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Big 12 Conference Reset: Will the league get eight Dance cards?

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College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.

To help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?

Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?

What have we learned about the conference hierarchy, and what is left for us to figure out?

We break it all down here.

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the Big 12.

MIDSEASON BIG 12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Trae Young, Oklahoma

The McDonald’s All-American said before the season that the weight of expectation of being a star freshman from his hometown program wouldn’t be a pressure point for him this season. Boy, was he not lying. Young has been nothing short of spectacular in the first two months of his career, not only earning him Midseason Big 12 Player of the Year honors here, but making him our frontrunner for National Player of the Year. The 6-foot-2 freshman is leading the Big 12 in scoring (28.7) and assists (10.7) while shooting 48.5 percent from the floor and 41.1 percent from 3-point range. That’s helped the Sooners to rush out to a 10-1 start to the season to put last year’s 11-20 record well in the rear-view. Young has not only out-shined fellow freshman phenom Mo Bamba of Texas but established veteran stars like Kansas’ Devonte Graham and West Virginia’s Jevon Carter. He has been, simply, remarkable.

THE ALL-BIG 12 FIRST TEAM

  • TRAE YOUNG, Oklahoma
  • JEVON CARTER, West Virginia: Carter was about a 30 percent 3-point shooter is first two years at Morgantown, but upped that to 38 last season and he now sits at 40.6 percent as a senior. That’s made him on of the Big 12’s best scorers – on top of being its best perimeter defender. He’s averaging a league-best 3.7 steals per game for Press Virginia.i
  • DEVONTE GRAHAM, Kansas: Many’s preseason Big 12 player of the year frontrunner, Graham hasn’t quite lived up to that hype or slid into Frank Mason’s shoes, but he’s been quite good. He’s been one of the Big 12’s most efficient offensive players while averaging 16.8 points and 7.6 assists.
  • UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas: The 7-footer has been a terror on the offensive end with an effective field goal percentage of 77.9, tops in the country. He’s also among the Big 12’s best rebounder, averaging eight per game while ranking in the top five in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. He’s also one of the conference’s top shot blockers.
  • MOHAMED BAMBA, Texas: One of the country’s top recruits hasn’t been a major offensive threat, averaging 10.9 points per game, but he’s been one of the country’s best rebounders and shot blockers. He’s turning away more than four shots of game for a block percentage of 16.6, a top-10 mark nationally. He’s also averaging 9.8 rebounds per game with a defensive rebounding percentage of 27.1

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Kansas, West Virginia, Texas Tech, TCU, Baylor, Oklahoma, Texas
  • NIT: Kansas State, Iowa State, Oklahoma State
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: None
Trae Young (Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. THE LEAGUE IS A MONSTER: The Big 12 has been KenPom’s top-ranked conference for four-straight seasons, and it’s seemingly a lock to finish again this season. The difference in ranking between the Big 12 and the second-place ACC is as bigger than the gap between the ACC and the fifth-place Big Ten. Nine of the league’s 10 teams rank in the top-50, and the 10th team, 76th-ranked Iowa State, has won nine-straight with three of those wins coming against top-100 opponents.

Kansas is probably the only team that’s viewed as an elite-tier team with a healthy shot at the Final Four, but the league’s strength comes from its middle and back ends. Texas is the only team with more than two losses, and its setbacks came to Duke, Gonzaga and Michigan. TCU, generally considered a second-tier contender, is undefeated with wins over SMU, St. Bonaventure and Nevada. The consensus bottom three of the conference, Kansas State, Iowa State and Oklahoma State, are a combined 29-6. With its round-robin schedule, the Big 12 will undoubtedly be appointment viewing nearly every time its teams take the court over the next three months.

2. KANSAS IS THE FAVORITE, BUT HAS THINGS THEY STILL NEED TO WORK OUT: For 13 years one of the biggest pastimes for Big 12 observers has been to pick apart Kansas and find the reason this will be the year the Jayhawks won’t be league champs. No reason has been big enough yet during this amazing title streak. That’s likely to be the case once again this season, but that doesn’t mean the Jayhawks aren’t without issues.

