is playing better down the stretch, and have found a bit more shooting across their line-up. I am not sure they can win two games, but I am also not sure they won’t. I think Nembhard could have a break-out couple of games, and Hayes, Hudson, and Allen are the kind of senior trio that could “find themselves” on a trip to the Sweet-16.

#19 Gonzaga (Kenpom - #2)

(#8 in my pre-season rankings, #3 in my mid-season rankings)

1 - Perkins, Crandall
2 - Norvell jr
3 - Kispert, Jones
4 - Hachimura
5 - Clarke, Tillie, Petrusev

Sure, Gonzaga is great. And I seriously do hate the match-up with Syracuse. But if Syracuse forgets to take-off their warmups vs Baylor (totally possible), then Gonzaga could get a free pass, or they could hit a bunch of shots vs Cuse and advance (this would surprise me). Either way I don’t see Gonzaga getting out of this region, and I don’t know that I would favor them in any game after the first round; just based on match-ups.

#20 Houston (Kenpom - #15)

(#NR in my pre-season rankings, #34 in my mid-season rankings)

1 - Robinson, Jarreau
2 - Davis, Goesling
3 - Brooks, Hinton
4 - Alley, White
5 - Brady, Gresham

This team defends really well, especially in their contesting of the 3pt arc. They have a couple of great scorers in Davis and Brooks, who could lead them on a run, but I am still skeptical after watching them lose to Cincinnati. Cumberland did whatever he wanted against Houston, and they gave up a ton of offensive boards. Iowa State has like 4 guys as good as Cumberland, and OSU (if they win vs Iowa State) can definitely shut down Davis and Brooks, while Wesson might just destroy the Houston front-court. If they match-up with UK (or Wofford), they will have another really tough time defending the glass and preventing UK’s wings from getting where they want to go.

#21 Kansas (Kenpom - #20)

(#2 in my pre-season rankings, #11 in my mid-season rankings)

1 - Dotson
2 - Garrett,Moore
3 - Agbaji, Lawson
4 - Grimes
5 - Lawson, McCormack, Lightfoot

To be fair, I have been thinking that Kansas wouldn’t win the Big XII for a few years now and been wrong, but, to also be fair, I did predict in my mid-season rankings that they would be beaten by enough teams in the Big XII to lose the crown. Despite having multiple future NBA guys, Bill Self didn’t have quite enough talent once Azubuike and Vick’s season ended; at least not enough to win the conference reg. season or tournament. But this team could make a run. They still have all of that other talent (Dotson, Agbaji, Grimes, and Lawson, at least, are all future NBA players), and they don’t have a bad set of match-ups. It could happen, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

#22 Cinncinati (Kenpom - #32)

(NR in my pre-season rankings, NR in my mid-season rankings)

1 - Broome, Jenifer
2 - Cumberland, Moore
3 - Williams
4 - Scott, Fredricks
5 - Brooks, Diarra, Nsoseme

This Cincinnati team is better than they have played, and their run through the AAC tourney showed what they are capable of. Broome, Jenifer, and Cumberland are a fearsome trio of heady veterans, and Cumberland has become a true go-to scorer. They play a slow tempo, and like to play a brand of basketball I affectionately describe as “face-punch” (a game where you take turns punching your opponent in the face with no back-swing while drinking, in collegial fashion, in between rounds). Their front court will remind you of FSU crossed with Rutgers, and they are not afraid of anyone. In about half of my brackets, I talk myself into Cincinnati upsetting Tennessee.

#23 Oregon (Kenpom - #43)

(#14 in my pre-season rankings, NR in my mid-season rankings)

1 - Pritchard
2 - Richardson, Bailey jr
3 - King, Amin
4 - White, Norris
5 - Okoro, Wooten

It took a while, but Oregon found themselves down the stretch of the run-in to the NCAA tournament. Yes, they played in the Pac-12. But you know what, once they realized that fact (in late February) they beat the brains out of the next 8 teams they played, including 4 teams in the Pac-12 tourney (winning the championship). 8-game winnging streaks heading into the NCAA-T are not to be dismissed. They block shots, force turnovers, don’t give up lots of 3’s (or a good percentage from 3), they have four 3pt shooters, and they match-up well with Wisconsin. The thing in Oregon’s favor: they are comfortable playing slow, and will happily have rock-fights with their entire region. Wisconsin, Oregon, KSU, and UVA are all in the same part of their region... this is “face-punch” central, and the winner of that Sweet-16 blood-bath, gets to play Tennessee, Cincinnati, or Purdue...man oh man... the committee didn’t screw around - they put ALL of these “face-punch” teams together. They’re telling me they don’t care about match-ups?...Riiiiiiiiiiight... I am just amazed they didn’t stick Cuse vs Baylor in the 8-9 slot (I guess that would have been TOO obvious).

#24 Wofford (Kenpom - #19)

(NR in my pre-season rankings, NR in my mid-season rankings)

1 - Murphy, Larson
2 - Hoover, Theme-Love
3 - Magee, Hollowell
4 - Aluma, Goodwin, Stump
5 - Jackson, Pegram

No, Wofford will not be favored vs UK (and yeah, Seton Hall ain’t beating Wofford). But the match-up is NOT a bad one for Wofford. They have their own foursome of big, athletic, strong front-court players, and they have 3 of the best shooters in the entire country in Murphy, Hoover, and Magee. If you want a super-sexy Curry-Davidson-esque pick? Wofford is the one. They will be able to hang around with UK just like they did vs UNC, @ Oklahoma, and @ Miss. St. They got their brains beat in @ Kansas, but that only happened because they shot their worst percentage from 3 of their lives, which WON’T happen vs UK (who give up a surprising number of good looks from 3). If they can prevent UK from getting out and running (i.e. don’t turn it over, which Wofford can do at times), then they will make UK feel the pressure.

Predictions:

Elite 8:

Duke vs MSU - again, I won’t spoil the “how” for you, but the good guys win.

FSU vs TTU - FSU loses the plot; Texas Tech has too much smart guard play.

Auburn vs ISU - Auburn beats UNC in the Sweet-16, then beats ISU in the same way.

UVA vs Tennessee - Virginia breaks through.

Final 4:

MSU vs TTU - Winston and Ward are too much: MSU’s comparative advantages win it late.

UVA vs Auburn - After shooting well and playing smart on their run, Auburn loses the plot and their minds vs UVA chucking bad shot after bad shot, and losing all defensive discipline.

Championship:

MSU vs UVA - Izzo pops in the last two tourney-win videos over UVA for the guys in the hotel room, then they watch some tape from this year’s UVA team, then MSU goes out and wins wire-to-wire in a high-leverage nail-biter that never gets to more than a 2 possession game until the final minute.