March Madness 2023: Ranking the 68 best teams in the NCAA Tournament, from Alabama to FDU
There isn’t much that’s fun about picking a March Madness bracket and having it posted online for literally billions of people to see. I mean, there are 67 chances to be wrong, and every single one is going to be noticed by somebody. My bracket could have 66 games called correctly and it’s almost certain the person who relied upon my advice to select that one single miss will feel betrayed.
So that’s why I like looking at other expert brackets.
Especially the teams they identify as champion.
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Because so often I’ll discover that however wrong I might be, it won’t be as wrong as that person, because he or she will have been wrong from the start. Too many select teams to win the title that do not meet the customary qualifications for a national champion. There are decades of history supporting most of these elements, with only the rarest of exceptions.
To win your pool, it really helps to select the eventual champion. It’s possible to win without it, but often it ends up being the difference. That team is scoring points for you all along the way. And to get it right, you need to know what every champion has:
1. Pros. That’s been the dividing line for 35 years. Every single champion since 1988 had at least one first-round NBA Draft choice in its rotation. Most have multiple. It could be a No. 1 overall pick like Danny Manning with Kansas in 1988 or it could be three top-10 picks like Duke in 1991 and 1992 or hidden guys like Josh Hart and Mikal Bridges with Villanova in 2016.
That year, when the Wildcats won it, there were many analysts who wondered whether the Wildcats had broken this mold, but Hart went from a productive junior to a senior star and was selected late in the 2017 first round, and Bridges went from promising contributor to out-and-out star and was a top-10 pick after the Wildcats won another title in 2018. These sorts of talents make a difference in pushing teams over the mountainous last two games at the Final Four.
So if you look at a team’s roster and don’t see names that are showing up on NBA mock drafts, it’s possible that team could be among the quartet in Houston, but highly unlikely its banner will say “National Champion.”
2. Point guard. For more than four decades, the team that has won the title has been rock-solid, at the least, at the sport’s most important position. Reigning champ Dajuan Harris of Kansas will not be a first-round pick, but he has started 75 games for the Jayhawks in three years because he knows how to play, defends extraordinarily well and always seems to make the ideal read.
It helps to have a star such as Kemba Walker, but it’s not non-negotiable.
3. Size. It’s not the big-man’s game like it was during Patrick Ewing’s day, or Hakeem Olajuwon’s day, which were mostly the same days, but we have not had a team win a title with a center shorter than 6-9 in more than 40 years. It helps to be able to throw the ball inside and get a basket, and to have someone at the other end to prevent that from the opposition.
Is the game changing enough that this year could be different? It’s always a possibility. When Greg Oden was drafted out of Ohio State in 2007, it seemed like the logical choice because almost no NBA team ever was winning titles without a superior center. But the “Steph Curry Revolution” that began a few years later led to the perimeter orientation in the NBA has also made big men more relevant at the college level by leading them to stay longer in the NCAA.
In college, bigs still can matter. Center David McCormack never was a great college player, except perhaps for the final six games of his senior season. He was Kansas’ best and most important player in the tournament, especially at the Final Four, and he clinched the school’s fourth title with his brilliance down the stretch against North Carolina.
MORE: Updated betting odds for every team to win the NCAA Tournament
4. Elite O/D. Since statistician Ken Pomeroy began publishing offensive and defensive efficiency stats at KenPom.com — the numbers are available on the site going back to 2002 — only two teams have won the title without finishing with a top-20 offense and defense. One was Connecticut 2014, which was 39th at the offensive end. Baylor in 2021 was just outside the top 20 on D, and that may be an outlier because of the COVID-shortened season. Their D was elite, and the reason the Bears won over Gonzaga.
Some teams rallied to reach that status. Duke’s 2015 defense needed significant improvement to make the Devils a champion, but coach Mike Krzyzewski achieved that by changing his starting lineup and inserting freshman Justise Winslow. The Devils went from a ranking higher than 30 entering the NCAAs to No. 11 after claiming the title.
Only four teams meet that standard now, and only two are in the neighborhood.
5. A breakdown player. As the tournament advances, moments are going to arrive when a team’s sets are too well-scouted and defended and the shot clock is lapsing and every possession is becoming more precious. And in those moments, a team needs to have someone who can, in the parlance of a game, go get a shot.
It could be a point guard, like Villanova’s Jalen Brunson in 2018. It could be a guard who plays off the ball, like Russ Smith at Louisville in 2013. It could be a forward, like Carmelo Anthony of Syracuse in 2003. But it had better be someone, or your team is not winning six games.
Ranking the 68 best teams in the NCAA Tournament
This is how the 68 teams in the field rank in terms of ability to win the championship factoring in those qualities, with such additional factors as strength of their draws and — this year more than any in memory — the potential impact of injuries factored in:
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20. Texas A&M
21. Kansas State
22. Iowa State
24. San Diego State
27. Michigan State
29. N.C. State
DeCOURCY’S REGIONAL BREAKDOWNS: East | West | South | Midwest
35. Saint Mary’s
37. Penn State
38. Utah State
40. West Virginia
41. Arizona State
42. Florida Atlantic
43. Oral Roberts
44. Mississippi State
45. Boise State
47. Kent State
55. Montana State
56. UC Santa Barbara
57. Kennesaw State
HISTORY OF UPSETS BY SEED
15 vs. 2 | 14 vs. 3 | 13 vs. 4 | 12 vs. 5
60. Grand Canyon
62. UNC Asheville
64. Northern Kentucky
65. Texas A&M Corpus Christi
66. Southeast Missouri State
67. Texas Southern
68. Fairleigh Dickinson