All the teams that Eamonn Brennan thinks can win the men’s NCAA Tournament

The Athletic has live coverage of March Madness as the NCAA Tournament begins Sweet 16 action.

On Monday night, idly half-watching one of the ESPN bracket shows, I noticed that both Jay Bilas and Rece Davis were driving UConn deep into their bracket. Ominously deep, in fact. Hold on a second: Did they both have UConn in the Final Four? Did they both have UConn in the title game?!

I had made my Final Four picks Sunday night, under the usual duress; doing this as a job means you are required to pick the six most important parts of your bracket (Final Four, title game, national champ) shortly after the bracket is out, and I don’t deviate from those teams when doing an entire bracket later. I’m not a coward. Ain’t skeered. No multiple brackets; no contradictory picks. Who cares, anyway? The tournament is crazy, the whole point is to be surprised, so trying to pretend like you can predict the future is silly. Just pick some teams, do your best, and enjoy the chaos that ensues.

Anyway: That’s when I realized — duh — UConn wasn’t some clever hipster find. UConn wasn’t under the radar. All those losses in Big East play, all of the sturm und drang among UConn fans about disappointing results or close losses, all of the mismatch between UConn’s falling out of the top 25 while maintaining very impressive underlying metrics, none of it had remotely obscured the Huskies from anyone. Why?

It’s really that simple. People have gotten super smart about this stuff. A decade ago, you could make convincing arguments about team quality based on efficiency margin or whatever other metric you wanted to use, and people (and some media!) would scoff at you. These days, this stuff is incredibly mainstream, everyone is hip to it, and so UConn can be the No. 4 seed in a brutal West Region and no one is put off the scent. Everyone is smarter now.

Indeed, as we discussed last year — and as John Gasaway originally, insightfully noted — the KenPom top six is the closest thing to a Gordian knot this NCAA Tournament has. Before last March, 16 of the past 19 champions ranked in the top six prior to the NCAA Tournament; Kansas (No. 6) made it 17 of 20.

The overwhelming odds are that one of Ken’s top six teams will be the national champion. Anyone with this information — including Vegas sports books — would understand UConn to be one of the favorites. So, having written about these teams in power rankings all year, and having covered the ups and downs of a fascinating season at the top of the sport, that’s where we’ll start with this year’s list: Here are the teams that can win the national title, complete with pros and cons, caveats, additions, and even some exceptions to the hard-and-fast rule.

The top six

Houston (31-3)

Why they can win it all: As we’ve written at length the past few weeks, there is basically nothing to dislike about Houston’s profile as a national title team. They have an elite coach. They have veteran, tested, savvy guards. They have a sprinkling of lottery-pick talent, in freshman wing Jarace Walker, whose versatile skills can win you a game singlehandedly even when the rest of it isn’t working all that well. They guard like crazy, with an almost religious fervor, zealots to Kelvin Sampson’s hard-earned tactical brilliance.

On offense, they take good shots, including plenty of 3s; they make those 3s at a solid rate, and they rebound their own misses as well as any team in the country, which makes them more resilient to the one-off bad shooting night. In tournament play especially, this regenerative offensive quality is extremely valuable to have.

Everything you would normally look for in a national title team, all of the classically understood ingredients, are present in Houston. It’s all here. The Cougars are the favorite for a reason.

The concerns: Marcus Sasser’s groin injury is chief among them. Is Sasser fully healthy? He was listed as day-to-day before the AAC title game, didn’t play, and Houston got rolled by Memphis. Sasser is Houston’s best and most important player, their All-American, and a big part of the reason why you can add “Houston has experienced, excellent guards” to the list of reasons why they’re built for tournament success. Jamal Shead is awesome, but he can’t do what Sasser does, too, and it would be impossible to even ask. So if Sasser doesn’t play — or even if he does, but not at full strength — then Houston’s total package is not so total after all.

(Note: Some people will list Houston’s schedule as a reason it can’t be trusted, but we don’t buy that at all. We have a pretty good idea of how good Houston is relative to competition, and that answer is: very good. Also, we saw them play at Virginia back when Virginia was good and the Cougars casually brushed them aside. They would have done just fine in a different league, don’t worry.)

