SI's Preseason Expert Predictions: Final Four, National Champ and More

Who will cut down the nets in April? Our staff makes their Crystal Ball predictions for the 2019-20 college basketball season.
Author:
Publish date:

The 2019-20 college basketball season is one week away, kicking off on Nov. 5 with a loaded opening night slate that includes the Champions Classic in New York City and, in a first this year, even a few ACC conference matchups.

Before the ball is tipped, however, we asked our writers to peer into their Crystal Ball and predict a number of things for the season: Final Four and national champ picks, breakthrough team and player, National Player of the Year, coach on the hottest seat and more. It's impossible to know what's in store over the next five-plus months, but we gave it our best shot.

To begin, our staff's 2020 Final Four picks...

Jeremy Woo

woo-final-four-preseason-picks

Final Four: Michigan State, Florida, Gonzaga, Texas Tech
Final Four Darkhorse: VCU

Molly Geary

geary-final-four-preseason-picks

Final Four: Michigan State, Florida, Louisville, Kentucky
Final Four Darkhorse: Ohio State

Max Meyer

meyer-final-four-preseason-picks

Final Four: Michigan State, Florida, Kansas, Louisville
Final Four Darkhorse: Ohio State

Michael Shapiro

shapiro-final-four-preseason-picks

Final Four: Michigan State, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky
Final Four Darkhorse: Baylor

National Champion Pick

Woo: Michigan State

At least for me, by far the easiest preseason title pick in recent memory was the Anthony Davis-led Kentucky team that won it in 2011-12. This group makes it as simple as anyone since. The best point guard in the country, Cassius Winston, returns to helm a deep, experienced supporting cast and avenge a Final Four loss. The Spartans have some new pieces to incorporate, but should be just as potent scoring the ball and more versatile and athletic defensively. Xavier Tillman might be the most underrated player in the country, and provided the underclassmen start to turn a corner, Michigan State should stand head and shoulders above the field.

Geary: Louisville

While Michigan State is undoubtedly the deserved preseason favorite, college basketball has a funny way of refusing to go to script. Louisville is in an ideal position to make the leap into the sport’s upper echelon, thanks partly to what it’s returning and partly to what it’s bringing in. Junior Jordan Nwora is the headliner, of course, and he’s expected to be one of the nation's very best players this season. He’ll handle the bulk of the scoring load, but the list of key Cardinals returnees is long, and includes 6’10” Steven Enoch and 6’11” Malik Williams—two big men who are candidates for a jump—reserve guards Darius Perry and Ryan McMahon and starting wing Dwayne Sutton.

At point guard, a lot rides on St. Joe’s transfer Lamarr “Fresh” Kimble (15.6 ppg, 39.7% shooting) replacing Christen Cunningham. The above group would be strong on its own, but Chris Mack brought in the nation’s No. 12 recruiting class, led by five-star freshman Samuell Williamson—who will add size and scoring on the wing—four-star center Aidan Igiehon and four-star guard David Johnson, who is currently sidelined but will eventually contribute at both guards spots. The pieces need to fit together, but I like the Cards to win the ACC and secure a top seed in March, which would put them in fine position to cut down the nets.  

Meyer: Michigan State

It seems like the Cassius Winston era at Michigan State will have a storybook ending. Joshua Langford’s foot injury that will sideline him to start the season feels like déjà vu, but with Tom Izzo being one of the best coaches in the country at developing talent, the Spartans should be fine without their other starting guard. Winston also makes everyone he plays with better, and it feels like at least one of the talented sophomores on the roster will take a big step forward. But it’s hard to go against one of the best players in the country in his senior campaign and one of the best coaches in the country to boot.

Shapiro: Kansas

The Jayhawks won’t be college basketball’s most exciting watch in 2019-20, nor will they be relatively close. Bill Self is going to play a lot of double-big lineups, pairing Silvio De Sousa with Udoka Azubuike for a dominant defensive frontcourt. Kansas will back teams down and clean up on the glass. Expect plenty of low-scoring affairs in Lawrence.

