1. Florida Gators
Location: Gainesville, FL
Automatic Bid: Southeastern Conference
Key Players: Casey Prather (14.2 ppg, 5 rpg), Michael Frazier (12.9 ppg), Scottie Wilbekin (13 ppg), Patric Young (11.1 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Dorian Finney-Smith (8.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg)
Strength: There aren’t many teams that get after it defensively the way the Gators do. Be it in fullcourt or halfcourt, Florida has the chops to guard. The Gators force 14 turnovers, hold teams to just 40 percent shooting while allowing just 58.5 points per game. To make matters worse for opponents, they’re grabbing over 70 percent of rebounds on the defensive end. This is a national title contender and defense is the primary reason why.
Weakness: To win a national championship all I’s have to be dotted and all T’s have to be crossed. That’s why Florida will have to solve its free-throw shooting woes. The Gators are shooting just 67 percent from the charity stripe. That’s an unheard of number for a team as talented as the Gators. That has to be cleaned up if they have any desire to cut down the nets.
2. Kansas Jayhawks
Location: Lawrence, KS
At-Large Bid: Big 12 Conference
Key Players: Andrew Wiggins (17.4 ppg, 6 rpg), Perry Ellis (13.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg), Wayne Selden Jr. (10.2 ppg), Naadir Tharpe (8.7 ppg, 5.2 apg)
Strength: Kansas has one of the best frontcourts in the nation. Ballyhooed freshman Andrew Wiggins leads the bunch, but he’s not the only Jayhawk forward that can beat you. Perry Ellis is there as a secondary scorer and rebounder. On top of that, they have Tarik Black and Jamari Traylor who can give them quality minutes consistently. This is a team that’ll rely on its frontcourt to be successful and if they can’t be guarded, they can go a long way.
Weakness: As strong as Kansas’ frontcourt is, its missing the one player that turns it into a truly dominant entity. Joel Embiid is out with a stress fracture in his back for at least the first weekend of the tournament and that’s a big deal. He’s so much of a game changer that the Jayhawks could easily be going home after the third round. They’re very mortal without him.
3. Syracuse Orange
Location: Syracuse, NY
At-Large Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference
Key Players: C.J. Fair (16.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Tyler Ennis (12.7 ppg, 5.6 apg), Trevor Cooney (12.2 ppg), Jerami Grant (12.2 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Rakeem Christmas (5 rpg)
Strength: Everyone talks about it and they do with good reason. Syracuse’s 2-3 zone is the best in the country because of the type of players Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim recruits. They’re long at every position with great athleticism. The zone not only prevents scores in the paint, but also is adept at causing turnovers. It’s scary good and unless a team goes crazy from behind the arc, it’s effective against everyone.
Weakness: For a team that was undefeated for a large portion of the year, it’s surprising on the surface that the Orange doesn’t score over 69 points per game. However, the truth of the matter is that Syracuse isn’t good when it’s not playing in transition and it hasn’t been for a number of years now. The Orange has become easy to defend and if Syracuse can’t make shots it will have a short stay in the Big Dance.
4. UCLA Bruins
Location: Westwood, CA
Automatic Bid: Pac-12 Conference Champions
Key Players: Jordan Adams (17.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg), Kyle Anderson (14.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 6.6 apg), Norman Powell (11.3 ppg), Zach LaVine (10 ppg), Bryce Alford (8.1 ppg)
Strength: Talented offensive players have led to the Bruins having a talented offense. UCLA is first in the Pac-12 in offensive efficiency and second in scoring. They have a do-everything forward in Kyle Anderson. He’s averaging nearly 7 assists per game. Throw in dynamic scorer Jordan Adams and you have a great 1-2 punch. However, it doesn’t just stop with those two because eight Bruins are averaging at least 6 points per game making them dangerous.
Weakness: Under Ben Howland, UCLA was one of the best defensive teams in the country. Now teams are scoring over 71 points per game and the Bruins are allowing teams to shoot near 43 percent from the field and almost 35 percent from three. If the Bruins are an average defensive team, playing a good offensive team will be nothing but trouble for them.
