Terps Among The NCAAB Title Contenders In 2019-20; Who Else Can Cut The Nets?
With the 2019 NBA Draft set for Thursday night, it’s safe to say that the pre-draft process worked out well for Maryland. And by “well,” I mean that there were no surprises. Bruno Fernando, who was expected to go, kept his name in the draft pool and is projected to go anywhere from late-first to early-second round. Anthony Cowan Jr. went through the pre-draft process to receive feedback from NBA decision-makers, and he ultimately (as expected) decided to return to Maryland for his senior season. Add in Jalen Smith not even entertaining the possibility of testing the waters, and the spring worked out well for Mark Turgeon’s program.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
With last year’s talented freshman class now having a season of experience under their belts, and another solid class on campus to join the holdovers, expectations will be high for Maryland next season. And they should, because on paper the talent is there to not only challenge Michigan State for the Big Ten regular season title but to win a national title as well. The site of the 2020 Final Four: Atlanta, and while the Georgia Dome has given way to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, it’s a city that should have a special place in the hearts of Terps fans given what happened there in 2002.
(We recently previewed MD’s forthcoming season, which you can find here.)
However, there’s plenty of time between now and the start of the season to focus on Maryland’s hopes for the upcoming season. This post will focus on some of the other teams that are expected to contend for the national title. Michigan State and Kansas, which was the biggest winner in college basketball during the spring when it comes to filling out the roster, appear to be at the head of the class on paper. Duke and Kentucky, which annually bring in top recruiting classes, will also be in the mix and the same can be said for Louisville and the last two national champions, Villanova and Virginia.
Beyond that group Gonzaga, despite the team’s starting point guard having graduated and three other starters leaving early for the NBA, should still be in the conversation, and Memphis merits consideration as well. Penny Hardaway’s reeled in the nation’s top recruiting class, headlined by elite power forward James Wiseman. Seton Hall, which hasn’t reached the second weekend of the NCAA tournament since 2000, is a team that could potentially be a Final Four dark horse as the Pirates lost just one starter from last year’s team and are led by one of the nation’s best guards in senior Myles Powell.
Here’s a ranking of the eight teams (not counting Maryland) that are, at this point in time, most capable of cutting down the nets in Atlanta next April.
With All-American forward Dedric Lawson turning pro and the early portion of the spring being a bit dry for Kansas from a recruiting standpoint, it appeared as if the 2019-20 season would also be wide-open in the Big 12. But Kansas picked up some important wins on the recruiting trail and Devon Dotson, who tested the waters, decided to return to school for his sophomore year. Udoka Azubuike, who played in just nine games due to injury, is healthy and Silvio De Sousa will be eligible to play after missing all of last season due to the FBI investigation.
The freshman class consists of four recruits, three being the four-star variety led by forward Tristan Enaruna, but the most important newcomer is a grad transfer. Isaiah Moss, who played three seasons at Iowa, transferred to Kansas and has the ability to supply the perimeter shooting that the Jayhawks need. The front court doesn’t lack for depth or experience, and after being pressed into action last season due to injuries and other roster issues sophomore Ochai Agbaji is a player who could be a breakout player this winter. Add in the coaching of Bill Self, and at minimum Kansas should be able to get back to the top of the Big 12 after seeing its run of regular season titles come to an end.
2) Michigan State
The defending Big Ten champions will have to account for the loss of two starters, Matt McQuaid and Nick Ward, but point guard Cassius Winston will be back for his senior season. Despite being hit hard by injuries the Spartans still managed to reach the Final Four, and both Joshua Langford and Kyle Ahrens should be back to full strength after having their seasons cut short. Last year’s freshman class will be a year older, and that includes wing Aaron Henry. Henry made 22 starts last season, averaging 6.1 points and 3.8 rebounds per game, and he put together some solid performances in postseason play.
The freshman class is only three deep, but that isn’t a huge issue given the fact that the Spartans return the majority of the contributors from last year’s team. Tom Izzo’s team will be viewed by many as the favorite to win the Big Ten with Maryland right on their heels, and after last year’s surprising run to the Final Four it would come as no surprise if Michigan State were to once again get to the final weekend of the season.
The Wildcats will need to account for the departure of the top four scorers from last season’s team, with PJ Washington, Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson all turning pro and Reid Travis exhausting his eligibility. But this is the position that John Calipari’s program is in annually, with his best teams being those that can combine elite newcomers with returnees that both don’t lack for talent and understand how their coach wants things done. Kentucky will have that in 2019-20, with guards Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley and bigs Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery all returning to Lexington.
As for the newcomers, Kentucky brings in five freshmen led by 6-foot-3 guard Tyrese Maxey, and grad transfer Nate Sestina also joins the program after averaging 15.8 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game last season at Bucknell. And there’s one other possible roster upgrade that could occur this summer, as Kentucky is one of the programs still under consideration by former Virginia Tech power forward Kerry Blackshear. Blackshear was one of the best interior players in the ACC last season, helping lead the Hokies to the Sweet 16, and his addition would go a long way towards cementing UK’s status as a national title contender.
Duke has also gone the “one and done” route in recent years, and the Blue Devils will be adding another highly regarded recruiting class led by 6-foot-10 power forward/center Vernon Carey Jr. In total Mike Krzyzewski will be adding four freshmen to the program, and shooting guard Cassius Stanley has the potential to be one of the most exciting players in college basketball. The team’s returning experience will be key as well, with senior forward Javin DeLaurier and sophomore point guard Tre Jones being the most likely team leaders.
