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Chuck Burton/Associated Press
Selection Sunday has finally arrived, and with it the 2019 NCAA men’s basketball tournament field has been set.
After months of arguing about NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) rankings, KenPom.com ratings, quadrant-based records, strengths of schedule and the like, none of that junk matters anymore. There will, of course, be a few more hours or days of complaining about who got left out or unfairly seeded, but too bad, so sad. We’ve got our field, and it’s time to move on to the real fun: picking the brackets.
Based on a combination of efficiency ratings, player talent, current roster health, regular-season success, biggest strengths, biggest weaknesses and gut feeling, we have ranked all 68 NCAA tournament teams.
Generally speaking, if you’re trying to decide which team to pick in a particular matchup, the higher-ranked team would be our suggestion. There are certainly matchup-based exceptions, but the teams at the top of the list are the ones with the least troubling Achilles’ heels. Thus, they are the ones most likely to reach the Final Four.
Before we dive in, a thank you must be extended to Joel Reuter. B/R’s MLB power rankings guru was a huge help and contributed to this piece. He now knows more about the Cinderella candidates than 99 percent of the population. So if he tweets out a recommendation on a potential No. 14 over No. 3 upset, you might want to take it seriously.
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Record: 18-15, 10-6 in MEAC
How They Got Here: As the No. 3 seed in the MEAC tournament, NC Central was able to eke out wins against No. 2 seed North Carolina A&T (65-63) and No. 1 seed Norfolk State (50-47) to steal the automatic bid.
Reason to Believe: The Eagles do a good job guarding the three ball (31.3%, 36th in NCAA), and they out-rebounded opponents by a wide margin (1,223-1,011) this season. Even if those numbers are skewed by a lower caliber of competition, those are still skills that translate. They’re also an experienced group with five seniors among their eight-man rotation.
Reason to Worry: Clemson and Cincinnati beat the Eagles by a combined 42 points in their first two games of the season. That should give you an idea of the talent gap they’re facing. They went 0-7 in games above Quad 4, which also means they have eight Quad 4 losses. Not good. Not surprisingly, they check in at 293rd in offensive efficiency and 283rd in defensive efficiency in KenPom’s rankings.
March Madness Ceiling: The Eagles have been ousted in one of the First Four games each of the past two seasons. A similar fate likely awaits them this year.
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Record: 22-12, 17-1 in SWAC
How They Got Here: The Panthers started the season with 12 road games and went 1-11. Despite that inauspicious start, they steamrolled the conference schedule. Their only SWAC loss came on the road against conference tournament No. 2 seed Texas Southern, and it was avenged with a 92-86 victory in the tournament title game.
Reason to Believe: Prairie View showed it can at least hang around with tournament-caliber teams in competitive games against Baylor and UNC Greensboro at the start of the year. The offense is well-balanced with six players averaging at least seven points per game, led by senior guard Gary Blackston (15.2 PPG, 7.0 RPG). There’s something to be said for an utterly dominant showing during the conference schedule, even if it’s a low-level conference.
Reason to Worry: Forget Quad 1 and Quad 2. A win over sub-150 NET Santa Clara in November is the only Quad 3 win the Panthers have this season. They went 20-1 in Quad 4 games, but that’s not exactly something you can hang your hat on. They rank outside the top 200 in KenPom’s offensive and defensive efficiency, and they played one of the weakest schedules in the country.
March Madness Ceiling: The Panthers have only been in the tournament one other time, seeded as a No. 16 seed in 1998 when Kansas beat them 110-52. That sounds about right.
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Record: 20-13, 12-6 in NEC
How They Got Here: Since a 6-11 start to the season, the Knights have been rolling. They’ve won 14 of their last 16, capping off the NEC tournament with an 85-76 victory over No. 1 seed St. Francis (PA) to punch their ticket. They last made the NCAA tournament in 2016 when they lost one of the First Four games.
Reason to Believe: The Knights shoot a blistering 40.3 percent from beyond the arc, good for fifth in the nation. Senior guard Darnell Edge (16.4 PPG) leads four players who average in double figures, and sixth man Elyjah Williams chips in 8.1 points per game, so they’re well-balanced on offense. On the defensive end, they racked up 253 steals (24th in NCAA) and 485 opponent turnovers (36th in NCAA).
Reason to Worry: The best win on the Knights’ resume is a Quad 3 victory over Princeton with a sub-150 NET. Their other 19 wins are all Quad 4 games. The best team they faced all season was Providence, and they lost by 10. Rutgers beat them by 35. And while that gaudy three-point percentage looks nice on paper, they only take about 19 threes per game, which puts them in the bottom third nationally.
March Madness Ceiling: Can the Knights up their three-point shooting frequency? Regardless, they’ll be hard-pressed to advance beyond their opening game.
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Record: 23-11, 10-6 in Big South
How They Got Here: The Bulldogs beat No. 1 seed Campbell—led by the nation’s leading scorer Chris Clemons—and No. 2 seed Radford on the road to win the Big South tournament. It’s the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance in 17 years at the D1 level.
Reason to Believe: While they’re lacking a Quad 1 win, the Bulldogs have a pair of road wins against ACC teams (Georgia Tech and Wake Forest), and they took a solid Furman squad to overtime back on Nov. 13. Senior guard David Efianayi (18.3 PPG) is a reliable go-to scorer who has knocked down 67 threes at an excellent 41.4 percent clip.
Reason to Worry: There’s not much substance to the Bulldogs’ resume. The Georgia Tech and Radford wins are their only victories against NET top 150 teams, and they also have sub-200 losses to High Point, Arkansas State and Eastern Illinois. They were completely outmatched in early-season games against Virginia Tech and VCU, losing by a combined 40 points.
March Madness Ceiling: Gardner-Webb has finally broken the tournament seal. They’ll almost certainly have to wait a while longer to score their first tournament victory, though.
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Record: 18-15, 9-7 in Summit
How They Got Here: The door swung wide-open in the Summit League when Mike Daum and South Dakota State lost to Western Illinois in the first game of the conference tournament. The Bison seized that opportunity, wrapping up the automatic bid with a 73-63 victory over No. 2 seed Omaha in the championship game.
Reason to Believe: This Bison are not afraid to let it rip from beyond the arc. They’ve attempted 861 threes on the season—28th in the nation—and hit at a respectable 36.6 percent clip. Their rotation goes nine deep, which should help them keep fresh against a more athletic opponent. On top of all that, they’re as battle-tested as any small school in the nation, with games against NET top 50 teams in Gonzaga, Iowa State and New Mexico State on their non-conference schedule.
Reason to Worry: The experience gained in those high-profile games is nice, but it also bears mentioning that they lost all three by a combined 81 points. A home victory against sub-150 UC Santa Barbara is their best win, and they have a total of nine Quad 3 and Quad 4 losses.
March Madness Ceiling: The Bison pulled off an upset of No. 5 Oklahoma in the 2014 tournament. This year’s group isn’t nearly as talented as that No. 12 seed was, though. A steep uphill battle awaits.
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Record: 17-15, 12-6 in MAAC
How They Got Here: The Gaels closed out the regular season on a seven-game winning streak. After squeaking out a two-point victory over Saint Peter’s in the opening round of the MAAC tournament, they steamrolled Siena and Monmouth by a combined 37 points to secure the automatic bid. This marks the fourth straight season Iona has made the field.
Reason to Believe: Since snapping a four-game losing streak, the Gaels are rolling. The three-pronged attack of E.J. Crawford (17.9 PPG, 2nd in MAAC), Rickey McGill (15.5 PPG, 5.0 APG) and Tajuan Agee (13.3 PPG, 8.1 RPG) gives them plenty of balance. Each of their top six scorers is an upperclassman, so they’re an experienced group.
Reason to Worry: The Gaels have eight Quad 4 losses and a 2-4 record in Quad 3 games. That’s…not great. In fact, a win against Hartford on a neutral court stands as their only top-200 victory. Their only Quad 1 and Quad 2 games came against VCU, Providence and Yale, and they lost those by a combined 56 points.
March Madness Ceiling: The momentum is nice, but Iona has given no indication it is capable of even hanging around with a tournament-caliber team.
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Record: 27-6, 14-4 in Southland
How They Got Here: Abilene Christian wasn’t even a D-I program until six years ago. After five consecutive seasons playing .500-or-worse basketball, the Wildcats finally broke through with a 27-win season. Even better, they did it during Stephen F. Austin’s worst season in more than a decade, so the Southland Conference tournament was there for the taking too.
Reason to Believe: ACU has a dangerous combination of triples and steals. The Wildcats shoot nearly 39 percent from three-point range and average 8.5 steals per game. And in both categories, they have a ton of contributors, making it impossible to just key in on shutting down or avoiding a particular player.
Reason to Worry: Abilene Christian only played one game against a KenPom top-150 team, and it got annihilated by Texas Tech. That also means the Wildcats lost five games to teams outside the top 150. That’s less than promising.
March Madness Ceiling: In one of its first years of NCAA tournament eligibility, Florida Gulf Coast shocked the world by dunking its way into the Sweet 16. Could Abilene Christian do something similar in just its second year of postseason eligibility? Probably not. But it’s a fun comparison to make if you’re looking for a deep sleeper. Despite the poor showing against Texas Tech, the Wildcats’ style of play could make things interesting in the first round.
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Record: 24-10, 13-5 in Patriot League
How They Got Here: Colgate and Bucknell were seemingly on a collision course for the Patriot League automatic bid all year, and as expected they met up in the conference tournament championship game. After splitting the regular season, Colgate punched their ticket with a convincing 94-80 victory over the Bison to win the title.
Reason to Believe: The Raiders haven’t lost since Feb. 2 and their 11-game winning streak is tied for the fifth-longest active streak in the nation behind only Wofford (20), New Mexico State (17), UC Irvine (14) and VCU (12). Junior forward Rapolas Ivanauskas (16.4 PPG, 7.9 RPG) won Patriot League POY and he’s one of three players who averaged in double figures for an offense that sits at a respectable 60th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency.
Reason to Worry: Syracuse is the only tournament-bound team the Raiders have faced this season and the Orange blew them out by 21 points. They also lost by 11 to Penn State and by 10 to South Florida—their only other games against top 100 NET teams. All told, the Patriots went 0-4 in Quad 1 and Quad 2 games, while tallying three Quad 4 losses. And while their offense has graded out well, their defense ranks outside KenPom’s top 200, which will pose a serious problem against an upper-echelon team.
March Madness Ceiling: The Patriot League has pulled off some notable upsets over the years, most recently when No. 15 Lehigh beat No. 2 Duke in the 2012 tournament. That team had a future NBA player in C.J. McCollum, though. This Raiders squad will likely be one-and-done.
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Record: 20-14, 9-9 in Missouri Valley
How They Got Here: The Braves made it through the Missouri Valley tournament by the slimmest of margins, winning their games against Missouri State, Loyola-Chicago and Northern Iowa by a combined eight points. After an 0-5 start to conference play, they went 9-4 to close out the regular season, hitting their stride at the perfect time to earn the automatic bid.
Reason to Believe: Bradley won the one Quad 1 game it played this season with a 59-56 victory over Penn State at the Cancun Challenge back on Nov. 21. The defensive-minded Braves rank 34th nationally in points allowed per game (65.0) and 47th in opponents’ field-goal percentage (41.6%). And while they’re not a high-scoring team, they do knock down threes at a respectable 36.6 percent clip.
Reason to Worry: While that Quad 1 win is nice, the Braves also have a whopping 11 losses in Quad 3 and Quad 4 games, including a home loss to a sub-300 NET team in Eastern Illinois. The defense is solid, but they rank 246th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency, and they lack a true go-to scorer, which will make it awfully hard to play catch-up if they fall behind early.
