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Meet College Basketball’s National Championship Contenders

The 2019-20 season tips off Tuesday with a marquee showcase featuring Michigan State, Duke, Kentucky, and Kansas in the Champions Classic. Who else joins these teams among college basketball’s elite?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

After an offseason filled with NCAA investigations and court sentencings, college basketball returns Tuesday. The Champions Classic—the marquee tipoff event featuring Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, and Michigan State—will take place in Madison Square Garden, and nearly every other team in the country will begin their seasons elsewhere that night. Last season, Duke announced itself as the title favorite with a 34-point drubbing of Kentucky. This season, the Blue Devils will square off with the Jayhawks, while the Wildcats will take on this year’s preseason no. 1, Michigan State.

It’s a long road from opening night to “One Shining Moment,” and there are sure to be more upsets, buzzer-beaters, and, knowing the NCAA, investigations between now and then. As we enter the 2019-20 season, here are the teams I’m most confident will be fighting for a national title, a few more on the fringes, and a handful of teams with the potential to cut down the nets if everything breaks right.

The Front-runners

Michigan State: The Big Ten’s Best (Only) Hope to End 20-Year Title Drought?

Last season, Michigan State toppled Duke, college basketball’s yearlong favorite to win the national championship, in the Elite Eight and made its seventh Final Four appearance since 2000. On the heels of that campaign, and with nearly every key contributor from last year’s squad returning, the Spartans enter this season as the country’s top team. The Associated Press awarded MSU the preseason no. 1 ranking for the first time in school history (it’d previously been second four times since head coach Tom Izzo took over in 1995).

Preseason All-American Cassius Winston—who dropped the Blue Devils in March—returns for his final season in East Lansing, as does fellow elder statesman Xavier Tillman. Senior guard Joshua Langford, who missed most of last season with a stress fracture in his foot, has been ruled out until at least January after a recurrence of the same injury. Even without Langford, the Spartans should be competitive in tough nonconference tests against Kentucky in the Champions Classic and Duke in the ACC–Big Ten Challenge. And though Michigan State would love to get him fully integrated into the lineup by the back half of the season, it’s talented enough to win the conference in his absence. Only three other Big Ten teams, Maryland, Ohio State, and Purdue, appear in the AP’s preseason poll, and only one other, Penn State, has a player who garnered All-American votes this fall (Lamar Stevens).

National championship contenders often have high-flying freshmen or seasoned upperclassmen with years of experience. Michigan State has both. In addition to Winston, Tillman, and Langford, Izzo’s squad adds Rocket Watts, who’s as skilled as his name is cool. It’s fair to say the Big Ten and a top-two seed in the NCAA tournament are MSU’s to lose. The last Big Ten team to win a national title was Michigan State in 2000. The Spartans have made six Final Fours and one title game since then, and the rest of the conference has eight semifinal appearances and six national title losses in that span. It’s been a long two decades since a Big Ten team cut down the nets, but Michigan State looks like the team to beat this season.

Duke: No Zion, but the Kids Are Still All Right

For a handful of college basketball’s most successful teams, individual seasons are viewed less as installments in a long-running saga and more as championship windows. Since Kyrie Irving came to Durham in the fall of 2010, signaling Duke’s entry in the one-and-done era, the Blue Devils have entered each campaign with a supremely talented team and as a presumptive favorite to win the championship. The same is true of Kentucky, and often Kansas, North Carolina, and Villanova. Of course, they won’t win each spring. Teams built on super freshmen fail more often than they don’t, and there’s a necessary mix between new blood and old that’s required to build a championship-caliber squad.

But occasionally—once every five years or so—the stars align. This is a team’s championship window. Duke had one in 2015 and took advantage. In the ensuing years, the Blue Devils fielded wildly talented teams but weren’t considered actual national title contenders. The same cannot be said of last season’s team.

Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish, and Tre Jones made up arguably the most talented recruiting class in NCAA history. In games that Zion played more than a single minute, Duke lost only twice in the regular season (he lasted 33 seconds in a loss to North Carolina, the result of an exploding shoe). The Blue Devils stormed through the ACC tournament when he returned from injury, claimed a no. 1 seed, and reached the Elite Eight. And then, in what can be described only as a historic failure, they lost, wasting their window of contention.

