March Madness

March Madness: Ranking the NCAA men’s tournament teams from 1 to 68

March Madness: Ranking the NCAA men's tournament teams from 1 to 68

The most famously unpredictable tournament in American sports seldom produces the same champion two straight years.

Only two programs have won back-to-back NCAA men’s basketball titles since the demise of John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty almost 50 years ago. Duke did it in 1991 and 1992 and Florida in 2006 and 2007.

Now here comes UConn trying to become the third program in college basketball’s modern era to pull off that improbable feat. The reigning champs are better positioned to repeat than any other recent national title winner, but the Huskies are far from the only team capable of winning six games over the next three weeks.

Purdue and Houston co-headline our annual 1-68 ranking of national championship contenders, grouped into nine tiers and ordered from most to least likely to snip the nets in Glendale, Arizona, on the second Monday in April. Here’s the full list, and enjoy the mayhem:

TIER 1: THE FAVORITE

1. UConn (31-3) | E1 vs. Stetson

Only a year ago, UConn ripped through the NCAA tournament with startling ease, winning six games by at least 13 points apiece en route to the program’s fifth national title. Five of the top eight players from that team moved on, yet the Huskies have come back … dare we say it? … better this season.

UConn reloaded by building around its three returning standouts: floor-spacing four man Alex Karaban, playmaking point guard Tristen Newton and elite rim protector and finisher Donovan Clingan. Danny Hurley landed a star-studded recruiting class highlighted by Stephon Castle, plucked prized Rutgers transfer Cam Spencer out of the portal and groomed reserves Samson Johnson and Hassan Diarra for bigger roles off the bench.

The result is a team with a multifaceted offense and a reliable defense, a team that is hungry yet NCAA tournament-hardened. The Huskies toppled North Carolina, Texas, Indiana and Gonzaga in non-league play. Then they swept the Big East regular-season and tournament titles. Now, despite a more difficult than expected NCAA tournament draw, they’re the favorite to become men’s college basketball’s first repeat champion in 17 years.

As Hurley confidently put it last Saturday night, “We've been the best team in college basketball. Obviously March Madness next week, who knows what goes on there, but we've clearly been the best program in the country this year.”

TIER 2: THE CO-FAVORITES

2. Purdue (29-4) | MW1 vs. Montana State/Grambling

Say there was a program that returned the core of last season’s 29-win team and sprinkled in a few hand-picked newcomers at positions of need. Say that program then won 29 games again this season and defeated the likes of Tennessee, Arizona, Marquette and Illinois, all of whom were seeded third or better in the NCAA tournament.

This sounds like an obvious national title contender. Except that the team wears P-U-R-D-U-E across its jerseys.

The mistrust with Purdue runs deep after the Boilermakers have melted down in March each of the past three seasons. Three years ago it was North Texas in the round of 64. Two years ago it was Saint Peter's in the Sweet 16. Last year … well … we all remember last year.

The returning players on Purdue have been on a mission to avenge that loss and change their legacy the same way that the Kyle Guy-Ty Jerome Virginia team did five years ago. The Boilermakers have a more experienced, more athletic, more confident supporting cast around national Player of the Year Zach Edey this season. Their chance for March redemption starts now.

3. Houston (30-4) | S1 vs. Longwood

Were this February Madness, you could make an airtight case for Houston as the national title favorite. The Cougars boasted a defense that Kansas State coach Jerome Tang described as possibly the best he’d ever seen. They had separated themselves from Kansas, Baylor and Iowa State atop the nation’s toughest conference. They featured a big shot maker who made game-winning jumpers start to feel almost routine.

That team is no longer quite so formidable in March as a result of a string of ill-timed injuries. It started with sophomore wing Terrance Arceneaux tearing an Achilles in December. Then reserve guard Ramon Walker tore his meniscus in late February and defensive specialist JoJo Tugler broke a bone in his right foot in early March. The final blow came in Friday’s Big 12 semifinal rout of Texas Tech when starting forward J’Wan Roberts exited with what Houston is calling a bruised shin.

