The Magic Eight: One of these teams will win the NCAA tournament
The Magic Eight is an annual SI.com tradition in which I unveil an eight-team list that's guaranteed to contain the national champion, two months before the title game. How is that any kind of feat? Well, the NCAA tournament is an unpredictable beast, its six-game, single-elimination format allowing for far more variance than the NBA playoffs. My personal case of 'Bazz Blindness led me to omit UConn in 2014 -- a grand failure that I used as motivation to get into the best prognosticating shape of my life for 2015. There are also self-imposed rules that prevent the Magic Eight from being too obvious: At least two teams from the top eight of the latest Associated Press poll have to be left out, and at least one pick has to come from outside the top 15. Here's what teams made the cut (in no particular order), along with the most notable omissions:
The Magic Eight
Need this be explained? A historically great defense -- that's impossible to score on in the paint -- paired with a top-10 offense. Six out of 10 platoon members with significant NCAA tournament experience, including three who started a national title game. Nine possible NBA players in the rotation. A team that seems to play better on big stages than it does against mediocre competition. I picked the Wildcats to win it all in the preseason, and have seen nothing since to make me waver.
The Badgers are on such an incredible (at least to nerds like me) run of ball-control, committing turnovers on just 10.8 percent of their possessions in Big Ten games, that this is likely to be Bo Ryan's best offensive team ever. They lean heavily on senior center Frank Kaminsky -- and what team wouldn't, seeing that he's the country's best inside/outside offensive weapon -- but second options Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes are capable of carrying the team on Kaminsky's off-nights. I worry about their defense, which is far from elite, but they made the Final Four with a similar efficiency profile last season, and if not for Aaron Harrison's cold-bloodedness, might've won it all.
The Cavs are the same great Pack-Line team they were last season (or maybe even a tad better). They lock down the interior, rarely break down on dribble penetration, and control the glass. It's their smart, motion offense -- heavy on curls and fade screens for accurate jump-shooters, aided by three elite offensive rebounders in Anthony Gill, Darion Atkins and Mike Tobey -- that's elevated them to true title-contender status after exiting last year's NCAA tournament in the Sweet 16.
The Shockers were certainly better-equipped to win the title last season -- at least until they were jammed into the region of death by the selection committee. But leaving the team with the most veteran, tourney-tested backcourt (Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton) out of the Magic Eight seemed unwise. They've appeared in seven NCAA tournament games together and only lost to a champion (Louisville, 2013) or a national runner-up (Kentucky, 2014). I suspect they'll be the No. 4/5 seed that the No. 1s really want to avoid.
No team has a better true-road resume than the Blue Devils, and although that isn't the end-all characteristic of a champ, winning at Wisconsin, Louisville and Virginia is enough to secure a place in the Magic Eight. Duke's defense leaves something to be desired on the interior, but it's at least succeeding at limiting threes and avoiding fouls, which makes it much better than the D that sunk the Jabari Season. If the Cook-Jones-Winslow perimeter trio can stay hot for a sustained stretch, burning defenses that sell out to smother Jahlil Okafor, this team is more than capable of winning a title.
The Wildcats' fatal flaw last season was a stagnating halfcourt offense. The freelancing and foul-drawing ability of freshman wing Stanley Johnson (and to a lesser degree, sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson) has made that less of a problem, and it makes them a more attractive title pick than they were in '13-14. They may not have the all-world defense they did with Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson, but they can still guard as well as any team other than Kentucky or Virginia -- and they're currently the best defensive rebounding team in the nation.
The whole lack-of-tourney-experience thing -- as in, zero players who've ever appeared in the dance -- gives me pause, but the Utes check other contender boxes. They have a top-10 (in efficiency) defense that excels in two key areas: protecting the interior and guarding the pick-and-roll. They have an elite senior point guard in Delon Wright, who can distribute, score and defend. They have multiple future NBA players in Wright and Jakob Poeltl. They're a strong shooting team, with 3-4 reliable long-range options, and have good offensive balance because of Wright's unselfishness. I called them my darkhorse Final Four team in the preseason, and still view them as a threat to get to Indy.
The past few KU teams were doomed in the NCAA tournament by unsteady point guard play, but this year's version is getting fairly reliable performances by the duo of Frank Mason and Devonte Graham. If five-star freshmen Kelly Oubre Jr. and Cliff Alexander continue their incremental progress into March and April -- Alexander is capable of being one of the nation's best interior scorers and all-around rebounders, but doesn't do it consistently enough yet -- the Jayhawks can make a deep run. A well-timed streak of hot three-point shooting from Mason, Oubre, Wayne Selden and Brannen Greene could make them a surprise champ.
Gonzaga: Leaving the No. 2 team in the AP poll off the list is a very notable omission, but the Magic Eight wouldn't be interesting if it had every elite team. I think these Zags are Mark Few's best team ever -- better than the Morrison teams, better than the No. 1 seed that lost to Wichita State in 2013, and worthy of a No. 1 seed this season. I can see them getting to Indy out of the West Region; what I have a harder time envisioning is them knocking off Kentucky, Wisconsin, Virginia or Duke in a Final Four or national title game. That's my imperfect rationale for giving Gonzaga the ax.
Villanova: The Wildcats are back in the top 10 of the polls and the efficiency rankings, and they should win their second straight Big East title. But their recent NCAA tournament history, their '14-15 performance away from home, and their heavy reliance on the three-pointer make me hesitant to label them a serious title contender.
Louisville: Rick Pitino has taken an offensively challenged team to the Final Four before -- see Louisville in 2012 -- but this version's shooting issues and lack of backcourt depth seem too significant to allow them to win six NCAA tourney games in a row.
North Carolina: Marcus Paige is the kind of clutch scoring guard that could make me pay for leaving the Heels off the list, but their lack of non-Paige long-range shooting, plus a defense that's a little shy of elite, is what's likely to hold them back in March.
Notre Dame and Iowa State: I love watching both these teams, and in a scenario where they get crazy-hot from long-range, they're threats to win it all ... but the track record of all-offense, no-defense teams in the NCAA tournament is less than spectacular. You don't have to defend at a Kentucky-Virginia level to win a title, but you can't rank outside the top 100 in defensive efficiency, which is the case for the Irish and Cyclones.
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