The 68: Everything you need to get you fired up for the return of college hoops
Finally -- mercifully -- college basketball is back in full starting on Tuesday night.
With that in mind, and with all that we have given you for previews through the last months -- from top 25 countdowns to positional breakdowns to the bets that you simply cannot live without -- here our the final tidbit: the things we cannot wait to see, the things we don’t want to see and the things that have us fired up for college basketball already.
These are those 68 things:
1. ACTUAL BASKETBALL GAMES
Covering college basketball for the last 14 months has meant writing about FBI investigations, drastic rule changes, ill-advised commissions and trials mean for the future of the sport and the integrity of something that has been all about the money for as long as I can remember.
Studying the NCAA rulebook, pretending that I have any clue about how the legal process works and discussing why breaking the morally-reprehensible NCAA amateurism by-laws is actually a federal crime? These are not the things that I signed up to do when I got this job.
That all changes this week!
For the first time in exactly 217 days -- and for the next five months -- I will be watching and writing and talking about actual real live college basketball action!
That is ...
2. ... UNLESS THESE OTHER TWO TRIALS ACTUALLY HAPPEN
Just one of the three trials that stemmed from the FBI’s investigation into corruption on college basketball has actually happened, but we already have seen three defendants get found guilty -- former Adidas executive Jim Gatto, former Nike and Adidas rep Merl Code and a former runner for an NBA agent in Christian Dawkins.
All three of them were found guilty on all charges, and if you listened to the podcast I recorded with an actual, real life lawyer, you’ll see that there is very little wiggle room here from a legal perspective.
It is still too early to know exactly how all of this is going to play out, but if I had to guess right now, I would put my money on the three people that have been found guilty negotiating a deal that would swap leniency for cooperation in the two upcoming trials, the ones involving the former assistant coaches at Auburn (Chuck Person), Arizona (Book Richardson), USC (Tony Bland) and Oklahoma State (Lamont Evans).
That, combined with the fact that the judge in the first trial more or less threw out the only shot that these guys have at a defense, I would expect those men to take pleas as well.
And if all of that happens, will we still get the dirt that the FBI has stored in evidence?
But what I do know is that my hopes of a drama-free, basketball-only season will go up in smoke if those trials actually happen. The first -- Person’s -- is scheduled to take place in February.
3. THE CHAMPIONS CLASSIC IS GOING TO BE AS AWESOME AS EVER
College basketball tweaked their rules a bit this season. Instead of having the season begin on a Friday night, with the Champions Classic marking unofficially launching the year on the fifth day of the season, the NCAA allowed the sport’s premiere double-header and the best night of college hoops this side of the Final Four to operate as the sport’s opening night.
What that means is, beginning at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, we will have three of the top four and four of the top ten teams in the same building.
No. 1 Kansas takes on No. 10 Michigan State in the opener. No. 2 Kentucky squares off with No. 4 Duke in the nightcap.
It’s going to be an unbelievable night of hoops in Indianapolis, and there is so much that I’m looking forward to seeing there.
4. DUKE’S FORAY INTO THE NBA’S VERSION OF SMALL-BALL
This is the major question. On the one hand, the Blue Devils have three of the consensus top five -- and four of the top 15 when you include Tre Jones -- players in the country in this recruiting class. There’s a non-zero chance that R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish end up being the top three picks in the 2019 NBA Draft come June. It is not often that we see that much talent on one roster.
But it is also worth noting here that the 2018 recruiting class is not considered to be all that good, at least not in comparison to, say, the top of the 2017 or 2016 classes.
That’s before you get into the question of how, exactly, all those players are going to fit together on the court at the same time. On the one hand, Duke’s roster looks an awful lot like the best in the NBA -- they have a point guard, a trio of switchable wings that can create for themselves and athletic, rim-running bigs -- but as good as those four newcomers are, they are all at their best with the ball in their hands. Is there enough shooting on this roster to keep the floor spaced? Are these guys good enough without the ball in their hands?
We’ll have an answer by Wednesday morning.
5. ZION WILLIAMSON
Barrett, at this point, is the favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft, and deservedly so. He’s really good. That’s why he’s the NBC Sports Preseason Player of the Year. Reddish may actually be the guy with the highest ceiling in this class, depending on who you ask, and his ability to be a shot-maker on the perimeter makes him something of the x-factor for this Duke team.
