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Andy Wittry | NCAA.com | November 11, 2021

7 programs with strong cases to be college basketball's next 1st-time champion

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Thirty-six men's college basketball programs have won a national championship after Baylor joined that exclusive club in 2021 as a first-time national champion.

After the sport went from the 2007 season through 2018 without crowning a first-time champion, there have been back-to-back first-time champions after Virginia won the 2019 NCAA Tournament, followed by Baylor.

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 had a top-10 defense every season since 2014, in terms of efficiency, per kenpom.com, and then in 2019, they finally had the elite offense to match their lockdown defense.

Then in 2021, Baylor had the right combination of experience, transfers, 3-point shooting, athleticism and lineup versatility to bring a men's basketball national title to Waco.

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 for the 2021-22 season, as well as its recent track record and future outlook. Having a strong team in 2022 and the near future is important but it's arguably just as 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, listed in no particular order (other than Gonzaga being first), that are arguably in the best positions to be the sport's next first-time champion.

Kyle Terada | USA TODAY Sports Images Gonzaga's Drew Timme battles Baylor's Jared Butler for a rebound.

Gonzaga

Gonzaga has played for the national championship in two of the last four NCAA tournaments (2021 and 2017), including a narrow, six-point defeat at the hands of North Carolina in 2017. Last season, they arrived in the national championship game with a 31-0 record and on the doorstep of becoming the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976, before falling to Baylor.

The 'Zags led by North Carolina three at halftime in the 2017 title game and they led by one with just over two minutes remaining, so they were potentially a few bounces away from winning their first title several years ago.

The tempo-free metrics of kenpom.com, which adjust for pace of play and opponent, say that Gonzaga was the most efficient in college basketball in both 2017 and 2021. Plus, the 'Zags have advanced to the Sweet 16 or further in every NCAA tournament since 2015. This is a program that wins consistently in March, and really, every other month of the men's basketball season.

Gonzaga has earned a No. 1 seed four times in the last eight NCAA tournaments, which means it's a program that consistently sets itself up to have a favorable path to the Final Four, and the 'Zags have peaked at No. 1 in the AP Top 25 poll in four of the last five seasons, which means they were considered the best team in the country at some point during each of those seasons.

That's why Gonzaga deserves to be the first program mentioned on this list. The 'Zags return consensus Second Team All-American forward Drew Timme, who led the team in scoring and rebounding at 19 points and seven rebounds per game, and they enrolled arguably the best freshman in the country, 7-footer Chet Holmgren.

Trevor Ruszkowski | USA TODAY Sports Images Anthony Polite is Florida State's leading returning scorer.

Florida State

In three consecutive NBA drafts, Florida State has had multiple players selected in each draft, including four total first-round picks and three lottery picks. The 2017 NBA Draft was another draft where multiple Florida State players were picked, including another player drafted in the lottery.

This century, men's college basketball national champions have had an average of roughly five future NBA players on their rosters, so you almost always need elite talent in order to cut down the nets in April and Florida State meets that criteria. And the on-court results have been there, too, for Leonard Hamilton's squad.

Florida State has made the last four NCAA tournaments, including three appearances as a top-four seed. In that span, Hamilton's program has two Sweet 16 appearances and one Elite Eight run, and that doesn't include the 2020 season, when the NCAA tournament was canceled amid a season in which Florida State was ranked No. 4 in the final AP Top 25 poll after finishing atop the ACC's regular season standings.

Florida State will once again have to remake its roster after leading scorer M.J. Walker (12.2 points per game) graduated and three underclassmen (Scottie Barnes, Balsa Koprivica and Raiquan Gray) were drafted into the NBA. But Anthony Polite (10.1 points per game) returns and Florida State enrolled a talented freshman class that's headlined by forward Matthew Cleveland. Transfers Cam'Ron Fletcher (Kentucky) and Caleb Mills (Houston) will both be immediately eligible in  Tallahassee, too.

Doug McSchooler | USA TODAU Sports Images Jahvon Quinerly was Alabama's second-leading scorer last season.

Alabama

Yes, we all know Alabama knows a thing or two about winning national championships in football but the Crimson Tide's trajectory in men's basketball could be as promising as any program that's never won a title, this side of Gonzaga. From coach Nate Oats' first season to his second, Alabama's season win total increased by 10 wins (despite an abbreviated season in 2020-21) and the Crimson Tide earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament for just the third time ever.

Alabama advanced to the Sweet 16, marking the eighth time in program history that the Crimson Tide has bowed out in the regional semifinals. The program's best-ever NCAA tournament finish was an Elite Eight appearance in 2004.

With a style of play that emphasizes stingy defense (No. 3 in defensive efficiency in 2021, per kenpom.com) and an offense that plays fast (No. 3 tempo nationally) and 3-pointers (the 18th-highest 3-point attempt rate), Alabama won the SEC regular season title by 2.5 games after going 16-2 in conference play. The Crimson Tide experienced significant roster attrition in the offseason, losing Associated Press SEC Player of the Year Herb Jones (11.2 ppg), seniorJohn Petty (12.9 ppg) and NBA lottery pick Joshua Primo (8.1 ppg), but Alabama returns its top two scorers in Jaden Shackelford and Jahvon Quinerly, added transfers Nimari Burnett (Texas Tech) and Noah Gurley (Furman), and enrolled talented freshmen JD Davison and Charles Bediako.

