1. Wichita State Shockers
Location: Wichita, KS
Automatic Bid: Missouri Valley Conference Champions
Key Players: Cleanthony Early (15.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Ron Baker (13.1 ppg), Fred VanVleet (12.1 ppg, 5.3 apg), Tekele Cotton (10.8 ppg), Darius Carter (8.1 ppg), Chadrack Lufile (5.1 rpg)
Strength: Wichita St has outmuscled opponents all year. The physical Shockers play with a chip the size of the city of Wichita and it’s led to them stifling opponents with great defense and rebounding. They’ve held opponents to 39.2 percent shooting on the year while out-rebounding their opponents by nearly eight boards per game. It’s allowed them to get out in transition and fueled their offense. Toughness is one thing that always travels and it’ll serve Wichita St well in the Big Dance.
Weakness: The only thing bigger than the chip on Wichita St’s shoulder could be pressure of being an undefeated No. 1 seed. The Shockers have managed to blow through MVC play unscathed. However, the NCAA tournament is something altogether different. It’ll be interesting to see if they can handle that and playing better competition every night.
2. Michigan Wolverines
Location: Ann Arbor, MI
At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference
Key Players: Nik Stauskas (17.5 ppg), Caris LeVert (13.3 ppg), Glenn Robinson III (13 ppg), Derrick Walton Jr. (8.1 ppg)
Strength: Michigan’s strength comes from the design of its offense and the players implementing it. Michigan’s offense is based on motion, cutting and passing to spread the floor for driving lanes and find wide open shooters from behind the arc. It’s similar to the Princeton in that it’s more read/react than anything set in stone. It’s hard to defend, prepare for and with the talent Michigan has it can lead the Wolverines to a return trip to the Final Four.
Weakness: There are questions about Michigan’s toughness without Mitch McGary and last year’s national player of the year, Trey Burke. The Wolverines are last in the Big Ten in field goal percentage defense, are near the bottom in forced turnovers and they’re an average rebounding team. These are major questions the Wolverines are going to have to answer if they expect make another deep run.
3. Duke Blue Devils
Location: Durham, NC
At-Large Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference
Key Players: Jabari Parker (19.2 ppg, 8.8 rpg), Rodney Hood (16.5 ppg), Quinn Cook (11.5 ppg, 4.3 apg), Rasheed Sulaimon (9.8 ppg), Andre Dawkins (8.2 ppg), Amile Jefferson (6.8 rpg)
Strength: As usual, this Duke team is a great offensive team. Led by freshman sensation Jabari Parker, the Blue Devils lead the ACC in scoring and three-point shooting percentage. That has helped the Blue Devils to be ranked as the second most efficient offense in the country and the tops in the ACC. They can shoot it, have guys who can get to the hoop and pass it well. This is another Duke team that has the chops to win the national championship.
Weakness: Once again, this is another Duke team with no post presence. The Blue Devils don’t have a center playing legitimate minutes for them. That could be a problem against some of the more rugged teams in the tournament. Duke has enough talent to win the whole thing, but the Devils’ deficiency guarding the paint area could lead to heir demise.
4. Louisville Cardinals
Location: Louisville, KY
Automatic Bid: American Athletic Conference
Key Players: Russ Smith (18.3 ppg, 4.7 apg), Montrezl Harrell (14.2 ppg, 8.2 rpg), Luke Hancock (11.7 ppg), Chris Jones (10.3 ppg), Wayne Blackshear (8.5 ppg)
Strength: There is no secret what Rick Pitino’s teams are going to do. They’re going to press and shoot three pointers. That’s no different with this year’s edition let by the quick and tenacious Russ Smith. Together with his backcourt mate, Chris Jones, Smith has Louisville leading the American in steals per game and forced turnovers. Their style is hard to prepare for and until you face it live, you have no clue how effective it is.
Weakness: Louisville is so close to being as close to dominant as a team can be, but it’s leaving points at the charity stripe. Louisville is near the bottom of the American in free-throw percentage – shooting just 65.4 percent from the line. That’s a number that keeps opponents in games and prevents victory. Louisville has to sure that up if it has designs on repeating as national champion.
5. Saint Louis Billikens
Location: St. Louis, MO
At-Large Bid: Atlantic-10 Conference
Key Players: Dwayne Evans (14 ppg, 6.4 rpg), Jordair Jett (13.7 ppg, 4.8 apg), Mike McCall Jr. (9.9 ppg), Rob Loe (9.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg)
Strength: There’s no secret to Saint Louis’ success. The Billikens defend like no one else in the A-10 has. They’re holding opponents to less than 61 points per game on 39.6 percent shooting from the field and 27.5 percent shooting from three-point land. In addition to that, they’re also forcing over 14 turnovers per game. That kind of defense travels well and will be what carries Saint Louis if it makes a run.
