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Titus’s Top 12 NCAA Power Rankings

Why each of these teams has a chance to become NCAA champion. And why they each could suffer early-round upsets.

The NCAA tournament starts in less than a week! More importantly, in a little more than a week the part of the tournament that people actually care about starts! Considering how wild this season has been, I’m afraid the tournament can’t possibly live up to my expectations. But then again, along with Justin Timberlake hosting Saturday Night Live and any story involving Nic Cage or Steven Seagal, the NCAA tournament is one of those things that always delivers.

Rankings are pointless throughout the season, of course, but with the tournament right around the corner, they become irrelevant. Sure, rankings are fun to discuss, but in a few days the teams will get to prove who’s the best, so all the discussion is especially pointless now.1 What matters is that your team gets into the tournament and receives a decent draw — and that you can wake up next Saturday morning without your bracket being completely busted. Knowing this, I’ve decided to bust out a gimmick for this season’s final edition of the most powerful power rankings. I may not be able to help your team get into the tournament or get a decent draw, but what I can do is help you second-guess every decision you make with your bracket. That’s what this week’s column is all about. I’ll outline why each of the top 12 teams will win the national championship as well as why each of them won’t even survive the first weekend. In other words, I’m going to make filling out a bracket 10 times harder for you. You’re welcome.

(By the way, before we get started I thought I’d let you all know that I created an ESPN Tournament Challenge group just in case you think you know more about college basketball than I do. Before you join, you should know two things: (1) I’m giving a signed copy of my book, a pack of Saved by the Bell trading cards, and some Big League Chew to the winner; and (2) the winner is going to be me.)

12. Kansas State

Why they’ll win the national championship:

Kansas State isn’t the best team in college basketball, but as UConn in 2011 and Duke in 2010 proved, the last team standing isn’t always the most talented. Don’t get me wrong: The Wildcats have guys who can play. You don’t win a share of the Big 12 title — the second-best league from top to bottom in America — unless you have legit talent. And Kansas State’s talent begins with Rodney McGruder, a senior guard with experience and the ability to carry the team. That last bit is why Kansas State will win the national championship — McGruder has the stones to step up in big moments, to carry K-State when the rest of the guys go cold, and to pull off a miracle when the Wildcats are on the ropes. In a year with no obvious favorites, having a player like this can make all the difference. Oh, and let’s not forget that they’re coached by a guy — Bruce Weber — who has already taken a team to the brink of a national championship.

Why they won’t make it out of the first weekend:

That same guy who has coached in a national championship game has won only two NCAA tournament games in the following seven years. Now, I don’t necessarily think Weber is a bad coach, but his last few years in Illinois revealed a trend of bowing out of the tournament early that’s too strong to be ignored. Another trend that can’t be ignored: Kansas State has struggled against good teams. To their credit, they won at Baylor recently, which is something Kansas couldn’t do last week. But KSU’s only blockbuster wins came against Florida on December 22 and Oklahoma State on January 5. Put it this way: If I told you that a team’s coach is a notorious underachiever and that it last won a marquee game when Manti Te’o was considered a great linebacker whose dead girlfriend actually existed, would you feel confident in its tournament chances?

11. Marquette

Why they’ll win the national championship:

Like Kansas State, Marquette isn’t going to win a national championship because of its talent. The Golden Eagles aren’t loaded with future NBA players. Hell, I’m not sure Marquette has even one guy who will ever sniff an NBA roster. But it does have chemistry and experience. This explains how, without a ton of overwhelming talent, it won a share of the Big East title and went undefeated at home. The Golden Eagles are well coached, they play unselfishly, they know exactly who they are, and they play with a bit of a chip on their shoulders. Plus — and this is the biggest reason why they will win the national championship — they know how to win. Here’s what I mean: Marquette managed to win one conference game while scoring 49 points and another one while scoring 89 points. It won three Big East games in overtime, two of which came on the road. It’s won close games, it’s won blowouts, it’s come from behind, and it’s held on to win after blowing leads. No matter what the tournament throws at them, the Golden Eagles will be ready. The same can’t be said for too many other teams.

