One month into the season if you were to ask the average sports fan who will be cutting down the nets in early April after winning the NCAA Tournament, the overwhelming majority would tell you that it will be the Duke Blue Devils. You would get responses along the lines of “have you seen Zion Williamson, he is unbelievable!” or “they are the best college team I’ve ever seen.” While those statements are bold, they may be accurate, Duke really is amazing. It does not mean that they are a sure lock to win the NCAA tournament this year and any real college basketball fan would confirm that thought. There are way too many supremely talented teams in College Basketball this year that will be contending for that title to count everyone else out in December. While the National Media would want you to believe no one else besides Duke has a chance, lets break down some of the other teams that are set up to make a run this spring come March Madness.
#1) GONZAGA BULLDOGS (8-0)
Considering the Zags are the only team to take down the superhuman Blue Devils squad, they almost have to be on this list and be a favorite to make another historic postseason run again this year. The perennial WCC Champs are 8-0 to start the year and have performed well against solid competition thus far with wins over the likes of Duke, Illinois, Arizona and Creighton. Not exactly the soft out of conference play that the Zags have been criticized for in the past. With long time head coach Mark Few at the helm he has led this team to yet another hot start and has proved once again that you don’t need a team full of one and done athletes to compete at a high level.
With the stellar play of Junior Forward Rui Hachimura who is averaging almost 22 PPG to start the year along with 2nd year guard Zach Norvell Jr. filling it up for 19 PPG, these Bulldogs certainly don’t lack the fire power to compete at the highest level. This team competes on a nightly basis and have the ability to run even the most highly touted teams in the country off the floor as we saw in the Maui Tournament when they came away as victors over Zion and the Boys. Granted that final game didn’t come without controversy, but it solidified the fact that you can never count out Gonzaga when you are compiling your list of true competitors for a NCAA title this season.
The Zags have #6 Tennessee and #11 UNC coming up on their schedule in the next couple weeks. If they can win those two big games and go into WCC play undefeated on the year, don’t be surprised to see a Gonzaga team reaching the NCAA tournament with an unblemished record again this season with another chance to make history with a perfect season.
#2) KANSAS JAYHAWKS (6-0)
Perennial powerhouse Kansas has made a case thus far this season that they are the class of College Basketball and will be looking to secure yet another 1 seed in the tournament this March. Kansas Basketball is my closest comparison to the New England Patriots of the NFL. They aren’t always the most touted or flashy team, but you better believe they will always be in the Final Four conversation with a chance to win it all each and every year. It starts with the always great coaching of Bill Self, but this Jayhawk team may be the deepest unit in the country and can cause nightmares for any opponent.
Starting with Senior Guard Lagerald Vick who’s play has helped carry Kansas to an undefeated record so far while averaging 21 PPG. He has showed up in big moments including back to back overtime wins over 5th Ranked Tennessee and Stanford. Vick has proven to be a clutch performer that cannot be overlooked when it comes to postseason play. It’s typically the team with the stud performer that isn’t afraid of the spotlight that we see succeed down the stretch in March. With Vick the Jayhawks have that guy and with depth the likes of star Center Udoka Azubuike, phenomenal Freshman Devon Dotson, and Memphis transfer Dedric Lawson, the Jayhawks may have the only squad that can stand toe to toe with Duke’s fantastic freshmen on a talent basis.
Death, Taxes and Kansas Basketball. These are things we can always count on and don’t be surprised to see the Jayhawks competing in yet another Final Four this season.
#4) VIRGINIA CAVALIERS (7-0)
When you finish last season as the first 1 seed to ever lose to a 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament it certainly gives you something to prove and want to overcome that embarrassment of a loss the Cavaliers had to Cinderella UMBC. Despite that loss, its very easy to forget how dominant Virginia was for the majority of last season. They won the ACC tournament and were one of the best defensive teams in College Basketball.
This season we are seeing more of the same from the Cavaliers and they are out to prove they can once again compete for another ACC title and make a run in this years NCAA tournament. They are allowing an impressive 52 points per game so far this year and are playing tough hard nose basketball. It is a reason that many people give them the only chance of preventing Duke from running away with the ACC this season.
De’Andre Hunter (16.6 PPG) and Ty Jerome (14.6 PPG) have been excellent to start the year and have shown glimpses that they can score and keep Virginia in a game when they must outscore a team when their defense eventually isn’t up to par on a given night. That is the real question with this team and part of what got them beat last year. When you play such a hard nose, old school style of basketball like they do it is going to make it tough when the other team is making shots and you’re not designed to play catch up. It was their demise vs UMBC last March and will be something to look out for when they play the likes of Duke and UNC in ACC play.
Overall you can’t count out how galvanizing last year’s disappointment was, look for the Cavaliers to be right in the mix for a 1 seed again this March.
#5) MICHIGAN WOLVERINES (8-0)
Another team with something to prove after last years finish is these Michigan Wolverines. Last year they were embarrassed by a far superior Villanova team in the Championship Game and have come out playing on fire to start the 2018-19 season. With back to back impressive wins over UNC and Purdue, the Wolverines are showing last season was no fluke and they should be the favorite at this point to win the BIG 10 for the third straight season. John Beilein continues to prove he is one of the best coaches in the country and consistently gets the most out of his talent.
