We’re now at the end of January, which means that for a large portion of America (though not necessarily the people who read this website) they’re just starting to focus on college basketball. College football has been done for weeks now (so long, Baker Mayfield crotch grabs) and the NFL is winding down (who’s going to Minnesota??) meaning that for most casual fans it’s time to figure out what the hell is going on in college hoops.
Everyone reading this article though is a bit more advanced, which is why I wanted to do something different today. A few weeks ago on my podcast (the Aaron Torres Sports Podcast – download here!) me and my buddy Nick Coffey started having a discussion about which teams can actually win the national championship this year. In a strange season where non-traditional teams (Virginia, Purdue) are at the top, and other good teams right behind them, it really is a weird year. And it makes us wonder: Are these teams just “regular season good?” Or good enough to win a title?
It was a fun conversation, one which I decided to bring here. Below are the top teams in college basketball and whether I believe they’re title contenders or not.
“Can Villanova win the title” is such an obvious, resounding “yes” I don’t even know if it’s worth discussing here. Kind of like asking, “Would your wife consider leaving you if she met Justin Timberlake at the bar?” Sure, you can argue she wouldn’t, just like you can argue Villanova has no shot to win the title. But ultimately, it feels like a waste of breath to do so.
The simple truth is that in a season where the top 4-5 spots in the polls have been up for grabs all season, the Wildcats have been the one constant. They are college basketball’s most complete team, and have no obvious weak spots. They have great guard play (Jalen Brunson is probably a first-team All-American), play great defense, shoot the ball well and have more size than they did last year when they got upset by Wisconsin in the second round. They have also kicked the snot out of most of the good competition they’ve played, beating Gonzaga by 16, Xavier by 24 and Providence by 20.
At this point, arguing against Villanova as a title contender is a lost cause. They’re the sport’s best team.
Michigan State (Yes)
Yes, the Spartans have been up and down the last month (they lost two of three, but have two blowouts since) but when push comes to shove, I still believe that there is a big gap between Villanova, Michigan State and everyone else in college basketball.
What I like about Michigan State is that like Villanova, they have no apparent weakness. As I’ve mentioned in the past (bad joke coming) they are like the Noah’s Arc of college basketball: They have at least two of everything. Two future lottery picks in Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr., two point guards, rim protectors, wings, shooters, you name it. Again, they have no apparent weakness, and the good part is that their best players – Bridges and Jackson – have played their best basketball of late. Bridges is coming off a 31-point performance against Illinois and Jackson has scored double-figures in every league game this season.
As I said: Along with Villanova, this is the best, and most complete team in college basketball.
It’s funny how we view college basketball teams on a national scale. It feels like every few years there are those teams that we say “they might be good in the regular season, but there’s no way they compete for a title” and for years that narrative is true, until one day that school just up and breaks it. Remember, we said it for years about Wisconsin. Then they made back-to-back Final Four’s. We said the same about Villanova. Then they went out and won the 2016 national championship.
And it’s because of that, I’m torn on Virginia. On the one hand, I think “there’s no way they can win it all” because they’ve never advanced past the Elite Eight under Tony Bennett. On the other hand, the one year they did get to the Elite Eight, they should have won that game. Had they not blown a huge lead to Syracuse, they would have gone to the Final Four and we would never have to have this conversation at all. Therefore, I really don’t know what to do with the Cavaliers.
Still, with all that said, right now I’ve got to put Virginia in the “no” category. And it’s for the same reason we feel that way every year: For as good as they are defensively (and they’re arguably the best in the country on that end of the floor), they are equally as abysmal offensively. They average just 69 points per game, which is in large part, due to the fact that they play fewer possessions than anyone in college basketball. Basically, they grind the clock down to three or four seconds on every possession before they shoot it. Is that really sustainable in the tournament? More importantly, if they fall down big early will they be able to come back?
These are the questions we ask every year about Virginia. But until they prove us wrong, it’s hard to call them a legitimate title contender.
I’m honestly in the same boat with Purdue that I am with Virginia. And I already know that every college basketball blogger and Purdue fan is going to crush me for it.
