Finally, it's here. And it couldn't have come soon enough.
If you're just joining us, the 2014-15 season has been ruled by two things: Kentucky, and the return of widespread concerns about the state of college basketball. Arguments that the game is too slow, too deliberate, too over-coached, too stoppage-pocked have felt like a vivid flashback to 2012-13, after which the NCAA created new freedom of motion rules, which were then strangely abandoned last fall. Whatever the reasons, and whichever side of the line you stand on, we can all agree on one thing: Spending five months proposing technocratic solutions to systemic problems is almost no one's idea of a good time.
Thank goodness the bracket has arrived. In the matter of an hour, all of the tired, tedious questions about college hoops circa 2015 have been wiped away. In their place are thrilling new queries: Who's this year's Cinderella? Which teams are on upset alert? Can anyone knock off an elite, top-heavy group of national title contenders en route to the Final Four? Will Duke defend? Can Virginia's Justin Anderson get right in time?
And of course, the granddaddy of them all: Can anyone stop 34-0 Kentucky?
Here's a first look at every team in the field -- from 68 to 1. Welcome to March.
For more than a handful of high seeds, merely being in the NCAA tournament is the worthy culmination of a season-long goal. (Until a No. 16-seed beats a No. 1, anyway. It has to happen eventually!)
Texas Southern Tigers (68): Before you poke at the lowly SWAC, or make a glib comment about Mike Davis, it's worth noting the Tigers won at Kansas State and Michigan State this season. Just saying.
Hampton Pirates (67): Hampton may not win a game in this year's tournament, but news of their bid did aggravate every Iowa State fan's long-dormant 2001 trauma, which is a victory unto itself.
Manhattan Jaspers (66): Coach Steve Masiello's next move was supposed to have come last spring, when he was hired by South Florida ... only to have the school discover he did not graduate from Kentucky, as his resume stated. He went back to Manhattan; now he's back in the Dance.
Lafayette Leopards (65): Not to be confused with the Ragin' Cajuns, the Leopards are a slightly terrifying high double-digit seed for one reason only: They make 41.4 percent of their 3s, second-most in Division I.
Robert Morris Colonials (64): Ol' Bobby Morris won't be around for long, but it'll irritate somebody for 40 minutes; the Colonials rank 10th in the nation in steals rate (12.7 percent).
Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (63): Win or lose, Coastal Carolina coach Cliff Ellis will wake up the next day and remember he gets paid to coach basketball 15 minutes from Myrtle Beach, and suddenly everything will be OK.
North Dakota State Bison (62): After last year's memorable tourney run, the Bison lost three seniors and coach Saul Phillips, and they were not supposed to be back. But thanks to Lawrence Alexander -- who played more minutes than any player in the country and shot 44.5 percent from 3 while he was at it -- welcome to NDSU deja vu.
North Florida Ospreys (61): More widely known as the team that beat Purdue at Purdue back when Purdue was terrible, the Ospreys also won their last eight games en route to the tournament.
UAB Blazers (60): Conference USA left some meat on its plate, bid-wise; Old Dominion and Louisiana Tech were both far better than the Blazers this season. But hey, when life gives you a conference tournament in your home city ...
Eastern Washington Eagles (59): The Eagles shot 39.6 percent from 3 on the season, ranking 14th in the country, which will give at least one coach a wicked anxiety dream between now and the end of the week.
UC Irvine Anteaters (58): Home of Division I's tallest player, 7-foot-6 center Mamadou Ndiaye, UC-Irvine is also better than you think, and its nickname is the Anteaters. There, you're all caught up.
Albany Great Danes (57): The NCAA tournament always has its fair share of teams that subconsciously understand, even if they won't consciously admit, that they have almost no chance. And yet these teams remain a valued part of the overall experience. It's not just the goofy nicknames or bad-sports-movie uniforms. There are stories like Peter Hooley. Earlier this year, the Albany guard returned to his native Australia to spend time with his mother before she died of cancer. On Saturday, he sank a rebound-tip-heave-3 with 1.6 seconds that sent his Great Danes -- down seven with 90 seconds to play -- to the NCAA tournament. One shining moment, indeed.
Looking for Cinderella? She's right here.
Northeastern Huskies (56): For one of the country's 25 most accurate 3-point shooting teams, the Huskies don't shoot it very often: Just 30.8 percent of their field goal attempts this season were 3s. Then again, Northeastern did bury poor William & Mary beneath a 12-for-20 barrage in the CAA title game. Dance with the one that brought you, right?