In the case of Jones he had an interesting balance to navigate last season. As he is a high-level creator, there was also the need to have the ball in the hands of RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson so they could create as well. That won’t be the case this season as Barrett and Williamson are now in the NBA, and if Jones can continue to take care of the basketball as he did last season (an ACC-best 3.7 assist-to-turnover ratio) Duke will be fine. Where the Blue Devils will need to improve as a team is perimeter shooting, as Duke shot an ACC-worst 30.2% from beyond the arc. That’s likely the biggest question mark for this team heading into the 2019-20 season.
After missing out on the NCAA tournament in 2018, the Cardinals were back on that stage last season in the first year of the Chris Mack era. The NBA draft process was good to the program as well, as Jordan Nwora decided to return for his junior season and Steven Enoch received some valuable feedback during his pre-draft process as well. Six of Louisville’s top seven scorers from a season ago return, with point guard Christen Cunningham being the lone departure. The Cardinals ranked fourth in the ACC in field goal percentage defense (league games only), and they also ranked fourth in both three-point percentage and three-point percentage defense.
Add to the returning nucleus a highly-regarded recruiting class led by 6-foot-7 wing Samuell Williamson and 6-foot-10 power forward Aidan Igiehon, and the Cardinals are capable of not only contending in the ACC but nationally as well. If there’s an area in which Louisville will need to improve it’s the turnover department, as the Cardinals averaged 12.8 per game last season. In prior seasons, when the Cardinals employed more pressure defensively, this wouldn’t be a huge issue since they could count on getting a few turnovers back on the other end. But with Louisville using more half-court defense the turnovers weren’t as plentiful defensively (the Cardinals were last in the ACC in steals last season). Louisville’s going to win a lot of games, but the turnover count could be the difference between simply getting out of the first weekend and reaching the Final Four.
While a lot of praise has been heaped upon Penny Hardaway’s program during the offseason due to the work of he and his staff on the recruiting trail, there seems to be some hesitancy in some parts to label Memphis as a bonafide national title contender. Not here, even with the roster primarily made up of newcomers. The freshman class, led by elite center James Wiseman, is considered to be the nation’s best by more than a few recruiting analysts. Late in the spring Memphis added Lester Quinones to the mix, and in total they’ll have seven freshmen competing for playing time.
Returning point guards Tyler Harris and Alex Lomax will push each other, but they’ll also be pushed by freshman Boogie Ellis and Damion Baugh. In Hardaway’s first season at the helm Memphis won 22 games, one more than the season prior under Tubby Smith, but the feeling around the program was much different. Now, with the fanbase re-energized will also come the expectation that Memphis will re-introduce itself to the national scene, a responsibility that could potentially weigh down a young team. Hardaway and his staff know what they’re doing with regards to recruiting and in-game strategy, even though there are some who still look to question Penny on the latter. Memphis has enough talent to be a very good team capable of playing deep into March.
Jay Wright’s Wildcats have won two of the last four national titles, and despite losing Phil Booth and Eric Paschall have the look of a team capable of contending for another in 2019-20. Collin Gillespie, whose scoring averaged jumped more than six points per game last season, is back for his junior year as are Jermaine Samuels Jr. and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree. Samuels made noticeable strides last season and could be in line for another jump in production now that Booth and Paschall have moved on. The freshman class of a season ago, which lost a player with Jahvon Quinerly transferring to Alabama, is a year older with Saddiq Bey (8.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg) being the most productive in 2018-19.
Villanova also adds a talented recruiting class headlined by five-star shooting guard Bryan Antoine. This is a program that relies heavily on the upperclassmen to help get across how Wright and his staff want the game played, and while there were still veterans last season (Booth and Paschall) the losses of Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman upset the balance a bit. With there being no unexpected departures this spring Villanova should be back on track, and they’ll once again be the favorites to win the Big East.
Yes the reigning national champions lost a lot, with four starters led by versatile forward De’Andre Hunter having moved on. But at this point there has to be a substantial amount of trust in Tony Bennett and the system his teams run. Kihei Clark and Mamadi Diakite, who combined to keep the Cavaliers’ season alive during the team’s eventual overtime win over Purdue in the Elite Eight, are back as is versatile forward Braxton Key. Key had some issues adjusting to Virginia’s style after transferring in from Alabama, but having the season of experience under his belt should prove beneficial this coming season.
Guard Casey Morsell, who was a finalist for the USA’s Under-19 team that will compete in the FIBA U-19 Basketball World Cup beginning June 29, and junior college transfer Tomas Woldetensae headline Virginia’s incoming crop of newcomers, and Kadin Shedrick and Justin McKoy aren’t slouches either. Replacing the likes of Hunter, Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy and Jack Salt won’t be easy due to the combination of production, leadership and experience, but Virginia has the talent needed to make another run.
Next in Line: Gonzaga, Seton Hall, North Carolina, Texas Tech, Arizona
Raphielle’s been writing about college sports for more than a decade, making the move to college basketball alone in 2013. Beginning his work with the former website CollegeHoops.net in 2003, Raphielle spent 3 years writing for NBCSports.com beginning 2013, covering CBB and the Olympics. In 2016, Raphielle joined Heavy.com. If there’s a game on, there’s a strong likelihood that he’s watching it.