With less than a week before Selection Sunday—and most of the big conference tourneys about to start—I figured I’d take the pulse of college basketball one last time before going into heavy number crunching mode.
If you’ve read any of the Insider feature articles, you know that there are certain statistics—like low scoring or soft schedules or sputtering momentum—that foretell underachievement in the dance. I evaluated 40 likely tourney teams, tallied up the number of disqualifiers each had, then factored in the proverbial “eye test.” I slotted the teams into 10 groups ranging from favorites, challengers and sleepers to pretenders, aggravators and even head-scratchers.
A couple comments about this list. First, this isn’t necessarily a list of who I think are the top 40 teams in college hoops right now. Some of the categories force me to pick a team that’s more prominent or obscure over a higher quality squad. Second comment: This is a dynamic list. In the next few days, as conference tourney play gets underway, we’ll no doubt see results that could affect these ratings. But at this moment, this is where my head’s at.
The chart below evaluates the 40 teams against a dozen tourney performance disqualifiers. (The numbers were calculated before the Monday games.) The final column, “DQ,” tallies the number of disqualifiers that each team possesses. I’ve highlighted teams with three or fewer disqualifiers in green and boxed the two with zero DQ’s. Disqualifying stats are highlighted in red. Here’s what each column means and the disqualifiers:
- 13 – Did they go to last year’s dance? (An “N” gets a disqualifier)
- CY – How many tourney trips has the coach made? (Should be more than three)
- E8 – How many times has the coach been to the Elite Eight? (At least once)
- PASE – Is their coach a historical over- or underachiever? (A negative PASE gets a scarlet box)
- CA – What’s their conference affiliation? (Should be a Big Six conference)
- SOS – What’s their strength of schedule (Anything worse than 50 is bad)
- PR – What’s their possession-based Pythag ranking (Should be top 15)
- OE – Where do they rate for offensive efficiency? (Must be 25 or better)
- DE – Where do they rate for defensive efficiency? (Must be 25 or better)
- PPG – What’s their point scoring average (Should be 73 points per game or more)
- MAR – What’s their average scoring margin (Needs to be better than 10 points)
- MO – How’s their current momentum (any team with four losses in the last 10 or two in a row gets a disqualifier)
Without further ado, here’s the chart, with write-ups for each grouping afterwards:
Favorites (complete teams with the best chance to win the tourney)
I’ve been saying all year long that this year has the most flawed group of top ten teams in a decade. But when it came time to tabbing the favorites, my decision was pretty easy. I wrestled with elevating Duke and dropping Villanova after the Blue Devils’ win over North Carolina. But I had to respect that the Wildcats are the only squad this year without a single disqualifier.
- Arizona remains the most dominant team in the country, despite the loss of Ashley and the loss to Oregon.
- Florida is strong on both ends of the floor and is riding a 23-game winning streak.
- Louisville might play a soft schedule but they own the highest average margin of the elite teams.
- Villanova has been quietly brilliant this year and doesn’t have a single disqualifier (just don’t make them play Creighton).
Challengers (solid teams that could make a Final Four run)
- Duke has the offense, has the star in Parker…but may be too leaky on defense.
- Kansas has a go-to guy in Wiggins and can score, but a 10-point average margin is very low for an elite team.
- Wichita State was originally in the Pretenders group, but I’m drinking the Kool-Aid now; Early and Van Vleet made me.
- Michigan can’t play interior defense, but Stauskas and company can outshoot teams. Will McGary make a surprise return?
Contenders (limited teams what are strong enough for the Elite Eight)
- Michigan State was my originally a Challenger over Michigan, but something isn’t gelling with these Spartans. Izzo’s worked March magic in the past; can he do it again?
- Creighton has the best player and the best offense in the country. But they don’t play good defense. Is McDermott a Kemba or a Jimmer?
- Iowa State plays fast and has a trio of offensive weapons, but they can’t shoot threes and their guard play may not hold up.
- North Carolina can beat or lose to anyone. Marcus Paige has steadied a Tar Heel team that can actually play defense…but isn’t great shooting.
