As the season comes to a close and conference tournaments begin, we finally can get a handle on who has a legitimate shot to win it all this year. With all the madness that has occurred at the top of the rankings this season, it’s only right that 8 of the AP top 14 teams suffered losses to close out the regular season.

As far as I’m concerned, there are only about 10 teams that can run the table and cut down the nets this year, but if any team not on this list happens to win, would anyone really be surprised? Is this the year that a 16-seed beats a 1-seed? Or will teams pull it together and limit the upsets? It’s hard to tell, but these are the teams that seem to be the best fit to win a championship ring this season.

Rank (Last week’s rank)
1. Virginia (2)
After one of the most impressive ACC seasons in history, Virginia finished 17-1 in conference play with their loss being in overtime by one point. Virginia has been the most consistent team in the country this year and is driven by their defense. The Cavaliers have to be the odds on favorite to win it all this year due to their consistency in a season where parity has been at an all-time high.
2. Duke (4)
The Duke Blue Devils have been a roller coaster of a team this year. They’ve beaten teams like Michigan State, North Carolina, Miami, and Florida but have lost to teams like St. John’s and Boston College. Regardless of what’s happened earlier in the year, Duke seems to have found their stride. In the biggest rivalry in the NCAA, Duke toppled UNC with the help of Marvin Bagley having a dominant performance. Duke is probably the most talented roster in the nation, likely having 5 first round draft picks, and when they’re hitting on all cylinders they might be unbeatable. Duke has a history of blowing it in the NCAA Tournament, but this year could silence the haters en route to Coach K’s 6th national title.
3. Gonzaga (3)
Other than a loss to Villanova, Gonzaga has a Double-OT loss and two other losses by a combined 5 points. In the midst of a 12 game win streak, Gonzaga seems to be playing as good as anyone right now. The WCC isn’t the strongest conference by any means, but Gonzaga has pretty much ran the table the second half of the year. The Zags will likely play St. Mary’s in the title game for their 3rd matchup of the year, and I expect that the deep and versatile Bulldog roster will prevail as champions.
4. Michigan St. (1)
Michigan State suffered a loss to a red hot Michigan team in the semi-finals of the Big 10 tournament. Despite the loss, Michigan State is still one of the best teams in the NCAA led by Miles Bridges. The Spartans have fantastic versatility, Nick Ward can bang with anyone in the post, Cassius Winston might be the best three-point shooter in the nation, and Jaren Jackson can spread the floor as well as protect the rim. MSU matches up well against most teams and should be one of the final teams standing at the conclusion of the season.
5. Villanova (6)
Villanova was forced to OT against Seton Hall after a loss to Creighton the game before. The Wildcats don’t look like they’re the same team as they were at the beginning of the season but could very well turn it up a notch now that we’re in postseason play. Villanova basically has 6 starters on the roster that all can play multiple positions which is a huge part in their success. Even when Nova plays bad, they’re still better than 90% of teams in the country. If the Wildcats play to their fullest potential they might be cutting down the nets in March.
6. Michigan (12)
Michigan upset Michigan State and Purdue en route to their second consecutive Big 10 title. Michigan made a push into the Sweet 16 last year and is better equipped to make it that far this year. I said last week that Michigan is one of the top sleeper teams, but this may not even be a sleeper pick anymore. Michigan has thrown their name at the forefront of the national conversation as best teams in the country and will be rewarded in seeding as a result.
7. Xavier (7)
Xavier remains one of the most difficult teams for me to get a grip on. On one hand, they haven’t given me much of a reason to think they aren’t legit, but at the same time, I’m not sure if they have given me a reason to believe they are. Their resume says they’re elite, but the eye test tells me there’s just something missing. Sure, they’re the first team to steal a Big East title from Villanova in a long time, but they got pummeled by them both times they met. To me, Xavier looks like a team that handles business against lesser opponents but hasn’t shown the ability to outplay top tier teams.
8. Purdue (9)
