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Contender or Pretender? Sorting Out Men’s College Basketball’s Top 10

These teams are playing well right now, but not everyone has the same March ceiling.

The outset of conference play is near, and with 10-plus games under the belt of the vast majority of teams, the small sample sizes that cause early-season overreactions are starting to disappear. So six weeks into the season, I decided to look at the AP top 10 and sort out which teams seem destined for March success and which ones might be most prone to falling short.

No. 1 Purdue: Pretender

I’ve written positively about the Boilermakers all season long, and they’ve certainly earned their lofty national ranking with blowout wins over Duke and Gonzaga. Still, the more I watch Purdue, the more I worry about this group in March.

Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer play well beyond their years, but the Boilers’ surprise backcourt duo are still both freshmen, and young guards are harder to trust in March. Big Ten teams built around dominant traditional post presences have struggled in the Big Dance over the past two decades, and Matt Painter (as good a coach as he is) has never been to a Final Four.

When Saint Peter’s upset Kentucky last March, the Peacocks’ recipe was essentially to allow Oscar Tshiebwe to get his and hope the Wildcats had a bad shooting day. While Painter is a more inventive offensive coach than John Calipari, it’s a strategy teams will likely eventually recreate against Purdue. In a single-elimination setting, that just might be enough to knock out the Boilers.

Tennessee’s Santiago Vescovi, Purdue’s Matt Painter and Houston’s Marcus Sasser

Are Tennessee, Purdue and Houston contenders or pretenders?

No. 2 UConn: Contender

If the NCAA tournament started today, I’d have little doubt in picking the Huskies to win it all. UConn has been the nation’s most complete team and has still yet to play a game decided by single digits this season. Even in uglier contests, like the Huskies’ road wins at Florida and Butler, UConn has found ways to pull away despite not having its “A” game offensively, showing off the toughness and defensive mettle that makes this group well-rounded.

It’s hard to look at this group and find a hole. They shoot the three extremely well, dominate the glass on both ends, rank among the best nationally in defending at the rim and force turnovers and tough shots defensively. Adama Sanogo is an All-American, his backup in Donovan Clingan has been one of the nation’s best freshmen, and the team’s stable of guards has been terrific thus far. There’s always the fear that a team could peak too early (see Auburn a season ago), but UConn clearly has the ingredients of a championship team.

No. 3 Houston: Contender

Guard play is king, especially in March, and the Cougars have two terrific ones in Marcus Sasser and Jamal Shead. Combine that with the traditional Kelvin Sampson recipe of elite defense and offensive rebounding, and you have a team that has lived up to the hype as one of the three best teams in the sport.

Saturday’s victory over Virginia was huge: It proved the Cougars could beat another elite team and in the process set them up well for a No. 1 seed come NCAA tournament time. After allowing the game’s first nine points, Houston was mostly dominant, outscoring Virginia by 17 in a raucous environment across the final 36:01 to come away with the win.

The one thing Houston lacks that it has had in recent years is a true post scoring presence. The Cougars could throw the ball down low to Josh Carlton a season ago when the jumpers weren’t falling. This year’s frontcourt, headlined by star freshman Jarace Walker, is talented but isn’t built to catch the ball on the block and score. Still, this feels like Houston’s year, especially with the Final Four in its home city.

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No. 4 Kansas: Contender

After Saturday’s big win over Indiana, the Jayhawks are one of just three teams in the top 15 of both KenPom’s offensive and defensive efficiency metrics. It’s hard not to love Kansas’s balance and cohesion right now: The Jayhawks have two elite perimeter defenders in Dajuan Harris Jr. and Kevin McCullar Jr., one of the sport’s best shooters in freshman sensation Gradey Dick, a three-level scorer in Jalen Wilson and a glue-guy center in KJ Adams Jr., who has exceeded expectations.

Watching KU’s ball movement against the Hoosiers was a thing of beauty. It’s time to start talking about Harris as one of the nation’s best point guards, even with his limitations as a scorer. His unselfishness as a true table-setter has been a big reason why this offense is so dangerous, especially with Adams also being a weapon as a passer in a way some of Self’s previous bigs haven’t been. Plus, Kansas is still defending the paint well despite playing lots of smaller lineups. This team has a legitimate chance to repeat as national champions.

No. 5 Arizona: Contender

The Wildcats’ lone loss of the season came in a letdown road defeat at Utah, a game I’m willing to mostly forgive at this point. A post–Maui Invitational hangover has been common for years and has been noticeable for several of the teams involved in this season’s event. Arizona has built a résumé both before and after Maui that makes it a clear title contender.

