People, it’s hard to believe but we are here! College basketball season is about to begin and I for one, couldn’t be more excited. With games tipping off next Tuesday, it’s that magical time of year when all 353 Division I teams believe they have enough to make it to March, and have their One Shining Moment on the national stage.
It won’t happen for everyone. But for 68 teams, it will.
So who will those 68 teams be? Well, as someone who loves college basketball and studies it year-round, I felt like – with the season now just days away – today was the perfect time to release my field of 68.
A couple notes before we start: One, this is just my field of 68. I’ll release my preseason All-Americans, Final Four and national championship picks next week. Two, this is only a projection of which 68 teams will make the field – separated by the 32 teams who will earn automatic bids by winning their conference tournaments, plus the 36 teams who will earn automatic bids. I’m not projecting seeds, regions, nothing like that. Just the 68 teams. Also, just to be clear, every team is listed in alphabetical order, first by conference, then from team within conference. So just because I have Clemson ahead of Duke in the “ACC at-large” section, doesn’t mean I think the Tigers will be better. Again, this isn’t a true bracketology (call your boy Joe Lunardi for that). Just a projection of who will make next year’s Big Dance.
So who are those 68 teams?
Here they are, starting with the 32 automatic bids:
Automatic Bids/Conference Champions (32 bids)
Houston (AAC Champion): The Cougars were a buzzer-beater away from advancing to the Sweet 16 last year, and while they lose do-everything guard Rob Gray (and his man-bun), they return just about everyone else. Corey Davis, is back after averaging 13 points per game last year, as is last season’s AAC Sixth man of the Year Armoni Brooks. They’ll be buoyed by big-time transfer DeJon Jerreau and recruit Hinton, to give the Cougars more true scoring options than they had a year ago. And mo matter what you think of Kelvin Sampson and his sticky phone-dialing fingers, the man can coach. What he’s done with this program in just a few short years is incredible.
Hartford (America East champion): Admittedly, I’m a little biased here – the University of Hartford campus (or UHA, as the kids call it) is about five minutes from where I grew up. So yeah, go Hawks. Still, I’m not picking them to win this league because I grew up a stone’s throw from campus, I’m picking them because they’re really good. The Hawks return four senior starters off a team which went 11-5 in league play last year, and it should be enough to give them the edge over America East favorite Vermont, and last year’s NCAA Tournament darling, UMBC. For the first time ever, the Hartford Hawks should be dancing.
Virginia (ACC Champion): Yes, Virginia will probably get upset early in the NCAA Tournament, because that’s just what Virginia does. At the same time, this is a club coming off a 31-win season, that returns three of its top four scorers and adds a key transfer in Braxton Key from Alabama. That should be enough for them to once again pile up wins and take home the ACC title.
Lipscomb (A-Sun Champion): If you’ll remember back to last March, Lipscomb won a wild conference championship game, where they led Florida Gulf Coast by 32 points, completely blew the lead, then still held on to get the victory and advance to the NCAA Tournament. With FGCU losing basically its whole team, this year shouldn’t be as tough, and the Bison should advance to their second straight Big Dance.
Saint Louis (A-10 Champion): The top four in the A-10 is basically indistinguishable, and you could make the case that anyone among Davison, George Mason, St. Joe’s or St. Louis could take home the conference crown. Still, I’m rolling with the Billikens. One, because their nickname is awesome, but two, because they have by far the most talent in this league. Jevon Bess and Jordan Goodwin are both All-A-10 caliber players and transfer Dion Wiley should make an instant impact. Freshman Carte’Are Gordon (hell of a name!) is the highest-ranked recruit to sign with an A-10 program in years. Travis Ford has a history of underachieving with talent, but this team is simply too good for the Billikens not to end up in the field of 68.
