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Breaking Down College Basketball’s Contenders And Pretenders

Dennis Wierzbicki/USA TODAY Sports

We are over halfway through the college basketball season and we still haven’t learned much.

There have been 17 different teams ranked in the top five of the AP Poll, and despite every team being deep into conference play, there are no true front-runners that we are predicting to see in the National Championship come April.

So, which teams are for real and who is bound to disappoint?



Villanova is arguably the most put-together team in college basketball, and it reflects in the AP Poll.

The Wildcats have retained the No. 1 spot for three weeks running. Their only loss is to Butler, who had to make 15 3-pointers to get past the Wildcats.

Experience plays a big part in March and the Wildcats have it. ‘Nova starts three redshirt juniors, a redshirt freshman and star junior point guard in Jalen Brunson.

Brunson is one of the nation’s best players and is averaging 19 points and five assists per game. ‘Nova is poised to grab a No. 1 seed for the second year in a row — just don’t expect them to get upset early in March this time.


Another team that has been turning heads is No. 3 Purdue.

The Boilermakers had a rough start to the season in losing both Battle 4 Atlantis to Tennessee and Western Kentucky, respectively, but they rebounded in a big way.

Purdue has won its last 15 games and is running through conference play like it’s nothing. The Boilermakers have won their last three games by a combined 85 points and are looking to grab their first No. 1 seed since 1996.

Purdue has started the same lineup all season, which includes four seasoned seniors who all know how to fill it up. Just look at how deadly these guys are:

Here’s your fair warning: do not sleep on Purdue.


Duke is a sketchy team when it comes to March.

It seems like the Blue Devils either lose to a high school team (remember Leigh and Mercer?) or go all the way. While we don’t know how high its ceiling is, one thing remains true — Duke gets much better as the season progresses.

Since coach Mike Krzyzewski’s adoption of the John Calipari system, his one-and-done players have been prone to drop early-season games to inferior teams — and we’ve already seen that this year in losses to Boston College and N.C. State.

I remember thinking Duke was overrated in early January 2015 when the Blue Devils lost to a bad N.C. State team and then got blown out at home by Miami. Duke then went 11-0 to finish the regular season and won the national championship.

While I don’t think Duke is a top five team at this point, by the time March comes around, they will be. Behind rookie phenom Marvin Bagley III — the only player in the NCAA averaging 22 points and 11 rebounds per game — Duke should once again be a favorite to win the title.


Michigan State

I hope Michigan State had fun being No. 1 in the polls before they ran into the buzzsaw that was Ohio State.

Sparty was run out of the gym, 80-64, and it was their first loss in 15 games — the last one coming to No. 4 Duke early in the season. You could tell the loss affected them in a big way, because the next game it took overtime to defeat Big Ten bottom-feeder Rutgers at home before dropping their next game to rival Michigan by double digits.

MSU has a big-time turnover problem, hovering around 265th in the nation with over 14 turnovers per game. It also just racked up 25 turnovers in arguably its worst performance of the season against Illinois.

I know it’s unwise to doubt coach Tom Izzo, especially in March, but turnovers and advancing in the tournament usually don’t go together.

With seven of its remaining 11 games in the regular season on the road, we will see if Michigan State can make some much-needed adjustments.

North Carolina

Although they are bitter rivals, UNC is a team that reminds me of Duke.

Both teams lost all of their games in the first week of January and have fans wondering just how legit their squads are. However, the Tar Heels have suffered worse losses than Duke.

UNC mustered only 45 points in a blowout loss to Michigan State early in the season, and then dropped a stunning home contest to Wofford a month later. The Tar Heels then lost two of their first three conference games, including a 61-49 drumming to Virginia earlier this month.

Carolina hasn’t played well on the road this season, as evidenced by its 80-69 loss to Virginia Tech on Monday.

If you want to beat the Tar Heels, all you have to do is shut down Joel Berry II. Sure, that’s easier said than done, but he does have a tendency to disappear during games. In UNC’s five losses, Berry has shot a combined 35-of-86 from the field.

I’m not betting on UNC to repeat as champions.


At this point last season, Kansas had just one loss and was clearly the team to beat in college basketball. While the Jayhawks are still talented, they have found that life without Naismith Award winner Frank Mason III has been tougher than expected.

Kansas has four losses and is 3-3 against ranked teams, with one of those wins coming against now unranked Kentucky. In December, Bill Self’s squad lost consecutive games for the first time in five years.

The Jayhawks have been inconsistent in almost all areas of the game this season. In its surprising loss to Washington, Kansas showed an inability to deal with the 2-3 zone. Without the 3-point shot, the Jayhawks offense looked hopeless.

In the following game against No. 16 Arizona State, Kansas struggled on defense and allowed the Sun Devils a 58-point second half, leading to a double-digit loss on its home court.

In the program’s first ever home loss to Texas Tech, Kansas again fell in love with the 3-pointer, going an abysmal 6-of-26 from beyond the arc and were out-rebounded 44-to-29.

Self will surely fix some of these mistakes as we get closer to March, but if last year’s Kansas team couldn’t reach the Final Four, so don’t expect this team to.

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