But it’s Zion that every whats to see. He’s the most famous college basketball player that we’ve seen in a long, long time, a testament to the power of social media and how just how incredible it is for a 6-foot-7, 280-pound person to do the things that he can do athletically. He’s the ultimate in highlight reels and mixtape culture. The question is whether or not that physical ability can manifest in basketball success. He’s a better passer and ball-handler than he gets credit for, and his shooting stroke is not as bad as it’s seemed in the past.
There is no chance that he can possibly live up to the hype that he’s bringing with him, but he’s still a damn-good player that will provide more highlights-per-minute than anyone in the history of the sport.
6. HOW THIS KENTUCKY TEAM COMES TOGETHER
As much as I am excited to see all the talent that Duke will have on display, I don’t think that there is a team that I’m as excited to follow this season as Kentucky.
That’s because there are so many questions that I have about this team. They go nine-deep, and all nine of those players are A) good enough to start and B) not quite good enough that they have to start. Put another way, I have no idea what the best five will be for this group. Will it be the team that is built on defense and rebounding -- which will likely feature Ashton Hagans, Keldon Johnson and Reid Travis -- or will it be their five-best scorers -- where Quade Green, Tyler Herro and E.J. Montgomery see the court?
I can’t remember a team that I was this high on entering the season that had more differences between their best scoring lineup and their best defensive lineup. There are fascinating positional decisions that John Calipari will have to make as well. For example, Keldon Johnson is the perfect complimentary piece for any roster, but if he plans on using Quade Green off the ball, it will mean that either Johnson or Tyler Herro is forced to the bench. In the frontcourt, Travis and Washington are the two best players, but Nick Richards actually fits the mold of a Calipari big man better than either of them.
Calipari is as good as anyone at finding a way to get all his pieces to fit together. How he does that this year will be fun to follow.
7. THE INEVITABLE TYLER HERRO SHOW
All that said, I think Herro ends up being the leading scorer for this Kentucky team. Not only is he the best shooter on the roster and easily their most dangerous perimeter scorer, but in the games that the Wildcats have played to date -- both in the Bahamas (where he led the team in scoring) and in their exhibitions -- Herro has played the role that Calipari asked Malik Monk, Jamal Murray and Kevin Knox to play. He’s the one running off of screens and pindowns. He’s the one being schemed shots in Kentucky’s offense. There’s a reason for that.
8. THE FRESHMEN NO ONE TALKS ABOUT: NASSIR LITTLE AND COBY WHITE
We’ll get back to the Champions Classic in a second, but while the freshmen on Duke and Kentucky are getting all the buzz heading into the season, a pair of McDonald’s All-Americans down in Chapel Hill aren’t getting nearly enough attention.
Nassir Little is the name NBA folks will want to know. He fits the prototype for precisely the kind of player the NBA is searching the world for: He’s 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan. He can defend just about any position in the college game, and he’s made great strides in what he’s capable of doing offensively. If Barrett doesn’t end up being the first pick in next June’s draft, Little will very likely be the reason why.
Coby White may actually be more important to North Carolina’s cause this season, as he is in line to takeover starting point guard duties for this team. The leading career scorer in the history of North Carolina high school basketball, White has been a little bit up-and-down through the two exhibition games, but he fits the Tar Heel point guard mold well.
9. AND NEITHER OF THEM ARE EVEN THE BEST PLAYER ON THAT TEAM: LUKE MAYE IS
Is there a better story in college basketball than Luke Maye?
Maye, a three-star prospect, committed to North Carolina as a walk-on because it was his dream school -- he grew up a Tar Heel fan because his dad played quarterback there -- and their last scholarship offer was held by Brandon Ingram. He was a seldom-used player as a redshirt sophomore before hitting the jumper that sent the Tar Heels to the 2017 Final Four; they won the national title that year. The following season, he developed into an all-american and, heading into this year, he’s on the short-list for National Player of the Year.
10. OH, AND WHILE TALKING FRESHMEN, I NEED TO MENTION ROMEO LANGFORD AND INDIANA
For people outside the state of Indiana, it’s hard to overstate just how much Romeo means to the Indiana program.
He’s the biggest high school basketball star the state has seen in at least a decade. He made a run at setting the state’s scoring record. There were lines more than an hour long to get his autograph at road games. He’ll arrive in Bloomington as the face of a program that Archie Miller has on the brink of returning to the top 25 and the NCAA tournament.
