Biggest Flaw That Could Prevent Each Top Contender from Winning March Madness
Even the favorites to win the 2019 Division I men's college basketball national championship each have at least one significant flaw heading into the season.
Duke has arguably the greatest recruiting class since at least Michigan's Fab Five in 1991, but will the Blue Devils be able to overcome a glaring lack of experience?
Kansas seems destined for a 10th consecutive season as a top-two seed in the Big Dance, but is poor luck defending the three-pointer going to trip up the Jayhawks once again?
Tennessee is one of the "nontraditional" teams near the top of the preseason polls, but can a program that has never been to the Final Four be trusted to win it all?
We pinpointed the red flag that every AP Top 10 team needs to address if it wants to win the title. Some are much redder than others, but nobody's perfect.
10. Michigan State Spartans
The Flaw: Lack of frontcourt depth
As a lover of efficiency metrics, I find Michigan State big man Nick Ward to be one of the most fascinating players in the nation.
Ward averaged 27.1 points, 14.0 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per 40 minutes over his first two seasons with the Spartans. In case you need help putting those numbers in perspective, 2018 No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton had marks of 24.0, 13.8 and 2.3, respectively. Ward has a career player efficiency rating of 32.2, which makes him one of just five players to log at least 1,200 career minutes that efficiently.
The only reason he isn't one of the top preseason candidates for national player of the year is because he has yet to average 20 minutes per game in a season, partially because he keeps landing in Tom Izzo's doghouse. But if he can be this effective for 30-32 minutes per game, there will be plenty more people drooling over his numbers.
He's the only proven asset in this frontcourt, however.
Xavier Tillman appeared in every game as a freshman and showed some potential late in the season, but will he be able to transition from the occasional spark of energy to a consistent source of production? Kenny Goins is a veteran with a good amount of experience. But unless he has some sort of Rakeem Christmas senior-year explosion up his sleeve, Goins is just a guy who can steal some minutes and grab some rebounds.
Beyond that, MSU is left to hope either power forward Marcus Bingham Jr. or small forward Gabe Brown can make an immediate major impact as a 4-star freshman. Izzo has had plenty of first-year success in his frontcourt lately in the form of Jaren Jackson Jr. and Deyonta Davis, but those guys were both McDonald's All-Americans. Expecting similar production out of Bingham is probably asking too much, but it's also probably what the Spartans need in order to vie for the title.
9. Villanova Wildcats
The Flaw: Too much roster turnover
Villanova has been the best men's basketball program in the nation over the past four years. Period. Full stop. Anyone who argues otherwise is a fool, because the Wildcats have won two national championships during that time and averaged 34 wins per season.
Perhaps the biggest reason for that consistent dominance—aside from the good fortune of top-100 recruits like Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Mikal Bridges and top-125 prospect Donte DiVincenzo turning into college basketball gods—was Jay Wright's ability to minimize attrition.
A couple of guys graduated each year, but the last time Villanova lost more than three remotely noteworthy players in one offseason was 2011—right before a disastrous 13-19 campaign.
By no means are we suggesting Villanova is going to drop off a cliff like that while working to replace Bridges, DiVincenzo, Jalen Brunson and Omari Spellman. However, it's beyond difficult to lose your four leading scorers and not endure somewhat of a rebuilding season.
Maybe Duke and Kentucky can pull it off every now and then, but it's different for teams who aren't playing with a roster of McDonald's All-Americans.
Think back to Wisconsin a few years ago. It lost five of its seven leading scorers after its second consecutive trip to the Final Four and suffered 13 losses the next season. Or remember Indiana, a No. 1 seed in the 2013 NCAA tournament that lost its top four scorers and missed the dance the following year. Those Hoosiers still had Yogi Ferrell, Will Sheehey and one of the best incoming recruiting classes in the country, but it didn't keep them from a colossal fall from grace.
Villanova should fare better than those Big Ten programs did, but the Wildcats won't make it three titles in four years.
8. North Carolina Tar Heels
The Flaw: Perimeter defense
Throughout the 2017-18 season, North Carolina repeatedly found itself in trouble because of its inability to shut down opposing guards. The Tar Heels allowed more made three-pointers (357) than every other team in the country. They added insult to injury by committing more turnovers than they forced.
To make matters worse, they lost Theo Pinson to graduation. He was their best and most versatile defender.
