Contender or Pretender: A look at the Top 25’s chances before March Madness Begins

By Ryan Decker 

Postseason basketball is officially underway, as a few of the smaller conferences have begun their league tournaments.

With the major conference tournaments starting over the next few days, it’s time to start to officially draw the lines between the teams that do and don’t have a realistic chance at winning the national championship.

I’m going to go through the AP Top 25 rankings, classifying the teams as either a “contender” or “pretender”. Then at the end, I’ll list the teams sitting outside the Top 25 with the best changes of making a deep tournament run.

cotender-or-pretender
Graphic created by Ryan Decker 

1. Kansas – Contender

What’s not to like about this Kansas (28-3) team?

Senior Frank Mason III leads this Jayhawks squad with 20.5 points and over five assists per game, while Big 12 Freshman of the Year Josh Jackson ranks second on the team in points (16.4) and rebounds (7.2).

Kansas is one of the highest scoring teams in the country, with a defense that could arise to the challenge when necessary, limiting the opposition to 75 points or less in over half the games it played against ranked opponents.

Bill Self is a proven winner, and with Mason and Jackson leading the way, he has a great opportunity to earn his second championship.

2. Villanova – Contender

The defending champs are poised for a repeat performance.

Josh Hart is one of the top players in the country, averaging 18.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per contest.

The Wildcats are not only sound offensively, but are one of the best teams in the nation defensively, in terms of limiting the scoring of the opposition.

For the fourth-straight year, Villanova (28-3) will enter the tournament as either a one or two seed. Like last year, though, depth will be a question surrounding Jay Wright’s squad.

As long as Hart and company don’t run into foul trouble, forcing Jay Wright to go deeper into the bench than normal, Nova should be considered one of the favorites to win it all.

 

3. UCLA – Contender

Lonzo Ball. Bryce Alford. TJ Leaf. Isaac Hamilton. Aaron Holiday.

An entire starting five averaging over 13 points per game.

This UCLA Bruins (28-3) team is for real.

They’re the best team in the country at scoring and sharing the basketball, and with Leaf leading the way, are also one of the better rebounding teams.

Ball and Alford are shooters plenty able to carry a team through a deep tournament run, and Leaf’s offensive abilities keep defenses honest.

UCLA may be third in the Pac-12 in the standings, but the Bruins are easily the conference’s best team.

4. Gonzaga – Pretender

We’ve seen this story before.

Gonzaga (30-1) enters the postseason with an incredible record, looking like one of the best teams in the country. And more times than not, the Bulldogs haven’t even made it past the first weekend.

Here’s the history: Gonzaga has been a Top 3 seed five times, and only twice made it to the Sweet 16 or beyond. Eleven times the Bulldogs have been an eighth seed or better, and only three times did they make it past the Round of 32.

To be fair, who’s to say this isn’t the Gonzaga team that Mark Few takes all the way? Maybe this is the Gonzaga team of destiny.

Gonzaga did play and defeat five Power-5 opponents, including then-No. 16 Arizona and then-No. 21 Iowa State.

However, I would be fearful of taking the Dogs too far in the tournament on my bracket.

BYU showed how to beat this Gonzaga team, and (no offense to the Cougars) but if they can figure it out, so can other teams and coaches.

 

5. Oregon – Pretender

The Oregon Dillon Brooks finished the regular season tied for the top spot in the Pac-12.

No, that wasn’t a typo. Oregon lives and dies at the hands of Dillon Brooks.

Oregon (27-4) needed multiple game-winning shots by Brooks to keep its impressive record, and without him, it’s certainly debatable where the Ducks would be.

It’s no secret teams with a go-to player perform well in the tournament, but teams that have to lean so heavily on one player’s play normally don’t.

Oregon falls into the latter category.

History also says the Ducks won’t go far in the NCAA Tournament.

Oregon has advanced to the Elite Eight four times, including last year. Each year following a trip to the quarterfinals, the Ducks have been a first-round exit.

Don’t bet on the Ducks to go too far.

 

6. North Carolina – Contender

Roy Williams Tar Heels are for real.

North Carolina (26-6) is one of the most tested teams in the country, having played 10 games against ranked teams, and four times played a Top 25 opponent in back-to-back contests.

The Tar Heels strengths are scoring and rebounding.

ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson paces UNC in scoring at over 18 points per game. However, I argue that Joel Berry II is Williams’ most important player.

Five of UNC’s six losses on the year came in games Berry scored under his season average of 15.1 points per contest.

In order to beat the Tar Heels, you’re going to have to simply out-shoot them, and attempt to keep the rebounding battle as close as possible. If that gets one-sided in North Carolina’s favor, the game is likely over.

Williams and company should be a lock to get to at least the Elite Eight.

 

7. Arizona – Contender

Sean Miller and company suffered their earliest exit last year from the NCAA Tournament since being bounced in the first round in 2008. So recent history says Arizona (27-4) is due to at least get to the Sweet 16.

