Magic Eight: Kentucky, New Mexico among possible national champions
With the nation's top defense, Kentucky is a no-brainer championship contender
Tim Hardaway Jr. could be the key in taking Michigan's offense to the next level
With Harrison Barnes rounding into All-America form, UNC could vie for a title
SI.com's Magic Eight Ball finally came back from its manufacturer this week, with a sticker declaring it repaired and a note of apology from the R&D team. Despite their best efforts -- they use some blend of Tiresian Method, divinatory tarot and a predictive algorithm -- their product failed to see Kemba and the kids coming in February. It's been calibrated and is back in working order.
What the Magic Eight Ball does is identify a pool of eight teams that's guaranteed to contain the national champion. Not the entire Elite Eight or the Final Four -- only the champ. That sounds easy, but there's a catch: It can't pick all the obvious options, or simply regurgitate Nos. 1-8 from the polls. A few longer shots need to be included, and the omissions are as significant as who makes the cut. This is what the Eight Ball sees, on April 2 in New Orleans:
KENTUCKY. How expectations evolve for John Calipari's Wildcats: The 2010 team was a No. 1 seed overflowing with first-rounders, but as the most extreme experiment of the one-and-done era, it was regarded with some skepticism entering the NCAA tournament. (And rightfully so.) The 2011 team had less talent and its trip to the Final Four -- as a No. 4 seed -- was viewed as a nice surprise. The 2012 team is loaded, and anything less than a national championship for Lob U will be a letdown. The Wildcats are this list's lone no-brainer: they're No. 1 in the polls, Kenpom, LRMC, Sagarin and BPI -- leading pretty much everything other than the RPI, which is worthless. A normal team that's this young would have slipped up at least two-three times by now, but the lone blemish on Kentucky's record is a Christian Watford buzzer-beater in Bloomington. The Wildcats are 27-1, have the country's most dominant interior defense, and are still getting better.
MICHIGAN STATE. The current Spartans are more efficient than the versions Tom Izzo got to the Final Four in 2005, 2009 and 2010. They're the most dominant rebounding team in the country, grabbing 57.3 percent of available boards on the offensive and defensive glass. They have a senior leader in point forward Draymond Green who does not seem inclined to let them bow out of the NCAA tournament early. The stats, coach and intangibles all meet the championship standard.
MICHIGAN. The Wolverines are 21-7 and outside the top 10 of the polls, despite having a few big wins on their resume. Remember which team, on the same week last season, was 20-7 and just outside the top 10, despite having a few big wins on its resume? The answer is UConn. (The Eight Ball does have better reasons for picking Michigan, namely that the Wolverines have been playing solid, turnover-creating, low-fouling defense in Big Ten games, and that a late-season surge from Tim Hardaway Jr. could take their offense from good to elite.)
NEW MEXICO. The long shot Lobos haven't had much exposure -- their 20-point win over UNLV on Saturday was their first major network game of the season -- but they're the best team in the Mountain West by a good margin. League Player of the Year front-runner Drew Gordon is as good as any power forward not named Thomas Robinson or Jared Sullinger, and Gordon is surrounded by the most efficient jump-shooting team in America. If the Lobos stay hot into March, they're capable of chasing a title -- and making the casual fan aware of their existence.
NORTH CAROLINA. The Tar Heels are the kind of team that's ripe to be left off a list like this. They've underwhelmed since being voted No. 1 in the AP preseason poll, lost a key rotation member to injury (Dexter Strickland), been saddled with a 33-point loss at Florida State and given up a late home lead against archrival Duke. So why is Carolina here? The preseason poll tends to have as much predictive value as the final regular-season one does; Roy Williams still has seven top-20 draft picks in his starting lineup and one more coming off the bench; and slow starter Harrison Barnes appears to be rounding into All-America form. The Heels have been softer and more inconsistent than the Eight Ball expected, but it can't write them off entirely.
OHIO STATE. The markets are down on the Buckeyes, who've dropped to a season-low No. 8 in the AP poll and are unlikely to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. But it's worthwhile to keep in mind that they still have the country's most efficient defense -- one that forces turnovers at a high rate, limits opponents to one shot and keeps fouling to a minimum. Jared Sullinger's offense is just as good as it was during his freshman year, and he's become a better all-around defender due to his weight loss. If William Buford heats up again, as should happen, Ohio State will be the scariest No. 2 seed since UCLA's loaded 2006 squad.
SYRACUSE. The Orange have yet to lose with their full lineup in place, and they have a spectacular (and somehow underappreciated) offense that's not predicated on making threes. They would not be in the title discussion, though, if center Fab Melo hadn't emerged as a shot-blocking, charge-taking defensive force, or if fellow sophomore Dion Waiters hadn't established himself as the country's best sixth man by playing phenomenal D at the top of the 2-3. The Eight Ball isn't overly concerned with the lack-of-go-to-guy issue; the 'Cuse has shown great crunchtime composure despite it, as well as the ability to adapt to any defensive game plan and still thrive.
WICHITA STATE. The Shockers aren't just good for the Missouri Valley Conference this year; they're the best mid-major of the entire efficiency era (2003-onward) and figure to be a dangerous No. 4 or 5 seed. They have strong momentum, as their only loss this calendar year is in triple overtime at Drake, and they should be the NCAA tournament's most senior-laden team* -- one that's building off the experience of winning last season's NIT, too. If Wichita makes it to New Orleans, it shouldn't be considered a Cinderella run.
(*Only Nebraska and Lamar have more experience in Kenpom's index, and they're unlikely to make the dance.)
MISSOURI. At No. 3 in the AP poll, the Tigers are the highest-ranked team the Eight Ball didn't pick. The reason? Teams with their profile -- killer, guard-dominated offense, defense outside the top 50 efficiency -- haven't typically come close to winning titles. See Notre Dame last season, Cal in 2010, Arizona State in 2009, or for an even better match, Chris Paul's last team at Wake Forest, in 2005. Mizzou has been a joy to watch this year, but tournament history isn't on its side.
KANSAS. The Jayhawks are the most efficient team in the "omission" section, which means they're being left off for intangible reasons. The Eight Ball fears the Upset Curse is still lingering in Lawrence, potentially spelling second-weekend doom for a team with the nation's best player (Thomas Robinson) and a championship-caliber defense.
DUKE. The No. 5-ranked Blue Devils have a similar profile to Missouri, except their offense is in the hands of a mercurial freshman rather than a crew of veterans. They could get hot from long range and make the Final Four -- much crazier things have happened -- but their perimeter D is going to get gashed at some point.
BAYLOR. Did you watch the Bears against Missouri and Kansas?
YOUR YET-TO-BE-MENTIONED TEAM. Your feelings are hurt. SI is biased and the concept of this column is stupid, anyway. You're going to post this on your message board.
BUTLER. It's hard to say "never" with a Brad Stevens team, until you see this one shoot from the perimeter. Even the best game plans can't overcome 27.5 percent from long range. (Or can they? Stevens has beaten the odds, and almost the Eight Ball, a few times already.)
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