In a few months, we'll celebrate the conclusion of the fascinating 2017-18 season at the Final Four in San Antonio.
And we know you're excited. Your favorite squad might do this! Yeah, it has a few flaws. But you're confident it will find a way to make a run and reach San Antonio for the last chapter of the season.
And you want to meet your people there. So let your friends, spouses and family members know now.
Book the hotels and flights. Buy the tickets.
Um, hold on a minute. Take a deep breath. And you won't need the credit card because your favorite squad ain't going to the Final Four.
Here's why (our guide was this week's installment of Power Rankings):
Jalen Brunson leads a Villanova squad that could set a KenPom.com era record with an unrivaled offensive clip of 1.31 points per possession, a mark punctuated by a 24-point win over Xavier last month. But Villanova's defense should concern fans as much as New England's unreliable defense should have concerned Patriots fans before the Super Bowl. Villanova entered the week ranked 42nd in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom.com, and you'd have to go back to 2011 to find a squad that reached the Final Four without playing top-40 defense (Butler, 46th).
Are we watching the greatest defensive effort in modern college basketball history? Maybe. Eleven teams have failed to score 50 points against Tony Bennett's squad. One thing you can always assume in college basketball? A disciplined Virginia squad that approaches defense like an angry beehive, and endures the occasional offensive drought, will reach the Final Four -- like all the other years the Cavaliers reached the Final Four under Bennett with the same modus operandi, right?
Matt Painter looks like the favorite for national coach of the year right now after putting together 19-game winning streak. Purdue boasts balance, a couple of All-American candidates in Carsen Edwards and Vincent Edwards and a strong defense. But every contender needs good sparring partners for a title fight. And a four-bid league, perhaps the weakest Big Ten in a decade, won't prepare Purdue for the postseason fisticuffs of the NCAA tournament. Feels like Wichita State in 2013-14, a team that lost to Kentucky in the second round after winning 35 in a row. And that squad had three NBA guys.
Over the summer, I had a conversation with someone close to the Kansas program and asked him about the upcoming season. All the pieces were there, it seemed, for a Final Four run. But this insider was not convinced. "We are a player away," he said. And this was before five-star forward Billy Preston left without playing a minute for the Jayhawks. They're facing the same tense situations they overcame a year ago. They just don't have Frank Mason III or the depth to fight through them this season. They look like a squad that is a "player away" from a Final Four run.
The Musketeers just climbed into a No. 1 seed in Joe Lunardi's latest Bracketology. They boast a breathtaking offense ranked within the top 15 of the ESPN Sports Analytics efficiency rankings. But will they stop anyone in the NCAA tournament? They let Georgetown score 91 against them. In a matchup against another offensive powerhouse, Arizona State beat them by 16 and finished with 102 points. Xavier (47th) is ranked 15 spots behind Wright State (32nd) in ESPN's defensive efficiency rankings. That usually catches up to you in the tourney.
Bruce Pearl has steered his team through an FBI scandal that led to the arrest of an assistant coach and the sidelining of two top players (Austin Wiley, Danjel Purifoy) connected to it. Now, a short-handed Auburn team without much size sits atop the SEC standings. But the Tigers' strength of schedule (67th) is 13th in the 14-team league, per ESPN's BPI. They'll need wins over America's best to reach the Final Four, and 11 of Auburn's wins have come against sub-100 squads in the RPI. So let's slow down on the Final Four talk.
Duke Blue Devils
Yeah, we're not having this conversation after Saturday's loss to St. John's -- a team with an 0-11 record in the Big East, two losses to Georgetown and another to DePaul -- at Madison Square Garden, right? I don't think that's necessary. Plus, the Blue Devils continue their search for Grayson Allen, a combined 11-for-44 in Duke's four losses this season. A young team will always collapse if their soft-spoken leader can't pull them through difficult moments. But forget all that. We could have stopped at the St. John's loss. Final Four? Final Four?!
