I’ve spent a good amount of time surveying the teams that might make the NCAA Tournament come Selection Sunday. What I haven’t done up until now is assess the teams that actually have a chance of winning the NCAA Tournament. The following is a power chart that illustrates the teams that I feel have the best chance of winning the tournament. I’ve taken into consideration various factors such as; RPI, head to head match-ups, and injuries to rank the teams. You will notice that I don’t list any mid-major teams in this group. I simply don’t think any mid-major outside of Gonzaga has even the slightest chance of winning the NCAA Tournament regardless of the RPI. There will be upsets but you won’t see George Mason, Wichita St., or Bucknell cutting down the nets anytime soon.
UConn is the deepest team in the country. Depth becomes increasingly important come tournament time when players can slip in and out of slumps like night and day. If J.J. Redick has an off night, Duke can lose to Florida St. If Rudy Gay only takes five shots, UConn can still beat Villanova by 14. Plus, UConn has the most impressive resume in the country in beating Arkansas, Arizona, Gonzaga, LSU, Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Indiana, Seton Hall (by 42), Villanova, and West Virginia.
Duke is easily good enough to win the tournament. The big problem for the Blue Devils is keeping Shelden Williams out of foul trouble. That was one of the reasons why Florida St. was able to shock Duke this past week. This is a smart team that won’t beat itself. It’s resume is almost as impressive as UConn with victories over; Seton Hall (by 53), Memphis, Indiana, Texas, Bucknell, Maryland (2), N. Carolina St, North Carolina, and Boston College.
Villanova is rated higher in the RPI than Connecticut but college basketball fans saw last weekend why Villanova faces an uphill battle in lasting longer than the Huskies come the end of March. Villanova is a guard-oriented team which is sufficient against most basketball teams but not against UConn’s frontcourt and Sheldon Williams of Duke. Villanova did knock off the Huskies at home this year but they won’t have the luxury of playing at home in the tournament. ‘Nova split two big non-conference games against the Big XII with a victory over Oklahoma and a narrow loss to Texas. As good as ‘Nova’s record is, the Wildcats lost their only meeting with W. Virginia and didn’t have to play Pittsburgh.
After getting blown out early in the season by Duke and Tennessee, Texas flew under the radar for most of the season. The Longhorns might be underrated by the RPI and human polls but trust me when I say that no #1 seed wants to see Texas in their region as a #2 seed. Few people remember that Texas was without Brad Buckman for the entire second half against Duke. They were without Buckman for the entire game against Tennessee as well as without Daniel Gibson for the second half against the Vols. Texas more than proved that those blowout losses were a fluke with an impressive slew of victories against W. Virginia, Iowa, Memphis, Villanova, and Kansas.
5). N. Carolina
I certainly haven’t rated N. Carolina the fifth most likely team to win the tournament on the strength of their entire schedule. The Tar Heels lost to a number of below-average teams including USC, Virginia, and Miami (FL). However, Roy Williams’ highly-touted freshmen class has gelled leading the Heels to a six-game winning streak entering Saturday’s showdown with Duke. North Carolina pounded NC State in both meetings. It smacked Arizona on national television. The Heels crushed Virginia by 45 points this past week. The Heels are rolling. I expect this team to be even better come tourney time.
Memphis can beat any team in the country. The Tigers have a mix of veteran leadership and talented youth that has lead to victories over some of the nation’s elite including Alabama, UCLA, Cincinnati, Gonzaga, and Tennessee. The fact that Conference USA was such a weak conference this year will actually hurt Memphis come tourney time. There is such a thing as being “tournament tested”. Despite impressive victories in the non-conference schedule, Memphis has feasted on weak teams this year. The quality of play could come as a shock for the Tigers when they have to play great teams back to back.
Gonzaga is good but not great. Many Zags-supporters around the country are pleading for the Gonzaga to get a #1 seed but they simply don’t deserve it. It has one win in the RPI top 45 (Michigan St.). St. Mary’s is the second best team in the West Coast Conference with an RPI of 120. Gonzaga lost its other three marquee match-ups against Connecticut, Memphis and Washington. Adam Morrison and J.P. Batista form an excellent inside-outside tandem but the depth and athleticism just isn’t there for this team to win the title.
8). W. Virginia
Many people might have forgotten that W. Virginia was written off early in the season when they lost three straight games to Kentucky, Texas, and LSU. Those losses don’t look that bad now since we’ve discovered how good Texas and LSU are. Since then, the Mountaineers have gone 17-5 with wins over Oklahoma, Villanova, Georgetown (2), UCLA, and Pittsburgh. W. Virginia proved last year in the tournament that they could go on a winning streak against great competition. W. Virginia might end up as the most dangerous five seed in the tournament.
