Putting the 16 teams that have a realistic shot at the NCAA Tournament title into tiers

There are infinite possible outcomes on the way with the forthcoming college basketball season which, hello, starts in 14 days. We can't know for sure how the season will pull, flip and twist. But in terms of a national champion, I think we all have a safe idea on the stable of squads almost certainly set to take the title. 

Even within that set of teams, there are lines of separation. Just like last year, I'm not only offering up college basketball's definitive list of teams capable of winning the national championship, but also separating them into tiers. Just like last year, I'm guaranteeing one of these teams will be the last one standing come April 2 in San Antonio. On the heels of our rankings of all 351 teams in the nation, I see 16 teams that qualify for the national championship convo. 

The 16 schools are separated into four strata: front-runners, contenders, dark horses and wild cards. 

The 2017-18 NCAA Division I men's basketball champion will be one of these 16. The question is which; the fun is in finding out how. 

Front-runners

-- The front-runners sit atop the sport heading into the season and make the most sense right now to be considered favorites

Breakdown: Our preseason No. 1 team leads this list. Let's go into quick detail why a new-look Duke squad is considered to be the top team in the sport. Obviously Mike Krzyzewski's coaching looms large. The recruiting class, though, could wind up as one of -- if not the -- strongest in Coach K's career. The NBA talent on this season's roster -- like last season, when Duke was a No. 2 seed -- is thoroughly undeniable. Grayson Allen returns, and if we can set aside all the melodrama of the Grayson Allen Experience over the past two seasons we'll see that he has the potential to be one of the five best players in the country. Then there are sophomores with raw talent who could make a huge jump: Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier. If all these elements click, Duke is probably going to be the toughest club to match up against when you combine talent and coaching. That's why the Blue Devils make sense as a logical No. 1 choice as we head to Nov. 10. I don't discount the youth on this team, though, and do wonder if Duke is going to look "overrated" in the first month of the season. Excited to see what we get. 

Stat to know: Duke has gone nine consecutive seasons with a top-10 offense at KenPom.com. No other program has gone as long even having a top-25 offense every season. 

Breakdown: The Jayhawks have the benefit of a senior point guard in Devonte' Graham, who's actually a bit underrated at this point. How a four-year impact player at KU -- and a preseason Big 12 POY pick -- could be underrated heading into his final season is bizarre, but it feels true. Graham is going to lead a four-out offense of guards, including (top-100 player and transfer via Mississippi State) Malik Newman, senior Svi Mykhailiuk and junior Lagerald Vick. Kansas' key to winning a title comes from its big men, though. The guards will be good and their play is probably bound to be successful enough to get KU a league title for what seems like the 72nd straight season. Down low, the consistency of starting center Udoka Azubuike and the learning curve of freshman power forward Billy Preston (I like his game but happen to think he'll be bettered with two seasons of college) could dictate Bill Self's chances of winning a second national title. If you tell me Preston is a top-10 freshman by March and nobody on this team is injured, it will be hard to pick against KU making the Final Four.

Stat to know: After Frank Mason won National Player of the Year for 2016-17, Graham has a shot this season, which would give the same school back-to-back winners. There are six major national POY trophies. The last time a school was recognized in consecutive years by any of the six was in 2005 and '06 when Duke's J.J. Redick pulled it off. But the most recent instance of two different players from the same school taking NPOY honors in consecutive years? In 2002 and '03 when KU's Drew Gooden and Nick Collison did it. 

Breakdown: There are only three front-runners -- true front-runners; I'll explain Arizona below -- this season. The Spartans are a no-brainer pick. I've written plenty this offseason about Miles Bridges and his band of sophomore brothers (Nick Ward, Cassius Winston, Josh Langford). If you don't know much about them, just know they comprise the most talented and versatile squadron of sophomores in the sport at the moment. But with just them, I wouldn't have MSU as a front-runner. No, it's the 3-point shooting of Matt McQuaid and the invaluable defensive presence (and overall growth) of Tum Tum Nairn. And it's the return of Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter, two bigs who missed last season to injury. Tom Izzo is basically going to be working with a starting eight. MSU will be relentless on the glass, viable on defense and multi-faceted on offense. There have been some great teams in East Lansing in the past. This Sparty group has the ceiling of being one of the top three clubs of the Izzo era. 