The best part?
He’s probably not even the best player on the team. Senior big man Juwan Morgan is, and his presence should help take the pressure off of Langford, who is going to have enough on his shoulders this season. The Hoosiers are a sneaky-good team.
11. THE RETURN OF DEDRIC LAWSON
The last time we saw Lawson play games that mattered, he was putting up monster numbers -- 19.2 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 3.3 apg, 2.1 spg, 1.3 bpg -- for a Memphis team that wasn’t very good. The first time we saw him play in a Kansas uniform, he looked ... ever better? Lawson averaged 24.5 points and 10.5 boards in a pair of exhibition wins this fall, and he projects as the perfect four for this program as ...
12. ... BILL SELF TRIES TO REMEMBER HOW TO PLAY WITH TWO BIG MEN
That’s the most interesting thing about Kansas this season. For the last two years, Self’s style of play has been forced. In 2016-17, Carlton Bragg’s ineffectiveness and the presence of three five-men on the roster forced Self out of his comfort zone and into a lineup that featured Josh Jackson at power forward. Last year, Billy Preston’s absence meant that it was LaGerald Vick and Svi Mykhailiuk that split time at that spot.
This season will be different. For the first time since Perry Ellis’ 17th season at Kansas, the Jayhawks have a power forward that can do all of the things that Self wants his power forwards to do. Lawson might as well be named Dedric Morris, and I fully expect him to be the best player on this team and, potentially, a national title contender.
We’ll get our first glimpse at it in a game that matters on Tuesday night against Michigan State.
13. SPEAKING OF KANSAS, THEY HEADLINE THE LOADED PRESEASON NIT
Outside of the Maui Invitational, this will be the best exempt event during the month of November. The Jayhawks, the No. 1 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25, will be joined by No. 7 Tennessee, No. 25 Marquette and new-look Louisville.
14. SPEAKING OF TENNESSEE, HOW DO THEY HANDLE BEING THE HUNTED?
The Volunteers put together one of the most surprising and impressive seasons in recent memory in 2017-18, as they went from being picked 13th in the SEC preseason poll to winning a share of the regular season title. Rick Barnes returns essentially every member of that team, including reigning SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams, which is why Tennessee is a consensus preseason top ten team and a favorite to win the national title.
How do they handle that kind of expectation? What happens when the Vols become the team that everyone circles on their calendar? As Northwestern proved to us last season, that’s a heavy burden to carry.
15. SPEAKING OF MARQUETTE, THEY CAN LIVE UP TO (MY) LOFTY EXPECTATIONS ... IF THEY DEFEND
With Markus Howard and Sam Hauser on the floor, the Golden Eagles will always have one of the nation’s most dangerous offenses. They are one of just five programs to finish in the top 12 of KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric in each of the last two seasons. The problem? Last year, they slotted in at 184th in defensive efficiency. That’s egregiously bad.
Get stops, win games. If they do, this is a team that is a threat to go a long, long way in March.
16. SPEAKING OF LOUISVILLE, CHRIS MACK’S FIRST SEASON SHOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE
The buzz about Louisville entering this season has mostly been about the recruiting class that Mack has been able to put together despite the fact that he’s in his first season at a program that has been dragged through the mud by the FBI scandal and that may still face sanctions for the recruitment of Brian Bowen.
But it’s also to important to remember two things -- there still is a good bit of talent on this roster, and Mack’s track record should make it easy to buy in to the idea that he can get the best out of this roster.
17. AND FINALLY, SPEAKING OF MACK, THE TRAVIS STEELE ERA STARTS AT XAVIER
Here are the last five head coaches at Xavier: Pete Gillen, Skip Prosser, Thad Matta, Sean Miller and Chris Mack. That lineage is on par with just about any program in the country, and Steele is the next in that pipeline. He’ll start his head coaching tenure without J.P. Macura or Trevon Bluiett, but Mack left him with enough talent that a trip to the NCAA tournament should not come as a surprise.
18. THE STAR TURN FOR MICHIGAN STATE’S JUNIOR CLASS
I’d be remiss if I didn’t finish up the discussion of the Champions Classic with some talk about the fourth member of the event, the Michigan State Spartans.
It’s a big year for a trio of juniors on that roster -- Cassius Winston, Nick Ward and Joshua Langford. Winston had looked like an all-american in the past, and that’s been backed up by the fact that he’s one of the most efficient point guards in the country, even with some turnover issues. Ward and Langford are where the bigger questions lie.
