Now that the Super Bowl and its aftermath are over, it’s time to settle in for February and college basketball, as teams race to position themselves for the NCAA Tournament and win conference championships. If you’re just starting to follow hoops seriously now that football’s over, here’s a brief primer on the college basketball Sweet 16.
The best sixteen teams are based on projected seedings by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, notoriously accurate in his assessment of where teams while wind up on the bracket come Selection Sunday. Note that Lunardi’s seeding, updated Monday morning are based on exclusively on their body of work to date, and do not attempt to predict who might finish strong or fade.
Kentucky: The nation’s only unbeaten team doesn’t have a star, but they run a wave of nine players at you, all of whom play 20-26 minutes per game. The defense is the best in the country, aided considerably by the presence of Karl Anthony-Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein underneath to wipe away mistakes. The weakness is three-point shooting.
Virginia: UVA is the second-best defensive team in the country and is another team without a star. Everybody plays defense and everyone rebounds. The Cavs are two games up in the ACC race and are led by wing player Malcolm Brogdon. They just got bad news in that the only other double-digit scorer, Justin Anderson, will be out until at least the conference tournament.
Duke: Jahlil Okafor is as good as they come, and the freshman center (and likely #1 NBA draft pick next spring) is averaging 18 points/9 rebounds down low. The Blue Devils have good complementary rebounders and Quinn Cook can open it up from the perimeter. What they don’t do well is play good team defense, at least by national championship standards.
Gonzaga: Is this finally the Zags year? Kyle Wiltjer is knocking down 16 ppg and guard Kevin Pangos seems to have been around forever, dishing the ball and draining threes. The team as a whole also rebounds well.
Kansas: It’s not a vintage Jayhawk team. They don’t stand out on either end of the floor, but they keep winning games and lead the Big 12. Frank Mason runs the show well, and Perry Ellis is good down on the blocks. The ultimate key will be whether someone else—Wayne Selden being the most likely candidate—steps up and lifts his game offensively.
Villanova: The Wildcats are well-balanced, but they aren’t particularly big, with none of their best rebounders being over 6’7”. Since their 2009 run to the Final Four, this is a program that’s dealt with some steady disappointments in March and they’re under scrutiny this year.
Wisconsin: It’s not your usual Badger team, one that clamps down on defense but can’t score. This UW edition is the best in the nation at offensive efficiency, but rank a woeful 74th defensively. Frank Kaminsky, averaging 17 points/8 rebounds per game is a Player of the Year candidate and the lineup is well-balanced. But the defense has got to improve for the team that I live near and follow.
Arizona: Sean Miller has the Wildcats playing some tough defense, and the front line is big all the way across. Stanley Johnson, averaging 15/7, is the best of the group. And Arizona has a skilled point guard in T.J. McConnell. The one thing they don’t well is shoot from behind the arc.
Utah: The Utes are hanging with Arizona in the Pac-12 race, tied for first coming into this week. Delon Wright, the 6’5” senior, does it all with 14 points/5 rebounds/6 assists per game. And Jakob Poeltl, a 7-footer from Austria is cleaning up on the glass.
Louisville: Rick Pitino’s team ranks fourth in the nation on defense, while struggling at 52nd on offense, including in last Saturday’s loss to Virginia. But the Cards remain interesting, because they have some high-profile scorers in Terry Rozier, Chris Jones and Montrezl Harrell. It’s reasonable to think Pitino can get them to gel and then integrate that into the smothering defense.
North Carolina: Another ACC team that seems to be less than the sum of its parts right now, but has a coach with a track record you can rely on. Roy Williams has good guards in Marcus Paige and Justin Jackson, good interior pieces in Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson and an under-the-radar do-everything player in J.P Tokoto, who chips in scoring, rebounding and assists.
Notre Dame: We know the Irish can score, as they rank second in the nation in offensive efficiency. Jerian Grant leads the way with 17 ppg and also sets up his teammates, with six assists per night. We don’t yet know if the Irish can defend—they’re the worst defensive team in this Sweet 16 and by a lot.
Baylor: The Bears are loaded with talent at the forward position with Taurean Prince and Rico Gather. The latter is an absolute beast on the boards, his 13 per game being the highest of any player in this group of teams. Prince can fill it up. We need to see more consistency from this program, which tends to run on a roller-coaster.
Oklahoma: OU does it with defense, the third-best in the country. The offense has the right blend of balance, yet with one standout player that you can rely on to take important shots. That player is Buddy Hield, a 6’4” sharpshooter who averaged 18 ppg, and whose size hasn’t stopped him from scrapping for six boards a night.
Iowa State: Georges Niang’s injury in last year’s NCAA Tournament might have cost the Cyclones a Final Four trip—maybe more, since without Niang, they lost a close game to eventual national champion UConn in the Sweet 16 Niang, who goes 6’8”, scores, rebounds and distributes.
Northern Iowa: It’s not Wichita State that’s the team from the Missouri Valley Conference seeded high, it’s Northern Iowa (although the Shockers are a projected 5-seed this week). Northern Iowa is not a good rebounding team, and if they make a deep March run it will because 6’8” senior Seth Tuttle became a household name. Watching Northern Iowa and Wichita State joust the rest of the season for the MVC title is going to be one of the fun storylines of the regular season.
That’s how the top of the projected NCAA Tournament bracket in early February looks. Kentucky is the story of the regular season right now and the clear team to beat. Las Vegas says the Wildcats are the 5-7 favorite to win the national title, with Duke the next team behind at 6-1.
If I were going to challenge the chalk—and right now, quite frankly, I probably wouldn’t—but if I were, the team that intrigues me the most is Arizona. They have the size to matchup with anybody, a quarterback to run the floor, a good coach and a sense of mission after losing a heartbreaker to Wisconsin in last year’s regional final.