1. Kentucky Wildcats
Location: Lexington, KY
At-Large Bid: Southeastern Conference
Key Players: Anthony Davis (14.3 ppg, 10 rpg, 4.7 BPG), Doron Lamb (13.3 ppg), Terrence Jones (12.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (12 ppg, 7.8 rpg), Marquis Teague (9.7 ppg, 4.7 apg), Darius Miller (9.4 ppg)
Strength: This is the most talented team in the nation. On offense, it has guys who can go of the dribble, guys who can play in the post and guys who can shoot the trey. Defensively, it has great perimeter defenders and Anthony Davis patrolling the paint. The Wildcats haven’t been challenged often, but when they have they responded every time because they have guys who can execute on both ends of the court. It’s very hard to see them losing.
Weakness: Kentucky remains one of the youngest teams in America. Three starters are freshmen and the other two are sophomores. That’s got to keep Coach John Calipari up at night. It didn’t prevent the Wildcats from making it to the Final Four last season, but it’s got to be a concern as this isn’t the same team. If Kentucky’s youth shows at a key moment, it could be a disappointing finish.
2. Duke Blue Devils
Location: Durham, NC
At-Large Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference
Key Players: Austin Rivers (15.3 ppg), Seth Curry (13.4 ppg), Ryan Kelly (11.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg), Mason Plumlee (11 ppg, 9.3 rpg), Andre Dawkins (8.8 ppg), Miles Plumlee (7 rpg)
Strength: The Blue Devils have arguably the best backcourt in college basketball. Andre Dawkins, Seth Curry and Austin Rivers form a backcourt that’s lit scoreboards up all year. It’s not only that they score it’s also when they score. All three have hit big shots including Rivers’ now iconic three-pointer to beat North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Duke is always good and these three are the main reason why.
Weakness: This isn’t one of Coach K’s best defensive teams. The Blue Devils are ranked among the ACC’s worse in several defensive categories including scoring defense and defensive field goal percentage. That’s why teams have been able to put up huge numbers on Duke at times this year. Unless Duke makes a commitment to defense it will go home disappointed again.
3. Baylor Bears
Location: Waco, TX
At-Large Bid: Big XII Conference
Key Players: Perry Jones III (14 ppg, 7.7 rpg), Pierre Jackson (13.3 ppg, 5.8 apg), Quincy Acy (11.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg), Quincy Miller (11.1 ppg, 5 rpg), Brady Heslip (9.6 ppg)
Strength: The Bears have one of the most imposing front lines in the country. When they’re playing well, they’re not just good; they’re intimidating. Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller and Quincy Acy can all rebound and score. That’s why they’re among the Big XII’s leaders in scoring and rebounds. It’s also effective in the zone Baylor employs as their length can cause shooters problems. This could be the most talented frontcourt in the country.
Weakness: Inconsistency would be the name of the game for the Bears. There have been moments where they’ve looked like a top five team and others where you’re left scratching your head. The good Baylor team showed up for the Big XII tournament, but will it still be around for the NCAA tournament.
4. Indiana Hoosiers
Location: Bloomington, IN
At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference
Key Players: Cody Zeller (15.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg), Christian Watford (11.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg), Jordan Hulls (11.4 ppg), Victor Oladipo (11 ppg, 5.6 rpg), Will Sheehey (8.5 ppg)
Strength: In a conference as rugged as the Big Ten, being able to score over 77 points per game is amazing, but that’s exactly what the Hoosiers did. They’re actually probably very excited to play teams out of conference so that they may be able to score a little freely. Led by the all-everything freshman Cody Zeller, the Hoosiers led the Big Ten in scoring offense, field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage. They are going to be hard to guard in the tournament.
Weakness: Indiana, a program that’s used to being in the NCAA tournament is making its first trip since 2008. So there is a concern about how the inexperienced Hoosiers are going to play on the big stage especially without Verdell Jones III. They’ve had a great year, but the pressure to perform in an Indiana uniform is great. Will it be too much for a young Indiana team?
