The top teams in the NCAA Tournament have a lot going for them. You’ve most likely got Kansas or Duke or Villanova or North Carolina winning it all. If not one of those four, then perhaps it’s Gonzaga or Arizona or Louisville or UCLA.
But there’s room for doubt, even with those schools. What is the potential fatal flaw for each of the top title contender? We’ve found something in each, and the teams appear here in the order the committee ranked them. And this will strictly be some constructive scouting for teams that are all 1-3 seeds. We already know they’re good, but no team is perfect.
Obviously, an issue like a major injury hinders any team. That’s the biggest obstacle, so this is purely based off rosters available to them now, which is why we’re leaving Oregon, playing without big man Chris Boucher, out of this group.
After seeing what could trip up the top teams, there’s still time to switch your picks!
East No. 1 Villanova: Average on the offensive boards. Villanova ranks 160th in the country in offensive rebound percentage. If the Wildcats are picked off, it’s going to come on an iffy shooting night against a big team that will rip away opportunities for second-chance points. Talk to most any coach, and he’ll tell you how much he covets offensive rebounding. The tournament brings eager, but anxious, play. Teams can get skittish or be taken out of their element. What grounds them? What keeps them going? Crashing the glass and getting simple points around the rim. If you don’t have that, you’re can be in trouble.
Midwest No. 1 Kansas: This is Kansas’ worst-rated defense in Bill Self’s tenure as Jayhawks coach. On a per-100-possession basis, Kansas is allowing teams to score 95 points, still good defense, but not elite. “Having a good-not-great D” is not an Achilles heel, but given how many really good Kansas teams we’ve seen over the years not win the title, what makes you confident this will be a year wherein KU wins six straight? Another issue: Josh Jackson’s foul trouble and poor foul shooting.
South No. 1 North Carolina: Foul trouble for the big men. Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks combine to commit 9.3 fouls per 40 minutes. Without those guys on the floor, the Tar Heels remain a top-15 team but no longer a title contender. Because UNC doesn’t force turnovers at the rate of most teams on this list, and with its two frontcourt players vulnerable to hacking, the Tar Heels have floated in and out of the great-team conversation. Take those guys off the floor, and their offensive rebounding (UNC ranks No. 1) takes a drop.
West No. 1 Gonzaga: A lack of close games is what will do Gonzaga in. Many coaches agree that being in tight situations against good teams is beneficial to a team come NCAA Tournament time. Gonzaga was shocked by BYU in its final regular-season game game. Gonzaga led by as many as 16, but when the Cougars made it close in the second half, the Zags fell apart. In the WCC tournament, Gonzaga faced no challengers. Saint Mary’s, the only other WCC team in the field, lost by 18 points. Gonzaga has played one close game the past three months. It’s fair to be skeptical if this team is tied with a good opponent with two minutes left.
South No. 2 Kentucky: A lack of successful 3-point shooting could do in Kentucky. Tied into this is Malik Monk’s streaky shooting. De’Aaron Fox is Kentucky’s most valuable player. Monk is Kentucky’s most exciting player. If Monk goes cold, the only other guy to turn to from long-distance is senior forward Derek Willis. He and Monk are shooting 40 percent from 3. Mychal Mulder could be an option, but is not in the same category as Monk or Willis. Kentucky shoots 35 percent from distance. Not terrible, but in the bottom half of tournament teams.
West No. 2 Arizona: Freshmen panic. Lauri Markkanen has had an uneven past three weeks. He’s been a very good player, but for all he’s done, he wound up ninth in my year-ending freshman rankings. Kobi Simmons’ role has greatly diminished. Rawle Alkins has been nearly as good as advertised, so let’s see how they play on the big stage. It’s the only major question mark for the Wildcats. Arizona cannot win a title with these three playing as C-plus-level role players. That’s the biggest issue for Sean Miller. He’s got other experienced guys, but Markkanen has to have a big tournament if Arizona is to win it all.
Arizona needs Lauri Markkanen to come up big.
East No. 2 Duke: I look at Duke’s nutty season, and the biggest thing that will derail this team’s title hopes is if Luke Kennard’s role changes. That cannot happen. Jayson Tatum has played steadily improved, but Kennard is the most important player for this team. He has to remain involved as the tip of the spear. From there, Tatum and Grayson Allen can thrive in his wake. You change the chemistry, everything can fall apart. The Blue Devils — with only Amile Jefferson and Harry Giles (and Tatum, sometimes) inside — also could lose to a team that beats them on the defensive glass.
Midwest No. 2 Louisville: Free throws and foul trouble. The Cardinals shoot 68.5 percent from the line, which ranks 236th in the country. The Cardinals have six players who commit more than four fouls per 40 minutes. The defense is aggressive but you’ll die by a hundred knife stabs if you put your opponent on the line that much. Do that on top of missing free throws, and it’s a miserable way to go. It’s probably what will do in Louisville.
South No. 3 UCLA. Overall defense is the thing. UCLA ranks 78th in defensive efficiency at KenPom.com. No team has entered the tournament ranked worse than 40th in per-possession defense and won the title, so that’s a big gap. But UCLA also has a top-three offense, so the question is whether that offense compensates for the defense. The Bruins don’t turn you over. They play fast but it’s not because of transition points. UCLA’s style, historically, doesn’t keep its pace and success in the NCAAs. Let’s see if the Bruins can buck convention.
East No. 3 Baylor: The Bears have fallen on their face the past two tournaments, losing to Georgia State and Yale. But this once was the No. 1 team in the country with wins over Louisville, Oregon, Iowa State and West Virginia to name four. But unreliable point guard play hurts the Bears — the turnover rate is hideous. Baylor will give a game away. The Bears cough up the ball on 21 percent of their possessions, among the nation’s worst rates. The only team in the field with a worse turnover rate is New Orleans — a 16 seed.