Villanova (Big East champion): This pick is partly that the Big East is a bit down this year, and also because, well, Villanova is Villanova. Yes, the Wildcats lost four of the Top 33 picks in the NBA Draft (including three first rounders) but they also bring back two double-digit scorers (Eric Paschall and Phil Booth), a big-time transfer (Joe Cremo, who is a deadly three-point shooter) and the best recruiting class the school has seen in a long time (highlighted by McDonald’s All-American Jahvon Quinerly and Top 50 prospect Cole Swider). It isn’t inconceivable the Wildcats could again end up with No. 1 seed in the Big Dance and advance to another Final Four.
Montana (Big Sky Champion): The Grizzles (great nickname!) are about as big of a favorite as any team in a one-bid league. They return four starters off a team that won 26 games last season, took home the Big Sky regular season and conference titles and played Michigan tough in the NCAA Tournament. Not only should the Grizz get in – they could pull an upset or two once they get there.
Radford (Big South Champion): I’d be lying if I said I knew a ton about Big South basketball, but Radford returns three starters off last year’s Big South Conference Champion, a team that won a “First Four” game in the Big Dance. In the Highlanders, I trust (that’s a hell of a t-shirt slogan). And they’ll get back to the Big Dance.
Michigan State (Big Ten Champion): The Spartans lost lottery picks Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges but return just about everyone else, including table-setting guard Cassisus Winston and wing Josh Langford. How far Michigan State goes in March will be determined by how good their freshman can play this season. Tom Izzo doesn’t need any of them to be stars, but they do need them to be contributors for this team to reach its potential.
Kansas (Big 12 champion): Look, I know the FBI bullet won’t be easy to dodge all season, but right now Bill Self is still at Kansas, and as long as Bill Self is at Kansas, the Jayhawks are 100 percent winning the league title. Not only because they’re Kansas, but also because they have – by far – the best team in the conference. Memphis transfer Dedric Lawson is a legitimate All-American candidate and Quentin Grimes might be the best pure scorer in this high school class. Again, as long as Bill Self is around, just go ahead and hand the league title to the Jayhawks.
UC-Irvine (Big West Champion): No lie, the Big West is quite possibly the toughest league to project a champion from, with legit, probably five or six teams that could win the conference championship. We’ll give the edge to UC-Irvine because they return all five starters, but their struggles in the Big West conference tournament do concern me. The Anteaters have finished first or second in this league five straight seasons, yet have just one NCAA Tournament bid to show for it. Hopefully that’s a trend that changes this season.
Northeastern (Colonial Champion): Northeastern returns all five starters from a team that lost in overtime of last year’s CAA championship game. If that doesn’t sound like the resume of a preseason conference favorite, what does?
Western Kentucky (Conference USA Champion): The addition of Charles Bassey not only makes Western Kentucky the favorite to win Conference USA, but one of the best non-power conference teams in all of college basketball. Bassey is a stud, and a legit double-double threat every time he walks out onto the floor, but don’t sleep on the contributions of Taveion Hollingsworth (13 points per game as a freshman last year) or Auburn transfer Desean Murray as well. With ample opportunities to play and beat Power 6 teams, it isn’t inconceivable that the Hilltoppers could get an at-large NCAA Tournament bid if they don’t win the league’s conference tournament.
Wright State (Horizon Champion): Coach Scott Nagy built South Dakota State into the juggernaut they are today (he’s the guy who recruiting Mike Daum) before he left for Wright State and took the Raiders to the NCAA Tournament in his second season last year. Four starters are back off that team including forward Louden Love (what a name!) who averaged 12 points and nine boards per game while recovering from injury last season.
Harvard (Ivy Champion): Harvard has – no lie – probably four or five guys who could play at most Power 6 programs, so the talent is there. The question is whether it will come together, when you consider that the Crimson haven’t made the Big Dance since 2015. That should change this year with the return of Seth Towns and Bryce Aiken, who could each earn All-Ivy League honors. Freshman Spencer Freedman is a future star for this program as well.
Rider (MAAC Champion): Rider hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1994, but there will be no excuses not to break that streak this year. The Broncs (if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it 100 times… what a nickname!) not only return all five starters, but four of those players earned All-MAAC first, second or third team honors last season. Point being: This team is loaded.