Why they won’t make it out of the first weekend:

Let’s not kid ourselves. We may feel inspired by Marquette’s achievement — winning a Big East title without NBA talent — but playing hard and playing together can take you only so far. Besides, the Golden Eagles have been pretty disappointing on the road this season. Their only road win worth mentioning was an overtime victory at Pitt. It’s my understanding that Marquette won’t be able to play every game in the NCAA tournament at home, which is why its national championship hopes are slim. Buzz Williams has gotten the most out of his team, and he deserved to be named Big East Coach of the Year. But Marquette’s talent deficit, its blowout loss to Florida earlier in the year, its loss to UW–Green Bay, and its overtime win over a struggling St. John’s squad last weekend has me thinking one thing: Buzz, your basketball team … woof.

10. Kansas

Why they’ll win the national championship:

It’s easy to point to Ben McLemore — the best raw talent in college basketball — as the reason Kansas will win its fourth national championship in April. But to me, McLemore is just the tip of the iceberg, and the rest of the Jayhawks roster is the real reason why Massachusetts Street in Lawrence will be wild in a few weeks. Jeff Withey is the best interior defender in the country, Travis Releford is one of the best perimeter defenders in the country, Kevin Young is one of the best glue guys in the country, and Elijah Johnson is the best Elijah Johnson in the country. These four got to the title game last year and know exactly what it takes to win one this year. When you throw McLemore into the mix, what you get is a Kansas team that is impossible to score against when it’s mentally engaged and impossible to stop when it’s setting screens and moving the ball.

Why they won’t make it out of the first weekend:

I feel like Shawn Michaels sending Ric Flair into retirement with Sweet Chin Music at WrestleMania 24 with what I’m about to do to Kansas fans. But it needs to be done. So here are three reasons why Kansas will go home early:

9. Michigan State

Why they’ll win the national championship:

Tom Izzo. I’m not sure anything else needs to be said. You could give the man a handful of random kids from an intramural team, a sack of potatoes, and a bottle of grape soda, and I’m pretty sure he’d still find a way to get them to the Final Four. Hell, he could probably take over at winless Grambling State right now and lead the Tigers to the Sweet Sixteen. He’s just a wizard in March. And it should be said that the team he has this year is a quintessential Michigan State team — it outrebounds pretty much everyone it plays, it sets great illegal screens that don’t get called, it plays a bruising, physical style, and it’s gotten better with each passing week. I know some Michigan State fans are worried because the Spartans coasted across the finish line to end the regular season, but if Gary Harris plays like he usually does, Keith Appling shows up, Adreian Payne pretends that every game in the tournament is against Indiana, and Izzo gives his guys Michael’s Secret Stuff or whatever it is that makes them so good in March, you can start stitching the national championship banner now.

Why they won’t make it out of the first weekend:

Keith Appling. I’m not sure anything else needs to be said. Appling is the Spartans’ leading scorer and — like he did in a late-January win over Illinois — has the ability to almost single-handedly win games. But he also tends to disappear in big games. His four worst games of the season — at Indiana, vs. Indiana, at Ohio State, and at Michigan — were the four biggest games of the Spartans’ season. And as bad as his offense was in these games, his defense may have been even worse. Luckily for Michigan State fans, he shook off his slump and finished the season strong against Wisconsin and Northwestern. Appling proved last year in the tournament against Saint Louis that he can step up in a big moment. Still, having an inconsistent point guard as your leading scorer is a recipe for disaster in the tournament, so Michigan State might be screwed.

8. Michigan

Why they’ll win the national championship:

Having Trey Burke, the best point guard and maybe the best player in the country, is reason enough to like Michigan’s national title chances. But when you consider that Burke has two other NBA first-rounders (Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III), a highly touted recruit with a great motor (Mitch McGary), and the best freshman shooter in the country (Nik Stuaskas) on the floor with him, you wonder how anybody could beat these guys. When the Wolverines play their best, they are the best offensive team in college basketball. Michigan also stands to benefit from playing under NCAA tournament referees, who typically call more fouls than Big Ten officials. This means that tournament games tend to be higher-scoring than Big Ten contests, which plays right into Michigan’s hands. As long as the Wolverines play up to their potential on defense and don’t fall in love with 3s, a national championship is theirs for the taking.

