1. Michigan State Spartans
Location: East Lansing, MI
Automatic Bid: Big Ten Conference Champions
Key Players: Draymond Green (16.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg), Keith Appling (11.5 ppg), Brandon Wood (8.3 ppg)
Strength: Tom Izzo coaches this team so you know it will be as tough as nails. The Spartans play in your face defense and are monsters on the glass as usual. Teams are shooting just 37.8 percent from the field against them while they’re out-rebounding opponents by over eight boards per game. These are staggering stats that let you know how they had the kind of season they had.
Weakness: The Spartans can be turnover prone at times. They’re averaging 13 turnovers per game with 3.1 coming from All-American Draymond Green. It’s tough to have your best player coughing the ball up because he’ll have the ball in his hands the majority of the time. The Spartans are opening their offense up a bit these days, but if they’re opening up to more turnovers they need to re-think their approach.
2. Missouri Tigers
Location: Columbia, MO
Automatic Bid: Big XII Conference Champions
Key Players: Marcus Denmon (17.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg), Kim English (14.9 ppg), Ricard Ratliffe (13.9 ppg, 7.5 rpg), Michael Dixon (13.3 ppg), Phil Pressey (10 ppg, 6.3 apg)
Strength: Explosive. That’s how I would describe the Missouri Tigers. They can score in a multitude of ways, but mostly using their outstanding guards. Marcus Denmon, Michael Dixon, Phil Pressey and Kim English are outstanding three-point shooters and their offense is geared towards that. Missouri, who is No. 1 in the Big XII in scoring, is a legit national championship contender and the way it can fill it up is why.
Weakness: It has been much documented that Missouri is weak in the paint and in its losses that has been crystal clear. In the Tigers’ two losses to Kansas St they were out-rebounded by 10 boards per contest. They were just beat up inside. That is the book on Missouri, especially if it’s shooting poorly. They have to score to win because they just aren’t strong enough to rebound.
3. Marquette Golden Eagles
Location: Milwaukee, WI
At-Large Bid: Big East Conference
Key Players: Darius Johnson-Odom (18.3 ppg), Jae Crowder (17.6 ppg, 7.9 rpg), Davante Gardner (9.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Vander Blue (8.7 ppg)
Strength: This is a team that has taken on the personality of its coach. Just like Buzz Williams, Marquette is intense and high energy. The Golden Eagles will pressure you defensively and attack off the dribble for 40 minutes. They keep coming at you in waves to the point where sometimes it seems as if it’s more than five players on the court. They’re a nightmare to play.
Weakness: Due to the lack of size in the paint, Marquette is one of the worse rebounding teams in the Big East. The Golden Eagles are 12th in the league in rebounding margin – something you don’t generally see from a good Big East team. This team must get after it on the boards if it wants to make the Sweet 16 for the second year in a row.
4. Louisville Cardinals
Location: Louisville, KY
Automatic Bid: Big East Conference Champions
Key Players: Kyle Kuric (13.1 ppg), Russ Smith (11.4 ppg), Chris Smith (10 ppg), Gorgui Dieng (9.4 ppg, 9.1 rpg), Peyton Siva (9.1 ppg, 5.5 apg), Chane Behanan (9 ppg, 7.4 rpg)
Strength: Defense is always the name of the game with a Rick Pitino-coached team. The Cardinals press full-court and then settle into a very effective 2-3 zone. The defense has led them to force nearly 16 turnovers per game. They get their opponents playing faster than they want to play and when a mistake is made the Cardinals are there to capitalize. Running and gunning may look fun, but it’s playing right into the Cardinals’ hands.
Weakness: Louisville has really struggled to score the ball this year. The Cardinals are at the bottom of the Big East in several major offensive categories. In year’s past, Louisville has had players that are elite scorers. Louisville doesn’t have that this year. There is no Terrance Williams or Diego Garcia on this squad and it is clear in the offensive production.
