- Duke is an obvious favorite to cut down the nets in Minneapolis this April, but the Blue Devils are far from the only team capable of winning the title.
The path to a national championship is never easy—it’s called March Madness for a reason. Upsets are a necessary part of the mayhem, but certain teams look more poised to come out on top than others in spite of it all. Maybe their road to Minneapolis pits them against teams with just the right weaknesses—or maybe they’ve just got enough raw talent to take on any contender or overcome any threat. Perhaps its their coach or their path itself which makes a team look more set up for success than another. Maybe a team just gets lucky. We broke down the top 10 teams with the best chance to win it all based on a little bit of each of these factors before the tournament tips off.
Looking at this objectively, Duke does not have the easiest path to a title. But it's Duke and it has Zion Williamson, so here we are. Zion is the college basketball player of this century, and to finish his only year of college without a national championship just doesn’t look likely. To get through the East Region, the Blue Devils would likely have to go through Virginia Tech (who they lost to in the regular season, without Williamson, granted) and then either LSU or Michigan State. The second-seeded Spartans were a strong contender for a No. 1 seed after winning a nation-leading 13 Quadrant 1 games and beating Michigan for the Big Ten tournament championship title, and are the biggest threat to Duke running the table in its region. But if the Blue Devils can overcome the Spartans, despite how good they’ve looked down the stretch, then Zion, Tre Jones, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish will head to the Final Four where they would look to repeat what Duke’s last team led by talented freshman accomplished in 2015. They’d likely have either Michigan or Gonzaga waiting in Minneapolis for them from the West, one of which (hint: the latter) happens to be one of the four teams to have already beaten Duke once this season—and Zion was on the floor for that loss. If Mike Krzyzewski gets his men through all of that and to the final, they’ll be the favorites to cut down the nets in Minnesota.
All UMBC jokes aside, Virginia is probably the most complete team in the country going into this year’s tournament. Duke and Michigan State could contend for the second spot in terms of balance, but only one of them will emerge from the East alive. The Cavaliers have also been handed a relatively manageable path to at least the South final, but not quite as favorable as say, Michigan in the West (keep reading). Getting to the Final Four and beyond is a different story. Virginia will play tournament newcomer Gardner-Webb in the first round on Friday before facing the winner of No. 8 Ole Miss–No. 9 Oklahoma, given that they advance. A likely matchup against Ethan Happ and Wisconsin (who they beat in the regular season already) or a Barry Brown-led Kansas State (who also may have Dean Wade back by then) will be a little tougher but again, all very doable. With defending champion No. 6 Villanova, No. 3 Purdue and No. 2 Tennessee in the bottom half, winning the South from there on will be no small feat, but without any major first-week obstacles, Virginia should be able to do it. Carolina or Kentucky should come out on top of the Midwest Region, meaning Tony Bennett will have to take his team through either of those powerhouses to get to the championship. They’ve already proven they can handle the Tar Heels, and Kentucky is just inconsistent enough that the Cavaliers should be able to carve a path to the title with a win there.
Michigan should get through the West Region in good shape, even given that it's been handed a hard path. But in a region of extremes, the Wolverines’ road should play to their strengths. A regional final game against Gonzaga would be great basketball—that is, if the Zags can survive a potential matchup with Florida State and redeem themselves for last year’s 75–60 Sweet Sixteen loss to the Seminoles. Should they accomplish that, however, the Wolverines’ dominating defense should be able to shut down Gonzaga’s unprecedentedly productive offense. St. Mary’s was able to shut them down in the WCC tournament championship game, so it’s not hard to imagine Michigan mirroring the same fate. That’s not to say it’ll be easy, but given the Wolverines' strengths when it comes to limiting opposing offenses and their own capable scorers—led by freshman Ignas Brazdeikis (14.9 points per game)—and the coaching of John Beilein, it can happen. After the West, Beilein’s brains could knock off Duke en route to the title game. Before all that, though, Michigan must bring its A game. After a round one win over Montana, Michigan could face one of two teams with contrasting skillsets in the second round: offense-first Nevada or defense-focused Florida. Then they’re looking at the country’s strongest defense in Texas Tech or a blazing Buffalo team. If they can survive the early rounds without an upset, the Wolverines look like strong title contenders.
Tony Bennett’s team is the biggest challenge to Tennessee’s title hopes and dreams. If the Vols can prove they’re tough enough to handle the bottom half of the South Region—we’re talking a hot Cincinnati squad and then either Villanova or Purdue, both teams who have proven that they’ve got some grit—then Virginia will be the first big threat to a championship appearance for Tennessee. If Admiral Schofield can rain some threes from deep like we’ve seen him do (see: the Gonzaga game) while Grant Williams penetrates the Pack Line to get some points in the paint to best the Cavaliers, it’s not impossible to imagine Rick Barnes’s crew making a run for the crown. No one who gets to Minneapolis from the Midwest is going to be an easy win for the Volunteers—UNC and Kentucky both have big men who can do serious damage all over the floor which would test Tennessee’s defense—but its road that far is more manageable than say, Michigan State’s.
