Breaking 19 NCAA title contenders into tiers -- Duke a frontrunner; MSU wild card
Here's four tiers of teams who could win the NCAA Tournament this season
Not all champs are cut from the same cloth. Every team is different, yes, but we can tier out and sever the teams depending on their personnel, style, strengths, weaknesses.
It's set up to be a really fun year in college basketball, one with some inevitable surprise, but overall, I think we've got a populated crop of teams capable of cutting nets in April. Despite occasional indolent commentary, there is never truly a year wherein only four or five teams are the only wins who can win a national championship. The tournament has taught us better than that; only once have the four No. 1 seeds even made it to the Final Four.
Winning it all is about matchups in March, health throughout the season and how those two elements rub with a little luck and a lot of coaching come NCAA Tournament time. This means, in a given year, there are really 10-12 realistic options, teams who have the DNA to take six straight in the tournament.
This year, though, I count 19.
So let's look at four classes: front-runners, title contenders, dark horses and wild cards. The front-runners are the obvious picks, the teams who clearly have a line of separation from the rest of college basketball. The title contenders are all well-manned and certainly have the coaching to make a run, but there is an important element missing. The dark horses are teams with fortes in certain areas but drawbacks in others. They can win six in March, but they'll need help and for the bracket to break their way. Wild cards? Something different than a dark horse. Teams whose setup is depending upon eligibility, extraordinary youth, lingering injuries or significant roster turnover.
Here are the 19. I'm unflinchingly confident that the 2016-17 national champ will be one of the squads listed below.
The overwhelming pick for No. 1, obviously we have the Blue Devils atop the list. You've got former Duke players, like Jay Williams, comparing this team's talent to what Mike Krzyzewski was tutoring in 2000, 2001 and 2002. Those were loaded Duke teams (the '01 group won the title). We don't yet know how strong, consistent and healthy Harry Giles will be, but if he's in full form, then Duke becomes No. 1 with a bullet. Grayson Allen is the odds-on pick to win national player of the year, Jayson Tatum could be a top-five draft pick, Amile Jefferson is a vital veteran presence in the frontcourt. You add in a weapon like Luke Kennard, who had a better season last year than most realize, and it's clear to see why Coach K has such a good shot at winning his sixth national title.
The Wildcats only lose Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu from last season's title-winning team. While they both were so important, VU is still stocked with terrific players, including an eligible transfer from Fordham named Eric Paschall -- who is probably going to be good right out of the gate. Let's remember that Villanova's been really good for four years running now, too. It's finished as a two-loss team in the Big East for the past three seasons and hasn't earned worse than a 2 seed in the NCAAs in that span, either. Josh Hart is the front-runner for player of the year in the Big East, and in general, this is the first team since Florida -- a decade ago -- to bring back so many players from a title-winning club.
The No. 2 freshman class in the country meets up with Isaiah Briscoe, Isaac Humphries and Derek Willis. John Calipari's made four Final Fours in seven seasons at Kentucky. This is a top-two recruiting class in his time in Lexington, so yeah, UK's absolutely in our echelon of top teams. De'Aaron Fox is a fantastic, fast, savvy point guard. Bam Adebayo is a bull in the paint, a player I expect to log more than 15 double-doubles this season. Malik Monk, a scorer, slasher and dunker supreme, will likely lead the team in scoring. Wenyen Gabriel is a wild talent who's only beginning to blossom. There's so much talent, athleticism and smarts on this team -- and that's before you get to discussing the defense. Could be the top team on D in the nation by January.
The Jayhawks have the best backcourt of any team in the country right now, led by a two-point-guard attack of Frank Mason III and Devonte' Graham, the latter of whom has turned himself into an NBA prospect. KU is the overwhelming pick to win the Big 12 -- again -- and so with that, Kansas will have a very good chance at landing a No. 1 seed. The name to know is Josh Jackson, an inordinately talented freshman wing who's actually cruising just a smidge under the radar right now. That will last all of another two weeks, tops. Expect Carlton Bragg, Jr. to have an explosive sophomore season, and Svi Mykhailiuk, the Ukranian shooting guard with NBA potential, will almost certainly have a breakout season. Kansas is big, athletic, quick, defensive and capable of hitting 15 3-pointers on a given night. Should be a 30-win season for this group.
The Ducks earned a No. 1 seed last season, and they'll have a good chance at repeating that in 2016-17. Dillon Brooks' foot injury could mean he misses the first few games for Oregon, but once he's back, the Ducks will have the most intimidating starting five in the country, I think. Brooks, Tyler Dorsey, Chris Boucher, Jordan Bell and Dylan Ennis comprise a stacked starting rotation. This was an elite shot-blocking team, plus a group that ranked 13th in scoring efficiency last season. Elgin Cook is the only significant roster loss. The Ducks are for real and need to be considered in the small cluster of favorites to win the whole thing this season.