Buffalo (MAC Champion): So not only did the Bulls make the NCAA Tournament last year, but they absolutely crushed Arizona on their way to the school’s first tourney win. With all five starters back, the question now is just how far can this team go in 2019? With a loaded out of conference schedule that includes games at West Virginia, Syracuse and Marquette, they’ll have a chance to show America just how good they are early in the season.
Howard (MEAC Champion): All the other “experts” are taking Bethune-Cookman here, but I’m rolling with MY Howard Bison to make their first NCAA Tournament since 1994, baby!!! They return the league’s leading scorer R.J. Cole (who sounds like an R&B singer) as well as fellow 20 point a game scorer Charles Williams. All five starters on this team are either juniors or seniors.
Illinois State (Missouri Valley Champion): Look, I know that everyone in the media is in love with Loyola-Chicago and Sister-What’s-Her-Face, but the bottom line is that even despite returning three starters from their Final Four team, Loyola is no better than the third best team in this league. My pick is Illinois State, a club which was thiiiiiiiiiiiiis close to the Big Dance two seasons ago and returns arguably the league’s best player in Milik Yarborough (he averaged just under 17 points and seven boards per game last season). Southern Illinois is another team that should be favored over the Ramblers at this point.
Nevada (Mountain West Champion): The Wolf Pack have been gotten plenty of buzz since last season ended, and after seeing them up close and in person this preseason, I can promise you they’re legit. An exhibition loss to Washington shouldn’t damper expectations too much for this team (as you’ll see in a minute, Washington is that good). They have the size, athleticism and skill to not only make a Final Four, but yes, compete for a national championship.
Saint Peters (PA) (Northeast Champion): In a league ravaged by transfers (former NEC players are currently on the rosters of Texas, Cincinnati, Seton Hall and Nebraska among others), Saint Peter’s is the rare exception, with all five starters returning. A school which has made just one NCAA Tournament, should return to the Big Dance for the first time in nearly 30 years.
Murray State (Ohio Valley Champion): The Racers are the defending league champion and have a legitimate NBA prospect in Ja Morant. This is not only the team to beat in the Ohio Valley, but could once again create havoc once the Big Dance tips off.
Washington (Pac-12 Champion): The Huskies are probably one of the most under-talked about teams entering the season, with their top seven players returning off a team that just barely missed the NCAA Tournament last year. Add in the fact that they absolutely walloped preseason Top 10 team Nevada in an exhibition game a few weeks ago and it adds credence to the fact that this team is really good, and really flying under the radar. You can go ahead and lock in the school’s first NCAA Tournament bid since 2011 this season. The only question is, how far will they go once they get there?
Lehigh (Patriot Champion): Bucknell might be the two-time defending champion here, but Lehigh is the best team in this league. The Mountain Hawks return four starters (including three double-digit scorers) off a team that won eight of its last nine games in 2018.
Kentucky (SEC Champion): I’ve said it since the day Reid Travis signed on the dotted line at Kentucky and will continue to say it until I’m proven wrong: This team has no weakness. They have size, athleticism, toughness, shooting and experience. As I’ve also said all spring long, they are the No. 1 team in the country in my eyes, and the favorites to cut down the nets in Minneapolis next spring.
Wofford (Southern Champion): All you need to know about Wofford is this: Guard Fletcher Magee averaged over 22 points per game last season and is thought by some to be an NBA prospect. That’s enough to push this team over the top in the SoCon and make them a threat to win a game or two once they get to the NCAA Tournament.
Stephen F. Austin (Southland Champion): Stephen F. Austin is about as consistent of a mid-major program as you can get, as they’ve made four of the last five NCAA Tournaments, and nearly beat Texas Tech in Round 1 last year. Considering how much talent they return (three double-figure scorers) and their knack for playing hard defense (they forced the fifth most turnovers in all of college basketball last year), there’s no reason to think that the Lumberjacks (!!!) won’t again return to the Big Dance.
