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The 2020 Outlook for Duke Basketball, Part 3

Michigan State is the clear national frontrunner, with a handful of teams making up the next tier.

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NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Semifinals-Michigan State vs Texas Tech
Apr 6, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Michigan State Spartans guard Cassius Winston (5) talks to Michigan State Spartans head coach Tom Izzo during the second half against the Texas Tech Red Raiders in the semifinals of the 2019 men’s Final Four at US Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I outlined why the 2019-2020 ACC likely won’t be as tough as the gauntlet of this past season, leaving Duke as a likely conference favorite. The week before I previewed what Duke’s 2019-2020 rotation could look like with the return of Tre Jones and addition of Matthew Hurt. Now, in Part 3 of the 2020 Outlook, I’ll take a look at where Duke stands amongst the likely National Championship contenders in 2020.

When the various “Way-Too-Early” Top 25 rankings came out following Virginia’s first National Championship, there was one major consensus: Michigan State at No. 1. That choice makes a lot of sense, as Michigan State returns the Big Ten player of the year in senior Cassius Winston, alongside starters Xavier Tillman and Aaron Henry, from a team that made it to the Final Four. The Spartans also will likely get senior leader Joshua Langford back from an injury that cost him a majority of his junior year, and have a solid recruiting class that includes a potential instant impact performer in Rocket Watts.

After the Spartans, though, the prospectus on the remaining field has varied wildly, and these opinions are only going to diverge further as NBA draft decisions are finalized.

Given the unknowns presented by the draft, late recruits, and both grad and normal transfers, putting a numerical ranking to teams at this point is a mostly academic exercise (every writer who is forced by their editor to put together a “Way-Too-Early” ranking seems to acknowledge this, while still begrudgingly folding to the need to create easily digestible content to fill the post-tournament void). Instead, it makes more sense to place teams into “tiers”: while, say, arguing over whether Marquette or Villanova deserves to be ranked higher is completely arbitrary, it’s much more clear to state that both will be Big East title contenders in some form. With that in mind, in lieu of making the mistakes of other sites, let’s break down the likely key players in the 2019-2020 national conversation into the relevant tiers:

The Frontrunner: Michigan State

Michigan State will definitely start the season atop the polls for all the reasons outlined above. They’re the only team that has enough returning from a successful 2019 squad to retain continuity and identity while also having clear areas in which newcomers or experience will improve the team.

However, I’m not quite as sold as the rest of the country about how wide the divide between the Spartans and the rest of the nation will be. The loss of Nick Ward to the NBA draft may not hurt MSU as much as one would’ve thought before Tillman developed into a clear starter, and a superior defender, but without him there is no clear depth in the paint. Meanwhile, there’s never any guarantee that Langford will be the same player he was before his injury especially after such a length absence. The loss of seniors Kenny Goins and Matt McQuaid will hurt more than many realize, especially given the way Goins developed into a swiss army knife on the defensive end of the floor. Finally, there’s an argument to be made that Winston has already maxed out his potential given his physical limitations, and thus isn’t going to change much from his junior to senior year; if that’s the case, an offseason of scouting and preparing for Winston as a bonafide star will likely yield novel game plans to shut down the only player on the Michigan State roster who is known to be able to create his own shot.

So yes, Michigan State is in a tier all their own, but don’t be fooled into thinking that there is a massive chasm between the Spartans and the rest of the contenders.

Definite National Title Contenders: Duke, Kentucky

The return of Tre Jones cemented Duke as a contender for the National Title next year, and the late recruiting hall of Matthew Hurt and Cassius Stanley only cemented that. Duke will have a wide variety of puzzle pieces to put around Jones, especially if one or both of Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolden return for their senior seasons, which looks likely.

Kentucky finds themselves in a similar situation, as they return point guard Ashton Hagans and could return a front-court contributor if E.J. Montgomery or Nick Richards withdraw from the draft. And just like every year, John Calipari will bring in a slew of 5* recruits to Lexington. Having returning experience at arguably the two most important positions on the court, the point and the paint, to complement the incoming talent puts Kentucky in a very similar spot to Duke, as clear National Title contenders.

