The Magic Eight is an SI.com February tradition in which I unveil an eight-team list that’s guaranteed to contain the national champion. Is there any real challenge in this? Yes: The NCAA tournament is an unpredictable beast, its single-elimination format allowing for far more variance than the NBA playoffs, and the lack of any dominant teams this season makes it exceptionally hard to forecast. 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. (Last year’s Magic Eight did include the eventual champ, Duke, which was ranked No. 4 in the AP poll at the time of publication.) Here’s who made the 2016 cut, in no particular order, along with the most notable omissions:
North Carolina (21–4, 10–2 ACC)
At this point in the season, with rankings impacted by small differences in won-loss records and short-term performance trends, it’s healthy to remember that the AP preseason poll has more predictive power than the final regular-season poll when it comes to forecasting deep tournament runs. North Carolina was the AP’s preseason No. 1 and the No. 1 team in SI’s preseason projections, and the Tar Heels have their entire rotation intact for the stretch run. I can’t say I’ve watched them lately and come away convinced that they look like a national champ, or defend like a national champ, but logic tells me to keep them in the Magic Eight.
Maryland (22–4, 10–3 Big Ten)
The Terrapins offer the best combination of quality defense and future-pro talent. They have the best D of the Mark Turgeon era in College Park, ranking No. 11 nationally in adjusted efficiency, as well as No. 1 in the Big Ten in points allowed per possession in conference play. And Maryland arguably has the most pure talent in its starting five: two projected first-round picks in freshman center Diamond Stone and sophomore guard Melo Trimble, two projected future second-rounders in Jake Layman and Robert Carter, and a guy with overseas earnings potential in Rasheed Sulaimon. Trimble’s decline from his ‘14–15 production levels—particularly in the areas of three-point shooting and drawing fouls—is a concern, but if he can revert to peak form in March, the Terps will be a tough out.
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Oklahoma (20–4, 8–4 Big 12)
I’m willing to take one risk on a heavily three-point dependent team—and that team is Oklahoma, which has taken 43.8% of its shot attempts as threes in Big 12 play. I like that the Sooners have three big shot-makers in Player of the Year frontrunner Buddy Hield, point guard Isaiah Cousins and combo guard Jordan Woodard. Their defense, when they keep 4-5 combo Ryan Spangler and Khadeem Lattin on the floor together, is more than adequate. My only fear is what will happen in the NCAAs if one of those two bigs gets in serious foul trouble—because the drop-off in efficiency when that happens is significant.
Virginia (21–5, 10–4 ACC)
The Cavaliers are past the defensive issues that made them look like a non-contender in mid-January, and they’re starting to guard at a level more typical of Tony Bennett-coached teams. This is also the best offense Bennett has had in Charlottesville, with an elite all-around scorer in Malcolm Brogdon, a sharpshooting point guard in London Perrantes, and two efficient around-the-rim finishers in bigs Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey. I like this team’s combination of sound defense, shooting ability and matchup-based flexibility. They’ve been thriving of late using a smaller starting lineup with 6'7" Isaiah Wilkins at the four, but can also go big by playing Gill and Tobey together, or go even smaller by using Darius Thompson as a third guard alongside Brogdon and Perrantes.
Michigan State (21–5, 8–5 Big Ten)
Denzel Valentine is once again playing at the (insanely productive and efficient) level that had him leading the national player of the year race in November and December. It’s not hard to envision him taking over the NCAA tournament and finishing his college career with a title. Valentine is talented enough to do it, and he has a legit supporting cast, particularly in fellow seniors Matt Costello, whose advanced stats suggest he’s the Big Ten’s best all-around rebounder, and Bryn Forbes, a 48.1% three-point shooter who’s dangerous off the catch and the dribble. No one would call this one of Tom Izzo’s great defensive teams, but these Spartans are so efficient offensively that they might be able to get by with adequate D.
Kentucky (19–6, 9–3 SEC)
The Wildcats aren’t the powerhouse most everyone thought they’d be. They’re lacking the NBA-ready big men that have defined John Calipari’s best title contenders. But I’m not about to risk omitting a team with a Tyler Ulis-Jamal Murray backcourt, given how excellent that duo has been in SEC play. Ulis might be the nation’s best point guard not named Denzel Valentine, and Murray has emerged as an elite scorer. If Kentucky can get senior forward Alex Poythress back from a knee injury (he’s supposed to be out for two weeks), and get decent frontcourt minutes out of him, Derek Willis and Marcus Lee, there won’t be much separating the Wildcats from the teams near the top of the AP poll.
Kansas (22–4, 10–3 Big 12)
There were a few times this season where the Jayhawks’ defensive problems—namely, their inability to control opposing guards off the bounce—seemed like too big of a red flag. But we were saying the same things about Duke in January and February of 2015, and remember what happened? The key here is to avoid writing off very good teams that have the potential to fix their flaws, and Kansas exhibited some of that potential in recent wins over Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Plus, senior forward Perry Ellis seems determined not to fade into the end of his college career, his offensive supporting cast can shoot as well as any team in the country, and the Jayhawks, despite their struggles with perimeter D, rim-protect better than any team in the Big 12. That, in the end, could save them.
Duke (19–6, 8–4 ACC)
This is my outside-the-AP-top-15 pick. I’m taking out insurance on the Blue Devils in the event senior forward Amile Jefferson recovers from his foot injury in time for the NCAA tournament. Duke, as currently constructed, is not a title team; last year it entered the NCAAs ranked 57th in adjusted defensive efficiency and figured things out, but this year it’s ranked 109th—far from the level you’d like to see for a contender. Adding Jefferson’s rebounding back into the mix could make a big difference. Recall that the Blue Devils were a top-five team in adjusted efficiency prior to his injury, and SI’s projection system had them No. 3 overall in the preseason—and that was with us slightly under-rating Grayson Allen’s scoring abilities.
Villanova: Omitted mostly due to the Magic Eight’s need to take a few big risks. Leaving off the nation’s No. 1 team in the polls and in adjusted efficiency is a huge risk, but I also vowed to limit myself to one three-point-dependent team, and that was Oklahoma. And as much as ‘Nova has been dominating the Big East, the impressions it left in its two nonconference games against fellow contenders (Virginia and Oklahoma) suggested that this team’s ceiling may be more “Final Four” than “national champ.”
Iowa: The other big risk necessitated by the format. The Hawkeyes are more efficient than five of the Magic Eight teams and certainly have a shot at the title. I’m gambling against them because I like their starting backcourt less than a few other contenders’, and because it’s rare for a team to start a season outside the top 25 in the AP poll and kenpom’s rankings and then win a title. (If Iowa is the next coming of 2011 UConn, I’m screwed.)
Iowa State: For the same reason I left the Cyclones off last year’s Magic Eight: The defense, which ranks 77th in adjusted efficiency, just isn’t at the level of past champs.
Xavier: Quality, deep squad, but its efficiency profile is more that of a team with an Elite Eight ceiling—which would be a fine ending, and set the Musketeers up to contend for a title in 2016–17 if everyone sticks around.