1. Duke Blue Devils
Location: Durham, NC
Automatic Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference Champions
Key Players: Nolan Smith (21.3 ppg, 5.2 apg), Kyle Singler (17.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Seth Curry (9.5 ppg), Mason Plumlee (8.5 rpg)
Strength: Duke is one of the most experienced teams in the country as it returns much of the team that won the national championship last season. Led by seniors, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, the Devils picked up where they left off last season. This team has been focused and primed for a repeat and are very capable of doing that. The Blue Devils may have been the most surprising No. 1 seed to ever win a national championship last season, but they won’t shock anyone if they repeat.
Weakness: This is a solid three-point shooting team, but if it’s off it really throws them into a tizzy. Almost 35 percent of Duke’s field goal attempts are from behind the arc so if its not making a good percentage of them it makes it very difficult for it to score. Duke has size inside, but it must learn to lean on it a bit more or it could come back to haunt it.
2. San Diego State Aztecs
Location: San Diego, CA
Automatic Bid: Mountain West Conference Champions
Key Players: Kawhi Leonard (15.4 ppg, 10.7 rpg), Malcolm Thomas (11.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg), D.J. Gay (11.2 ppg), Billy White (9.9 ppg), Chase Tapley (8.4 ppg)
Strength: This is a very tough team. The Aztecs are grown men on the boards as they are first in the Mountain West in rebounding margin. They also defend as they only allow their opponents to shoot 39.6 three from the field and 30.9 percent from three. They do a great job taking teams out of what they like to do and just pound teams into submission. Any team that wants to beat them will have to match their toughness and judging by their record, that’s been easier said than done.
Weakness: The Aztecs have been able to get through the Mountain West schedule with a seven-man rotation, but that’s not going to cut it in the NCAA Tournament. D.J. Gay, Malcolm Thomas and Kawhi Leonard all play a lot of minutes and that could come back to haunt the Aztecs. This is a supremely talented team, but it’s going to take more than just the talent in the starting five to make it to the Final Four.
3. Connecticut Huskies
Location: Storrs, CT
Automatic Bid: Big East Champions
Key Players: Kemba Walker (23.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg), Jeremy Lamb (10.3 ppg), Alex Oriakhi (10 ppg, 8.5 rpg), Shabazz Napier (8.3 ppg), Roscoe Smith (5.1 rpg)
Strength: The world knows by now that to beat Connecticut you have to find a way to contain Kemba Walker. Walker, a national player of the year candidate, has been hard for everybody to stop. Teams have tried zone and man against him and somehow, he’s managed to still score and carry his team. The show he put on in the Big East Tournament was amazing and he’s fully capable of duplicating that in the Big Dance.
Weakness: Outside of Walker, the Huskies just haven’t gotten consistent production from the rest of the roster all year. There have been nights when Jeremy Lamb or Alex Oriakhi have really scored, but not on a night-in night-out basis. Due to that, many teams have played zone against Connecticut and it has worked. The Huskies shoot only 43.3 percent from the field. If Walker’s supporting cast doesn’t step up Connecticut could ripe for an upset.
4. Texas Longhorns
Location: Austin, TX
At-Large Bid: Big XII Conference
Key Players: Jordan Hamilton (18.6 ppg, 7.6 rpg), Tristan Thompson (13.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg), Gary Johnson (11.5 ppg, 7 rpg), Cory Joesph (10.5 ppg), J’Covan Brown (9.8 ppg)
Strength: Texas may have the most talented starting five in America. Texas has any number of guys who can fill it up led by freshman Tristan Thompson. The Longhorns have shown they can beat anyone in the country as evident by their win at Kansas. They are hard to guard together and can score in bunches. This team will be tough to beat and is capable of making a deep run in the Big Dance.
Weakness: Texas is still a very young team. The Longhorns get a lot of production from underclassmen and that could be a detriment in the tournament. They’ve already shown a lack of maturity in some of their losses this year and it’s quite possible that it can happen again. Texas’ young players are no doubt talented, but that was also the case in 2007 with Kevin Durant and that ended with a second round loss to USC. There’s plenty of evidence here to say that may happen again.
5. Arizona Wildcats
Location: Tucson, AZ
At-Large Bid: Pac-10 Conference
Key Players: Derrick Williams (19.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg), Lamont Jones (9.6 ppg), Kyle Fogg (8.3 ppg)
Strength: It’s easy to see why the Wildcats have had a renaissance year and he wears No. 23. Derrick Williams is an All-American and a load in the paint. He has carried this team all season long with his stellar play. He really has no peer at his position in college basketball and his teammates have done a good job of playing off of him. Williams is a great college basketball player – one with the talent to take the Wildcats on a long run.
Weakness: The Wildcats struggle mightily when they turn the ball over. They sit in eight place in the Pac-10. The team can be really explosive when they’re playing well, but they can also give games away with their carelessness. Even Williams, as good as he is, is a turnover factory as he leads the team with 86 turnovers and just 37 assists. If the Wildcats don’t take care of the ball they could lose to anybody.
6. Cincinnati Bearcats
Location: Cincinnati, OH
At-Large Bid: Big East Conference
Key Players: Yancy Gates (11.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg), Dion Dixon (11.6 ppg), Sean Kilpatrick (9.9 ppg), Cashmere Wright (8.9 ppg), Rashad Bishop (8.1 ppg)
Strength: The Bearcats, just like most teams in the Big East, are an awesome defensive team. Cincinnati’s 41.1 percent field-goal percentage defense yields just 59.2 points per game from opponents; good enough for first in the conference. Their guards are great at pressuring the basketball and they have enough length to bother jump shooters. Cincinnati may have flown under the radar, but they’ll prove to be a match-up nightmare in the NCAA Tournament.
Weakness: Cincinnati struggles mightily to score. The Bearcats are one of the worst shooting teams in the Big East as they only shoot 43.6 percent from the field on the year. In fact, the Bearcats second through fifth leading scorers don’t come anywhere near shooting 50 percent. Cincinnati has to make games ugly to win, but if they play against a team that gets hot, there won’t be much it can do to stay in it.
7. Temple Owls
Location: Philadelphia, PA
At-Large Bid: Atlantic-10 Conference
Key Players: Ramone Moore (14.9 ppg), Lavoy Allen (11.8 ppg, 8.4 rpg), Juan Fernandez (10.7 ppg), Khalif Wyatt (10 ppg), Rahlir Jefferson (5.1 rpg)
Strength: Temple has one of the most frustrating styles of play to prepare for. The Owls play a deliberate style where they control tempo on offense and play tough defense. They’re physical and tough inside with Lavoy Allen. Their experienced on the perimeter with the unflappable Juan Fernandez. It’s not the most beautiful brand of basketball to watch, but it is very effective.
Weakness: Injuries have really depleted the Owls this season. Temple’s rotation is virtually nonexistent now. Temple only played seven players in their Atlantic 10 semifinal loss to Richmond. The Owls cannot afford any foul trouble because all that’s left at this point are walk-ons. If Temple plays a team with great depth, it may be in serious trouble.
8. Michigan Wolverines
Location: Ann Arbor, MI
At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference
Key Players: Darius Morris (15.2 ppg, 6.7 apg), Tim Hardaway Jr. (13.9 ppg), Jordan Morgan (9.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Zack Novak (8.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg)
Strength: Coach John Beilein has one of the most unusual styles of play in America. The Wolverines love to spread teams out and shoot three pointers. They have outstanding guards, who’ve led the team to shoot a respectable 35.3 percent from behind the arc. Once teams decide to guard Michigan on the three point line, it opens up the lane for layups. Beilein’s West Virginia team got hot and made it to the Elite 8 in 2005 so there’s no reason to believe this Michigan team can’t have success too.
Weakness: The Wolverines are extremely weak on the boards. It’s surprising that Michigan was successful in the rugged Big Ten. Michigan was 10th in the conference in rebounding Margin with the likes of Iowa and Indiana finishing ahead of it. That’s part of the reason why the Wolverines were a middling team in the conference and could be the reason why they are booted out of the Big Dance quickly.
