Thirty-five of the 353 men’s basketball programs in college basketball have won a national championship. Virginia joined that exclusive club last April as a first-time national champion.
The Cavaliers were the first first-time national champion since Florida in 2006. It was only a matter of time until Virginia cut down the nets after the Final Four given the elite level that coach Tony Bennett had transformed the ‘Hoos men’s basketball program. They’ve had a top-10 defense, in terms of efficiency, every season since 2014 and then last season, they finally had the elite offense to match their lockdown defense.
So who’s next?
Which men’s basketball programs have come close to a national championship recently or have an upwards trajectory that suggests they could reasonably reach the Final Four, with the chance to win a title, in a 68-team, single-elimination NCAA tournament?
This exercise considers both a program’s current team as well as its recent track record and future outlook. Having a strong team in 2020 is important but it’s arguably more vital that a program has shown the ability to have year-over-year success because as we’re reminded every March, anything can happen in the NCAA tournament.
Here are seven men’s basketball programs that are arguably best positioned to be the sport’s next first-time champion.
Gonzaga lost by six points in the national championship game to North Carolina just three seasons ago. The ‘Zags led by three at halftime and by one with just over 2 minutes remaining, so they were potentially a few bounces away from winning their first title in 2017.
The tempo-free metrics of kenpom.com, which adjust for pace of play and opponent, say that Gonzaga was the best team in college basketball that season, and by a considerable margin.
Four players from that Gonzaga team went on to play in the NBA, so coach Mark Few and the Bulldogs proved they were capable of recruiting and developing elite talent. But if we’re being honest, while that season helped prove that Gonzaga can reach the greatest heights of the sport, those who have paid attention already knew that it was only a matter of time until the Bulldogs reached the final weekend of the NCAA tournament.
They’ve earned a No. 1 seed three times in the last seven seasons, they’ve made the Sweet 16 (or better) each of the last five years, including the national runner-up finish in 2017 and Elite Eight appearances in 2015 and 2019.
Gonzaga is currently ranked No. 1 in the AP poll — an achievement it has now reached in three of the last four seasons.
That’s why Gonzaga deserves to be No. 1 on this list. Sure, the 2019-20 ‘Zags have an impressive efficiency margin and an even more impressive record, but if they don’t cut down the nets in April, history says they’ll likely be back in the mix to make the Final Four next year and the year after that.
Rui Hachimura, who was a First Team All-American, WCC Player of the Year and the Julius Erving Award winner last season, was Gonzaga’s ninth-leading scorer in 2017 when the Bulldogs made the national championship game. He became a double-digit scorer and the team’s sixth man in 2018 before having a breakout season in 2019.
Similarly, Gonzaga’s leading scorer this season, Filip Petrusev, didn’t start a single game last season and averaged just 6.5 points in 11.4 minutes per game. Now, he’s the Bulldogs’ leading scorer and rebounder at 16.6 points and 7.9 rebounds per game.
On an individual and team-wide basis, Gonzaga is a sure bet to remake itself at a consistent and elite level.
As long as coach Chris Beard is in Lubbock, Texas Tech deserves to be on the short list to be college basketball’s next first-time national champion.
Beard’s first three seasons with the Red Raiders included an Elite Eight appearance and an overtime loss in the national championship game in back-to-back seasons. He has an 8-2 NCAA tournament record at the school while the rest of Texas Tech’s past coaches have a combined 8-16 record in the tournament. So in a very short time, he’s already engineered the most successful tenure in school history.
The Red Raiders helped unseat Kansas from its Big 12 regular-season title perch last season, and they’re on pace to have a top-10 defense for the third season in a row. What’s most impressive about Texas Tech’s rise is that the team lost four of its top five scorers from its Elite Eight team, then the Red Raiders went to the national title game the next season, and despite losing four of their top five scorers from last season, they’re currently ranked No. 22.
Even if this season’s Texas Tech team isn’t on the level of the last two (although don’t discount the Red Raiders’ ability to improve, especially on offense, in the next three months of a college basketball season that arguably lacks any truly elite teams), the school’s coaching staff has shown a remarkable ability to scout and develop players, and get them to defend at a high level. Plus, their current core of guards of Davide Moretti, Jahmi’us Ramsey, Terrence Shannon Jr. and Kyler Edwards are all averaging double figures — and none of them are seniors.
The Bears are certainly a timely inclusion, given their recent 67-55 win at No. 3 Kansas — the program’s first-ever win inside Allen Fieldhouse. Baylor arguably has the best resume in the country, and the team is ranked No. 4 on kenpom.com, so the Bears are one of the best teams in the country, however you determine such a distinction.
In a season that has already featured six different teams that have been ranked No. 1 in the AP poll, Baylor could potentially be the seventh.
The Bears have made two Elite Eight and two Sweet 16 appearances under Scott Drew, and given their current trajectory, they could very well earn their highest seed of Drew’s tenure. They earned a No. 3 seed four times last decade and they made the second weekend of the NCAA tournament in three of those years, so it’s not unreasonable to think that with a better seed, they could advance further.
