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Which teams can realistically win the NCAA Tournament? Why these 12 stand a cut above

We don’t have many rules of thumb —what with only four total thumbs between us — for picking an NCAA Tournament bracket. But there’s one we believe in wholeheartedly: Don’t overthink it.

To that end, there’s something simple to keep in mind (yet again) when choosing your Final Four and national champion. After Connecticut won it all last year, 18 of the last 21 champs ranked among the top six at before the NCAA Tournament. (Tell us again why Ken Pomeroy isn’t just selecting the field every year?) So, yeah, the top six would be a useful place to start if you were, say, compiling a list of teams that could reasonably win this year’s national title. So that’s where we started.

But what about 2003 champion Syracuse, which ranked 20th in KenPom before the tournament? Or 2011 and 2014 UConn, which ranked 15th and 25th before the dance? There are exceptions to every rule, of course, so our list needed to make room for potential outliers. We didn’t overthink those either. SEC and ACC regular-season champ, Big Ten tournament champ and a couple of blue bloods stocked with NBA talent.

This is the list. We’d be stunned if your 2024 NCAA champion is not on it.

The KenPom top six

Connecticut (31-3)

Why they can win it all: Do we need to elaborate here? The defending champs merely steamrolled through the season with the No. 1 offense, No. 11 defense and hardly any hiccups along the way. You need to win six straight in this tournament to take the title, and UConn has won seven in a row, 14 in a row and seven more in a row rolling into this event. Your eyeballs will tell you Dan Hurley’s team has a little bit (or a lot) of everything, but just to confirm: Pull up the Huskies’ KenPom profile and find something they’re bad at. Good luck. This group is top-10 in effective field-goal percentage offense and defense, rebound margin, assist percentage, block percentage, and on and on. They shoot it great from deep — Cam Spencer, Alex Karaban and Tristen Newton have all made 60-plus 3s — and defend the perimeter and have 7-foot-2 Donovan Clingan protecting the rim. They have poised college vets and high-end pro prospects in Clingan and five-star freshman Stephon Castle. If you were cooking up a roster capable of going back-to-back, this would be the recipe.

The concerns: Food poisoning? OK, look, this team is not perfect, but there aren’t glaring issues either. There’s always the risk of an ice-cold shooting night, and the Huskies hit a combined 7 of 37 3s in losses to Creighton and Seton Hall. There’s always the risk of another team shooting the lights out, and the two best 3-point shooting games against UConn this season (Kansas and Creighton) were both losses. But Hurley and company mitigate those risks as well as anyone in America. They’ve made at least seven 3s in 26 of 34 games. They’ve only allowed double-digit made 3s four times all year. That leaves potential injury — the Huskies weathered stretches without Clingan and Castle — and a surprisingly difficult East Region for the No. 1 overall seed as the biggest possible potholes. Two of last year’s Final Four teams, FAU and San Diego State, could be second-round and Sweet 16 matchups. Then the SEC, Big Ten and Big 12 tournament champions, Auburn, Illinois and Iowa State, lurk in the bottom half of that region. That gauntlet, more than any obvious wart, is the real threat to a repeat. — Kyle Tucker


Daily NCAA bracket picks: Our expert predictions for every game on Thursday in tournament

Houston (30-4)

Why they can win it all: The most complete defense in college basketball. (“bUt tHeY jUsT gOt bLoWn oUt!” Yes, and? Every No. 1 seed this year has a double-digit loss.) We know Houston’s 28-point loss to Iowa State in the Big 12 championship wasn’t a great look, but it doesn’t erase the fact that the Cougars had the No. 1 defense almost the entire season until Iowa State passed them over the weekend. The visual’s gonna be more effective — and compact — than anything we can write, especially with KenPom’s handy-dandy color-coded rankings:

Kelvin Sampson’s last four teams, dating back to his 2021 Final Four squad, have all finished top 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency — but this group is the stingiest of the bunch, at least statistically speaking. The Cougars allow the fewest points and made baskets in the country. But on top of that suffocating defense, Houston checks the rest of the boxes, too. Elite coach? Sampson just won the USBWA’s Henry Iba Award (for coach of the year). Elite lead guard? Jamal Shead — who is averaging 14 points, 7.3 assists, 4.2 rebounds, and 2.6 steals the last 10 games — was named a first-team All-American on Tuesday, and probably will be defensive player of the year, too. Age and tournament experience? The Cougars start three seniors and a junior, and leading scorer LJ Cryer was a freshman on Baylor’s 2021 title team. And, lastly, a manageable draw? Absolutely; who knows how healthy Tyler Kolek will be for No. 2 seed Marquette, No. 3 seed Kentucky is allergic to defense, and No. 4 seed Duke has lost two straight while getting bullied each game. The path is there.

