By Kyle Beery
While projecting what the NCAA Tournament field of 68 is going to look like four months in advance is like trying to find a needle in a haystack, here is my best stab at an early-season bracketology.
Teams will do a lot of shuffling over the next 10 glorious days of Feast Week. A lot can be proved during these holiday tournaments. There are some good ones this year, especially the two-bracket, 16-team Phil Knight Invitational in Portland. Make sure to check that one out.
I will update the field periodically throughout the season, doing so more frequently as March approaches. But for now, here is a glimpse at potential tournament teams, with a few things you need to know about some of the contenders, sleepers and bubble teams — hooray for buzzwords, already!
- Duke is the early favorite for No. 1 overall seed, thanks to senior Grayson Allen, top freshman Marvin Bagley III, and a strong supporting cast. The Blue Devils held off Michigan State in the Champions Classic in Chicago and will make a run at Coach K’s sixth national title.
- West Virginia suffered an early setback when it was blown out by Texas A&M in the first game of the season, but Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers should settle in and be near the top of the Big 12.
- Kentucky is very young this season, even by Coach Cal standards. Once he works out some of the kinks, they should be a very fast-paced, competitive team, but the Wildcats won’t be the dominant team we’ve seen in recent years. They’ll be challenged by Florida for the SEC crown.
- Kansas will make a run at its 14th straight Big 12 regular season title with the help of Svi Mykhailiuk and Udoka Azubuike leading the way. And let’s not forget about Lagerald Vick and Devonte’ Graham. This is a very experienced and talented team that should be on the top line in March. The only question is whether Bill Self can get the Jayhawks over the hump this year.
- Wichita State is going to be one of the best teams in the country. Just remember that. Once the Shockers get Landry Shamet and Marki McDuffie back from injuries around conference play, this team will be very dangerous and will be able to make a better case this year playing in the American Athletic Conference, a big upgrade from the Missouri Valley.
- Oakland will be one of the top mid-majors this season. Illinois transfer Kendrick Nunn can put up points in bunches, and once he gets Jalen Hayes back from suspension, the Golden Grizzlies will make a lot of noise this season.
- The Arizona Wildcats are the class of the Pac-12, which may take a step back this season after placing its first Final Four team since 2008 a year ago. Freshman DeAndre Ayton will be a force to be reckoned with, but corruption allegations still loom over Sean Miller and the Cats, so it will be interesting to see how things shake out in the desert.
- Xavier is flying a little bit under the radar this year, despite having plenty of talent back from its Elite Eight run last spring. Leading the charge is Trevon Bluiett, who skipped on the NBA to return for his senior season in Cincinnati.
- Jamie Dixon and TCU are looking to build off last season’s NIT title by jumping into the Big Dance. The Horned Frogs had a great start to last season, but tapered off and just missed on a bid, despite knocking off Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament. They should be able to make the leap this year and be in the top three or four in the conference.
- Miles Bridges and Michigan State should compete for a 1-seed this season, but showed there is a lot of room for improvement in Tuesday’s loss to Duke. This is a very talented team, but time — and Tom Izzo — will find a way to shape the Spartans into a Final Four contender.
- The Villanova Wildcats should be at the top of the Big East again, but Seton Hall will be right on their heels. Angel Delgado, Desi Rodriguez and Khadeen Carrington were once part of a highly touted recruiting class for the Pirates. Now they’re expected to help The Hall make a run in their senior seasons.
- Maybe you’ve never heard of Grand Canyon University. They have one of the best student sections in the country, and in their first season of NCAA Tournament eligibility, the Antelopes have an experienced team that could win the WAC and cause some excitement in March.
- Butler is in a transition period with new coach LaVall Jordan after Chris Holtmann took off for Ohio State over the summer. The Bulldogs are plenty talented, with the likes of Kelan Martin, Kamar Baldwin and freshman Aaron Thompson. But they’ll need to find a way to take care of the ball and defend the three-point line if they want to find a way into the NCAA Tournament.
- UCF will be fun to watch with 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall and B.J. Taylor. The Knights will have a better chance at making the tournament with an improved AAC, but Johnny Dawkins’ team still has a long way to go.
- Iowa State just had a bad home loss against Wisconsin-Milwaukee that will haunt them all season. After a solid run over the last few years, Hilton Magic may be running out.
- St. John’s has been building over the last couple seasons. Shamorie Ponds and Marcus Lovett will put the Red Storm in position to have an outside shot at grabbing a bubble spot.