With Championship Week around the corner and projected No. 1 seeds changing every day, this NCAA tournament has the makings of one of the most unpredictable in recent memory.
Fans get caught up in seeding and the bubble, but once the bracket is revealed, it is more about matchups. Every team has flaws this season, so whom you play in the tournament and when you play them will be major factors in determining this season's national champion.
Which teams do this season's top contenders not want to see in their bracket come Selection Sunday? I've identified a challenging matchup for 10 of the nation's top-rated teams.
Indiana is the most efficient offensive team in the country and, with freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell, has improved significantly on the defensive end. The Hoosiers are an excellent passing team that converts long rebounds and steals into easy baskets. Cody Zeller is a tough matchup with his ability to run the floor. He's excellent at driving from the high post and baseline, putting pressure on opposing teams' frontcourts. Victor Oladipo's energy and competitive spirit are unmatched.
Tough matchup: Gonzaga Bulldogs
The Zags would match up well against the Hoosiers. Kelly Olynyk has the ability to run the floor with Zeller and the quickness to defend him on the perimeter. Gary Bell Jr. and Kevin Pangos would be a tough pair in the backcourt, and the emergence of Mike Hart as a physical defender with a high motor would help against Oladipo. Elias Harris is a physical frontcourt power forward against whom Christian Watford would struggle. The Zags' frontcourt depth could keep pressure on the Hoosiers and potentially put them in foul trouble.
The return of Ryan Kelly to the lineup changes everything for the Blue Devils. Yes, he scored 36 points against Miami in his return, and there is no doubt he stretches the defense and takes pressure off Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry. But what goes unnoticed is Kelly's contribution on the defensive end.
Kelly is an alert on- and off-ball defender. Numerous times versus Miami, just by being in the right place at the right time, he helped the Blue Devils get a much-needed stop. The emergence of Rasheed Sulaimon as a third scorer also has made Duke better. Sulaimon runs the floor hard and has the ability to beat his man off the dribble. He and Curry keep pressure on the defense both in the half court and in transition.
Tough matchup: Ohio State
The Buckeyes would match up well against Duke. Aaron Craft's ability to pressure the ball could force Quinn Cook out of his comfort zone, and
Lenzelle Smith Jr. has the size, strength and quickness to bother Curry.
The key matchup would be Deshaun Thomas against Kelly. On the offensive end, Thomas would put a great deal of pressure on Kelly as a defender. Coach Thad Matta does a great job of moving Thomas within the action, which would force Kelly to defend isolations, post-ups and stagger screens. This could wear down Kelly, who has missed six weeks of conditioning. On the defensive end, Thomas is big enough and quick enough to contest Kelly on pick-and-pop and post-up situations. I also think Amir Williams' size, length and quickness would bother Plumlee in the post.
Gonzaga is a complete basketball team. The emergence of Olynyk as a Wooden Award candidate has taken the Zags to elite status. He is joined up front by Harris to form one of the most dynamic frontcourts in college basketball. What makes the Zags so tough is their frontcourt depth. Both 6-foot-9 Sam Dower and 7-1 Przemek Karnowski are capable of coming off the bench and influencing the game. In the backcourt, Pangos and Bell complement the frontcourt with their ability to stretch the defense and feed the post. Hart gives the Zags a lockdown defender on the perimeter, and David Stockton is a steady playmaker who makes enough shots to keep the defense honest.
Tough matchup: Michigan State
The Spartans have the kind of big, physical guards who have given the Zags problems in the past. Gary Harris and Keith Appling both have the ability to get to the basket off the bounce and make plays. Branden Dawson runs the floor hard and is a relentless offensive rebounder. He is bigger and more athletic than Hart, so I could see coach Tom Izzo posting Dawson in a half-court set.
Keeping the Spartans off the offensive glass is not easy. Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne attack it like it's a pass off the backboard. Payne has developed into a complete offensive player. He could put pressure on Harris both in the post and facing up on the perimeter. Nix is a load on the low block. He has good footwork and scoring moves and could potentially put Olynyk in foul trouble.
Defensively, the Spartans defend every possession. It's hard to get room-and-rhythm shots against them, and the strength of the Spartans' frontcourt could bother Olynyk.
The Gators are one of the toughest teams in the country for which to prepare. On offense, you have to be ready for their spacing, continuity, transition game and ball-screen action with Erik Murphy in pick-and-pop situations. Defensively, you have to prepare for the Florida's full-court press as well as their active, alert man-to-man and their extended 2-3 zone.
