68 predictions for the men's college basketball season (look away, Duke haters)

The men’s college basketball season tips off Monday night with all but four AP Top 25 teams in action. To celebrate the start of the new season, here are 68 predictions that are sure to come true (unless they don’t).

1. This will be the year of the big man in college basketball … again. For the second straight year, the best returning players in the sport are 6-foot-11 or taller, from reigning national player of the year Zach Edey (Purdue), to All-American candidates Hunter Dickinson (Kansas), Armando Bacot (North Carolina), Kyle Filipowski (Duke), Ryan Kalkbrenner (Creighton) and Donovan Clingan (UConn).

2. Expect this trend to have staying power for years to come. Top big men have more incentive to return to school for four years with the NBA devaluing the center position and the loosening of NIL rules making it possible to earn more money in college than overseas or in the G League.

3. Duke will be the nation’s best team in November (and maybe in March too). Not only do the Blue Devils have their usual array of future NBA Draft picks, they also boast experience. Four starters return from last year’s 27-win squad, unprecedented continuity since the program embraced the one-and-done model more than a decade ago. Hide your eyes, Duke haters. It’s going to be a long season for you.

4. Team outside the preseason Top 25 who could surprise: UCLA. The Bruins could struggle out of the starting blocks as they find their identity and integrate their newcomers, but this is a bet on their long-term potential. Mick Cronin’s roster features shot-blocking, rim-running center Adem Bona, promising sophomore point guard Dylan Andrews and a wealth of incoming international talent from Serbia, France, Spain and Turkey.

5. Preseason Top 25 team who could disappoint: San Diego State. Nathan Mensah is in the G League. Matt Bradley and Adam Seiko are playing overseas in Germany. Keshad Johnson transferred to Arizona. Enough firepower returns for San Diego State to challenge for the Mountain West title again, but the guys they lost were driving forces behind the Aztecs' surprise run to last year’s national title game. That’s too many key departures to justify a No. 17 preseason ranking.

6. College basketball’s best-known players this season will be the returning superstars of the women’s game. More casual fans are familiar with Caitlin Clark, Paige Bueckers and Angel Reese than with Edey, Dickinson and Filipowski.

7. Men’s college basketball will continue to suffer from the early departure of its top prospects and from the emergence of alternate pathways to the NBA. This year’s freshman class already lacked pizzazz even before future 2024 lottery picks Ron Holland and Matas Buzelis chose the G League Ignite over offers from top colleges.

8. Freshmen who will make the biggest impact this season: Justin Edwards (Kentucky), Isaiah Collier (USC) and Stephon Castle (UConn).

9. Freshmen ranked outside the Rivals top 10 who will make the biggest impact this season: Ja’Kobe Walter (Baylor), Jared McCain (Duke) and Elmarko Jackson (Kansas).

10. Freshmen ranked outside the Rivals top 25 who will make the biggest impact this season: Aden Holloway (Auburn), Sebastian Mack (UCLA) and Garwey Dual (Providence)

11. The league Mike Krzyzewski projected would be "the best conference in the history of the game" will once again come nowhere close to living up to that lofty prediction. Only Duke, North Carolina, Miami and Virginia cracked Ken Pomeroy’s preseason top 50 or received votes in the preseason AP Top 25. Five NCAA tournament bids could be the ACC’s upper limit.

12. The Big East will boast college basketball’s most thrilling conference title chase. Creighton, Marquette and UConn each appear in the top eight of the preseason AP Top 25. Even Villanova has Final Four upside if Justin Moore returns to pre-Achilles tear form and the incoming transfers mesh seamlessly and meet expectations.

13. The SEC will produce more NCAA tournament bids than any other league. Tennessee, Texas A&M, Kentucky and Arkansas are near locks, while Alabama, Florida and Auburn are good bets as well. Mississippi State can get there if it weathers the early season absence of center Tolu Smith. So could Ole Miss or Missouri if they play to their potential.

14. At a time when college basketball is getting more reliant on transfers and upperclassmen, embattled Kentucky coach John Calipari is pinning his future in Lexington on another youth movement. These freshmen aren’t as hyped as the John Walls, DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davises of years past, but the Wildcats can still be dangerous if at least one of their currently sidelined bigs returns. In other words, this won’t be a dominant Kentucky team right away. Think 4 or 5 seed opponents won’t want to draw in March.

DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA - NOVEMBER 01: Tyrese Proctor #5 of the Duke Blue Devils moves the ball against the UNC-Pembroke Braves during the game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on November 01, 2023 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Tyrese Proctor #5 of the Duke Blue Devils moves the ball against the UNC-Pembroke Braves during the game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on November 01, 2023 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

15. ACC breakout star: Tyrese Proctor, Duke.

16. American Athletic Conference breakout star: Ezra Ausar, East Carolina.

17. Big East breakout star: Donovan Clingan, UConn.

18. Big Ten breakout star: Bruce Thornton, Ohio State.

19. Big 12 breakout star: Terrance Arceneaux, Houston.

20. Mountain West breakout star: Jaedon LeDee, San Diego State.

21. Pac-12 breakout star: Kylan Boswell, Arizona.

22. SEC breakout star: Rylan Griffen, Alabama.

23. Blindsided coaches and commissioners in traditional one-bid leagues will continue to rail against the recent changes to the NIT selection process — and with good reason. Eliminating automatic bids for all regular-season champions who fail to survive their conference tournament is ludicrous. Those are the teams that want to play in the NIT. Mediocre power conference teams who failed to make the NCAA tournament just want their season to end.

24. Conspiracy theories that this is a precursor to NCAA leadership doing something similar with the NCAA tournament won’t have any merit. This is about keeping the NIT viable with Fox trying to organize a new postseason tournament involving power-conference teams who failed to make the NCAA tournament. The NCAA and its media partners are not removing the UMBCs and Fairleigh Dickinsons of the world from the NCAA tournament. They know “Cinderella” is where the money is.

25. Exhibition loss that’s a sign of things to come: Kentucky Wesleyan 71, Louisville 68. Just when Louisville fans thought it couldn’t possibly get any worse than last season’s 4-28 debacle, along comes a loss to a Division II team picked to finish eighth in its league. It’s the second straight season Kenny Payne’s team has dropped an exhibition game against a Division II opponent. And it’s a discouraging sign for a second-year coach already under major pressure.

26. Exhibition loss that’s more fluke than omen: Pace University 63, St. John’s 59. Yes, the Red Storm shot miserably and defended inconsistently, but this injury-plagued, newcomer-laden team was always going to struggle early. St. John’s was without three starters against Division II Pace. Rick Pitino will mold this into a respectable middle-of-the-pack Big East team by the time conference play begins.

27. Most likely to lead college basketball in SportsCenter Top 10 appearances: Michigan State freshman Coen Carr.

28. The first game that Bill Walton calls this season will be must-see for reasons that have little to do with basketball. We’ve waited months to hear his take on conference realignment and the collapse of his beloved Pac-12.

29. It used to be that newly hired coaches could count on administrators giving them at least four years to turn around struggling programs. Not anymore. The transfer portal has made it possible to revitalize a talent-bereft roster in a single offseason. As a result, more coaches will lose their jobs after just two or three seasons if they aren’t winning.

30. Second-year coach under pressure to show progress: Louisville’s Kenny Payne.

31. Third-year coach under pressure to show progress: Minnesota’s Ben Johnson.

32. Coaches who will be under pressure in 2024-25 if they don’t make this season’s NCAA tournament: Kyle Neptune (Villanova), Hubert Davis (North Carolina), Juwan Howard (Michigan), Chris Holtmann (Ohio State) and Dana Altman (Oregon).

32. Coach who will be in demand next year: Charleston’s Pat Kelsey. He consistently won at Winthrop, he went 31-4 in his second season at Charleston and he has the Cougars poised to be a top-100 team again this season. High-major opportunities will be there for Kelsey next spring if he wants them.

34. Coach who is seemingly immune to getting fired: Jerod Haase, Stanford. Seven times in seven seasons, Haase has missed the NCAA tournament at Stanford. Seven times, he has retained his job. The apathy keeps rising at a school that made 13 of 14 NCAA tournaments from 1995-2008.

