Mail: Ranking the Magic Eight, the true national championship contenders
- Book it: One of these eight teams will win it all. Plus thoughts on Kentucky's recent play and Gregg Marshall's future, and a ranking of the country's most underrated players.
Let’s cut to the chase, shall we?
How many realistic contending teams for natty? — Daniel Monnier (@z3rdTry)
Now this is what a Twitter question should look like: short, crisp, to the point and on point. The key word here is “realistic.” Yes, the NCAA tournament is full of limitless possibilities, but in the vast majority of cases, it is an exercise in realism.
If we look at a decent sample size—say, the last 15 years—we find that a team seeded below the 2 line won the title only four times. Syracuse (2003) and Florida (2006) were both three seeds. The other two belonged to UConn, which was a No. 3 in 2011 and a No. 7 in 2014. A No. 1 seed won the title 10 out of those 15 times, and a No. 2 seed, Villanova, won it last year.
So “realistically,” there are eight to 12 teams that can win this thing. I’ll do the manly thing and keep this exercise on the low side. That also gives me the chance to reprise one of my favorite now-defunct features that used to populate this space. Before he was All Futbol All the Time, my colleague Grant Wahl used to write an annual “Magic Eight” column in which he listed eight teams and guaranteed that one of them would win the title. After Grant went footsie on us, Luke Winn took over, for a little while. Luke had success his first few attempts but came up empty last season by leaving out Villanova. Luke, perhaps feeling a little chastened and gun shy, has generously bequeathed this responsibility to me this season. So I’m happy to pick up the loose eight ball.
Part of the challenge is to leave out a team or two that most people would include, and try to find at least one sleeper. I will add another wrinkle by listing my teams in order of likelihood of winning the title. So with apologies to Grant and Luke, I herewith present my Magic Eight. If I get it wrong, you can blame them:
Sure, size and interior depth is a concern, but that is overcome by the Jayhawks’ stellar, veteran backcourt as well the emergence of freshman forward Josh Jackson as one of the most talented players in the country. More than anything, though, the Jayhawks have demonstrated championship mettle, time and time again. Frank Mason III, the consensus choice for national player of the year, simply will not let this team lose.
2. North Carolina
I’ve been skeptical of claims that this Tar Heels team is better than last year’s, given that last year’s team was a buzzer-beating three-pointer away from winning the title. But the Heels have two dynamic perimeter scorers in Joel Berry and Justin Jackson, they’re the best offensive rebounding team in the country, and the healthy return of Theo Pinson gives them a versatile glue guy that every championship team needs.
I believe the Bruins found their championship toughness when they were down by 19 points at home to Oregon. They came back and won that game and went on to triumph at Arizona last Saturday behind some actual defense and aggressive offensive rebounding. Plus, you know, Lonzo.
Some people saw the Zags’ home loss to BYU as further reason to doubt them. I saw it as further reason to bet on them. It takes away the pressure of being undefeated, and it gives them a chance to shore up their deficiencies. I also like that regardless of whether they are a 1 or a 2 seed, the Zags will be placed in the San Jose region.
The Cardinals are not only the best defensive team in the country (they’ve been ranked in the top five nationally in KemPom’s defensive efficiency rankings all season), they are the most versatile. They can press and trap fullcourt, and they can grind you down in the halfcourt. They’re 11th in the country in three-point percentage defense, they’re 21st in two-point percentage defense, and they’re sixth in blocks percentage. Plus, they have the type of dynamic backcourt scorer in Donovan Mitchell that we’ve seen carry a team to a title so often.
This team could obviously use one more big man, but I still might rank the Wildcats even higher if it weren’t for the lingering health issues of their best inside player, Darryl Reynolds. That aside, they have tough, talented, savvy, veteran guards who know how to win in March.
I don’t like the way the Ducks seem to go MIA on offense for long stretches, but they are so good defensively that it might not matter. They have a carry-them-on-their-shoulders scorer in Dillon Brooks, and they can play both zone and man-to-man defense to equal effect.
Here’s the designated sleeper. The Mustangs only have seven scholarship players and no bona fide five man, but they have great overall team size, they’re tough, they’re smart and they’re highly unusual.
Noteworthy omissions (also in order of likelihood to win)
Arizona: There’s a lot to like about this team, but I was spooked by the Wildcats’ poor performance at Oregon, where they got rocked by 27 points, and at home against UCLA, which dominated them on the offensive glass. I think there's a little too much youth on this roster to win six straight games.
Kentucky: Malik Monk can carry this team to victory by himself over any opponent, but can he play like Superman for three or four consecutive games? Beyond him, the Wildcats’ outside shooting is suspect, and like Arizona, their overall youth will hurt them.
Duke: The Blue Devils had all the pieces they needed to win a title—except a point guard, of course, but that could have been overcome. Unfortunately, there have been too many injuries and other disruptions, robbing this talented but young group of valuable developmental time.
Baylor: I love the Bears’ frontcourt and that zone, but you need great guard play to win a national championship, and they don’t have it.
Purdue: It’s dangerous to pick against Biggie Swanigan, but again, small ball tends to take over in March. As strong as he is, he can’t carry this team by himself.
West Virginia: The Mountaineers are a bit of a one-trick pony with that fullcourt press. By the time you get to that second weekend, most every team has terrific guards who will force West Virginia to operate in the halfcourt.
Notre Dame: Love the way they score. Don’t love their lack of size or the way they (don’t) play defense.