As long as there's talent in Tuscaloosa that fits Oats' desired style of play that emphasizes elite defense and 3-point-heavy offense, Alabama can be a threat to win its first-ever men's basketball title.

Grace Hollars | USA TODAY Sports Images Trevion Williams led Purdue in scoring and rebounding in 2021.

Purdue

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 then play Texas Tech for a national title. So perhaps if Virginia's Kihei Clark didn't make that heads-up pass at the end of regulation in their Elite Eight thriller, maybe Purdue is still riding the high of a 2019 national championship. Who knows, right?

Purdue 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 a core of rising seniors in Trevion Williams (15.5 ppg and 9.1 rpg), Sasha Stefanovic (9.3 ppg and 2.6 apg) and Eric Hunter (8.5 ppg and 2.8 apg), and sophomore guard Jaden Ivey (11.1 ppg and 3.3 rpg) has the makings to potentially be a breakout star in the Big Ten. Last season the Boilermakers finished fourth in the Big Ten and earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament, marking the fourth consecutive NCAA tournament in which Purdue has received a top-four seed.

Kevin Jairaj | USA TODAY Sports Images Texas guards Andrew Jones and Courtney Ramey returned to the Longhorns.

Texas

Last season, Texas earned its best NCAA tournament seed (a No. 3 seed) since 2008, when the Longhorns were a No. 2 seed, but a first-round exit in the 2021 NCAA Tournament at the hands of No. 14 seed Abilene Christian resulted in an offseason in which former Texas coach Shaka Smart left for Marquette and former Texas Tech coach Chris Beard was hired as Smart's replacement.

Beard has advanced farther in the NCAA tournament than any team in Texas history – the Longhorns made the Final Four in 2003 and the regional finals twice in the 1940s, when that round was the equivalent of the Final Four – while Beard's 2019 Texas Tech team finished as the national runner-up. Now, he's coaching at the namesake university in one of the most populous and talent-rich states in the country.

If Beard can make an immediate impact in Austin like he did in Lubbock – nine NCAA tournament wins in his last three tournament appearances – then Texas could soon become a consistent national title contender. The Longhorns could have the roster in the 2022 season to be great in Year 1, too. Andrew Jones (14.6 ppg) and Courtney Ramey (12.2 ppg) are back, while Texas also added high-profile transfers, such as Marcus Carrr (19.4 ppg at Minnesota), Timmy Allen (17.2 ppg at Utah) and Tre Mitchell (18.8 ppg at UMass). That's a lot of new faces (and shots) to balance, but on paper, there's enough talent on the Longhorns' roster to potentially develop into a top-10 team next season.

Marc Lebryk | USA TODAY Sports Images Terrence Shannon Jr. returned to Texas Tech to play for Mark Adams.

Texas Tech

Former Texas Tech assistant coach Mark Adams replaced Chris Beard in the offseason, as the latter took over at his alma mater, Texas, but the former helped bring the defensive intensity to Lubbock, so there's reason to believe the Red Raiders' now-annual NCAA tournament appearances could continue.

In Beard's second season in Lubbock, Texas Tech improved from 18-14 to 27-10, earning a No. 3 seed and advanced 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, falling to Virginia in overtime.

That's a lofty postseason standard for any program and it marks the most successful era of Texas Tech men's basketball, and now it's Adams' job to try to extend and build upon that run.

Terrence Shannon Jr. (12.9 points per game), Kevin McCullar (10.4 ppg and 6.3 rpg) and Marcus Santos-Silva (8.3 ppg and 6.4 rpg) return to Lubbock, while Texas Tech also added Oral Roberts transfer Kevin Obanor (18.7 ppg and 9.6 rpg) into the mix after he helped the Golden Eagles advance to the Sweet 16 as a No. 15 seed. There's no reason Texas Tech couldn't hit the ground running in Adams' first season as head coach.

Julie Bennett | USA Today Sports Images Auburn made the Final Four in 2019.

Auburn

The Tigers were one of the final two remaining undefeated teams in college basketball in the 2020 season and considering that their undefeated start came on the heels of their 2019 Final Four run, when they nearly advanced to the national championship game and had to replace the top three scorers from that team, it might be hard not to have Auburn on this list.

Plus, Auburn enrolled highly talented freshman Jabari Smith, a 6-10 forward, as well as added North Carolina transfer Walker Kessler, who was a reserve who averaged just 4.4 points per game for the Tar Heels in their crowded frontcourt last season but he showed his potential when he scored in double figures in four consecutive games in February, capped off with a 20-point performance in 24 minutes against Florida State.

Auburn coach Bruce Pearl has been to a Final Four, an Elite Eight and the Sweet 16 three times, so it's not unreasonable to think that Auburn could win its way to another Final Four appearance in the near future, which would mean another shot at winning a national title.

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