Who are the favorites to win a national title? Who can legitimately be called a contender? Who has the pieces to make a run to the Final Four?
We will break all that down for you here.
Michigan State (6/1)
Michigan State is the best team in college basketball. They have the best player in college basketball in Cassius Winston. They bring back basically the same roster from the team that won 30 games last season and took down the Big Ten regular season title, the Big Ten tournament title and advanced to the Final Four. There is a very legitimate reason why they are the biggest favorite to win the title.
And I think all of this even after the news that Joshua Langford will miss at least the first three months of the season after aggravating the injury to his ankle that caused him to miss all but 13 games last year. Because Michigan State did it last season without Langford. Losing him certainly isn’t going to make things easier for the Spartans, but if he’s able to come back for the stretch run healthy, rested and with something to prove, Michigan State will be just fine.
The more I think about things, the more than I believe Kansas is the second-best team in college basketball this season. They have an All-American caliber point guard in Devon Dotson, who should be in line for a sophomore jump after a really good freshman campaign. They have an All-American caliber center in Udoka Azubuike, a guy that they can and have run their offense through. There is enough talent on the wings – Ochai Agbaji, Isaiah Moss, Marcus Garrett – that Bill Self can get away with being limited at the four.
And yes, this is narrative-driven and based on absolutely zero data, but the Jayhawks are coming off of arguably the most embarrassing 12 months in the history of their program. Last year they became the first Kansas team in 15 seasons that did not win the Big 12 regular season title. They have been front and center during this FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball. They’ve dealt with the fallout from Billy Preston, Silvio De Sousa, T.J. Gassnola, Snoop Dogg and Bill Self’s Adidas attire. It feels like this is a team that has something to prove and a statement to make.
The addition of Kerry Blackshear Jr. was a difference-maker for the Gators. Suddenly, a Florida team that was built entirely around a talented crop of perimeter weapons now has an anchor in their frontcourt. Blackshear should thrive playing with this group because he thrived playing for a Virginia Tech team that was similar last season.
But there is more to it than just Blackshear. For starters, Andrew Nembhard returned for his sophomore season, and I fully expect that he will develop into one of the best point guards in the nation this year. They add talented freshmen Tre Mann and Scottie Lewis while the likes of Noah Locke and Keyontae Johnson are back as well.
The Gators are young, but they are talented and – this is the important part – their roster fits together better this season. Inefficient chuckers Jalen Hudson and Kevaughn Allen are gone, and when combined with the talent infusion and improvement of the returnees, the Gators could end up being the best team in the SEC this season.
On paper, this Kentucky team looks to be absolutely loaded. They bring back two guards – Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley – that were five-star prospects for a sophomore season. They also bring back E.J. Montgomery, another five-star sophomore that some have projected could be in line for a P.J. Washington-esque jump as a sophomore. Their freshman class is loaded: Tyrese Maxey, Johnny Juzang, Kahlil Whitney, Keion Brooks. They add Bucknell grad transfer Nate Sestina to a frontcourt that includes junior Nick Richards.
I think they are definitively a top three team in the country.
I also think that the Wildcats are just slightly below Kansas in the pecking order. The reason for that? I have no feel as to how they are going to play. I have no feel as to who their best player will be. Who is going to be their go-to guy? Their leading scorer? John Calipari is going to figure this thing out, but I think the learning curve is going to be steeper than it is for some of the other teams at the top of the rankings.
Before we talk about what Louisville actually is this season, think about this for a second: Two years ago, the Cardinals had just fired their Hall of Fame head coach, they lost their best recruit because Adidas paid him, their Athletic Director was run out of town and that all happened right after they had to pull a national title banner out of the rafters. And not only were they still able to sign one of the best young coaches in America despite the fact that a postseason ban may or may not be hanging over their head, but a year after he took the job he has Louisville sitting as the favorite to win the ACC.
Louisville is awesome, by the way. Jordan Nwora is the NBC Sports ACC Preseason Player of the Year and a Preseason First Team All-American. They have size, they have depth, they had a loaded six-man recruiting class that Mack will be able to bring along slowly. Injuries are a bit of a concern, as David Johnson and Malik Williams are working through some things, and there are some question marks about point guard play, but overall this is just a good basketball team.
FINAL FOUR THREATS
The talent is obvious. Vernon Carey is going to be one of the most productive big men in the country. Matthew Hurt is a prototype small-ball four. Wendell Moore is going to end up being a first round pick because of the way he can guard. And Tre Jones could very well end up being the best player on this Duke roster next season. There is a lot to like about the Blue Devils.
But the major concern that I have is how all of these pieces fit together. I wrote about this at length earlier this month, but Duke is one of those teams where I just don’t see how they are going to be able to field a team that will be both good offensively and good defensively. Coach K is going to have some things to figure out this year.
