Which teams currently outside of the AP Top 10 have a real chance to win the national title?
Most teams currently residing in the AP Top 10 have the ability to win a national title. Villanova, Virginia, Purdue, Duke, and all the other top-10 teams could cut down the nets April 2.
But what about the other guys? What about the teams ranked 11-25, or even the unranked teams? Do any of them have a shot to catch fire in March and win a national championship?
Mostly, no. If Tennessee wins the 2017-18 men’s basketball national championship, I’ll eat my hat (sorry, Vols fans). However, this is another one of those years without a clearly superior team, à la 2011-12 Kentucky or 2014-15 Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Duke. That means it’s all the more likely that as we turn the calendar to February, a team currently outside the elite gets hot down the stretch and runs its way to a title.
But which candidates are most likely to do that? Keep your eye on these six teams during the final two months of the season.
No. 11 Auburn: The Unexpectedly Good Team
Before the season started, it was highly unlikely that at any point this season Auburn would be sneaking up on the top 10 in the rankings and would spend time hanging out on the two-line of any version Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology. But here we are, in the middle of the 14th week of the season, and Auburn is ranked 11th in the country, has a two-game lead in the SEC, and looks like a viable national champion.
Auburn has two legitimate ballers in guards Bryce Brown and Mustapha Heron, a litany of players who can shoot from distance, and a couple rim protectors that make it difficult for opposing teams to score at the rim (sophomore Anfernee McLemore is averaging 3.0 blocks per game on just 19.6 minutes per game).
According to KenPom.com, the Tigers rank ninth in overall adjusted efficiency margin (AdjEM), 12th in adjusted offensive efficiency (AdjO), and 27th in adjusted defensive efficiency (AdjD). They also rank 11th in scoring offense, t-15th in average scoring margin, and 32nd in field goal percentage against.
This team isn’t dominant in one aspect of the game, but it has balance and a potential for potency, having broken the 90-point threshold six times. That could prove useful come March.
Head coach Bruce Pearl has Auburn on the precipice of its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2003 and only its ninth appearance overall.
No. 12 Oklahoma: The Team With The Transcendent Player
The last two times Connecticut won the national championship, the Huskies did not win with particularly great teams. They won because Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier put the 2011 and 2014 teams, respectively, on their backs and single-handedly carried Connecticut to titles.
This Oklahoma team is also not a very good team, but it has a singular talent in Trae Young, which makes the Sooners a threat to cut down the nets.
Young leads the country in both points per game (30.3) and assists per game (9.5), is shooting 40.9 percent from three-point range while also attempting the second-most triples of any player in the nation and has scored more than 40 points in a game four times. He is this Oklahoma team.
His teammates occasionally contribute – freshman Brady Manek can shoot it extremely well from deep, and veterans Christian James and Khadeem Lattin also contribute every now and again – but basically, the entire offensive burden falls on Young’s shoulders, and he is willing and able to bear the load.
Forget about defense: the Sooners don’t play it. Oklahoma’s path to a title runs through Trae Young’s offensive prowess, and he has the ability to do what Walker and Napier did before him.
No.16 Wichita State: The Team With The Talent To Put It All Together
I haven’t given up on Wichita State. Sure, after losing to Temple in overtime Thursday night the Shockers have now lost three conference games and five overall, but this team does have the potential to be one of the nation’s great teams. They just haven’t quite put it all together just yet.
At this point, it’s fair to consider that Gregg Marshall’s squad will never fully realize its potential. However, what we’re considering here are teams with the ability to win a title, and if by some chance or feat of coaching the Shockers do hit their ceiling, they can run the table.
Wichita State has a go-to scorer in sophomore Landry Shamet, a dominant inside presence in soon-to-be-24-year-old Shaq Morris, and a sharpshooter in senior Conner Frankamp. It also is still working a vital piece of last season’s team, junior forward Markus McDuffie, back into the rotation.
The Shockers shoot well from distance (38th nationally in three-point field goal percentage), are efficient on the offensive end (16th in AdjO), and rebound extremely well (fourth in rebound margin). Their defense has been a bit shoddy – they rank 71st in AdjD and 98th in scoring defense – but if they can patch that up just a bit, the offense is strong enough to carry them.
This team has a national championship ceiling; it’s just a matter of whether it puts all the pieces together.
No. 23 Florida: The Team That Can Shoot The Lights Out
After watching Florida play to this point in the season, it would be a miracle for it to win the national title. But here’s how it can happen.
The Gators can shoot the crap out of the ball. Unfortunately, they tend to be a bit streaky. See their past two games as an example. In an 81-60 win against Baylor, Florida shot 14-for-25 from deep (56.0 percent). That’s phenomenal and a significant reason they blew a severely underrated Baylor team out of the water. But against Georgia, a 72-60 loss, the Gators went 9-for-26 from beyond the arc (34.6 percent). That’s not dismal, but their inability to consistently drill threes contributed to their dearth in scoring.
Florida isn’t a strong defensive team – it ranks 61st in AdjD – so it relies heavily on its offense to win games, and its offense relies heavily on outside shooting to score points. Thus, Florida relies heavily on outside shooting to win games. The Gators have the ability to knock down an enormous amount of threes in a game, and if they were to do so throughout the tournament, they could potentially outscore everyone en route to a title. The hard part is simply doing that for six straight games.
It’s unlikely, given how difficult it is to drain a large percentage of triples game after game after game, that Florida returns to the Final Four, let alone wins a title. But if they can actually do that and shoot near 50.0 percent from deep during the tournament? Watch out.
Louisville: The Unranked Team Everyone Forgot About
Before the FBI scandal hit and Rick Pitino was fired, Louisville was considered an early contender to win the title. Now, the unranked Cardinals are 16-6 (6-3): respectable, but don’t, on the surface, look like a title threat. And that’s probably true, however, the Cardinals could pull it out with a combination of player (not coach) experience, tough defense, and timely offense.
Deng Adel, Quentin Snider, Ray Spalding, V.J. King, and Anas Mahmoud all played important supporting roles to legitimately vital roles on last season’s second-seeded team that finished tied for second in the ACC. True, the heart of that team, Donovan Mitchell, currently plays for the Utah Jazz, but the majority of that team returned, giving Louisville some much needed stability during a tumultuous season.
The Cardinals are solid defensively, ranking 15th in AdjD, 97th in scoring defense (this is mainly a factor of their top-100 tempo allowing for more possessions per game), and 16th in field goal percentage against. A team that can frustrate opponents defensively can make a tourney run, and Louisville certainly fits that bill.
Then it comes down to finding the offense. Louisville does not shoot well from distance (a mediocre 34.9 percent from beyond the arc), so the majority of its offense has to come at the rim and in the mid-range. Adel, the team’s leading scorer, has proven himself capable of finding a look at multiple levels in the half court, and while Snider serves more as a facilitator, he can also stroke it a bit and finish at the rim.
It’s a bit of a long shot, but if there is one currently unranked team capable of making a run as a five-, six-, or seven-seed, it’s the Cardinals.
Edited by Brian Kang.
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