1. North Carolina Tarheels
Location: Chapel Hill, NC
At-Large Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference
Key Players: Harrison Barnes (17.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg), Tyler Zeller (16.4 ppg, 9.2 rpg), John Henson (13.8 ppg, 10.1 rpg), Reggie Bullock (8.7 ppg), Kendall Marshall (9.7 apg)
Strength: Scoring 82 points per game, the Tarheels are the best transition team in the country. Kendall Marshall runs this team to near perfection getting everyone involved on the break. They run on missed baskets, made baskets or turnovers. It doesn’t matter. They score off of initial breaks or on their secondary breaks. It’s hard to defend and hard to keep up with. This is most certainly an explosive team.
Weakness: Point guard depth will come into play for the Tarheels. Injuries have hampered North Carolina a bit this season and it may play a huge factor in the tournament. The Tarheels don’t have a legitimate back up to Kendall Marshall and if he gets into foul trouble they could have a real dilemma on their hands. He is the player that makes them go and if he’s on the bench they will struggle.
2. Kansas Jayhawks
Location: Lawrence, KS
At-Large Bid: Big XII Conference
Key Players: Thomas Robinson (17.9 ppg, 11.8 rpg), Tyshawn Taylor (17.3 ppg, 4.8 apg), Elijah Johnson (9.6 ppg), Jeff Withey (9.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Travis Releford (8.5 ppg)
Strength: Not many teams have a potent inside-out 1-2 punch like Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor. We’re talking possibly the best power forward and best point guard in the nation on the same team. That’s why Kansas has been so successful. The two of them waited patiently for their time to shine and they’ve made the most of it. You need great players to get you on a roll in March and the Jayhawks definitely have that covered.
Weakness: When Kansas won in its national championship in 2008 it was aided by some poor free-throw shooting by Memphis. Well the shoe has been on the other foot this year. Kansas is shooting just 69.6 percent from the free-throw line this season. The foul line bit the Jayhawks in their loss to Missouri and against good teams it will be a negative factor again.
3. Georgetown Hoyas
Location: Washington, DC
At-Large Bid: Big East Conference
Key Players: Jason Clark (14 ppg), Hollis Thompson (12.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg0, Henry Sims (11.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Otto Porter (9.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg)
Strength: When you think Georgetown you think about the Princeton offense that John Thompson III employs, but this season it’s been the Hoyas’ defense which has led the way. Georgetown is holding teams to less than 39 percent shooting on the year while and only allowing 59.2 points per game. It’s also rebounding better than it has in the past winning the rebounding margin battle by 5.7 boards per game. The Hoyas use their length to their advantage and it could pay huge dividends for them in the Big Dance.
Weakness: This is not the greatest offensive team under Thompson. The Hoyas are averaging less than 70 points per game and have had several ugly scoring performances. Turnovers and free-throw shooting have contributed to a season in which gaudy offensive numbers just haven’t been there. It could come back to haunt the Hoyas too.
4. Michigan Wolverines
Location: Ann Arbor, MI
At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference
Key Players: Trey Burke (15.1 ppg, 4.6 apg), Tim Hardaway, Jr. (14.6 ppg), Zack Novak (9.4 ppg), Jordan Morgan (5.6 rpg)
Strength: Michigan’s unique offensive and defensive schemes make them very difficult to prepare for. The Wolverines play 1-3-1 zone defense which teams hardly ever see. Offensively, Wolverines run an offense predicated on cuts and shooting threes, similar to the Princeton, but not quite. Coaches who aren’t used to playing Michigan will pull their hair out trying to prepare for the Wolverines.
Weakness: Michigan has gotten timely plays all year to mask its inability to rebound. That may not be the case in the Big Dance. The Wolverines are 10th in the Big Ten in rebounding margin getting out-rebounded by one board per game. That’s surprising for a solid Big Ten team. That said, when possessions are at a premium in the tournament, securing one for your team needs to become a priority for Michigan.
5. Temple Owls
Location: Philadelphia, PA
At-Large Bid: Atlantic 10 Conference
Key Players: Ramone Moore (17.8 ppg), Khalif Wyatt (17.1 ppg), Juan Fernandez (11.4 ppg), Micheal Eric (9.2 ppg, 8.7 rpg), Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson (9.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg) Anthony Lee (5.4 rpg)
Strength: Temple will enter the tournament boasting one of the best backcourts in the nation. Ramone Moore, Khalif Wyatt and Juan Fernandez are three very experienced guards who can do it all. They’ve carried Temple all year long and will be tough to match up with. Teams that win in the NCAA tournament have to have good guard play and the Owls have that covered.
