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Right now, projecting a men’s hoops national champ is madness

We take an early look at five title contenders, one or more of whom might make it to Tampa in March.
USF freshman B.J. Mack (33) passes past FSU guard M.J. Walker (23) as Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton, left, yells out in the first half of the Seminoles' victory against the Bulls last month in Sunrise. FSU, a dark horse national title contender, is on a seven-game win streak. [WILFREDO LEE  |  AP]
USF freshman B.J. Mack (33) passes past FSU guard M.J. Walker (23) as Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton, left, yells out in the first half of the Seminoles' victory against the Bulls last month in Sunrise. FSU, a dark horse national title contender, is on a seven-game win streak. [WILFREDO LEE | AP]
Published Jan. 9

Some time around midnight Monday, when Ed Orgeron or Dabo Swinney hoists crystal, much of the nation’s attention will pivot toward college hoops, where it will make an intriguing discovery.

Madness. Absolute madness.

For those who haven’t been following along, six teams already have taken turns as the No. 1 team in the Associated Press rankings. For context, the record for an entire season is seven, established in 1982-83. To this point, the national landscape appears bereft of a 1976 Indiana, 1990 UNLV or 2012 Kentucky.

Which should make March a heck of a lot more fun. This year, some of the aforementioned madness could surface in Tampa, which will host an NCAA Tournament opening weekend (March 19-21; find tickets here). Which teams could make an Amalie Arena stopover en route to their one shining moment?

At this point, it’s anyone’s guess, but we’ll venture a projection. Here are five teams (in alphabetical order) that appear equipped to win a national title.

Duke (14-1)

Duke 6-foot-10 freshman Vernon Carey Jr. (1) looks for an opening past Miami center Rodney Miller Jr. (14) during the second half of the Blue Devils' 95-62 triumph in Coral Gables. [WILFREDO LEE | AP]

Why they could win it all: Because no one replenishes a roster like Mike Krzyzewski. To replace Zion Williamson, Coach K plugged in 6-foot-10, 270-pound McDonald’s All-American Vernon Carey Jr. (18.1 ppg, 8.8 rpg). Four of Duke’s top five scorers are freshmen. Three, including Carey, average double figures.

Why they could stumble: A look at past NCAA title teams reveals most have featured a veteran presence. Duke has none.

Florida State (14-2)

FSU forward Malik Osborne (10) attempts a jump shot in the second half of the Seminoles' 78-68 victory at Wake Forest. [LYNN HEY | AP]

Why they could win it all: One of the nation’s most unappreciated programs remains embarrassingly long and deep. Seven players are 6-8 or taller, and 11 average at least 8.9 minutes. The No. 10 ’Noles ― winners of seven in a row ― already humiliated Florida in Gainesville, and have defeated Louisville and Purdue away from Tallahassee.

Why they could stumble: They’re prone to sloppiness, and they’re not the nation’s best 3-point-shooting team (33.9 percent). FSU’s 1.03 assist-turnover ratio ranks 142nd nationally.

Related: FSU Seminoles avoid Louisville letdown, beat Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Gonzaga (16-1)

Gonzaga guard Joel Ayayi (11) gestures after shooting a 3-pointer during the second half of a game against Pepperdine. [YOUNG KWAK | AP]

Why they could win it all: The nation’s current No. 1 team oozes balance. Six players own double-figure scoring averages, but none averages more than 16.6. The Bulldogs were battle-tested in non-conference play, defeating ranked foes Oregon, Washington and Arizona, as well as reeling North Carolina.

Why they could stumble: The Zags rank 260th nationally in 3-point defense (34.8 percent), which could come back to bite them if some Cinderella gets hot from long range.

Kansas (12-2)

Kansas guard Devon Dotson drives up court during the first half of a game against Iowa State. [CHARLIE NEIBERGALL | AP]

Why they could win it all: The third-ranked Jayhawks appear versatile offensively. Seven-footer Udoka Azubuike (13.1 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 2.0 blocks) can take over a game, point guard Devon Dotson (18.6 ppg, 4.5 assists) can create from the perimeter, and 6-foot-5 Iowa grad transfer Isaiah Moss can shoot the long ball (20-for-52 from 3-point range).

Why they could stumble: Because the Jayhawks are one of the nation’s worst free-throw shooting teams (65.5 percent). Azubuike is especially wretched (38.9).

Michigan State (12-3)

Michigan State's Cassius Winston starts a fast break against Illinois during the second half of the Spartans' 76-56 romp in East Lansing, Mich. [AL GOLDIS | AP]

Why they could win it all: Because solid backcourt play is a championship prerequisite, and the Spartans possess the nation’s premier point guard in Cassius Winston (18.9 ppg, 6.3 assists). A 6-foot-1 senior, Winston had 32 points and nine assists in Sunday’s 87-69 win against Michigan, the Spartans’ seventh consecutive triumph and his fourth consecutive game of 20 or more points.

Why they could stumble: They’re one Winston ankle sprain from catastrophe. Senior guard Josh Langford (foot fracture) already has been lost for the season, and coach Tom Izzo can ill-afford another casualty.

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