5. Wichita State Shockers
Location: Wichita, KS
At-Large Bid: Missouri Valley Conference
Key Players: Garrett Stutz (13.5 ppg, 8 rpg), Joe Ragland (13.4 ppg), Toure’ Murry (12.2 ppg), Ben Smith (9.9 ppg), David Kyles (8.5 ppg), Carl Hall (8.3 ppg)
Strength: The Shockers are a typical Missouri Valley team in that they make it very difficult for teams to score. They push up on guards on the perimeter and use the seven-foot Garrett Stutz to deter anyone from coming into the paint. Not only is this team good initially on defense but it’s grabbing over 73 percent of its opponents’ misses. This is a team that will be difficult to score on.
Weakness: Who is the Shockers “go-to guy?” Wichita St has a number of players that can score, but who gets the ball when the game is on the line. This is an important question as there will be a moment in the tournament where the Shockers will have to decide.
6. UNLV Rebels
Location: Las Vegas, NV
At-Large Bid: Mountain West Conference
Key Players: Mike Moser (14.1 ppg, 10.6 rpg), Chace Stanback (12.7 ppg), Anthony Marshall (12.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg), Oscar Bellfield (9.8 ppg)
Strength: The West Coast is known for run-and-gun basketball and the Rebels are certainly capable of doing that. UNLV is the highest scoring team in the Mountain West averaging over 76 points per game. In addition to that they’re assisting on nearly two-thirds of their made field goals. They’re explosive, efficient and can get into a shootout with the best of them. Just ask North Carolina.
Weakness: UNLV is seventh out of eight teams in the Mountain West in free-throw shooting. Averaging just 67.9 percent on the year, the Rebels must make their freebies if they expect to win in the Big Dance. There is just no way you can win consistently shooting so poorly from the free-throw line. UNLV better knock down its free throws or it can be out of the tournament in a hurry.
7. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Location: South Bend, IN
At-Large Bid: Big East Conference
Key Players: Jack Cooley (12.4 ppg, 9 rpg), Jerian Grant (12.3 ppg, 4.9 apg), Eric Atkins (12.2 ppg, 4.1 apg), Scott Martin (9.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg)
Strength: It’s called the “burn” offense and what it does is burn the clock. Notre Dame’s offense is not entertaining to watch, but it’s worked very well for the Irish. It’s designed to test the discipline of the opposition’s defense and more often than not, it works in Notre Dame’s favor. The Irish allows its young guards, Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins, to make plays at the end of the possession for themselves or teammates. Teams who are interested in playing defense will struggle trying to beat Notre Dame.
Weakness: Notre Dame’s short bench will be an issue. They’ve been able to get away with for most of the season, but it’s guaranteed to rear its ugly head in the tournament. There will be a team that presses the Irish or one of the Irish’s key players will get into foul trouble. When this happens, how will the Irish react?
8. Iowa State Cyclones
Location: Ames, IA
At-Large Bid: Big XII Conference
Key Players: Royce White (13.1 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 5.1 apg), Scott Christopherson (12.5 ppg), Chris Allen (11.8 ppg), Melvin Ejim (9.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg), Chris Babb (8.2 ppg), Tyrus McGee (8.1 ppg)
Strength: Royce White is one of the best all-around players in the nation. Not many talk about him, but he can score, pass, and rebound with the best of them. Head Coach Fred Hoiberg has done an excellent job of surrounding him with talented players leading to a suprising season. White is largely responsible and he is going to be a nightmare to matchup with in the Big Dance.
Weakness: Iowa St has a roster full of transfers and this mash up hasn’t necessarily been the easiest team to manage. A lot of guys are in Ames because they couldn’t get on the same page with their previous coach and it’s no different for the Cyclones at times. Cyclone players need to understand that’s it’s March and the team goals are greater than those of the individual.
9. Connecticut Huskies
Location: Storrs, CT
At-Large Bid: Big East Conference
Key Players: Jeremy Lamb (17.9 ppg), Shabazz Napier (12.6 ppg, 5.9 apg), Ryan Boatright (10.7 ppg, 4.2 apg), Andre Drummond (10.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg)
Strength: Pound for pound, this is one of the most talented teams in the country. The roster is littered with future pros and teams with pros generally do well in the tournament. Led by Jeremy Lamb, this team has several options to go to offensively when it needs a bucket. When you have players that are simply better than the men in front of them, it gives you a great edge.
