The 2017-2018 Men’s College Basketball season has proved to be unlike any we have seen in recent years. As ESPN’s Jay Bilas says, “We don’t have great teams yet. You don’t have to be historically great to win [the NCAA Tournament] like some of the past years where you had to be great.”
Villanova and Virginia, the two top ranked teams in the country, are the only teams with just one loss heading into February. Purdue, Auburn, Cincinnati, and St. Mary’s, the latter two playing in relatively weak conferences, are the only teams with two losses. At this point of the season last year, there were 13 teams with two or fewer losses. The season has been defined by top teams’ losses to unranked opponents. To name a few, Wofford came into Chapel Hill early in the year and stunned fifth-ranked North Carolina. Western Kentucky beat Purdue, a team that has looked nearly unstoppable in Big Ten Play.
Blue-blood programs are also experiencing down years, highlighted by Kentucky. The team features six five-star freshman, and many experts predicted the Wildcats to be a top-five team, however John Calipari’s squad recently dropped out of the AP Top 25 for the first time in almost four years. UCLA, still reeling from the shoplifting scandal in China courtesy of LiAngelo Ball and company, has failed to meet expectations after a resurgence to national prominence the last few season. Indiana has not been able to reestablish itself in the wake of firing head coach Tom Crean in 2017. The Hoosiers sit just above .500 and are certainly facing a second consecutive season without qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.
Virginia is riding a wave of momentum after a monumental win at Duke, the program’s first victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium since 1995. Undefeated in conference play, the team’s win over Duke was especially impressive given the fact that they held the Blue Devils, a team that averages 92 points per game, to just 63 points. The second-ranked Cavaliers appear to be the nation’s most complete team and is certainly primed to make a deep run in March thanks to its stingy defense and consistency game in game out.
Arizona flies under the radar at 18-4, but college basketball fans must remember that this is the same team that dropped three of its first six games. Since then, the Wildcats have been on a tear, winning 15 of 16. With the Pac-12 struggling, Arizona should finish strong, led by phenom freshman Deandre Ayton, widely considered to be a top-three draft pick in the spring. Do not be surprised to see the Wildcats claim a conference championship and enter March as one of the nation’s hottest teams.
To round out the top contenders is another Wildcat squad, Villanova. Villanova has quietly taken care of business all season long, with their only blemish coming on the road at Butler. Sure, the Wildcats play in a weak Big East and have just one ranked opponent remaining on its schedule (eighth ranked Xavier), but Villanova sits atop the rankings in BPI, which measures team strength, which is the best predictor of performance going forward.
With no teams clearly establishing themselves from the pack, the field will be wide open in the national title race. With that being said, Virginia, Arizona, and Villanova all possess the tools and momentum necessary to make a deep run in March.