Tough matchup: Oklahoma State
Coach Travis Ford knows the Florida system, as he played for Billy Donovan's mentor, Rick Pitino. The Cowboys use a number of the same principles, offensively and defensively, as Florida. This would aid in their preparation.
Marcus Smart and Markel Brown have the athletic ability and skill to match up with the Gators' backcourt. Smart has the poise and size to handle the Gators' pressure, while Brown has the shot-making and scoring ability to play against the Gators' zone or man defense. Michael Cobbins is athletic enough to help in ball screens and get back to Murphy.
Oklahoma State's frontcourt plays to its strengths. The big men are excellent defenders, rebounders and screeners. Le'Bryan Nash is the X factor for the Cowboys. He has the ability and skill set to cause matchup problems for the Gators.
Georgetown has one of the most versatile players in college basketball, Otto Porter Jr., and a coach who knows how to put Porter in position to have an impact on the game. John Thompson III is one of the best at tweaking his system to fit his personnel. This is not your father's Princeton offense; this is an offense that takes advantage of Nate Lubick's passing, Markel Starks' quickness and and D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera's shooting. This is a team that, while developing an offensive identity, already had a defensive identity. The Hoyas do not beat themselves; you have to beat them.
Tough matchup: VCU
The Rams could get the Hoyas out of their comfort zone. The constant pressure could minimize Porter's impact on the game, and forcing the Hoyas to play 40 minutes of full-court basketball could break their rhythm. For the Rams, scoring out of their defense would limit the times they would have to play against Georgetown's set half-court D, which is one of the best in the Big East.
In the half court, VCU does an excellent job of running its offense with pace, and there are enough shot-makers to stretch the defense. Troy Daniels averages 3.6 made 3-pointers per game. Juvonte Reddic and Treveon Graham are relentless rebounders who could get to the offensive glass against the Hoyas.
Louisville is playing its best basketball of the season. Russ Smith's shot selection has improved, Peyton Siva is making better decisions, and Luke Hancock has both a floor game and a 3-point stroke. Up front, Gorgui Dieng has improved his offense while being one of the nation's elite shot-blockers. The Cardinals have gotten better in their half-court execution, but they hang their hat on their ability to create offense out of their defense.
Tough matchup: Saint Louis
The Billikens match up well with Louisville. They do not let pressure speed them up, are a good pass-and-catch team, and control the tempo of the game with both their offense and defense. The Billikens average only 11 turnovers per game, and in their win versus an athletic, pressing VCU team that mirrors Louisville's full-court pressure, they turned the ball over only eight times. Saint Louis plays with three ball handlers on the floor, which would be an asset against Louisville's matchup zone. Defensively, the Billikens keep the ball in front, are active and alert on and off the ball, and finish possessions with physical block-outs.
The college game starts with the guards and Michigan has two of the best, Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. Burke is explosive in transition and in ball-screen situations, while Hardaway runs the floor hard, reads screens, and is one of the best catch-and-shoot scorers in the country. Nik Stauskas is a knockdown shooter who is athletic enough to get to the rim.
Up front, the Wolverines are young but athletic. Glenn Robinson III is an explosive, undersized power forward who has been inconsistent. However, he's capable. It's tough to keep 6-10 forward Mitch McGary off the glass. He averages a rebound every three minutes and is an excellent screener as well as a developing scorer.
Tough matchup: Marquette
The Golden Eagles are a good matchup for Michigan. Marquette draws a line in the sand every defensive possession. Junior Cadougan, Vander Blue and Todd Mayo are committed defenders who would welcome the challenge of defending the explosive Michigan backcourt. Jamil Wilson is the next in a long line of 6-7 hard-playing forwards at Marquette, and he's playing his best basketball of the season. The post combination of Davante Gardner and Chris Otule has developed into a two-headed monster and would give Michigan trouble. The Golden Eagles pound the glass on both ends, and their physical style of play reminds me of Michigan State.
Kansas has rebounded following its shocking road loss to TCU by playing suffocating defense and much-improved offense. Elijah Johnson has been more aggressive attacking the basket and has been seeing plays earlier as a facilitator. Naadir Tharpe has given Kansas solid minutes off the bench, allowing Johnson to play some off the ball.