The Zags are the team that I am having the most trouble projecting this season. On the one hand, they just whipped up on Michigan State in a secret scrimmage without Killian Tillie. On the other hand, Tillie might be their most talented player and he is still dealing with knee issues, and I’m not fully ready to buy into Admon Gilder and Ryan Woolridge being the answer at the point.
Then again, that trio plus Corey Kispert and Filip Petrusev with the likes of Drew Timme and Oumar Ballo on the bench is quite intriguing. I don’t think they are going to be as good as they were in 2017 or last season, but the Zags will certainly have a roster talented enough to win six games in March.
I’ve written too much about the Tigers over the course of the last month, so I’ll refer you to this video. In short: Memphis has the talent to win the whole thing. They also will start five freshmen and will have seven freshmen in their rotation. That’s not ideal.
North Carolina (10/1)
Just how good do you think Cole Anthony is going to be in his one and only season in Chapel Hill? Because this is going to be his team. The Tar Heels lost their top five scorers from last season, three of whom were first round picks and a fourth who was an All-American.
He’s not going to be all alone, mind you. Armando Bacot and Garrison Brooks make up a pretty good front line while the addition of grad transfers Justin Pierce and Christian Keeling provide some shot-making and experience on their perimeter. But none of that really matters if Anthony doesn’t end up being a National Player of the Year candidate.
I actually think that the Ducks are one of the best future values currently on the board. This is a team with a point guard that will deservedly be in the conversation for Pac-12 Player of the Year this season. They add a pair of talented grad transfers in Anthony Mathis and Shakur Juiston. Their freshmen class is loaded, as always, and their are a couple of perimeter scorers in Chris Duarte and Will Richardson that should be really good playing in Dana Altman’s swing offense.
Oh, and I have to make mention of Altman, who is as good as anyone this side of Chris Beard at finding a way to get a bunch of pieces that have never played together to fit together. The Ducks are legit.
The Cougars are going to be right back in the mix now that Quentin Grimes has been ruled eligible to play this season. He and DeJon Jarreau will be the best backcourt in the American and one of the best backcourts in America, and with plenty of big bodies up front – and a head coach in Kelvin Sampson that has a reputation for being one of the best coaches in the country – they certainly have the horses to make a run in March. They’ve done it for two years running now.
Betting on Maryland to live up to lofty expectations has rarely been a profitable venture, but the expectations are there for a reason this season. Anthony Cowan has All-American potential, Jalen Smith is the kind of player that can turn into a lottery pick with some more seasoning and the sophomore class has a whole is very good and very deep.
Ohio State (50/1)
How good do you think D.J. Carton is? If you believe that he, as a freshman, is ready to be the full-time starting point guard for a team that is going to make a run in March, then the Buckeyes should be considered among the nation’s best. Kaleb Wesson is a monster, they have options up front an on the wing and they have Chris Holtmann. What they don’t have is a proven, elite level point guard, and I’m not convinced C.J. Walker is more than just a game manager.
So if you think Carton is going to arrive in Columbus ready to take on anyone and everyone in front of him, then you should invest heavily in the Buckeyes at 50-1.
Texas Tech (30/1)
Of the 11 players that Texas Tech has eligible for this season, eight of them are freshmen or sophomores. Of the upperclassmen, two are grad transfers, neither of whom played last season. One of the two grad transfers played for Stephen F. Austin in the Southland last year. The most important player on the roster is Jahmius Ramsey, a top 35 recruit that is the most highly-touted player to enter Chris Beard’s program since he’s been in Lubbock. He has to fill the Jarrett Culver-Keenan Evans role offensively, but there have been rumblings that Ramsey’s ego hasn’t exactly meshed with the Red Raider ethos early on.
If Tech is going to live up to the expectations that the last two seasons have set, so much is going to come down to whether or not someone like Chris Clarke or Davide Moretti can set a tone and keep the program’s culture at the level it was the last two years.
The most talented players on this Villanova roster are freshmen. Freshmen take a notoriously long time to acclimate to the way Jay Wright wants to play, and that is before you factor in the shoulder injury Bryan Antoine is still recovering from. The upperclassmen on this Villanova roster have yet to prove that they are capable of carrying the flag the way that the likes of Josh Hart, or Jalen Brunson, or Phil Booth and Eric Paschall have. Can Jermaine Samuels live up to the hype? Just how good is Collin Gillispie, or Dhamir Cosby-Rountree? That’s a lot of question marks for one roster.
Virginia has 2019 Villanova written all over them. This is a program that is built on player development, getting old and staying old. They thrive by bringing in three- and four-star prospects and turning them into NBA players by the time they leave. It’s a carefully orchestrated plan, one that gets thrown for a loop when they lose guys like Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy a year earlier than expected.
Overall, they’re going to be fine. They’re going to have a young, unproven and inexperienced backcourt. A lot is going to be put on Kihei Clark’s plate. His ability to handle the job of replacing Ty Jerome will determine what UVA’s ceiling is this season.