Dissecting The Madness: Five Teams To Build Your Bracket Around

The calendar has flipped and it’s time to start the Madness. It’s been a crazy season, with as much talk about the companies that supply basketball wear as the play on the court. But that on-court play was dramatic, with incredible individual play and upset after upset. All those upsets have nurtured the belief that this year’s NCAA tournament could be one of the craziest, most unpredictable ever.

As we start the arduous task of trying to break down what the next month will bring, let’s start with the handful of teams that have done the most to inspire confidence as potential cornerstones of your bracket.

Michigan State

People have been quick to dismiss the Big Ten regular season champs on the basis of a down year for the conference and a lack wins in the top tier of the newly minted Quad system. But it doesn’t take much digging to conclude that the Spartans are legit contenders and a strong favorite to reach the Final Four.

Let’s start with rankings. Michigan State has been in the top five of both polls all season long. The RPI is a bit sour on the Spartans, as they check in at 13. But they are 4 in the Sagarin ratings and 5 in both BPI and KenPom. Speaking of KenPom, college hoop heads love to discuss the mythical top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency milestone. Michigan State has been one of only two teams who have spent the entire season in the top 20 in both categories and flirted with remaining in the top 10. Currently the Spartans are 11 in offensive efficiency and 8 in defensive efficiency.

What about that perceived weak schedule? Well, it certainly wasn’t the strongest schedule you’ll ever see, and struggles from Big Ten teams like Minnesota, Northwestern and Maryland have hurt. But the Spartans have wins over North Carolina, a fully healthy Notre Dame team that was playing at an elite level at the time, and Purdue. They also have less sexy but still solid wins over Nebraska and Penn State. And they don’t own a bad loss, with all three losses coming against very good teams in Duke, Ohio State and Michigan. The bottom line is Michigan State handled business all season long.

And then there’s the most important part, the actual basketball players. Five Spartans average double figures. Miles Bridges gets most of the attention, but it’s freshman big man Jaren Jackson Jr. that could hold the keys to Michigan State’s Final Four hopes.

The 6’11” freshman’s numbers don’t jump off the page at you: 11.4 points and 5.8 rebounds. But they fail to tell the whole story. Jackson, and his 3.3 blocks per game, anchors one of the best 2 PT defenses in the country. He was just named Big Ten Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. Jackson has incredible instincts for a player his age, and for good measure shoots 41.6% from three.

Michigan State is for real.


We just spent time telling you the Big Ten was down, and now we’re going to tell you that it is the only conference with two teams among the safest bets to make deep March runs.

We mentioned Michigan State was one of only two teams to hang in or around the KenPom top 10 on both ends of the floor. The other? Purdue. The Boilermakers currently rank 3rd offensively and 17 defensively and are one of just three teams currently sitting within the magical top 20 threshold (more on the third in a bit).

A three-game losing streak in February sent people fleeing from the Purdue bandwagon. But two of those losses came against Ohio State and at Michigan State. The Boilermakers responded with a nice win against Penn State before handling business against Illinois and Minnesota to close the season with three straight wins.

Carsen Edwards have developed into a legitimate go-to player, averaging 18.2 points per game. Seniors Vincent Edwards and Dakota Mathias provide leadership and help carry the load. 7’2” senior Isaac Haas adds further leadership and combines with 7’3” freshman Matt Haarms to provide formidable size. Purdue is balanced, and it is dangerous.


The Blue Devils were shifted somewhat to the back burner following Virginia’s run to the ACC title and some surprising losses throughout the season. But Duke has one of the most talented rosters in the country and have quietly worked to improve its biggest weakness.

The knock on Duke all season long has been its defense. After shifting to a zone look, the Dookies have made impressive strides at that end of the floor. In fact, Duke as risen all the way to number 15 in defensive efficiency according to KenPom, allowing them to join Michigan State and Purdue in the 20/20 club. Duke’s points per game allowed have dipped under 70 at 69.6, and with an offense as potent as the one Duke has, the D doesn’t have to be elite. It just needs to not be a complete liability. Right now, it isn’t.

Marvin Bagley III is averaging a double-double while playing his way into a Player of the Year candidate, and all five Duke starters average double figures. Grayson Allen could be a key for Duke. When he has it going, the Blue Devils become incredibly difficult to beat. Conversely, Allen was held to single-digits in points in four of Duke’s six losses.

There are questions for Duke. Which Allen will show up? Is the defensive improvement sustainable? Finally, do the Blue Devils have the depth for a serious run? But the talent is unquestioned, and the Blue Devils have done a good job addressing their most glaring weakness. All the ingredients are present for a run to the Final Four.


After being the most consistent team in the country over the first three months of the season, the Wildcats have fallen from favor recently after going 4-3 over their last seven games. That stretch included disturbing losses to St. John’s and Providence as well as an impressive win at Xavier and a dismantling of DePaul that looked like what we had come to expect from Villanova.

It’s fair to note that this was the most difficult stretch of the Villanova schedule. Four of the last five have been on the road and most have been against teams in the top half of the Big East. If these games, and subsequent losses, had been spread over the last two months instead of condensed into two weeks, there would be much less concern.

Despite the recent struggles, ‘Nova remains the most efficient offense in the country by a fairly wide margin. Meanwhile, fans have been lamenting the fact that this year’s team hasn’t been a traditional Villanova team at the defensive end. And while that is true, the ‘Cats have made improvements in that area, climbing to 24 in defensive efficiency following Wednesday night’s win over Seton Hall.

Jalen Brunson is a Player of the Year candidate, averaging 19.1 points and 4.8 assists while shooting 52.6% from the floor. He’s the steadiest point guard in the country and runs the Villanova offense with precision. Mikal Bridges has transformed himself from an athletic specimen into a complete basketball player, expanding from a defensive role player to a likely lottery pick in June. Four other Wildcats average double figures, and freshman Collin Gillespie has been making strides.

While the last few weeks have been shaky, ‘Nova has all the tools in the box to make it to San Antonio.


A bit of a surprise choice here, and another team who was hurt by some early losses in big games and by the conference it plays in. But people see what they want to see, and despite Gonzaga’s run to the title game a year ago, people just see a team that doesn’t play in a power conference and don't view it as a legitimate threat.

Yes, Gonzaga lost to Florida and Villanova in November and December. But the Bulldogs also beat Ohio State, Texas and Creighton in the non-conference schedule. They suffered a single conference defeat by three points to St. Mary’s, but avenged that loss with a 13-point win over the Gaels a few weeks later.

Gonzaga is flirting with the KenPom 20/20 club, sitting at 13 offensively and 25 defensively. It is top 10 in every metric outside of RPI, and... well, RPI is slowly falling out of favor anyway. The Bulldogs may not have a flashy individual star or the name recognition of the other teams on this list. But they are balanced and battle tested and could surprise some people in a few weeks. Give them some serious consideration when it’s time to fill out those brackets.


Will one of these teams cut down the nets in a few weeks? We’ll see. But in one of the most wide-open, unpredictable NCAA tournaments in some time, they are a good place to start when building that bracket.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *