Thirty-five men's college basketball programs have won a national championship after Virginia joined that exclusive club in 2019 as a first-time national champion.
The Cavaliers were the first first-time national champion since Florida in 2006. It was only a matter of time until Virginia cut down the nets after the Final Four given the elite level that coach Tony Bennett had transformed the 'Hoos men's basketball program. They've had a top-10 defense, in terms of efficiency, every season since 2014 and then in 2019, they finally had the elite offense to match their lockdown defense.
So who's next?
Which men's basketball programs have come close to a national championship recently or have an upwards trajectory that suggests they could reasonably reach the Final Four, with the chance to win a title, in a 68-team, single-elimination NCAA tournament?
This exercise considers both a program's current team as well as its recent track record and future outlook. Having a strong team in 2020-21 and the near future is important but it's arguably more vital that a program has shown the ability to have year-over-year success because as we're reminded every March, anything can happen in the NCAA tournament.
Here are seven men's basketball programs that are arguably best positioned to be the sport's next first-time champion.
Gonzaga lost by six points in the national championship game to North Carolina in 2017. The 'Zags led by three at halftime and by one with just over 2 minutes remaining, so they were potentially a few bounces away from winning their first title a few years ago.
The tempo-free metrics of kenpom.com, which adjust for pace of play and opponent, say that Gonzaga was the best team in college basketball that season, and by a considerable margin.
Four players from that Gonzaga team went on to play in the NBA, so coach Mark Few and the Bulldogs proved they were capable of recruiting and developing elite talent. But if we're being honest, while that season helped prove that Gonzaga can reach the greatest heights of the sport, those who have paid attention already knew that it was only a matter of time until the Bulldogs reached the final weekend of the NCAA tournament.
They've earned a No. 1 seed three times in the last seven seasons, they've made the Sweet 16 (or better) each of the last five NCAA tournaments, including the national runner-up finish in 2017 and Elite Eight appearances in 2015 and 2019.
Gonzaga was ranked No. 1 in the AP poll in the 2019-20 season — an achievement it has now reached in three of the last four seasons – and it finished the 2019-20 season ranked No. 2 on kenpom.com.
That's why Gonzaga deserves to be No. 1 on this list. Sure, the 2019-20 'Zags had an impressive efficiency margin and an even more impressive record, and history says they'll likely be back in the mix to make the Final Four if they continue operating at their current.
Rui Hachimura, who was a First Team All-American, WCC Player of the Year and the Julius Erving Award winner in 2019, was Gonzaga's ninth-leading scorer in 2017 when the Bulldogs made the national championship game. He became a double-digit scorer and the team's sixth man in 2018 before having a breakout season in 2019.
Similarly, Gonzaga's leading scorer last season, Filip Petrusev, didn't start a single game during the 2018-19 season, when he averaged just 6.5 points in 11.4 minutes per game. Then he became the Bulldogs' leading scorer and rebounder last season at 16.6 points and 7.9 rebounds per game.
On an individual and team-wide basis, Gonzaga is a sure bet to remake itself at a consistent and elite level.
Gonzaga is No. 1 in March Madness correspondent Andy Katz's preseason Power 36 for next season, thanks to the return of Corey Kispert, Joel Ayayi and Drew Timme, plus the addition of freshman Jalen Suggs.
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The Bears are certainly a timely inclusion, given their five consecutive weeks ranked No. 1 in January and February, including the program's first-ever win inside Kansas' Allen Fieldhouse. Baylor finished last season with the fourth-most efficient defense and the 17th-best offense – a combination that led to a No. 3 finish on kenpom.com – and the Bears had just two seniors on their roster last season.
The Bears have made two Elite Eight and two Sweet 16 appearances under Scott Drew, and given their current trajectory, they could very well earn their highest seed of Drew's tenure. They could have been in the mix for a No. 1 seed last season. They earned a No. 3 seed four times last decade and they made the second weekend of the NCAA tournament in three of those years, so it's not unreasonable to think that with a better seed, they could advance further.
Baylor had a 23-game winning streak last season and established itself as one of the best teams in the country, so there's reason to believe that Baylor's excellence could be more than a one-season stay.