Wofford Terriers (55): Spartanburg's finest narrowly avoided history in the SoCon title game, edging an 11-win Furman team that would have been among the worst to ever play in the NCAA tournament. Now senior guard Karl Cochran, who has launched 256 3s this season, can turn his sights toward far bigger game.
Belmont Bruins (54): Rick Byrd's team is one of the nation's finest mid-major programs; this is his worst team in a half-decade, thanks to an unusually apathetic defense. But, as always, Belmont can still fill it up. Just ask Murray State.
New Mexico State Aggies (53): The WAC is no match for the Aggies, who are making their fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance. NMSU's high-flying, rebound-gobbling physicality tends to disappear against single-digit seeds, but the Aggies never look like a mid-major.
Georgia State Panthers (52): You'd have to go spelunking into the league office archives to find a more talented trio of guards in Sun Belt history. R.J. Hunter, son of coach Ron Hunter, is an NBA prospect. Ryan Harrow is a former Kentucky starter. And if you ever asked, "Hey, whatever happened to Kevin Ware?" the Panthers are your answer.
Buffalo Bulls (51): You'll recognize coach Bobby Hurley from those early-1990s Duke highlight montages. You'll remember Buffalo from Nov. 16's trip to Kentucky, when the Bulls, in the program's first-ever game against a No. 1-ranked team, actually led at Rupp Arena at halftime. Five months later, that trivia answer looks far less fluky. Hurley's high-octane team posted top-50 efficiency numbers en route to the program's first NCAA tournament bid.
Harvard Crimson (50): Poor Yale. The Bulldogs had the Ivy League title all sewn up when those ungentlemanly brigands from Dartmouth snatched it away at the last possible second. Seven days later, Harvard dropped Yale in a brutally tight tiebreaker playoff, giving the once-laughable Crimson hoops program a chance to upset a single-digit seed for the third March running.
Valparaiso Crusaders (49): The Horizon League previews all dwelled on Green Bay star Keifer Sykes; little did we know the league's best player was just about to break out. Valpo sophomore Alec Peters is, for lack of a better term, a mini Frank Kaminsky -- a 6-foot-9 forward who rebounds, doesn't commit turnovers and shoots 50 percent from 2, 46 percent from 3 and 86 percent from the line. Throw in elite back-line defense from center Vashil Fernandez, and coach Bryce Drew, Patron Saint of March, might just have some fresh magic in store.
Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks (48): Thomas Walkup and Co. treated 2014's single-digit matchup in much the same manner as its namesake treated Mr. McMahon's red Corvette: disrespectfully. Last March's electrifying stunner (ahem) of VCU was hardly the end of Stephen F. Austin's story. The Lumberjacks -- who have lost exactly one game since Nov. 24 -- are back and even better in 2014-15, combining one of the country's peskiest pressure defenses with one of its most efficient offenses.
Good enough to get in the NCAA tournament. Not good enough to stick around. Hey, it's a living.
UCLA Bruins (47): If the only thing you knew about UCLA's season was that it trailed 41-7 at halftime against Kentucky on Dec. 20, you missed less than you think. Sure, the Bruins improved in Pac-12 play, and gave Arizona two tough tests down the stretch, but they never rose above mediocrity. To be honest, we're not sure what the committee saw.
LSU Tigers (46): In the sophomore tandem of Jarrell Martin and Jordan Mickey, the Tigers have a legitimate NBA frontcourt, one that often does its best work on the defensive end. The Tigers also have a thing for horrendous, glaring unforced errors. It's not exactly an ideal characteristic come March.
Ole Miss Rebels (45): On Jan. 6, the Rebels came closer than anyone else to knocking off No. 1 Kentucky, and in Rupp Arena to boot. The guards who nearly pulled it off -- Stefan Moody and Jarvis Summers -- remain productive threats, but the Rebels' awful defense turned a 10-4 start to SEC play to an 11-7 finish, a first-round SEC tourney loss to South Carolina, and a near-scrape with the NIT. The trend line is not promising.
Wyoming Cowboys (44): The Cowboys got to the tournament the hard way: By knocking off super-hot Boise State and outlasting San Diego State's fearsome defense en route to a Mountain West title. Larry Shyatt's team is led by forward Larry Nance Jr., whose February battle with mononucleosis took the Cowboys out of the regular-season picture. With Nance healthy again, Wyoming is clearly better -- but by how much?
