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Pac-12 Conference Preview: Will the FBI investigation overshadow a promising season?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Pac-12.

The Pac-12 won’t have nearly as much star power this season.

Losing the No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks after one season would hurt any league but the Pac-12 is also hurting after only four teams made the 2017 NCAA tournament.

While Arizona remains a national title contender and USC is a darkhorse candidate to do a lot of damage nationally, UCLA and Oregon are building on the fly with a lot of new pieces.

Outside of the four NCAA tournament teams, the league still faces a lot of postseason uncertainty as unproven players and new head coaches are featured throughout the league.

There might not be a superstar like Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball but there are still plenty of reasons to stay up late for Pac-12 hoops this season.

Allonzo Trier (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Arizona is in position to make a Final Four (if they can stay focused)

Arizona is going to be one of the most fascinating teams to follow in recent memory this season thanks to a very talented roster and some intriguing off-the-court storylines.

To start with the product on the hardwood, this team is good enough to be in the running for preseason No. 1. Allonzo Trier is back, as the preseason All-American will be counted on to be one of the nation’s premier scorers. The junior guard is good enough to put the Wildcats on his back with dominant scoring stretches against great teams, but he’s also prone to playing hero ball and freezing out his teammates. If Trier can find a healthy balance between the two then he’s a darkhorse Player of the Year candidate.

Trusting teammates shouldn’t be difficult for Trier this season since he has so much talent around him. After a solid freshman campaign that saw him average double-figures, Rawle Alkins is back on the perimeter. Senior point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright doesn’t put up big numbers but he’s a steady veteran ball-handling presence who can knock down perimeter jumpers.

The interior sees the return of stable senior center Dusan Ristic, an efficient double-figure scorer who doesn’t get enough credit nationally for his post-scoring skill. Energy senior big man Keanu Pinder is back to give a lift off the bench with his high-motor play.

And then there is the incoming freshman class has some ridiculous talent and depth.

CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke

Once considered the No. 1 player in the country, 7-foot center Deandre Ayton is a freak athlete who has surprising touch for a player his size. Think about Dwight Howard, Andre Drummond, Greg Oden and DeAndre Jordan. All of those guys can dominate athletically on the interior at 7-feet-tall but none of them have shooting touch outside of the paint. They’re all awful from the free-throw line. Ayton is different in that regard. He has the touch to extend his range to at times knock down three-pointers while also shooting around 80 percent from the charity stripe over a 20-game span in the Nike EYBL.

The huge question with Ayton is his motor. Sometimes Ayton is motivated enough to run through all of the nation’s elite big men (including Duke’s Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter) at Peach Jam in succession. Other times, he barely shows up and it doesn’t look like he wants to play basketball. Whichever Ayton that Arizona gets could dictate this team’s true ceiling.

Besides Ayton, Miller did a great job of stockpiling the roster with additional depth at multiple spots. Five-star wing Emmanuel Akot is an intriguing athlete at wing forward who could be a boost defensively and on the glass. Brandon Randolph is a 6-foot-6 perimeter threat with a beautiful-looking jumper who might provide much-needed floor spacing. Ira Lee is a consensus top-100 prospect who can give energy minutes.

But how will this team fit together? Does Ayton get enough touches to stay consistently hungry to be great? Will any of the other freshmen be good enough to be more than role players?

The on-court questions are riveting enough. Now also factor in that Arizona is also one of four programs who had an assistant coach — Emmanuel “Book” Richardson — arrested as part of the FBI’s investigation into bribery in college recruiting practices. The Wildcats just lost a five-star point guard for next year, Jahvon Quinerly, in recruiting. Clearly, this isn’t an issue that is going away anytime soon and the Wildcats will have to get used to hearing about it for the foreseeable future. How they handle all of the off-the-court drama – especially with five freshmen – could determine their season.

We went deep on Arizona’s prospects this season here.

Big Ten Preview | ACC Preview | Big 12 Preview | Pac 12 Preview
Chimezie Metu (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

2. USC is absolutely loaded

One of the teams to watch out west this season will be USC as the Trojans return a ton of talent from a team that advanced to the NCAA tournament. Six players return who made at least 18 starts last season, including the senior backcourt of point guard Jordan McLaughlin and shooting guard Elijah Stewart.

