March Madness: Ranking the NCAA tournament teams 1-68

If broken brackets are the hallmark of the big NCAA tournament, then this year’s edition could be an all-time classic. March is shaping up to be wilder than ever after a disappointing regular season that saw little go as predicted.

The team ranked first in the AP Preseason Top 25 missed out on the NCAA Tournament.

Unranked team in pre-season poll earned the #1 seed.

The team, which should have finished ninth in the Big East, took the regular season and tournament titles.

The team that should have finished last in the Big 12 finished third in the NCAA Tournament.

[Free bracket contests for both tourneys | Printable Men’s | Women’s]

And here comes the NCAA Tournament, in which some of the dominant college basketball brands are taking up less space than usual, if they are in the game at all. There are also many dangerous mid-majors hiding in the bracket, some of which have won 30 or more games and will not be intimidated by opponents from larger conferences.

Alabama, Houston and Kansas lead our annual ranking of national championship contenders from 1 to 68, grouped into eight tiers and ordered from most to least likely to cut nets in Houston on the first Monday in April. Here is the full list and enjoy the chaos:

LEVEL 1: Favorites

1. Alabama (+800) | S1 vs. Texas A&M CC or SEMO

Alabama was nearing its best season in school history until a horrific tragedy sparked unwanted questions and attention.

On January 15, 23-year-old mother Jameya Harris was killed in a gunfight on the Tuscaloosa Strip. Alabama basketball player Darius Miles and his friend Michael Davis have been charged with capital murder. Police said two of Miles’ teammates, Brandon Miller and Jayden Bradley, were both at the crime scene but are being treated as witnesses. Miller, the US Securities and Exchange Commission Player of the Year and a future top-five candidate in the NBA draft, allegedly delivered the gun after Miles texted Miller asking him to bring it.

Despite calls from Alabama to remove Miller, the valuable freshman continued to play—both he and the talented Crimson Tide played well. They fought their way through the SEC with just two losses and then backed that up by playing three NCAA Tournament teams en route to an SEC tournament title.

Whether checking will revitalize or break Alabama as it advances in the NCAA tournament is the biggest question facing this team. At its best, the Tide is an elite NBA-style offensive defensive team that boasts enough firepower to win the school’s first national basketball title.

2. Houston (+550) | MW1 vs Northern Kentucky

It has been widely believed for months that there is no dominant team in men’s college basketball this season. And yet, by April, there is a chance that Houston will prove that this idea was complete nonsense.

Calvin Sampson’s Cougars are still leading in advanced stats despite their third loss of the season last Sunday. They have three aggressive, battle-tested defenders and a lottery pick that secures their frontcourt. No other team in the country competes in the NCAA Tournament with top 20 offense and defense.

Houston’s only downside is that it doesn’t have as strong a schedule as other elite teams, but the Cougars beat Virginia, St. Mary’s and Oregon non-league to take two of three from Memphis in the American Athletic Conference. The Cougars also led Alabama by as much as 15 points early in the second half in early December before crashing.

If the Cougars can buy Marcus Sasser time to recover and survive in the Southern Region, then there is a huge opportunity ahead of them. Houston is the venue for the Final Four, which means the Cougars can sleep in their own beds and have huge crowd support behind them.

Houston Cougars coach Calvin Sampson speaks with defenseman Jamal Shed during a game against Memphis on Feb. 19.  (Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Houston Cougars coach Calvin Sampson speaks with defenseman Jamal Shed during a game against Memphis on Feb. 19. (Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

3. Kansas (+800) | P1 vs. Howard

Since the demise of UCLA’s John Wooden dynasty, only two men’s college basketball programs have been back-to-back. Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer did it in Florida in 2006 and 2007, while Christian Lettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill did it in Duke in 1991 and 1992.

What would make Kansas’ feat even more impressive and unprecedented is that the Jayhawks lost most of last year’s national team. Six of Kansas’ top eight scorers from last season are gone. A year ago, only forward Jalen Wilson and point guard Dajuan Harris Jr. averaged over 9.3 minutes per game.

Kansas’ path got a little more difficult Sunday when it was revealed that his title defense would not be through the geographically friendly region of Kansas City. Instead, the Jayhawks will lead the busy West Region, which includes four other teams from KenPom’s top 11 – UCLA, Gonzaga, UConn and Saint Mary’s.

