Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz’s Sweet 16 picks: Another big year for freshmen, traditional powers

Grayson Allen is a national player of the year contender and will have many freshman phenoms surrounding him this season at Duke.
Grayson Allen is a national player of the year contender and will have many freshman phenoms surrounding him this season at Duke. Associated Press

I’ve been predicting the NCAA Tournament field for a while now. And I’m usually right about half the time.

While that might not sound like much, it’s more than I’m right in my day-to-day life. So let’s go with it.

Let’s give this another try, shall we? And we’ll start with the Sweet 16, of which I correctly predicted 10 last year. I’d take 10 now and go to the bank.

Sweet 16

Arizona — Last season, the Wildcats were bulldozed out of the NCAA Tournament by Wichita State. It wasn’t Arizona’s time. That time, though, could be now. Arizona is still a young team, but vets Kadeem Allen, Dusan Ristic and Allonzo Trier are mainstays. Then come the freshmen, led by Lauri Markkanen, Kob Simmons and Rawle Alkins. That’s a heady group and Sean Miller is one of the nation’s top coaches. And a special shout-out to 6-8 Ray Smith, who has missed the past two seasons with ACL tears in each of his knees.

Creighton — The Bluejays haven’t exactly stormed the Big East with a bunch of success, but Greg McDermott has a team capable of winning a championship this time. Mo Watson is an established stud, one of the best guards in the country. And Marcus Foster is in the mix after transferring from Kansas State, where he showed tremendous talent but also a need to grow up. If he’s taken care of the latter, Foster will be a dynamic player for Creighton. There’s something inside, too, where Cole Huff and Khyri Thomas will excel. Creighton is back.

Duke — Hey, Duke had a great recruiting class. And wait for this – the sky is blue. Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden likely won’t hang around Durham for more than one season. And there’s nothing wrong with the Blue Devils’ returning players, either, led by player of the year candidate Grayson Allen. Senior Amile Jefferson will be the leader all young teams crave. I dare you to find a weakness with this team, outside of perhaps at the point. But another freshman, Frank Jackson, is probably going to do just fine there.

Indiana — The Hoosiers know how to score and not even the loss of point guard Yogi Ferrell should diminish that ability. Pitt transfer Josh Newkirk and junior James Blackmon Jr., who has had three knee surgeries, are going to make shots, although Newkirk has to shoot it better than he did at Pitt. Blackmon and Robert Johnson are deadeyes, though, which takes off some of the pressure. And Thomas Bryant will be a force in the middle with sophomores OG Anunoby and Juwan Morgan to help. Another Sweet 16 run, or more, seems doable.

Kansas — Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden are gone. But guards Frank Mason and Devonte Graham aren’t. And the Jayhawks’ veteran backcourt is one of the biggest reasons why this team has its best chance in a while to win a national championship. Those guys will need help, of course, and it’s there. Svi Mykhailiuk is going to make a ton of three-pointers and sophomore Carlton Bragg is going to be so good and then there’s freshman wing Josh Jackson, who is stopping over for a season in Lawrence on his way to the NBA. Enjoy him, Lawrence. And enjoy watching the development of center Udoka Azubuike, who excites Bill Self in a way we rarely see. Good team, won’t skip a beat, rarely does.

Kentucky — If you don’t know much about Malik Monk, you soon will. He is this season’s prize Kentucky freshman who is drawing comparisons to Russell Westbrook and last season’s prize Kentucky freshman, Aaron Murray. De’Aaron Fox won’t make people forget point guard Tyler Ulis, but he is likely to lessen the blow of Ulis’ departure. Bam Adebayo is going to be great in the paint and the Wildcats have veteran leadership to be provided by Isaiah Briscoe, whose defense will set a tone.

North Carolina — The Tar Heels have their prize freshmen, led by 6-10 freshman Tony Bradley. But Carolina’s strength is in its experience, which makes another Final Four well within the realm. Kennedy Meeks, Joel Berry, Theo Pinson, Justin Jackson and Isaiah Hicks are likely going to be starters for the Tar Heels. The reigning national runner-up will be in the mix for another Final Four. Kennedy Meeks, Joel Berry, Theo Pinson, Justin Jackson and Isaiah Hicks make up a terrific starting five and Nate Britt is the likely sixth man. Replacing Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige is a challenge, of course. And that’s why North Carolina might not make another Final Four. But there remains plenty of guys who have been in the national championship mix.

North Carolina State — Dennis Smith Jr. is another of those impactful freshmen who make their marks in college basketball every season. Smith’s mark is probably going to be bigger than most. Newcomers are the reason N.C. State is going to bounce back big-time from last season’s 16-17 record. Guard Torin Dorn Jr., a transfer from Charlotte, will add a lot. So will forward-center Omer Yurtseven, a five-star recruit from Turkey. Back are 6-9 junior Abdul-Malik Abu and guard Maverick Rowan. The Pack has lots of pieces.

