Four days from now, John Paul Jones Arena will be just one of many college basketball venues from Indianapolis to Irvine alive with opening night excitement. Even if we’re five months away from narrowing the field from 300-plus down to four, now’s as good of a time as any to delve into a handful of the strongest contenders to make it to Minneapolis. In alphabetical order, here they are.
Duke Blue Devils
ESPN’s already-headache-inducing love affair with Zion Williamson aside, their recruiting class is as good as any Mike Krzyzewski has ever had. 247 rated Williamson as the No. 5 recruit in the 2018 class, and along with No. 1 RJ Barrett and No. 2 Cam Reddish, it would surprise nobody for Duke to make a similar run to the one they went on in 2015, whether they have the same end result or not. This is to say nothing of returning big men Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolden, who were limited last year in their roles but should break out this year.
Again, this is a team where talent should win the day. They’ve long been one of the nation’s most balanced and efficient teams, not ranking below 27th in adjusted offensive or defensive efficiency since 2014-15. A favorable West Coast Conference schedule plays into their hands, but they’ll be well-prepared with games against North Carolina, Tennessee, and Creighton.
Bill Self’s group isn’t to be taken lightly, and they’re preseason No. 1 for a reason. They ended a five-year drought (that’s long for them, I guess) last season after making it to the second weekend in 2013, 2016, and 2017. Their depth, talent, fifth-ranked recruiting class, and coaching — they’ve won 14 straight Big 12 regular season titles — make them not just a Final Four contender, but one of the two or three most serious threats to win it all.
Once again, John Calipari has reeled in an elite recruiting class, trailing only Duke in the 247 composite. What’s different this year, after a modest three-year Final Four drought? They have size and athleticism, which is hardly a novelty in Lexington, but the return of sophomore power forward P.J. Washington (remember that name) after he initially declared for the NBA draft gives UK some much-needed experience. I’m not at all a fan of Calipari or the way he runs this program, but it’s hard to deny the potential of this team.
Forget about the UMBC game, or try to. Not only is this the best backcourt of Tony Bennett’s career (and maybe in UVA history) with Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, and DeAndre Hunter, the interior is stacked with Jack Salt, Mamadi Diakite, and Jay Huff. Add in the likes of Braxton Key and lightning-quick freshman Kihei Clark, the makeup of this team should suggest that anything short of a postseason run 35 years in the making is a failure — more about that tomorrow. That is, of course, unless someone’s appendix bursts in the warmup line before the Elite Eight.
No Donte DiVincenzo? No Jalen Brunson, or Omari Spellman, or Mikal Bridges? It won’t be easy, but Eric Paschall and Phil Booth are back and that alone might be enough. In my view, Jay Wright is the best coach in the country, and more than maybe any sideline general in America, he can plug-and-play regardless of his personnel. They’ve proven that you don’t have to be a blue blood or on ESPN every other night in order to become the preeminent program in the country. Never count them out.