The most glaring issue is obviously the frontcourt. Udoka Azubuike has been really good in his return from last season’s injury, but beyond the 7-foot sophomore, the Jayhawks’ roster just isn’t quite built right inside. Svi Mykhailiuk has been good, but he’s out of position at the four. He’s not the problem, though. The 6-foot-8 sharpshooter makes for a strong stretch-four, but the issue is that Jayhawks don’t have any other legit options at that position right now, making them predictable and susceptible to a smart gameplan.

3. TCU IS ASCENDANT: Jamie Dixon’s departure from Pittsburgh made sense in a narrow way. The Panthers had plateaued some in Jamie Dixon’s last five years, and after 13 years with Pitt, fans were getting a wandering eye. In a broader way, though, Dixon’s departure from Pitt was crazy dumb for the Panthers. To give up a coach of his caliber for, no offense to Kevin Stallings, a coach that was petering out at Vanderbilt made no sense.

As silly as it seems for Pitt to push Dixon toward the exit, it made perfect sense for TCU to scoop him up. The Horned Frogs were wallowing in the Big 12 since its move to the conference on the strength of their football program, and Dixon, a TCU alum, provided the perfect mix of credibility, talent and fit. Now, after winning the NIT in his first season, Dixon has the Horned Frogs undefeated and looking like a potential threat to Kansas in Year 2. TCU made the decision to prioritize basketball, and Dixon is paying immediate dividends.

THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. WHO’S THE STRONGEST CONTENDER?: We all now Kansas is the frontrunner. It doesn’t matter that the Jayhawks have roster issues or that they dropped back-to-back games in early December. They’ve got the talent, Bill Self and 13-straight Big 12 titles so it’s not really worth it right now to discuss anyone else as the favorite. But who’s got the best chance to threaten a streak matched only by John Wooden and UCLA?

Is it West Virginia? Bob Huggins has been knocking on the door since this Press Virginia transformation, and the Mountaineers have the ruggedness to win on the road in the Big 12. What about Oklahoma? Trae Young looks like a player capable of shifting the landscape of the league, and Lon Kruger is maybe the most underappreciated coach in the country. Can Shaka Smart and Texas breakthrough on the strength of Mo Bamba and an improved backcourt? What about Jamie Dixon’s undefeated TCU? Or 11-1 Texas Tech or the oft-underrated Baylor Bears? Kansas is No. 1, but there are six teams with a claim to top challenger.

2. ARE REINFORCEMENTS ON THE WAY FOR KANSAS?: We’ve laid out the issues, at length, about Kansas’ issues up front. But, as so often seems to be the case, Bill Self and Co. may have an Ace – or two – up their sleeves.

First is Silvio De Sousa, a top-30 forward from the 2018 class that is enrolling at Kansas at the semester break and could join the Jayhawks in a couple weeks if the NCAA rules him eligible, which Kansas has indicated it expects. The 6-foot-9 forward would immediately help bolster the interior. The other potential option is Billy Preston, who, after being suspended for KU’s opener, hasn’t played due to the questionable ownership of a car he was driving on campus. In Preston’s situation, too, Kansas has indicated they’re confident Preston will eventually suit up in Allen Fieldhouse. The five-star, top-20 recruit would provide instant help as well. If Kansas gets them both, they could be running at full strength come March.

3. IS EIGHT ENOUGH … OR POSSIBLE?: Could the Big 12 get 80 percent of its conference membership into the NCAA tournament? It seems unlikely, but it can’t be ruled out heading into Big 12 play. The league has been that strong in non-conference play, and given that computers love them now, that’ll likely not change as they continue to go after each other.

In 2015, the Big 12 got seven teams in the Big Dance, but an eighth, Kansas State, may have gotten that elusive bid had they avoided a disastrous 7-6 non-conference slate that came before an 8-10 Big 12 mark. If the standings fall like they did in 2015 with all 10 teams having solid non-con resumes, eight might be the number.

