Looking at the Favorites
The Villanova Wildcats celebrate after winning the 2016 NCAA Championship in Houston, TX.
Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina and Duke are four Division I basketball programs with a career winning percentage of .700 or better in at least 25 seasons of competition. (UNLV is the other).
That quartet also, in no particular order, heads the list of favorites to win the 2017 national championship. Villanova and Oregon must be included as well. The Wildcats are the defending champ, of course, and the Ducks reached the Elite 8 last season and return their key ingredients.
The 2016-17 national champion will come from this group.
Here’s the case for and against each team, in alphabetical order.
For: The Blue Devils are loaded with size, skill, NBA level talent, experience, leadership and have the best coach in the game. Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones clipped the nets in 2015. So did Grayson Allen, who is the most accomplished returning player in the nation. Luke Kennard provides instant offense off the bench. And we haven’t even mentioned a freshman class that is loaded with potential lottery picks Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden.
Against: The season hasn’t gone according to schedule thus far. Giles, a 6-10 power forward, missed all of last season with an ACL injury and underwent a clean-up procedure in early October. He won’t return before the end of the month. Tatum sat out with a foot injury and Bolden will miss the opening weekend with a lower leg injury. How does this affect the team’s chemistry and rotations? The Blue Devils need all three healthy and on the floor by the start of ACC play in early January, if not before. In the meantime, their absence could benefit the other Blue Devils, who will see their role expand.
For: Josh Jackson could be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. He’s an intelligent, athletic forward with a relentless motor and strong competitive drive. Frank Mason and Devonte Graham provide the veteran two-point guard attack that coach Bill Self loves. The Jayhawks should win their 13th consecutive Big 12 title which will likely lead to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Half the champions since 1985 were No. 1 seeds.
Against: Interior scoring has been a key to the Jayhawks’ consistency in the Self era. They finished top 35 in the nation in 2-point field goal percentage in every season but two since 2003-04. In turn, their offense has been efficient. They’ve finished top 10 in points per possession in three of the last four years. Who is the go-to scorer inside on this squad? Jackson will slash for buckets around the rim, but Perry Ellis will be missed on the low block. Landen Lucas is a complementary piece and freshman Udoka Azubuike needs more seasoning.
For: One NBA scout told ESPN’s The Undefeated that De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk could form the best freshman backcourt in college basketball history. Isaiah Briscoe, a rare sophomore star in Lexington, gives coach John Calipari another perimeter weapon. The frontcourt is also loaded. Bam Adebayo is an imposing physical presence. Wenyen Gabriel is a long, versatile, athletic forward. Isaac Humphries is a 7-foot space eater. Derek Willis, a 6-9 forward, made half his 3-pointers in SEC action last season.
Against: Not much, but … perimeter shooting has been problematic for the Wildcats in recent seasons. They’ve not finished higher than 74th in 3-point percentage since 2012-13. Kentucky won its two exhibition games by roughly 832 points so it’s difficult to discern much from those box scores. Still, Fox and Monk both bring good shooting reputations to college. Teams will sell out to protect the paint against UK’s penetration and post play. Draining 3s to keep defenders honest will be critical to the Cats’ championship quest.
For: Joel Berry and Justin Jackson should give the Tar Heels a dynamic 1-2 scoring punch. Isaiah Hicks is ready to accept a larger role. The 6-9 forward flourished around the basket last season, hitting 61 percent while recording a gaudy 123.2 offensive rating. Roy Williams has the requisite depth to play at the rapid pace he craves and assuming distributor / defender Theo Pinson returns from injury at full speed, the Heels should again have an efficient offense.
Against: What if a consistent performer in the clutch fails to emerge? Last season, everyone on Tobacco Road knew that guard Marcus Paige or forward Brice Johnson would be involved in key late-game situations. Both are gone. Berry is beyond capable but must adapt to being the player opponents target on the top line of the scouting report.
For: The Ducks are 89-36 the last four seasons under coach Dana Altman, had a top 25 offense the last three seasons and return four starters from last year’s 31-win club. They also welcome back starting point guard Dylan Ennis, who missed last year with injury and was granted a rare sixth year of eligibility. The rotation goes nine deep and the veterans spent the offseason stewing over a 12-point loss to Oklahoma in the West Regional final.
Against: That loss to the Sooners exposed one of the Ducks’ weaknesses - 3-point defense. Oklahoma drilled 12 of 24 from beyond-the-arc. Oregon ranked 258th in the nation in defending the line, allowing opponents to shoot better than 36 percent on the season. Also, can 6-7 forward Dillon Brooks have a first-team All-American caliber season? He averaged 16.7 points and 5.4 rebounds last season and certainly has all the tools to be among the nation’s elite.
For: The Wildcats know what it takes to march through the bracket with six victories. Josh Hart is perhaps the nation’s most underrated player and one of its more versatile pieces. Championship game star Kris Jenkins returns as an inside-outside scoring threat in coach Jay Wright’s attack. Jalen Brunson slides into the fulltime point guard role and Phil Booth appears poised to take on a greater role in the offense.
Against: There’s no doubt that point guard Ryan Arcidiacono will be missed. He was the glue and guts for coach Jay Wright. A steady, gritty, tough point guard who always seemed to make the right play and be in the right place. But don’t undervalue the graduation of senior Daniel Ochefu either. The Wildcats were a defensive juggernaut when the 6-11, 245-pound center was on the floor in the NCAA tournament last season. His rim protection was critical in the championship victory. North Carolina, one of the best 2-point shooting teams in the country, shot 34.8 percent inside-the-arc.