Candid Coaches: What team is going to win the 2020 NCAA Tournament championship?

Graphic by Mike Meredith

CBS Sports college basketball writers Gary Parrish and Matt Norlander surveyed more than 100 coaches for our annual Candid Coaches series. They polled everyone from head coaches at elite programs to assistants at some of the smallest Division I schools. In exchange for complete anonymity, the coaches provided unfiltered honesty about a number of topics in the sport. Over the next couple of weeks, we'll be posting the results on nine questions they were asked.

It's the biggest discussion point heading into every college basketball season.

What team's gonna be the best?

Some years that question is seemingly easier to answer than others. This is one of those years. In fact, judging by both the responses to this question -- and taking a look at how college basketball's media is assembling its rankings heading into November -- we've somewhat quietly crept toward a rankings consensus on a level seldom seen in the past 20 years. 

The preseason polls inform the public -- and usually the coaches, too. So consider this the most reliable, if unofficially acknowledged, preseason coaches poll you'll find in college basketball. 

We waste no more time. Let's get to the results. More than 100 college coaching minds were asked:

What team will win the 2020 NCAA Tournament?

TeamVotes
Michigan State 54%
Kansas 17%
Kentucky 12%
Duke 7%
Florida 5%

Quotes that stood out

On Michigan State

  • "I think it's hard to pick someone other than Michigan State at this point. All the other top teams had lots of turnover and new faces, and it's hard to think a veteran team under (Tom) Izzo won't make real noise very late into March."
  • "I wanted to go against the grain but just too many cases to be made for them. With them returning a number of key guys and them getting a taste of the Final Four last year, I think they are primed to get back. Cassius Winston may just be the best winner and leader in college basketball. Add that with Izzo's experience and drive and I think they have a national-championship-winning formula.  The bull's-eye will be on their back all season, so that could be the slight knock against them if that proves to be too much pressure."
  • "Michigan State is my first pick. Most of their core back with an elite coach that's been there before. Also Cassius Winston is one of the best players in college basketball at the most important position." 

On Kansas

  • "With Kansas and Self, you can never count them out. Great recruiting class, unbelievable big man and they get the Silvio (De Sousa) guy who sat out. They have a lot of talent, a great front line and Self, to me, is similar to an Izzo in that they do their best work when they're overlooked." 
  • "This is exactly the type of team Bill is great with. No freshmen stars. Just older dudes who can play."
  • "Adding the shooting of (Isaiah) Moss and (Jalen) Wilson in the spring makes them the choice for me."

On Kentucky

  • "It's really difficult not to go with Michigan State. They are oozing experience on all fronts. They have the roster, the head coach, as well as continuity on the coaching staff to make another deep run in March. But for some reason, I think they are better when they are the hunted and not the hunter. They thrive on having something to prove -- or feeling like they aren't being given the respect they deserve. That won't be the case this year so it'll be interesting to see if they can keep their edge or if the hunger that was there last year is gone. That's why I'm going with the University of Kentucky to win it all. A few years back you couldn't turn on a television without seeing or hearing Coach Cal and the Wildcats, but lately people are doubting them both on the court and on the recruiting trail. Every team goes through a down cycle, even Kentucky, but they are going to be a hungry bunch all year and into March."
  • "They bring enough good players back and have made a lot of Final Fours [under John Calipari]. Good recruiting class as always. I expect the [bigs] to be a question early, but the backcourt with (Tyrese) Maxey and (Ashton) Hagans and (Immanuel) Quickley could wind up as the best in the country."

On Florida

  • "Florida is the one I think people are overlooking. I'd bet on that team to win the SEC before I bet on Kentucky."

The takeaway

Historically, we've asked coaches to not name who wins the forthcoming NCAA Tournament, but rather, who they expect to be the best team. For all intents and purposes, they're largely the same thing with a tricky material difference. The best team more often than not does not win the NCAA Tournament. However, according to metrics, that was not the case last season. While Duke was awarded the No. 1 overall seed and was the tournament favorite to win the 2019 title, Virginia was holding at No. 1 in multiple advanced metrics for a couple of weeks prior to the start of the 2019 Big Dance. 

When we asked this question a year ago, 5% of the coaches surveyed correctly identified Virginia as the eventual top team in college hoops. Kansas, though, was the clear top choice in the summer of 2018. I get a strong sense that this year's survey will again correctly identify the best team in college basketball. Two schools not listed above who also received a few votes: UNC and Gonzaga. All in all, a small list of contenders.

Michigan State's dominant presence in this survey has broken a Candid Coaches record. No school in the eight-year history of this series has ever received more than 50% of the vote. What's more impressive about this is that, though MSU brings back plenty, it also lost Nick Ward, Kenny Goins and Matt McQuaid. All three players were significant and efficient contributors last season.

Sparty getting respect from coaches across the country is not new theme with this question. Izzo's team finished second just two years ago, but how about this: Arizona won with 40% of the vote that year!

The Spartans ruled 2019's voting for some obvious reasons. They bring back an All-American in Cassius Winston. Michigan State returns more relevant players than any team that made the 2019 Final Four. It employs a Hall of Fame coach. The program has made more Final Fours in the past two decades than any team in the sport. The Big Ten will likely not be quite as strong next season, which should position Michigan State for an easier path toward a No. 1 seed which, if it gets it, will be the sixth in school history and first since 2012.  

Still, this is a runaway. Coaches, on the whole, aren't sold on Duke or Kentucky's talent this upcoming season the way many have been in the past. Kansas finishing second means that 71 percent of coaches polled picked experience over talent this season. 

And when you look at the run of national title winners in recent seasons, that voting is sensible. Virginia was loaded with veterans last season. In 2018 and 2016, Villanova had some contributions from freshmen but obviously won those titles on the shoulders of juniors and seniors such as Ryan Arcidiacono, Kris Jenkins, Josh Hart, Daniel Ochefu, Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Eric Paschall. The same was true of UNC's seasoned 2016-17 squad that beat a fellow veteran crew, Gonzaga, in the national title game. 

Duke's 2014-15 team was the last team, and really one of the few teams ever, to be so heavily reliant on freshmen (Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow, Grayson Allen) and still win it all. I think that gets at the heart of the voting here. It's practical to pick older teams before we get to the games. With Winston having grown into one of the best players in Michigan State history, it's no surprise that MSU won the poll -- the spacious margin is still surprising, though, and will bolster Sparty's October/November hype to levels it's never been.

Michigan State has never been the preseason No. 1 team in the history of the AP Poll. That almost certainly changes less than two months from now. 

More Candid Coaches

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his ninth season reporting on college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics... Full Bio

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