1. Pittsburgh Panthers:
Locations: Pittsburgh, PA
At-Large Bid: Big East Conference
Key Players: Ashton Gibbs (16.7 ppg), Brad Wanamaker (12 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 5.1 apg), Gilbert Brown (10.9 ppg), Nasir Robinson (9 ppg, 5 rpg), Gary McGhee (7.6 rpg)
Strength: Once again, the Panthers are one of the toughest teams in the nation. Defensively and on the glass; Pitt wants to impose its will on opponents. The Panthers hold foes to just 39.8 percent shooting from the field and they out-rebound their opponents by over 10 rebounds per game. This has been the formula for the Panthers for nearly a decade and this year it could finally lead them to the Final Four.
Weakness: Pitt still lacks that explosion that most great teams have. Pitt is comfortable playing in the low-70’s and that’s just not going to cut it in the NCAA Tournament. The Panthers make it harder on themselves as they sometimes struggle to score. They are one of the more efficient teams offensively in the country, but the problem with Pitt in NCAA Tournaments is that they have difficulty scoring against unfamiliar competition. If Pitt is to make it to Houston, it must find away to put more points on the board.
2. Florida Gators
Location: Gainesville, FL
At-Large Bid: Southeastern Conference
Key Players: Erving Walker (14.4 ppg), Kenny Boynton 14.1 ppg), Chandler Parsons (11.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg), Vernon Macklin (11.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Alex Tyus (8.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg)
Strength: Florida’s balance is the envy of many teams nationally. Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton comprise what may be the best backcourt in the SEC. However, Vernon Macklin and Alex Tyus are very good post players as well. This balance gives the Gators tremendous options offensively. Florida has been difficult to beat all year because of its balance and that will be no different in the NCAA Tournament.
Weakness: The Gators were third in the SEC in scoring margin and that’s probably a good thing because their free-throw shooting would’ve cost them some wins in close contests. The Gators are ninth in the conference, shooting just 66.7 percent from the field. That is lousy for a team that shoots so well from field and the three-point line. At some point, the Gators will be in close game and they will have to prove they can knock down free-throws.
3. BYU Cougars
Location: Provo, UT
At-Large Bid: Mountain West Conference
Key Players: Jimmer Fredette (28.5 ppg), Jackson Emery (12.6 ppg), Noah Hartsock (8.5 ppg)
Strength: Everybody in the nation knows what BYU’s strength is. It’s the nation’s leading scorer in Jimmer Fredette. Fredette, along with Connecticut’s Kemba Walker, is a favorite for national player of the year. Fredette is deadly from behind the three-point line, but is equally as dangerous getting to the hoop. Fredette is capable of scoring 50 on a given night and if he does that, the Cougars will be tough to beat.
Weakness: With the suspension of Brandon Davies, the Cougars are very weak in the post. Davies was BYU’s best post player and complemented Fredette very well. With him in the lineup, BYU was able to sweep San Diego St twice. Without him, the Aztecs dominated the Cougars in the paint. This team is one-dimensional without Davies and that’s a deficiency that could cost them a shot at the Final Four.
4. Wisconsin Badgers
Location: Madison, WI
At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference
Key Players: Jon Leuer (18.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg), Jordan Taylor (18.1 ppg), Keaton Nankervis (10 ppg)
Strength: The Badgers have an inside-outside punch that rivals any in America. Jordan Taylor and Jon Leuer are a match-up problem for anyone they face. Taylor is a sharpshooting guard who is deadly from behind the arc. Leuer is a physical big man who can rebound and step behind the three-point line himself. These two have carried the Badgers all year and they have the talent to take the Badgers on a long tournament run.
Weakness: Wisconsin has virtually no quality depth. The Badgers really only go seven-men deep in their rotation with the two men off the bench providing nothing more than a quick breather for starters. Leuer, Taylor and Keaton Nankivil have carried much of the scoring load for the badgers, but they’re also playing big minutes. If the Badgers want to make a run, someone else is going to have to step up to the challenge.
