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OPINION: College MBB favorites and sleeper picks heading into March Madness

Oumar+Ballo+and+Caleb+Love+speak+to+each+other+early+in+the+first+half+of+their+game+against+Oregon+in+McKale+on+March+2.+Ballo+and+Love+were+both+recognized+as+seniors+during+this+game.
Jay Corella
Oumar Ballo and Caleb Love speak to each other early in the first half of their game against Oregon in McKale on March 2. Ballo and Love were both recognized as seniors during this game.

As Selection Sunday draws closer and March Madness looms, some teams have emerged as clear favorites, alongside sleeper contenders, poised to make deep runs in March

Among the favorites are the University of Houston, the University of Connecticut and Purdue University, each of which has separated itself from the rest of the field. The next big three, the University of North Carolina, the University of Tennessee and the University of Arizona, are each vying for the final No. 1 seed spot. While not necessarily the overall favorites, several other teams, including Creighton University, the University of Kentucky, Auburn University and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, have the potential to make some noise in the tournament and are in the mix to win a national championship.

The “Big 3”

No. 1 University of Houston (28-3, 15-3 Big 12)

The Cougars received 52 of 62 first-place votes in the final AP Poll before Selection Sunday, as they remained atop the AP standings for the third straight week, matching the school’s longest run at No. 1 since the 1967-1968 season. 

Houston is led by its top-ranked defense, which is holding opponents to an NCAA low 56.9 points per game. The Cougars are No. 1 in KenPom’s rankings, atop KenPom’s defensive metrics and ranked as the No. 11 offense. Houston has also navigated the transition into the Big 12. In its first year in the conference, the Cougars outclassed a field that included five top-25 teams, cruising to the regular-season conference title. 

Houston enters the Big 12 Tournament riding a nine-game winning streak. The No. 1 ranked Cougars are led by Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Jamal Shead, averaging 13.2 points, 6.2 assists and 2.3 steals per game. Shead is arguably one of the best defenders in the country; his ability to frustrate opponents sets him apart from other players across the country. Other key players include L.J. Cryer and Emanuel Sharp. Cryer is averaging a team-high 15.7 points and 2.4 rebounds per game, while Sharp is averaging 12.3 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. 

No. 2 University of Connecticut (28-3, 18-2 Big East)

After their run to the national championship last season, the expectations for the 2023-2024 Huskies were unknown. UConn lost two of its leading scorers, however, the defending national champs are arguably more impressive than they were last season.

The Huskies’ offense ranks among the most efficient in the country. UConn is No. 2 in KenPom’s rankings and No. 3 in KenPom’s offensive metrics. They spent six weeks atop the AP Poll this season and dominated Big East Conference play, winning the conference. 

The Huskies have a strong graduate backcourt consisting of Tristen Newton and Cam Spencer, who were both named to the All-Conference First Team. Newton leads the team in points, rebounds and assists. He is a versatile player and has recorded seven double-doubles and two triple-doubles this season. Meanwhile, Spencer is a top 3-point shooter in the country, with a 45.1% success rate from beyond the arc, which ranks second in the nation. Another key player for the Huskies is Alex Karaban, who has shown significant improvement from last year. Karaban averages 14.2 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, increasing his scoring by 5 points per game compared to last season.

No. 3 Purdue University (28-3, 17-3 Big Ten)

The Boilermakers are embarking on their revenge tour after their heartbreaking loss to No. 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson University in the Round of 64 of the 2023 NCAA Tournament. The Boilermakers joined the 2017-2018 University of Virginia as the second No. 1 seed to lose in the Round of 64. Purdue is now on a mission to follow in Virginia’s footsteps and win the National Championship the year after their disappointing early exit.

The Boilers have been one of the best teams in the country and are led by the best player in college basketball, 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey. Edeyis having an even better season than the last and is primed for a repeat as National Player of the Year. Edey is ranked second in the country in scoring and third in the country in rebounding, averaging 24.2 points and 11.7 rebounds per game. 

The Boilermakers are 7-0 against AP top-25 opponents and ran away with the Big Ten Regular Season Title for the second straight season. In addition to Edey, the Boilers have one of the most underrated guards in the country, Braden Smith, averaging 13 points, 5.9 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game, which ranks No. 5 in the country.

The “Next 3”

No. 4 University of North Carolina (25-6, 17-3 ACC)

The Tar Heels are hitting their groove at the perfect time as they enter the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament riding a six-game winning streak, including a win over No. 9 Duke University on Saturday, March 9, to clinch their first ACC Regular-Season Title since 2017. 

