Putting the 16 college basketball teams with a realistic shot at the NCAA Tournament title into tiers
The front runners, contenders, dark horses and wild cards who could with the title this season
Good news, college basketball fans. I've brought a cheat sheet for the campaign forthcoming. We're five months away from Selection Sunday, but I can already promise you that this story will provide the answer for who will win the 2020 NCAA Tournament.
- CBS Sports Preseason All-America teams
- CBS Sports preseason awards
What team exactly? Ah, if only it were that easy. But broadly speaking, we already know. Fortunately, forecasting which teams are built to withstand the rigors of nearly 40 games and win a title is something of a computable science in college basketball. (Still, it's much harder than college football, which maybe has eight teams capable of winning it all.)
In 2016, I identified 19 candidates. The past two seasons have brought about 16 schools with achievable title hopes. All three prognostications, though not exactly so exact, proved correct. A team from each of those lists won it all. And wouldn't you know it, I landed on 16 yet again this season. (Oregon and Arizona, you just missed.)
I have never been wrong on this and will not be this season. One of the 16 teams displayed below will wind up at the end of "One Shining Moment" on the night of April 6, 2020.
Odds provided by Westgate Superbook and last updated on Oct. 14.
Front-runners sit atop the sport heading into the season and make the most obvious sense right now to be considered favorites.
Current odds: 6-1
Breakdown: The Spartans, the overwhelming preseason favorite, boasts the CBS Sports Preseason National Player of the Year Cassius Winston, and Preseason Coach of the Year Tom Izzo and have a claim to four of the 12 or 13 best players in the Big Ten. Behind Winston is mega-breakout candidate Xavier Tillman, who should be a monster this season. Alongside him in the frontcourt is sophomore Aaron Henry, who MSU fans expect to be as critical as any non-Winston player in multiple games this season. Josh Langford's health is most key. The Spartans are listed here under the expectation that Langford will return to full health from his foot issues and be that tremendous two-way player he's capable of being.
Beyond that, it's a team that ranked fifth in offensive efficiency and ninth in defensive efficiency at KenPom. Hall of Fame coach with nine Final Fours to his name, including last year's run. Making back-to-back Final Fours isn't unusual. It's happened 19 times since 1995. MSU isn't perfect, it's just clearly got the fewest noticeable flaws of any team as of now. Getting to Atlanta is the expectation for the Spartans.
Current odds: 8-1
Breakdown: Toss aside all of the NCAA-related drama that's sure to continue this season and just focus on the roster and coach. Bill Self's made three Final Fours and has a good shot at a fourth thanks to the fact he's the only coach with two CBS Sports preseason All-Americans. Udoka Azubuike, Preseason Big 12 Player of the Year, is healthy and stronger after missing 27 games last season. Devon Dotson could prove to not just be the best point guard in the Big 12 but also the fastest in America. There's strong returnees in the frontcourt. Silvio De Sousa won his appeal and will play this season. He'll be joined by Ochai Agbaji, a 6-foot-5 power wing who will skyrocket in usage.
KU is a frontrunner because it looks to progress to a top-five defensive team. Isaiah Moss, a transfer from Iowa, and junior guard Marcus Garrett will stiffen and strengthen KU's approach. Last season was the worst for Kansas basketball in 20 years. The Jayhawks probably won't lose more than five games this regular season.
Current odds: 7-1
Breakdown: It's been four or five years since I was this much in like with a Kentucky club. John Calipari has only once in his Kentucky career returned two starting-level guards. The guards: the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron. The season: 2014-15. Kentucky's record: 38-1. The twins were not the biggest part (or the second or third) to UK going 38-0 before falling in the Final Four to Wisconsin, but it's inarguable that having experience return in the backcourt was a significant factor. (Also, freshman Tyler Ulis was sweet that season.)
Here, Immanuel Quickley and Ashton Hagans return. They'll be joined by Tyrese Maxey, who could easily have as much impact on this team as Ulis did five years ago. No, I don't expect Kentucky to win 38 games or even get out of November without a loss, but I do expect Kentucky to be one of the five best teams in college basketball and to have an edge come March due to the team's coach, experience (E.J. Montgomery, Nick Richards are bigs who are back) and overall depth. This is an ideal Calipari blend of NBA talent and just enough competition for playing time to make this team push itself. Watch out for Maxey. He'll be a boatload of fun.
And yeah, that's it. Only three true preseason front-runners, which is a record low since we started this preseason feature. To the next tier!
Title contenders are just a level below the front-runners but still, on paper, clearly possess the roster to win it all.