Weakness: As good as Saint Louis is on defense, they’re as bad on offense. The Billikens only shoot 31.8 percent from behind the arc and 44.3 percent overall. Jordair Jett, the most important Billiken on both ends of the floor, only shoots 20.6 percent from three-point range. Fortunately, the Billikens are great defensively, but to make a deep run, they’ll need to score better.
6. Massachusetts Minutemen
Location: Amherst, MA
At-Large Bid: Atlantic 10 Conference
Key Players: Chaz Williams (15.8 ppg, 7.1 apg), Cady Lalanne (11.9 ppg, 8.1 rpg), Sampson Carter (10.7 ppg), Raphael Putney (9.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Derrick Gordon (9.4 ppg), Trey Davis (9.3 ppg), Maxie Esho (8.1 ppg)
Strength: Teams that face UMass better bring their track shoes to the court because the Minutemen love to get up and down the court. They rank in the top-25 nationally in possessions and love to coerce teams into playing at their pace. They average 76.4 points per game and have guys at every position that can fill it up. Any coach that has to plan for the Minutemen will have his hands full.
Weakness: UMass is one of the rare teams in this tournament in that it turns the ball over more than its opponents. The Minutemen turn the ball over 13.5 times per game and that keeps teams in games. While, much of that is a function of being a high possession team, they don’t’ score the ball well enough to overcome that against really good teams. It will be too difficult for them to win if they turn the ball over like this.
7. Texas Longhorns
Location: Austin, TX
At-Large Bid: Big 12 Conference
Key Players: Isaiah Taylor (12.5 ppg), Cameron Ridley (11.2 ppg, 8.1 rpg), Jonathan Holmes (13 ppg, 7.2 rpg), Javan Felix (11.8 ppg), Connor Lammert (5.2 rpg)
Strength: The Longhorns are won of the most physical teams in the country and it shows in their defense and rebounding. Texas is the best in the Big XII in field-goal percentage defense and rebound margin. Cameron Ridley with his 6’9” 285 pound frame sets the tone and the rest of the Longhorns. In grind-it-out games, they’ll be tough to handle. Good luck trying to out-tough Texas.
Weakness: It’s a good thing that Texas grinds wins out, because it’s been a struggle all season offensively. The Longhorns are near the bottom of the Big XII in efficiency, filed goal percentage, three-point field goal percentage and free-throw percentage. They cannot afford to be so easy to guard in the tournament, as teams will focus on taking away their ability to rebound. If Texas doesn’t scorer easier then it won’t stay around for long.
8. Kentucky Wildcats
Location: Lexington, KY
At-Large Bid: Southeastern Conference
Key Players: Julius Randle (15 ppg, 10.5 rpg), James Young (14.5 ppg), Aaron Harrison (13.8), Andrew Harrison (10.8 ppg), Willie Cauley-Stein (6.3 rpg)
Strength: Led by Julius Randle, this is one of the most talented teams in the country. The Wildcats have guys who can shoot, defend, rebound and are pure shooters. It’s the reason why many were comparing this recruiting class to classes coach John Calipari had earlier in his tenure in Lexington. They can certainly get hot and go on a run. That talent gives Wildcat opponent nightmares.
Weakness: One of the more puzzling things to watch this season has been the inconsistent play of this Kentucky team. Chemistry and youth has led to a team that looks completely lost on the court sometimes. The frustration is apparent with Calipari and the Kentucky fan base. If the Wildcats can put it together, they can be very dangerous, but history isn’t saying they will.
9. Kansas State Wildcats
Location: Manhattan, KS
At-Large Bid: Big 12 Conference
Key Players: Marcus Foster (15.6 ppg), Thomas Gipson (11.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg), Shane Southwell (9.8)
Strength: Bruce Weber coached in the Big Ten where defense was necessary for success and he’s brought that mentality to Kansas St. The Wildcats are one of the best defensive teams in the Big XII. Teams are barely shooting 40 percent overall and less than 29 percent from three-point range. They’re even first in the conference in scoring defense as well. Kansas St has played some heavyweights this season and used its defense to knock them out.
Weakness: Good thing that so many of the Big XII teams shot free throws so poorly so every team feels like it’s in every game. The Wildcats struggle mightily from the charity stripe as they’ve only shot 65.8 percent – that’s good enough for last in the conference. Kansas St doesn’t have a huge margin of error so not cashing in from the line will send the Wildcats home in a hurry.