Langford’s issues are somewhat straight-forward -- he’s not quite athletic enough to be a scoring guard that can turn the corner and get all the way to the rim, but offensively he’s settled into a role as something of a mid-rage jump-shooter. Not ideal.
Well, he can’t seem to find a way to stay out of Tom Izzo’s doghouse. He’s uber-productive when he’s on the floor, but he hasn’t averaged more than 20 minutes a night in East Lansing to date. Those three will determine whether or not MSU wins their second straight Big Ten title this season.
CHAMPIONS CLASSIC ISN’T THE ONLY GOOD GAME THIS WEEK:
- 20. NORTH CAROLINA AT WOFFORD: The Tar Heels lost to the Terriers last season, and they did so at home. Keep on eye on Fletcher Magee in this one, who has a shot at breaking the NCAA three-point record. And props to Roy Williams, who is playing on the road against mid-major opponent.
- 21. FLORIDA AT FLORIDA STATE: The battle for supremacy in the Sunshine State features a top 20 team in the Seminoles and a team with sneaky-Final Four upside in Florida.
- 22. BYU AT NEVADA: The Wolf Pack are a top ten team, but BYU -- who has Yoeli Childs and will return Nick Emery this year -- is no slouch.
- 23. BUFFALO AT WEST VIRGINIA: Buffalo might be the best mid-major program in the country this season, while West Virginia will be looking to replace their starting backcourt.
- 24. WASHINGTON AT AUBURN: The reigning SEC co-champions taking on the team that many believe is actually the best team in the Pac-12.
25. THE MAUI INVITATIONAL SHOULD BE AWESOME AGAIN
We alluded to this earlier, but easily the best event during the month of November will be the Maui Invitational. Gonzaga is there. Duke is there. Auburn is there. All three of those teams are in the top ten as of today, and that’s before we even mention Arizona, Iowa State, San Diego State, Illinois or Xavier. A loaded field with countless storylines is the perfect way to kick off Thanksgiving week.
26. GONZAGA’S NON-CONFERENCE SCHEDULE
The Zags are going to be awesome this season, but the way that they perform during the non-conference is going to be so important for them. As always, they play a WCC schedule that is not going to impress anyone, but they made up for it this season with an absolutely loaded non-conference slate; Mark Few knows what it will take to get a No. 1 seed this year.
They play Texas A&M on a neutral. They play in the Maui, which opens with a game against Illinois where, with a win, they’ll get either Arizona or Iowa State and then, in all likelihood, one of Duke or Auburn. (Can we please get a Duke-Gonzaga title game? One time?) They’re at Creighton and North Carolina. They host Washington and get Tennessee a neutral court. That’s a lot of really good teams.
27. KILLIAN TILLIE’S RETURN
Everything I’ve written this preseason about Gonzaga has centered around two things: Rui Hachimura’s breakout and Josh Perkins proving he’s a title-winning point guard. But with the news that Tillie will miss two months with an ankle injury the narrative for Gonzaga changes: Can this team win the games they need to win to get a No. 1 seed without Tillie on the floor until January?
28. WASHINGTON-GONZAGA SHOULD BE AWESOME
Speaking of this, the rivalry between Gonzaga and Washington is back on and will be phenomenal this season. Washington looks like the favorite to win the Pac-12. They’ll play in Spokane against the Zags on Dec. 5th. Buckle up.
THE REST OF THE TEAMS IN MAUI HAVE FASCINATING STORYLINES, TOO:
- 29. AUBURN: The Tigers are coming off of a shocking run to an SEC regular season title. How will they handle the return of Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley? Will the health of Anfernee McLemore mean more? And how will they deal with what happens if/when former assistant Chuck Person goes on trial?
- 30. ARIZONA: Like Auburn, Arizona might end up having a former assistant coach on trial during the season. Unlike Auburn, Arizona does not return a single starter from last season.
- 31. LINDELL WIGGINTON: The Iowa State star might be the least-appreciated player in college basketball ...
- 32. JALEN MCDANIELS: ... if this San Diego State star isn’t.
33. SINCE WE’RE ON THE MOUNTAIN WEST, NEVADA SHOULD BE AWESOME
The Wolf Pack will be must-see TV this year, as they return a team that sits in the top ten of the preseason polls. You like scoring? Well, Nevada has nine scholarship players on their roster that are fourth- or fifth-year players, and eight of those nine averaged double-figures their last season in college hoops. That doesn’t include Jordan Brown, their McDonald’s All-American freshman.
