1. Arizona Wildcats
At-Large Bid: Pac-12 Conference
Key Players: Nick Johnson, Aaron Gordon, Kaleb Tarczewski, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, T.J. McConnell
Strength: There aren’t many teams more athletic than the Wildcats. It seems like they live on SportsCenter top plays whenever they have a game. They run the floor at a high level and have NBA size in the frontcourt. That gives Arizona the ability to guard anybody. Arizona’s opponents shoot less than 39 percent from the floor while turning the ball over nearly 13 times per game. That makes this one of the best teams in the country.
Weakness: Usually teams at Arizona’s level have great depth, but that’s not the case here. The Wildcats really can only go six deep and that’ll be a problem moving through the rounds. There will be foul trouble and fatigue and if they can’t figure out of way to get quality minutes and production from their reserves they could have a shorter stay in the tournament than they’d like.
2. Wisconsin Badgers
Location: Madison, WI
At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference
Key Players: Frank Kaminsky (13.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg), Ben Brust (12.9 ppg), Sam Dekker (12.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Traevon Jackson (10.4 ppg), Josh Gasser (9.2 ppg), Nigel Hayes (8 ppg)
Strength: Here comes a team that simply will out-execute you. The Badgers shoot the ball well from behind the arc, from the field and from the three point line. They only turn it over eight times per game and are second in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio. These all lead to a team that is 17th in the country in offensive efficiency. With the Badgers pace and execution, they are one of those teams that no one wants to play.
Weakness: This isn’t the Badger team that many are used to on the defensive end. Wisconsin is 11th in the conference field-goal percentage defense and 10th in three-point field-goal percentage defense. Wisconsin’s place is normally near the top and that’s usually the catalyst for its success. This year though, the Badgers can be scored on and they need to figure out a way to sure that area up.
3. Creighton Blue Jays
Location: Omaha, NE
At-Large Bid: Big East Conference
Key Players: Doug McDermott (26.9 ppg, 7 rpg), Ethan Wragge (10.5 ppg), Austin Chatman (4.5 apg)
Strength: Led by the likely national player of the year, Doug McDermott, teams that play Creighton better be prepared to defend the three-point line. The Blue Jays shoot over 42 percent from behind the arc and they shoot plenty of them. They pass the ball extremely well and space the floor like few in the country can. When the Blue Jays get hot it’s a sight to behold and they could sharp shoot their way directly to the Final Four.
Weakness: The book on Creighton is out. Slow down McDermott and it throws a monkey wrench into the whole machine. When McDermott isn’t on, other guys aren’t as open, the passes aren’t as crisp, there are more missed shots and that leads into their opponents getting in transition easier. McDermott is great, but what happens if on one night he’s not.
4. San Diego State Aztecs
Location: San Diego, CA
At-Large Bid: Mountain West Conference
Key Players: Xavier Thames (16.8 ppg), Winston Shepard (12.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg), JJ O’Brien (8 ppg), Josh Davis (9.7 rpg)
Strength: San Diego St head coach Steve Fisher has a set plan for his team every year and he’s yet to deviate from it. The Aztecs use their length and athleticism to play defense and rebound. In light of that, they hold their opponents to 38.5 percent shooting from the field, 28.8 percent shooting from behind the arc, forcr over 14 turnovers per game while out-rebounding opponents by over five boards per game. The system works and it’s tested.
Weakness: San Diego St’s opponents shoot 66.7 percent from the foul line and it’s still better than what the Aztecs shoot. That’s because they shoot a porous 65.1 percent. For a team that’s already challenged in offensive firepower not being able to make free throws is severely damaging. The Aztecs better knock down free throws if they expect survive and advance.
5. Oklahoma Sooners
Location: Norman, OK
At-Large Bid: Big 12 Conference
Key Players: Buddy Hield (16.8 ppg), Cameron Clark (15.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Isaiah Cousins (10.8 ppg), Jordan Woodard (10.3 ppg), Ryan Spangler (9.8 ppg, 9.4 rpg)
Strength: Teams facing the Sooners better be fully aware of what they can do from behind the three-point line. Oklahoma is second in the Big XII in three-point attempts and first in three-point makes. In addition to that, the Sooners make 38 percent of their three-point attempts making them even more dangerous. The three-point shot is the great equalizer in college basketball and if Oklahoma is playing its game it can compete with anyone.
Weakness: Oklahoma is one of the worse defensive teams in the Big 12. The Sooners give up 75 points per game, which is good enough for last in the Conference. Their opponents are shooting over 43 percent from the field and close to 34 percent from three. Oklahoma can put points up and that’s a good thing, but that might not be the case every game in the tournament and it’ll have to find a way to defend its way to a win.
6. Baylor Bears
Location: Waco, TX
At-Large Bid: Big 12 Conference
Key Players: Cory Jefferson (13.5 ppg, 8.4 rpg), Kenny Chery (11.6 ppg, 5 apg), Brady Heslip (11.8 ppg), Isaiah Austin (11 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Rico Gathers (6.4 rpg)
Strength: When four guys average over 38 percent from behind the arc, then that team is never out of game. That’s the case with Baylor, who leads the Big XII in the three-point percentage. Brady Heslip is the primary sharpshooter for the Bears as he shoots a ridiculous 46 percent from three. He’s not bashful either as he’s taken 211 on the season. It’s going to be hard to bury Baylor.