Mick Cronin has built UCLA back into a power. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA Today)

UCLA (29-5)

Why they can win it all: Remember Cincinnati-era Mick Cronin? Remember how his teams used to guard? Now mix that with UCLA-level talent. That’s what this team is. Cronin’s last two UCLA teams have experienced plenty of success — the 2021 team shot its way to the Final Four, while last year’s team was very balanced the entire season before running into that super-hot UNC team in the Sweet 16 — but none of them have guarded like this. This is the sort of stuff Cronin’s teams at Cincinnati used to do all the time, but they never (OK, rarely) had guys like Jaime Jaquez Jr. or Tyger Campbell with the ball in their hands, to say nothing of David Singleton or Amari Bailey, etc. and so forth. When you have elite defense as a backstop, and you have bona fide bucket-getters and mid-post/elbow operators like Campbell and Jaquez, you can hit a level of consistent performance game in and game out. UCLA has done that, and the ingredients, in the abstract, make perfect sense for a national title run.

The concerns: Injuries, mostly. A core piece of UCLA’s defense is Jaylen Clark, who might be the best defender in the country. He is — was — certainly one of the most spectacular, uniquely capable of reading and blowing up the entire sides of offensive actions by himself. He is injured and won’t play in the tournament. Freshman center Adem Bona, an underrated player, is also banged up, though it sounds like he might be ready to play come Thursday. (Famous last words, but he likely won’t be needed against UNC Asheville.) But Clark’s loss could be disastrous; we simply don’t have enough data on how good UCLA is without him to confidently predict their continued defensive success. They were excellent defensively against Arizona in the Pac-12 title game. Is that enough to go on?

Meanwhile, we have long had reservations about UCLA’s shot diet. To some extent, when you have Jaquez, whose feel in the midrange is so good, you accept that you play through him on the parts of the floor where he is most comfortable. But look at UCLA’s relative proportion of midrange 2s, and its lack of shots at the rim or 3s from the corner:

All the teams that Eamonn Brennan thinks can win the men's NCAA Tournament

This is not exactly the most modern conceptual approach to scoring the basketball. Again: You live with some of this, because Jaquez is so intuitively good, and because UCLA guards so well on the other end. But if that defense takes a half-step back, and some of those midrange shots don’t fall, well, all it takes is one off night. A few weeks ago, we were pretty bought in on UCLA’s title potential. Not quite so much now.

Alabama (29-5)

Why they can win it all: Speaking of shot diets, here’s Alabama’s:

All the teams that Eamonn Brennan thinks can win the men's NCAA TournamentThis is nothing new for the Nate Oats-led Crimson Tide, of course; this is what they do. Through the application of sheer math, they tilt the odds in their favor. They get up and down at a super high rate, they space the floor and isolate, they create good looks from 3 and they challenge defenses by constantly probing toward the rim. It works. It also helps to have talent like Brandon Miller, a 6-foot-8 wing/guard hybrid who can handle the ball like a point, rebound like a big, and shoot 40 percent from 3 on (wait for it) 257 attempts (!). Combine an exhilarating scheme with lottery-pick talent, and then throw in the fact that Alabama is also one of the best defensive teams in the country — the Tide play fast, but they allow fewer points per trip than almost any other team in Division I — and it’s not hard to understand why so many people are picking this team to win it all. They are the closest thing to complete this side of Houston. Maybe just full stop.

The concerns: Where to start. On the floor? Not many. Maybe Jahvon Quinerly having a night where he thinks he needs to take over, only to go like 5-of-20, or something. Mostly it’s off-court stuff. Alabama is a mess off the floor. Lest we forget, an Alabama player was charged with capital murder this year. Miller — who wasn’t charged with a crime, who was reportedly cooperative with authorities, and who lives in a country where guns are legal and you can’t necessarily get in trouble for bringing one to another person even if it’s later used in an alleged homicide — allegedly brought the gun to Miles.

Since that news broke, the season has been in many ways defined by it, and at every turn Alabama (from Oats saying Miller was “in the wrong spot at the wrong time” to Miller being patted down as part of a pregame handshake routine) has handled it with stunningly callous indifference. At times, it seemed everyone involved was quick to forget that a tragedy happened in Tuscaloosa at all. The only thing that mattered was winning games.

There has been improvement on this front recently. Still, if Oats or his players have bristled at questions on this topic before, the NCAA Tournament will rightfully dial all of it up to 11, adding a notch for every round the Tide advance into. Your bracket or mine is absolutely the least important thing about all this, but if you’re talking about Alabama you have to talk about this — and Alabama will, too.



Alabama is the story of March. Not all of the questions are about basketball

(Something a bit more tangible: During the SEC tournament, Oats noted that his team always responds well to losses, that after it loses a game it typically plays well and doesn’t lose for at least a few more games after that. The actual number is four: After each of Alabama’s last two regular season defeats, the Tide won four games in a row, before losing to Texas A&M in the final outing of the regular season. They then won three SEC tourney games. Much to consider.)

