On Sunday night, the 68-team NCAA Tournament field will officially be revealed, and fans of each of those programs will begin to map out how they will take home the title, no matter how realistic it may be. While it is always fun to see a Cinderella squad make a run, the group of teams that can realistically win six straight games and take home the title is pretty limited.
The 2015-16 college basketball season has been pretty crazy, with a handful of teams hitting No. 1 in the polls. However, as we get into the conference tournaments, an upper tier of teams has started to set itself apart from the pack. Upsets happen, and anything can occur in March, but in all likelihood your next national champion will come from one of these 10 schools.
Duke Blue Devils:
Record: 23-9 (12-7 ACC)
KenPom Adj. Offensive Efficiency Rank: 7th
KenPom Adj. Defensive Efficiency Rank: 91st
The Blue Devils may be the weakest team on our list, but it is very difficult to count out a Mike Krzyzewski team in March. Without forward Amile Jefferson, the Blue Devils have very limited depth, but their top talents match-up well with anyone in the country. Grayson Allen is as good a scoring guard as you'll find in college basketball, while Brandon Ingram is constantly improving, and a dynamic talent. Duke's margin for error is not very big, with what is essentially a six-man rotation, but as wins over Louisville, North Carolina, and Virginia have showed, the Blue Devils can play with anyone.
Of course, this is no guarantee that Duke will head back to the Final Four. With the wrong match-up, this is a Duke team that can go down in round one. As anyone watching today's ACC Tournament win over N.C. State will tell you, the Blue Devils are not a great defensive team, and will have to outscore opponents. In fact, Duke's low defensive metrics would make them among the worst teams on that side of the ball to win a title. With Coach K on the sideline, and a clutch star in Allen, however, we're not willing to count the Blue Devils out, much to the chagrin of the rest of the college basketball world.
Record: 27-4 (15-3 Big 12)
KenPom Adj. Offensive Efficiency Rank: 5th
KenPom Adj. Defensive Efficiency Rank: 10th
No one enters post-season play hotter than Kansas. While Oklahoma, West Virginia, and others appeared to be legitimate challengers for the Big 12 throne, for the 12th straight season Kansas came out on top. The Jayhawks have a veteran roster featuring three strong guards and one of college basketball's best forwards in Perry Ellis. KU is also probably the hottest contender heading into the tournament, winner of 11 straight games.
Kansas is one of only two teams, along with Virginia, ranked in the top ten in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. The NCAA Tournament generally favors well-rounded teams, and the Jayhawks certainly fit the bill. If there is a concern, it is that Kansas has been much better at the Phog than it is on the road, but with how the team has rolled through the last few weeks, it doesn't seem like location will be much of a factor. There will likely be thousands of Jayhawk fans supporting the team wherever it is sent, anyway.
Record: 23-8 (13-5 SEC)
KenPom Adj. Offensive Efficiency Rank: 8th
KenPom Adj. Defensive Efficiency Rank: 52nd
For much of the season, this looked like a relatively disappointing Kentucky team, but John Calipari appears to have his team peaking at the perfect time. SEC Player of the Year Tyler Ulis and dynamic freshman Jamal Murray have been one of the most formidable backcourts in college basketball this season. The key for the 'Cats is the possible emergence of highly touted freshman Skal Labissiere.
The 6-foot-11 center out of Haiti was mentioned alongside Ben Simmons as the top rising freshman in the sport before this year, but Labissiere's 2015-16 has largely been a disappointment. He is averaging just 6.8 points and 3.2 rebounds in just over 16 minutes per game, but the two performances he ended the regular season on have to have UK fans excited with the Big Dance on the horizon. In last Tuesday's 88-79 win at Florida, Labissiere scored 11 points and grabbed eight rebounds in just 15 minutes of play, his first double-digit scoring effort since January and only his third in SEC play. He followed it up in the finale against LSU, outplaying Ben Simmons for much of the game en route to an 18 point, nine board, six block performance. If Labissiere reverts back to his February form, Kentucky becomes far less dangerous. If he continues to build on those two games, the 'Cats can go all the way.
Record: 24-7 (12-6 Big Ten)
KenPom Adj. Offensive Efficiency Rank: 35th
KenPom Adj. Defensive Efficiency Rank: 20th
Yes, we've watched the Terps limp through the last month of the season. It hasn't been pretty for Maryland, which has lost four-of-six games, including one against one of the worst power conference teams out there, Minnesota. There's a good chance that this bad momentum follows Maryland into post-season play, but the team has too much talent to entirely write off. Melo Trimble is one of the best guards in the game, though he hasn't received much help lately.
Even with the disappointing recent results, there is enough talent here to right the ship. Freshman center Diamond Stone can give a lot of teams trouble, and he has had a few strong performances as of late, including 18 points against Purdue. Robert Carter, Jake Layman and Rasheed Sulaimon add scoring depth, and the last two are both dangerous shooters hitting over 39-percent of their threes. If this recent stretch is just a prolonged slump, Maryland has the tools to be dangerous in March. Now is the time to turn it around, if the Terrapins want to make a run.
Record: 24-6 (13-5 ACC)
KenPom Adj. Offensive Efficiency Rank: 13th
KenPom Adj. Defensive Efficiency Rank: 43rd
Despite running up an impressive record and falling just short of an ACC regular season title, Miami is flying under the radar. It shouldn't be. The 'Canes are one of the most well-balanced teams in the sport this season, with a very good head coach who has a bit of a history in the Tournament. On the 10 year anniversary of George Mason's famous Final Four run, Jim Larrañaga making a deep run with his new team would be perfect.
