It may only be late January, but March is right around the corner. The NCAA Tournament is like no other thing in all of sports. There are no single elimination tournaments this big in other sports. One loss and you are done. A tournament so hard to win that you hang banners as reminders just for getting to the semi-finals, some schools even the Sweet-Sixteen is banner worthy. While the NBA lets half the teams into the postseason, the NCAA keeps it hard and to the point. Each conference gets one team, other than that, it’s the top 68 teams. Win percentage and records are not the qualifiers, rather a massive eye test using tens of different qualifiers to precisely slot each team into their seed, if they are even seeded. This year, like every other, March is looking to be a good one. But what teams are looking to make it all the way? This article intends to rank some of the top teams on their ability to reach the Final Four. Reaching the Final Four is the goal of all major teams, and once you are there you have two wins until legendary status in the college basketball record books.
1. Kansas (Big 12)- This Kansas Jayhawks basketball team is hot. They enter today with their lone loss coming to the hands to a good Indiana squad. Kansas’s strength of schedule may not be as high as some would like, 38, but it is in part that the bulk of their tough schedule is yet to come. The high-flying Jayhawks are sixth in RPI, with 4 wins against top 50 opponents, and are riding a 12 game win-streak. The emergence of Josh Jackson in tandem with Frank Mason III, both national player of the year candidates, has put KU on the road to success. Bill Self is a quality coach who knows how to win. Kansas have been kept out of the Final Four as of late, but this is their year. Senior leadership is key in March and Frank Mason III, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, and Devonte Graham have got the memo so far.
2. UCLA (Pac 12)- The only team that may have a better combo of upperclassmen and freshman than Kansas is UCLA. UCLA has been relying on a duo of freshman, Lonzo Ball, and TJ Leaf, and a duo of seniors, Bryce Alfred and Isaac Hamilton, to get the job done. Why not rank them number one? The amount they rely on the freshman could be a weakness come March. Many experienced teams will have seniors playing at levels they before could not reach all because of the love for their school. Alfred and Hamilton have been leading this team vocally but Ball and Leaf are the superstars. If the big stage was too much for Leaf and Ball it would be tough, but Alfred and Hamilton would be able to carry the load. UCLA has a lower RPI than we would like to see at 23, but with a schedule that has included wins over Nebraska, Texas A&M, at the time #1 Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio State, a star-studded Cal, Stanford, and Oregon State and the loss at Oregon coming off a buzzer beater from National Player of the Year candidate, Dillon Brooks, they look the part of a Final Four team. Expect big blowouts from the second highest scoring team in the country early in the tournament and veteran leadership later on.
3. Villanova (Big East)- The defending national champions are hot. Their stars are shining, they are beating good teams, and the further their season goes on the more impressive their conference looks. A schedule with wins coming against #15 Purdue, #23 Notre Dame, #10 Creighton, #15 Xavier, along with big with against Western Michigan, Wake Forest, UCF, Temple, Creighton, Providence, Seton Hall and Marquette have entered them in the serious consideration for the title. Their only loss this year was at Hinkle Fieldhouse to the current #13
Butler Bulldogs, one of the toughest venues in the nation. A trio of Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, and Jalen Brunson know what it takes to win it all and they are all in on this season. Be prepared to see them on national television more with big games still left on the docket. Veteran leadership and experience will help the Villanova Wildcats more than any other team this postseason. Expect great things from them.
4. Wisconsin (BigTen)- The favorites in the BigTen, the Badgers looks poised to make another great run at the tournament. They no longer have Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky, but a trio of Ethan Happ, Nigel Hayes, and Bronson Koenig looks ready to run. Like Villanova, they have the experience and like UCLA and Kansas, they have the veteran leaders. All three of them were on the 2014-15 Badger team that won the BigTen and made it to the finals (Happ did not see action this season). Hayes and Koenig both saw significant starting time that season gaining ever so important experience that should help to propel them into the Final Four this year. Wisconsin’s big three is good, very good, but the rest of their team is not as star-studded as the teams listed above. Wisconsin’s RPI is 24, a reflection of the self-destructive BigTen but still have wins over Minnesota, Tennessee, Georgetown, Marquette, Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan, Syracuse, and Oklahoma. The Badgers have had their share of struggles, losing to Creighton, UNC, and Purdue, but in a tournament where veteran leadership and experience matter most, they should advance far.
5. Kentucky (SEC)- Kentucky is full of stars. The team goes two deep at every position ladled with NBA prospects. Why aren’t they number one if they are the most talented? The same reason they have loss games, a lack of veteran leadership and experience. The team is made entirely of freshman and sophomores with the exception of three seniors who add up to 37 minutes of action a game between them. Kentucky has not relied on senior leadership or veteran experience to this point and it has worked. They do one thing better than almost anyone…Score. They are third in the nation at 92.9 points per game and four players averaging in double figures. They boast an RPI of 3 with wins over Michigan State, North Carolina, Ole Miss, Arkansas, South Carolina, Valparaiso, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, Auburn, Mississippi State, and Arizona State. Like said earlier, their two losses were huge games against veteran-led teams that had the experience. UCLA, led by veterans Bryce Alfred and Isaac Hamilton, were able to beat the Wildcats 97-92. Rival Louisville Cardinals, led by junior Quinten Snider, were able to beat the Cats 73-70. Kentucky’s sheer talent should be enough to get them into the Final Four, but if they play a hot Villanova or Wisconsin they could see the big game experience take over and triumph.
6. West Virginia (Big 12)- Oh West Virginia, they do one thing really well, that is blow out good opponents. West Virginia has blown out after blow out on their resume. They dismantled Illinois (89-57), Virginia (66-57), TCU (82-70), Oklahoma State (92-75) and at the time then-number-one Baylor (89 68)! WVU has a relatively low RPI due to a number of losses they have. Their four losses were decided by a total of 11 points with the biggest margin being a four-point loss at Kansas State and a home loss to a good Temple squad. West Virginia is led by juniors Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles Jr and senior Nathan Adrian. They have the leadership key to the tournament but lack the tournament experience. The deepest any player on the team has gone was the Sweet Sixteen two seasons ago. If West Virginia can stay consistent, the upperclassman continue to perform on and off the court, we should look forward to seeing the Mountaineers deep in the tournament.
7. North Carolina (ACC)- UNC is the most veteran lineup of any of the teams listed. Seniors Nate Britt, Isaiah Hicks, and Kennedy Meeks along with juniors Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II, and Theo Pinson all have the experience. North Carolina got stunned in the finals last year and want it back. The ninth-best RPI team has the upperclassmen leadership, talent, and experience to make the run they were looking for last year. Just like UCLA and Kentucky, UNC is scoring at top-5 rates. UNC has taken care of business thus far beating Wisconsin, Clemson, Wake Forest, Florida State, Oklahoma State, Chattanooga, Tennessee, Monmouth, NC State, Davidson, and Syracuse. Their only losses were to a closely contested Kentucky game and two blowouts by Indiana and Georgia Tech. UNC checks all the boxes a Final Four team has but their two big losses to two unranked teams paints a bad picture. In both big losses, they shot under 40% from the field, under 30% from three point range, and fouled over twenty times. If UNC is able to stay out of foul trouble and stay patient for good shots they will continue their success.
Honorable Mentions: Michigan State, UCONN, Duke- Ok Duke is proven good, even in their off years, but Michigan State and UCONN?! Michigan State and UCONN are different than any other team in the nations. They are built for March. Since Tom Izzo has come to Michigan State he has delivered more Final Fours in that span of time than any other place. Kevin Ollie inherited a UCONN program that would find a way into the tournament and then make the most of it, and he has not let down in his attempt to replicate it. Both Michigan State and UCONN recently made it to the Final Four as seven seeds… SEVEN SEEDS. UCONN won it all in 2014 as a seven seed. Even if UCONN and Michigan State are having off years they are two teams I do not bet against come March. What about Duke? Duke has had more than their fair share of controversy this season. With Coach K hurting from severe back pain, Harry Giles not living up to the title of #1 Recruit, Grayson Allen tripping opponents, and all of their injuries, they could come out stronger than ever come March. If the team is healthy come March, they will be at a point not seen this year. Currently, with all of the chaos, they still sit at 14-4 and ranked 18th. Once healthy, Coach K could be lifting more hardware.