North Carolina is No. 8 in KenPom’s rankings and No. 5 in defense. The Tar Heels are led by seniors RJ Davis and Armando Bacot, who each lead North Carolina in several categories. Davis is among the top scorers in the country, averaging 21.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. He is also ranked among the top 20 players in 3-pointers made per game, with an impressive 41.6% average from beyond the arc. 

Meanwhile, Bacot is averaging 13.9 points and a team-high 10.1 rebounds per game and has recorded 14 double-doubles on the season. Despite a slight decrease in his scoring production, Bacot’s contributions have been fundamental to the Tar Heels’ success thus far. North Carolina has also benefited from offseason transfers, such as Harrison Ingram, who averages 12.5 points and 9.3 rebounds and Cormac Ryan, who averages 11.5 points. 

No. 5 University of Tennessee (24-7, 14-4 SEC)

Tennessee’s penetrating defense has been a force to be reckoned with all season. The Volunteers are No. 5 in KenPom’s rankings, ranked No. 3 in KenPom’s defensive metrics and ranked as the No. 25 offense. Tennessee went 6-4 against AP top-25 opponents and collected its first outright Southeastern Conference Regular Season Title since 2008. The Volunteers have struggled against some top-notch opponents, but they have the talent to compete for a National Championship. 

Senior Dalton Knecht leads the Volunteers in scoring, averaging 21.4 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. Knecht is arguably one of the best scorers in the game, and if Edey were not running away with the National Player of the Year award, Knecht would certainly have been in the hunt for the award. Knecht has scored 30 or more points seven times, including a career-high 40 points during the regular season finale against the No. 15 University of Kentucky. 

The Volunteers also receive production from Jonas Aidoo and Zakai Zeigler. Aidoo’s production has shown significant improvement over the past year. He is averaging 12.1 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, increasing his scoring by 7 points per game compared to last season.

Zeigler, well known for his defensive prowess, is averaging 11.6 rebounds, six assists and 1.9 steals per game. He was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year for his defensive abilities. 

In 96 appearances, Zeigler is tied for No. 5 overall in Tennessee history with 177 career steals.

No. 6 University of Arizona (24-7, 15-5 Pac-12)

The Wildcats entered the season with a chip on their shoulder after an early exit in the Round of 64 against No. 15 seed Princeton University. They had to replace four of their top six scorers, but the new additions of Caleb Love from North Carolina, Keshad Johnson from San Diego State University and Jaden Bradley from the University of Alabama have helped Arizona fill in the gaps left by the departures of key players in the offseason. 

The Wildcats are No. 6 in KenPom’s rankings and ranked No. 6 in KenPom’s offensive metrics. Arizona held its own throughout the season, en route to its second Pac-12 Regular Season Title under Tommy Lloyd. 

Arizona’s impressive offense ranks second in the country in scoring, averaging 89.5 points per game. Additionally, all five of its starters average double figures. Love leads Wildcats, averaging 18.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game. Love, the 2023-2024 Pac-12 Player of the Year, has reached double figures in all but two games this season. Oumar Ballo has been a crucial player in Arizona’s success, averaging 13.1 points and 10 rebounds per game. Ballo has tallied 16 double-doubles on the season, 10 of which have come in Arizona’s final 11 games. 

Another key player for Arizona is senior Pelle Larsson, who has developed into one of the team’s most important players, averaging 13 points and a team-high 3.7 assists per game. Johnson and Kylan Boswell round out the rotation. Johnson is averaging 11.9 points and 5.8 rebounds, while Boswell is averaging 10.2 points and 3.6 assists per game. Boswell has had a roller coaster of a season, battling a series of struggles throughout the season.

Sleeper picks:

No. 8 Creighton University (23-8, 14-6 Big East)

The Blue Jays are a team capable of making a deep run in March. Creighton is No. 9 in KenPom’s rankings, ranked No. 10 in KenPom’s offensive metrics and ranked the No. 22 defense. Despite a shaky start to the season, the Blue Jays are hitting their stride at just the right moment as they enter the Big East Tournament. 

Over its last eight matchups, Crieghton is 7-1, including impressive victories over former-No. 1 UConn and former-No. 5 Marquette University. Their only loss in that span came on the road against St. John’s University, a team also hitting its stride down the stretch, currently riding a five-game winning streak. 