34. HOW LONG WILL ERIC MUSSELMAN STAY IN RENO?
Nevada has a very real chance of getting to the Final Four this year, and given just how much talent will depart the program during the offseason, the question has to be asked: Will Eric Musselman be on the road recruiting for Nevada come next spring? It’s not hard to imagine that one of the high-major jobs that opens up in March and April will look to hire a guy with NBA pedigree that has proven he can rebuild programs, bring in transfers and recruit five-star players.
35. NEVADA’S REMATCH WITH LOYOLA-CHICAGO
The Wolf Pack reached the Sweet 16 of last year’s NCAA tournament, where they were dropped by Loyola-Chicago as the Ramblers made it all the way to the Final Four. They’ll face off again on Nov. 27th, as Porter Moser looks to prove to the doubters that his team should remain in the mix for the top 25 despite the fact that he lost three key pieces from last year’s team.
36. THAT’S NOT THE ONLY FUN REMATCH FROM LAST YEAR’S TOURNAMENT: MICHIGAN-VILLANOVA
In a rematch of last season’s national title game, the Wolverines square off with the Wildcats that will look entirely different from the last time we saw these two teams play. Villanova lost Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman. Michigan lost Mo Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson. That’s arguably the seven-best scorers that were on the floor during that title game.
That doesn’t mean the cupboard is going to be bare, however. Both teams enter this season in the preseason top 25 because ...
37. CHARLES MATTHEWS
I’m torn on how to feel about Matthews, the Kentucky transfer. He was a really good defender last season that averaged better than 13 points but that never really seemed to get a total grip on how to be a go-to guy in the John Beilein offense. He will be the John Beilein offense this season, and how he carries that weight on his shoulders will be the difference Michigan returning to the tournament and disappointing their fanbase.
38. PHIL BOOTH AND ERIC PASCHALL
Paschall has been the guy that has gotten all the hype this offseason, as he is built for the NBA. He’s got the positional size and the physical tools (wingspan, athleticism, versatility, etc.), and he’s proven he can be a knockdown three-pointer shooter. He’s an NBC Sports Preseason All-American.
But Booth might end up being the leading scorer for Villanova. A fifth-year senior, Booth is known as being a scoring guard and as proven as much on a big stage; he had 20 points in the 2016 national title game win over North Carolina. He also had 41 points in Villanova’s scrimmage against the Tar Heels.
39. VILLANOVA PROVING DOUBTERS WRONG
I have the Wildcats fifth in the preseason, and that is absolutely going to be the highest anyone has them. If Jay Wright has proven anything in his career, it is that he can turn his veterans into all-americans and NBA players. Booth and Paschall are the next in line, and that’s before you factor in this year’s loaded recruiting class, a trip of sophomores that are ready for a bigger role and the addition of Albany transfer Joe Cremo. Best against Villanova at your own risk.
40. THE BATTLE 4 ATLANTIS WILL MAKE YOU WATCH HOOPS IN A BALLROOM AGAIN
There isn’t much in this world that I find funnier than putting on the TV every Thanksgiving week to watch some of the best teams in college basketball player on a makeshift court in a ballroom at a resort in the Bahamas.
This year’s event is as good as ever, as Virginia, Wisconsin, Florida, Butler and Stanford will provide more than enough intrigue to make you tune in.
41. VIRGINIA’S BOUNCE BACK
I probably don’t need to remind you about how Virginia’s season ended in 2018. What I do need to remind you about, however, is that the Wahoos return Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome from that team while adding Alabama transfer Braxton Key, who averaged 12 points as a freshman in the SEC.
Tony Bennett has a terrific team once again, one that not only has NBA-caliber players but features a pair of potential All-Americans in Guy and Hunter.
42. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT TY JEROME
Guy is the player on Virginia that everyone knows, partly because he was the skinny white kid that shot a bunch of threes and played with a top-knot when he was a freshman. Hunter is the other player that everyone knows, because he is the future lottery pick that missed ‘that game’. But Jerome might end up being an NBA player in his own right, if not a critical piece for this Virginia team.
He’s a heady point guard with deep three-point range that knows his way around a ball-screen. He’s the new London Perrantes, and he might actually be better.