Weakness: Temple has some key guys playing a lot of minutes. At this point of the season, having four guys who play over 32 minutes a game has to concern Coach Fran Dunphy. You worry about them having tired legs, especially after being bounced from the conference tournament pretty early. Time off may help them, but will it be enough?
6. San Diego State Aztecs
Location: San Diego, CA
At-Large Bid: Mountain West Conference
Key Players: Jamaal Franklin (17.2 ppg, 7.9 rpg), Chase Tapley (15.7 ppg), Xavier Thames (10.3 ppg, 4.2 apg), James Rahon (8.8 ppg), Deshawn Stephens (5 rpg)
Strength: The best backcourt in the Mountain West resides in San Diego. Jamaal Franklin, Chase Tapley and Xavier Thames together can dictate how a game is played. All three can score and rebound. What’s most impressive is how they all commit to the defensive end. Coach Steve Fisher requires that of them, but they don’t mind it as its allowed the Aztecs to return to Big Dance for the third year in a row.
Weakness: The Aztecs can be exploited in the paint. They do have some size, but it’s effectiveness is questionable. Teams with good perimeter defense will have success against San Diego St because of its lack of a post presence. This team needs to get more production in the paint or it’ll have a tough time in the tournament.
7. Saint Mary’s Gaels
Location: Moraga, CA
Automatic Bid: West Coast Conference Champions
Key Players: Matthew Dellavedova (15.6 ppg, 6.4 apg), Rob Jones (14.8 ppg, 10.7 rpg), Stephen Holt (10.4 ppg), Brad Waldow (8.2 ppg), Jorden Page (8.1 ppg)
Strength: When you think West Coast basketball you don’t think tough. However, that’s exactly what this Gaels team is. Outside of the Murray St game, this team has routinely performed well in hostile atmospheres. It does that because it’s solid defensively and out-rebounds its opponents by 7.2 boards per game, which is No. 1 in the WCC. While people may look for this team to want to shoot threes, don’t be fooled if they’re grinding wins out instead.
Weakness: While this team has a number of guys that can score, it’s reliance on Matthew Dellavedova may not be the best thing in the world long-term. Dellavedova is clearly a great player, but if he gets in foul trouble or has an off night this team has virtually no chance to win.
8. Creighton Blue Jays
Location: Omaha, NE
Automatic Bid: Missouri Valley Conference Champions
Key Players: Doug McDermott (23.2 ppg, 8.2 rpg), Antoine Young (12.5 ppg, 4.5 apg), Gregory Echenique (9.8 ppg, 7.4 rpg), Grant Gibbs (5.1 apg)
Strength: Sometimes you need someone who can just go and get you a bucket and the Blue Jays have a guy who can do just that. All-American Doug McDermott is one of the toughest covers in the country because he’s great in the post with his back to the basket and he can also shoot the three. He is the son of Creighton coach Greg McDermott and it shows in his game. He’s the kind of guy who can carry them on a long run in the tournament.
Weakness: Defense is optional for the Blue Jays. This team likes to win by outscoring its opponents rather than guarding. It’s amazing that Creighton was as successful in the defense-first Missouri Valley with that mantra, but this is an entirely different animal. You can’t win in March if you don’t defend and if Creighton doesn’t guard better it’ll have a short stay in the tournament.
9. Alabama Crimson Tide
Location: Tuscaloosa, AL
At-Large Bid: Southeastern Conference
Key Players: JaMychal Green (13.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg), Trevor Releford (11.9 ppg)
Strength: The Crimson Tide has a knack of getting teams to play the way it wants to play: ugly. Alabama plays low-scoring games, which playing great defense is necessary. This allows for a style of play that maximizes the great athletes Alabama employs. It’s not always pretty to watch, but for the Tide it sure is effective.
Weakness: Alabama can’t score. It’s a sad state of affairs, but the Tide is 0-9 the past two seasons when its opponent scores more than 70 points. That’s a staggering stat. To make matters worse, second leading scorer Tony Mitchell was kicked off the team midseason. The Tide is a great defensive team, but it’s going to have to make shots if it wants to win.
