1. Virginia Cavaliers
Location: Charlottesville, VA
Automatic Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference Champions
Key Players: Malcolm Brogdon (12.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg), Joe Harris (11.7 ppg), Justin Anderson (8.1 ppg), Anthony Gill (8.4 ppg), Akil Mitchell (7.1 rpg)
Strength: Defense is the name of the game for the Cavaliers. Virginia holds opponents to 55.3 points per game on 38.5 percent shooting from the field on the season. The Wahoos have good athletes at every position and they are great in their halfcourt man-to-man defense. Couple that with their deliberate pace on offense and it’s next to impossible to comeback against them.
Weakness: The Cavaliers aren’t dynamic at all on offense. Virginia plays at slow pace, in fact they are 14th in the ACC in possessions per 40 minutes. So while it’s hard to come back against the Cavaliers, it’s equally hard for them to comeback against other teams. There have been moments this season where they’ve struggled offensively and it could be ugly if they struggle in the Big Dance.
2. Villanova Wildcats
Location: Villanova, PA
At-Large Bid: Big East Conference
Key Players: James Bell (14.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Darrun Hilliard (14.3 ppg), JayVaughn Pinkston (14.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Ryan Arcidiacono (9.9 ppg), Daniel Ochefu (6 rpg)
Strength: The Wildcats are one of the most aggressive teams in the country. On defense, they’ll extend full court and pester ball-handlers. On offense they’ll constantly attack off the dribble. They have a lot of guys who are close to the same size so they create mismatches all over the court on both ends. Villanova moves at 100 mph for 40 minutes and it’s up to its opponents to keep up.
Weakness: If Villanova comes across a great post player, it could be hurt in the paint. Outside of Daniel Ochefu, the Wildcats don’t really have someone who can guard the interior. It’s the way head coach Jay Wright designs his teams so that he can play a certain way, but it is a weakness that can be exploited by the right player and the right team.
3. Iowa State Cyclones
Location: Ames, IA
Automatic Bid: Big 12 Conference
Key Players: Melvin Ejim (18.1 ppg, 8.5 rpg), DeAndre Kane (17 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 5.8 apg), Georges Niang (16.5 ppg), Dustin Hogue (10.7 ppg, 8.6 rpg)
Strength: This is one of the more unselfish teams in the country considering the offensive talent it has. The Cyclones lead the nation in assists and assists per game with 612 and 18.5 respectively. That’s important because with the weapons they have it’s hard for opponents to know where the focus should be. Iowa St is certainly a Final Four contender and its versatility on offense is the reason why.
Weakness: Here we have another Big XII team that struggles from the free-throw line. Iowa St is too good offensively to be so bad from the line, but it is. The Cyclones shoot a little over 69 percent from the line – good enough for 7th in the conference. As the tournament progresses, the games will get tougher and that heightens the need to make free throws. The Cyclones better be up for the challenge.
4. Michigan State Spartans
Location: East Lansing, MI
Automatic Bid: Big Ten Conference
Key Players: Gary Harris (17.1 ppg), Adreian Payne (15.8 ppg, 7.4 rpg), Keith Appling (12.3 ppg, 4.6 apg), Branden Dawson (10.4, 8.3 rpg), Denzel Valentine (8.3 ppg, 6 rpg)
Strength: Many times in the past when you’d watch a Michigan St game it would seem like you’re watching a rock fight when the Spartans were on offense. That certainly is not the case this year as the Spartans are the second highest scoring team in the Big Ten at over 76 points per game. Michigan St has NBA talent on offense in Gary Harris and athletes in the post who are athletic and can step out and hit jumpers. The Spartans are a matchup nightmare on offense and if they play to their potential they can get to the Final Four.
Weakness: Injuries have derailed what looked like a possible classic season in East Lansing. So many of Michigan St’s key guys have missed time this year that it’s been hard for the Spartans to build chemistry. They need time to actually practice together to re-build that chemistry. It may be too late in the season for it to happen now.