5. North Carolina
A clash with Kentucky looks likely for Carolina this year, which would make for one hell of a Midwest regional final. The two teams are essentially evenly matched on both ends of the ball with historic coaches who know how to play in the postseason. To get there, the Tar Heels would likely have to handle either an inconsistent Auburn or an underwhelming Kansas, which doesn’t seem too difficult, although disclaimer: an upset by either wouldn’t be the most surprising thing to happen in March Madness. Once they make it past Calipari’s Kentucky, UNC is looking at either Virginia, who it's seen before, or Tennessee, who wouldn’t be too tough for Roy Williams’s scrappy squad. The Tar Heels have already proven that they can run with a team like Duke, even with Zion in the lineup (they only fell to the Blue Devils by one point in the ACC tournament championship over the weekend after taking two regular season wins), so a championship is conceivable. Coby White can run a beautiful offense and has peaked at the perfect time to take his team of veteran talent deep into the postseason and potentially to a championship.
6. Michigan State
The committee’s decision to put Michigan State in the same region as Duke just doesn’t seem fair. The Spartans proven their worth this season with 13 Quad 1 wins, a Big Ten tournament championship and consistently strong play on both ends of the court all season long. There have been very few games where Michigan State has genuinely looked bad outside of a three-game stretch in early February. They’re fourth in adjusted offensive efficiency, per kenpom, and eighth on the defensive side with the veteran leadership of Cassius Winston, a National Player of the Year contender and Michigan State’s leading scorer at 19 points per game, to boot. Put all that together and it shouldn’t be hard for the Spartans to make it to the Elite Eight given the bottom of the East bracket, but then they’d meet Duke. So there’s that. The Blue Devils are a huge wrinkle in Tom Izzo’s plans to even play in the 2019 championship game, nonetheless win it. But the Blue Devils aren’t unbeatable, as four teams have shown us this season. If the Spartans can take a page out of Michigan’s playbook and figure out how to best Zion Williamson & Co., then they have a strong case for a national championship win.
Outside of Carolina, the Midwest doesn’t feature any major speed bumps along Kentucky’s road to Minneapolis. There are a few teams who have shown streaks of what it takes to pull off an upset, but no one stands out as a massive threat to Kentucky off the bat besides UNC. The Wildcats improved tremendously down the stretch, progress that paralleled PJ Washington’s growth as a versatile offensive weapon, and look steady heading into the mayhem of March. This isn’t to discount the rest of their region: Seton Hall and Myles Powell are solid but face a tough first-round matchup against Wofford that it might not even survive, Iowa State is strong but streaky, Houston has holes that were exposed last week by Cincinnati during the AAC tournament championship and UNC will most likely take care of either Kansas or Auburn before they even meet Kentucky in Kansas City. Either one of those two teams could also legitimately challenge Carolina, which would make Kentucky’s path even easier given that sustaining that kind of surprising strength would be tough for either the Jayhawks or the Tigers. With an offense that now matches their defensive strengths, the Wildcats could contend with either Virginia or Tennessee for a spot in the 2019 title game.
The West is weird. Syracuse is always sneaky come this time of year, but assuming that Gonzaga survives an early meeting with either the Orange’s menacing zone (and their equally as threatening guard, Tyus Battle) or a streaky Baylor team out of the Big 12, it will then face the same sort of polar opposites that plague Michigan’s path to Minnesota. From a rematch with Florida State to a potential clash with either Ja Morant or Markus Howard before meeting the Wolverines (or the Red Raiders, if we’re being realistic), the Bulldogs' path isn’t as black and white as others. But they have one key element that will help them through it all: consistency. Outside of a WCC tournament upset to St. Mary’s and a pair of December losses, Gonzaga has remained steady almost all season. It should be noted that it hasn't played a top-25 team since those two losses (to Tennessee then Carolina), which makes it a bit of an unknown relative to which team we’ll see during the remainder of this postseason. If the Bulldogs return to form, they should be in good shape until the Elite Eight. Barring a loss due to Beilein’s brilliance, Gonzaga could go all the way.
9. Virginia Tech
Like Michigan State, the biggest thing standing in the Hokies' way is Duke, which it beat in the regular season. The Blue Devils were missing Zion Williamson, but Virginia Tech was missing its own star as well, senior point guard Justin Robinson. Coach Buzz Williams announced on Sunday that Robinson will return for the tournament, which means the Hokies fantastic facilitator will be back for the potential East ACC rematch. If they can get past Duke and on to Michigan State, Virginia Tech’s newfound defensive identity might be enough to slow down Cassius Winston and the rest of the Spartans and make them a real contender for the national title. With Robinson, guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the teams leading scorer, and forward Kerry Blackshear Jr., Virginia Tech has the right amount of talent to be a dangerous underdog in the region. They’ve got the right mixture of toughness, responsiveness and talent.
10. Florida State
The West isn’t a walk through the park, but the Seminoles path could prove to be full of matchups that fit perfectly with how they play. Florida State is long, tall and experienced—Terrance Mann and Trent Forrest make a solid backcourt and Mfiondu Kabengele, the Seminoles' sophomore forward and leading scorer, was also around for last year’s March Madness run that might wind up looking eerily similar to 2019’s test. After upsetting Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 last season, Florida State went on to play Michigan. Sound familiar? FSU's 2019 path is pretty much the same. It proved it could accomplish at least part of that last season, so repeating it and figuring the Wolverines (or Texas Tech) out could be the only thing standing in their way of a Final Four appearance. They figured out how to dismantle a defense-first team when they played Virginia last week in the ACC tournament so things are looking pretty promising for Florida State.