8 college basketball teams that can win 2024 men’s national championship

Let me make this clear from the outset: This is not a power ranking. This is not a list of the eight best teams in college basketball as I see it, nor is it necessary of a list of the teams that I expect to be the eight best a month from now.

This is a list of the eight teams that are most capable of winning the national championship in seven weeks. It’s a promise that the team that winds up cutting down the nets inside State Farm Stadium is a team that is somewhere on this list.

Let’s get to it.

1. Connecticut Huskies (24-3, 14-2)

Don’t let Tuesday night’s upset loss at Creighton sway you here: UConn has still been the best team in college basketball this season and they’re the team most likely to cut down the nets in Phoenix.

If it happens, the Huskies will become the sport’s first repeat national champion since Billy Donovan and Florida did the deed in 2006 and 2007.

There’s an easy case to be made that this year’s UConn squad is actually stronger (and by a decent margin) than the one which had a historically dominant run to the NCAA tournament title in 2023.

Danny Hurley’s team certainly appears to be better on offense. Tristen Newton, who was the team’s biggest question mark this time a year ago, has emerged as a do-it-all First Team All-American candidate. Freshman Stephon Castle has made a full-fledged star turn and is establishing himself as a likely top 10 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. Rutgers transfer Cam Spencer is the master of the dagger three and the guy opposing fan bases love to hate. Alex Karaban is the glue guy who can play like a star on any given night. And Donovan Clingan (when he’s been healthy) is the effective force in the middle.

There are a couple of areas where this team could get better defensively between now and the final weeks of the tournament, but overall, there’s just not a ton to nitpick here.

Minnesota v Purdue

Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

2. Purdue Boilermakers (23-3, 12-3)

If you took Purdue’s exact profile and attached it to the name “Duke Blue Devils” or even “Michigan State Spartans,” there would be no one doubting their status as the No. 1 or No. 2 current contender to win the whole thing in early April.

Unfortunately, Purdue’s reputation always precedes itself.

Matt Painter and the Boilermakers have been a single-digit seed in each of the last eight NCAA tournaments and a top 4-seed in each of the last six. They’ve advanced past the Sweet 16 just once over that span, been eliminated by a worse-seeded team six times, and in the last three years have seen their seasons end by the hand of a 13-seed, a 15-seed and, most famously, a 16-seed.

Still, there are reasons to believe that order will be restored and Purdue’s postseason will better mimic its regular season this time around.

The Boilermakers still have the most dominant force in the sport in likely back-to-back national Player of the Year Zach Edey. The young guards around him who had no answer when Fairleigh Dickinson forced anyone but Edey to beat them last March are a year older and much-improved. Painter also went out and increased the team’s athleticism in the backcourt with the addition of Southern Illinois transfer Lance Jones, the exact type of player the team needed to avoid its first round stunner a year ago.

Last but most importantly, let’s remember this crazy, deep-dive, difficult to comprehend advanced analytical statistic: Every single team that has ever lost to a 16-seed as a 1-seed has gone on to win the national championship the very next year.

If the methodology behind that statistic went over your head, I get it. Just know that it’s rock solid.

Houston v Xavier

Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

3. Houston Cougars (23-3, 10-3)

The jump from the American Athletic Conference to the Big 12 hasn’t “exposed” Kelvin Sampson’s program the way some were predicting. If anything, it seems to have made them stronger.

Houston is No. 1 in virtually every advanced metric on the planet, they have yet to lose a home game this season, and they boast the strongest of many strong defenses that Sampson has fielded since his arrival in The Bayou City.

UH also has the star power necessary to win six games over the course of three weeks. That comes in the form of All-American candidate Jamal Shead. While Baylor transfer L.J. Cryer is the team’s leading scorer, Shead is the player who can single-handedly take over a game that had previously appeared to be on a level playing field.

The perfect example is Monday night. Houston and Iowa State are two of the best defensive teams in the country, they play the same no middle defensive style, and they went blow for blow for 32 straight minutes. The only difference between the two teams was that one had Shead and the other didn’t. Shead made ridiculous shot after ridiculous shot during the game’s most critical juncture, scored 20 of his game-high 26 points in the second half, and carried his squad to a hard-fought 73-65 victory.

If the “not power conference proven” thing has kept you from hopping on the Houston bandwagon in years past, you’re going to have to find a new justification this March.

Arizona State v Arizona

Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

4. Arizona Wildcats (20-5, 11-3)

Men’s college basketball hasn’t seen a West Coast national champion since Lute Olson and Arizona stunned Kentucky all the way back in 1997. This year, the Wildcats — Arizona, not Kentucky — once again appear to be the West Coast’s best shot.

Tommy Lloyd’s first two and-a-half seasons in Tucson have been nothing short of a smashing success. He led the Wildcats to a No. 1 seed in 2022, a No. 2 seed a year ago, and if the season ended today, Arizona would be the fourth team to grace the selection committee’s top line.

Unfortunately, NCAA tournament success of the highest variety has eluded him. ‘Zona was upset by fifth-seeded North Carolina in the Sweet 16 two years ago, and then stunned by 15-seed Princeton in the first round last March.

This year’s Arizona squad is a balanced group that has a nice mix of talent that has been in the program for multiple seasons and key additions from the transfer portal.

The most notable member of the latter group is Caleb Love, the former North Carolina point guard who leads Arizona in scoring at the moment 18.8 ppg. Guards tend to steer the ship in March, and Love absolutely has the potential to be “this year’s Kemba Walker.” There’s also a history of erratic play that could result in the Wildcats suffering yet another early exit, but we’re trying to focus on the positive here.