Current odds: 10-1
Breakdown: Fascinating case here. I'm surprised UNC's Vegas odds are so high at the moment. Without Cole Anthony, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone recommending you lay down some cheddar on a Tar Heels futures bet. But Anthony does, or at least should, change a lot for Roy Williams' team in 2019-20. He's the CBS Sports Preseason Freshman of the Year, and was named so with the expectation he'll be a volume monster for a Tar Heels crew that needs his scoring, distributing, rebounding and vocal leadership while playing point guard.
As is, Williams has Carolina in contention for the Final Four almost annually. Since Williams took the job in 2003, UNC has been a No. 1, 2 or 3 seed 11 times. That's Final Four potential. This team can do similar, provided Anthony sees an immediate boost from freshman big man Armando Bacot, who will learn under the wings of bigs Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks. I'd call UNC a title contender, but will probably wind up being the shallowest — as opposed to deepest — roster of any in its class.
Current odds: 40-1
Breakdown: At 40-1, you'd best try to get a ticket on Maryland now if you can because that's a bargain. While it might seem like it's been 15 years since the Terrapins were this lauded in the preseason, let me remind you that in 2015 Maryland was the preseason No. 3 team in the AP Top 25. That Terps troupe had Melo Trimble, Diamond Stone, Jake Layman and Rasheed Sulaimon and Robert Carter. It finished 27-9 with a Sweet 16 loss to Kansas as a No. 5 seed.
I expect this year's team to be better. Potentially No. 2 seed material. The biggest reason why is a dual breakout season. Anthony Cowan has been flirting at the fringes of meaningful, consistent point guard play for three seasons. I'm all in on him unlocking his potential at the same time Jalen Smith turns into one of the five or six best big men in college basketball. The Terps return four starters from a 23-win team that was good-or-better in almost every significant tempo-free statistical category except one: turning teams over. Maryland forced opponents into TOs only 14.1% of the time, second-worst in college hoops. I predict a huge jump there and expect Maryland to be in the mold of a Final Four team for most of the season.
Current odds: 16-1
Breakdown: Tasty team. I actually like Florida's chances to win the SEC, or at least finish atop the standings alongside Kentucky. The reason is not an unusual one. The Gators have a tremendous combination of size, athleticism, experience, NBA-level talent and a feeling of rejuvenation around that program that seems to be infectious. Mike White, now in his fifth season, knows he's got the best roster of his coaching career to date.
Kerry Blackshear Jr. picking Florida for his final season of eligibility is what vaults UF into the title-contenders echelon, but it's the expected second-year leap of point guard Andrew Nembhard, who's got a soft-spoken game but an assuredness in his ability, that gives Florida a great shot to wind up with a No. 1 seed come March. Nembhard will have a pair of talented freshmen in the fold in Tre Mann and Scottie Lewis. No one's quite sure how good those two will be in UF's offense off the bat, but they should help the Gators round into form as a top-five defense in college basketball. This sure looks like the best UF team since the one that won a title in 2007. I like this roster more than the No. 1-seed in 2013-14 that went 36-3 and had Casey Prather, Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin and Dorian Finney-Smith. We shall see.
Current odds: 14-1
Breakdown: I trust Louisville fans have taken the time to stop, smell the air and recognize just how fortunate they are to be in this position for 2019-20. This is only Chris Mack's second season in Louisville and he's managed to dodge what would have been a reasonable downturn in a tough situation. Instead of having the Cardinals positioned and predicted to be a middle-of-the-road ACC team, Mack has the Redbirds in the top 10 of almost every major preseason poll. Jordan Nwora was voted CBS Sports ACC Preseason Player of the Year, but he won't be asked to be an all-on-me guy. Lamarr Kimble, a transfer from Saint Joe's, will probably be a top-three transfer this season in the league and I love Malik Williams' potential to pop as a junior in the frontcourt.
Another positive sign: Louisville's free-throw shooting. The Cards ranked eighth nationally last season with a 77.7% clip. Even if that dips down to 74 or 75, it'll still be good enough to be a contributing factor in U of L's push to an ACC title.
Current odds: 10-1
Breakdown: The odds are reasonable, and because they are so good I will respect Duke and its coach and its talent here. Overall, I'm a seller heading into the season on the Blue Devils. I want to see how Tre Jones handles being the alpha here and whether he's transformed into a respectable shooter.
In comes the No. 2-ranked recruiting class, though. Vernon Carey is a wide-bodied hoss in the middle. Watching him and forward Matthew Hurt play off each other will be one of the more interesting matchup issues for teams — if Duke gets going in a good way early. Other freshmen are Cassius Stanley (not a lot of buzz on him yet, but I don't know, I sorta think he becomes Duke's best newbie) and small forward Wendell Moore. It's not a complete makeover for Duke. Returning players who I think will get good burn include Jack White, Alex O'Connell and Javin DeLaurier.