At the same time, while I think that this is Matt Painter’s best team in West Lafayette, let’s also remember that there are plenty of concerns too. As has been well-documented, they don’t have elite, game-changing talent (their best players, Carsen Edwards and Vincent Edwards are great college players, not future stars in the pros) so how will they handle things if they get matched up with a team like Arizona or Duke? They also take a ton of three’s (they average 10.5 made three’s a game) and as they say “you live by the three, you die by the three.” And finally, how much of their success is simply due to the fact that the Big Ten is terrible this year? While Purdue would still be a really good team in any other power conference, would they be running through it the way they are in the Big Ten? I have my doubts.
Add in the fact that Matt Painter has never made it past the Sweet 16 and it really makes me wonder. I believe the Boilermakers are good enough to make a deep run, maybe even to the Final Four. I find it hard to believe they will win the six games needed to take home a title.
Duke (Yes, probably)
Considering that Duke is the most analyzed and over-analyzed team in college basketball, you don’t need me to do a ton of breakdown here. Put simply, they have the single most talented starting five in the country, and single most offensively gifted team in college basketball as well. Their defense is also tougher to watch than a full episode of The Big Bang Theory. The Blue Devils allow nearly 73 points per game, which ranks 193rd nationally. In their two losses, they’ve given up an average of over 90 points per game.
So yeah, that is the concern and so too is their history of falling down by wide margins to inferior teams before roaring back. They were down by 16 to Texas, down 17 to Florida with 10 minutes left and down 15 to Miami – and still found a way to win each of those games.
While that makes for fun basketball in the regular season, it feels a little too much like “playing with fire” to me when it gets to March. Can you win six straight single elimination games playing that way? Yes. Would I bet on it? Not a chance.
Oh my God, Bill Self’s team is doing it to me again. Every year I count them out and then eventually re-talk myself into them, and this season is like that, but on steroids. I started the year by liking the Jayhawks, then hated them, calling them everything from “a middle of the pack Big 12 team” to “the fourth best team in their own conference.” Only here we are about to hit February and I can’t help but think to myself, “Wait, I feel like they’re actually good again.”
So why do I like them so much? For starters, we always knew Devonte Graham was good, but to reach their potential the Jayhawks needed someone else to step up. Only here we are and over the last few games Malik Newman and Svi Mykhailiuk have both emerged, and the team has emerged with them. Since losing to Texas Tech in their second Big 12 game, the Jayhawks have won five of six with their only loss coming at Oklahoma. And if we’re being totally honest, they probably should have won that game.
Of course that also kind of highlights the bad too: Like every Kansas team, this year’s group is overly-reliant on three, something that has bit them in past NCAA Tournaments (for example, they went 5 of 25 from behind the 3-point line in their loss to Oregon in the tourney last year). They also only have one real big guy, Udoka Azibuke which as you can guess, isn’t a good thing. What’s even worse is he only shoots 35 percent from the foul line, meaning that he probably won’t be able to play late in close games.
Point being, I like this Kansas team and am slowly talking myself into them. Which inevitably means that they’re destined to go 3-21 from the three-point line in an Elite Eight loss in March.
West Virginia (No)
Of every team on this list, I went back-and-forth with West Virginia the most. Like Virginia, they play great defense. Like Virginia, they also don’t play terribly great offense, although they are better overall on that end of the court than Virginia is. And I do think this is one of the more talented teams Bob Huggins has had. They’re not just Jevon Carter, but also have guys like Lamont West and Daxter Miles (remember him, Kentucky fans?) who are good too.
I also can’t help but think back to last year’s NCAA Tournament. While some of you might not remember, West Virginia played Gonzaga in the Sweet 16, and basically had them beat, until they gave away the lead in the final minute. Had they beaten Gonzaga, they would have played Xavier and probably could have gone to the Final Four. Once there, who knows what happens. And so that’s why I’m kind of torn on West Virginia. They really were one or two plays from potentially going to the Final Four last year. And I think they have a better team in 2018.
At the same time, you only need to win four games to get to the Final Four, but you need to win six to win a title. I believe this team is good enough to get to San Antonio. I’m just not sure they have enough to win another two games once they get there.
If you’ve been reading my stuff here at KSR you know that I’ve spent quite a bit of time writing about Trae Young (including how he would fit in with this current Kentucky squad). But if you’ve been reading, you also know that I have thrown out a bit of a hot take on Young that not many agree with: That he isn’t the whole team at Oklahoma, and that his teammates are better than people realize. And that – and I know this is going to sound crazy – taking 39 shots while everyone else stands in the corner isn’t a good idea. That is exactly what happened against Oklahoma State last week.
