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Saturday, April 20, 2019

Ranking the top 10 NCAA championship contenders

John Calipari

College basketball, more than any other sport, seems to have a dichotomy about its championship contenders. Even at this point in the season, you could convince me that only two or three teams can really win it all. At the same time, I’d be willing to believe that a wild March Madness could lead to chaos with a 6-seed stealing a championship. Past history tells us the answer probably lives somewhere between the two.

As I scanned for teams to consider as contenders, Duke certainly feels like it exists in a tier at the top alone. The talent assembled at Duke, being led by a legendary coach, puts the Blue Devils as the favorite, but not a sure thing. The next tier is two teams that seem capable of surviving March and also beating Duke when push comes to shove. They are followed by a group that all have high enough ceilings to make the improvements needed to go on a six-game run and cut down the nets.

Here are the 10 teams I see as capable of winning the NCAA Tournament.

10. Marquette

On a list of ten title contenders, in a year like this year with some great teams at the top of the polls, the last spot or two will be longshots. For the gamblers out there, Marquette is an intriguing lottery ticket.

The Golden Eagles have not been beaten by anyone but St. John’s (twice) since before Thanksgiving. Marquette’s two losses in November both came at the hands of two teams who are looking and playing much differently now — Kansas and Indiana.

Steve Wojciechowski has his team playing excellent offensively, which is translating to tough wins. This season, Marquette is 6-3 in road or neutral site games, with all nine of those games coming versus top 100 competition (per KenPom).

Everything Marquette has done and is capable of in March is driven by Markus Howard. The junior sharpshooter has placed himself squarely into the National Player of the Year conversation. He sinks 44 percent of his long range attempts and is taking more than eight per game. Howard has also made himself a more effective driver this year. He’s attempting twice as many free throws as he did last year, and making 91 percent from the stripe.

He has the shooting stroke and scoring ability to win any game for the Golden Eagles. Howard has topped 35 points on six separate occasions this season. Offensively, he isn’t doing things all by himself. As a team, the Golden Eagles are hitting the 8th-highest percentage from outside the arc. When Marquette’s defensive lapses or turnover struggles bubble up, their shooting is good enough to buoy them through problems. Marquette is far from perfect, but they are a longshot to get red hot in March.

9. Nevada

Of all the teams listed here, none is more of an unknown than Nevada. It’s a real possibility that when March rolls around, the Wolf Pack will enter the tournament without having played any of the other 67 teams in the field. The best chances for Nevada to avoid that fate are fairly dire. Either Arizona State would need to turn things around, South Dakota State would need to win the Summit League, or Nevada itself would need to lose to Utah State or Fresno State in the Mountain West Conference Tournament. None of those scenarios are very likely.

This isn’t necessarily the fault of Eric Musselman or his Nevada program. Their schedule looked stronger on paper before the season began. Three wins against Pac-12 teams would seem strong, but that entire conference has been a tire fire this year. The Wolf Pack also probably counted on being able to boast about a road win at Loyola-Chicago, fresh off their Final Four appearance. The Ramblers have been unimpressive, with 11 losses this season.

The Wolf Pack can’t be dismissed due to a weaker-than-expected schedule. Nevada is still 24-2 on the season, with 12 wins and just 2 losses in road or neutral games. With a balanced offensive attack, six different players in Musselman’s rotation are scoring more than 7 points per game. The Pack have turned the ball over more than their opponent just four times all year. In rough games when the lights are brightest, that is a highly valuable trait that can carry Nevada on a deep run in March.

8. North Carolina

I’m not sure a team has done a better job of melding freshman talent with upperclassmen value this season than North Carolina. In the age of one-and-dones, the ability to mesh these two sources of production has become paramount for success in March.

Roy Williams starts three seniors who all have defined roles and reliable skills. Luke Maye is a beast on the glass, but makes bigs step out to the arc to defend his shooting ability. Cam Johnson is a dead-eye shooter at 47 percent from 3-point land. Kenny Williams does the little things, scoring when needed and always defending.

The Heels’ freshman have been just as vital. Coby White, for my money, has been the best point guard in college basketball this season. His ability to score and also find shots for his teammates has been remarkable. Few players in the nation can shoot as well as White and also have the athleticism to slash into the paint as easily as he makes it seem. In addition to White, Nassir Little is starting to look like the lottery pick that was expected in Chapel Hill. Little always had the body and flash to impress, but has grown into a role lately. After a rocky start at Carolina, Little has learned he’s more valuable as a downhill penetrator than a shooter. Until a recent ankle injury limited Little, he’d been shooting fewer threes and finding more ways to use his athleticism to attack the basket.