The duo can both shoot, they’re comfortable with head coach Andy Enfield’s system and they’re a major part of a very balanced roster. Up front the Trojans get even scarier. Junior forward Chimezie Metu was one of the nation’s prominent breakout players last season as he’s a great athlete on both ends of the floor. After missing half the year, junior Bennie Boatwright provides floor spacing and rebounding at 6-foot-10.

Sophomore guard De’Anthony Melton is a valuable defender and glue guy and junior wing Shaqquan Aaron started 20 games last season. USC’s wealth of backcourt riches continues with sophomore Jonah Mathews.

The newcomers USC adds also gives them that extra boost to be a national player this season. It didn’t work out at Duke for point guard Derryck Thornton, but after sitting out a transfer season, he is a valuable guard to have in the rotation as he provides steady ball handling and perimeter defense.

McDonald’s All-American wing Charles O’Bannon Jr. also joins the Trojans, going across town from where his father starred in Westwood. The younger O’Bannon gives USC another potential wing scorer and perimeter shooter as they’ll be deep on the wing and on the perimeter.

Frontcourt depth could be a concern for USC. The Trojans can go to a lot of small-ball lineups if needed but there isn’t a lot of dependable size outside of Metu and Boatwright. Sophomore Nick Rakocevic played some solid minutes but he can also be inconsistent. Freshmen like Jordan Usher and 6-foot-11 Victor Uyaelunmo are also unproven.

If this group can stay healthy and get a lift from the new guys then the Trojans should have all the pieces in place to make a run at the second weekend.

MOREThe Enigma of Miles Bridges | NBC Sports Preseason All-American Team
Jordan McLaughlin (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

3. UCLA has a lot of new faces (and a new Ball brother) on a talented team

There are reasons to pay attention to UCLA this season but the Bruins won’t be nearly as engrossing as the Lonzo Ball-led group of last season.

For one, Lonzo is with the Lakers now. The Bruins still have a Ball brother — freshman LiAngelo, the middle of the three brothers — but he’s a shooting guard who hasn’t displayed nearly as much promise as his older brother. More on him in a minute.

UCLA loses a lot but there is also a lot to like. Senior big man Thomas Welsh is back manning the middle as he’s a consistent double-double threat who can provide spurts of really good offense. Junior guard Aaron Holiday is back after being arguably the nation’s best player off the bench last season. A tenacious defender who can play on or off the ball, Holiday could have a huge year now that he’ll be the team’s most experience perimeter player.

And, once again, head coach Steve Alford has a top-flight recruiting class coming into Westwood. LiAngelo, a three-star prospect, might actually be the lowest-rated member of the six-man group. Point guard Jaylen Hands and 6-foot-8 wing Kris Wilkes are both very athletic McDonald’s All-Americans who should be counted on to produce right away.

Hands doesn’t play with the unselfishness of Lonzo by pushing the ball ahead with the pass, but he’s a very aggressive downhill guard. If Hands can show a workable perimeter jumper then he should still be a major boost to a UCLA offense that wants to continue to play fast. Wilkes can be electric on the wing in the open floor and he has the type of scoring prowess to be a double-figure guy from day one. If frontcourt freshmen like Cody Riley and Jalen Hill can give Welsh some help then UCLA should remain stable in the frontcourt as well.

But the big question for this team (besides the obvious one of replacing Lonzo at point) might actually be perimeter shooting. The Bruins should be adequate. They were elite last season.

Lonzo, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton all made at least 74 triples last season — with the first two on that list both being at least 41 percent. T.J. Leaf was a stretch option who nailed 46 percent of his three-pointers. This year’s UCLA team brings back a solid 41 percent three-point shooter in Holiday but they’re actually going to need LiAngelo to come through and be a floor spacer to have an offense nearly as capable as last season.

And that doesn’t even factor in how many easy looks UCLA got last year by having unselfish floor leaders who loved to move the ball. Lonzo’s unselfishness could be contagious. Hands can be a scoring guard who will sometimes set up others but he hasn’t necessarily shown an ability to get others easy looks on a regular basis.

