March Madness 2024: Ranking the 68 best teams in the NCAA tournament, from UConn to Wagner

There is nothing quite like the scene on the court after the NCAA Championship game concludes: confetti strewn across the hardwood, players smiling so hard they might break a jaw, coaches trying to act like this moment isn’t exactly what they’ve worked for their entire lives because, you know, there’s a game coming in seven months.

That’s the moment everyone who starts March Madness this week is looking to reach.

They all can’t. And when I say that, I don’t mean there’s room for only one team on that platform to accept the trophy and that 67 others have to lose for it to arrive. I mean there are so many that simply can’t.

Everyone has the ability to delay their inevitable exit to some extent, but every champion of the past 30 years has measured up to a particular set of standards, then put those qualities to work to win six consecutive games.

It is hard to do, and it’s impossible without the necessary equipment:

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1. One or more NBA first-round picks. That talent is going to matter at some point in the tournament. Whether it’s an elite prospect like Grant Hill or a solid prospect like Jordan Hawkins, the guys with pro potential are going to make plays others simply can’t. And teams that don’t have that guy have not won a single title since the 1987 Indiana Hoosiers, who had three second-round picks (Steve Alford, Dean Garrett, Keith Smart).

2. Exceptional offense and defense. The KenPom.com database for offensive and defensive efficiency stretches back to 1999. Over that period, every NCAA champion but one ranked in the top 20 by the end of the tournament in both offensive and defensive efficiency. (The exception was UConn 2014, which ranked 39th in offense.) Only five teams are top 20 in both now: UConn, Houston, Purdue, Auburn, and Arizona. Only five more are in the neighborhood: Tennessee, Duke, North Carolina, Creighton, and Marquette. That’s probably your championship pool.

3. Point guard play. It helps if a team’s PG is a future NBA player, but you’re not winning this thing without someone who knows how to run an offense and defend the ball at the other end.

4. Adequate size. You’re also not winning the title without someone who’s big enough to command space and guard the basket. A year ago, I told people all season Kansas was not winning the title with 6-7 KJ Adams at center, as wonderful as he is as a player. They were a No. 1 seed with a 28-7 record. They lost in the second round.

5. Shooting. Do I need numbers to prove this, or can I just give you a link to Donte DiVincenzo’s performance in the 2018 title game?

So, who’s got it and who doesn’t, regardless of seed, ranking, or Vegas odds?

REGION-BY-REGION GUIDES: South | Midwest | West | East

Ranking the 68 best teams in the NCAA Tournament

1. Connecticut. The one complete team in this tournament. The basketball has been wonderful this season because of the change in the charge rule that has freed players to attack the goal in the halfcourt and in transition. Many teams are not, but UConn may be the only exception. It’s up to the other 67 to prove that assertion wrong.

2. Tennessee. Tennessee’s dismal performance against Mississippi State showed their vulnerability to physical power, and it also put the Vols in a position where they’ll need to break a precedent in order to lift the trophy. Since 1993, no team has won the tournament after losing its first conference tournament game. Not one. Can the Vols be pioneers?

3. Creighton. Whichever team wins the potential Sweet 16 game between UT and Creighton will be among the most qualified to win the title. They’ll still have to get out of a region that has Purdue as the No. 1 seed. That means it won’t be easy, but Trey Alexander’s terrific recent play gives the Bluejays a shot.

4. North Carolina. It’s not easy to feel great about the Tar Heels after their performance in the ACC Tournament final against rival NC State. But looking beyond that, it’s still a team with two guys who were keys to a Final Four run just two years ago – RJ Davis and Armando Bacot – and such excellent additions as Elliott Cadeau and Harrison Ingram.

5. Houston. How did Iowa State dismantle Houston’s oppressive defense? Is the key catching them on the third of three game days? That won’t help in this tournament, where there’s always at least a day of rest in between.

