One year ago today, on the eve of the greatest sporting event in the world, college basketball was in crisis.
It felt that way at least after years of football-dominated conference realignment, decades of slower and lower-scoring basketball, and hundreds of overofficiated games. In 2012-13, the slowest and lowest-scoring season in the modern record, we couldn't help but feel a little down. When it was our turn to introduce the newly minted NCAA tournament field, we ranked the 68 teams in terms of "watchability" -- a condition that should never come within 1,000 miles of something so glorious and mad as the NCAA tournament. March is inherently watchable. But that was how bad it had gotten.
What a difference a year makes.
New freedom of movement rules. A crop of brilliant freshmen. An undefeated team chasing a perfect season. One of the best offensive players in the history of the game eclipsing 3,000 career points, each performance more memorable than the last. The 2013-14 season gave us all this and much, much more. It was as entertaining as four months of amateur basketball can possibly be.
The result is an NCAA tournament field that looks as deep, as wide-open, as good and as choose-your-own adjective as any we can remember. At least 15 teams are capable of winning the national title. A handful of double-digit seeds will be hard to pick against. Dangerous mid-majors lurk around every corner. The possibilities are endless.
We don't need a gimmick like watchability to get through this year's rankings. This year's rankings are entirely merit-based, top to bottom, from the least likely to win the tournament to the most. Simple. Fitting. Packed with everything you need to know about every team in the field.
Are we sure we got it right? Of course not! Are we sure these next three weeks are going melt our collective faces into moldable putty? Very much so. A season this good couldn't possibly let us down now.
"One Shining Moment" is such an exclusive concept. For the teams in the lowest reaches of the bracket, merely getting to the NCAA tournament is shiny enough. Twelve years ago, Texas Southern (68) coach Mike Davis took one of the nation's most historic programs, Indiana, to the precipice of his own montage. Now he's back, hailing from the SWAC, with former La Salle and West Virginia forward Aaric Murray as his anchor.
Looking for something more improbable than Bob Knight's successor taking Texas Southern to the NCAA tournament in a year the Hoosiers didn't go? Try Cal Poly (67) earning its first-ever tournament bid with a 13-19 record. Or maybe Mount St. Mary's (66) finishing 16-16 but blowing out established NEC power Robert Morris to get here. Or Weber State (65) making an NCAA tournament appearance two years after Portland Trail Blazers Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard departed the school. Or a center from Coastal Carolina (64) named El Hadji Ndieguene being recognized by fans in an Orlando Wal-Mart? Or Wisconsin-Milwaukee (63) being picked to finish last in the Horizon League before knocking off Green Bay en route to the Horizon tourney crown? Or Louisiana-Lafayette (62) upsetting previously dominant Georgia State? Or Albany (61) going dancing despite wearing -- or maybe because of? -- the goofiest purple-and-yellow uniforms in the sport.
Great stories are everywhere in the high-seed weeds. None was as heart-wrenching as Aerris Smith's. Last week, Smith, a Wofford (60) reserve forward, grabbed four crucial rebounds in the Terriers' 56-53 SoCon title win over Western Carolina. Immediately after the game, Smith announced that he was having season-ending microfracture knee surgery.
"I made a decision: I was going to give my all in this tournament, and they were going to dance without me," Smith said, his voice breaking through tears. "But that's OK. Because we came out on top."
We weren't joking about the number of viable mid-major upset threats in the bracket. They're everywhere. Let's scout them:
Western Michigan (59): The Broncos turn the ball over all the time, but it's worth fearing any team that handled MAC favorite and onetime at-large hopeful Toledo so effortlessly.
Eastern Kentucky (58): The Colonels out-Belmont'd Belmont in the Ohio Valley Conference, which is to say they scored a bunch of points. They enter the tournament with the second-highest 2-point field goal percentage in the country.
American (57): American recorded an assist on 65.7 percent of its field goals this season, the highest figure in college hoops, while shooting 55.7 percent from 2 and 38.2 percent from 3.
Mercer (56): We should be cross with the Bears for knocking out Florida Gulf Coast and robbing us of Dunk City 2.0, but the chance to see 6-foot-4 combo guard Langston Hall in tourney play is an acceptable palliative.
