With the first week of college basketball official practice gone by across the country, it is never too early to start looking ahead to March; specifically all of the madness that comes along with it. But there wouldn’t be madness without star-studded teams at the top, of which only one can take home the title. So who are the lead title contenders before the year begins? Here’s my take, followed by a 68 team bracket and bubble:
1. Kansas Jayhawks
Key Additions: Dedric Lawson, K.J. Lawson, Charlie Moore, Quentin Grimes, Devon Dotson
Key Subtractions: Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk, Malik Newman
Why They Are Ranked Here: The Jayhawks lose most of their sharpshooting backcourt following last year’s Final Four appearance. Luckily for Bill Self, his Jayhawks find themselves loading up with the addition of 3 key transfers, who have all proven themselves at the collegiate level. The Lawson twins supplement an already powerful frontcourt spearheaded by Udoka Azubuike, Silvio DeSouza, and Mitch Lightfoot. In the backcourt, Charlie Moore and Lagerald Vick are a formidable one-two punch with plenty of depth behind them. Bill Self has an experienced group that should be ready to compete.
2. Kentucky Wildcats
Key Additions: Reid Travis, Immanuel Quickley, Tyler Hero, Keldon Johnson, Ashton Hagans, EJ Montgomery
Key Subtractions: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox, Hamidou Diallo, Wenyen Gabriel, Jarred Vanderbilt, Sacha Killeya-Jones
Why They Are Ranked Here: The Kentucky Wildcats finally have experience to work with thanks to the returns of P.J. Washington, Quade Green, and Nick Richards. And that’s before factoring in the graduate transfer of former Stanford star Reid Travis. Unsurprisingly, Kentucky also brought in several talented freshman, who will have for the first time in a long while capable upperclassmen to lead them
3. Duke Blue Devils
Key Additions: R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish, Tre Jones, Joey Baker
Key Subtractions: Marvin Bagley III, Grayson Allen, Wendell Carter, Gary Trent Jr., Trevon Duval
Why They Are Ranked Here: The Blue Devils will replace their entire starting lineup with one of the most hyped freshman classes in recent memory, as they feature the top three recruits in the nation. The young stars will be coupled with returning role players such as Marques Bolden, Alex O’Connell, and Javin Delaurier, who will need to set an example for the younger players. Talent won’t be what holds this team back.
4. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Key Additions: Brandon Clarke, Joel Ayayi, Filip Petrusev, Greg Foster Jr.
Key Subtractions: Jonathan Williams III, Silas Melson
Why They Are Ranked Here: The loss of Jonathan Williams is masked by the transfer of Brandon Clarke, who averaged 17.5 PPG at San Jose St. He will join versatile, first-round talents Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura in the frontcourt. Gonzaga should dominate the WCC once again and be positioned for a deep run in March thanks to their experience and depth.
5. Virginia Cavaliers
Key Additions: Francisco Caffaro, Kody Stattman
Key Subtractions: Devon Hall, Isaiah Wilkins
Why They Are Ranked Here: Virginia has had an offseason to overcome the loss to UMBC. With Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and De’Andre Hunter all back, Tony Bennett returns the core of a team that defended at historically great levels. The bad taste left in their mouths by UMBC should leave this team playing with an added chip on their shoulders.
6. Tennessee Volunteers
Key Additions: D.J. Burns
Key Subtractions: James Daniel III
Why They Are Ranked Here: A year ago, Tennessee wasn’t expected to do very much. This year will be the opposite. Rick Barnes returns his entire rotation. Admiral Schofield, Grant Williams, Jordan Bone, Jordan Bowden, Lamonte’ Turner, and Kyle Alexander are set to defend their SEC regular season title in what will be a very competitive league.
7. Nevada Wolfpack
Key Additions: Tre’Shawn Thurman, Corey Henson, Jazz Johnson, Nisre’ Zouzoua, Trey Porter, Jordan Brown
Key Subtractions: Kendall Stevens, Josh Hall
Why They Are Ranked Here: Transfers. Eric Musselman has built a program by acquiring transfers who have bought into his culture. Caleb and Cody Martin along with Jordan Caroline are the stars who will lead the fast paced Wolfpack. Nevada also happens to add five more transfers who all averaged over 13 PPG at their previous schools, and a McDonald’s All-American in Jordan Brown. Nevada could have a 10 man rotation and run teams to death. The Wolfpack are legitimate threats to win it all.
8. North Carolina Tar Heels
Key Additions: Nassir Little, Colby White
Key Subtractions: Joel Berry, Theo Pinson, Jalek Felton
Why They Are Ranked Here: Luke Maye is a walking double-double with intriguing pieces around him. Little and White appear ready to contribute right away as freshman. Cam Johnson and Kenny Williams should be consistent scoring options. If guys like Seventh Woods, Sterling Manley, and Garrison Brooks can emerge, UNC will be right there.
9. Villanova Wildcats
Key Additions: Jahvon Quinerly, Cole Swider, Brandon Slater, Joe Cremo
Key Subtractions: Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo, Omari Spellman, Mikal Bridges
Why They Are Ranked Here: Jay Wright is finally faced with a rebuild. That isn’t so difficult when you have the culture in place with champions Eric Pascall and Phil Booth, plus three top 50 recruits. Albany transfer Joe Cremo will contribute right away and Connor Gillespie could breakout. Villanova isn’t going anywhere.
10. Kansas State Wildcats
Key Additions: Shaun Williams, Austin Trice
Key Subtractions: Amaad Wainright
Why They Are Ranked Here: Bruce Webber has all his starters back from his surprise Elite 8 team. The most frightening part for opponents? The WIldcats tore through the tournament without their best player, now senior Dean Wade. Barry Brown can score in a heartbeat and Xavier Snead showed an ability to handle a load during Wade’s absence. Another offseason of chemistry and development is dangerous for a team that grinds you out defensively and spreads it around on offense.
Big 10: 7
Big 12: 7
Pac 12: 4
Big East: 6