Miami is led by a strong guard rotation featuring Sheldon McClellan, Angel Rodriguez, and Davon Reed, and feature a very good big man in Tonye Jekiri, who averages over eight points, nine board, and a block per game. Miami does have some strange losses this season, including Clemson, N.C. State, and Virginia Tech, but they will be a tough out in March. With the right match-ups, the 'Canes could make a nice run.
Michigan State Spartans:
Record: 26-5 (13-5 Big Ten)
KenPom Adj. Offensive Efficiency Rank: 1st
KenPom Adj. Defensive Efficiency Rank: 29th
Never bet against Tom Izzo in March. That is good advice if Michigan State is a seven seed, as it was last year when it made an unexpected run to the Final Four. When the Spartans are a one seed, it is hard to argue against penciling them in. Throw in Denzel Valentine, who is having an all-time great season for the Spartans, and the team is an obvious inclusion here.
Izzo is as good a tournament coach as there is, and he has a lot of talent to work with this March. Valentine is the most versatile player in college basketball this season, leading the team with 19.1 points, 7.5 assists and rebounds, and a steal per game. He is not alone, however. Bryn Forbes has developed into a deadly three-point shooter, hitting over 50-percent of his shots from beyond the arc. As a team, the Spartans shoot a shade under 44-percent from long range. That adds up to give Sparty the No. 1 offense in the nation, according to KenPom. The Spartans hit a rough patch at mid-season when Valentine went down with an injury. If he's healthy during the Tournament, expect Michigan State to be a favorite to win it all.
North Carolina Tar Heels:
Record: 25-6 (14-4 ACC)
KenPom Adj. Offensive Efficiency Rank: 7th
KenPom Adj. Defensive Efficiency Rank: 24th
With a recent loss to Virginia, and tough wins over Syracuse and Duke to end the season, North Carolina isn't running over teams with the NCAA Tournament on the horizon, but the Tar Heels have are winning games, which is all that ultimately matters. UNC is able to outlast teams, with its superior depth, especially in the frontcourt. Brice Johnson is one of the best big men in college basketball, averaging 16.8 points, 10.8 boards, and 1.2 blocks per game. He's joined by a solid wing in Justin Jackson, and fellow bigs Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks. Few teams have that many players at 6-foot-8 or taller that are all productive.
The X-factor for UNC in March may be Marcus Paige, North Carolina's best player a few years ago who has taken a step back this season. Scoring 12 points per game on 38.7-percent shooting from the field, Paige's 2015-16 stats are not overly impressive, but he's made huge plays throughout his career, and won't be intimidated by the stage. UNC hasn't made it past the Sweet 16 since 2012. This team should be capable of that, and more.
Record: 24-6 (12-6 Big 12)
KenPom Adj. Offensive Efficiency Rank: 18th
KenPom Adj. Defensive Efficiency Rank: 13th
When it comes to the Sooners, it is all about superstar guard Buddy Hield. The Player of the Year favorite is the best pure scorer in college basketball, with over 25 points per game in 2015-16. He, Isaiah Cousins, and Jordan Woodard are all very talented shooters, each hitting over 42-percent of their three point shots. As a team, the Sooners shoot 43-percent from deep.
OU could not quite get over the hill in two games against Kansas, but the Jayhawks are one of the only teams that can score with the Sooners. Even then, both of those games were quite close, especially the fantastic triple-overtime game on January 4. Hield will be too much for most teams to handle on a given night. As we've seen in recent years, one great guard can take over a tournament a lead a team to the promised land. Hield certainly fits that bill.
Record: 24-6 (13-5 ACC)
KenPom Adj. Offensive Efficiency Rank: 9th
KenPom Adj. Defensive Efficiency Rank: 6th
Virginia has been one of the top teams in all of college basketball for three years now, with an efficient offense and a stifling pack-line defense that has flustered even top ACC opponents. Eventually, the Hoos are destined to break through in March. With Malcolm Brogdon having a conference player of the year season, and Anthony Gill and London Perrantes having their best years at Virginia, this could be it.
Tony Bennett's team may not play the most aesthetically pleasing brand of ball, but the slow-paced Cavaliers actually have one of the most efficient offenses in the country. In fact, UVA is one of only two teams, along with Kansas, to rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Brogdon is a very strong two-way player who can score from anywhere on the floor, while Perrantes has turned into a very accurate three-point shooter, hitting over 50-percent from deep. Virginia is extremely good at controlling the pace of the game. As long as the Hoos don't run into Michigan State for the third straight season in the NCAA Tournament, they have a good shot at a deep run.
Record: 27-4 (16-2 Big East)
KenPom Adj. Offensive Efficiency Rank: 12th
KenPom Adj. Defensive Efficiency Rank: 7th
The NCAA Tournament hasn't been very kind to the Villanova Wildcats in recent years. Since the 2009 Final Four run, 'Nova has failed to get out of the Round of 32, despite being a one or two seed three times in that span. The Wildcats are bound to grab one of those top seeds again this year, and squandering good seeding once again would be brutal. That could certainly happen, but we won't rule out a decent run that Villanova seems due for, either. The Wildcats have plenty of experience, with seniors Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, and juniors Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins leading the way for Jay Wright's team.
Villanova's reliance on the three-point shot at times can be a concern, and the Wildcats had trouble with top teams like Oklahoma and Virginia early in the year. However, with only four losses on the year, all to tournament-bound teams, and a top two seed on the way, you can't rule out Villanova as a title contender.