28. Illinois Fighting Illini
The Fighting Illini are no joke. Guard Ayo Dosunmu (15.8/4.1/3.4) and center Kofi Cockburn (13.8 pts, 9.0 rebs) have an opportunity to play at the next level. The Illini are a solid defensive team — ranking 62nd nationally — and are amongst the best cleaning up the glass. With over 40 rebounds per game, Illinois comes in at No. 30. If there is one glaring weakness for the Illini, it is their three-point shooting. Knocking down just 31.5 percent of their attempts, the team must improve immediately if they want a shot at glory.
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27. Iowa Hawkeyes
Luka Garza is a beast. Playing 30 minutes per game, Garza is averaging 23.1 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. Nearly a 7-footer, Garza is also shooting 38 percent from three. Meanwhile, guards Joe Wieskamp (15 pts, 6 rebs) and CJ Fredrick (47 percent from three) are keeping opposing teams honest defensively. With Garza playing as well as he is, Iowa will have a chance to beat all opponents.
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26. Houston Cougars
To this point, Houston has only lost five games. Excluding a 12-point loss at Oregon, the Cougars have had a chance to win every game — losing games to BYU (72-71), Oklahoma State (61-55), Tulsa (63-61), Cincinnati (64-62). While Houston’s offense is in the middle of the pack (125th nationally) averaging a tick under 74 points per game, its defense is tied for 28th — allowing 62.6 points per game.
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25. Butler Bulldogs
Butler’s 6-5 mark in Big East play may not seem too great, but don’t be fooled by the Bulldogs lack of success in the conference. Four of Butler’s six losses have come against teams that are currently ranked — including a narrow 53-52 loss at No. 1 Baylor. The Bulldogs won’t beat many teams with their offense, but defensively the team is suffocating. Currently ranked 16th in points allowed, Butler will be in games until the very end.
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24. Arizona Wildcats
Joining Kansas among the high-profiled basketball factories waiting for NCAA punishment, Arizona is hoping to make the most out of the year before potential sanctions come down on the program. The Wildcats are led by three tantalizing freshmen in Zeke Nnaji, Josh Green and Nico Mannion. In particular, Nnaji has surpassed expectations — 16.2 ppg, 8.9 rebounds. If Zona can find its groove in the closing weeks, nobody will want to play this talented bunch.
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23. Texas Tech Red Raiders
Texas Tech was faced with two huge questions entering the season: 1) Who would step up in place of Jarrett Culver, and 2) How long would the hangover last?
No one player has been able to fill Culver’s shoes, but the combo of sharpshooter Davide Moretti and newcomer Jahmi’us Randle has held its own. If Tech can match its defensive intensity from last year, the Red Raiders could find themselves back in the thick of things come March.
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22. Colorado Buffaloes
The Buffaloes have flown under the radar nationally all year — but it’s time to start paying attention. Owning impressive wins over Dayton and Oregon, the Buffs can argue they are one of the only teams this season to feature a pair of victories over National Championship contenders. Led by three guards — McKinley Wright IV, Tyler Bey, D’Shawn Schwartz — Colorado may be vulnerable against frontcourt-heavy teams.
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21. West Virginia Mountaineers
After a terrible season last year — 14-20 (4-14) — the Mountaineers were not expected to contend this soon. Alas, with only eight conference games remaining, West Virginia finds itself fourth in the Big 12 and ranked in the top-15 nationally. Forwards Oscar Tshiebwe and Derek Culver have controlled the glass all year, combining for 18 boards per game. With back-to-back games against Kansas and Baylor on deck, we are about to learn a ton about the Mountaineers.
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20. Purdue Boilermakers
Purdue’s improbable run to the Elite 8 captivated the nation last March. Unfortunately for the Boilermakers, star guard Carsen Edwards now suits up for the Boston Celtics. Still, Purdue boasts an impressive trio in Matt Haarms, Nojel Eastern and Trevion Williams. Without Edwards, Purdue’s external expectations will be rather low — and for a team that doesn’t lack confidence or talent, that could be a blessing in disguise.