Texas Longhorns (43): Once considered one of 2014-15's top Final Four contenders, the talented, deep and extremely tall Texas Longhorns ended up having one of the strangest seasons in recent memory. They're the team we just can't quit, a mix of a dynamic point guard (Isiah Taylor), a lottery-pick freshman (Myles Turner), a versatile wingman (Jonathan Holmes), a genuinely imposing back line -- no team blocks more shots per possession than the Longhorns -- good perimeter depth, and, somehow, a 20-13 record. Filling out your bracket? Be vigilant, for Texas will tempt. Its efficiency statistics will beckon to you. The siren song is strong. Don't succumb. There is no escape from Longhorn Island. (Don't worry: If you find yourself with Texas in your Sweet 16, simply rewatch the last four minutes of Texas' Big 12 tourney loss to Iowa State. You'll be back on your feet in no time!)
Indiana Hoosiers (42): When the ball is moving, the break is breaking and the shots are going down, Indiana might be the best value proposition in college basketball. A child of Tom Crean's roster necessity, IU is essentially a team full of guards and wings that sprints, spaces, shoots and plays almost zero defense. Is this strategy sustainable? Of course not. Is it fun to watch? Oh, yes.
Oklahoma State Cowboys (41) : Starters Marcus Smart (NBA), Markel Brown (graduation and the NBA) and Kamari Murphy (transfer) all departed in the offseason, leaving Travis Ford with Le'Bryan Nash, Phil Forte and a bunch of spare parts. The Cowboys made it work, though, sweeping Baylor and Texas and knocking off Kansas ... before six losses in their last seven significantly tempered their postseason prognosis.
NC State Wolfpack (40): Even long after Jan. 11's home win over Duke, the Wolfpack were gliding head-on toward a collision with the bubble. Then, in a matter of 10 days, they scored unlikely road wins at Louisville and North Carolina. It will take an extremely unexpected tournament run for anything in March to push a Dean Dome win off the cover of Pack fans' 2015 scrapbrooks.
Cincinnati Bearcats (39) : The Bearcats' participation in the NCAA tournament is a story of multiple expectations exceeded. The first batch were levied when Mike Cronin waved farewell to senior stars and usage leaders Sean Kilpatrick, Justin Jackson, and Titus Rubles. The second came in December, when Cronin was forced to step away from the day-to-day operation of the program to recover from a non-life-threatening condition. The Bearcats were supposed to be rebuilding; then their coach was relegated to an advisor. They ended up being one of the nation's best 20 defensive teams anyway.
St. John's Red Storm (38) : Are you the gambling sort? Are you bored by routine? Do you find reliability to be a buzzkill? Do we have a team for you! St. John's is an undeniably talented, unusually experienced, frequently dynamic, and completely unpredictable. The Red Storm won seven of their past eight to secure a tournament bid ... and then lost to Villanova and Providence by a combined margin of 54 points. Your call.
Boise State Broncos (37): The Broncos were left for dead in December, when the school's sixth-all-time leading scorer, Anthony Drmic, lost his season to injury. Leon Rice's team lost four games in a row between Dec. 23 and Jan. 10 ... after which Boise won 14 of its last 16 and a share of the Mountain West title. Wait, what? Guard Derrick Marks -- a former gunner who suddenly discovered how to dominate possessions and be efficient -- is at the center of any explanation.
Georgia Bulldogs (36) : The highlight of Georgia's season may well have been its 72-64 home loss to Kentucky. That sounds like an insult. It isn't. During an especially imperious UK stretch, the Bulldogs threw every trick in the book -- anachronistic offensive sets, junk defenses, 25-foot 3s, you name it -- at the Wildcats. They nearly succeeded. If Mark Fox's team executes half as well in the tournament, new highlights will follow.
Purdue Boilermakers (35) : In December, Purdue lost to North Florida, Gardner-Webb and Vanderbilt. By the end of January, they were 6-3 in the Big Ten. One of the most startling in-season turnarounds in recent memory, Matt Painter's team is a group of fundamentally solid branches extending outward from its core -- the shot-swatting, Hoosier-abusing, patience-vindicating 7-foot center A.J. Hammons.