But don’t mistake a plodding style for a poor team. Kansas should cruise to the Big 12 championship, and its interior dominance could swing the title. Azubuike is perhaps the game’s most imposing force. Kansas reached the Final Four in his last full season (2017-18). Devon Dotson anchors the backcourt as a Player of the Year candidate, and Iowa grad transfer Isaiah Moss should be an impact addition in the backcourt. Self could very well win his second championship in April 2020. 

National Player of the Year Pick

Woo: Cassius Winston, Michigan State
Geary: Cassius Winston, Michigan State
Meyer: Cassius Winston, Michigan State
Shapiro: Cassius Winston, Michigan State

It was a sweep for Winston, the Spartans' point guard who also took home the top spot in our projected ranking of the top 50 players in college basketball in 2019-20. A first-team All-American last year, Winston could reach even greater heights this winter and spring.

Freshman of the Year Pick

Woo: Cole Anthony, North Carolina
Geary: Cole Anthony, North Carolina
Meyer: Cole Anthony, North Carolina
Shapiro: Cole Anthony, North Carolina

Another sweep, this time in favor of the new Tar Heels' point guard. Anthony was ranked the No. 4 player in the 247Sports composite for the 2019 recruiting class, and is expected to take the reins of the UNC offense immediately. Anticipated to be a high-volume shooter and scorer, Anthony looks primed to put up big numbers in what will almost certainly be his lone season in college.

Breakthrough Team

Woo: Utah State

Although the Aggies are already favored to win the Mountain West, I’d argue they warrant a little extra attention on the chance they end up being more than that. Craig Smith brings back the vast majority of his team, including an All-American caliber player in Sam Merrill and a high-ceiling shot-blocker in Neemias Queta to anchor the defense. This is a group fully capable of punching above its weight and building on last season’s results on both sides of the ball. If things go smoothly, a tournament win or two would legitimize the program even further, with a star turn from Merrill potentially on tap.

Geary: Baylor

The Bears were one of the biggest surprises of last season, going from being picked to finish ninth in the Big 12 in the league's preseason media poll to 20 wins and an NCAA tournament berth. And they did it despite losing emerging big man Tristan Clark, who was leading the nation in field-goal percentage, after only 14 games. Clark now returns and is working his way back into form, a needed boost after Baylor lost starters Makai Mason, King McClure and Mario Kegler. But help arrives thanks to now-eligible guards Davion Mitchell (former top-60 recruit Auburn) and MaCio Teague (shot 44.1% from three at UNC Asheville), who both sat out 2018-19 and will play key roles in the backcourt. In addition to Clark, senior big man Freddie Gillespie, junior wing Mark Vital and sophomores Jared Butler, Matthew Mayer and Flo Thamba all return. If things break right (including a defensive improvement and finding enough replacement perimeter shooting), don't be surprised if the Bears challenge Kansas in the Big 12.

Meyer: Ohio State

Chris Holtmann exceeded all expectations in his first year in Columbus, and he has a good mix of experienced talent returning and exciting newcomers this time around. Kaleb Wesson is a load to handle down low, while his brother Andre Wesson and sophomore Luther Muhammad are key cogs in the starting lineup. Top-50 recruit D.J. Carton and Florida State transfer CJ Walker could be the pieces that put this team over the top, especially because of how much point guard was an issue last season. Michigan State is obviously the Big Ten team with the highest expectations coming into this year, however the Buckeyes are a legitimate Final Four contender as well.

Shapiro: Ohio State

The Buckeyes reached the NCAA tournament in each of their first two seasons under Chris Holtmann despite undermanned rosters. This year’s team is talented enough to reach the tournament’s second weekend. Bruising forward Kaleb Wesson should earn All-Big Ten honors, while an improved backcourt should receive a boost from four-star PG D.J. Carton. Michigan State is the clear favorite to win the Big Ten. Don’t be surprised if Ohio State finishes second in the conference before snagging a top-five seed in March.

Not Buying the Hype On...

Woo: Virginia

Shame on he who bets against Tony Bennett, but yeah. As stable as the Hoos tend to be, the defending champs lost way too many key components to warrant their preseason ranking (11th in the AP poll). Admittedly, the roster turnover factor is a simple argument against most any team, but Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy and De'Andre Hunter were their three most important players, primary sources of shot-creation, and the tone-setting leaders that drove everything. You don’t just replace that type of production and systemic responsibility by committee, particularly when several newcomers are tasked with filling the gaps. Virginia will undoubtedly be competitive, and the defense should remain stingy, but I’m hesitant to treat them like a top-tier ACC team until they show us where the points are coming from on a regular basis, and that their guard play will be able to get the job done. There’s just a lot that has to go correctly here, even for a program this well-oiled.