Weakness: Team chemistry has been a serious issue for the Huskies all year long. Connecticut was in a lot of experts’ preseason top-5, but here we are in March and it’s not even close. From the Calhoun suspension to the Calhoun injury to Shabazz Napier openly questioning his teammates; this season has been frustrating for Huskies’ fans. If that problem shows up in the NCAA tournament they could be out early.
10. Xavier Musketeers
Location: Cincinnati, OH
At-Large Bid: Atlantic 10 Conference
Key Players: Tu Holloway (17 ppg, 5.2 apg), Mark Lyons (15.5 ppg), Dezmine Wells (10.3 ppg, 5 rpg), Kenny Frease (9.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Andre Walker (5.7 rpg)
Strength: The awesome backcourt of Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons is capable of taking the Musketeers on run. They are great off the dribble and are capable of knocking down threes from behind the three-point line. It’s hard to defend those two because of their quickness and how fearless they are. If they play to their ability, these two can give Xavier fans a good feeling about this season.
Weakness: Confidence has been the issue with the Musketeers. As the fight with Cincinnati was a turning point for the better for the Bearcats, it had the opposite effect on Xavier. They just haven’t had the same swagger since that they actually played that game with. They have to get that back if they want to have success in the tournament.
11. Colorado Buffaloes
Location: Boulder, Co
Automatic Bid: Pac-12 Champions
Key Players: Carlon Brown (12.6 ppg), Andre Roberson (11.6 ppg, 11.1 rpg), Austin Dufault (11 ppg), Spencer Dinwiddie (10.1 ppg), Askia Booker (8.9 ppg)
Strength: The Buffaloes may have best collection of wing players in the Pac-12. Carlon Brown, Andre Roberson and Spencer Dinwiddie are interchangeable players that all have game. They’re athletic, solid defenders and can be dangerous from behind the three-point line. These are three guys who can really change a game and they put this team on their backs to get it to the Big Dance.
Weakness: At times this can be a really exciting team to watch, but to Buffalo fans it can also be a frustrating team to watch. This team is not a good passing team and it turns the ball over more than its opponents. That’s not efficient basketball for a team that is ninth in the Pac-12 in points per game. This team must get more organized offensively if it wants to duplicate its Pac-12 championship run in the NCAA tournament.
12. Virginia Commonwealth Rams
Location: Richmond, VA
Automatic Bid: Colonial Athletic Association Champions
Key Players: Bradford Burgess (13.3 ppg), Juvonte Reddic (10.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg), Troy Daniels (10 ppg), Rob Brandenberg (8.9 ppg), Darius Theus (8.6 ppg, 4.8 apg)
Strength: Havoc. That’s what VCU calls its defense and boy is it effective. The Rams cause nearly 18 turnovers a game by speeding their opponents up. That pace makes teams uncomfortable playing right into their hands. It can be downright stifling at times. They have quick hands, quick feet and go eight men deep. VCU’s defense has it peaking at the right time and maybe another deep tournament run is in store.
Weakness: Nearly 40 percent of VCU’s field goal attempts are three-pointers. That’s a lot. The Rams live by the three and die by the three. That’s a dangerous way to live. It worked very well for them in the tournament last year, but that was last year. This is a new group with an unrealistic set of expectations. I’m not sure history will repeat itself.
13. New Mexico State Aggies
Location: Las Cruces, NM
Automatic Bid: Western Athletic Conference Champions
Key Players: Wendell McKines (18.8 ppg, 10.8 rpg), Hernst Laroche (12 ppg), Hamidu Rahman (10 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Daniel Mullings, Bandja Sy (8.7 ppg)
Strength: A team that can score the way New Mexico St can is going to win a lot of games in the WAC and that’s just what the Aggies did. They’re first in the WAC in scoring, second in field goal percentage and third in assists. In addition to that, this team gets over 41 percent of its misses. That makes them frustrating to play as they extend possessions that way.