5. Virginia Commonwealth Rams
Location: Richmond, VA
At-Large Bid: Atlantic 10 Conference
Key Players: Treveon Graham (15.5 ppg, 7 rpg), Juvonte Reddic (12.2 ppg, 8.4 rpg), Melvin Johnson (10.6 ppg), Rob Brandenberg (9.5 ppg), Briante Weber (9.4 ppg, 3.5 spg)
Strength: They’re a lot of teams that will employ a full-court press defense, but there’s only one havoc. That’s the term VCU uses to describe that way in presses, traps and attacks on defense. That leads to layups and dunks on the other end. The Rams average four more steals than the next closest team in the A-10 and turn their opponents over at a staggering average of 18.7 times per game. That amazing stat tells the tale of the havoc the Rams can wreak.
Weakness: VCU only shoots 42 percent so teams that can get the Rams to play in the halfcourt are ahead of the game. The Rams press is only effective when they’re scoring. So teams that can defend and make VCU have to guard in the halfcourt and execute on offense are the ones that have success.
6. Ohio State Buckeyes
Location: Columbus, OH
At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference
Key Players: LaQuinton Ross (15.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Lenzelle Smith Jr. (11.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg), Aaron Craft (9.6 ppg, 7.6 apg), Amir Williams (8 ppg, 5.8 rpg)
Strength: Follow the leader is the name of the game with the Buckeyes and that leader is senior guard Aaron Craft. When Craft is being disruptive on defense and setting up teammates on offense, the Buckeyes are one of the best teams in the nation. They’re dunking shooting threes and look like a real contender. This is Craft’s last go round and he’s going to leave nothing in the tank.
Weakness: This is not one of Ohio St’s better offensive teams. The Buckeyes are in the bottom half of the league in points per game, three-point field goal percentage, free-throw percentage and offensive rebound percentage. There’s talent on the team so it’s puzzling, but Ohio St can be defended and if they can be defended than they can be beat.
7. New Mexico Lobos
Location: Albuquerque, NM
Automatic Bid: Mountain West Conference Champions
Key Players: Cameron Bairstow (20.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg), Kendall Williams (16.4 ppg, 4.9 apg), Alex Kirk (13.6 ppg, 8.7 rpg), Hugh Greenwood (5.1 rpg)
Strength: The Lobos enter the Big Dance as one of the best offensive teams in the Mountain West. New Mexico is the most efficient team in the Mountain West because it shoots nearly 46 percent, makes over 72 percent of its free throws, doesn’t turn the ball over and passes well. That equals to a team that scores the second most points per game in the conference despite being sixth in possessions.
Weakness: New Mexico would do well to not put itself in a possession where making three pointers will be a necessity. The Lobos are in the bottom half of the Mountain West in three-point attempts, makes and percentage. That’s a stat that puts pressure on them to play with a lead. New Mexico doesn’t even shoot 34 percent as a team. That’s going to be a problem if it can’t improve.
8. Colorado Buffaloes
Location: Boulder, CO
At-Large Bid: Pac-12 Conference
Key Players: Josh Scott (14.1 ppg, 8.5 rpg), Askia Booker (14 ppg), Xavier Johnson (12 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Wesley Gordon (6.1 rpg)
Strength: Colorado attacks. The Buffaloes have a number of guys who can handle and get to the paint and it results in a team that lives at the free-throw line. They have shot and made the most free throws in the Pac-12. Making them doubly tough is the fact that they shoot over 71 percent as a team from the charity stripe with Josh Scott and Askia Booker shooting over 80 percent themselves. Colorado will put pressure on teams offensively.
Weakness: Spencer Dinwiddie was one of the best players in the nation, but he tore his ACL in January. Since then, the Buffaloes have not been the same team. He set everything up for them and was the best three-point shooter on the team. They miss his production and his experience. Time will tell if Colorado can make a run without him.
9. Pittsburgh Panthers
Location: Pittsburgh, PA
At-Large Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference
Key Players: Lamar Patterson (17.6 ppg, 4.3 apg), Talib Zanna (12.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg), Cameron Wright (10.6 ppg), James Robinson (8 ppg)
Strength: The Panthers brought their rugged Big East style to the ACC and it led to another NCAA tournament appearance. Pitt still plays great defense and rebounds with the best of them. The Panthers are tied for first in the ACC in rebound margin because they out-rebound their opponents by 6.5 boards per game. This is the style that coach Jamie Dixon employs and Pitt plays it to perfection.
