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Andy Wittry | NCAA.com | April 10, 2022

7 programs with strong cases to be men's basketball's next first-time champion

Andy Katz's way-too-early 2022-23 Power 36

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 were back-to-back first-time champions after Virginia won the 2019 NCAA Tournament, followed by Baylor in 2021. That streak came to an end in 2022, when Kansas, North Carolina, Duke and Villanova made the Final Four.

The Virginia Cavaliers were the first, first-time national champion since Florida in 2006. It seemed like it was only a matter of time until Virginia cut down the nets, given the elite level to which coach Tony Bennett had led 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 lock-down 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 players, as well as its recent track record and future outlook. Having a strong team next season 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; more on that in a second — that are arguably in the best positions to potentially be the sport's next first-time champion.

Gonzaga

Gonzaga has played for the national championship in two of the last five NCAA tournaments (2021 and 2017), including a narrow, six-point defeat at the hands of North Carolina in 2017. In 2021, the Bulldogs 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 North Carolina three at halftime in the 2017 title game and they led by one points with just over two minutes remaining, so they were potentially a few bounces away from winning their first title a half-decade ago.

The tempo-free metrics of kenpom.com, which adjust for pace of play and opponent, say that Gonzaga was the most efficient team in college basketball in 2017, 2021 and 2022. 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 five times in the last nine 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 five of the last six seasons, which means they were considered the best team in the country at some point during each of those seasons.

Most recently, the selection committee listed Gonzaga No. 1 when it revealed its top 16 teams in February and the Zags earned the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.

That's why Gonzaga deserves to be the first program mentioned on this list.

Auburn

The Tigers received the No. 2 overall seed when the selection committee revealed its top 16 teams in the country last February and they ultimately earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, after reaching No. 1 in the AP poll for the first time in program history. They were able to reach those AP poll heights thanks to a roster that featured star freshman Jabari Smith, a smooth, 6-foot-10 forward who shot 42 percent from 3-point range, and numerous transfers, none bigger — literally — than 7-foot-1 Walker Kessler, who led the country in block percentage, swatting nearly one out of every five 2-point attempts Auburn's opponents took.

Auburn coach Bruce Pearl led the school to the Final Four in 2019 — plus in his career, he's coached a team that advanced to the Elite Eight and three that marched to the Sweet 16 — and he completely turned over the school's roster since that Final Four team, creating a 2022 roster that was arguably even better, so there's reason to believe the Tigers could still be very good again, very soon.

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 Spokane, Wash. 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 then 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 last offseason, losing Associated Press SEC Player of the Year Herb Jones (11.2 points per game), senior John Petty (12.9 ppg) and NBA lottery pick Joshua Primo (8.1 ppg), so while the 2022 version of the Crimson Tide wasn't as strong as its predecessor, Alabama still beat Gonzaga, Houston, Baylor and Tennessee last season, each of which spent much of the season ranked in the top 10 of various metrics.

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.

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, or if Diakite's jumper was off the mark, 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, or some combination of both, which Purdue's 2022 had with electric guard Jaden Ivey and the frontcourt platoon of Zach Edey and Trevion Williams.

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. The Boilermakers' 2022 offense finished as the second-best in the country, per kenpom.com.

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 continue the defensive intensity in Lubbock, so there's reason to believe the Red Raiders' now-annual NCAA tournament appearances could continue. In Adams' first season, Texas Tech ranked first nationally in defensive efficiency.

The Red Raiders are coming off of a regular-season sweep of Texas and they earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament, where they lost to Duke in a competitive Sweet 16 game.

Texas Tech has certainly hit the ground running in Adams' first season as head coach.

Texas

In 2021, 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 at Texas Tech — then Texas could soon become a consistent national title contender. While Texas didn't quite taken the Big 12 by storm in Beard's first season, the Longhorns did appear among the selection committee's midseason top 16 teams at No. 16 before ultimately earned a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Florida State

In three consecutive NBA drafts, Florida State had multiple players selected in each draft, including four total first-round picks and three lottery picks. The 2017 NBA Draft marked an additional 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 four NCAA tournaments in a row from 2017 to 2021, including three appearances as a top-four seed, and the school was a projected No. 2 seed when the 2020 season ended. In that span, Hamilton's program has two Sweet 16 appearances and one Elite Eight run.

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