These are predictions for the end of the year, based on how teams have looked so far and how I expect them to grow throughout the season.
Coming off a big win over Duke, Gonzaga has shown to be the most complete team in the country. Rui Hachimura (22.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 44.4% 3PT) is becoming more confident as a go-to weapon. His versatility gives coach Mark Few plenty of options to dictate play style. Josh Perkins (11.7 ppg, 8.3 apg) is a steadying force in the backcourt next to big-shot maker Zach Norvell (17.7 ppg). Add in human pogo stick Brandon Clarke (15.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 4.0 bpg) and skilled freshman Filip Petrusev on the interior and it’s easy to see why they are so deep. Did I mention their best player a year ago has yet to play a game yet? Once Killian Tillie (12.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 47.9% 3PT) returns to the lineup, Gonzaga will be that much more lethal.
Duke has the most explosive offensive team in the country, in large part due to the best freshmen quartet in recent memory. Zion Williamson (20.7 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 65.3% FG) is the best show in college basketball. But R.J. Barrett (22.8, 5.7 rpg, 4.0 apg) is the top player on this team, getting to the basket at will and being able to create for his teammates. Those two get the most attention, but we can’t forget that Cam Reddish (15.7 ppg, 43.2% 3PT) is a top-5 NBA prospect in his own right. As terrific as the Blue Devils are in transition, they can be careless with the ball and force it when they think they have a matchup. That’s where Tre Jones (5.5 apg) will be key for this team as the one who can manage the offense. The way to beat Duke is to have long, versatile defenders, take care of the ball, encourage everyone not named Reddish to shoot, and hope they hurt themselves. Pretty tough formula.
Kansas fans viewed this as one of the deeper teams in the Bill Self era. Dedric Lawson (16.3 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 3.5) hasn’t played close to his best basketball and still displays the all-around game that made him a preseason All-American. As the year progresses, Lawson and Udoka Azubuike (15.8, 6.5 rpg) will be the focal points of a consistent offense. Senior guard Lagerald Vick (20.8 ppg) looks like a new man, lighting it up from three. His point totals will drop as the dynamic freshmen backcourt of Devon Dotson (9.3 ppg, 2.5 apg) and Quentin Grimes (10.3 ppg, 4.3 apg) get more confidence. They can play 10 guys if need be, something that could prove beneficial as the Jayhawks look for the expected Big-12 title.
Rick Barnes has experience, toughness, and star power this season. I would be hard-pressed to find a more physical one-two punch than likely All-American Grant Williams (22.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 3.8 apg) and Admiral Schofield (14.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 4.8 apg). These guys are big-time competitors who do just about everything for the Vols. Kyle Alexander (11.3 ppg, 2.8 bpg) is an x-factor and defensive anchor for a team that’s the biggest hit may be a lack of length inside. There is a level of comradery and unselfishness with this group that just hints towards a deep tournament run. They are the clear favorites in the SEC.
5. North Carolina
Outside of Gonzaga, UNC has the best players to match up with Duke. They return a good mix of upperclassmen and gifted freshmen. Luke Maye (14.2 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 2.2 apg) should continue to be the focus of scouting reports after posing the greatest inside-out threat in the ACC a year ago. A big difference for the Heels is a healthy Cam Johnson (16.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 48.3% 3PT) who stretches the court and has improved his ability to put it on the floor. Of all the players on this team, the guy to watch is freshman sensation Nassir Little (12.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.0 apg). He has an endless motor, impressive physical tools, and a budding perimeter skill set. And he comes off the bench because of the frontcourt experience. Texas shot the lights out against them on Thanksgiving, but they should be competing for a top seed by the end of the year.
The Tigers are going to be a problem for opposing teams due to their up-tempo, tenacious style of play. Miniature point guard Jared Harper (16.0 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 6.8 apg) has the heart of a lion and is finally figuring out how to score efficiently. His creating ability opens things up for their athletic wings and active bigs. Bryce Brown (17.0 ppg) can heat up quickly. After missing a year due to the FBI investigations, Austin Wiley (11.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg) is working his way back into shape and will be Auburn’s most important player this season. Final Four aspirations have never been more realistic for a Bruce Pearl Auburn team.
It’s going to be hard for many to trust largely the same team that was upset by a 16 seed last year. There may have not been a more motivating loss than that, as the Cavaliers look more focused and offensively impressive. The defense is elite, per usual. But DeAndre Hunter (16.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.8 apg) is back to prove he’s worth a lottery pick, and Ty Jerome (14.6 ppg, 4.4 apg, 54.2% 3PT) and Kyle Guy (12.8 ppg, 2.8 apg, 37.9% 3PT) bring premier shooting and IQ to the backcourt. There shouldn’t be too many surprises with this team. If healthy, they will finish near the top of the ACC and have enough scoring punch to capitalize on their pack-line defensive stops.