March Madness Ceiling: This is the school that reached the Sweet 16 in 2006 as a No. 13 seed, so anything can happen. The lack of offensive firepower makes the Braves a tough pick to win even one game this time around, though.
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Record: 26-8, 16-4 in Big Sky
How They Got Here: The Grizzlies won 26 games and nabbed a No. 14 seed last year, so they’re no stranger to March Madness. They seized control of the Big Sky with a 10-game winning streak in the middle of the league schedule and never looked back, beating Eastern Washington 68-62 in the conference tournament title game.
Reason to Believe: With the top four scorers from the team that lost to Michigan by 14 points in the first round last year all returning, this roster has postseason experience. The Grizzlies shoot an efficient 49.7 percent (seventh in NCAA) and hit at 38.2 percent from beyond the arc (25th in NCAA) with four players who average double figures. As for results, the Grizzlies beat a good South Dakota State team by 11 points and went 5-1 against Quad 3 opponents.
Reason to Worry: The 6-2 record in Quad 2 and 3 games is respectable. The four Quad 4 losses are a little cringy, though. Defensively, they’re not capable of slowing a tournament-caliber team. The best opponent they played all year was Creighton, and the Blue Jays hung 98 points on them on 60.4 percent shooting. If they fall behind early, which seems likely, their slow tempo doesn’t bode well for clawing back into a contest.
March Madness Ceiling: The Grizzlies have not won an NCAA tournament game since 2006 when they upset Nevada as a No. 12 seed. The drought will continue.
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Record: 26-8, 13-5 in Horizon League
How They Got Here: The Norse squeaked out a one-point victory over Oakland in the Horizon tournament semifinals before beating No. 1 seed Wright State by 11 in the championship game. They gave Kentucky a game as a No. 15 seed last time they were in the NCAA tournament in 2017, losing by just nine to the Wildcats.
Reason to Believe: Horizon League POY Drew McDonald is one of the better mid-major players in this year’s NCAA tournament. The 6’8″ senior averaged 19.1 points and 9.5 rebounds per contest while knocking down 67 threes at a 40.9 percent rate. And he doesn’t have to do it alone, with Tyler Sharpe (14.1 PPG, 86 threes) and Jalen Tate (14.0 PPG, 4.1 APG) also capable of doing damage. In fact, they rank a respectable 75th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency.
Reason to Worry: Their only games against Quad 1 and Quad 2 team were losses to UCF and Cincinnati. That means they have six bad losses on the resume, including a pair of Quad 4 losses to sub-250 NET teams in Eastern Kentucky and Cleveland State. Also, Northern Illinois is a pretty uninspiring signature win. And as good as McDonald has been, Cincinnati keyed in on him defensively, and he was held to just eight points on 3-of-15 shooting.
March Madness Ceiling: Northern Kentucky feels like one of those mid-major teams where you look up and they’re beating a No. 3 seed by five points at halftime. Then they end up losing by 12. Their offense shouldn’t be taken lightly, though.
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Record: 26-8, 13-5 in C-USA
How They Got Here: After impressive nonconference wins over VCU and Syracuse, Old Dominion won both the Conference USA regular-season and tournament titles. The Monarchs played three great games against Western Kentucky, winning all three by a slim margin, including Saturday’s championship game.
Reason to Believe: Old Dominion is excellent on the glass on both ends, and 7’0″ sophomore Dajour Dickens anchors a shot-blocking defense. A lot of teams from one-bid leagues are liable to be overwhelmed by the physicality of their major-conference opponents, but the Monarchs might outwork the favorites.
Reason to Worry: At 44.6 percent, this is one of the worst two-point shooting teams to make the NCAA tournament in the past decade. And it is a teamwide epidemic. Not one of the seven leaders in minutes shoots better than 49 percent inside the arc. Not surprisingly, this team is also awful from the free-throw line, though at least the Monarchs have B.J. Stith (84.5 percent) if they need someone to salt the game away at the charity stripe.
March Madness Ceiling: ODU has an electric backcourt duo of seniors in Stith and Ahmad Caver, and the duo might be the driving force of this year’s Cinderella story. The aforementioned nonconference wins are proof of what this defense is capable of against tournament-caliber opponents, and these two guards are likely to combine for close to 40 points. That could be a Sweet 16 combo.
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Record: 27-6, 12-4 in America East
How They Got Here: It took Vermont three tries, but they finally beat UMBC. After losing to the Retrievers twice during the regular season for their only two conference losses, the Catamounts cruised to a 66-49 victory in the America East title game to secure the automatic bid.
Reason to Believe: Junior forward Anthony Lamb is one of the best mid-major players in the nation. The conference POY poured in 28 points in the title game against UMBC, and he had a 42-point game earlier this season against St. Bonaventure on his way to averaging 21.4 points and 7.8 rebounds per contest. The Catamounts don’t have a signature win, but they did hang around with Louisville in an 86-78 loss.
Reason to Worry: The Catamounts rank 286th in KenPom’s adjusted tempo. There’s a reason they were able to hang around with Louisville (194th) but were blown out by Lipscomb (14th) and Kansas (64th). They won’t be able to dictate the pace against more talented opponents in the tournament, so they’ll be at the mercy of the matchup.
March Madness Ceiling: If Vermont can draw a team that plays at a similar pace, and if Lamb can go off for 30-plus points, the Catamounts just might have a shot. Those are big ifs, though, and they could just as easily be run out of the gym in the first game.
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Record: 24-9, 13-5 in Sun Belt
How They Got Here: It was a hot-and-cold kind of year for Georgia State. In the span of five games early in the season, the Panthers lost to Creighton and Liberty by a combined margin of 51 points, blew out Georgia and upset Alabama. They were a little less erratic in Sun Belt play, though, and they have won eight of their last nine games.
Reason to Believe: D’Marcus Simonds is the stat-sheet stuffer that a lot of fans might remember from last year’s tournament team, but he is just one of five Panthers averaging more than 11 points per game. This team is lethal from three-point range, and it thrives on turning blocks and steals into easy buckets. Georgia State is a minor-conference version of Auburn in that regard.
Reason to Worry: The Panthers are downright awful on the glass, ranking in the bottom 50 on both ends of the court, per KenPom, and their three-point defense leaves a lot to be desired. Such is life when you primarily play zone defense and don’t put a ton of emphasis on crashing the offensive boards, though. Teams who can stroke it from distance can handle Georgia State with relative ease.
March Madness Ceiling: Georgia State broke brackets around the world in 2015 when it upset Baylor in the first round. Perhaps another Ron-Hunter-falls-off-his-stool moment is coming again this year? The rebounding numbers are terrifying, but there are so many scoring options that the Panthers could put up 70 points without a single offensive rebound. We’ll see if the slipper still fits on this Cinderella.
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Record: 22-7, 10-4 in Ivy
How They Got Here: Yale started out 18-4 with a couple of close road losses to Memphis and Vermont, an understandably not-so-close loss at Duke and a nice win over Miami. The Bulldogs struggled late in the year, losing three of their final five regular-season games. But in Sunday’s championship game, they snapped a four-game losing streak to Harvard with a 97-85 bid-sealing victory.
Reason to Believe: As was the case when Yale upset Baylor in 2016—producing one of the greatest postgame interview soundbites in college basketball history—this team is strong in the paint. Led by Jordan Bruner, the Bulldogs own the defensive glass. They also shoot 56 percent from inside the arc while holding opponents to 47 percent, and they have a legitimate pro prospect in Miye Oni who can take over a game.
Reason to Worry: Yale’s turnover margin is ugly, and it was a huge problem in the losses to Memphis and Duke. The Bulldogs coughed up the ball 47 times between those two games, and they rarely force turnovers.
March Madness Ceiling: The Ivy League’s representative is always a Cinderella candidate, and this team is no different. Even No. 16 seed Penn gave Kansas a fight for about 29 minutes in last year’s dance. That the Bulldogs’ 91-58 blowout loss to Duke is their only game against a title contender is obvious cause for concern, but they will not be an easy out. Sweet 16 is a fringe possibility here.
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Record: 30-5, 15-1 in Big West
How They Got Here: UC Irvine had early road wins over Saint Mary’s and Texas A&M and also faced Utah State, Butler and Toledo. The Anteaters then laid waste to the Big West, winning the conference tournament in blowout fashion to put the finishing touches on a 16-game winning streak. They have barely even been challenged in the past month.
Reason to Believe: The Anteaters lead the nation in two-point field-goal defense. But they also have one of the lowest defensive three-point rates, meaning they are great at baiting opponents into trying to score against that great interior defense. They do a great job of extending defense to the arc while still having a rim protector down low, leaving openings for low-percentage, mid-range jumpers.
Reason to Worry: Irvine’s perimeter game on offense is weak, both in terms of shooting and passing. The Anteaters faced little resistance in the Big West and still put up mediocre shooting percentages and a subpar assist rate. While the win over Saint Mary’s was encouraging, they were shut down on offense in the losses to Utah State, Butler and Toledo.
March Madness Ceiling: UCI’s defensive approach will throw off opponents unprepared for it. Everyone is all about layups and threes in today’s game, but the way to beat this team is with pull-ups from the elbows. Once the Anteaters run into a team that can capitalize on that, they’ll get ousted. That might take a couple of rounds, though.
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Record: 23-10, 14-4 in CAA
How They Got Here: Northeastern challenged itself early and often, facing Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Alabama, Vermont and Davidson in nonconference play. Almost all of those games were losses, but the Huskies learned a lot about themselves in those six weeks and became a force against Colonial competition. The last time they lost a game decided in regulation by a margin of more than five points was on Dec. 4.
Reason to Believe: Northeastern shoots better than almost every other team in the field. Vasa Pusica is the biggest star, but there are four Huskies who shoot at least 40 percent from three-point range, 54 percent from inside the arc and 74 percent from the free-throw line. In the CAA championship win over Hofstra, they drained 14 triples.
Reason to Worry: Defense is a fleeting concept for Northeastern. The Huskies do a great job on the defensive glass, but that’s about it. They don’t block shots, they don’t force turnovers and they barely even make it difficult for opponents to score in the paint. The slow pace of play (and the high-efficiency offense) obscures this problem a bit, but Virginia Tech and Syracuse scored at will against Northeastern.
March Madness Ceiling: Teams that shoot this well are always capable of a win or two. And the CAA’s representative has been oh-so-close to tournament upsets in each of the past four years. This might be the one that finally gets the job done.
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Record: 28-6, 14-2 in Atlantic Sun
How They Got Here: In their first season in the Atlantic Sun Conference after coming over from the Big South, the Flames punched their ticket to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013 and just the fourth time in school history. They’ve won 10 of their last 11, including a 74-68 win on the road against a good Lipscomb team in the title game.
Reason to Believe: Two road wins over Lipscomb and a 15-point victory over UCLA at Pauley Pavilion headline the Flames’ resume. Offensive efficiency and balance is their calling card. The Flames shoot 49.1 percent from the floor, good for 13th in the nation, and they can spread the defense with five different players averaging at least one three-pointer per game. They also don’t have a truly awful loss on their resume, with an 18-0 record in Quad 4 games.
Reason to Worry: This is a solid Liberty team based on the games they’ve played. The trouble is, they haven’t been tested. Three meetings with Lipscomb and a nine-point loss to Alabama are their only games against teams with a NET inside the top 75. Their offensive balance can also be a double-edged sword, as they lack a true go-to scorer. And while they held opponents to 60.8 points per game, that was more a result of a slow tempo and poor opponents than a high-quality defense.
