Gonzaga, Duke headline list of contenders well positioned for Final Four run
Now that the NFL season has reached an anticlimactic conclusion, the nation’s sporting eyes turn to college basketball for the next two months.
It’s unfortunate the spotlight only shines during the second half of conference races and the NCAA Tournament – apparently April Angst doesn’t have the same ring as March Madness – but that’s a topic for another day.
Let’s play a little catch-up before peering into the crystal ball. Nearly every team expected to be title contenders – Kansas, Kentucky, Gonzaga, Duke, Virginia, Tennessee, Nevada, North Carolina, Villanova and Michigan State – remain in the discussion.
That was the preseason top 10 in order, by the way. No. 13 Kansas and No. 14 Villanova have slipped, if only slightly.
Many have started engraving Zion Williamson’s name on player of the year awards. It’s tough to argue otherwise at this point, but remember Oklahoma’s Trae Young was in a similar position a year ago but Villanova’s Jalen Brunson took home the awards.
Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura is rightfully in the mix, but it’s puzzling that Brandon Clarke didn’t make the Wooden Award’s top 20 list released Monday. He’s a defensive player of the year candidate, averages 16.4 points and shoots a fraction less than 69 percent from the field.
About that crystal ball. All you have to do is look at Gonzaga’s nonconference schedule to get an idea of which teams might be putting scissors to net on a Monday night in Minneapolis in two months.
Here are four teams with the best shot at winning the national title, the next tier of contenders and a few under-the-radar challengers.
Fab Four: Duke, Tennessee, Gonzaga, Virginia
These four have been the most consistent without a major slip-up.
Gonzaga edged Duke and its freshmen foursome of first-rounders to win the Maui Invitational. The Zags lost to current No. 1 Tennessee in another instant classic in Phoenix. All three look the part of title contenders.
The Zags have probably never put a better offense on the court and there’s reason to believe it will get better when Killian Tillie returns to form. It’s an improving defense that bolsters their chances. Will that defense, and rebounding for that matter, hold up against top-notch competition? It was a split decision against the best teams on their nonconference schedule.
Williamson gets more ESPN air time than the Golden State Warriors and James Harden combined. RJ Barrett is the team’s leading scorer and point guard Tre Jones is a game-changer at both ends of the court. There is some cause for concern with Duke’s 30.9-percent accuracy beyond the 3-point line and 67.6 percent at the foul line.
The Volunteers have athleticism, experience, toughness and go-to players in Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield, who took down Gonzaga with a flurry of second-half 3-pointers. One potential problem: Williams tends to be foul prone and the frontcourt is vulnerable when he’s on the bench.
Virginia is rock solid, per usual under Tony Bennett. The Cavaliers, like Duke, are top five in KenPom’s adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. They made history last season as the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16. This crew is positioned to make history as national champions.
Next level: Kentucky, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina
Kentucky appears to have ironed out some early season issues. The talent level is top shelf with a formidable frontcourt in Stanford grad transfer Reid Travis and PJ Washington. Two upcoming meetings with Tennessee will likely decide the SEC title.
North Carolina showed Final Four potential by handling Gonzaga 103-90 in mid-December. The Tar Heels had lapses guarding Gonzaga, but they still rank No. 14 in adjusted defensive efficiency.
Nevada is a Final Four threat. Caleb and Cody Martin, and versatile forward Jordan Caroline can score inside or outside. Portland transfer Jazz Johnson hits 44 percent beyond the arc.
Michigan pummeled North Carolina and Villanova in November. The Wolverines are elite defensively and capable of another long tournament run under coach John Beilein.
Watch out for: Washington, Iowa State, Texas Tech
Washington is rolling with a senior-laden lineup and a zone defense that is a pain for opposing offenses. There’s no guarantee the Huskies will make the NCAA field, but they could do some damage with their composition.
Iowa State, which was missing several key players in Maui, has a star in Marial Shayok, a transfer from Virginia.
Texas Tech is just 6-4 in conference play, but it’s outstanding defensively and led Duke inside the 7-minute mark on a neutral court.