College basketball tips off Tuesday night with all but five Top 25 teams in action. To celebrate the end of the offseason, here are 68 predictions for the new season.
1. Tipping off the new college basketball season with the high-profile Champions Classic typically would be a smart way of drawing attention to the sport, but holding the event on Election Night will turn out to be a regrettable choice. In this highly politically charged climate, where so much attention rightfully will be on the returns from the polls, get ready for college basketball’s premier early-season event to be overshadowed.
2. Those who do tune in for the Champions Classic will see a heck of a doubleheader featuring four preseason top 10 teams. Give me Kansas over Michigan State because the Jayhawks have superior depth and the best player on the floor in Dedric Lawson. The Duke-Kentucky clash is a tougher call, but John Calipari’s squad should be a tad further along than the freshman-dependent Blue Devils. Look for that to show in their late-game shot selection and defensive organization.
3. This will be the best Kentucky team since the 2014-15 version that fell two victories shy of an undefeated season. A big reason is that this year’s Wildcats boast unusual experience to blend with their usual array of promising freshmen. Three former McDonald’s All-Americans who have scored 20 or more points in a college game return for their sophomore seasons. And over the summer, Calipari brought in a fourth with the addition of coveted Stanford graduate transfer Reid Travis
4. Duke will be the most freshman-reliant team since 2013-14 Kentucky, which gave Julius Randle, James Young, Dakari Johnson and the Harrison twins 76 percent of its available minutes. That team lurched its way to a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament before catching fire in March and advancing all the way to the title game. Expect this year’s Duke team to be more consistent. Not only is the Blue Devils’ heralded freshman class more talented and mature, they also have a veteran supporting cast capable of providing guidance.
5. Not only will Duke’s R.J. Barrett be college basketball’s best freshman this season, he also might be the sport’s best player. The Canadian phenom offered a glimpse of his dynamic ability as a 17-year-old while leading his country to its first-ever first-place finish at the FIBA U-19 World Championships. He left jaws agape with a 38-point, 13-rebound, 5-assist tour de force in Canada’s 99-87 semifinal victory over the U.S team coached by John Calipari.
6. Freshmen besides Barrett who will have the biggest impact this season: Duke’s Zion Williamson, Indiana’s Romeo Langford, Western Kentucky’s Charles Bassey
7. Freshmen ranked outside the top 10 who will have the biggest impact this season: Vanderbilt’s Darius Garland, Florida’s Andrew Nembhard, Kentucky’s Tyler Herro
8. Freshmen ranked outside the top 40 who will have the biggest impact this season: Minnesota’s Daniel Oturu, Michigan’s Ignas Brazdeikis, Providence’s David Duke
9. Preseason Top 25 team that could disappoint: Mississippi State. There’s enough talent in Starkville for Mississippi State to live up to its preseason No. 18 ranking in Ben Howland’s fourth season, but the lack of shooting on the roster is a concern. The Bulldogs were 329th in 3-point shooting last season and 279th in free throw shooting. If the Mississippi State backcourt doesn’t collectively improve, can the Bulldogs really make the leap from the NIT to the Top 25?
10. Team outside the preseason Top 25 that could surprise: Indiana. Give a coach as good as Archie Miller the Big Ten’s best one-two punch, and there’s a good chance he’ll enjoy success. Juwan Morgan is a consistent double-double threat, Romeo Langford is one of the nation’s elite freshmen and Indiana welcomes a handful of other newcomers capable of contributing right away. If the supporting cast proves capable and Devonte Green solidifies the point guard spot, the Hoosiers could surprise.
11. ACC breakout star: Mfiondu Kabengele, Florida State
12. American Athletic Conference breakout star: Markis McDuffie, Wichita State
13. Atlantic 10 breakout star: Fatts Russell, Rhode Island
14. Big East breakout star: Eric Paschall, Villanova
15. Big Ten breakout star: Jordan Poole, Michigan
16. Big 12 breakout star: Lamont West, West Virginia
17. Mountain West breakout star: Makuach Maluach, New Mexico
18. Pac-12 breakout star: Kenny Wooten, Oregon
19. SEC breakout star: Jeremiah Tilmon, Missouri
Ty Jerome and Virginia will not be lacking for motivation after last March’s historic opening-round NCAA tournament upset. (Getty Images)
20. The ACC will produce more NCAA tournament teams than any other league this season. A third straight nine-bid season is very realistic with Duke, Virginia, North Carolina, Syracuse, Virginia Tech, Florida State and Clemson likely to reach the NCAA tournament and Notre Dame, Louisville, Miami and NC State capable of joining them.