Dayton Flyers (34) : Last March, Dayton's gleeful Elite Eight run rewarded one of the nation's most underrated and long-suffering fan bases with two weeks' worth of joy and, in the process, put coach Archie Miller firmly on the national map in the process. A year later, thanks to unexpected departures, this team has just six scholarship players. None of them are taller than 6-foot-6. Miller has them back in the tournament anyway.
VCU Rams(33): On Jan. 31, the Rams had won 11 straight, including wins over Northern Iowa and Cincinnati, and were well on their way to another Atlantic 10 title. And then disaster struck: Briante Weber saw his career ended by a devastating ACL/MCL/meniscus tear. He was 12 steals shy of the all-time career record; he led Division I in steals percentage for an unprecedented four straight seasons. Shaka Smart's team -- built around turnover creation, and so built around Weber -- hasn't been the same since.
Xavier Musketeers (32) : The Musketeers took their lumps in a tough Big East. In the process, they were forged into one of the nation's most well-rounded offenses. None of Xavier's regular rotation players uses more than a quarter of its their available possessions or shots when on the floor. All of them are efficient. One of them -- center Matt Stainbrook -- is an Uber driver.
BYU Cougars (31): Thanks to some ill-timed injuries and a penchant for close losses, the Cougars were on their way to being the best team to miss out on the NCAA tournament ... until Feb. 28's road win at Gonzaga. That win made the Cougars viable, which is good news for all of us. It gave us the chance to see school all-time leading scorer Tyler Haws (who passed Jimmer Fredette this season) and single-season triple-double record-holder Kyle Collinsworth (who broke the previous record of four with six this season) lead one of the nation's fastest offenses in the NCAA tournament.
Iowa Hawkeyes (30): Just when you thought you were out, Iowa pulls you back in. The Hawkeyes have vacillated between promise and disappointment all season; they were equally capable of losing to Syracuse and winning at North Carolina in the span of three weeks, and no one batted an eye. Aaron White is one of the nation's most underrated players, but can the Hawkeyes get stops?
Ohio State Buckeyes(29) : You'll hear a lot about Ohio State freshman D'Angelo Russell in the next few days. Chances are, you've heard already. Russell is as advertised, a ready-made NBA guard with a sweet lefty touch, perimeter range, a you-can't-teach that feel for the pick-and-roll, and innate passing gifts. He is good enough to take the Buckeyes on a deep run, or so the theory goes. We've been waiting for Ohio State to turn Russell's talent into consistent success for months now. It hasn't happened yet. Why will the tournament be different?
San Diego State Aztecs(28) :: This season, Steve Fisher has put together arguably the best per-possession defensive team of his career -- which, when Kawhi Leonard is just four years removed from a 34-3 junior season, is saying something. Nothing comes easy when San Diego State is on the floor. Unfortunately, that principle also applies to the Aztecs' offense.
INTRIGUING, BUT ...
Dangerous? Absolutely. Flawed? That, too.
Davidson Wildcats (27): Fun fact: The last time Davidson coach Bob McKillop brought an offense this good to the NCAA tournament, some skinny, unknown sophomore with a lightning-quick release took America on an unforgettable Cinderella ride. Seven years later, Stephen Curry is an NBA MVP frontrunner, and McKillop has built one of the nation's most appealing -- and most balanced -- offensive teams. The Wildcats get up and down the floor, shoot a ton of 3s, score from all five positions, record an assist on two-thirds of their field goals, and turn the ball over less than any team not named Wisconsin. They make the motion offense sing. Now, if they just played defense ...
Oregon Ducks (26): This summer, a stack of bad news towered atop Oregon coach Dana Altman's desk. In May, rape accusations surrounding three Ducks players spurred questions as to why Altman let all three, while under active investigation, play in the 2014 NCAA tournament. Two more players transferred. Another, Elgin Cook, was cited for shoplifting. A highly touted incoming recruit was unable to enroll at the school. The Ducks' roster was decimated. Altman's reputation, and job security, were under attack. Six months later, the coach has turned one great guard (Joseph Young) and a bunch of replacement parts into one of the nation's hottest, most dangerous teams.
Michigan State Spartans (25): The annual cliches that accompany Tom Izzo's arrival in the NCAA tournament became cliches for good reason: They're true. The Spartans have been a patchwork-in-progress all season, but they seem to have settled on a fairly successful recipe of late: Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine lead the way from the wing, Branden Dawson and Matt Costello rebound on par with their program's reputation, and the Spartans do just enough to get by. This isn't a vintage Izzo team, but it's been a vintage Izzo performance.