The Blue Devils excelled under the basket—something most expect them to repeat this season—but struggled to hit from deep. Jack White, Duke’s fifth scorer for much of the year, shot 41.2 percent from beyond the arc through his first 13 games, giving Williamson and Barrett space to dominate opponents inside. He hit 13 percent of his attempts the rest of the season, including a stretch of 12 games in January and February when he missed every single try. Without a real threat from 3, teams sagged off of Duke’s shooters, double-teamed Williamson, and clogged the lane. The same problem could haunt the Devils this season.

Duke enters this season as it usually does: toward the top of the AP preseason poll. Jones, now a sophomore, might be the best point guard in the country. Freshman center Vernon Carey Jr. could be the next in a recent line of dominant Duke big men. And Matthew Hurt, the final piece of Duke’s class, could be the versatile forward that unlocks the roster. But he also is one of only two or three Devils who can score from beyond 6 feet. The window is cracked open in Durham because head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s squad is as talented as any other. But unless Duke can space the floor—an issue that plagued last year’s team—it’ll slam shut.

Kentucky: Cal’s New Kids, Just Like the Old Kids

Another season in Lexington begins with a total overhaul. Head coach John Calipari, the patron saint of recruiting, has delivered four straight no. 2 classes (bested by Memphis this season, and by Duke, who leads them thus far in the 2020 rankings, thrice). That’s good because Kentucky enters this season without its four top scorers from last year. Three (PJ Washington, Tyler Herro, and Keldon Johnson) left for the next level, while a fourth, Reid Travis, exhausted his eligibility. The result is a lineup ready for a change. And that might not be the worst thing for the Wildcats.

After three straight SEC regular-season championships, Kentucky has finished fourth and second the last two seasons. This season could see the Wildcats finish outside the top spot again, with Florida, LSU, and Auburn all fielding impressive squads. But what Kentucky lacks in continuity, it more than makes up for in incoming talent. Guard Tyrese Maxey and small forward Kahlil Whitney, ranked nos. 10 and 11 by 247Sports, respectively, are the big names in the class, and forwards Keion Brooks and Johnny Juzang could also make an immediate impact. Calipari is used to shuffling throes of freshmen in and out of the spotlight, and this year will be no different. Returning sophomore point guard Immanuel Quickley and big man EJ Montgomery will help ease the young guns’ transitions, as will Nick Richards, who should feature prominently in Kentucky’s frontcourt despite picking up an ankle injury in a preseason game.

For the first time in a long time, Kentucky enters the season without a presumptive lottery pick. Still, the collection of talent at Rupp Arena should frighten nearly any team that shares the floor. Kentucky may not have a superstar this season, but it has more than a few game changers.

Kansas: Rock Chalk Begins a Rocky Season

A lot has been happening in Lawrence. In September, the NCAA levied a notice of allegations against Kansas and head coach Bill Self, alleging five Level I violations against the program (its most serious accusation), including three against Self, specifically. Not that Self seems too bothered.

The brashness displayed by Self in the leadup to Late Night at Phog (Snoop Dogg was there, and athletic director Jeff Long made it clear he DID NOT approve of the rapper’s performance) aside, Kansas hasn’t looked like itself of late. Its streak of 14 consecutive Big 12 regular-season titles ended last season, and after years with impressive rebounding showings thanks to a rotation of dominant interior players, Kansas has gone two straight years collecting its lowest offensive rebounding rates since KenPom began recording the stats. Much of that has to do with personnel; young big men Billy Preston and Silvio De Sousa were ruled out in consecutive seasons, and 7-footer Udoka Azubuike missed all but nine games with a torn ligament in his right hand.

Star forward Dedric Lawson is gone, having forgone his final season of eligibility before going unselected in April’s NBA draft. His brother K.J. is also gone, transferring for the second time in his collegiate career, this time to Tulane. Quentin Grimes, Kansas’s highest-rated recruit last season, bolted for Houston, and longtime Jayhawk Lagerald Vick is no longer eligible. Sophomore guard Devon Dotson returns and will likely be Kansas’s go-to scorer, and Azubuike is back to shake his injury demons, hopefully. David McCormack and Ochai Agbaji should feature heavily in increased roles, and while Kansas’s incoming class lacks a showstopper, Iowa transfer Isaiah Moss could make an immediate impact. The former Hawkeye shot 42.1 percent from 3 last season at Iowa. That would’ve been second to only Vick on last year’s Kansas squad.