The Blue Jays upperclassmen trio of Baylor Scheierman, Trey Alexander and Ryan Kalkbrenner have been the driving force behind their success. All three played a significant role in leading Creighton to the Elite-8 last season; this season, they are far more impressive. Scheierman leads the team in scoring and rebounding, averaging 18.5 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, with 14 double-doubles. Alexander is averaging 17.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game, while Kalkbrenner is averaging 17.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and three blocks per game, the second-highest in the country. The trio gives the Blue Jays a ton of experience and adds complexity to their offense, making them difficult to defend against as each player poses a threat to score.

No. 9 University of Kentucky (23-8, 13-5 SEC)

The Wildcats have a ton of depth but lack the overall experience due to the vast majority of their role players being underclassmen. Kentucky’s offense ranks among the best in the country, averaging 89.5 points per game, which is tied for second with Arizona. Meanwhile, their defense has been severely lackluster, allowing an unimpressive 79.1 points per game, ranking No. 339 out of 363 teams. 

However, their offensive capabilities cannot be ignored, making them a contender in March. The Wildcats are playing some of their past basketball down the stretch, closing the season on a five-game winning streak and winning seven of their last eight. Kentucky has an impressive 5-2 record against AP top-25 teams, with wins over North Carolina, Tennessee and Auburn, all teams on this list. 

The Wildcats have five players averaging double figures, three of whom are freshmen. Senior Antonio Reeves leads the Wildcats in scoring, averaging 20.2 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. Reeves is one of the best scorers in the country, having reached double figures in all but one game this season. He also averaged 23 points per game over Ketucky’s final seven games. Freshmen Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard are among the best freshmen in the country. Dillingham averages 15 points and 3.8 assists per game, while Sheppard averages 12.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. Sheppard is also one of the best defenders in the country, averaging 2.5 steals per game, ranking No. 8 in the country. 

No. 12 Auburn University (24-7, 13-5 SEC)

Metrics-wise, the Tigers are one of the best teams in the country. Auburn is ranked No. 4 in KenPom’s rankings, ranked No. 6 in KenPom’s defensive metrics and ranked as the No. 13 offense. The Tigers boast one of the best effective field goal percentage defenses in the nation, ranking in the top 10 in assist-to-turnover ratio and bench points per game. They are among the top 15 teams in points per game, assists, blocks and points differential.

Auburn opened the season 16-2, rising up to No. 8 in late January in the AP poll. However, the Tigers struggled in the latter half of the season, winning only 11 of their final 16 games. Despite this, Auburn finished the season, winning five out of their last seven games by an impressive average margin of 23.4 points.

The Tigers are led by Johni Broome, who leads the team in scoring and rebounding, averaging 16.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game, which ranks No. 16 in the country. Broome has been a leading force for Auburn, reaching double figures in all but two games this season and recording 11 double-doubles. The Tigers have two other players averaging double figures, with Jaylin Williams and Chad Baker-Mazara. Williams is averaging 12.9 points and 4.4 rebounds per game, while Baker-Mazara, who recently moved into the starting rotation, is averaging 10.3 points and 3.9 rebounds per game. 

No. 13 University of Illinois (23-8, 14-6 Big Ten)

Boasting one of the best offenses in the country, the Fighting Illini are averaging 83.9 points per game, ranking No. 12 in the country. Illinois is ranked No. 10 in KenPom’s rankings, ranked No. 4 in KenPom’s offensive metrics and ranked as the No. 73 defense. Although their defense has been somewhat lackluster, the Fighting Illini have found plenty of success throughout the season due to their offensive prowess. Illinois ranks No. 23 in point differential, winning by an average margin of 11 points per game. 

All eight of the Fighting Illini’s losses have been by single digits, by an average of 4.9 points. In all but one of its losses, Illinois was either leading late or had control at 1 point midway through the game. The Fighting Illini’s ability to hang around and avoid blowout losses shows the team’s strength. If they can improve their late-game executions, they will be a threat to make noise come tournament time. 

Illinois is led by one of the best scorers in the country, Terrence Shannon Jr., who ranks No. 8 in the country, averaging  21.6 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. Shannon has reached double figures in every appearance this season and the Fighting Illini are 11-4 when he scores 20 or more points. Another important player for Illinois is Marcus Domask. A well-rounded player, Domask averages 16 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. On the defensive side of the ball, Coleman Hawkins shines for the Fighting Illini, averaging 12.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, a team-high 1.6 steals and one block per game.


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