UCLA still has a high ceiling and a bevy of young talent. They’ll put up a lot of points on some nights, and this year’s team might actually be more athletic on the perimeter. But it’ll be nearly impossible to replace the nightly magic last year’s Bruins seemed to produce on the way to a Sweet 16.

This team should be fascinating.

RELATEDACC Preview | Perry Ellis All-Stars | Contender Series
Steve Alford (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

4. Oregon needs its newcomers to be productive

Coming off of last season’s Final Four appearance things will be dramatically different at Oregon this year. Five double-figure scorers have departed, along with dependable rotation guard Casey Benson. It’ll be hard to replace the energy of Jordan Bell (arguably the best player in the 2016 NCAA tournament), the versatility of Pac-12 Player of the Year Dillon Brooks and the scoring ability of Tyler Dorsey.

Payton Pritchard will be a huge key for the Ducks. After a freshman season that saw him play more minutes and with more production than many had probably envisioned, now Pritchard is Oregon’s best returning player from last season’s roster. Likely responsible for running point, Pritchard needs to improve his shooting efficiency and consistency but he’s also capable of getting hot from deep and he’s coming off a strong summer after making the USA U19 World Cup team. Senior forward Roman Sorkin and sophomore Keith Smith are the only two returning players besides Pritchard from last season’s team. The rest of the roster will be based off the play of newcomers.

Transfers will be a huge part of Oregon’s season. New Mexico transfer Elijah Brown enters the backcourt picture and he’s provided production everywhere he’s gone. The major question with Brown is his ability to play intelligent and winning basketball. McKyle McIntosh was a solid grab from Illinois State as he is a versatile two-way forward who plays with a solid motor. After sitting out most of the last two seasons, Paul White is hoping to remain healthy and help on the interior as he brings a high skill level to Oregon from Georgetown.

Credit head coach Dana Altman for also bringing in a solid group of newcomers as this freshman class should also help. Las Vegas native Troy Brown is a five-star perimeter threat who is versatile enough to play multiple positions with a good degree of skill. The frontcourt should also get some help from 6-foot-7 Abu Kigab, who averaged a double-double for the Canadians during the FIBA U19 World Cup this summer.

Obviously a lot of things need to fall into place for the Ducks but they at least have a known point guard in Pritchard and athleticism and versatility at multiple positions like Altman craves out of his rotation. Oregon needs to find some rim-protecting big men who can eat up minutes on the interior but they should be talented and experienced enough to make it back to the tournament.

Final Four Sleepers | Louisville | Villanova | West Virginia | USC | Wichita State | Miami
Dana Altman (Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

5. Will another team step up and make the NCAA tournament? 

For as good as the top teams were in the Pac-12 last season, the rest of the league was pretty dreadful by power conference standards.

Three teams played in the NIT last season, Cal, Colorado and Utah, and all three got hit hard with players leaving the roster. Five teams from the league missed the postseason completely as many of the teams in the conference are still in rebuilding mode.

Perhaps the teams with the best chance at a breakthrough in the Pac-12 this season is Stanford. We know that junior forward Reid Travis is one of the best frontcourt players in the nation while senior Dorian Pickens is a double-figure scorer. But the Cardinal need to be more consistent. Senior big man Michael Humphrey is hit or miss and point guard Robert Cartwright will be pushed if he doesn’t improve his mediocre shooting.

Stanford also has intriguing young talents like four-star prospects Daejon Davis and Kezie Okpala entering the picture. Davis should push for backcourt minutes early as his athleticism is a huge boost while Okpala is an intriguing long-term prospect on the wing at 6-foot-8. Redshirt freshman Kodye Pugh is also one to keep an eye on.

But even with all of that talent, Stanford has been woefully inconsistent when it comes to scoring and perimeter shooting. They need a lot of work in that department to make a run.

Other teams have intriguing parts about them but the giant question marks are just as glaring. Utah has been a consistent presence in the top half of the Pac-12 and David Collette is back but there are holes in other spots. Arizona State and Oregon State both have talent but many of their players are either unproven or coming off of poor showings last season.

It’s hard to say if the Pac-12 can improve and get more than four teams in the 2018 NCAA tournament but nobody outside the top four really stands out at the moment.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON PAC-12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Allonzo Trier, Arizona

It was a strange junior year for Trier, as he had to sit out the first 19 games of the season. He had to wait until late January to play and still put up numbers against only Pac-12 and NCAA tournament competition. With a full season of being in a rhythm and knowing his teammates, Trier could be in for a huge junior season as the guard has the ability to take over a game with his scoring.