With those two freshman surrounded by veteran leadership and steady role players, the Heels can build something this March. We all saw that on display when Carolina handled Duke on its home floor this week. Even without Zion Williamson on the court, that dominant win showed how strong the Heels can be.

7. Michigan State

It should come as no surprise that Tom Izzo has built one of the most balanced teams in college basketball. The Spartans rank in the top seven in the nation in both offensive and defensive efficiency this season, per KenPom. Though Michigan State will miss injured guard Joshua Langford the rest of the season, they have the pieces and scheme to make up for his absence.

Offensively, the Spartans lead the nation in assist rate. No team does a better job of passing to the open teammate, rather than prioritizing who shoots the ball. Michigan State has a team full of players who can score, but none that require an isolation or who will stop the momentum of crisp ball movement. This ethos is perfected by point guard Cassius Winston, who leads the Big Ten in assist percentage and assists per game. His vision opens up avenues for every other Spartan.

Defensively, the Spartans allow few easy baskets. That’s reflected by the 40.5 percent Sparty allows from 2-point land, the best in college basketball. With size and length across the entire lineup, Michigan State makes scoring inside the arc a tall task for opponents.

Tom Izzo has been coaching for long enough to know he has a real chance to do great things with this team. Every possession on both ends of the floor, the Spartans are searching for high percentage shots and forcing low percentage ones. Any team that beats Michigan State needs to buck those numbers and overachieve for 40 minutes.

6. Michigan

After starting 17-0, the Wolverines have lost just three times in Big Ten play, all in true road games. John Beilein has spent this season reminding everyone that he’s one of America’s best college basketball coaches, especially on the defensive end of the floor.

After reaching the NCAA Championship Game last April, many expected Michigan to take a step back. Moritz Wagner was such a key cog in that Wolverine team and losing him should have been a crucial departure. Instead, Jon Teske has stepped into the starting center role at Michigan and been spectacular. Defensively, Teske anchors things for Michigan. He handles every screen and change with ease, while protecting the rim. The 7-foot-1 junior is averaging more than two blocks per game. Offensively, he’s not the scorer Wagner was at all, yet he’s been remarkably solid as a screener and safety valve for the Michigan offense. In more than 700 minutes of play this season, Teske has just 11 turnovers, good for the second lowest turnover rate in the nation.

Beilein surrounds Teske with four players that perfectly complement each other. Zavier Simpson is a rock-solid high IQ point guard. Charles Matthews does absolutely everything. Jordan Poole can shoot or attack the paint. Ignas Brazdeikis leads the team in scoring and provides a swagger than previous Michigan teams have lacked. Together, the group makes up the nation’s most complete starting five. They don’t have the top level talent of Duke or the depth of a Michigan State, but the Wolverines’ best five can play with anyone.

5. Tennessee

After several weeks atop the polls, the Volunteers were bumped from the top spot after a loss to Kentucky. Tennessee lost that game handily, but a loss at Rupp Arena is far from enough reason to be worried. It was just the second loss of the season for Tennessee, the first since an overtime defeat at the hands of Kansas way back in November.

The Vols keep winning games by punishing teams in the paint. Only one power conference team scores a higher percentage of its points from inside the arc than Tennessee. Rick Barnes has assembled a roster built to attack the rim. The Vols’ rotation is full of players who are bigger, faster, and stronger than the players trying to defend them.

This charge is led by Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. These two upperclassmen forwards have been the most potent scoring duo in the SEC this season. Both are capable of demanding the ball on the block or stretching the defense out with a jumpshot. Williams has been a legitimate Player of the Year candidate thanks to his aggressive nature in the paint. He is drawing 7.0 fouls per 40 minutes, leading to 7.3 free throw attempts per game. Williams scored 43 points, including a perfect 23 of 23 from the foul line, at Vanderbilt, in one of the sport’s best performances so far this season.

Sometimes winning six games in March is about efficiency and reliability. The Vols know that every time they take the floor, they can pound the ball inside and win in the paint. There’s a path to a championship that follows that plan.

4. Kentucky

Despite having one of America’s most talented rosters, I’m not sure that anyone thought Kentucky would enter the month of March with a chance at a top seed and a real hope for a championship after the very first night of college basketball this season.

The Wildcats lost to Duke by 34 points and were absolutely blown off the floor. It was one of the worst defensive performances in recent memory, as Kentucky allowed a mind-blowing 1.44 points per possession.