10. Purdue Boilermakers
Location: West Lafayette, IN
At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference
Key Players: Robbie Hummel (16.3 ppg, 7.1 rpg), Lewis Jackson (10.3 ppg, 4.3 apg) Ryne Smith (9.5 ppg), D.J. Byrd (8.9 ppg), Terone Johnson (8.8 ppg)
Strength: Sometimes you watch a team and wonder how it wins games, but you see one special player on the court and you get it. That’s the case with Purdue and Robbie Hummel. The sixth-year senior is getting one last shot at the NCAA tournament after injuries ruined the two previous years. Hummel has put this team on his back all year and is capable of putting it on his back in the tournament as well.
Weakness: The Boilermakers free throw shooting is a serious issue. Purdue is dead last in the Big Ten in free throw shooting at just over 65 percent. That’s a fatal flaw for a tournament team where every possession and every point is crucial. Teams that can’t step to the line and knock down shots in the late stages of games simply do not win in the Big Dance.
11. North Carolina State Wolfpack
Location: Raleigh, NC
At-Large Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference
Key Players: C.J. Leslie (14.4 ppg, 7.5 rpg), Scott Wood (12.8 ppg), Lorenzo Brown (12.6 ppg, 6.4 apg), C.J. Williams (10.9 ppg), Richard Howell (10.7 ppg, 9.2 rpg)
Strength: NC State has a collection of athletes that will rival anyone in the country. There are several high-risers on this team that can ignite a crowd with a powerful dunk. The leader of the pack, both figuratively and literally, is C.J. Leslie who uses his athleticism to score in the post and grab boards. This team can really be fun to watch and, when playing well, can be hard to beat.
Weakness: NC State’s season has been marred with inconsistency. That inconsistency caused the Wolfpack to find itself on the bubble. It had a 17 point lead on Duke and lost it. It had a seven point lead in the second half of the ACC tournament semifinal against North Carolina and lost it. If NC State can put a string of complete games together it can be one of the most dangerous teams in the country. It just hasn’t proven it can do that yet.
12a. California Golden Bears
Location: Berkeley, CA
At-Large Bid: Pac-12 Conference
Key Players: Allen Crabbe (15.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg), Jorge Gutierrez (13.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.1 apg), Justin Cobbs (12.9 ppg, 5 apg), Harper Kamp (11.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg), David Kravish (5.7 rpg)
Strength: Cal is the most efficient team offensively in the Pac-12. The Bears are first assists per game, field goal percentage per game and commit the second fewest turnovers per game. In addition to that they knock down their free throws at a clip of 74.6 percent on the year. Teams will outright just have to be better than the Bears because they will not beat themselves.
Weakness: Coach Mike Montgomery has five guys that he leans on heavily, but past that where does he turn to for help? He’s getting virtually no production from his role players and that’s not a good thing in March. He needs to find a way to get some quality minutes from his bench or he risks wearing his key guys out. He’ll need those guys fresh in crunch time.
12b. South Florida Bulls
Location: Tampa, FL
At-Large Bid: Big East Conference
Key Players: Augustus Gilchrist (9.6 ppg), Victor Rudd, Jr. (8.7 ppg), Anthony Collins (8.5 ppg, 5.3 apg), Jawanza Poland (8.5 ppg), Toarlyn Fitzpatrick (8 ppg, 6.6 rpg), Ron Anderson, Jr. (5.5 rpg)
Strength: In the rugged Big East, the Bulls just may be the best at turning a basketball game into a wrestling match. For the viewer, that’s not a good thing, but for the Bulls it’s a great thing. South Florida wants to play in the 50’s so scoring on them is not easy. Teams are only averaging 56.9 points per game on 38.8 percent shooting. The Bulls’ style is effective and could get them a win in the tournament.
Weakness: The Bulls only average 59.2 points per game. That’s an amazing number. It’s hard to pull away from teams when you struggle to score that much. This is a solid team, but there isn’t one elite scorer on the team yet. Anthony Collins may get there one day, but he’s just a freshman and he can’t work a miracle.