Weakness: Pitt has struggled in the NCAA tournament since its program came to prominence early this century. The Panthers have not shown the ability to get out of the first weekend. Even when they have, they haven’t matched expectations. Part of the problem is the way the game is officiated and the other part is they haven’t had dynamic players. Whatever the issue is, the Panthers need to figure out how to win in the Big Dance.
10. Stanford Cardinal
Location: Palo Alto, CA
At-Large Bid: Pac-12 Conference
Key Players: Chasson Randle (18.7 ppg), Dwight Powell (14.2 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Anthony Brown (12.7 ppg, 5 rpg), Josh Huestis (11.4 ppg, 8.3 rpg)
Strength: Stanford can really lull you to sleep with its style of play. The Cardinal like low possession games where it makes you guard for long periods of time. Stanford is fairly efficient offensively, but then it holds its opponents to just over 41 percent from the floor. A win versus the Cardinal certainly has to be earned.
Weakness: While Stanford’s style of play helps it depth, it will still be a concern for it in March. The Cardinal has four players averaging in double figures, but it’s not getting much from its bench. If it plays someone who speeds it up, the Cardinal could be in big trouble finding enough guys to put the ball in the hoop.
11. Dayton Flyers
Location: Dayton, OH
At-Large Bid: Atlantic 10 Conference
Key Players: Jordan Sibert (12.5 ppg), Devin Oliver (12.1 ppg, 7.5 rpg), Dyshawn Pierre (11.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg), Vee Sanford (9.9 ppg)
Strength: The Flyers will enter the Big Dance as a squad that’s adept at crashing the boards. Dayton is first in the Atlantic-10 in rebound margin and rebound percentage. That adds much-needed value to the 44.3 percent the Flyers are allowing opponents to shoot. Being second in the conference in offensive rebound percentage allows the Flyers to get extra possessions on offense to help an offense that already runs pretty well. Dayton is going to rebound to win. Teams better box the Flyers out.
Weakness: The Flyers 68 percent from the free-throw line just won’t get it done. Dayton’s struggles to shoot free throws have reared themselves one too many times. For instance, in their three-point loss in the A-10 tournament to Saint Joseph’s, the Flyers shot just 42.9 percent. A respectable 70 percent would’ve won them the game. Shooting that poorly in the NCAA tournament won’t win them anything.
12. Stephen F. Austin State Lumberjacks
Location: Nacogdoches, TX
Automatic Bid: Southland Conference Champions
Key Players: Desmond Haymon (14.3 ppg), Jacob Parker (14.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg), Thomas Walkup (12.9 ppg, 5 rpg), Deshaunt Walker (12 ppg), Nikola Gajic (9.6 ppg)
Strength: Here comes one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country. The Lumberjacks rank in the top-15 nationally in efficiency and points per possession. That’s due to the fact that they share the ball so well, shoot over 46 percent and shoot over 70 from the free-throw line. Those numbers leads to a team that’s 242nd nationally in possessions per 40 minutes to still score 76.5 points per game. They will be a tough out.
Weakness: Nine Lumberjacks average double-figure minutes, but on-court production is really limited to just five guys. There’s a serious drop-off between the fifth leading scorer for Stephen F. Austin and the sixth. That’s a problem if foul trouble occurs and the Lumberjacks need to go to another option for points. Taking one piece of those five top scorers away could spell doom.
13. Tulsa Golden Hurricane
Location: Tulsa, OK
Automatic Bid: Conference USA Champions
Key Players: James Woodard (15.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg), Rashad Smith (12.1 ppg), Shaquille Harrison (9.8 ppg)
Strength: Head coach Danny Manning’s Tulsa squad is one of the best defensive teams in Conference USA. The Golden Hurricane only allows teams to shoot 40.3 percent from the field while forcing 14.2 turnovers per game. Tha defense was on display in the Conference USA tournament as the Golden Hurricane held two out of its three opponents under 60 points. Defense travels and Tulsa may use it to stay in games.
