NCAAM: Way Too Early Final Four Preview

NCAAM Early Look Final Four - Duke, Gonzaga, LSU and Kansas

The Final Four is the culmination of the greatest sporting event on earth, the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament. Over three hundred teams compete all season long for a chance to hear their names called on Selection Sunday. Sixty-eight teams enter, and it all comes down to the Final Four to decide the national champion.

Even though Selection Sunday is still a couple of weeks away, it’s never too early to start speculating which teams will make it to the third weekend of the madness that is March. In this article, I will break down the four teams that I think will advance, while also giving you a couple of favorites you may want to stay away from and adding in a couple of longshots that could make a deep run if things break their way. Let’s get started!

The Longshots

Here I will highlight teams that, while not ranked highly, have the talent to make a run to the Final Four. These are the teams that will shock the nation and win you your bracket pool when they make it all the way to the third weekend. In order to be considered a longshot, these teams must be projected to be higher than a top-four seed, meaning they will be underdogs in their first-round matchups.

Kansas State Wildcats Logo

Kansas State Wildcats (21-6)

The Kansas State Wildcats are currently projected as a six seed by ESPN’s resident bracketologist Joe Lunardi. So, while they won’t be a huge longshot like the other team on this list, they are going to surprise a lot of people if they make a deep run. So, why Kansas State? Well, first off, they nearly made the Final Four last year as a nine seed, so they have shown they can play well in March as a high seed.

The Wildcats were the recipients of some good luck in last year’s tournament as they got to face sixteen-seeded UMBC in the second round rather than the number one overall seed, Virginia, who was upset in the first round. But they proved they were no first-round fluke by beating a very talented Kentucky team in the Sweet 16 before falling to the team of destiny, Loyola-Chicago in the Elite Eight.

This year, the Wildcats brought back nearly all of that team, and many expected them to compete for the Big 12 regular season title. They lost senior leader Dean Wade to injury at the start of Big 12 play, and without their best player on the floor, they suffered two of their three conference losses.

But with just a small handful of games left on the schedule, including a trip to Lawrence to face the Jayhawks, the Wildcats are in prime position to snap Kansas’ fourteen-year streak of consecutive Big 12 regular season titles.

If that doesn’t make the Wildcats legit threats to win it all, I don’t know what does. K-State is finally healthy, and they are peaking at the right time as they have won eleven out of their last thirteen games. If this team stays healthy, watch out. They have the talent and tournament experience to go all the way.

South Dakota State Jackrabbits Logo

South Dakota State Jackrabbits (23-7)

Now we are talking a real longshot! The Jackrabbits of South Dakota State have an upperclassman led attack, and they have grown accustomed to making the tournament as they have gone dancing the last three years out of the Summit League. The Jackrabbits are led by prolific scorer, Mike Daum. Daum just became the tenth player ever to score 3,000 career points. If Daum were playing anywhere but the basketball purgatory that is South Dakota, he would be a lock for national player of the year. The big man is filling up the stat sheet with twenty-six points, twelve rebounds, and two assists per game.

And while Daum is grabbing all the headlines, and deservedly so, it isn’t a one-man show at South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits feature two other legit stars in the making in David Jenkins Jr. and Skyler Flatten. Both of those guys are scoring more than fifteen points a game. When it comes to offense, not many do it better than the Jackrabbits. They are currently ranked second in the nation in points scored, and they are top ten in field goal percentage, free throw percentage, and three-point percentage.

When you’re looking for a team that can wins games as a double-digit seed in the tournament, teams that can score that ball at a high rate are the ones you want to focus in on. This team can drop a hundred points on any given night, and when you’re playing teams that have more top to bottom talent than you have, the three-point shot can be the great equalizer. And this team shoots it from deep as well as any team in the country. Whoever draws the Jackrabbits in round one needs to be on upset alert!

Teams to Stay Away from

In this section, I will highlight a couple teams, that while they have all the makings of a Final Four team, I just don’t think they will get the job done. If you have these teams going deep in your bracket, you’re going to regret it.

Virginia Cavaliers (24-2)

I know I am going to get flamed for this one, but I am just not a believer in this team. What Tony Bennet has done in Charlottesville has really been remarkable. He has turned the Cavs into a national powerhouse. The problem is, he just can’t seem to win in March. We all know about how spectacularly the Cavaliers blew it last year, as they were the first ever one seed to lose to a sixteen seed in the first round. But really, the struggles go deeper than last year for Virginia.

Since 2014, Virginia has been a one seed three times, a two seed once, and a five seed. And despite the fact that they have always been one of the best teams in the country, they have never gone to the Final Four under Bennet. The last time Virginia went to the Final Four, Ralph Sampson was still on the court.

I can talk on and on about how this team is different, how they have seemingly finally figured out how to play on offense after years of being a defense only team. But in the end, I just can’t trust Bennet to get it done in the tournament. Until Bennet can get the monkey off his back, I just can’t confidently back the Cavs. Stay away from Virginia when you are filling out your bracket.

Michigan State Spartans (22-5)

Coming into this season, it looked like the Spartans would be the class of the Big 10. But injuries have caused this team to come back to the pack. Tom Izzo has been known to overachieve in the tournament, but I just don’t think this team is as good as they are being rated right now.

The loss of leader Joshua Langford was a devastating blow for Sparty. Langford was looking like a Big 10 player of the year candidate before going down with a season-ending injury in late January.