Florida State: Some major talent on this roster, but I’m concerned about point guard play and the defensive lapses. Plus, a really deep bench doesn’t impress me this time of year. I’d rather a team have seven solid players in its rotation than 11 or 12 guys who shuttle in and out indiscriminately.
Cincinnati: The Bearcats can really put up points, but they lack that single star player who so often determines whether a team can win the whole thing.
Florida: Might have been a decent Final Four sleeper, but without their best defensive big man in John Egbunu, the Gators are susceptible to a bad shooting night.
Should a .500 or better conference record be a requirement for an at-large team? — Stephen De Luca (@StephenDeluca)
This is always an important question, especially when teams like Kansas State (6–10 Big 12), TCU (6–10 Big 12), Wake Forest (7–9 ACC), Georgia Tech (7–9 ACC) and Tennessee (7–9 SEC) are being mentioned as potential bubble teams. (I don’t think they really are, by the way, but that’s another story.) Meanwhile, as my colleague Pete Thamel wrote this week, we have yet another terrific crop of mid-major teams who are going to have a tough time getting bids if they fail to win their conference tournaments. It just doesn’t seem right when teams can’t even win half their games in their own league but shut out the so-called Cinderellas whom the fans would much prefer to see in the field.
So yes, this is a concern, but unfortunately it is a problem without an easy solution. It is the selection committee’s mission to choose the best 36 teams to fill the at-large pool. It’s not supposed to play favorites or make choices based on the wish that more power conference teams would play road games against mid-major schools. It’s to choose the best 36, period. And the only way for a team to demonstrate that it belongs in the field is to win games against quality teams, e.g. the top 50 of the RPI. Unfortunately, the mid-majors just don’t have that opportunity.
Like I said, I don’t know what the solution is, but I will say this: I am NOT in favor of any hard-and-fast rule here. Not all conferences are alike, and because of unbalanced schedules not all conference records within that conference are alike. It very well could be that a sub-.500 team from a major conference is arguably “better” than an undefeated team from a weaker conference. Not all conferences are created equal. So while I hope the committee does everything it can to extend opportunities to the Cinderellas, I want to preserve as much flexibility as possible so that every team, high major or not, gets a fair look.
As Kentucky's play has improved recently, have you gone back to thinking they have a chance to win the NCAA Tourney? — Edward Pierce (@ewpierce85)
I touched on my concerns about Kentucky above, but I wanted to answer this question so I could point out one thing I do like about the Wildcats—namely, their recent dependence on seniors Mychal Mulder, Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins. Those three were critical in Kentucky’s win over Florida on Saturday with De’Aaron Fox on the bench. John Calipari is always coaching for the tournament, so it didn’t surprise me to see him say afterwards that he liked the fact that Fox didn’t play in the game because he wanted to see what his team was about. And what he saw was that for all the hype about the one-and-doners, his four-and-stayers have much to contribute as well. Of course, Monk exploding for 30 points in the second half didn’t hurt.
I may not be real confident in Kentucky’s chances to win a title, but I do know that if the Cats want to get there, they won’t do it solely via a youth movement. A little upperclass leadership goes a long way in March.
Gregg Marshall ever going to make the jump to a bigger school or WSU lifer? — Matthew (@HoosierGuy311)
I can give you 3.3 million reasons why Marshall has stayed at Wichita State. That’s right—his annual salary is $3.3 million. And that’s to live in Wichita, Kansas, where the cost of living is a lot lower than, say, Raleigh, North Carolina. The good news for a potential employer is that the contract only comes with a $500,000 buyout. Even so, if a school has gotten rid of its coach, it usually has to buy out the fired coach’s contract. Adding well north of $3 million to the books is an expense that lots of high majors would be reluctant to foot.
Even so, while Marshall may be motivated by money (who isn’t?), I don’t believe he is motivated solely by money. Yes, he took Wichita State to a Final Four, but that is almost certainly a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. (Keep in mind that Marshall also took Winthrop to the NCAA tournament in six of his nine seasons there. Do you have any idea how hard that is?) So the only way he would ever leave Wichita State is for a job that will give him the chance to do that as well as some long-term security.
There aren’t many jobs that could provide that for Marshall. NC State is a definite maybe, but Marshall interviewed for the job last time around (who didn’t?), and he came away underwhelmed. Of all the potential openings that could come up this spring, Indiana is the only program of that kind of caliber that I see—and should that job come open, there will certainly be a very long line of candidates eager to fill it.
So while I doubt that Marshall is a “lifer” at Wichita State, I do know that he’s in no hurry to get out of there. He wins big, he never has to look over his shoulder, and he makes money much faster than he can spend it. That’s not the type of situation a fella is in a hurry to leave.
Most underrated player in the country? — Taj Dosanjh (@PhatLykThat08)
Lists, lists, I love lists!
1. John Collins, 6' 10" sophomore forward, Wake Forest.
2. Yante Maten, 6' 8" junior forward, Georgia.
3. Eric Mika, 6' 10" sophomore forward, BYU.
4. Dusan Ristic, 7' 0" junior center, Arizona.
5. Devin Robinson, 6' 8" junior forward, Florida.
6. Robert Williams, 6' 9" freshman forward, Texas A&M.
7. Keenan Evans, 6' 3" junior guard, Texas Tech.
8. Evan Bradds, 6' 7" senior forward, Belmont.
9. Kevin Hervey, 6' 7" junior forward, Texas-Arlington.
10. Rob Gray, 6' 2" junior guard, Houston.