March Madness Ceiling: The Flames’ first-round opponent—whoever it is—will be the best team they’ve played all season. That’s scary. They’re better than your run-of-the-mill automatic bid small school and should at least be able to make things interesting, but they’ll still be facing long odds.
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Record: 19-14, 8-12 in Big Ten
How They Got Here: There’s night and day, and then there’s Ohio State’s schedule. The Buckeyes started out 12-1 and were (controversially) the No. 1 team in the first-ever NET rankings in late November. But when the calendar flipped to 2019, everything changed. Ohio State went 7-13 the rest of the way, and even the best of those wins—at Indiana, probably—wasn’t that great. Factor in losses to Rutgers, Illinois and Northwestern and it’s a small miracle this team made the tourney.
Reason to Believe: Recent 86-51 loss to Purdue notwithstanding, Ohio State has been solid on defense all season. Not great, but solid. The Buckeyes protect the defensive glass at an above-average level, and they don’t allow many uncontested looks at the rim from anywhere within 25 feet.
Reason to Worry: Ohio State’s offense has not been solid. Far from it, actually. The Buckeyes have been held to 67 points or fewer on 15 occasions, going 3-12 in those contests. And this isn’t an issue that’s improving. They were limited to 56 points or fewer in six of their last 14 games.
March Madness Ceiling: Since winning the season opener at Cincinnati, Ohio State hasn’t beaten a quality opponent. And most of its losses were by a double-digit margin. Getting Kaleb Wesson back from a three-game suspension helped a little in the Big Ten tournament, but this team was a mess long before temporarily losing its star player. The Buckeyes are less likely to reach the Sweet 16 than most of the No. 13 seeds.
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Record: 21-13, 9-11 in Big Ten
How They Got Here: Like so many other Big Ten teams, Minnesota got out to a great start during the nonconference portion of the season before racking up losses in league play. The Golden Gophers knocked off Washington, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Nebraska and Wisconsin en route to a 12-2 record. But they lost nine of the next 14 games and only kept their at-large hopes alive because of a pair of wins over Purdue in March.
Reason to Believe: Between Jordan Murphy and Daniel Oturu, Minnesota has a pair of rebounding machines. That duo and Amir Coffey draw a ton of fouls for a team that gets to the free-throw line about as well as any.
Reason to Worry: Minnesota can’t shoot. Threes, twos, free throws, doesn’t matter. The Gophers rank well outside the top 200 nationally in all three categories. They also struggle to force turnovers, so they can’t even count on the occasional fast-break bucket to break a shooting drought.
March Madness Ceiling: The Gophers had a few quality wins during the regular season, but they all had extenuating circumstances, like Purdue shooting 32.7 percent on twos, Wisconsin having its worst first half in years or Minnesota hitting 12 threes while Indiana shot 2-of-17. Maybe that could happen for one tournament game, but any sort of sustained run by this team would be an unlikely underdog story.
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Record: 23-12, 10-8 in A-10
How They Got Here: Saint Louis won 14 of its first 18 games, including knocking off three major-conference foes (Seton Hall, Butler and Oregon State). The Billikens also almost won games away from home against Houston and Pittsburgh. But they racked up a bunch of losses over the second half of the season before righting the ship during the A-10 tournament, winning as the No. 6 seed.
Reason to Believe: Saint Louis is a great rebounding team that also digs in its heels on defense. In 11 games this season against teams in the KenPom top 90, the Billikens allowed 61.8 points, including shutting down Dayton and Davidson in the A-10 tournament. This can be a frustrating opponent to deal with.
Reason to Worry: This team is a disaster on offense. At less than 60 percent, Saint Louis is almost the worst free-throw shooting team in the nation, and it ranks in the bottom 75 in two-point and three-point percentage. The unfortunate thing is the Billikens get to the free-throw line a ton. They just can’t do much with those opportunities.
March Madness Ceiling: Saint Louis feels like the team that is going to reach the Sweet 16, even though hardly anybody will pick it to win a single game. There’s always one, isn’t there? And with six wins over KenPom top-100 opponents this season, the Billikens will at least have faith in themselves to pull off a couple of upsets.
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Record: 23-12, 10-8 in Pac-12
How They Got Here: Oregon was supposed to be a contender thanks to stud freshmen Bol Bol and Louis King, but the Ducks didn’t get King until a couple of weeks into the season and lost Bol for the year a few games later. Big man Kenny Wooten also missed a few games with a broken jaw. It took the Ducks a long time to come together, but they enter the tournament on an eight-game winning streak, twice beating both Washington and Arizona State en route to the Pac-12 tournament title—which they would not have gotten into the Big Dance without.
Reason to Believe: There were nights throughout the season when Oregon’s defense looked like a boat with 15 holes it couldn’t plug, but the D has been impeccable during this winning streak. The Ducks’ last eight opponents have averaged 54.3 points, and only one of them eclipsed 61. The combination of Wooten’s rim protection and Ehab Amin’s ball hunting is lethal.
Reason to Worry: Oregon is somewhere between inconsistent and just plain not good on offense, especially away from home. Just in the past 10 weeks, the Ducks were held to 66 points or fewer eight times. Part of that is due to their slow pace, but it’s mostly because they don’t have reliable shooters and are average in terms of turnovers and rebounding.
March Madness Ceiling: Depending on the draw, Oregon could be a nuisance. Its zone defense allows a ton of looks at three-pointers, so it could get buried by halftime against a hot opponent. But teams that need to score in the paint will have trouble doing so against the Ducks. They didn’t belong in this tournament until Saturday night, but they could sneak into the second weekend.
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Record: 23-9, 13-5 in AAC
How They Got Here: After starting the league slate 5-3 with an interspersed nonconference loss to Penn, the Owls closed out the regular season by winning eight of 10. That momentum halted with an opening-round loss to Wichita State in the AAC tournament, which left them squarely on the bubble.
Reason to Believe: Home victories against Houston and UCF highlight a resume that includes eight Quadrant 1 and 2 wins, and even with its early exit from the conference tournament, this team seemed to hit its stride down the stretch. Senior point guard Shizz Alston Jr. (19.7 ppg, 5.0 apg) does a great job running the offense and protecting the ball, while the defense ranked 17th in the nation with 277 steals.
Reason to Worry: A bad loss to sub-100 NET Penn and a 2-6 record in Quadrant 1 games is exactly what you’d expect the resume to look like for one of the last teams to grab an at-large bid. Even more troubling than the Penn loss was an 18-point shellacking by Tulsa on February 9. The Owls also rank outside KenPom‘s top 75 in offensive and defensive efficiency, as there’s not any one thing they do well.
March Madness Ceiling: Maybe Temple can regain that late-season momentum and win its first-round game. Or maybe the Owls will head home before the weekend.
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Record: 22-10, 12-6 in Pac-12
How They Got Here: Seven weeks into the season, Arizona State looked great. The Sun Devils had one iffy loss to Vanderbilt, but they made up for it with wins over Kansas, Mississippi State and Utah State, as well as a hard-fought loss to Nevada. Since then, though, they’ve added bad home losses to Princeton, Utah and Washington State without adding any more Quadrant 1 wins. Had this team been left out, no one would have been shocked.
Reason to Believe: This is a physical bunch, similar to the one Bobby Hurley had at Buffalo a few years ago. Arizona State works hard on the glass and both draws and commits a lot of fouls. This style can frustrate a finesse team to no end.
Reason to Worry: Arizona State lost nine games to teams that weren’t close to the at-large conversation. The Sun Devils get to the free-throw line a ton, but they struggle to make shots from it. In fact, aside from De’Quon Lake’s dunks and layups, they don’t shoot well from anywhere on the floor. And they give up a lot of three-pointers, in part because their physicality implores teams to score from the perimeter.
March Madness Ceiling: At no point since the late-December win over Kansas could you turn on an Arizona State game and think, I can’t wait to pick that team to win multiple games in the tournament. Maybe the Sun Devils can pull off one upset against a cold-shooting foe, but a prolonged stay in the Big Dance is far from likely.
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Record: 19-15, 9-9 in SEC
How They Got Here: Outside of a trio of great games against LSU, Florida never seemed like much of a contender this year. The Gators blew countless opportunities for key wins and suffered bad home losses to Georgia and South Carolina. They had a five-game winning streak—bookended by games against Vanderbilt—in mid-February, and that’s about it. Many bracketologists did not think this team belonged in the field prior to its victory over LSU in the SEC quarters.
Reason to Believe: The Gators are stout on defense. Kevarrius Hayes has been a great lane-clogger for three years now, and they have five players with at least 20 steals each. If they were better at ending possessions with defensive rebounds, they would probably have one of the five most efficient defenses in the country.
Reason to Worry: This offense is an adventure, and not a fun one. The Gators have been held to 62 points or fewer on 13 occasions, and they lost 11 of those games. All three leading scorers (KeVaughn Allen, Noah Locke and Jalen Hudson) shoot worse than 40 percent from the field.
March Madness Ceiling: At the start of the SEC tournament, the Gators were 1-10 against KenPom top 40 teams, and they had four more losses outside of that group. They may have changed the narrative a bit with a nice showing this week, but it still would be a little shocking if Florida reaches the Sweet 16.
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Record: 22-11, 10-10 in Big Ten
How They Got Here: Aside from a home win over Iowa State in December and a home win over Michigan on Feb. 1, Iowa didn’t do much this season. But the Hawkeyes were in great shape for a top six seed until they crashed and burned at the finish line, losing six of their final eight games—including a dreadful 14-point home loss to Rutgers.
Reason to Believe: Iowa’s offense has been inconsistent and noticeably absent for almost two months, but the Hawkeyes can put up points in bunches. They are 18-2 when scoring at least 73 points, and with four solid three-point shooters on the roster, you have to wonder why they don’t get to that total more often.
Reason to Worry: This is nothing new in the past three years, but Iowa’s defense is somewhere between a train wreck and a dumpster fire. And three of the Hawkeyes’ six worst defensive performances came in the final two weeks of the regular season—against teams that aren’t even that good on offense.
March Madness Ceiling: One month ago, you probably could’ve talked me into Iowa as an Elite Eight candidate. But now, even one win is pushing it. The same thing happened in 2016, albeit with an entirely different roster. The Hawkeyes looked great until mid-February and then lost six of their final eight before Selection Sunday to limp into the tournament. They barely won the opener in overtime before getting smashed by a quality opponent in the second round. A repeat of that wouldn’t surprise anyone.
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Record: 26-5, 16-2 in Ohio Valley
How They Got Here: Belmont was on a 14-game winning streak before losing primary frontcourt weapon Nick Muszynski to an ankle injury in the OVC semifinals, and his presence in the paint and on the glass was sorely missed in the 77-65 loss to Murray State in the championship game. But thanks to a pair of wins over Lipscomb, road wins over UCLA and Murray State, and a solid nonconference strength of schedule, the Bruins were deemed worthy of an at-large bid after a nerve-wracking week of rooting against other bubble teams.
Reason to Believe: Per usual, Belmont is one of the best shooting teams. The Bruins have ranked top three nationally in two-point percentage in seven consecutive seasons, and they are in the top 85 in three-point percentage for the eighth time in nine years. Dylan Windler, a 6’8″ senior, is a legitimate NBA prospect averaging better than 21 points and 10 rebounds per game.
Reason to Worry: Belmont’s defensive effort leaves much to be desired, and it may be even worse than usual if Muszynski—the only rim-protector on the roster—is at less than full strength with that ankle. Even far-from-elite offenses like Illinois State, Green Bay, Eastern Kentucky and Samford had little trouble scoring against the Bruins.
