1. Ohio State Buckeyes
Location: Columbus, OH
Automatic Bid: Big Ten Conference Champions
Key Players: Jared Sullinger (17.2 ppg), William Buford (14.4 ppg), Jon Diebler (12.5 ppg), David Lighty (11.8 ppg)
Strength: The Buckeyes are one of most balanced teams in America. Led by all-everything freshman Jared Sullinger, the Buckeyes can score in anyway imaginable. Sullinger demands double-teams in the post, but that allows him to kick out to open shooters on the perimeter and they’re knocking their shots down. This is one of the favorites to win the national championship and it’s because they can do everything.
Weakness: Ohio State may be a great team, but its not a very deep one. The Buckeyes have four guys who play over 30 minutes and that’s a lot. That will be difficult to manage in a tournament situation with a short turnaround. This is a great team, so in all honesty, it may be able to overcome the depth issue. However, if the Buckeyes lose, this could very well be the reason why.
2. North Carolina Tarheels
Location: Chapel Hill, NC
At-Large Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference
Key Players: Harrison Barnes (15 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Tyler Zeller (14.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg), John Henson (11.4 ppg, 10.1 rpg), Kendall Marshall (5.8 apg)
Strength: Though he’s just a freshman, Kendall Marshall has completely changed the make up of the Tarheel squad. Marshall is a true point guard and has run this team like a seasoned vet. His play has sparked the confidence of his teammates, especially fellow freshman Harrison Barnes, who is playing the best basketball of the season. If Marshall keeps playing well, this North Carolina team can realistically dream about the Final Four.
Weakness: There are still worries about the youth of this team. Coach Roy Williams is leaning on a lot of underclassmen to be successful. Barnes, Marshall and sophomore John Henson are talented players, but not very experienced. This will be the first NCAA Tournament experience for them all so its unknown how they’ll handle the big stage. If they can’t handle it, the Tarheels will have a problem getting out of the first weekend.
3. Syracuse Orange
Location: Syracuse, NY
At-Large Bid: Big East Conference
Key Players: Kris Joseph (14.4 ppg, 5 rpg), Rick Jackson (13 ppg, 10.6 rpg), Scoop Jardine (12.8 ppg, 5.8 apg) Brandon Triche (11.3 ppg)
Strength: The Syracuse 2-3 zone is the best in the country. Jim Boeheim has perfected the zone and he has the right personnel to play it well. With Rick Jackson, the Big East Player of the Year, anchoring the back of the defense; the Syracuse zone is almost impenetrable on the interior. Syracuse, then has the length and quickness on the wing and perimeter to challenge outside shots. The zone is a thing of beauty and in a tournament scenario, it is difficult to prepare for.
Weakness: For Syracuse to be successful, it must get steady play from the point guard position. Scoop Jardine can hit tough shots and make big plays because he’s a risk taker. Jardine can also kill Syracuse’s chances because he’s a risk taker. If Jardine is playing well, he can be one of the great point guards in college basketball, but when he’s not the Orange is a very average basketball team. Average doesn’t win games in the NCAA Tournament.
4. Kentucky Wildcats
Location: Lexington, KY
Automatic Bid: Southeastern Conference
Key Players: Brandon Knight (17.5 ppg), Terrence Jones (16.5 ppg, 9 rpg), Doron Lamb (13.2 ppg), Darius Miller (11.2 ppg), DeAndre Liggins (8.6 ppg), Josh Harrellson (8.8 rpg)
Strength: This is an explosive team. The Wildcats put up points in bunches. Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb may only be freshmen, but they can put up points in a hurry. Knight is finally settling into his role as point guard and Jones is an absolute nightmare with his versatility. This team is super talented and if it makes jump shots it has a legitimate shot at the Final Four.
Weakness: Kentucky’s youth will be severely tested in the NCAA Tournament. There’s always a risk when a team relies so heavily on underclassmen, even if those underclassmen are as good as Knight, Jones and Lamb. Last season, you saw a team not adjust to the defense West Virginia played and panicked by shooting a lot of ill-advised threes. Kentucky has to show more poise this year.
5. West Virginia Mountaineers
Location: Morgantown, WV
At-Large Bid: Big East Conference
Key Players: Casey Mitchell (14.1 ppg), Kevin Jones (13.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg), Darryl Bryant (10.9 ppg), John Flowers (9.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg)
Strength: As with all Bob Huggins-coached teams, this year’s edition of the Mountaineers is tough as nails. They rebound the basketball well as they finished second in the conference in offensive rebounds and offensive-rebound percentage. They also play tough, in your face defense as they only allow their opponents to shoot 40.9 percent from the field. Any team with desires to defeat West Virginia better know it’s in for a fight for 40 minutes.