The toll of those injuries added up the following day when Houston (30-4) lost for the first time in over a month — and lost in emphatic fashion. Iowa State demolished the Cougars 69-41, raising questions about whether Kelvin Sampson’s team was a vulnerable No. 1 seed entering the NCAA tournament.

Doubting a Sampson-coached team is never smart. It also sounds like Roberts will be back for Houston’s first-round game against Longwood. So for now let’s just consider the Cougars a threat to cut down the nets rather than the potential co-favorite with UConn that they appeared to be a couple weeks ago.

TIER 3: SERIOUS CONTENDERS

4. North Carolina (27-7) | W1 vs Howard/Wagner

A year ago, North Carolina became the first team to go from preseason No. 1 to missing the NCAA tournament. That caused third-year coach Hubert Davis to jettison volume-shooting lead guard Caleb Love and build his 2023-24 team around longtime cornerstones Armando Bacot and RJ Davis.

The result has been North Carolina returning to its customary place among the sport’s elite teams. The Tar Heels won the outright ACC title, swept Duke and nearly claimed the league tournament title before running into the NC State buzzsaw in the title game. Davis has been first-team All-American good. Bacot remains a walking double-double. Do-it-all Stanford transfer Harrison Ingram and sharpshooting Notre Dame transfer Cormac Ryan have both come up big in marquee games.

No program has made more Final Fours than North Carolina’s 21. The Tar Heels are favorites to make it again out of the West region and a threat to win two more games after that.

5. Tennessee (24-8) | MW2 vs. Saint Peter’s

The criticisms of Rick Barnes in March are all familiar by now. He only made the Final Four once at Texas despite rosters teeming with McDonald’s All-Americans. He has earned five NCAA bids at Tennessee and lost each time to teams with lesser seeds. He has been to one more NCAA tournament than Tom Izzo … and has 28 fewer wins.

Could this be the Tennessee team that helps Barnes exorcize his March ghosts? The Vols are certainly a Final Four contender in a Midwest region that features three top seeds with a combined two Final Four appearances, none since 1980.

The strength of the Vols, as always, is a physically imposing defense anchored by rim protector Jonas Aidoo. But what makes Tennessee potentially different this March is the presence of Dalton Knecht, a first-team All-American who averaged 21.1 points per game this season and is capable of erupting for 40 on any given night.

Dalton Knecht is a prolific scorer capable of carrying Tennessee deep into March … and maybe April. (Brandon Sumrall/Getty Images)

6. Iowa State (27-7) | E1 vs. South Dakota State

Last month, after a laborious 58-45 loss at Iowa State, Oklahoma coach Porter Moser made a telling comment about Iowa State’s physical, relentless defensive ball pressure.

“You can watch it on tape and everything,” Moser said, but “you can’t simulate that.”

That will be Iowa State’s biggest advantage as the Cyclones leave Big 12 play behind and face opponents unfamiliar with their brand of defensive intensity. There are few teams in the country as adept at switching ball screens, making ball handlers uncomfortable and forcing turnovers that lead to transition opportunities.

Iowa State finally gained national attention with its annihilation of Houston last Saturday night, but this is a team that has been humming for awhile. If the Cyclones can pair lockdown defense with adequate 3-point shooting, they have a chance to advance out of the NCAA tournament’s toughest region and reach their first Final Four since 1944.

7. Arizona (25-8) | W2 vs. Long Beach State

In three seasons at Arizona, Tommy Lloyd has won 86 games, captured two Pac-12 titles and claimed two conference tournament crowns. The only thing Lloyd hasn’t yet done is coach the Wildcats deep into the NCAA tournament.

Two years ago, a top-seeded Arizona team was fortunate to survive TCU in the round of 32 and then lost to Houston in the Sweet 16. Last year, a second-seeded Arizona team didn’t even win a game, falling to Princeton in the round of 64.

This is a better Arizona team than last year, thanks largely to the addition of two transfers with Final Four experience. Pac-12 player of the year Caleb Love gives Arizona a playmaker who it can give the ball to at the end of close games. And forward Keshad Johnson is a high-energy defensive specialist who can guard 1 through 5 effectively.

