Football season has come and gone, and with that, the national spotlight finally shifts toward college basketball. The greatest postseason in American sports is right around the corner. Selection Sunday is only five weeks away.
We understand if you’ve been distracted by fantasy teams, Super Bowl squares, and other totally legal, government-approved forms of gambling on football. That’s why we’re here to get you up to speed on college hoops before the bracket is announced.
There is perhaps no greatest tradition in college basketball than pretending like you know what you’re talking about when you’ve barely watched the sport at all before March. Let us help.
Who’s the best team in the country?
It’s definitely Villanova. Or maybe Purdue. Possibly Virginia. If Duke figures out its defense ... if Arizona gets better point guard play ... if Michigan State starts peaking at the right time like it always does ... if Kansas gets hot from three ....
The thing you need to know heading into March is that this year is wide open. All of the top teams have flaws, there is a strong pack of middle-tier, power-conference teams, and anyway, anything can happen in a single-elimination format.
Here is a wild guess: There will be no overwhelming favorite in your pool this year. It feels like a season where a No. 7 seed could make the Final Four (hey, South Carolina did it last year) or a No. 3 seed everyone discounts goes all the way.
Don’t feel obligated to copy off the experts this year. Your guess is as good as anyone else’s.
Can you run down the national title favorites for us?
- Villanova: Great veteran point guard (Jalen Brunson), elite 3-and-D wing (Mikal Bridges), tons of supplemental scoring options (Donte DiVincenzo, Phil Booth), and a productive big man (Omari Spellman) it was missing last year. Jay Wright’s team has the No. 1 offense in the country, but the defense is only No. 42 right now, according to KenPom.
- Virginia: No. 1 in defense; dead last in tempo. This is a classic Virginia team, with the caveat that it might have more athletic attacking guards on the perimeter. The big question is whether its offense is good enough to make a Final Four run.
- Purdue: Shooters everywhere with a 7’2 center in Isaac Haas in the middle. The Boilermakers lost arguably the best player in program history (Caleb Swanigan) and somehow got better. Sophomore guard Carsen Edwards is the engine.
- Duke: The Blue Devils have the highest ceiling of any team in the country because of their raw talent level. Marvin Bagley III is unstoppable, Wendell Carter Jr. is playing his best ball of the season, and there is shooting on the wings. The defense is terrible right now, and Coach K has fully committed to a zone defense.
- Michigan State: The Spartans haven’t looked great yet but are still 22-3. Miles Bridges has been good, not great. Jaren Jackson Jr. has become this team’s best NBA prospect as a center who can stretch the floor and block shots. Cassius Winston is the breakout star here, a sophomore point guard who can fill it up from three and facilitate like a pro.
- Xavier: It feels like the Musketeers make the second weekend every year. The offense, led by Trevon Bluiett, is top 10 in the country, but the defense is shaky.
- Kansas: The two-post system is gone, and there are no surefire first-round picks on the roster. Instead, the Jayhawks spread the floor with shooters and launch threes. The lack of interior depth and poor free-throw shooting is worrisome.
- Cincinnati: It’s the same story with the Bearcats every year: They can really defend, but can they score enough to win deep in March? Do-it-all forward Gary Clark is one of the country’s most underrated glue guys.
- Arizona: Deandre Ayton is basically Patrick Ewing 2.0. Allonzo Trier is a monster scorer in the backcourt. The big questions are point guard play and defense. There is so much pressure on head coach Sean Miller to finally make the Final Four with this team.
- Texas Tech: Yes, really: Texas Tech!! The Red Raiders have an athletic roster that plays lockdown defense. Senior guard Keenan Evans is a star in the making. Head coach Chris Beard seems cool.
Trae Young is king
If you’ve heard anything about college basketball this season, you’ve probably heard about Trae Young. He’s not the next Stephen Curry, but it’s clear Curry’s brilliance is a touchstone for his own game.
Young has unlimited range and takes shots no one else would even consider. He turns the ball over a lot and struggles to defend. He also leads the country in both points and assists per game.
The whole country will be waiting on Young to drop 40-point games in March — he has already done it four times this season. It feels like that’s the only way Oklahoma can go on a deep tournament run.
It looks like a down year for Kentucky
The Wildcats are big and athletic, but the pieces don’t really seem to fit this year. There is a notable lack of shooting, which was apparent again in their weekend loss to Missouri when they shot just 2 of 20 from three-point range.
The other big difference with Kentucky this year is the lack of star power. It’s possible Kevin Knox gets drafted in the top 10, but there are no top-five picks this year like De’Aaron Fox or Karl-Anthony Towns.
Of course, 2014 also looked like a down year for Kentucky. That’s when the Wildcats were a No. 8 seed in March and went all the way to the title game. It’s impossible to write off a team with this many five-star recruits, but this just doesn’t feel like one of John Calipari’s best rosters.
The SEC is actually good
Speaking of Kentucky: It is no longer the preordained winner of the SEC. The conference could get anywhere from seven to 10 teams in the NCAA tournament field this season. SEC basketball is finally good.
Auburn has been one of the season’s biggest surprises coming off the FBI scandal. Tennessee is better than anyone expected. Florida has firepower on the perimeter, and Alabama looks like a potential sleeper with freshman star Collin Sexton at the controls.
What’s up with Grayson Allen?
Allen spent his first three years at Duke becoming college basketball’s most infamous player. This year he’s been suspiciously quiet, both in terms of production and lack of controversy.
Allen started the season on fire by torching Michigan State in the Champions Classic in November, but he hasn’t made many headlines since. It just feels like he’s going to do something to get everyone talking about him when March rolls around.
Give us some good sleepers
This is hard, but we’ll try:
- Middle Tennessee: It has won an NCAA tournament game each of the last two years, and this might be its best team yet. Memphis and Alabama transfer Nick King is a stud on the wing, and Giddy Potts (Giddy Potts!) is still around to hit threes. This year has a top-20 defense, but the offense (No. 82) is slightly behind where it’s been the last two years.
- Seton Hall: The Pirates have four senior starters, a double-double machine up front in Angel Delgado, and some shooting on the wings. This team isn’t elite on either side of the ball, but it’s solid on both ends.
- Alabama: Sexton is a lottery pick for a reason. No one can stop him going to the hoop. Donta Hall anchors the No. 12 defense in the country, while freshman Herb Jones provides a rare blend of length and athleticism on the perimeter. Dazon Ingram, John Petty, and Braxton Key add supplemental scoring power.
- Gonzaga: The Bulldogs lost their best guard and two best bigs from last year’s title run, but this is still a very good team. Johnathan Williams is a dependable senior inside, and guard Josh Perkins has taken his game to new heights as a junior. With the No. 7 offense and No. 34 defense, Gonzaga is efficient on both ends.
Who’s your national title pick?
I picked Villanova in the preseason, so I will stick with Villanova now.
But like we said earlier: It’s wide open. This is going to be another great NCAA tournament.