Why they won’t make it out of the first weekend:

That’s the problem with the Wolverines — they don’t play to their potential on defense and they rely on jump shots way too much. Those are two of the biggest culprits for early upsets. Making matters worse, Robinson and Hardaway have been streaky this year, probably because Michigan’s offense often devolves into nothing more than four guys watching Burke dribble off ball screens. Now, Michigan definitely wants Burke to have the ball in his hands as much as possible, but problems arise when Burke doesn’t get his teammates going at the start of games, something he did more consistently early in the season. Michigan fans, are you looking for something to have nightmares about? Here’s how your team’s first- or second-round upset is going to play out: Burke will decide he has to do everything himself; Michigan’s opponent will throw everyone it has at him on defense; and Robinson and Hardaway will get frustrated with their lack of involvement, try to force their own offense, and struggle throughout the game. That, or Michigan’s Big Three will jack up an absurd amount of 3s, miss many more than they make, and let their offensive struggles carry over to the defensive end. Either way, it’s discouraging how easily a team as talented as the Wolverines can be beat.

7. Miami

Why they’ll win the national championship:

Outside of Colorado State, I can’t think of another tournament team with as much experience as Miami. The Canes start four seniors, bring another off the bench, and get meaningful minutes from zero freshmen. These guys have played together forever and have a great understanding of their roles. Despite their experience, however, they’re led by a sophomore in Shane Larkin — the best point guard in the country not named Trey Burke — who was robbed of the ACC Player of the Year award. Larkin plays best in Miami’s biggest games and he’s the primary reason why the Canes won an ACC championship for the first time. They have size, they have experience, they have a coach who took a team half as talented to the Final Four in 2006, and most importantly they believe they can play with anybody in college basketball’s upper echelon.

Why they won’t make it out of the first weekend:

I’ve said it all season and I’ll keep saying it as long as it’s true — the Hurricanes’ biggest weakness is that they know how good they are. Before Miami dismantled Duke on January 23, it was hungry to earn respect from the college basketball world. Sometime between then and its 15-point loss at Wake Forest, that confidence turned into arrogance and a false sense of its own greatness. After Wake Forest humbled the Canes and nobody gave them much of a chance against Duke, they got back to their “nobody respects us” ways and would have beaten Duke if Ryan Kelly hadn’t played the game of his life. Not surprisingly, they felt great about themselves again after playing so well at Duke and then lost to a pretty bad Georgia Tech team. Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, their first two tournament games are guaranteed to be against opponents they should have no trouble beating. I hope my feeling that they can’t handle being the hunted is absurd, because if it’s not, Miami’s dream season could come to a disappointing end.

HALFTIME

It’s halftime, which can mean only one thing: It’s time for Dick’s Degrees of Separation, the most mildly amusing Internet game involving college basketball! You know the drill: I give you the end point of a Dick Vitale tangent and you pick the path he took to get there. Let’s get down to business.

During the Duke vs. North Carolina game played in Chapel Hill last Saturday, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about the Oklahoma Sooners?

  1. Following a Marcus Paige turnover in the second half, Jay Bilas comments that he expected more from Paige this year. He confesses that it might be unfair to place such high expectations on freshmen, but in this day and age of college basketball, it’s hard to be successful without production from your star recruits. Vitale points out that a freshman who has risen to the occasion this year is Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State. Dickie V. thinks Smart is the best player in college basketball and should be a contender for the no. 1 pick in the NBA draft because of how good he’s made the Cowboys. After a beat, he continues his thought and jokingly asks Bilas if Oklahoma is turning into a basketball state now that the Cowboys are having a good year and the Sooners should also make the NCAA tournament.

