College basketball hasn’t crowned a first-time national champion in over a decade. Florida was the last first-time men’s basketball national champion in 2006. (Coincidentally, the Gators were also the last first-time national champion in college football — 1996 — and college baseball — 2017.)
Since Florida won back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007, there have been four schools — UConn, Duke, North Carolina and Villanova — that have won multiple national championships. The rest were won by schools that have previously won a national championship and have rich basketball traditions: Kansas, Kentucky and Louisville (later vacated). Note: We’ve included a table of every school that has won a men’s basketball national championship at the bottom of this story.
The 68-team, single-elimination nature of the NCAA Tournament lends itself more to a potential first-time national champion than the College Football Playoff or its predecessor, the BCS.
We’ve seen several schools get close in the last 15 years, following Maryland and Syracuse each winning its first-ever national championship in 2002 and 2003, respectively.
Gonzaga (2017), Butler (2010, 2011), Memphis (2008), Illinois (2005) and Georgia Tech (2004) each lost in the National Championship Game. South Carolina, Oklahoma, Wichita State, VCU and West Virginia have also made the Final Four since 2010, so there’s roughly one school that has never won a national championship among every Final Four field, on average.
This season, five of the top 10 teams on kenpom.com and six teams in the top 10 of the latest AP Top 25 Poll have never won the national championship, which means there’s a significant possibility that we could see the first, first-time national champion in 13 seasons.
However, asking which school could be next requires more than a one-year outlook, even if many of the best teams in the country this season have never won a title. Currently undefeated Nevada, for example, has eight seniors on its roster and five of its top six scorers are in their final year of eligibility, so picking Nevada as the next first-time national champion would likely mean the Wolf Pack would have to capitalize on their window of opportunity this season.
It’s an incredibly risky proposition to pick one team versus the rest of the NCAA Tournament field, regardless of the team, so even if Nevada is long, experienced and high-powered offensively, odds are the Wolf Pack won’t win the “Big Dance.” The same goes for every other team in the country, which means the smartest way to approach this question is to identify a program that has a high-level ceiling and long-term stability.
- An accomplished coach that is unlikely to leave in the near future.
- A history of consistent NCAA Tournament appearances and runs to the second or third weekend.
- A program that is bigger than one player or recruiting class, but has significant talent on its roster and will likely continue to recruit and develop potential NBA players on a regular basis.
Here’s a look at several contenders who could be college basketball’s next first-time national champion, followed by our pick. For each school, we’ve listed their recent recruiting class rankings, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, as well as players from the school who have played in the NBA after playing for the school’s current head coach.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few has been in Spokane since the start of the 1999-2000 season, which is a level of coaching stability that few programs can match. The Bulldogs have never missed the NCAA Tournament in his tenure and they’ve earned a top-four, protected seed eight times. On top of that, the Zags have arguably reached a new status quo as a program during the last six seasons. Since the 2013 season, they’ve earned a No. 1 seed twice, won at least 32 games four times and played for a national championship.
You could make the case that Gonzaga, which was ranked No. 1 in the AP Top 25 prior to its three-point loss to Tennessee, is the best team in the country, or at the very least on the short list of the best teams. That’s without the Bulldogs being at full strength, too. Senior guard Geno Crandall (16.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.6 apg at North Dakota last season) is sidelined after fracturing his hand, and Killian Tillie (12.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 47.9 3P% last season) hasn’t played yet this season due to an ankle injury.
Even if Gonzaga doesn’t win the national championship this year, Few has proven his ability to recruit and develop players in his program, and bring in impact transfers. Rui Hachimura, the team’s leading scorer this season, was Gonzaga’s ninth man two seasons ago when the Zags lost to North Carolina in the National Championship Game.
In the last four seasons, Gonzaga has advanced to the title game, the Elite Eight and the Sweet 16 twice. The Bulldogs have consistently advanced to the second weekend, if not further, and if a school does that enough, eventually a path to a potential national championship opens up.
Recruiting class rankings | 2019: 4 2018: 69 2017: 120 2016: 20 2015: 112
Former Gonzaga players who have played in the NBA | Zach Collins, Domas Sabonis, Kelly Olynyk, Johnathan Williams, Kyle Wiltjer, David Stockton, Elias Harris, Robert Sacre, Austin Daye, Jeremy Pargo, Adam Morrison, Ronny Turiaf
How poetic would it be if Virginia won the national championship this season after becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in last season’s tournament? That may not happen, but it’s silly to write off the Cavaliers or coach Tony Bennett long-term just because of their historic loss to UMBC in March.
In the last five seasons, Virginia has earned a No. 1 seed three times, along with a No. 2 seed and No. 5 seed, and its final kenpom.com rankings were No. 2, No. 12, No. 4, No. 6 and No. 4, respectively. Year in and year out, Virginia is one of the best teams in the country, let alone its conference, even if it doesn’t recruit at the level of Duke or score like North Carolina.
While we cautioned against dismissing Virginia indefinitely because of its first-round upset last season, the team’s tempo is a very real talking point when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. The Cavaliers currently rank last in the country in tempo, just like they did the last two seasons. The fastest they’ve played was Bennett’s first season in Charlottesville, when they ranked No. 316 in adjusted tempo.
The slower (and fewer possessions) a team plays means that there’s a larger variance in outcome. For example, if Virginia is better than its opponent and the two teams play 100 possessions, there’s a stronger likelihood the better team (Virginia) wins than if the two teams played 60 possessions. It’s a similar concept as to why there are more upsets in the one-and-done NCAA Tournament format than there are in a seven-game series in the NBA Playoffs.