Tulsa (55): Danny Manning makes his first head-coaching appearance in the narrow tournament he once ruled like a Colossus with a team that started 10-12 (!) with two losses to TCU (!!) before it rattled off 11 straight wins.
New Mexico State (54): Sim Bhullar, the 7-5 center, was a quirky story a couple of years ago. Now he's the symbolic and literal centerpiece of the tallest team in the country -- one that uses that height to dominate the interior on both ends of the floor.
North Carolina Central (53): Four teams in the country forced opponents into more turnovers per possession than LeVelle Morton's Eagles did. VCU and Louisville were two of them.
Delaware (52): The Blue Hens A) have arguably the best nickname in the tournament and B) committed fewer turnovers per possession than all but three teams in the country. Wisconsin was one of them.
Manhattan (51): The Jaspers play rough, physical man-to-man defense, are willing to sacrifice fouls for turnovers and rarely allow opponents to shoot 3s. Seniors George Beamon, Michael Alvardo and Rhamel Brown set an imposing tone. Really intriguing team.
North Dakota State (50): The Bison enter the tournament with an offense ranked among the top 20 in kenpom.com adjusted efficiency. NDSU doesn't shoot 3s well but almost never takes them. Smart shot selection, few turnovers and a genuine star in forward Taylor Braun make Saul Phillips' team a rightfully trendy upset pick.
Stephen F. Austin (49): While we avoid making a professional wrestling joke, we'll also inform you that SFA hasn't lost since Nov. 23. The Lumberjacks play hectic pressing defense and ended opponents' possessions in an average of 16 seconds -- faster than any team in the country, per kenpom.com's possession-length statistics. Their combination of aggressive defense and careful, persistent offense is the stuff NCAA upsets are made of.
Harvard (48): This is the true gem of the group, and not just because of that $30 billion endowment. After upsetting No. 3-seeded New Mexico in last year's tournament and getting seniors Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey back from a yearlong academic suspension, Tommy Amaker's team entered the season as the most mentioned mid-major darling in the country. A loss at Florida Atlantic revoked that status in a hurry. Since then, the Crimson quietly dominated the Ivy League -- finishing first or second in nearly every relevant statistical category -- and ranked 33rd in adjusted efficiency by the end of the season. Harvard was the first team to clinch its bid, and it will enter this NCAA tournament rested, deep, experienced and just straight-up good. Look out.
With the caveat that the NCAA tournament is a wildly unpredictable mess, and that we have no idea what we're talking about, these are the high-major teams -- some of which barely survived the bubble -- that look likely to bow out sooner rather than later.
BYU (47): The Cougars limped to the tournament, almost literally. On Wednesday, sophomore guard Kyle Collinsworth was diagnosed with a torn ACL from a fall he suffered against Gonzaga on Tuesday night. Tyler Haws' midrange scoring is worth the price of admission, but that's about it.
NC State (46): On Sunday night, the Wolfpack became the single-most shocking bubble inclusion of the season. Maybe the past five seasons. Not that we're complaining: NC State's surprise arrival in the bracket means more meaningful college basketball from forward T.J. Warren, arguably the nation's best scorer not named Doug McDermott. Yes please.
Xavier (45): The Musketeers never quite got there on the defensive end this season, and it took them longer than expected to secure an at-large berth. Keep watch for guard Semaj Christon, though. If he's on a roll, Xavier gets interesting in a hurry.
Dayton (44): For the past three seasons, Archie Miller's team has been among the nation's hardest to solve -- capable of beating good teams and losing to awful ones in seemingly random fashion. This season, Dayton went on a bad-loss diet, played great basketball down the stretch.
Saint Joseph's (43): Saint Joseph's played its best basketball down the stretch, including in the A-10 tourney, which it won by outlasting Dayton, St. Bonaventure (which upset Saint Louis) and VCU in three straight days. Forward Halil Kanacevic emerged as a force -- 46 points and 43 rebounds in the A-10 run -- and the Hawks look much more fearsome for it
Stanford (42): Johnny Dawkins' first NCAA tournament berth in his six-year career at Stanford couldn't have come at a better time; Cardinal boosters may not have waited much longer. As hard-earned as its at-large bid was, though, Stanford was a merely good, never great team on both ends of the floor all season. Its deep-bracket upside looks pretty limited.
