1. Illinois (23-6)
Brad Underwood is finally getting credit as one of college basketball’s premier coaches. Now that he has the talent to go along with his system, Underwood and the Illini have the ability to contend for a national championship. The inside-outside combination of Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn can match up with anyone and has this team red hot at the right time. Illinois has six victories over top 10 teams and has won 14 of the last 15 games entering the tournament, a run that includes a Big Ten championship.
2. Houston (24-3)
Kelvin Sampson’s team lost perhaps its best player in Caleb Miss just a few games into the season when he transferred to Florida State. The Cougars haven’t missed a beat. Houston leads the nation, allowing opponents to make just 27.5 percent of their shots. Quentin Grimes won both the American Athletic Conference player of the year and tournament MVP awards.
3. West Virginia (18-9)
The Mountaineers may be the team with the best chance to make the Final Four that is being consistently overlooked. Perhaps the reason is they enter the tournament having lost three of their last four. But two of those were to a red-hot Oklahoma State team, and the other was to top-seeded Baylor in overtime. This team is more gifted offensively than most Bob Huggins squads.
4. Oklahoma State (20-8)
It’s not just that the Cowboys have been winning games lately, it’s who they are doing it against. Oklahoma State has beaten Baylor, Texas Tech, Oklahoma twice and West Virginia twice. Mike Boynton’s team wasn’t supposed to be eligible for the postseason but is able to play while the school appeals the ruling. Freshman Cade Cunningham is must-see TV.
5. Tennessee (18-8)
The Volunteers have gone through some pretty wild swings, which isn’t surprising for a team starting an all-freshman backcourt. Tennessee does typically play enough defense to win games, but it isn’t likely to go far if John Fulkerson is unavailable. The senior forward suffered a concussion and underwent a procedure on a facial fracture suffered in the SEC tournament.
6. San Diego State (23-4)
The Aztecs haven’t lost a game started by 5-foot-8 sparkplug Terrell Gomez this season. He opens the floor for Jordan Schakel, one of the nation’s most accurate 3-point shooters, and do-everything forward Matt Mitchell. Brian Dutcher lost in the first round of his only other NCAA Tournament appearance as a head coach and would love to finally get a victory.
7. Clemson (16-7)
Brad Brownell’s challenge is to channel the team that beat Alabama, Maryland and Purdue early in the season and not the one that limped home and was bounced out of the ACC tournament by Miami. For that to happen, the Tigers will need to focus more attention on the defensive end of the floor.
8. Loyola-Chicago (24-4)
Porter Moser has his team back in the field and is a hot commodity in the coaching world, with his name on the short list for several major vacancies. This year’s Ramblers don’t have as much firepower as the Final Four team, but have won 17 of their last 18 games and are in the top 10 in most of the computer rankings.
9. Georgia Tech (17-8)
A 2-point loss at Clemson on Feb. 12 dropped the Yellow Jackets to 9-8 and made their first tournament appearance since 2010 seem like a major long shot. Josh Pastner’s team hasn’t lost since, winning eight straight and capturing the ACC tournament title with a win over Florida State. Georgia Tech’s swarming defense overcomes an inconsistent offense and lack of depth.
10. Rutgers (15-11)
UNLV fans remember the 1991 NCAA Tournament for the heartbreaking loss to Duke in the championship game. Fans of the Scarlet Knights remember it as the last time Rutgers actually made the field. They hope to advance further than they did that year, when they lost to Arizona State in the first round. Steve Pikiell’s team will block shots and get steals.
11. Syracuse (16-9)
Jim Boeheim’s team doesn’t even need to wear uniforms on defense to be identified at this point. The Orange have become so synonymous with the zone they play that viewers tuning in can almost immediately recognize it. Another trait is winning just enough games to sneak into the tournament and then giving opponents nightmares as they try to prepare for the zone.
12. Oregon State (17-12)
This was not supposed to be the team that broke the five-year NCAA Tournament drought for the Beavers. They were picked to finish last in the conference and came to Las Vegas far outside the bubble. Wayne Tinkle’s squad went on a run at T-Mobile Arena, however, and won its way into the field. It was no fluke. All three teams Oregon State beat in Las Vegas are in the field.
