Best Bets: Breaking college basketball’s title contenders into tiers
Over the course of the next two days, we will be diving into the best teams in the country and breaking them down into tiers.
Tomorrow, we will dive into the Final Four sleepers and the teams that are good enough to win six games in March and flawed enough to fail to get out of the first round of the tournament.
Today, we will take a look at the six elite teams in college hoops as well as three more teams that are on the verge of being elite.
Let’s get into it:
THE ELITE OF THE ELITE
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: They’re the best team in the country.
Do I really need to break this down?
OK, I will.
Zion Williamson is the best player in college basketball and has proven, over and over again, to be the most unstoppable force in college hoops. R.J. Barrett may very well be the second-best player in college basketball. At the very least he is absolutely the best player in the country that is the second-best player on his own team. Playing without their starting point guard, these two combined to put 57 points on Virginia on 21-for-35 shooting, which is not something that happens.
And I still haven’t mentioned the other two lottery picks on their roster, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones.
As I said, they’re the best team in the country.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: They can be beaten by teams that control pace, pack in their defense and force Duke to try and make shots over the top. That’s exactly what Syracuse did to win in Cameron, and it’s what Virginia tried to do last Saturday. The Blue Devils shooting just 31.2 percent from three as a team, and their two best shooters -- Reddish and Jack White -- are both dealing with confidence issues.
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: Tre Jones returning will help because it will reduce the reliance that Duke has on scoring in the halfcourt. Reddish and White finding their three-point stroke will help as well, but it might not even matter. Duke has the talent to win six games in March with or without their shooters shooting.
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: There aren’t three teams in college basketball with a group of guys that are more bought into the collective than Tennessee. Everyone on this roster understands, embraces and excels in the role they are being asked to play, and there’s not better example of this than Jordan Bowden. The junior guard started as a freshman, started as a sophomore and started the first five games of this season before Rick Barnes made a change, sending Bowden to the bench and moving Yves Pons into the starting lineups. Bowden didn’t complain. He accepted his role as a microwave scorer off the bench, and he’s thriving: In five games in SEC play, he’s averaging a team-high 17.6 points while shooting 45 percent from three.
Now to be clear, there is plenty on talent on this roster. Grant Williams going to be a first-team all-american and will play in the NBA while Admiral Schofield could end up being a first round pick this year, but that’s not why they’re so dangerous. It’s because they’re old, they have all that talent and all of their pieces do their job without complaining. It’s hard to beat that.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: I don’t know if they have a game-changing talent, and winning six straight games in March against some of the best teams in the country often requires that. As much as I love Schofield, what makes him so valuable is his switchability defensively and the way he can shoot the ball from deep. He’s not necessarily a guy you can give the rock to and trust that he’ll create a shot. Williams has been better this year at getting his -- and he is a greatly improved passer -- but he was not the guy that took over in Tennessee’s two biggest games this season. (Part of that is because he fouled out of both, which is another concern -- he’s fouled out of four games already this year.)
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: Honestly, not too much. I’m sure Rick Barnes would like to see Jordan Bone shooting it better than 26.7 percent from three. I’m also sure he’d like to see Williams chill out with some of the excessive fouling. But beyond that, Tennessee is an efficient machine that is second nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric and more or less matchup proof defensively.
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: This year, Virginia is essentially matchup-proof.
This was a concern for them entering the season. We didn’t know if they were going to get Braxton Key eligible or whether or not there was any backcourt depth on the roster. Key got his waiver, but the emergence of Kihei Clark as a legitimate ACC-caliber starter has been just as important.
Suddenly, Virginia has more lineup versatility than I can ever remember a Tony Bennett team having. If they want to go big, they can play De’Andre Hunter at the three, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome in the backcourt and Mamadi Diakite alongside Jack Salt up front. If they simply need athleticism and length on the floor, Diakite can slide over to the five alongside Hunter and Key. If they want to move Jerome off the ball or are forced to play small, Clark can handle point guard duties. And I haven’t even mentioned next year’s breakout star, Jay Huff.
And perhaps most importantly, they proved in the loss at Duke that they can hang with anyone on any court even if they are taken out of what they want to do offensively. I’m all-in on Virginia.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: Without relying too much on narratives, the single biggest hurdle this team is going to face is the mental side of things. I don’t know how they’re going to handle the onslaught of attention that comes their way once the NCAA tournament starts. The “Virginia is for chokers” crowd will be incessant, and the way they react to someone, at some point, putting a run on them in March will be fascinating. I think this team is mentally strong enough to handle that -- and frankly, if we’re rooting for the best story, seeing Virginia turn this around and win a title a year after suffering the biggest indignity in college basketball history would be amazing -- but that’s heavy.
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: I’d love to see Bennett use his most athletic lineup more often -- Jerome, Guy, Hunter, Key, Diakite -- but as of today, Virginia not only has the second-best adjusted efficiency margin in KenPom’s database, they are the only team in the country that is ranked in the top five of both KenPom’s adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency metrics. They’re effing good.
