It’s time for Sports Illustrated’s annual Magic Eight, where we predict the pool of eight teams from which the 2020 national title winner will emerge from a full month before brackets are even revealed on Selection Sunday.
The exercise goes back to Grant Wahl's time on SI's college basketball beat, and this year I'm taking the reins from my former colleague Dan Greene, who correctly had Virginia among his eight last February and went 2 for 2 in his two years doing it.
The Magic Eight is not an easy list to make, and importantly, it has rules: At least two of the top eight teams in the current AP poll must be excluded, and at least one selection must come from outside that poll’s top 15. In a wide-open college basketball season like this one, it's particularly tricky, and some hard decisions had to be made. Without further ado, here's the 2020 Magic Eight, with notable omissions to follow.
Kansas (20–3, 9–1 Big 12)
The Jayhawks are No. 3 in the AP poll, but they were the easiest call here. Kansas is No. 1 on KenPom by a healthy margin, has the most Quadrant 1 wins in the country with 10 and the most Quad 1 and Quad 2 wins in the country with 15. This team doesn’t have a bad loss—its three were to Duke in the season opener on a neutral court, on the road at Villanova and at home vs. fellow Magic Eight team Baylor—and it has been defeated just once since Christmas. Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike are a dynamite inside-out duo, and Bill Self seems to have figured out his best lineup is a four-guard one that includes 6'6" freshman Christian Braun. Defensively, the Jayhawks lead KenPom’s efficiency rankings, with one of the nation’s best shot-blockers in Azubuike anchoring the paint and Dotson, Marcus Garrett and Ochai Agbaji helping lock down opposing backcourts. There aren’t many holes here, though Azubuike’s free throw struggles (42.9% on the season, 52.6% in Big 12 play) are a cause for concern late in tight games.
Baylor (22–1, 11–0 Big 12)
The Bears are the hottest team in America, winners of 21 straight and the team that’s actually stabilized itself at No. 1 in the AP poll amid a season that had previously seen nearly weekly change. Its defense is often suffocating—it’s been torched only once this year (by Villanova, a team it still beat), and it held Kansas to one of its worst outings of the season in its win in Lawrence. Jared Butler has taken the next step as a sophomore as Baylor’s go-to guy, and 6'5" junior forward Mark Vital is one of the nation's best defenders despite being undersized. A trio of transfers in MaCio Teague, Davion Mitchell and Freddie Gillespie complete the starting lineup, and together with senior sixth man Devonte Bandoo make up an experienced core group that plays physical and tough, and hits the offensive boards. If there’s a question around Baylor, it’s on offense—especially in the paint, where it ranks 257th nationally in two-point percentage. Only 29.8% of the Bears’ shots come at the rim (319th nationally, per Hoop-Math), an unusually low figure for a team this good.
Gonzaga (25–1, 11–0 WCC)
After another successful reloading, Mark Few’s team is back in a familiar spot: on track for what would be its third No. 1 seed in the last four years. The Bulldogs still seem to be tagged with the narrative that they underachieve in March after rolling through the WCC, but is that really true anymore? In its last five tournaments, Gonzaga failed to reach the expected round of its seed level just once—last season, when it lost in the Elite Eight as a No. 1 to eventual runner-up Texas Tech. This Zags team is once again a juggernaut offensively, ranking first in KenPom’s efficiency ratings, and has a formidable frontcourt with Killian Tillie, Filip Petrusev, Drew Timme and wing/forward Corey Kispert. When Tillie is healthy, he takes this team to another level, so the oft-injured senior’s availability is paramount if Gonzaga is to seriously contend. The overall strength and depth of the backcourt is a concern, as is the Zags’ defense, which currently ranks 35th on KenPom.