  2. After a graphic is shown to outline the West Coast Conference tournament bracket, Dan Shulman asks Jay Bilas if he thinks Gonzaga deserves a no. 1 seed. Bilas says that he does. Shulman asks if Bilas would feel the same way if Gonzaga lost in the WCC championship and Bilas answers that it would depend on how the other top teams finish their seasons. Vitale then cuts in and says Gonzaga and Duke are locks for no. 1 seeds and that his third no. 1 would be an undetermined team from the Big Ten. While trying to figure out who would be his fourth no. 1 seed, Vitale mentions that Kansas lost earlier that day to TCU. Bilas corrects him by saying that Kansas lost to Baylor, prompting Vitale to apologize and confess that he had TCU on his mind because the Horned Frogs had just upset Oklahoma.
  3. During the second half, with Duke in control and on the way to an easy win, Shulman asks Vitale and Bilas if they think Duke should be the no. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. Bilas says that it depends on what happens between Indiana and Michigan the following day. Vitale agrees and says that he thinks an Indiana win should secure the no. 1 overall seed for the Hoosiers, although they’d also have to win a couple of games in the Big Ten tournament. Nonetheless, Vitale says, Tom Crean should be applauded for how quickly he was able to turn around Indiana’s program after it was run into the ground by Kelvin Sampson, who Vitale reminds us came to IU from Oklahoma.

6. Georgetown

Why they’ll win the national championship:

Nobody does ugly quite as beautifully as Georgetown. Not Larry Bird’s jump shot, not George “The Animal” Steele in a wrestling ring, and not even Gary Busey. The Hoyas have perfected the art of sucking opponents into their style of play and beating them senseless with frustration and boredom. But don’t take that the wrong way. When I say that they beat opponents with boredom, I’m not saying that they’re boring. It’s impossible to be boring when Otto Porter, my pick for national Player of the Year and a guy who will likely be an NBA lottery pick, is on your team. When I say they win with boredom, I mean that their opponents don’t want to guard each possession for the full 35-second shot clock, and the Hoyas force them to. Their opponents can’t handle Georgetown’s ball movement, patience, and composure on offense. This, along with the fact that the Hoyas play great, physical defense, is why they’re going all the way. They play a style that teams outside the Big East won’t be able to adequately prepare for, and they do it with the best player in the game leading the way.

Why they won’t make it out of the first weekend:

The problem with playing ugly is that it can end up like plastic surgery. You know how some people say they’re “just going to get a little work done” and before you know it their faces look like they belong to cartoon villains? Something similar can happen to basketball teams that play ugly. They set out to make things uncomfortable for their opponents, but sometimes it backfires and they can’t establish any sort of rhythm themselves. As a result, their offense stalls, their inability to score affects their defense, and before you know it their lips are the size of a baseball and they’ve got cat eyes. The risk of an ugliness backfire will be greatest in Georgetown’s first two games because they’ll likely face mid-major schools that also rely on physical, fundamental play to hide their talent deficits. Another danger is that teams like Georgetown have a lot of trouble playing from behind, so if the Hoyas find themselves in a hole late, they may not be able to do much about it.

5. Louisville

Why they’ll win the national championship:

How many point guards in college basketball do you completely trust? In other words, if you had to assemble a team to play Louisville and you knew that your point guard was going to be swarmed with pressure the entire length of the court for 40 minutes, how many guys would you have faith in to break the press, initiate your offense, and not get rattled? I can think of two players — Trey Burke and Shane Larkin — and even they aren’t immune to occasional lapses in judgment. Knowing this, you’d have to think that Louisville’s defense alone is enough to wreak havoc in the tournament and carry the Cards to a championship. Shoot, that’s what almost happened last year when they went to the Final Four and lost to eventual champion Kentucky. Some were quick to write Louisville off after its three-game losing streak in January, but the Cards have been one of the hottest teams in college basketball since that skid. They now look like the national champion contenders that everyone thought they’d be when the season began.

