By: Chris O’Brien
These teams are not invincible. It’s still March Madness. We’ll probably even see one of these teams, as many as three, go down before the Sweet 16. There’s no such thing as a guaranteed safe pick in a bracket.
But these eight teams get about as close to that level as possible.
Every year when I build out this category, I’m looking for teams that have achieved greatness in at least three of these areas. The list being:
- Do you have a great, future NBA All-Star caliber player
- Are you top-three in offense or defense, do one of those things better than almost everyone else
- Do you have a great Hall of Fame/Future Hall of Fame coach
- Extreme toughness/grit
With this criteria in mind, here’s how I’d build out the final list:
8. Texas Tech
Great future NBA All-Star caliber player: Jarrett Culver
Elite Team Skill: Defense. No. 1 in field goal percentage defense, No. 4 in scoring defense
Great Coach: Early in his career, but Chris Beard is one of the most detail-oriented coaches in the country. Will always be great when he has a week to prepare for a game.
Extreme toughness/grit: No easy baskets. Held Duke, with Zion, under 70 in a hard-fought non-conference battle.
The team that beat Kansas late in the season, 91-62, could beat anybody. The first-round loss to West Virginia in the Big 12 tourney was weird, but nothing to overreact to. They were on a 9-game winning streak before it in a tough Big 12 conference.
Great future NBA All-Star caliber player: Not sure if you can make the case for Brazdeikis, Poole, or Simpson here.
Elite Team Skill: Defense. No. 2 in scoring defense. And on offense they are No. 1 in fewest turnovers per game.
Great Coach: John Beilein has been as good as anyone these last few years. Fresh off a run to the finals last year.
Extreme toughness/grit: Just like Texas Tech, really hard to score on.
Standout game: Granted, early in the season, but the Michigan team that beat Villanova, 73-46, or North Carolina (84-67) could beat anybody.
Except maybe Michigan State who they’re 0-3 against.
Great future NBA All-Star caliber player: Don’t quite check the box here, but Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield are great college basketball players and hold their own against any freshmen NBA talent.
Elite Team Skill: Really good on offense and defense, but wouldn’t say great.
Great Coach: Rick Barnes has proven to be a great recruiter and solid regular season coach. Besides the TJ Ford Texas Final Four run from like 20 years ago, Barnes doesn’t have a strong postseason resume.
Extreme toughness/grit: They have that Villanova type focus from last year. Bunch of tough guys that aren’t afraid of anyone. Little bit of “nobody believes in us” fuel too.
Standout game(s): The win against Gonzaga and two late-season wins against Kentucky. Especially the 71-52 game.
But if you’ll notice, they didn’t end up checking three of the boxes. Arguably only checked one. Be careful with Tennessee…
Great future NBA All-Star caliber player: Possibly De’Andre Hunter.
Elite Team Skill: No. 1 in scoring defense, No. 5 in field goal percentage defense.
Great Coach: Tony Bennett is a great coach who is compiling an impressive regular season resume. I think he’ll be like Jay Wright, have some tournament struggles early in the career then build a strong resume later.
Extreme toughness/grit: You don’t go 16-2 in the ACC, 29-3 overall without it.
Standout game(s): The win at North Carolina.
Totally get the hesitance to pick Virginia after the whole 16 seed thing last year, but think about how relieved and relaxed they’ll play in Round 2 (considering they beat the 16 seed…)
After that, it’s a pretty solid path to the Final Four. I mean, after all, this team is 29-1 against teams not named Duke.
4. Michigan State
Great future NBA All-Star caliber player: Little bit of a stretch, but I’d listen to a Cassius Winston argument.
Elite Team Skill: No. 3 in field goal percentage defense.
Great Coach: Tom Izzo. Enough said.
Extreme toughness/grit: Yep. Tom Izzo.
Standout game(s): No other team can say they beat a No. 2 seed three times.
Michigan State should have been a No. 1 seed and definitely shouldn’t have ended up with Duke as a potential Elite Eight foe. What’s impressive, even though banged up, this squad has a chance to cut down the nets.
Great future NBA All-Star caliber player: Rui Hachimura. He may quietly be the best player in the tournament and wouldn’t be surprised if he’s next year’s Rookie of the Year in the NBA.
Elite Team Skill: No. 1 in scoring. Top 10 in field goal percentage defense too.
Great Coach: Mark Few. Over twenty years he’s turned Gonzaga from a fun Cinderella team to a powerhouse that isn’t weird at all to see on the No. 1 or No. 2 line.
Extreme toughness/grit: Yep.
Standout game(s): That win against Duke in Maui.
This could finally be Gonzaga’s year.
2. North Carolina
Great future NBA All-Star caliber player: Duke’s been getting all of the attention for their future NBA talent, but North Carolina quietly has three first-round draft picks. Coby White (projected No. 5), Nassir Little (projected No. 10), and Cameron Johnson (projected No. 24).
Elite Team Skill: Offense. 3rd in ppg. 1st in rebounds. 2nd in assists.
Great Coach: Roy Williams. I’ll admit, this is a ridiculous thought experiment, because you could easily just say, “Well, what if Coach K won two other titles?” but imagine if Roy had won the ’97 and ’03 titles with Kansas. Would he quietly have a case to be the better coach compared with Coach K?
Or am I just doing this to pretend Kansas has two more titles in my lifetime?=
Extreme toughness/grit: Not their most standout quality like it is for Texas Tech, Tennessee, or Michigan State.
Standout game(s): That win at Duke. Yes, there was the whole Zion shoe thing, but that North Carolina squad looked awesome. Michigan State beat Michigan three times. North Carolina was one point away from sweeping the No. 1 overall seed.
Only downside, the route. Utah State or Washington is a tough 8/9 draw. Kansas in Kansas City with nothing to lose isn’t an easy Sweet 16 game and then either Kentucky, Houston, or Iowa State (would basically be a home game for the Cyclones), it’s a tough draw.
Great future NBA All-Star caliber player: Where do we begin. Zion and RJ Barrett both could end up being NBA superstars. Cam Reddish could possibly be a future All-Star team too.
Elite Team Skill: Maybe just raw talent? But also No. 1 in blocked shots and No. 2 in rebounds. They look like an NBA team.
Great Coach: Coach K. None better, except for my ridiculous Roy Williams hypothetical above.
Extreme toughness/grit: Zion’s arm is the size of both my legs… combined.
Standout game(s): The two wins against Virginia. And Texas Tech. All along my thought was a tough, slow it down, defense-first team like Texas Tech, Virginia, or Michigan would give Duke a lot of trouble. They proved they could handle this challenge.
It’s hard to see Duke losing before the Elite Eight. Honestly, it’s hard to see them losing at all. The one thing to keep an eye on though, Duke was 339th in 3-pt field goal percentage. If they run into a team who is shooting lights out, gets a big lead, it could be hard for Duke to come back.
But then again there was that absurd late comeback against Louisville.
Yeah, Duke’s probably going to win it all…