10. Arizona State Sun Devils
Location: Tempe, AZ
At-Large Bid: Pac-12 Conference
Key Players: Jahii Carson (18.6 ppg, 4.5 apg), Jermaine Marshall (15 ppg), Jordan Bachynski (11.1 ppg, 8.3 rpg), Shaquielle McKissic (9 ppg)
Strength: Guard play is key for the Sun Devils as they have one of the best back courts in the Pac-12. Buried in obscurity on the west coast, Arizona St’s talented backcourt is led by Jahii Carson – a player who could very well hear his name called in this year’s NBA draft. They are hard to guard and are dangerous from behind the arc. A set of guards like this could carry the Sun Devils a long way.
Weakness: This is one of the worst rebounding teams in the Pac-12. The Sun Devils are getting outrebounded by two boards per game this season. They’re the worst team in the conference in Offensive rebound percentage and ninth in defensive rebound percentage. This will be a problem against physical teams in the tournament when possessions get bogged down.
11a. Tennessee Volunteers
Location: Knoxville, TN
At-Large Bid: Southeastern Conference
Key Players: Jordan McRae (18.6 ppg), Jarnell Stokes (14.7 ppg, 10.3 rpg), Jeronne Maymon (10.1 ppg, 8.2 rpg), Josh Richardson (9.2 ppg)
Strength: The Volunteers would fit along fine in the Big Ten because of their rough and tumble style of play. Tennessee really likes to slow the game down and make the most out of its possessions. Then it plays solid defense and rebounds at a rate better than any other team in the SEC. It’s frustrating for opponents who want to play at a higher pace, but it’s worked out well for the Volunteers.
Weakness: Tennessee has been much better this season scoring the ball at over 72 points per game, but it can still struggle and the slow pace doesn’t help. In only two of the Volunteers 11 losses have they scored 70 points. In a loss to Florida, they only scored 41. They cannot fall back into their previous offensive struggles if they expect to make any noise in the tournament.
11b. Iowa Hawkeyes
Location: Iowa City, IA
At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference
Key Players: Roy Devyn Marble (17.3 ppg), Aaron White (13 ppg, 6.7 rpg), Mike Gesell (8.1 ppg), Melsahn Basabe (5.7 rpg), Gabriel Olaseni (5.1 rpg)
Strength: In a conference known for defense and rebounding, the Hawkeyes showed the ability to score on anybody. Iowa led the Big Ten in scoring at 82 points per game while they finished second in the league in efficiency. They have a balanced scoring attack and they run, run again and then run some more. It is exciting basketball to watch and there plenty of teams that simply can keep up.
Weakness: Iowa has struggled to defend in its late-season skid. In fact, it doesn’t appear that the Hawkeyes are interested in defending anymore. Both Indiana and Minnesota scored over 90 on the Hawkeyes, while Northwestern, a team that averaged 59.5 points per game, scored 67 on them. Iowa almost let its defense keep them out of the tournament and it could let its defense knock it out of the tournament.
12a. Xavier Musketeers
Location: Cincinnati, OH
At-Large Bid: Big East Conference
Key Players: Semaj Christon (17.1 ppg, 4.2 apg), Justin, Martin (11.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Matt Stainbrook (10.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg), Isaiah Philmore (9.2 ppg, 5 rpg)
Strength: There aren’t many teams that are as balanced as Xavier. While sophomore guard Semaj Christon may get all the headlines, the Musketeers get solid production from its frontcourt as well. When they’re playing well, all of Xavier parts work like a well-oiled machine as seen by how well Xavier shoots the ball. It is fun to watch, but it’s hard for teams to guard.
Weakness: One of the problems with Xavier’s balance is if you remove one piece, the others won’t work as well. When Xavier lost Matt Stainbrook for a few games, they became as ordinary as ordinary could get. They needed him to play and play well to win. The same holds true for about four other guys. The Musketeers need to learn how to adjust on the fly or they’ll be in trouble in the Big Dance.
12b. North Carolina State Wolfpack
Location: Raleigh, NC
At-Large Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference
Key Players: T.J. Warren (24.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg), Ralston Turner (10.2 ppg), Anthony Barber (8.7 ppg), Desmond Lee (8.4 ppg), Lennard Freeman (5.6 rpg)
Strength: It’s clear that the Wolfpack’s success rest solely on the shoulders of T.J. Warren. Warren is perhaps the best offensive player in the nation and has shown the ability to score 40 on top competition. He leads a team that has learned to win by leaning on him and he’s delivered. He’s the kind of player that can get hot and lead a team on a run. Anyone playing the Wolfpack has to be prepared for that.
Weakness: The Wolfpack are one of the poorer rebounding teams in the ACC. NC State is 13th in the conference in rebounding margin – getting out-rebounded by nearly one board per game. Gone are the days of C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell, who seemed to gobble up every rebound. NC State needs its young post players to step to the challenge.
