We have entered the dog days of February and the madness is only a month away. This is the time of the year contenders separate themselves from the pretenders. Below is a list of teams that have the best chances of advancing to the Final Four and winning a national championship. These teams include programs that have coaches with a winning history and the recipe that will lead them to Arlington in early April.
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10. Wichita State Shockers
No matter what year it is, there is always one non-power conference team that sneaks into the Elite Eight, ruining every bracket fans predicted. In this case I don’t think the Shockers will be surprising anyone this year because they are that good. Wichita State sits at 24-0, ranking No. 4 in the country, ninth in the RPI and 12th in the BPI. The Shockers could easily enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated due to their weak conference.
Wichita State leads their conference in both offensive and defensive efficiency. But what makes them a serious title contender is their play on defense. The Shockers play great help defense and don’t allow opponents to score in the paint. Wichita State force 40 percent of its opponents shot to be taken from 3-point range because of the help defense that eliminate teams from getting easy looks around the basket. They rebound the ball well, grabbing 39 per game, 19th in the country, to prevent second chance points. Fred VanVleet has a 3.9 assist-to-turnover ratio, which is a big reason why the Shockers are so efficient on the offensive end of the floor. Don’t be surprised if the Shockers are a one seed come Selection Sunday.
9. Kentucky Wildcats
Kentucky just has way too much talent to leave off this list. Their youth is a big concern come tournament time but Kentucky looks like its finding its groove. Kentucky is getting better as they gain experience. Their losses this year are all against quality opponents: Michigan State, Baylor and UNC and LSU on the road.
The Wildcats are dangerous because of their strength down low. They are seventh in the country in rebounding, grabbing 41.7 a game. They rebound the ball on 42.5 percent of their missed shots, resulting in 17.3 second chance points a game. Kentucky is led by star freshman Julius Randle, who averages 16 points and 10 rebounds a game. They score 80 points a game as a team (27th in the nation), shooting .476 percent from the field.
However, to win a championship for John Calipari’s young group, it will come down to their guard play. The Harrison twins will need to be better leaders on the floor and James Young will have to shoot the basketball well. Kentucky has two games against Florida left this season before the SEC Tournament. If Kentucky can continue to improve, no one will want to matchup against them in the NCAA Tournament.
8. Michigan Wolverines
The Wolverines have weathered the storm without top forward Mitch McGary. Michigan won 10 straight games after losing to Arizona in mid-December, beating Wisconsin and Michigan State on the road as well as taking care of business verse Iowa at home.
Michigan can downright score the ball. They score 118.3 points per 100 possessions, best in the Big 10. Nik Stauskas leads the team with 17.3 points per game, shooting a deadly .447 from 3-point range. Glen Robinson III has struggled at times this year but if he can play consistent basketball, he gives Michigan another threat to score.
It’s shocking that Michigan leads the Big 10 at 9-1 even with their struggles on defense. According to Luke Winn of Sports Illustrated, Michigan’s defensive efficiency is a lousy 105.3, ninth in the Big 10 and 75th in the country. The Wolverines have the experience needed in the tournament after last year’s run to the National Championship Game, but their defense will have to be better if they want to return to the Final Four. We will learn a lot more about Michigan in the coming week as they have some tough games left on their schedule.