Hailed as the best mid-major in America coming into the season, the Wolfpack are a dangerous team.. They still have the ability to run out a lineup of 6-foot-7 plus players headlined by MWC Player of the Year Caleb Martin (19.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.2 apg), Cody Martin (6.6 ppg, 6.4 apg), and Jordan Caroline (18.6 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 2.2 apg). Unlike last year, they also have legitimate rim protection with Jordan Brown (8.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and Trey Porter (7.0 ppg, 5.2 rpg). This team is long, athletic, and solid in transition. I don’t think they’ll be taking any team for granted after the loss.
9. Kansas State
After knocking on the door of a Final Four last year without their top weapon, the Wildcats have picked up right where they left off. The offense can flow through Dean Wade (15.8 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 3.6 apg), the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year. The Kansas native continuously makes the right plays and can shoot a high clip from all three levels. They still have that grit from last year, with Xavier Sneed (13.0 ppg), Barry Brown (15.6 ppg), and Kamau Stokes (8.8 ppg, 3.6 apg) having multiple Big 12 seasons under their belt. Kansas is the favorite, but don’t be shocked if Bruce Weber’s team pushes them to the edge.
10. Michigan State
When you lose a pair of lottery picks, there is an understandable adjustment period. Thankfully for the Spartans, they have a Hall of Fame coach who is no stranger to retooling. Three juniors are their lion-share of offense, with Cassius Winston (17.6 ppg, 7.0 apg) running the show. Mid-range specialist Josh Langford (16.4 ppg) is looking more comfortable from deep and Nick Ward (15.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg) is a tough matchup down-low. Ward has already dealt with injuries, but there are reserve bigs who can make an impact. Playing time hasn’t been there for freshman Marcus Bingham (3.0 ppg, 1.8 rpg) but he is the next dangerous two-way big for the Spartans. Never expect much of a falloff from Michigan State.
Bol Bol (19.2 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 3.2 bpg, 42.9% 3PT) is, in fact, the difference maker many expected. A 7-footer should not be able to run, handle the ball, and shoot from NBA range. With Bol and Kenny Wooten (1.6 bpg) patrolling the paint, the Ducks should have a top-10 defense. The key will be consistent scoring from floor general Payton Pritchard (14.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 4.8 apg) and the return of top-25 freshman Louis King, who has yet to play a game yet. The Pac-12 is solid, but there is no reason why Oregon shouldn’t be top two in the conference.
March Madness star Mo Wagner is gone, but a lot of pieces return from the National Championship runner-up. Charles Matthews (15.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg) looks every bit like an All-Big 10 player, dominating the game on both ends. The defensive intensity needs to stay where it’s at because right now they are suffocating opposing ball-handlers. Canadian freshman Ignas Brazdeikis (14.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.2) is a bucket, plain and simple. At the forward spot, he is strong enough to play inside or out. Another Final Four is unlikely, but this team is young and confident.
Kentucky was blown out by Duke to start the year. If there’s one thing we know about these youthful Kentucky teams, it’s that they often are a completely different team by year end. Unlike previous years, they don’t have a single star. The two guys to keep an eye on are Keldon Johnson (14.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.6 apg), their relentless wing slasher, and Tyler Herro (10.4 ppg, 3.4 apg, 28.6% 3PT), the best shooter and passer on the team. I think Herro should be the go-to guy as the year goes on since he demands so much attention for his range but can find teammates when defenders over-help. For now, they could still have a different leading scorer every night, something that isn’t a bad thing. The depth and pure talent will keep the Wildcats relevant.
14. Florida State
Leonard Hamilton has coached more skilled teams. Yet, it was the gritty unit from last year that made a run in the tournament. Many of the same faces are back, including 6-foot-6 Terance Mann (14.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.5 apg). They have plenty of bodies to throw at you, and just about all of them will put pressure on you. The Seminoles lack a true “star” player, but they’re seasoning is rare, especially for a team in the ACC.
The Bruins are a young, promising team that is bound to go through some bumps as they play some stronger teams. Both Jaylen Hands (13.2 ppg, 4.0 apg, 40.9% 3PT) and Kris Wilkes (17.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.0 apg) could have kept their names in the NBA Draft but decided to return to get more physical and efficient. So far, it has actually been freshman center Moses Brown (14.8 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 3.2 bpg) who has garnered the most attention as a double-double machine. They are going to be a fun team to watch on the west coast.
16. Iowa State
Few teams in the country would be thriving without a number of starters available. Somehow the Cyclones have managed to win games without All-Big 12 guard Lindell Wigginton (11.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 3.0 apg), who just played his first game recently. Behind the leadership of triple-double threat Nick Weiler-Babb (11.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.0 apg) and Virginia transfer Marial Shayok (19.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg), Iowa State has been a step ahead of opponents. As Wigginton works his way back in, the talented freshmen like Talen Horton-Tucker (15.0 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.7 apg), have valuable experience being trusted. Watch out for this team.