9. Tennessee Volunteers
Location: Knoxville, TN
At-Large Bid: Southeastern Conference
Key Players: Scotty Hopson (17.4 ppg), Tobias Harris (15.2 ppg, 7.3 rpg), Cameron Tatum (8.9 ppg), Melvin Goins (8.1 ppg), Brian Williams (7.7 rpg)
Strength: Scotty Hopson had a great season for Tennessee. He is one of the most explosive players in the nation and has put up huge numbers against solid defensive teams. Hopson scored 27 on Pittsburgh and 32 on Georgia. He has solid teammates around him who complement his talents very well. If Hopson gets going in the Big Dance, he can carry Tennessee to the second weekend.
Weakness: There was only one team in the SEC that got to the free-throw line more than Tennessee, yet it is only eighth in free-throw percentage. Three key guys in the Volunteers’ rotation shoot sub-70 percent from the charity stripe. This is key in pressure situations when free-throws are so important. The Vols have to get the right people to the line or they may give a win away.
10. Penn State Nittany Lions
Location: State College, PA
At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference
Key Players: Talor Battle (20.1 ppg), Jeff Brooks (13.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg), David Jackson (9.8 ppg), Andrew Jones (5.5 rpg)
Strength: Penn St goes as Talor Battle goes. The Nittany Lions follow the lead of Battle who is one of the best players in the nation. Battle has toiled in relative obscurity in State College for four years, but he finally gets his moment in the sun making the first NCAA Tournament of his career. If he gets hot, he can be the catalyst to get the Nittany Lions to the second weekend.
Weakness: Watching Penn St play on offense is not a pleasant experience. The Nittany Lions are one of the worst teams in the tournament offensively as they score only 63 points per game. They have no explosion offensively and cannot get down by double digits. The Lions want to grind wins out, but on offense, it seems as though that strategy backfires.
11. Missouri Tigers
Location: Columbia, MO
At-Large Bid: Big XII Conference
Key Players: Marcus Denmon (17.1 ppg), Laurence Bowers (11.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Ricardo Ratliff (10.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Kim English (10.2 ppg), Michael Dixon (10.2 ppg)
Strength: Coach Mike Anderson’s “fastest 40 minutes in basketball” is basketball on roller skates. It’s fun to watch, but it’s also difficult to prepare for and that’s what makes Missouri tough. The Tigers employ one of the nation’s most effective full court pressure defenses. They force over 18 turnovers a game and they use those turnovers to fuel their offense. If the Tigers can impose their will with their style of play, they can make a little noise in the Big Dance.
Weakness: This is one of the worst rebounding teams in the Big XII. The tigers get out-rebounded by nearly two boards per game. A lot of that has to do with the Tigers wanting to get out and run, but it also has to do with the fact that Missouri’s big men don’t give consistent production going to the glass. Rebounds can be had against this team and if it gives up too many, it could be one-and-done.
12. Memphis Tigers
Location: Memphis, TN
Automatic Bid: Conference-USA
Key Players: Will Barton (12.3 ppg, 5 rpg), Joe Jackson (9.9 ppg), Tank Black (9.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Wesley Witherspoon (9 ppg)
Strength: Memphis is one of the most athletic teams in the country. Josh Pastner has built this team in the mold that his predecessor, John Calipari, built his teams. The Memphis roster is full of guys who love to get up-and-down the court and they do it well. The Tigers are treacherous on the fast break and can turn a game into a highlight reel in a hurry. It’s the way they like to play and it’s the way they earned their way to the tournament.
Weakness: Memphis is young and very mistake-prone. The Tigers are ninth in Conference-USA in turnover margin as they turn the ball over 15.3 times per game. The Tigers can be exciting to watch, but they can also be frustrating at the same time. They’ve lost games with their out-of-control play this year and they’ll have to reign it in if they expect to have staying power in the Big Dance.