Colorado (41): It's hard not to wonder what might have been for this Colorado team, which looked good enough to challenge the upper reaches of the Pac-12 (and beat Kansas on its own floor) before star guard Spencer Dinwiddie's season-ending injury Jan. 12. The Buffaloes triaged their at-large hopes in the final two months of the season but never looked as good again.
Kansas State (40): Was November really so long ago? Kansas State began its season with a home loss to Northern Colorado, a loss to lowly Charlotte and a 90-63 drubbing to Georgetown. But Bruce Weber's team got healthy, its offense came around, and brilliant freshman guard Marcus Foster -- who took 31.2 percent of his team's shots and shot 40.4 percent from 3 -- helped morphed the Wildcats into a quality group with a vicious perimeter man-to-man.
Arizona State (39): In a vacuum, the Sun Devils' pieces -- elite defense led by shot-block machine Jordan Bachynski and dynamic point guard play from Jahii Carson -- should make them a tantalizing sleeper. In reality, Carson regressed down the stretch and Arizona State limped to a 2-5 record in its last seven games.
Nebraska (38): The Cornhuskers are in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998, and this is not the same program anymore. In the past two seasons, Nebraska built state-of-the-art practice facilities and a new showpiece arena and hired Tim Miles -- a tirelessly energetic and self-effacing coach who's almost as good at Twitter as basketball.
George Washington (37): His legs looked like toothpicks, but he could play. That's what George Washington's players first thought of Maurice Creek, the Indiana transfer who showed up to open gyms in Foggy Bottom last summer. A few months later, Creek's stunning redemption from a thrice-injured Indiana tale to the centerpiece of George Washington's offense has the Colonials in the tournament for the first time since 2007.
Texas (36): Not a single team from the state of Indiana is participating in the 2013-14 NCAA tournament. Texas, on the other hand, has four. This is surprising for any number of reasons, not least of which because the Longhorns were so dreadful last season that Texas fans momentarily noticed there was thing called "basketball." Young, offensively challenged, tenacious and Rick Barnes-job-saving are all adjectives that apply here.
Providence (35): The Friars sat squarely on the bubble for at least a month before this weekend, when Ed Cooley's team toppled Creighton in a cathartic Madison Square Garden finale. Bryce Cotton is the name to know. No one in the country plays more. Cotton has been on the floor for 96.3 percent of his team's available minutes this season (good for 39.9 per game!) and averaged 21 points, six assists and four rebounds.
Memphis (34): Josh Pastner's fifth Memphis team is a thrilling one held back by three fatal flaws. The Tigers turn the ball over too often, they don't shoot 3s all that well, and their defense can occasionally go missing. But when they're on, they're as fun as any in the country to watch -- and maybe just as dangerous.
UMass (33): UMass finished 8-7 after a 16-1 start to the season, a stretch that has appropriately calmed rampant early enthusiasm. But UMass is among the fastest and most entertaining teams in the country, and coach Derek Kellogg deserves credit for getting the program back to the postseason for the first time since Bruiser Flint was on campus.
Iowa (32): A month ago, the Hawkeyes seemed headed for a No. 5 seed. For much of the season, they rated among the 10 best teams in the country. Then the self-combustion happened. For whatever reason -- and from afar it's hard to pin the cause on anything but a sudden chemistry implosion -- Iowa fell apart on the defensive end, lost six of its last seven games and limped into the tournament with "15-point first-round blowout" stamped in bright bold letters on its ticket. It's hard to totally count a team this deep and talented out, but it's just as hard to imagine Iowa reversing its slide.
Gonzaga (31): The reversal is stark: A year ago, No. 1-seeded Gonzaga was decried as overrated. This season, no one seems to realize just how good the Zags are. But Mark Few wields a top-15 defense that allows opponents to shoot just 43 percent inside the arc and has plenty of scoring on the opposite end.
