This time of year may be the most enjoyable period for sports fans across the country. With NFL teams entering the crucial final stretches of their respective schedules, the NBA season in full swing, and the Premier League promising an extremely entertaining title race, avid viewers will not experience boredom when they turn on their televisions.
However, despite the appeal of these aforementioned professional leagues, collegiate athletics have also captured the attention of many sports fans, notably College Basketball. The 2016-17 season tipped off less than a month ago, and followers of the sport have already been treated to many intriguing early-season matchups. As non-conference play begins to wind down, I have decided to predict the Final Four teams, along with a National Champion.
The Duke Blue Devils, lead by coach Mike Krzyzewski, should be viewed as a favorite to reach Phoenix. With a mixture of talented recruits and experienced veterans on the roster, Coach K’s unit should be extremely dangerous this season. The Blue Devils may be banged up at the moment, with five-star freshmen Harry Giles (Forward), Jayson Tatum (Guard/Forward), and Marques Bolden (Center) all missing the team’s first eight games and junior superstar Grayson Allen (Guard) playing through a toe problem, but when the team reaches full strength, they could be the best (and deepest) unit in America. Despite his current ailment, Allen, an Academic All-American, has still managed to average 17.1 points per game, including a game-high 24 in a home win over Michigan State. Meanwhile, sophomore guard Luke Kennard has evolved into a consistent scoring threat this season, and do-it-all freshman Frank Jackson has brought a much-needed source of energy to a currently depleted roster. Duke has earned most of its 8-1 record without its three star freshmen, with its only loss coming in buzzer-beating fashion against a top-ten Kansas team. If and when the Blue Devils are completely healthy, expect them to tear through opponents on the way to a 17th Final Four appearance.
The Kentucky Wildcats also should also punch their tickets to the Final Four. Coach John Calipari always manages to build excellent recruiting classes, and this year’s group of freshmen is nothing short of spectacular. Point Guard De’Aaron Fox has been a superb floor general for the Wildcats, averaging 15.3 points per game and 7.6 assists per game. Shooting Guard Malik Monk has dominated the competition thus far, putting up 19.3 points per contest while shooting an impressive 47.6% from the field. The addition of Bam Adebayo has strengthened Kentucky’s frontcourt, with the 6’10”, 260-pound forward able to dominate most opponents in the post. John Calipari’s unit also possesses a few important returners. Guard Isaiah Briscoe is the most notable returning player, with the 6’3” sophomore overcoming last season’s shooting slump and hitting 19.8% more of his three point attempts. Kentucky may have a young roster, but the amount of future NBA talent in Lexington should enable the Wildcats to contend for a National Championship. As long as Kentucky avoids a poor shooting game against a respectable NCAA Tournament opponent, expect the Wildcats to book their tickets to Phoenix.
Coach Jay Wright’s Villanova Wildcats should be the third of four teams to play a game (or two) in April. The defending national champions return a large portion of last season’s roster, including buzzer-beating hero Kris Jenkins and Preseason National Player of the Year candidate Josh Hart. Jenkins and Hart have both gotten off to very strong starts, averaging 13.7 and 17.3 points per game, respectively. Hart was crucial to the Wildcats’ title success last season, and the senior’s decision to return to school has significantly strengthened the possibility of a Villanova repeat. The 6’6” guard scores in a relatively consistent manner, locates open shooters, performs well on the glass, and guards the opposing team’s best player in nearly every game. Meanwhile, Jenkins, a forward, is a tremendous three-point shooter, with the senior currently nailing 45.5% of his attempts from beyond the arc. The senior has appeared extremely confident this season, recording a double-digit points tally in every game apart from one. Villanova also possesses a talented big man in senior Darryl Reynolds. The 6’9”, 240 pound forward does not take many shots, but is efficient from the field, hitting 14 of his 21 attempts. In a game against Purdue last month, Reynolds posted 12 points on 5-6 shooting and played an important role in the Wildcats’ 79-76 win. Reynolds also leads the team in rebounding, with an average of 6.6 boards per game. Villanova will be battle tested by the time March rolls around (the Wildcats play Creighton, Butler, and Xavier twice, in addition to a late January matchup with Virginia), and provided that they rebound well against taller teams, fans should expect to see Jay Wright’s team make a deep tournament run.
The final team that will reach the National Semifinal is North Carolina. Coach Roy Williams returns almost all of his players from last year’s run to the title game, and has added multiple key freshmen to the UNC roster. Despite the losses of Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige to the NBA, the Tar Heel faithful should not fret. If anything, this year’s team is the deeper than last season’s juggernaut. Joel Berry II, Justin Jackson, Isaiah Hicks, and Kennedy Meeks all return to campus, and these four make up potentially the best veteran tandem in the nation. Berry, a guard, has always been a very good shooter; however, the junior from Apopka, Florida has evolved into an all-around point guard, increasing his per game rebound and assist data despite averaging 4.5 less minutes per contest this season. Meanwhile, Jackson, who typically plays the small forward position, leads the team in scoring with an impressive 15.2 points per game. The junior has increased his field goal and three-point percentage by significant margins and has become a key player for a North Carolina squad without the services of junior forward Theo Pinson. The Tar Heels also welcome some new freshmen players; the most notable are 6’10” forward Tony Bradley and guard Seventh Woods. Bradley is projected to be a first-round pick in this summer’s NBA Draft, but is currently logging a modest 17.6 minutes per game. Woods, who is an extremely talented player, is spending even less time on the court, with 12.3 minutes per game. The fact that these two fantastic freshmen are sitting on the bench for more than half of most games highlights the incredible amount of skill on this Tar Heel roster, and due to the fact that Roy Williams should be able to rely on his bench during the tournament, expect Carolina to make its second consecutive Final Four appearance.
All four of these teams possess loaded rosters with incredible amounts of talent and skill, along with phenomenal coaching staffs. However, only one team can take home the National Championship trophy, and I believe that the Duke Blue Devils will cut down the nets this April. For starters, the Blue Devils have an advantage that no other program can match: Coaching. Mike Krzyzewski is by far the best active coach, and he may be the best ever at his profession. Under Coach K, Duke has reached the Final Four 12 times and won 5 National Championships. The last three times the Blue Devils have made the title game, they have brought banners home with them. If Duke reaches Phoenix, it will have an experienced coach on the sideline, ready to handle any adversity. The Blue Devils also have, in my opinion, the best blend of young talent and veterans on their roster. Duke brought the second-ranked recruiting class to campus this year, and Kentucky, the team with the best group, does not have as many impactful veterans as the Blue Devils. Duke will rely on its unparalleled combination of depth, experience, and talent once they reach the NCAA Tournament, allowing Coach K’s squad to add a sixth National Championship to the Cameron Indoor Stadium trophy case.