5. New Mexico Lobos
Location: Albuquerque, NM
Automatic Bid: Mountain West Conference Champions
Key Players: Drew Gordon (13.4 ppg, 10.9 rpg), Kendall Williams (12 ppg, 4.1 apg), Tony Snell (11 ppg)
Strength: With nine guys playing double-digit minutes, New Mexico is one of the deepest teams in college basketball. Coach Steve Alford is not afraid of playing different lineups. While only three players are averaging double-figures, seven guys are scoring at least six points per game. That’s a lot of production from a lot of different guys making the Lobos almost as dangerous when they go to their bench as when they’re playing their starters.
Weakness: The Lobos turnover problems will be a key stat this March. Drew Godrdon and Kendall Williams are responsible for nearly five per game themselves. Your best players need to be able to take care of the ball. This is a problem that must be corrected if they want to make a trip to the Sweet 16.
6. Murray State Racers
Location: Murray, KY
Automatic Bid: Ohio Valley Conference Champions
Key Players: Isaiah Canaan (19.2 ppg), Donte Poole (14.2 ppg), Ivan Aska (10.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg), Jewuan Long (8.5 ppg), Ed Daniel (5.3 rpg)
Strength: Murray St has an apt nickname because its racing style has paid dividends for it all season. The Racers force over 16.5 turnovers per game leading the OVC in that category. They have terrific guards that can handle the pace while they wear teams down. It’s not a style that many teams employ and definitely not one that many teams can keep up with.
Weakness: Offensively, the racers aren’t the most efficient team you’ll find. The Racers actually have a negative assist-to-turnover ratio on the year. Part of that is because of their style of play, but they won’t be playing UT-Martin or Jacksonville St in the Big Dance. They need to a better job of taking care of the basketball if they want to continue their dream season.
7. Florida Gators
Location: Gainesville, FL
At-Large Bid: Southeastern Conference
Key Players: Kenny Boynton (16.3 ppg), Bradley Beal (14.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg), Erving Walker (12.1 ppg, 4.7 apg), Erik Murphy (10.7 ppg), Patric Young (10.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg)
Strength: The Gators have an impressive set of guards. They love to run up and down the court and shoot the three. It’s entertaining to watch, but it’s also tough to play against. The guards are a large part of the reason why this team leads the SEC in three-point shooting at 39 percent per game. Erving Walker is the leader of the group as he is excellent at finding his teammates. This is one tough backcourt to defend.
Weakness: As good as the Gators are at shooting the three, they’re equally as bad as defending it. Florida allows its opponents to shoot close to 36 percent from behind the arc. That’s not good enough in the tournament. Three-point shooting is too important for them to not defend better. They could be out of this tournament quickly if they don’t defend the three better.
8. Memphis Tigers
Location: Memphis, TN
Automatic Bid: Conference-USA Champions
Key Players: Will Barton (18.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg), Tarik Black 10.9 ppg, 5 rpg), Joe Jackson (11.1 ppg), Chris Crawford (9.3 ppg), Adonis Thomas (9 ppg)
Strength: Athletes everywhere. That’s what describes the Tigers. The tigers like to play uptempo because they have the athletes to do it. It doesn’t matter who they’re playing it seems like they have a spectacular dunk or two. That feeds this team and makes it hard to guard. They’re outstanding in transition and tough to defend off the dribble. This is certainly a team no one wants to play in the tournament.
Weakness: Despite their athletes, the Tigers aren’t a great rebounding team. Memphis is barely out-rebounding its opponents on the season. The Tigers are grabbing just 67.1 percent of their opponents’ misses. That’s just not going to cut it in the tournament. This is a product of the team wanting to get out in transition. However, if they play a team that’s strong on the offensive boards it could be an early exit for them.
9. Saint Louis Billikens
Location: St. Louis, MO
At-Large Bid: Atlantic 10 Conference
Key Players: Brian Conklin (13.9 ppg), Kwamain Mitchell (12.1 ppg), Cody Ellis (10.5 ppg), Dwayne Evans (8 ppg, 7.3 rpg)
Strength: Rick Majerus is back and he has this Billiken team playing excellent defense. Saint Louis only allows 57.5 points per game. The Billikens are able to do that because they hold teams to 41.1 percent shooting from the field and 32 percent three-point shooting. They’re also fourth in the A-10 in turnovers forced at 14.9 per game. That’s been their recipe for success and will be the reason why they’ll have success.