Providence Friars (24): Kris Dunn has been waiting for this for too long. The top prospect was a key piece in Ed Cooley's great 2012 recruiting class, but a torn labrum hampered his freshman season and cost him almost all of 2013-14. Now, finally, Dunn is healthy. And, lo and behold, a healthy Dunn is the nation's best passer -- his 50.5 percent assist rate leads Division I -- who, alongside scorer LaDontae Henton, should terrify every team in their region.
Butler Bulldogs (23): On Oct. 1, Butler announced that second-year coach Brandon Miller -- a former Brad Stevens assistant promoted to wide acclaim when Stevens was hired by the Boston Celtics in 2013 -- was taking a leave of absence to manage an unspecified illness. He never returned. The season could have turned into a mess. Instead, under replacement Chris Holtmann, Butler has roared back to form. This is the Bulldogs' best defensive team since 2010 -- when an impressive young coach led his glass-protecting, ball-pressuring team to a Final Four appearance in the school's hometown. Sound familiar?
SMU Mustangs (22): Given the man's advanced age -- he turned 74 in September -- you might be tempted to say Larry Brown has forgotten more about basketball than most coaches know. The only problem? Brown doesn't appear to have forgotten anything. In three years, the only coach to ever win an NBA and NCAA title -- which he won in 1987-88, the last time he coached a college team -- has turned a formerly moribund program into a national force. (The mind reels at how good it might have been had top-five pick Emmanuel Mudiay not pursued his secondary education at Prime Prep.) As is, this team resembles some of Brown's classic NBA creations -- pragmatic, hard-nosed and relentlessly smart. And rest assured: No coach in the country would stake his team's season on a chess match with Brown.
Georgetown Hoyas (21): The Hoyas' reputation for NCAA tournament letdowns precedes them, but there's no denying this: All the pieces are here. Former UCLA problem child Josh Smith has become a dominant post force; D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera can do everything a lead guard must; Mikael Hopkins is the heart of the Hoyas' punishing defense; Isaac Copeland is a versatile 6-foot-8 freshman with an NBA future; and Jabril Trawick is the scariest dude in college hoops. The Hoyas went unnoticed for most of 2014-15, but there's plenty here to like.
Arkansas Razorbacks (20) : OK, so the Razorbacks couldn't beat Kentucky. So what? Neither could anyone else. In an SEC oft described as a one-team league, Mike Anderson's team brought pace, offense and the conference's best non-Wildcat -- rebound-gobbling sophomore forward Bobby Portis.
West Virginia Mountaineers (19): Behold: Press Virginia! After a career spent gradually grinding opponents into dust, Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins unveiled a special surprise this season -- an always-on full-court press that shook opposing ballhandlers loose on 28.2 percent of their possessions, the highest rate in the sport. The Mountaineers didn't discard all of Huggins' trademarks -- they remain, as ever, an elite offensive rebounding team. Assuming star guard Juwan Staten gets fully healthy in time for the tournament, the Fightin' Huggy Bears will be one of the toughest outs in the field.
North Carolina Tar Heels (18): Do you know what to make of North Carolina? Because we don't. If you're optimistic, you'll point to the Tar Heels' size, rebounding, interior depth, the post-early-slump emergence of Marcus Paige, and a pair of genuinely impressive ACC tournament wins over Louisville and Virginia. If you're pessimistic, you'll note the Tar Heels' inconsistency, their eighth-ranked per-possession defense in conference play, and their habit -- for months before this past weekend -- of losing to every elite team on their schedule. Somehow, neither view is incorrect.
Baylor Bears (17): The Bears' offense has its fair share of flaws. It shot just 44 percent from 2-point range in Big 12 play. It doesn't get to the free throw line all that often. Turnovers are a frequent concern. So how, exactly, did Baylor build one of the nation's best offenses? By knowing its strengths. Ricardo Gathers is the best offensive rebounder in the country; Taurean Prince, Kenny Cherry, Royce O'Neale and Lester Medford average 39.9 percent from distance. Mix these ingredients, stir vigorously, and the result is an offense that converts missed shots into high-percentage looks as well as any team since the 2010 Duke Blue Devils.
They may be a step back from the true national title contenders, but nothing less than a Final Four run will satisfy.