Geary: Seton Hall

Look, I think the Pirates are going to have quite a good season. There’s no doubting that Myles Powell is a star, or that the team brings back a wealth of experience. They also add now-eligible transfer Ike Obiagu, a 7-footer who will especially provide a defensive interior boost, and a pair of three-star recruits. But bringing back the bulk of your roster doesn’t guarantee a collective significant leap, and that’s what Seton Hall needs to legitimize its AP No. 12 preseason ranking. The underlying numbers of its 2018-19 season, which included an NCAA tournament berth and 20 wins, weren’t pretty; the Pirates started the year 54th on kenpom.com and ended at 60th, and in an uncharacteristically down year for the Big East, they only went 9–9. They weren’t an efficient shooting team, particularly struggling from deep (32.4%), and their leading shooter inside the arc, Michael Nzei, graduated. This is almost certainly an improved team, and one that will be a tough out for anyone, but I’m not convinced by the preseason narrative that it’s a fringe-top 10 group.

Meyer: Memphis

It’s the easy answer, but I’m just not sold on Memphis. An incredible recruiting class has set the speed on this hype train into overdrive, and it’s tough to be convinced with the amount of inexperience on the roster and on the coaching staff. There’s just one upperclassman on the entire team, redshirt senior Isaiah Maurice off the bench. Betting markets are usually a good way to gauge a team’s prospects for the upcoming season, so it’s a worrying sign that after DraftKings sportsbook opened Memphis’s win total at 26.5, it’s already been bet down to 24.5. The talent is tantalizing, but coaching and experience are two components that will hurt the Tigers.

Shapiro: Gonzaga

Mark Few is all-but-certain to bring Gonzaga to the tournament in March for the 21st straight season, but this appears to be a Bulldogs team closer to a first-weekend exit than a Final Four appearance. Gonzaga has to replace four starters from last year’s team, including lottery pick Rui Hachimura and fellow first-rounder Brandon Clarke. Grad transfers Admon Gilder and Ryan Woolridge will be counted on for significant production in the backcourt, with Gilder standing as a candidate to lead Gonzaga in scoring after three seasons at Texas A&M. Gonzaga’s seven-year streak as the WCC champion could come to an end with a serious challenge from Saint Mary’s.

Mid-Major Team to Watch

Woo: Harvard

Harvard should play its way into the Top 25 picture sooner than later, with the only kicker being an extremely weak overall schedule that leaves potential for a heavy win total, but perhaps a lack of the requisite adversity required to keep up with top-flight opponents come March. The Crimson can account for a whopping 96.4% of last season’s minutes on their current roster, led by point guard Bryce Aiken and versatile forward Seth Towns (who missed last season with injury), and boast a talented, senior-driven group that’s thirsty to make it to the NCAA tournament for the first time. The talent level isn’t in question here. After consecutive losses in the Ivy League tournament final, it’s just a matter of getting the results they deserve, and an opportunity in the Big Dance.

Geary: New Mexico State

The Aggies quietly won 30 games last season while dominating the WAC, pushing Kansas to the brink in Allen Fieldhouse during non-conference play and nearly upsetting eventual Final Four team Auburn in the NCAA tournament first round. They did it on the strength of their experience and depth, using a higher percentage of bench minutes than anyone else in the country. With four starters back, including leading scorer Terrell Brown and point guard AJ Harris, both now seniors, New Mexico State is ready to make another push. In all, seven of its top nine scorers return.

Meyer: Utah State

Craig Smith did wonders in his first season at the helm for Utah State, and the Aggies return a good chunk of last year’s team that made the NCAA tournament. Sam Merrill, who averaged 20.9 points per game as a junior, is the best player in the Mountain West and one of the best seniors in the country. Sophomore big man Neemias Queta displayed incredible rim-protecting ability, and it’s going to be tough for opposing teams to get shots off in the paint with him stationed there. Don’t be surprised if the boys from Logan end up with a top-four seed in March Madness.

