The past two national champions — Virginia in 2019 and Villanova in 2018 — ranked in the top five throughout February, cementing their status as title contenders during the regular season and morphing into somewhat predictable champions. But the past decade has seen some teams ranked outside the top 10 in February emerge — somewhat unexpectedly — to win it all.
UConn was ranked No. 24 at this point in 2014 before going on to win the national title, while the 2011 UConn team fell all the way to No. 21 late in the season before emerging as the champion. The 2013 Louisville team was also ranked No. 11 at this point in February before hoisting the trophy.
Though Baylor and Gonzaga are the clear favorites to cut down the nets at the end of this March Madness, the lack of delineation between the pack of teams below them creates an environment ripe for a relative long shot to make a title run. So for this week’s edition of the Dribble Handoff, our writers are identifying the team’s ranked outside the top 10 that we believe could win the national title.
I, like most others, believe either Gonzaga or Baylor will be the champion of the 2021 NCAA Tournament. But if I’m trying to identify a possible champ ranked outside the top 10 of the latest AP Top 25 poll, the obvious best candidate, in my eyes, is Alabama. I love the Crimson Tide. They play super-fast. They really guard. They’re likely going to win the SEC by multiple games, get a high seed on Selection Sunday and then be a matchup problem for basically anybody given how committed they are to a very specific style of play.
Again, they play super-fast and really guard — evidence being that they’re ranked ninth in adjusted tempo and second in adjusted defensive efficiency. That’s a rare combination that is difficult to deal with. On top of that, the Crimson Tide launches about 30 3-pointers a game. When they’re hot, you’re dead. And even when they’re not, they’re good enough defensively to hang around and win anyway. Simply put, Alabama is probably a team I’m going to pick to make the Final Four provided Alabama is not placed in a region with Gonzaga or Baylor. That’s how highly I think of the Crimson Tide. And, at this point, them winning the national title wouldn’t be all that surprising.
So, here’s the skinny: Cobb tosses out this question in our Slack chat on Tuesday afternoon. I look at the list, see Texas as an obvious pick, leave it for someone else. But sitting there at 14th in the AP Top 25 are the Mountaineers of West Virginia. Then, later on Tuesday night, Bob Huggins’ team goes into Lubbock and beats Texas Tech by 11 points. (That: an all-TIMER.) Point is, I liked WVU to be the strongest non-Alabama candidate even before it beat TTU.
The coach is one clear reason; Bob Huggins has made multiple Final Fours, and when you’ve got a top-20 team, I think that can only help. But it’s the offense, man. West Virginia ranks 11th in points per possession, thanks to having three sharpshooting 3-point marksmen (Deuce McBride, Sean McNeil, Taz Sherman). Derek Culver’s junior-season leap has also been magnificent. If I’m taking a relative long shot that isn’t the Tide, this is the group. And if you look at the team’s five losses, they’ve come against good teams for the most part: Gonzaga, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Florida. (OK, the home loss to Florida’s an oddity.) I’ll add that West Virginia played better against Gonzaga this season than any other power-conference opponent.
If you’re down on Tennessee’s title chances — and I get the sense that even some Tennessee fans fall in this category — then it likely stems from a slow and sometimes ineffective offense. In games it has lost this season, it scored 63, 49 (!), 64 and 50 points. There’s just some nights where generating offense for this team has been a real challenge. But the Vols are much more capable offensively than they’ve showed to date. They may just be scratching the surface, in fact, thanks to recent breakout performances from five-star freshman Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer, who combined for 50 points Saturday in a win over Kentucky.
Johnson and Springer’s shot-making and athleticism have been hit or miss this season, but Rick Barnes may finally be freeing his frosh studs for good as his team nears the home stretch, knowing UT’s best chance to win it all centers around both peaking in the postseason. Their talents completely unlock a new level for this team offensively. If the Kentucky game proves to be an inflection point on that end of the floor, Tennessee should be taken seriously as a sub-top-10 threat this postseason. It boasts the No. 1 defense (per KenPom) in the country, a proven tactical savant in Barnes and just the right combination of young NBA talent and experienced college players to make a run. Yes, it has at times looked fallible in SEC play in part because of struggles on offense, but the dynamic of this team is slowly shifting. I’d be happy to bet on this club’s talent knowing the potential if things really start clicking down the stretch is enormously high.
Texas was on a three-game losing streak and had only won once in a month-long span until a narrow win over Kansas State on Tuesday. Given those struggles and the program’s uninspiring track record in recent years, it’s easy to dismiss the Longhorns from national title consideration. But if you really unpack what’s happened during Texas’ recent slide, it’s mostly attributable to issues with COVID-19 that sidelined key players and coach Shaka Smart. Even without complications from the virus, there is no shame in a two-point loss to Texas Tech, a one-point loss to Oklahoma after a 10-day pause, a 14-point loss to undefeated Baylor and a two-overtime loss at Oklahoma State.
Before all that, this team was 10-1 and spent four straight weeks in the top five. A few closes losses to good teams amid a serious bout with COVID-19 should not disqualify the Longhorns from the national title conversation. Texas still has plenty of time to get back on track before the postseason, and this roster — led by the all-important ingredient of veteran guards — has nonconference wins over Indiana and North Carolina on its resume to go with a 6-4 league mark. Throw in the key contributions of star freshman forward Greg Brown along with some solid depth, and this is a Texas team that absolutely has the makings of a national title contender.
OTHER BEST BETS: Michigan, USC, Houston