5. Kansas State Wildcats
Location: Manhattan, KS
At-Large Bid: Big XII Conference
Key Players: Jacob Pullen (19.5 ppg), Rodney McGruder (11.4 ppg, 6 rpg), Curtis Kelly (10.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg), Jamar Samuels (8.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg)
Strength: Kansas St has one of the best frontcourts in the country. Jacob Pullen gets a lot of the publicity, but the trio of Jamar Samuels, Rodney McGruder and Curtis Kelly can do a lot of damage in the low-post. The Wildcats sometimes forget about them and that’s when the team struggles. However when all three are on, it opens the game up for Pullen on the outside. When that happens, the Wildcats can beat anybody.
Weakness: Kansas St hasn’t found a replacement for Denis Clemente at the point guard position. Pullen has tried to fill his shoes, but he has struggled in that role and it really hurt his production earlier in the season. It’s been killing the team as well. Kansas St’s 15 turnovers per game is 11th in the Big XII. This team doesn’t do anything else well enough to overcome that so if this team doesn’t get solid point guard play, it could have a short stay in the dance.
6. Saint John’s Red Storm
Location: Queens, NY
At-Large Bid: Big East Conference
Key Players: Dwight Hardy (18 ppg), Justin Brownlee (12.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg)
Strength: St. John’s plays one of the most effective full-court pressure defenses in the country. The Red Storm gets its opponents to play faster than they want and then it capitalizes on their mistakes. St. John’s has used that defense to force over 16 turnovers a game. St. John’s has flustered Duke, Pittsburgh, and Connecticut with it’s pressure so there’s no doubt that it’ll be effective against the competition it’ll face in the Big Dance.
Weakness: St. John’s will have to replace D.J. Kennedy’s contributions after he tore his ACL in the Big East Tournament. Kennedy averaged over 10 points and over five rebounds per game and was one of their most athletic players. Kennedy helped make their full-court press effective and without him it remains to be seen how good this team is. The Red Storm has depth, but can that depth fill the void Kennedy left?
7. UCLA Bruins
Location: Los Angeles, CA
At-Large Bid: Pac-10 Conference
Key Players: Reeves Nelson (13.9 ppg, 9 rpg), Malcolm Lee (13 ppg), Tyler Honeycutt (12.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg), Joshua Smith (10.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg), Lazeric Jones (9.4 ppg)
Strength: Coach Ben Howland’s teams always have one staple and that’s toughness. This years’ version of the Bruins is no different. UCLA plays tough hard-nosed defense and crashes the boards with the best of them. In fact, the Bruins are the best rebounding team in the Pac-10 as they out-rebound their opponents by nearly five boards per game. A defense that keeps opponents’ field-goal percentage under 42 percent isn’t too shabby either.
Weakness: In the tournament, teams have to be able to knock down three pointers consistently, but that’s not something the Bruins have proven they can do. UCLA is ninth in the Pac-10 in three-point shooting percentage at just 32. 9 percent. The three-point shot has changed the game of college basketball and not being able to hit it with regularity dooms teams and can very much be the reason why the Bruins leave the tournament early.
8. Butler Bulldogs
Location: Indianapolis, IN
Automatic Bid: Horizon League Champions
Key Players: Matt Howard (16.7 ppg, 7.8 rpg), Shelvin Mack (15.2 ppg), Andrew Smith (8.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg), Shawn Vansant (8.1 ppg)
Strength: Not many teams are as experienced and tournament tested as this Butler club. Gordon Hayward may be gone, but there’s plenty of talent left from Butler’s run to last year’s national championship game. Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack are still two of the best players in America, while Shawn Vanzant and Ronald Nored were also huge contributors on that team last year. This team won’t get frazzled and will be tough to beat this March.
Weakness: Butler’s depth continues to be an issue. The Bulldogs can only legitimately go eight men deep in their rotation and some of those guys can only be relied on to defend. Outside of Howard and Mack, no one else on the roster is a real threat offensively and that’s what kept Butler from enjoying the success it did last season. Butler is going to have to control tempo because it just doesn’t have enough bodies or scorers to compete in a fast-paced game.
9. Old Dominion Monarchs
Location: Norfolk, VA
Automatic Bid: Colonial Athletic Association Champions
Key Players: Frank Hassell (15 ppg, 9.6 rpg), Kent Bazemore (12.5 ppg, 5 rpg), Ben Finney (9.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg), Chris Cooper (5.7 rpg)
Strength: Put the Monarchs in the Big East or Big Ten and they’d fit right in. This is one of the toughest teams in America. Defensively, ODU ranks at the top of nearly every category in the CAA. They also out-rebound their opponents by over 12 boards per game. They grind games out and just pound opponents into submission. This team is for real and will be a tough out in the tournament.