Seventh Woods—when he has been healthy and given the opportunity to play—has shown some potential on the defensive end. He has been a major liability on offense, however, and has a lot to prove before he can be trusted to play a key role.
Freshman Nassir Little certainly has the size, length and athleticism to be a disruptive force on the wing, but he's much more of a lock to become a star on offense than on defense. Maybe he becomes a viable replacement for Pinson on defense—and a massive upgrade on offense—but that would still only plug one gaping hole.
What North Carolina really needs is more out of the point guard spot on defense. Joel Berry II was an excellent offensive piece for the Tar Heels over the past three years, but his defense seemed to get worse with each season. And most of the scouting reports on freshman Coby White aren't too optimistic about his on-ball defense, so perimeter defense may still be a devastating issue for this team.
7. Nevada Wolf Pack
The Flaw: Uncertainty in the backcourt
Nevada is a mid-major team loaded with high-major talent.
Cody Martin is the most versatile player in the nation. Twin brother Caleb Martin is an elite shot-maker and a versatile weapon in his own right. Jordan Caroline is a nightly double-double threat with some three-point range. Jordan Brown is a McDonald's All-American who should be the most dominant big man in the Mountain West Conference. And Eric Musselman has five transfers who averaged at least 13 points per game in their most recent season.
But what is the backcourt going to look like?
Kendall Stephens and Hallice Cooke were Nevada's most lethal three-point shooters last season, but they both graduated, leaving the Wolf Pack with some question marks along the perimeter. And with Lindsey Drew's status still up in the air as he recovers from a ruptured Achilles tendon in February, they have an even bigger question mark at point guard.
Three of the five transfers are solid three-point shooters who might be able to fill those Stephens- and Cooke-sized voids. And Cody Martin is more than capable of running the offense, considering he led the team with 4.7 assists per game last year.
But there's no question Nevada wasn't the same after Drew went down.
The Wolf Pack twice lost to a San Diego State team they blew out when Drew was healthy, and they struggled with teams like UNLV and Utah State, whom they should've easily beaten. Yes, they made it to the Sweet 16, but only after digging themselves massive holes and pulling off unbelievable comebacks in each of the first two rounds.
Granted, any team would struggle after losing its starting point guard three months into the season. But if Drew is unable to play—or does so at significantly less than 100 percent—Nevada's 2018-19 ceiling won't be as high.
6. Tennessee Volunteers
The Flaw: Never been there
Ancient history shouldn't matter in sports. There's no good reason for the successes or failures of a bunch of 20-year-olds to hinge on things that may have happened before they were even born.
And yet it's clear in men's basketball that programs don't win it all unless they have been there at least once before.
All the way back in 1966, Texas Western (now UTEP) won the national championship in the school's only trip to the Final Four. Since then, though, 51 of the last 52 champions had played in at least one Final Four prior to winning it all. The lone exception was Connecticut in 1999, and it's not like those Huskies came out of nowhere. They had been a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in four of the previous five tournaments, and they had at least reached the Sweet 16 in six out of nine years before finally breaking through to cut down the nets.
That brings us to Tennessee, which has never been to the Final Four, hasn't earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and hasn't even received an invite to five of the last seven.
(All of those facts also apply to Nevada, in case you're looking for another reason to fade the Wolf Pack.)
The Volunteers could be great.
They earned a share of the SEC's regular-season title last year, and they get back all six of the leading scorers from that team. That includes big man Grant Williams, who was named SEC Player of the Year and who is at least a fringe candidate for 2018-19 national player of the year. He and Kyle Alexander make a great tandem in the paint, especially on defense.
Admiral Schofield, Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden each shot 39.5 percent from three-point range. That trio of perimeter threats is back, as is point guard Jordan Bone, who averaged 6.1 assists per 40 minutes and better than 2.8 assists per turnover as a sophomore.
It's a great six-man rotation, and there's good reason to believe sophomore wing Yves Pons and/or freshman power forward D.J. Burns will play big roles this season, too. But the combination of the program's (lack of) Final Four history and Rick Barnes' reputation as a coach who can't win it all makes it hard to trust this team.
5. Virginia Cavaliers
The Flaw: It's still Virginia
Even before its historic loss to UMBC, it was starting to feel irresponsible to believe in Virginia in March.