It’s not surprising that a team like Duke could steamroll and opponent like that. It is surprising how well Kentucky has bounced back. The Cats are now ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency nationally and allow the fewest points per game in the SEC.

While the team’s defense has stiffened, PJ Washington has become a double-double machine and Keldon Johnson developed into a deadly shooter.

John Calipari has a way of getting his young teams ready by March, and this team might be his best transformation yet.

3. Virginia

There are no surprises here. I thought Virginia had what it took to win it all last year and even after seeing last year’s Hoos nosedive during the worst upset loss in basketball history, I can still find the differences and the ways that this year’s team can prevail. After all, we’re talking about a program that has won 54 of its last 59 games. Just one of those losses shouldn’t erase the wins and write off the program for good, especially not this year, when this Virginia team is capable of another gear.

Tony Bennett’s teams always pride themselves on defense and are among the best in the nation year in and year out in that regard. This year, Virginia ranks in the top 10 defensively in the nation for the sixth consecutive season. The Hoos are allowing their lowest 3-point percentage in the Tony Bennett era and the lowest in college basketball this season. Everything about Virginia’s Pack Line defense is business as usual.

Offensively, it’s also more of the same in Charlottesville. For the third straight season, the Cavaliers are the nation’s slowest-paced team. They use that time and patience to find the best shot available, either in the paint or from beyond the arc, where they shoot 40 percent as a team.

Sharpshooters Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome stretch defenses to unparalleled lengths. For those quick to point out Guy and Jerome were both on the floor in last year’s loss, it’s important to note the improvements those two guards have made. After combining to shoot 38 percent on over 350 long-range attempts last season, they’ve improved to collectively shoot 43 percent on their nearly 300 attempts this season. The pair has also doubled their free throws per game and nearly doubled their assists per game. What was once a backcourt of shooters is now a more complete piece of the puzzle.

On top of that, De’Andre Hunter, who missed the UMBC loss due to injury, has become a foundation piece for the offense. No Virginia player in the Hunter era could hunt for a shot his own shot inside the paint with as much strength and stability as Hunter. He gives them an option when shots aren’t falling.

At their pace, it’s still a scary bet to fall behind if a team is making shots. With Hunter on board and improvements elsewhere, it’s a bet that Bennett is prepared to make.

2. Gonzaga

We’ve reached a fun annual stretch of basketball season. We’ve officially entered the time of year where everyone forgets how good Gonzaga is!

This year’s team racked up some good wins early in the year, over teams like Washington, Creighton, and Duke. The Zags have lost just twice all season, versus Tennessee on a neutral court, and at UNC in a one-week span.

Since then, Mark Few and company have won 14 in a row and are absolutely trouncing an improved West Coast Conference. KenPom ranks the league as the 8th-best in the nation, yet the Zags are laying waste to their conference foes. Gonzaga is not only undefeated in conference, but is flirting with records for scoring margin in conference.

If you’ve lost sight of the Zags during their tormenting of the WCC, I suggest checking back in for their upcoming games versus BYU and at St. Mary’s as a reminder for how scary and dangerous this team can be.

1. Duke

It seems unnecessary to waste words trying to explain why Duke could win the championship. The Blue Devils currently sit atop the polls. Zion Williamson is the favorite to not only be the first pick in the draft, but to win every major National Player of the Year award in college basketball as well. He’s joined by three other freshmen who will be first-round draft picks, and a solid crop of role players who have made Duke the most complete team in America. The only thing that could really harm Duke now is if Williamson decides to put his season to bed and instead prepare for the NBA Draft. All indications show Williamson can and will play the rest of the way, making Duke the strongest team in the nation.

Duke ranks 2nd in the nation in offensive efficiency, thanks in large part to the aggressive nature of Williamson and RJ Barrett. It seems crazy to say, but shooting is Duke’s biggest weakness. For just the second time this century, the Blue Devils are not among the top 100 three-point shooting teams in America. This year’s Duke marks by far the lowest ranking and raw percentage in that category since 2000, at just 31 percent, good for 305th in the nation. The worst thing you can say about this Duke team is that it attempts far more 3-pointer than it should. Of course, in game where that should have killed that, like their recent trip to Virginia, the Blue Devils inexplicably stroked 62 percent from outside the arc.

Beating Duke this year when they are shooting well seems near impossible. If the Devils go cold, you have a chance. Syracuse stole a win at Cameron Indoor by making Duke shoot 43 threes, of which they made just 9. It’s not a perfect strategy, but it may be the best option available in March.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.



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