13. Oakland Grizzlies
Location: Rochester, MI
Automatic Bid: Summit League Champions
Key Players: Keith Benson (18 ppg, 10.1 rpg), Reggie Hamilton (17.4 ppg, 5.4 apg), Will Hudson (12.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg), Travis Bader (10.5 ppg), Larry Wright (9.8 ppg)
Strength: This team can score and can do it in bunches. Oakland is second nationally in points per game at 85.6. The Grizzlies have four guys who average double figures led by Keith Benson, a future pro. This team is difficult to guard and that’s evident in their win over Tennessee where it scored 89 points. If this team gets hot, it’s not only a threat to win one game, but don’t be shocked to see it in the Sweet 16.
Weakness: The Grizzlies can be so focused on scoring that they can forget that they have to play defense as well. Oakland allows its opponents to score over 76 points per game, second worst in the Summit League. The Grizzlies will not be able to outscore everyone, especially given the talent level in the Big Dance. If Oakland doesn’t make a commitment to the defensive end, it could be one-and-done.
14. Bucknell Bison
Location: Lewisburg, PA
Automatic Bid: Patriot League Champions
Key Players: Mike Muscala (14.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg), Bryson Johnson (11.7 ppg), G.W. Boon (8.8 ppg), Darryl Shazier (8.3 ppg, 5.6 apg)
Strength: Bucknell was able to rip through Patriot League competition on the strength of its defense. The Bison were first in the Patriot League in field-goal percentage defense, three-point field-goal percentage defense, and points allowed. That kind of success on the defensive end yielded only one loss in league play and can make the Bison competitive in the Big Dance. Bucknell has a history of success in the NCAA Tournament. If it is able to defend like it has all season, it may add to that.
Weakness: Bucknell likes to play close to the vest and control tempo because of its lack of depth. That may be an issue if the Bison get in any foul trouble. Bucknell has seven players averaging 20 minutes or more per game and then there’s a huge drop off in before the next closest player. The book on Bucknell will be to press them or get them into foul trouble and if Bucknell isn’t able to manage that it may have a very short stay in the tournament.
15. Northern Colorado Bears
Location: Greeley, CO
Automatic Bid: Big Sky Conference Champions
Key Players: Devon Beitzel (21.4 ppg), Neal Kingman (10.6 ppg), Chris Kaba (9.5 ppg), Mike Proctor (5.6 rpg), Taylor Montgomery (5.7 rpg)
Strength: Northern Colorado is one of the best rebounding teams on the mid-major level. The Bears are No. 1 in the Big Sky in rebounding margin at 5.4 per game. They’re also second in the conference in offensive rebounds and first in offensive rebound percentage getting over 35 percent of their misses. If the Bears are able to out-rebound their opponent, they may be able to cause a scare.
Weakness: This is a team that is too reliant on Devon Beitzel to score. Beitzel, the conference’s player of the year, is a great player, but he’s going to need help for Northern Colorado to be successful. If he has an off night this team isn’t capable of being close to anyone in the tournament. Beitzel not only has to score, but he’s going to have to get some partners in crime to be successful.
16. Hampton Pirates
Location: Hampton, VA
Automatic Bid: Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Champions
Key Players: Darrion Pellum (17.7 ppg), Kwame Morgan (16.5 ppg), Charles Funches (10.7 ppg, 7.8 rpg)
Strength: Hampton is easily one of the best defensive teams on the mid-major level. The Pirates hold their opponents to just 37.9 percent shooting – good enough for first in the MEAC. It’s allowed Hampton to do major things in the non-conference portion of it’s schedule, including beating George Washington, Colorado St and fellow NCAA Tournament team, Boston University. Teams only averaged 57 points per game against the Pirates in the MEAC Tournament and they hope to duplicate that play in the Big Dance.
Weakness: The Pirates offensive efficiency is some of the worst you’ll see in the NCAA Tournament. Hampton shoots only 40.7 percent from the field and 32.5 percent form behind the three-point line. The Pirates are even bad from the free-throw line only making 65 percent of those as well. This all leads to a poorest 67.2 points per game in the MEAC. If the Pirates can’t score in the tournament, they’ll have no chance to even be close.