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The nine teams with a great opportunity to win their first NCAA men’s tournament

The nine teams with a great opportunity to win their first NCAA men’s tournament

The NCAA men’s basketball tournament promises to be the most unpredictable and wide-open version of March Madness in recent memory. Simply put, there appear to be a lot of good teams this year but no great ones. Every squad in Division I in the six biggest conferences have at least five losses and Houston has three, so clearly no one is invincible. This means it is unlikely there will be an odds-on favorite to be cutting down the nets in Houston when the bracket is unveiled.

Somebody has to win it, of course, and given the struggles of several of the sport’s blue-blood programs and the high number of teams capable of getting hot at the right time, there’s a strong possibility a first-time champion will be crowned at the tournament’s conclusion. Three of the field’s No. 1 seeds have never won a national title.

Should one break through, it would continue a recent trend of newcomers joining the champions club as Virginia did in 2019 and Baylor did two years later. Prior to those two, however, the club had gained no new members since Florida won its first of back-to-back titles in 2006.

But if a new champion does emerge, here are the most likely candidates.

Purdue (No. 1 seed in East)

Came closest: The Boilermakers have been to two Final Fours, most recently in 1980. But perhaps their best shot at the title was in 2019 when they lost in overtime to eventual champion Virginia in an Elite Eight classic.

Reasons to believe: Quite literally, Zach Edey presents the biggest case that this Purdue squad has tournament staying power. If you didn’t see him developing into the game’s most dominant post player at the start of the season, don’t worry – you’re not alone. The freshman backcourt tandem of Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer also developed more rapidly than expected, and Mason Gillis has provided another perimeter scoring threat off the bench.

Reasons to doubt: Teams that can apply constant ball pressure have given the Boilermakers problems. They might also eventually encounter an opponent with enough big bodies to double Edey to limit his easy points, but that isn’t likely to happen until at least the Sweet 16. Of course, there’s also that small matter of overcoming recent history of premature March exits. That is a conference-wide issue, as a Big Ten representative hasn’t won the whole thing since Michigan State in 2000.*

*Yes, we know Maryland won it in 2002, but the Terrapins were still in the ACC at the time.

REGIONAL BREAKDOWNS: East | South | Midwest | West

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Houston (No. 1 seed in Midwest)

Came closest: The Cougars made the championship game in back-to-back years but fell victim to North Carolina State’s magic in 1983 and to Patrick Ewing and Georgetown’s power a year later. Kelvin Sampson took Houston back to the Final Four two years ago and the Elite Eight last season.

Reasons to believe: Houston’s smothering defensive style that has served the team well in recent postseasons should do so again. This year’s group also has a bit more scoring pop.

Reasons to doubt: But even so, the Cougars can be susceptible to lengthy offensive droughts. Marcus Sasser’s  health is a big concern after an injury in the American Athletic tournament. If he plays and is off, finding an option when the team absolutely needs a bucket might be difficult.

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Alabama (No. 1 seed in South)

Came closest: Basketball is not the signature sport for the Crimson Tide. Their longest tournament stay came in 2004, an unlikely run to the Elite Eight as a No. 8 seed before falling to eventual champ Connecticut.

Reasons to believe: Coach Nate Oats preaches easy layups and open treys, and when it’s all clicking the offense is a wonder to behold. Brandon Miller and Mark Sears are the primary long-range marksmen, but any of the top eight contributors in the regular rotation are capable of heating up.

Reasons to doubt: Defense is not the Tide’s strong suit, and they figure to run into another squad with multiple scoring options that can keep up with them. A more defense-oriented team that can slow the tempo might also give Alabama trouble.

Alabama Brandon Miller talks to head coach Nate Oats during the second half against Arkansas.

Alabama Brandon Miller talks to head coach Nate Oats during the second half against Arkansas.

Texas (No. 2 seed in Midwest)

Came closest: The Longhorns reached the semifinal round twice in the early years of the much smaller NCAA tournament. But after 1947, they wouldn’t reach another Final Four until 2003 when they lost to eventual champion Syracuse.

Reasons to believe: The Big 12 is on a bit of a mini run with back-to-back championships, so its collection of viable candidates have as good a chance as any to claim a first flag. We’ll start with the Longhorns, who have overcome coaching turmoil to grab a spot near the top of the standings in the insanely competitive league. Marcus Carr leads a balanced lineup that gets production from a lot of different places.