The Cavaliers have been outstanding during the regular season, earning either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in four of the past five NCAA tournaments. They have a 73-17 record in ACC play, including three outright league titles. They also won the conference tournaments in 2014 and 2018.
But for some reason, the pack-line defense that consistently locks down opponents from November through February can't get it done in the tournament.
The Cavaliers are like a version of the mid-2000s Phoenix Suns, who thrived during the regular season before always getting eliminated prior to the NBA Finals. Except instead of Mike D'Antoni's seven seconds or less approach, Tony Bennett's teams have suffered a similar fate while draining as much time off the shot clock as possible.
In fact, did you know a Bennett-coached team has never beaten a higher-seeded team in the NCAA tournament?
He has been to the Big Dance eight times in his career—six with Virginia, two with Washington State. Five times, he was eliminated by an opponent seeded at least three lines worse than his team. And in three tries against higher-seeded foes, his teams lost by 21 points (2008), 26 points (2012) and 26 points (2017).
Again, even before the UMBC debacle, there might not have been a coach in the country with a wider gap between regular-season success and postseason failures. Much has been made about Sean Miller's inability to reach the Final Four, but at least he got that huge win over No. 1 seed Duke in the 2011 Sweet 16. Meanwhile, Bennett is 2-6 against teams seeded No. 7 or better, and his best win came against a No. 4 seed.
Beyond the recent history concerns, Virginia lost arguably its two most important players in Isaiah Wilkins and Devon Hall. Getting De'Andre Hunter to stay for one more year and getting Alabama transfer Braxton Key ruled eligible were major offseason developments, but the Cavaliers need guys like Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff to take big steps forward in order to remain the class of the ACC—let alone a serious threat to win the title.
4. Duke Blue Devils
The Flaw: Inexperience (and questionable shooting)
The whole "you can't win a title with freshmen as your leaders" theory went out the window with the 2012 Kentucky team. It was kicked even further to the curb by the 2015 Duke team.
Each of them, however, had three non-freshmen (including one senior) among their six top scorers, so there's still reason to believe you can't win it all without at least a little veteran support.
Could Duke be the team to end that narrative?
If any batch of freshmen is going to pull it off, you would think it's this one. RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson are arguably the three best players in this year's class. Tre Jones might be the best point guard. And even forgotten 4-star small forward Joey Baker* could make a huge impact.
But the Blue Devils lost all five of their leading scorers and don't have a returning player who averaged more than 4.0 points, 4.0 rebounds or 1.0 assist per game. Suffice to say there's no Quinn Cook on this roster to be the stable senior.
If anyone is going to make a leap, Alex O'Connell is the most likely guy. He shot 48.9 percent from three-point range last year and may well be the top perimeter threat for the Blue Devils. That's far from a guarantee, though, and we're still only talking about a sophomore with fewer than 400 minutes of collegiate experience. Can he really be their veteran leader?
Among the older guys, Marques Bolden was a highly touted recruit in 2016, but he has yet to even remotely tap into that potential. Javin DeLaurier has been a valuable offensive rebounder, defender and all-around energy guy off the bench, but it's unknown if he can be counted on for anything other than occasional spurts.
Duke will be extremely good. But it will also go through peaks and valleys and may have some trouble saving its best for last, as freshmen—because of a combination of fatigue and opposing coaches having game tape to work with—often hit the proverbial wall in mid-February.
*No one is talking about Baker, and I don't know why.
Rob Dauster didn't even mention him in his Duke preview for NBC Sports. But Baker's 247Sports rating is almost identical to those of Zach Collins, Cassius Winston, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Tyler Dorsey, Donovan Mitchell and Jawun Evans in recent years.
He probably won't start, but he could be a critical rotation piece for the Blue Devils.
3. Gonzaga Bulldogs
The Flaw: Lack of depth
At this point, we're doing some serious nitpicking.
Kansas, Kentucky, Gonzaga and Duke are clearly the four best teams heading into the season, and they are the likeliest No. 1 seeds for the 2019 NCAA tournament. Though it was easy to home in on Duke's lack of experience as a red flag, the top three teams' flaws were more about shoulder shrugs and "I guess this could be a downfall" suggestions.
That said, are we sure the Bulldogs have enough weapons?
One of the best things about this team when it almost won the title two years ago was its depth. Neither Zach Collins nor Killian Tillie started a single game, and Silas Melson was a fine backcourt reserve. Scouts already knew Rui Hachimura had NBA potential, but the Zags barely even needed him as a 10th man while the Japan native learned the English language and the Gonzaga system.