Weakness: Tulsa’s three-point shooting leaves something to be desired. The Golden Hurricane only shoots 32.5 percent from behind the arc leaving them 12 in the 16-team Conference USA. That means no matter how the Golden Hurricane plays defensively, it better not fall too far behind.
14. Western Michigan Broncos
Location: Kalamazoo, MI
Automatic Bid: Mid-American Conference Champions
Key Players: David Brown (19.4 ppg), Shayne Whittington (16.3 ppg, 9.1 rpg), Connar Tava (12 ppg, 5.8 rpg), Austin Richie (8 ppg)
Strength: The Broncos are here because they have one of the best inside-out combinations in the MAC. David Brown on the perimeter and Shayne Whittington in the post average over 35 points per game and over 12 rebounds per game. They’re solid defenders and will be effective against just about anyone. These two can play and if they’re on, they can help the Broncos go on a run.
Weakness: People always say that the difference between a good major conference team and a good mid-major is the lack of depth at the mid-major level and that’s no different with the Broncos. Western Michigan relies heavily on five guys with only one other player averaging double-figure minutes. The Broncos will struggle in this tournament if they can’t get production from their bench.
15. Eastern Kentucky Colonels
Location: Richmond, KY
Automatic Bid: Ohio Valley Conference
Key Players: Glenn Cosey (18.8 ppg), Corey Walden (14.1 ppg), Marcus Lewis (9.9 ppg), Orlando Williams (9.6 ppg), Tarius Johnson (9.5 ppg), Eric Stutz (8.4 ppg)
Strength: The Colonels take a lot of three-point shots and they make a lot of them. Eastern Kentucky shoots 39 percent from behind the arc. That’s second in the Ohio Valley and 23rd nationally. There are three key contributors who shoot over 42 percent and three other role players who shoot at least 37.5 percent. The Colonels certainly are dangerous from deep and if they get hot they can pull an upset.
Weakness: The Colonels play an uptempo style to get people to turn it over, but if teams aren’t turning it over, they’re in trouble. That’s because Eastern Kentucky’s opponents are shooting a staggering 48 percent against them for the year. That’s not going to get it done against the caliber of competition it’ll face in the NCAA tournament. The Colonels were good at playing their system against OVC foes, but they need to have a plan b if they aren’t forcing turnovers.
16a. Albany Great Danes
Location: Albany, NY
Automatic Bid: America East Conference Champions
Key Players: Peter Hooley (15.7 ppg), Sam Rowley (11.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg), DJ Evans (11.2 ppg), Gary Johnson (10.9 ppg)
Strength: Teams shouldn’t find themselves in a close game with Albany because the Great Danes are one of the best free-throw shooting teams in the country. Albany is ranked 23rd nationally and first in the America East in free-throw percentage at 74.8 percent. In fact, leading scorer Peter Hooley knocks down 86 percent of his free throws. Put the Great Danes on the free-throw line at your own peril.
Weakness: Albany is a team that struggles offensively. The Great Danes are ranked 218th nationally in offensive efficiency. That’s because they’re one of the worst passing teams in the America East, they only shoot 43.9 percent and turn the ball over more than their opponents. There’s a reason the Great Danes were only a game over .500 before the conference tournament began and bad offense is why.
16b. Mount Saint Mary’s Mountaineers
Location: Emmitsburg, MD
Automatic Bid: Northeast Conference Champions
Key Players: Rashad Whack (17.1 ppg), Julian Norfleet (17.5 ppg, 5.4 apg), Sam Prescott (11 ppg, 5 rpg), Gregory Graves (5.5 rpg), Taylor Danaher (5.1 rpg)
Strength: The Mountaineers are led by their three senior guards, Sam Prescott, Julian Norfleet and Gregory Graves. Between the three of them, they’re averaging over 45 points of the 76.2 points Mount St. Mary’s averages on the season. They’ll shoot a lot of threes and won’t have a conscious about it. They’ll need to be on if they want to give someone a scare.
Weakness: As the case with many teams at their level, the Mountaineers are a poor rebounding team. Mount St. Mary’s gets out-rebounded by over four rebounds per game. That’s giving opponents extra possessions. If NEC opponents have been having a field day against the Mountaineers, what’s going to happen against the competition they’ll face in the tournament?