Maryland Terrapins (16): Fence-sitters beware. Maryland is divisive, and what side of that divide you fall on depends almost entirely on whether you agree with the following statement: Some teams just know how to win close games. If you agree, you'll assert that Maryland deserves all of the credit for its 11-1 record in close games, and those wins are purely a function of skill. If you disagree, you'd reply that, as a matter of statistical probability, even the very best teams tend to lose four out of 10 single-possession games. You'd note that no 14-4 major-conference team in the past four seasons has posted nearly as low an efficiency margin as the 2014-15 Terps). You would call Maryland lucky, and it would sound like an insult. The best answer may lie somewhere in the middle. Maryland may not be as good as its record, but guards Melo Trimble and Dez Wells are getting to the free throw line, and luck is the last thing on the defense's mind.
Utah Utes (15): True story: In 2011-12, Utah won exactly six games. Three years later, Larry Krystkowiak has emerged with arguably the country's best all-around guard (Delon Wright), an Austrian freshman center drawing raves from NBA scouts (Jakob Poeltl), a corps of backcourt role players who cannot be left free on the wing (Brandon Taylor, Jordan Loveridge, Dakarai Tucker), and one of the country's most stifling half-court defenses (allowing just 0.91 points per possession). But here we are, all the same. The Utes haven't looked nearly as good away from the Huntsman Center of late, but they remain extremely dangerous.
Wichita State Shockers (14): The Shockers did everyone a favor: They lost early. Dec. 3's road loss at Utah and Dec. 25's upset against George Washington freed the Shockers from any of the residual pressure of last year's undefeated-until-Kentucky campaign. As such, Ron Baker, Fred Van Vleet and Tekele Cotton -- arguably the best guard trio in America -- were free to go about their business in Missouri Valley play, where they were just as good (and occasionally even better) than in 2013-14. Throw out last season's record if you like; these players are still just 24 months removed from a close Final Four loss to Louisville. And they're still that good.
Northern Iowa Panthers (13): Spending the 2013-14 season as just one more chunk of Missouri Valley chum between Wichita State's jaws, Ben Jacobsen broke all the rules. With many of the same players as the year prior, Jacobsen somehow transformed a team that ranked sixth in MVC in points-per-trip allowed into one of the nation's most frustrating defensive challenges. That's not how it's supposed to work! Add in an All-American season from center Seth Tuttle -- who scores from everywhere, passes like a guard, and rebounds 23 percent of opponents' misses -- and a gaggle of 3-point marksmen, and a 30-3 stomp was the result.
Oklahoma Sooners (12): The Sooners' defensive excellence can be tough to spot at first glance. A year ago, as Buddy Hield emerged as one of the nation's best wings, Oklahoma led with its up-tempo offensive attack. Lon Kruger's team still plays fast, but it is the defense -- one of the nation's five best -- that has anchored its success. Great defense, great guard play, and a schedule-tested team are always positive indicators of a deep tournament run. But caveats -- like OU's 195th-ranked defensive rebounding percentage, or its inability to get to the line when its offense stalls out -- do apply.
Iowa State Cyclones (11): The Cyclones remain one of the nation's most encouraging teams. How so? It's not just that Iowa State is good. It's that the Cyclones manage to be both very good and very entertaining all at the same time. Purposeful possessions, impeccable spacing, great shooting, big men who play like guards -- Fred Hoiberg's formula is an absolute blast. The Cyclones may not guard like a national title contender, sure, but they usually make up for it on the other end. Besides, any team that can fall behind in its last five games by a combined 75 points and go 5-0 anyway -- well, what's scarier than that?
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (10): Too soft on defense. Too many jumpers. They'll go cold. Not to be trusted. Look, we get it: Mike Brey's history of early March departures scares you. And hey, you're no dummy: You've seen the numbers, and you know Notre Dame's defense ranks outside the top 100 in adjusted efficiency, that the Irish don't grab offensive rebounds, and that those two traits are the opposite of almost every Final Four team of the past five years. We understand. But the Irish should have at least alleviated some of your fears this weekend -- if not because it beat North Carolina in the ACC title game, then because it held Duke, one of ND's only rivals for offensive brilliance, to 64 points in 66 possessions. Brey's team is so fluid on the offensive end that its defense merely needs to hold the line to ensure a win. Plus, as historic-tourney-trend trump cards go, Jerian Grant -- an All-America senior guard who can break down any defense in the country, any way he wants, at any time -- is awfully hard to top.