With only four losses on the year in a Power-5 conference, the Wildcats are a team to believe in… with one caveat.

Of all the top teams in the major conferences, the conference tournament means the most to Arizona. The Wildcats need to continue to find chemistry with the talented Allonzo Trier, who was forced to sit out the first 19 games of the season.

As long as they take care of business in Las Vegas, they can be considered contenders for the big tournament.

 

8. Kentucky – (push)

Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox are arguably the best freshman backcourt duo ever to be brought together at the college level.

Those two, and the rest of the Kentucky Wildcats (26-5), can score with anyone in the country.

Not only can they score, but they’re also one of the best rebounding teams in the country with Edrice Adebayo leading the way.

It’s another very young, but very talented group for John Calipari.

That youth could be their downfall, though, as the Wildcats have definitely shown their age at times this season.

Just looking at skill alone, Kentucky can without a doubt make a deep tournament run. The caveat here, is if Monk and company run into a team with a lot of upperclassmen that can hold it’s own in a pure shootout, we could see the Wildcats get upset.

9. Baylor – Pretender

Jonathan Motley is as good as it gets at the college level.

But the players around him aren’t up to par. It took numerous monster performances out of Motley for the Bears (25-6) to get where they are heading into the post season.

If I had to pick a word to describe this Baylor team it’s vulnerable – vulnerable to an early-round exit for the third consecutive year.

 

10. Louisville – (push)

Rick Pitino’s team is a troubling case.

The Cardinals (24-7) are good defensively, but do leave some to be desired on the other end. You can argue they also have more bad losses (5) than really good wins (4).

Pitino is well acquainted with the big dance, and he could be the difference maker between his team being an early exit, or a trip to the Elite Eight.

 

11. West Virginia – Pretender

Sorry West Virginia (23-6) fans, but I just don’t see a deep run out of this team.

The Mountaineers are an above-average team at putting the ball in the hoop, and at times can be one of the most intimidating teams in the nation.

With that said, two main pitfalls standout.

WVU lacks a pure scorer offensively, and on the defensive side have been prone to allowing teams to come back into ballgames. Press Virginia gave up a 14-point lead late in Kansas for the second year in a row, and needed double overtime to defeat Texas Tech in Morgantown after owning a big lead late.

The recipe for success for the Mountaineers could be getting as low of a seed as possible, as WVU played some of its best games when looked at as the underdog. Likely a four seed, though, they will be the favorite for the first few rounds (if they make it that far.)

 

12. SMU – (push)

If you’re looking for a non-Power 5 conference team to possibly make a deep tournament run, SMU (27-4) would be the team I’d suggest.

Though the Mustangs aren’t a great scoring team, they are good at defending and rebounding the basketball, two qualities that are important.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently has SMU as a No. 5 seed in the tournament, with an unfavorable draw that would likely pit the Mustangs against Duke in the Round of 32.

A better draw, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Southern Methodist in at least the Sweet 16.

Not a title contender, but not a first-round exit either.

 

13. Purdue – Contender

The Boilermakers are the best team in the Big Ten, and Caleb Swanigan is one of the best players in the county.

With Swanigan leading the way, Purdue (25-6) definitely has the ability to make a run in the big dance.

Add in the fact that not only can Swanigan beat you with everything he does, but the Boilermakers collectively excel at ball movement and 3-point shooting, and Matt Painter’s team looks dangerous.

14. Duke – (push)

It all depends what Duke (23-8) team shows up.

If it’s the Blue Devils squad that has shown up in each game against North Carolina, and for most of the second half of the season, Duke could easily make a trip to the Final Four.

But if the team that lost to Syracuse and Miami late in the year, and to Virginia Tech early shows up in the tournament, the Blue Devils could be once again an early round upset.

You know Luke Kennard will score, but will anyone outside of Jason Tatum and Grayson Allen provide him assistance? Speaking of Allen, he needs a strong showing in the ACC tournament, as he scored under his season average in each of his last six games.

 

15. Cincinnati – (push)

*See SMU*

If you’ve got some “funny money” to throw around on a tournament team that not a lot of people are talking about, Cincinnati (27-4) is a good team to look towards.

Kyle Washington is the player to look out for on this team – averaging over 13 points and seven rebounds a game that is also a good shooter.

The Bearcats have played five ranked teams, arguably making them more tested than their AAC counterpart, SMU. A scrappy style of play defines this team.

Sometimes scrappy works.

 

16. Florida St. – Pretender

Six weeks ago Florida State (24-7) looked like the most consistent team in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Then, back-to-back seemingly unexplainable loses to Georgia Tech and Syracuse threw a monkey wrench into things so big that at times it looked like the Seminoles forgot what sport they were playing.

FSU ended the season with an even record over their last six games, and were simply underwhelming down the stretch.

Sure, a good showing in the ACC tournament could turn things around, but I don’t see it happening. The Seminoles will be going home from the dance early.

