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College basketball: Handicapping the field

This is a strange year in college basketball. We've seen the supposed #1 team fall after their ascension almost too many times to count. In a year of good-but-not-great, which team has the best chance to cut down the nets at the Final Four?

Could Oladipo be the difference maker for IU?
Could Oladipo be the difference maker for IU?

When #1 Indiana lost to Illinois last week, it looked like their chances to stay in their lofty perch as the "best" in the land was all but over, especially given how they had given up a 20-point lead, albeit on the road. But then the Hoosiers came into Columbus and thoroughly dominated the Buckeyes to retain at least a share of a #1 ranking.

That's a microcosm for this entire season of college basketball. Several teams have been the "best" this year - Louisville, Duke, and Indiana chief among them, and all of those teams have looked down right pedestrian for stretches of the year. We don't have a dominant team in the world of college basketball.

This isn't a bad thing, of course. It means that the tournament will likely be all kinds of unpredictable, and too many brackets will get tossed in the trash on Monday after the first weekend. If there was ever a year where chalk could be an underdog, this is that year. The talent is widely spread out all over the country, and while no team has been truly great, several have been very good, perhaps good enough to make a late run in March.

Maybe this is the year where a low or mid major finally does what Butler couldn't a few years back, and wins a title. Maybe this is the year where a plucky 7-seed shocks the world and heads to Atlanta, a la George Mason or VCU. In a year where there are only really good teams, who can you count on to make such a run?

Here are my top seven (or nine, really) squads that could do just that.

1. Indiana

Ok, so maybe chalk will win the title this year, and Indiana has the best shot to make that happen. For as bad as that loss was to Illinois, what should have been an easy gutting in Champaign (kind of like the previous tire fire win in West Lafayette) turned into a tough loss. But they rebounded, and in a huge way. Cody Zeller played lights out, keeping the Buckeye defense on their heels all game, and Victor Oladipo was smooth and explosive, as Clark Kellogg pointed out.

They'll be the highest ranked team on this list, too. Duke (#1 in the Coaches Poll, #2 in the AP) has a distinctive flaw about them this year. They went to The U and were destroyed in all phases of the game. Duke went on the road and lost big last year, too, to Ohio State. The latter Duke team bowed out in the first round of the tournament. This team might, too.

2. Michigan State

Maybe it's just me, but this team reeks of one of the classic, under-the-radar Final Four squads from Tom Izzo's history, doesn't it? You can usually count on Sparty to win 20 games in a given year, but they've done so without any fanfare. Their losses are also very palatable - @ Miami, @ Minnesota, @ Indiana (and neutral vs. UConn). They don't do it pretty, but they do it well, and they're on a three-game win streak heading into tonight's battle against #4 Michigan. Should be one hell of a game at the Breslin Center tonight.

3. Kansas

But wait! Didn't Kansas just lose three in a row? To horrible competition? How are they even mentioned here? They're mentioned here because Kansas did something important against Oklahoma State, TCU and Oklahoma - got its consecutive losses out of the way early. In the NCAA tournament, you run up against schools from mid-table in power conferences that make the tournament. Kansas has seen what these teams can do when facing the mighty rock chalk Jayhawks. And with Ben McLemore and Jeff Withey leading the way, the Jayhawks are as dangerous as anyone heading into March. They'll use those loses to revert to the Jayhawk team that walked into the Schott and beat the Buckeyes - and a lot of teams will lose to them when that happens.

4. Creighton/Butler

Creighton was up in the top-10 earlier in the year after reeling off 17 wins in 18 games, but two sets of consecutive losses in January and February knocked them out of the polls. They'll have to work to keep their tourney hopes alive (they should be okay) but if they get in, watch out. Doug McDermott is putting up monster numbers, and is the kind of guy who could go all Steph Curry in the right scenario.

Ditto for Butler, currently leading the A-10 in their first year as a member. The Bulldogs already showed they could play with the big boys (they see you, Indiana) and can win with a spotlight (they see you, too, Gonzaga) on them. This isn't the same Butler team that made it to back-to-back championship games. They might actually be better.

5. Gonzaga

Speaking of mid-majors, the 'Zags are also impressive and deserving of a spot on this list. At 20-2, they have fewer losses than anyone in the country, and if they could inbound a basketball, they would probably be 21-1. These aren't the loveable 'Zags we used to pencil into the Sweet-16 each year because we liked writing "Zags" on our brackets. This team is simply one of the best in the country, and will be trouble for any team they run up against.

6. Georgetown

A lot of Bulldog mascots on this list, huh? Well Georgetown deserves to be up there. In what was supposed to be a rebuilding year for John Thompson, III, this year's Hoyas are young, but extremely talented. Otto Porter, Jr. has quietly had one of the best Big East seasons in a few years (15.3 and 7.9). But it isn't just Porter's show. Markel Starks, the gritty Hoya 1 or 2 guard, might be the most athletic player in the Big East this year, and has been during their current six-game win streak.

More impressive, Georgetown is doing this without one of their key role players, Greg Whittington. Lots of basketball left for the Hoyas, but when they're rolling and their defense is firing on all cylinders, not many teams can play with them for forty minutes.

7. Michigan/Miami

Another cop out here, but these teams have been too impressive not to mention. Michigan outside of Crisler Arena isn't as dangerous as the team that beat Ohio State in overtime last week, but they're good enough and talented enough to go for a run.

Same with The U, who has gone though the ACC without a loss, including boat-racing Duke at home. The ACC is down, true, but Miami is the most athletic and longest team in the conference, and they've already had their way with the team ranked just above them in the national standings. And with sanctions coming for Miami football (eventually), what better time to turn into a basketball school?

Did I miss anyone? Let me know in the comments.