Weakness: Great from the three-point line, but bad from the free-throw line. That’s the story with Baylor. The Bears are ninth in the Big XII in free-throw percentage at just under 67 percent. It’s one of the worse weaknesses you can have in the tournament where every possession matters. Baylor is in big trouble if it can’t make its free-throws.
7. Oregon Ducks
Location: Eugene, OR
At-Large Bid: Pac-12 Conference
Key Players: Joseph Young (18.6 ppg), Mike Moser (13.5 ppg, 8 rpg), Jason Calliste (12.4 ppg), Damyean Dotson (9.7 ppg), Johnathan Loyd (4.7 apg)
Strength: Oregon is one of the most talented teams in the nation. The Ducks have guys at every position that can beat you on any given night. Coach Dana Altman has taken full advantage of using transfers to build his program and it’s helped with the depth of talent he has. They’re extremely difficult to guard and can overwhelm you at times. They certainly have the talent to go on a deep run.
Weakness: Consistency has been the issue for the Ducks this season. There’s just no telling what team you’ll see on a game-in and game-out basis. This is a team that followed a 13-game win streak to start the season with losing 8 of the next 10. Oregon can be a dangerous team if it plays to its potential, but that hasn’t always been the case this season.
8. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Location: Spokane, WA
Automatic Bid: West Coast Conference Champions
Key Players: Sam Dower (15 ppg, 7.1 rpg), Kevin Pangos (14.1 ppg), Gary Bell Jr. (11.2 ppg), Przemek Karnowski (10.2 ppg, 6.9 rpg), David Stockton (4.2 apg)
Strength: Whenever the name Gonzaga is brought up the first thing that comes to mind a lot is offensive proficiency and this year is no different. The Bulldogs remain one of the hardest teams to guard nationally – much of that due to their effiency, where they rank No. 1 in the West Coast Conference. They shoot nearly 40 percent from three and close to 50 percent overall. Gonzaga’s offensive prowess is the reason they’re back in the Big Dance.
Weakness: For everything Gonzaga does well. The one thing that could come back to haunt it is the fact that it can’t get to the free-throw line. Gonzaga is eighth in the WCC in free throws made and attempted and 10th in free throw point percentage. This is a team that can score, but relies on jump shots. If those aren’t falling, the Bulldogs will have to find a way to manufacture points.
9. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Location: Stillwater, OK
At-Large Bid: Big 12 Conference
Key Players: Marcus Smart (17.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 4.7 apg), Markel Brown (17.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg), Le’Bryan Nash (14.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg), Phi Forte III (13.3 ppg), Kamari Murphy (6.2 rpg)
Strength: Oklahoma St’s strength lies in its backcourt, which is one of the best in the country. Marcus Smart, Markel Brown and Le’Bryan Nash are three high-level scorers who have shown the ability to score against pretty much any defense. They’re athletic and any one can beat you on any given night. Throw in Phil Forte for good measure and now there’s depth as well. Guard play is the reason this was a top-15 team to begin the season.
Weakness: Oklahoma St has to be consistent if it wants to make a run. As talented as the Cowboys are, they were under .500 in conference play. Some of that was due to Smart’s mid-season suspension, but that Cowboys had already lost three in a row heading into that game. The Cowboys are boom or bust. They can play themselves into a regional or be out in the second round.
10. Brigham Young Cougars
Location: Provo, UT
At-Large Bid: West Coast Conference
Key Players: Tyler Haws (23.4 ppg), Matt Carlino (13.7 ppg, 4.3 apg), Eric Mika (11.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg), Nate Austin (8 rpg)
Strength: Led by Tyler Haws, BYU is one of the highest scoring teams in the nation – ranking in the top 5 in points per game at 85. Haws leads the team with over 23 points per game, but three other Cougars average at least 12 making them tough to guard across the board. They’re solid from deep, shoot a high percentage from the field and have an outstanding assist-to-turnover ratio.
Weakness: The Cougars like to play fast and it has come back to haunt them on several occasions this season. Four teams have scored 100 on BYU and that is extremely unusual. Defending has been an issue for BYU and the wrong match-up could prove to be too much to overcome for a team that can struggle to get stops.
11. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Location: Lincoln, NE
At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference
Key Players: Terran Petteway (18.1 ppg), Shavon Shields (12.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg), Walter Pitchford, (9.5 ppg)
Strength: The Cornhuskers go as all-everything swingman Terran Petteway goes. Petteway is one of the lesser-known stars in the Big Ten, but he’s been outstanding this season for Nebraska. He’s a good defender, solid rebounder and is good in late game situations because he shoots 82 percent from the free-throw line. He’s the type of player who can get hot and put his team on his back.