There will be a lot of attention paid to whether Arizona can reach a Final Four in its home state, but the potential matchup a round before that is especially tasty. Love versus the North Carolina program that was eager to move on from him after last season? With a spot in the Final Four at stake? Yes, please.

8. Auburn (27-7) | E4 vs. Yale

Could Auburn be the East region’s biggest threat to UConn? The Tigers didn’t beat anyone close to the Huskies’ caliber this season, but the predictive metrics love the SEC tournament champions. The SEC tournament champions are up to No. 4 in KenPom and No. 5 in the NET after tearing apart South Carolina, Mississippi State and Florida last week.

9. Kentucky (23-9) | S3 vs. Oakland

With a rotation littered with heralded recruits and future NBA draft picks, Kentucky is clearly talented enough to contend for a national title. And yet for the Wildcats to win six games, they would have to buck a few worrisome trends.

The first one stems from Kentucky crashing out of the SEC tournament in the quarterfinals last Friday. Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, no team eliminated before the semifinals of its conference tournament has ever won a national title.

The second one is a byproduct of Kentucky’s leaky, 108th-ranked defense. Nineteen of the past 21 teams that have won a national championship have started the NCAA tournament with both an offense and defense in the top 40 in KenPom’s efficiency rankings.

The third one is Kentucky’s recent history under John Calipari. In their last four appearances in the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats wasted gift-wrapped paths to the Final Four in 2018 and 2019, suffered a stunning first-round loss to 15th-seeded St. Peter's in 2022 and fell to Kansas State in the second round last year.

There is increasing pressure on Calipari to make a Final Four for the first time since 2015. This year’s Wildcats have the offensive firepower and have shown flashes of adequate defense. Can they string together stops when it matters? It’s now or never.

TIER 4: FRINGE CONTENDERS

10. Creighton (23-9) | MW3 vs. Akron

Here’s what happens when you’re the No. 3 seed in a region whose No. 1 and 2 seeds are perceived as perennial March underachievers: By default, you become a chic dark horse pick to advance to the Final Four.

Creighton will certainly be a tough out thanks to its combination of size, shooting and NCAA tournament experience. Stars Ryan Kalkbrenner, Baylor Scheierman and Trey Alexander each return from a team that was a single play away from making last year’s Final Four.

If the Bluejays find themselves needing a clutch last-possession basket, Alexander might be the NCAA tournament’s best weapon in that situation. Ask Villanova about Alexander’s ability to deliver when it counts.

11. Marquette (25-9) | S2 vs. Western Kentucky

Marquette’s hopes of advancing deep into this NCAA tournament rest on the health of star point guard Tyler Kolek. Shaka Smart has said Kolek will make his return on Friday against Western Kentucky after missing the Golden Eagles’ past six games with an oblique injury.

Kolek is the ultimate triple threat — an efficient scorer, a clever passer and a notorious trash talker. As proof, check out this hilarious moment from a Kolek postgame news conference after a win over St. John’s earlier this season.

12. Baylor (23-10) | W3 vs. Colgate

Baylor may have the chance to make a statement on behalf of the Big 12 if it faces sixth-seeded Clemson in the second round. It was Clemson coach Brad Brownell who griped last month that the Big 12 has manipulated the NET rankings by scheduling “300 level teams and winning by 40 and 50 points to increase their offensive and defensive efficiency numbers.”

“So their teams,” Brownell concluded, “are perceived to be a little better than they are.”

Brownell may have to eat his words if Baylor avoids an upset against Colgate and Clemson gets past New Mexico. The Bears are good enough to advance through the West region if freshman Ja’Kobe Walter can regain his previous form.

13. Illinois (26-8) | E3 vs. Morehead State

Warning to anyone inclined to risk their bracket on Illinois: The Big Ten tournament title has not been a harbinger of NCAA tournament success in recent years. In 2021, top-seeded Illinois face-planted in the round of 32 against Loyola (Chicago). In 2022, Iowa went from the hottest team in the country to losing to unheralded Richmond. And last year, Purdue fell behind FDU and curled up into the fetal position.

