NCAA Contenders and Pretenders

As of the week 13 rankings released on January 28, 10 teams have been in the AP top five at one point or another this season: Michigan, Kansas, Indiana, Florida, Duke, Syracuse, Louisville, Arizona, Ohio State, and Kentucky. Of those, only Kentucky is currently out of the top 25, while the rest remain in the top 12.

If we expand to teams who have been in the AP top 10 this season, we add Gonzaga, Butler, Oregon, Minnesota, Missouri, Cincinnati, Illinois, North Carolina, and North Carolina State. Of those teams, Illinois and North Carolina aren't in the current top 25.

Other teams have been steadily in the top 25, but not in the top 10, include Creighton, Michigan State, New Mexico, and San Diego State.

That totals 19 teams who have been in the top 10 — three being obvious frauds, plus at least four tough teams who haven't cracked the top 10, but may do so by season's end. That's at least 20 seemingly legitimate contenders for the NCAA crown. And that's awesome.

It has truly been a joy to watch college basketball this season as teams from power conferences and perennial mid-major success stories beat up on each other. Every week, somebody in the top 10 loses, and usually it is to another good team, not a ridiculous upset. I can't recall a year that had so many teams playing at an elite tier level from so many different conferences. The 20 teams that I deem legitimate contenders represent 10 conferences. And there are plenty of other potential conference champs that I would not want to play when the NCAA tournament rolls around, including Louisiana Tech, Memphis, Middle Tennessee, and Stephen F. Austin.

This may end up being the most unpredictable tournament I have ever witnessed. Think about some of the potential matchups you're going to have to pick.

In a first round play-in game — Illinois vs. Arizona State, Florida State vs. Villanova.

In round two — Creighton vs. Memphis, VCU vs. Belmont, Ohio State or Cincinnati vs. Akron, New Mexico vs. Louisiana Tech.

In round three — Duke vs. Wisconsin, Oregon vs. Minnesota, Gonzaga vs. Creighton, Butler vs. Marquette,

In the Sweet 16 — Arizona vs. Michigan State, Indiana vs. Louisville, Syracuse vs. Ohio State

Each list could go on and on, but can you look at any of these games and not change your mind numerous times on any of them? I mean, yeah, I'd take Duke over Wisconsin, but I'd have to think about it. I am going to be more tempted than in any other tournament to predict upsets.

But let's take a look at the 20 teams I labeled potential contenders and sort out who is real from who is pretending.

Contenders

Michigan — The Wolverines have the feeling of a team of destiny. They have a long way to go and will lose games along the way. But they are on, they are on. Tim Hardaway, Jr. and Trey Burke make up a back court that every program would be envious of. I like them in the Final Four. Yeah, they lost at Indiana on Saturday, but I think they are developing the character and poise needed to make a run in the tournament. I'll claim them as my team to win it all.

Kansas — When I started writing this on Thursday, the Jayhawks were one of two teams whose schedule I could look at and say "they might win out in the regular season." Then they lost to Oklahoma State on Saturday. But now they might win out. The Big Ten and Big East are too tough on each other for anyone to escape unscathed in February. Duke has fits of being vulnerable and Florida is overrated. Kansas should be a number one seed without much difficulty. Their ability to make it to the Final Four will depend on the seeds around them. If their region includes a team like Michigan or Indiana, it may be tough, but I think that even with two losses, they'll likely have the top seed overall and will make the Final Four without much trouble.

Indiana — After beating Michigan at home, the Hoosiers will likely be number one this week, but their loss to Butler is one I wonder about. It was on a neutral court against a mid-major. Yeah, the best mid-major program in the past five years, and Butler is in Indiana so the home state rivalry provided some real pressure, but it shows a strange vulnerability. Not to mention it was a loss in overtime. Losing in overtime is not good news if you want to win in the tournament. Indiana's other loss was at home vs. Wisconsin. The Hoosiers have beaten Minnesota, Michigan State, and Michigan but they have a lot more tests to get through. I like their tournament chances, though … a lot. They may come up against a tough matchup to make the Final Four, but I think they'll overcome.

