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Here’s How the Top 12 Could Win the National Title

Charting a path for Kansas, Kentucky, UCLA, and more to go all the way — or lose on the tournament’s opening weekend

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

It’s snowing in Ohio a week after I was wearing flip-flops and a tank top, the WrestleMania card is taking shape without including Dolph Ziggler in any meaningful way, and I had a dream the other night that Joe Lunardi was The Bachelor and all of the coaches on the bubble were vying for his love. March is officially here!

That’s the good news. The bad news is that this is the final edition of the most powerful power rankings in college basketball this season. I know. I can’t believe it’s over either. It feels like just the other day that Scott Drew was the national coach of the year front-runner, Xavier was considered a great team, Indiana was ranked no. 3 in the AP poll, and Duke hadn’t even started its perpetual BACK/NOT BACK cycle. With conference tournaments set to begin, though, it’s time for an annual most powerful power rankings tradition: confusing the hell out of you by providing reasons why each of my top 12 will win the national title or lose during the opening weekend of March Madness. All you have to do is figure out which parts of my advice to follow and which parts are bullshit, and you’ll have a perfect bracket!

Let’s do it.

12. Duke (23–7)

Why it will win the national championship: Duke is the most talented team in America. It’s as simple as that. The Blue Devils have obvious weaknesses, and to say their season has been something of a roller-coaster ride would be an understatement on par with saying that Luke Kennard is self-conscious about his hairline. But the great thing about constructing a team full of former McDonald’s All Americans is that it gives you a sizable margin of error. Duke can win the national title by playing B-plus basketball throughout March, which is great news for Blue Devils fans, considering B-plus basketball seems to be all that Duke is capable of producing this year.

Why it won’t survive the tournament’s opening weekend: Duke needs a rim protector and rebounder on defense almost as badly as it needs a functional point guard on offense. The Blue Devils struggle to prevent teams from penetrating the lane and could use a shot blocker to negate blow-by drives from opposing guards, but finding one has proved difficult: Amile Jefferson has nursed a bad foot, Harry Giles’s only motivation on the court seems to be to return to the locker room in one piece, and I’m pretty sure head coach Mike Krzyzewski has yet to reinstate Marques Bolden and Chase Jeter’s right to wear Duke gear. Meanwhile, the Blue Devils have two great options at the point — Grayson Allen and Frank Jackson — but neither seems willing or able to embrace the traditional point guard role, set up the offense, and defer to the likes of Kennard and Jayson Tatum. If Duke loses early in the tournament, it will likely be because it gives up easy layups and dunks on defense while struggling to maintain any continuity on offense.

11. Baylor (24–6)

Why it will win the national championship: I’m a big believer in the national title formula consisting of an elite defense paired with at least one NBA-caliber guard. Thanks to the frontcourt length of Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. and Johnathan Motley and the scrappiness of guards Manu Lecomte and Ish Wainright, the Bears have the defense part of that equation down. And while Baylor doesn’t appear to have a future NBA guard on its roster, it does have someone in Motley — a 6-foot-10 double-double machine who posted a 32-point, 20-rebound outing in a 74–64 win over potential lottery pick Jarrett Allen and Texas in January — who’s capable of single-handedly creating offense when all else goes to hell. If Motley can morph into the superhero he’s shown glimpses of being this season and if Baylor can deliver the lockdown defense that’s helped it rise to eighth in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency, a title isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

Why it won’t survive the tournament’s opening weekend: I’m not even sure where to begin. The Bears have lost five of their last nine after starting 15–0 and climbing to the no. 1 spot in the AP poll, suggesting that this team peaked a couple of months too early. More important, though, is the way the Bears have lost. They’ve lost by throwing the ball all over the gym. (I still can’t wrap my head around the idea of the top-ranked team in the country committing 29 turnovers.) They’ve lost by going 7-for-27 from the 3-point line while dealing with foul trouble. They’ve lost by settling for jump shots, having their defense diced up, and coming up empty on final possessions. There are many, many ways in which the NCAA tournament could become a disaster for Baylor, which is why I implore you all to get your Scott Drew–related tweets ready now.

10. Butler (23–6)

Why it will win the national championship: The national title race is wide open. Butler has been impossible to peg, losing to Indiana State, St. John’s, and Georgetown while also beating Arizona and Villanova (twice). The Bulldogs roster primarily consists of upperclassmen, has a crafty point guard in Tyler Lewis, and is led by an absolute stud in Kelan Martin, who is good enough to win games by himself (even though he now comes off the bench). It also features a future church league Hall of Famer in senior forward Andrew Chrabascz, who might be the most Butler player to ever Butler. Should I keep going? Or are you sufficiently convinced that all signs point to the Bulldogs making another storybook run to the title game during which we hear, “The Butler did it again!” roughly 10 million times?