Is that trend real or coincidence? Depends on who you ask. Some coaches have suggested that the Big Ten puts its teams at greater risk of fatigue than other leagues because its tournament doesn’t end until just before the start of the Selection Show. Others scoff that four days of rest is more than enough time for 19- and 20-year-olds to recuperate.

Whatever the answer, Illinois will be a good litmus test. The Illini displayed tremendous fight and resilience in Minneapolis but also expended plenty of energy rallying from double-digit deficits in three straight games.

14. Duke (24-8) | S4 vs. Vermont

For a 24-win team that claimed a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament, Duke has consistently left its fans wanting more.

It finished second in what was basically a two-team ACC this season. It held a lead in a pair of games against North Carolina for all of 16 seconds. When head coach Jon Scheyer demanded more toughness and intensity, his players responded with a head-scratching ACC quarterfinal loss to an NC State team they had trounced in Raleigh 10 days earlier.

“It's about the competitive fire you need to have in the postseason,” Scheyer said that night. He added that Duke had spent a lot of practice time working on itself since the North Carolina loss, but “that didn’t translate fully, clearly.”

With an array of top-tier freshmen, an All-American sophomore forward in Kyle Filipowski and a veteran leader in Jeremy Roach, Duke has the talent to play with anyone it faces in the NCAA tournament. Still, it’s hard to shake the nagging suspicion that this Blue Devils team will bow out a victory or two shy of the Final Four against a grittier, more relentless team that fights for rebounds and 50-50 balls just a little bit harder.

15. Kansas (22-10) | MW4 vs. Samford

For Kansas to reassert itself in the national title picture, the Jayhawks need All-American candidates Kevin McCullar and Hunter Dickinson at full strength. McCullar reaggravated a lingering bone bruise in his left knee earlier this month; Dickinson dislocated his right shoulder a few days later.

At full strength, Kansas is devoid of depth but dangerous. This is a team that owns wins over both UConn and Houston and has also beaten the likes of Tennessee, Kentucky and Baylor. The starting five is among the best in the nation. No one wants to see this version of the Jayhawks despite their late-season swoon.

With either McCullar and Dickinson at less than full strength or out of the lineup, Kansas goes from thin to undermanned. The Jayhawks lost by 30 at Houston in their regular-season finale and then by 20 against Cincinnati in the opening round of the Big 12 tournament. Sanford would be drooling at drawing that team.

Kansas will need a healthy Hunter Dickinson to make a run in the tournament. (David Buono/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

TIER 5: SO YOU’RE SAYING THERE’S A CHANCE

16. Wisconsin (22-13) | S5 vs. James Madison

17. Alabama (21-11) | W4 vs. Charleston

Perhaps trying to fire up his team after it gave up a stunning 117 points to Kentucky last month, Alabama coach Nate Oats wryly quipped, “Everybody knows we don’t really guard at this point.” The tactic did not work. The Crimson Tide again surrendered 100-plus points twice in losses to Florida over the next couple weeks.

This is the ultimate first-to-100 team. They won’t grind out wins but they can play with anyone when their 3-pointers are falling.

18. Saint Mary’s (26-7) | W5 vs. Grand Canyon

Who would have thought Saint Mary’s would ascend to a No. 5 seed when it started the season with five losses in its first eight games? The Gaels went on to find their footing, sweep the WCC regular season and tournament titles and win two of three against rival Gonzaga.

19. Texas Tech (23-10) | S6 vs. NC State

20. San Diego State (24-10) | E5 vs. UAB

Despite finishing fifth in the Mountain West and falling a few baskets short in their conference tournament title game, the Aztecs were the one team from the league that received a generous seed from the selection committee. They boast All-American forward Jaedon LeDee, a top-10 defense and several more key players with Final Four experience.