Weakness: The Billikens like to control the tempo and that can sometimes lead to low scores. That gets them in trouble. In St. Louis’ losses, they’ve failed to score 70 points in regulation. That’s a troubling statistic. Teams know that if they can push the temp on the Billikens then they have a good chance at winning.
10. Virginia Cavaliers
Location: Charlottesville, VA
At-Large Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference
Key Players: Mike Scott (17.9 ppg, 8.3 rpg), Joe Harris (11.2 ppg), Sammy Zeglinski (8.8 ppg)
Strength: Tony Bennett is his father’s son. Just like Dick Bennett, Tony preaches defense to his teams and this Virginia team is no different. The Cavaliers hold teams to 39.6 percent shooting and 53.7 points per game. They make it difficult to run any kind of offense against them. They’re physical and will challenge everything. This is definitely a team that’s a pain to play.
Weakness: Virginia’s offense is as bad as its defense is good. The Cavaliers are in 10th in the 12-team ACC in scoring offense with only 63.1 points per game. This makes it very difficult for the Cavaliers to put teams away, which means just about anybody they play has a punchers chance to beat them. It’s not easy to play every game that way and it’ll be even tougher in the tournament.
11. Colorado State Rams
Location: Fort Collins, CO
At-Large Bid: Mountain West Conference
Key Players: Wes Eikmeier (15.6 ppg), Dorian Green (13.5 ppg), Greg Smith (9.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg), Pierce Hornung (8.7 ppg, 8.4 rpg), Will Bell (8.4 ppg)
Strength: The three-point shot is the great equalizer in college basketball and the Raams are equal to the task of making them. They lead the Mountain West in three-point shooting percentage at 40.5 percent. This means they’re always a threat because they make up points in a hurry. They can shoot themselves back into any game and surprise a team if they get hot.
Weakness: Despite their three-point prowess, the Rams are still not the most efficient offensive team. They average more turnovers than assists, which is important because they’re not a high-possession Team. They do shoot a very high percentage from the field, but it won’t matter if you don’t get a shot up.
12. Long Beach State 49ers
Location: Long Beach, CA
Automatic Bid: Big West Conference Champions
Key Players: Casper Ware (16.9 ppg), Larry Anderson (14 ppg, 5 rpg), T.J. Robinson (12.2 ppg, 10.2 rpg), James Ennis (9.8 ppg), Eugene Phelps (9.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg)
Strength: This is a high major team wearing a mid-major’s uniform. Long Beach St is as talented as many teams in the power six conferences. It has a bonified NBA player in Casper Ware and a great cast around him. They’re athletic, they can score and they will strike the fear of God into who steps on the court with them. This is the team that nobody wants to play.
Weakness: The 49ers have been able to get away with playing a seven-man rotation in conference play, but that’s not going to cut it in the NCAA tournament. This team faltered down the stretch at Creighton and part of that was due to fatigue. Not having guys you can depend on to produce when your starters need a rest is a problem and could be the reason their tournament run ends before they’d like.
13. Davidson Wildcats
Location: Davidson, NC
Automatic Bid: Southern Conference Champions
Key Players: De’Mon Brooks (16 ppg, 6.3 rpg), Jake Cohen (14 ppg, 6 rpg), JP Kuhlman (11.1 ppg), Nik Cochran (11 ppg), Chris Czerapowicz (10.2 ppg)
Strength: The Wildcats can throw out one of the best frontcourts in the nation. Jake Cohen and De’Mon Brooks dominated play in the Southern Conference this season. Throw in wing player Chris Czerapowicz and they are matchup nightmare. All three rebound the ball well, but are shooting 36.2 percent from three as a trio. That makes them hard to guard and a headache to prepare for.
Weakness: This is a five-man team. The Wildcats don’t get much offensive production from anyone outside of the players listed above. They account for 79.4 percent of Davidson’s offense, which means if one of them has an off night; the team is really in the bind. For Davidson to make some noise it’ll need someone else to give an offensive boost.