But this year, there's not much beyond the projected starting five of Hachimura, Tillie, Josh Perkins, Zach Norvell Jr. and Brandon Clarke.
Corey Kispert should be a key backup and may fall into the type of role Melson and Kyle Dranginis played in recent years. But he's still just a sophomore who didn't do much of anything in Gonzaga's five games against BYU and Saint Mary's last year. A developmental leap could be in the cards, but there are much more noteworthy sixth men on other title contenders.
Grad transfer Geno Crandall could also be a valuable backup—especially because of his defense—but going from North Dakota to Gonzaga is a huge step up. There may be a steep learning curve.
Beyond that, redshirt freshman Joel Ayayi or freshman Serbian big man Filip Petrusev are the best hope for contributions, and that's not saying much.
It won't stop the Bulldogs from winning the West Coast Conference—all those blowouts of Portland, Pepperdine and Santa Clara will be nice opportunities to find out what the bench players can do—but that lack of depth may spell trouble for Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament.
2. Kentucky Wildcats
The Flaw: No singular star
Stop me if you've heard this one before, but Kentucky is loaded with talent. John Calipari landed five of the 40 highest-rated recruits in this year's class, and the Wildcats have more veteran experience than usual with Stanford grad transfer Reid Travis joining a trio of talented sophomores in Lexington.
But who's the dude they turn to when they desperately need a bucket?
Keldon Johnson is the guy the NBA draft experts are most excited about, but that's mostly because of his athleticism and his potential to develop into the next great three-and-D wing. For the time being, he's raw on the offensive end and has a lot to prove before becoming a Malik Monk- or Jamal Murray-type of go-to scorer.
Tyler Herro showed during Kentucky's Bahamas trip that he has the shooting stroke to become that guy, but he is a far cry from the perimeter defenders the Wildcats typically employ. Unless he improves his game on that end of the floor, he may well be Kentucky's eighth or ninth man—which doesn't exactly scream "clutch scorer."
PJ Washington is a gifted post scorer, but he's such a liability at the free-throw line (60.6 percent last season) that he'll be hard to trust repeatedly in must-score situations.
The good news is the Wildcats should get plenty of opportunities to figure it out. In addition to nonconference tilts with Duke, Kansas and North Carolina, they'll have 18 games in a loaded SEC, which will produce ample crunch-time situations.
Kentucky was in a similar situation at this time last year before Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander emerged as the guys who could be trusted late in close games. But neither one was anywhere close to as dominant as Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns, nor as cold-blooded as Aaron Harrison. And without that type of player, the Wildcats were merely a No. 5 seed who got bounced in the Sweet 16.
1. Kansas Jayhawks
The Flaw: Three-point defense
Per usual, Kansas is going to be one of the best teams in the country. In addition to the Big 12 title streak you hear about all the time, the Jayhawks have been either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament in nine consecutive seasons. Barring a major injury bug or other unforeseen circumstances, they'll extend that run to a full decade in March.
Not one of those teams produced a national championship, though, and it was often because of poor three-point defense.
Last year, Villanova buried Kansas in the Final Four by making 18 of 40 (45.0 percent) three-point attempts. The year before that, Oregon shot 11-of-25 (44.0 percent) in the process of upsetting the Jayhawks. In 2015, Wichita State was 10-of-20 (50.0 percent). And when VCU stunned KU in the 2011 Elite Eight, it was largely thanks to the dozen triples the Rams made in 25 attempts (48.0 percent).
(It didn't help that Kansas shot a collective 20-of-88, or 22.7 percent, from downtown in those games.)
One could certainly go through any team's game log and cherry-pick times when it was victimized by the long ball. Virginia has had one of the stingiest defenses ever, yet it was ousted by No. 16 seed UMBC and the Retrievers' 12-of-24 shooting from deep.
But it does seem to happen to Kansas far too often. And since it lost Devonte' Graham, Malik Newman and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk from last year's roster, the backcourt rotation isn't as experienced or established as it usually is—though more minutes for Marcus Garrett certainly won't hurt the defense.
Kansas should have the talent to overcome an outstanding shooting performance by just about any opponent, but there's also a reason three-point shooting is called the great equalizer. It just might trip up the Jayhawks once again.