13. Manhattan Jaspers
Location: New York, NY
Automatic Bid: Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Champions
Key Players: George Beamon (19.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg), Michael Alvarado (12 ppg), Rhamel Brown (10.1 ppg, 6 rpg), Shane Richards (8.5 ppg), Emmy Andujar (8.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg)
Strength: Manhattan coach Steve Masiello is a disciple of Rick Pitino and employs a similar style. The Jaspers like to speed the game up and turn teams over. It’s worked for a team that’s first in the MAAC in steals and second in possessions. It’s tough to prepare for and even tougher to play against. The fast-paced Jaspers are going to run, it’ll be up to their opponents to try to stop them.
Weakness: Manhattan can turn teams over, but they’ll give it up as well. Many teams in the MAAC play fast so it hasn’t been hurt the Jaspers too much. However, the level of competition the Jaspers will see isn’t going to be as courteous as to not make them pay for the 14.2 they average a game. I know Manhattan wants to play fast and attack, but it better not give extra opportunities for counterattacks.
14. Mercer Bears
Location: Macon, GA
Automatic Bid: Atlantic Sun Conference Champions
Key Players: Langston Hall (14.7 ppg, 5.6 apg), Daniel Coursey (9.9 ppg, 6.6 rpg), Bud Thomas (9.1 ppg), Anthony White Jr. (8.3 ppg), Ike Nwamu (8.1 ppg)
Strength: Offensively, the Bears are a mid-major juggernaut. Mercer is 12th in the nation in offensive efficiency, ninth in points per possession and 26th in points per game. The Bears do it by sharing the ball as they average over 16 assists per game. It’s evident in that Mercer averages over 79 points per game, but only one Bear averages double figures on the season. It’s a balanced well-oiled machine.
Weakness: Anyone who watched the Atlantic Sun title game can see Mercer is going to have difficulty defending athletic teams. That struggle to defend at times has been what’s hurt the Bears in their losses this season. In every one of them, they have given up at least 75 points. In fact they’re only 3-8 when they give up 75 points and one of those three wins came in double overtime. It’ll be interesting to see if Mercer can defend at this level.
15. Wofford Terriers
Location: Spartanburg, SC
Automatic Bid: Southern Conference Champions
Key Players: Karl Cochran (15.7 ppg, 5 rpg), Spencer Collins (12.8 ppg), Lee Skinner (11.2 ppg, 8.6 rpg)
Strength: Wofford is a deliberate team whose style can frustrate an opponent. The Terriers like to take their time to get the best shot possilble and it’s worked well for them. They make the most out of their possessions by shooting well from behind the arc and not turning the ball over. Playing their style is the only chance the Terriers have at staying close.
Weakness: Teams that play at a slow pace need to take full advantage of every opportunity they have to score. However, that hasn’t been the case with Wofford and its free-throw shooting. Wofford is shooting just a little over 66 percent from the free-throw line. That’s nowhere near good enough to win in the Big Dance with the talent the Terriers have to work with.
16a. Texas Southern Tigers
Location: Houston, TX
Automatic Bid: Southwestern Athletic Conference Champions
Key Players: Aaric Murray (21 ppg, 7.6 rpg), Jose Rodriguez (11.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg), Madarious Gibbs (9.1 ppg, 5.2 apg), Ray Penn Jr. (8.6 ppg)
Strength: Texas Southern has the SWAC player of the year and a future pro in Aaric Murray. Disclipinary issues has led Murray to Texas Southern after stops at La Salle and West Virginia, but it seems that he’s found his home with the Tigers. Along with head coach Mike Davis, who is also on his third stop, Murray seems to be a sort of reclamation project. It’s worked all the way to the Big Dance.
Weakness: Defensively, the Tigers leave much to be desired. Texas Southern allows 73.7 points per game on nearly 45 percent shooting from the field and nearly 36 percent from the three-point line. That kind of defense, against the competition the Tigers will face in the tournament will get them blown out.
16b. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Mustangs
Location: San Luis Obispo, CA
Automatic Bid: Big West Conference Champions:
Key Players: Chris Eversley (13.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg), Dave Nwaba (11.7 ppg), Kyle Odister (9.5 ppg)
Strength: For a team that finished six games under .500, the Mustangs took exceptional care of the basketball. Cal Poly average the fewest amount of turnovers per game in the Big West; turning the ball over 9 times per contest. The Mustangs, who are bound for Dayton, will have to continue that trend if it expects to advance.
Weakness: There isn’t just one weakness with the Mustangs, there are many. They don’t shoot the ball well which leads to not being able to score. They get out-rebounded. Their opponents shoot better from the field, three-point line and free-throw line. They had a great run in the Big West tournament, but that probably won’t continue in the Big Dance.