Evans Seven: Who can knock Villanova off its perch next year?
Could Villanova do the impossible and win three national titles over a four year span? Fresh off of their run to the national championship, the Wildcats are primed for another run deep into March, but their competition should be even better than this past season. In this week’s Evans Seven, we take a deep look at the seven schools that could knock the Wildcats off their perch atop the sport.
Bill Self changed his coaching mindset this past season by going small, as in really small: He used sharpshooting wing Svi Mykhailiuk as his power forward and relied on shooting over power and brute force in reaching the Final Four. Next season could be back to the norm, as the Jayhawks will enroll top 50 center David McCormack, and will see the eligibility restrictions lifted off of Memphis transfers Dedrick Lawson and KJ Lawson. That duo should dominate the glass, creating arguably the best rebounding unit in America alongside McCormack, Udoka Azubuikie and Sivlio De Sousa. Charlie Moore will settle in after his own transfer from California and will be helped by the enrollments of five-star guards Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes. There will be loads of new faces on KU’s roster next year, so getting all of the proper pieces into the right places will be the most difficult objective for Self, at least in the early going. Devonte Graham, Malik Newman and Mykhailiuk will all be gone, and questions remain about LaGerald Vick’s return to campus. But a lack of talent and lineup versatility will be a non-issue for Self, and Kansas could have the best shot at entering the season as the top-ranked program.
The most talented starting five in all of college basketball: Have you heard that one before? The Blue Devils will lose at least four of its five starters from last season, with the wildcard being Gary Trent. Trevon Duval, Grayson Allen, Wendell Carter and Marvin Bagley III are all but gone to the NBA, and Trent has to decide whether he'd rather be selected toward the bottom half of the first round of the NBA Draft or the featured scorer in the Blue Devils’ offense. R.J. Barrett and Cameron Reddish will enroll, each bringing an advanced skillset to Durham, and Zion Williamson, the most watched and entertaining prospect during the social media era, will join the elite duo. The five-star forward should make for a killer small ball 4-man, allowing Coach K to revert back to his man-to-man defensive principles, and the defense will be aided by the backline security blanket provided by Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolden. Tre Jones, the younger brother of Tyus Jones, can be a facilitating agent that is more about setting others up than looking for his own shot. If Duke can make shots and Jones shows the chops of a championship-worthy lead guard, Coach K could be cutting down the nets for the sixth time.
Kentucky will go back to the old way of doing things, as John Calipari will rely on a litany of returners and a mix of five-star freshmen to try to get UK another national title. Hamidou Diallo, Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are all but gone for the NBA, but the frontcourt remains fairly intact, unless a surprise departure occurs. Nick Richards, Wenyen Gabriel, Sacha Killeya-Jones and Jarred Vanderbilt should all return and - after another offseason of development - should hold up their end of the bargain as producers on the final stat sheet. Last year’s bunch was heavily knocked for their lack of a shot-maker. But with Tyler Herro - who has been one of the most polished half-court scorers in high school basketball - and Keldon Johnson and Immanuel Quickley shot-making shouldn't be a problem next season. UK recently offered five-star junior Ashton Hagans, as the Georgia native could reclassify into the 2018 class. That situation could lead to questions about Quade Green’s longevity in Lexington, but there's no question that Kentucky should be among the national title favorites next season.
4. NORTH CAROLINA
Despite failing to reach the Final Four for the third consecutive year, the Tar Heels surpassed many of their preseason expectations, thanks to the play of Luke Maye. The breakout star during their run to the national title in 2017 emerged as an All-American this past winter. The loss of longtime point guard Joel Berry and the ultimate utility knife, Theo Pinson, will hurt, but the Tar Heels' 2018 class is special. North Carolina erased the talk about its inability to enroll five-star talent, thanks to the commitment of Nassir Little. The MVP of the famed McDonald’s All-American Game will lack Pinson's experience, but his talent and potential is much greater than the four-year contributor. Little, Maye and Cam Johnson should create a tremendous frontcourt ensemble, and they will be bolstered by a year of offseason development in sophomores Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley. The biggest hole remains at the point guard spot. Kenny Williams is more of a scoring off-guard, which gives freshman Coby White first dibs on the position. A bouncy-bodied scoring guard, asking White to convert to a facilitating role in short notice may be difficult, however. But if he can transform his skillset and identity in Chapel Hill, the star power at UNC could allow the Tar Heels to duplicate what Villanova just accomplished: two national titles in three seasons.
Oh, what six months can do for you. In October, head coach Bruce Pearl looked like he was on the chopping block, thanks to the FBI revelations that led to the firing of his lead assistant coach and suspensions of two of his top players. Now, the Tigers are coming off of an SEC championship - their first since 1999 - and they will return seven of their top eight scorers. The Tigers were stung some by the early departure of Mustapha Heron, who decided to hire an agent and forgo the remaining years of his college eligibility. However, the returning group, which is led by Bryce Brown, Jared Harper, Chuma Okeke and Desean Murray, is enough to keep the Tigers atop the SEC’s pecking order, but in contention for the school's first national title. Pearl is one of the game’s best program revitalizers, so if Okeke can make a leap during his sophomore season, Anfernee McLemore gets healthy and the return of Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy goes smoothly, the Tigers could be looking at their best season in school history.
Tennessee snuck up on its competition early in the season before cementing its standing as one of the best teams in America and winning the SEC regular season title. The Vols won’t be underestimated next season, but the talent returning to Knoxville, where seven of its top eight scorers will all be back, should allow for another run in March. Grant Williams took a giant leap during his sophomore year, and he should be in the discussion for preseason SEC Player of the Year honors. Admiral Schofield will be on hand to help out, as will Jordan Bowden, one of the top shooters in college basketball. With the graduation of James Daniel III, Bowden should see his scoring numbers improve greatly. If Kyle Alexander can make another jump as a drop-off finisher and rim protector and Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bone can shoot the ball as well as they did this past year, then Rick Barnes may be coaching in his first Final Four since 2003 and the Vols might be in the hunt for their first national title.
The beat goes on at Gonzaga, as Mark Few should have the best team on the West Coast next season, and the Bulldogs will likely be ranked in the top five in the preseason polls. The loss of Johnathan Williams and his versatility in the frontcourt will hurt, and Silas Melson’s defensive acumen must be replaced, but the budding talent that the Zags will boast next season is tremendous. Rui Hachimura is Gonzaga’s next first-round NBA Draft selection. If he can solidify his perimeter shot, which hit the mark less than 20 percent of the time last season, the native of Japan could evolve into an All-American. He will be aided by the services of Killian Tillie, Corey Kispert and a likely sophomore breakout in Zach Norvell, who is one of the top microwave scorers in the college game. The biggest question mark revolves around Josh Perkins: There have been whispers that he could leave early for the professional ranks. But if he does return for his senior season - thus solidifying the point guard position - Few could be primed for his second Final Four in the past three years and Gonzaga might even be in contention for its first national title.