It's easy to talk about the favorites to win the 2020 college basketball national championship; however, that's a select few. The foundation for greatness each year is laid during the regular season with goals of conference and tournament championships to be obtained.
Here's our favorites for the top team in each NCAA Division I conference for the 2019-20 season.
This is somewhat of a no-brainer, as the Catamounts are the reigning league champions and a unanimous pick to repeat this year. Vermont has a talented group led by senior forward Anthony Lamb, who ranked among the national leaders last season, averaging 21.2 points while shooting 51.5 percent. Vermont has won at least 27 games in each of the last three seasons.
Thanks to a stellar freshman class led by a pair of McDonald's All-Americans in local 7-foot-1 star James Wiseman and Precious Achiuwa, Penny Hardaway's Tigers are the sexy pick to not only win the AAC but also make a potentially deep NCAA Tournament run. On paper Memphis has plenty of young talent, but how well it translates to the college game remains to be seen. Defending regular-season champion Houston is again expected to be in the mix after winning 33 games and reaching the Sweet 16 last season.
With four starters returning from 2018-19's 25-win, A-10 regular-season championship squad, Marcus Evans (13.6 points per game) and VCU are the preseason favorites to do it again. However, Davidson expects to have a say in the matter, and Dayton has some intriguing talent that's capable of making some noise this season.
Four ACC teams will open the season among the top 11 in The Associated Press poll. Paced by sophomore guard Tre Jones (9.4 ppg, 5.3 assists per game) and touted freshman Vernon Carey Jr., Duke leads the way. However, Louisville has high expectations, North Carolina might boast the nation's top freshman in Cole Anthony and Virginia is the reigning national champion. Still, it's tough to bet against the Blue Devils when it comes to consistency.
Not only was Liberty picked as the preseason favorite in the Atlantic Sun, but it also earned two votes in the first Top 25 poll of 2018-19. Forward Scottie James (12.6 ppg, 8.6 rpg) and guard Caleb Homesley (12.4 ppg) lead a Flames squad that won 29 games last season and upset fifth-ranked Mississippi State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The dark cloud of any potential NCAA sanctions still hovers over the Jayhawks, but the focus at the moment is returning to the top of the Big 12 mountain after failing to finish there in 2018-19 for the first time since 2004. If 7-footer Udoka Azubuike (13.4 ppg, 6.8 rebounds per game) can stay healthy and guard Devon Dotson (12.3 ppg) can elevate his game further, Kansas should have no trouble regaining its league supremacy.
While Myles Powell and Seton Hall were tabbed preseason Big East favorites, we want to see it to believe it. In the meantime, Villanova is still the class of the league. Since the Big East was reconfigured in 2013-14, the Wildcats have won five of the six regular-season titles. Junior guard Collin Gillespie (10.9 ppg) and budding star sophomore forward Saddiq Bey should pace Villanova, which also could have Xavier nipping at its heels.
Eastern Washington is the preseason favorite, but it still seems hard to bet against the Grizzlies. Montana is aiming to become the first Big Sky program since 1973 to win three consecutive regular-season titles. The Griz are young, but senior guard Sayeed Pridgett (15.1 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.2 apg) is a stellar leader. It should be fun watching Montana and EWU go at it for conference supremacy this season.
While Winthrop, Radford and Campbell have had their moments atop the Big South in recent seasons, it might be Gardner-Webb's turn in 2019-20. The Bulldogs' 23-win season of 2018-19 included a conference tournament victory and a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Sophomore swingman Jose Perez is certainly someone to watch, after he averaged 15.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists as a rookie.
The preseason No. 1 team, Michigan State has more than success within the Big Ten on its mind this season. Cassius Winston (18.8 ppg, 7.5 assists per game) is the best player in the college game at the moment and will be determined to help the Spartans take the next step after reaching the Final Four in 2018. Conference foes Maryland and Ohio State could also be in store for big seasons.