Syracuse — I like Syracuse. I think they have all the tools to be a Final Four team. Michael Carter-Williams has the potential to be Dwyane Wade-esque in the tournament. He can take over games and hit big shots. The problem is their depth. In their loss to Pitt on Saturday they looked tired. They have a long ways to go including the Big East tournament right before the real tournament begins. If they had all their pieces, they'd be my championship pick, but without they are a fringe Elite Eight pick, not Final Four worthy. But I may change my mind by Selection Sunday.

Arizona — The Wildcats are the other team that I thought might win out. They do not play a ranked opponent for the rest of the season. Their toughest test will be at UCLA on March 2. They'll probably lose one along the way, but even with three losses, they could easily garner a one seed this season and I think the Final Four is potentially in their future.

Butler — These Bulldogs have had a rather odd year. They've knocked off some great teams including Indiana and Gonzaga, but they've also lost rather winnable games at La Salle and at St. Louis. I don't think those losses necessarily speak too loudly about Butler's ability to contend for a title, but they will affect their seeding. If Butler could have managed to enter the tournament with two or three losses, I think they'd be a legitimate two seed. They already have four losses and could easily pick up another two before season's end, which puts them closer to a six seed. But Andrew Smith and Chase Stigall both played on the Bulldogs' Final Four teams in 2010 and 2011. Their leadership could mean a lot on a run to the Final Four. I think they'll cruise into the second weekend, but not find their way to the third.

Cincinnati — The Bearcats have a relatively easy stretch of conference games remaining (is there is such a thing in the Big East). Their only non-conference loss was to a tough New Mexico team. They've gone 2-3 in games decided by two points or less. This team feels a bit like Florida State did last season: battle-tested and ready for the tournament. Of course, in 2012, Florida State lost in the second round to Cincinnati and ruined my entire bracket. I think the Bearcats are sleepers much like Michigan State They could make some noise in the tournament, and I'd like to be bold and predict they will make it to the Final Four, but I learned my lesson with Florida State last year.

Michigan State — How stacked is the Big Ten this year? There are five serious contenders and Michigan State is a team a lot of people are sleeping on. The Spartans' only bad loss was to UConn in the opening game of the season. Since then, the Spartans have lost at Miami, at Minnesota, and at Indiana. Meanwhile, they've beaten Kansas and Ohio State. They still have to play Michigan twice, at Ohio State and at home vs. Indiana and Minnesota again — not to mention the Big Ten tournament, but I think Michigan State will quietly be a few points shy of a Final Four berth.

Undecided

Duke — The closest game Duke has had this season is 5 points. This happened three times — each in wins — as they beat Louisville on a neutral court, Ohio State at home, and Wake Forest on the road. Their two losses were to good teams, but the blowout to Miami has some people worried. I'm more worried by their poor performance at Wake Forest. Wake Forest is not going to make the NCAA tournament (barring some miracle run in the ACC tournament). They aren't even going to be considered. They'd be seeded at about 28 or 29 if the tournament held 128 teams. And Duke only managed to win by 5? Duke doesn't seem like they've been tested much. They've either dominated or been dominated. They could certainly be a Final Four team, but I haven't forgotten last year's Lehigh upset. I think we'll see Duke suffer a relatively early exit this year, failing to make it to the Elite Eight. Somebody will have their number.

Gonzaga — I really don't know how to feel about the Bulldogs (yes, the bulldog is their true mascot … not a 'Zag). I like this team, but I feel they are overrated while currently ranked seventh. Gonzaga has been in the NCAA tournament every year since 1999 when they made their run to the Elite Eight and lost to Connecticut in the regional final. But they have never made it back to the Elite Eight since then. Even if voters are generous enough to give them a two seed, I doubt the Bulldogs can make it past the Sweet 16. The competition is too stiff and they have not been tested enough. They have a lot of wins against mediocre teams in good conferences, but I can't imagine Gonzaga beating a team like Ohio State, Marquette, or Syracuse. They would need a favorable road to advance into the Elite Eight or Final Four. One thing worth noting is that of the 12 players on their roster, five are not from the United States. Their recruiting has been truly smart in recent years.

