It may be four months before college basketball’s new season begins, but it’s not too early to identify the teams with a real shot at the national championship. The nation’s top contenders have a combination of talent and experience that their rivals can’t match.
One squad well worth keeping an eye on will be the Arizona Wildcats. With their mix of size (Kaleb Tarczewski) and shooting (Nick Johnson), new point guard T.J. McConnell could find himself taking home the title in his first year in the desert.
Read on for more on Sean Miller’s high-powered team and the rest of the top 20 championship hopefuls, with a look at how likely each one is to be cutting down the nets next April.
The Billikens have a lot of the pieces you want to see in a team heading for a deep postseason run.
Jim Crews’ team plays outstanding defense, has both a go-to star (senior forward Dwayne Evans) and a senior point guard (Jordair Jett) and got valuable tournament experience last season.
However, the prospect of St. Louis defeating two Final Four-caliber opponents to cut down the nets is hard to swallow thanks to an anemic offense.
Even this D won’t be enough to give the Billikens more than an outside title shot in the absence of viable three-point shooters.
The Shockers’ trip to the Final Four was a brilliant performance, but it also gave a pretty good idea of this team’s limitations.
Even with Cleanthony Early and several of the team’s top three-point gunners returning, it’s hard to see Wichita State making it any further this year than they did in 2013, if it even gets that far.
Clutch point guard Malcolm Armstead is gone, leaving Gregg Marshall’s squad with one fewer option for late-game postseason heroics.
More importantly, the losses of Carl Hall and Ehimen Orukpe will take a huge toll on the rebounding edge that Wichita State exploited so effectively.
Having the country’s best player is a great foundation for a title run, and Marcus Smart will be pretty much unstoppable in 2013-14. The rest of the Cowboys’ perimeter game will provide plenty of help, especially high-scoring SG Markel Brown.
However, Oklahoma State got bounced in the first round of last year’s tournament because the frontcourt couldn’t pull its own weight, and there’s little sign of improvement on that score.
Another year of experience for Michael Cobbins will help, but the first big center the Cowboys face in March will probably be their undoing.
The postseason performance of the Mountain West has been nothing short of disastrous over the last several seasons. New Mexico should be in a position to change that trend—but not far enough to bring a national title to Albuquerque.
The Lobos are a steady defensive team with two stars—PG Kendall Williams and C Alex Kirk—to carry the offense.
That and a little luck would be enough to put them in the Final Four, but Williams’ erratic shooting (and the team’s lack of March experience) will keep them from getting any farther.
Year after year, Josh Pastner has seen talent-laden rosters fail to survive the opening weekend of NCAA tournament play. The 2013-14 edition will be in a better position to avoid an early collapse, but that’s a far cry from contending for a championship.
The Tigers will be much more battle-tested than in previous years, thanks to stiff competition from Louisville, UConn and Cincinnati in the new AAC.
However, despite a veteran backcourt led by PG Joe Jackson, this is a team with minimal star power and a defense that gambles and loses too often to make it past the Elite Eight.
Shaka Smart has the rare luxury of never having to worry if his defense will hold up against NCAA tournament competition.
The havoc press that put VCU on the map is just as deadly against power-conference opponents as it is against the mid-major foes the Rams will battle for the Atlantic 10 crown.
However, offense is far less of a sure thing for Smart’s squad, and next year’s won’t be the best he’s fielded.
Defensive specialist Briante Weber will have to take over the point from steady Darius Theus, and the loss of three-point gunner Troy Daniels will put too much pressure on Treveon Graham to do all the scoring for this team.
For the first time since Tom Crean got to Indiana, his team is pretty well guaranteed not to improve on its previous year’s performance. Of course, failing to win another Big Ten title doesn’t mean that IU won’t be a threat in the postseason.
Yogi Ferrell is a solid point guard who’s sure to learn from his one awful game against Syracuse, while freshman Noah Vonleh leads a frontcourt with loads of scoring options.
The team as a whole is too green to be a leading title contender, but if one of the shooters gets hot in the postseason, the Final Four wouldn’t be out of reach.
As impressive as Mark Few’s postseason track record has been at Gonzaga, he still has a grand total of zero Final Four appearances. That’s not a number that’s likely to change with next year’s good-but-not-great squad.
Kevin Pangos is coming off a terrific postseason, and he’ll have some solid scorers to feed (led by ex-reserve Sam Dower up front).
Even so, the talent level on the Bulldogs’ roster is definitely a step down from last year’s Kelly Olynyk-Elias Harris combo, and even that daunting frontcourt couldn’t make the Sweet 16.
Marquette has a great chance to be the best defensive team in the Big East, and even in this post-realignment world, that’s saying something.
The Golden Eagles are tough, physical, and (as they proved last March) adept at coming through in the clutch.
What they’re not is stocked with scorers, now that Vander Blue is off to the NBA. Davante Gardner provides a low-post weapon capable of carrying the offense when he’s a his best, but this roster is still a long shot to put up enough points to win it all.
Assuming P.J. Hairston’s legal troubles don’t have a significant impact on his availability for the Tar Heels this season, UNC should have little trouble landing a favorable seed in March.
Hairston and promising PG Marcus Paige give Roy Williams’ squad a pair of first-rate perimeter options to help weather the losses of Reggie Bullock and Dexter Strickland.
Inside, meanwhile, returning star James Michael McAdoo will get some welcome help from freshmen Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks.
