- This week's roundtable looks at whether UNC or Kentucky has a higher ceiling, chooses from a trio of Final Four darkhorses and names the unranked team not to overlook.
March Madness is getting closer and closer, with just 19 days to go until Selection Sunday, when much of the current uncertainty will be answered but the fun will be just beginning. For this week's roundtable, we decided to look at three different levels of questions looking ahead: teams outside the top 25 that shouldn't be overlooked, three teams that aren't traditional powers but could make a run to Minneapolis and two teams with title aspirations that have been putting it together in 2019.
Which team that hasn't been ranked in the last few weeks is the most dangerous?
Dan Greene: Baylor. The Bears may have taken a few losses after surprising everybody by rising to the top of the Big 12, but this is still a tough team that absolutely owns the offensive boards (thanks in large part to 6' 5" Mark Vital, a worthy heir to the legacy of Rico Gathers) and features a hero of March Madness past in Yale grad transfer Makai Mason. They've already swept Iowa State home and away and beaten Texas Tech too. They're not a team to forget about.
Jeremy Woo: Mississippi State may not have any huge résumé wins, but that’s really the only thing keeping it from the Top 25 spotlight at this point. The Bulldogs aren’t lacking for talent, depth or experience, and have navigated the SEC well over the past few weeks. Lamar Peters and Quinndary Weatherspoon give them two useful shot-creators, Aric Holman has been a bit underwhelming but can space the frontcourt effectively, and this is an athletic roster that might be capable of doing some damage in the first weekend of the tournament.
Michael Shapiro: Mississippi State has rebounded of late after an early-February swoon, winning its last four to enter Tuesday night 20–7, 8–6 SEC. It was just over a month ago Ben Howland’s squad cruised to No. 14 in the AP poll, and Mississippi State’s recent play suggests a return to form as March approaches. Senior guard Quinndary Weatherspoon is leading the offensive charge, pouring in 18.6 points per game with a 41% clip from three. The Bulldogs rank 16th in the nation in offensive efficiency, per kenpom.com. Defensively, Mississippi State leads the SEC in steals and blocks as Aric Holman and Abdul Ado create perhaps the most imposing frontline duo in the conference. The Bulldogs have six wins against teams in SI’s projected field of 68, and a victory over Tennessee on March 5 could vault them to a top-five seed. Mississippi State is a near-lock for its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2009, and don’t be surprised if it sprints to the tourney’s second weekend for the first time in over two decades.
Eric Single: Auburn is famously still searching for its first signature win of the season, but a team that averages over 80 points per game and relies as much on the three as the Tigers do is always a threat to get hot at the worst time for everyone else in the league. Bruce Pearl's charges hit 17 threes in last week's win over Arkansas, and I'm not dinging them too much for getting run out of Rupp Arena on Saturday given the program's 2–49 record all-time in Lexington. If Jared Harper and Bryce Brown heat up at the same time and the Tigers' big men are able to meet their top-30 offensive rebounding effectiveness halfway on the defensive glass, where they rank 316th, the next high-profile win may not be far away.
Molly Geary: It feels like Florida has been pretty much off the radar ever since getting shellacked by Florida State in the season opener, but the Gators have been quietly improving while playing one of the nation's toughest schedules. Florida is 29th on kenpom and 31st in the NET rankings, and just earned an excellent road overtime win over LSU last week that might've punched its tournament ticket. The Gators boast a strong defense and force turnovers at a higher rate than all but 10 teams, which can make them a tricky matchup. Look out for Jalen Hudson, who has surprisingly regressed as a senior but may be turning a corner of late. A concern: This team takes too many threes for a group that collectively shoots quite poorly—Noah Locke is a plus at nearly 40%, but even he has been slumping of late.
Texas Tech, LSU and Marquette are all non-blue bloods impressing in February. Right now, which do you consider the most likely to make the Final Four?
Greene: LSU, for the same reasons the Tigers were my preseason darkhorse to do so: they are rich with talent and Tremont Waters is one of the country's underrated playmakers. A young team with high-ceiling potential makes for an intriguing option to put it all together for a few weeks, and now LSU has a road win over Kentucky and a home win without Waters (and with Naz Reid scoring just one point) under its belt. If it can do that, it can win four in a row to make it to Minneapolis.
Woo: I certainly buy the Red Raiders’ defense and sense of identity, and if they keep hitting enough threes to support Jarrett Culver, I think Minneapolis is within reach. Marquette’s supporting cast worries me, and even after beating Tennessee, I still have a hunch that the Tigers’ bubble might burst early in March. So, Texas Tech, by arbitrary process of elimination.