Losing Donte Grantham (14.2 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 42 percent from beyond the arc) to a season-ending knee injury last month will hurt the Tigers in the postseason. Yes, they're good enough to skate past a fumbling North Carolina squad without him, but they'll have to go through juggernauts like the Virginia team that held them to 36 points in their first outing after Grantham's injury to reach the Final Four. Doubtful.
The Bearcats entered the week with a three-game lead on Wichita State in the American Athletic Conference race. With a grueling defensive style, however, they've reached the second weekend once in eight NCAA tournament appearances under Mick Cronin. It's also difficult to trust a team's potential when you question its poise in the tight games a squad must win to reach the Final Four (68.6 percent from the free throw line).
Texas Tech Red Raiders
Keenan Evans (18.6 PPG) is playing like an All-American. But Texas Tech will have to match brilliant offenses with multiple 3-point threats to reach the last stage in college basketball. And a pair of sub-60-point performances in losses to Texas and Iowa State make you wonder if a team shooting 35 percent from beyond the arc can compete with those top dogs in March and advance to play for a title in April, especially if injured senior Zach Smith does not return.
The Vols won't reach the Final Four because their best players, Admiral Schofield (12.5 PPG, 45 percent from the 3-point line) and Grant Williams (16.2 PPG), pick up two fouls apiece before tipoff each game. In Tennessee's five losses this season, Williams committed four or more fouls and Schofield fouled out in two of those games. Foul trouble will cause problems for Tennessee in March.
Michigan State Spartans
Teams say all the right things when scandal lands at their doorsteps. "We're just focusing on the team." "We're trying to move forward." That's what they say. But it's far more complicated than that. And right now, Michigan State is at the center of a sexual misconduct inquiry that has led to questions about Tom Izzo's job security. In the NCAA tournament, teams must open their locker rooms and answer questions in mandated media conferences. That means Michigan State will endure questions about past responses to sexual assault accusations against players connected to the program all over again and at an intensified level. Then, the Spartans will tell us they're focusing on their next game. For a group of college athletes, however, it is never that easy to ignore the cloud and play to its potential in the NCAA tournament.
Deandre Ayton might be the No. 1 pick in this summer's NBA draft. And when you play him next to Dusan Ristic, Arizona can play Villanova-like offense with inside-outside balance. But Arizona opponents have made 38 percent of their 3-point attempts against the Ayton-Ristic lineups, per hooplens.com. The Wildcats will need wins over small-ball America -- a la the Washington team that beat them on Saturday and made 50 percent of its 3-pointers with Ristic and Ayton playing together -- to reach the Final Four. The Ristic-Ayton combo could produce joy and pain in the postseason for Sean Miller.
When the Sooners win, everyone sings Trae Young's praises. When they lose, Young just isn't as good as we thought he was. That's the common reaction. And it's unfair. Here's the reality: The only reason last season's 11-win Sooners team is fighting for a respectable seed in the NCAA tournament is because they added an All-American named Trae Young. But relying on him alone is a poor formula for a lengthy stint in the NCAA tournament. We all know that.
North Carolina Tar Heels
The Tar Heels remain one of America's top offensive rebounding units after losing the nation's most powerful frontcourt, a crew that led them to the national title last season. But you're not going to the Final Four with Luke Maye tussling in the paint solo and a here-today-gone-tomorrow Joel Berry II on the floor. A lower floor for the Tar Heels this season. This 1-3 stretch proves as much.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Chris Holtmann surprised many with his 11-1 start in the Big Ten. This is a team he joined in late June after leaving Butler. He had eight scholarship players at one point. Now Keita Bates-Diop is a Wooden Award candidate. But you really have to pay attention to their nonconference schedule over their success in a subpar Big Ten when considering Final Four potential. Yes, they're much better now. But they surrendered a large lead in the overtime loss to Butler. A 14-point loss to UNC. Lopsided loss to Gonzaga. Yeah, those were early tests for the Buckeyes. But they'll need wins over teams in that class to reach the Final Four.
