Now that the 68-team NCAA tournament bracket has been announced, the next step is to attempt to figure out who will cut down the nets April 8 in Minneapolis. While there have been some surprises in the “one and done” era, more often than not the national champion has high-level guard play, at least one NBA-caliber talent and credible experience.
There can be outliers, especially when it comes to the experience factor, but after Duke’s freshman-led team won it all in 2015 the last three champions have been considerably older. Below are six teams that can win the NCAA tournament, a high-seed you should fade and a team seeded fourth or lower that can go on a run.
The top overall seed, the Blue Devils are back to full strength as elite freshman forward Zion Williamson made his return for the ACC tournament. Williamson and classmate R.J. Barrett are in the eyes of more than a few the top two NBA draft-eligible prospects in college basketball. Add in fellow freshmen Tre Jones and Cam Reddish, and Mike Krzyzewski’s team has the high-end talent needed to win six straight over the next three weeks.
As for the supporting cast, the Blue Devils received quality contributions from the likes of Javin DeLaurier, Jordan Goldwire and even Antonio Vrankovic during the ACC tournament. Forward Jack White and guard Alex O’Connell are also part of the rotation, so the bodies are there even with Marques Bolden (knee) out of the lineup. The youth of this team may be a concern for some, but when you have a Hall of Fame head coach like Coach K on the sideline that helps matters.
The Tar Heels won 27 games and finished tied atop the ACC standings with Virginia, ranking in the top ten in both adjusted offensive and adjusted defensive efficiency. There’s a good combination of youth and experience, with seniors Luke Maye, Cam Johnson and Kenny Williams working with talented freshman point guard Coby White and sophomore center Garrison Brooks.
The depth is provided by another freshman in Nassir Little, with juniors Brandon Robinson and Seventh Woods part of the rotation as well. In addition to the talent and guard play, North Carolina also has a Hall of Fame head coach on its sideline in Roy Williams. Williams has led his alma mater to three national titles, and North Carolina was a one-seed in all three. They’re on the top seed line this time around as well.
Mark Few’s Bulldogs are questioned by some on a consistent basis, thanks in large part to the fact that they ply their trade in the WCC. But to state that Gonzaga doesn’t have a shot at winning a national title solely because of its conference affiliation would be a mistake; this is a deep, talented roster that still has contributors who two years ago reached the championship game.
Junior forwards Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke have been outstanding, with the former winning WCC Player of the Year honors and the latter being one of college basketball’s best defenders. And if Killian Tillie, who’s had to deal with injuries for much of this season, is able to contribute Gonzaga will have a front court that can match up with any team. The perimeter attack is headlined by senior point guard Josh Perkins and redshirt sophomore Zach Norvell, with guard Geno Crandall and wing Corey Kispert providing additional depth. The Zags have the nation’s most efficient offense by a decent margin, and they’re solid defensively as well.
Kentucky is ranked just outside of the top 10 in both adjusted offensive (13th) and adjusted defensive (12th) efficiency, and they go eight deep with talent both on the perimeter and in the paint. Sophomore forward P.J. Washington (14.8 ppg, 7.6 rpg) leads four double-digit scorers, with guards Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson and forward Reid Travis next in line. Ashton Hagans can apply pressure defensively at the point while also being the team’s best distributor on the other end.
Kentucky is young, as it has been most seasons during Calipari’s tenure, but like his best teams there’s some experience mixed in. There’s certainly value in experience this time of year, but talent is key as well. The Midwest bracket projects to be very difficult to navigate, but like top-seed North Carolina the Wildcats are capable of making the run to Minneapolis.
Rick Barnes’ Volunteers have wins over two of the teams on this list, as they beat Gonzaga in Phoenix in early December and also won two of their three meetings with Kentucky. Tennessee has depth, talent and experience, with two-time SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams and senior forward Admiral Schofield leading the way. Tennessee is deep in the front court, and on the perimeter Jordan Bone, Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner are the headliners.
Tennessee enters the tournament ranked third in adjusted offensive efficiency, and while this group isn’t elite defensively it’s solid on that end of the floor. Winners of 29 games, the Volunteers should be motivated by the way in which their 2018 season ended (a second-round loss to Loyola University Chicago). At minimum, Tennessee has enough to reach the Elite Eight for the first time since 2010.
With Michigan State having beaten Michigan three times this season, and the Spartans being one of four teams ranked in the top 10 in both adjusted offensive and adjusted defensive efficiency (Virginia, Duke and North Carolina being the others), some may wonder how the Wolverines are the team listed here. Well it’s all about the path to the Final Four, and Michigan’s road to Minneapolis may be smoother than Michigan State’s.
One year after reaching the national title game Michigan has the pieces needed to duplicate that feat, beginning with point guard Zavier Simpson. Jordan Poole and Charles Matthews provide scoring on the wings, and in the front court Iggy Brazdeikis and Jon Teske have combined to average 24.5 points and 12.0 rebounds per game. John Beilein’s team is ranked second in adjusted defensive efficiency, with the offense currently ranked 18th with regards to efficiency.
THE FAVORITE TO FADE: Virginia
Given Virginia’s lack of a Final Four appearance during this current run of success, this may be a case of grabbing the low-hanging fruit. Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers are healthy, which wasn’t the case last season (De’Andre Hunter’s thumb), and with the additions of Kihei Clark and Braxton Key this group is deeper with Hunter, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome leading the way. But until Virginia gets over the hump they’re going to be questioned. Maybe Virginia will do what Villanova did in 2016, escaping the first weekend demons and then going on to win the national title.
THE FOUR-SEED OR LOWER THAT CAN WIN IT ALL: Auburn
Bruce Pearl’s Tigers dodged a bullet in Saturday’s SEC tournament semifinals, beating Florida by three in what was a controversial finish. Auburn left no doubt Sunday however, as it blew out Tennessee and was then given a 5-seed in the Midwest Region. The perimeter tandem of Jared Harper and Bryce Brown is averaging 31.1 points per game, and sophomore forward Chuma Okeke is the leading scorer for a front court that doesn’t lack for depth or athleticism.
Auburn has a tough first round matchup (New Mexico State), but this is a team that can go on a run after being bounced in the second round by Clemson last season.