March Madness Ceiling: A first-round upset is conceivable. A sustained run probably is not. Belmont always shoots well during the regular season, but it always gets bounced immediately. In seven trips to the NCAA tournament since 2006, the Bruins are 0-7 and were beaten by a double-digit margin in six of those games. It’s easy to hit jumpers against the Ohio Valley and Atlantic Sun, but that offense never seems to translate against the powerhouses.
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Record: 19-13, 10-8 in Big 12
How They Got Here: Six weeks into the regular season, Baylor had terrible home losses against Texas Southern and Stephen F. Austin, a bad road loss to Wichita State and nothing more than a road win over Arizona on the good side of the ledger. The Bears were so far out of the NCAA tournament picture that they didn’t even bear mentioning. But they rallied in a huge way to finish fourth in the Big 12.
Reason to Believe: Led by Mark Vital and Freddie Gillespie, Baylor is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country. It’s a nice luxury for a squad that shoots a lot of three-pointers, knowing an off night from the perimeter isn’t necessarily the end of the world. This is also an above-average team on defense, though the Bears have been much more hit-or-miss on that end since losing big man Tristan Clark to a knee injury in January.
Reason to Worry: Baylor lost seven of its final 11 regular-season games, struggling to put the ball in the hoop in spite of all those offensive rebounds. Leading scorer Makai Mason has been dealing with a bruised toe throughout that entire stretch, and it’s impossible to say whether he’ll be feeling close to 100 percent for the tournament. The fact that he sat out the season finale against Kansas doesn’t bode well, though.
March Madness Ceiling: With Mason’s health in question, Baylor is probably a one-and-done team. Even if he plays, multiple wins might be a pipe dream. All of the Bears’ best wins (vs. Texas Tech, at Iowa State, at Oklahoma) seemed to come at the exact moment when each of those teams was playing its worst basketball of the season. And you can’t very well catch a team at its low point during the NCAA tournament.
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Record: 25-7, 16-2 in A-10
How They Got Here: VCU had a couple of nice wins away from home against Temple and Texas in the first month of the season, but it also suffered some questionable losses to Old Dominion, Rhode Island and College of Charleston. The Rams buckled down late in the season, though, entering the A-10 tournament on a 12-game winning streak. Even the immediate loss to Rhode Island in the quarterfinals wasn’t enough to keep VCU out.
Reason to Believe: VCU’s defense is menacing. The Rams rank top 10 on KenPom in three-point percentage, two-point percentage, effective field-goal percentage, turnover percentage and adjusted defensive efficiency. They also wear out opponents by forcing them to play long possessions all game. Rhode Island is the only team to put up at least 70 points against VCU in the past two months.
Reason to Worry: This offense is about as bad as its defense is good. The Rams are terrible from three-point range, and they frequently have issues with turnovers. Between the three bad losses noted above, VCU shot 14-of-59 (23.7 percent) from downtown and coughed up the ball 48 times (16 per game).
March Madness Ceiling: VCU always feels like a threat to make some sort of a tournament run, but it is just 3-6 in the Big Dance with no Sweet 16 appearances since that memorable trip to the 2011 Final Four. And its offense is usually a lot better than this. It’s hard/foolish to count out this defense, but this doesn’t seem like a second-weekend team.
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Willie J. Allen Jr./Associated Press
Record: 23-8, 13-5 in AAC
How They Got Here: The Knights entered the AP poll for the first and only time on the final week of the regular season by knocking off No. 8 Houston and No. 20 Cincinnati in succession to kick off the month of March. However, they were ousted from the conference tournament in their first game with a 24-point loss to Memphis.
Reason to Believe: This is the best team in UCF history. B.J. Taylor (16.0 PPG) and Aubrey Dawkins (15.2 PPG) form a consistent scoring tandem, 7’6″ center Tacko Fall (73 blocks) changes the way teams operate offensively, and sophomore Collin Smith can be a difference-maker—he went off for 21 points in the win against Houston. Their defense will be what carries them. They hold opponents to just 39.5 percent shooting and rank 35th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency.
Reason to Worry: Entering the tournament on the heels of a 24-point throttling is less than ideal. Taylor, Dawkins and Smith were held to 25 points combined on a brutal 8-of-29 shooting in that game, and the defense was unable to keep things close. The road win on their resume against Houston is great, but a 2-5 record in Quad 1 and an 8-7 record overall in Quad 1 and 2 games paints them as a good-not-great team.
March Madness Ceiling: The Knights are more than capable of winning their opening game, but given their likely seeding, they’ll face a tough test against an elite team in the second round. If the offense is firing, a Sweet 16 appearance is possible, but they’ll have their hands full surviving the weekend.
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Record: 20-12, 10-8 in SEC
How They Got Here: Ole Miss is the one SEC team that seems to have missed the memo about scheduling more aggressively in nonconference play. But in the Rebels’ defense, they were supposed to be the worst team in the conference this year. To the surprise of many, they started out 10-2 and then opened SEC play with three more wins over Vanderbilt, Auburn and Mississippi State. They’ve only picked up one impressive win since then (at Auburn), but they gave both Kentucky and Tennessee a run for their money in recent weeks.
Reason to Believe: Kermit Davis knows a thing or two about the NCAA tournament from his days with Middle Tennessee. He orchestrated the colossal upset of second-seeded Michigan State as No. 15 seed in 2016 and pulled off a 12-over-5 upset the following year. This team is also lethal from the free-throw line.
Reason to Worry: Three-point defense is a major Achilles’ heel for Ole Miss. During one eight-game stretch from Jan. 26 to Feb. 19, seven opponents shot better than 42 percent from downtown against the Rebels. It’s also concerning that they lost 10 of their final 17 games, including losses to South Carolina, Alabama (twice) and Arkansas.
March Madness Ceiling: Ole Miss has won exactly one game in each of its last two trips to the NCAA tournament. So has Davis (with MTSU). That trend may continue. This team is unlikely to pull off multiple upsets, but one is feasible.
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Record: 19-13, 7-11 in Big 12
How They Got Here: Just like last year, Oklahoma got out to a great start before gradually throwing it all away during Big 12 play. The Sooners were 11-1 against an excellent strength of schedule when the calendar flipped to 2019, but they lost nine of their next 13 games to slide onto the bubble. Late home wins over Texas and Kansas kept them in the field, but it’s another year of wondering what could have been.
Reason to Believe: Oklahoma is much better on the defensive end than it has been in recent years. The Sooners have yet to allow more than 80 points in a game, despite playing at an above-average tempo. This is predominantly an older team with five seniors in the main eight-man rotation, but freshman point guard Jamal Bieniemy has been an excellent first line of defense, averaging 2.3 steals per 40 minutes.
Reason to Worry: Who can be counted on to score big buckets? Christian James seemed to be that guy early in the season, but he has been held to 11 points or fewer in nine of the last 14 games. Kristian Doolittle has stepped up in James’ stead, but the Sooners still have frequent no-shows on offense.
March Madness Ceiling: Oklahoma might win a game. However, this team has had a lot of trouble stringing together consecutive quality performances. After three of the Sooners’ four best Big 12 wins, they turned around and immediately lost the next game by at least 13 points.
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Record: 21-12, 8-10 in Big East
How They Got Here: St. John’s started out 12-0 against a painfully weak nonconference schedule. (Even with the February blowout loss at Duke, the Red Storm still have an NCSOS outside the top 200.) They proceeded to put together a sub-.500 conference record. Normally, that would be a massive no-no. But they swept Marquette and Creighton during the regular season and won a home game against Villanova. And in the Big East, where no one was terrible this year, that’s a solid 8-10 record.
Reason to Believe: In terms of raw talent, this is one of the best starting fives in the country. Shamorie Ponds, Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron and Arizona transfer Justin Simon were all top-50 recruits who are now upperclassmen. LJ Figueroa was a JUCO All-American. And Michigan State transfer Marvin Clark is no slouch. Consistency has been a major issue all year, but there’s a lot of potential here.
Reason to Worry: St. John’s has talent, but it doesn’t have height. This team routinely gets destroyed in rebounding margin. In each of their 12 losses, the Red Storm lost the battle on the boards. And we’re not talking about a difference of one or two. The average difference in those games was 12.7 rebounds. Also, aside from a strong turnover rate, this team is bad on defense.
March Madness Ceiling: The Johnnies will lose as soon as they run into a team capable of dominating them in the paint, which shouldn’t take long. They got those key wins over Creighton, Marquette and Villanova because those are perimeter-oriented teams who didn’t, or couldn’t, capitalize on the Red Storm’s fatal flaw. Best of luck winning more than one game with that problem.
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Record: 28-6, 15-3 in MWC
How They Got Here: Early wins over Saint Mary’s and UC Irvine—as well as close calls against Arizona State and Houston—got Utah State onto the fringe of the at-large conversation. But it was winning 14 of the final 15 regular-season games that had the Aggies effectively locked into a bid before they won the Mountain West tournament. Craig Smith deserves national coach of the year consideration for how quickly he turned this program around.
Reason to Believe: Utah State’s interior defense is outstanding. Freshman Neemias Queta is like a giant eraser in the paint, blocking better than two shots per game for a team that ranks top five nationally in both defensive rebound percentage and two-point field-goal defense. And on the other end of the floor, the Aggies have a pressure-cooker scorer in Sam Merrill.
Reason to Worry: Playing away from home has been a struggle for Utah State. The Aggies handled lowly Wyoming, San Jose State and Air Force without much trouble. Those were the exceptions to the rule, though. Since Dec. 5, Utah State has lost four road games and had four others decided either by one possession or overtime. And only two of those eight opponents (Nevada and Houston) are tournament teams.
March Madness Ceiling: Overshadowed in a season where Buffalo, Wofford and Furman each made appearances in the AP Top 25, Utah State might be the mid-major that rises up and makes a Cinderella run. That Merrill/Queta combo is special, and those two guys are surrounded by players who fill their roles perfectly. I won’t have the guts to bet my bracket on it, but this could be an Elite Eight team.
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Record: 26-8, 15-3 in Pac-12
How They Got Here: Washington was one of the only things about the Pac-12 that wasn’t a disaster. The Huskies didn’t do much in nonconference play, but they started 10-0 against league foes. A terrible loss to California in late February brought them crashing back to the bubble, but the Huskies were able to sneak in.
Reason to Believe: Washington has a suffocating defense. Matisse Thybulle (3.4 spg, 2.2 bpg) is probably the best defender not named Zion Williamson in this tournament, and he’s just one piece of the puzzle. Noah Dickerson, Hameir Wright and Sam Timmins are also major defensive assets in a frontcourt that is a bear to score against. Even with one of the worst defensive rebound percentages in the nation (No. 343 out of 353 teams), this is a top-20 defense in efficiency, per KenPom.
Reason to Worry: The Huskies did not win a single regular-season game against a team in the at-large conversation. They did have close calls against Gonzaga and Minnesota, but it’s hard to expect multiple tournament wins when we haven’t seen something akin to one all year.
March Madness Ceiling: In early February, this felt like a sneaky Elite Eight contender. But Washington had three losses and three nail-biters in its final eight regular-season games. Plenty of other teams backed into the tournament, but not in a league this bad. If Washington can’t beat Cal or Oregon and can barely beat Washington State and Utah, it’s hard to trust this team to win a single game.
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Record: 30-4, 15-1 in WAC
How They Got Here: There were a handful of close calls along the way, but New Mexico State has won 19 consecutive games dating back to early January. Grand Canyon was responsible for two of those close calls during the regular season but not so much in the WAC title game. The Aggies pummeled the Antelopes by a 32-point margin to punch their ticket.
