College basketball season tips off Friday with 19 members of the AP Preseason Top 25 in action. To celebrate the end of the offseason, here are 64 65 ... wait ... 68 fearless predictions for the new season.
1. How will this season be remembered? Maybe as the year of the whistle. Expect new rules cracking down on hand-checking and physical contact to lead to a barrage of fouls, especially early in the season as players and coaches adjust to the changes.
2. Team who benefits most from the rules changes: Syracuse. Numerous coaches are implementing more zone in practice this season to make dribble penetration more difficult and to protect against foul trouble. Syracuse won't need to adjust since the two-three zone is already its trademark defense.
3. The NCAA will insist on calling the four play-in games "the first round" and the round of 64 "the second round." Nobody besides Jim Nantz will comply.
4. First-team All-Americans: Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State), Gary Harris (Michigan State), Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), Doug McDermott (Creighton), Julius Randle (Kentucky)
5. Where's Russ Smith, you ask? He was my toughest omission. I suspect he'll put up numbers close to what he accomplished last season, especially since the new rules limiting hand checking will make it next-to-impossible to keep him from getting to the rim.
6. Whichever team draws Harvard in the round of 64 in the NCAA tournament will be a popular upset pick. In addition to returning the core of last year's Ivy League championship team that toppled New Mexico in the NCAA tournament, the Crimson also get senior standouts Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry back from suspensions.
7. Coach who will be in demand next spring: Louisiana Tech's Michael White, whose program returns four starters from a team that won 27 games a year ago. When White took the Louisiana Tech job in spring 2011, the Bulldogs were coming off a 2-14 season in the WAC.
8. Coach who will be out of work next spring: Auburn's Tony Barbee, whose athletic director said last March he expects the program "to show significant improvement" this season. That's not going to be easy considering three starters graduated last June and highly touted sophomore Shaq Johnson was dismissed in July.
9. Other coaches under pressure to win this season: Texas' Rick Barnes, Rice's Ben Braun, Wake Forest's Jeff Bzdelik, Stanford's Johnny Dawkins, UNC Wilmington's Buzz Peterson and Washington State's Ken Bone.
11. Team that will improve the most: Iowa, which returns nine of its 10 leading scorers from a team that lost seven games by four or fewer points last season yet still finished. 500 in the rugged Big Ten. The Hawkeyes also add Peter Jok to bolster their anemic 3-point shooting and Wisconsin transfer Jarrod Uthoff to strengthen an already deep frontcourt.
12. Team that will decline the most: Miami. The Hurricanes may contend in the ACC again, but it won't be this season. The only rotation player returning from last year's ACC-winning team is senior guard Rion Brown, who averaged a modest 6.4 points per game last season.
13. The best freshman whose name you probably haven't heard? BYU's Eric Mika. Strong, athletic and physical, he'll replace Brandon Davies in the Cougars' frontcourt and be expected to emerge as the team's top low-post threat immediately.
14. This year's Champion's Classic will feature more talent than the Final Four. Julius Randle, Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Gary Harris in a double-header? Yes, please.
15. There are 15 Division I programs whose nickname is the Bulldogs. Gonzaga once again will be the best of them.
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16. Creighton will finish in the top three in the new Big East this season, but it's going to be a while before the Bluejays are competitive in their new league again. Doug McDermott and much of his supporting cast graduates after this season, plus Creighton isn't recruiting at the level of some of the top Big East teams yet.
17. Gus Johnson is awesome. Bill Raftery is awesome. Both of them in the same booth on Big East telecasts this season will be that much more awesome.
18. For once, Marshall Henderson will make more news for getting buckets than getting in trouble. It's way too soon to judge whether Henderson is a changed man, but I think he's smart enough to realize what he needs to do to have a chance to play professionally next season -- even if it's overseas. Consider this a contract year for Henderson.
19. Storyline you'll be sick of by Thanksgiving, part I: When will P.J. Hairston be back for North Carolina?
20. Storyline you'll be sick of by Thanksgiving, part II: When will Chane Behanan be back for Louisville?
21. My guess? Both play this season, but Behanan returns before Hairston. There are no NCAA issues complicating Behanan's return.
22. Get ready for a Pac-12 resurgence. The league won't be at the level it was during the Kevin Love-Russell Westbrook-James Harden-Brook Lopez days of five or six years ago, it will produce six NCAA tournament teams and reestablish itself as the premier conference in the West.
23. Oakland sharpshooter Travis Bader will shatter J.J. Redick's career three-point record. Bader has 357 made threes entering the new season, 100 behind Redick's 457.