Why it won’t survive the tournament’s opening weekend: This is a prototypical Butler team, which is great for all of the reasons mentioned above, but becomes problematic when you realize the Bulldogs are susceptible to fast-paced opponents and officials who call games tight. Butler isn’t dominant defensively (unless it can get away with playing physical) and has the same size and athleticism constraints that have limited the program’s teams of the past. I don’t love that its best player (Martin) comes off the bench and I especially don’t love that nobody seems to have a reasonable explanation for why that’s a good strategy — or why he forgot how to play basketball during a two-week stretch at the start of February. More worrisome is that Butler’s bad losses mean the Bulldogs will probably be around a no. 4 seed in the tournament, making a potential second-round matchup with a team like Virginia, Notre Dame, SMU, Cincinnati, Purdue, or maybe even Florida State quite the challenge.

9. Louisville (23–7)

Why it will win the national championship: Screw it — I’m riding the Louisville bandwagon until I see that Rick Pitino money shot (phrasing!) in the tournament, the one of the head coach standing on the sideline in the final moments of a game, so frustrated by what he’s seeing that he puts his left hand on his face to show off his national title ring (which he wears in place of his wedding ring), which I assume is his way of telling everyone watching: “We may be about to lose, but I’m still more successful than you’ll ever be.” (My favorite hand-to-face Pitino pose is the one that the most jokes can be made about, where he puts two fingers on his lips, split apart, with the tips of said fingers beneath his nose.) The Cardinals play the best defense in America when they have everything clicking. They have absurd length, athleticism, and depth. They have a big-time scoring threat in sophomore guard Donovan Mitchell and a coach who has a history of tournament success. I thought that Louisville should be the national title favorite two weeks ago, and while I’ve since cooled off from that claim, I still wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if the Cards cut down nets.

Donovan Mitchell (Getty Images)
Donovan Mitchell (Getty Images)

Why it won’t survive the tournament’s opening weekend: In the last two weeks, Louisville has given up 90 points to Virginia Tech and 88 to Wake Forest. This is defensible in the sense that both of those offenses are good, but for a Cardinals squad that boasted the country’s best defense for most of this season and whose tournament success relies on it setting the tone on that end of the floor, allowing the Hokies and Demon Deacons to shoot a combined 52.3 percent from the field and 54 percent from 3 is a bit concerning. Also, although the team has one of its best shooting teams in years, the Cards remain prone to nights when they can’t make an outside shot (a Louisville tradition at this point). That could become an even bigger problem in the tourney if their defense isn’t the brick wall it typically is.

8. Kentucky (25–5)

Why it will win the national championship: If there’s one player in the country who has the ability to go full Kemba Walker or Shabazz Napier and put his team on his back en route to a national title, it’s the Wildcats’ Malik Monk. (Sorry for the flashbacks with those name drops, Kentucky fans.) The freshman is averaging 21.7 points and has four 30-plus-point outings this season, including his 47-point masterpiece in a 103–100 win over North Carolina on December 17. He had 30 second-half points against Florida on February 25 to essentially wrap up the SEC regular-season title, and then he followed that up with 20 second-half points against Vanderbilt to erase a double-digit deficit and actually clinch the conference crown. There are a lot of paths Kentucky could take to win a national championship, but the most obvious (and definitely the most fun) would be for Monk to go nuts for six straight games and make a run at Glen Rice’s record for most points scored in an NCAA tournament (184, in 1989).

Why it won’t survive the tournament’s opening weekend: If there’s one player in the country who has the ability to shoot his team into a big hole, get frustrated that his shot isn’t falling, and decide to shut down in every other facet of his game until he starts seeing the ball go through the basket, it’s the Wildcats’ Malik Monk. Kentucky isn’t great at containing lane penetration and is so desperate for outside shooting that Derek Willis and Mychal Mulder each average about five more minutes per game than they probably should. But if the Cats are going to get bounced from the NCAA tournament early, it will likely be because Monk, who is shooting 41.6 percent from the 3-point line and is a combined 13-for-43 from deep in Kentucky’s losses, goes cold and everything snowballs from there.