Reason to Believe: This is one of the best rebounding teams in KenPom history. New Mexico State ranks eighth in offensive rebound percentage and fourth on the defensive glass. The last team to rank top eight on both ends was Yale in 2016, and that was the No. 12 seed Bulldogs team that upset Baylor in the first round and almost beat Duke in the second round. You’ve been warned.
Reason to Worry: NMSU lost both games it played against top-75 teams (Kansas and Saint Mary’s) and basically broke even with both of them on the glass. Those rebounding numbers were undoubtedly inflated by the (lack of) strength of schedule. Also, for a team that shoots a ton of three-pointers, the Aggies are slightly below the national average at converting them.
March Madness Ceiling: I’ve talked myself into New Mexico State as a Cinderella candidate too many times in the past eight years—often because of how well the Aggies fare in the paint against subpar competition. But they have lost their first tournament game in 10 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament, usually by a double-digit margin. They might win a game or two, but it’s probably just another year of crying “Wolf!”
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Record: 27-4, 16-2 in Ohio Valley
How They Got Here: Murray State entered the Ohio Valley Tournament with an 0-2 record against Quadrant 1 and a 1-2 record against Quadrant 2. Despite one of the most exciting players in the nation (Ja Morant) and 1.000 batting average against Quadrants 3 and 4, the Racers almost certainly needed to win the OVC tourney to reach the Big Dance. They did, thanks to 32.5 points per game from Morant in Evansville, Indiana.
Reason to Believe: Morant is the star, but he’s no one-man show. He averages 10 assists per game because he is surrounded by guys who make two-point buckets at a high clip. And Murray State’s three-point defense is among the best in the nation. The Racers held both of their OVC tourney opponents below 22 percent from downtown.
Reason to Worry: For all the good that Morant does, his turnovers (more than five per game) could be a major issue for the Racers. And if he gets an officiating crew that decides not to reward him for drawing contact on his way to the rim, that would hurt his ability to make an impact. Plus, Murray State has not beaten a tournament-caliber team that was at full strength yet this season.
March Madness Ceiling: A Final Four run is unlikely, but never say never. Murray State is far from your average mid-major, and big men Darnell Cowart and KJ Williams are both much, much bigger factors now than they were when the Racers had their close calls at Auburn and Alabama. If that three-point defense holds up against the “real” competition, Murray State has definite second-weekend potential.
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Record: 22-11, 11-5 in WCC
How They Got Here: For months, Saint Mary’s was a headache for bracketologists. The Gaels scheduled much more aggressively than they usually do, but all they had to show for it was a strangely strong NET ranking, a road win over New Mexico State and a bunch of losses. But they ended that bubble dilemma by upsetting Gonzaga in the WCC championship—the same Gonzaga that beat them by 48 points in early February. That’s quite the rebound.
Reason to Believe: The Gaels have a trio of 40 percent three-point shooters in their starting lineup, as well as an excellent rebounder and shot-blocker in Jordan Hunter. And if you don’t already know the name Jordan Ford, consider this your official warning that he can take over any game at a moment’s notice. He seems to score 20 every night.
Reason to Worry: While several of the 11 losses are a forgivable byproduct of a tougher schedule, Saint Mary’s has also lost six games to teams who aren’t sniffing the at-large conversation, including Harvard, Western Kentucky and Pepperdine. Juxtaposed with just the one great win over Gonzaga, it’s hard to trust the Gaels to get one win, let alone two in a row.
March Madness Ceiling: Every time Saint Mary’s goes dancing, it feels like this team is one of the biggest Sweet 16 threats from outside the top six seed lines. That shoe (or is it a glass slipper?) fits for the Gaels once again this year. They almost won games against LSU and Mississippi State early in the year, and their methodical pace of play on offense could cause similar issues for tournament opponents. If things break right, the Elite Eight is a possibility.
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Record: 20-13, 9-9 in Big East
How They Got Here: No team bounced around the bubble quite like Seton Hall did. The Pirates had bad early losses to Nebraska and Saint Louis, got swept by DePaul and acquired a handful of other questionable losses in Big East play. But huge wins over Kentucky and Maryland in December and season-ending home wins over Marquette and Villanova made up for those missteps and showed that this team is not to be taken lightly.
Reason to Believe: There aren’t many “put the team on my back” players better than Myles Powell. In the four aforementioned key wins, Powell averaged 27.3 points and just 2.0 turnovers. Powell is also a solid on-ball defender, capable of stifling the opposing team’s best perimeter threat. He probably won’t be in the national All-Americans conversation, but there’s not a coach in the tournament who wants to prepare to face this guy.
Reason to Worry: Beyond Powell, there’s not much here. Myles Cale is a good shooter, and Sandro Mamukelashvili is a force on the glass, but there’s nothing the team does particularly well. As a result, even when Powell scores at least 20 points, the Pirates are only 14-8. Also, Seton Hall is just 1-3 in the NCAA tournament in the past three seasons, despite earning a single-digit seed each year.
March Madness Ceiling: While it wouldn’t be terribly surprising if Seton Hall reaches the second weekend of the tournament, expecting anything more than the Sweet 16 will likely result in disappointment. Do expect close games, though. The Pirates have played in 20 games decided by six points or fewer. Maybe—just maybe—they could replicate Loyola-Chicago’s run from last year, winning their first three games by a combined margin of four points.
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Record: 20-13, 10-8 in ACC
How They Got Here: Syracuse bounced back and forth all year long, looking bad one week and like a Final Four contender the next. No stretch summed that up better than the 14-point home loss to Georgia Tech followed by the four-point road win over Duke. The Orange struggled late, losing six of their last nine regular-season games. Given this season’s trajectory, that might just mean they’re gearing up for a big tournament run.
Reason to Believe: There was a five-season stretch from 2010-14 when Syracuse was A) consistently one of the 20 best teams, and B) always in the top 10 nationally in both block and steal percentage. Part A doesn’t quite apply this year, but Part B does. The Orange average roughly 13 combined blocks and steals per game, which means getting to capitalize on a lot of momentum-shifting plays.
Reason to Worry: Did we ever determine if Syracuse is good? The Orange had ugly early losses to Connecticut, Old Dominion and Georgia Tech, but apparently one overtime road win over down-two-starters Duke was enough to get them clear of the bubble. But this team can’t shoot. And it has issues with defensive rebounds and three-pointers allowed, as is usually the case with that 2-3 zone.
March Madness Ceiling: Syracuse has won at least three games in four of its last five trips to the NCAA tournament, despite racking up quite a few regular-season losses during most of those years. Teams who see Syracuse once or twice every year eventually figure out a plan of attack for that zone defense, but it always throws opponents off in the NCAA tournament. Don’t call it a Cinderella story, but Syracuse could make another run to the Elite Eight.
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Record: 28-6, 14-4 in AAC
How They Got Here: The Bearcats ripped off a 9-1 stretch in conference play before dropping back-to-back games to close out the regular season. A 1-3 regular-season record against Houston and Central Florida waters down their resume, but they were still one of the AAC’s elite teams.
Reason to Believe: As usual, Cincinnati is one of the better defensive teams in the nation. The Bearcats hold opponents to 62.2 points (12th in NCAA) and force far more turnovers (462) than they allow assists (373). Unlike in years past, the offense has a legitimate offensive star in Jarron Cumberland, who averages 18.7 points per contest and shoots 39.1 percent from distance. Senior point guard Justin Jenifer is also an underrated game manager who sports a 96-to-24 assist-to-turnover ratio. The Bearcats went 5-4 in Quad 1 games and a dominant 8-1 in Quad 2 contests.
Reason to Worry: The two best teams Cincinnati played during the regular season—Houston and Mississippi State—beat them by a combined 34 points in three regular-season games. There’s also an ugly loss to sub-250 NET East Carolina at the beginning of January. They ranked 338th out of 353 teams in KenPom’s tempo ranking, so if they fall behind and are forced to push things, they’ll be out of their element. As good as Cumberland has been, he’s been held under 15 points five times since the beginning of February.
March Madness Ceiling: If the Bearcats can control the pace and Cumberland is knocking down shots, this team has a legitimate chance of reaching the Sweet 16.
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Record: 20-13, 10-8 in ACC
How They Got Here: There were two distinct portions of Louisville’s season: The first 24.75 games and the rest of the year. Through the first part, the Cardinals had great wins at North Carolina, at Virginia Tech and at home against Michigan State, and they were dominating a full-strength Duke team. But Duke’s 23-point comeback in the final 10 minutes of that game broke Louisville’s psyche, resulting in ugly losses to Syracuse and Boston College down the stretch.
Reason to Believe: Head coach Chris Mack has infused this team with toughness in his first season after coming over from Xavier. His Musketeers teams often won games just by wanting them more, dominating with rebounds and defensive intensity, and that has quickly become Louisville’s M.O., too. The Cards are also excellent from the free-throw line, where they hit 77.5 percent, which is always a nice perk.
Reason to Worry: Outside of the free throws, Louisville’s offense is painfully average—and has been rather anemic lately. Right after the Duke game, the Cardinals were held below 60 points four straight times. You expect that against Virginia. You expect better against Syracuse and Boston College.
March Madness Ceiling: Mack made it to at least the Sweet 16 in four of his last eight trips to the NCAA tournament, and this squad is good enough to make that five-of-nine. The Cardinals need to regain some confidence after their rough finish to the season, but they’ve shown more than enough against top-10 teams to be taken seriously.
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Record: 23-10, 10-8 in SEC
How They Got Here: Mississippi State picked up a bunch of solid wins over Wofford, Cincinnati, Saint Mary’s, Clemson and Dayton in nonconference play, and then the Bulldogs just kind of tread water in SEC play. They went 0-5 against the league’s three best teams and didn’t add anything better than a home win over Auburn or a road win over Ole Miss. But they did enough to hang around the top 30 in the metrics all year.
Reason to Believe: The Bulldogs have four good shooters, and they get after it on the defensive end with more than their fair share of both blocks and steals. Though they didn’t beat either team, they made life miserable for LSU and Kentucky in back-to-back games, accumulating 12 blocks and 18 steals between those close calls in early February.
Reason to Worry: There isn’t a specific thing that Mississippi State does terribly, but there are a lot of areas in which the Bulldogs are below the national average and among the worst in the tournament field. They sometimes get sloppy with turnovers, they aren’t great on the defensive glass, and the good three-point shooting teams have typically been able to get hot against the Bulldogs.
March Madness Ceiling: Mississippi State had a lot of good wins, but no great ones. That doesn’t mean the Bulldogs are incapable of beating an elite opponent, but it would take a leap of faith to pick them over a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. Fortunately, they won’t need to deal with an opponent of that caliber at least until the Sweet 16, so they should be a strong candidate to get that far.
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Record: 22-10, 13-7 in Big Ten
How They Got Here: Maryland won 16 of its first 19 games, and two of the three losses were nail-biters against Virginia and Purdue. By mid-January, the Terrapins were knocking on the door of a projected No. 2 seed and felt like one of the top 10 candidates to win it all—but they lost seven of their final 13 games, all by at least a three-possession margin.
Reason to Believe: Anchored by Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith, Maryland is one of the nation’s best rebounding teams. Those big men also play a massive part (literally and figuratively) for a defense that blocks nearly five shots per game and hold opponents below 45 percent on two-point attempts. Aside from Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke, there’s not a better one-two frontcourt punch this season.
Reason to Worry: Maryland needs all those extra rebounds to make up for its horrendous turnover margin. In nine of their 10 losses, the Terrapins had a negative turnover margin (the average margin for those games: -5.5). To quote The Athletic’s Seth Davis, “That’s not how you get Capone.” And with several teams in the field who average at least eight steals per game, it’s bound to eventually be an issue.