5. Cincinnati Bearcats
Location: Cincinnati, OH
At-Large Bid: American Athletic Conference
Key Players: Sean Kilpatrick (20.7 ppg), Justin Jackson (11.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg), Titus Rubles (6.7 rpg)
Strength: The Bearcats go as their all-American candidate Sean Kilpatrick will take them. Indeed Cincinnati is a great defensive team, but they don’t win without Kilpatrick playing well. He’s been doing that for the entire season and could easily take them to the second weekend. The rest of the team feeds off him on offense and defense and when he’s going, the Bearcats can beat anybody.
Weakness: You won’t find a team at Cincinnati’s level that struggles to score the way it does. The Bearcats play low possession games, but they don’t shoot the ball well enough for it not to always be in dog fights. There are only so many times Kilpatrick is going to bail them out when the team is shooting 43 percent on the year. That kind of offense could get the Bearcats upset.
6. North Carolina Tar Heels
Location: Chapel Hill, NC
At-Large Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference
Key Players: Marcus Paige (17.4 ppg, 4.3 apg), James M. McAdoo (14.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg), Brice Johnson (10.4 ppg), Leslie McDonald (10.3 ppg), J.P. Tokoto (9.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg), Kennedy Meeks (5.9 rpg)
Strength: While guard Marcus Paige has been getting the headlines for the Tarheels this season, it’s their frontcourt w’hich has been the key for North Carolina all season. They’ve been scoring at a high level and, led by James M. McAdoo, they’ve out-rebounded opponents by over five boards a game. They have great size, are athletic and can be a nightmare to block out and defend in the Big Dance.
Weakness: At 62.5 percent, the Tar Heels are the worst free-throw shooting team in the ACC. That’s a stat that will make coaches foul late in the game just to get extra possessions. Outside of Marcus Paige, there are no key contributors who shoot over 63 percent for North Carolina. The Tar Heels are going to have to make sure Paige handles the ball in late game situations to make sure they get the right player on the line.
7. Connecticut Huskies
Location: Storrs, CT
At-Large Bid: American Athletic Conference
Key Players: Shabazz Napier (17.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 4.9 apg), DeAndre Daniels (12.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg), Ryan Boatright (11.8 ppg), Niels Giffey (8.4 ppg)
Strength: UConn enters the Big Dance with one of the best backcourts in the country. Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright are two diminutive guards, but boy do they put pressure on defenses. They can shoot it, they’re athletic and have shown the ability to score on anybody in the country. If they get hot, the rest of the Huskies can get going and if that happens; UConn get go a long way.
Weakness: UConn can really be punished on the interior. The Huskies don’t have much of a post presence, especially defensively and on the boards. A team with a solid back-to-basket center or one that’s physical in the paint could really punish the Huskies. UConn is barely out-rebounding its opponents. The Huskies weakness is in the paint and it remains to be seen if they have the bodies to change that.
8. Memphis Tigers
Location: Memphis, TN
At-Large Bid: American Athletic Conference
Key Players: Joe Jackson (14.3 ppg, 4.5 apg), Michael Dixon Jr. (11.8 ppg), Shaq Goodwin (11.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg), Austin Nichols (9.1 ppg), Geron Johnson (8.9 ppg), Chris Crawford (8.9 ppg)
Strength: Memphis may just be one of the more talented teams in the country. If you line the Tigers up, man-to-man, with any team in the country; they would be able to compete with anyone. That’s why it shouldn’t be a shock if Memphis makes a nice run. The Tigers have experience, good shooters, good frontcourt players and a point guard in Joe Jackson who ranks among the best in the country. This Tiger team could be primed for a run.
Weakness: Depth could be an issue for the Tigers. Memphis has a solid top six, but past that, there isn’t much in the way of production. The Tigers only have 7 players that have played in every game this season. That could be an issue if they get in foul trouble and have to rely on someone who hasn’t had a large role. If that happens, Memphis will need that player to step up.
