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N.C.A.A. Tournament Peek: Gonzaga Remains the Favorite, but the Blue Bloods Are Back


The N.F.L. and college football have crowned their champions, with the Los Angeles Rams and the University of Georgia winning titles. The Winter Olympics are in the rearview mirror. And the start of the Major League Baseball season is in flux because of a lockout.

But the men’s college basketball season is just heating up, with the N.C.A.A. tournament set to begin March 15 before concluding with the Final Four in New Orleans in early April.

Here’s a look at the major themes of the college season so far.

Because Gonzaga is in the West Coast Conference — meaning most of its games air late at night on the East Coast — a lot of people don’t get to see the Bulldogs much before March.

Last year, Duke and Kentucky missed the N.C.A.A. tournament in the same year for the first time since 1976. Another powerhouse, Kansas, made the tournament as a No. 3 seed but was routed, 85-51, by Southern California, a No. 11 seed, in the second round.

This season, the three blue bloods have come roaring back, and all have a legitimate shot to reach the Final Four and contend for a title.

Kansas, 23-4 and 12-2 in its conference after beating Kansas State by 19 points on Tuesday, sits atop the Big 12. Powered by a national player of the year candidate, Ochai Agbaji, who is averaging 20.2 points and 5.2 rebounds, Kansas has been projected as a No. 1 seed — along with Gonzaga, Auburn and Arizona — by the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee, whose members include athletic directors and conference commissioners.

Duke and Kentucky, which feature a nice blend of one-and-done freshmen alongside older players, were projected as No. 2 seeds.

Mike Krzyzewski, 75, is coaching his final season at Duke (23-4, 13-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) and appears to have what he needs to contend for the program’s sixth championship.

The Blue Devils feature five players who could be selected in the first round of the N.B.A. draft, led by the 6-foot-10 freshman Paolo Banchero, a projected top-three pick averaging 16.9 points and 8.4 rebounds per game; the junior wing Wendell Moore Jr. (13.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists); and the freshman guard Trevor Keels (12.0 points and 4.0 rebounds).

When the list of the 15 coaches in contention for the Naismith Coach of the Year Award was released last week, it featured some household names who have run their programs for years: Gonzaga’s Few, Baylor’s Scott Drew, Kentucky’s John Calipari and Auburn’s Bruce Pearl. Few, Drew and Pearl’s teams have been ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll this season.

But two first-year coaches are also in the mix for the award, and for deep runs in March: Arizona’s Tommy Lloyd and Texas Tech’s Mark Adams.

Lloyd, 47, came to Arizona from Gonzaga, where he was the chief recruiter under Few, to replace Sean Miller, who failed to reach a Final Four during his 12 years with the program and whose team was the subject of F.B.I. and N.C.A.A. investigations.

All Lloyd has done in his first season as a head coach is to lead the Wildcats (24-2, 14-1 Pac-12 Conference) to the top of the league standings with significant contributions from the projected N.B.A. lottery pick Bennedict Mathurin, a 6-6 native of Montreal averaging 17.4 points and 5.8 rebounds.

Adams, 65, was elevated to the head coaching position at Texas Tech in April after Chris Beard left for Texas. Despite losing several players to transfers, Adams rebuilt the roster, and the ninth-ranked Red Raiders (21-6, 10-4 Big 12) now have two wins over both Texas and Baylor, the defending national champion, and have won 20 straight home games following Tuesday’s win over Oklahoma.

“He always wants to get the best out of us, and he’s doing a good job right now,” said the junior guard Terrence Shannon Jr.

The veteran coach Phil Martelli will lead Michigan (14-11, 8-7 Big Ten), which is on the bubble for the N.C.A.A. tournament after being ranked as high as No. 4, for the rest of the regular season.

At Memphis, Hardaway has talked openly about aspirations of winning national championships, and the Tigers were among the preseason favorites after Hardaway persuaded Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren to reclassify and enroll this season as freshmen. But Bates, who was once compared to a young Kevin Durant, struggled early and hasn’t played since late January because of a back injury. Without him, the Tigers (15-9, 9-5 American Athletic Conference) won six straight games before losing to Southern Methodist on Sunday. They own impressive wins over Alabama and Houston but remain on the N.C.A.A. tournament bubble.

At Georgetown, Ewing and the Hoyas are making history — and not in a good way. They’ve lost 16 straight games and stand at 6-20 overall and 0-15 in the Big East Conference. One year after winning the conference tournament, Georgetown is trying to avoid becoming the first Big East team to finish 0-19 in league play.

When Baylor won the N.C.A.A. title last spring, the team started two transfers (Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague) and brought two more off the bench (Adam Flagler and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua). Gonzaga started another transfer, Nembhard, at point guard in its run to the title game.

Given that more than 1,700 players entered the N.C.A.A. transfer portal after last season, don’t be surprised to see them play a role on teams that advance deep into March. Gonzaga, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Texas Tech all have key transfers on their rosters. After losing three players to the pros, Baylor brought in the former Arizona and Georgetown guard James Akinjo, who is averaging 13.2 points and 5.8 assists for the 10th-ranked Bears.

At Auburn (24-3, 12-2 SEC), Pearl may have hit the jackpot with the additions of Walker Kessler (North Carolina), K.D. Johnson (Georgia), Wendell Green Jr. (Eastern Kentucky) and Zep Jasper (College of Charleston).

The 7-1 Kessler has teamed up with Jabari Smith, the potential No. 1 pick in this year’s N.B.A. draft, to give the Tigers a front line that is the envy of some N.B.A. teams. After averaging 4.4 points, 3.2 rebounds and 0.9 blocks as a freshman with the Tar Heels, Kessler is averaging 12.0 points, 8.2 rebounds and a Division-I best 4.6 blocks. In a recent win over Texas A&M, Kessler had a triple-double with 12 points, 12 blocks and 11 rebounds.

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