Scrappers (teams too flawed for a deep run that could reach the Sweet 16)
- Saint Louis is one of the nation’s best defensive teams, but they can’t score or help themselves out with offensive rebounding.
- San Diego State is a lot like the Billikens—good defense, no offense. The Aztecs compensate for wretched shooting with strong offensive rebounding.
- VCU is doing its thing—turning teams over better than any squad in the land. If they get the right bracket match-ups, watch out.
- Texas has sputtered down the stretch, but the Longhorns have proven they can beat elite teams.
Sleepers (quietly dangerous teams that could make a surprising run)
- Oregon can shoot threes and put up points…and they’re on a hot streak, including a convincing win over Arizona.
- Memphis has beaten a bunch of big teams, including Louisville twice. But they play fast and reckless, with a high turnover rate.
- Connecticut got walloped by Louisville, but Shabazz Napier has a knack for taking over games.
- Arizona State is limping down the stretch, but they’re a solid defensive squad with impressive wins on their resume.
Sneakers (teams no one is talking about that could make some noise)
- Nebraska may not get into the dance, but if they do, watch out. The Cornhuskers can defend and Petteway can take over games.
- Baylor has a top-15 offense thanks to great rebounding and solid three shooting—and they’re playing their best basketball of the season.
- Kansas State relies on strong defense to compensate for weak shooting. While the Wildcats are struggling of late, they’ve got some big wins on their resume.
- Gonzaga is in the opposite position of last year, when everyone was scrutinizing their chances. These Zags shoot very well and have good floor leaders in Panges and Stockton.
Upsetters (likely low seeds that could surprise a high seed)
- Oklahoma plays fast and tries to outscore opponents with top-10 offensive efficiency. Slow-paced teams may have trouble with the Sooners.
- Louisiana Tech beat Oklahoma on the road for their best win…but their efficiency numbers are surprisingly good for an unknown, especially on defense.
- Harvard sprung a big upset last tourney and is a better team this year. The Crimson are deadly three shooters and play top-30 defense.
- Tennessee has the 12th best Pythag in the country! Who knew? A big win over Virginia and close road loss to Wichita State demonstrate the Vols potential.
Pretenders (high-profile teams unlikely to meet seed expectations)
- Virginia is the fourth most efficient team in the country—but their slow pace and low scoring scare me. Will they let lower seeds hang around?
- Cincinnati plays lock-down defense, but struggles to score. If Kilpatrick gets shut down, the Bearcats will struggle.
- Ohio State is a lot like Cincinnati—great defense, questionable offense. The Buckeyes need Craft to play like he did at the end of last year.
- Iowa doesn’t have any problems on offense, but their defense isn’t even top-100 in efficiency. The Hawkeyes need Mike Gesell to play well…because their thin at the guard position.
Aggravators (teams that may be good, but who’ve been burned me too often)
- Wisconsin was among my Challengers—until I remembered they were Wisconsin. These Badgers play faster and are more prolific scorers than typical Ryan squads, but Bo never seems to beat a team he shouldn’t.
- Pittsburgh has always been a KenPom darling…and always disappoints. Too many of my brackets have been busted by the Panthers to trust them again.
- UCLA is coached by Steve Alford. Need I say more? Okay…having your two best players suspended down the all-important stretch run does not bode well.
- New Mexico is out from under the snake-bit shadow of Alford, but they’re still in the Mountain Worst. I won’t pull the trigger until they prove it to me.
Mystifiers (inconsistent teams that I can’t figure out)
- Kentucky has all the talent in the world and none of the floor leadership. Is the grand Calipari “NBA farm club” experiment over?
- Syracuse wasn’t as good as their 25-0 start…and isn’t as bad as their sputtering end. But I’m not sure where they are between those extremes.
- Oklahoma State is as volatile as its troubled star, Marcus Smart. I could see the Cowboys go on a long run—or bow out in the opening round.
- SMU has built its strong efficiency profile mainly on good losses. That’s a little worrisome. Then again, coach Larry Brown is the X-factor. Will the Mustangs “play the right way”?