All the teams that Eamonn Brennan thinks can win the men's NCAA Tournament

Jordan Hawkins and UConn started the year on a tear, dipped and then came back to that form at the end of the season. (Joe Buglewicz / Getty Images)

Connecticut (25-8)

Why they can win it all: No top team is deeper. In a sport where coaches traditionally shrink their rotations the deeper into the season they go, Dan Hurley has generally leaned into the fact that he has a bunch of talent to mix and match. He’s not exactly platooning (RIP Kentucky 2014-15), but he is playing nine guys at least 30 percent of available minutes. The results have generally been excellent. Other than the aforementioned rough patch from late December to late January, when the Huskies lost six of eight, they have been spectacular. Even then, as they fell out of the AP Top 25, the November nonconference run was so good that KenPom didn’t waver; the Huskies never fell below sixth in adjusted efficiency margin.

At the time, this was a topic of much debate. Some UConn fans insisted it meant the Huskies were really good regardless of a few bad results. Others said KenPom was “washed.” A healthy exchange of ideas. The Huskies had some issues to fix around the margins, undoubtedly, but the core offering here — fluid offense, good shooting from everywhere, elite offensive rebounding, with personnel to match up in most situations — has always been title-tier.

The concerns: Point guard play, or the lack thereof. For all of the roster options here, there isn’t an obvious, true, proven, give-me-the-ball-I-got-this point guard on the roster. Tristen Newton is first choice, but he’s turned the ball over on 21.9 percent of his possessions, while Andre Jackson Jr. is at 24.9 percent and Hassan Diarra is at (brace yourself) 29.6. Ball security is the thing the Huskies do the worst, and nothing stops a good offense like needless turnovers. You may not be able to shoot, but at least if you get a shot up, you can grab the rebound. Turnovers kill offenses at the source. Iona — which, like all Rick Pitino-coached teams, is expert at forcing turnovers — will be locked into this aspect to turn the numbers in their favor.

Other than that, the big concern is just the draw. UConn has a brutal path to the Final Four. The West is loaded beyond belief. It’s all well and good being highly favored by the algos, but the odds swing against you when there are so many good teams in your corner of the bracket.

The unfortunate exception to the rule

Tennessee (23-10)

Why they can win it all: Go ahead and frame this for when it inevitably happens, but: Sorry, Tennessee can’t win it all. This is supposed to be the part where you’re told the opposite, or at least get some reasons why it could happen, but in this case that would feel like lying.

The Volunteers are a very good team, and they do a lot well, including on defense, where they have been a hyperphysical buzzsaw for the vast majority of the season. This is still the second-best defensive team in the country, per-possession. Good defense can get you a long way. It’s not nothing.

The concerns: But, yeah, no, just don’t see it. Consider this: Since Feb. 1, per’s date filter, Tennessee has ranked 34th in the country. That is one spot ahead of Northwestern. The Vols have gone 5-7 in that time, punctuating a consistent string of ugly performances with (of course) your run-of-the-mill home league win over Alabama to keep the flame alive. This is a bit of a metaphor for their larger season: Tennessee beat Kansas 64-50 early on, which has held them in good metric stead for much of the year, even as they’ve wavered down the stretch. The genuinely positive offensive signs this team showed early in the season (you can go back and find a power rankings week where we marveled at UT’s offense and what it meant if they finally paired efficient scoring with that D) all but vanished down the stretch in SEC play. Throw in the loss of heart and soul point guard Zakai Zeigler, and it’s really hard to imagine this generally struggling group generating enough offense to win six games in a row at this stage. It’s inconceivable.

Again: Bookmark this for when Tennessee wins it all. Practically guaranteed now. But the rule is that the national champ almost always comes from the top six — not that all of the top six are capable of winning the national title. There are levels to this.

OK, back to the top six

Texas (26-8)

Why they can win it all: Hey, Texas! It’s actually great to see Texas here. If you flash back to early December, when former coach Chris Beard was arrested for domestic assault, very few people would have assumed Texas would be here. Beard, like most successful coaches, had always been considered the glue of his programs, the manic genius at their center, and so losing him surely meant losing this Texas season.

The Longhorns players didn’t go for that. They put their heads down, hung in, and salvaged a mess not of their own making. Rodney Terry, interim head coach, deserves a ton of credit for this, but the combined experience of the players — late-career former transfers like Marcus Carr (having a brilliant final collegiate season), Timmy Allen, Sir’Jabari Rice and Dylan Disu, all guys that have been around the block and came to Texas to do something — was what really rescued this campaign. For all of their quantifiably balanced strengths as basketball players (Carr’s turnover-averse playmaking, Tyrese Hunter’s ability to pressure defenses from different angles, Allen’s intuitive movement), it is that experience that gives us the most faith in a deep Texas run. These kids — men — mean business.