Like Love, San Diego State transfer Keshad Johnson knows what it’s like to play in a national championship game. He has flourished in the larger offensive role that Lloyd has handed him.

Program veterans Oumar Ballo, Pelle Larsson and Kylan Boswell then come in to create about as rock solid a starting five as there is in the country.

Put the last two years out of your mind, this group is good enough to win it all.

Tennessee v Missouri

Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

5. Tennessee Volunteers (20-6, 10-3)

Speaking of needing to put the past out of your mind to envision a team winning it all …

Tennessee, famously, has never played in a Final Four.

Rick Barnes has a group this year that is fully capable of making it to that stage, and then doing additional damage once they’re there.

Now, many were saying the same thing this time a year ago when Tennessee was on pace to set records with its adjusted defensive efficiency. That team did knock off trendy Final Four pick Duke in the second round, but was ultimately done in by its lack of offense in a loss to Florida Atlantic in the Sweet 16.

There are three primary reasons to buy into this season being different for the Vols:

The first is probably the most overlooked: Tennessee’s defense is damn near as good as it was a year ago. The Volunteers are holding opponents to 92.2 points per 100 possessions, up slightly from last season’s 87.5, but still the second-best mark in all of Division-I.

Second, point guard Zakai Zeigler is back, fully healthy, and playing the best basketball of his college career. Zeigler tore his ACL just before the calendar flipped from February to March last year, and the UT offense never looked the same without him. He’s now shooting better than he ever has from the floor (42.3 percent), he’s averaging a career-best 5.5 assists per game, and he had a ridiculous performance in a road win over Kentucky where he matched a career-high with 26 points, dished out a career-best 13 assists, and also notched a game-leading three steals. The only other power conference player in the last 11 years to put up that stat line was Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, who did so on Feb. 14, 2016 versus Indiana en route to AP and NABC national Player of the Year honors.

Finally, and likely most important, there’s the addition of Dalton Knecht, who just might be the most intriguing (and ultimately important) player of the 2023-24 season.

The Northern Colorado transfer has played just 26 games as a Tennessee Volunteer, and he still ranks ninth in program history with five 30-point games, and tied for fifth in program history with three 35-point efforts. He’s established himself as arguably the best pure scorer in college basketball, and in turn has taken UT from No. 64 in adjusted offensive efficiency a year ago to No. 15 in the same category at the moment. The team is on pace to be the second highest-scoring and second most efficient offensive team during Barnes’ wildly successful nine-year run in Knoxville.

Duke v North Carolina

Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

6. North Carolina Tar Heels (20-6, 12-3)

It’s a difficult time to sell anyone on North Carolina’s status as a legitimate national title contender, as the Tar Heels have alternated wins and losses for the last three weeks in a very down Atlantic Coast Conference.

But as we saw two years ago with Hubert Davis’ first UNC team, pedigree matters in March.

R.J. Davis is probably going to be the ACC Player of the Year and is a top-tier “Kemba candidate” for this March. Armando Bacot has been getting double-doubles in March since he was teammates with Ed Cota, and there’s no reason to believe this March will be any different. Though he hasn’t shot the three-ball ball as well as this season as he has throughout his college career, Cormac Ryan has the potential to be this team’s Brady Manek when it matters the most.

Toss in quality Stanford transfer Harrison Ingram and occasionally electric freshman point guard Elliot Cadeau, and there’s still a ton to like here.

It’s not difficult to close your eyes and envision this group of players standing on a stage together and watching “One Shining Moment.”

Kansas v Kansas State

Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

7. Kansas Jayhawks (20-6, 8-5)

Yes, they’ve already lost five conference games and yes, the metrics don’t even have them as a top 15 at the moment, but there’s a certain Kansas City Chiefs vibe about this team that I can’t shake. A feeling that this team is just sort of biding its time until the games that matter the most roll around.

For starters, this is the only team in the country that has two players who might wind up being named First Team All-Americans. Kevin McCullar (19.0 ppg) has been the team’s top scorer all season long, and Hunter Dickinson (18.2 ppg/11.0 rpg) has backed up his offseason status as the most sought-after player in the transfer portal.

While the Jayhawks’ offense still hasn’t clicked the way most thought it would, they still haven’t been beaten at home, and when they’ve been at full strength, they don’t have loss that truly makes you scratch your head and wonder what the hell happened.

The preseason No. 1 has been something of a disappointment, there’s no denying that, but there’s also still way too much there for them to be left off any list like this.

Duke v Florida State

Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

8. Duke Blue Devils (20-5, 11-3)

The last spot on this list was the only one I really struggled with.

Alabama, Auburn, Marquette, Illinois, Iowa State, Creighton and Kentucky all got a hard look, but ultimately, the team I couldn’t leave off was one that would have been on everybody’s list four months ago.

Duke, like Kansas, has been a disappointment relative to its lofty preseason ranking. The Blue Devils have a couple of head-scratching losses and no real signature performance you can point to and say “that’s why I think they can win it all.”

What they do have is a bon-a-fide college star in Kyle Filipowski who is a matchup nightmare for virtually everyone in the country. They have a veteran point guard in senior Jeremy Roach who has carried a team to the Final Four before with his strong play. And they have an incredibly talented young group of supporting players, all of whom are fully capable of rising to the occasion and giving a breakout performance when their team needs it the most.

A handful of Duke’s national championships seem to come in seasons like this — where the team is definitely good, but very clearly not the cream of the crop. If someone else can pick off the UConns and the Purdues of the world, this feels like a Blue Devil team that can swoop in there and reap the benefits in a year where no one expects them to.

This post was originally published on this site