Baylor’s 12-game winning streak is one of the longest in the country, its defense ranks No. 5 nationally, and with just two seniors in its rotation, there’s reason to believe that Baylor’s excellence could be more than a one-season stay.
WAIT, WHAT HAPPENED?: 25 surprises from the first half of the men’s basketball season
The Tigers are one of two remaining undefeated teams in college basketball, and considering this undefeated start has come on the heels of Auburn’s 2019 Final Four run, when it nearly advanced to the national championship game and has since had to replace the top three scorers from that team, it’d be hard to not have Auburn on this list.
The Tigers currently have a top-15 offense and top-35 defense, which puts them inside the top 20 teams on kenpom.com, so even if they haven’t played a ton of top-shelf opponents (Auburn has just one Quadrant 1 win as a of January 11), they’re still a quality team. You can’t start 15-0 by mistake.
Auburn has earned a No. 4 and No. 5 seed in the last two NCAA Tournaments, and even cautious projections would put the Tigers in a similar, if not better, seed range as they look ahead to March. With a coach who has been to a Final Four, an Elite Eight and the Sweet 16 three times, it’s not unreasonable to think that Auburn’s current status could lead to another Final Four appearance in the near future, which means another shot at winning a national title.
A LOOK AT HISTORY: How Baylor won at Kansas for the first time ever
The Boilermakers were a Mamadi Diakite buzzer beater away from making the Final Four last season, where they would’ve played No. 5 seed Auburn for a chance to play Texas Tech for a national title. So perhaps if Virginia freshman Kihei Clark doesn’t make a heads-up pass at the end of regulation in their Elite Eight thriller, maybe Purdue is coming off of a 2019 national championship. Who knows, right?
Purdue is just 10-7 this season in the post-Carsen Edwards (and Ryan Cline and Grady Eifert) era, but coach Matt Painter has shown an ability to adapt his scheme to his roster, whether that’s one built around a high-usage guard like Edwards or big men like AJ Hammons, Isaac Haas or Caleb Swanigan.
Under Painter, the Boilermakers have been elite defensively (three consecutive years as a top-eight defense from 2009-11) and two years in a row with a top-five offense in 2018 and 2019, so when Purdue is “right,” you’re looking at a program that can contend for a 30-win season and a No. 2 or No. 3 seed.
This isn’t a bet of the 2020 Boilermakers winning the national title, but it’s a bet on their future and their track record of versatility, especially when considering players on their current roster who have a ton of potential, like sophomores Trevion Williams, Eric Hunter, Sasha Stefanovic and Aaron Wheeler.
MEET THE PLAYER YOU NEED TO KNOW MORE ABOUT: Get to know Dayton star Obi Toppin
The Bulldogs lost in the national championship game in the first two years of last decade, and now in the first year of the 2020s, Butler is No. 3 in the NET, No. 5 on kenpom.com and No. 6 in the AP poll as the program is on pace for its highest single-season win total since the Brad Stevens era.
Speaking of Stevens, the Boston Celtics coach who engineered those back-to-back Final Four runs in 2010 and 2011, Butler is now three coaches removed from him, so while he helped the school get into the A-10 and then the Big East, this program is bigger than any coach. Barry Collier, Thad Matta, Todd Lickliter, Stevens, Chris Holtmann and now LaVall Jordan have helped Butler earn, then shed, its feel-good label and become something bigger.
Butler is a one-point road loss to Florida away from being undefeated, it has a top-25 offense and top-10 defense, and a wealth of experience. The Bulldogs are monsters on the defensive glass and defending the 3, while scoring easily inside the arc on offense. If the first half of the 2019-20 season is any indication of how Butler’s next decade will go, don’t be surprised if the Bulldogs hang another Final Four banner or two in the near future.
The Flyers are by no means some under-the-radar program (their home gym hosts the First Four every year) and they went to four consecutive NCAA tournaments last decade, including an Elite Eight appearance, under Archie Miller.
But their history also says they’re prone to going four or five years, heck, maybe 10, without making the tournament. When they have gone, they’ve typically earned a seed somewhere between a No. 7 seed and No. 12 seed, which means they’re facing an uphill battle to win their opening game, let alone multiple.
But this year, thanks to national player of the year candidate Obi Toppin, Dayton is potentially a top-5 team in the sport. The Flyers are 14-2, ranked No. 6 on kenpom.com, No. 9 in the NET and No. 15 in the AP poll.
Their only losses were to likely NCAA tournament teams Kansas and Colorado in overtime on neutral courts. So Dayton is maybe two bounces away from being 16-0 and potentially ranked No. 1 in the country.
So while earlier in this story we referenced the balance between a team’s 2020 potential and its future outlook, it’s hard to look past a Dayton team that could earn a protected seed in the NCAA tournament and potentially have the best player on the court in most potential tournament matchups in a season in which seemingly every historically prominent program has been vulnerable.
Who knows how sustainable Dayton’s 2019-20 dominance is, but if the Flyers have even a six, eight, 10-percent chance of cutting down the nets in April by the time the 2020 NCAA tournament starts, it’s hard to leave Dayton off this list, even if it’s only for one season.