Hoonhout: Taking an early look at March Madness contenders
Tobias Hoonhout | Tuesday, November 6, 2018
March may be a long way away, but it’s never too early to start thinking about it.
With college basketball set to open the season on Tuesday night, the AP preseason top-25 has been out for over a week. Here’s some quick thoughts on the “top” teams — who will manifest the hype come the Madness?
No. 1 Kansas
Bill Self has his work cut out for him if the Jayhawks want to get back to the Final Four. While there is a good blend of young talent and productive experience, it isn’t anything out of the ordinary in regards to blue-blood programs. The real issue is backcourt experience, as Kansas lost its top-three scorers from last season in Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailuk and Malik Newman, and now have top recruits Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes to take their place. Bill Self has never been that comfortable with starting a lot of freshmen, however, and there are question marks about the impact of star transfers like the Lawson brothers, who dazzled at Memphis but didn’t win games.
No. 2 Kentucky
As usual, the Wildcats had several players picked in the NBA Draft in June, and they now stand as the team with the most first round picks than any other school in the lottery era. But of those four picks, none were really in the conversation as top-five picks, which means two things — not only will the Wildcats have less to compensate for, but John Calipari also has returning players that contributed in big ways last year. Combine the returning roster with another staple freshman class to pair with what could be the best transfer of the year, two-time All Pac-12 selection Reid Travis. This team is deep, talented and experienced. Don’t be surprised to see Duke get surprised on opening night.
No. 3 Gonzaga
Under Mark Few, the Bulldogs have always been a program that produces, albeit in a conference that doesn’t always produce a lot of opposition. But it’s only been two years since the Zags found themselves in the national championship. And this team may be better than that one. Gonzaga lost Johnathan Williams and Silas Melson to graduation, but that’s it. The backcourt of Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell is back, along with athletic wing Rui Hachimura and talented big man Killian Tillie. Plus, Few’s staff landed two quality transfers in Brandon Clarke and Geno Crandall that will immediately contribute. A mouthwatering non-conference schedule, starting with the Maui Invitational, should make up for the West Coast Conference’s lack of competition.
No. 4 Duke
While Coach K has had an uptick in elite recruits coming to Durham in recent years, he’s never had something quite like this. The Blue Devils have the privilege of figuring out how to utilize the top-three freshmen in the country, and R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish could go one-three in the Draft next year too. It’s a short-term rental, but a sweet deal nonetheless. But with freshmen comes a lack of experience, and it’s Duke’s onus to figure out how to get its stars to gel, play defense and handle the pressure of knowing every team wants to put your loss on SportsCenter. I’m not buying it until I see it.
No. 5 Virginia
People don’t need to forget UMBC, but Tony Bennett and his program have only used it as motivation. The Cavaliers were the best team in the ACC last year, and there’s no reason why they can’t be again. Kyle Guy has lived up to his recruiting hype and looks primed to build on last year’s success. Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter are both back and hungry. And the famous Virginia defense is going nowhere. I don’t know about you, but I’m picking the ACC title to remain in Charlottesville.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.