Jevon Carter (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. TRAE YOUNG WILL BE THE CONFERENCE’S TOP DRAFT PICK: Coming into the year, it would seem absurd to pick anyone in the Big 12 to go before Mo Bamba – and maybe it still is – but Trae Young has been so good for a long enough time that he could very well be the first player from the conference selected in June.

Bamba has the size and defensive prowess to be a difference-maker in the middle whether or not his offensive game catches up. He’s a safe pick. Young, though, looks to be something potentially special. He’s a huge scorer that distributes willingly and in volume. His teammates and coaches love him, and he’s a well-known workaholic. There may be some risk taking a guard making a quick rise his freshman season, but Young looks worth whatever pitfalls may lay ahead.

2. WEST VIRGINIA IS THE LAST TEAM STANDING IN MARCH: Press Virginia has been wildly successful – and interesting to watch – for Huggins’ program, but it hasn’t produced an NCAA tournament trip that’s extended past the Sweet 16. This is finally the year that changes.

Now, West Virginia’s style may not be suited for the rigors of March, but what it does to is ramp up the volatility of a game, which makes 40 minutes with the Mountaineers more about chance than a lot of other teams you’d encounter in the Big Dance. Behind Jevon Carter and a defense that is as relentless as any, West Virginia is going to at least the Elite Eight, while the rest of the league falls behind.

3. KANSAS ‘ STREAK FINALLY COMES TO AN END: lol jk no it won’t

Saturday College Basketball Recap: No. 7 Wichita State, No. 8 Texas Tech lose

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PLAYER OF THE DAY

It’s hard to argue with the performance that J.P. Macura had on Saturday. No. 11 Xavier went into Newark and knocked off No. 19 Seton Hall, 73-64, behind 27 points, five boards and three assists from Macura.

This win was particularly important for Xavier, who remain just a game out of first place in the Big East and in great position to make a run at getting a top three seed, which would mean they likely won’t have to play Villanova until the Big East title game. The loss is the second in a row for Seton Hall and the their third loss in four games.

THE REST OF SATURDAY’S STARS

  • CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue: Edwards finished with 22 points, eight assists, two steals and no turnovers as the No. 3 Boilermakers blew out Iowa on the road.
  • MALIK NEWMAN, Kansas: Newman finished with 24 points and seven boards, including a personal 7-0 run with three minutes left to help No. 10 Kansas remain in sole possession of first place in the Big 12 with a 70-67 win over Baylor.
  • BRYCE BROWN, Auburn: Brown finished with 28 points as Auburn erased a 14-point halftime deficit to knock off Georgia 79-65 and remain within a game of first-place in the SEC.
  • DEAN WADE, Kansas State: In a win over No. 24 Kansas State, TCU’s second-straight win over a ranked team, Wade went for 20 pints, six boards, six assists, two blocks and two steals.

TEAM OF THE DAY

Houston landed themselves their first marquee win of the season as they pounded No. 7 Wichita State in Houston, 73-59. Rob Gray led the way with 24 points and four assists, putting the Cougars in a position where earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament is feasible. There is still plenty of work left to do, but this is the start they needed.

The bigger question mark, however, is Wichita State, who also lost at home to SMU this week. The Shockers are nowhere near as good as many expected them to be. Their offense isn’t good enough to make up for the fact that they aren’t guarding anyone.

GAME OF THE DAY

Trae Young went for 48 points, 34 of which came after halftime as the Sooners erased a 19-point deficit, but thanks to a Kendall Smith three at the end of regulation, this game went into overtime. Young had shots at the buzzer in regulation and in overtime to win the game and missed both, as the Pokes escaped with an 83-81 win.

Young needed 39 shots to get those 48 points. We went through whether or not that is too many shots for him here.

WTF???? OF THE DAY

Iowa State, who can’t guard anyone and is probably the worst team in the Big 12 this season, knocked off No. 8 Texas Tech, 70-52. The Red Raiders have now lost three of their last four games – all of which came on the road – after winning at Kansas. Texas Tech is also now just 1-3 in the four games since Zach Smith broke his foot, but they also beat Baylor by 24 points and won at Kansas when Smith played 10 total minutes.