The concerns: We gonna talk about that 28-point loss to Iowa State, or nah? That wasn’t just a beatdown; it was the worst loss of Sampson’s Houston tenure. It was also, unfortunately, proof of why the Cougs might be the most vulnerable No. 1 seed. Houston’s depth has been thoroughly depleted — three players, most recently freshman big JoJo Tugler, have suffered season-ending injuries — and now starting forward J’Wan Roberts is banged up, too. Roberts suffered a shin injury in the Big 12 semifinals, and he only managed 13 minutes vs. the Cyclones before exiting. There’s no understating how massive an injury that is for an already injury-riddled team. Houston thrives on offensive rebounding (13th nationally) and second-chance points, and Roberts is critical in both respects. If the 6-foot-7 senior — who leads the team in rebounding, is second in blocks, and third in steals — can’t go, or even if he’s just not his normal self, it’s hard to envision Houston having enough size or bodies to survive the region. — Brendan Marks

Purdue (29-4)

Why they can win it all: In addition to a top-five offense and top-25 defense, which typically puts you in a very small group of contenders, it helps to have something nobody else in college basketball does — a 7-foot-4, 285-pound unstoppable force. Zach Edey ran away with national player of the year for a second straight season, averaging 24 and 12, and was even better this time. But the biggest reason to believe these Boilermakers will succeed where so many others have failed is the supporting cast. Braden Smith, Fletcher Loyer and Lance Jones have given Edey the kind of backcourt firepower it takes to win in March. Smith is second nationally in assists (Purdue is top five in assist percentage) and he shot 45 percent from 3 this season. He’s not alone in his marksmanship. The Boilermakers rank No. 2 nationally in 3-point percentage (40.8) and have four guys who’ve made more than 45 3s. Guards win in March, and this group has winning guards. But also that giant human for whom nobody has any answer. Recent tournament history aside, that is a championship combination. But about that other thing …

The concerns: PTSD. We could talk about whether the Boilermakers’ dramatically improved guard play around Edey will hold up under pressure — or the fact that the second-most important player, Smith, keeps going down and looking seriously injured and scaring the living daylights out of everyone in West Lafayette — but the biggest hurdle for Purdue is the mental one. Matt Painter’s team has been upset by double-digit seeds in each of the last three tournaments: as a No. 4 seed by 13-seed North Texas in the 2021 first round, as a No. 3 seed by 15-seed Saint Peter’s in the 2022 Sweet 16 and as a No. 1 seed by 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson in last year’s first round. Not to mention the devastation of an overtime loss to eventual champion Virginia in the 2019 Elite Eight. That kind of repeated heartache sticks with you. Imagine if popular Cinderella picks McNeese State or Samford are there waiting in the Sweet 16 this time. It’s hard to believe a little fear and doubt wouldn’t begin to creep in, and that will be the biggest challenge over the first two weekends, as Purdue chases its first Final Four since 1980. — Tucker

Auburn (27-7)

Why they can win it all: Ridiculous depth. Nobody in college basketball has more of it than the Tigers, who never get tired because Bruce Pearl just keeps rotating in fresh legs to fly up the floor on offense and clamp down on defense. Johni Broome has played like an All-American, but this team’s sum is greater than its parts. Auburn goes 10-deep with guys averaging between 14 and 25 minutes. Pearl has a Noah’s Ark roster: two of everything. It wears opponents down, which has a lot to do with all the blowout victories. The Tigers swept two meetings with South Carolina, which finished in a four-way tie for second place in the SEC, by a combined margin of 71 points. They’ve gotten hot at the exactly the right time, a lot like the 2019 team Pearl led to the program’s first Final Four, winning six straight entering this tournament. They’re also the only team in America with a top-10 offense and defense. They’re No. 4 in KenPom, No. 5 in the NET, and if they weren’t in such a stacked region, they’d probably be a much more popular pick to make it to Phoenix.

