March Madness primer: can these talented teams be trusted?

USA Today

This is the second installment of our March Madness preview. In the first piece, we examined six potential double-digit seeds who are capable of pulling off upsets and busting your brackets.

Related: March Madness primer: double-digit seeds who could bust your bracket

Now, we’re moving on to eight very talented teams who have been inconsistent throughout the year. From game-to-game, these teams can go from looking like a Final Four sleeper to a team that could get bounced in the opening round.

In other words, good luck predicting how these teams fare this March. We’ll try and give you pros and cons for each, and there are bound to be a couple of teams from this group who make into the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight.

Kentucky

This is the youngest team John Calipari has ever had, which is saying a lot considering he helped usher in the one-and-done era in college basketball. While this group is talented, they’re almost all inexperienced, and there isn’t an elite talent in the bunch like Cal’s teams have had in the past. Kevin Knox is the best player on the team and could be a lottery pick, but he’s far from a superstar. Calipari also doesn’t have a floor general he can rely on at point guard, and in the past his teams have thrived when he’s had a top notch PG.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander can be effective getting into the paint— which causes defenses to collapse — and the dribble penetration often leads to open looks for Knox from outside.

After three straight impressive wins, it finally feels like this group is starting to come together. The Wildcats are prone to long scoring droughts on offense, and they don’t shoot the ball particularly well from the outside. But their length can give teams problems when they’re on the defensive end of the floor, and they’ve worked their way into the top 20 in defensive efficiency. How far the Cats go in March will depend on their draw, and it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see them return to the Elite Eight. But with how they struggle on offense at times, they could also be prone to an early upset.

Cincinnati

Since joining the AAC in 2013, the Bearcats have failed to make it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. But this is Mick Cronin’s best team since he took over in Cincinnati in 2006, and it all starts on the defensive end. The Bearcats are very athletic and long, and they can clamp down on opposing offenses. They are currently No. 2 in defensive efficiency, allowing under 88 points per 100 possessions. The problem, as always for Cronin, is on the offensive end. This isn’t a team built to play from behind, and if they matchup with someone who can push the tempo and get a few buckets in transition — like Wichita State did to them last week — then they’ll be in trouble.

Texas A&M

The Aggies had a terrific start to the season before an abysmal opening month to start conference play. On paper, they should probably be the best team in the SEC. However, Billy Kennedy’s team has been inconsistent over the last two months, and they could be headed for an eight or nine seed. Regardless of who they play in the tournament, Texas A&M will be a problem. They have as much size as any team in the country outside of Purdue, and the combination of Tyler Davis and Robert Williams is difficult to defend.

Watch Davis go to work here on an undersized Ole Miss team earlier this year:

 

The issue with this team is guard play. They don’t shoot it very well from the outside, and if their bigs get in foul trouble, they’ll be in for a long night.

Alabama

This is perhaps the most frustrating team to watch in all of college basketball. The talent is there, but the consistency is not. Collin Sexton is a lottery pick, but his team plays better offensively when he’s not on the floor. The effort comes and goes, and the coaching — well, let’s just say Avery Johnson won’t be receiving any Coach of the Year votes.

Let’s start with the positives: Alabama is a nightmare matchup for just about any team defensively. Sexton is a lockdown defender, and Herb Jones is another elite perimeter defender coming off the bench. Donta Hall is an excellent rim protector, and this team is so long and athletic that it can make it nearly impossible for offenses to get good looks in the paint. They are in the top 10 in defensive efficiency as they allow just under 95 points per 100 possessions.

The majority of the problems with Alabama reside on the offensive end of the floor. Sexton is very quick off the dribble, but he’s an average shooter who settles for too many 3s and long 2s early in the shot clock. When he’s on, Alabama is tough to beat. But when he settles, this offense is easy to stop. They’re 106th in offensive efficiency, averaging less than 110 points per 100 possessions. If Sexton or Dazon Ingram can get into the lane, they can get good looks at the basket or throw a lob to Hall. Hall runs the floor well for a big and can make opposing defenses pay if the Bama guards can penetrate and dish it to him.