35. College basketball once again will have the worst opening night of any major sport. All but four preseason AP Top 25 teams begin their season Monday, but they’re mostly facing the Cal State Fullertons and Morgan States of the world. Only two games pit power-conference foes against each other: No. 21 USC vs. Kansas State and Oregon vs. Georgia. That’s a terrible way to draw in casual fans.

36. Bronny James won’t play on opening night, but whenever he does return, the curiosity will make USC games must-see TV. LeBron’s eldest son went into sudden cardiac arrest during a July workout at the Galen Center. LeBron has said he’s optimistic that Bronny can play for USC sometime this season.

37. How big an impact can Bronny make? The McDonald’s All-American will have to shake some rust off, but before his collapse he projected as a third guard behind heralded freshman point guard Isaiah Collier and high-scoring veteran Boogie Ellis. Bronny’s a capable shooter and a quick-handed defender, but to make strides he needs to improve creating off the dribble.

38. Team that will take the biggest jump from last year: Wisconsin. Expect a bounce-back season from Wisconsin after last year’s sub-.500 Big Ten finish. The Badgers return every key player besides Jordan Davis, who transferred to Illinois State. They replaced Davis with St. John’s transfer A.J. Storr, who should provide much-needed scoring punch.

39. Team that will fall the furthest from last year: Xavier. If you’re going to get Sean Miller, get him now. Xavier already was losing four starters from a team that earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament and advanced to the Sweet 16. Now Miller has indicated that top returners Zach Freemantle and Jerome Hunter may not be available as well.

40. With Jalen Suggs, Chet Holmgren and now Drew Timme all gone, Gonzaga’s national title window, for now, has closed. Mark Few and his staff did a good job reloading via the transfer portal, but a successful season for these Zags would be outdueling Saint Mary’s for the WCC title and extending the program’s national-best streak of nine consecutive Sweet 16 appearances.

41. Common sense demands that the NCAA get out of the business of assessing the merits of waiver requests from transfers. The NCAA, of course, won’t do it. As a result, the NCAA will continue to catch heat for making inconsistent rulings and for being too understaffed to make those decisions efficiently.

EAST LANSING, MI - OCTOBER 29: Michigan State Spartans guard Tyson Walker (2) listens to instruction from head coach Tom Izzo during a college basketball exhibition game between the Michigan State Spartans and Tennessee Volunteers on October 29, 2023 at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, MI. (Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Tom Izzo has the roster to win a second national championship at Michigan State. (Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

42. This could be 68-year-old Tom Izzo’s best chance to capture a second national title. Michigan State is talented, experienced and, above all else, deep. That means Izzo has the option this season to ride point guard A.J. Hoggard when he’s playing well or to bench him when he’s not playing to his potential.

43. Colorado basketball will receive a sliver of the publicity that Colorado football garnered, but Tad Boyle’s team will finish significantly higher in the Pac-12 standings than Deion Sanders’ squad. Boyle returns a pair of potential all-league players and welcomes top-10 recruit Cody Williams and massive yet skilled TCU transfer Eddie Lampkin. At the very least, this is a top-four team in an improved Pac-12.

44. Football schools who will have more success on the hardwood this season: USC, Miami, Texas A&M.

45. Basketball schools who will have more success on the gridiron this season: Louisville, UNLV.

46. More than any other team in college basketball, Purdue’s season will be defined by how deep an NCAA tournament run it produces. That’s the price of annually raising expectations in the regular season, only to endure three straight March meltdowns. It started with North Texas in 2021. Then St. Peter’s in 2022. And, of course, 16th-seeded FDU last year.

47. Purdue may not pull a 2019 Virginia this March, but it won’t suffer a fourth straight ghastly upset. The supporting cast around Zach Edey this season is deeper, more athletic and more experienced than a year ago. That should make Purdue less susceptible to pressure defense and less vulnerable if its 3-pointers aren’t falling.

48. The Maui Invitational will feature at least four future Sweet 16 teams — and that might be underselling it. With Kansas, Purdue, Tennessee, Marquette, Gonzaga, UCLA and Syracuse joining host Chaminade, this is as loaded a field as this tradition-rich event has ever had.

