By Andrew Holman | Sports Editor
Remember watching in anticipation for what felt like an eternity as Kris Jenkins’ buzzer beater left his hand, sailed through a silenced NRG Stadium and eventually found its way into the net to deliver Villanova its second National Championship in school history? Well, the wait is over and it’s once again time to hit the hardwood.
The 2016-17 college basketball season is here, and it’s time to discover which 68 teams have what it takes to be a part of arguably the best spectacular in the sporting world — March Madness. The upsets, the Cinderellas, the buzzer beaters — can’t it just be March already?
Well, the answer is no, but the early season holiday tournaments are quickly approaching so intriguing nonconference matchups are just days away. Now, it’s time to look at the teams to watch for 2016.
Rankings are dished out by so many different media outlets these days, but this year there isn’t much debate over who the best teams in the country are: Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oregon, Villanova and Xavier. Those are the seven teams that sit atop the AP Top 25, and, unsurprisingly, many of those teams are the usual suspects.
To put it in perspective, those seven programs have a combined 24 NCAA Tournament Championships, 72 trips to the Final Four and 161 appearances in the Sweet 16. Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina account for all but three of those titles and six of those spots in the Final Four.
So although everyone likes to talk about the parity in college basketball, there isn’t as much parity as it seems when it comes to which programs are actually winning the championships. Since 2008, six of the nine championships during that time have been won by the seven aforementioned universities. Two of the other three were won by the University of Connecticut and the final by Louisville — two of the other premiere programs in college hoops.
In fact, the last time a team outside the power conferences won an NCAA Championship was all the way back in 1990 when UNLV had a historic season on its way to the school’s only title.
And the time before that was in 1966 when Don Haskins coached then Texas Western — now the University of Texas El Paso — and made a statement by becoming the first coach in NCAA history to start all black players in a title game. That season made for a story good enough to earn a Walt Disney film entitled “Glory Road.”
The point here is that although people watch college basketball for its dramatic upsets and Cinderella stories, the reality is that, more than likely, one of the perennial powerhouses — Duke, Kansas, North Carolina or Kentucky — will take home the hardware.
Duke has a remarkably talented group of returners, headlined by Grayson Allen and Amile Jefferson. Combine that with what many consider the top recruiting class in the nation, and it’s no secret as to why the Blue Devils enter the season at No. 1 in the polls.
Kentucky under the direction of John Calipari is just the usual. The Wildcats will more than likely start slow due to their heavy reliance on freshmen but then will roll through a mediocre SEC and become a real threat come tournament time.
Villanova, Xavier, Oregon and North Carolina, all of whom entered the 2015-16 tournament as top two seeds, have valuable pieces returning to combine with some quality first-year players and will hope their experience wins out come March.
For Xavier, a national title or even a trip to the Final Four could be its first in program history. The Wildcats are hoping to be the first team to win back-to-back championships since Florida did in 2006 and 2007. And then there are the Oregon Ducks who hope to win their school’s first championship since the NCAA Tournament Championship debuted in 1939.
For fans of the underdogs, Xavier, Villanova and Oregon are likely the only three schools capable of taking down the powerhouses of Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Kentucky. Or, just keep holding on to the slim hope that maybe this is the year that another ‘Cinderella’ team takes it all the way.
No. 1 Seeds: Duke, Oregon, Villanova, Kansas
Surprise Team: Rhode Island
Coach of the Year: Chris Mack – Xavier
Player of the Year: Josh Hart – Villanova