Purdue had a questionable run through the Big 10 Tournament. They were in a tight game with Rutgers until the final minute, barely got away from Penn State, and then lost to Michigan in the finals. I don’t know what’s happened to Purdue, but they seem to be a step slower than they were earlier in the year. Carsen Edwards has done all he can and has become one of the more exciting players in the country. The Boilermakers have some things to correct but remain one of the elite teams in the NCAA.
9. Cincinnati (11)
Cincinnati finally got their first ranked win of the season in the regular season finale against Wichita State. The Bearcats are a good offensive team and an excellent defensive team. Cincinnati could very well make a Final Four run, but lack of experience against elite teams could be the downfall for this team.
10. Kansas (5)
In a season where the Big 12 was beating up on each other, Kansas seemed to be the most consistent team in the conference. Unfortunately, Kansas was embarrassed by Oklahoma State in the last regular season game. At the beginning of the season I said that this is the least talented team Bill Self has coached in a while. While the Jayhawks have still played extremely well, its performances like this that makes you wonder if Kansas has the personnel to stay hot through the entire NCAA Tournament. Kansas has terrific guard play, but limited depth in the frontcourt, which might be the driving force in Kansas’ postseason failure.
11. Tennessee (NR)
Tennessee is another sleeper team that could do some real damage to some top seeds. They’ve only lost to Villanova, UNC, Auburn, a tough Arkansas team, Alabama, Mizzou, and Georgia. With wins over Purdue, Florida, and Kentucky, the Vols have proven they can hang with most teams in the country. A deep team with good team chemistry is always dangerous in March and Tennessee could be one of the teams that destroys your bracket.
12. Texas Tech (NR)
Texas Tech will need a good Big 12 tournament to regain confidence after losing four straight two weeks ago. The Red Raiders have one of the best offensive players in the conference in Keenan Evans and have one of the best coaches in Chris Beard. Texas Tech is one of those teams that could lose in the second round or make it to the Final Four, it’s tough to tell. If they play the brand of basketball they were playing in late-January/early-February, nobody will want to square off against this team.
13. St Mary’s (13)
Going into the season, any team not named Gonzaga needs to prove themselves in the WCC, and St. Mary’s has done just that. In a tremendous season, they had won 19-straight games, beat Gonzaga. Jock Landale remains one of the most dynamic big men in the country and will do all he can to continue leading his team as far as they can go.
14. North Carolina (8)
After a loss to Miami, UNC had a lot to play for in their final game of the regular season at Duke. Despite a double-digit halftime lead, North Carolina went cold and got outscored by 20 in the second half. Roy Williams has basically gone to a 5 and a half player rotation, which is not good for NCAA tournament play. Joel Berry has shown out this season and Luke Maye can change a game when he’s hitting threes, but Cameron Johnson has been the breakout player for UNC at the end of the season. The Tar Heels need to hit threes in order to be effective, that along with their lack of depth spells trouble for UNC going further into the season.
15. West Virginia (NR)
At one point this year, WVU was ranked as high as #2 in the nation. While they might not be a 1 seed this March, they are still as dangerous as any team. Press Virginia’s suffocating defense and extreme depth causes nightmares for opposing coaches. The Mountaineers can go legitimately 9 deep with depth at every position. This team has shooters, rim protectors, shot creators, and leadership which is everything a team needs to make a deep run in tournament play. Don’t sleep on West Viringia depite their recent struggles.
16. Arizona (NR)
The best team in the Pac-12 has remained upbeat despite all the allegations against the program. The player at the front of the scandal, Deandre Ayton, just continues to ball out. 26 points and 20 rebounds… the kid is a monster. Sean Miller and the Wildcats have done a good job just trying to finish the season the best they can. Despite losing Allonzo Trier and dealing with all the national news, Arizona has still played well and will look to continue to overcome adversity as their season continues.

First Five Out

Wichita State, Auburn, Ohio State, Clemson, Kentucky


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