Stat to know: Cassius Winston assisted on 46.7 percent of MSU's plays when he was on the floor last season -- the second-best rate in the country behind Creighton's Mo Watson, whose career ended due to injury in January. 

Title contenders

-- Title contenders are essentially a half-pace behind at this point. If anything, they merely (and barely) lack either the star power or overall firepower (again, as we view them right now) when lined up against the front-runners

Breakdown: The Wildcats have the preseason Big East Player of the Year in Jalen Brunson. Phil Booth, who was a solid piece on the 2016 title-winning team, missed last season but is back. Omari Spellman sat last season per an NCAA mandate, so now the talented freshman is ready to unleash. Mikal Bridges is the player most likely to break out that I see out there in a sea of candidates. Donte DiVincenzo is on his way to being the next Ryan Arcidiacono. Eric Paschall returns, too. It's fairly incredible how viable, nationally, Villanova is after losing Wildcats legends Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins. Jay Wright is living in his golden years right now. This will be your Big East champ for the fifth consecutive season. I expect a No. 1 seed for the Wildcats, meaning they are in the thick of the national championship conversation.  

Stat to know: Villanova's four straight Big East regular-season titles is a league record. The only comparable run in league history (which dates to 1979-80) was UConn's five regular-season championships in six seasons, from 1994-99. 

Breakdown: Oh, without question Wichita State is a title contender. Welcome to a new era, Shockers. Not only are you starting your first season as dues-paying members of the American Athletic Conference, but you're setting records with preseason rankings and expectations. Wichita State has risen to a top-25 national program in the past half-decade under Gregg Marshall. He made a Final Four in 2013. He coached the team to an undefeated regular season and a No. 1 seed in 2014. He made the Sweet 16 in 2015, and last season's Shockers finished No. 8 in KenPom.com and entered the NCAAs with their highest ranking ever in that mainstream metric. But now, thanks to all starters returning, this Shockers team looks to be the strongest -- from a starting five perspective -- that the program has ever had. Landry Shamet is a 6-foot-5 point guard who has a good chance at being drafted. Markis McDuffie will get serious NBA looks as well. Once those two are back from foot injuries, the Shockers are going to be a load with Zach Brown's defense, Shaq Morris' rebounding and Conner Frankamp's shooting. Damn, it's impossible not to like this team's personnel. 

Stat to know: The Shockers will try to go for a fifth straight season without more than one two-game losing streak. The last time it happened to WSU was 2012-13.  

Breakdown: Whoo boy, the Wildcats are going to be fun but certainly a project. Yes, they're obviously a title contender. The No. 2 recruiting class in the country includes the deepest deployment of talented wing players on any team. Jarred Vanderbilt is in the process of returning from an injury, but UK is built to withstand an injury or two. Quade Green is one of the lesser-heralded point guards John Calipari has had (and that's all relative; if Green were starting this season at, say, Arizona State? The Sun Devils would get Top 25 consideration). Wenyen Gabriel is back, and it would be surprising if he didn't become an increasingly problematic player to scheme against. Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo will probably lead the Cats in scoring. Calipari would absolutely love to win a national championship with a roster that's more inexperienced than any he has ever had. That, and going undefeated, are the only things Cal has left to prove (and he doesn't need to prove anything, really). 

Stat to know: If you're wondering what the expectation for a team like this should be, Calipari has averaged 31 wins at Kentucky. Anywhere in the 26-29 range is most likely. 

Dark horses

-- Dark horses are labeled as such because they're not being put in the national championship conversation even though they've all got the coaching and veteran presence to win six straight in March

Breakdown: Key to note that the dark-horse category, for our purposes here, is for a few teams that haven't been, and mostly won't be, discussed in the preseason as national championship-caliber despite being nearly universally regarded as top-20 squads this season. Florida, which we have ranked all the way up at No. 9, qualifies. Which is a bit odd, given that the Gators were crazy close to going to the Final Four last season. Chris Chiozza, responsible for one of the most famous shots in Gator history, is back -- alongside his super-talented teammate KeVaughn Allen. Florida is going to have the defense necessary to give it a tremendous shot at making the Final Four. Once big man John Egbunu comes back from injury a few weeks into the season Florida can click into a stalwart of defense. What's interesting about this team is how good it is even after losing Devin Robinson to the NBA Draft. Mike White has adapted with a quickness to keeping UF as a top-25 national program. 