Weakness: Free throw shooting and turnovers have been the Aggies’ Achilles heel all season. They turn the ball over 14.6 times per game, good enough for second to last in the WAC. Meanwhile they only shot free throws at 66.7 percent. Possessions are key in the Big Dance and not being able to have quality possessions will doom the Aggies.
14. South Dakota State Jackrabbits
Location: Brookings, SD
Automatic Bid: Summit League Champions
Key Players: Nate Wolters (21.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 6 apg), Jordan Dykstra (11.5 ppg, 5 rpg), Griffan Callahan (10.5 ppg), Chad White (9.1 ppg)
Strength: Basketball is a simple sport. If you have a great player than you ride that player until the wheels fall off. That’s exactly what I expect South Dakota St to do with Nate Wolters. Wolters can do just about anything on a basketball court and his all-around game has led the Jackrabbits to their first ever tournament. He’s the type of player who can make a name for himself a la Harold Arceneaux. He’s gonna make SDSU dangerous to play.
Weakness: The reliance on starters will be a serious issue for the Jackrabbits in the tournament. Only seven players are getting double-digit minutes for them and that’s going to be something to watch. Teams are going to make SDSU’s starters, especially Wolters, work for everything they get. That means you’re going to see some tired legs and may a one-and-done trip for the Jackrabbits.
15. Lehigh Mountain Hawks
Location: Bethlehem, PA
Automatic Bid: Patriot League Champions
Key Players: C.J. McCollum (21.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg), Gabe Knutson (12.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Holden Greiner (10 ppg), Mackey McKnight (8.3 ppg)
Strength: C.J. McCollum is one of the best kept secrets nationally, but he’s about to get his time to shine on the big stage. He does everything for the Mountain Hawks. He can create for himself or his teammates and doesn’t mind rebounding either. This is a guy who’s carried them all year and if they’re to have any success in the tournament he’s going to have to do the same.
Weakness: Lehigh plays a lot of guys double-digit minutes, but not many can give them consistent scoring. That’s going to be an issue in the tournament when teams will place a lot of focus on McCollum. You can’t have minutes where there’s lull in scoring because he’s not on the court. The Mountain Hawks need to get some production from their bench.
16a. Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils
Location: Itta Bena, MS
Automatic Bid: Southwestern Athletic Conference Champions
Key Players: Paul Crosby (13.8 ppg, 7.4 rpg), Terrance Joyner (13.5 ppg), Cor-J Cox (11.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg), Kevin Burwell (9 ppg, 4.5 apg), Amos Studivant (5.8 rpg)
Strength: Mississippi Valley St is one of the best teams in the tournament in turning opponents over. The Delta Devils force over 16 turnovers per game, good enough for second in the SWAC. They’re able to use their quickness to get into passing lanes. That’s why they average 8.8 steals per game. If they’re able to turn their opponent over they have a chance at putting a scare into someone.
Weakness: A team with the Delta Devils’ talent should be able to make up for it by throwing waves of players at its opponent. Well, all Mississippi Valley St can give you is about seven players. Depth is a real issue for this squad and if it’s fortunate enough to play a No. 1 seed, it’ll be the nail in the coffin.
16b. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Location: Bowling Green, KY
Automatic Bid: Sun Belt Conference Champions
Key Players: Derrick Gordon (11.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg), George Fant (10.3 ppg, 6 rpg), Jamal Crook (8.6 ppg), T.J. Price (8.5 ppg), Kahlil McDonald (8.5 ppg)
Strength: Western Kentucky hasn’t done a lot well this year, but one thing it has done is turn its opponents over. The Hilltoppers force close to 15 turnovers per game and do it with their quickness. The team doesn’t have a lot of size so has compensated by competing defensively to get as many possessions as possible.
Weakness: This is one of the worst offensive teams in the tournament. The Hilltoppers are scoring only 65 points per game and that’s due to the fact that they shoot 69.3 percent from the free-throw line, 39.7 percent from the field, and 30.8 percent from behind the three-point line. In addition to that they have a negative assist-to-turnover ratio. It’s no wonder that this team struggled to win games and looks to have a very short stay in the tournament.