Arkansas Pine-Bluff (SWAC Champion): The Golden Lions have made just one NCAA Tournament in school history, but that number should double in 2019 with three starters back off a team that finished second in the SWAC a season ago. That includes Martaveous McKnight, the reigning SWAC Player of the Year.
South Dakota State (Summit Champion): By now Mike Daum’s story has been well-told, and after an off-season where some believed he could have graduated and transferred to a big-time program (I’ve been told it was never really in the cards) he is back and hoping to send the Jackrabbits to a fourth-straight NCAA Tournament. The question is, after three straight years of losing a first round game, can they breakthrough and win a game or two once they get there?
Georgia State (Sun Belt Champion): The Panthers aren’t just the defending league champion (they lost to Cincinnati in Round 1 last season) but also return the league’s best player in D’Marcus Simonds. Simonds is a legit NBA prospect who averaged 21 points per game last season.
Grand Canyon (WAC Champion): I picked the Antelopes to take home the WAC title last year and they fell one game short, but even despite it… I’m doubling down on the Lopes, baby!!! Not only does defending champion New Mexico State lose a bunch of pieces, but GCU is absolutely loaded. Alessando Lever could end up as the league’s Player of the Year, Tim Finke is the highest-rated recruit to ever sign with the school (turning down a bunch of power programs in the process) and his brother Michael Finke is a transfer from Illinois. There is no excuse, and the Lopes should be dancing in 2019.
Gonzaga (WCC Champion): Losing Killian Tillie (the team’s leading returning scorer and rebounder) for two months to an ankle injury ould be crippling for the Zags in the out of conference, where a loaded schedule includes games against North Carolina, Tennessee and the gauntlet that is the Maui Invitational. Still, Tillie is expected back for league play, and Gonzaga should have no problem rolling through everyone in the WCC.
At-Large Bids (36)
Central Florida (AAC At-Large): The Knights have the most talent in the AAC, but their top three players also have a history of nasty injuries, and their coach (Johnny Dawkins) hasn’t exactly “met expectations” when he’s had good teams. Still, if this team’s best players (guard B.J. Taylor, wing Aubrey Dawkins) can stay healthy, there is too much talent to miss out on a tourney bid.
Cincinnati (AAC At-Large): Love Mick Cronin or hate him, the guy has made eight straight NCAA Tournaments. So betting against him here is like hitting on 18 at a black jack table in Vegas – you can do it if you want, but things probably won’t work out in your favor. The Bearcats lose a bunch of key pieces (including first round NBA Draft pick Jacob Evans) but do bring back Jarron Cumberland and Cane Broome in the backcourt.
Clemson (ACC At-Large): Quick question: How many of you remember that Clemson made the Sweet 16 last year? Anyone? Hello? You there? After losing Gabe Devoe and Donte Grantham off that team it’s hard to imagine them getting back to the second weekend. But thanks to Marcquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell, the Tigers do have enough to make a second straight NCAA Tournament.
Duke (ACC At-Large): We all know about the Blue Devils “big three” (R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish), but it will be the play of point guard Tre Jones and the depth around them that determines just how far this team comes in March. Still, the bottom line is that Barrett and Williamson are two of the 10 best players in college basketball – and when you have two of the 10 best players in the country, you’ll be able to play with and beat anyone in college basketball.
Florida State (ACC At-Large): I’m not as high as most on Florida State, in large part because I think so much of their preseason expectations of them are based on getting hot at the right time in last year’s NCAA Tournament. Still, with five of their top seven scorers back, the Seminoles will again be back in the Big Dance.
Louisville (ACC At-Large): National opinion on Louisville varies, but I believe in Chris Mack. At the end of the day, just about everyone on Louisville’s roster is a former Top 50 recruit, and to Mack’s credit, he plugged some holes in the grad transfer market, specifically with point guard Christen Cunningham. More importantly, once Mack arrived, not a single player left – which is a testament to the fact that everyone at Louisville has bought in. it’ll be an up-and-down year one for Mack, but he’ll do enough to get the Cards back to the NCAA Tournament.