Why they won’t make it out of the first weekend:

Do I even need to say it? If someone from the future came back to tell me that Louisville will lose in the first or second round of this year’s tournament, my first words would be: “Who blew the last possession?” For the Cards to even be in a position to blow a game, however, they’ll probably have no semblance of a half-court offense throughout the game. That’s been the case all season when Louisville has been at its worst, and it’s more than likely going to be the case should it get bounced early. When it can’t score in half-court situations, it can’t set up its press, which in turn means that it can’t get easy transition buckets off turnovers. From there, the problem compounds itself and Louisville finds itself caught in a game that’s much closer than it should be with just a minute or two left. And we all know what comes next …

4. Indiana

Why they’ll win the national championship:

Regardless of what the bracket ends up looking like, my guess is that Indiana will be the most popular pick to win the national championship. And rightfully so. At their best, the Hoosiers are the top team in the country by a wide margin, and unlike last year they’ve proven they can beat great teams away from home. In fact, they probably have the best road résumé in college basketball, considering they’ve won at Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State, all within the past five weeks. For Indiana to lose, the Hoosiers will have to play their worst while their opponent plays its absolute best. Even then, it still might not be enough. It’s simple: Indiana will win the national championship because Indiana is the best team.

Why they won’t make it out of the first weekend:

Tom Crean. More specifically, Tom Crean’s refusal to acknowledge that Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller should play 40 minutes in every game from here on out unless they’re in foul trouble or unless Indiana has an insurmountable lead. Against Michigan last Sunday, Indiana jumped to a 10-3 start and looked like it was going to plaster the Wolverines. Then Crean inexplicably decided to go deep into his bench, and Michigan rattled off a 24-6 run to take an 11-point lead. Just how bad were Crean’s substitutions in the first half? Consider this: Against a top-10 team and less than 10 minutes into a close road game that could clinch Indiana’s first outright Big Ten championship in 20 years, Crean had Jordan Hulls, Remy Abell, Will Sheehey, Christian Watford, and Hanner Perea on the floor while his two All-Americans sat on the bench. So yeah.

3. Ohio State

Why they’ll win the national championship:

Two things that need to happen if Ohio State has any chance of winning a national championship. First, it has to play great defense. This is its bread and butter, especially perimeter defense. Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott get all the headlines, but Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson also have the length and athleticism to make life miserable for opposing guards. The second thing Ohio State must do is give Deshaun Thomas offensive help. He’s arguably the best scorer in the country and he can carry the Buckeyes for stretches, but one offensive weapon isn’t enough to win six straight tournament games. If Thomas can maintain his production and these two things happen, then Ohio State can beat anybody. For most of the season, only one of these things has happened at a time, but recently everything has been clicking. The Buckeyes are the hottest Power Six conference team in America, and they should use that momentum to snag their first national title in more than 50 years.

Why they won’t make it out of the first weekend:

Ohio State is going home early because of everything I said in the last paragraph. I mean, just think about everything it needs to have go right. As great as Ohio State looked at Indiana, if Aaron Craft’s jumper had gone cold, the Hoosiers probably would’ve won by 10. If Deshaun Thomas had gotten into foul trouble, the Hoosiers would’ve won by 10. If Evan Ravenel had played like he did against Illinois in Ohio State’s next game, Cody Zeller would’ve scored a million points and the Hoosiers would’ve won by 20. So many things have to fall into place for Ohio State to have a chance, and even then the NCAA tournament is a cruel mistress. She always seems to deliver a kick in the groin when you least expect it. Every team needs luck in March, but for a team like Ohio State that could be derailed by so many different flaws, a little luck might not be enough.

2. Gonzaga

Why they’ll win the national championship:

The Foreigners have won more games than any other team in college basketball, and despite the outcry that their schedule has been way too easy, many of their wins came against pretty good teams. Most impressive, though, is that Gonzaga hasn’t lost to any unranked teams.2 How well Gonzaga would do in the Big Ten is something that has been brought up ad nauseam in recent weeks, but what about flipping around the question? How would Michigan State or Indiana do in the WCC? You think they’d go undefeated and dominate even the second-best team in the conference? Well, funny story: THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT GONZAGA DID. The Foreigners have had to listen to America tell them they suck for the past month and change, so when tournament time comes around, they’re going Stone Cold on college basketball by driving their trucks into the arena, chugging two beers at once, slamming them together, throwing up double middle fingers, and opening up a can of whoop ass on all comers.3

Why they won’t make it out of the first weekend:

Why should I have to tell you why Gonzaga will get upset early, when ESPN.com user “ANTH0NYinCALI” already made this flawless argument in the comment section of an article discussing the latest AP poll?