Weakness: This team isn’t easy on the eyes offensively. Old Dominion’s scoring is dependent on it getting offensive rebounds. That isn’t a strategy that will win games in the NCAA Tournament. ODU averages less than 66 points per game and doesn’t shoot the ball particularly well from behind the arc or the free-throw line. If the Monarchs don’t find a way to score, they’ll be out of the tournament early.
10. Michigan State Spartans
Location: East Lansing, MI
At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference
Key Players: Kalin Lucas (17.2 ppg), Draymond Green (12.3 ppg, 8.6 rpg), Durrell Summers (11.5 ppg), Delvon Roe (5.1 rpg)
Strength: This is a Tom Izzo-coached team so there is only one way it knows how to win and that’s with toughness. Michigan St still bangs with the best of them on the boards and still defends as well as any team in the country. Led by the versatile Draymond Green in the paint, the Spartans are third in the Big Ten in rebounding and fourth in field-goal percentage defense. That’s the way the Izzo has dominated in the NCAA Tournament for the past decade.
Weakness: The Spartans have been wildly inconsistent this season. The Spartans were a preseason top-5 team, but hasn’t come close to living up to those expectations. They’ve dealt with suspensions and a disgruntled coach. Any time Izzo questions his team’s toughness, that’s a bad thing, but that’s exactly what he did after a loss to Syracuse earlier this season. If the team that beat Purdue shows up, it can go a long way, but if the team that lost to Iowa shows up, it can get blown out.
11. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Location: Spokane, WA
Automatic Bid: West Coast Conference Champions
Key Players: Steven Gray (13.8 ppg), Robert Sacre (12.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Elias Harris (12.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg)
Strength: This isn’t the most talent team Mark Few has coached in his tenure at Gonzaga so he had to get them to buy in on the defensive end. The Bulldogs have won with their defense – holding opponents to just 39.8 percent shooting on the year. They lead the conference in steals and are second in blocked shots as well. It took a while for this team to find its identity, but once it did, it found its way back to the NCAA Tournament.
Weakness: It’s March and Few is still tinkering with his rotation. He’s still trying to find the right chemistry on offense. Freshman guard David Stockton seems to be giving the team good minutes off the bench, but Gonzaga is still trying to find a way to score consistently. This team is used to having good guards to keep the offense running smoothly, but there’s a question who on the team can really do that.
12. Utah State Aggies
Location: Logan, UT
Automatic Bid: Western Athletic Conference
Key Players: Tai Wesley (14.7 ppg, 8 rpg), Brockeith Pane (11.6 ppg), Brian Green (10.6 ppg), Pooh Williams (8.4 ppg), Brady Jardine (7.1 rpg), Nate Bendall (5.9 rpg)
Strength: This is one of the most experienced teams in the nation as the Aggies have five seniors who are significant contributors. The Aggies have been in the tournament before and these seniors want to go out with a win. Led by the WAC Player of the Year, Tai Wesley, Utah St will not be rattled by any situation it encounters. This team is mature and tough and will be ready for anything.
Weakness: At this point you have to worry about the psychic of the Aggies. This team has been dominant in the WAC, but all it hears about is not being able to win a game against a quality opponent in the NCAA Tournament. Will this team go in the tank and not respond or will it show some guts and fight. That’s the questions onlookers nationally want answered.
13. Belmont Bruins
Location: Nashville, TN
Automatic Bid: Atlantic Sun Conference Champions
Key Players: Ian Clark (12.4 ppg), Mick Hedgepeth (10.6 ppg, 6 rpg), Scott Saunders (10 ppg, 5.4 rpg), Jordan Campbell (8.4 ppg)
Strength: The depth of the Bruins is impressive for a team at their level. They have 11 guys playing double-digit minutes. Head coach Rick Byrd has a philosophy that his guys can play harder in shorter bursts of time and it’s worked to near perfection for him. They’ve been able to wear teams down with their depth and it has also paid dividends giving them offensive balance. Any team with a short bench is going to have its hands full with this club. The Bruins are dangerous.