21. Gonzaga (25-7) | MW5 vs. McNeese State

So much for the idea that Gonzaga was a bubble team as recently as a few weeks ago. The generous No. 5 seed that the Zags received gives them a real chance to extend their streak of consecutive Sweet 16 appearances to a national-best nine in a row.

Social media loves McNeese State’s chances of pulling an opening-round upset. Don’t fall for it. Ryan Nembhard and Nolan Hickman can handle McNeese’s ball pressure and Graham Ike and Anton Watson will overpower McNeese’s undersized frontcourt in the paint.

TIER 6: SECOND-WEEKEND CEILING

22. Florida (24-11) | S7 vs. Boise State/Colorado

23. BYU (23-10) | E6 vs. Duquesne

24. Texas (20-12) | MW7 vs. Virginia/Colorado State

25. Mississippi State (21-13) | MW8 vs. Michigan State

26. Utah State (27-6) | MW8 vs. TCU

Last spring, Danny Sprinkle took over a program with zero returning players who had scored a point for Utah State the previous season. All Sprinkle has done is reconstruct the roster on the fly and lead the Aggies to an outright Mountain West title.

27. Texas A&M (20-14) | S9 vs. Nebraska

Only days after Nebraska athletic director Trev Alberts left his alma mater to take the same position at Texas A&M, the NCAA surprised him with a tasty matchup between his new and former school. Credit Alberts for at least finding some humor in the awkwardness.

28. Dayton (24-7) | W7 vs. Nevada

29. Washington State (24-9) | E7 vs. Drake

Washington State snapped the second-longest NCAA tournament drought among programs from power conferences. The Cougars are led by one of this season’s most heartwarming stories, freshman Myles Rice, who missed all of last season while battling cancer.

30. New Mexico (26-9) | W11 vs. Clemson

The most underseeded team in the field? It might be New Mexico, which the committee chair said would not have been in had it not defeated San Diego State in Saturday’s Mountain West title game. The Lobos are healthy, talented and motivated. This is a tough draw for Clemson.

31. Michigan State (19-14) | W9 vs. Mississippi State

January, February, Izzo, April? We’ll see. No one will ever take a Tom Izzo-coached Michigan State team lightly, but the Spartans haven’t come close to living up to their preseason top-five ranking. They were lucky to make the field with 14 losses and only three victories over teams that advanced to the NCAA tournament.

32. South Carolina (26-7) | MW6 vs. Oregon

33. Nevada (26-7) | W10 vs. Dayton

34. Clemson (21-11) | W6 vs. New Mexico

35. Northwestern (21-11) | E9 vs. Florida Atlantic

36. Boise State (22-10) | S10 vs. Colorado (First Four)

Teams are usually ecstatic to hear their names called or relieved to be in the NCAA tournament. Boise State was just flat-out stunned by its unexpectedly poor seeding and by being relegated to a First Four game in Dayton. Can the Broncos take down Colorado and earn some needed respect for the Mountain West?

37. Drake (28-6) | E10 vs. Washington State

38. Nebraska (23-10) | S8 vs. Texas A&M

The only power-conference school never to win an NCAA tournament game is back in the field for the first time since the Tim Miles era. The Cornhuskers boast a top-40 offense and defense, but they were just 4-8 away from Pinnacle Bank Arena. There’s also a good chance that Texas A&M eats them alive on the offensive glass.

39. Colorado (24-10) | S10 vs. Boise State (First Four)

40 Florida Atlantic (25-8) | E8 vs. Northwestern

Does Florida Atlantic have some more March magic left after last season’s historic run within a Lamont Butler buzzer beater of the national title game? The starting five and head coach Dusty May are all back, but this season has been more reality check than fairytale. While the Owls did topple Arizona and Texas A&M, they also dropped five more games than they did last regular season, including losses to the likes of Temple, Bryant and Florida Gulf Coast.

41. TCU (21-12) | MW 9 vs. Utah State

42. Colorado State (24-10) | MW10 vs. Virginia (First Four)

43. James Madison (31-3) | S12 vs. Wisconsin

44. Grand Canyon (29-4) | W12 vs. Saint Mary’s

No. 12 seeds have advanced to the round of 16 or beyond 22 times in NCAA tournament history. James Madison and Grand Canyon both have the potential to survive the opening weekend and join that list. These are two of the best mid-majors in the field.