13. Ohio Bobcats
Location: Athens, OH
Automatic Bid: Mid-American Conference Champions
Key Players: D.J. Cooper (14.3 ppg, 5.7 apg), Walter Offutt (12 ppg), Reggie Keely (9.3 ppg, 5 rpg), Ivo Baltic (9 ppg, 5.1 rpg), Nick Kellogg (8.9 ppg)
Strength: This Bobcat team has made a real commitment to defense. They are at or near the top of the MAC in field goal percentage defense, three-point field goal percentage defense, scoring defense and steals. This keeps them in games and has allowed them to roll to an impressive 26 wins. If they lock teams up like this in the tournament they may be able to make some noise.
Weakness: Ohio has to be a great defensive team to mask its offensive deficiencies. The Bobcats shoot free throws poorly and are pedestrian shooting from the field and from behind the three point line. They also have a negative assist-to-turnover ratio. This team needs to be more efficient offensively or it will be sent packing.
14. Belmont Bruins
Location: Nashville, TN
Automatic Bid: Atlantic Sun Conference Champions
Key Players: Kerron Johnson (14.1 ppg, 5.2 apg), Ian Clark (12.7 ppg), Drew Hanlen (10.9 ppg), Scott Saunders (10.2 ppg, 5 rpg), Mick Hedgepeth (9.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg), J.J. Mann (8.5 ppg)
Strength: A lot of mid majors will be overwhelmed by the moment when they step onto the floor in the Big Dance. The Bruins aren’t one of them. This team has a significant amount of NCAA tournament experience. No scenario it faces will surprise them as the very talented Bruins attempt to win their first NCAA tournament game. Teams are going to have to really choke the life out of them because this team will be well prepared in a close game.
Weakness: This isn’t the most athletic team in the world and can be defended by teams with size and speed. Against Memphis earlier this year, Belmont tried to run with the Tigers but it was a futile effort. The Tigers just overmatched the Bruins with their athleticism. This could indeed be the scenario Belmont is faced with and one that may lead to its exit.
15. Detroit Titans
Location: Detroit, MI
Automatic Bid: Horizon League Champions
Key Players: Ray McCallum (15.6 ppg), Chase Simon (13.5 ppg), Eli Holman (10.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg), Jason Calliste (10.4 ppg), Doug Anderson (9.1 ppg)
Strength: This is a mid-major team with high-major athleticism. There aren’t many teams in the country who can match Detroit’s athletes and Valparaiso certainly couldn’t in the conference championship game. Detroit just overwhelmed Valpo on defense. It’s the same thing the Titans can do in the tournament. It helps them play with a swagger and is a major reason why they’re dancing.
Weakness: Depth will be a serious issue for the Titans. Seven guys are playing lot of minutes for them and that may be a killer in the tournament. Foul trouble or a team that plays uptempo may weaken Detroit severely. The Titans must find a well to spell their key players or their lack of a bench may doom them.
16a. Lamar Cardinals
Location: Beaumont, TX
Automatic Bid: Southland Conference Champions
Key Players: Mike James (16.9 ppg), Anthony Miles (14.7 ppg, 4.1 apg), Devon Lamb (11.9 ppg, 8.1 rpg), Brandon Davis (9.2 ppg), Charlie Harper (9 ppg, 6 rpg)
Strength: There may not be a mentally tougher team in this tournament. Pat Knight challenged his team publicly about how it played on the court and how it conducted itself off the court. He said the team might not win another game and instead it hasn’t lost. This team used that tirade as motivation and now it sits in the NCAA tournament, a stage that won’t overwhelm it.
Weakness: The Cardinals have five talented guys who can score, but against the competition they’re going to face they’ll need more from their bench. This team’s starting five will not be better than vast majority of teams in the tournament so it’s going to need contributions from other guys if it wants put a scare in someone.
16b. Vermont Catamounts
Location: Burlington, VT
Automatic Bid: America East Conference Champions
Key Players: Four McGlynn (12 ppg), Matt Glass (11.9 ppg), Luke Apfeld (10.2 ppg), Brian Voelkel (8.6 rpg)
Strength: The Catamounts like to control tempo and make teams play at their pace. They want to hold their opponents in high 50’s to low 60’s and so far it’s been working. Teams are only scoring 61 points per game against Vermont and that’s second in the American East in points allowed. It’s not aesthetically pleasing at times, but it’s gotten Vermont wins.
Weakness: Coach John Becker makes great use of his bench. Too bad not many guys give him much scoring punch. The Catamounts only have three real scoring threats with everyone else there to just steal minutes. There will be none of that in the tournament where the Catamounts bench will be under real pressure to produce or risk the very real chance of getting blown out of the tournament.