Creighton — The Bluejays are one of the hardest teams to read this year. They fell asleep twice — losing to Boise State at home and at Drake. (They also lost at Wichita State, but that was a comparable foe.) Creighton hasn't had many opportunities to shine against top clubs. They beat Wisconsin and Arizona State on neutral courts. They won at California and at Nebraska, but they've yet to play a ranked team. (Of course Wichita State is now ranked.) While much attention is given to Creighton's star, Doug McDermott, this is a good team. They have the best field goal % in college basketball and are fourth in the country in assists. Fun fact: when the Bluejays score 71 points or more, they are 18-0. When they score 70 points or fewer, they are 1-3. This team can put points on the board and they've done so against good defenses, if they want to make a run in the tournament that will have to continue. I think they'll make the Sweet 16, but struggle to advance beyond that.

Ohio State — Currently, Ohio State has the 43rd most difficult strength of schedule. By the end of the season, that will not be so low. The Buckeyes are going to be tested often in the next six weeks – playing at Michigan, at Wisconsin, Indiana twice as well as hosting Minnesota, Michigan State, and Illinois — the latter two having already beaten the Buckeyes this season. The road will be tough for the Buckeyes, and they could easily end the season with eight or nine losses. That will make their road all the more difficult considering the teams that they may have to play in their opening round and may very well make them underdogs for a bid to the Sweet 16.

Minnesota — This is a very athletic team, but one that has lacked in discipline. Their first three losses were not worrisome: Duke at a neutral site, at Indiana, at home vs. Michigan. Then they lost at Northwestern … and Wisconsin. Four losses in a row should never happen to a team that wants to win a national title. We'll see if the Golden Gophers can bounce back as their conference schedule still holds at Michigan State, at Ohio State, and at home vs. Indiana. They're probably only the fifth best team in the Big Ten, so I can't put all of them in the Elite Eight, can I? I think they'll manage to make it to the second weekend, but will likely come up against a number one in the Sweet 16 and they'll give them a game, but not a good enough one.

Pretenders

Florida — ESPN and the selection committee always love Florida too much. Truthfully, the SEC is about as weak as it has ever been, despite the addition of Missouri. Florida will probably get a number one seed which will allow them to ease into the Sweet 16, but I truly don't think they can make the Final Four. They have only had two close games all season and they lost them both. That is not good news for them because tournament games will be close, especially in the second weekend. I expect Florida to be overrated and knocked off by a four- or five-seed.

Louisville — I personally don't think this Louisville team is all that good. Well, they are not a championship team at least. They lack a certain clutch attitude, evidenced by each of their losses (especially Syracuse) and their squeaked wins over Northern Iowa, Kentucky, and Pittsburgh. They just seem like they're playing to not lose rather than to win and that won't work in the tournament. I predict the Cardinals will not make the second weekend.

Oregon — I hereby label Oregon the biggest pretenders on this list and will predict they lose in the first round. Yes, Oregon has some impressive wins, but they also have some weak losses. Losing to UTEP in triple overtime just spells trouble to me. Saturday's loss to Cal just solidifies this even more.

Missouri — Meh. Their recent loss to LSU solidifies them as pretenders in my mind. Florida destroyed them and their most impressive win was against underachieving Illinois. I think they'll be easy pickings in the first round.

North Carolina State — The Wolfpack can probably be taken off this list and placed in the same category as Kentucky or Illinois: overrated at the beginning of the season. After beating Duke handily, they have gone 2-4. I think we'll find them seeded in the five-seven range, potentially losing in the first round.

New Mexico — The Lobos look pretty good most of the time, but on January 26 at San Diego State, they only scored 34 points. That's not okay. If New Mexico meets a good defensive team early, they are in a lot of trouble. A Sweet 16 team, but no further.

San Diego State — In 2011, San Diego State got their first NCAA tournament win and made the Sweet 16 in the process. Despite their loss on Saturday to Air Force, which will knock them out of the AP top 25, I expect them to make the second weekend again this season, but no more.

I'm looking forward to the next two months of basketball more than I have ever looked forward to any two months of sports in my life. I think we're in for plenty of thrilling heroics.

To review, my Final Four is Kansas, Arizona, Indiana, and Michigan. What do you think? Who's in your Final Four right now?

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