With the 2019-20 college basketball season officially tipping off last night, there is optimism across the nation coming with a fresh season and a clean slate for all 351 division 1 teams. The annual State Farm Champions Classic played last night gave us our first look at perennial powerhouses in Kansas, Duke, Michigan State, and Kentucky.
Naturally, those four programs are once again championship contenders, but who else can realistically say they have a chance at cutting down the nets come April? Let’s go through the power five conferences and pick out each league’s legitimate title contenders.
Virginia: We’ll begin with the defending champions. While they lost huge pieces in DeAndre Hunter, Kyle Guy, and Ty Jerome, you cannot discount a Tony Bennett coached Cavs team before the season even begins. Every year, Virginia has role players who emerge as star players through Bennett’s development.
Kihei Clark and Mamadi Diakite could be those guys this year, as they both played key roles in their championship run last year. Virginia needs big jumps from those guys, and also from former Alabama transfer Braxton Key. Virginia may come out to a slower start than usual, but should be refined and ready to make another run come March.
North Carolina: North Carolina may be the best team on paper in the conference. The hype is around number two overall prospect Cole Anthony, and rightfully so, but fellow freshmen big man Armando Bacot will be just as important to a title run.
Coby White and Luke Maye are huge losses, but plenty of experience still returns in key role players Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley, and Leaky Black. If Anthony is the star we believe he will be, UNC should be primed to make another final four run.
Duke: Once again, Duke loses more talent than just about anyone in the country, and once again, will try to replace them with another top tier freshmen class. While nearly impossible to replace Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett, gaining four five-star prospects in Cassius Stanley, Vernon Carey, Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore is a good start.
The biggest factor, however, is the return of Tre Jones. Jones will once again be among the best on-ball defenders in the country, but to be a final four contender Duke needs him to take the next step scoring the ball.
Louisville: Chris Mack has Louisville back on track, and back in the preseason AP poll top five. The biggest reason is the return of star wingman Jordan Nwora. Averaging over 17 points and 7 boards last season, Nwora is a prime candidate for the Wooden Award.
While this team will go as far as he will take them, returning big man Steven Enoch and shooter Ryan McMahon are key factors as well. Additionally, Mack brings in four freshmen who ranked in the ESPN Top 100 for 2019. If he can get production from even a couple of them, Louisville can get back to the elite eight for the first time since their title in 2013.
Michigan State: The Spartans begin the season as the nation’s top ranked team, and for good reason. The return of Cassius Winston gives them perhaps the most valuable guard in the nation, especially after seeing his performance last March. Returning wings Aaron Henry and Xavier Tillman are potential breakout candidates, and freshmen Rocket Watts can join Winston to make a dominate backcourt.
A major factor this team’s success will be veteran guard Joshua Langford’s return in January, who is still recovering from a foot injury. With the Spartans’ experience, talent, and Tom Izzo’s coaching, there is no reason they can’t make it back to the final four.
Maryland: Last year was supposed to be the year for Mark Turgeon’s squad, but the surprise return of guard Anthony Cowan Jr makes them a fringe contender yet again. Averaging over 15 points a game last year but scoring over 20 points on seven occasions, Cowan should be one the nation’s most dangerous scorers.
Losing center Bruno Fernando to the NBA will be difficult to overcome, but sophomore forward Jalen Smith is a potential breakout player. Additionally, they add two freshmen big men who were ranked in the ESPN Top 100. Cowan will have to be spectacular, but Maryland can be one of the Big Ten’s biggest contenders.
Kansas: Kansas is another team who returns a slew of experienced and talented players, starting with dominant big man Udoke Azubuike. Pairing him with the 6’10 David McCormack, and the return of Silvio De Souza (ineligible in 2018-19), makes for a potentially dominant frontcourt.
On top of that, Devon Dotson withdrawing from the NBA draft gives Kansas an explosive scoring guard to pair with junior Marcus Garrett. All in all, Kansas is one of the most well-balanced and experienced teams in the nation, and should win the Big 12 once again after their streak of 14 straight ended last season.
Texas Tech: Texas Tech lost perhaps more talent than anyone in the nation outside of Duke. Jarrett Culver, Matt Mooney, Tariq Owens, Brandone Francis, and Norense Odiase all played major roles in their final four run and are gone now. However, after an elite eight run followed by a national championship appearance, its never safe to count out Chris Beard this early.
Transfers Chris Clarke and Joel Ntambwe will likely lead the way on both ends for the Red Raiders, and one of the few pieces from last years team to return, Davide Moretti, will be one of the nations best three point shooters again. Beard needs someone else to emerge to be a real contender again, and returning role players Kyler Edwards and TJ Holyfield are the top candidates.