24. The best player of the year race outside the major conferences will be in the Sun Belt. Georgia State's R.J. Hunter, South Alabama's Augustine Rubit, Louisiana-Lafayette's Elfrid Payton and Western Kentucky's T.J. Price are all mid-major stars who should be on your radar.
25. The best title race outside the major conferences will also be in the Sun Belt. The team that emerges from the group of Georgia State, South Alabama, Louisiana-Lafayette and Western Kentucky will be an opening-round NCAA tournament nobody wants to draw.
26. At some point this season, New Mexico State will go with one of the biggest front lines in college basketball history. Seven-foot-5 center Sim Bhullar returns for his sophomore season and 7-foot-3 younger brother Tanveer is a true freshman. The Aggies also have a 6-foot-10 center and a pair of 6-foot-8 forwards in their frontcourt rotation.
27. Injured Gary Harris was pretty terrific as a freshman for Michigan State. Healthy Gary Harris will emerge as the Big Ten's best player.
28. Team who will thrive in its new league: College of Charleston, which has recently struggled to eclipse Davidson in the Southern Conference. The Cougars have enough talent to challenge Towson in the CAA this season and should be a fixture in the CAA title race for years to come.
29. Team who will be overmatched in its new league: San Jose State, which lacked the facilities, talent base or budget to be competitive in the WAC. It would be a tremendous accomplishment for new coach Dave Wojcik to keep the Spartans out of the basement in year one in the Mountain West.
30. ACC breakout candidate: Jerami Grant, Syracuse. James Southerland's graduation should open up plenty of minutes for Grant, who averaged just 3.9 points and 3.0 rebounds as a freshman but showed flashes of potential. His jump shot is a work in progress, but he's an effective transition scorer and his length and athleticism make him a standout defender in the two-three zone.
31. American Athletic Conference breakout candidate: Montrezl Harrell, Louisville. The only silver lining to Gorgui Dieng's graduation and Chane Behanan's indefinite suspension is more playing time for Harrell. The 6-foot-8 sophomore showed flashes of shot-blocking, rebounding and finishing ability at the rim last season, including a 20-point, seven-rebound masterpiece against Syracuse.Derrick Gordon. He has shed enough weight over the offseason to improve his mobility and explosiveness and avoid picking up quick fouls.
33. Big East breakout candidate: Jamil Wilson, Marquette. An unlikely star seems to emerge for Buzz Williams every season, and Wilson is as good a candidate as any this season. Wilson had a solid 2012-13 season, averaging 9.7 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. Look for him to improve those numbers and follow in the footsteps of previous versatile forwards Lazar Hayward and Jae Crowder.
34. Big Ten breakout candidate: Sam Dekker, Wisconsin. A reserve as a freshman last season for the Badgers, Dekker still averaged 9.6 points in 22.3 minutes per game. If he maintains a similar level of efficiency as a sophomore, he'll be an all-Big Ten candidate and likely Wisconsin's top scoring threat.
35. Big 12 breakout candidate: Perry Ellis, Kansas. Highly touted when he arrived at Kansas, Ellis made a modest impact as a freshman playing behind Jeff Withey and Kevin Young. Expect a big jump from the 6-foot-8 forward as a sophomore when he'll have a chance to emerge as the top frontcourt scoring option for the Jayhawks.
36. Mountain West breakout candidate Daniel Bejarano, Colorado State: Someone is going to have to score for a Colorado State team that lost its entire starting five from last season. The most proven returning player is Bejarano, a former top 100 recruit who is an excellent rebounder for a guard and is capable of improving his 31 percent 3-point shooting.
37. Pac-12 breakout candidate: Omar Oraby, USC. The 7-foot-2 center thrived in limited minutes for USC last season, shooting 61 percent from the floor and flashing an array of post moves. The only thing that could keep him from emerging as an impact player this season is if USC can't find a way to incorporate him in its fast-paced system.
38. SEC breakout candidate: Michael Carrera, South Carolina. A 6-foot-5 forward is typically undersized for his position, but Carrera makes up for it with his 7-foot-2 wingspan. He's active defensively, extremely good on the glass and an efficient enough scorer that he could improve on the 9.9 points per game he averaged as a freshman.
39. Five more breakout candidates: Ohio State's LaQuinton Ross, Gonzaga's Przemek Karnowski, Wichita State's Fred VanVleet, Texas' Cameron Ridley and Virginia's Mike Tobey
40. NCAA tournament drought that will end this season: Big West favorite UC Irvine, which has never earned a bid before. The Anteaters won 21 games last season and upgraded their size with three 7-footers.
41. NCAA tournament drought that won't end this season: Sorry, Northwestern. This isn't your year. New coach Chris Collins is recruiting well enough to suggest it will happen sooner than later, but the Big Ten is too strong this year and there's not enough returning talent.