So you explain Texas Tech to me. Because I don’t get it.

WHAT ELSE DO YOU NEED TO KNOW?

The Florida Gators moved into sole possession of first place in the SEC thanks to a 66-64 win at No. 18 Kentucky on Saturday. It was hardly a pretty game – Florida shot 33 percent from the floor and 6-for-30 from three – but the Gators were able to hang on thanks to a questionable no-call in the final seconds.

No. 20 Clemson held on to beat Notre Dame at home on Saturday, 67-58, but missing out on a commitment from Zion Williamson wasn’t the only bad news of the day. Star forward Donte Grantham went down with a knee injury midway through the second half. He averages 14.3 points and 7.1 boards. Losing him would be disastrous for the Tigers.

No. 14 Arizona had to rally down the stretch, but the Wildcats did. Trailing by as many as 11 points late in the second half at Stanford, the Wildcats survived as Dorian Pickens missed a three at the buzzer. The win puts Arizona all alone in first place in the Pac-12.

Jalen Brunson scored 23 points and Donte DiVincenzo added 17 points off the bench as No. 1 Villanova blew out UConn in Hartford, 81-61.

No. 13 Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s both won, meaning that the Gaels still hold a one game lead over the Zags in the WCC. Nevada knocked off Boise State, giving the Wolf Pack a two-game lead in the Mountain West.

At this point, Pitt barely counts as ACC competition. But they are and No. 5 Duke beat them 81-54 tonight.

Jevon Carter went for 22 points and eight assists as No. 6 West Virginia knocked off Texas, 86-51. The game was closer than the final score indicates, as the Mountaineers pulled away late.

The star of the day for No. 12 Cincinnati was Gary Clark, who finished with 14 points, 14 boards, two assists, two steals and two blocks, in an 86-60 win over East Carolina.

Luke Maye went for 17 points and 11 boards to lead four players in double figures as No. 15 North Carolina held on to beat Josh Pastner and Georgia Tech, 80-66.

It ended up not being much of a game when the Big Ten invaded Madison Square Garden as No. 22 Ohio State put a beating on Minnesota, 67-49. Minnesota lost Jordan Murphy to an ankle injury in the game as well.

You Make The Call: Did Kentucky’s P.J. Washington get fouled?

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There was a controversial finish to Florida’s 66-64 win over No. 18 Kentucky in Rupp Arena on Saturday night.

Florida had taken a 45-37 lead on the Wildcats before Kentucky fought back, eventually pulling ahead before the Gators surged back in front. A pair of threes and a missed front-end set up a situation where the Wildcats had the ball, down 66-64, on the final possession of the game, leading to this play:

P.J. Washington drives to the rim and appears to get hit in the head by Jalen Hudson. Hudson initially gets his hand on top of the ball, but as Washington’s momentum carries him, Hudson rakes Washington across the face and pushes his head back with his elbow.

It’s not intentional, but the contact is clearly there.

Did the referees blow this call?

If they did, the call could end up determining the SEC regular season champion. Entering Saturday, both Kentucky and Florida were tied for the league lead at 5-1 in the conference. They play again on the season’s final weekend in Gainesville.

Norvell helps No. 13 Gonzaga bounce back to beat Santa Clara

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Zach Norvell Jr. scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half, and No. 13 Gonzaga bounced back from its first conference loss of the season to beat Santa Clara 75-60 on Saturday night.

Josh Perkins added 17 points on 6-of-7 shooting, Rui Hachimura scored 16 points and Killian Tillie had 12. Johnathan Williams had nine points and eight boards for Gonzaga (17-4, 7-1 West Coast Conference), including his 400th career rebound.

Two days after a 74-71 home loss to Saint Mary’s that ended Gonzaga’s six-game winning streak, the Bulldogs had trouble shaking the pesky Broncos (7-13, 4-4) until Norvell found his stroke after halftime.

Norvell made pair of 3s, a short jumper and a layup in the first 7 ½ minutes of the second half, scored on an offensive rebound as part of a 12-0 run, and then made a fast-break one-handed dunk to put the Bulldogs up 75-41.