With the return of Jared Butler, a Big 12 Player of the Year and All-America candidate, Baylor is ranked No. 2 in Andy Katz's preseason Power 36.
As long as coach Chris Beard is in Lubbock, Texas Tech deserves to be on the short list to be college basketball's next first-time national champion, even if you have to squint a bit to see the Red Raiders' potential path to a title for a given season. You only have to look back at Beard's second season in Lubbock, when Texas Tech improved from 18-14 to 27-10, earning a No. 3 seed and advancing to the Elite Eight as a No. 3 seed. Then the Red Raiders lost four of their top five scorers be regrouped and advanced to the national title game in 2019.
Beard's first three seasons with the Red Raiders included an Elite Eight appearance and an overtime loss in the national championship game in back-to-back seasons. He has an 8-2 NCAA tournament record at the school while the rest of Texas Tech's past coaches have a combined 8-16 record in the tournament. So in a very short time, he's already engineered the most successful tenure in school history.
The Red Raiders helped unseat Kansas from its Big 12 regular-season title perch in 2019, and they had a top-10 defense for the third season in a row in 2020. What's most impressive about Texas Tech's rise is that the team lost four of its top five scorers from its Elite Eight team, then the Red Raiders went to the national title game the next season, and despite losing four of their top five scorers from last season, they were ranked frequently last season.
The school's coaching staff has shown a remarkable ability to scout and develop players, and get them to defend at a high level. Plus, none of their core of guards of last season were seniors.
Texas Tech checks in at No. 15 in Andy Katz's preseason Power 36 rankings.
The Seminoles received the ACC championship trophy last season after finishing atop the conference standings with a 16-4 record in conference play – one game better than Duke, Louisville and Virginia. The 'Noles finished their 2020 campaign with a 26-5 record, a defense that ranked No. 15 nationally and an offense that ranked No. 32 under coach Leonard Hamilton.
All five of the team's losses were on the road – at Pittsburgh, Indiana, Virginia, Duke and Clemson – and four of the five were by five points or less. The Seminoles, known for having a deep bench and a really, really tall rotation, have peaked in the top 10 of the AP poll in three of the last four years, highlighted by an Elite Eight run in 2018 as a No. 9 seed.
Led by senior guard MJ Walker and highly-touted freshman Scottie Barnes, who's listed at 6-9 and 227 pounds, Florida State could have the right combination of returning pieces and elite talent to be among the nation's best yet again.Florida State is No. 21 in Andy Katz's preseason Power 36 rankings.
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The Boilermakers were a Mamadi Diakite buzzer beater away from making the Final Four in 2019, where they would've played No. 5 seed Auburn for a chance to play Texas Tech for a national title. So perhaps if Virginia's Kihei Clark didn't make a heads-up pass at the end of regulation in their Elite Eight thriller, maybe Purdue is coming off of a 2019 national championship. Who knows, right?
Coach Matt Painter has shown an ability to adapt his scheme to his roster, whether that's one built around a high-usage guard like Carsen Edwards or big men like AJ Hammons, Isaac Haas or Caleb Swanigan.
Under Painter, the Boilermakers have been elite defensively (three consecutive years as a top-eight defense from 2009-11) and two years in a row with a top-five offense in 2018 and 2019, so when Purdue is "right," you're looking at a program that can contend for a 30-win season and a No. 2 or No. 3 seed.
Purdue has some talented rising juniors in Trevion Williams, Eric Hunter, Sasha Stefanovic and Aaron Wheeler, who helped the Boilermakers finish last season ranked No. 24 on kenpom.com.
Purdue checks in at No. 32 in Andy Katz's preseason Power 36 rankings.
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The Tigers were one of the final two remaining undefeated teams in college basketball last season and considering that their undefeated start came on the heels of Auburn's 2019 Final Four run, when it nearly advanced to the national championship game and had to replace the top three scorers from that team, it'd be hard to not have Auburn on this list.
Auburn has earned a No. 4 and No. 5 seed in the last two NCAA Tournaments, and the team finished with a 25-6 record last season. With a coach, Bruce Pearl, who has been to a Final Four, an Elite Eight and the Sweet 16 three times, it's not unreasonable to think that Auburn's current status could lead to another Final Four appearance in the near future, which means another shot at winning a national title.