North Carolina: Tar Heels’ Ceiling Might Be the Roof

North Carolina’s championship aspirations begin and end with Cole Anthony. The blue-chip freshman dropped 28 on Villanova in the schools’ annual “secret” scrimmage and has the talent to go first overall in next year’s NBA draft. Last season, Duke’s RJ Barrett set the ACC freshman scoring record with 860 points (22.6 per game). Anthony is a skilled enough scorer to endanger that mark. And UNC will need every single one of his buckets.

None of Carolina’s five leading scorers from last season—Cam Johnson, Coby White, Luke Maye, Nassir Little, and Kenny Williams—remain. The only returning player who started a game last season is junior forward Garrison Brooks, who is joined by incoming big man Armando Bacot, which should give North Carolina a formidable presence in the frontcourt. But beyond Anthony, the backcourt could be an issue for the Tar Heels. UNC announced freshmen guards Anthony Harris and Jeremiah Francis were out with knee injuries at the beginning of October; both are likely to miss the start of the season. Returning Tar Heel guards Leaky Black and Andrew Platek both dealt with minor injuries of their own.

Anthony is one of the best players in the country and could be a National Player of the Year contender. North Carolina has thrived the last few years by having a number of impressive contributors. This season might look more like a one-man show, with the Tar Heels going as far as Anthony can carry them.

First Off the Bench

Florida: The SEC Is Gator Bait

The Gators left March Madness in the second round for the second consecutive season this spring, but the 2018-19 campaign was merely a table setting for this year’s squad. Gone are longtime contributors KeVaughn Allen, Jalen Hudson, and Kevarrius Hayes, replaced by five-star recruits Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann. Lewis was one of two SEC players named to the Julius Erving Award watch list to start the season and one of only six freshmen in consideration as the country’s top small forward. Mann, meanwhile, will take over point guard duties for Allen.

The real star newcomer, however, is Kerry Blackshear Jr. After three years at Virginia Tech, the All-ACC forward joined Florida as a graduate transfer, and the Gators are national title contenders as a result. Blackshear—the prize of this summer’s transfer market—received the most votes of all players who missed the preseason All-America team and is coming off a season in which he averaged 14.9 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. He’s improved in every major statistical category with age and should thrive in Mike White’s efficient but slower system, which isn’t too unlike the one he played in at Virginia Tech.

Blackshear and the Hokies nearly knocked off Duke in the Sweet 16 last March. If things go according to plan, the senior forward will be dancing long past then this season.

Memphis: Penny’s Wisemen

More often than not, recent college basketball seasons have been defined by the performances of star freshmen. Last year, the sport was a platform for Duke’s Zion Williamson to proclaim his dominance over the domain. Before that, stars like LSU’s Ben Simmons, Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, and Texas’s Kevin Durant used their lone collegiate campaigns to launch themselves into basketball’s stratosphere. The whole of this year’s incoming class may not make the same waves as last year’s, which was led by Williamson, RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish, and Nassir Little, but the player at the front of the pack has the potential to be just as dominant.

Memphis has become a recruiting juggernaut under second-year head coach Penny Hardaway, and James Wiseman is its crown jewel. The 7-foot-1, 240-pound freshman center was the no. 1 recruit in the country, per 247Sports, and leads the Tigers’ no. 1 overall class. Flanked by blue-chip freshmen like Precious Achiuwa and former Duke commit Boogie Ellis, Memphis looks to be the class of the AAC and the nonpower conferences as a whole. Getting their freshmen up to speed might take time; Memphis’s five players with the most games started last season were all seniors. But the AAC is weak enough to allow Hardaway some space to experiment with his lineup. Freshmen have carried teams to championships before. And no school has a better chance to succeed with that formula this season than Memphis.

Gonzaga: Is This Finally the Zags’ Year?