After winning a school-record 31 games and stunning No. 4 seed Kansas State in the NCAA Tournament, the Anteaters might not be as good this season but still have what it takes to repeat as Big West champs. Led by guard Evan Leonard (11.3 ppg), UC Irvine returns several key starters. However, UC Santa Barbara also expects to challenge for the league crown with four starters back from a program that's won 45 games over the last two seasons.
Hofstra is the preseason conference favorite, but there is a lot to like about the Cougars. First off, Charleston has won at least 24 games in each of the last three seasons. Plus, senior guard Grant Riller is the CAA preseason Player of the Year after he averaged an impressive 21.9 points on 53.8-percent shooting while also dishing out 4.1 assists per contest.
Four returning starters leave Western Kentucky as the preseason favorite in C-USA, and could put the program in good position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013. Charles Bassey (14.6 ppg, 10.0 rpg) enjoyed a strong freshman season and could be in line for all-America honors on some level. Guard Taveion Hollingsworth (14.4 ppg) isn't too shabby either.
Expect Wright State and Northern Kentucky to again battle for the top spot in the Horizon, but the Raiders get the nod based on more proven talent. Center Loudon Love averaged 15.1 points and 8.2 rebounds for Wright State last season, while fellow forward Bill Wampler was close behind at 14.9 points per contest.
Aiming for a third straight regular-season Ivy title, Harvard is the preseason favorite in the league and might have the makings of a team that can qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. The Crimson return their top nine scorers from 2018-19, led by Bryce Aiken (22.2 ppg) and Chris Lewis (10.4 ppg. 5.1 rpg). Plus, there's 2018 Ivy League Player of the Year Seth Towns, who missed last season with a knee injury.
The MAAC has been Iona's league in recent seasons, and that's likely to be the case again in 2019-20. A season ago, the Gaels became the first team in conference history to win four straight championships. Seniors E.J. Crawford (17.7 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and 6-9 Tajuan Agee (13.2 ppg, 8.0 rpg) should pace the Gaels, who now must find a way to win an NCAA Tournament game again.
The Falcons are coming off a 22-win season and boast the best player in the MAC in guard Justin Turner. The Detroit product averaged 18.2 points and shot 46.8 percent shooting last season and is arguably the best defender within the conference. Rival Toledo, out of the MAC West, is also a team to watch, but we like the overall depth BGSU offers.
It could end up coming down to Bethune-Cookman and North Carolina Central for the MEAC title this season. N.C. Central is aiming for a fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance, but the B-C Wildcats have arguably the best player on the conference in 6-9 Cletrell Pope. The senior averaged 14.1 points on 60.8-percent shooting and also pulled down 12.2 boards per contest last season.
The preseason favorite to win the Valley, coach Dana Ford's Missouri State last won a regular-season league title in 2011. However, forward Tulio Da Silva (14.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and Keandre Cook (12.8 ppg) lead what's arguably the most talented team in the MVC but one that needs to play to its potential, especially since parity seems to be the theme for the rest of the conference.
The Aggies won both the Mountain West regular-season and tournament titles in 2019 and are expected to do it again in '20. Sam Merrill (20.9 ppg, 4.2 apg) is the league's preseason player and 7-footer Neemias Queta (11.8 ppg 8.9 rpg, 2.4 blocks per game) is a potential lottery pick. While success in the Mountain West is an obvious goal, Utah State could be in for more on a larger scale.
The race in the NEC is expected to be tight, with as many as four teams having a legitimate shot at winning the regular-season championship. The deepest among those squads should be LIU, which returns all its starters and nine letter winners from last season's 16-16 team. Senior swingman Raiquan Clark (18.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 50.3 field-goal percentage) will be keyed with helping the Sharks fend off the likes of Sacred Heart, Saint Francis and Fairleigh Dickinson.
Last season's race between Belmont and Ja Morant's Murray State was quite memorable. The teams shared the regular-season OVC title and each made the NCAA Tournament. Belmont enters the season as the league favorite, but the Racers should be in the hunt again. Bruins' 6-foot-11 sophomore Nick Muszynski (14.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg. 2.7 apg, 2.2 blocks per game) might be the best overall player in the OVC.