Louisville Cardinals (9): To say Louisville has been a disappointment would overstate the case. The Cardinals are 24-8, after all, with one of Rick Pitino's characteristically brutal defenses. Still, Louisville has never quite gotten there on the offensive end. The late-February dismissal of starting point guard Chris Jones thrust untested freshman Quentin Snyder into a starting role, and disrupted Pitino's typical late-season development clock. The upside is that merely defending this well, with a coach this smart, can take you awfully far in the NCAA tournament. Defense is Louisville's floor. Offense is its ceiling.
Kansas Jayhawks (8): Bill Self's 11th straight Big 12 regular-season title -- a record that never gets any less unfathomable, no matter how many times you bring it up -- may have also been his best coaching performance. That this team emerged alone atop the best Big 12 in memory is remarkable enough; that it did so while only occasionally looking like a coherent whole is downright baffling. We remember plenty of games when Perry Ellis had it going, or when Wayne Selden or Kelly Oubre were particularly unstoppable, or when steady point guard Frank Mason did just enough down the stretch. We can't remember one game when every Jayhawk was firing on all cylinders. Maybe it has yet to come. KU will be just fine either way.
More than any year in recent memory, there is a vast gulf between the rest of the college game and a handful of truly elite national title contenders. These are their stories.
Gonzaga Bulldogs (7): Here's the thing: Mark Few doesn't need your approval. Gonzaga's coach, who has presided over the Bulldogs' rise from a plucky Cinderella to a perennial powerhouse, couldn't care less what you think about his team's record in the NCAA tournament in the past five years, during which it has failed to reach the Sweet 16 -- including 2013, when it was a No. 1 seed and lost to an unconscious Final Four-bound Wichita State.
"Someone asked me the other day if I'd trade all of my runs over 15 years for one Final Four," Few said recently. "Absolutely not. Are you kidding me? These seasons are six months long. We usually feel great for six months. One loss shouldn't ruin that. ... The tournament is a crapshoot. It shouldn't be everything. It's such a shallow thing to pin everything on."
He's right. No matter where the Bulldogs end up in the next three weeks -- no matter what becomes of any of these teams -- the past five months have already taught us what we need to know. Forward Kyle Wiltjer is one of the two or three best offensive players in the country. His arrival this season after a transfer from Kentucky freed senior guard Kevin Pangos from the burden of scoring, and led to the most efficient season of his career. Center Przemek Karnowski is a 7-foot Goliath with the passing touch of a 6-foot-2 guard; Domantas Sabonis gives the Bulldogs more interior depth than they've ever had; Byron Wesley, Gary Bell and Kyle Dranginis are immensely solid role players. This is the best, most talented, most balanced team Few has ever had -- a genuinely viable national title contender, his best shot yet at a trip to the Final Four. Make no mistake: He'd love to get there. But he won't care what you think if he doesn't.
Villanova Wildcats (6): Jay Wright's team was the only national title contender to draw more inexplicable pre-tournament disbelief than the Bulldogs. In some sense, we get it. Villanova doesn't have an obvious NBA star on its roster. The Wildcats shoot a lot of 3s -- 43 percent of their field goal attempts, to be exact -- in a style that feels vulnerable to the randomness and nerves inherent to tournament play. An almost identical group of players went home before the second weekend a year ago.
And yet, well, just look at what this team has already done. The Big East was the third-best league in college basketball this season, and Villanova tore through it like a giddy child on Christmas morning. It hasn't lost since Jan. 19. In its last eight games, it averaged 1.28 points per possession, more than any team in the country. It has great guard play, great shooting, lockdown defense and zero glaring weaknesses. There are no viable game plans to counter the Wildcats; there is only the hope that they don't play well. If you're not on board by now, you're just missing out.
Arizona Wildcats (5): If it weren't for historic defensive seasons from Virginia and Kentucky, more people would be talking about how Sean Miller -- after losing the two best defenders (Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson) from the best defense in the country a season ago -- has managed to make the Wildcats even more impenetrable on the defensive end. It is extremely difficult to score in the interior against Arizona's defense, and no team allows fewer second-chance opportunities. Meanwhile, the Wildcats are led by a savvy passing point guard (T.J. McConnell), three super-athletic, veteran forwards (Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski), and freshman Stanley Johnson, who rebounds, locks up on defense, and bum-rushes opposing defenses with downhill drives -- and usually ends up at the free throw line. Miller was a bucket away from the Final Four last March. This team is better.
