Top 2020 March Madness Contenders

As John Rothstein reminded us last week: This. Is. March.

We don’t need to elaborate on the importance of that in the college basketball world. Selection Sunday (March 15th) and the NCAA Tournament (March 17 – April 6) are right around the corner.

If you are a casual college hoops fan who hasn’t been following the season closely, here are the top ten teams that you need to know. They are listed in reverse order of their national championship odds.

#10 Florida State: +1800

The Semioles (26-5, 16-4 ACC) won the ACC regular-season title but only have the third-best odds in the conference, behind Duke and Louisville (spoiler alert). They don’t do anything exceptionally, but they do everything pretty damn well.

They would be higher on the list if they had more star power. Their leading scorer, Devin Vassell, averages just 12.7 PPG. Their best win was a 78-65 beatdown of Louisville in Kentucky. Their worst loss was the first game of the season, falling 63-61 at Pitt, a team that finished the year ranked 112th at KenPom.

#9 Louisville: +1600

The Cardinals (24-7, 15-5 ACC) started the year ranked first in a couple power polls, with many pundits predicting that junior wing Jordan Nwora would win Player of the Year. They have objectively had a worse season than the Seminoles, but have better odds because of (a) their preseason expectations, (b) their name brand, and (c) the love for coach Chris Mack in betting circles.

Their best win was a convincing 79-73 victory over Duke in Durham. Their worst loss was a non-competitive 77-62 shellacking at the hands of 73rd-ranked Clemson.

Most concerning for Mack, Nwora has failed to perform in many of the team’s biggest games this year.

#8 Duke: +1500

The third and final ACC team on this list is the omnipresent Blue Devils (25-6, 15-5 ACC). This year’s team is top-heavy with sophomore point guard Tre Jones and freshman center Vernon Carey leading the charge, but they aren’t deep and struggle defensively at times due to a lack of athleticism further down the roster.

Their best win was the first game of the season, when they edged now-#1 Kansas 68-66 at MSG. Their worst loss was a stunning 85-83 OT setback to Stephen F. Austin. That SFA team is a lot better than most realized at the time (now ranked 102 at KenPom). But still, Duke isn’t supposed to lose at home to low-majors.

#7 San Diego State: +1400

The Aztecs (30-2, 17-1 Mountain West) were the darlings of college basketball when they started the year 26-0. But they lost two of their final six – including getting stunned at the buzzer by Utah State in the MW title game:

Losing to Utah State on a neutral court shouldn’t cause too much concern, but their earlier loss at home to UNLV does. This team’s best wins both came back in November when they trounced Creighton (83-52) and Iowa (83-73) on back to back nights in the Las Vegas Invitational.

Depth is an issue here, just like with Duke. Malachi Flynn is a legit POY contender and Yanni Wetzell is a solid college big, but the elite talent thins out quickly after that.

#6 Michigan State: +1200

The Spartans (22-9, 14-6 Big Ten) were the top-ranked team in the preseason by most rankings and metrics. Senior guard Cassius Winston was the consensus preseason POY. He suffered personal tragedy early on when his brother committed suicide, and both he and the entire MSU team just didn’t look right in November . They sputtered to a 5-3 start, overall, and then started Big Ten play a mediocre 9-6.

But they enter the Big Ten tournament as winners of five straight, including dominant victories over Maryland and Ohio State, which have the second and third-best national championship odds among Big Ten teams.

#5 Kentucky: +1000

Kentucky (25-6, 15-3 SEC) is bit like Louisville. They are likely getting shorter odds than their resume deserves because of their name. Their best win was, like Duke, in their season opener when they beat an out-of-sorts Michigan State team on a neutral court.

They won the SEC title, but the conference is having a down year. Kentucky is the highest-ranked SEC team at KenPom at a lowly 28th. After that, it’s Florida and Auburn at 33rd and 34th.

The Wildcats undoubtedly have the worst loss among any team on this list. They were upset at home by Evansville back in November. Evansville finished the year 9-23 and ranked 297th out of 353 teams in terms of efficiency.

#4 Dayton: +1000

Dayton (29-2, 18-0 A10) ran roughshod over the A10 this year, thanks in large part to Player of the Year favorite Obi Toppin. Their only two losses both came in overtime on neutral courts. One was to top-ranked Kansas; the other was to a reasonably good Colorado team. Their best win was a double-digit neutral court victory over St. Mary’s (78-68).

While Toppin gets the headlines – deservedly – the Flyers are deeper than many realize. Jalen Crutcher is an excellent college point guard and an absolute assassin from deep (42.4% 3-pt FG Pct).

#3 Baylor: +950

Scott Drew’s Bears (26-4, 15-3 Big 12) were the #1 team in the nation until late February. Much like San Diego State, though, they limped to the finish. After winning 23 straight games from Nov. 15 to Feb. 18, they lost three of their last five.

Their best win was undoubtedly a 67-55 rout of Kansas in Lawrence. That game will likely go down as the best win any team has recorded all season. Their worst loss was a recent 75-72 setback at 82nd-ranked TCU.

The roster is somewhat like Florida State in that they lack star power, but they play exceptional defense and can light it up from three when they’re hot.

#2 Gonzaga: +900

The Zags (30-2, 15-1 WCC) reloaded with international players and grad transfers, per usual. This team bears no resemblance to the one that reached the Elite Eight last season. Led by 6'11" Serbian Filip Petrusev, oft-injured Frenchman Killian Tillie, and a hyper-deep stable of guards, Gonzaga recorded impressive wins over Arizona (away), Oregon (neutral), and arch-rival St. Mary’s (away) by 30 points.

Their only losses came to Michigan on a neutral when the Wolverines shot 12-23 from the three-point line and then at BYU (91-78), a team that finished the year ranked 13th at KenPom.

#1 Kansas: +600

The Jayhawks (28-3, 17-1 Big 12) had a few stumbles this year, losing to Duke in their opener and also getting blasted on their home court by Baylor in January. But they have won 16 straight entering the Big 12 tournament and look like the most-balanced team in the nation.

Up front, seven-footer Udoka Azubuike is arguably the most dominant force in college basketball. He’s paired with POY contender Devon Dotson at point guard. At full strength, this team has looked nearly unbeatable. (Dotson missed much of the Baylor loss with a hip injury.)

Their best win was a 64-61 payback victory at Baylor in late February. They also finished the regular season with a 66-62 road win at 21st-ranked Texas Tech.

Honorable Mention: About Half of the Big East

You may be asking yourself where Villanova and the rest of their Big East compatriots are. Great question. If this list went to 20, there would be four Big East teams on it. It is one of the deepest conferences in the nation this year, but none of the teams are considered elite.

Villanova (24-7, 13-5 BE), Seton Hall (21-9, 13-5 BE), and Creighton (24-7, 13-5 BE) shared the regular-season title. They are all ranked between 12th and 19th at KenPom, with Butler (22-9, 10-8 BE) coming in at 25th. They are all dangerous, and if one of the three co-champs also wins the conference tournament, that team will likely land a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
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