9). Ohio St.
Ohio St. has quietly crept to #4 in the RPI with 22-4 record. The Buckeyes won’t wow anyone with flashy play. They’ll simply drain ten three-pointers against you and send you home crying. Despite their gaudy record and first place standing in the Big Ten, the Buckeyes might be the least impressive team in the RPI top ten. They have one good non-conference victory (LSU). Ohio St. is only 3-4 against Illinois, Michigan St., Wisconsin and Indiana. The Buckeyes lucked out by only having to play Illinois and Wisconsin once each. They’ve attained their record by consistently beating the weaker teams on the schedule which is evidenced by their 6-0 record against Minnesota, Northwestern, Penn St. and Purdue. In fact, Ohio St. is the only team in the conference that hasn’t lost to one of those teams. That’s how you win a conference championship.
Illinois is an interesting case study. The Illini have beaten N. Carolina, Wichita St., Georgetown, Michigan St., Wisconsin, Indiana, and Iowa. Yet, nobody seems to be talking about Illinois as a legitimate threat to win the tournament. I can’t say I disagree with that sentiment either. This team is a far cry from last year’s juggernaut that nearly won the tournament. Last year’s team never would’ve lost to a team like Penn St. on its home court. Having said that, few teams can match Illinois’ seven wins against the RPI top 30. I have Illinois just behind Ohio St. since the Buckeyes clobbered the Illini in their only meeting.
The Hoyas are a completely different team than the one that played Illinois early in the season. I watched that game and came away thoroughly unimpressed with Georgetown. Since then, the Hoyas have gone 16-5 with victories over Duke, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse. The Hoyas have incredible depth with a powerful inside presence in 7’2 Roy Hibbert. Despite Georgetown’s impressive play of late, it is 0-4 against UConn, Villanova, and W. Virginia proving that the Hoyas aren’t quite ready for the big time. This team reminds me a little bit of the highly-hyped Seton Hall team of the mid 90’s that featured Luther Wright. That team was everybody’s sleeper come tournament time. They promptly bowed out of the tournament without making a peep.
If only LSU could play every game against the SEC, it would be ranked #1 right now. The Tigers are 13-2 in the SEC having beaten Arkansas (2), Tennessee, Kentucky, and Alabama. Outside of the SEC, LSU is only 7-5. Six of those victories came against teams with an RPI of 146 or worse. LSU’s only bright spot in the non-conference was an overtime win against W. Virginia. However, all five non-conference losses came against teams in the RPI top 60 (UConn, Ohio St., Cincinnati, Northern Iowa, and Houston) and none of the losses were by more than four points. LSU is “tournament tested” and could make some noise in the right region.
I’m not sold on Tennessee as a threat to win the tournament. The Vols are rated #6 in the RPI but their resume doesn’t merit such a high rating. They did hammer an undermanned Texas team early in the season. However, that win overshadows the fact that the Vols didn’t have another non-conference victory over a team in the RPI top 70. They were also blown out by a below-average Oklahoma St. team. Tennessee’s only claim to fame besides the win over Texas is two wins against Florida. Other than that, Tennessee is nothing to write home about. Tennessee is an upstart program but it lost too many games to top caliber competition to be considered a threat.
This is how you survive in the Big East while making a name for yourself nationally; only play Connecticut once and avoid playing Villanova all together. The Panthers used that formula to achieve a 10-5 record in the Big East. Pittsburgh went 2-2 against Marquette and W. Virginia proving that it can beat good teams. However, Pittsburgh’s resume is unimpressive for a team that’s rated #7 in the RPI. A non-conference victory over Wisconsin is the best win for the Panthers but that hardly stands out as a marquee win. The Panthers are more than likely the fourth best team in the Big East which stands for something. This team could reach the Final Eight in the right region but don’t expect a lengthy tourney run.
Like Texas, Washington has been flying under the radar lately. The Huskies were plagued by an abysmal RPI for a large part of the season but a seven-game winning streak has catapulted Washington into the top 30. The Huskies don’t have the strongest schedule in the country but wins over UCLA (2) and Gonzaga show that this team is for real. The Huskies probably have just as good of a shot as making the Final Four as last year’s squad which entered with tournament with a #1 seed.
16). Michigan St.