43. GREG GARD PROVING HIMSELF AT WISCONSIN
This is the year for Greg Gard. If he doesn’t get it done this season it might be time to start questioning whether or not it’s going to happen for him with the Badgers. Ethan Happ is back for what should be his third-straight All-American season. Brad Davison is back to lead the country in floor burns, and his shoulder should be healthy, too. Kobe King should be healthy. D’Mitrik Trice should be healthy. The only key piece that won’t be back to start the season is Aleem Ford, who’s hurt.
And while last season was a disappointment, it’s important to remember the way things ended last season. The Badgers won five of their last eight games, and two of those losses were dogfights against Michigan State. I think this is the year we realize that Gard is can be a caretaker for the Badgers, and it will start in the Bahamas.
44. THE JALEN HUDSON SHOW AT FLORIDA
With Chris Chiozza and Egor Koulechov gone, there are going to be a lot of shots available for Florida players. I expect Jalen Hudson, who does love to shoot the ball, to soak up quite a few of those. I would not be surprised to see him lead the SEC in scoring as a senior.
45. PRESS VIRGINIA’S SURVIVAL
Losing Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles will be difficult for any program to overcome, but none moreso than West Virginia, as those two were the engine that made Press Virginia run. I have no idea how he’ll make it work, but until proven otherwise, I’m going to ride with Bob Huggins. He’ll figure something out.
46. THE PENNY ERA
Like Mack at Louisville, the hype surrounding the Penny era has had more to do with what he’s done on the recruiting trail that what is expected of his entering this season. It’s wild when you think about it: Memphis is ranked outside the top 100 at KenPom, yet they are going to sell out every home game as they watch their most famous basketball product lead their beloved basketball program to, what, a fifth-place finish in the AAC?
47. THE DANNY HURLEY ERA
Hurley is not a UConn alum or a Connecticut native, but he’s revitalized an AAC fanbase starved for success just like Penny has. And with a roster that includes Jalen Adams and Alterique Gilbert, we might get the Huskies returning to relevance quicker than their Memphian counterparts.
48. THE UCONN-SYRACUSE RIVALRY IS BACK ON
There is no dynamic quite as fascinating in college basketball as the battle for ownership of New York City between UConn fans and Syracuse fans. Both schools have massive alumni bases in the city, and there is no environment quite as tantalizing as a UConn-Syracuse game played in Madison Square Garden. It’s electric when they both stink. Imagine what it will be like when UConn, like Syracuse, is good again.
This year, they’ll play at MSG on November 15th in the opening round of the 2K Classic. Good luck getting a ticket, Oregon and Iowa fans.
49. IS BOL BOL ACTUALLY GOOD?
Speaking of Oregon, they have the most fascinating freshman in the country this season. Bol Bol is the 7-foot-3 son of Manute Bol and a shot-blocking specialist that also happens to be a lethal three-point shooter. The question is whether or not he will ever be consistent, or if he loves basketball enough to shake his hot-and-cold tendencies. When his motor is running, he’s such a unique and talented prospect that it’s hard to imagine him failing to make an impressive impression.
50. KANSAS STATE
The Wildcats are one of the bigger question marks this season. I love the potential, I love Dean Wade and I love Barry Brown, but this is also a team that didn’t do anything impressive until they beat a No. 5 seed Kentucky in the Sweet 16 last season. Why should we be all that impressed? (Because they’re awesome.)
51. MUSTAPHA HERON, SHAMORIE PONDS AND JUSTIN SIMON ON THE SAME TEAM
St. John’s is one of the most talented teams in the Big East, if not the country. Try to find a better one-two punch than Mustapha Heron and Shamorie Ponds, and try to find a perimeter attack that has a better third member that the ever-underrated Justin Simon. Can this group push Villanova atop the Big East standings?
52. USC’S KEVIN PORTER
There may not be a freshman flying further under the radar that Kevin Porter, who looks like he’ll end up being a one-and-done by the time his first year at USC comes to a close.
53. NEBRASKA’S RUN TO THE TOURNAMENT
The Cornhuskers finished last season 23-8 and 13-5 in the Big Ten, but because of the way that their schedule shook out, they missed the NCAA tournament. This year, with Isaac Copeland and James Palmer back, they should be one of the teams that pushes for the top four in the Big Ten standings. Is this the season that finally gets Tim Miles off of the hot seat?