14a. BYU Cougars
Location: Provo, UT
At-Large Bid: West Coast Conference
Key Players: Noah Hartsock (16.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Brandon Davies (15 ppg, 7.3 rpg), Matt Carlino (12.7 ppg, 4.7 apg), Charles Abouo (11.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg), Brock Zylstra (8.4 ppg)
Strength: This is one of the best offensive teams in the country. The Cougars lead the WCC in scoring with over 78 points per game. They have four guys averaging in double figures giving them multiple options to go to. They have balance in the paint with Brandon Davies and Noah Hartsock in the low-post and Charles Abouo and Matt Carlino on the perimeter. That’s being able to use multiple weapons in multiple ways.
Weakness: Despite the firepower this team has it hasn’t been good from coming back from deficits against good teams. Against Saint Mary’s at home and Gonzaga in WCC tournament, BYU got in a little trouble and then fell behind by double digits in a hurry. This is not a good trait to display in the NCAA tournament because BYU will be playing a good team.
14b. Iona Gaels
Location: New Rochelle, NY
At-Large Bid: Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference
Key Players: Mike Glover (18.5 ppg, 9 rpg), Lamont Jones (16 ppg), Scott Machado (13.6 ppg, 5 rpg, 9.9 apg), Sean Armand (9.5 ppg)
Strength: This is one of the highest scoring teams in the nation. This team is deadly in transition with the best passing guard in the country Scott Machado. He has two pros with him in Mike Glover and Lamont Jones. The Gaels can outscore most teams in this tournament and that’s going to be their goal. It’s fun to watch them play but a pain to try to keep up with.
Weakness: The Gaels play offense and that’s it. Defense is just the possible 35 seconds it takes for them to get the ball back. They don’t like to defend and they don’t try to defend. They want to outscore you, but it doesn’t always work in their favor. This is a team that allowed teams like Purdue, Western Michigan and Canisius to score over 85 points. That’s just not going to cut it in the Big Dance.
15. Norfolk State Spartans
Location: Norfolk, VA
Automatic Bid: Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Champions
Key Players: Kyle O’Quinn (15.9 ppg, 10.4 rpg), Chris McEachin (12.8 ppg), Pendarvis Williams (11.8 ppg)
Strength: Norfolk St is one of the best defensive teams in the MEAC. Teams are shooting just 40.5 percent from the field and 29.9 percent from behind the three-point line against the Spartans. In addition to that, they’re forcing over 14 turnovers a game too. That’s the kind of defense that has allowed this team to run off 25 wins, which is a lot for MEAC school.
Weakness: Teams in Norfolk St’s situation need to be able to shoot the three reasonably well to stay close to higher seeded teams. Unfortunately for the Spartans, they don’t do that. They’re only shooting 31.4 percent from behind the arc, a stat that has to be troubling for Spartan fans who hope their team can spring a monumental upset. Teams will load up in the paint against the Spartans and if they can’t shoot from outside, they’ll be out early.
16. Long Island University Blackbirds
Location: Brookville NY
Automatic Bid: Northeast Conference Champions
Key Players: Julian Boyd (17.4 ppg, 9.5 rpg), Jamal Olasewere (16.8 ppg, 7.5 rpg), C.J. Garner (12.5 ppg), Jason Brickman (9.7 ppg, 7.3 apg), Michael Culpo (9.6 ppg)
Strength: Julian Boyd and Jamal Olasewere form on of the best 1-2 frontcourt punches on the mid-major level. Together, the two of them are scoring over 34 points and grabbing 17 boards per game. That’s a potent combination to have. They’ve led the Blackbirds to a dominant regular season in the NEC and a gaudy 25 wins. These two are players that can give teams a lot of trouble in the tournament.
Weakness: Long Island has guys that can score so it likes to run and gun, but defense is not a priority. The Blackbirds’ opponents averaging over 77 points per game this season, which is good enough for last place in one of the bottom 10 conferences in Division I basketball. Given the team they’ll be facing in the tournament, that number just won’t be good enough.