The reigning Pac-12 tournament champion Ducks won 10 in a row before losing to eventual national champ Virginia in the Sweet 16 of last season's NCAA Tournament. Payton Pritchard (12.9 ppg, 4.6 apg, 3.9 rpg) will lead the Ducks, who also should face stiff league competition from an improved Arizona squad, Washington and confident Colorado.
Coming off a special season that featured 24 wins and an NCAA Tournament appearance, Colgate is again expecting big things this term. Guard Jordan Burns (16.3 ppg, 5.7 apg) and 6-foot-10 Rapolas Ivanauskas (15.9 ppg, 7.8 rpg) are two of the best players in the Patriot League and a big reason Colgate remains the class of the conference.
This should be a fun season in the SEC, especially with Kentucky and Florida both looking like serious Final Four contenders. We like the tradition and the thoroughbred nature of the Wildcats to win the conference, at least in the regular season, after falling short to LSU in 2018-19. Guard Ashton Hagans and 6-foot-10 EJ Montgomery appear ready to lead Kentucky, while freshman guard Tyrese Maxey could end up being the best overall player on the team.
East Tennessee has averaged 25 wins over a four-season span and is expected to win at least another 20 in 2019-20. Senior forward Jeromy Rodriguez averaged 11.2 points and 10.9 boards last season for coach Steve Forbes' Buccaneers. UNC Greensboro appears to be the biggest hurdle in ETSU's path, while Furman has the potential to surprise as it did early last season.
Coach Mark Slessinger's Privateers have made a postseason tournament in three straight seasons and were named preseason favorite to win the Southland in 2019-20. Sam Houston State and Central Arkansas should also have something to say about the league title, but New Orleans might be the most complete team to start the season.
It was a special season for the Panthers in 2018-19, winning 22 games and both the Southwestern Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament championships. Prairie View went 17-1 in league play, and there's a good chance that dominance continues. Forward Devonte Patterson was named preseason SWAC Player of the Year after he averaged 13.5 points while shooting 49.3 percent in 2018-19.
Maybe there's more to NDSU than football dominance. After winning the Summit League Tournament last season as the No. 4 seed, the Bison might have the inside track at taking the regular-season league crown. Senior guard Vinnie Shahid (13.1 ppg) leads a deep squad that will try to hold off rival South Dakota to sit atop the Summit.
South Alabama snapped a string of five straight losing seasons by finishing 17-17 in 2018-19. Now coach Richie Riley's Jaguars appear to be the team to beat in the Sun Belt, thanks to a strong frontcourt featuring seniors Josh Ajayi (16.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and Trhae Mitchell (13.6 ppg, 7.6 rpg). UT Arlington and Georgia Southern are also expected to push South Alabama for the league crown.
Saint Mary's seems poised to close the gap on Gonzaga's dominance in the WCC this season, but the Zags are still the team to beat entering the season. Mark Few's group lost some significant talent from last season's regional finalist, but the Bulldogs are a top 10 team thanks to the hard-nosed Corey Kispert and transfers Admon Gilder (Texas A&M) and Ryan Woolridge (North Texas). Of course, how far the team will go likely depends on the health of forward Killian Tillie.
New Mexico State has won at least 23 games for eight consecutive seasons. The Aggies have been the class of the Western Athletic Conference for years, and that should not be any different in 2019-20. Guard Terrell Brown (11.3 ppg) is not a flashy player but does a lot of things right and should lead New Mexico State to a fourth straight NCAA Tournament berth.
Jeff Mezydlo has written about sports and entertainment online and for print for more than 25 years. He grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, 20 minutes from the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Ind. He’s also the proud father of 11-year-old Matthew, aka “Bobby Bruin,” mascot of St. Robert Bellarmine School in Chicago. You can follow Jeff at @jeffm401.