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Virginia Faces Strong Challenge to Defend Title in 2020 NCAA


From first-round flameout to first among its peers, Virginia completed a story of redemption en route to its first NCAA Tournament title in school history. All season long, the Cavaliers were a team greater than the sum of their parts, and while they may have benefited from a late foul against Auburn in the National Semifinal game to stay alive, they were also worthy of cutting down the nets in Minneapolis.

The road to get back to the Final Four ends in Atlanta this year, and Tony Bennett’s team will be hard-pressed to be the first repeat champion since Florida in 2006-07. The challenges will start within Virginia’s own conference in the ACC, but there are no lack of challengers trying to find their way to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The Cavaliers are still one of the favorites according to Fan Duel’s sportsbook with the Cavaliers odds at +1300, but Bennett must replace three starters, including a pair of NBA draft picks in No. 4 overall pick DeAndre Hunter and fellow first-rounder Ty Jerome. Mamadi Diakite, Braxton Key, and Kihei Clark all go from part-time starters to full-time starters this season, but the keys to Virginia maintaining its elite status will be incoming JUCO transfer Tomas Woldetensae to provide scoring and freshman Casey Morsell to make in impact while retaining the team’s defense-first identity.

Kentucky is a narrow favorite in the summer at with Kentucky Odds sitting at +750 as John Calipari continues to navigate the stratospheric expectations of Big Blue Nation. The Wildcats have not been to the Final Four since 2015, finishing one win short last year, but Calipari has – by his standards – a wealth of returning experience as Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley and EJ Montgomery are joined by Bucknell grad transfer Nate Sestina. Point guard Tyrese Maxey and swingman Kahlil Whitney headline another loaded freshman class, and if Kentucky gets consistent perimeter shooting, that Final Four drought should end.

Duke (+900) is also reloading after losing three NBA Draft lottery picks in Zion Williamson (No. 1), RJ Barrett (No. 3) and Cam Reddish (No. 10). Mike Krzyzewski’s latest freshman class coming to Durham may be his best ever – which says something spanning his storied coaching career. Center Vernon Carey and forward Matthew Hurt are the linchpins of the class, and they will have sophomore point guard Tre Jones giving them the ball. Jones, who did not need to score with all the talent around him last season, will undoubtedly improve on his 9.4 points per game from 2018-19.

Michigan State (+850) returns arguably the best backcourt in the country in Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford. Winston is on the short list for best point guard in the country, and a healthy Langford – who averaged 15.0 points in just 13 games in 2018-19 – make the Spartans the favorites in the Big Ten. Tom Izzo also has returning young players who have played high-pressure minutes in Xavier Tillman, Gabe Brown, and Aaron Harry plus a standout freshman guard in Rocket Watts as he chases his first NCAA Tournament title since his lone triumph in 2000.

Beyond these big four, a pair of sleepers who could find their way to Atlanta would not have to make long journeys. The first is Florida (+1700), which entered the fray as one of the nation’s best after center Kerry Blackshear transferred from Virginia Tech, which he helped reach the regional semifinals last season and averaged 14.9 points and 7.5 rebounds. The Gators return burgeoning sophomore guards Noah Locke and Andrew Nembhard and a pair of high-profile freshmen in Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann, giving coach Mike White an intriguing and deep team.

For the first time in ages, Gonzaga may not be the best team in the country outside the top six conferences. That honor could go to Memphis (+1300), where Penny Hardaway has quickly turned around his alma mater and brought a star-studded freshman class to the Mid-South. There is a chance Hardaway could start an all-freshmen starting five, led by 7-foot center James Wiseman and power forward Precious Achiuwa. If this class meshes quickly, starting with its preseason trip to the Bahamas, the Tigers could run roughshod on the AAC and be a darkhorse Final Four threat.

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