The go-to player for the Jayhawks is freshman sensation Ben McLemore, while Travis Releford is a cagey fifth-year senior who defends and sets the tone for the Jayhawks. In the frontcourt, Kevin Young is a hard-playing role player and Jeff Withey is a former volleyball player who has developed into the best shot-blocker in the country. His instincts allow him to protect the front of the rim and keep the ball in play.
Tough matchup: North Carolina
The Tar Heels' new small lineup would pose some problems for the Jayhawks in a similar way that Iowa State did, having four players on the floor who can make 3s and put the ball on the floor. Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston would create matchup problems for Kansas.
The Heels' small lineup not only would make it difficult for Kansas to get matched up in transition but also would take pressure off freshman point guard Marcus Paige, opening the floor and giving him space to penetrate, which puts the defense in rotation. Forward-turned-center James Michael McAdoo would be able to take Withey away from the basket and attack him on the baseline and in the high post.
Playing small would also allow Carolina to pressure Kansas' backcourt. Johnson, who is not a pure point guard, would be challenged by a variety of scramble defenses, which are used to create turnovers and energize the Heels.
Miami has had a season for the ages. One of the most mature teams in the country, the Canes are as comfortable playing in the 50s as they are playing in the 70s. They are led by one of the nation's best ball-screen guards on the country, Shane Larkin. He is complemented by physical guard Durand Scott. Scott is an improved jump shooter and is hard to keep out of the lane. He's also a terrific on-ball defender and an opportunistic offensive rebounder.
On the wings, Trey McKinney Jones and Rion Brown shoot the ball with range and defend with a purpose. Kenny Kadji creates all kinds of matchup problems with his ability to knock down jumpers off the pick-and-pop as well as drive it from the high post. Reggie Johnson is a mountain masquerading as a man down low and Julian Gamble is the perfect blend player to complement either Kadji or Johnson. The Canes do a good job of defending in the half court and create turnovers off their half-court scramble after free throws and timeouts.
Tough matchup: Missouri
The Tigers would be an interesting matchup for Miami. Frank Haith recruited most of the players on the roster and would have a good feel for their strengths and weaknesses. The matchup at point between Larkin and Phil Pressey would be a battle of two of the more explosive guards in the open court and off ball screens. Both see plays early and control the tempo of the game. Larkin is a better shooter while Pressey is more explosive in transition. At the off-guard spot, Keion Bell and Jabari Brown have the size and athleticism to match up with Scott. Earnest Ross is a mirror image of McKinney Jones and Brown. Up front, Laurence Bowers has a similar skill set as Kadji, and Alex Oriakhi has the size and strength to do battle with Johnson. Missouri is one of the best rebounding teams in the country. The Tigers have the ability to change defenses to keep Miami off balance.
Kansas State has been one of the more consistent teams in college basketball this season. Former coach Frank Martin left a mature, deep and talented team -- along with a culture of toughness -- when he departed Manhattan for South Carolina. It took the Wildcats a month to embrace Bruce Weber's motion offense, but they were committed defensively from day one. The roster is built to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats have a solid backcourt led by Angel Rodriguez and Will Spradling. Rodriguez plays with little or no fear. He attacks the basket off the dribble and is an excellent passer. Spradling is a perfect motion guard. He waits on screens, sets his cuts up, reads his defender, and is a hard cutter.
Rodney McGruder is K-State's go-to offensive player. He has a quick release, shoots the ball with range, and is big enough to catch the ball off a curl and score in the lane. Up front, Shane Southwell, Jordan Henriquez and Thomas Gipson all bring a different skill set to the Wildcats. Southwell is a combination forward who can drive the ball from the perimeter or knock down the 3-pointer. He's an effective screener and an excellent cutter. Henriquez is a great shot-blocker; he averages two blocks per game in 15 minutes per game and gets a rebound every three minutes. Gipson is a low-post player. He screens hard and posts harder. He does all of the dirty work for the Wildcats. This is a complete team.
Tough matchup: Tennessee
The Vols would be a tough out for Kansas State. They are aggressive defensively and play the same motion offense as the Wildcats. Coach Cuonzo Martin played for Weber when Weber was an assistant at Purdue. With that said, the two teams would mirror each other. Tennessee's big three of Trae Golden, Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes would match up well with Rodriguez, McGruder and Gipson. It would be hard to get an easy basket, as each team would draw a line in the sand every possession. My estimation is the first to 60 points would win this game.