It seemed like Gonzaga would finally break through and win its first championship last season. Twenty years after their Cinderella run to the Elite Eight, the Bulldogs seemed primed to reach their second Final Four in school history. A tight loss to defensive juggernaut and national runner-up Texas Tech in the Elite Eight was a tough pill to swallow for the 33-4 Zags. Senior guard Josh Perkins graduated, and junior big men Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke and sophomore guard Zach Norvell Jr. all went pro, leaving Killian Tillie and Corey Kispert in charge.

Mark Few’s squad has to replace its four leading scorers from last season’s no. 1 seed, but they’ll have reinforcements. This season’s recruiting class is the best since Few took over the program before the 1999-2000 season. Incoming center Drew Timme is the third highest-rated recruit in Gonzaga history, and his future running mate on the wing, Anton Watson, is fourth. Neither projects as a one-and-done talent, but with fellow top-100 bigs Pavel Zakharov and Oumar Ballo underneath, Gonzaga should have more than enough size to make up for its inexperience. Reaching the title game, let alone winning it, would be a lofty goal for this squad. But the WCC is a weak conference that Gonzaga is all but assured to win for the [checks notes] billionth year in a row. Thirty wins and a top-two seed in March isn’t out of the question. After that, it just needs to win six games in a row.

On the Bubble

Virginia: Can the Hoos Run It Back?

For the first time in school history, the Hoos will be defending something more than a conference championship. In spite of the years of pundits crowing that Tony Bennett’s tortoise-paced system and lockdown defense weren’t dynamic enough to carry a team to a title, Virginia cut down the nets last season. Of course, having KenPom’s second-most-efficient offense in the country helped, as did future NBA draft picks De’Andre Hunter (no. 4), Ty Jerome (no. 24), and Kyle Guy (no. 55).

The Cavaliers will be without those three—their top scorers from last season—as well as Jack Salt, but there’s reason for hope. Mamadi Diakite, Kihei Clark, and Jay Huff are all poised to build on their performances last season, and the incoming class—ranked 23rd by 247Sports—is Bennett’s best since the 2016 class, which delivered this spring’s championship. Virginia will likely relinquish its perch atop the ACC this season, and it may struggle in the shadow of its first banner. Still, Bennett’s system is built to maximize talent and minimize skill discrepancies. In short: You can’t ever count the Hoos out.

Louisville: A Challenger in a Top-Heavy ACC

Jordan Nwora might be Louisville’s next superstar. Fresh off being named the ACC’s most improved player last season, Nwora enters this year as Louisville’s first preseason AP All-American since Montrezl Harrell before the 2014-15 campaign. Nwora led the Cardinals in both points and rebounds last season, and his frontcourt partners Dwayne Sutton and Steven Enoch return to flank him on both ends of the floor.

With top-20 recruit Samuell Williamson joining the fold on the wing, and a plethora of upperclassman contributors, Louisville should improve on last season’s sixth-place finish in the ACC. Besting a big three like Duke, North Carolina, and Virginia will be difficult, but the Cardinals are the no. 5 team in college basketball for a reason.

Villanova: Wildcats! Get Your Head in the Game!

The Wildcats’ title defense didn’t go according to plan last season. After entering the year with high hopes and a blue-chip freshman to replace Jalen Brunson, they finished the campaign with more losses than they had in the previous two combined. They watched that freshman, Jahvon Quinerly, transfer to Alabama after an underwhelming season, during which he played just nine minutes per night and logged zero starts. But head coach Jay Wright has made contenders out of overlooked squads before.

Junior guard Collin Gillespie, last year’s third-leading scorer, returns to lead the Nova backcourt and is joined by 247Sports’ no. 17 player overall (and second-ranked shooting guard), Bryan Antoine. Sixteenth-ranked Jeremiah Robinson-Earl should make up for Eric Paschall’s absence in the frontcourt, and fellow top-100 freshmen Justin Moore and Eric Dixon could make an impact for the Wildcats coming off the bench. Last season was the first since 2012-13 that Villanova didn’t earn a top-two seed in the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats are more inexperienced than they’ve been in years, with Paschall and guard Phil Booth both gone, but if Wright’s squad can pull off early wins against Ohio State and Kansas, there’s no reason they can’t top a bracket and make a deep tournament run this season.

An earlier version of this article misstated the number of Big Ten teams on the AP’s preseason poll. There are three, not two. Also, Nick Ward no longer plays for Michigan State.