It was Gonzaga’s 17th consecutive win over the Broncos and improved coach Mark Few’s record to 40-4 against Santa Clara.

KJ Feagin scored 21 points for the Broncos.

Unlike the first game between the teams this season, when Gonzaga built 27-point lead by halftime on the way to a win in Spokane, Santa Clara kept it close early despite struggling from beyond the arc.

The Broncos missed eight of their first nine 3-point attempts but were tied with 8 ½ minutes left in the first half following Josip Vrankic’s driving layup that had the crowd at Leavey Center roaring.

Part of the problem for Gonzaga was the Bulldogs’ inability to keep Feagin from getting to the basket. He had 12 points in the first 20 minutes, made three layups and tipped in his own miss to help Santa Clara close within seven at halftime.

BIG PICTURE

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs have not lost back-to-back games this season and looked good after a somewhat slow start. Norvell provided a huge boost but the Zags also got another big game from Hachimura, who has scored in double figures in nine consecutive games.

Santa Clara: Coming off a win at San Francisco, the Broncos made a splash in the first half at home to keep things interesting. They never had the Bulldogs on their heels, but it was a much better effort than their first meeting.

No. 10 Kansas rallies late to beat Baylor, 70-67

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LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Kansas coach Bill Self has relied on a four-guard lineup all season, one that is designed to attack the basket aggressively, draw fouls and get to the free throw line.

He was fortunate one of those four guards stepped up Saturday night.

Malik Newman scored seven of his game-high 24 points in the final minutes, bailing out the rest of his sluggish teammates, and Baylor turned the ball over on the last inbounds play as the No. 10 Jayhawks escaped with a 70-67 victory that kept them atop the Big 12.

“We were lucky,” Self said, “to have one guy out there putting defense on its heels.”

The Jayhawks (16-3, 6-1 Big 12) trailed 67-61 with 2:05 to go before Newman went on his scoring binge, giving them the slimmest of leads again. The Bears (12-7, 2-5) had a couple of chances after that, but Manu Lecomte missed a 3-pointer and a layup attempt high off the glass with three seconds left.

Devonte Graham added a pair of free throws before Baylor squandered a chance at the final shot.

“(Newman) put us on his back and all we needed was to get those stops,” Graham said, “and we did.”

It was the Jayhawks’ 11th consecutive win over the Bears, who have never won in 16 tries in Lawrence. It was also the closest Baylor has come during any of those games.

Graham finished with 15 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. Udoka Azubuike had 14 points and seven boards, but he was just 4 of 11 from the foul line and missed two crucial ones late.

Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. had 14 points and 12 rebounds before fouling out for Baylor. Nuni Omot added 14 points and Lecomte had 10, though he was 3 of 12 from the floor and 1 of 8 from the 3-point arc.

“Very frustrating. We’re as good a team as them. We know we can beat them,” Lecomte said. “They’re a really good team. They never give up. Next time we have to make sure we keep that lead.”

Allen Fieldhouse has been Baylor coach Scott Drew’s personal house of horrors — the closest he had come to winning had been the Bears’ 73-68 loss last season. And when the Jayhawks opened the game by making their first seven shots and taking an 18-5 lead, it looked as if this one would be no different.

It took Drew burning through nearly all his timeouts to settle Baylor down.

Shots eventually stopped falling for Kansas as the Bears picked up their defensive pressure, and their deficit dwindled to 32-26 before a late flurry left them in a 38-27 halftime hole.

Kansas began the second half determined to get Azubuike the ball in the paint, and he made good on his first couple of chances. But when he failed to execute a few times in a row, Self greeted him during a timeout with, “Are you kidding me?” — spiced up with an extra word.

The Jayhawks still led 52-47 midway through the second half when Baylor went on a 16-4 run.

Omot started it with a bucket in the paint, but it was seven free throws by the senior forward that did the real damage. Lual-Acuil’s basket with 4:39 left gave Baylor a 61-56 advantage.