Oregon — Keep an eye on Dillon Brooks’ foot because everyone else will be. Brooks, who averaged nearly 17 points last season for the Ducks and to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, is out with a foot injury, likely not to return until sometime this month. Oregon needs the 6-7 Brooks the way a duck needs water. There are also three other starters returning and Dana Altman is a sideline master. Chris Boucher, Tyler Dorsey, Jordan Bell and Dylan Ennis are other Oregon players to watch. But mostly, watch Brooks’ foot.

Rhode Island — Wait, Rhode Island? Yep. Dan Hurley can really coach and E.C. Mathews and Hassan Martin, who were injured for a big chunk of last season, are back. It has to be URI’s year, even though the Rams haven’t been to an NCAA Tournament since 1999. Indiana transfer Stanford Robinson brings a lot of defensive versatility to Rhode Island. Jared Terrell and Jarvis Garrett are good players few have heard of. This is a good roster and a good team.

Saint Mary’s — We thought about Gonzaga for the Sweet 16. It makes sense because the Bulldogs are going to be really good again this season. But they won’t be the best team in the West Coast Conference because St. Mary’s will. Australians Emmett Naar and Dane Pineau are the stars and we’re sure no other team in college basketball history has had stars named Emmett and Dane. St. Mary’s won 29 games last season and has virtually the same cast. This is a Gael-force team.

Texas — After watching Texas fail to get it right in football for so long, it’s amazing how astute the Longhorns were in bringing Shaka Smart in to run the basketball program. Look for Texas to be the biggest threat to Kansas in the Big 12 and to continue to move up nationally. Freshman center Jarrett Allen is a big-time recruit and James Banks and Andrew Jones are other freshman who should have an impact. Most believe Texas is a year away from making a huge impact, but who knows? We all thought Smart was a great hire to replace Rick Barnes. He’s making it obvious.

UCLA — After a few years of wondering whether Steve Alford was the right coach for the Bruins, it looks like the answer is trending toward yes. UCLA was 15-17 last season but everybody is back and the Bruins had a top-five recruiting class led by point guard Lonzo Ball, who could land in the top 10 of the NBA Draft next June. UCLA has him now, though, and he couldn’t have come along at a better time for Alford. Also back are guards Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford, as well as 7-foot center Thomas Welsh and 6-11 reserve Gyorgy Goloman.

Villanova — Quick, who won last season’s national championship? You had to think for a second, admit it. It was these Wildcats and they could shock the world and win again. Replacing Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu won’t be easy but Kris Jenkins, Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth, Mikael Bridges and Darryl Reynolds are back. And Villanova has Fordham transfer Eric Paschall, who is likely to be an immediate force. We saved the best, though, for last. Josh Hart, who withdrew his early declaration for the NBA Draft, is back for another season and is on the short list for player of the year honors.

Wisconsin — The 10 players who were on the court the most for the Badgers’ 22-win team last season are back. And that includes Big Ten preseason player of the year Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, Almost everyone is back from a Badgers team that won 22 games and has the Big Ten preseason player of the year in Nigel Hayes, who will try to regain his perimeter shooting touch. Bronson Koenig is back and he’s Wisconsin’s most dangerous three-point threat. There are a lot of things to like about Wisconsin.

Xavier — Watch out for the Musketeers, who are going to be really difficult to stop on the perimeter. Guards and wing players Edmond Sumner, Trevon Blueitt, Myles Davis and J.P. Macura are dynamic, the backbone of the team. Add to that group Florida A&M transfer Malcolm Bernard and freshman Quentin Goodin and you have a deep, talented group of scorers. We’re not so sure about the center position, where James Farr and Jalen Reynolds have departed. Norfolk State transfer RaShid Gaston, who had 18 double-doubles last season, is a huge key.

Other bids

America East – Vermont

American – Cincinnati, Connecticut

Atlantic 10 – Dayton, VCU

ACC – Florida State, Louisville, Miami, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Virginia, Virginia Tech

Atlantic Sun – Florida Gulf Coast

Big 12 – Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas State, Oklahoma, West Virginia

Big East – Butler, Georgetown, Seton Hall

Big Sky – Montana

Big South – Winthrop

Big Ten – Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue

Big West – Long Beach State

Colonial – N.C.-Wilmington

Conference USA – Middle Tennessee

Horizon – Valparaiso

Ivy – Princeton

MAAC – Monmouth

Mid-American – Akron

Missouri Valley – Illinois State, Wichita State

Mountain West – San Diego State

Northeast – Fairleigh Dickinson

Ohio Valley – Belmont

Pac-12 – California, Colorado, Washington

Patriot – Lehigh

SEC – Florida, Texas A&M

Southern – Chattanooga

Southland – Sam Houston State

SWAC – Texas Southern

Summit – Fort Wayne

Sun Belt – Texas-Arlington

West Coast – Gonzaga

WAC – Grand Canyon

Elite Eight

Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Oregon, Saint Mary’s, Villanova, Xavier, Wisconsin

Final Four

Duke, Oregon, Villanova, Xavier

National championship

Duke over Villanova