By: Chris O’Brien
Toward the end of the season, I was watching the Duke vs. North Carolina game and thought to myself, “I can’t picture the Kansas Jayhawks beating either one of these teams.”
It just looked like a faster, way more athletic game of basketball.
And I know, anything can happen in March. If UMBC can beat Virginia, the gap between a No. 5 seed and a No. 1 seed should be even less than that. But my criteria for this list is trying to assemble who are the eight teams that might be able to win a seven-game series against anybody. Who could hang on a floor with Duke or North Carolina? And, if they could do it for seven games, they absolutely could pull it off in the one-game format.
Ask any Purdue fan and they’ll tell you the Sweet 16 always seems to be the ceiling for the Boilermakers. It’s hard to get even the most die-hard fan to commit to an Elite 8 or Final Four vision.
Their case to beat anybody: The win over Michigan State. Tying for 1st in a really tough Big 10 (sent eight teams to the tournament). Having Carsen Edwards who’s good for 23 ppg.
Caleb Martin would start for any team in the country. Same for big man Jordan Caroline (17.3 ppg, 9.6 rpg). And both will likely be second-round picks in the NBA Draft.
Nevada is 29-4 on the season. 25th in scoring. Top 40 in field goal percentage defense. One of the best teams in terms of low turnovers.
And yet it feels like Nevada kind of underachieved this season. The two losses against San Diego State and the weird 85-58 beatdown at the hands of New Mexico prevented Nevada from being a much higher seed.
Similar to Marquette, take a snapshot around the end of February, this was a 24-1 Top 10 team. Now they’re on the No. 7 line.
The path is much harder with Florida then Michigan, but if you’re looking for a Final Four caliber team that you can “buy cheap” Nevada could be a great pick.
Houston ended the season ranked No. 4 in the new college basketball NET rankings. No. 12 in KenPom. They’re No. 2 in field goal percentage defense. Top 10 in scoring defense. Top 10 in rebounding.
31-3. Wins against Oregon, LSU, Saint Louis, Utah State, UCF, Cincinnati.
Without the slip against UCF and had they won the conference tournament, we’d be looking at a one-loss team, possibly on the 1-line instead of Gonzaga. Totally fair to treat this team like a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.
Only downside? They ended up in the bracket of death. Would likely need to get through Iowa State, Kentucky, and North Carolina. That’s a pretty brutal path.
I’m keeping LSU at an arm’s distance and I’m not really sure why.
They won the regular season SEC, finishing ahead of Tennessee and Kentucky. They beat the Volunteers and the Wildcats too in head-to-head games.
Top 25 in scoring. Four guys average double figures.
Their path to the Sweet 16 will likely involve a No. 14 followed by a No. 11.
This is a really solid Sweet 16 pick.
12. Iowa State
This was the team I thought would end Kansas’ Big 12 streak. It was the second game of Big 12 play and the Cyclones blew Kansas out, 77-60.
But after that win, Iowa State went 7-9 in conference. Finished in 5th place. Lost their last three games of the season. I’m not really sure what happened to this team.
Then they put it together in the Big 12 tournament, beating Baylor, Kansas State, and Kansas en route to the title.
There’s so much talent on this team. Shayok, Wiggington, and Horton-Tucker can all go off for 25+. Weiler-Babb is a triple-double threat. Jacobson, Haliburton, Lard, Lewis, Conditt IV. Their depth serves them well in a tournament situation.
Iowa State could hang on a floor with Duke or North Carolina. And what’s intriguing is if they get to the Sweet 16, the games are played in Kansas City. Anyone who watched the Big 12 Tournament saw how Iowa State fans took that place over, made it almost 50/50 with KU. The same thing could happen again. North Carolina might run onto the court for an Elite 8 game and see, “Wait, we have to beat Iowa State on the road to get to the Final Four?”
11. Virginia Tech
So far, this list has been filled with hypotheticals. Could they beat Duke? Could they beat North Carolina?
With Virginia Tech, they went out and actually beat Duke. Granted, without Zion, but still an impressive feat.
What gives Virginia Tech a shot against anybody is the combination of elite 3-pt shooting paired with solid defense. They have three really strong guards with Alexander-Walker, Robinson, and Hill paired with big man Blackshear who can control the paint.
And just checked, KenPom has Virginia Tech at No. 11 as well. Just feels right for this team.
10. Florida State
Once you get to the Top 10, you’ve entered the group of teams where a National Championship is totally in sight. There’s a big jump between Virginia Tech and Florida State. For example, Vegas has Florida State at 35:1 odds to win it all, Virginia Tech down at 70:1. One spot different on this list, 2x difference in Vegas.
The main appeal of Florida State is that they matchup physically with any team in the country. Both games against Duke, watching that game it didn’t feel like there was a huge gap in talent.
Proof they can beat anybody? Take a look at this list of wins:
Virginia, Duke, Florida, LSU, Purdue, Syracuse, Louisville, Virginia Tech (2x)
What kept them from being in my Top 8? Bad losses against Pittsburgh and Boston College. These have me worried about potential upsets against Vermont or Murray State.
Went back and forth between putting them here or one spot higher in the “Eight Teams that Could Win it All.”
As always, Kentucky has a young team that improved throughout the season, specifically on defense. Since January 8th, they’ve gone 17-3, their only losses coming twice to Tennessee and once to LSU.
PJ Washington has become a force and they’ve got a ton of depth. John Calipari pretty much always solid in the tournament.
Downside? Their route is brutal. A senior-heavy Wofford team would cause some issues for the Wildcats and Seton Hall beat Kentucky earlier in the season (in what was secretly one of the best games of college basketball this season). After that, it’d be Houston or a road game against Iowa State. After THAT, worst case scenario North Carolina, best case scenario a road game against Kansas or an Auburn team that just won the SEC Tournament.
Can they beat anybody? Yes. Can they beat that many good teams en route to a title? That’s a hard sell.