There are nine teams. That is all. Nine teams can win the 2017 college basketball national championship.
Given what we know about the unpredictability of March and the history of NCAA tournament upsets, that might seem like a foolish, perhaps preposterous statement. And sure, technically it’s not true. Technically, Mount St. Mary’s and North Carolina Central can win the 2017 national title. There is a non-zero chance of such an occurrence.
But who can realistically win it all? Nine teams.
Upsets throughout the college basketball regular season are always trumpeted as evidence of parity, and the phrase “wide open” gets used to describe the tournament field every year, but some years, that’s not the case. This is one of those years.
No matter what you may hear elsewhere, there is no parity in college basketball this year. The numbers have shown that, and still show that. The 2016-17 college basketball season was governed by an elite class of bluebloods that has refused to relinquish positions of power heading into postseason play. And heading into the tournament, the cut-off between contenders and pretenders is clearer than ever.
Below is a ranking of the teams most likely to win the 2017 national championship, all the way from 1 through 68, and separated into eight tiers, with some fun/analytical/informative notes here and there. But most importantly, it’s a look at the nine teams that can realistically win six games over the next three weeks and celebrate on April 3 in Phoenix.
TIER 1: THE FAVORITES
1. Duke (2)
Duke was the preseason No. 1, and is the best team in college basketball heading into the NCAA tournament, but those two facts drape a shiny cloak over what was one of the most remarkable and remarkably dysfunctional seasons in recent college hoops memory. All but two Blue Devil rotation players missed time this year due to injury, suspension or both. Some have been sporadically benched for simple inadequacy. There have been kicks and shoves(?), locker room bans and meetings at Coach K’s house, embarrassing upsets and serious back surgeries, and a whole lot more.
But after all that … Is Duke back?!?!? DUKE IS BACK.
In all seriousness, Duke is finally hitting the heights we always thought it could. The Blue Devil offense has scored a combined 1.17 points per possession over its last five games against North Carolina (twice), Clemson, Louisville and Notre Dame. Luke Kennard has found his November and December form. Jayson Tatum looks like he belongs in the NBA yesterday. Tatum shot 28-of-41 on 2-pointers at the ACC tournament, hit 23 of his 27 free throws over four games, and pulled down 7.5 boards per contest. He has become an irresistible force that careens toward the rim with majestic grace and control, blowing past defenders with ease. Frank Jackson has also provided a steady hand in the backcourt to complement and counterbalance Grayson Allen’s volatile game.
The fun thing — and at the same time the scary thing — is that the Blue Devils still have even more room to grow, and still have more time to grow between now and Phoenix.
2. Kansas (1)
The Jayhawks might have the best player in the NCAA tournament in Frank Mason III. They also might have the best NBA player in the NCAA tournament in Josh Jackson. And they have a coach who has won regular-season titles in one of college basketball’s toughest conferences 13 years in a row.
Now, you might say, Wait, doesn’t Kansas always choke in the tournament?
The answer to that would be twofold: Yes, the Jayhawks have choked a few times in the recent past, most notably against Wichita State in 2015 and Stanford in 2014. But no, that does not mean Kansas always chokes. What the heck does 2014 have to do with this year’s team?
Last year, Self and Kansas reached the Elite Eight and lost a deathmatch by essentially one possession to the eventual national champions. This year’s team is different — weaker inside, more explosive on the perimeter — but probably just as good. This year’s team also has a different Mason, one who has developed into the most relentless attack-minded point guard at this level of the sport, and one who, more than anybody else in this tournament, is capable of single-handedly inspiring a title run.
3. North Carolina (1)
North Carolina is maddeningly inconsistent. Just look at the last week of its regular season: On Monday, the Tar Heels scored 43 points in an ugly loss at Virginia. Five days later, they scored more than twice that many in a high-flying win over Duke. Um … What?
Roy Williams is probably as confused as anybody. But there are a few things we know definitively about Carolina: 1. Its offense is outstanding, mostly because it crushes opponents on the offensive glass. 2. Its shooting percentages aren’t that high, and only two players, Joel Berry and Justin Jackson, are legitimate 3-point threats, but it gets so many more attempts than other teams because of its rebounding. 3. The Tar Heels weirdly aren’t as great on the defensive boards. Because they’re not, and because starting bigs Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks aren’t renowned rim-protectors, a team with elite athletes isn’t the elite defensive team it could be. A big part of that is the aforementioned inconsistency too.