The Tar Heels had the No. 1 offense in the nation last season. A big part of that was Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige accounting for so much efficiency and volume in UNC's offense. Both players graduated, and so I'm knocking UNC down from the front-runners category because of it. But UNC's roster is still very good. This is a top-10 team right now. Joel Berry II is going to step in and provide things at the 1 that Paige never could. Justin Jackson, is this the year you step up and become All-ACC level? I think Kennedy Meeks is going to have a huge season, but if I'm wrong, that mean Isaiah Hicks will become one of the 10-12 best players in the conference. Theo Pinson and Nate Britt are also still on the roster. Roy Williams' team will have some flaws but should be 3-seed-quality at worst.
Yes, this program was a No. 2 seed last season. You might've forgotten, since the Muskies didn't make the second weekend due to Wisconsin doing this. Still, that was a really good team. Set a program record by winning 28 games. Guess what? Xavier could be even better this year. Chris Mack's club brings back two players who could be First Team selections in the Big East at the end of the season: Edmond Sumner and Trevon Bluiett. The critical addition is RaShid Gaston, a 6-foot-9 power forward from Norfolk State who will be very good as an interior presence. Another grad transfer, Malcolm Bernard, helps stabilize a deep bench. If Myles Davis can get his personal affairs in order, he'll round out a rotation that's as balanced as any in college basketball. J.P. Macura could play himself onto our top 100 (and one) players list for next season. Sumner is my pick to win Big East POY.
What's not to like here? The Badgers bring everybody back from a Sweet 16 team that ranked top-15 in the country on defense. Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig and Ethan Happ are three of the 15 most talented players in the Big Ten. Hayes was the preseason POY pick, but Koenig or Happ could be so productive that it prevents Nigel from winning it. He'd be fine with that, I'm sure. Wisconsin's going to be really good and a lot of fun to watch. Greg Gard starts his first full season as Bucky coach. Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown round out the starting five. This looks like the sturdiest team in the Big Ten.
The Hoosiers should challenge Wisconsin in the Big Ten, and thanks to having Thomas Bryant and James Blackmon, Jr. to contend for all-league honors, IU's likely to be one of the three or four best offensive in the country. When you've got a real big-man threat in Bryant, a well-founded scoring option in Blackmon and a breakout freak in OG Anunoby, it helps make up for losing Yogi Ferrell and Troy Williams. Indiana might be a little slow to start -- it's been battling offseason injuries -- but by December, the Hoosiers should solidly prove themselves to be top-15 quality.
The Cardinals didn't play in the NCAAs last year due to a self-imposed postseason ban as a way to appease the still-to-come punishments from the NCAA's Committee on Infractions. Had the Cards been eligible, they'd have been in the Big Dance. This season, Louisville's got some talent and flash, a trio of sophomore guards who could push U of L into the top four of the ACC. In doing so, if the defense winds up being relentlessly good, Rick Pitino will have an outside shot at winning a third national title. Donovan Mitchell, Deng Adel and Raymond Spalding look to be the strongest triumvirate of sophomores in the nation. V.J. King should be a freshman of impact. Quentin Snider is underrated, perhaps even within the league, and I think Mangok Mathiang will spike in production. An imperfect team, but if Mitchell/Deng/Spalding all click, then look out.
Hard to see St. Mary's winning a national title? I get that. But I'm not leaving a team that returns every starter and won 29 games last season off this list. I think SMC is a top-15 team entering the season. That's dark-horse territory, absolutely. Tremendous shooting team. Emmett Naar has become a gem of a find for Randy Bennett. The schedule is tougher than usual for SMC, which is good news, as the team will need some real challenges before throwing jabs at Gonzaga to win the WCC. I can picture Saint Mary's winning four games in March and reaching the Final Four. If you can conceivably do that, then you deserve to be on this list. Watch for a guy named Dane Pineau. He's 6-9 and could flirt with a 70-percent shooting clip.
The Bulldogs, somehow, could be better set up this season than last. This despite losing Kyle Wiltjer, Domas Sabonis, Eric McClellan and Kyle Dranginis. Why? Transfers, baby. Nigel Williams-Goss is the most notable, the former five-star recruit who bailed on in-state quasi-rival Washington. Williams-Goss is an NBA prospect, a nice combo guard who will likely step in and become a top-three talent in the WCC. He's joined by Jordan Mathews, a grad transfer from Cal, and Johnathan Williams (previously at Missouri). Toss in a stud freshman named Zach Collins to combo with Prezmek Karnowski in the frontcourt, and this team is one of the most mysteriously interesting ones in college basketball. Mark Few only needs one Final Four trip to legitimize himself as a Hall of Fame candidate. This can be the team that, finally, puts him on the big stage.