Oregon (30): You can chop Oregon's season into three triangular line segments: Nov. 8 to Jan. 2, when it went 13-0; Jan. 5 to Feb. 8, when it went 2-8 in Pac-12 play; and Feb. 16 to present, when it finished the season 8-1. Dana Altman's team still doesn't play much defense, which bodes ill for single-elimination play, but the offensive talent is super-enticing.
Baylor (29): The Bears rebounded from a 2-8 start in Big 12 play to finish 7-1 in their final eight Big 12 regular-season games, and they went all the way to the Big 12 final before losing to a mission-oriented Iowa State team Saturday night. Scott Drew has done a nice job with this team: Brady Heslip is as reliable a perimeter shooter as ever, Kenny Chery continues the legacy of undersized but effective Baylor point guards, and Isaiah Austin remains a fascinating player.
Tennessee (28): When was the last time a double-digit seed was one of the 15 best teams in the country? Never, probably. Not in the past 10 years, certainly. The Volunteers are the most extreme example of a team whose per-possession performance (as tracked by kenpom.com's adjusted efficiency rankings) varies so widely from its actual wins-and-losses NCAA tournament résumé. If you're looking for underrated value in your bracket, it's hard to do better than Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes.
Saint Louis (27): The Billikens and their lights-out defense were one of the stories of the season for most of the past four months. But a recent slide -- two home losses to Duquesne and Dayton and Friday's upset to St. Bonaventure in the A-10 quarterfinals -- revealed the perils of playing really good defense without any offense to back it up.
New Mexico (26): The most interesting thing about New Mexico is that coach Craig Neal is best known by the nickname "Noodles," which is an objectively awesome nickname. The second-most interesting thing is that New Mexico is led by an inside-out senior combo -- hyper-efficient forward Cameron Bairstow and guard Kendall Williams -- as good as any in the country.
Oklahoma (25): Lon Kruger is awesome at his job. Oklahoma is, to be frank, a good but unspectacular group of players that Kruger morphed into one of the best offensive teams in the country. Whether Oklahoma's formula will work in the tournament is another matter entirely. We'd bet no. But the Sooners' season has been a resounding, unexpected success.
Kentucky (24): If you watched the Wilcdats play Florida in Sunday's SEC championship game, you saw all you need to know about Kentucky. For huge stretches, Kentucky's group of ubertouted freshman stars will go brain neutral, at which point the Wildcats are immensely beatable. But then they'll have stretches like the final 10 minutes against the Gators, when Aaron and Andrew Harrison played aggressive, intelligent basketball, James Young hit shots, Julius Randle was doing his thing, and Willie Cauley-Stein was engaged on the defensive end. They turned a 50-37 lead into a 54-50 game and had a couple of chances to beat the best team in the country in the final minutes. When the Wildcats play like that -- and it's been happening more lately -- they're as good as everyone thought in October. When they don't, they're bad. You never know which team is going to show up or for how long.
VCU (23): VCU entered the 2013-14 season as hyped as any before it -- no small feat for a team that went to the Final Four three years ago. The Rams' early nonconference losses to Florida State, Georgetown and Northern Iowa had the effect of radio silence. Since then, VCU has quietly been perfecting its turnover-creating defense; the Rams ranked No. 2 in adjusted efficiency defense as of Sunday. This team is as good offensively as last season, but it also isn't as one-trick on the defensive end.
UCLA (22): One of the most talented offensive teams in the country with two future professionals playing great basketball in tandem. Jordan Adams pours in points. Kyle Anderson -- "Slo-Mo," if you're nasty -- plays an unusual and versatile point-forward style. The Bruins' firepower was on full display in Saturday's Pac-12 title game. Arizona's defense has been the nation's best all season, but UCLA had little issue getting buckets and the only area of the arena more crowded than the scouts' table was the line for the Adams bandwagon. Whatever UCLA fans thought about the Steve Alford hire -- not to mention the crazy buyout structure that will keep him at the school until the end of time -- there's no arguing with the results of his first season in Westwood.
Oklahoma State (21): Remember when Marcus Smart shoved a fan? It was kind of a thing. That feels forever ago now. When Smart returned from his three-game suspension, he immediately played the best basketball of his season. He stopped flopping (as much). He stopped freaking out on officials. And the Cowboys finished 5-2 and ended their disastrous midseason slide. There should be little question about this team's talent or ability to make a deep tournament run. The train is back on the tracks.
