March Madness is unlike any other sport’s playoff format. Winning six games against six opponents in just three weeks is a unique test that only certain teams are cut out to accomplish.
In this year’s tournament, with COVID protocols and all of the difficulty that has come with them in place, there’s no telling exactly what kind of team is best set up for success. We might be ripe for a Cinderella champion, with chaos descending upon the games in Indianapolis. On the other hand, maybe only the best of the best are prepared for the journey ahead.
These five teams stand out as real contenders to cut down the nets in April.
5. Oregon Ducks
The other four teams listed below are going to be the top seeds when the bracket is announced on Sunday. There’s no fun in that and March Madness generally has no time for chalk. No. 1 seeds have won three straight championships and 10 of the last 13, but if any season was going to induce some chaos, this topsy-turvy COVID-affected season would be the one.
The Ducks have flown mostly under the radar this season (pun intended). Their only noteworthy non-conference win came against a now-mediocre Seton Hall squad. Oregon’s resume is suited more for a 5 or 6 seed, but the Ducks can play with anyone in this tournament. Oregon has won 10 of 11 games and captured the Pac-12 crown. Senior Chris Duarte is a prime candidate to be a household name by the end of March.
The Wolverines did enough this season to earn a top seed, mostly by winning the nation’s best conference outright in the regular season. Down the stretch, however, Michigan has sprung a few leaks.
First, the Wolverines went more than three weeks without practicing or playing due to a COVID pause throughout Michigan’s athletic department. When Michigan returned, the Wolverines looked unaffected initially, ripping off five straight wins. That came to an end when Illinois came to Ann Arbor and demolished Michigan. Just five days later, Michigan lost to its resurgent in-state rival, at Michigan State.
The Big Ten Tournament should be a great indicator of the Wolverines postseason chances. When Michigan is clicking, it’s hard to find a more complete team.
The Illini possess a talent gap against nearly every team they play. Illinois trots out two First Team All-Big Ten performers in Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn. In many cases, they are the two best players on the floor.
The group that surrounds Brad Underwood’s two stars have settled into defined and efficient roles. The roster has coalesced and created a team that’s pulled off some of the biggest wins in college basketball.
Dosunmu will be playing the tournament with a mask to protect a recently broken nose and might be the superhero who rises to the challenge during March Madness.
When the Bears shut down for a stretch due to COVID-19 issues, there were concerns about Baylor’s ability to bounce back. The Bears barely escaped a two-win Iowa State team and picked up their first loss of the season. Questions creeped in about just how good Baylor really was.
Since then, Baylor has answered all of those questions. The Bears picked up an overtime win against West Virginia on the road, and then easily handled Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.
No team in the country can get as hot offensively as the Bears. Scott Drew’s lineup is also dotted with elite defenders.
The anti-Gonzaga contingent has been loud and proud this season, eager to knock the undefeated Zags for playing in a mid-major conference. This season, that argument holds no water. Gonzaga’s non-conference schedule includes four of the best wins in the nation. The Zags beat Kansas, Iowa, West Virginia, and Virginia on neutral courts, all of which were relatively easy wins for Mark Few and company.
Since then, the Zags have dominated the West Coast Conference, the 10th-ranked league in the nation (out of 32) by KenPom. Gonzaga won all three of its meetings with BYU, a top-30 team by any metric you can find.
The Zags are the best and most talented team in the field this year. There’s no guarantee that they’ll convert that into a Final Four or championship run, but the odds are in their favor.
Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to the Action Network, Rush The Court, ESPN.com, Rotoballer, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.
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