Entering conference tournaments, NCAA men’s teams were jostling for spots in the Big Dance (March 19-April 8), while the elite were gearing up for the road to the Final Four. Here are the front-runners for the 2019 national championship. All records and statistics as of March 12 (conference records in parentheses).

The Duke Blue Devils have dominated college basketball this season behind their young talent: Tre Jones, Cam Reddish, R.J. Barrett and most importantly Zion Williamson.

In recent 2019 National Basketball Association (NBA) mock drafts, Williamson is consistently projected as the No. 1 pick, while Barrett and Reddish round out the top five.

Williamson is a once-in-a-lifetime talent, even drawing comparisons to LeBron James (who went straight from high school to the NBA). Williamson’s athleticism and explosiveness combine for emphatic dunks on offense and rim protection with his shot-blocking ability on defense. Did I forget to mention that the 18-year-old is already 6 feet, 7 inches and weights 285 pounds, 30 pounds more than LeBron?

In Duke’s first meeting against North Carolina (UNC), Williamson busted open his shoe after trying to make a cut, straining his right knee. The Blue Devils went on to lose 88-72 to the No. 8 Tar Heels. 

Duke wasn’t the same team without Williamson and his 21.6 points per game. They went 3-2 in the next five games, including a 77-72 loss to No. 20 Virginia Tech, to finish 26-5 (14-4) in the regular season.

But with Williamson, Duke is a powerhouse. One might argue that inexperience and poor free-throw shooting will show. However, with coach Mike Krzyzewski at the helm, I have full confidence that Duke will go deep into March and April, especially now with a healthy Williamson, and win the title.

The Virginia Cavaliers remained in the top five throughout the regular season. At 28-2 (16-2) — their only losses against Duke — the Cavaliers had eight victories against Top 25 teams, including three against top-10 teams.

Sharpshooting junior Kyle Guy leads the team with 15.3 ppg while shooting 45.1 percent. NBA prospect De’Andre Hunter contributes 15.2 ppg and 5.2 rpg, and provides length defensively.

Consistency and defense have kept Virginia in the conversation even without the “wow” factor. With a nearly flawless record against a strong schedule, the Cavaliers made a strong case for the No. 1 overall seed in the Big Dance.

With that in mind, I have them as a lock for the Final Four and certainly a title contender. However, because Virginia has lost to Duke twice already, I don’t see the Cavaliers rebounding under the pressure of the NCAA Tournament. Maybe Virginia gets lucky and another team knocks off Duke.

The North Carolina Tar Heels made a big splash after being overshadowed by neighboring Duke early in the season. Winning 14 of its last 15 regular-season games, including two wins over Duke and five wins over top-16 teams, North Carolina climbed to No. 3 in the country — and deservedly so. 

Although not as talented as Duke, UNC boasts experienced coaches and players. Roy Williams is in his 16th season as the Tar Heels’ head coach, while seniors Cameron Johnson and Luke Maye provide the backbone for the team, averaging the most points (16.7 ppg) and rebounds (10.5 rpg) per game, respectively. Maye torched Duke for 30 points and 15 rebounds in a 88-72 beatdown of the host Blue Devils.

However, UNC has its own young star. Coby White, averaging 16.3 points and 4.1 assists as a freshman, zips up and down the court, stopping on a dime to hit 3s at a 38-percent clip.

Overall, I still favor Duke and Virginia over UNC in a head-to-head matchup in the Big Dance. Sweeping Duke is impressive, but UNC has yet to face the Blue Devils with Williamson. Frankly, I have more faith in a healthy Duke team.

Coach John Calipari has transformed the Kentucky Wildcats into a one-and-done machine, producing NBA lottery picks year after year. Some notable UK alumni include NBA All-Stars Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, not to mention Sacramento’s own De’Aaron Fox.

However, Kentucky hasn’t won the title since 2012 with Davis as a freshman, despite making the Final Four in 2014 and 2015. Talent has never been the problem; it’s hard to bring a brand new team together each year.

After a slow start, the Wildcats won 16 of their last 18 regular-season games. Some notable wins include 80-72 over No. 9 UNC, 71-63 over No. 9 Kansas and 86-69 over No. 1 Tennessee. However, the Volunteers got revenge, winning 71-52 on March 2 in Knoxville, Tenn.

Sophomore P.J. Washington is the engine for the Wildcats, averaging 14.9 ppg and 7.5 rpg while shooting 52 percent from the field.  Kentucky was 8-2 when he scored 20 points or more, but his scoring has been inconsistent.

Kentucky will always be in the conversation during March because of the tremendous talent it acquires each year. The Wildcats have shown they can beat formidable opponents, but they have also lost against weaker ones. I foresee the Wildcats making the Elite Eight, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them exit sooner. That being said, they could make a title run, but they needed to gain some momentum in the Southeastern Conference tournament to be convincing. 

The Gonzaga Bulldogs were ranked No. 1 with the best record (30-2, 16-0 West Coast Conference) and most ppg (88.8) in the country after maintaining a top-five ranking throughout the regular season. Plus, the Bulldogs won 22 straight games by double digits.

Star player Rui Hachimura averages 20.4 ppg and 6.6 rpg, showcasing himself as a premier big man from Japan.

Similar to the other teams, Gonzaga is a top program with an experienced coach. Mark Few is coaching his 20th straight season of 23 wins or more. 

However, Gonzaga’s strength of schedule is abysmal. The Bulldogs have played only three ranked teams all season — Duke, UNC and Tennessee — losing twice. Their most impressive feat thus far, beating No. 1 Duke 89-87 in the Maui Invitational, doesn’t accurately depict Gonzaga’s potential in March. Beating Duke is impressive, but the Bulldogs later lost to UNC by 13 and Tennessee by three, suggesting that they caught a young Blue Devils team off guard early in the season.

Gonzaga should breeze through teams to the Elite Eight, but the Bulldogs’ weak schedule will show when they face top-tier teams in later rounds.  Their 60-47 loss in the WCC final against unranked Saint Mary’s raises questions about their postseason potential.

By Jackson Crawford

Originally published in the March 19 edition of the Octagon.

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