For the final three weeks of the season, I presented to you a list of teams that appeared to possess the qualities necessary to win the 2017 NCAA Championship, ranked in order.
I began with a list of 10, then expanded it to a dozen in order to assure that I was as inclusive as possible and no one was left outside the group that could — even against all odds, you Seminoles — put together a memorable NCAA Tournament run.
How many are left from that dandy dozen with the first two rounds of the tournament complete? Eight. So maybe what happened in the tournament’s first weekend wasn’t entirely March Madness?
Oh, yeah, it kind of was. The first round might have seemed docile, but what transpired during the weekend, with the East Region clearing out like it was last call at Bar Louie, was pretty much nuts. No more Duke. No more Villanova. No more Louisville. No more ACC, really — Carolina is playing for its own honor. The league’s rep for this season is beyond repair.
The persistence of those eight true championship contenders, though, does suggest we might still be in for an invigorating Final Four. Here’s how the remaining teams rank, in order of their ability to win the championship (which is affected by draw, player health, matchups and team efficacy). When seeing the relative quality of teams buried deep on the list, you might be more intrigued than you expect by this Sweet 16.
1. North Carolina
The Tar Heels’ road to Phoenix will not be easy, not with the UCLA-Kentucky winner waiting in the South Region final. And not with Butler waiting in the Sweet 16 to turn the next game in the sequence into a grind. But Carolina is not easy to play at any speed, which the Tar Heels showed in rallying to score a dozen points in the final three minutes to escape a surprising challenge from Arkansas.
Weakness: Ranked the No. 26 offense, even with size inside, an elite point guard and an All-America wing. Why? They’ve got two reliable shooters, Joel Berry and Justin Jackson. In today’s basketball, that’s not enough and could be fatal.
KU began to assert itself as a true championship contender with its performance over the weekend, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. They beat a 16-seed and a team with 14 losses (now 15). The reason that’s a step forward is the Jayhawks weren’t dominating even back-of-the-field teams in the final month. But freshman wing Josh Jackson continues to show he is, today, the best player in college basketball. And with Sporting News Player of the Year Frank Mason in charge of the attack, Jackson is not alone.
Weakness: KU has the No. 25 defense and, even in a 20-point win, allowed Michigan State a point per possession. How will the Jayhawks deal with Purdue’s inside-out threat, Oregon’s physical power or Michigan’s elite attack?
Should you be daunted that the Wildcats had to survive an excruciating second-round game against Saint Mary’s, a team Gonzaga handled three times by a combined 51 points? Not if you watched the game. The Gaels played brilliantly and Arizona still pulled forward at the end for a nine-point win. The Wildcats showed a resilience to go with their size, 3-point ability and uncommon depth. Who else in the field has four bigs to rotate that are as mobile and versatile as Lauri Markkanen, Dusan Ristic, Chance Comanche and, even though he’s dicey at times, Keanu Pinder?
Weakness: The Wildcats still aren’t getting Markkanen enough high-quality shot attempts against major teams. In three of the past four against high-major opponents, he has shot fewer than 10 times. Markkanen remains the team’s best offensive weapon even with Allonzo Trier back and playing great and must be fully included for the Wildcats to win it all.
The Zags are playing a bit too much of what I call “eggshell basketball.” They are playing like they’re the higher seed and are more concerned with what will happen if they lose (rampant cackling from persistent critics) than if they win (a Final Four or NCAA championship). Does that stop now? How far do they have to go before they’re just looking at what’s in front of them? We’ve seen what happens when the Zags play their best; they put a very good Northwestern team down 18 points at the half. And then they lost their zeal and their focus and let a team not known for high-powered offense score 53 in a half. Wisconsin held the Wildcats to 48 for the game in the Big Ten Tournament.
Weakness: I guess I spent a lot of the intro talking about the Zags’ weakness. No need to repeat it here.
They keep climbing this chart because it’s looking ever more possible that in a flawed field being really, really, really great at one thing could lead to this championship. And UCLA whatever the stats tell you — the Bruins are ranked No. 2 in offense among Division I teams — this is the most dynamic attack we’ve seen since North Carolina’s 2009 Hansbrough/Lawson/Ellington squad.
I don’t think this team is good enough to win it all, but I do think it’s good enough to win every game it plays. Often a team is “Final Four” good without being “national championship” good. Such a team can win four games and get to the national semifinals, but winning two more at that level is beyond them. I don’t see that as the case with this Kentucky team. If they make it to Arizona, they’re talented enough and tough enough to win two more. But peril is always so close it is a stretch to suggest there are four more wins coming.
I kept the Boilers on the original contenders’ list against others’ advice — and, following the Big Ten quarterfinal loss to Michigan, my own inclinations — because they’ve got the talent, coaching and effectiveness to maybe pull it off. Good thing, because their performance against Iowa State in the second round moved them up these rankings.
One of the reasons Purdue moved up is we can see Oregon was damaged by Chris Boucher’s season-ending injury. He would have been a force in the too-close Rhode Island loss. It’d feel a little like overreacting to drop the Ducks behind others who weren’t initially title contenders; we’ll know by the end of the week whether it would have been the right move.
Seniors Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes know the way to the Final Four. They’ve been there twice and are 13-3 in NCAA Tournament games. And each is playing what could be described as the best basketball of his career.
The Wolverines are like UCLA Lite. They’re not as dynamic offensively, and though they’ve got a great point guard in Derrick Walton, they don’t have a Lonzo Ball. But they’re actually more versatile in their attack than the Bruins and generally play better D. Ball and T.J. Leaf just are so much more talented.
11. West Virginia
I don’t know any analysts who believe a team can win the national championship relying on fullcourt pressure defense. And that is the system the Mountaineers run. But how reliant are they, at this point? Pressure is supposed to allow open threes; Notre Dame shot only 10-of-28. The Mountaineers supposedly need turnovers to generate offense, but they got only six steals against the Irish and still shot 50 percent from the field and 8-of-14 on threes. It’s not just Press Virginia working here.
Look, if Florida had its entire rotation intact the Gators would be no lower than No. 8. And they’re to be admired for their ability to overcome center John Egbunu’s absence to make this run. And if they get to the regional final they’ll make the Final Four. But they’re not winning it all.
I want to rank the Bears eighth or ninth because that’s the very least of where they’d stand in talent. But after watching Johnathan Motley foul out in a crucial situation Sunday, I’m still not trusting them.
I’ve been doing these rankings for the past decade or so and am not sure I’ve ever placed a team as capable and accomplished as the Bulldogs 14th on the list. They’ve beaten Villanova twice as well as Arizona, Xavier and Cincinnati. They’ve earned 16 of their 25 wins against NCAA Tournament opponents. They’re tough and well-coached and understand how to close a game. They may be the least glamorous opponent in the South Region, but they won’t be the least confident.
15. South Carolina
The Gamecocks struggled terribly to score in many games. Can they get enough points to make it to Phoenix? Probably not.
The team ranked in this spot is furious, annually. What the fans of that team always miss is there are 52 others that gladly would take their place. Xavier rallied furiously to put itself in position to make this tournament following the injury to point guard Edmond Sumner, and the Musketeers played beautifully in their first two games. The difference between the last two spots probably comes down to XU being in a loaded region and South Carolina, frankly, isn’t. Does that help?