March Madness Ceiling: It’s hard to say whether Maryland just ran out of gas at the end of a long, difficult schedule or if the turnover woes finally caught up to an exposed team. If it’s the former, there’s a chance the Terps could still turn things around and reach the Elite Eight. If it’s the latter, they’ll be toast once they run into an above-average defense.
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Record: 31-3, 16-2 in MAC
How They Got Here: In retrospect, it’s funny that an overtime win over West Virginia is what first put Buffalo on the map, because this ended up being arguably WVU’s worst season under Bob Huggins. But the Bulls also had nice wins over San Francisco, Syracuse and Toledo (twice) to reinforce the early notion that this might be a Sweet 16 team. Winning the MAC tournament didn’t hurt, either.
Reason to Believe: Buffalo thrives on forcing opponents to create for themselves off the dribble—which results in a high turnover rate and low marks in assists and three-point shooting. Now, trying to do that against Markus Howard and Marquette didn’t work out so well. But most teams are going to struggle with Buffalo’s ability to limit ball movement.
Reason to Worry: When Buffalo has struggled, it’s usually a turnover issue. The Bulls have a great year-to-date turnover margin, but in one of their conference losses as well as their four MAC games won by six points or fewer, they lost the turnover battle. And there are a lot of teams in this field more than capable of causing problems for Davonta Jordan and Dontay Caruthers.
March Madness Ceiling: There are five things we look for in a Cinderella candidate, and Buffalo checks all of those boxes. This team has quality depth, it takes defense seriously, it has five seniors in the primary rotation, it has a bunch of guys who can shoot the deep ball and it fared well against a relatively challenging nonconference schedule. Maybe it doesn’t count as a Cinderella story since Buffalo was ranked for almost the entire season, but the Bulls have Final Four potential.
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Record: 23-11, 9-9 in Big 12
How They Got Here: Iowa State sputtered to the finish line with losses in six of its final eight regular-season games. Not only was it a lot of losses, but during that stretch the Cyclones were swept by TCU, got blown out at West Virginia and lost a home game to Baylor. That feels like ancient history after they ripped through Baylor, Kansas State and Kansas to win the Big 12 tournament, though.
Reason to Believe: After a one-year hiatus, Iowa State has reestablished itself as one of the most efficient offenses around. The Cyclones do a great job of keeping turnovers under control, and they convert at a high clip from inside the arc. With five players who have attempted at least 100 threes—four of whom make at least 36 percent of them—they do a great job of spreading out the defense to find the optimal point of attack.
Reason to Worry: Iowa State’s defense was on point in the Big 12 tournament, but it was atrocious late in the year. The Cyclones allowed 1.14 points per possession over their final nine regular-season games, including four losses in which they gave up 80 or more. They had occasional defensive lapses in the first three months of the season, but they were consistently bad on that end of the floor for more than a month.
March Madness Ceiling: Even during Iowa State’s best seasons of the past decade, it never advanced beyond the Sweet 16. Sometimes it has been because of tough injury luck, but the Cyclones just have not fared well in the Big Dance. That doesn’t mean they can’t do it, but if Georges Niang, Monte Morris and Co. couldn’t make deep runs, it’s hard to imagine this year’s team will win three or more games.
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Record: 24-9, 12-6 in Big East
How They Got Here: Talk about backing into the postseason. Marquette was 23-4 in late February and might have been able to creep into the No. 1 seed conversation had it won the subsequent road game against Villanova. But the Golden Eagles lost that one, and another three against Creighton, Seton Hall and Georgetown right after it. Just like that, they went from looking like the Big East’s lone hope for a deep tournament run to just another inconsistent squad in the conference’s fray.
Reason to Believe: Between Markus Howard and Sam and Joey Hauser, Marquette has three highly gifted shooters. Howard gets most of the attention because he takes the lion’s share of the shots, but the Hauser brothers are just as efficient, if not more so. That trio has carried the Golden Eagles to wins over the likes of Wisconsin, Louisville, Kansas State and Buffalo.
Reason to Worry: Turnovers have been an issue for Marquette all season long, but they have become a colossal disaster as of late. In the late-season losses to Villanova, Creighton and Seton Hall, Marquette had a combined 28 more turnovers than its opponents. Hard to capitalize on the good shooting when you’re giving away the ball that much.
March Madness Ceiling: Three weeks ago, we might’ve peddled Marquette as a fringe championship contender. But after watching the dreadful late-game execution to close out the regular season, even the Elite Eight seems unrealistic. Now, if Howard strings together a few 35-point performances, the Golden Eagles might be able to piece something together. Once he’s anything less than Superman, though, they will likely be on their way out the door.
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Record: 25-9, 12-6 in Big 12
How They Got Here: After 14 years, “The Streak” is over. Kansas struggled on the road in Big 12 play, losing six of those nine games and winning the other three by just five points each. But should we care about that streak for NCAA tournament purposes? During those 14 years, Kansas failed to reach the Sweet 16 five times and went to the Final Four just three times.
Reason to Believe: There is not a more battle-tested team in the country. Kansas faced the toughest schedule, finishing the Big 12 tournament at 11-8 in Quadrant 1 games. The Jayhawks beat the likes of Tennessee, Michigan State, Texas Tech, Kansas State and Villanova. The roster situation has changed considerably since those early games, but there’s still a lot of talent here, and it won’t be afraid of any opponent.
Reason to Worry: Is there anything that Kansas actually does better than most teams? The difficulty of the schedule tamped down the Jayhawks’ stats a bit, but Duke, North Carolina, Purdue and Maryland all played brutal schedules, too, and we know what those teams are good at it. Kansas never found its identity this season, which is understandable given the lack of roster continuity. That doesn’t make it any less concerning, though.
March Madness Ceiling: Kansas went 17-0 at home this season, but this show has not traveled well at all since losing Udoka Azubuike early in the campaign. Quentin Grimes has struggled all year long. Marcus Garrett hasn’t looked the same since his five-game absence due to an ankle injury. LaGerald Vick isn’t walking through that door, either. Too many red flags to trust this team any further than the Sweet 16, even though Dedric Lawson is capable of Herculean feats.
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Record: 25-9, 13-5 in Big East
How They Got Here: Following shocking early-season losses to Furman and Penn, Villanova turned things around with an 11-game winning streak. For a little while there, it looked like the Wildcats might sneak into the conversation for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. However, five consecutive road losses starting in mid-February brought Villanova back to the pack and outside the list of serious threats to win it all. But the Wildcats still won the Big East regular-season crown by multiple games and went on to win the conference tournament title, just for good measure.
Reason to Believe: You mean aside from the fact that this team has won two of the last three national championships? Well, there’s the live-or-die element of the astronomical three-point rate. Villanova has been taking and making a ton of threes throughout this six-year run of dominance, but the Wildcats have taken that dependency to a whole new level this year. More than 53 percent of their field-goal attempts come from beyond the perimeter, and they have five snipers shooting at least 35 percent. If they get cooking, look out.
Reason to Worry: Villanova sputtered to the finish line, losing five of its final eight regular-season games. And defense has been an issue for this team all year long. Because of that, even shooting well from three-point range isn’t a guaranteed win anymore. Villanova hit 13-of-27 (48.1 percent) in the season finale at Seton Hall and still lost that game.
March Madness Ceiling: During last year’s championship run, Villanova averaged 12.7 threes and shot 41.5 percent. In 2016, those numbers were 9.3 and 50.0, respectively. We know the Wildcats can catch fire for three weeks. But in both years, they had one dreadful shooting performance and only survived because they held their opponent below 60 points. Unable to rely on that defense this year, the Elite Eight is probably the ceiling here.
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Record: 23-10, 14-6 in Big Ten
How They Got Here: One year removed from a 15-18 disaster that snapped a 19-year NCAA tournament streak, Wisconsin got back to its typical position as a top-four team in the Big Ten. The Badgers never had a stretch in which they were especially dominant, but they have been solid all year long, hovering between 10th and 19th in the KenPom rankings for more than four months.
Reason to Believe: After the transition from Bo Ryan to Greg Gard, Wisconsin lost its way a little bit. But the Badgers have gotten back to what they used to do best: turnover-free offense and high-efficiency defense. Senior big man Ethan Happ is a massive contributor in both of those departments and is the heavy front-runner for KenPom.com Player of the Year. (Just don’t ask him to make free throws, though.)
Reason to Worry: Though Wisconsin’s turnover percentage on offense is among the best in the nation, this team doesn’t shoot that well, rarely gets to the free-throw line and has one of the worst offensive rebounding percentages in the tournament. The Badgers were held below 70 points in each of their final 12 regulation games and rarely cruise to victory.
March Madness Ceiling: Wisconsin doesn’t quite feel like a title contender, but it might sneak into the Final Four. The Badgers were not beaten by double digits in any game prior to the 12-point loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament. They won’t get blown out, and Happ might will them to the promised land.
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Record: 24-8, 12-6 in ACC
How They Got Here: Virginia Tech won 14 of its first 15 games, including nice neutral-site victories over Purdue and Washington. The Hokies later won a home game against a Zion Williamson-less Duke while successfully avoiding a bad loss all season. Blowout losses at Virginia and North Carolina in mid-January seemed to expose Virginia Tech as a bit of a fraud, but the Hokies went 8-5 the rest of the way, in spite of a couple significant injuries.
Reason to Believe: This is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the tournament. With the exception of backup forward P.J. Horne, every Hokie who steps on the court is a serious threat to tee one up from downtown, including stretch 5 Kerry Blackshear. VT also forces turnovers at a high rate, albeit not as well since losing starting point guard Justin Robinson to a broken toe.
Reason to Worry: Virginia Tech’s offense is hit or miss away from home, and miss is the more frequent outcome. The 47-24 game at NC State was the most infamous brick-fest, but the Hokies were held to 62 points or fewer in regulation in six of 10 road games. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech’s zone defense allows a ton of three-pointers, which makes those occasional offensive lapses even harder to overcome.
March Madness Ceiling: This feels like the type of team that should reach the Sweet 16, but not further—unless the bracket breaks and the Hokies draw a Cinderella story for their third game. The three-point defense is a major concern, as is the fact that VT only has one legitimate frontcourt presence. If Blackshear gets into early foul trouble or an opponent has a versatile big man capable of neutralizing him, the Hokies will be in serious trouble.
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Record: 29-4, 15-3 in MWC
How They Got Here: Much has been made about Nevada’s lack of quality wins this season, but can we step back for a minute and appreciate the absurdity of people being disappointed by a 29-win season? The Wolf Pack scheduled well, agreeing to games away from home against three Pac-12 schools, Loyola-Chicago and Grand Canyon in addition to playing in the Las Vegas Invitational. They deserved a better NCSOS than what they ended up going 13-0 against.
Reason to Believe: Nevada plays smart, which is to be expected from a team that starts five fifth-year seniors. The Wolf Pack doesn’t commit many fouls or turnovers, it draws a lot of fouls, and it protects the defensive glass. Also, this team is huge. Sharpshooter Jazz Johnson (5’10”) is the only member of the primary seven-man rotation who is shorter than 6’7″.
Reason to Worry: Nevada lives and dies with Jordan Caroline and Caleb Martin. When both guys score in double figures, Nevada is 27-0. But when either one is held to single digits (or doesn’t play), Nevada is 2-4. Obviously, neither one is easy to slow down. However, banking on not one, but two players to get through the tournament without a single dud is more than a little risky.