Pittsburgh (20): Pittsburgh will play close games. It's all the Panthers do, really, whether it is matched up against Virginia or Miami, Syracuse or Florida State. The Panthers still look alluring on paper: They don't turn the ball over, rebound well and create points off assists as well as any team in the country. But they will play close games. They can't help it. In the tournament, one close game is all it takes to go home in a hurry.
Ohio State (19): Aaron Craft is a smart dude with enough perspective to be able to laugh at something as visually hilarious as a high-level college basketball player missing a last-second 3 because the ball goofily slips out of his hands. The gifs won't haunt him. But Craft's slip in the final Big Ten game of his career Saturday was revealing about the Buckeyes as a whole. Thad Matta's team defends like crazy, but it doesn't score like crazy. There is no go-to finisher on call. That's why Craft has to hoist the unlikely last-second 3-pointer in close games and why it's hard to trust the Buckeyes with one of your bracket's precious Elite Eight spots.
Syracuse (18): A month ago, Syracuse would have belonged among the title threats -- if not further up our list. But after a 25-0 start, the Orange have collapsed down the stretch, failing to score more than a point per possession in six straight games (including against NC State's woeful defense in Greensboro last week). Tyler Ennis, C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant are an awfully good core. But until the Orange find their scoring touch, who knows?
North Carolina (17): Roy Williams had a miserable summer. His best player, guard P.J. Hairston, was pulled over for a traffic stop in a vehicle rented by a convicted felon. Hairston was eventually ruled ineligible by the NCAA, but not before a minor local media circus. The Tar Heels began the season with one of the wackiest sequences (home loss to Belmont, win vs. Louisville, road loss to UAB, road win at Michigan State) in recent college hoops history. Lately, though, they've just been good. Marcus Paige has already developed into one of the nation's smartest, craftiest scoring point guards. He has bailed out UNC a handful of times this season already.
UConn (16): After last week's American semifinals win over Cincinnati, the Internet immediately noticed how similar Shabazz Napier's stepback game winner was to one Kemba Walker hit during his famed run to the national title in 2011. Napier is that good now. In some ways -- as a pure ball handler and distributor -- he is even better than Walker. He might just be good enough to carry UConn deep into the tournament. Can the Huskies give him enough help?
There are favorites, and there are The Favorites. This group is variously flawed but still totally viable, a sign of the depth at the top of the bracket this year.
San Diego State (15): The Aztecs are not dissimilar from Ohio State, in that they rely heavily on elite defense to make up for an occasionally woeful offense. But the Aztecs went 29-4, and became the first team in 68 opponents to win at Kansas, because they meld that defense with a legitimate do-everything offensive star. Save a brief slump in late February, Xavier Thames has been an efficient penetrator, ball handler, long-range shot-maker and lockdown defender all season. The Aztecs' defense will give them a chance in every game they play this March, and Thames usually takes those chances.
Cincinnati (14): The Bearcats are practically a carbon copy of SDSU. Or maybe it's the other way around. But Mick Cronin's team is anchored on the defensive end, where forward Justin Jackson leads a legitimately frightening and versatile back line. The Bearcats defend and rebound their own misses extremely well, two reliable predictors of NCAA tournament success. And then there's Sean Kilpatrick, who, like Thames, is Cincinnati's only consistent offensive option. Good news, then, that he's consistently awesome. Trust us: No one wants to play Cincinnati.
Michigan (13): Michigan is the inverse of Cincinnati and San Diego State, a flowing, gorgeous offensive team hampered by its frequent defensive lapses. But last season, the Wolverines entered the tournament with a top-five offense, a so-so defense and a singular perimeter star and nearly won the national title. Nik Stauskas might be more productive than Trey Burke was last season. Michigan could suffer an upset early, but it could just as easily storm its way to Dallas.