13. Liberty (23-5)
If you haven’t seen the Flames play, just think Virginia. Ritchie McKay’s team employs a pack-line defense, much like the one used so effectively by the Cavaliers, for whom he served as an assistant. The Flames shoot a lot of 3s and make them at a high percentage, a big factor in their current 12-game winning streak.
14. Morehead State (23-7)
ESPN analyst Dick Vitale was ranting and raving on selection Sunday about Belmont being left out of the field after not securing an automatic bid. He can blame Morehead State. The Eagles upset the Bruins in the Ohio Valley title game, largely on the strength of their ability to control the paint with rebounds and blocked shots. For what it’s worth, the game wasn’t close.
15. Cleveland State (19-7)
This certainly didn’t look like a tournament team when it set a record for futility against Ohio back in December. The Vikings allowed an NCAA record 40-0 run by the Bobcats in a 101-46 loss. Cleveland State missed 17 straight shots during that span. Dennis Gates somehow got his team to put the debacle behind it and earn its first NCAA appearance in 12 years.
16. Drexel (12-7)
There are so many stories in college basketball this year of teams struggling coming out of a COVID-19 pause. That’s not the case with the Dragons. Zach Spiker’s team ended its second pause in February and immediately reeled off four straight wins to reach the field. Drexel is 5-0 in neutral-court games this season.
Four players to watch
Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State: The freshman and projected top pick in the NBA draft can just take over games and has done so with great success for the Cowboys. He’s 6-foot-8 and essentially plays point guard, able to get to the rim and knock down jumpers. Oklahoma State will go as far as he takes it.
Cameron Krutwig, Loyola-Chicago: The big fella with the feathery touch was a freshman on the Ramblers’ Final Four run and is still manning the middle. He averages 15 points and seven rebounds per game while anchoring a stingy defense. He also fancies himself a harmonica player, so expect to see some of that footage on TV this week.
Darius McGhee, Liberty: The 5-foot-9 Atlantic Sun player of the year leads a prolific 3-point attack, connecting on 41.4 percent of his attempts and making more than three per game. He scored a career-high 34 in the regular-season finale and had 21 in the conference title game.
Johnni Broome, Morehead State: The 6-foot-10 forward was probably the best freshman in the state of Kentucky this season. He was overlooked in recruiting largely because of a slender frame but added 25 pounds of muscle in college and averaged 14 points and nine rebounds while making 58 percent of his shots.
Three best potential matchups
Illinois-Loyola-Chicago, Round of 32: These strong programs may share a state, but they have shared the floor only 15 times. It was a yearly series back in the 1980s, but the Illini and Ramblers have played only twice since the turn of the century. What better place to renew the rivalry than the NCAA Tournament.
Tennessee-Oklahoma State, Round of 32: Some of the best defenses in the nation are in this region, including the top in defensive efficiency, Loyola-Chicago. But the Volunteers are also in the top five, and it would be fun to see what they could do against Cunningham in a game that because of the uniforms would look like a Creamsicle blew up.
Syracuse-West Virginia , Round of 32: The old Big East rivals have both long since moved on to new conferences. It would be fun for college basketball nostalgia to see Bob Huggins and Jim Boeheim face off again.
Two bracket busters
Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights appeared to be a legitimate top 20 team early in the season. Some key absences and the rigors of a brutal Big Ten schedule brought them back to earth, but it’s a new season and a chance to hit the reset button. Rutgers has the talent and coaching to score a few upsets.
Liberty: The computer numbers aren’t high on this team at all. What the Flames do have is the ability to defend and make 3-pointers, two of the best ingredients to look for when picking upsets.
One left standing
Illinois: Another chalky play. This team is loaded with talent and very well coached. More importantly, it may have the most favorable draw of any of the No. 1 seeds. It would have been nice if the Illini had suffered a loss in the Big Ten tournament and reduced some of the hype around them coming into this field.