The Bears scored on nine consecutive possessions down the stretch.

Newman finally turned the momentum, though. He converted a three-point play and a nifty drive on a run-out, then knocked down another basket to give Kansas a 68-67 lead with a minute left.

“When the game is on the line, Coach always says that players make plays,” he said. “I was just trying to be aggressive and we came out with a win.”

HONORING JO JO

Kansas honored two-time All-American Jo Jo White with a video tribute before tipoff. The seven-time NBA All-Star, whose jersey hangs from the Allen Fieldhouse rafters, died Tuesday at the age of 71.

BYE, BYE BILLY

Kansas freshman Billy Preston signed with a pro team in Bosnia on Friday, ending any chance the five-star prospect will play for the Jayhawks. Preston had been held out all season while the school looked into the finances of the car he was driving during a November accident.

BIG PICTURE

Baylor has lost its last five games to the Jayhawks by a combined 20 points, no doubt adding to Drew’s frustration. Six of the Bears’ seven losses this season have come against ranked teams.

Kansas has won five straight to grab ahold of the Big 12 race, though none of them have been very comfortable. The Jayhawks’ winning streak has been by a combined 18 points.

Zion Williamson’s commitment gives Duke perhaps its best recruiting class ever

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Zion Williamson ended his recruitment and committed to Duke during a ceremony in his high school on Saturday night. The five-star forward from Spartanburg, SC is the most popular high school basketball player since LeBron James, drawing tens of millions of YouTube views and sellout crowds around the country to watch him play.

Landing a top-five prospect and a 6-foot-6, 275-pound forward like Williamson is a huge get for the Blue Devils. It’s also a bit of a shocker to see Duke win this recruiting battle for Williamson as in-state Clemson was considered by many to be the favorite to keep the local star at home. Williamson became a legend in South Carolina, playing to giant crowds, winning multiple state titles and constantly getting recognized in public.

The local stardom turned national and eventually international. Drake got a customized Williamson jersey at one point. When Williamson went to Italy for the Adidas Eurocamp he was recognized there on the street. Millions of people witnessed Williamson’s Las Vegas showdown with LaVar and LaMelo Ball at the Adidas Summer Championships.

And although Williamson is a top-five talent who should help make Duke a better team in the ACC, he gives them perhaps their best recruiting class of all time. Williamson joins R.J. Barrett, Cameron Reddish and Tre Jones in the Class of 2018 recruiting haul. Many scouting services have some combination of Barrett, Reddish and Williamson as the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 prospects in the country. Jones isn’t far behind and still in the top ten.

Watching Barrett, Williamson, Reddish and Jones play together is going to be absolutely fascinating on so many levels. It’s four playmakers who are all talented with the ball in their hands and Barrett, Reddish and Williamson are all potential multi-positional players.

The basketball community has plenty of debates about how Williamson’s NBA stock will play out and how his intriguing skill level will be used at the college level. Watching Williamson live is like seeing a Pro Bowl defensive lineman who explodes off the ground for violent dunks. He’s been compared to throwback players like Larry Johnson and Charles Barkley.

What position will Williamson play? Will Williamson be at his best with the ball in his hands on offense? How will Williamson’s inconsistent perimeter jumper look? Will that perimeter jumper allow Williamson to play on the wing? Can Williamson power through bigger players at the college level? A man among boys at the high school level, Williamson will face legitimately-sized competition at every turn next season.

Duke is going to be riveting to watch no matter where Williamson plays. Williamson could wind up being a star at the college level who has legitimate NBA question marks. The Blue Devils have a potential all-conference player on their hands. We won’t know how Williamson truly looks until he’s fully in-shape and running with an offense that has been suited to help him succeed. Since Williamson has been battling injuries for his senior season, he hasn’t been at his best basketball shape all season. But once Williamson gets healthy and dialed in, he could be one of college basketball’s most fascinating case studies in recent memory.

The Blue Devils have a shocking amount of talent once again next season. It could be their best recruiting class ever — which is really saying something for a Coach K team in the one-and-done era. Now how will it all come together?