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: The Zags have the nation’s most high-powered offense and are arguably the most talented team in the country this side of Duke. There are five players on the roster that are a threat to put up 20 points on any given night, and that doesn’t include Geno Crandall -- who scored 28 on Gonzaga last season as a member of North Dakota -- or future WCC Player of the Year Corey Kispert.
There is no player in college basketball that can get hot the way that Zach Norvell gets hot. He is the best big-shot-maker in the sport. Rui Hachimura is the team’s leading scorer and a dynamic combo-forward that has made game-winning shots against both Duke and Washington this year. Brandon Clarke is the best defensive big man in the country, but he’s also the second-leading scorer on the roster. Josh Perkins is a dynamic ball-screen point guard in an offense that constantly runs ball-screens.
And Killian Tillie still has not found his rhythm yet.
They’re really, really dangerous.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: They don’t guard as well as they need to. The Zags have certainly made strides on that end of the floor, but the fact of the matter is that they are always going to have three starters on the floor that after average to below-average individual defenders -- Josh Perkins, Zach Norvell and Rui Hachimura.
As of today, this is probably not a concern that is going to derail their season. They are currently 47th in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and in 2009, North Carolina won the title with the nation’s best offense and the 39th-best defense. But it is something that they constantly need to improve.
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: I’m not sure if there is something that needs changing, but the Zags do need to figure out exactly how they are going to use Killian Tillie. The biggest issue this team has is that through the first 15 games of the season, they developed roles and minutes and a rotation based on a roster that didn’t have Tillie available. Now that he’s back, Mark Few has to find a way to work him into the lineup without upsetting that balance. It’s been fine so far, but that has not exactly come against the best competition in the world.
VILLANOVA, PA - NOVEMBER 14: Zavier Simpson #3 and Isaiah Livers #4 of the Michigan Wolverines celebrate with Ignas Brazdeikis #13 after Brazdeikis made a basket and was fouled in the first half against the Villanova Wildcats at Finneran Pavilion on November 14, 2018 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: That defense is just so stingy and they are coached by John Beilein.
What else do you need to know?
The thing that’s so impressive about Michigan on the defensive end of the floor is that there is a legitimate argument to be made that three of their players are the best defensive player in the country at their position. Zavier Simpson is an absolute nightmare as an on-ball defender at the point, Charles Matthews can make people disappear on the wing and Jon Teske, believe it or not, has developed into a monster that can switch screens, protect the rim and battle in the post.
This program made the national title game nine months ago on the strength of their defense, and this team is better on that end of the floor. That can carry a team a long way.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: They can go long stretches without looking competent offensively, which is not something I ever thought I would say about a team coached by Beilein. The truth is this -- we all knew how good this team was going to be on the defensive end this year. The questions we had centered around a team that struggled to score last year and was losing their three best options offensively.
This all came to light in the last two games. There are basically two players on the roster than can consistently create for themselves (Iggy Brazdeikis and Jordan Poole), and if one of them is having an off night, there is a real lack of offensive firepower. There really is no difference between this Michigan team and the Virginia teams of the past.
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: Charles Matthews needs to be a scoring threat. He’s the difference-maker on this team. He’s the guy that can help take some of the offensive burden off of Poole and Brazdeikis. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Michigan has been at their best this season on the nights when he’s shot it well.
MICHIGAN STATE (+700)
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: Cassius Winston has developed into one of, if not the best point guard in college basketball.
There’s plenty more to like about this Michigan State team than just what their point guard has been able to do -- the emergence of Matt McQuaid, the way Nick Ward and Xavier Tillman have been able to share the floor, Kenny Goins going from walk-on to starter, Aaron Henry playing like a senior, not a freshman -- but Winston is the engine. He’s the guy that has taken over in Michigan State’s biggest wins. He’s the engine that allows their transition game to function. He is one of the most efficient players in the country.
There are a lot of reasons Michigan State is good. Cassius Winston playing the way he’s been playing is why they are good enough to win six games in March.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: The Spartans are decidedly unathletic. I don’t think there is a player in their top six that you could call a plus athlete, at least not when comparing them to some of the other players around the country. The Spartans also have a relatively small perimeter core.
These issues will pop up in certain matchups. What happens when Michigan State’s bigs have to face off with the likes of Gonzaga or Duke? How will their wings handle being defended by Yves Pons and Admiral Schofield? One common theme with the best teams in the country this year is elite point guard defenders. We know Cassius Winston struggles against Zavier Simpson. How will he handle Ashton Hagans or Kihei Clark?
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: I’m not sure there is anything about this group that necessarily needs changing -- beyond, you know, Josh Langford’s ankle getting healthy. But I do think that it would serve them well to continue bringing some of their freshmen along. Henry has cracked the rotation, as has Kyle Ahrens, and both seem to be trusted to play critical minutes. They could end up being the guys that allow Sparty to matchup with bigger, more athletic teams in March.