One of the key points for Kansas is whether Bill Self is doing well enough to be on the sidelines during the NCAA Tournament. Last week, Self underwent a standard cardiac catheterization and had two stents placed to treat clogged arteries. Kevin McCallar’s health is also critical to the Jayhawks. The jack-of-all-trades played a limited number of minutes during the Big 12 due to back spasms and missed Sunday’s title game altogether.

LEVEL 2: Applicants

4. Perdue (+1100) | E1 vs. South Texas or FDU

Purdue’s jaded NCAA Tournament history isn’t the reason it’s ranked below its No. 1 seed brethren. The Boilermakers are here because their freshman backcourt has shown signs of fatigue over the final six weeks of the season.

Purdue has only shot 29% from three since Feb. 1, which is a worrying statistic for a team that relies on surrounding dominant 7-foot 4 center Zach Edie with perimeter shooters. The disappearance of second-best scorer Fletcher Loyer in the past four games is particularly worrisome. He is 2 of 20 from the field during this stretch.

The way Purdue’s small guards have dealt with defensive pressure is also a wake-up call. Teams with big, athletic perimeter defenders were able to frustrate Purdue’s offense, causing casualties and making it harder for Edie, the national favorite of the year, to get a passing pass.

And yet, even with these problems, do not discount boiler manufacturers. This is the team that has the most dominant player in college basketball, the team that beat Marquette and crushed Duke and Gonzaga in a non-league game, the team that recovered from a tough February and won the Big Ten Tournament.

Like most teams, Purdue has some weaknesses. Purdue has also shown to be able to overcome them often.

5. UCLA (+1200) | W2 vs. UNC Asheville

Here’s one reason UCLA can still make it to the Final Four despite Jaylen Clark’s season-ending achilles injury earlier this month: Touted freshman Amari Bailey has shown signs of growth and is playing with incredible confidence.

In three games of the Pac-12 tournament, Bailey showed amazing performance on the open floor and the ability to finish the game at the ring, scoring 54 points on 56% shooting from the field. In fact, the five-star ex-rookie should have had two more points if it wasn’t for that ridiculously bad call.

While Bailey and David Singleton are able to mitigate the impact of Clarke’s injury, UCLA won’t reach Houston without the activity and athleticism of freshman center Adem Bona. The Bruins are hoping Bona will return from his shoulder injury to play in UCLA’s first NCAA Tournament against UNC Asheville.

In Bona’s absence against Arizona last Saturday night, UCLA resorted to having 6-foot-7 forward Jaime Jaques play center and the two remaining big men got into trouble. The battle-tested Bruins are mentally strong enough to potentially survive their first two games of the NCAA Tournament without Bona at full strength, but they’ll need his blocking and energy if they see Drew Timm and Gonzaga in the Sweet 16.

6. Texas (+1600) | MW2 vs. Colgate

After allegations of domestic violence that led to coach Chris Beard’s indefinite suspension and eventual sacking, Texas has only solidified as a potential title contender. Interim coach Rodney Terry led the Longhorns to a 19-7 record, two wins over Kansas, and the Big 12’s second-ever tournament title.

As Texas enters the NCAA Tournament, the big question now is how far Terry will need to advance to keep his job. Texas Athletic Director Chris Del Conte has traditionally preferred to hunt big game with his coaches, but he could face the need to reward Terry if the Longhorns make it to the Final Four for the first time in two decades.

While Terry has done a wonderful job under difficult circumstances over the past few months, handing over the program to him full-time would be a risky decision. At Fresno State, Terry made one NCAA Tournament appearance in five seasons before leaving in 2018 to lead UTEP. He went 37-48 in three years in El Paso and then left to become Beard’s top assistant.

There is nothing on Terry’s track record that would make him a candidate for a job in Texas under normal circumstances, but he has a chance to stop Del Conte from at least not considering him. The team that Byrd created is among the favorites in the Midwest and is a legitimate contender for the national title.

[Free bracket contests for both tourneys | Printable Men’s | Women’s]

7. Marquette (+2500) | MW2 vs. Vermont

While Shaka Smart rose to prominence in 2011 by leading the VCU from the top four to the final four, NCAA tournament success has largely eluded him since then. Smart lost his last six games of the first round of the NCAA Tournament in VCU, Texas, and Marquette despite being the top seed in four of them.

That streak should end this year, with Marquette in the midst of one of the best seasons in school history. The Golden Eagles took the regular season and Big East tournament titles with a team that lost three of last year’s top four scorers and had to finish ninth…


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