42. Once again, people are going to be surprised by Saint Mary's ability to survive the loss of a star without much dropoff. With high-scoring guard Jordan Page and a wealth of frontcourt talent, the Gaels will remain in NCAA tournament contention without Matthew Dellavedova just as they did when Omar Samhan, Mickey McConnell and Patrick Mills moved on from Moraga.
43. Wichita State is no one-year wonder. With Fred VanVleet stepping in for point guard Malcolm Armstead and Kadeem Coleby helping replace Carl Hall's defense and rebounding, the Shockers roll to the Valley title and remain a fixture in the top 20 all season.
44. Top 25 team that could disappoint: North Carolina. Is there a top 12 team with more questions than the Tar Heels? Will the NCAA allow P.J. Hairston to play? Can James Michael-McAdoo bounce back from last year? Is there a big man on the roster capable of seizing the starting job alongside McAdoo? North Carolina can be really good if the answers to those questions are all "yes," but that's a lot of uncertainty.
45. Team outside the top 25 that could surprise: Watch out for Stanford, which returns all five starters from a team that underachieved last season but still made the NIT. If Chasson Randle has a bounce-back season and Anthony Brown is fully healthy, the Cardinal can not only make the NCAA tournament but perhaps win a game or two.
46. Not only will Kentucky not go 40-0 this season, the Wildcats won't be the last unbeaten standing. Youth and immaturity will show up at some point in a non-conference season that includes matchups with Michigan State, North Carolina and Louisville.
47. Football schools which will have more success on the hardwood than the gridiron this school year: Michigan, Tennessee, Florida, Boise State
48. Maui Invitational prediction: Syracuse over Baylor
49. Wooden Legacy prediction: Marquette over Creighton
50. 2KSports Classic prediction: Indiana over UConn
52. Puerto Rico Classic prediction: Michigan over Georgetown
53. Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off prediction: Louisville over North Carolina
54. NIT Season Tip-Off prediction: Duke over Arizona
55. Battle 4 Atlantis prediction: Kansas over Iowa
56. The Big Ten and ACC split their annual challenge last year, and it will be close again this season. Call it ACC 7, Big Ten 5.
57. Three most impactful high-major transfers: Rodney Hood (Mississippi State to Duke), T.J. McConnell (Duquesne to Arizona) and Jordan Clarkson (Tulsa to Missouri)
58. Three most impactful small-conference transfers: Ryan Harrow ( Kentucky to Georgia State); Four McGlynn (Vermont to Towson),
59. Mike Moser's form will more closely resemble his superb 2011-12 season than his disappointing 2012-13 campaign. He'll be back at the power forward spot, he's in a fast-paced system that fits his strengths and Oregon coach Dana Altman has proven adept at getting the most out of one-year transfers.
60. Was LaQuinton Ross' breakout NCAA tournament a step forward or just a product of small sample size? I believe the talented but enigmatic forward will build on it and help replace Deshaun Thomas' scoring, but Ohio State's season may hinge on the answer.
61. Florida Gulf Coast returns enough talent that another magical March is conceivable, but don't book Dunk City's trip to the NCAA tournament just yet. Mercer returns four starters from a team that won the Atlantic Sun regular season title over FGCU last season and also defeated Alabama, Florida State and Tennessee.
62. The experiment of playing Aaron Gordon on the perimeter won't last beyond New Year's. Arizona is better with him attacking the rim and dominating the glass in the paint than with him handling the ball and shooting jumpers on the perimeter. Look for Gordon, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski to form a three-man frontcourt rotation, with either Rondae Hollis-Jefferson or Gabe York moving into the starting five on the wing.
63. On Jan. 26, Clemson will lose at North Carolina. That's the safest prediction on this list because the Tigers have lost in Chapel Hill 56 straight times, the longest such streak in college basketball history.
64. Is this the year Wisconsin finishes lower than fourth in the Big Ten for the first time in Bo Ryan's tenure? Don't count on it. A breakout season from Sam Dekker and lots of good guard play ought to keep the Badgers in contention in the Big Ten deep into the conference season.
65. Jordan Adams was UCLA's best player as a freshman. He'll be UCLA's best player as a sophomore too, but you'll probably hear more about it with Shabazz Muhammad now having moved on to the NBA.
66. Early men's Final Four projection: Kentucky, Louisville, Duke and Ohio State.
67. Early women's Final Four projection: UConn, Stanford, Tennessee, Louisville.
68. At least half of these preseason predictions will probably be wrong. The most fun part of college basketball is that it always defies expectation.
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