There are more than 4,500 Division I players on scholarship. If you've got three of the top 120 players in the nation, you've got a chance at a Final Four. Purdue qualifies. Plenty of people sleeping on this team on a national scale because it got 12-over-5'd in the NCAAs last season by Little Rock. Here's the big picture: Matt Painter's got a top-10 CBB big man in Caleb Swanigan, a 7-foot-2 improvement project in Isaac Haas, and a versatile tweener forward in Vince Edwards. The Boilers' front line is just terrific. I think Haas really steps up to fill the void left by A.J. Hammons. The backcourt still needs to step up, but it will get a nice boost with Spike Albrecht having transferred in from Michigan. Purdue is as dark horse as dark horse gets. Better than you think.
The Orange made their way to the Final Four last season after some thought SU was a borderline tournament team heading into Selection Sunday. Now a weird turn of events. Malachi Richardson left early for the draft. Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije graduated. Yet SU's roster looks better and much deeper this season. Paschal Chukwu (via Providence) and Andrew White (via Nebraska) will help Tyler Lydon, Tyler Roberson and DaJaun Coleman in the frontcourt. Boeheim will have fun with that rotation. The backcourt is young. SU has serious size. Matthew Moyer is the freshman I want to see here. The Orange will not be short on options at all; if anything, establishing chemistry is the big key here. But yes, this team is talented enough to win big in March again.
Why is Virginia a wild card? Well, Austin Nichols comes in as a valuable transfer. Probably the best transfer player in college basketball this season. Tony Bennett's proven to get UVa to a top-15 status as a program across the past three seasons. But Virginia loses Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill, two players whose production ranked them in the top 10 of Ken Pomeroy's evaluation algorithm for most valuable players in college basketball. Replacing that is tough, especially with how the Hoos play. Plus, Mike Tobey and Evan Nolte are also gone. Kyle Guy is a freshman name to know, but how will he produce? Virginia is capable of being very good again, but there's too many unknowns right now to slate this team as a true title contender, or even a dark horse.
All you need to know about why Michigan State is a wild card can be found right here. Plenty of detail about what to expect with MSU needing to go to something resembling a four-guard lineup, and how Tom Izzo will be forced to play a lot more zone than he'd like to. The Spartans have a stud in Miles Bridges, and a great frosh class overall, but lacking depth in the front court is going to be a major issue. The key is if Gavin Schilling will be able to return to full form this season. He'll be pivotal to MSU's chances at winning a title.
A preseason top 20 team by any poll of relevance you'll find. The Bruins are in the wild card bin because, remember, this team was under .500 last year. Turning that around can, and should, be done. But it's not going to be very easy. I do like the talent UCLA has. I think Isaac Hamilton could become a stud who's recognized on a national level this season. Lonzo Ball's all-around talent as a point guard should pair so well with Bryce Alford -- who by the way is one of the best players in the Pac-12. Steve Alford's got a lot to work with here. The offense should be a blast. Thomas Welsh being a fourth piece? Plenty of reason for optimism this season.
The Wildcats are a wild card for two reasons. One, the status of Allonzo Trier is not known just yet. Trier did not show up for Pac-12 media day, and U of A coach Sean Miller did not specify why. How long will Trier's status remain unknown? If he plays, he'll be Arizona's leading scorer. The other factor here is youth. The Wildcats have some really good talent (Lauri Markkanen, Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons are all five-star guys) to combo with valuable returnees Trier, Kadeem Allen, Dusan Ristic and Parker Jackson-Cartwright. Markkanen is my pick for Pac-12 Freshman of the Year -- yes, over Markelle Fultz at Washington. I think he's going to be spectacular this season. Miller's never made a Final Four. This isn't his strongest roster since he got to Arizona in 2009, but it has the pieces to be his most entertaining and ... different.
I'm driving the Dennis-Smith-is-the-best-point-guard-in-the-country wagon. I think that's a fact by the time we get to March. Whenever you've got someone as talented as Smith surrounded by other really good players, you're going to have an outside shot. Plus, the just-announced eligibility of another super-talented freshman, Omer Yurtseven, could be the key. Yurtseven, who is probably one of the 12 most talented frosh in the country, will be on the court for Mark Gottfried by mid-December. The Wolfpack have reliability and length inside with BeeJay Anya, plus a terrific junior in Abdul-Malik Abu. Wonderful wild card candidate. Might even become too popular if Yurtseven is the real deal.
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