How the hell is Gonzaga number 1??? I can almost guarantee that Duke, IU, Georgetown, Louisville, Michigan, MSU, or even UCLA would destroy them! I mean come on their best player is freakin’ goldilocks sunshine and they lost to Butler man really? I’m sorry I just don’t have any respect at all for non power conference schools. Gonzaga won’t get past the sweet 16 unless they get lucky seeding and play weak teams the whole time.

The three question marks at the beginning let you know he means business. And he does bring up a good point: Gonzaga “lost to Butler man really.” How can you trust a team that lost to Butler man really???

1. Duke

Why they’ll win the national championship:

If Duke’s undefeated record with Ryan Kelly in the lineup isn’t enough to convince you, maybe this is: Duke has beaten three teams currently ranked in the top 10; it’s beaten countless tournament teams; and it just went to Chapel Hill and destroyed a North Carolina team that I thought might be the best in the ACC since it started playing small ball. The Blue Devils have three of the best senior leaders in college basketball in Kelly, Mason Plumlee, and Seth Curry. That should sound familiar to you, because Duke’s 2010 national champion team was led by the three-headed upperclassman monster of Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith, and Jon Scheyer. The Blue Devils have the best coach in the history of the game, they’re used to the limelight, and they’re used to opponents playing their best against them. Plus, Duke’s incredible run all the way to the first round in last year’s tournament proves it has what it takes to do serious damage in March. This season has thrown a ton of curveballs and I’d be foolish to expect that to stop now, but for the time being all signs point to Duke as your 2013 national champs.

Why they won’t make it out of the first weekend:

I’ve got nothing. Before the North Carolina game, I would’ve said that the Blue Devils don’t play the best defense, or that Seth Curry and Mason Plumlee have been inconsistent late in the season, or that Duke lacks depth. But none of that matters now. They don’t need depth because their guys don’t get tired and they’ll never be in foul trouble. Curry and Plumlee dismissed any notion that they’re slumping by lighting up the Tar Heels, and considering North Carolina shot just 34 percent, I’d say Duke plays decent enough defense. So there it is. We’re all doomed. The stars are aligning for another Duke national championship and there’s nothing we can do about it. I know you want to fight it, but it’s best to just sit back and accept fate. Besides, the Blue Devils feed off your hatred. Getting upset will only make them stronger. Instead, I suggest you prepare yourself for the inevitable by reliving one of the greatest moments in Duke basketball history. It won’t be an easy pill to swallow, but it’s worth enduring because it will make it easier to watch the celebration in April.


Whoops. Wrong video. Here’s what I meant to show you.

No, that’s not right. Hang on. I got the video right here.

Damn, did it again. My bad.

The Worst Luck of the Week

First, let me offer my condolences to anyone who bet on Iona covering the four-point spread in the MAAC tournament championship against Manhattan on Monday night. If you caught the end of that game, you know what I’m talking about. With six seconds left, Iona scored in transition to push its lead to eight. Then Manhattan hit an arbitrary 3 with 0.1 seconds left. Iona’s bench, thinking the game was over, stormed the court to celebrate its trip to the NCAA tournament, which resulted in the Gaels being charged with a technical foul. Manhattan hit its two free throws, Iona inbounded the ball, the clock hit 0.0, and the game ended with a final score of Iona 60, Manhattan 57. Oof.

And if that’s not heartbreaking enough, there’s this from the Missouri Valley Conference tournament: A fan was plucked from the stands and promised $50,000 if he could make a layup, a free throw, a 3-pointer, and a half-court shot in 24 seconds. Spoiler alert: He made only three of the four.

The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is B. See you next week with my NCAA tournament previews.

Filed Under: Mark Titus, NCAA, People, Power Rankings, Series, Sports, Teams

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Mark Titus is the founder and author of the blog Club Trillion. His book, Don’t Put Me In, Coach, chronicles his career as a walk-on benchwarmer for the Ohio State basketball team and is on sale now.

Archive @ clubtrillion