Dark Horse Contenders: Michigan, Villanova

Michigan was knocked way down most Way-Too-Early rankings following the news that Charles Matthews, Jordan Poole, and Ignas Brazdeikis would all test the NBA Draft. Now, Matthews and Poole have affirmed their status in the draft, while Brazdeikis is leaving open the possibility of a return. Were he to return, the Wolverines would return arguably their three most important players (Brazdeikis alongside senior point guard Zavier Simpson and senior center Jon Teske), with junior Isaiah Livers ready to step into a starting role again after serving as a sixth man this season. Even if Brazdeikis leaves, Simpson and Teske likely ensure Michigan remains a top-tier defensive squad. With the Wolverines also in the mix for top grad-transfer Justin Pierce, as well as Mo Wagner’s little brother Franz, the Wolverines look poised to remain amongst the nation’s elite despite some surprising departures.

Meanwhile, many may write off Villanova following their disappointing campaign defending their 2018 National Title. However, that disappointment still yielded a Big East Championship, and three key starters from that group will return alongside what could be Jay Wright’s best recruiting class ever, including potential one-and-done Brian Antoine. If Villanova struggles in the non-conference again, they may fall off the national radar given that Marquette appears to be their only real competition in the Big East. But Wright has earned his spot amongst the nation’s elite coaches, and if he can work his magic merging his talented group of freshmen with his returning starters this team will be a contender come March.

Former Contenders Hit Too Hard by Departures: Virginia, Marquette, Gonzaga

This trio of teams was amongst the Top 10 in nearly every Way-Too-Early ranking: now, there are so many unknowns that they may not be in every Top 25. Virginia has suffered the most crushing losses, for sure losing starters De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, and Jack Salt, while Mamadi Diakite is still testing the draft waters. You can never count out the Cavaliers and coach Tony Bennett’s defensive scheme, especially with the team pursuing potential impact grad-transfers and late recruits. But those losses make it more likely that Virginia experiences a Villanova-like decline following their National Championship.

Gonzaga finds themselves in a similar situation, as they will definitely lose Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, and Josh Perkins, while key contributors Zack Norvell and Killian Tillie are also testing the waters. If either of that tandem leaves, Gonzaga will be rebuilding much like Virginia. Like Virginia, the Bulldogs have established themselves firmly amongst the elite of college basketball and can never be completely ruled out, but the losses appear too great for a true national contender.

Meanwhile, Marquette was buoyed by the return of Markus Howard, but that momentum was promptly quashed by the news that the Hauser brothers, two deadeye three point shooters who were expected to be the secondary options to Howard, were transferring. Now Marquette looks likely to be a one-man show lead by Howard. It’s a team that no one will want to face in March given Howard’s unique gifts, but if no clear secondary options develop it’s hard to consider them a real national threat.

The Unknowns: Kansas, Louisville, North Carolina

This group of blue bloods all have about the same likelihood of developing into legit contenders as they do being major flops in 2020. For Louisville, it all hinges on the decisions of Jordan Nwora and Stephen Enoch in the NBA Draft, with an emphasis on Nwora. If he returns alongside a talented incoming recruiting class, the Cardinals could be the greatest challenge for Duke in the ACC. Without him, it’s unclear what the team’s identity would be.

Meanwhile, Kansas is facing massive question marks across their roster. Lagerald Vick and the Lawson brothers are definitely gone. Udoka Azobuike and Ochai Agbaji are definitely back. Almost every other contributor on a disappointing 2019 squad is seemingly testing the NBA draft waters or contemplating a transfer, and that uncertainty could hurt the Jayhawks as they pursue some of the biggest remaining names in the 2019 class. With a big recruit or good news from draft returnees, Kansas could coalesce into a contender. But the “ifs” could fill Allen Fieldhouse at this moment.

Finally, we come to the Tar Heels. As many expected, stud freshman Cole Anthony is heading to Chapel Hill, and by all accounts Anthony has the talent to make UNC a competitive team on his own. But the Tar Heels return almost no major contributors from their 2019 team, with the exception of big man Garrison Brooks. If Anthony melds with fellow stud freshman Armando Bacot and Roy Williams lands another big recruit or grad-transfer, UNC could quickly climb to contender status. If the team doesn’t gel, it could be a tough year in Chapel Hill with little upper-class leadership.

The Duke Outlook

Duke will enter the 2019-2020 season as a clear National Title contender, with a potential claim to the No. 2 ranking in the country if DeLaurier and Bolden return. Even if the news from that pair isn’t ideal, every other contender outside of Michigan State is facing major question marks, be it driven by unexpected draft entrants or the inherent unpredictability of freshmen-led teams. Regardless, Duke will have two things that many teams seeking to contend in 2020 will lack: junior and senior leadership and a stud, experienced point guard. That should keep the Blue Devil fans sleeping soundly this summer.

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