March Madness Ceiling: It’s kind of funny that Nevada has more experience than anyone, but our concern with saying this is a Final Four team is rooted in its lack of experience against elite teams this season. Nevada’s toughest opponent was Utah State, and it lost the road game against the Aggies. Based on talent, this is a fringe title contender. But it’s hard to know how Nevada will respond when it first runs into another contender.
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Record: 29-4, 18-0 in SoCon
How They Got Here: Wofford didn’t moonwalk through the Southern Conference quite like Gonzaga destroyed the WCC, but the Terriers ran the table against a league that hasn’t been this good since the 1960s. They suffered four losses to major-conference opponents early in the year, but they’ve shot much better since then. Rest assured, North Carolina, Kansas, Mississippi State and Oklahoma would rather not run into Wofford again.
Reason to Believe: This is a phenomenal three-point shooting team. Fletcher Magee is three triples away from breaking the NCAA’s career record, and he’s just one of four Terriers shooting over 40 percent from deep this season: They also have Storm Murphy (49 percent), Nathan Hoover (46 percent) and Tray Hollowell (41 percent). And that perimeter presence paves the way for Cameron Jackson and Keve Aluma to go to work in the paint, where they score on 59 percent and 68 percent of their shots, respectively. It’s a thing of beauty.
Reason to Worry: Wofford got a handful of nice wins over bubble teams, but it didn’t defeat anything close to a Sweet 16 contender all season. Did eight wins over Furman, UNC Greensboro and East Tennessee State prepare them for better luck against a team like Kansas or Mississippi State, or are the Terriers going to get exposed when they have to face a real defense?
March Madness Ceiling: The Terriers have Final Four potential. You won’t find many analysts bold enough to make that pick in their bracket, but good luck finding one willing to say that it couldn’t happen. With shooting and rebounding this good at a team-wide level, Wofford is going to have a puncher’s chance against anyone. Magee might need to channel his inner Steph Curry with a few 30-point performances, but, with four 30-plus-point games already this season, he could be up to the challenge.
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Record: 25-8, 14-4 in Big 12
How They Got Here: An ugly loss to Tulsa during a lackluster nonconference schedule put a glass ceiling on Kansas State’s seed potential before Big 12 play even began. But the Wildcats rallied from a 0-2 start in league play with 14 wins in their final 16 Big 12 games, earning a share of the conference title. They fell short of the conference tournament final, though.
Reason to Believe: Kansas State’s defense is relentless, thriving on draining the clock and forcing three-point attempts. The Wildcats also force turnovers at a high rate. Their final six regular-season opponents averaged a mere 54.3 points per game. This team has been hovering in the “Oh yeah, I guess they’re good, too” zone of the national conversation for four months, but they have the talent and the experience to do some damage.
Reason to Worry: There probably isn’t a less trustworthy major-conference offense in this tournament. Snail-like pace of play has a lot to do with it, but the Wildcats have been held below 60 points 11 times, including three games below 50.
March Madness Ceiling: With almost the exact same roster, Kansas State made it to the Elite Eight last year. But this time around, the Wildcats won’t be breaking brackets from the starting position of a No. 9 seed. Barry Brown, Dean Wade and Co. were a Top 15 team in the preseason. and they still look like one heading into the postseason. This isn’t one of the top 10 candidates to win the national championship, but if you say you’d be stunned to see this team in the Final Four, you haven’t been paying attention.
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Record: 23-9, 16-4 in Big Ten
How They Got Here: Purdue had to replace four starters from last year’s team, and it showed early. The Boilermakers started out 6-5 and seemed headed for a bit of a rebuilding year. But they found their stride around Christmas and won 17 of their final 20 regular-season games, earning a share of the Big Ten regular-season title.
Reason to Believe: Carsen Edwards is no joke. If anyone in the tournament is going to go out there and score 38 points on 27 shots and single-handedly carry his team through a rough night, it’s this guy. And he’ll do it again two nights later, too. He seemed to hit a wall late in the year, but an early exit from the Big Ten tournament might be a blessing, allowing him to rest up. Surrounding that workhorse with quality secondary shooters like Ryan Cline and Grady Eifert and a shot-blocking big man in Matt Haarms has been a nice formula for the Boilermakers.
Reason to Worry: Aside from an overtime win over Wisconsin in mid-January, Purdue has not been great away from home. The Boilermakers went 15-0 at home, but they were blown out at Michigan, Michigan State and Maryland and suffered questionable losses at Minnesota, at Texas and on a neutral court against Notre Dame. They went 8-9 outside of Mackey Arena, and half of the wins were either decided by one possession or overtime.
March Madness Ceiling: There’s always at least one “all or nothing” team that seems just as likely to win the national championship as it is to lose in the first round. Purdue fits that bill this year. Between the road/neutral record and the fact that Matt Painter has never been to the Elite Eight in 11 trips to the NCAA tournament, the temptation is to pick Purdue to bow out early. But this is clearly one of the 15 best teams in the tournament, so the sky is the limit.
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Record: 26-9, 11-7 in SEC
How They Got Here: It took a long time for Auburn to finally get some Quadrant 1 wins, and then the Tigers got three of them in a row to close out the regular season. Even before March, though, it was clear these guys could play. They had a bunch of good-not-great wins, and they didn’t have any terrible losses, unless you want to count the blowout loss at Kentucky. But if losing at Rupp Arena is the worst thing you did all season, that’s a darn fine run.
Reason to Believe: If you love three-pointers, blocks and steals, then Auburn is the team for you. The Tigers rank top 10 nationally in three-point rate, block percentage and steal percentage, according to KenPom. The steals are the key, as Auburn is 23-2 when it records at least eight steals. The two exceptions were an awful shooting performance at NC State and a close game against Duke on a neutral court.
Reason to Worry: Auburn’s defense giveth and Auburn’s defense taketh away. The Tigers commit too many fouls, struggle on the defensive glass and allow a lot of three-pointers. In all three categories, they rank well outside the top 250.
March Madness Ceiling: If Anfernee McLemore hadn’t broken his ankle late last season, Auburn might have made a deep run. Better late than never, right? Auburn was the No. 11 team in the preseason AP Top 25, and it still feels like this bunch has Final Four potential. The Tigers hung with Duke for 40 minutes, almost won at LSU, almost won a home game against Kentucky and did win a home game against Tennessee. And their “pluck it and chuck it” steals and threes approach—I just made that up, feel free to use it—is going to bother most opponents.
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Record: 26-6, 16-2 in SEC
How They Got Here: LSU won the SEC regular-season title for the first time in a decade, this after some decent nonconference wins over Saint Mary’s, Furman, Memphis and UNC Greensboro. There always seemed to be drama, though. The Tigers played in seven overtime games and had nine others decided by six points or fewer. They went 11-5 in those games, but those scoring margins are why LSU never quite made it into the NET or KenPom Top 10.
Reason to Believe: Is LSU the new Press Virginia? The Tigers rank top five in the nation in both steal percentage and offensive rebound percentage, winning a lot of games in spite of poor shooting and lackluster half-court defense. With the exception of Marlon Taylor, all eight regulars average at least 2.0 steals or 10.0 offensive rebounds per 40 minutes.
Reason to Worry: How will the Will Wade situation impact the Tigers? They looked lost at various points in the second half of the SEC tournament loss to Florida, and that may continue. Even if they do get back to their usual selves under an interim coach, the Tigers were never good from three-point range, and they sure are sloppy with the ball for a supposedly elite team.
March Madness Ceiling: LSU is in its own tier just behind the “serious” title contenders but ahead of the “yeah, maybe they could win it all” teams. Aside from one bizarre game against Oklahoma State in November, LSU was not soundly beaten this season. It won at Kentucky and beat Tennessee. It almost won games away from home against Florida State and Houston. But even before the coach turmoil, the Tigers always felt like a fringe title contender.
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Record: 27-7, 13-5 in ACC
How They Got Here: Following nonconference wins over Florida, LSU and Purdue, Florida State was on the precipice of upsetting Duke in mid-January. Cam Reddish saved the Blue Devils with a last-second three-pointer, and the Seminoles went into a tiny tailspin, losing their next two against Pittsburgh and Boston College. Since that funk, however, they are 14-2 with a run to the ACC championship game that included a statement win over Virginia. Watch out for the peaking Noles.
Reason to Believe: Per usual, Florida State has an abundance of height and athleticism. Aside from 7’4″ center Christ Koumadje, the Noles don’t have traditional positions. They just have dudes, each of whom can do a little bit of everything. And that makes them somewhat of a chameleon, able to adapt to what the opposing team wants to do—and usually do it better than the other team does.
Reason to Worry: Florida State has a bunch of guys who can shoot threes, but it doesn’t have a go-to perimeter threat. Between that and occasional issues avoiding turnovers, the Seminoles are liable to go ice cold on offense—such as in the Virginia Tech game two weeks ago when they scored eight points in the final 17 minutes of the first half.
March Madness Ceiling: With a similar roster makeup, the Seminoles made it to the Elite Eight last year. And it was no fluke path built on the backs of upsets elsewhere in the region. They knocked off No. 1 seed Xavier and put a hurting on No. 4 seed Gonzaga in the Sweet 16. They almost beat Michigan in the Elite Eight, too. This won’t be a popular pick to reach the Final Four, but it is surely a feasible one.
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Record: 31-3, 16-2 in AAC
How They Got Here: Before losing by 12 to Cincinnati in the AAC championship game, the only blips on the Cougars radar were conference losses to UCF and Temple by a combined nine points. After landing a No. 6 seed in last year’s tournament and losing to Michigan by one point in the second round, they entered the season with high hopes and delivered.
Reason to Believe: A 6-3 record in Quad 1 games that included double-digit wins over Cincinnati and Utah State is a good indication that this team is legit. The Cougars lead the nation in opponent’s field-goal percentage (36.5%) and ranked 13th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. They’re far from a one-dimensional team, though, checking in at 22nd in offensive efficiency. Upperclassmen Corey Davis Jr., Armoni Brooks and Galen Robinson Jr. lead a balanced attack.
Reason to Worry: The Cougars don’t shoot free throws particularly well (70.4%, 178th in NCAA), and they’re undersized aside from 6’8″ senior forward Breaon Brady. Those could be deciding factors down the stretch in a close game against another top-tier team. Their nonconference SOS was also outside the top 100, and aside from the LSU and Utah State games, they weren’t tested in the nonconference slate. It’s nitpicking, but other top-tier teams are more battle-tested.
March Madness Ceiling: Anything short of a Sweet 16 trip would be a massive disappointment, and this team will have its sights set on the Final Four. Between the Cougars’ defensive efficiency, balanced offense and tournament experience, that’s not out of the realm of possibility.
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Record: 26-6, 14-4 in Big 12
How They Got Here: Outside of a three-game losing streak in mid-January, Texas Tech has been one of the best teams in the country all season long. The Red Raiders lost four starters from last year, but Jarrett Culver has blossomed into a machine while transfers have played a gigantic role on both ends of the floor. For the first time since 1996—then with the Southwest Conference—Texas Tech earned at least a share of a regular season conference title.
Reason to Believe: In terms of adjusted defensive efficiency, this is the best defense since Kentucky went 38-1 in 2014-15, and it’s one of the five best defenses in KenPom history. Tariq Owens and Norense Odiase have made it next-to-impossible for opposing teams to get clean looks at two-point buckets. Both of those big men have also been outstanding on the offensive glass. And Culver, averaging 18.5 points per game, is the type of star who can take over a game at a moment’s notice.
Reason to Worry: During its nine-game winning streak to close out the regular season, Texas Tech shot 42.8 percent from three-point range. Davide Moretti, shooting 48 percent from distance this year, has been hotter than the sun. But there was about a two-month stretch in the middle of the season in which the Red Raiders could not buy a bucket. If those shooting woes resurface—like they did in the loss to West Virginia in the Big 12 tournament—even this great defense might not be able to keep Texas Tech from an early exit.