9. George Washington Colonials
Location: Washington, DC
At-Large Bid: Atlantic 10 Conference
Key Players: Maurice Creek (14.3 ppg), Kethan Savage (12.7 ppg), Patricio Garino (12.2 ppg), Isaiah Armwood (12.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg), Kevin Larsen (11.3 ppg, 7 rpg), Joe McDonald (8.3 ppg, 4.1 apg)
Strength: The Colonials resurgence has been impressive this season and that’s because the Colonials really share the ball on offense. George Washington is fifth in the A-10 in assists, but it seems like it should be more because the Colonials have five guys averaging double figures and another who averages at least eight points per game. They’re unselfish and it’s led to everyone providing valuable contributions for the Colonials this season.
Weakness: There are 13 teams in the A-10, but the Colonials are 12th in free throw shooting. It doesn’t matter how well a team is playing, missing free throws can slowly eat away at a chance to win a game. At 65.7 percent, that is a real possibility for George Washington if it doesn’t knock down shots in the Big Dance.
10. Saint Joseph’s Hawks
Location: Philadelphia, PA
Automatic Bid: Atlantic 10 Conference Champions
Key Players: Langston Galloway (17.5 ppg), Ronald Roberts (14.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg), DeAndre Bembry (12 ppg), Halil Kanacevic (10.7 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 4.4 apg), Chris Wilson (9 ppg)
Strength: Saint Joseph’s will enter the NCAA tournament as one of the best shooting teams in the A-10. The Hawks are first in field-goal percentage and three-point field-goal percentage. Much of this is due to the fact that both Ronald Roberts and Halil Kanacevic shoot over 53 percent from the field and Langston Galloway and Papa Ndao both shoot over 43 percent from behind the arc. If they can light up in the tournament they may be able to repeat would fellow Big 5 member LaSalle did last season and go to the Sweet 16.
Weakness: The Hawks struggle to turn people over. Like conference-mate UMass, the Hawks turn ball over more than their opponents by over two per game. In order to survive like that, the Hawks need to hold opponents to shooting percentages in the 30’s and they just don’t do that. They have to be better defensively if they want to make some noise.
11. Providence Friars
Location: Providence, RI
Automatic Bid: Big East Conference Champions
Key Players: Bryce Cotton (21.4 ppg, 5.8 apg), LaDontae Henton (13.9 ppg, 7.8 rpg), Kadeem Batts (12.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg), Tyler Harris (11.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Josh Fortune (8.6 ppg)
Strength: Led by high-scoring guard Bryce Cotton, the Friars are one of the best teams in the country at getting to the free-throw line. The Friars are first in the conference in free-throw makes and percentage. It’s a part of their offense and they’ve used it effectively all year long. They put pressure on defenses and it leads to points. It could be a very good tool in the big dance.
Weakness: Providence has no bench whatsoever. This is a team that plays all five of its starters over 30 minutes. Cotton is averaging close to the full 40 minutes per game. That’s amazing that neither he nor any of his teammates hit a wall this season. Providence is going to be a real issue in the Big Dance where teams are going to try to make the Friars use their bench.
12. Harvard Crimson
Location: Cambridge, MA
Automatic Bid: Ivy League Champion
Key Players: Wesley Saunders (14 ppg), Siyani Chambers (11.1 ppg, 4.7 apg), Steve Moundou-Missi (10.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg), Kyle Casey (10 ppg, 5.7 rpg), Laurent Rivard (10 ppg), Brandyn Curry (9.3 ppg)
Strength: There’s something to be said about experience. This is Harvard’s third consecutive trip to the Big Dance and is a buzzer beater from it being four straight. The Crimson won a game last year and come in with the talent and experience to get to the second weekend. With five of its top six players being upperclassmen, that achievement should surprise no one.
