Magic Eight: One of these teams will reign as national champion
This isn't the top eight teams, it's a pool of teams guaranteed to include the champ
There are obvious teams (Ohio St., Duke) and sleepers (Tennessee, Washington)
The four biggest omissions: Kansas, Pittsburgh, UConn and San Diego State
A package arrived this week from Baltimore, signaling the end of an acrimonious, two-and-a-half-year negotiation. It contained Grant Wahl's Magic Eight ball, which he would use to guarantee a national champ, two months in advance, during his tenure as SI's chief college hoops writer. Wahl moved to the fútbol beat in 2009, taking the Eight Ball with him and then making a series of absurd demands for its exchange. At one point Wahl threatened to break off trade talks and pawn it in Zurich during reporting on the 2022 World Cup bid; last week, he finally agreed to swap the ball for the actual Che Guevara flag worn by Adam Morrison at the 2007 Coachella Festival and an advance-screener DVD of Rashad McCants' acting debut in The Booster Club. I had to cash in many a favor to obtain those items.
In return, I was granted the ability to revive the Magic Eight on SI.com this week. For the unfamiliar, the Magic Eight is not a list of the eight best teams in college basketball, nor is it a prediction of the Elite Eight. As you well know, not all of the best teams survive deep into the dance. This is merely a pool of teams that's guaranteed to include the national champ.
The selections are never too obvious, and they're always bound to hurt a few feelings. This year's list excludes two of The Associated Press' top five, and five of the poll's top 10 -- but includes one team that's unranked altogether. In alphabetical order, I unveil the 2011 Magic Eight:
The Cougars don't exactly have a rich NCAA tournament history -- they haven't advanced to the second weekend since 1981 -- but it's best to be covered in the event The Jimmer owns the postseason like he has the regular season. The last scoring phenomenon of Fredette's ilk, Stephen Curry, came within one missed three of the Final Four with a lesser supporting cast in 2008, so it's not improbable that BYU, currently ranking 10th nationally in efficiency, would break through to Houston. It just doesn't feel right, at the moment, to bet against The Jimmer.
The Magic Eight ball is undaunted by the Blue Devils' no-show at Madison Square Garden on Sunday. The defending champs are still led by two tourney-savvy vets in Nolan Smith (who was the key to the '09-10 title run) and Kyle Singler, and Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins and Ryan Kelly have established themselves as excellent floor-spacing weapons on offense. There's also the chance, even though Duke is downplaying it, that freshman Kyrie Irving returns from his toe injury in March. When healthy, he was the nation's best all-around point guard, and he'd make Duke the favorite -- ahead of Ohio State -- to win the national title.
No one would consider the Hoyas a primary title contender, but they've recovered enough from an atrocious 1-4 Big East start to become a Final Four dark horse. They have issues with controlling the glass (on both ends of the floor) and defending the three-point line, which could make them vulnerable to another early tourney upset. But they also have a backcourt trio (Austin Freeman, Chris Wright and Jason Clark) that's capable of brilliant offensive performances, and they've proven they can win on the road, picking up victories at Old Dominion, Memphis, Seton Hall and Villanova, plus a semi-road win over Missouri in Kansas City.
Of the teams that already rank in the top five efficiency-wise, the Wildcats have the most upside. Their two highest-usage freshmen, hybrid forward Terrence Jones and point guard Brandon Knight, have yet to hit their peak, and junior leader Darius Miller has been surging in his past five games. They fit the teams-with-NBA-talent-win-titles formula -- Jones and Knight, at the very least, have a future in the league -- and they're a much better shooting team than the loaded club that went ice-cold in last season's Elite Eight.
The nation's last undefeated team has everything -- offensive balance; a turnover-forcing, foul-avoiding defense; multiple future NBA players -- other than depth. It's possible to win a title with a perfect, seven-man rotation, though, and every Buckeye seems comfortable in his defined role. They rely heavily on freshmen, with the offense running through Jared Sullinger in the post, Aaron Craft serving as the primary point guard and Deshaun Thomas the main source of offense off the bench, but those are three fearless freshmen. They've yet to falter in seven true road games, and I wouldn't expect them to be fazed in March.
No team is dominating a power conference like the Longhorns, who have a +0.29 efficiency margin during their 6-0 Big 12 start. Their defense is reaching a stunning level of stinginess, holding six of their January opponents -- Arkansas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Texas A&M -- to season-lows in points per possession. The scary thing is that while Texas has developed a go-to scorer in sophomore Jordan Hamilton, its offense is far from reaching its peak, with freshmen Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph steadily growing into elite players, and senior Gary Johnson emerging as a mid-range weapon. Don't be surprised to see a Texas-Ohio State title game in Houston.
The Magic Eight refuses to give up on the Vols, who may be the nation's most schizophrenic team. They fell apart for a near-month-long stretch from Dec. 14-Jan. 11, losing six of nine games and disappearing from the polls, and their coach, Bruce Pearl, is in the midst of a suspension for half of the SEC season. But this team will have more stability in March, and could potentially be playing an emotional farewell tour for Pearl if the NCAA opts to hand down a show cause penalty for his major recruiting violations. The Vols know how to show up for big games -- they've beaten Belmont twice, as well as Missouri State, VCU, Villanova, Pittsburgh and Vanderbilt -- and it's not out of the question for them to regroup and go on a surprise NCAA tournament run.
The Huskies are the most underrated team in the AP poll (at No. 20) due to their lack of a marquee win, but they've been playing hyper-efficient basketball, ranking seventh on kenpom.com. They reached the Sweet 16 with an inferior team last season; they now have two lockdown defenders in seniors Venoy Overton and Justin Holiday; and Isaiah Thomas has made huge gains since taking over as the team's full-time point guard during Pac-10 play. Washington is one of the few truly good up-tempo teams that'll be in the NCAAs, and is a legitimate sleeper pick to reach Houston.
And now, let me address the big four omissions:
The Jayhawks are a highly risky team to leave out of the Magic Eight. They rank third nationally in efficiency and No. 1 in players with NBA futures; generally, that's a formula for winning a national title. The rationale for excluding them (other than for the sake of doing something bold) is because they've regressed a bit since adding freshman Josh Selby to the mix, and haven't been nearly as dominant as Texas has in the Big 12. If they get to Houston, they'll probably win it all, but I sense they're vulnerable to being upset in the Sweet 16.
Unless I sense some kind of drastic change in the Panthers, I actually plan on picking them for my Final Four -- I just think they're a step below the Ohio State-Duke-Texas tier that may win it all, so they were left off the list. The fact that they've slightly underperformed their NCAA tournament seeding for the past three seasons makes them easier to omit; like Wisconsin, they're a team that has struggled to translate high, in-season efficiency into consistently deep runs through the bracket.
Kemba Walker's been coming back to earth after his phenomenal start, and it's tough to imagine a team that has no other players with NCAA tournament experience making a national-title run. His supporting cast is developing -- especially freshman Jeremy Lamb -- but it's a step behind what The Jimmer has at BYU, and the Huskies are liable to get bounced in the first game Kemba goes cold.
The Aztecs are no fraud, and may very well make the Elite Eight. But I fear they'll fall short of Houston for a few reasons: They don't have an elite backcourt, and they don't get much production from the free-throw line, ranking 322nd in free-throw rate and then 242nd in free-throw percentage. If they're having a rough shooting game from the field, they're liable to be upset.