March Madness Ceiling: Though Texas Tech lost its only game against one of the serious threats to win it all—a 69-58 foul-and-turnover extravaganza against Duke in December—this is clearly one of the teams capable of winning six in a row. The old “defense wins championships” adage hasn’t done much good for teams like Virginia and Cincinnati in recent years, but it’s still true. And now that the Red Raiders are shooting well, there’s no limit on what they can do.
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Record: 28-5, 15-5 in Big Ten
How They Got Here: Michigan opened the season 17-0 with early blowout wins over Villanova, North Carolina and Purdue. It took less than a month for the Wolverines to surge from a borderline Top 25 team to an undeniable title contender. There were a couple of hiccups in Big Ten Conference play, but 20 games against the best league in the nation will trip up anyone from time to time.
Reason to Believe: Michigan’s defense is absurdly good. The Wolverines don’t block many shots or force many turnovers, but looking for open space against this team is like panning for gold. They rank top 20 in both two-point and three-point field-goal defense, and they only commit around 14 fouls per game. Michigan also leads the nation in offensive steal rate, so fast-break opportunities are almost nonexistent.
Reason to Worry: There was a 10-game stretch from mid-January through mid-February in which Michigan was held below 70 points nine times. (The lone exception came against Rutgers.) Doubting the potency of a John Beilein offense in March is a surefire way to lose your bracket pool, but it bears mentioning that Michigan’s slow pace of play—coupled with moderate shooting percentages and a poor offensive rebound rate—does result in the not-so-rare meager point total. This defense is capable of holding anyone under 70, but is that enough?
March Madness Ceiling: Michigan is absolutely on the list of teams that could win it all. The Wolverines made it to the national championship game in both 2013 and 2018, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if they get there again—provided Charles Matthews’ ankle (missed final three regular-season games) is close to 100 percent. When both Matthews and Iggy Brazdeikis are doing their thing, Michigan is almost unbeatable.
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Record: 29-5, 15-3 in SEC
How They Got Here: Tennessee went nearly three months between losses, reeling off 19 straight after a November overtime loss to full-strength Kansas. The Volunteers didn’t suffer a single loss to a team outside the NET top 25. (All of those losses came away from home, too.) They faced one of the weakest schedules among the teams that were in the hunt for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, but they were mighty impressive against it.
Reason to Believe: Grant Williams is the Volunteer everyone knows, but this roster is loaded. Jordan Bone is an underrated star at point guard. Kyle Alexander is a great rebounder and shot-blocker who pairs beautifully with Williams in the post. John Fulkerson and Jordan Bowden might be the best one-two punch of reserves in the tournament. With so many options, it’s no wonder this offense has been so tough to slow down.
Reason to Worry: In 11 games against KenPom Top 25 teams, Tennessee allowed at least 76 points eight times. And the Volunteers play at an average pace, so that’s a little concerning. Their defensive metrics look solid, but good teams have usually been able to put up points against them. In four of their losses, they scored at least 80.
March Madness Ceiling: A lot of people lost faith in Tennessee in the process of losing three of its final seven regular-season games, but this is still a top-10 team that has wins over Gonzaga, Kentucky (twice) and Louisville. Perhaps more important is that the Volunteers haven’t suffered anything close to a bad loss, so they can be trusted to at least reach the Sweet 16 and should be a threat to win the title.
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Record: 27-6, 16-4 in Big Ten
How They Got Here: Outside of a bad first half in the season opener against Kansas and a three-game skid in the middle of conference play, Michigan State has been one of the best teams all year long. A sweep of Michigan over the final two weeks of the regular season—at considerably less than full strength, no less—and a subsequent run to the Big Ten title game served as a reminder that no one wants to draw the Spartans in March.
Reason to Believe: Despite an Achilles’ heel to be discussed shortly, Michigan State is remarkably efficient on both ends of the floor. The Spartans lead the nation in assist rate, crash the offensive glass, shoot well and contest shots even better. Even losing Josh Langford and (for a few weeks) Nick Ward hasn’t been enough to slow them down.
Reason to Worry: Michigan State has had the same major issue for about two decades now: turnovers. When the Spartans rank in the top 100 nationally in offensive turnover percentage, they reach the Final Four 100 percent of the time. But that has only happened three times dating back to 2001, and they are barely in the top 200 this year. Plus, over the past five seasons, they have been terrible at forcing turnovers, resulting in a large, negative turnover margin and (usually) a first-weekend exit from the NCAA tournament.
March Madness Ceiling: Even with the turnovers concern, Michigan State is a clear threat to cut down the nets. The Spartans led the nation in Quadrant 1 wins for most of the season, and even their losses generally came right down to the wire. Led by arguably the best point guard of the year (Cassius Winston), Michigan State might finally break the Big Ten’s 18-year title drought.
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Record: 27-6, 15-3 in SEC
How They Got Here: As far as title contenders go, Kentucky’s season couldn’t have started much worse, losing by 34 to Duke in the Champions Classic. The Wildcats proceeded to lose to Seton Hall in early December and didn’t have a single quality win through 10 games. The rest of the campaign was a much different story, though, as Kentucky racked up 10 Quadrant 1 victories in its final 21 regular-season games.
Reason to Believe: This is nothing new if you’ve been following Kentucky for the past decade, but its interior play is excellent. Led by PJ Washington, the Wildcats block a lot of shots and win the battle on the glass in almost every game. Kentucky also lives at the free-throw line and makes 74 percent of its freebies.
Reason to Worry: Kentucky’s three-point defense isn’t as bad now as it was in November and December, but the Cats do still have lapses in which the opposing team gets a lot of wide-open looks at triples. Also, Kentucky’s three-point offense is a concern. This team doesn’t often rely on the deep ball, but it shot worse than 28 percent in all five regular-season losses.
March Madness Ceiling: There’s no ceiling here. Kentucky knocked off more than enough top-tier opponents to be considered one of the favorites. If Reid Travis is fully healthy (he looked all right in the SEC tournament), the Wildcats definitely have the talent and depth to beat anyone. Even if he’s not fully back, they should at least make it to the Elite Eight before getting challenged.
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Record: 27-6, 16-2 in ACC
How They Got Here: It took a little while for North Carolina to adjust to life without last year’s seniors, Joel Berry and Theo Pinson. It was obvious early on that the Tar Heels were loaded with talent, but inconsistency plagued them for the first two months. The final two months were another story, as Coby White and Co. won 14 of their final 15 regular-season games, surging into the No. 1 seed debate.
Reason to Believe: Statistically, this Tar Heels team is similar to the one that won it all two years ago. Except with White running the show instead of Berry, they play faster, shoot better from three-point range and are generally a little more lethal across the board. It’s wild that we spent most of the year thinking this was the third-best team in the ACC, because it might be the best team in the country.
Reason to Worry: As it has been for four years now, three-point defense is a legitimate problem for the Heels. Eight opponents (roughly one out of four) shot better than 42 percent from distance and made at least 10 triples against UNC. Half of those games were losses. Few teams can hang with North Carolina in the paint, but shooting over the top of this defense is an effective strategy.
March Madness Ceiling: North Carolina has eight wins over NET top 25 teams, and all eight of those victories came by a margin of at least nine points. If this isn’t a title contender, what is? The Tar Heels could get bounced early by a team that catches fire from downtown, but there aren’t many teams that feel more destined to at least reach the Elite Eight regardless of draw.
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Record: 30-3, 16-0 in WCC
How They Got Here: The West Coast Conference championship didn’t go according to plan, but Gonzaga had won 21 consecutive games by a double-digit margin prior to that highly unusual off night against Saint Mary’s. And during one nine-game stretch of nonconference play, the Bulldogs went 6-2 against major-conference opponents, including a neutral-site victory over full-strength Duke.
Reason to Believe: Even with the no-show against the Gaels factored in, Gonzaga has the most efficient offense in the nation. And prior to that game, it was the most efficient pre-tournament offense in KenPom history. Yes, even better than Villanova last year. The Bulldogs have two legitimate All-Americans in Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke, and that backcourt sure can ball, too.
Reason to Worry: Nitpicking here based on things that happened a while ago, but Gonzaga’s rebounding is just average and its three-point defense isn’t anywhere near as good as the year-to-date numbers suggest. In the first four games of December, opponents shot 48-of-115 (41.7 percent) from distance, and Duke, North Carolina and Tennessee each racked up a ton of offensive rebounds against Gonzaga.
March Madness Ceiling: With Zion Williamson’s health uncertain and Virginia’s recent tournament history impossible to ignore, Gonzaga entered conference championship week as arguably the favorite to win the national championship. (Not in Vegas odds, but in reality.) The Zags certainly aren’t the singular favorite anymore, but the former Cinderella is still one of the top candidates to win it all.
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Record: 29-3, 16-2 in ACC
How They Got Here: Virginia would have entered the ACC tournament undefeated if not for a pair of games against Duke. The Cavaliers almost won at Cameron Indoor in January and later had the misfortune of running into the Blue Devils on a rare great night from three-point range. It has been obvious all season long that this team deserves a No. 1 seed.
Reason to Believe: Aside from the two losses to Duke, the only team to score more than 69 points against the Cavaliers was Maryland (71) in November. In addition to its usual role as one of the nation’s most efficient defenses, Virginia is one of the best three-point shooting teams with Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter each hitting at least 39.5 percent of attempts from distance.
Reason to Worry: This is the seventh time in eight seasons that Virginia has ranked in the top seven in adjusted defensive efficiency and the sixth time in nine seasons that it has shot better than 38 percent from three-point range. In other words, we’ve seen this story before. Are we really to believe this year’s tournament will be different? No one is realistically expecting another UMBC fiasco, but Virginia is 7-6 under Tony Bennett and has yet to reach the Final Four.
March Madness Ceiling: Recent history is going to scare everyone a bit—especially those of us who have not once but twice picked Virginia to win it all in the past five years—but this is one of the top candidates for the national championship. Virginia has had horrible luck in March, both in terms of injury and running into ridiculous situations like the Malachi Richardson game in 2016. That luck is eventually going to change, though. This program is too good to be this cursed.
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Record: 29-5, 14-4 in ACC
How They Got Here: Injuries have plagued Duke all season. The only Blue Devils that have appeared in every game are RJ Barrett and Javin DeLaurier. And they still aren’t operating at full strength with Marques Bolden missing the ACC tournament with a knee injury. But aside from a couple of losses without Zion Williamson, the bumps and bruises haven’t stopped Duke from looking like the best team in the country.
Reason to Believe: With Williamson healthy, Duke has gotten back to dominating the offensive glass, destroying opponents with blocks and steals and doing just about whatever it wants in the paint. There isn’t a more physically overwhelming team in the country, and they somehow do it all while rarely sending opponents to the free-throw line.
Reason to Worry: Duke is atypically terrible from three-point range, and the Blue Devils are getting worse, not better. In 11 games since the red-hot performance at Virginia, they’ve made 26.4 percent from distance. Moreover, both of their primary scorers shoot worse than 67 percent from the free-throw line. And Cam Reddish hasn’t been able to hit much of anything in the past month.
March Madness Ceiling: If there was a ceiling here, Williamson would probably jump right through it anyway. Duke was the clear favorite to win the national championship before his injury, and the Blue Devils are back at that level based on what they showed in winning the ACC tournament. The three-point shooting is concerning, but we’ve seen plenty of champions in recent years—2011 Connecticut, 2013 Louisville, 2017 North Carolina—who weren’t anything special from deep. This team absolutely could join that club.