Shapiro: Utah State

The Aggies are a legitimate Sweet 16 team as they return four of their top-five minutes earners from 2018-19. Guard Sam Merrill returns as the reigning Mountain West Player of the Year, pairing as a pick-and-roll partner with big man Neemias Queta. The sophomore avoided a knee major knee injury at the FIBA U20 championships, and Queta should be ready for opening night. The Mountain West is no cakewalk. San Diego State should challenge for the conference title, and Steve Alford could re-inject some life into Nevada after a disappointing 2018-19. But Utah State remains the class of the Mountain West entering 2019-20.

Breakout Player

Woo: Tyrese Haliburton, Iowa State

Perhaps no player in college basketball will be due for as drastic a role shift as Haliburton, who was a pivotal cog in last year’s ball-movement driven Cyclones offense, but shot and scored only when he had to, and left his mark on defense and with top-notch playmaking skills. Steve Prohm will make Haliburton his lead ball-handler this season and put his star player’s natural feel to the test, and it’s a smart bet he’ll be up to task. Haliburton has quite a bit to prove from a shot-creation standpoint, but if he adapts to a more dribble-centric role, ups his aggression attacking the basket and continues to make his teammates better, a huge leap in production could be in store. The more effectively Iowa State can turn stops into transition looks, the better Haliburton should be.

Geary: Jay Huff, Virginia

Huff averaged only 9.4 minutes per game for the national champs last season, but he made the most of them. Standing at 7-foot-1, Huff was the No. 57 recruit in the 2016 class, and he figures to get his opportunity in 2019-20 given the Cavaliers' departures. In an admittedly small sample size he posted some extremely promising numbers, including a 68% true shooting percentage and 10.5% block rate, while making 67.7% of his 65 two-point attempts and 45.2% of his 31 three-point attempts. Huff is long and athletic and is dangerous in the pick-and-roll given his ability to both drive and shoot, and if the Hoos are to avoid too much of a drop-off, his play alongside Mamadi Diakite will be crucial.

Meyer: Trevion Williams, Purdue

Williams averaged just above 10 minutes per game as a freshman for Purdue, but the big man showed immense promise when he was on the floor. At 6'9" and 270 pounds, he had no problem eating in the paint last season. He played with Team USA in the FIBA U19 World Championships this offseason, which was a great way to build even more confidence heading into his sophomore campaign. With Carsen Edwards in the NBA, Williams and Matt Haarms will be heavily relied on in the frontcourt, and I expect Williams to take a big leap forward in a more featured role.

Shapiro: Isaiah Joe, Arkansas

The SEC is expected to be one of the deepest conferences in the nation this season, and don't be surprised if Arkansas makes some noise after missing the NCAA tournament in 2019-20. Eric Musselman ditched Nevada for the Razorbacks, and Arkansas enters the season with darkhorse for SEC Player of the Year Isaiah Joe. The sophomore averaged 13.9 points per game last year while shooting 41.4% from three. He'll anchor an Arkansas offense that could finish in the top four of the conference. The Musselman hire should pay immediate dividends in Fayettville.

Coach on the Hottest Seat

Woo: Shaka Smart, Texas

The buck has to stop somewhere for Smart after four middling seasons leading the Longhorns, which has led to a 71-66 record, two first-round outs in the NCAA tournament and last year’s NIT title. Texas has finished no better than fourth in the Big 12 in that span, despite above-average levels of talent and having turned out three one-and-done centers in the process. Another strong recruiting class is in the fold, led by bigs Kai Jones and Will Baker, and associate head coach Luke Yaklich arrives from Michigan, where he was the brains behind some nasty defenses. At the end of last season, Smart alluded to the need for improved results. If his team falls short of the NCAA tournament again, the pressure will fall on him.

Geary: Pat Chambers, Penn State

With respect to how difficult the Penn State basketball job is, something has to give at some point. Either the Nittany Lions finally break through under Chambers and reach their first NCAA tournament since 2011 (the season before he took over), or the school eventually moves on. The big question: which will it be? It’s fair to say Penn State enters 2019-20 as a team largely viewed to have tournament potential, but with a bid being far from a slam dunk. That’s familiar territory for the Nittany Lions, who have Lamar Stevens back to lead a core that put things together too late last season.

