The greatest event on the American sports calendar begins in earnest on Thursday when 64 teams begin their question to win college basketball’s national championship. March Madness is often defined by underdogs and upsets, but it takes a special team win six straight games in the NCAA tournament.
It feels like only eight teams in this field who can actually do it. Let’s rank ‘em.
- Cassius Winston is one of the best point guards in the country
- They’re full of smart, experienced, and dependable role players
- This is a classic Tom Izzo team
March is supposed to be Tom Izzo’s month, but Michigan State has struggled in the NCAA tournament as of late, failing to get out of the first weekend three straight years. Why can this season be different? Because instead of relying on young players full of NBA potential, Izzo has a group of veterans who share the ball, hit shots, and defend.
How hard is Michigan State’s path to the Final Four?
It feels manageable … until the Elite Eight. The Spartans face a No. 15 seed in Bradley to open things up. Then they get the winner of Minnesota vs. Louisville for the right to go to the Sweet 16.
No. 3 LSU and No. 6 Maryland are potential opponents to open the second weekend, but neither should have Michigan State fans scared. LSU is without head coach Will Wade, suspended by the school for his part in the FBI’s corruption investigation. MSU beat Maryland by 14 earlier this season, and the Terps don’t exactly have a sterling reputation in March.
Duke likely awaits in the Elite Eight. That’s a different story.
- P.J. Washington is a stud
- Kentucky owns the paint
- The freshman are stepping up
Kentucky has another team loaded with five-star recruits up-and-down the roster. While there isn’t a future top-five NBA draft pick on this roster like fans in Lexington are used to, this team still has so many of the traits that John Calipari’s best teams have shared. Namely: Kentucky has immense size, gets after it defensively, and can dominate on the glass.
- No. 7: P.J. Washington, F
How hard is Kentucky’s path to the Final Four?
Pretty tough. As the No. 2 seed in the Midwest, Kentucky faces Abilene Christian to open play in round one before meeting the winner of Wofford and Seton Hall. Seton Hall has already beat Kentucky once this year on a neutral court, while Wofford has hovered around the top-20 of KenPom over the last month thanks to a three-point heavy attack led by star sniper Fletcher Magee.
Iowa State or Houston could await in the Sweet 16, and both are formidable. The Cougars are 31-3 and finished top-25 in efficiency on both ends of the court. Iowa State is loaded with long, athletic players and just won the Big 12 tournament title.
In the Elite Eight, everyone will be wanting to see a Kentucky-UNC rematch from the game that Luke Maye won at the buzzer two years ago.
- Michigan has an elite defense
- The Wolverines have bucket-getters on the wings
- Michigan has a great coach with a balanced roster
John Beilein teams are typically known for their offense, but Michigan has turned into a defensive powerhouse in recent years. This Wolverines squad ranks No. 2 in the country in defensive efficiency with point guard Zavier Simpson providing outstanding perimeter ball pressure and center Jon Teske walling off the rim. Ignas Brazdeikis, Charles Matthews, and Jordan Poole are all capable scorers on the wing, allowing Michigan to ride the hot hand rather than play through one guy on offense. A year after reaching the national title game, Beilein is back with another squad good enough to win it all.
Brazdeikis and Matthews were also considered.
How hard is Michigan’s path to the Final Four?
Real hard. After playing Montana in the opening round, Michigan could have to face a Nevada team that’s way more talented than its No. 7 seed would indicate. Jarrett Culver and Texas Tech’s No. 1 overall defense could be waiting in the Sweet 16, or maybe it will be a date with Nate Oats, C.J. Massinburg and Buffalo. That’s a lot of potential landmines.
Gonzaga will be the favorite to reach the Elite Eight at the top of the region, but don’t discount Florida State either, who made a run to that round last year. Michigan has its work cut out for them given the draw.
The Vols had Final Four aspirations last season before they were shocked at the buzzer by Loyola-Chicago. The entire team returned this year and immediately solidified itself as one of the best in the country. Grant Williams — SEC Player of the Year as a sophomore — improved across the board as a junior and enters this tournament as one of the top players in the field. Can Tennessee’s guards hit enough threes when defenses collapses on Williams? If so, the Vols have every ingredient to make a run.
Jordan Bone was also considered.
How hard is Tennessee’s path to the Final Four?