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19. Penn State Nittany Lions
After a three-game skid at the beginning of Big Ten play, the Nittany Lions have hit their stride at the right time. With wins over Ohio State and both Michigan schools, the Lions are challenging for the regular season crown. Forward Lamar Stevens has lived up to the hype this season — 17.6 pts, 7.0 rebs — and sophomore guard Myreon Jones has given the Lions’ offense a boost by contributing 14.1 points per game. If Stevens continues to dominate offensively, Penn State has an outside chance at cutting down the nets.
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18. LSU Tigers
Point guard Tremont Waters’ departure hurt the Tigers in the early going, but we had enough faith in Will Wade’s coaching ability to believe LSU would be a player in 2019-20. Led by Skylar Mays, Javonte Smart, Emmitt Williams and five-star prospect Trendon Watford, LSU is one of the three best teams in the SEC (Auburn, Kentucky). And if the Tigers can hang with those two squads, they can play with anyone in the nation.
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17. Marquette Golden Eagles
Last year, stud guard Markus Howard averaged 25.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.9 assists. This season, Howard is averaging a staggering 27.4 points per game on 39.4 percent shooting from beyond the arc. There is no sugarcoating it — the Golden Eagles will go as far as Howard can take them. If Howard gets hot in the tournament, Marquette can make a deep run. Conversely, if Howard has an average game, Marquette can lose early.
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16. Ohio State Buckeyes
Experience often wins championships. If you’re a Buckeye fan, you are likely aware your team has experience in spades. Boasting one of the most defensively apt teams in the nation, the Buckeyes have the ability to pester opponents. They may not have the talent of a Michigan State or Maryland, but Kaleb Wesson is a beast. Throw in Duane Washington Jr. and D.J. Carton, and Ohio State appears to be a potential dark horse to make a run at glory — even after a rough start to conference play.
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15. Oregon Ducks
Lost in the shuffle of Virginia’s run to the title last March, the Ducks arguably should have upended the eventual champs and advanced to the Elite 8. Dana Altman has a nice mix of veteran leadership (Payton Pritchard, Chris Duarte) and talented youngsters (C.J. Walker, N’Faly Dante). Oregon may be the Pac-12’s best chance at cutting down the nets at the end of the day.
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14. Auburn Tigers
After making a run to the Final Four last March, many expected the Tigers to take a slight step back in the 2019-20 season. Instead, Auburn has only lost two games through February 11 and is tied atop the SEC. The team has played four overtime games and has struggled to put teams away at times. Still, the Auburn’s ability to prevail in those close contests speaks to its maturity. It will take a lot to knock off Auburn down the stretch.
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13. Villanova Wildcats
Buoyed by highly-talented returners, a top-flight head coach and a top-5 recruiting class, the Villanova Wildcats will once again be a problem. Jay Wright will have to figure out the proper rotations and help guide a young squad, but having the likes of Collin Gillespie, Saddiq Bey and freshmen Justin Moore and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is a nice place to start. Even on the heels of a three-game skid, with Wright’s experience, this is a team everyone will hope to avoid come March.
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12. Seton Hall Pirates
Experience, height and top-notch talent — three things Seton Hall possesses. Let’s start with the experience. The Pirates return four starters from last year’s NCAA Tournament team. Every true contender has elite talent, and Seton Hall is no different. Myles Powell is challenging for the National Player of the Year award (21.9/4.8/2.3). Armed with a tall, physical and talented lineup, Seton Hall is a solid bet to cut the nets.
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11. Maryland Terrapins
Maryland has steadily improved in recent years, but 2019-20 may be the year the Terps breakthrough and reach new heights. Anthony Cowan remains one of the most intriguing players in Division 1 — Cowan is beyond talented but hasn’t yet lived up to his potential. If everything comes together, the Terps will challenge for the title. Between Cowan and forward Jalen Smith (15.0 ppg), the Terps have two players that will pose a lot of problems for opposing teams.
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10. Louisville Cardinals
From one-and-done to National Champs? Virginia accomplished the feat last year, so what’s to say Louisville cannot double down on the trend? Led by ACC Preseason Player of the Year Jordan Nwora and Steven Enoch, Louisville has a competent one-two punch that can take over games. Well-coached, athletic and possessing the star often needed to win in March, Louisville is primed for a run.