7. Arizona (26–4)

Why it will win the national championship: Seven different Arizona players have scored 18 or more points in a game this season, a fact that becomes even more impressive when you realize that the Wildcats play at one of the slowest tempos in Division I. That’s the crux of what makes the Cats so dangerous; it’s impossible to game plan for them because even they don’t know who is going to have the hot hand on a given night. Arizona is young, lacks an identity beyond “a roster full of players with upside who kinda, sorta work well together,” and seems cursed by Elite Eight games, both from a program and a coaching standpoint. (Arizona has lost its past five Elite Eight appearances since winning the national title in 1997, while Sean Miller has dropped four straight in that round, dating back to the 2008 tourney when he was the head coach at Xavier.) But the Wildcats are also one of the few teams with multiple future NBA players, and they’re the only team with a 7-footer who is shooting 44 percent from the 3-point line.

Why it won’t survive the tournament’s opening weekend: Is this a bad time to point out that ESPN bracketologist Lunardi projects Arizona to be a no. 3 seed and Wisconsin to be a no. 6 seed, and that because Oregon and UCLA will likely be placed in the West and South regionals (I assume that the committee will give the Ducks and Bruins location priority over the Wildcats), Arizona will probably be sent to the Midwest or the East, the two regionals that Wisconsin is most likely to land in? It is? OK, forget I ever said anything.

Halftime

It’s halftime, which can mean only one thing: It’s time for Dick’s Degrees of Separation, the most mildly amusing internet game involving college basketball! You know the drill: I give you the end point of a Dick Vitale tangent and you pick the path he took to get there. Let’s get to it.

During Tuesday’s Florida State–Duke game, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about Roy Williams?

A. During a break in the action, a list of ACC teams projected to make the NCAA tournament is shown on screen, prompting Dave O’Brien, who is calling the game alongside Vitale, to ask Dickie V. for his thoughts. Vitale says he thinks all of the teams on the graphic deserve to get in because the ACC, from top to bottom, is the best conference in college basketball. Vitale cites the fact that Syracuse, who is ninth in the league standings, has three wins over top-10 teams this season. After O’Brien recaps what those wins were, Vitale says he’s happy that Orange coach Jim Boeheim will be going back to the tourney and that he hopes Boeheim can win another national title before he retires. Vitale then reminds viewers that Boeheim has won one championship, when he beat Roy Williams and Kansas in 2003.

B. Grayson Allen checks into the game and, apropos of nothing, Vitale says North Carolina remains his pick to win the national championship in April. O’Brien, unfazed by Vitale mentioning something that has zero relevance to the game happening in front of them, goes along with it and notes that the Tar Heels were held to half of their season scoring average in a 53–43 loss at Virginia. Dickie V. agrees that Carolina’s offensive performance against the Cavaliers was shocking, and then informs viewers that 43 points is the lowest number of points the Heels have ever scored under Roy Williams.

C. Florida State’s Michael Ojo gets fouled and goes to the free throw line, providing O’Brien with an opportunity to mention that Ojo is a fifth-year senior who is 24 years old. Vitale jokes that Ojo’s 7-foot-1, 300-pound frame makes him look even older than that. After a beat, Vitale tells O’Brien that Brad Daugherty once enrolled at North Carolina when he was just 16 years old, then asks O’Brien to imagine a 16-year-old Daugherty having to play against Ojo. O’Brien’s amusement gives Dickie V. the affirmation he needs to follow up with some Daugherty trivia. Vitale says Daugherty graduated from Charles D. Owen High School in Black Mountain, North Carolina, which is where Roy Williams was hired for his first career coaching job.

6. North Carolina (25–6)

Why it will win the national championship: This is an ideal North Carolina team on paper in the sense that its pieces fit head coach Roy Williams’s system perfectly. Joel Berry II is a quick point guard who can shoot but doesn’t need to; Theo Pinson is a high-energy playmaker and lockdown defender; Justin Jackson is a long and athletic scoring threat who can connect from anywhere on the court; and Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks are big guys who can run the floor, score on the low block, crash the glass, and step out to knock down 15-footers (assuming Hicks doesn’t foul out in his first three minutes of action). And that’s to say nothing of a deep bench that features the likes of rebounding machine Tony Bradley and Mr. Eyebrows himself, Luke Maye. If North Carolina wins the national title, it won’t be because it used any tricks or because an unlikely hero emerged. If it wins, it will be because it ran a devastating and relentless system that has skilled athletes with whom few teams in America can match up.