As the No. 2 seed in the South, the Vols should have a clear path to the Elite Eight, at least. A matchup with a tough Cincinnati team could be waiting in round two, but Tennessee should have enough weapons to advance. In the Sweet 16, Purdue and Villanova are both beatable.
Should Virginia also survive, it sets up a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown for the right to go to the Final Four. The ‘Hoos are legitimately good (more on them in a second), but Tennessee has the horses to win that game.
- The offense has finally caught up to the defense
- De’Andre Hunter is a certified lottery pick
- The defense is still elite
A year after becoming the first No. 1 seed to ever lose to a No. 16 in the opening round, Virginia is back on the line with a team that feels better equipped for a tournament run. De’Andre Hunter being healthy helps, as does an improved offense off the strength of Kyle Guy’s shooting and Ty Jerome’s heady two-way game. Virginia enters the tournament as the team only team in the country currently No. 5 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
- No. 24: Kyle Guy, G
- No. 17: Ty Jerome, G
- No. 11: De’Andre Hunter, F
How hard is Virginia path to the Final Four?
Assuming the ‘Hoos can actually get past No. 16 Gardner-Webb in the first round, a matchup with the winner of Ole Miss vs. Oklahoma looms. Wisconsin and Kansas State are two most likely Sweet 16 opponents, but don’t be surprised if an underdog crashes the party.
The Elite Eight game against Tennessee would be one of the best of the tournament, if it happens.
- Coby White is emerging into a star
- UNC plays FAST
- The Heels have three senior leaders
The Tar Heels play faster than any team in the tournament field. UNC wants to turn every possession into a transition opportunity, even after made baskets. Coby White has shined as a freshman point guard — Carolina’s tournament run could depend on how hot he gets. Cameron Johnson and Luke Maye are seniors with size and shooting ability. Roy Williams is trying to make the national title game for the third time in the last four years. This team has the talent to do it.
Luke Maye was also considered.
How hard is North Carolina’s path to the Final Four?
As the top seed in the South, UNC faces Iona in round one and then the winner of Washington and Utah State in round two. Auburn or Kansas could be tough Sweet 16 opponents, but Carolina has a much higher ceiling than either.
All eyes will be on that potential Elite Eight meeting with Kentucky. Lexington might burn if Luke Maye hits another game-winner.
- Brandon Clarke is unconventional superstar
- There are so many players who can get hot on offense
- Josh Perkins is an experienced lead guard
Gonzaga beat Duke, lost in overtime to Tennessee, and lost in a true road game to North Carolina this season, so no one can say the Bulldogs aren’t battle tested. The ‘Zags made the title game two years ago and this team might be even better: they’re loaded with offensive weapons and Clarke is arguably the best defender in the college game. This team is deep and loaded with high-level talent. No one should be surprised if they win it all.
Josh Perkins was also considered.
How hard is Gonzaga’s path to the Final Four?
The West feels like the toughest region. A potential second round game against Syracuse and its wonky zone would be scary. So is a potential Sweet 16 game against Florida State, who made the Elite Eight last year. Markus Howard and Marquette or Ja Morant and Murray State could also crash the party.
Michigan could await in the Elite Eight. And if Gonzaga wins that game, a rematch with these guys is waiting next …
- Zion Williamson is a historically great player
- Duke plays defense this season
- They have the highest ceiling in the country
Duke has owned this season from the very start, opening the year with a 34-point win over Kentucky that served as a warning shot for the rest of the country. Zion Williamson has been beyond anyone’s wildest imagination, putting together a case that he’s one of the most dominant players the college level has ever seen. With an impressive defense and capable co-stars in R.J. Barrett, Tre Jones, and Cam Reddish, Duke enters the tournament as the favorite to cut down the nets in Minneapolis.
- No. 39: Tre Jones, G
- No. 12: R.J. Barrett, G
- No. 1: Zion Williamson, F
Cameron Reddish was also considered.
How hard is Duke’s path to the Final Four?
The path is clear. UCF or VCU shouldn’t have a chance in the second round. A potential Sweet 16 game with Virginia Tech would be difficult, but Duke would be a big favorite. Even in an Elite Eight game against Michigan State, Duke would have a huge talent advantage.
This season is national title or bust for Duke. Always has been. If anyone can handle that type of pressure, it’s Zion Williamson.