No team in the sport has a better frontcourt duo than Oumar Ballo and Azuolas Tubelis, and Tommy Lloyd’s offensive system uses both to perfection. The pressure Ballo and Tubelis put on defenses with their ability to run the floor (combined with Kerr Kriisa’s rare hit-ahead passing ability) is unique, and Kriisa has been steadier this season than he was a year ago. The Wildcats still have some work to do defensively, but this group looks the part of a title contender.

No. 6 Virginia: Pretender

Virginia is clearly improved from where it was a season ago and might even be the best team in the ACC. But Saturday’s loss to Houston confirmed some of the question marks that had been looming for weeks with this group, which had played with fire in narrow wins over Michigan, Florida State and James Madison.

Virginia’s offense no longer holds it back like it did a season ago, but the narrative that the Cavaliers are an elite shooting team has started to fade with more results coming in. Since an explosive shooting start capped by making eight threes in eight minutes against Baylor less than two weeks into the season, Virginia has shot under 30% from three in the next six games. It’s also getting to the free throw line far more than any Tony Bennett team has, and that number may not stick in larger sample sizes. And while the Cavs are good defensively, they’re not overwhelming on that end like their best teams have been under Bennett. Plus, Virginia’s championship-level teams have had multiple future NBA players, while this year’s group has just one in Reece Beekman, who isn’t a focal point offensively.

No. 7 Texas: Pretender

There’s a lot to like with Texas, namely the experience and talent in this backcourt that features Marcus Carr and top transfer Tyrese Hunter. Of course, the status of coach Chris Beard looms large, as he was suspended without pay after being arrested and charged with felony assault earlier this month.

Beyond the major questions surrounding its coach, there are on-court reasons to have doubts about Texas as a title contender. Its wins against Gonzaga and Creighton don’t look as good now as they did at the time, especially given both games were at home with huge crowds to celebrate the opening of a new arena, the Moody Center. Plus, Texas is a poor three-point shooting team (294th nationally, and even worse if you take out the team’s 13 threes against Gonzaga). This group should be among the Big 12’s best, but I’m not sure it has a championship ceiling.

No. 8 Tennessee: Pretender

Tennessee ranks first in defensive efficiency on KenPom and has been overwhelming on that end of the floor all season long. Still, there are enough questions offensively with this group (in addition to Rick Barnes’s shaky March history) for me to hold off on calling the Vols a Tier 1 title contender.

The biggest thing that could hold Tennessee back is its inability to create easy shots. Santiago Vescovi is one of the better guards in the SEC, but he’s best coming off pindowns as a catch-and-shoot guy rather than creating his own shot. Stylistically, he’s not the type of player who you turn to when things aren’t going well down the stretch of games. And while Zakai Zeigler is capable of consistently getting into the lane, he’s more pure passer than dynamic shot-maker.

No. 9 Alabama: Contender

The Crimson Tide possess arguably the most impressive win in the country to date, a road win at Houston during which they rallied from a double-digit deficit in the second half. Nate Oats’s club also has wins over Michigan State, North Carolina and Memphis and doesn’t have anything even slightly resembling a bad loss on its résumé. That’s an awfully impressive start for a team with four freshmen in its regular playing rotation.

The Tide play as fast as they ever have under Oats, but there’s a steadiness to this group that reminds me of their Herbert Jones–led SEC title team in 2020–21. Turnovers have been a problem, but Alabama has one of the better scorers in the country in sharpshooter Brandon Miller, high-level athleticism and versatility in the frontcourt and a deep stable of guards that will only get better as senior Jahvon Quinerly gets healthy. So while it’s tough to bet on a team as young as this one getting over the finish line in March (especially when so many other contenders are old), the balance and top-tier talent the Tide have is very rare.

No. 10 Arkansas: Contender

I was even more bullish on the Razorbacks a few weeks ago, but the loss of talented forward Trevon Brazile for the season due to a knee injury hurts this group’s ceiling. In addition to being one of the best athletes in the country, Brazile was a consistent pick-and-pop shooter for a team that has limited weapons from beyond the arc.

Still, so much of winning in March comes down to having guards who can make plays for themselves, and Arkansas has three of the best you’ll find in college basketball in Nick Smith Jr., Anthony Black and Ricky Council IV. All three are gifted isolation scorers while still being unselfish. Eric Musselman’s offense is one of the best in the country at attacking mismatches, and few if any teams have three perimeter defenders good enough to match up with that trio. If freshman Jordan Walsh can consistently knock down jumpers to keep the floor spaced, the Hogs are going to be nearly impossible to guard come March.