Which contender is best built for March?


It feels like decades ago that Duke thumped Kentucky to open this season at the Champions Classic. But if you’ll harken back to remember, the Blue Devils weren’t the No. 1 team entering the season. It was Kansas and Kentucky at the top of the rankings, with Gonzaga slotting in at No. 3, and Duke behind them.

Since then, the No. 1 spot has shuffled only a few times. Gonzaga had it, Kansas got it back — and then Tennessee took it over after Duke, Virginia and Michigan all lost in the same January week, and the Volunteers haven’t relinquished that spot since.

But is Rick Barnes’ group the best-equipped team in the country to win a title? Let’s go through four of the top five teams in the most recent AP poll (Virginia’s loss over the weekend evidently excludes the Cavaliers from this discussion for now).

Duke: The Blue Devils are elite on offense and on defense. They’ve beaten Kentucky once and Virginia twice. They survived a short-term injury to Tre Jones — and even beat the Cavaliers without him. They have three of the top-five picks in most NBA mock drafts. So yes, Mike Krzyzewski’s team is very well-equipped to make a deep run in March. There are a couple of worries, 3-point shooting chief among them (though Duke did make 13 on Saturday against Virginia). If they stay healthy, the Blue Devils are going to be the favorites to cut down the nets in April.

Gonzaga: One of two teams to beat Duke this season, the Bulldogs lost back-to-back games in mid-December and haven’t suffered a defeat outside of that seven-day span. Mark Few leads the most efficient offense in the country, a balanced group that can score inside with Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura — two surefire All-Americans — or make shots from the perimeter to keep defenses honest. One question mark heading into the season was Josh Perkins, but the senior point guard is having the best season of his career.

Kentucky: There might not be a team in the country playing better than the Wildcats right now. They’ve won 10 straight since a late loss at Alabama in early January — a winning streak that will be tested this week against LSU and Tennessee. Talent certainly isn’t an issue for the Wildcats, now that John Calipari has figured out his point guard situation with Ashton Hagans and developed some frontcourt depth with Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery. The biggest boost for Kentucky has been the breakout sophomore season of PJ Washington, who has put up All-American numbers in the past month. This is an outstanding defensive team, though 3-point shooting is a concern on offense.

Tennessee: Still the No. 1 team in both polls, Tennessee has lost one game all season, an overtime defeat on a neutral court to Kansas back in November. The Volunteers have won 18 games in a row since, and can really make a statement at Kentucky on Saturday. They have two of the sport’s elite players: Grant Williams, a legitimate Wooden Award contender, and Admiral Schofield. But the reason they’re No. 1 has been the emergence of guard Jordan Bone and the return of 3-point shooter Lamonte Turner at the start of January. Defensively, the Vols have had their lapses at times — but also held Gonzaga to one of its worst offensive performances of the season.

So, who’s your pick?





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