North Carolina (ACC At-Large): You could argue that North Carolina has the most complete front court in college basketball, with Luke Maye (a National Player of the Year candidate), Nassir Little (a legit Top 5 NBA Draft prospect), Cameron Johnson on the wing, and bruisers Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley down low. The problem is at point, where the Tar Heels will be forced to play true freshman Coby White – a good player, but one who will probably keep them from competing for the fourth national championship of the Roy Williams era.
NC State (ACC At-Large): It isn’t an exaggeration to say that the Wolfpack will have one of the smallest teams in college basketball, where at most times transfer Wyatt Walker will be the only player taller than about 6’5 on the court. It also isn’t an exaggeration to say that this is how Kevin Keatts prefers to play, mimicking the style he used at UNC-Wilmington. In Kevin Keatts I trust, and NC State will make its second straight NCAA Tournament.
Syracuse (ACC At-Large): For the first time in forever, the Orange were a big winner at the NBA’s draft deadline when Tyus Battle – a legit first round prospect – elected to return to school for his junior year. And with him in tow, the Orange have all five starters back off last year’s Sweet 16 team. They don’t have much depth behind them, but this is still the best team the Orange have had in a decade. For once, the Orange won’t be sweating come Selection Sunday.
Virginia Tech (ACC At-Large): True story: I was toying with tabbing Virginia Tech as one of my Final Four teams this year… until forward Chris Clarke was suspended on Wednesday. There is no timetable on his return, and while Clarke didn’t put up monster stats last year, he was a key component on an undersized team. Buzz Williams’ club is still NCAA Tournament good – but it’s hard to call them “Final Four good” until we know what Clarke’s status is.
Marquette (Big East At-Large): Speaking of Buzz Williams, Steve Wojciechowski has never been able to get out of Williams’ shadow in Milwaukee, where Marquette has made just one NCAA Tournament since he arrived four years ago. Thankfully, if there is ever a year where his team should break through, this is it. In a Big East where just about everyone else loses key pieces, Marquette returns seven of its top nine scorers, including Markus Howard, who averaged over 20 a game last season and dropped 52 on Providence in January. The Golden Eagles need to clean up their defense – they gave up the most points of all Power 6 schools – but have no excuses to miss the Big Dance in 2019.
Providence College (Big East At-Large): Serious question: Is there a more underrated coach in college basketball than Ed Cooley? Cooley has quietly led Providence to five straight NCAA Tournament appearances, something I’m guessing few people in America realize. And while they do lose their top three scorers off last year’s team, I’m guessing they back to the Big Dance this season, with the arrival of a heralded recruiting class (David Duke and A.J. Reeves are both Top 50 prospects) and the return of key role players Alpha Diallo (best name in college basketball, by far) and Emmitt Holt, who missed last season with injury.
St. John’s (Big East At-Large): Chris Mullin is officially out of excuses at St. John’s. After dealing with a lack of talent his first three years and injuries a season ago, the Red Storm have – at least on paper – the second best team in the conference. Shamorie Ponds is a legit All-American candidate and with the addition of Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron, St. John’s has a second All-Conference caliber player in the backcourt. They also have depth with veterans Marvin Clark and Justin Simon. If the Red Storm can’t break through and make the NCAA Tournament this year, it’s fair to question if they ever will under Mullin.
Xavier (Big East At-Large): Yes, there was a coaching change at Xavier, and yes they lost a bunch of key pieces, but here’s the bottom line: The Musketeers have made 17 of the last 19 NCAA Tournaments, despite switching conferences twice and coaches three times. This is a bet on history. And it’s a bet on Xavier.
Indiana (Big Ten At-Large): Freshman phenom Romeo Langford is the headliner here, but Juwan Morgan might just end up being this team’s best player in 2019 after averaging just under 17 points a year ago. Add in other key veterans and a solid recruiting class, and this isn’t a “Ben Simmons at LSU” type deal for Langford at Indiana, and he doesn’t have to do it alone. This team is good enough to win the Big Ten this season.