21. One year after the only three teams it sent to the NCAA tournament failed to win a single game, the Pac-12 once again may be college basketball’s weakest power conference. Oregon, UCLA, USC, Washington, Arizona and Arizona State are capable of snagging NCAA bids, but there may not be a truly elite team among them.
22. In fact, the West’s two best teams hail from other conferences. Gonzaga is a threat to reach the Final Four for the second time in three years because it has an elite combination of experience, skill and defensive versatility. Nevada is capable of improving on last year’s Mountain West title and Sweet 16 appearance after returning the core of that team and adding a five-star freshman and an array of promising transfers.
23. The best bet for a second NCAA tournament bid out of the West Coast Conference is BYU. The Cougars’ nucleus of Yoeli Childs, Tyler Haws and Nick Emery is talented enough to land the program’s first NCAA bid since 2015, but they must shoot better from the perimeter, sustain last year’s defensive improvement and avoid their usual two or three letdowns against lower-echelon league foes.
24. The best for a second NCAA tournament bid out of the Mountain West is San Diego State. The Aztecs return six players from last year’s NCAA tournament team and welcome a promising freshman class, but they must prove they can avoid any defensive slippage from the second half of last season now that defensive guru Justin Hutson has left to become the new head coach at Fresno State.
25. Football schools that will have more success on the basketball court than the gridiron this year: Nebraska, Tennessee, Auburn, Florida State
26. Basketball schools that will have more success on the gridiron than the hardwood this year: Cincinnati, Utah State
27. Virginia will win 29 or more games for the fifth time in six seasons and land a top-two seed in the NCAA tournament. Everyone in your office bracket pool will pick the Cavaliers to lose during the opening weekend anyway.
28. They’ll be wrong. Virginia’s methodical pace of play and lack of late-clock shot creator does make it more vulnerable to an early-round upset, but don’t underestimate the Hoos. This team returns four of its top six scorers from a team that won the ACC by four games last season and adds a prized transfer — ex-Alabama standout Braxton Key.
29. As for UMBC, the fearless No. 16 seed that felled Virginia last March, an NCAA tournament encore is unlikely. Vermont is by far the America East Conference’s best team, though that was also true last year when UMBC upset the favored Catamounts in the conference title game.
30. Team that will make the biggest jump from last year to this year: St. John’s. On the heels of season in which it finished tied for last in the Big East, St. John’s has an outside chance to leap from worst to first. The Johnnies boast a promising backcourt headlined by aggressive, shot-seeking Shamorie Ponds, Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron and do-it-all Justin Simon. If Chris Mullin and his staff can get this roster playing cohesively, this could be the best St. John’s team in awhile.
31. Team that will take the biggest fall from last year to this year: Wichita State. Thanks to the graduation of a handful of key seniors, Landry Shamet entering the NBA draft and Austin Reaves unexpectedly transferring, Wichita State is unusually shorthanded. Forward Markis McDuffie is the only returner to average more than 5.3 points per game last season. It’s never wise to count out a Gregg Marshall team, but the Shockers seem to lack the firepower to contend in their league or return to the NCAA tournament.
32. Given UCLA’s combination of returning production and incoming talent, this is a no excuses season for Steve Alford. At minimum, the Bruins should contend for the Pac-12 crown and comfortably make the NCAA tournament. UCLA has the potential to accomplish even more than that if Jaylen Hands grows into the point guard role and the big, athletic Bruins defend with more gusto than previous Alford-era teams typically have.
33. Tennessee returns nearly every key player from last season’s 26-win co-SEC champs, but the Vols may have a hard time making the jump from very good to elite. This is a team that made up for a lack of coveted recruits or NBA prospects last season by playing with relentless effort and unusual defensive cohesion. That suggests to me there may not be enough room for growth to facilitate a leap to No. 6 in the preseason poll.
