The last time someone slotted below a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament won the national championship happened in 2014 when No. 7 seed Connecticut cut down the nets. But if ever there were a season where a team is primed to emerge from the fray and win it all as a No. 3 seed or worse, this is it.
Purdue looked like the clear-cut top team in the nation for several weeks, but the No. 5 Boilermakers have shown some warts recently. While current No. 1 Houston has lost just two games, the Cougars play in a watered down AAC that has left them without much competition. No. 2 Alabama has off-court distractions to grapple with, and No. 3 Kansas went through a three-game losing streak this season.
Those are the four teams projected as the No. 1 seeds for the Big Dance in Jerry Palm's Bracketology, and while all great, they each have some flaws. Meanwhile, there are teams like Duke and Kentucky lurking in the background destined for middling seeds but loaded with the talent and prestige. Either could inspire fear in a potential second-round NCAA Tournament matchup against a highly seeded foe and wreak havoc on the bracket.
So who are the teams slotted below the No. 2 seed line in Palm's Bracketology we can see winning the national championship? Our writers made their picks for this week's Dribble Handoff.
TCU is 18-10 overall, 7-8 in the Big 12 and ranked outside of the top 20 on most computers. On a surface level, the Horned Frogs look like a good-but-hardly-great team. But it's important to note that Mike Miles Jr. has really only played in 19 games this season -- he was on the court just four minutes at Mississippi State before leaving with an injury -- and that TCU is 15-4 in those 19 games with wins over Kansas, Baylor, Kansas State, Providence, Iowa and Oklahoma State. Put another way, TCU is 15-4 when Miles plays at least five minutes, 3-6 when he doesn't.
What that suggests is that the Horned Frogs would probably be in contention for a top-two seed in the NCAA Tournament if Miles were never sidelined. Given that they're merely a No. 6 seed in Jerry Palm's latest projected bracket, it seems likely that TCU will be under-seeded on Selection Sunday relative to its capabilities when at full strength, which is why Jamie Dixon's team will be a worthy pick if you're trying to identify a school capable of winning it all despite having a seed that traditionally makes it extremely unlikely. -- Gary Parrish
If we're talking about realistic national title contenders below the 2-line, I think the rational discussion has to stop at the 5-seeds. So that gives us 12 teams worth discussing. Of those 12 in Palm's most recent bracket forecast, only one of them is coached by someone who has won a national title. I was tempted to take UConn but it's yet to win a tournament game under Dan Hurley.
Virginia is my choice.
Tony Bennett's Cavaliers are not at the same level as his 2018 and 2019 squads, but this Wahoos crew does rank top 15 in four of the six NCAA Tournament team sheet metrics. The Cavs are 21-4 in a down ACC but would be my pick because of veteran point guard play (Kihei Clark was a big piece in winning a national title), an elite lockdown defender (future NBA pick Reece Beekman), another reliable 3-point shooter alongside Clark and Beekman (Armaan Franklin) and rely predominantly on fourth- and fifth-year players. It's not pretty, it's not sexy, but it's Virginia. -- Matt Norlander
Two Final Fours in the last five NCAA Tournaments, seven straight trips to the second weekend and two national runner-up finishes for Gonzaga under Mark Few ... and you're telling me I can pick this team as a possible dark horse? Where do I sign up?
Look, I get it, I get it. This Zags team, on paper, isn't as good as the ones that made the title game in 2017 and 2021. Defensively, it's the worst the program has fielded in well over a decade and the guard play and playmaking ability is a clear sore spot.
But this is a discount worth taking if you're betting on a team outside the top-two projected seeds. (Gonzaga is a 4 seed in Palm's latest bracket.) There's talent littered about this roster good enough to beat anyone on any given night. Drew Timme was my preseason Player of the Year pick; Julian Strawther could be a first-rounder; Hunter Sallis was a five-star recruit; and Nolan Hickman was pretty darn close to cracking that criteria.
Gonzaga has the No. 1 offense in college basketball, it beat projected No. 1 overall seed Alabama earlier this season, it handled Xavier on a neutral court in nonconference play when X was at full strength. There's a lot to like about this Zags team that suggests it could make a real run in March. I've been hoarding stock in the Bulldogs and I'd advise you consider doing the same. -- Kyle Boone
You hear that, right? Cup your ear in the direction of Fayetteville, Arkansas, and the sound is unmistakable. The Muss Bus is picking up speed and starting to hum right on schedule. After reaching the Elite Eight following a late-season surge each of the past two years, Arkansas is coming to life yet again. The Razorbacks (19-9, 8-7 SEC) are merely a projected No. 10 seed and still considered a bubble team in Palm's latest Bracketology. But with five-star freshman guard Nick Smith working his way back into a featured role after an extended absence and the Hogs playing nasty defense, this team has the ingredients to compete with anyone next month in the SEC and NCAA Tournaments.
Arkansas closes the regular season at Alabama, at Tennessee and at home against Kentucky. It's a brutal closing stretch at first glance. But a deeper inspection reveals it to be a golden resume-building opportunity. Alabama is under intense scrutiny because of an and Tennessee has lost five of seven. Finally, Bud Walton Arena will be bonkers when Kentucky comes to town. It would be no surprise to see the Razorbacks go at least 2-1 to close the regular season and ride into the SEC Tournament with a ton of momentum as a team no one will want to face.
Poor 3-point shooting has been this team's biggest issue. Smith helps to solve it and adds a new layer of dynamism to a team that was largely written off nationally due to Smith's knee issues and the early-season loss of big man Trevon Brazile. But it appears Musselman is getting this team to reach its full potential at the right time -- shocker, right? -- and Arkansas at its full potential can cut down nets. -- David Cobb