Weakness: West Virginia has some awful offensive numbers. The Mountaineers have to be a great offensive rebounding team out of necessity, because they struggle to score. West Virginia is 12th in the Big East in field-goal percentage and 11th in three-point field-goal percentage. Outside of Casey Mitchell, no one on this team is capable of going for 25-plus so if this team meets its match on the boards, it could have a short stay in the tournament.
6. Xavier Musketeers
Location: Cincinnati, OH
At-Large Bid: Atlantic-10 Conference
Key Players: Tu Holloway (20.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 5.5 apg), Mark Lyons (13.8 ppg), Kenny Frease (11.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg), Jamel McLean (10.8 ppg, 8.4 rpg)
Strength: The Musketeers have a team with great balance. The Atlantic-10 Player of the Year, Tu Holloway leads the Musketeers, but they’re not a one-trick pony. Xavier has Mark Lyons to complement Holloway in the backcourt while Jamel McLean and Kenny Grease are a load to handle in the post. That balance makes the Musketeers difficult to guard and gives them an excellent chance to advance in the tournament.
Weakness: Xavier has a very short bench. The Musketeers really only have a seven-man rotation and the two reserves don’t provide much more than a brief respite for Xavier’s starters. Xavier has a talented starting five, but it’s not talented enough to overcome foul trouble or an opponent that likes to employ pressure defense. For Xavier to make a run, it’ll need a contribution from an unexpected source.
7. Washington Huskies
Location: Seattle, WA
Automatic Bid: Pac-10 Conference Champions
Key Players: Isaiah Thomas (16.8 ppg, 6 apg), Matthew Bryan-Amaning (15.5 ppg, 8.1 rpg), Justin Holiday (10.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg), C.J. Wilcox (8.1 ppg)
Strength: Not many teams can score with the Huskies. Washington has one of the best point guards in America in Isaiah Thomas. Thomas loves to play in transition and that’s where Washington is at its best. The Huskies are third nationally scoring 83.5 points per game and they do it on 47 percent shooting. The Huskies have talent and are hard to guard. This is a dangerous team.
Weakness: This is a team that gives games away. The Huskies are one of the worst free-throw shooting teams in the Pac-10 at 66.7 percent. The fact of the matter is that Thomas, while not the worst shooter, should be shooting a much higher percentage than 70.6 percent as the point guard of the team. Matthew Bryan-Amaning, the team’s second-leading scorer and best low-post presence shoots just 61.4 percent. The Huskies struggles at the line could cost them postseason success.
8. George Mason Patriots
Location: Fairfax, VA
At-Large Bid: Colonial Athletic Association
Key Players: Cam Long (15.1 ppg), Ryan Pearson (14.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg), Luke Hancock (10.9 ppg), Andre Cornelius (10 ppg), Mike Morrison (5.5 rpg)
Strength: George Mason is one of the most efficient offensive teams on the mid-major level. The Patriots lead the CAA in assist-to-turnover ratio, field-goal percentage and three-point field-goal percentage. That efficiency led to a 15-game winning streak and a dominant season in one of the best mid-major conferences in America. They pass the ball well and have several guys who can score. George Mason will be hard to guard in the Big Dance.
Weakness: Any team that can’t be trusted at the free-throw line can’t be trusted in the Big Dance. George Mason is eighth in the CAA in free-throw percentage at 69 percent. There aren’t a lot of weaknesses in the Mason attack, but this could potentially be a major one. If the Patriots don’t knock down shots from the charity stripe, they could have a short stay in the tournament.
9. Villanova Wildcats
Location: Villanova, PA
At-Large Bid: Big East Conference
Key Players: Corey Fisher (15.4 ppg), Corey Stokes (15 ppg), Maalik Wayns (14 ppg), Antonio Pena (9.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg), Mouphtaou Yarou (8.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg)
Strength: Villanova has one of the best backcourts in the country. When Corey Fisher, Maalik Wayns and Corey Stokes are playing well, this is a very difficult team to beat. They’re tough in transition and you must respect their jumpers. These guys are explosive and if they all get going they can make a serious run in the tournament. Coach Jay Wright loves guard-laden teams and he has one that can do some damage.
Weakness: Team chemistry was an issue last season for the Wildcats and it appears to be a problem again. Villanova’s late-season slide went from troubling to embarrassing. The lost to South Florida in the Big East tournament was a bad sign reminding everyone of what happened to the team last season. Villanova barely beat Robert Morris in the first round last season before flaming out against St. Mary’s. It looks quite possible that the Wildcats could be one and done this year.