ONE TWEAK AWAY FROM BEING THE ELITE OF THE ELITE
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: The talent on this roster is all coming together now.
We can differ about the reason why it’s happening. Some will argue that the emergence of Ashton Hagans has the starting point guard has given Kentucky an emotional leader that brings a level of toughness and confidence that has become contagious. I’m sure that plays a big role in it, as does Tyler Herro starting to play like the go-to guy we (I) thought he would be coming into the season. P.J. Washington is playing the best basketball of his Kentucky career. Nick Richards is starting to figure some things out. Immanuel Quickly has been effective as a bench option, and Keldon Johnson has continued to be as awesome has he was from day one.
The truth, however, is simpler than all of that: John Calipari has a proven track record of being capable of bringing young teams along and making them better and better as the season progresses, and honestly, that’s probably all this is. His guys are figuring it out, as they always do, and they now look like one of the nation’s best.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: Just how good is Ashton Hagans offensively? Coming into this season, that was the concern. He was a mess on that end of the floor. He was making the wrong read, he was turning the ball over and he was not a threat to score. He’s gotten much better, but he’s still not a threat from the perimeter, and while I would not call him a liability offensively any more, he is still limited.
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: If Kentucky is going to reach their ceiling they need Nick Richards to be good enough to knock Reid Travis out of the starting lineups. I like Travis, he is a monster on the block and a guy that can really rebound the ball, but he is not a vertical spacer or a rim-protector, and that’s what this Kentucky team needs inside. Travis has had one good game in SEC play (at Auburn) and Richards still can’t crack the starting lineup. That should tell you what you need to know about where Richards is right now.
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - NOVEMBER 23: Nassir Little #5 of the North Carolina Tar Heels dunks against Kris Wilkes #13 of the UCLA Bruins during the 2018 Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational basketball tournament at the Orleans Arena on November 23, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images)
NORTH CAROLINA (+1400)
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: They have as much talent and offensive firepower as anyone. Think about it like this: In Monday night’s win over No. 10 Virginia Tech, North Carolina got a combined 50 points out of Nassir Little and Coby White, their two star freshmen, and I can make a pretty sound argument that those two players are their third and fourth options offensively behind Luke Maye and Cam Johnson.
When this team gets rolling, there are not many out there that can go bucket for bucket with them.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: Roy Williams still hasn’t found the best way to deploy Nassir Little.
I wrote about this in-depth here, so I won’t repeat myself too much, but the issue is three-fold:
- Little is playing a position where he has to beat out Maye (a preseason all-american) and Johnson (a borderline all-american this season) for minutes at a forward spot. That’s because ...
- ... Williams’ system calls for two bigs on the court at all times, which means that one of Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley or Brandon Huffman will be playing the five for the Tar Heels. That is hard on little due to the simple fact that ...
- ... he is not a skilled enough on the perimeter to be a wing in this system but he’s not big enough to play the four. He’s not Justin Jackson, or Theo Pinson, or Isaiah Hicks. He’s a combo-forward, a small-ball four, a defensively versatile big wing that simultaneously fits the NBA game perfectly and is stuck in a situation where his skillset doesn’t really fit all that well with what UNC wants to do.
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: Unlocking Little is the key to reaching their ceiling, and I think that Williams will eventually figure it out. I’ve long said that the Tar Heels will be at their best when they realize their best five is White, Kenny Williams, Little, Johnson and Maye and figure out how to play with them on the floor. I still believe that to be true.
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: Bill Self is an absolute magician as a basketball coach. He figured out how to win with the team that had Josh Jackson playing the four. He figured out how to win with the team that played four guards around Udoka Azubuike and had Svi Mykhailiuk playing the four. I have no doubt that he’ll find a way to win when he has four switchable wings, a McDonald’s All-American point guard and a first-team all-american five in Dedric Lawson.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: This team is just not as talented as we thought they were entering the season. I mean this with all sincerity: How many players on this Kansas roster will play in the NBA? Dedric Lawson will get a shot because of his size and skill, but go see if you can find him listed on a first round mock anywhere on the internet. Lagerald Vick had to return to school after getting run out of the program because he professional options were so limited. Marcus Garrett can’t shoot, which is a problem for NBA teams. Quentin Grimes has the most hype, yet he’s been benched for Ochai Agbaji, who might be the best NBA prospect on the roster.
Kansas was going to redshirt him this season.
That should tell you what you need to know.
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: Since I don’t think that it is possible for the Jayhawks to magically become a 40 percent three-point shooting team, I think the answer here is pretty simple: They either need to get Grimes playing like the top ten prospect that he was coming out of high school, or they need to fully get on boards with the idea that Agbaji needs to start over him. Agbaji is a better athlete, a better defender, plays with more energy and has actually been an efficient and productive player offensively.