Meyer: Danny Manning, Wake Forest

Danny Manning has compiled a 65-93 record in his five seasons at the helm in Wake Forest, and while the Demon Deacons should be better this season compared to 2018-19, they still figure to reside at or near the ACC's basement. Manning's large buyout has made it difficult for Wake Forest to move on, but at some point a change needs to be made if the program continually shows no signs of forward progress. For him to stay in Winston-Salem, he'll need to rely on a backcourt highlighted by senior Brandon Childress and Charlotte transfer Andrien White. It's going to be an uphill climb, though, just to make the NIT, and another lackluster season should lead to his ouster.

Shapiro: Shaka Smart, Texas

Perhaps Texas fans didn’t know what they had when the Longhorns pushed out Rick Barnes after the 2014-15 season. Barnes’s teams at Texas often fell short in the NCAA tournament, but there was at least a measure of competency on the 40 Acres each season. The standard has fallen under Smart. Texas is just 71–66 in four years with the former VCU head coach, missing the tournament in 2017 and 2019. Smart hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game with Texas. The burnt orange have finished in the bottom half of the Big 12 for three-straight seasons. Texas has the money to absorb Smart’s hefty buyout if the Longhorns spend another March outside of the field of 68.

One Bold Prediction

Woo: No ACC Team Makes the Final Four

This feels like another year where the ACC has a clearly defined top tier, but the usual suspects—Duke, North Carolina, Louisville and the aforementioned Virginia—are all incorporating new pieces. Those four teams all rank among the top 11 in the first AP poll, but that guarantees nothing in terms of results. Duke may again have issues spacing the floor, and lacks a true bellwether to lead the attack this year. Carolina may find itself over-reliant on Cole Anthony, and returns only Garrison Brooks from last year’s key players. Louisville may be the deepest team, but will have to figure out optimal lineup combinations and find ways to improve on both ends of the ball while relying on transfer guard Lamarr Kimble, who’s was never a bastion of efficiency at St. Joe’s, and several freshmen to shore up the rotation. Virginia has to avoid a championship hangover without its three best players. To be fair, I’m not sure yet how hot a take this actually is, but I’m willing to hedge a bet in what could be a down year for the depth of the conference overall.

Geary: The Big Ten Sends the Most Teams Dancing, Again

Last season, the Big Ten did a 180 from 2017-18 and unexpectedly became arguably the deepest top-to-bottom conference in the country, sending eight teams to the NCAA tournament. Is regression in store? Perhaps, but I think the bottom half will outshine that of the ACC and SEC, plus the Big 12 and Big East (the latter two of whom are, of course, starting with fewer teams to begin with).

Meyer: Colorado Wins the Pac-12 Regular-Season Title

There are four Pac-12 teams with multiple incoming five-star freshmen, and Colorado isn't one of them. The Buffaloes, however, return every important piece from a group that was the hottest in the conference to finish the regular season—as they went 8-2 in their final 10 contests. Point guard McKinley Wright and forward Tyler Bey form the Pac-12's best inside-out duo, and Colorado has plenty of frontcourt depth. Additionally, the altitude road trip has been rather tough in conference play, giving Colorado one of the biggest homecourt advantages in the country. Colorado doesn't have the highest ceiling in the Pac-12, but it has the highest floor, and I think Wright, Bey and Co. will lead this team to the regular season title.

Shapiro: Virginia Wins the ACC Regular-Season Title

The Cavaliers were picked fourth in the ACC preseason poll, but don’t be surprised if Tony Bennett’s squad grinds its way to the conference’s regular-season title in 2019-20. Virginia’s cupboards aren’t bare with the return of point guard Kihei Clark and elite rim protector Mamadi Diakite, and newcomers Casey Morsell and Tomas Woldetensae should keep the Cavaliers among the nation’s best three-point shooting teams. North Carolina and Duke both have higher tournament ceilings; they’ll also encounter some growing pains early in ACC play. Bennett’s program is a machine, one that will win the ACC regular season title for the third consecutive season.