Stat to know: White, 40, has won 70 percent of his games in six seasons between Louisiana Tech and Florida. He played at Ole Miss and was an assistant in a few spots along the way. He never was a part of an NCAA Tournament game until last March.  

Breakdown: Cincinnati won't have five players on our annual Top 100 (and one) Players list, but by year's end it might well have a case for it. I do, truly, try not to get too far ahead of myself in the preseason. I try not to build up programs too much. But every year we get a nice influx of schools that are expected to make a jump and then do. Cincinnati was already pretty good last season. And it's one of the really good all-time programs (I explained why last season.) Yet this team should be right there with Wichita State at the top of the AAC. It can be a top-10 team. It can be one of the five best teams in Bearcats history because Mick Cronin has never had this much offensive firepower and this many reliable two-way players. Cane Broom is a transfer out of Sacred Heart who dominated the NEC, but almost no one has heard of him. He's going to step on the floor with Jacob Evans, Gary Clark, Kyle Washington and Jarron Cumberland -- and Cincy is going to be as entertaining as it has looked since the peak Bob Huggins years. 

Stat to know: Broome comes to a team that only gave away the ball 5.5 percent of the time via steals, the lowest rate last season in college basketball. 

Breakdown: I had the Gaels on last season's list. Now, as the West Coast Conference favorites and with most of the roster back, it's only fair to put Randy Bennett's team here again. Jock Landale has gotten a good amount of publicity for how terrific he is as an all-around big man, but SMC relies nearly as much on the point-guard play of Emmett Naar. He's not quite the talent Landale is, but he's just about as valuable. Calvin Hermanson is back at small forward, too. Jordan Ford was a promising freshman. I know it's hard to envision a team like Saint Mary's winning the national title, but even a decade ago you couldn't have seen Gonzaga in the national title game. 

Stat to know: According to Sports Reference, Landale's .288 win shares per 40 minutes were No. 1 in the sport last season, beating out Sindarius Thornwell and Nigel Williams-Goss. That's astounding to me. 

Wild cards

-- Wild cards have concerns such as eligibility, extraordinary youth, lingering injuries or significant roster turnover

Breakdown: Obviously Arizona is a top-three team right now. But there are programs tied to the FBI investigation of bribery in college basketball. That means those programs are also going to be caught in the NCAA's crosshairs eventually as well. With the knowledge that Arizona -- and other schools listed below -- apparently had assistants caught on video or wiretap accepting bribes to steer players to their schools, we have to acknowledge that eligibility issues with a player, or two or three are possible. Sean Miller's situation seems stable at the moment, but could that change before the season is done? We can't say for certain. With that in mind, the Wildcats are labeled a wild card. If the school conducts its reviews and finds no issue with any player on the roster, then we'll deal with that then. For those who want to be cynical at such an outcome, you're in the right. At full strength, Arizona has a case to be the No. 1 team in the country. Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins and DeAndre Ayton are, to me, three of the 25 best players in college basketball. They have plenty of talent around them as well. 

Stat to know: The Wildcats have only one game scheduled against any team on this list. That team being ...

Breakdown: The Trojans of Southern Cal. Like Arizona, they have an assistant who was arrested by the FBI. Like Arizona, there are questions about the roster from an eligibility standpoint. Absent any federal government intrusion, Andy Enfield's team would be listed as a "title contender" no question. Southern Cal has a case as one of the top five most talented rosters. The names to know, in case you've forgotten or aren't totally familiar: Chimezie Metu is a borderline 7-footer who plays alongside 6-10 Bennie Boatwright, who's capable of stretching the floor. Jordan McLaughlin is a top 10-12 point guard, and he has Elijah Stewart and De'Anthony Melton in the backcourt with him. Melton is a top-70 player, Stewart probably a top-120 guy. Shaqquan Aaron on the wing, too. This should be a top-10 offense. 

Stat to know: USC is going for its third straight Big Dance. That has only happened once in school history (2007-09) and that's no longer even on the books because of the Tim Floyd/O.J. Mayo NCAA violation. 

Breakdown: We're on team No. 3 connected to the FBI probe. Now, Miami is listed here in part because of that (though coach Jim Larranaga is steadfast in publicly stating that his program will be exonerated; he has used stronger language than other coaches) but also because the Hurricanes are wild-cardy. If all are eligible to play, the Hurricanes' national title hopes will be driven by Bruce Brown. Brown is a sophomore -- probably a top-three sophomore -- and will be a joy to watch play. Freshman Lonnie Walker will loom heavily, though. They'll need him to adapt quickly and play at lottery-pick levels in order to win a championship, I think. With Dewan Huell (set for a big leap?), Ja'Quan Newton (more efficient this season?) and Anthony Lawrence (glue guy extraordinaire) back, Miami is also a fine sleeper pick to win the ACC. 