Duke (21–3, 11–2 ACC)
The range of this Duke team was on full display in the last week, as the Blue Devils went from needing a miracle to survive a subpar UNC team to gutting out a top-10 win over Florida State when both teams were on short rest. This Duke team doesn’t have the sheer star power of many previous iterations, but it’s statistically the most balanced team of the three ACC heavyweights, with the No. 8 offense on KenPom and the No. 11 defense. The Blue Devils can beat you both inside and out, with Vernon Carey being the go-to guy in the paint and a number of decent-to-great three-point shooters surrounding him. Tre Jones has some offensive limitations but makes up for it with what he brings defensively and with his intangibles. Both of Duke's ACC losses came without Wendell Moore, who is now back and whose defensive versatility is hard to replace. However, Duke starts three freshmen, and no one has made the Final Four starting even two freshmen since 2015—of course, that was the year Coach K’s freshmen-led Blue Devils won it all.
San Diego State (25–0, 14–0 MWC)
The Aztecs are likely the most mysterious team this season to the average fan, because of both their mid-major status and the fact that they play on the West Coast. Everyone knows they’re undefeated and could very well enter the NCAA tournament that way, but could they really win it all? The odds are stacked against them—no team outside the top seven conferences (Power 5, Big East, AAC) has won the national title since UNLV in 1990—but analytically they have a compelling profile, one that’s too good to leave out. SDSU is No. 4 on KenPom and the only team in the country currently in the top 10 on both offense (No. 9) and defense (No. 9). It can shoot (four starters are at least 37% from three), it takes care of the ball, it defends the interior and it’s experienced, with three key transfers—Malachi Flynn, Yanni Wetzell and KJ Feagin—joining key returners Matt Mitchell and Jordan Schakel. The Aztecs’ title hopes may hinge on the return of 6'10" center Nathan Mensah, their best interior defender who has missed the entire conference slate with a respiratory issue. Head coach Brian Dutcher has indicated that Mensah, a starter for big nonconference wins over Iowa, Creighton and BYU, could return for the tournament. With a No. 1 seed in reach, Dutcher’s first career tourney win looks inevitable, but getting five more will be much tougher.
Maryland (20–4, 10–3 Big Ten)
It seems remiss to not include the team currently leading the nation’s strongest (and deepest) conference. Before sleepwalking through a narrow win over Nebraska on Tuesday, the Terps had started playing to their potential in their current seven-game winning streak, thanks to the starring turn of Jalen Smith, the steady hand of Anthony Cowan and the nation’s fifth-most efficient defense, per KenPom, where the Terps check in at No. 10 overall. Maryland’s biggest detriment is its shooting, ranking 245th nationally in effective field goal percentage. Its title chances likely depend on decent perimeter shooting and getting at least two of Darryl Morsell, Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala going offensively every night. A defense that shines without fouling is the main reason that 1) the Terps’ four losses have all come in Quad 1-A (i.e. top-tier) games and 2) they’ve suffered just one double-digit defeat while playing a top-12 schedule. In March, being comfortable winning ugly can be an advantage.
Seton Hall (18–5, 10–1 Big East)
Everyone knows about Myles Powell—the kind of talent who can carry a team on a tournament run when he’s at his best—but it’d be doing a disservice to the Pirates to say he’s the main reason for their inclusion here. No, the reason the Pirates made this list is because of their year-to-year improvement around Powell, which has taken them from an average Big East team to being the conference favorite and a legitimate national contender. It’s players like Quincy McKnight and 7'2" Romaro Gill, the latter of whom is third nationally in block rate and has helped notably improve Seton Hall’s interior defense. The Pirates benefited from injuries to Powell and junior Sandro Mamukelashvili, learning to win without them, and they’re currently third nationally with eight Quad 1 wins. Like with Maryland, the key question is whether the offense (40th on KenPom) can be consistently good enough to win six games against potentially elite defenses. Having Powell is a nice place to start.