Speaking of his talent, Ignas Brazdeikis has looked terrific so far, averaging 16 PPG and must be in consideration at this point for BIG 10 Player of the Year. Michigan needs to get the most they can this year out of this supreme talent because it is looking more and more likely he will be a one and done type talent. Jordan Poole and Charles Matthews continue to provide excellent guard play for the Wolverines and will provide a crucial combo of scoring come the postseason.
The bad news for the Wolverines? The Big 10 might be one of the toughest conferences when it comes to league play and they will no doubt have some blemishes on their record again this year coming out of it. But as we have seen in recent history with the Wolverines and Wisconsin Badgers being in the mix come early April, the toughness that a team can build by battling through the long BIG 10 season is a valuable component for a championship contender.
#6) NEVADA WOLF PACK (8-0)
The Wolf Pack have come out strong thus far, following up on a Sweet 16 appearance that saw them run into the Loyola-Chicago team that seemed destined to make the Final Four. Going into that game many were predicting Nevada to come out of that Region. They already avenged that loss with a 79-65 win over the Ramblers and have beaten a talented USC team just this past Saturday. Led by the Martin brothers, Caleb and Cody, the Wolf Pack once again have one of the best scoring attacks in the country and have opened eyes that they may be the next powerhouse to come out of the Southwest with Arizona possibly on a downturn in talent due to NCAA sanctions.
Jordan Caroline the star forward for the Wolf Pack is producing a stellar Senior season so far averaging a double-double with 18.5 PPG along with 10 REB. The deal with Nevada is very similar to Gonzaga, if they can get into conference play with an undefeated record, they have the talent and ability to nearly run the table in a weak Mountain West Conference. I would keep my eye on them as a sleeper to make a deep run come March, they have the talent, depth and experience needed.
Nevada has a big game slated for this Friday against a talented #20th ranked Arizona State team. It will be a solid proving ground for this team that has aspirations of going dancing once again in March.
#9 MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS (6-2)
The Spartans have come into the year with what many would consider an inferior squad compared to years past, the first-round draft picks like Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges are gone and Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo will have his hands full trying to coach this team into contention. But if you look at how this squad has faired so far this season, there is no reason to think they cannot be in contention for a BIG 10 title and make a run come March. Their only losses were to at the time #1 Kansas and a nail biter of a game to Louisville which hasn’t lost a game on their home court in November since Bill Clinton was president.
This team is full of experienced upperclassmen and has been led by a strong Junior class that includes Cassius Winston (16.8 PPG), Joshua Langford (17.1 PPG) and Nick Ward (15.9 PPG). Senior Kenny Goins has proven to be a spark plug for this team on the defensive end as well and gives this team the ability to play with the type of fire and grit we are used to seeing in East Lansing.
Think back to the teams we have seen Tom Izzo make so many runs to the Final Four with, they weren’t the teams filled with fantastic one and done freshmen and NBA talent. They were the Veteran squads that he was able to bring together and play dominant basketball as a unit. This Sparty team has a chance to make some serious noise in March and as we have grown to learn, you can never count out Tom Izzo come tournament time.
#10 KENTUCKY WILDCATS (7-1)
The Wildcats have rattled off 7 straight wins since being wiped off the floor by Duke on the opening night of the season and have rebounded nicely. But if you look deeper into those wins, who have they really played? The most impressive victory out of all those games was a tough fought win over UNC Greensboro… not exactly a powerhouse. Top it off with the fact that all those wins have come at home with the Wildcats in the midst of a somewhat absurd 10 game home stretch. You could argue that the only reason this Kentucky team is in the top ten is on reputation alone.
The bright spots have been Freshman Guard Keldon Johnson and Reid Travis each starting to play to their potential and have given much needed production for this team but going through their roster you cannot convince me that this is the same old Wildcats that we are used to seeing. This is not the star-studded team we have come to know in Kentucky. You must think with the influx of other top tier college programs across the country now a few years into taking one and done athletes, that John Calipari is starting to realize his previous monopoly on that type of talent is coming to an end.
Kentucky will face two tough upcoming games against Seton Hall and the real UNC. Those two games will be a good measuring stick of where this team really is at this point in the season. As much as I’m not excited about this team, Mr. Calipari always seems to find a way to get his team gelling before the tournament and we really can never count them out.
So, there you have it, contrary to popular belief there are several talented teams I think can threaten Duke come the tournament in March. While I would agree they are still the favorite at this point, it is a long season and anything including injuries or fluke losses can happen. I’ve got to admit after writing this piece it’s got me very excited for the possibilities come March Madness. There will be so many storylines to follow and so much pressure inevitably riding on the Blue Devils to win it all. Do I think they can do it? Sure. But they call it March Madness for a reason and all these teams I’ve stated perfectly slated to knock off the Blue Devils if they don’t come to play. With league play about to begin, it will be exciting to see how this NCAA season unfolds and I will be on the edge of my seat the entire time.