54. CHRIS BEARD’S ENCORE PERFORMANCE
Beard proved his coaching chops last season, taking Texas Tech to the Elite 8 as a No. 3 seed in a year where -- and I’ll go to my grave saying this -- the Red Raiders would have won the Big 12 regular season title outright had Keenan Evans not broken his toe. But Evans graduated, and Zhaire Smith ended up being a one-and-done player, which no one thought could happen. So how does Beard follow up what was a dream second season in Lubbock?
55. SO IS MISSISSIPPI STATE FOR REAL?
The Bulldogs have all the pieces on their roster this season. They have veterans. They have really good guards. They have size. They have NBA talent. They have a coach that has been to the Final Four. But that coach -- Ben Howland -- has seen every top 95 prospect that has played for him at Mississippi State transfer out of the program. He hasn’t coached a team that lived up to their potential since 2008. He hasn’t come close to an NCAA tournament in three seasons in Starkville. I need to see it to believe it.
56. WHAT ABOUT LSU?
I’m in a similar head space about LSU. I love Tremont Waters and what he can bring to a team offensively, and it is impossible to argue with the talent that Will Wade has brought into the program, but do the pieces actually fit together? And while it feels gross even mentioning this, this program saw a member of the team get gunned down during a fight last month. I can’t imagine dealing with that.
57. AND TCU?
They are going to be one of the nation’s most efficient offensive teams, what with a pair of talented point guards in Jaylen Fisher and Alex Robinson and shooters in Desmond Bane and Kouat Noi. But can they guard?
58. AND FLORIDA STATE?
Like Kansas State, the Seminoles were just another borderline top 25 team last season before catching fire in the month of March and getting to the Elite 8. Does a pretty good team returning everyone really make them something more than pretty good again? It might.
59. DOES CARSEN EDWARDS HAVE A REAL CHANCE AT A PLAYER OF THE YEAR AWARD?
Edwards could end up leading the nation in scoring. I think he’s a pretty safe bet to be the highest-scoring high-major player this season. The problem, however, is that to have a real shot at being the National Player of the Year, he is going to need to be on a team that, at the very least, is a top four seed. History has proven that. Is Purdue actually a tournament team?
60. SPEAKING OF SCORING, THE RACE FOR 3,000 POINTS
There are a pair of mid-major stars that have both scored 2,322 points through their first three seasons -- you know about South Dakota State’s Mike Daum, but you probably don’t know about Campbell’s Chris Clemons. Both studs have a shot at becoming the ninth (or tenth) player to crack 3,000 career points in college. Who gets there first?
61. BUT MAKE SURE YOU FIND TIME TO WATCH JON ELMORE, TOO
Those two -- or Wofford’s Fletcher Magee, who we mentioned earlier -- might end up being the biggest mid-major scorers this season, but you need to make sure you dedicate some time to watching Marshall and Jon Elmore this season. Their style of play is the Phoenix Suns’ seven-seconds-or-else mantra on steroids, and Elmore -- who averaged 22 points and seven assists and shoots threes from 30-feet at any given moment -- is the engine that makes them run.
62. WESTERN KENTUCKY
Since we’re talking about mid-majors, keep an eye on Western Kentucky, who landed another top ten recruit in Charles Bassey. They were one of just two teams to go from outside the top 100 to the top 50 in KenPom’s rankings last season.
63. THE LEAGUE CHAMPIONS ARE ...
- ACC: Duke
- Big 12: Kansas
- Big East: Villanova
- Big Ten: Michigan State
- Pac-12: Washington
- SEC: Kentucky
64. THE PLAYERS OF THE YEAR ARE ...
- ACC: R.J. Barrett, Duke
- Big 12: Dedric Lawson, Kansas
- Big East: Markus Howard, Marquette
- Big Ten: Carsen Edwards, Purdue
- Pac-12: Jaylen Nowell, Washington
- SEC: Grant Williams, Tennessee
65. FIRST-TEAM ALL-AMERICA IS ...
- R.J. Barrett, Duke
- Carsen Edwards, Purdue
- Tyus Battle, Syracuse
- Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga
- Dedric Lawson, Kansas
66. THE FINAL FOUR IS ...
67. THE NATIONAL CHAMPION IS ...
68. FIGURING OUT HOW TO STAY WARM IN MINNEAPOLIS IS ...
Can we keep the Final Four in the warm weather cities where I don’t need to invest in a parka in April?