49. Maui Invitational prediction: Kansas over Purdue.

50. Battle 4 Atlantis: Arkansas over North Carolina.

51. Continental Tire Main Event prediction: Saint Mary’s over Washington.

52. Empire Classic prediction: UConn over Texas.

53. NIT Season Tip-Off prediction: Baylor over Florida.

54. ESPN Events Invitational prediction: Texas A&M over Boise State.

55. Charleston Classic prediction: Houston over Dayton.

56. What Florida Atlantic can do for an encore will be one of college basketball’s most intriguing early storylines. With its core returning from a 35-win team that came within a buzzer beater of playing for the national title, the Owls should be competitive against a challenging non-league schedule before making their American Athletic Conference debut. A top-25 team but not a top-10 team sounds about right.

Kansas center Hunter Dickinson (1) shoots over Fort Hays State forward Shaun Riley, left, during the first half of an exhibition NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023, in Lawrence, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Kansas center Hunter Dickinson (1) shoots over Fort Hays State forward Shaun Riley, left, during the first half of an exhibition NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023, in Lawrence, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

57. If preseason No. 1 Kansas falls short of expectations, the culprit will be its lack of perimeter shooting around Hunter Dickinson. The Jayhawks lost their two most prolific 3-point shooters from last season’s middling shooting team. Can freshmen Elmarko Jackson or Johnny Furphy solve that problem? What about Towson transfer Nicolas Timberlake?

58. Arizona head coach Tommy Lloyd will get the best out of Caleb Love, the talented but inefficient North Carolina transfer who drove the Tar Heels to the 2022 national title game but also shot them out of a plethora of other games. It’s a perfect fit, with Love knowing he needs help improving his shot selection and playmaking and Lloyd knowing he needs a scoring guard that can raise Arizona’s ceiling and increase its margin for error in March.

59. Five other transfers who will make a big impact this season: Dickinson (Michigan to Kansas), Ryan Nembhard (Creighton to Gonzaga), Tylor Perry (North Texas to Kansas State), Steven Ashworth (Utah State to Creighton), Jesse Edwards (Syracuse to West Virginia).

60. Decision to stay in school that will look smart: Creighton’s Trey Alexander is among the most well-rounded guards in the country. The 6-foot-5 junior could climb into the first round of the 2024 NBA Draft thanks to his perimeter shooting, his playmaking off the dribble and his strong point-of-attack defense.

61. Syracuse’s trademark orange jerseys will be the only recognizable part of the Orange this season. Jim Boeheim is gone, as is his beloved 2-3 zone. Successor Adrian Autry is intent on modernizing the program, which means Syracuse will primarily play aggressive man-to-man and will go to zone as more of a change of pace.

62. The most charged environment at any game this season will occur when Ed Cooley returns to Providence on Jan. 27. Cooley alienated the Friars fan base when he left his alma mater for hated Big East rival Georgetown after calling Providence his “dream job.” This was a messy breakup and the wounds have not yet healed.

63. Two years ago, North Carolina caught fire late and played for the national title. Last year, the Tar Heels went from preseason No. 1 to missing the NCAA tournament. This season, Hubert Davis enters a prove-it season with a retooled supporting cast around returning standouts Armando Bacot and R.J. Davis. How good will North Carolina be? The guess here is erratic but good enough to keep the pressure off Davis heading into next year.

64. Small-conference team with the most Cinderella potential this March: Keep an eye on UC Santa Barbara, which added 6-foot-11 former five-star recruit Yohan Traore to a core that includes returning Big West player of the year Ajay Mitchell. The Gauchos have made two of the past three NCAA tournaments and nearly took down Creighton in 2021.

65. The first Final Four since 1991 without Jim Nantz behind the microphone will be a little weird. You might even miss his sappy, scripted lines when a new champion is crowned.

66. Nantz’s successor will thrive in his new lead play-by-play role. Ian Eagle is a total pro who always has a funny quip or clever pop culture reference up his sleeve.

67. Early Final Four prediction: Duke, Kansas, Michigan State, Creighton.

68. Most of these preseason predictions will probably be wrong. The most fun part of college basketball is that it always defies expectations.