10. Georgia Bulldogs
Location: Athens, GA
At-Large Bid: Southeastern Conference
Key Players: Trey Tompkins (16.1 ppg, 7.5 rpg), Travis Leslie (14.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg), Gerald Robinson (12.2 ppg), Jeremy Price (9.2 ppg, 5 rpg), Dustin Ware (8.1 ppg)
Strength: Georgia is one of the most athletic teams in America. Led by the high-flying Travis Leslie, the Bulldogs are an exciting team in transition. Their athleticism also helps them defend as well. Georgia holds its opponents to just 39.6 percent shooting from the field. Georgia has the kind of athleticism teams just can’t simulate and that’s what will make it a match-up nightmare in March.
Weakness: Georgia’s five starters are as good as any in America, but after that there’s a tremendous drop-off. The Bulldogs’ bench production is minuscule. They only get 9.8 points per game from it’s bench. That’s not good enough. Some teams in America get that much from one reserve, let alone, all of them. Foul trouble or fatigue could doom the Bulldogs to a quick exit in the Big Dance.
11. Marquette Golden Eagles
Location: Milwaukee, WI
At-Large Bid: Big East Conference
Key Players: Jimmy Butler (16 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Darius Johnson-Odom (15.9 ppg), Jae Crowder (11.7 ppg, 6.8 rpg), Dwight Buycks (9.2 ppg)
Strength: There aren’t many teams in the country with the versatility Marquette enjoys. The Golden Eagles have several players that can play multiple positions and can do multiple things. Jimmy Butler can play three positions, Vander Blue and Darius Johnson-Odom can play both guard spots while Jae Crowder is tough enough to play all three frontcourt positions. This team has interchangeable parts and loves to throw different lineups at its opponents. It’s the way the Golden Eagles keep their opponents off-balance on their way to 20 wins.
Weakness: Marquette is usually a perimter-oriented ball club and this year that’s still the case. The only problem with that is it leaves the Golden Eagles soft on the interior. Marquette is in the bottom half of the Big East in rebounding, but what’s worse is it still struggles to defend quality low-post scorers. If Marquette is to make a run, it’ll eventually play a team with a competent scorer in the frontcourt and if Marquette can’t defend then it can’t win.
12a. Clemson Tigers
Location: Clemson, SC
At-Large Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference
Key Players: Demontez Stitt (14.3 ppg), Jerai Grant (12.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg), Andre Young (10.7 ppg), Milton Jennings (8 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Devin Booker (5.4 rpg)
Strength: Despite a slight change in its style of play, Clemson is still one of the ACC leaders in forcing turnovers. Under former head coach Oliver Purnell, the Tigers applied full-court pressure for 40 minutes, but under current coach Brad Brownell, they’ve decided to play in the half court more. Despite that, they’ve still been able to use their athletes to play outstanding defense. That defense could win Clemson a game or two in the Big Dance.
Weakness: Clemson is not the most efficient team offensively. The Tigers are ninth in the ACC in scoring, seventh in free-throw and field-goal percentage, and eighth in assist-to-turnover ratio. Those are just ugly numbers for a team that managed to have a winning record in the league. The problem for Clemson is there will be no Wake Forest, Georgia Tech or Virginia in the Big Dance. That kind of inefficiency just won’t cut it.
12b. UAB Blazers
Location: Birmingham, AL
At-Large Bid: Conference-USA
Key Players: Jamarr Sanders (17.7 ppg), Cameron Moore (14.3 ppg, 9.4 rpg), Aaron Johnson (12 ppg), Ovie Soko (9.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg)
Strength: Coach Mike Davis has turned his UAB squad into one of the best defensive teams in Conference-USA. The Blazers are third in the conference in field-goal percentage defense, only allowing 41 percent shooting from their opponents. That helps them hold opponents to a little over 62 points per game. Davis is a tough, in-your-face kind of coach and his team has taken on his personality.
Weakness: UAB’s surprising inclusion into this year’s field is partly because of how ordinary its been offensively. The Blazers have offensive numbers that are average in Conference-USA so that should tell you how pedestrian they’ve been on offense. This is a team that scores in the 60’s routinely and sometimes struggle to even hit that mark. At just 44 percent shooting, the Blazers may not have the chops to do much damage in the tournament.