The concerns: Auburn’s draw, for starters. And that draw is tied to the other concern: how the Tigers have fared against top competition this season. They lost their only meeting with each of the top two teams in the SEC, Tennessee and Kentucky, and have just one win against a NET top-25 team. That was against 11-loss Alabama. There’s also a nonconference loss to (albeit very good) Appalachian State. Auburn won a ton of games, 26 of them by double digits, which helps juice the metrics, but there’s just not really any proof it can beat the best teams in the country. That’s how you run up such a gaudy record and roll to an SEC tournament title — beating the league’s No. 5, 9 and 6 seeds — but only earn a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Auburn’s upper half of the East Region includes three 2023 Final Four teams; San Diego State could be waiting in the second round, UConn or FAU in the Sweet 16. The bottom half of that region includes Big Ten tournament champion Illinois and Big 12 tournament champion Iowa State, both of which have legitimate Final Four aspirations. Successfully run that gauntlet and the critics will be quieted. — Tucker

Iowa State (27-7)

Why they can win it all: Because the Cyclones already won the best conference in America? Oh, and because doing so also meant stealing the “No. 1 defense” title from Houston. May we present the following:

T.J. Otzelberger’s team has gotten plenty of love the last week or two, but we’ve been on the Cyclones — despite doubts from Power Rankings commenters — since early January. They maybe aren’t as wholly suffocating as Houston has been, but in terms of turnovers, and especially steals? No one does it better. Iowa State averaged 10.4 steals per game this season, converting them (per CBB Analytics) into 21 points off turnovers per game, the most in the country. Six different players average at least one steal per game, but none more than Tamin Lipsey’s 2.8 per contest; that’s the most of any high-major player in America. Speaking of Lipsey, he and backcourt mate Keshon Gilbert are poised to become two of the stars of March. Together, they account for 26.1 points, 9.2 assists, 9.2 rebounds, and 4.7 steals per game, and both are capable of going off in any given game. Gilbert’s the better scorer of the two — he was named most outstanding player of the Big 12 championship, courtesy of his 16 points, six rebounds, three assists, and three steals vs. Houston — but Lipsey has shown the proclivity for clutch moments. (See: his second half vs. BYU on March 6, which cemented ISU’s undefeated home season.) Could this be the school’s first modern-era Final Four team?

The concerns: History. A whopping 25 of the last 26 national champions have entered the NCAA Tournament with a top-20 offense and a top-45 defense. (The lone exception? That would be 2014 UConn, the outlier of all outliers.) Broad strokes, we know, but Iowa State’s offense — currently 55th per KenPom — is far outside that range. The Cyclones barely average 75 points per game, outside of the top 100 nationally, largely because they’ve only scored that much in five games this calendar year … out of 21 opportunities. They don’t take, or make, many 3s, either. Couple that with a daunting draw — aka, being in UConn’s region — and Iowa State might have to go through multiple high-major conference champions just to make the Final Four. Whoever comes out of the East will have survived a murderer’s row to do so. — Marks

Arizona (25-8)

Why they can win it all: Only three teams in the country have a top-10 offense and defense entering the Big Dance: UConn (duh), Auburn (metrics darling), and … Arizona. There isn’t much Tommy Lloyd’s team is bad at. Need to score a bunch in a shootout? Cool, can do; the Wildcats are the third-highest-scoring team in the country at 87.9 points per game. Need to shut down a high-powered offense? Also on the menu; Arizona held all of Alabama, Duke, and Wisconsin — whose offenses rank No. 1, 7, and 13 in the country, respectively — below one point per possession this season. And stylistically, the Wildcats are as versatile as they come. Be it Pac-12 Player of the Year Caleb Love out of the backcourt, wings Keshad Johnson and Pelle Larsson on the perimeter, or bigs Oumar Ballo and Motiejus Krivas inside, Lloyd’s team can beat you any number of ways. Lastly, we would be remiss not to mention Arizona’s unique experience. The Wildcats, wildly, have players who starred in both of the last two national championship games: Love (from UNC), and Johnson (from San Diego State). What’s the value of that to a team with all the on-paper talent to win it all? We’re about to find out.