 

 

But Hall is ineffective offensively unless it’s a dunk or easy layup, and this team doesn’t have much to offer outside of him in the low post. John Petty is a great shooter at Coleman Coliseum, but he’s been virtually unplayable on the road. They shoot under 68 percent from the free throw line, and when teams play zone against them, they look clueless. That’s mostly coaching, and Johnson looks lost at times when other teams play zone against the Tide.

Based on talent alone, this is a very dangerous team when the tournament starts. They have the talent to beat anyone. I could easily see Alabama making the Sweet 16. But they’ll be hard to trust given how poorly they shoot and how poorly coached they look at times. Good luck figuring out what to do with them when you’re filling out your brackets.

Florida

After last year’s Elite Eight run, the expectations were high surrounding Florida entering this season. But the Gators have been incredibly inconsistent all year, and it’s hard to figure out which team will show up on a game-to-game basis. They have impressive wins over Gonzaga, Cincinnati, Auburn and Kentucky, but they also have head-scratching losses to Loyola-Chicago, Florida State, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Ole Miss. The advanced metrics are pretty good, and they’re a tough team to beat when they’re shooting well from the outside. They don’t defend the post very well, so a team with size can give them trouble in the tournament. They’ll be a dangerous team to play — especially with only one day to prepare — but one cold shooting night and this team is done.

Oklahoma

The Trae Young show started the season off on a terrific note, and they looked unstoppable on offense during the first two months of the season. Then the Sooners lost six games in a row and nine out of 11 after defenses figured out how to limit Young’s effectiveness. They’re still scoring efficiently, but this team is absolutely terrible on defense. It’s hard to imagine them stringing together enough stops in the tournament to advance very far.

Defenses will be fine with Young launching 30-footers that lead to easy transition opportunities, and they will be headed for an early exit if Young tries to do too much. Lon Kruger has had a few very successful tournament runs in his career, but he will need to conjure up some magic to get this team playing well on both ends of the floor.

Missouri

Cuonzo Martin has done a terrific job getting this team into the tournament despite losing star Michael Porter Jr. two minutes into the season. Porter will likely be back before the tournament begins, which gives this team a new ceiling given his talent. Porter is still projected to be a top-10 pick, but it’s unclear how effective he will be since he’s missed the last four months.

 

Porter’s brother, Jontay, has filled in admirably, and senior guard Kassius Robertson is scoring 17 points per game and shooting 43 percent from 3-point range. But the only reason the Tigers made this list is because of Porter’s potential. He was the top player in his class for a reason, and he’s a 6’10 wing who can get to the basket with ease and can shoot effectively enough to keep defenses honest. Keep an eye on Missouri if Porter returns to the lineup before the tournament begins.

Arizona

I originally had Arizona on a list with possible Final Four contenders, but there has simply been too much turmoil surrounding the Wildcats over the last couple of weeks. First, star guard Allonzo Trier was suspended for the second time for using PEDs. Trier is an elite scorer, and the Wildcats might not get him back before the end of the year.

Then, news broke that the FBI had recorded head coach Sean Miller discussing a $100,000 payment for star center DeAndre Ayton. It’s very possible that Miller doesn’t coach again for Arizona, and Ayton’s eligibility could also be in question. Ayton might be the best player in the country, and Arizona needs both him and Trier on the floor to be a contender. If the Wildcats had all their pieces and Miller at the helm, they could make a serious run.

But even with all their pieces intact, there was still something off with this team. Miller’s teams are usually known for their stout defense, but this group is 98th in defensive efficiency. Teams that poor on the defensive end of the floor typically don’t advance very far in March. The Wildcats have thrived with their backs against the wall this year, but it’s hard to imagine them rallying and putting together a deep run in the Big Dance.