Will We See a Breakthrough NCAA Champion in 2024?

I'm not breaking any news to say that college basketball is a sport where blue-blood programs usually rule the day. If you're reading this, there's a reason you probably watched UNC and Duke on Saturday evening instead of the Ohio Valley Conference tournament.

And even though North Carolina, UConn, Duke, and Kentucky have all won championships this century, we've also seen programs like Maryland, Syracuse, Florida, Villanova, and Baylor break through after years of trying and 25+ win seasons.

As we get ready for the brackets to be unveiled on Sunday evening, a huge question in my mind is if we'll see a breakthrough champion this year. Let's take a look at several programs that could fit the bill and cut down the nets in April in Arizona.

The Poll-Toppers

Purdue and Houston will both be No. 1 seeds on Sunday and have each passed every conceivable regular-season test. Both schools won a major non-conference tournament last November, both won their conferences by multiple games, and both are led by seniors. Since 2021, neither school has been lower than a 5-seed in the Big Dance.

In a college basketball landscape where inconsistency can be right around the corner with a bad recruiting class or transfer portal haul, these two programs have shown remarkable steadiness. And yet, I don't think either team's fans would be happy with anything less than a Final Four.

There's a huge elephant-in-the-room question with both as well. For Houston: can the Cougars score enough points to win games in the later rounds of the tournament? For Purdue: will the Boilermakers get out of their own way against heavy underdogs in March? March Madness will tell us the answers.

SEC Football Schools That Love Basketball Now

The Big 12 was the best conference in the regular season, but the SEC was the best Power Five conference to watch from January to now. Tennessee, Auburn, and Alabama — not traditionally schools you associate with basketball success — were three huge reasons why the conference was awesome this year.

Of the three, I would give Tennessee the best chance due to the game-breaking ability of Dalton Knecht, but it's been over 20 years since a Rick Barnes team got past the second weekend of the tournament. I would love to see Alabama's all-gas, no-brakes style make it to the final stages of the tournament, but you usually can't run-and-gun your way to the Final Four. Auburn may not have the NBA draft-level talent of past years under Bruce Pearl, but Johni Broome is an elite big man and the Tigers are excellent on both sides of the ball.

Midwestern Big East Mainstays

Creighton was one basket away from the Final Four a year ago, and Baylor Scheierman, Ryan Kalkbrenner, and Trey Alexander are all back from that team. We know the Bluejays can go toe-to-toe with the best in the country, because they've beaten UConn each of the last two years.

Marquette very well could have a higher seed than Creighton, but there are more question marks for the Golden Eagles. First and foremost is the health of the nation's best point guard, Tyler Kolek. If he's still hobbled by an oblique injury in the NCAA tournament, Shaka Smart's lack of recent March success is poised to continue. Second, the Golden Eagles are a bad rebounding team and could be very vulnerable to an unfavorable frontcourt matchup in the Round of 32 or Sweet 16.

The Lockdown Defenders

The Mountain West was such a beast this season that San Diego State lost seven conference games and will almost certainly still be a top-eight seed on Sunday. The last time the Mountain West had this good of a season, Kawhi Leonard was playing in black, white, and red for the Aztecs. And while SDSU doesn't have as strong a record as this time last year, it still has Final Four experience from last year and a defensive formula that's hard to crack.

Iowa State once again has worked transfer portal magic under T.J. Otzelberger and finished the regular season as a clear No. 2 behind Houston in a loaded Big 12 that's exceedingly likely to get nine teams in the NCAA field. Like San Diego State, the Cyclones play methodically and almost never give up 80+ points. But unlike the Aztecs, Iowa State forces tons of turnovers, which could be a crucial calling card for a team that can have trouble scoring in the biggest games.

If you listen to the bookmakers, UConn is a +480 favorite (per FanDuel) to repeat as champs and become the first team in 17 years to go back-to-back in men's college hoops. But eight of the nine schools listed in this column are near the top of the odds sheet. If a breakthrough champion happens this year, one of these nine teams stands a great chance of winning it all.

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