Since his injury, the Spartans are just 4-3, with two of those losses coming to Illinois and Indiana: Two teams that aren’t going to sniff an at-large bid. This team is very well coached, and they do all the little things right. They are top six in the country in rebounds, assists, blocks, and assists to turnover ratio. But in the end, I just don’t think they have the manpower for a Final Four trip with the loss of Langford. It breaks my heart to bet against Tom Izzo, but if you have them going to the Final Four, they’re going to bust your bracket.

Final Four

In this final section, I will reveal the four teams that I think will make it all the way to Minneapolis for this year’s Final Four.

Duke Blue Devils Logo

Duke Blue Devils (23-3)

When Zion Williamson’s shoe exploded just seconds into the biggest game of the year for Duke, many hearts stopped in Durham. Williamson is a generational level talent, and if he can get back healthy and stay on the floor, the Blue Devils are the prohibitive favorites to take home the national title. If you want to know just how loaded this team is right now, just take a look at ESPN’s current NBA draft projections. They have three of the top four players, and four of the top twenty-five.

Coming into the season, the question was, is this the best recruiting class ever? And now that we have seen what this team looks like on the floor, the answer to that is a resounding yes.

Please Note:

The only cause for concern here would be the health of Williamson, and how the team has performed without him. They got blown out on their home court by North Carolina, and then followed that up with a gutty performance on the road against Syracuse, picking up a hard-fought win in front of the biggest on-campus crowd in NCAA history.

Assuming Zion gets back on the court before the season ends, you can pencil the Blue Devils into your Final Four with confidence. If for some reason Zion can’t make it back, or he chooses to sit out the rest of the season? Well, this team still has three of the top players in the country, and a Hall of Fame coach that has won more basketball games than any coach in history. So, yeah, I like them either way.

Gonzaga Bulldogs Logo

Gonzaga Bulldogs (27-2)

The Zags have had similar injury issues as Duke, as their best player, Killian Tillie, has missed almost the entire season. The big man from France, one of the few holdovers from the Zags run to the national finals two years ago, gave Gonzaga what I see as the best backcourt in the country. But Gonzaga still managed to knock off Duke in the Maui Invitational finals without him, and there is some talk that Tillie could rejoin the team for the postseason.

The Zags have the best offense in the country, and really, it’s not even close. They can score inside or outside, in the paint or beyond the arc. They lead the nation in points per game at over ninety a contest, and they have the highest team field goal percentage in the country as well at over 53%. The Zags have made the tournament for twenty consecutive seasons, so this entire roster understands what it means to play and win in March.

Mark Few was a lot like Tony Bennet at Virginia, always the bridesmaid, never the bride. But that all changed when Few led Gonzaga to the Final Four two years ago.

This is the best team they have ever had in Spokane, and this could be the year the Bulldogs finally break through with a national title.

The one knock on Gonzaga is the fact that their league, the WCC, isn’t very good this year, and they haven’t played an elite team in months. But that is always the case for this team, and it hasn’t stopped them from having tournament success in the past, so I won’t hold it against them now.

LSU Tigers Logo

LSU Tigers (22-5)

The SEC has really emerged as one of the best basketball leagues in the land in the last couple of years. Once known as only a football conference, the SEC is more than holding its own on the national stage in basketball as well. In my estimation, there are three teams that are legit Final Four contenders in the SEC this year: Kentucky, Tennessee, and LSU. Trying to separate these teams has been tough as all three of them could very well win the national title.

Why did I go with the Tigers over the other 2 well-deserving teams?

Momentum. In the last two weeks, the Tigers have beaten both Kentucky and Tennessee. This team started out a little bit slow with early season losses to Florida State, Oklahoma State, and Houston. But since then, this team has been rampaging through the SEC. The Tigers are 12-2 in SEC play, which is good for a three-way tie atop the standings.

The Tigers don’t have the NBA lottery talent like the other teams in my Final Four, but they do have a lot of talent. LSU has four players averaging at least ten points per game, and they play a full eight-man rotation nightly. While this isn’t the most conventional of picks, I think it’s the right one. The easy way out would have been to pick Kentucky or Tennessee, two teams that have spent most of the season ranked in the top ten. But what is the easiest isn’t always the best. Geaux Tigers!

Kansas Jayhawks Logo

Kansas Jayhawks (20-7)

When the Kansas Jayhawks opened the season as the number one team in the country, nobody batted an eye. This team was loaded with talent, and it seemed like it was a foregone conclusion that they would win yet another Big 12 title and hit the tournament as a one seed. Things haven’t worked out exactly as planned for Bill Self’s team though, as they lost big man Udoka Azubuike for the year with an injury, and the losses are starting to pile up.

When you glance at the Jayhawks 20-7 record, it screams mediocrity. But when you dig a little deeper and realize that Kansas has the toughest strength of schedule of any team in the nation, that record starts to look pretty good.

Kansas has wins over Marquette, Tennessee, Vermont, Michigan State, Wofford, Villanova, TCU, Iowa State, and Texas Tech. There might not be another team in the country that can tout that many quality wins.

And yeah, they did have some losses, but when you play the schedule that Kansas has played, it must be expected. Can Kansas lose to inferior teams? Yes, they most certainly can. They showed that when they lost to West Virginia, Texas, and Arizona State. But there aren’t many teams in the country that can beat really good teams like this Jayhawks team can. I think Bill Self figures things out and brings his boys back to the promise land.

Wrap Up

And here they are, my picks for the 2019 NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four! A couple of these picks were no brainers, as Duke and Gonzaga have both been in the top three all season long. And a couple of them were a bit of a gamble. When the brackets are finally released, we will be able to break this down even further, but when you’re filling out your brackets, keep an eye on these teams. Good luck, and happy betting the rest of the way out!

Patrick Carter / author