North Carolina has its faults—especially on D, where Strickland’s loss will be keenly felt—but with a wealth of high-end athletes and a few dangerous shooters, it’s a plausible dark horse as a title contender.
One year’s worth of graduation losses has turned the Blue Devils’ once-towering frontcourt into an undersized group that poses the biggest threat to Coach K’s shot at another championship.
Amile Jefferson is skilled, mobile and a hard worker, but he’s also (at 6’8” and a paltry 195 lbs) the team’s only low-post weapon.
On the outside, Duke has no such shortcomings, with stud freshman Jabari Parker and touted transfer Rodney Hood joining a perimeter corps led by overlooked point guard Quinn Cook.
Duke may have just enough three-point shooting to overcome its lack of bulk, but a Blue Devil title this season would be an upset rather than a foregone conclusion.
Considering that Michigan lost the national player of the year and a shooting guard who provided another 14.8 points per game, the Wolverines are in remarkably good shape.
The return of last year’s extraordinary freshman frontcourt—Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas—has John Beilein’s team loaded with both athletes and scorers.
Spike Albrecht’s star turn in the national title game suggests that Trey Burke’s PG spot won’t become a wasteland now that the Wooden Award winner is off to the NBA, though finding a second viable starting guard won’t be trivial.
The Wolverines aren’t quite as loaded as the squad that made the championship game a year ago, but they’re a very real threat to return there in 2014.
Another Final Four team with a backcourt to replace, Syracuse certainly has firepower up front. C.J. Fair leads a deep, athletic group of forwards that should make Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone as stifling as usual next season.
Offensively, there’s plenty of interior scoring but precious little three-point shooting, especially for a team that’s going to be leaning on true freshman PG Tyler Ennis.
As good as the forwards are, having a freshman at such a key position is a weakness that’s likely to see Syracuse fall short of a title again.
Always an impressive recruiter, Bill Self has outdone himSelf this offseason. With top reserves Perry Ellis and Naadir Tharpe ready to step into two vacant starting jobs, Self brought in 5-star freshmen to hold down the other three.
Although No. 1-rated Andrew Wiggins will be the headliner in Lawrence, shot-blocking center Joel Embiid will have just as much to say about the Jayhawks’ title hopes.
The team’s severe lack of NCAA tournament seasoning will be an issue, but very few teams will be able to match KU on sheer talent next season.
In an all-too-familiar refrain, Scottie Wilbekin’s future with the Gators is uncertain following another suspension by coach Billy Donovan.
If, however, the rising senior PG is back to run the offense, Florida will be an even bigger championship threat than last year’s imposing squad.
The key pieces of the nation’s third-best scoring defense return, and freshmen Kasey Hill and Chris Walker will make the Gators’ fast break even deadlier.
The half-court offense is a potential Achilles heel, but don’t be surprised if an improved low-post presence from Patric Young makes a major difference there.
If everyone plays up to their potential, Arizona will be a team for the ages next season. Seven-footer Kaleb Tarczewski leads a frontcourt stocked with future NBA talent, including a pair of McDonald’s All-Americans in this year’s recruiting class.
On the outside, Nick Johnson will keep defenses honest with his shooting, while transfer T.J. McConnell will show why he’s one of the country’s best defenders at the PG spot.
Losing Mark Lyons’ clutch scoring stings, but this roster is still among the most impressive in the country.
Ohio State made the Elite Eight a year ago with a great defense and one unstoppable scorer. The defense will be just as tough—led by the peerless Aaron Craft—but the scoring is far less cut and dried.
In Deshaun Thomas’ absence, the Buckeyes will need to get points from a committee of wing players including Craft, LaQuinton Ross, Sam Thompson and Lenzelle Smith Jr.
If that group gels during the regular season, it has enough long-range shooters to propel a national champion, but if it stalls, the Buckeyes could be upset victims in March.
Tom Izzo’s teams routinely stay around until deep into the postseason, and this year’s Spartans are even more of a threat than most.
Where Michigan State’s forwards are often designated rebounders with little scoring punch, Adreian Payne and (probably) rising sophomore Matt Costello will give the Spartans two frontcourt starters with shooting touch to match their muscle.
On the outside, Branden Dawson and Gary Harris are overpowering defenders, and Harris is also a serious three-point threat. The biggest question mark is rising senior PG Keith Appling, but if he puts last year’s erratic play behind him, watch out.
Measured on talent and potential, there’s no team in the country that can touch Kentucky. Six new McDonald’s All-Americans join a towering group of returnees headlined by 7’0”, 244-pound speedster Willie Cauley-Stein.
Last year’s biggest problem in Lexington, poor point guard play, will be a thing of the past with stud freshman Andrew Harrison handling the ball.
The only thing that can possibly stop the Wildcats is their own inexperience, but with Alex Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer also returning, that might not be enough to keep them from reclaiming the national title.
Louisville’s combination of depth, team speed and defense was going to make the Cardinals a dangerous defending champion under any circumstances. When Russ Smith opted to postpone the NBA for a year, he upped the ante in a big way.
The return of Smith’s defensive leadership and scoring instincts, combined with the promise of newcomer Chris Jones at the point, will make Louisville very nearly as dominant as it was a year ago.
An experienced team that wasn’t even challenged last March until the Final Four is in a great position to absorb the losses of Gorgui Dieng and Peyton Siva and still come away with a second straight championship.