Except as always, I was proven right earlier this week (never bet against Nostra-Torres!). After losing to Oklahoma State in that game where Young shot 39 times, he shot just nine times and the Sooners played their best game of the season and beat Kansas at home. Even better, Young still ended up with 26 points, but each additional starter also had at least eight points.
So why do I bring this all up: It’s to say that I do think Oklahoma can win the title. Young is the single best player in college basketball right now (and certainly most impactful) and he’s got the perfect pieces around him to go on a run. He’s got great shooting on the wings, and great, floor-running big guys alongside him. Basically, the Sooners to me are a lot like UCLA with Lonzo Ball last year – only without a crazy father lurking in the background.
Therefore, while it might be a little bit of a hot take, I do believe that yes, Oklahoma is good enough to win six games and win a title.
North Carolina (No)
On the positive side, they won the national title last year and have been to two straight Final Fours.
On the negative side, well, where do I begin?
Let’s just move on. This team is not winning a national title.
I know I’ve written this before, but it’s worth repeating here: For all the talk about Arizona’s disastrous November performance at the Battle 4 Atlantis (where they went 0-3), not nearly enough has been discussed about how they’ve played since coming back. Since that point, Arizona is 14-1, with their only loss coming on the road, at altitude at Colorado. It was a loss they avenged Thursday night at home.
Now, does Arizona have issues? Of course. Their second best wing player (Rawle Alkins) has battled injuries all year long, and they are still tinkering with lineups. Also, as I’ve suggested a few times, I’m not totally sure they like each other, or to be honest, Sean Miller. Miller always has a fiery sideline demeanor. But as several national writers have pointed out, it somehow seems way worse this year. And the players seem to occasionally get caught up in that negative energy.
At the same time, remember: Arizona was the No. 1 or No. 2 ranked team in virtually every preseason poll for a reason. They have more talent than just about anyone. And certainly enough talent to win it all.
This is the surprise team on the list. When it comes to title contenders teams in college basketball, no one really talks about the Musketeers and frankly I’m not sure exactly why. They are big, strong, athletic, tough and full of NCAA Tournament experience. And they are now playing their best basketball, beating Creighton, Seton Hall and Marquette (three potential NCAA Tournament teams) in their last four games, and have no bad losses. That’s the crazy part with the Musketeers. They seem to be getting better as the season wears on.
If you watched them Wednesday against Marquette, they blew the doors off the building and their two best players (Trevon Blueitt and J.P. Macura) really didn’t play well. It was others like Quentin Goodin, Naji Marshall and Paul Scruggs who stepped up.
Frankly, I’m not quite sure why no one is talking about Xavier. The only real reasons I can come up with are that they aren’t a traditional power, and that Villanova is so good, they overshadow the Musketeers in the Big East. Either way, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t believe in the Musketeers.
(And if you’re wondering “Gee, I wonder if Aaron just texted his buddy in Vegas to get in a bet on Xavier to win the national title, well, yes, yes I did)
Finally, you knew I couldn’t wrap up without at least referencing Kentucky right? And while I know no one in the fan-base is even thinking national title – they’re trying to focus on playing well against West Virginia – hey, crazier things have happened.
Look, the simple truth with Kentucky is we know that they have the skill and athleticism to play with anyone. For all the “problems” this team has, it was in games late with Kansas and Tennessee (both ranked in the Top 25) and basically gave away two games that they should have won, South Carolina and Florida. The Wildcats were 1-2 plays away from putting away both teams and couldn’t with either one.
So when you add all that up with the fact that John Calipari’s teams notoriously get better as the season goes on, and the fact that he has gone on deep runs with talented young teams (anyone remember 2014?!?!?!), it’s safe to say that it’s too early to count this team out.
Now, is it likely the Wildcats make a deep tournament run? Absolutely not. Right now the focus should be on each individual game and just getting to the NCAA Tournament.
But once Kentucky gets there, will there be a single team you say “They have no chance against?”
My point exactly.
Aaron Torres is covering basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres or e-mail at [email protected]. He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era, “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”