Each checks one of two boxes, or both: they either have an extremely high ceiling, or are consistently great on a night-to-night basis. There are plenty of good teams who don’t meet that criteria. You may see them in the Final Four, but it’s hard to picture them winning twice once there.
Here are our top six choices.
Duke won’t win the national championship without Tre Jones, but he should be back by the time the NCAA tournament starts. The loss to Syracuse was troubling, but Duke wins that game with Jones and/or Cam Reddish in the lineup. The Blue Devils aren’t perfect, but they have the highest ceiling in America.
It’s just hard to compete with the Jones-Reddish-Zion Williamson-R.J. Barrett foursome. And Duke has quality options for the fifth spot in Jack White, Javin DeLaurier, Alex O’Connell and Marques Bolden. All have shown flashes this season. Duke’s star power is the main reason to like them, but the depth is solid.
The Blue Devils have balance on their side in 2018-19, which hasn’t always been the case in recent years. It ranks fourth in offense and defense, per KenPom.
Outside of Jones’ health, the offensive hierarchy is a minor concern. Some of Barrett’s shot attempts should go to Williamson. Beyond that, it’s hard to poke a hole in this team. It’s Mike Krzyzewski’s best since 2015.
Michigan made it to the national championship game last season, hasn’t lost in 2018-19 and has two stars in Charles Matthews and Ignas Brazdeikis. The defense has slipped a bit since the beginning of the season, but still ranks third. The Wolverines are probably a little better than last year, so you know they’re capable.
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The run they’re on dating back to last season is just absurd. Since Feb. 11, 2018, the Wolverines are 31-1. Their lone loss came in the national championship game to Villanova.
Michigan arguably has the best coach in the country in John Beilien. You’d like to see it be a bit more potent offensively, but that’s nitpicking. The Wolverines rank 20th on that end and take the right kind of shots.
What a program.
Tennessee is a terrifying team to play against. The Volunteers have the nation’s No. 2 offense and are experienced, hungry and unselfish. There’s no college basketball duo quite like Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield.
Their combination of strength and basketball IQ is unmatched. Williams and Schofield are both expert passers who happen to be built like linebackers; you can imagine that’s hard to stop. Tennessee hasn’t really been challenged in SEC play, and its one loss is to Kansas.
The overall talent is good, but the night-to-night mentality and consistency is what makes the Volunteers stand out. Tennessee is a no-brainer title contender.
There are reasons to doubt Gonzaga. The Bulldogs rank 48th in defense; title contenders are usually balanced. They have two losses. They won’t be as battle-tested as the other teams on this list playing in the WCC.
But the Bulldogs have the highest ceiling of any team not named Duke, who they’ve already beaten this year without Killian Tillie. He’s back now, and Gonzaga had an unexpected superstar emerge in Brandon Clarke. It has the top offense in the country right now.
The Bulldogs can roll out a starting five of Josh Perkins, Zach Norvell, Rui Hachimura, Clarke and Tillie at some point. That’s lethal. It’s a lineup that features size, shooting, ball-handling and athleticism; there are matchup nightmares all over the place. This team is probably as talented, if not more so, than the Bulldogs squad that made the title game two years ago.
Don’t forget about Gonzaga these next few months.
Virginia is going to have a lot of pressure going into the 2019 NCAA tournament after what happened last season. But it couldn’t have rebounded in stronger fashion, its latest impressive win coming against Virginia Tech.
Virginia is 16-0. It still ranks dead-last in pace, but it’s near the top of just about every other category. The Cavaliers are sixth and offense and second in defense, and provided De’Andre Hunter stays healthy for March, it will have a true two-way stud in the frontcourt. Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy are great players, but it’s a little much to ask them to be the two best guys on a title team. Throw Hunter into that mix, and you have a championship-caliber roster combined with Tony Bennett’s defensive system.
Virginia also has a prime chance to beat Duke on Saturday with Jones out of the lineup. That’s one to circle on the calendar.
Yeah, yeah. This one might draw some flak. Kentucky was the final inclusion with teams like Michigan State, Kansas and Nevada just missing the cut.
In the end, those schools didn’t meet the criteria. Michigan State was the toughest exclusion. It’s talented, but the Spartans’ ability won’t overwhelm anyone. And while they’ve been consistently dominant lately, let’s see them sustain it and beat a marquee opponent or two. Kansas plays too many close games and lost Udoka Azubuike for the year, while the Nevada offense hasn’t been the game-changing unit we expected.
Kentucky, despite some early struggles, might have the third-highest ceiling behind Duke and Gonzaga. Ashton Hagans developing into a two-way difference maker has been key, and the Wildcats have won seven of eight with triumphs over North Carolina and Louisville. The Hagans, Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson, P.J. Washington, Reid Travis lineup is hard to match.
Kentucky inspires the least confidence of any team on this list, but based on talent and momentum, it belongs. And John Calipari has a track record of deep March Madness runs, even if he’s only won one title.