Maryland (Big Ten At-Large): Had Kevin Huerter returned to College Park the Terrapins would have probably been the preseason favorites to win the Big Ten, but instead he stayed in the draft and ended up as a first round pick. But even without him, the Terps return enough to make a run at the Big Dance. Anthony Cowan is one of the best point guards in college basketball and forward Bruno Fernando could be one of the most improved players in the country if he doesn’t get caught up in the FBI scandal (he has the same “advisor” as Kansas’ Silvio de Sousa). Add in freshmen Aaron Wiggins and Jalen Smith and the Terrapins should return to the NCAA Tournament after missing last season.
Michigan (Big Ten At-Large): There are three certainties in life: Death, taxes and John Beilein getting a team to peak come March. The Wolverines lose do-it-all big guy Mo Wagner, but still return enough of last year’s Final Four team to make another NCAA Tournament run. Charles Mathews is good enough to mess around and compete for Big Ten Player of the Year.
Nebraska (Big Ten At-Large): The Cornhuskers finished fourth in the Big Ten standings last year, and had it not been for a comically bad out of conference schedule, they would have made the Big Dance. Well this season, those same Cornhuskers return their top four scorers, including James Palmer who averaged 17 points per game a year ago. A season after just getting nudged out of the Big Dance, Nebrasketball will find its way back in.
Purdue (Big Ten At-Large): Carsen Edwards might be the best returning player in college basketball after averaging 18 points per game last year, but the question is about what’s around him, with four key seniors gone off last year’s team. The Boilermakers still probably have enough to make another trip to the Big Dance. But it’s hard to see them doing much once they get there.
Wisconsin (Big Ten At-Large): Wisconsin missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nearly 20 years last season, but have no excuses not to get back in 2019. Overall, they return their top eight scorers, including Ethan Happ, who averaged 17 and nine last year, and could mess around and end up as a First-Team All-American. If Wisconsin doesn’t get back to the Big Dance this year, it’s fair to ask if Greg Gard is the answer long-term in Madison.
Iowa State (Big 12 At-Large): The Cyclones finished in last place in the Big 12 last season, but should be one of the most improved teams in the country in 2018-2019 thanks to the return of guard Lindell Wigginton. Wiggininton flirted with the pros last spring, before deciding to return to Ames, where he averaged 17 points as a freshman a season ago. Add in a loaded recruiting class led by Top 75 prospect Talen Horton-Tucker and the Cyclones will be dancing for the third time in four seasons under Steve Prohm.
Kansas State (Big 12 At-Large): To me this team feels a lot like Florida State in the ACC, a club which basically returns their whole roster (including their TOP EIGHT scorers) but also is getting a lot of preseason pub after getting hot for a game or two in March. That’s especially true when you consider that while they finished in fourth in the Big 12 last season, they went 0-6 against the top three teams in the league (Kansas, West Virginia and Texas Tech). This team is good. But not “preseason Top 15” good, like everyone is suggesting.
TCU (Big 12 At-Large): TCU has a fascinating roster with two big-time guards (Alex Robinson and Jaylen Fisher), a big-time wing (Desmond Bane) and – in an era where teams continually get smaller – four guys who are 6’10 or taller on their roster. Jamie Dixon should have no problem getting this team to a second straight NCAA Tournament, which is a minor miracle considering what a disaster this program was when he took over.
Texas (Big 12 At-Large): Yes, Mo Bamba is gone, but just about everyone else is back, and this is probably the best team that Shaka Smart has had since he got to Austin. So much will depend on the health of Andrew Jones, who has courageously fought back from a leukemia diagnosis last year, but now is dealing with an unrelated toe injury. Regardless of Jones’ health, this is a team that should make the Big Dance.