Michigan State (17–8, 9–5 Big Ten)
At last, we have the team that must come from outside the current AP top 15. Well, Michigan State wasn’t in this week’s AP poll at all, becoming the first team since 2013–14 Kentucky to go from being the preseason No. 1 to unranked. With eight losses already, the Spartans are clearly flawed. They’ve struggled to find a consistent third scorer after Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman and have little in the way of dependable depth behind Tillman at center. So why take a flier on Tom Izzo’s team? This could be a good buy-low point for it. Freshman guard Rocket Watts has shown flashes that he can be that third guy offensively, like scoring 21 points Tuesday in a win at Illinois. Winston and Tillman are still an inside-out duo that few teams can match, and several players on this roster have Final Four experience. Analytically, the Spartans’ profile is still right in line with one that can make a run to Atlanta. They're No. 9 on KenPom, with an offense and defense both within the top 20.
Louisville (23–3, 12–1 ACC)
This was the toughest team to leave out, but it wouldn't be the Magic Eight if it didn't involve a tough decision. The Cardinals are exactly where they were expected to be in the preseason (No. 5 in the AP poll) and own a gaudy 21–3 record, albeit only three wins of which are Quad 1 victories. And full disclosure: I picked them as my preseason national champion pick and still think they can win the ACC and make a March run. The Cards are on fire from three right now, shooting 45% since Jan. 1 after shooting 36.5% in November and December, but that number is so high that some regression seems inevitable. David Johnson has brought a much-needed new dimension to Louisville’s backcourt, but given how guard-heavy championship teams usually are, it’s fair to wonder about the deep-run sustainability of a team that doesn’t have one averaging more than 8.8 points. If Johnson can play that alpha role and consistently take pressure off star forward Jordan Nwora in March, all bets are off. But that’s a lot to ask of a freshman who hasn’t played the full season.
Florida State (20–4, 10–3 ACC)
This is another classic Florida State team: that is, long and dangerous. The Seminoles are extremely disruptive defensively, ranking in the top 10 in both steal and block rate, and their size and athleticism typically makes them a tough team to prep for in a tournament setting. As is also typical, they’re solid but not elite offensively, with many options but no clear-cut go-to guy (Devin Vassell is the leading scorer at 13.4 points). They also want to push the pace offensively rather than have to grind out in the half court, where they’re less effective. It’s easy to picture FSU making the second weekend for the third straight season, but odds are it'll meet its match before Atlanta.
West Virginia (18–5, 6–4 Big 12)
The Mountaineers have come back down to earth after an impressive 11–1 start to the season, but they’ll be a tough out for anyone in March due to their disruptive defense and ability to crash the offensive boards, where they rank first nationally in rate. Still, for all the turnovers WVU causes, it gives the ball away at a similar rate (ranking 282nd nationally), and its poor shooting too often puts a cap on its offense, which ranks 50th in efficiency. West Virginia is led by its fearsome frontcourt duo of Oscar Tshiebwe and Derek Culver, but its backcourt feels a little too green to sustain a six-win run.
Villanova (17–6, 7–4 Big East)
Analytically, this isn’t a vintage Villanova team: The Wildcats check in at No. 28 on KenPom, No. 23 on Sagarin and No. 28 on Haslametrics. Their current three-game losing streak has bubbled concerns about their defense back to the surface, including giving up the second-most points per possession Butler had scored all season. As is usual under Jay Wright, this team is three-point reliant, but it’s shooting only 33.6% in Big East play. Collin Gillespie and Saddiq Bey have both blossomed and are a one-two punch good enough to reach the second weekend, but this young and talented group seems a year away from seriously contending for the title.