Weakness: The same thing that makes Belmont dangerous also can be a detriment. In the tournament, when the team needs one shot, who will Byrd call on. He has plenty of guys who can put the ball in the basket, but who is going to be the alpha dog. That’s something that has to be addressed if Belmont is to make a run.
14. Wofford Terriers
Location: Spartanburg, SC
Automatic Bid: Southern Conference Champion
Key Players: Noah Dahlman (20 ppg, 5.4 rpg), Cameron Rundles (13.8 ppg), Jamar Diggs (12.4 ppg), Tim Johnson (8.6 rpg)
Strength: Wofford is one of the most efficient teams offensively in the country. The Terriers shoot almost 48 percent from field and over 40 percent from behind the arc – good enough for first in the Southern Conference. They also lead the conference in assists and average the least amount of turnovers in the league. This team will not beat itself so it’ll be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament.
Weakness: Wofford’s style allows it to only depend on its seven-man rotation, but that will be an issue in the NCAA Tournament. Foul trouble or a team that full-court presses could doom the Terriers. Wofford managed to survive a decent mid-major conference with no depth, but it will not be playing the likes of the Citadel in the Big Dance. If Wofford is to make a run, it’ll have to get some help from an surprising source.
15. UC-Santa Barbara Gauchos
Location: Santa Barbara, CA
Automatic Bid: Big West Conference Champions
Key Players: Orlando Johnson (21.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg), James Nunnally (16.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg), Jaime Serna (8 ppg)
Strength: The Gauchos are a solid three-point shooting team. At 37.5 percent on the year, they have been winning games with their marksmanship from behind the arc. UCSB features four players who shoot at least 40 percent from behind the arc and that’s hard to guard. If the Gauchos are able to shoot it at that clip in the NCAA Tournament, they’ll be primed to make history.
Weakness: Turnovers have plagued the Gauchos on the season. Only two teams in the Big West had more on this year. This caused UCSB to have a negative turnover margin and an assist-to-turnover ration that was just barely positive. If the Gauchos are to pull an upset, they’ll have to be more careful with the rock or they’ll be sent home painfully.
16a. Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans
Location: Little Rock, AK
Automatic Bid: Sun Belt Conference Champions
Key Players: Solomon Bozeman (16.5 ppg), Alex Garcia-Mendoza (8.6 ppg), Matt Mouzy (8 ppg)
Strength: Solomon Bozeman won the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year and with good reason. Bozeman already has five 25-plus point games this season and he does it in an efficient manner. Bozeman shoots over 80 percent from the free-throw line, over 46 percent from the field and over 43 percent from three-point range. If Bozeman gets hot, he can carry this team like he did in the Sun Belt Tournament.
Weakness: The Trojans offensive numbers are downright scary. In a tournament where explosive teams are successful, the Trojans inability to put points on the board will be an issue. Arkansas-Little Rock is 10th in the Sun Belt in scoring, part of the reason why if finished with a below .500 league record. If the Trojans can’t score consistently against Sun Belt competition, they’re going to be in huge trouble scoring against the quality team it’ll play in the Big Dance.
16b. UNC-Asheville Bulldogs
Location: Asheville, NC
Automatic Bid: Big South Conference Champions
Key Players: Matt Dickey (15.3 ppg), J.P. Primm (14.4 ppg), Chris Stephenson (9.4 ppg), D.J. Cunningham (9 ppg, 7.5 rpg), Jaron Lane (8.8 ppg), John Williams (8.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg)
Strength: The Bulldogs want to play at a break-neck speed and have the talent to do so. They like to get out a pressure the basketball and let their athletes take over. Playing that pace allows UNC-Asheville to force over 17 turnovers per game. That feeds into their transition game allowing them to score close to 75 points per game. If the Bulldogs are able to get out in transition, they may be able to cause a scare.
Weakness: Making only five three-pointers per game is just not going to cut it if the Bulldogs want to pull an upset. Given its low seed, Asheville will be overmatched in the talent category so it will need an equalizer. The only equalizer is the three-point shot. Asheville is going to have to make a lot if expects to do any damage in the tournament. If five is their ceiling with D.J. Cunningham‘s questionable foot, the Bulldogs will definitely be one-and-done in the NCAA Tournament.