The Magic Eight: One of these teams will win the national title
The Magic Eight is a Sports Illustrated tradition that was passed down from Grant Wahl to me when he shifted to the futbol beat. Giving it up seems to have improved his quality of life; he's spent multiple weeks reporting in Brazil since November, while I've spent multiple weeks in Midwestern Courtyards by Marriott. I do, however, get to enjoy limited powers of clairvoyance: The ability to, in January, reveal a list of eight teams that's guaranteed to contain the 2014 national champion.
Too easy, you say? Well, the Magic Eight isn't allowed to be too obvious, and thus cannot simply regurgitate Nos. 1-8 from the AP poll. A few risks need to be taken. A few contenders need to be excluded. This year, that means the defending champ, one of the four remaining undefeateds, and the best defensive team in the nation didn't make the cut. Here are the eight that did:
Title teams always -- not sometimes, always -- have high-efficiency profiles on kenpom.com. A database I've kept of the past 11 seasons generates these average rankings for where teams finished in kenpom's adjusted offense/adjusted defense metrics:
The ideal title pick, then, would be a team that ranks in the top 10 in both categories. Louisville fit that profile last season ... but there is no such team this season. Arizona is the only top-five defense ("Our goal all year was to be a top-10 defense," guard Nick Johnson said, and they're currently No. 5) with an elite offense to match (at No. 20). The Wildcats have backed up their stats by winning tough road (at San Diego Sate, UCLA and Michigan) and neutral-court games (vs. Duke at Madison Square Garden). They're the closest thing college hoops has to a powerhouse.
Reverse Arizona's profile and you get the Badgers. They're the one top-five offensive team (at No. 4) that has an elite defense to match (at No. 12). While multiple Bo Ryan teams have busted in the NCAAs despite high efficiency ratings, there's reason to believe this one is better. It has a true first-round NBA prospect in wing Sam Dekker, a surprisingly good scoring frontcourt in Frank Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes, and veteran guards who run the best ball-control-and-open-three-pointers offense in the nation.
In most ways, the Orange do not resemble Wisconsin. They play zone while Wisconsin plays exclusively man; they have much longer athletes and actually try to force turnovers; and they're content to let opponents launch threes, while the Badgers try to prevent them. But Syracuse has nearly the same efficiency profile, pairing a high-powered offense (No. 6) with an elite defense (No. 14). And while a freshman point guard can be a red flag, Tyler Ennis has been so remarkably good -- like, better than Michael Carter-Williams good -- in big games that I'm inclined to trust the young Canadian in the NCAA tournament.
A speculative pick, in that the current version of the Wildcats isn't good enough to win the national title. They aren't stingy enough on defense and their perimeter shot selection needs work. But they also have the highest ceiling of any Magic Eight team, and if the Harrison twins can make reasonable gains in February and March, and play like future NBA guards, it will elevate UK into the thick of the race. Willie Cauley-Stein is an elite rim protector and an emerging offensive force, and he and freshman Julius Randle are the best 4-5 duo in the nation.
Another speculative pick, but less so than Kentucky. The Jayhawks struggled in the non-conference season, losing to Villanova, Colorado, Florida and San Diego State, but possible one-and-done freshmen Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Wayne Selden have elevated their games in the opening portion of Big 12 play. Embiid's rim protection and Wiggins' rebounding against Iowa State on Monday were incredible, and if they continue on this trajectory, they'll have a title-caliber defense.
The Gators haven't played many games at full health, so their efficiency profile (No. 24 offense, No. 19 defense) isn't remarkable. But the full-strength version -- with Scottie Wilbekin orchestrating the offense and harassing opposing point guards; and he, breakout senior Casey Prather, sharpshooter Michael Frazier and forwards Dorian Finney-Smith and Patric Young sharing the scoring load -- is formidable enough to chase a title. Florida has the best combination of NCAA tournament experience and offensive diversity of any contender.
Don't give up on the Cyclones now that they're 2-2 in the Big 12. This the first time Fred Hoiberg has had a high-quality defense to pair with his versatile, high-octane offense. The gains they've made on D since hiring former Nebraska coach Doc Sadler as an assistant and adding Marshall transfer Deandre Kane are a big deal; Iowa State is fouling far less than last season and it is doing a better job of guarding the interior despite lacking a true center.
The Spartans, like Florida, haven't been fully healthy and thus lag behind Arizona, Syracuse and Wisconsin in efficiency (ranking 27th on offense, 11th on D). But Vegas views them as the title favorite (at around 4/1 odds) because they offer the best combination of elite point-guard play, future NBA talent, NCAA tournament experience, a tourney-savvy coach, and the ability to win at different tempos. From an eye-test standpoint, Michigan State looks equal to No. 1-ranked Arizona.
Louisville: The Cardinals could burn the Magic Eight by staging a late revival a la what they did in March 2012, but they've regressed a lot from last season's efficiency levels, and I fear their rebounding and interior D isn't good enough to repeat.
Ohio State: The Buckeyes were the toughest cut, due to the fact they have the nations best defense, but their scoring attack just isn't on par with Thad Matta's past four powerhouses. I could see them reaching the Final Four but not having the late-game offense and/or go-to scorer to beat two great teams in Arlington.
San Diego State: The Aztecs are like the Ohio State of the West: great D but I have reservations that they can score well enough to go on a six-game streak in the tourney.
Wichita State: It's not so much that the Shockers have flaws. It's more my hunch that they're the team that dominates the regular-season spotlight, by remaining undefeated into late February, and then fades away with a second-weekend exit from the NCAAs.
Oklahoma State: A Magic Eight team until it lost its key interior defender, Michael Cobbins, to a season-ending injury.
Duke: Not enough D in Duke this season. The Jabari Show is likely to end by the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight.
Creighton: I consider the Bluejays a Final Four sleeper -- their efficiency profile isn't that much different than Michigan's from last season -- but fear their defense will still fall just short of title-worthy.
Villanova and Iowa: Two highly efficient teams that lack the tourney experience to pull off a title run. The Wildcats bowed out in the first round last season to North Carolina, while no one on the Hawkeyes has been in the Dance. (Kentucky gets a waiver on the tourney-experience requirement due to its abundance of NBA talent, which neither of these teams can match.)