45. NC State (22-14) | S11 vs. Texas Tech

Much of America met DJ Burns last week when he led NC State on a Kemba Walker-esque run through the ACC tournament. He could be the breakout star of this NCAA tournament if the Wolfpack continue their winning ways.

46. Oregon (23-11) | MW11 vs. South Carolina

TIER 7: DANGEROUS DOUBLE-DIGIT SEEDS

47. McNeese State (30-3) | MW12 vs. Gonzaga

48. Virginia (23-10) | MW10 vs. Colorado State (First Four)

Like many, I thought that Virginia’s at-large bid should have gone to either Seton Hall or Indiana State. And yet I also think Virginia is capable of winning several games if it can find motivation from so many know-it-alls saying it doesn’t belong in the field. That worked for 2011 VCU, right?

49. Yale (22-9) | E13 vs. Auburn

What a brutal draw for the Ivy League champs. Yale is capable of beating a lot of good teams in this field. But is 27-win SEC tournament champion Auburn, KenPom’s No. 4 ranked team, one of them? Perhaps not.

50. UAB (23-11) | E12 vs. San Diego State

51. Duquesne (24-11) | E11 vs. BYU

Hire LeBron’s former high school coach? Check!

Secure first NCAA tournament bid in 47 years? Check!

Receive social media shoutout from the King himself? Check!

Ride momentum to first-round victory over BYU? Ehhh, we’ll see.

52. Samford (29-5) | MW13 vs. Kansas

53. Charleston (27-7) | W13 vs. Alabama

54. Akron (24-10) | MW14 vs. Creighton

55. Morehead State (26-8) | E14 vs. Illinois

The Eagles lost by one at Indiana this season. They have a bonafide stud in Riley Minix. They thrive in a slow-paced, low-possession game, which is ideal for an underdog. They face an Illinois team that could be vulnerable to a Big Ten tournament title hangover. I can’t bring myself to pick against the Illini here, but if there’s a 14-3 upset this week, I think this is it.

56. Vermont (28-6) | S13 vs. Duke

TIER 8: THE SEMI-EASY OUTS

57. Western Kentucky (22-11) | S15 vs. Marquette

58. Colgate (25-9) | W14 vs. Baylor

This is Colgate’s fifth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance under Matt Langel, a coach who is long overdue for a bigger job. Previous teams had more offensive firepower than this one and couldn’t pull off an upset. This one also is at risk of being overwhelmed by Baylor’s length and athleticism.

59. Long Beach State (21-14) | W15 vs. Arizona

Long Beach State decided to part ways with Dan Monson after a disastrous five-game losing streak to end an underachieving regular season. The 17th-year coach stayed on to coach his team in the Big West tournament — and led the Beach to an unlikely NCAA tournament bid.

60. Oakland (23-11) | S14 vs. Kentucky

61. South Dakota State (22-12) | E15 vs. Iowa State

62. Longwood (21-13) | S16 vs. Houston

63. Saint Peter's (19-13) | MW15 vs. Tennessee

Two years removed from their historic Elite Eight run, the Peacocks are back in the NCAA tournament once again. All the mainstays from the 2022 team are gone, but the defense-first formula — and the No. 15 seed — are the same.

64. Stetson (22-12) | E16 vs. UConn

65. Montana State (17-17) | MW16 vs. Grambling State (First Four)

TIER 9: THE PUSHOVERS

66. Grambling State (20-14) | MW16 vs. Montana State (First Four)

67. Howard (18-16) | W16 vs. Wagner (First Four)

68. Wagner (16-15) | W16 vs. Howard (First Four)

You know who else was in the pushovers tier last season out of the Northeast Conference? Fairleigh Dickinson, conquerors of Purdue. The NEC couldn’t possibly produce two straight 16-versus-1 upsets, right?

Source

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button