Wisconsin Badgers (4): We don't usually associate relatable goofiness with single-minded obsession. In the year since the Badgers fell in the Final Four, they have conducted their affairs with a solitary sense of purpose: get back. Every summer workout, every practice, every game, all conducted with one goal in mind. That's how you insist that an offense that was already one of the nation's most efficient can be better -- that it can be one of the most unstoppable in recent memory. That's how Frank Kaminsky, already one of the nation's best players, became its very best. That's how you weather the loss of your starting point guard -- Traevon Jackson, who has been sidelined since Jan. 11 -- and go on to lose just one more game (at Maryland) all season. You have to be really, really good to begin with, sure -- and when you can put the best and most versatile player in the country alongside Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes, you're really, really good. But you also have to be obsessed.
And yet the Badgers are the same goofy, wise-cracking, self-aware bunch that arrived at AT&T Stadium a year ago. Kaminsky is not only the nation's best player, but its most relatable, a guy who stayed to chase a national championship and because he loves tooling around Madison on his moped. The biggest conventional question for the Badgers is whether Jackson will return to the lineup, and when, and how. But the real thing to know about this often-sublime national title contender is this: Wisconsin makes obsession look fun.
Duke Blue Devils (3): The Blue Devils are a national title contender -- and maybe the national contender, outside of Kentucky -- for obvious reasons. Jahlil Okafor is perhaps the greatest, most dominant offensive freshman in ACC history. Tyus Jones is a controlled, cold-blooded finisher who, despite playing with Okafor, frequently looks like Duke's best player. Senior guard Quinn Cook does everything right. Justise Winslow is an NBA general manager's platonic ideal of a small forward. Matt Jones and Grayson Allen have played their best basketball down the stretch. The Blue Devils combine Okafor's unstoppable interior scoring with expert spacing and lights-out shooting. They won at Wisconsin, at Louisville, at Virginia, and at North Carolina. They're the only other team in America with multiple players who could start for Kentucky. What better barometer of talent than that?
And if the Blue Devils don't defend, none of that will matter. Since back-to-back January losses to NC State and Miami, Mike Krzyzewski's team has gradually improved on the defensive end -- thanks in some part to Coach K's rare turn to zone -- but not enough to finish in the top half of the ACC in per-possession defense, not enough to keep Virginia Tech from scoring 86 points in 66 trips in late February, not enough to quell the single biggest threat to Coach K's fifth national championship. Many will focus on Okafor's poor free throw shooting in the next few days, and fair enough. But defense is the thing.
Virginia Cavaliers (2): Before the madness begins, it's worth taking a step back and appreciating exactly what Virginia coach Tony Bennett has accomplished. A year ago, the Cavaliers swept the ACC titles. Last spring, they lost three key players to graduation. This season, they've been even better -- so good they won their first 19 games, lost their best player to injury in early February, and won seven of their next eight games without him anyway. Bennett has built one of the best two-year stretches in the history of a major-conference program that once rostered Ralph Sampson, with a group of players whose incoming recruiting rankings pale in comparison to that of their peers. It is borderline unprecedented.
And now the big question: If Justin Anderson isn't right, can Virginia win the title? When Anderson was healthy, he was an All-American candidate, a ferocious athletic wing who spent the first two months of the season making more than half of his 3s. An injury to that shooting hand (and then an appendectomy) kept Anderson out until the ACC tournament. When he was gone, Malcolm Brogdon and the rest of Virginia's pack-line stalwarts were as stifling as ever. But Virginia's offense -- which was among the nation's most efficient in November, December and January -- sputtered.
If Anderson is healthy and making shots, Virginia is on a tier of its own, the clearest threat to Kentucky's postseason hegemony. But if he can't rid himself of the rust, if his 26-minute, 0-for-6, zero-point ACC tournament performance is an indication of his recovery curve, then the Cavaliers, great as they are, fall back to the pack. We'll see.
BUT LET'S BE REAL
Kentucky Wildcats (1): There is really one title contender. It is Kentucky. If you haven't made your peace with this fact, we suggest you do so now.
There is nothing more to write about this team and its incomprehensible talent, or how John Calipari has employed it, and how impossible it is to score on this defense, or how its offense is now every bit as good, or how a 34-0 season from a major-conference team isn't supposed to be possible in 2015. There is nothing more to say.
There is only this: Six games. Zero losses. Immortality.