How Rodney Terry, Texas won a Big 12 championship

The concerns: There aren’t many. At face value, the biggest is perimeter shooting, where Carr (who was torching people early on) fell off noticeably in Big 12 play. But the Longhorns generally shot it much better against the Big 12 than they did against nonconference competition, finishing at 35.4 percent in league play (compared to 33.9 percent on the season). Maybe the biggest peripheral concern is whether Disu is scoring consistently and efficiently within his role. If he is, Texas is borderline unguardable. If not, they are merely very good.

Just call it a top eight

Purdue (29-5)

Why they can win it all: It feels odd having to make the counterintuitive case for a No. 1 seed, a team that has been on pace for a top seed since it broke out and destroyed all in its path back at the PK85 in November. But, no, Purdue ranks seventh in adjusted efficiency heading into the tournament, and so if it wins the national title it will count as a rare — but not impossible — deviation from the past two decades.

But if any team can do it, maybe this one can. Purdue does have the best player in the country in Zach Edey, after all, a 7-foot-4 force of raw individual offensive efficiency. Edey’s classically trained big man game — his indefatigable offensive rebounding, mixed with highly efficient post scoring on both sides of the rim — gives Purdue a high offensive floor almost no matter what else happens. The guy routinely scores like 32 points on 22 shots with 14 rebounds, or whatever. It’s crazy. He’s that good. But what else usually happens is that Braden Smith makes the right decisions with the ball in his hands, Fletcher Loyer flits around screens and into open perimeter spaces, and Caleb Furst and Ethan Morton and Mason Gillis glue all the rest of it together. Coach Matt Painter’s tweak mid-year, to bring Brandon Newman into the starting lineup in place of Morton (who guards well but doesn’t add much offensively) generally paid off. Even when the Boilermakers aren’t at their absolutely high-flying best, it’s usually enough to win.

The concerns: That’s the thing: Purdue hasn’t been at its absolute high-flying best for most of the past six weeks. Yes, they won the Big Ten title game, and that was a very encouraging series of performances (even if it did require a bit of struggleball against Penn State in the title game, and Rutgers in the quarterfinals too), but by and large the Boilers have come back down to — well, if not Earth, then at least the lower atmosphere. Edey has been dominant all along, but the perimeter shooting hasn’t always lived up to him, allowing defenses to collapse around him more (see the Indiana game in West Lafayette) and Smith and Loyer, freshman guards who weren’t highly touted coming in, have occasionally looked physically overwhelmed, if not out-and-out gassed, and they’re the ones responsible for getting the ball to Edey when it counts.

And then there is this:

Again, these records are there to be broken, common quirks made to be defied. As someone who thinks about basketball teams in the offseason, who talks to coaches and tries to sort it all out, I’m maybe a bit less trustworthy of preseason consensus than some — none of us really know, you know? Coaches don’t know. But if Purdue does get to the Final Four, or win the national title, it will be defying a fair amount of statistical history. Edey is up to it, but it’s worth knowing going in.

Kansas (27-7)

Why they can win it all: Because they won the Big 12? Like, truly: That conference was ridiculous this season, just an exhausting, ritualistic, twice-weekly knife fight, and if you can emerge from that thing with an outright conference regular season title, what can’t you do? Kansas was a triumph of adaptability this season. Having lost true post scorer David McCormack and star guards Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun from a national title-winning team, Bill Self returned with a flexible, guard-dominant, switchable lineup whose “traditional” big man is 6-foot-7 K.J. Adams, and whose wings — Kevin McCullar Jr., Jalen Wilson, Gradey Dick — are generally pretty interchangeable. And Wilson, a formerly nice wing role player, has turned into an alpha star.

The result, plus savvy point guard Dajuan Harris Jr., has been a starting five that generally is capable of doing just about anything Self asks of it, which is a lot, up to and including winning the toughest league college hoops has seen in a good long time and racking up more top-tier wins than any team has since the current tourney evaluation system was brought into effect. There is not much the defending national champs can’t do.

The concerns: They are mostly health related. Self missed the Big 12 tournament due to a minor heart procedure; he is set to return for the tournament. McCullar missed the Big 12 tournament title game (when Texas hammered KU) with back spasms, and his status will play a major role. Dick did play, but he had injury concerns arriving in Kansas City.