Weakness: Harvard is a team that’s spectacularly short on quality depth. The Crimson has eight guys averaging double-digit minutes, but the production and log between sixth man and the seventh is way off. Opponents will throw a lot of bodies at the Crimson to try to tire it. Harvard better be prepared for it.
13. Delaware Blue Hens
Location: Newark, DE
Automatic Bid: Colonial Athletic Association Champions
Key Players: Devon Saddler (19.7 ppg), Davon Usher (19.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Jarvis Threatt (18.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 5.6 apg), Carl Baptiste (11.3 ppg, 8 rpg), Kyle Anderson (11 ppg)
Strength: Delaware enters to the Big Dance with the best backcourt you’ve never heard of. Devon Saddler, Davon Usher, Jarvis Threatt and Kyle Anderson can all score effectively. Threatt runs the show, but he’s adept at finding his teammates they’re adept at getting him assists. This team has upset potential in it and it’s because it has what teams need to be successful in March: great guard play.
Weakness: While having great guards helps the Blue Hens on the offensive end, it has had a negative effect when it comes to rebounding. Delaware is being out-rebounded by 2.4 boards per game. The Blue Hens were able to overcome that by overwhelming CAA foes with firepower, but there will be no Hofstra’s in the Big Dance. They need to figure out a way to compete in the boards.
14. North Carolina Central Eagles
Location: Durham, NC
Automatic Bid: Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Champions
Key Players: Jeremy Ingram (20.6 ppg), Jordan Parks (10.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg), Alfonzo Houston (9.6 ppg), Jay Copeland (8.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Emanuel Chapman (6.5 apg)
Strength: The Eagles take it personally when teams score against them. North Carolina Central is by far the best defensive team in the MEAC. The Eagles hold their opponents to just 58.5 points per game on 37.6 percent shooting. In addition, their opponents are only shooting 29.7 percent from behind the arc and are turning the ball over 14.7 times per game. The Eagles have the chops to pull an upset and their defense is the reason why.
Weakness: The great equalizer is the three-point shot when there is a talent discrepany, but the Eagles won’t have that equalizer at their disposal. North Carolina Central only shoots 32.5 percent from behind the three-point line and that’s not going to get it done if the Eagles expect to win. They’re going to need to make that shot if they want to stay close.
15. Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers
Location: Milwaukee, WI
Automatic Bid: Horizon League Champions
Key Players: Jordan Aaron (15 ppg), Kyle Kelm (12.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Matt Tiby (12.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg), Austin Arians (10.9 ppg), Steve McWhorter (8 ppg)
Strength: There aren’t many teams that have the knack of getting to the free-throw line like Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The Panthers are No. 1 in the Horizon League in free-throw attempts and makes. The bulk of that comes from frontcourt players Kyle Kelm and Matt Tiby as together they’ve shot 409 free throws over the course of the season. Getting to the line is a significant part of the Panthers’ offense and it makes them hard to deal with.
Weakness: The Panthers will be in trouble in the tournament because of their lack of depth. Four members of the squad are averaging over 30 minutes per game. That’s not giving head coach Rob Jeter many options to go to. Any team that goes deep into its bench will find success employing that strategy against Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
16. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
Location: Conway, SC
Automatic Bid: Big South Conference Champions
Key Players: Elijah Wilson, Warren Gillis, Josh Cameron, Badou Diagne, Michel Enanga, El Hadji Ndiequene
Strength: The Chanticleers earned their way into the tournament by being the best defensive team in the Big South. Coastal Carolina leads the Big South in field-goal percentage defense, three-point field-goal percentage defense and scoring defense. To add to their foes trouble is the fact that Coastal also grabbed 70 percent of its opponent’s misses. If the Chanticleers want to put a scare into someone, this is the way they’ll try to play.
Weakness: Coastal has to be a great defensive team because it struggles to score at times. While the Chanticleers do score over 72 points per game, they’re only shooting 43.8 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from three. Add in that 203rd nationally and 10th in the Big South in offensive efficiency and it’s easy to see why their prospects of winning a game are slim-to-none.