Reasons to doubt: Interim coach Rodney Terry has done a terrific job since assuming the reins, but he’s an unknown factor as far as managing the pressure cooker of the tournament is concerned. From what we’ve observed so far he’ll be up to the task, but how much the team will have left in the tank after negotiating the tough conference campaign might also be a concern.

Gonzaga (No. 3 seed in West)

Came closest: A Sweet 16 fixture for years, Gonzaga broke the Final Four barrier in 2017 before losing a competitive title game to North Carolina. The Bulldogs returned to the NCAA final in 2021 but were dominated by Baylor in the championship round to end their bid for an undefeated campaign.

Reasons to believe: This Bulldogs’ squad might not be as complete as the Final Four teams, but their challenging non-conference schedule will have them ready for the elevated level of competition. Drew Timme is a seasoned veteran who knows how to find points near the basket, and Julian Strawther is capable of heating up from the arc.

Reasons to doubt: The defense has gotten better over the course of the year, but often Gonzaga needs to put up a big score to win. A physical opponent with interior depth will again be a difficult matchup for the Zags.

Xavier (No. 3 seed in Midwest)

Came closest: The Musketeers own a pair of NIT titles including last year’s, but in 28 NCAA tournament appearances they’ve never gotten past the Elite Eight. Of their three regional finals, they came closest to winning the first time in 2004 but were defeated 66-63 by Duke.

Reasons to believe: Xavier brought in Sean Miller looking to return to the upper tier of the Big East. He’s done that thanks to a combination of newcomers and veterans of the 2022 NIT champion squad. Forward Jack Nunge and guard Colby Jones are the key returnees, but the most important addition has been high-scoring guard Souley Baum.

Reasons to doubt: With usual Big East power Villanova in a down year, it’s hard to know how the league will fare come March. The Musketeers have a couple of decent if unremarkable non-conference wins, but an unsightly league loss to DePaul could indicate a rapid demise is just as likely as a long stay.

Kansas State (No. 3 seed in East)

Came closest: K-State played for the title in 1951 against another group of Wildcats, but Kentucky prevailed 68-58. The Wildcats from Manhattan haven’t been to the Final Four since 1964.

Reasons to believe: First-year coach Jerome Tang has worked wonders in the Little Apple, reloading the roster into a top-10 squad seemingly overnight. The inside-outside combo of Keyontae Johnson and Markquis Nowell is the driving force.

Reasons to doubt: Entering the Big Dance with a high seed will be uncharted territory for these Wildcats. The talent is in place to handle the expectations, but will they have the poise?

Tennessee (No. 4 seed in East)

Came closest: The guys haven’t been nearly as successful as the Lady Vols and their eight NCAA titles earned under late legend Pat Summitt. The closest the men’s team has come to even reaching a Final Four was in 2010 when the Volunteers came up a point short against Michigan State in the Elite Eight.

Reasons to believe: The Vols have been statistically among the top defensive teams in the nation for most of the season. Their games aren’t always aesthetically pleasing, but they’re unlikely to be blown out.

Reasons to doubt: The execution on the offensive end, on the other hand, isn’t always good and losing point guard Zakai Zeigler for the season raises serious concerns. Questionable shot selection often leads to lengthy scoreless stretches. There’s also a historical pattern of postseason underperformance nagging coach Rick Barnes, whose lengthy career includes just one Final Four appearance from his tenure at Texas.

Saint Mary’s (No. 5 seed in West)

Came closest: Though the Gaels have challenged Gonzaga for West Coast Conference supremacy in recent years, they haven’t quite enjoyed the same success in the postseason. Their lone Sweet 16 appearance of the 64-team era came in 2010.

Reasons to believe: Saint Mary’s would be quite a long shot to run the table, but after acquitting themselves well in a close contest with Houston in early December and beating Gonzaga, it’s fair to say the Gaels won’t be intimidated by anyone. They play outstanding team defense, and freshman sensation Aidan Mahaney has already made a slew of big shots in his young career.

Reasons to doubt: Coach Randy Bennett did upgrade the Gaels’ non-league schedule this season, but it still wasn’t as challenging as Gonzaga usually takes on. They were given a No. 5 seed and face a tough path in their region with Connecticut lurking.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NCAA Tournament with first-time winners? Nine teams with best chance