Why it won’t survive the tournament’s opening weekend: As great as North Carolina’s offense is when Berry and Jackson are rolling, Meeks is throwing his weight around, and Hicks stays on the floor, the Heels have really struggled against great ACC defenses. In the five combined games Carolina played against Georgia Tech, Miami, Virginia, and Louisville, UNC went 2–3 and shot just 37.3 percent from the field, including 29.1 percent from deep. Carolina should earn the no. 1 seed in the South, which means, barring a historic upset, it isn’t going to lose in the first round. But a potential second-round matchup against a stout defense that could slow Carolina’s up-tempo attack (like South Carolina, Wichita State, or Dayton) might spell trouble for a Heels group that hasn’t beaten an obvious NCAA tournament team away from Chapel Hill since Thanksgiving.

5. Oregon (26–4)

Why it will win the national championship: Oregon has everything you’d look for in a potential national champion. The Ducks are experienced, having returned most of their Elite Eight roster from 2015–16, and use only one freshman (Payton Pritchard) and one sophomore (Tyler Dorsey) in their regular rotation. They have a go-to stud in Dillon Brooks, who has already hit two game-winning buzzer-beaters this season, as well as great 3-point shooters (Oregon went 16-for-25 from deep in an 85–58 rout of Arizona on February 4), lane penetrators, rim protectors (the Ducks should be the only team in the tourney with two players averaging two-plus blocks per game), X factors, glue guys, gamers, players with the clutch gene, guys who are like another coach on the floor, and any other cliché that I’m missing. All Oregon lacks is a surefire future lottery pick, but Villanova proved last year that one isn’t necessary for a team to win a national title.

Payton Pritchard (Getty Images)
Payton Pritchard (Getty Images)

Why it won’t survive the tournament’s opening weekend: The Ducks haven’t played their best basketball of late, as their past six games have included a buzzer-beating 68–65 win at Cal, a tight 75–73 victory at Stanford, and a complete collapse during an 82–79 loss at UCLA. Oregon’s biggest strength is its balance, not only in terms of individual production, but also in that the Ducks are just as good on defense as they are on offense. The flip side of that, though, is that Oregon isn’t overwhelmingly great at anything. At some point during the tournament, things will likely go south and the Ducks will have to figure out how to string together easy baskets. Outside of giving the ball to Brooks and having everyone else clear out of his way, I’m not sure Oregon has a reliable way to do that.

4. Gonzaga (29–1)

Why it will win the national championship: Gonzaga’s bid for a perfect season came to an end with a 79–71 loss to BYU on Saturday, but the Zags’ national title hopes are still very much alive. This has been the best and most complete team in the NCAA for most of this season. Losing a game in which Przemek Karnowski battled foul trouble, the Bulldogs went 3-for-16 from 3 and shot 55 percent from the free throw line, and BYU couldn’t miss down the stretch does little to change that. If Gonzaga’s jerseys said “North Carolina” and BYU’s said “Virginia,” we’d all just chalk up last weekend’s result to a bad matchup (BYU really has been Gonzaga’s nemesis in recent years) and continue to believe Gonzaga is as good as any team in America. So that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

Why it won’t survive the tournament’s opening weekend: Two things about BYU’s makeup helped it secure an upset win over Gonzaga: a versatile big man who commanded a double-team (and led to Karnowski’s foul trouble), and multiple 3-point shooters who could hit from anywhere. That’s not to say programs with other styles can’t beat the Zags, but since BYU has recently had Gonzaga’s number, that seems to be a formula that could give head coach Mark Few’s team problems in the tourney. With Justin Patton (a 7-footer averaging 13.1 points per game) and multiple players shooting better than 45 percent from 3, Creighton is cut from the same cloth as BYU. Should the Bluejays, who are likely to be a no. 7 or no. 8 seed, face the Zags, they have the potential to pull a second-round stunner.

3. Villanova (27–3)

Why it will win the national championship: Villanova lost Ryan Arcidiacono (graduation), Daniel Ochefu (graduation), and Phil Booth (injury) from last season’s national title rotation, added Donte DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall into the mix, and has somehow put together an even better team than it had in 2015–16. I want to say it makes no damn sense, but then I remember that the Wildcats have Josh Hart, who is pretty much the perfect college basketball player. I can’t shake the thought that there’s a comparison to be made between Villanova and the Cleveland Cavaliers, not just because both won titles last spring, but also because Hart feels like the closest thing the college game has to LeBron, Jalen Brunson is a scoring point guard with a quick first step not unlike Kyrie Irving, and Kris Jenkins is the valedictorian of the Kevin Love School for Guys Who Should Spend More Time in the Paint But Prefer to Float Around the Perimeter and Jack Up 3s. Also, it feels like Villanova has been coasting through the regular season and is simply waiting for the real dance to begin, a tendency that is often attributed to LeBron’s teams. That’s a terrifying thought, considering that the Wildcats are 27–3 and ranked no. 2 in the AP poll.