Shapiro: There’s little doubt remaining regarding Texas Tech’s status as a Final Four contender after its 91–62 destruction of Kansas on Saturday. The blowout victory in Lubbock was a perfect encapsulation of what makes the Red Raiders so dangerous. The Jayhawks converted just seven first-half field goals, locked down by the nation’s No. 1 defense en route to a 45–20 halftime deficit. As Kansas struggled from the field, All-American candidate Jarrett Culver led Texas Tech with 26 points, continuing his offensive ascent following Keenan Evans and Zhaire Smith’s departures. Culver and Co. are peaking at the right time, and look primed to build upon last year’s Elite Eight appearance with the first Final Four in school history.
Single: Texas Tech nearly made it to San Antonio last March on the strength of its back-alley-tough defense, and that was before the unit rose all the way to the top of kenpom.com's efficiency rankings and Jarrett Culver blossomed into a do-everything scorer on the other end. For my bitcoin, the Red Raiders are the Big 12's best team, and their recent run of red-hot shooting could be that extra confidence boost their inconsistent offense needs to survive the second weekend.
Geary: I'm tempted to say LSU here, but concerns over the Tigers' defense and three-point shooting have me a bit skittish. The Red Raiders, meanwhile, seem to be rapidly answering questions about their offense, and their upward trajectory in that area is enough to get me to buy in right now. Texas Tech's stifling defense is currently running dead even to where No. 1 Virginia's was when it entered the tournament last year—and before you bring up UMBC, recall that two of last year's top four efficient defenses (Michigan and the Red Raiders) made at least the Elite Eight. Tech must show its their offensive growth is sustainable, however (not to the level of shooting 62% from three against Kansas, but better than the middling offensive efficiency it posted in January) if it wants to be a true Final Four contender.
UNC and Kentucky are both hitting their stride. Which one has the higher ceiling?
Greene: This is a tough call, but I'll go with Kentucky. Its defense has been a bit better within its respective conference play, and even before both teams were truly clicking, the Wildcats took their head-to-head matchup in December
Woo: I’m a bit more convinced by Kentucky at the moment—its rotation questions have been answered, its overall effort level has been strong, it rebounds and defends consistently and it has a number of ways it can hurt you on offense. It's going to rely an awful lot on Tyler Herro and Ashton Hagans, but you can always count on this particular Wildcats team showing up to play despite what it lacks in high-end NBA talent. This isn’t to slight Carolina, which has quietly righted the ship, but I think its reliance on a smaller number of scorers may become problematic in the end, particularly as teams gameplan to pressure Coby White into making mistakes and try to disjoint the Tar Heels' flow. Beyond Nassir Little, their bench is awfully thin.
Shapiro: An early-season malaise looks to be a thing of the past for North Carolina and Kentucky, with both among the elite tier of Final Four contenders. The Tar Heels sprinted past Zion-less Duke on Feb. 20. Kentucky handled Tennessee with ease on Feb. 16. Each team will be a popular Final Four pick following Selection Sunday, though I’d give the edge to Kentucky regarding its March Madness ceiling. The Wildcats possess a deeper pool of reliable scorers, and freshman guards Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson are rock solid regardless of the stage. P.J. Washington is a fringe POY candidate and continues to grow in year two under John Calipari. Kentucky has even stabilized from three in the last month, making 37.6% of its triples. The Tar Heels are one of the most explosive offense in the country, and very well could cut down the nets in April. Though with Carolina’s suspect defense and limited scoring options, Kentucky is the smarter bet to reach the Final Four in Minneapolis.
Single: Kentucky. Of the two teams' top-end talents, I'll take UNC's Coby White and Cameron Johnson over UK's P.J. Washington and Tyler Herro, but the Wildcats are getting to that part of the season where they don't mess around with non-elite teams, as evidenced by Saturday's blowout of Auburn without Reid Travis available. The silver lining of Travis's absence is the important minutes it gives sophomore Nick Richards and freshman EJ Montgomery, who will both need their sea legs under them when Kentucky encounters a team with a comparable frontcourt in a win-or-go-home situation.
Geary: North Carolina is a more veteran team that likely doesn't have quite as much room to grow still (though there's still the wild card of Nassir Little, who is coming off one of his best games and could unlock another level for this team with more consistency), so Kentucky gets the edge here. The Wildcats start three freshmen—four while Reid Travis is out—and sophomore PJ Washington has been playing out of his mind for a month now and has shown no signs of slowing down, and he'll be a particularly tough check for any opponent going forward. The likes of Tyler Herro, Ashton Hagans and Keldon Johnson all still have plenty of strides to make—the big question is how much of that development will come over the next month or so.