The Top Freking 10 sings a different tune this week. Instead of ranking the 10 best teams in the country at the present time, I’m grading out the 10 teams with the best chance to win the NCAA tournament, factoring in each squad’s season-long resume and tournament draw. That formula necessitates a change at the top, since the selection committee felt the best way to reward Wichita State for a 34-0 regular season was to stick them in one more of the more difficult regionals I’ve ever seen.
1. FLORIDA (last week: 2)
The young Wildcats of Kentucky gave the veteran Gators quite a scare in the finals of the SEC tournament Sunday, coming back from a 16-point second-half deficit to tie the game before falling 61-60. It was nice to see Florida in a close game, and also how they responded like one would expect in said close game. Of the four No. 1 seeds, the Gators have the second-easiest path to the Final Four, with No. 2 seed Kansas and No. 3 Syracuse the likeliest roadblocks in the Elite Eight.
2. WICHITA STATE (LW: 1)
If I was a betting man, I’d wager the Shockers having to beat these three teams to book a return trip to the Final Four: No. 8 Kentucky, No. 4 Louisville and No. 2 Michigan. That road through the Midwest Regional includes a team with the most raw talent in the country (Kentucky), the defending national champions (Louisville) and the reigning national runner-ups (Michigan). The region also includes the regular season Atlantic 10 champions (Saint Louis) and the squad with the possible No. 1 pick in the draft (Jabari Parker of Duke).
3. ARIZONA (LW: 3)
Kentucky and Louisville were the last top-rated teams in kenpom.com’s rankings in 2012 and 2013. They happened to go on to be national champions. The Wildcats have that distinction this year, and possess half the formula owned by the past four national champions: an elite defense and outstanding guard play. The past four national champs have all been ranked 13th or higher in kenpom’s adjusted defense rankings and trotted out game-changing guards – 2010 Duke had Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith; 2011 UConn had Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb; 2012 Kentucky had Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb; and 2013 Louisville had Peyton Siva and Russ Smith. If TJ McConnell and Nick Johnson raise their games in March, Arizona – kenpom’s No. 1 defensive team – stands a great chance of cutting down the nets in Dallas.
4. MICHIGAN STATE (LW: NR)
The Spartans’ bandwagon is getting crowded after their relatively easy run to the Big Ten tournament crown, which included victories over Wisconsin and Michigan. Prior to the Big Ten tourney, coach Tom Izzo said it was the most important conference competition in his 19 seasons leading Michigan State. Finally healthy, Sparty was clicking on all cylinders at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, with tournament MVP Branden Dawson, Adriean Payne and Gary Harris looking healthy and confident. There’s not a more dangerous No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament, especially with MSU’s seniors not wanting to be the first group of four-year players under Izzo to miss out on a Final Four.
5. LOUISVILLE (LW: 5)
I don’t think the Cardinals are quite as capable of making their third straight Final Four because of their presence in the loaded Midwest Regional, but there’s not a hotter team in the country. Louisville has won five straight and 12 out of 13, though playing in the American Athletic Conference this season has not put them through the same night-to-night gauntlet as suiting up in the old Big East.
6. VIRGINIA (LW: 8)
Poor Virginia still isn’t getting a ton of love despite completing a sweep of the ACC regular season and postseason championships Sunday. Watching the Cavaliers play against Duke, it’s easy to see why the unit is ranked third in kenpom’s defensive rankings. UVA plays what’s called a ‘Pack-Line’ man-to-man defensive scheme, a system that discourages paint penetration with excessive help-side defense. The system was developed by Dick Bennett, the father of Virginia coach Tony Bennett.
7. KANSAS (LW: 9)
I’m keeping Kansas this high because I think the Jayhawks possess the requisite talent and depth to get to the South Regional final without star freshman center Joel Embiid. Also, they have Andrew Wiggins, who has posted the following point-rebound lines in KU’s last three games: 41-8, 30-8 and 22-7. Yeah, he’s good.
8. VILLANOVA (LW: 4)
I just don’t trust teams in the NCAA tournament that live and die on making shots. That’s what the Wildcats, who shoot the eighth-most triples in the nation per game, have to do in order to win. In its four losses, Villanova is shooting 34.7 percent from three, a number that would rank 150th in the country.
9. MICHIGAN (LW: 6)
After shooting the lights out from three (12-of-23) in its Big Ten tournament semifinal win over Ohio State, the Wolverines made half as many triples with the same amount of attempts in Sunday’s defeat to Michigan State. And therein lies the problem with Michigan: any seasoned basketball observer can infer that this team can score at a high clip – they are ranked third in kenpom’s adjusted offense rankings – but do not involve the post at all in their scheme. That strategy shifts a lot of the playmaking pressure on Nik Stauskas – and to a lesser extent, Caris LeVert, Glenn Robinson III and Derrick Walton Jr. That plan can be stopped in its tracks when the Wolverines encounter an experienced and athletic defensive team, which is what happened vs. Michigan State.
10. DUKE (LW: 7)
I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a Duke-Michigan tilt in the Midwest Regional semifinals at Lucas Oil Stadium, because the first to 90 points might win that one. The No. 2 and No. 3-ranked teams in kenpom’s offensive rankings met Dec. 3 in Durham, with the Blue Devils winning 79-69. UM forward Mitch McGary, out for the season with a back injury, recorded 15 points and 14 rebounds in that game.
Dropped out: San Diego State (10)
Grant Freking is a sportswriter for the Daily Reporter. Contact him at (317) 477-3230 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.