Texas Tech (Big 12 At-Large): The Red Raiders lost a whole bunch of talent from last year’s team, including All-Big 12 guard Keenan Evans and lottery pick Zhaire Smith, but we’re betting on friend of the Aaron Torres Sports Podcast Chris Beard here. Beard has coached in the ABA, at the JUCO level, DII and a few stops at D1, and no one is more comfortable (except maybe John Calipari) taking a bunch of mismatched parts and turning them into a complete team by the end of the season. With transfers Matt Mooney, Tariq Owens and C.J. Roberts, Beard will have a mostly new roster. But one that will be good enough to make it back to the NCAA Tournament this spring.
West Virginia (Big 12 At-Large): West Virginia loses Jevon Carter off last year’s team, but come on, are you really betting against the man, myth and legend in a zip up swishy shirt, Bob Huggins? Me neither. And with Sagaba Konate and Esa Ahmad down low and James “Beatle” Bolden in the backcourt, the Mountaineers will once again do enough to get to the NCAA Tournament.
Arizona (Pac-12 At-Large): Admittedly, I’m higher on Arizona than most. Yes, they lost three NBA players including the No. 1 overall pick DeAndre Ayton, but everyone on their roster is either a former Top 50 recruit or big-time transfer. If anyone else in the Pac-12 had this same exact roster, we’d say “wow they’re good” but because it’s Arizona, it feels underwhelming. Look for the Wildcats to sneak up on folks, and the name to watch here is freshman Brandon Williams. Williams was a consensus Top 15 recruit nationally until an injury cost him his entire junior year of high school. Now finally healthy, he could end up as Pac-12 Freshman of the Year.
Oregon (Pac-12 At-Large): To me, the Ducks have the biggest boom/bust potential of anyone in this league, and maybe college basketball. With UCLA’s injuries they might have the most talent in the Pac-12, thanks to returning point guard Payton Pritchard (who averaged just under 14 and five last season), a loaded freshman class (Bol Bol, Louis King and Will Richardson) and key reserves (Kenny Wooten, Victor Bailey) who could play just about anywhere in the country. But all that talent doesn’t necessarily equate to chemistry, creating that aforementioned boom/bust potential. I’m putting the Ducks into my projected field of 68 and believe they’re good enough to make the second weekend. I could also see them missing the tournament altogether, making for a fascinating experiment in Eugene.
UCLA (Pac-12 At-Large): The Bruins have a ton of talent, led by Kris Wilkes, who should probably be considered the favorite to win Pac-12 Player of the Year. Still their depth has been hit hard by injuries, with key freshmen Tyger Campbell and Shareef O’Neal both ruled out for the season. Add in the fact that Steve Alford hasn’t won a single Pac-12 regular season title and just one conference tourney title in five years, and it’s fair to question exactly what the ceiling of this team is. Still, this is a group that has the talent to make a deep NCAA Tournament run.
USC (Pac-12 At-Large): The Trojans have been banged up all preseason, but seem to be getting healthy at the right time. Poor Bennie Boatwright appears to finally be back to 100 percent after missing major chunks of the last two seasons with injuries, and there is plenty of talent around him thanks to returnees Jonah Matthews, Nick Rackocevic and Jordan Usher. Freshman Kevin Porter Jr., should compete for the league’s Freshman of the Year award. The only question now: Is Derryck Thornton ready to take over at point guard? The answer to that question may determine whether the Trojans return to the Big Dance for the third time in four seasons or not.
Alabama (SEC At-Large): Yes, the Crimson Tide lost Collin Sexton, but they return nine of their top 11 scorers off last year’s team, including John Petty who is due to be a breakout star. Add in transfer Tevin Mack (who led Texas in scoring two seasons ago) and Alabama will be the surprise of the SEC on the hardwood.
Auburn (SEC At-Large): Bruce Pearl is back baby, and so are the Tigers, who like Tennessee have the potential to make the school’s first Final Four run in school history. They return two All-Conference caliber guards in Jared Harper and Bryce Brown, as well as low post monsters Anfernee McLemore and Horace Spencer. My one question: How will the return of Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley – two players who were suspended all of last season as part of the FBI probe – impact the unbelievable chemistry and style of play this team displayed on the court last season?
