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Let’s take a look at my updated 20 best teams in the country as we count down the days until Selection Sunday. There have been some risers and precipitous falls since the last time I did this exercise.
Because I’m doing this from a betting perspective, you should expect to see drastic differences from the garden-variety polls out there. You can interpret my rankings as the order of teams I would have favored on a neutral court. For example, I would have Duke listed as a favorite over every other team in the country as of today. Let’s dive in.
1. Duke: The zone defense is legit folks. The Blue Devils have morphed into a top 10 defense after Coach K went to a long and active 2-3 zone. Duke hasn’t allowed more than 1 point per possession (ppp) in a game in nearly a month. Trevon Duval has also been more effective in limited doses coming off the bench as K has turned to a bigger lineup. Duke is still rebounding out of the zone as well. The Blue Devils are the best team in the country if they continue to defend at this level.
2. Kansas: So much for the drama surrounding the Big 12 race this year, as Kansas did what Kansas does, winning the regular-season crowd outright. KU very much reminds me of Villanova’s teams the past few seasons, as the Jayhawks are unstoppable when their jump shots are falling. They aren’t without flaws, though. Depth, defense, and the inconsistency around Devonte’ Graham (I’m looking at you Lagerald Vick) are major concerns headed into the tourney.
3. Virginia: The Cavs continue to defend at a historically dominant level. The offense also keeps humming along, even if it benefited from one of the most bizarre endings to a basketball game all season long in its win at Louisville last Thursday. Tony Bennett’s team just keeps making 3s, but I have my concerns about the offense when the perimeter shots suddenly stop falling at a 40% clip
4. Villanova: You have to be concerned about Nova’s defense if you watched it play in Omaha last week. Creighton’s athletic backcourt manhandled the Wildcats by exploiting the lack of lateral quickness and overall athleticism of guards Jalen Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo.
5. Gonzaga: I’m bullish on the Zags. Gonzaga has it all with shotmakers on the wings and an extremely athletic frontcourt that is now defending at a level resembling last year’s dominant interior. The committee will likely horribly under-seed Mark Few’s bunch.
6. Cincinnati: The Bearcats are long and athletic all over the floor, and if it wasn’t for Virginia, we’d be talking about the historically dominant Cincy defense. When this team plays offense like it has the past few weeks, it’s a Final Four team.
7. Michigan: Perhaps some recency bias here after the Wolverines ran through yet another Big Ten Tournament field, but UM’s defense has morphed into the best unit John Beilein has ever had in Ann Arbor. Pair that with his always outstanding ball-screen offense, and suddenly you have a Final Four contender on your hands. But the long layoff between the end of the Big Ten tournament and the start of the NCAA Tournament is troubling.
8. Michigan State: Turnovers will continue to be an issue for Sparty, but this is still one of the nation’s most balanced teams. Possibly underrated at this point.
9. Purdue: I’m still likely “buying low” on the Boilers, relatively speaking. There are questions about their overall team athleticism and their ability to generate offense when the jump shots aren’t falling, but Purdue simply has too many shot-makers paired with a dominant interior presence to ignore. Purdue will continue to force opposing defenses into having to make difficult scheme decisions.
10. North Carolina: Roy Williams’ small lineup continues to work wonders offensively, but the defense has disappeared the past two weeks. Given the structure of Williams’ defense, the Heels could get shot out of the gym on any given night. That makes them hard to trust come tourney time.
11. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders are a team that can offer a lot of value come tournament time, as injuries and inconsistency have caused them to drop off the radar. When Chris Beard has all his pieces, this is a dominant defense with a tricky motion offense.
12. Xavier: The Muskies are another team with loads of offensive talent, but undermined at times by a questionable defense (especially at the rim). That said, Chris Mack has proven to be a master at changing defenses in tournament situations, which makes Xavier difficult to prep for on short rest. This team is dangerous.
13. Tennessee: The Vols’ defense is outstanding, and Rick Barnes has made a few positive tweaks to his flex motion offense. I’m still very high on the Vols come tourney time.
14. Wichita State: Oddly enough, I think the move to a major conference has actually made the Shockers undervalued, which was typically the case every March when WSU was in the Missouri Valley. Coming up short at Cincy at home in a game everyone was watching will devalue the Shockers for some, but this team has all the pieces necessary for a deep March run if Gregg Marshall can get the defense going for a few games. This is by far the best offensive team Marshall has ever had, but also the worst defense he’s had in a decade.
15. West Virginia: The loss at Mo Bamba-less Texas on Saturday was troubling, but the maddening inconsistency on both ends of the floor makes WVU extremely matchup-dependent in March.
16. Florida: The Gators appear to have figured some things out offensively, as the ball movement has been much sharper of late. Having said that, the lack of any interior presence puts a cap on Florida’s ceiling.
17. Auburn: The loss of Anfernee McLemore is a potential deal-breaker for the Tigers defense. 6-foot-8 freshman forward Chuma Okeke is talented, but inconsistent and raw defensively in the paint.
18. Ohio State: The Buckeyes have a pretty low ceiling, but the ability of Jae’Sean Tate (12.5 PPG) and Keita Bates-Diop (19.4 PPG) to manufacture points is a valuable asset in a tournament situation.
19. Arizona: It’s hard to know what to make of Arizona at this point. The dribble containment on defense is still non-existent, but we could be looking at a team playing for blood after the events of this past week. The Wildcats are certainly a buy-low team in March.
20. Kentucky: Just when you think the Cats have turned the corner, they lay an egg. Kentucky’s youth leads to inconsistency and a lack of game-to-game cohesion, but it’s impossible to ignore the talent.
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