Rhode Island Rams
Danny Hurley has a great story and sleeper at Rhode Island, a team that hasn't lost since Dec. 6. And the Rams force turnovers on nearly a quarter of their opponents' possessions. But they had a 13-point lead with six minutes to play against UMass and escaped with a two-point win last week. The Rams were down by a point near the six-minute mark at Saint Louis last month. Those are non-tournament teams. It's not that we should overanalyze those struggles because they have an abundance of lopsided victories too, but we should ask a question: Will the Rams play to their potential or play down to their competition in March?
West Virginia Mountaineers
The Mountaineers' press is like an animal control expert trying to catch a venomous snake and toss him into a bag. When it works, you neutralize the problem. When it doesn't, expect chaos. West Virginia's opponents have averaged 18.3 turnovers per game. But in the team's five losses in its past eight games, its opponents have committed a more reasonable 12.4 turnovers per game. A shaky offensive squad without its most effective defensive tactic is not the same threat. That's what we're witnessing right now.
Saint Mary's Gaels
The Gaels, backed by multiple Australian talents, are ranked 105th in KenPom.com's adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. They don't force a bunch of turnovers and they're not a great offensive rebounding team. Jock Landale is a star. And the Gaels have one of the country's top offenses (42 percent from the 3-point line). But you can't ignore the defensive holes.
The metrics for Mark Few's squad match those of his past teams. But his best ones have had multiple players who performed in critical moments. Killian Tillie is a beast one game and forgettable the next. His inconsistency is a concern for a Gonzaga squad that will need to match opposing bigs in postseason games against elite teams to return to the Final Four.
Before the Bruce Brown foot injury that could sideline the standout until mid-March, the Hurricanes were a team that might make 10 3-pointers and win on the road one night (Minnesota) and score 54 points in a loss to a good WAC team a few days later (New Mexico State). Brown's injury could jeopardize Miami's current standing in the NCAA tournament picture. Forget the Final Four. Let's see if they escape the first weekend.
We have to stop assuming all one-and-done teams in Lexington are created equal. That's just not true and it's a poor assessment of what John Calipari has done there. He has had some amazing young crews during his time with Kentucky: the John Wall team, the 2012 national title squad and the 38-1 group in 2014-15. But this current team seems to fall somewhere between the disastrous 2012-13 NIT Kentucky team and the 2013-14 squad that embarrassed itself multiple times in the regular season before a come-to-Jesus meeting and Final Four run. These guys aren't on the same level as Kentucky's best one-and-done assemblies. And they don't know how to consistently compete in adverse scenarios against solid teams. Will anyone be surprised if these Wildcats lose in the first round?
Nevada Wolf Pack
This is a team that welcomes a shootout. They're shooting for 80 or more every night. The Wolf Pack has won a multitude of games with that approach. And they've lost to Wyoming and San Francisco that way, too. They'll be fun to watch in March. But you gotta get stops to play in San Antonio.
Seton Hall Pirates
America's most frustrating and promising team is shooting 67.1 percent from the free throw line, and the Pirates commit a bunch of turnovers. They're that imposing AAU squad with big athletes who do windmill dunks in warm-ups. And then they struggle against a simple motion offense. They haven't played enough efficient basketball against top teams to convince anyone they're a Final Four squad. In your brackets, beware of teams that play top-40ish defense but can't stretch the floor with shooters or get down the floor five times without committing a turnover.
Lavall Jordan is doing well in his first season. But his team's lack of size is an obstacle. Maryland beat them up in the paint. Mohamed Bamba blocked four shots and put plastic wrap over the rim against the Bulldogs. Seton Hall, Providence and others had success around the rim against Butler. That's a problem for any program with Final Four aspirations, especially an undersized team that's inconsistent from the 3-point line.