Which program will be next first-time national title winner?

Rob Dauster
NBC Sports

Last week, we took a look at the next head coach to follow in the footsteps of Tony Bennett and win their first national title.

Today, we’re going to mix it up a bit.

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Here is a list of the seven programs that are the next in line to cut down the nets on that first weekend in April for the first time in program history.

GONZAGA

BEST FINISH: National title game, 2017

This is the easiest and most obvious pick. The Zags may play in the WCC, but they are nationally relevant and perennially a preseason top ten team. They have already made it to the national title game, and eventually they will breakthrough with a title.

I think the most important thing that can be said about the Zags is this: Since getting to the national title game, they have lost five players to the NBA with eligibility remaining. Outside of Rui Hachimura this past season, none of the other four were players that entered the season as guys that were expected to be gone. That includes all-americans Nigel Williams-Goss and Brandon Clarke, as well as sophomore Zach Norvell and freshman Zach Collins.

And despite all of that, the Zags were a No. 4 seed in 2018, a No. 1 seed in 2019 and will enter this season as a preseason top ten team. How many programs can sustain losses like that without missing a step?

PURDUE

BEST FINISH: National title game, 1969

Matt Painter is one of the most underrated coaches in the game. Over the last four years, despite some significant roster turnover, the Boilermakers have never won less that 26 games, have finished as a top ten team on KenPom three times and have done all this despite three pretty different styles. This has paid off with two Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight in the last three years.

I don’t think this will be the year where Purdue wins a national title, but I do think that it is going to happen eventually.

MEMPHIS

BEST FINISH: National title game, 2008

I’ve written too many words on Memphis over the course of the summer, but that’s because they may just be the most intriguing team heading into this season. Personally, I think they are overrated as a preseason top ten team this year, but I do think that Penny has positioned himself to be arguably the most powerful program in college sports within the next five years. He landed the No. 1 recruiting class this year. He was always going to get James Wiseman, but Penny also, landed guys like Precious Achiuwa, Boogie Ellis and Lester Quinones, none of whom are from Memphis.

There are two things that we can take away from this: 1) Penny is going to continue to bring in the elite of the elite, battling with the likes of Duke, Kentucky and Kansas for the top players in every class. 2) Perhaps more importantly, five of the seven players in this year’s Memphis recruiting class are guys that will spend two or three years in college.

Wiseman and Achiuwa will get the hype train rolling, but the true value of this class is that Penny set himself up really well for the future.

AUBURN

BEST FINISH: Final Four, 2019

There should be no question Bruce Pearl’s ability to win at the college level anymore. He took Auburn to their first Final Four a decade after he had Tennessee ranked No. 1 in the country.

Pearl has proven himself to be a consistent, high-level winner at the college level. He has turned Auburn Arena into one of the toughest places in college basketball to play. He is recruiting pros to his program, and he is developing guys that aren’t necessarily NBA guys into being all-conference players.

At some point, there is going to be a year where it all comes together for Auburn. If Jared Harper had stayed in school for one more year, it might have been this season.

TEXAS TECH

BEST FINISH: National title game, 2019

Let’s start with the obvious: Chris Beard is a helluva coach that has, for two straight seasons, had the best team in the Big 12. (I will go to my grave saying they would have won the 2018 Big 12 regular season title had Keenan Evans not broken his toe.) His ability to win at a high level with a completely restructured roster makes me believe that Tech’s reliance on grad transfers to fill gaps won’t hinder Tech’s chances of winning.

The biggest concern here is that Tech’s success is almost entirely tied to their current head coach. No one, not even Bobby Knight, has ever come close to winning at the level that Beard has one, and eventually, that is going to pique the interest of some bigger programs. I don’t think there are many jobs that Beard would leave for considering his salary and the fact that he will never, ever be fired, but there are a few that could open fairly soon … *cough, Texas and Arizona, cough*.

TENNESSEE

BEST FINISH: Elite Eight, 2010

Not only has Tennessee never won a national title, the program has never actually been to the Final Four. I think that will change sooner rather than later with Rick Barnes in charge. I know that it is trendy to make fun of Barnes’ coaching ability, but he has been to a Final Four (with Texas in 2003) and he twice came within a game of reaching the Final Four (in 2006 and in 2008) as Big 12 co-champion. The 2006 loss came in overtime against LSU.

The biggest question with the Tennessee program is whether or not they missed on their best chance to win a title the last two years. The Vols had three NBA players on their roster in Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield and Jordan Bone, and they were able to keep all three of them until they reached upperclassmen status. I’m not sure how often that is going to be true in Knoxville, and considering that Barnes is currently 65 years old, I don’t know just how long he is going to continue coaching. Keep in mind, he also said this summer that he would have left the program for UCLA had UCLA been willing to pay his buyout.

So while I love the direction this program is trending, the Vols are like Texas Tech in that the longterm stability of the program does not appear to be as solid as some of the teams higher on this list.

SETON HALL

BEST FINISH: National title game, 1989

It took a while for him to get it there, but Kevin Willard has built Seton Hall into one of the better programs in the Big East. He enters this season with a borderline top ten team that, arguably, is the favorite to win the Big East. This comes just two years after he put together a team that entered the season with top 20 hype. I’d be shocked if the Pirates didn’t find their way to their fifth straight NCAA tournament, and with an All-American like Myles Powell on their roster, I can see this being a year where the Pirates make a deep run.

I can acknowledge that this may be a bit of a reach, but how often will teams that have never won a title enter any season in the preseason top 12?

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