The concerns: For as good a regular-season coach as Lloyd has been — he won more games his first two seasons in the desert than any other Division I men’s coach in history — we cannot ignore that his first two Arizona squads bowed out early: a Sweet 16 loss to Houston (as a No. 1 seed) two years ago, and a first-round flameout against No. 15 Princeton last year. Not ideal. Plus, the Wildcats’ backcourt remains incredibly volatile. Reclassified sophomore point guard Kylan Boswell has been good at times … and borderline terrible at others. And then there’s Love, who has been much-improved this season — it remains hilarious that he’s the final Pac-12 Player of the Year — but who has been known to shoot his team out of games, too. (See: his 2-of-11, four-turnover performance in Arizona’s Pac-12 tournament loss to Oregon.) Love was a key reason why UNC reached the national title in 2022 … and an equally key reason those Tar Heels coughed up a 15-point halftime lead vs. Kansas. We’re still manifesting an Arizona vs. North Carolina Elite Eight game, but who knows which backcourt Lloyd will get any given game day. — Marks

Make it seven…

Tennessee (24-8)

Why they can win it all: Because Rick Barnes has a typically elite defense, which ranks No. 3 nationally in adjusted efficiency, No. 7 in effective field-goal defense and No. 9 in 2-point percentage, but also now a nuclear offensive weapon. SEC Player of the Year Dalton Knecht is arguably the most dangerous scorer in college basketball. He’s dropped 25-plus points 11 times, 35-plus five times, and averaged a ridiculous 25.8 points over the last 18 games. Thanks to their 6-foot-6 flamethrower, the Volunteers have a top-30 offense for the first time since 2019, when they went 30-6 and lost in overtime in the Sweet 16. Junior guard Zakai Zeigler, the SEC’s assist leader and Defensive Player of the Year, is the Vols’ engine on both ends. He and Knecht provide one of the best one-two punches in the field.



Rexrode: Vols’ collapse in Nashville must fuel NCAA Tournament journey or it’ll be short

The concerns: First, the history. Rick Barnes is a terrific coach who is making his 28th NCAA Tournament appearance — spread across four schools — but we must acknowledge how many really good teams he’s had that failed to make a deep run. (Including a second-round exit with Kevin Durant at Texas!) Just three Elite Eights and one Final Four (21 years ago now) from all those bids. The last five tournaments at Tennessee, he’s earned a No. 3, 2, 5, 3 and 4 seed and not made it past the Sweet 16. The Vols getting blown out last week in their SEC tournament opener as the No. 1 seed won’t calm any fears that another nosedive is coming. Fifth-year senior Santiago Vescovi’s strange disappearing act this season is arguably the biggest specific reason to doubt this particular Tennessee team. Over the last seven games, Vescovi averaged just 3.3 points, shot 23 percent from the field and made 4 of 22 3s. In the previous two seasons, he averaged 12.9 points and shot 39 percent from deep. If Vescovi can’t snap out of his recent funk, it’s hard to imagine these Vols finally breaking through in March. — Tucker

OK, one more from the top 10

North Carolina (27-7)

Why they can win it all: Because having the best guard in the nation tends to be useful come March. R.J. Davis — the ACC Player of the Year who was also named a first-team All-American this week — has been stupendous, especially on the heels (pun intended) of last season’s disaster in Chapel Hill. Davis has been a huge piece of that turnaround, a consistent 20-plus point-per-game scorer with a flair for the clutch. His two late 3-pointers buried Pittsburgh — and likely the Panthers’ NCAA Tournament chances — in the ACC semifinals, and that’s just his latest victim. Beyond Davis, though, North Carolina is exceptionally balanced: a top-25 offense, a top-5 defense, and experience across the board. If being “old” is a good thing, then surely the sixth-oldest team in America is well-prepared for any adversity that comes its way. Speaking of age: Armando Bacot is in his final season of eligibility — yes, really, we promise — and made the All-ACC defensive team for the first time in his career. When North Carolina defends like it’s capable of, with Bacot as the quarterback on that end, the Tar Heels are borderline impossible to beat. Hubert Davis is only in his third season, but he’s already coached in an NCAA championship game before, so he knows how to string together wins and hit all the right notes this time of year. Behind Bacot, Davis the coach, and Davis the player, UNC has a trio that’s been close to the top of the mountain — and has all the pieces to climb the last rung.