Things will be markedly different for this team vs. how it was coached last season. The attention and spotlight also won't be as heavy due to Zion's departure. It feels like the championship aspirations of this team will be dependent on Jones' progression with the jump shot.
Dark horses are labeled as such because they're not being put in the national championship conversation even though they've all got the coaching and veteran presence to win six straight in March.
Current odds: 100-1
Breakdown: If I'm picking Cincinnati to be better than Memphis — and I am — then the Bearcats need to be included here. They're probably the least or second-least likely team listed to win the 2020 title, but they've got what I think is a top-five player in 2019-20 in Jarron Cumberland. So that's a huge start. If Cumberland has the offense go almost entirely through him, he'll average north of 25 points per game. New coach John Brannen has found his calling as a creative offensive mind. At Northern Kentucky the past two seasons, the Norse clocked in as No. 27 and No. 19 in offensive efficiency, which is a huge accomplishment at the Horizon League level.
Cumberland gets joined by his cousin, Jaevin Cumberland, an addition that has been a little underplayed so far. While playing for Oakland he averaged 17.2 points last season. Even if that average drops to 11 or 12 — and that's an if — Cincinnati's going to have at least two scoring killers on the roster. If Brannen's coaching wrinkles and fun schemes can be implemented immediately, this should be the most entertaining offensive UC fans have seen in eons. The Bearcats return Tre Scott and Keith Williams as starters, but this team is deeper than normal for a group that brings in a new coach.
Current odds: 300-1
Breakdown: The only "questionable" inclusion on the list (those odds!) happens to be a Big East program that returns five starters, brings in a potential top-100 player in college basketball to run point guard, has a coach who through seven seasons is already the best in school history and features an array of offensive firepower. I have to bring in the Friars because I believe it will be Providence that wins the Big East this season. If you're good enough to win the Big East, you're good enough to win the national championship.
Here's who you can expect to see starting this season: UMass transfer Luwane Pipkins at point. The biggest, if not only, reason PC didn't make it to a sixth straight NCAA Tournament last season was because of the unsolvable question at the point guard position. That seems to not be a problem anymore. Pipkins is a jewel for the Friars this season. He'll team up with David Duke Jr. and Maliek White to form as strong of a backcourt attack as any in the Big East. Then you plug in Alpha Diallo, arguably a top-50 player in college hoops, in the frontcourt and pair him with A.J. Reeves, who can lead the team in scoring on any given night. Everybody is napping on Providence. They'll be fast, high-scoring, hard to stay in front of and playing with a cocky style that I can't wait to watch.
Current odds: 18-1
Breakdown: Yeah, I think there's just enough with this Villanova roster to put them on the list. Collin Gillespie is ready for his moment in the spotlight, but he'll gladly share it with the likes of Saddiq Bey, Jermaine Samuels, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Cole Swider. Jay Wright hasn't had back-to-back down years since 2012-13. Villanova ranked 30th in KenPom last season and was a No. 6 seed, ultimately bounced by white-hot Carsen Edwards and Purdue in the second round.
Though the roster is still stocked with veterans, VU's defense needs to get back into tip-top shape. From 2014-2018, the Villanova defense ranked 12th, 12th, 5th, 12th and 11th in efficiency at KenPom. Last season was a plunge down to 81st. It's fair to expect a good bump up, probably into the top 40, thanks to having so many faces back and bringing in quality defenders via — did you realize? — a top-five 2019 recruiting class. The athletes are good enough, the team went through a lot last season and the experience should help. Bey's a gem. Samuels should morph from underutilized glue guy into a more consistent offensive option. You'll again enjoy watching Nova do its thing.
Current odds: 60-1
Breakdown: Almost every season we get an instance of a school with a good-to-great fan base, a group that's long since paid its dues and finally has a college basketball team worth getting their hopes up over. This season, Seton Hall fits that description more than any other. The Pirates have been involved in the national discourse of college hoops as of late because they've made four straight NCAA Tournaments, but this is the season of culmination. None of the past four seasons brought about a Sweet 16 appearance. In fact, Seton Hall hasn't won two NCAA Tournament games in the same year since 2000.
But now: suppositions on winning the Big East's regular-season title. A preseason First Team All-American in Myles Powell. A likely top 15 placement in the preseason AP Poll, which would be the school's highest slot in October since 2000. In fact, Seton Hall's only been ranked in the preseason four times in its existence. It's mammoth season ahead — and the Pirates will have a chance at chasing a national title because Powell and Co. bring back almost the entire roster. Myles Cale, Quincy McKnight — and introducing 7-2 Ike Obiagu, who transferred from Florida State and should be the Pirates over the top in terms of vying for its best NCAA Tournament seed since 1993, when it was a No. 2 seed. Big times in South Orange, New Jersey.