Creighton (12): If you navigate to ESPN.com and click " NCAAM" even semifrequently during the college basketball season, you don't need us to tell you how good Doug McDermott is. But just in case: Last week, McDermott passed the 3,000-point mark (and Oscar Robertson, Hersey Hawkins and a handful of others) into fifth on the all-time scoring list. His team is the most efficient offensive unit since Chris Paul's 2004-05 Wake Forest. He takes nearly 39 percent of his team's shots and still shoots 56.4 percent from 2 and 45.4 percent from 3. He is the best offensive player in college basketball since Kevin Durant. Maybe longer. So, sure, Creighton is a national title contender. But to make good on McDermott's out-of-body scoring, the Bluejays have to defend at least slightly better than they have over the past month. All it takes is one cold night.
Wisconsin (11): In 2011, Wisconsin played hyperefficient offense and just-OK defense. For the past two years, it inverted those traits. Now it is back with another classic Bo Ryan team: a group of versatile, interchangeably skilled guards and forwards that forces defenses to make one impossible decision after the next. Single-elimination play has not been kind to Wisconsin for much of Ryan's tenure. If this year is going to be different, it will be because this team is deeper and even more interchangeable (freshman Nigel Hayes comes off the bench) than past editions. Either way, discarding the Badgers from your bracket based on past results would be a mistake.
Duke (10): The Blue Devils are guaranteed to entertain. Freshman guard Jabari Parker is an otherworldly scoring talent, Rodney Hood is a smooth-shooting lottery pick, Andre Dawkins rarely misses from 3, and so on and so forth. The Blue Devils stretch defenses and destroy on the secondary break, and they are a real joy to watch. But the issues that plagued them early in the season -- defense and size, namely -- remain and act as limiting factors in the hunt for Mike Krzyzewski's fifth national title.
Michigan State (9): Now that Michigan State is healthy again, is winning the Big Ten tournament and has players who are hip-bumping without actively grimacing, is it like the season didn't happen? The Spartans spent much of the year battling through various injuries; Keith Appling, Adreian Payne and Brandon Dawson were all hobbled, missed time or both. Sunday's Big Ten title serves as notice: The Spartans are a national title contender, just like we always thought.
Virginia (8): In a year that saw the ACC add Pittsburgh and Syracuse and the best freshman in the country arrive at Duke, Tony Bennett's Virginia team swept the regular-season and conference tournament titles. How? Lockdown pack-line-style defense. Virginia opponents hold the ball longer than all but three teams in the country; the Cavaliers never allow good shots. They are just as methodical on offense, with Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris leading the way. We worry that a low-pace, low-scoring game might burn the Cavs earlier than they deserve, but that's the only concern we could come up with.
Iowa State (7): A Big 12 tourney title officially guaranteed a run on the Iowa State-to-the-Final Four bank. At least 50 percent of your buddies in your bracket will have Iowa State in Dallas. The bandwagon is going to get crowded. But you know what? It should be crowded. Fred Hoiberg has at least three players who would be clear MVPs on nearly any other team in the country -- DeAndre Kane, Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang -- and a brilliant supporting cast totally locked into his up-tempo, floor-spacing offensive system. Oh, and he's one of the best coaches in the country. The Cyclones will be a hot Final Four pick for a variety of reasons.
Villanova (6): The surprise of the postseason to date came Thursday in Madison Square Garden. It wasn't just that Villanova lost to Seton Hall. Oh well. No, it was that the Wildcats finally gave up a game late. For four months, with the exception of Syracuse (a double-digit loss) and Creighton (two throw-that-tape-away-immediately clinics), Villanova found a way to win every game it played, many by razor-thin margins. Jay Wright's team always got a stop, always got to the rim, always made the right play at the right time. That's exactly the kind of team you want on your side in the tournament. If anyone knows how to weather an upset, it's the Wildcats.
Kansas (5): If Joel Embiid recovers from the vague back issue that kept him out the past two weeks, Kansas is a national title contender. Maybe even a favorite. If Embiid doesn't come back and the Jayhawks lose one of the most important defenders in the country ... they're still good enough to make the Final Four. That's because some kid named Andrew Wiggins is still on the team. Whatever the Jayhawks lose in interior presence can more than be made up for by a slightly faster tempo and more fast-break run-outs for the potential No. 1 overall pick in June's NBA draft.