Everybody knows how dangerous Michigan St. can be come tournament time. For every first round exit, MSU seemingly has a Final Four appearance to match. Tom Izzo has built up such a reputation as having “tournament ready” teams that nobody wants to end up in the same region as the Spartans. Still, Michigan St. has depth issues. The Spartans are the only team in the country that has three players averaging over 17 points per game. One injury to the big three or foul trouble for Paul Davis makes Michigan St. an average team at best. If the big three can stay healthy and out of foul trouble, this team has just as good of a chance as any to make the Final Four. Michigan St. has ridden its three playmakers to victories over Arizona, Wichita St., Boston College, Indiana, Ohio St., Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin. That is impressive for any program.
The regular season is just about over and UCLA is still a mystery. The Bruins are 23-6 and stand alone in first place in the Pac-10. Yet, few people really know how good this team is. UCLA’s only solid victories on the season are against Michigan, Nevada, and Arizona (2). The Bruins lost both meetings with Washington leaving no doubt as to which team is really the best in the Pac-10. The Bruins also lost its only other big match-ups against Memphis and W. Virginia. The Bruins won’t scare anybody that ends up in their region but don’t put a big upset past them.
Oklahoma has won four straight games by one point. Has that ever happened before? The odds of that have to be infinitesimally small. Without knowing who Oklahoma played, four straight victories sounds impressive. That is, until you find out that they were against four of the worst teams in the Big XII (Iowa St., Texas Tech, Kansas St., and Oklahoma St.). The Sooners have twelve victories outside of the RPI top 100. They only have eight victories in the RPI top 100. Both totals are among the worst in the country for teams that will make the NCAA Tournament. The Sooners have beaten two good teams all year (Texas and Alabama). Blowout losses to Villanova and W. Virginia prove that the Sooners will be also-rans come tourney time.
19). Boston College
BC may have an impressive record at 22-6 but the RPI is certainly not impressed with what Boston College has done this year. The Eagles stand at #34. A quick look at BC’s schedule shows why. BC only has two victories that could be construed as being good; N. Carolina and North Carolina St. The rest of the schedule is an embarrassment of wins over bad teams in and out of conference. BC has the 90th rated schedule and only seven wins against the RPI top 100. If you’re going to move into the ACC, the best way to achieve a 22-6 record in your first year is to schedule bad teams and play Duke and N. Carolina once each and miss Maryland entirely. I can’t believe any team in the ACC could luck out so much as to play that conference schedule. If Maryland had BC’s ACC schedule, the Terps might be headed for the tournament.
Iowa is a good team but does anyone really see the Hawkeyes making a run in the tournament? This team is probably the most overrated team in the RPI with the exception of Tennessee. Iowa has impressive victories in the Big Ten over Ohio St., Michigan St., Indiana (2), Michigan, and Illinois. But, Iowa has also lost to Northwestern and Minnesota. A rule of thumb that I usually go by is never expect anything out of a team that lost to Northwestern. Iowa was impressive in two non-conference wins over Kentucky and North Carolina St. However, those two teams are not as good as many people thought they were entering the season.
21). North Carolina St.
The Wolfpack has three victories of note this year. It beat Alabama and Boston College on the road and gave George Washington its only loss of the season. Three good victories out of 21 hardly stands out as an impressive percentage. NC State went 1-4 against Duke, NC, and BC leaving it as the fourth best team in the ACC.
At one point in the season, Florida was 17-0. Now, the Gators are 23-6. Of Florida’s first 17 games, one came against a team in the RPI top 50. Of Florida’s last 12 games, six came against teams in the RPI top 50. Notice a trend? The Gators lost to S. Carolina twice which doesn’t bode well for a team looking to make a run in the tournament. Florida was ousted as merely a mediocre team in the SEC as Arkansas, Alabama, and Tennessee won every match-up with Florida this season. The Gators have a lot of talent but that hasn’t translated into much lately.
Some of the least talented Wisconsin teams of the last ten years have made runs in the NCAA Tournament. For all I know, this team could do the same. In looking at the Badgers schedule, nothing jumps off the page as being overly impressive. However, their schedule is littered with wins over teams from the RPI top 60. Wisconsin has beaten Old Dominion, Marquette, NC Wilmington, Wisconsin Milwaukee, Louisiana Tech, Iowa, Michigan St., Indiana and Ohio St. None of those teams are overly athletic which is why Wisconsin was able to win the majority of its games this year. If Wisconsin can get into a region with teams that like to slow the ball down, the Badgers could be on their way to another Great Eight appearance. However, Pittsburgh proved how difficult it is for Wisconsin to beat an up-tempo team.