34. New coach who will have the most immediate success: Xavier’s Travis Steele. A step back is inevitable for Xavier after claiming a No. 1 seed for the first time in school history last March, but the Musketeers return enough rotation players to again contend for a NCAA bid. Point guard Quentin Goodin and breakout candidates Paul Scruggs and Naji Marshall form a nucleus capable of leading Xavier to an upper-division finish in a rebuilding Big East.
35. New coach who will have the most long-term success: Tough call between Louisville’s Chris Mack and UConn’s Dan Hurley, both of whom are poised to win despite inheriting scandal-tainted programs facing looming NCAA sanctions. Give Mack a slight edge if only because he has already proven he can recruit at a high level despite the uncertainty hanging over his program. Louisville has six Class of 2019 commitments, five of whom are consensus top 100 prospects.
36. New coach who will be fired first: Cal State Northridge’s Mark Gottfried. No hire inspired more eyerolls than Northridge putting its faith in Gottfried. The school had the audacity to suggest there were “no red flags whatsoever” despite Gottfried’s ties to agent Andy Miller and his former program entanglement in college basketball’s federal probe. Here’s betting the NCAA feels differently and in the next year or two, Northridge is left with no choice but to admit hiring Gottfried was a mistake.
37. Stop with your “Who can end Kansas’ Big 12 title streak?” headlines. There’s not another Big 12 team in the Jayhawks’ class this season. Kansas State is a rock-solid top 20 team and West Virginia could emerge if its guard play is good enough, but neither has enough to finish ahead of Kansas in the Big 12 standings.
38. Maui Invitational prediction: Duke over Gonzaga
39. Charleston Classic prediction: Virginia Tech over Purdue
40. 2K Empire Classic prediction: Syracuse over Iowa
41. Legends Classic prediction: St. John’s over Temple
42. Battle 4 Atlantis prediction: Virginia over Wisconsin
43. NIT Season Tip-Off prediction: Kansas over Tennessee
44. Advocare Invitational prediction: Villanova over Florida State
45. Wooden Legacy prediction: Utah over Miami
46. Las Vegas Invitational prediction: North Carolina over Michigan State
47. It’s a testament to the strength of the Villanova program that the Wildcats are a fixture in the preseason top 10 in what figures to be a transition season. Their four leading scorers from last year’s national championship team are all in the NBA and their decorated 2019 recruiting class won’t arrive until next summer, yet they’re still the favorite to win the Big East and a threat to return to the Final Four.
48. Don’t discount last year’s national runner-up Michigan as a Big Ten title threat despite all the Wolverines lost from that team. The Wolverines’ defense should be excellent once again, and I trust John Beilein to figure out how to squeeze the most out of an offense featuring returning standout Charles Matthews, promising freshman Ignas Brazdeikis and breakout candidate Jordan Poole.
49. Coach who will be in demand next spring: Nate Oats, Buffalo. With six of his top seven scorers back and a four-star freshman set to arrive, Buffalo has a stacked roster capable of building on last year’s 27-win season that included an NCAA tournament thrashing of favored Arizona. If the Bulls fulfill expectations, their 44-year-old third-year head coach could be a strong candidate for a vacant power-conference gig.
50. Coach who will be out of work next spring: Ernie Kent, Washington State. Kent was a peculiar choice when he was hired four years ago and he’s done little to prove he’s the right man for the job ever since. Not only are the Cougars 18-54 in the Pac-12 during his tenure, they’ve yet to win more than 13 games in any of those four seasons. The Pac-12 preseason poll projected Washington State dead last in the league this season. If Kent doesn’t drastically exceed those expectations, the university’s patience will likely run out.
51. You probably won’t see college basketball’s best returning NBA prospect in the NCAA tournament next March. Arkansas’ Daniel Gafford has a chance to be a lottery pick because of his Clint Capela-esque ability to block shots, defend the perimeter, run the floor and finish above the rim. But the athletic big man may not be ready to carry rebuilding, freshman-laden Arkansas to an upper-half SEC finish.