EXPERT PICKS: DeCourcy (UConn) | Bender (UConn) | Iyer (UConn) | Yanchulis (South Carolina women)

6. Purdue. At most, college basketball fans will be living with Zach Edey for three more weeks. Isn’t it about time they appreciate his greatness instead of jeering him because he’s tall?

7. Arizona. The Wildcats had to be delighted with their draw after a disappointing performance in the Pac-12 tournament. The West is like the region of “Unreliables.” The Wildcats fit that category, too, but they might be the most dangerous of them all.

8. Marquette. It’s hard to know what Marquette will be after playing five games without star point guard Tyler Kolek. It’s not easy to recover the magic after such a long absence.

9. Duke. You know the thing in Space Jam where all the basketball stars have their talent stolen? That’s kind of what Duke has looked like the past two games. It’s hard to figure out what’s up with that, but at their best, they can beat most everyone in this field.

10. Kentucky. If the Wildcats had reached the level of even consistently adequate defense, they would be right there as one of the favorites to win this championship. But they just can’t find the ideal combination to make that happen.

STREAM: Watch 2024 NCAA Tournament games live with Sling

11. Baylor

12. Auburn

13. Illinois

14. Iowa State.

15. Kansas. What happens this month – or this week – is entirely dependent on how healthy Kevin McCullar and Hunter Dickinson can be. We all saw what they are without them.

MORE: Buy tickets to 2024 March Madness games

16. Alabama

17. Saint Mary’s

18. Gonzaga. The Zags defense might be better than Kentucky’s, for what it’s worth. Their offense, while terrific, isn’t good enough to make up for that. Not for long, anyway.

19. BYU

20. Nevada

21. Utah State

22. Mississippi State

23. Nebraska

24. Texas A&M

25. Florida

26. Texas Tech

27. Wisconsin. No one at the top end of the bracket got handed a more difficult draw than the Badgers. James Madison should have been a No. 11 seed, easy. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, that’s not how it went.

28. San Diego State

29. Clemson

30. Washington State

31. Texas

32. Colorado

33. New Mexico

34. Florida Atlantic. The Owls were lucky to be included after they managed to lose to a 15-19 bunch of Temple Owls. Perhaps the identical nickname confused them?

35. Drake

36. James Madison

37. South Carolina

38. Oregon

39. NC State

40. McNeese

41. Northwestern

42. TCU. This is a talented team that could be dangerous, but the Horned Frogs have not beaten an NCAA Tournament team since January. They’ve had some injuries, but it seems like inclusion would be the height of their March Madness experience.

43. Michigan State

44. Dayton

45. Colorado State

46. Boise State

47. Virginia. The one team I missed in my bracket projection. (The one team nearly everyone missed, though).

48. UAB

49. Duquesne. Dukes coach Keith Dambrot announced his retirement after seven seasons. His wife has been ill with breast cancer, and he has discussed leaving the job to spend more time with her. “The support and the compassion and the love I received during my wife’s sickness has really meant a lot to me,” he said at his press conference. He said at times it was “overwhelming.” What a parting gift he presented: the program’s first NCAA bid since 1977.

50. Grand Canyon

51. Samford

52. Yale

53. Charleston

54. Vermont. John Becker has had Vermont in five of the past seven NCAA Tournaments. He’s still at Vermont. He must really like Vermont, or else some AD out there missed on a chance to offer him a big-time job.

55. Akron

56. Colgate

57. Morehead State

58. Oakland

59. Western Kentucky

60. South Dakota State

61. Long Beach State.

62. Saint Peter’s.

63. Longwood. Can a team be incorrectly seeded this deep in the bracket? Well, Longwood had average results metrics of 182 and predictive metrics of 148; Stetson’s averages were 170 and 197. The Lancers wound up with a 16 seed, while Stetson got to be a 15. Go figure.

64. Montana State

65. Stetson

66. Grambling State

67. Howard

68. Wagner

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