Wild cards have concerns such as eligibility, extraordinary youth, lingering injuries or significant roster turnover.
Current odds: 20-1
Breakdown: The reigning national champions still have a roster and a scheme capable of repeating in the ACC, coming in at 20-1. I guess I get it. It's the first time in Tony Bennett's career he's lost three players to NBA Draft selection. But enough talented pieces return to firmly establish Virginia as preseason title contender.
No. 1: Mamadi Diakite. He sets up as Virginia's best player heading into the season. He almost stayed in the draft pool, but fortunately for him and for Virginia, he decided to return. No. 2: Kihei Clark. The undersized sophomore point guard has his doubters; I feel like we're going to check his stat line midway through his senior season and discover he'll be one of the most productive point guards in Virginia history. No. 3: Braxton Key. He didn't have a lot of space allotted for him in the offense last season. I think we're about to understand, about six weeks from now, just how talented Braxton Key is. Could see him having Malcolm Brogdon-like impact on both ends of the floor. No. 4: Jay Huff. The breakout year is coming. Huff's biggest sticking point has to be continually staying aggressive and not hitting these lulls. Beyond the talent, you have Bennett's style, which has empirically proven to work in the macro and micro.
And after winning the way they did last season, it's essentially impossible for the Wahoos to have any more pressure on them for the year ahead. A loose Hoos crew? Look out.
Current odds: 25-1
Breakdown: This will look practical by the time we get to mid-January. In talking with Mark Few a lot in recent weeks, I think he expects this team to need November to find itself. There might even be a bad loss that rears its head before Thanksgiving weekend is over. But Gonzaga is not short on talent, even if it's a lot of new faces. The most familiar, and important, face is Killian Tillie. He's been the best two-way player (if not the best player, or at least the one with the highest ceiling) for Gonzaga the past two seasons, but he keeps getting hurt. I will admit that Tillie being healthy and staying that way is essential to Gonzaga being on a list like this. It all filters down from him.
Expect Texas A&M transfer Admon Gilder to be Gonzaga's second-best player. He's not some supernova of basketball IQ or athleticism, but he does just enough to fit nicely into Few's offensive style. If Filip Petrusev can find a competitive streak, he's the secret weapon for GU, while Corey Kispert is probably just gonna old-man his way to 12 points per game and hit a couple of backbreaking 3-pointers on teams this season. The freshmen to know are Drew Timme and Anton Watson, a pair of frontcourt players with hard competitive edges who should become factors by league play.
If you think this is the season Gonzaga takes a big step back and isn't in the convo for the Final Four, I think you'll be wrong. I'll say it's a No. 3 seed on Selection Sunday.
Current odds: 30-1
Breakdown: Until Chris Beard can't prove he can be an awesome coach who wrecks teams in the NCAA Tournament, you know, every single year, then I am obliged to include the Red Raiders on a list and in a story such as this one. Fresh off the first national title game appearance in school history, TTU only returns 25% of the minutes on its roster from last season.
But the season prior, TTU lost four of its five best players and still nevertheless rebounded to put up its best season in school history. Repeating title-game runs is obviously less common than making the Final Four, but both are hard all the same, even if the occur somewhat commonly in college basketball. The Red Raiders have to be considered a title contender due to the expected vicious performance of their defense, which finished last season allowing 84.1 points per 100 possessions (adjusted for competition) and that not only ranked No. 1 in the sport but was in fact the best single-season defense in the 18-year database of KenPom.
I mean, wow. So here comes the next group, and even if it won't be as good as last season's team, it will probably be as stiff and suffocating as almost any other this season. Your players to know are Davide Moretti, who will be a top-10 shooter in the sport, plus Virginia Tech transfer Chris Clarke and touted freshman Jahmius Ramsey.
Current odds: 16-1
Breakdown: The most interesting and must-see team heading into the season. We have never seen a second-year college basketball coach wrap up the No. 1 recruiting class. Penny Hardaway has done that. He's going to start five freshmen in most if not all games this season, which has only happened a couple of times in the sport's history.
Memphis has been waiting for a season like this ever since John Calipari left for Kentucky, and if you can believe it, that happened more than 10 years ago. The Tigers wound up tying with Houston in the coaches preseason poll in the AAC, but Memphis clearly sets up as more of a title contender/wild card/what have you heading in. James Wiseman is a preseason Second Team All-America selection here at CBS. Precious Achiuwa is a one-and-done talent who could be more of a must-watch than Wiseman, plus you've got an intriguing point guard in Boogie Ellis, who originally committed to Duke.
The spectrum for Memphis' season seems like it could be as poor as 10 losses and a No. 7 seed or as great as three losses and a 1 seed. Total toss-up. It's great to have the Tigers in the mix like this. They really might have as much talent as any team in America.