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9. Duke Blue Devils
Duke fans must felt a little underwhelmed heading into the 2019-20 campaign. Gone are Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish. After that group failed to win it all, expectations were understandably a little lower this year. Led by returning point guard Tre Jones and impact freshman Cassius Stanley, Duke is still amongst the most talented teams in the country. Though they may not be the favorite, the Blue Devils still have plenty of fire power to get the job done.
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8. Kentucky Wildcats
To nobody’s surprise, Kentucky is one of the top contenders to win it all. John Calipari’s decision to spurn UCLA assured Kentucky of another decade-plus of contention. Ashton Hagans’ elite ability to defend will be crucial to Kentucky’s success. Differing from recent years, this version of the Wildcats will be amongst the oldest groups Coach Cal has had. Four key members return to the squad, as does Bucknell-transfer Nate Sestina. Oh, and look out for Tyrese Maxey, Immanuel Quickley and Nick Richards.
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7. Michigan State Spartans
The No. 1 team entering the season, the Michigan State Spartans have all the ingredients to become a champion. Led by legendary coach Tom Izzo, the Spartans returned a preseason National Player of the Year front-runner Cassius Winston to lead the charge. Combined with talents like Aaron Henry, Xavier Tillman and (hopefully) Josh Langford towards the end of the season, Winston should have all the help he needs to be the last man standing. This team has underwhelmed, but it would be foolish to count the Spartans out.
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6. Florida State Seminoles
The Seminoles may not have one of the top players in the country on their team, but the combination of talent taking the floor at any given time is more than enough to make a run in March. Sitting at 20-4 through February 11, FSU has had eight different players lead the team in scoring this season. With the exception of a blowout loss at Indiana, the Seminoles three other losses (all on the road) have come by a total of 12 points. This may be the year Florida State advances past the Elite 8.
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5. San Diego State Aztecs
Even the biggest Aztec supporter in the country couldn’t have predicted what the team has accomplished this season. With five games remaining in the regular season, San Diego State is the country’s only undefeated team. 24-0, the Aztecs have been led by guard Malachi Flynn (16.5 pts, 5.2 ast) and forwards Matt Mitchell and Yanni Wetzell. If you don’t believe in the Aztecs, you should. With a 30-point win over a ranked Creighton squad and another double-digit victory over a ranked Iowa outfit, SDSU has shown they can beat the top competitors.
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4. Baylor Bears
If you are going to knock off the Bears, you best be ready for a war. Baylor’s physicality in recent years has become a bit of a calling card for the program. Now, Baylor has the talent to match its approach. Guards Jared Butler and MaCio Teague have been superb. Freddie Gillespie is nearly averaging a double-double. With Auburn-transfer Davion Mitchell producing as well, the Bears have played like the nations best team since the beginning of the year.
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3. Dayton Flyers
Like San Diego State, the Dayton Flyers didn’t enter the season as a potential title contender. Though, with Player of the Year candidate Obi Toppin leading the way, they probably should have been taken seriously. A sophomore, Toppin has been one of the nation’s best players. Through 26 games, the star Flyer is averaging nearly 20 points (19.6) and eight rebounds (7.8) per game. Both of Dayton’s losses have come in overtime against ranked teams — Kansas and Colorado. It would be ill-advised to bet against Dayton in March.
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2. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Still chasing the elusive National Championship, Gonzaga entered the new year with another great chance at going all the way. The loss of lottery pick Rui Hachimura cannot be diminished, but Mark Few has proved to be one of the most adept coaches in the country at restocking his team with talent. A healthy Killian Tillie will be a handful for opposing teams. Including Tillie and Corey Kispert, the Zags have a remarkable seven players averaging at least 10 points — led by super-sophomore Filip Petrusev.
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1. Kansas Jayhawks
With two potential All-Americans — Devon Dotson (PG) and Udoka Azubuike (C) — in the starting lineup, the Kansas Jayhawks have the star-power requisite to win a National Championship. Even with the dark cloud that is potential NCAA violations closing in on the program in a hurry, the Jayhawks will be the most talented team on the court almost every night. Wins over Dayton, Colorado and West Virginia look more impressive by the day. Expect the Jayhawks to make noise in March.
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