Florida (SEC At-Large): The Gators return several key players including leading scorer Jalen Hudson and another loaded freshman class highlighted by point guard Andrew Nembhard. But at the end of the day, this is about Mike White, one of the best young coaches in the sport. Bet against him at your own risk. The Gators will be dancing once again in March.
LSU (SEC At-Large): Tremont Waters was my preseason pick for SEC Player of the Year, and freshmen Emmitt Williams and Naz Reid are both players who will one day play in the NBA. Therefore, it isn’t an exaggeration to say that LSU has the second most talented roster in the SEC behind Kentucky. The question now is how does coach Will Wade juggle the egos of all those talented players, and how does Wade handle the spotlight himself after his name came up a few weeks ago in the FBI probe? Assuming Wade is with this team by March, this is a program which has the potential to play deep into the tournament.
Mississippi State (SEC At-Large): Truth be told, Mississippi State was probably one of the 68 “best” teams in college basketball last year, but a dismal out of conference schedule did them in. This year the Bulldogs loaded up, and with their top six scorers back, Mississippi State seems certain to break a decade long NCAA Tournament drought.
Tennessee (SEC At-Large): The Vols were co-SEC regular season champs last year, runners up in the SEC Tournament and basically their entire team back, a threat to earn a No. 1 seed and make the school’s first ever Final Four in men’s basketball. The one question I have with the Vols is this: On a veteran team, filled with no obvious NBA talent, how close were we to seeing Tennessee’s ceiling last season?
And there you have, your field of 68 for the 2019 NCAA Tournament.
Last Four Out:
Colorado: Ask Pac-12 coaches and they’ll tell you that the Buffaloes will be the surprise team in this league that no one is talking about. Still, even with one of the conference’s best guards McKinley Wright (who averaged 14 points and five assists last season), it seems unlikely that they have enough to end up as one of 68 teams when the field is released on Selection Sunday.
Marshall: Poor Marshall is unquestionably one of the 68 best teams in college basketball after making the NCAA Tournament last season, upsetting Wichita State in Round 1 and returning most of their key pieces (including star Jon Elmore). But with just three games against power programs in the out of conference (at Maryland, at Texas A&M, at Virginia), it’s hard to imagine that they do enough outside Conference USA to get into the at-large discussion. They’ll probably need to win the conference tournament to get into the NCAA Tournament, a tough task with Western Kentucky in the same league.
New Mexico: The Lobos got hot at the right time last season, winning 11 of their final 15 games and seven in a row before losing to San Diego State in the Mountain West championship game – and on paper were set to be significantly better in 2018-2019. But then guard JaQuan Lyle suffered a season-ending Achilles injury, and now it’s hard to see the Lobos racking up enough wins to earn an at-large bid. With star transfers Vance Jackson (UConn) and Carlton Bragg (Kansas) it isn’t inconceivable. But it’s just hard to imagine at this point.
Vanderbilt: Look, I love Darius Garland – we all do. But outside of he and forward Simi Shittu, this roster really is somewhat barren of talent. If those two stay in college beyond this season (unlikely since both are projected as one-and-done picks) then the Commodores will be a threat for years to come. But they simply don’t have the firepower to compete with the best teams in the SEC this season.
Conferences with Multiple Bids (*indicates conference champion):
AAC (3): Central Florida, Cincinnati, *Houston
ACC (9): Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Louisville, North Carolina, NC State, Syracuse, *Virginia, Virginia Tech
Big East (5): Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, *Villanova, Xavier
Big Ten (7): Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, *Michigan State, Nebraska, Purdue, Wisconsin
Pac-12 (5): Arizona, Oregon, UCLA, USC, *Washington
Big 12 (7): Iowa State, *Kansas, Kansas State, TCU, Texas, Texas Tech, West Virginia
SEC (7): Alabama, Auburn, Florida, *Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, Tennessee