I don’t think three wins has ever taken a team farther than Marquette’s wins over Connecticut, Georgetown, and Pittsburgh. Marquette has no other wins inside the RPI top 50 and actually have a losing record against the RPI top 50 (3-5). Yet, the Golden Eagles are well on their way to another tournament appearance. One has to wonder if Marquette would be going to the tournament without a win over UConn. Marquette lost to Winthrop and Nebraska in non-conference play which is probably the worst tandem of losses of any team I’ve discussed thus far.
Kansas was on a roll until it played Texas last weekend. The Longhorns handed Kansas an embarrassing 25-point loss leaving no doubt as to whom the best team in the Big XII is. However, that shouldn’t hide the fact that Kansas was 2-4 to start the season and now stands at 20-7. The Jayhawks have beaten California, Kentucky and Oklahoma since their 2-4 start. Their RPI has climbed from the low 100’s all the way to 39. Kansas, like North Carolina, was crippled by departures from last year’s team. Although Kansas likely isn’t on the same level as N. Carolina right now, this team could be dangerous come playoff time.
Kentucky is much like Michigan St. in the fact that regular season play has little impact on how this team does in the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky’s low point on the season was likely a 27 point loss at Kansas. Kentucky did beat W. Virginia but the Wildcats were beaten in virtually every other high profile game against teams like Iowa, Indiana, North Carolina, Florida and LSU. Kentucky has won four in a row including a victory over Tennessee which could be a sign that this team is coming around. I can assure you that no #1 seed wants to see Kentucky as a #8 seed in its region.
How Arizona has an RPI of 19 is beyond me. The Wildcats only have two wins over the RPI top 50. They beat a struggling Kansas team in its first game of the season and then beat Washington in overtime. That’s it. Arizona lost to UConn, Michigan St., UCLA (2), and N. Carolina. It’s OK to lose to good teams but you have to beat some too. Arizona has played better lately but they have been mostly unimpressive. The reinstatement of Chris Rodgers combined with an array of talent could propel this team to a few victories in the tourney but this team isn’t anything close to Lute Olsen’s teams of the past.
28). George Washington
I heard some guy on talk radio today complaining that GW deserved a number one seed and that there’s a conspiracy against the Colonials. GW has played ONE team in the RPI top 45. ONE! It would at least help GW’s case if it had won that game but it turned out to be a loss to North Carolina St. There was a UNLV team in the early 90’s that went something like 29-2 in the regular season and didn’t even make the tournament. GW should be happy to even make the tournament with a strength of schedule ranking of #211.
Arkansas was on the bubble until a recent three-game stretch that included victories over Florida, Alabama, and Tennessee. I can’t figure out why or how Arkansas is rated so low in the RPI (48). The Razorbacks have beaten Kansas, Missouri St., Florida, Alabama, and Tennessee which is better than most teams in the RPI top 30. The Razorbacks are a lock to make the tournament but inconsistent play will likely be their downfall.
Alabama will probably be the most improbable tournament team of all the teams chosen next Sunday. The Tide was 7-6 after its first SEC game. Its RPI was horrible. Three of the six losses were to Notre Dame, Temple, and Mississippi. Fast forward two months and the Tide are 10-5 in the SEC with victories over every good team the conference has to offer (Kentucky, Arkansas, LSU, Tennessee, and Florida). Alabama is the only team in the conference to beat all of the top teams in the conference. Despite Bama’s incredible run, losses to S. Carolina and Georgia show how inconsistent this team can be.
The amazing thing about Lester Abram’s injury is that he’s been questionable for the last ten games or so. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a guy unsure of his playing status for that long a period of time. Now the word is that Abram might be ready for the Big Ten Tournament. There’s no question that Michigan has considerable depth when healthy. If the Wolverines can get Abram and Chris Hunter healthy for the NCAA Tournament, this team could win a couple games. Michigan beat three of the Big Ten’s best in Michigan St, Illinois and Wisconsin. However, those were Michigan’s only wins in the top 50 this season. Its record in games against the RPI top 50 is a paltry 3-7. The success or, lack thereof that Michigan experiences in the NCAA Tournament should not overshadow the most important development for the Michigan program which is simply making the tournament for the first time in eight years. Michigan fans will relish the chance to watch the Wolverines suit up on national television in a meaningful March game. The anticipation will be intense on Selection Sunday.