Hear that? It’s the sound of March Madness approaching, swiftly and furiously.
Fans of college basketball were deprived of a tournament to close the 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic. This year is aiming to make up for that—though, as we know all too well amid this global pandemic, nothing is certain.
Still, given how other sport leagues, including college football, have been able to pull off their seasons and subsequent playoff brackets, the NCAA has to be feeling good about its chances of successfully completing the March Madness tournament without major issue.
In celebration of The Bracket’s return, we’ve put together our rankings of the best college basketball teams right now—with a twist.
This list will attempt to be objective in spotting the top-five schools. To make that happen, we’ll be sorting each team by their Simple Rating System (SRS) scores. This metric takes into account a team’s point differential and strength of schedule, rendering it a great kitchen-sink stat to use when you wish to evaluate teams beyond just their wins and losses.
1. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Undefeated teams are always going to rank highly on the SRS scale. But Gonzaga nearly breaks it.
The Bulldogs don’t just have the best offense in the country. They have steamrolled every defense in their wake—including those from a handful of top-16 schools they dismantled during the regular season.
Chance is heavily involved in the March Madness tournament. We’re not here to make any official predictions. But good luck beating a team that counts Corey Krispert and Drew Timme among its top offensive weapons.
“Gonzaga Bulldogs” by SBNation is licensed under CC BY 3.0
2. Baylor Bears
Baylor’s potential can be boiled to two words: Jared Butler.
Many thought the 6’3” guard would enter the 2020 NBA draft. He decided to return for his junior season, and boy, are the Bears glad he did.
Butler is averaging 17.1 points and 5.0 assists per game while shooting the heck out of the ball. Few players can score at every level with his efficiency. He can find nylon off the dribble, finishing through traffic at the rim and stroking jumpers off the catch.
His table-setting responsibility further anchors what is the nation’s second-best offense, and he’s even shown the capacity to defend both guard spots at an above-average level. The Bears have surrounded him with a ton of depth on top of his skill set, and it all amounts to the second best team in college basketball.
3. Illinois Fighting Illini
Don’t let Illinois’ six losses fool you. They’re a budding powerhouse.
Only 13 schools played out a tougher schedule during the regular season, and the Fighting Illini are going to be better off for it. They put their 20th-ranked offense to the test, and top scorers Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn proved they were up to the task almost almost every game.
People will harp on Illinois’ defense. They foul way too often and may have benefited from some unlucky opponent free-throw shooting.
We’re not worried. Any defense that can hover around the top 60 in points allowed per possessions while playing out one of the 15 hardest schedules has another gear to reach.
4. Iowa Hawkeyes
Iowa’s finish might surprise some people. It shouldn’t.
The Hawkeyes closed the regular season with the third most efficient offense in the nation. They might have the best college scorer live in Luke Garza, who’s averaging over 23 points while knocking down a ridiculous 58 percent of his twos and 43.0 percent of his threes.
Skeptics are correct to be concerned about their defense. Iowa gives up a ton of threes. But there is merit to that model. Certain NBA teams follow it because they know outside shots are higher variance, and college squads tend to shoot a lower percentage from downtown during the March Madness tournament.
“Iowa Hawkeyes” by Brian Rothmuller is licensed under CC BY 3.0
5. Michigan Wolverines
Michigan might actually rank higher on this list had they played more games. Their season doesn’t have the sample shared by other schools because they saw so many contests postponed due to COVID-19.
That hasn’t stopped the Wolverines from establishing themselves at both ends. Led by the scoring of Hunter Dickinson and Isaiah Livers, along with the playmaking of Mike Smith, they profile as one of the best two-way teams in the sport.
To wit: Gonzaga and Baylor, who rank No. 1 and No. 2 on this list, are the only other teams in the country to place inside the top 12 of KenPom’s offensive and defensive rankings.