Overrated and Underrated Teams of the Tournament
A team-by-team breakdown of the blue bloods, outsiders and real title threats in this year’s tournament.
It’s been a turbulent year in college basketball.
The major conferences have been extraordinarily competitive, and, as a result, a lot of the so-called “blue blood” programs that usually have firm footholds in the top five have struggled at times.
We’ve now turned the calendar over to March, and while there are a lot of very good teams, there doesn’t seem to be a clear favorite to cut down the nets in Phoenix next month.
Having said that, let’s take a look at some contenders in different tiers.
The Pack Leaders
Even with the aforementioned turbulence across the college basketball landscape, there are three top-tier programs that have been more consistent than the rest. Despite their slip-ups, they appear to have been the steadiest contenders in the country.
The Jayhawks have had a few troubling indications. They barely squeaked out a win over Duke at the Champions Classic before Duke’s vaunted freshmen were even healthy enough to play, and not long ago they suffered a rare loss at Allen Fieldhouse.
But, at the time of this writing, they’ve secured the number one ranking and still have only three losses on the season. They’re also led by senior point guard and Wooden Award contender Frank Mason III, who’s perfectly capable of a Kemba Walker-esque run to a national championship.
The defending champion Wildcats, largely behind an outstanding season from Josh Hart, have arguably been the best team over the course of the season. One can argue that they haven’t played against a true top-five team, but they’ve handled the likes of Creighton, Virginia, and Xavier with relative ease.
Freshman sensation Lonzo Ball may be stealing the headlines—or at least his father is—but the Bruins have a complete team that’s marched through a stellar season in convincing fashion. If they can surpass Oregon and Arizona for a Pac-12 title, they’ll likely be in line for a 1-seed and a favorable path to the Final Four.
This is a category of mostly blue blood contenders that look very good, but perhaps not as good as we expected. These teams play in ultra-competitive conferences (mostly, we’re talking about the ACC this year) and have all taken some hits—but could just be battle-tested enough to morph into juggernauts when the brackets are released.
1. North Carolina
Poised for a possible ACC regular season title, the Tar Heels will have a legitimate shot to improve upon last year’s tournament run. In 2016, Carolina was the top seed in the deepest region in the tournament and still got through to the national championship before falling to Villanova. This year’s group is capable of going one game further, though every time they get on a real roll they seem to stumble.
The Cardinals have a chance to win the ACC crown as well, and have been the best conference’s most consistent team outside of Chapel Hill.
Rick Pitino doesn’t quite have the star power he sometimes has, but his team still plays at its signature frenetic pace, making it a tough match-up for most anybody. Wins over Kentucky and Duke prove that Louisville can win any game on a given night.
A series of speed bumps ranging from countless injuries to tripping incidents to back surgery for Mike Krzyzewski have caused the Blue Devils to drastically underachieve this season. It seems unlikely that Duke will finally reach its true potential just in time for a Final Four run, but they shouldn’t be counted out just yet.
Before losing on a bank shot buzzer beater at Syracuse they were right in the mix for the ACC title, and boast wins over North Carolina, Notre Dame, Virginia, and Florida State.
John Calipari’s latest batch of young stars has been less consistent than usual. But they have a star who can catch fire in Malik Monk, and we should all remember the team a few years ago that fell all the way to an 8-seed before making a Final Four run.
Crashing The Party
Finally, there are a few legitimate contenders that aren’t necessarily “blue blood” juggernauts, but are perfectly capable of cutting down the nets this year.
Oregon is in line to win the Pac-12 despite dealing with some serious injuries throughout the season. The Ducks topped Duke in the Sweet 16 as a 1-seed in 2016, so there’s some real tournament experience on this team as well.
It’s a wonder that Sean Miller hasn’t gotten Arizona to a Final Four yet, as good as the Wildcats have been during is tenure. This year’s group, led by dynamic guard Allonzo Trier and freshman star Lauri Markkanen, could be the one that gets him there.
3. West Virginia
Bob Huggins’s squad is actually behind Baylor and Iowa State (as well as Kansas) in the Big-12, but this team has racked up enough quality wins to be terrifying in March. The Mountaineers beat then-#6 Virginia, crushed then-#1 Baylor by 21 points, beat Kansas by 16, and won at Iowa State. They’re a top-four team by vaunted stat guru Ken Pomeroy’s measure.
Note: Gonzaga, based on rankings, is a glaring omission to this list. But each year we hear it’s the best Mark Few team yet, only to see them falter against big conference competition in the Sweet 16 or Elite 8. We’ll believe it when we see it.