 

17. Florida – Pretender

Florida (24-7) didn’t end the season the way it would have liked, losing two of its last three games including the season finale to an unranked Vanderbilt team.

Five of the seven losses on the year came against teams that at one time or another were ranked this year. But getting swept by the Commodores is concerning.

Granted, the Gators are still without a doubt the second best team in the SEC, but it’s with a pretty large gap between themselves and Kentucky at the top.

Florida is just an average rebounding team, are slightly above-average in scoring and points allowed, and don’t share the ball well.

 

18. Bulter – (push)

The Bulldogs handed No. 2 Villanova two of its three losses, sweeping the season series with the Wildcats. Four of Butler’s (23-7) other twenty-one victories also came against ranked competition, including Arizona.

Butler’s got quality wins, but also has some bad losses against Indiana State and St. John’s.

The Bulldogs don’t do anything great, but they’re a solid team, good enough for second-best in a sold Big East Conference.

I’m looking forward to seeing Butler and the rest of the Big East Thursday at Madison Square Garden. Hopefully after I see the Dogs in person I’ll have a better idea of their chances in the NCAA tournament, but for now, they fall in between Contender and Pretender status.

 

19. St. Mary’s – Pretender

Short and sweet, I’m not a believer in the Gaels. Saint Mary’s (27-3) is the second-best team in the West Coast Conference, and I don’t buy the top team to begin with.

Without a great win on its resume, St. Mary’s will likely be a five seed or lower, meaning an uphill battle from the start.

20. Wichita State – Pretender

It might not be the familiar names of Fred VanVleet and company, but that doesn’t mean Wichita State (30-4) isn’t good; quite the opposite.

In fact, according to Jay Bilas, the Shockers are “damn good.”

Gregg Marshall’s squad is among the nation’s best in scoring, rebounding, and not giving up points.

With its conference tournament already concluded, Wichita State’s ticket is already punched. It also means the Shockers will need other teams to help if they want a better seeding, as Lunardi currently has the Shockers projected as an 8 seed.

Marshall and company, though, are no strangers to playing spoilers. Depending on the matchups, don’t be surprised if they do it again.

 

21. Virginia – Pretender

Similar to WVU, the Cavs will play some of the best and grittiest defense you’ve seen in your life. However, outside of London Perrantes, Tony Bennett has no go to scorer, and the offense as a whole just isn’t good at all.

Yes, Virginia (21-9) has the top defenses in the country, but it also has one the worst offense in the nation in terms of scoring.

Six of Virginia’s nine losses could be considered bad losses, and more than half of its setbacks came at home in Charlottesville, a place the Cavaliers only lost in once combined over the past two seasons.

Unless something changes, UVA won’t be playing past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament on my brackets.

 

22. Notre Dame – Pretender

Consistency was something that lacked in a majority of teams from the ACC, and Notre Dame (23-8) falls under the category of teams without it.

The Irish were in and out of the rankings this year, and depend too much on their starters to produce.

Bonzie Colson averages a double-double at 17 points and 10.4 rebounds per game, but outside of him, Mike Brey lacks some of the talent he’s had in recent years.

 

23. Iowa St. – Pretender

This isn’t the Iowa State (20-10) team from the last two years with multiple players that are extremely well known throughout the Big 12, if not through the nation.

What this is, though, is a Cyclones team that is one of the hottest squads in the country, who’s marque win over Kansas in Phog Allen Fieldhouse turned their season around.

Iowa State, led by senior guard Monte Morris, has the ability to score in bunches, and go on runs based on their athleticism and ability to shoot the three ball. ISU is ranked inside the top 20 in 3-point field goal percentage, and trails only UCLA and Vanderbilt among made three’s amongst Power-5 conference teams.

The Cyclones are hot at the right time, but the Big 12 Tournament could cool them off. A trip to the Sweet 16 might be as far as they go.

 

24. Wisconsin – Contender

A pair of Big Ten teams round out the bottom of the Top 25.

Wisconsin (23-8) sure could’ve used a better ending to its season, coming out on the wrong side in five of its last seven games.

Normally that’s a near kiss of death entering the postseason, but I wouldn’t count out the Badgers.

With Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes leading the way, and Ethan Happ anchoring things on the inside, Wisconsin has a good trio of players that could lead them on a postseason run.

 

25. Maryland

Mark Turgeon and Maryland (24-7) have flown under the radar for much of the year, only spending eight weeks inside the Top 25.

The Terps put together a solid season, finishing second in the Big Ten, but ended the year with a similar fate as the aforementioned Badgers – losing five of their last nine.

With Melo Trimble being the only consistent option, offensively, and their 0-2 record against ranked teams, the Terrapins don’t appear overly threatening entering postseason play.

 

Below are the teams located outside the Top 25 with best chances to make a deep tournament run:

  • Creighton
  • Marquette
  • Michigan St.
  • Middle Tennessee
  • Syracuse
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