So what to make of UNC? The Heels can absolutely win a national championship. As a Tar Heel philosopher once said, “The ceiling is the roof.” But there’s also every chance the roof (or the ceiling?) randomly caves due to unknown causes in the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight.
4. Villanova (1)
It’s really unfair to Jay Wright and Villanova to slot three teams above them. It’s wrong. We’ll admit that. But it’s so tight at the top, and while all four teams in this tier have flaws, Villanova might be the one of the four with the lowest upside.
At the very least, the Wildcats don’t have the upside of last year’s title-winning team. They’ve effectively lost three players from a year ago, and that not only means Wright has one or two fewer weapons at his disposal, it means he has less depth in general. This year’s rotation is seven-deep. This year’s team is also smaller, physically. Darryl Reynolds is the only true big man, and his skills are limited. Villanova has no back-to-the-basket center like it did last year in Daniel Ochefu.
But enough with the negatives. The positives are plentiful. The Wildcats still play heartwarming fundamentally-sound basketball. They don’t foul. They run really crisp offense. They take smart, high-percentage shots. And, oh yeah, they have a National Player of the Year contender in Josh Hart, a big shot-maker in Kris Jenkins, and a Bob Cousy Award finalist in Jalen Brunson. Winning back-to-back national titles is, obviously, extremely hard, but this Villanova team is capable of doing just that.
TIER 2: THE CONTENDERS
5. Gonzaga (1)
Here’s the issue with evaluating Gonzaga’s national title hopes: It’s not that the Bulldogs are inherently a weaker team because they played a weaker regular-season schedule than most. It’s that their sample size of games against NCAA tournament-caliber teams is so small. It is six, to be exact, and three of the six came against one team, Saint Mary’s, with whom Gonzaga matches up really well. The small sample size means that Gonzaga’s potential points of weakness haven’t been thoroughly explored. For example, Iowa State had a lot of success with spread, small-ball lineups in the second half of a two-point loss to the ‘Zags in November, but no other team on Gonzaga’s schedule could follow up on the questions Iowa State asked of Mark Few’s team.
The Bulldogs aren’t especially vulnerable; they’re not overrated; their 32-1 record isn’t fraudulent. They are a very, very good basketball team. There’s just a lot we still don’t know about them.
6. Kentucky (2)
Kentucky goes as Malik Monk goes, and that means it is SO. DARN. UNPREDICTABLE.
It feels odd to say that about a team that will arrive at the Big Dance riding an 11-game winning streak, but the Wildcats have been so enigmatic all season. They’ll look startlingly ordinary for 25 minutes; then Monk will go into Malik Monk Takeover Mode — akin to playing “NCAA March Madness 07” on PlayStation 2 on “junior varsity,” and probably with cheat codes — and Kentucky will look like a Final Four contender. So who knows? With Monk and De’Aaron Fox in the backcourt and John Calipari on the sideline, a national title is all kinds of possible. But so is a second-round dud against Wichita State.
7. Arizona (2)
Finnish freshman Lauri Markkanen has transformed into the type of dominant big that can carry Arizona to the Final Four. He always had the sweet outside shooting stroke and feel for the game. Now he has the ability to do damage in the paint as well, and therefore has an inside-outside game that will give opponents fits.
Around Markkanen, the Wildcats have a nice blend of youth and experience, and they now have Allonzo Trier back at his best. After a rocky return from suspension in late January and early February, Trier has put up 22.1 points per game over his last seven outings. He’s also improved as a facilitator in his sophomore season — his assist rate has more than doubled while his turnover rate is down.
Arizona doesn’t have the top-end talent that Kentucky boasts, but it will be in any game it plays, and with a few friendly bounces could be snipping some nylon.
8. UCLA (3)
College basketball’s fastest major-conference offense is also probably its best, and is surely its most exhilarating. Freshman point guard Lonzo Ball is a wizard in transition, and might be the most exciting player to watch in the country. TJ Leaf is a skilled guard in a 6-foot-10 body, and because he is, he’s an offensive efficiency machine. Bryce Alford brings sharpshooting and significant NCAA tournament experience to the table — the last time he took this stage in March, he hit 14 of his 22 3-point attempts on a Sweet 16 run.
The one problem, of course, is that the Bruins have periodically seemed allergic to defense. Their pick-and-roll coverage is shoddy at best. With the defense they played for the first two-thirds of the season, they weren’t national title contenders. However, they’ve improved as of late, and have been effective in multiple zone alignments, which gives hope of some solidity in the tournament. That hope, in turn, breeds hope of a Final Four run, and perhaps even a national championship.
