The last time the NCAA Men’s Final Four was in San Antonio was 2008 and all four number one seeds made it. A decade later the chances of the bracket remaining chalk until the final weekend is unlikely.
There has been unprecedented amount of parity in the major conferences in the NCAA and that balance has made for an unpredictable tournament season.
Here’s a look at the programs with the best shot to survive three weekends of single elimination basketball.
Arizona – (27-7) No. 4 in the South
Arizona may or may not pay their players but, no question, they are worth the price of admission.
They have multiple guys who can score. They are big and physical. They also have the number one player in the country in DeAndre Ayton, who will likely be the number one pick in the NBA draft.
Ayton averaged 20.3 points per game and 11.5 rebounds with his 7’1”, 260-pound stature. His ability to show and hedge defensively is astounding for a man of his size. Their only issue is the struggle to get Ayton the ball late in games. His sidekick, Allonzo Trier, is a big shot taker and maker.
They are the most talented team in the tournament and are back in the dance for their 25th consecutive birth. Only John Chaney has more tournament wins without a final four appearance than Sean Miller.
Could this be the year?
Duke – (26-7) No. 2 in the Midwest
If you’re betting on Duke you’re really betting on their coach. This is Coach Krzyzewski’s 23rd consecutive tournament birth, which ties Dean Smith for the most of all-time. Coach K has the most tournament appearances (34), wins (91), is tied for first in final four appearances with 12, and he’s won 5 titles.
Duke had the top recruiting class in the nation led by Marvin Bagley, who is a future lottery pick. With the Blue Devils offense running through him, Bagley had 19 double-doubles this year on the way to becoming the second freshman to win ACC Player of the Year. Duke was just 4-5 in their last nine games with Bagley in the line up.
In the four games the freshman missed, Duke won by an average of 19.5 points. The veteran on the squad is Grayson Allen who is the only player left from the 2015 championship game. Allen put up 23.8 points per game in the four games without Bagley when he was hurt. The ESPN BPI gives them an 11% chance to win it all.
Duke is a 5/1 favourite according to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.
Kansas (27-7) – No. 1 in the Midwest
Kansas is used to being a favourite. This is the ninth straight year the Jayhawks are seeded number one or two. Their 14th number one seed selection trails only North Carolina who has been seeded number one 16 times.
The Jayhawks now have 27 plus wins each of the last four seasons. This season they racked up 15 wins against BPI top 50 schools, tied for the most in Division 1. It was a trying season though as they suffered three losses at Allen Fieldhouse for the first time since 1998-1999.
Despite that Kansas won their 14th straight Big 12 title. They lead with the most consecutive NCAA tournament appearances with 29. Toughest team they’ll face on the road to the Final Four is Auburn because they can defend and hit threes. The winner of Seaton Hall and NC state could give them a tough second round game also.
The Jayhawks are led by Devonte’ Graham who was named Big 12 Player of the Year.
Kentucky (24-10) – No. 5 in the South
Kentucky start five freshman and their 6th man off the bench is also first-year player. They are the youngest team John Callipari has ever had and he’s made a career of thriving with young teams.
They have a challenge going across the country to play in Boise, Idaho on Thursday after a six-hour flight. If they are lucky enough to advance past the first weekend they will have played five games in eight days after winning the SEC tournament.
But they are certainly peaking at the right time.
In this their 57th NCAA tournament — the most of any Division 1 school — the Wildcats lack experience but are high on talent. They have an elite offense that makes them hard to guard even though they went away from the dribble-drive offense Calipari is known for.
Kevin Knox has grown in to his role of taking big shots when they need a bucket. But the MVP of the SEC tournament and the player that makes them go is Canadian freshman point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The Hamilton, ON native was the MVP of the SEC tournament and has become their alpha on the floor. He’ll continue the lineage of Canadians drafted as lottery picks in the NBA draft.
Michigan (28-7) – No. 3 in the West
Michigan was picked 5th in the Big Ten preseason and weren’t ranked until the middle of January. But they managed to reel off nine straight wins following 8-5 start to Big 10 play.
They won their second straight Big 10 tournament but since they played it a week earlier than normal due to the move of the tourney to New York, Michigan has been sitting around waiting to play for over a week.
Head coach John Beilein will make good use of that extra time as he is great at exploiting offensive match ups.
They take care of the ball and are second in Division 1 in turnover percentage at 13.8. Down the stretch they were playing as well as anybody in the country. The only place they are vulnerable is on the boards although their defensive rebounding is improved from previous years. Despite their 25 NCAA appearances they’ve only won the title in 1989. That streak could end this year.
North Carolina – (25-10) – No. 2 in West
The Tar Heels start the tournament in Charlotte, which will make them a de facto home team what is supposed to be a neutral site.
Even though North Carolina plays small they are still an outstanding rebounding team. This year UNC out rebounded their opponent by 10, which was the best in the ACC and second in Division 1. This is North Carolina’s 27th consecutive birth to the tournament.
UNC’s greatest advantage is they’ve been here before. Theo Pinson and Joel Berry are two of the most experienced players in the field after being big stars on UNC’s title team a year ago. Joel Berry is the only player to play in back-to-back national championship games scoring over 20 points in each.
The Tar Heels have already won six titles but going back-to-back for seven is definitely in play.
Villanova – (30-4) – No. 1 in the East
Of all of the top contenders Villanova has the easiest path to the Elite Eight.
‘Nova is a one seed for the fourth time after starting the season 22-1. They slipped up slightly going 5-3 in final eight games before the Big East tournament. They did not win Big East regular season for the 1st time since 2013 but won the Big East tournament championship.
Despite that they still led Division 1 in adjusted net rating at plus 35. They only play around six guys but two of them are outstanding. Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges are both Wooden Award finalists, the honour given to the best player in college basketball.
This team embodies Villanova basketball. They are tough, they defend, they are efficient on the offensive end and they are led by a point guard as Jalen Brunson who is a first team all-American. The versatility of Brunson makes him great as he doesn’t just stay on the perimeter — he can operate on the low block, too.
Along with a lack of team depth, a reliance on the three ball is the Wildcats greatest weakness. ESPN BPI gives them a 21% chance to win the tournament. Villanova is 7/2 to win it all according to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.
Virginia – (31-2) No. 1 in the South
The Cavaliers are the number one overall seed in the entire tournament.
They definitely earned that distinction after being crowned ACC regular season and tournament champions. Going 17-1 in the regular season in the ACC is as impressive a resume as you’ll find in college basketball.
They didn’t exactly come out of nowhere as this is their third ACC regular season title in the last five years. Virginia began the season unranked and was picked 6th in the ACC preseason poll so there is a slight Cinderella aspect to a team with a number one seed from a power conference.
They do it on defence as the Cavaliers lead D-1 in defensive efficiency and opponent points per game.
Their side of the bracket is loaded but ESPN BPI still gives them a 23% chance to win it all. It’s a grind when you play Virginia. It won’t be pretty but they’ll win their fair share of games.
Virginia has 6/1 odds according to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.