But let’s be honest: only about a dozen or so teams have a realistic chance at winning college basketball’s most prestigious title. And some of these schools, like Duke, Michigan State, Kansas, and Villanova, are in the title hunt year after year.
Which teams have the best chance to emerge the champ in the April? Let’s find out by looking at the 12 best contenders. Also keep in mind that we’ll have odds on all of these favorites and other schools throughout the tournament at GTBets.
1. Virginia (1 Seed)
The Cavaliers haven’t lived up to their tournament expectations in recent years. And here we are again, with them having a high seed and already drawing doubters.
But this doesn’t feel like the same Virginia team that’s come up short in the past. There are few reasons to believe that this squad is the one that’ll make a breakthrough.
They have a methodical offense that uses every second of the shot clock to get highly efficient looks.
Opponents also use every second against Virginia, but only because they’re hounded into doing so.
Virginia’s defense is the second best in college basketball in the last 17 years (0.002 adjusted points per possession). They’re also really good at forcing turnovers, which is a lethal combo for opposing schools to deal with.
Tony Bennett’s pack-line defense has even been smothering against elite opponents like Clemson, Duke, and UNC. The Cavaliers played 16 teams that made the NCAA Tournament this season, holding 12 of 16 of these squads to less than a point our possession (including the three mentioned above).
Virginia hasn’t been to a Final Four since 1984, and they don’t have any future NBA lottery picks on their roster. But this is the ACC champion, and they have the country’s best defense. You can’t do any better in picking a potential winner.
2. Duke (2 Seed)
If we’re basing everything on pure talent, then the Blue Devils would be the odds-on favorite to win it all. They boast a starting five that’s filled with NBA first-rounders, including Grayson Allen, Gary Trent Jr., Wendell Carter, Trevon Duval, and Marvin Bagley
The only problem with this lineup is that they’re inconsistent at times. Allen is the only senior, and he’s scored 20 points or more 10 times this year. But he’s also been held below 10 points on eight different occasions. The underclassmen haven’t fared any better in the consistency department.
Duke utilizes a zone defense, which is an improvement from when they were trying to play man to man. But it’s still nowhere on par with Virginia right now.
3. Villanova (1 Seed)
The Wildcats come into 2018 March Madness with a top-2 seed for the fifth straight year. It’s obvious that as long as Jay Wright stays here, his team is always going to be a contender.
Wright won the title a couple of years ago. The team stumbled as a top seed last spring. Which Villanova squad are going to see this year? My bet is one that wants to avenge last year’s disappointing tournament appearance.
Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges were role players on the 2016 national championship squad. But now they’re the top options and looking for the second championship of their college careers.
4. Kansas (1 Seed)
The Jayhawks have entered each of the past two tournaments as a potential champ. They lost a close contest to Villanova in 2016 before the latter went on to win the title. Kansas also had the misfortune of running into a red-hot Oregon team last year.
I don’t think that this year’s Jayhawks squad is exactly as talented as the two teams that recently lost. But they’ve got to be due for better luck with opponents in 2018.
And the talent is still here of course, including star point guard Devonte Graham. Kansas can also rely on the sharp-shooting Svi Mykhailiuk and all-around talent Udoka Azubuike.
5. Michigan State (3 Seed)
Cassius Winston offers excellent guard play, Nick Ward is a load down low, and Jaren Jackson and Miles Bridges are future lottery picks.
The problem with Michigan State’s bid is that they’re just 2-4 against NCAA tournament qualifiers. They’re no doubt going to need a more-complete effort against the top seeds to have any hope at winning. I’m still high on their talent, though.
6. Arizona (4 Seed)
Arizona forward DeAndre Ayton has had a stellar freshman season with 20.3 PPG and 11.5 RPG. The 7’1″ phenom has likely played his way into being the top pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
This means that the rest of the team has been lacking, given that they’ve only achieved a No. 4 seed. Sure, Arizona won their conference. But the Pac-12 was down this year, and the Wildcats didn’t exactly dominate the conference, despite what their title suggests.
The biggest problem for Arizona is that they don’t play great defense. They also have an ugly out-of-conference loss to Purdue (25 points) on their resume.
Despite the drawbacks, Arizona has a chance mainly because of Ayton’s greatness. He can shoot three’s, score inside, rebound, and block shots. Sean Miller’s team also has a solid starting 5 that can provide Ayton support on most nights.
7. Kentucky (5 Seed)
Kentucky is the biggest dark-horse contender in this year’s crop. And the chief reason why is because Gilgeous Alexander has played much better than his pedigree.
A four-star recruit in high school, he’s shined over the 5-star recruits on this roster. Gilgeous-Alexander’s play has helped a young team stay in contention. Kentucky especially helped themselves win seven wins in the past eight games.
This isn’t viewed as the same top-5 squad it was to open the season. But they could surprise analysts if their young lineup can finally gel in the coming weeks.
8. North Carolina (2 Seed)
The defending champion punished opponents last year with four big men who owned the paint. Three of these players are gone, and the team is quite different this season. Roy Williams team is now utilizing stretch fours and fives, while the team is shooting more three-pointers than ever before.
The good news for Carolina, though, is that the success hasn’t dropped off amid big changes. Luke Maye, a walk-on who was last year’s Elite Eight hero, is likely the top player on a balanced team.
9. Michigan (3 Seed)
This Wolverines team is playing the best defense in John Beilen’s tenure. They force opponents to work the clock and eventually take bad shots. If Michigan’s Big Ten tournament title run is any indication, they have the goods to compete for a national championship.
10. Gonzaga (4 Seed)
Gonzaga had their best-ever tournament run last season, culminating in a close title loss to North Carolina. But they lost four of their top six players from that squad, including lottery pick Zach Collins. Nevertheless, this four-loss team has played its way into being a Final Four contender once again.
11. Xavier (1 Seed)
Xavier isn’t getting much love here as a top seed. But they’re also the most-vulnerable of the No. 1 seeds, especially since they don’t have much depth. Trevon Bluiett must do his best job to carry this team, especially if they meet Gonzaga in the Sweet 16.
12. Purdue (2 Seed)
Purdue has used a successful formula that includes five different three-point shooters (all 39% or higher) and 7’2″ center Isaac Haas. This inside-outside combo has frustrated opponents all season.