Most of all — and this is related — Kansas’s biggest concern is depth. This was not an elite offensive team at full strength (it finished fifth in the Big 12 in points per trip) and was heavily reliant on Wilson in key moments. But Self’s rotation is by necessity very tight. Just one non-starter, Joseph Yesufu, plays more than 30 percent of available minutes for the Jayhawks, and Yesufu plays 30.5. This is a team with a tight, core five, which can be a real benefit, provided nobody gets hurt.

All the teams that Eamonn Brennan thinks can win the men's NCAA Tournament

Anton Watson and Gonzaga are not what the last couple of Zags teams have been, but the analytics like them. (Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

Of all years, this one?

Gonzaga (28-5)

Why they can win it all: It would be very funny, wouldn’t it? After the past two seasons, for this Gonzaga team to be the one that does it? Nobody would argue the 2022-23 Zags are remotely close to the level hit by the 2020-21 team, which arrived at the Final Four undefeated, or even last year’s group, which featured Chet Holmgren as, like, a second offensive floor-stretching option, which was crazy at the time but is utterly ridiculous in retrospect. This team has Drew Timme, still a post-pivot-scorer par excellence, and then a bunch of nice supporting players whom nobody is going to be rushing to crown as the next big thing in professional basketball.

But here’s the thing: That might be plenty. Julian Strawther is a very good college wing. Rasir Bolton is a very good college guard. Anton Watson is probably the most underrated player in the country; he was underrated two years ago, too. All of Gonzaga’s non-Timme supporting options — which looked like they floated a bit in November and December — look vastly readier now. You don’t have to have Jalen Suggs running the show, necessarily. College basketball is a funny game. Put a very good, if not great, team on the floor and you might get there eventually. And for all of the talent Mark Few has put on the floor in recent years, it would be highly comedic if this relatively unvaunted one was the one that finally broke through. Could happen!

The concerns: Defense. Simple as that. This has become the best statistical offensive team in the country over the back half of the season, and you can see why — Timme operating in the post and running at the rim, three shooters on the floor around him at all times, Watson doing good work off the ball. But the Zags have never defended particularly well. Timme is not a particularly, um, dedicated defender. The Zags ranked third in the WCC in points allowed per possession; they were 77th overall, and their opponents shoot high percentages against them from everywhere on the floor. You don’t have to be Houston to win a title, but it helps to be able to get down in a stance and get a stop, and you do wonder whether this Zags team — again, unlike the best ones of the past half-decade — can really do that when it counts.

Honorable mention(s)

Arizona: Hands up: No team has confused me more than Arizona all year. Every time I thought I had a decent read on the Wildcats (All offense! Oh, wait they’re guarding really well now! Oh, wait, never mind, they can’t guard anyone again! AHHHH!) they slipped through my hands like sand. Extremely frustrating. And yet here they are, 28-6 and a No. 2 seed, with the kind of frontcourt presence in Azuolas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo that very few teams can match up with. They just beat UCLA in the Pac-12 title game. Why are we so sure they can’t win it all?

Marquette: The latter half of the “unranked in the preseason but now a No. 1 or No. 2 seed” tidbit from earlier shouldn’t let it get them down: Marquette has had an incredible season. The biggest thing here is keeping the core five on the floor as much as possible. Tyler Kolek, Kam Jones, Stevie Mitchell, Oso Ighodaro and Olivier- Maxence Prosper are the best five-man lineup in college hoops this season, per Evan Miyakawa’s five-man lineup data. When they’re on the floor, they’re fantastic, and any team capable of beating UConn en route to a Big East tourney title is capable of winning a national title, too. But it’s asking a lot.

One deep sleeper just for fun

Texas A&M: I picked Texas A&M to go to the Final Four. This will likely not happen. Indeed, because I picked Texas A&M to go to the Final Four, it is cosmically more likely to lose. That’s just how it works. But for the last time, we’ll remind you that since Jan. 1 — when A&M put that atrocious nonconference slate behind — there have been five teams better than A&M in the country, per Bart Torvik. A&M is 17-4 in that span, finished 15-3 in the SEC, beat Tennessee and Alabama and Missouri (twice), and established itself as the team the committee would definitely underseed because the entire season matters when it comes time to figure out your place in the bracket. And fair enough.

But seed doesn’t matter beyond that. A&M has been playing like a top-10 team for a very long time. That guarantees nothing, but if you’re looking for a long shot to throw a random bet on, you could do far worse than this.

History suggests A&M can’t do it. But you never know — someone has to buck the trend every now and then, just to keep things lively.

(Top photo: Jamie Squire / Getty Images)

Most Related Links :
primenewsprint Governmental News Finance News

Source link

Back to top button