Is it too early to start thinking about the NCAA Tournament?  After all, it’s called “March Madness” not “January Madness.”  Well, if you’re a big college basketball fan and you’re anxious to make a good showing (or a killing) in your office bracket pool, paying attention to the games in January and February might be the most important time to think about what’s coming up.

With that in mind, here’s a handful of teams to watch out for come tournament time, and some potential ones to avoid.

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Kentucky Wildcats (17-0)

Most years, I’d be telling you to avoid John Calipari’s team no matter how good they were playing.  What’s different this time about #1 ranked Kentucky?  A big chunk of Calipari’s “one and dones” came back for another year.  As a result, Kentucky boasts two complete lineups of 5 players who would start almost anywhere.  That makes them deep, talented AND, for the first time in ages, experienced and tournament tested.

Duke Blue Devils (15-2)

You can’t name a year when Duke wasn’t highly ranked (right now they’re #5 in the AP poll), but how to tell the difference between a Duke squad that can go far in the tournament from one that will choke early (like last year).  If you look at Mike Krzyzewski’s history with the team, they always shoot a ton of 3s.  But when they rely on the outside shooting, they’re more likely to tank than when the three-point barrage is set up by a strong inside game as well.  Center Jahlil Okafor is a monster presence inside, the presumptive #1 pick in the upcoming NBA draft, and part of the reason the Blue Devils are 6th in the NCAA in FG%.  Plus, Okafor is the kind of inside player that can get on a run and dominate the NCAA tournament.  Remember Julius Randle last year?  Yeah, like that.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish (17-2)

#8 Notre Dame is obviously more known for their legendary football program, but I like their blend of inside and outside scoring, and they’ve shown some toughness that past Notre Dame teams have lacked.

Oklahoma Sooners (12-5)

Here’s a surprise team for you.  They’ve played a loaded schedule, which has hurt their overall record and which is why they’re only ranked #19 right now.   What’s special about a team that projects as a 4th or 5th seed?  With all the top 25 competition they’ve taken on, they will be 100% ready for whomever they draw come tournament time.

Wisconsin Badgers (16-2)

Wisconsin basketball used to be synonymous with a slow plodding team that rebounded and defended but had little sizzle.  But look at what this group did last season – knocking off #1 seed Arizona and losing to Kentucky by just one point.  Getting that close last year gives them an experienced core of veterans to rely on to win.  If I had to pick one team that could knock off the Wildcats, it would be the 6th ranked Badgers.


Teams you might want to steer clear of:


Louisville Cardinals (10-3)

Rick Pitino blah blah blah tremendous defense blah blah blah 10th ranked overall blah blah blah.  This team can’t score this season.  You can’t win if you can’t score.

Gonzaga Bulldogs (19-1)

Let’s face it, when Gonzaga was this little unknown program that used to come in and upset the “big boys” they were the darlings of everyone’s bracket.  But this team is ranked #3 this year, and while they’re winning and putting up impressive offensive numbers, they haven’t exactly played anyone (they lost to Arizona, by far their toughest opponent).  I’m not a believer.

Kansas Jayhawks (15-3)

They could always get hot and change this, but right now, this is a team that shrinks in big games and gives away their home court advantage too often.  It also kind of sticks with me that they lost to Kentucky by 32 points.

Virginia Cavaliers (18-0)

I’m sure this will be the one that rankles people, and I’m not saying that #2 Virginia won’t be a factor, but talk to me again after the upcoming stretch where they play Duke, North Carolina and Louisville.  Remember, this team was a #1 seed last year and got sent home in the Sweet 16.  I’m not ready to put my faith in them yet and neither should you.


Featured image via Joe Robbins/Getty