It’s not as if Virginia is incapable of winning at a high level in March, but it also hasn’t shown it can do so consistently. The Cavaliers made the Elite Eight in 2016 (when it blew a 13-point lead with eight and a half minutes left against Syracuse) and the Sweet 16 in 2014, but it also had first-weekend exits in 2015, 2017 and 2018.
Maybe this year’s Virginia team is different.
The Cavaliers are as strong as ever defensively, limiting opponents to an adjusted rate of 89.5 points per 100 possessions — the fourth-best mark in the country, but they’re also No. 11 in offensive efficiency, which projects to be the second-best offense under a Bennett-coached team. They turn the ball over on less than 14 percent of their possessions, which is a top-five rate nationally, and they make threes at nearly a 40 percent clip.
Recruiting class rankings | 2019: 34 2018: 63 2017: 98 2016: 7 2015: 62
Former Virginia players who have played in the NBA | Malcolm Brogdon, Joe Harris, Mike Scott, Justin Anderson, London Perrantes, Mike Tobey
As mentioned earlier, betting on Nevada to be the next first-time national champion likely requires the Wolf Pack to cut down the nets in April. That’s certainly a possibility for the undefeated Wolf Pack, who have the nation’s third-best offense, a bevy of fifth-year seniors and a core that went to the Sweet 16 last season, but it’s also risky to go all-in on a school whose roster will look incredibly different next season.
That’s not to say that Nevada will fall off the map after this season. Coach Eric Musselman has dipped into the transfer market frequently, and he received a commitment from former five-star big man Jordan Brown in May, so he’s been able to bring talent to Reno. But the Wolf Pack will look a lot different after the graduation of twins Caleb and Cody Martin, and Jordan Caroline, who have been at the heart of Nevada’s rise.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a team in the country — or even historically for that matter — that can match Nevada’s experience and proven college production.
Transfers Jazz Johnson (15.8 ppg at Portland in 2016-17), Tre’Shawn Thurman (13.9 ppg at Omaha in 2015-16), Trey Porter (13.2 ppg at Old Dominion last season), Corey Henson (14.6 ppg at Wagner in 2016-17) and Nisre Zouzoua (20.3 ppg at Bryant in 2016-17) have all been the guy, or at least a primary scoring option, at their former schools.
Recruiting class rankings | 2019: 114 2018: 51 2017: 101 2016: 57
Despite being a football school, Tennessee’s men’s basketball team has had much more success recently. The Volunteers are ranked No. 3 in the latest AP Top 25 Poll and No. 10 on kenpom.com after beating then-No. 1 Gonzaga. Tennessee, the defending SEC co-champion, may not be the favorite to win the national championship this season, but it deserves to be on the short list of top contenders thanks to its experience, a top-15 offense and defense, and dynamic forwards Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield.
After going 15-19 and 16-16 in his first two seasons in Knoxville, Tennessee coach Rick Barnes has ushered in the best era of Vols basketball since the peak of the Bruce Pearl era. Five-star combo guard Josiah James committed to Tennessee as part of the school’s 2019 recruiting class, so there’s reason to believe the Vols can sustain their success if Barnes can recruit elite talent and continue to develop three-star prospects.
Recruiting class rankings | 2019: 28 2018: 114 2017: 54 2016: 49
The Longhorns are one of the biggest brands in college athletics, but their basketball history largely leaves you wanting more, given a combination of their brand, the talent in the state of Texas and the facilities available at the school.
Texas’ only Final Four appearances were in 1943, 1947 and 2003.
Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, Texas has made the Sweet 16 three times, the Elite Eight three times and the Final Four once, with 19 first-weekend exits and eight seasons in which it didn’t qualify for the NCAA Tournament. That means, on average, the Longhorns have had roughly four seasons in which their season is done by the start of the Sweet 16 for every one season in which they advance to the second weekend of the tournament.
Texas coach Shaka Smart has been able to recruit top talent to Austin, including one-and-done big men Mo Bamba and Jarrett Allen, but the Longhorns have won 19, 11 and 20 games in the last three seasons, respectively, with a pair of first-round exits in the NCAA Tournament, so they don’t appear to be on the precipice of a national title run.
Since VCU’s run from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011, Smart’s record in the NCAA Tournament is 2-6, so it’s fair to wonder if he can even come close to matching former Texas coach Rick Barnes’ tournament success (one Final Four, two Elite Eights, two Sweet 16s in 17 years at Texas).
Recruiting class rankings | 2019: 15 2018: 8 2017: 6 2016: 6
Former Texas players who have played in the NBA | Mo Bamba, Jarrett Allen
Our pick: Gonzaga
The Zags might prove to be the best team in the country on Selection Sunday and their 2018 roster might be the best in program history. Gonzaga has experienced significant roster turnover since its run to the 2017 National Championship Game, so even if the Bulldogs don’t win the title this year, they’ve proven they can reload and develop role players who are already in their program. There’s no reason to believe head coach Mark Few, 55, is going anywhere, and he’s young enough that the program should continue its 20-year NCAA Tournament streak for years to come.
Other notable schools, listed alphabetically: Butler, Florida State, Iowa State, Kansas State, Memphis, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Purdue, Texas Tech, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Xavier
Here’s a chart of every school that has won a men’s basketball national championship.
|School||Number of National Championships||Last National Championship|
|North Carolina State||2||1983|
*Louisville’s 2013 national championship was later vacated