13. Princeton Tigers
Location: Princeton, NJ
Automatic Bid: Ivy League Champions
Key Players: Kareem Maddox (13.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg), Ian Hummer (13.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg), Dan Mavraides (12.7 ppg), Douglas Davis (11.9 ppg)
Strength: Everyone knows what the strength of Princeton is. It’s the Princeton offense. No matter how many times you watch the Tigers play, their offense is always difficult to defend. It takes patience and concentration to defend for a full 35 seconds, but that’s what that offense makes teams do. Teams have to guard against three pointers and backdoor cuts. It’s the offense perfected by the Tigers, who can definitely spring an upset using it.
Weakness: Princeton is a team that relies heavily on its starters. The Tigers like the control the pace of the game and that allows their starters to play a lot of minutes without going in the tank, but they’ll be facing competition that’s a couple steps up in the talent department. Princeton’s opponents will force it out of its comfort zone. Will Princeton’s starters be able to handle that?
14. Indiana State Sycamores
Location: Terre Haute, IN
Automatic Bid: Missouri Valley Conference Champions
Key Players: Dwayne Lathan (11 ppg), Carl Richard (9.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg)), Jake Odum (9.4 ppg), Aaron Carter (8.7 ppg), Jake Kelly (8.7 ppg), Myles Walker (5.3 rpg)
Strength: Just like most other Missouri Valley Conference teams, the Sycamores will lock you down defensively. Indiana St is No. 1 in the MVC in field-goal percentage defense, holding its opponents to 40.3 percent on the year. In addition to that, Indiana St. is No. 1 in blocks and No. 2 steals in the conference as well. None of the Sycamores opponents in the MVC Tournament scored more than 56 and that’s what makes this team dangerous.
Weakness: With only one starter at 6’8 and not a lot of quality frontcourt guys on the bench, the Sycamores can be exposed inside. Indiana St has been an average rebounding team on the year and it’s low-post scoring has been minuscule. When possessions are placed at a premium in the tournament, Indiana St is going to wish it had someone it could dump the ball to in the paint.
15. Long Island Blackbirds
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Automatic Bid: Northeast Conference Champions
Key Players: Julian Boyd (12.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg), Jamal Olasewere (12.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg), David Hicks (11 ppg), Kyle Johnson (10.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg), C.J. Garner (9.3 ppg)
Strength: Long Island has a difficult style of play to prepare for as they like to play in the open court for 40 minutes. The Blackbirds are sixth in the nation in scoring at 82.6 points per game. They want to impose their will on their opponent and induce them into playing at their pace. This team can score and run and can pose serious trouble for a team in the Big Dance.
Weakness: Due to their pace, Long Island can keep teams in games with their turnover problem. The Blackbirds have a negative turnover margin and assist-to-turnover ratio. Any team it faces in the tournament will be talented enough to exploit their turnovers. If they want to have any success in the tournament, they’ll have to cut down on the miscues or it’ll be one-and-done.
16a. UT-San Antonio Roadrunners
Location: San Antonio, TX
Automatic Bid: Southland Conference Champions
Key Players: Devin Gibson (17 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 5.6 apg), Melvin Johnson III (14.8 ppg), Jeromie Hill (13.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg)
Strength: The Roadrunners force teams into a lot of misses. UTSA finished second in the Southland Conference in field-goal percentage defense. The Roadrunners also force over 14 turnovers per game with over half of those coming on steals. The Roadrunners defense led them to a surprising run in the Southland Conference Tournament and it could also lead them to a win in Dayton.
Weakness: UTSA is a team that relies heavily on three players. Devin Gibson, Melvin Johnson and Jeromie Hill are all outstanding players, but they can’t be what the entire team leans on. If one of them has a bad game, it could be disastrous for the Roadrunners. All three of them have to be great for UTSA to have any chance. If just one of them is off, it’ll ruin the Roadrunners’ hopes.
16b. Alabama State Hornets
Location: Montgomery, AL
Automatic Bid: Southwestern Athletic Conference Champions
Key Players: Tramayne Moorer (12.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg), Tramaine Butler (10.9 ppg), Kenderek Washington (8.7 ppg)
Strength: The best defensive team in the SWAC; Alabama St holds its opponents to just 40.3 percent shooting on the year. That helped Alabama St through their conference tournament where they held their opponents to an average of 58.3 points per game. The Hornets will be looking to carry that defense into Dayton where they have a realistic shot at getting the schools first NCAA Tournament victory.
Weakness: The Hornets struggles on offense have forced it to defend well. Alabama St only scores 61.3 points per game, 2.3 points less than what they yield on the season. That’s why the Hornets had a sub-.500 record against Division I opponents and have to play the opening round game in Dayton. If the Hornets can’t put points on the board, it won’t matter who they play because they’ll be going home.