Carsen Edwards (26.6 ppg, 4.0 apg). That’s what makes Purdue a scary team. He is as dynamic with the ball as any guard in America and is barely 6-foot. Finding a Robin on this team as they get deep into Big-Ten play should be a key. I would expect Dartmouth transfer Evan Boudreaux (11.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg) to be that guy, as he is the only other guy with serious experience putting up points.
18. Virginia Tech
For the Hokies, they returned most of the key contributors from a year ago where they sputtered at times. Super-sophomore Nickeil Alexander-Walker (21.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 4.5 apg) has grown into a primary option, which is good news for a lineup already including Justin Robinson (17.0 ppg, 6.0 apg). I’m still not sure if or when Chris Clarke will be allowed back on the team, but even without him, there is a lot to be encouraged in Blacksburg.
The Ben Simmons-Antonio Blakeney recruiting class was good, but this one could be the best at LSU in a while. They have a powerful center in Naz Reid (13.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg) that has good footwork and ball skills, an attacking combo guard in Javonte Smart (11.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.6), and an energetic, undersized forward in Emmitt Williams (10.6 ppg, 8.2 rpg). With all that attention, we can’t forget that their catalyst is sophomore point guard Tremont Waters (12.0 ppg, 7.2 apg, 3.4 spg). When games get out of control or they need a big shot, Waters will be that guy. The energy has to stay up though, because their effort is all over the place, not unusual for a young team.
Last year was a turn-the-corner year for the Tigers. They have Marcquise Reed (19.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 3.5 apg) and Elijah Thomas (10.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg) back, so their best scorer and post defender are there. Outside of those two, Shelton Mitchell (14.7 ppg, 2.8 apg) has established himself as a playmaker you can count on in the clutch. The Tigers have a handful of freshmen who will need to step up, as they are nine deep this year. They are a tournament team that plays physical enough to be a pest.
Some are hitting the panic button on the Wildcats after a couple early, uncharacteristic losses. Hit the brakes on that, as this is a far less experienced team than Jay Wright is accustomed to and far from the National Championship powerhouse from a year ago. Eric Paschall (12.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.4 apg) and Phil Booth (16.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.8 apg) are their best offensive players at this point, though neither can get their shot especially well. I am interested to see if Jahvon Quinnerly (4.8 ppg, 1.8 apg) is let loose because he is the most creative playmaker on the roster. Without the All-Americans, Nova has to rely on their balance, ball movement, and defensive versatility. They’ll be alright.
I am becoming more of a fan of Kerwin Roach’s (19.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 4.5 apg) game every time I see him. He has quasi-Westbrook athleticism and is demanding respect as a shooter. Texas is generally a streaky shooting team, so they must get touches for their big guys. Dylan Osetkowski (12.2 ppg, 8.8 rpg) and Jericho Sims (5.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg) to a lesser extent have to be involved through post-ups and pick-and-rolls. Freshman Jaxson Hayes (10.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 2.2 bpg) is the fastest rising NBA prospect on my board and will only get more minutes for his shot-blocking and rim-running.
Backcourt play is always a key for deep tournament success, so to have two heady playmakers like Alex Robinson (16.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 8.0 apg) and Jaylen Fisher is really a blessing for a coach. That will be the start and end of most of their offensive success, with assistance from one of the most underrated two-way players in the country in Desmond Bane (15.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3.8 apg). Look for a lot different post player combinations as they try to find some group that works heading into conference play.
Last year’s win over Arizona was no fluke. Buffalo is a well-coached, balanced, explosive team led by guard C.J. Massinburg (20.3 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 3.0 apg). A number of the same players who were big parts of that win, including Jeremy Harris (11.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.5 apg) and Nick Perkins (12.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg) now have that valuable experience under their belt. No high-major team will want to see them on their schedule this season after they saw the way they handled West Virginia’s pressure earlier this year.
If the first-half against Kansas showed anything about Marquette, it’s that they can score with anyone. The second half also showed what happens when the threes don’t fall. I’m riding with them being somewhere in between, more towards the first half. When you have snipers like Markus Howard (19.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 5.6 apg) and Sam Hauser (16.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 38.1% 3PT), you should have the green light to hoist up as many threes as possible. Sam’s freshman brother Joey (11.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 42.9% 3PT) is just scratching the surface of how good he can be for the Golden Eagles, providing shooting, rebounding, and playmaking at the four spot. That is one of the most promising trios in the Big East, capable of leading them to the top of a conference in a down year.
34. Texas Tech
36. St. Johns
37. Ohio State
38. West Virginia
42. Notre Dame
43. Loyola (IL)
44. Mississippi State
46. Arizona State
49. Murray State
50. Western Kentucky