Why it won’t survive the tournament’s opening weekend: What a difference a year makes. If Villanova hadn’t won the title last season, this group would be considered ripe for an upset, and not just because Jay Wright is a terrible head coach who chokes, or whatever it was we all were saying about him before last March. I mean, the Wildcats rotation is basically six guys deep (although forward Darryl Reynolds is expected to return from a rib injury soon), with one of those guys (Jenkins) being a sub-40 percent 3-point shooter who averages seven 3-point attempts per game and another (Mikal Bridges) being as likely to go oh-fer as he is to drop 20 points. In a tournament in which one bad night can end a season, those flaws don’t exactly invoke confidence, even if we are all supposed to mindlessly trust the Wildcats since they’re the reigning national champs.

2. UCLA (27–3)

Why it will win the national championship: Umm … have you seen UCLA play? That offense is unbelievable. By that, I mean it does something every game that I literally cannot believe, like Lonzo Ball hitting a 943-foot step-back to clinch a win over a top-five team, Bryce Alford draining nine 3-pointers in a game at Colorado, or Ball throwing a fadeaway lob — with a hand in his face — to T.J. Leaf for a one-handed jam. UCLA can win the national championship because the objective of basketball is to score more points than the other team, and nobody is as good at scoring as UCLA.

Why it won’t survive the tournament’s opening weekend: Umm … have you seen UCLA play? That defense is atrocious. The fact that the Bruins getting in a defensive stance and actually showing some effort gets me excited is probably not a great sign for their chances. Also, for as terrific as UCLA’s offense is, this team isn’t always consistent from the 3-point line. Over the past five games, the Bruins have gone 8-for-26 and 7-for-23 (twice) from deep, which is why defense is such a major area of concern. Trying to beat teams 150–140 is fine when it works, but at some point in the tourney UCLA’s shooting is going to go cold. When that happens, I don’t necessarily have faith that its defense can carry the load.

1. Kansas (27–3)

Why it will win the national championship: The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks wrote a great piece last week detailing the Jayhawks’ transformation this season under Bill Self, who has gone from relying on an old-school, inside-out approach to using a four-guard lineup that he trusts thanks to the versatility of freshman forward Josh Jackson. This is likely a case of the head coach adjusting to his personnel rather than making a conscious shift in the direction of his program, but the end result is the same: Kansas, led by national player of the year favorite Frank Mason III (obligatory link to #BIFM), has little in common with all of its previous teams that came up short in March. The Jayhawks have gone 27–3 while navigating one of the toughest schedules in America, with two of those losses coming in overtime. In short, Kansas will win the national title because it has taken the best shots from the country’s best teams all season and remained virtually unscathed, leaving me no reason to think things should be any different in a few weeks.

Why it won’t survive the tournament’s opening weekend: For as sparkling as the Jayhawks’ record appears, the truth is they’ve had to pull magic out of their asses far too often this season. Five Kansas wins have come by margins of three points or fewer, and that doesn’t include the 84–80 victory over West Virginia that saw it rally from 14 points down with three minutes left in regulation. That total also doesn’t include Tuesday’s 73–63 win over Oklahoma (in which the Jayhawks erased a 12-point deficit with 10 minutes remaining), late January’s 79–73 win at Kentucky (in which they trailed by 12 in the first half), mid-January’s 87–80 win over Oklahoma State (in which they were down by 11), early January’s 81–70 win at Oklahoma (in which they overcame a nine-point halftime deficit), or December’s 86–80 win at TCU (in which they climbed out of a 10-point hole). So yeah, Kansas has spent much of the season walking a tightrope and counting on the heroics of #BIFM to steady it. What could possibly go wrong once the tournament starts?

The Trillion of the Week

Michigan State’s Eron Harris blew out his knee in an 80–63 loss at Purdue on February 18, ending the career of an enigmatic senior who could never quite harness his potential. Well, the injury didn’t fully end his career, I guess, because Harris returned to the court in the final moments of last Sunday’s senior night against Wisconsin. Wearing an enormous knee brace, Harris stood still for a few seconds, kissed the Spartans logo at midcourt, and registered one of the coolest trillions of all time.

The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is B. Thanks for reading this season. I love you all.