9. Louisville (2)
The Cardinals have been patiently waiting to break out all season, and … now the time has come, and the wait is ongoing. A noticeable breakthrough has not yet arrived. Donovan Mitchell is a star, the entire roster is experienced, and Rick Pitino is as good as they come on the sideline; Louisville’s offense still hasn’t fully clicked, though, and its defense, strangely, regressed slightly down the stretch in ACC play. The longer we wait for the Cardinals to take the next step and become an elite team, the more likely it is that that step never gets taken.
TIER 3: THE VERY GOOD … BUT NOT ‘NATIONAL TITLE GOOD’
Oregon was sitting comfortably in Tier 2, and perhaps near the top of it, until shot-blocking stretch-forward Chris Boucher tore his ACL in the Pac-12 semifinal. The loss doesn’t ruin the Ducks’ tourney campaign, but it puts a damper on their title hopes.
Last season, Mike Brey went to a two-point guard lineup in the postseason, and his Irish charged to the Elite Eight. This year, he made the move to downsize in early February, and since, his team has won eight of 10. Of the 52 teams below the top four seed lines, Notre Dame is the most likely to make a Final Four run.
What a story. The Wolverines — who, by the way, were a bubble team two weeks ago — escaped literal death on Wednesday, then went on to win four games in four days Thursday through Sunday at the Big Ten tournament. Now they aren’t just a feel-good story. They’re a damn good basketball story. With a top-10 offense, they’ll be an extremely tough out.
16. SMU (6)
The Mustangs haven’t lost since Jan. 12. Today, Monday, is March 13. Think about that for a second.
Everybody loves Wilmington in this 5-12 upset. Why? Virginia will grind out possessions, take Wilmington out of its comfort zone, and ease to victory. The Cavaliers, in fact, are generally underrated because they don’t offer much in the way of excitement, but they’re still a staunch defensive team and an underrated offensive squad because they play so slow. They’re No. 7 in the KenPom rankings. Despite some truly ugly performances in February, they remain an Elite Eight threat.
20. Florida State (3)
TIER 4: THE LONG SHOTS
21. Oklahoma State (10)
The Cowboys are No. 1 in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency. They’re also wildly underseeded, just like the team below them on this list because they came up short on several occasions against the Big 12’s big four. It’s cruel that either them or Michigan will head home without a win.
22. Wichita State (10)
Gregg Marshall thought the committee might have forgotten about his team. Make sure you don’t make that mistake. Wichita State is dangerous.
Bryce Drew has done a phenomenal job in his first year in Nashville. The Commodores have 3-point threats aplenty, and have the No. 2 effective field-goal percentage defense in the nation. West region, beware.
TIER 5: THE VERY LONG SHOTS
It’s treacherous to place a Tom Izzo team this low, but he doesn’t have the talent this year.
If you watched any of Rhode Island in the Atlantic 10 tournament, then you know … the Rams are on the charge. They shot 20-for-40 from 3 in the semifinal and final combined, and are playing confident ball. If you’re looking for a deep sleeper, this might be it.
If you’re looking for a First Four-to-Final Four pick, the winner of Tuesday’s game is the way to go. Wake has an All-ACC center in John Collins, and a talented guard to complement him in Bryant Crawford. Kansas State has a stifling defense.
TIER 6: NO
Are you feeling lucky? And maybe a bit reckless and bold? And slightly ludicrous? Put Middle Tennessee in your Elite Eight.
The Seahawks love to get up and down, have a quartet of talented guards/wings, and feature the most efficient offensive player in all of Division I, 6-foot-7 forward Devontae Cook (offensive rating: 141.9).
Princeton hasn’t lost since Christmas.
51. Vermont (13)
Neither has Vermont.
52. East Tennessee State (13)
TIER 7: DEFINITELY NOT
Watching 5-foot-7 guard Keon Johnson put an entire team on his back is one of the most thrilling experiences in college basketball. Hopefully he has a run at Butler.
Remember the name Mike Daum. Here are his points totals from the past 13 games: 42, 29, 33, 16, 38, 26, 22, 26, 51, 30, 33, 18, 37. The 37 came on 24 shots in a 79-77 win over Omaha in the Summit League title game.
61. North Dakota (15)
TIER 8: ABSOLUTELY NOT
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