Villanova: Top to bottom the Big East is one of the strongest, deepest conferences in the nation. Despite this, there are only a few teams that I confidentially say can make a run at a championship. One of them, of course, is Villanova. They lost some key veterans in Eric Paschall and Phil Booth, but they have a lot of young talent that break out under Jay Wright.
Jermaine Samuels and Saddiq Bey flashed as freshmen last season and can both take advantage of key roles this year. Guard Collin Gillespie returns to provide experience in the backcourt, and Wright also brings in three freshmen in the ESPN Top 50. The most impactful one will likely be five star recruit Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, who I expect to contend for Big East Rookie of the Year.
Seton Hall: The return of 2018 unanimous Big East First Team guard Myles Powell was great news for both Seton Hall fans and fans of college basketball in general. Putting in over 23 points a game as a junior, Powell comes back as one of the most lethal scorers in the country.
Additionally, almost his entire supporting cast returns with him. Myles Cale and Quincy McKnight join him in the backcourt, and Taurean Thompson and Sandro Mamukelashvili bring size and rebounding to the frontcourt. If Powell is as spectacular as expected, and a couple of other pieces improve from last year, than the Pirates can be legitimate contenders come March.
Kentucky: Another team that can be penciled in as a potential title contender year in and year out is Kentucky, and this season is no different. Coach Cal brings in two five star recruits and two more four stars. The most impactful one of those will likely be Tyrese Maxey, an athletic guard who can score in bunches, which is was big need for Kentucky with the losses of PJ Washington and Keldon Johnson.
He will compliment sophomores Immanuel Quickley and Ashton Hagans perfectly in the backcourt, the especially with Hagans’ ability as a lockdown defender. Size shouldn’t be an issue for the Wildcats either, with 6’10 bigs Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery returning as well. Overall, this team has the experience, versatility, and pure talent to win their first title since 2012.
Florida: Florida lost a big bulk of their scoring from a year ago, but also gained the most impactful transfer in the nation in Kerry Blackshear, who averaged 15 points and over 7 rebounds while receiving second team All-ACC honors with Virginia Tech.
They will also welcome a pair of five-star recruits in wing Scottie Lewis and point guard Tre Mann, both who will compliment Blackshear inside nicely. With a lot of dependence in freshmen and a transfer, Coach Mike White will need to see a jump from some of his returning guys, ideally Keyontae Johnson and Dontay Bassett.
LSU: Last year may have been the Tigers’ best chance at a title for a long time, as they lose stars Tremont Waters and Naz Reid, but if all goes right I can see them making a run this year as well. They return two excellent scoring guards in Javonte Smart and Skylar Mays, and big man Emmitt Williams could have a breakout sophomore season in a bigger role without Reid.
The X-factor for the Tigers will be how big of an impact five-star recruit Trendon Watford can have as a freshmen. If he plays to his potential, and they can get 35 plus a night from the Smart/Mays duo, LSU will be able to make a deep run.
N/A: The Pac-12 is the one power conference I think we can rule out from legitimate title contention. Oregon, the favorite to win the league, is a talented team that will likely win a game or two in the NCAA tournament, but they lack the star power and depth to make a real championship run.
Arizona has a pair of top 10 recruits in Nico Mannion and Josh Green and will be fun to watch, but its not enough to be considered a title contender.
Gonzaga (WCC): Mark Few and the Zags lost four of their five starters from a year ago, all four of whom are were drafted or signed by an NBA team, so I don’t expect this team to be as dominant as they have been the last few seasons. However, they should once again run through the WCC to earn a top-3 seed in the tournament, and set up another potential run at a title.
Key returners Killian Tillie and Corey Kispert should lead the Bulldogs in scoring, while Texas A&M transer Admon Gilder will play a huge role on both ends of the floor. The biggest question will be if any of their freshmen or foreign bigs will emerge as key players.
Memphis (American): Whenever you enter the season with both the number one prospect coming out of high school and the number one overall recruiting class in the nation you have the potential to be a championship contender. Seven footer James Wiseman can carry Memphis to wins by himself, and fellow five star big man Precious Achiuwa joins him to make a potentially dominant frontcourt.
While the hype surrounds the freshmen class, the X-factor will be sophomore guard Tyler Harris. On a team that lacks experience and is forward heavy, he will need a breakout year after landing on the American Conference All-Freshmen team a year ago. Penny Hardaway is an inexperienced coach leading a team almost entirely of underclassman, so a championship this year is likely a long shot, but the talent is there if everything comes together.