52. Three starters return from Loyola-Chicago’s feel-good Final Four appearance, but the Ramblers will have to overcome some scheduling challenges to earn the chance to prove that run was no fluke. Since most name-brand programs were hesitant to schedule them, Loyola has only one non-conference matchup with a 2018 NCAA tournament team (Nevada) and potentially only one game against a power-conference foe (Maryland). Unless the Ramblers capitalize on those opportunities, their margin for error to put together an at-large-caliber resume will be paper-thin.
53. Syracuse won’t be sweating out Selection Sunday this season, nor will the Orange put viewers to sleep in the NCAA tournament. Same long, suffocating zone defense, far more firepower on offense. Look for the newcomers to ease the pressure on Tyus Battle and Oshae Brissett to carry the scoring load night after night.
54. The biggest victory for new Memphis coach Penny Hardaway this season may come away from the court. If Penny outduels John Calipari for stud recruit James Wiseman, the Tigers will add the 2019 class’ No. 1 prospect to an already strong recruiting haul, serving notice that they’re on their way back to national relevance.
55. Flagship programs VCU and Dayton are in transition. Last year’s league champ Rhode Island also appears likely to take a step backward. Where does that leave the Atlantic 10 then? In jeopardy of sending two or fewer teams to the NCAA tournament for the second straight season. A-10 title contenders Saint Louis, Davidson and Saint Joe’s show promise, but this again looks like a down season for a league that landed as many as six bids as recently as 2014.
56. Exhibition loss that’s a sign of things to come: Augusta 77, South Carolina 72. South Carolina star Chris Silva took himself out of the game with silly fouls, fellow frontcourt starter Maik Kotsar vanished for long stretches and suspect point guard play contributed to 16 turnovers. If the veteran frontcourt doesn’t consistently step up, the Gamecocks are headed for a second straight bottom-third finish in the rugged SEC.
57. One of the most heartfelt ovations of the season will come whenever Texas star Andrew Jones makes his return to the floor. The promising NBA prospect hasn’t played since being diagnosed with leukemia last January.
58. College basketball’s leading scorer this season might be a 5-foot-9 senior guard ignored by power-conference programs out of high school. Not only has Campbell’s Chris Clemons averaged 25 points per game both of the past two seasons, he might have even more of a green light as a senior since his team’s second-leading scorer transferred last spring.
59. College basketball’s premier rim protector will be a 6-foot-8 forward who doesn’t look the part. West Virginia’s Sagaba Konate isn’t as tall as most elite shot blockers, nor does he boast a freakish wingspan, but he atones for his modest physical stature with a combination of fearlessness, instinct and uncanny timing.
60. Mid-major star whose name you’ll know by March: Kellan Grady, Davidson. On the heels of a season in which he averaged 18 points per game in a complementary role to forward Peyton Aldridge, Grady will now become Davidson’s go-to guy. The 6-foot-5 sophomore guard might already be the Atlantic 10’s best player and has the potential to be selected in the NBA draft someday.
61. College basketball fans weary of the federal investigation will get no respite. It will remain a dark cloud hanging over the sport, especially for the dozen or so scandal-tainted programs ensnared thus far.
62. NCAA president Mark Emmert will continue to laud the “sweeping reforms” implemented based on the Rice commission’s recommendations. Not a single one of them will actually halt the river of dirty money flowing through college basketball.
63. The ACC will win its challenge against the Big Ten for a third straight season, but this time it will be a lot closer than last year’s 11-3 trouncing. That was the largest margin of victory in the 19-year history of the event.
64. First-team All-Americans: G Carsen Edwards (Purdue), G R.J. Barrett (Duke), F Rui Hachimura (Gonzaga), F Dedric Lawson (Kansas), F Ethan Happ (Wisconsin)
65. Second-team All-Americans: G Tremont Waters (LSU), G Tyus Battle (Syracuse), F De’Andre Hunter (Virginia), F Grant Williams (Tennessee) C Luke Maye (North Carolina)
66. Early men’s Final Four projections: Kansas, Kentucky, Gonzaga, Virginia
67. Early women’s Final Four projections: Notre Dame, UConn, Oregon, Mississippi State
68. Most 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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