Arizona (4): In a sense, the Wildcats have as much in common with the flawed-but-still-great teams in the preceding section: They're not a great offensive team. More specifically, Arizona is not a very good shooting team. The Wildcats have shot just 35.6 percent from 3 this season, 33.1 in Pac-12 play. The Wildcats were never a lights-out perimeter team, and they've never tried to be, as Arizona shoots just 26.5 percent of its field goals from beyond the arc. T.J. McConnell gets the ball inside. Arizona knows its strengths.
It helps that the Wildcats are the best defensive group in the country by a wide margin. Sean Miller's team plays the gapping, pack-line style made famous by Dick Bennett (Virginia coach Tony Bennett's father) at Green Bay in the early 1990s -- only he's running it with a group of players you might occasionally confuse for the Monstars. The Wildcats are so good defensively they can have one glaring flaw and still be one of the elite-elite tournament favorites in field full of great teams.
Louisville (3): Two teams in the country rank in the adjusted efficiency top 10 on both offense and defense. One of them is 34-0. The other is Louisville. The defending national champions aren't a top seed because the RPI doesn't value efficiency or margin of victory and Louisville's schedule simply wasn't as good as its peers'. But so what? The difference between a No. 1 and a No. 4 matters only in the matchups, and no team in any region would have wanted to see Louisville show up in its bracket Sunday night.
Some of the same names you remember from last March are here, particularly guard Russ Smith, who submitted a peerless, All-American-level two-way season. Luke Hancock, last season's Final Four MVP, is here too. And there are new faces: guards Chris Jones and Terry Rozier, forward Mangok Mathiang and powerful sophomore forward Montrezl Harrell, whose star turn took the Cardinals to a different level. No one is playing better basketball right now. Beware.
Wichita State (2): Is anyone out there still arguing that Wichita State didn't deserve a No. 1 seed? Anyone? No? Good. Because there's no reason to think of Wichita State as anything but a national title favorite and no way to greet them but with appreciation, gratitude and awe.
Remember, the Shockers weren't all that far off last season. Cleanthony Early, Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet and Tekele Cotton all played major roles in WSU's run from a No. 9 seed to a Final Four matchup with Louisville, one the Shockers were a minute and a couple of possessions from, ahem, shocking the eventual national champs. They haven't lost since. In the interim, Early made the leap, Baker became an NBA draft darling, and VanVleet posted a season-long, pass-first-point-guard version of a Mortal Kombat flawless victory. Quantitatively, adjusted for competition, Wichita State ranks among the four best teams in the nation. The Shockers have been great.
They could have lost a game or two somewhere along the line and that would still be true. But Gregg Marshall wants nothing less than perfection from this season, and his team is six wins away from achieving it. Get on board.
Florida (1): In October, in a hotel ballroom in Birmingham, Ala., Florida coach Billy Donovan detailed his team's almost unbelievable personnel attrition. Eli Carter and Will Yeguete were recovering from injury. Michael Frazier II was being tested for mononucleosis. Damontre Harris had a hamstring strain; he would eventually be dismissed from the team. Five-star freshman forward Chris Walker was desperately trying to get academically eligible. And senior guard Scottie Wilbekin was indefinitely suspended.
Donovan had seven scholarship players in practice. He couldn't even run five-on-five.
"I'd tell you today, if we had [all our players available] and we could start Oct. 11 fully healthy, then I'd tell you we have a chance to be really good," he said then. "Hopefully we can get there as the season goes on. But we're not there right now."
Newsflash: Florida got there.
The Gators' early personnel woes had the long-term effect of helping Donovan's team. Early on, they required senior forward and longtime role player Casey Prather to become a go-to scorer. They forced Kasey Hill into the point guard role before Wilbekin's return. By the time Prather was a Wooden Award candidate and Patric Young established himself in the post, Donovan was slowly reintroducing more and better pieces: First Dorian Finney-Smith, then Wilbekin, then 3-point specialist Frazier emerged, then Walker. Now it's March and the Gators are Mariana Trench deep, experienced, talented, the works. They haven't lost since Dec. 2. They've got it all. Who knows: If Donovan had his whole team ready Oct. 11, maybe the Gators' season wouldn't have gone this way.
One year ago, we worried about watchability. Now we have this field. You never know what a new year might bring.