Stat to know: Miami was "unlucky" in that opponents shot 73.9 percent from the foul line last season -- one of the highest percentages in college hoops. Yet Miami still won 21 games. The U should benefit with a reversion to the mean. 

Breakdown: Our fourth FBI-affected program is the most wild card-applicable of all. The Cardinals lose their Hall of Fame coach and have lost freshman Brian Bowen (at least until further notice). David Padgett, the interim coach, is unproven. But Deng Adel, Quentin Snider, Ray Spalding, V.J. King (underrated!) and Anas Mahmoud are all back. That's a really solid quintet. Almost no one is giving Louisville a shot to rally and vie for a national title, yet U of L was a borderline top-10 team before this FBI stuff. There is a chance this group surprises many, goes out and gets a No. 3 seed and then has the talent and matchups to make a deep run. A wild-card pick by definition, but worthy of inclusion nonetheless. 

Stat to know: Come Louisville's first game of the season, on Nov. 12, it will mark 17,039 days -- and 1,533 games -- since the last time the Cardinals were not coached by a Hall of Famer. That last instance? Louisville actually had two sitting head coaches (Howard Stacey and John Dromo). The Cardinals were in the Missouri Valley Conference then and ended their season with a 64-58 loss to Providence in 1971. Denny Crum and Rick Pitino spanned a few epochs of Louisville hoops, from 1971-2017. Padgett is filling massive shoes with pragmatic expectations. 

Breakdown: Took us a while to get to the reigning national champs. Joel Berry II broke his hand in a fit of frustration after playing "NBA 2K18," but if he's back to full health by the start of December then UNC should be OK. Berry is a top-two point guard and it's because of his return that UNC is even ranked. We don't know what to expect from sophomores Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson. Luke Maye suddenly has a lot more on his broad shoulders. Will Theo Pinson thrive -- and dodge injury -- with more on-court responsibility than he has ever had? Carolina has some good pieces but everything is going to have to hit like a tuning fork in order for the Tar Heels to repeat. 

Stat to know: UNC was the No. 1 offensive rebounding team last season, grabbing 41.3 percent of its misses, and has grabbed 40 percent or more of its misses the past three seasons. It will need to come close to that rate again to make the Final Four. 

Breakdown: The two-man attack of Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell makes Notre Dame an intriguing "long shot" to win it all. I think the Fighting Irish are a great preseason value pick. Colson is the preseason POY in the ACC and on the short list of national Player of the Year favorites. Farrell is a top-10 point guard as far as I'm concerned, and he's going to have many games where he outshines Colson. Mike Brey has Rex Pflueger and Temple Gibbs back as well. Selfless team that moves the ball well, won't turn it over too much and will keep its cool in close games. Enjoy another season of fun all-around basketball in South Bend. 

Stat to know: The Irish bring back most of their best shooters. This team was 80 percent from the foul line last season, and came close to setting the D-I record from the stripe (Harvard went 82.2 percent in 1983-84). 

Breakdown: Generally speaking, unless you're Kansas, Kentucky, Duke or UNC, it's hard to lose a Player of the Year candidate and return as a national championship contender. (Villanova, however, is making it look natural.) Yet here we have Purdue rounding out the list despite not having Caleb Swanigan, who was world-beatingly superb last season. Matt Painter's team is the second best in the Big Ten in my eyes thanks to Vincent Edwards and Carsen Edwards set to fly and push this team to another stellar season. The oak tree in the middle, 7-2 Isaac Haas, can't be ignored. Dakota Mathias might play himself into being a top-10 3-point shooter. The wild-card aspect is not having Swanigan. Purdue was borderline national-championship caliber last season with him, and now he's gone. But this group is older, and Painter has a great coaching knack about him. If anything, he's underrated at this point in his career and I do not use that term lightly. 

Stat to know: You might think Purdue is mostly muscle and mid-range, but the Boilemakers ranked seventh nationally in 3-point percentage last season (40.3), and most sharpshooters return.

CBS Sports Writer

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

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