Kentucky (19–5, 9–2 SEC)
Let’s say this: John Calipari tends to have his teams at their strongest in late February and March, and these Wildcats seem to be heading down that same path. They’re not the same team that lost to Evansville back in November, but that’s not the only slip-up Kentucky has had, which is a big reason why it’s 27th on KenPom and was left out of Saturday’s top 16 reveal. Nick Richards has become a star, but what happens if he gets into foul trouble or is limited? He’s failed to score double figures just five times this season, but UK has lost four of those games (the one win was over Michigan State on opening night). Additionally, its current No. 54 ranking in KenPom’s defensive efficiency is lower than any Kentucky defense has finished since the 2012–13 NIT season. While there’s time to improve that, no champ in the KenPom era (since 2002) has entered the NCAA tournament with a defense ranked lower than 37th, and both of those teams (2014–15 Duke, 2008–09 UNC) had a top-three efficient offense—which the Wildcats (No. 25) do not.
Dayton (22–2, 11–0 A-10)
The Flyers face the same uphill climb as a non-power-conference team like Gonzaga or SDSU, and it seemed unwise to have over one-third of the 2020 Magic Eight meet that criteria. Alas, Dayton was the odd team out despite its machine-like offense. Like Gonzaga, this team makes its bones on the offensive end, surrounding National Player of the Year candidate Obi Toppin with shooters. Beyond its perimeter prowess, Dayton is working on a historic season from two, leading the country at 62.6% inside the arc. Its defense, though, sits just behind Kentucky’s at No. 55 on KenPom, and it’s facing the same long odds to cut down the nets if that doesn’t improve. The Flyers can boast that they’ve yet to lose in regulation, and they were impressive in an overtime defeat to Kansas, but in the end they still currently lack a top-30 NET win, while Gonzaga and SDSU can each boast three.
Colorado (19–5, 8–3 Pac-12)
Consider this a blanket Pac-12 omission. The Buffaloes currently lead the conference race, but Oregon and Arizona have joined them as top-25 teams for a good chunk of the season. Colorado is a solid, potential second-weekend team but not quite elite on either end (33rd offensively, 25th defensively), and its résumé and profile don’t scream championship contender. Oregon always seems like a threat go off in March, but its defense has yet to catch up to its offense or suggest it’s about to go on a late run a la 2019. That brings us to Arizona, whom analytics and the NET have loved all season thanks to some timely blowouts, but who has just two Quad 1 wins and starts three freshmen—which is opposite of the makeup of recent Final Four teams.
Auburn (21–2, 8–2)
The Tigers remain on an amazing run dating back to the final stretch of last year's regular season, but it would be very surprising for them to win the whole thing in 2020 (granted, not many saw a Final Four trip in 2019 coming, either). But unlike that team, Auburn is no longer elite on offense (thanks partly due to a big dip in three-point shooting, even though it's still taking them at a high rate), and its defense is currently right above that Kentucky/Dayton line at No. 53 on KenPom. Speaking of KenPom, at No. 31, the Tigers check in the lowest there of any other teams included in this story. In 2018–19, they spent the entire season between No. 8 and No. 18.
Penn State (19–5, 9–4 Big Ten)
Pat Chambers has finally put it all together in State College, and while the Nittany Lions don’t control their own destiny in the Big Ten, they’re in a good position to potentially steal the regular-season title. This is a veteran group led by Lamar Stevens, and it's better than many people realize. It’s hard, though, to expect a program that will be making its first NCAA tournament appearance in nine years to go all the way. PSU isn’t used to having a target on its back, and starting point guard Jamari Wheeler is elite on defense but is essentially a nonscoring threat (3.7 ppg) on offense. The Nits also have the worst defensive free throw rate in the Big Ten, which is a little concerning for how it would translate with a tight whistle in March.
Texas Tech (16–8, 7–4 Big 12)
The Red Raiders were the other team seriously considered as the “team outside the AP top 15,” especially since they appear to be hitting their February/March second-gear that we’ve come to expect under Chris Beard. Ultimately, though, a soft nonconference schedule might cost them in NCAA tournament seeding, with Texas Tech currently trending along the No. 7/8 line rather than the No. 3 seed it received in the last two years. That’s a tough road—not impossible, but not overly likely, either.