Weakness: The Big Ten is a rugged league where defense and rebounding rules the day so its surprising that the Cornhuskers were so successful while being 11th in the league in rebound margin and rebound percentage. It’s telling stat and a glaring weakness that opponents will try to exploit in the tournament.
12. North Dakota State Bison
Location: Fargo, ND
Automatic Bid: Summit League Champions
Key Players: Taylor Braun (18.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Marshall Bjorklund (13.4 ppg), TrayVonn Wright (11.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Lawrence Alexander (10.8 ppg)
Strength: Offensively, the Bison are a machine. North Dakota St is third in the country in offensive efficiency at 118.9. The Bison shoot nearly 51 percent from the field, over 36 percent from behind arc, and turn the ball over less 10 times per game. The precision in which it runs it offense is the reason why it’s won 25 games. It’s also the reason why he Bison have a legitimate shot at an upset.
Weakness: The Bison isn’t one of the better three-point defending teams in this tournament. North Dakota St’s opponents are shooting nearly as well from behind the arc as the Bison are. At 36.6 percent, teams will always be in striking distance because they can get open shots whenever they want. The Bison facing a strong three-point shooting team would be the worst matchup possible.
13. New Mexico State Aggies
Location: Las Cruces, NM
Automatic Bid: Western Athletic Conference Champions
Key Players: Daniel Mullings (16.7 ppg), D.K. Eldridge (11.6 ppg), Tshilidzi Nephawe (11.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg), Sim Bhullar (10.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg), Renaldo Dixon (8.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg)
Strength: There aren’t many teams in the country with the kind of size that the Aggies can put out on the floor. The Aggies have key contributors that are 6’9, 6’10 and 7’5. That’s why they out-rebound their opponents by five per game and lead the conference in blocks per game at 6.3. New Mexico St’s strength lies in its post presence and it could be tough to deal with for any team.
Weakness: New Mexico St’s propensity to turn the ball over could really hinder its chances. The Aggies are eighth in the WAC in turnover margin. This is the worst the WAC has been in a long time too and that makes that number even more concerning. It’s going to be an issue if the Aggies turn the ball over because they simply don’t have the personnel to defend in transition.
14. Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin Cajuns
Location: Lafayette, LA
Automatic Bid: Sun Belt Conference Champions
Key Players: Elfrid Payton (19.1 ppg, 6 rpg, 6 apg), Shawn Long (18.9 ppg, 10.4 rpg), Bryant Mbamalu (12.5 ppg), Xavian Rimmer (8.4 ppg)
Strength: Ragin Cajuns is an apt nickname for Louisiana-Lafayette because they are one fastest playing teams in the country. The Ragin Cajuns are 14th nationally in possessions per 40 minutes and lead the Sun Belt in points per game at 81.4. They force turnovers, get out in transition and let sophomore guard Elfrid Payton run the show. This is an entertaining bunch and they have the talent to scare someone.
Weakness: Louisiana-Lafayette is a lot more concerned with getting out and running than they are about playing defense. The Ragin Cajuns are eighth in the Sun Belt in field-goal percentage defense – allowing opponents to shoot over 44 percent. In light of that, their opponents score 75 points per game. That works in the Sun Belt, but the teams in the NCAA tournament will make them pay for not defending.
15. American Eagles
Location: Washington, DC
Automatic Bid: Patriot League Champions
Key Players: Jesse Reed (13.9 ppg), Tony Wroblicky (12.2 ppg, 7.3 rpg), Darius Gardner (11.5 ppg, 4.2 apg), John Schoof (11.4 ppg)
Strength: American head coach Mike Brennan played at Princeton and coached under John Thompson III at Georgetown and has brought the Princeton-style offense to American. The Eagles play at slow place, run their offense and frustrate opponents in the process. It’s hard to prepare for and it’s harder to stay disciplined against. American can keep a game close if it can play its style.
Weakness: In a low possession game, the margin for error is razor thin and that’s been the case for the Eagles. They can play a game the style they want, but if they’re not making shots, there is no back-up plan. They have to hit shots or they could get blown out of this tournament in really ugly fashion.
16. Weber State Wildcats
Location: Ogden, UT
Automatic Bid: Big Sky Conference Champions
Key Players: Davlon Berry (19.1 ppg), Kyle Tresniak (11.8 ppg), Jeremy Senglin (11.2 ppg), Joel Bolomboy (8.6 ppg, 10.8 rpg)
Strength: The Wildcats are deadly from behind the three-point line. Weber St shoots the 39.2 percent from deep and that’s good enough for 20th nationally. Five Wildcats shoot over 40 percent and a fifth, Davlon Berry, who shoots 38.3 percent. The Wildcats can really extend defenses with their range and if they’re knocking their shots down, they could scare someone.
Weakness: Weber St’s seven-man rotation may not be enough to get the job done in the tournament. The Wildcats like to control tempo so their depth isn’t an issue, but it will be hard for them to dictate pace when they’ll most likely be overmatched talent wise. Teams will push the pace on the Wildcats and if they can’t keep up then they won’t be able to stay close.