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Thursday, September 20, 2018

10 early favorites to win the 2019 college basketball championship

Coach K

The 2018 college basketball season is in the past, which means it’s not too early to look ahead to 2018-19. We have a pretty good idea of what recruiting classes will look like, and though some NBA decisions remain in the balance, we can make fairly educated guesses as to what everyone’s roster will look like when the season kicks off in November.

We can also tell who we can expect to contend for a national title, if only based on talent. Here are ten teams who should have enough on their roster to mount a charge for a national championship if everything clicks.

1) Duke Blue Devils

You may look at this and scoff, given the fact that the Blue Devils are losing basically their entire freshman class as well as Grayson Allen. That, however, ignores the fact that Duke is bringing in the three best recruits in the nation. They will have phenoms Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, and Cam Reddish on their side. That combined with the returning base of talent should ensure that Mike Krzyzewski’s squad contend for another national title.

2) Kansas Jayhawks

Kansas is another beneficiary of a fantastic recruiting class, with top guard recruits Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes on their way in. Three major transfers, including Memphis’ Dedric Lawson and K.J. Lawson, should help shield the Jayhawks from the loss of Devonte’ Graham and Malik Newman. They’ll be even better if Lagerald Vick and Udoka Azubuike ultimately decide to return to school.

3) Villanova Wildcats

The defending champions are in the position of being able to absorb the losses of Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges without taking too much of a step back. Former Arizona commit Jahvon Quinerly will headline a talented freshman class. They also have a sturdy foundation set to return, including Omari Spellman, Eric Paschall, and Final Four hero Donte DiVincenzo. Jay Wright’s squad will have what it takes to make another deep run next season.

4) Kentucky Wildcats

John Calipari is bringing in his usual talented group of freshmen, which means Kentucky will be a factor in 2018-19. There are always questions — this past year’s team, for instance, didn’t quite gel until March — but on pure talent, the Wildcats will have title credentials. Incoming freshmen Keldon Johnson and Immanuel Quickley should ensure that Kentucky has the talent to make a run, as long as they adapt to college basketball quickly.

5) Gonzaga Bulldogs

2018-19 was always supposed to be the season that Gonzaga would once again be strong enough to prove their doubters wrong and challenge for another title. Their season ended rather prematurely with a Sweet Sixteen loss against ninth-seeded Florida State, but they can learn and grow from that. Killian Tillie and Zach Norvell Jr. will be key pieces. Rui Hachimura’s decision to return for his junior season is a big boost as well. The talent is there.

6) Auburn Tigers

Bruce Pearl’s squad caught many off guard last season, but they won’t have the element of surprise next season. That said, with nearly the entire team set to return, they may not need it. Mustapha Heron has signed with an agent. While that loss will hurt, Austin Wiley and Jared Harper have left the door open for a return. If they both elect to stay in school, Auburn has a chance to do much more than atone for a premature tournament exit in 2018.

7) North Carolina Tar Heels

Cameron Johnson and Luke Maye should both be back for North Carolina, giving them a very good platform to build from next year. Top recruit Nassir Little leads a very good recruiting class that should help soften the blow of Joel Berry and Theo Pinson’s departures. The Tar Heels’ second-round exit surprised many in 2018, but the talent will be in the program to do much better than that in 2019.

8) Michigan Wolverines

The big question here will be the fates of Moritz Wagner and Charles Matthews. Wagner is probably the bigger threat to leave for the NBA, but if he returns, the Wolverines could well be a top-five squad. If one or both depart, they’ll have holes to fill, but there’s still a lot of talent on the roster. Zavier Simpson struggled at times during the NCAA Tournament but is elite defensively, and Jordan Poole appeared to grow during the team’s March run. Wagner or no Wagner, they’re at least an early Big Ten favorite. They have the potential to be much more.

9) Virginia Cavaliers

UMBC made us all forget that Virginia had an incredible season. Much depends on how the program moves forward from that. If they can shake it off, they’ll be right back in the upper-echelon of college basketball. De’Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and Jack Salt are all poised to return. For all the talk about how it has failed in the postseason, Tony Bennett’s pack line defense has been consistently effective during the regular season. That should put Virginia in a strong position again come March 2019.

10) Tennessee Volunteers

SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams leads a strong returning roster for Rick Barnes’ Volunteers, who were one Sister Jean-induced miracle shot from making their way into the Sweet 16 with a chance to go even further. Tennessee is an excellent defensive team, and with minimal disruption to their roster, they should be a factor in the SEC next season. Assuming that works out, they have the chance to do something special.

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