R.J. Davis is it. Just ask Pitt

The concerns: Defensive slippage, and an offense that still goes cold for stretches. North Carolina missed 12 straight shots late in the second half of the ACC championship vs. NC State, which sank its chances of sweeping the conference regular-season and tournament titles. Those periods where the rim shrinks down to the size of a donut still happen far too frequently; in most of UNC’s losses this season, one of those late stretches has been to blame. And as for the defense: Per BartTorvik’s sorting tool, since February began, UNC is down to No. 17 in adjusted defensive efficiency. Still good, fine … but not elite. If NC State, playing its fifth game in five days, could exploit it, then so will other teams with more firepower. And, of course, we have to mention the looming Elite Eight matchup that extends beyond any basketball analysis. There’s a world in which Love and Arizona, if seeding holds, are the only thing stopping UNC from its second Final Four berth in three seasons. The content would be electric. But UNC fans know how dangerous Love can be in the postseason — and how motivated he’d be to be his best self against his former team. — Marks

Honorable mentions

Creighton: May I interest you in a team with a top-25 offense and defense, which also returns a core from last season’s Elite Eight? Which came within one free throw and a questionable foul call of making the Final Four? Introducing Creighton! Not to piggyback on Rick Pitino or anything, but the Big East was a gauntlet this season, and Creighton’s second-place finish affirms that Greg McDermott’s team has the good stuff. Plus, it has something special not many teams can tout: an honest-to-goodness win over UConn, courtesy of 14 made 3-pointers. (If there’s a formula for taking down the Huskies, credit to the Bluejays for uncovering it.) Baylor Scheierman was just named an All-American, Ryan Kalkbrenner is one of the best (and most slept-on) bigs in America — both in terms of rim protection and interior scoring — and Trey Alexander and Steven Ashworth have both put on the Superman cape at times this season. With age, length, tournament experience, and talent, there’s a lot to like about the Bluejays. — Marks

Illinois (26-8): The Fighting Illini are trying to become this year’s version of 2023 Miami, which entered the NCAA Tournament with the 11th-rated offense and 137th-ranked defense … then caught fire and made the Final Four despite its inability to guard.This is a new era of college basketball, so the tried and true profile of a national title contender (top-25 O and D) might not always apply anymore. Brad Underwood’s team certainly hopes so. His team ranks third in offensive efficiency and 97th on defense, per Bart Torvik’s site. Terrence Shannon Jr., like Knecht, has 11 games of 25-plus points this season, including a 40-burger in the Big Ten semifinals. Teammate Marcus Domask has scored 20-plus 10 times. Illinois can light you up — it has scored 80-plus 22 times this season — so consistently that it might not need to lock you up. — Tucker

Boom-or-bust blue bloods

Kentucky (23-9): You know who else is hoping to be this year’s Miami? John Calipari’s team, which ranks fifth in offensive efficiency and 123rd in defensive efficiency. The Wildcats have way too much offensive firepower to be a nine-loss team that didn’t even win a game in the conference tournament. From All-SEC senior Antonio Reeves to national freshman of the year Reed Sheppard to the best microwave scorer in the country, Rob Dillingham, UK’s backcourt talent is off the charts. Kentucky leads the nation in 3-point percentage (41.2) and is on pace to be the best shooting team in program history. It would be a crying shame to waste that, but these Cats are at risk of doing exactly that because of a hopeless defense. They’ve allowed an average of 89.2 points in their losses. The electric offense is always going to give Kentucky a chance, but we just can’t trust them to make their first deep run since 2019 until we see it happen. — Tucker

Duke: Like with Kentucky, talent isn’t the Blue Devils’ issue. Jon Scheyer has landed the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 recruiting classes his first two seasons succeeding Mike Krzyzewski, yielding a core as good as any in America: All-America big Kyle Filipowski, fellow sophomores Mark Mitchell and Tyrese Proctor, and freshman sharpshooter Jared McCain. Those four, plus senior Jeremy Roach — who has done his best 2015 Quinn Cook impression this season — combine to form the nation’s No. 7 offense, per KenPom, which can light opponents up from deep with ease. The two issues with Duke, though — and the reasons none of our experts picked them to make the Final Four — are defense and “competitive fire,” to steal Scheyer’s words from the ACC tournament. Duke is 0-5 this season when it allows 80 points, and the lack of a legitimate rim protector has been a season-long struggle. As for that “fire” (or lack thereof)? The Blue Devils got pushed around at home by rival UNC in their regular-season finale … and followed that up by getting pushed around to fellow Tobacco Road squad NC State in the ACC quarterfinals. No team has ever lost its first conference tournament game and gone on to win the Big Dance. Duke has the talent, but the mentality? We’re skeptical. — Marks

For ticket information on all tournament games, click here.

(Illustration by Sean Reilly / The Athletic; Photos of Donovan Clingan, Johni Broome and RJ Davis: Mitchell Layton, Greg Fiume and Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

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