THE REST OF THE PAC-12 FIRST TEAM

  • Chimezie Metu, USC: The league’s most improved player last season, Metu is a bouncy double-double threat who is capable of impacting the game above the rim on both ends.
  • Deandre Ayton, Arizona: Ayton could be a dominant one-and-done freshman this season as he’ll be one of the most athletic 7-footers the college game has seen in years.
  • Reid Travis, Stanford: Healthy and thriving, the junior forward was the only Pac-12 player to be in the top five in scoring and rebounding last season.
  • Jordan McLaughlin, USC: Overshadowed in a league that featured the top two picks in this year’s draft, McLaughlin has a chance to break the USC career assist record this season.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • Rawle Alkins, Arizona
  • Aaron Holiday, UCLA
  • Bennie Boatwright, USC
  • Thomas Welsh, UCLA
  • Payton Pritchard, Oregon
Aaron Holiday (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR: Aaron Holiday, UCLA

Overshadowed by Lonzo Ball, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton a season ago, Holiday could have a huge year during his junior campaign. Even though Holiday saw his minutes decrease as a sophomore, he became a far more efficient shooter as he finished at 48 percent from the floor and 41 percent from three-point range. The interesting thing with Holiday this season could be which role he plays. If he plays more on the ball, then Holiday needs to decrease his turnovers. Off-the-ball, Holiday would need to become one of UCLA’s go-to scorers after the team lost so much firepower.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Sean Miller, Arizona

The Pac-12 doesn’t have a lot of traditional “hot seat” pressure from coaches who need to win to keep their jobs. A different kind of pressure is what Miller is dealing with in Tucson. Since Arizona still has yet to advance to the Final Four under Miller, he will continue to deal with scrutiny if he falls short of the final weekend in March. With a roster talented enough to be considered preseason No. 1 in the country by some, Miller has all of the pieces to make it to San Antonio. But he’ll have to deal with keeping a lot of players who want shots and minutes happy while also handling the black cloud of the FBI investigation looming over his program.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

Top teams like Arizona, USC and UCLA show promise but the Pac-12 had another disappointing year for NCAA tournament teams.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT

the Pac-12 Tournament. Since it moved to Las Vegas it has become one of the must-see college hoops events of the season thanks to an unbelievable atmosphere. And as a bonus, the Pac-12 can’t screw up the schedule like they did with the regular season.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • 11/23, Connecticut vs. Oregon (start of PK 80 in Portland)
  • 11/26, Texas A&M at USC
  • 12/5, Arizona vs. Texas A&M (at Phoenix)
  • 12/9, Arizona vs. Alabama
  • 12/16, Cincinnati at UCLA

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @Pac12Network

CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke

POWER RANKINGS

1. Arizona: This team has almost everything they could want to make a run. A senior point guard, a dominant All-American scorer, potentially unstoppable post scoring and depth at multiple spots. The sky is the limit for Arizona this season as they face the immense pressure to win a national title.
2. USC: Backcourts as experienced and deep as USC’s tend to do well in the postseason and not many in the nation will be better than Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart. Coupled with some scary upside in the frontcourt and this is a sleeper pick to make a really deep tournament run.
3. UCLA: UCLA continues to recruit at an elite level and it means they have the potential to have a big season once again. But this group needs to share the ball and continue to shoot at a high level if they want to reach the second weekend like they did last season.
4. Oregon: Interior production could be a key for the Ducks as they’re hopeful some young players can step up and provide minutes. Four-star freshman Victor Bailey is another big-time athlete who should compete for rotation minutes for a team that is still athletic and skilled.
5. Stanford: The Cardinal faltered down the stretch last season but five of the team’s top six scorers are back. Reid Travis is a Player of the Year candidate in the league while Dorian Pickens doesn’t get enough national love. Finding reliable (and healthy) role players around them is key.
6. Utah: The Utes were hit with some offseason departures but senior big man David Collette is back along with some other solid options. Point guard Sedrick Barefield gets a full season to lead and Collette has a lot of depth around him in the frontcourt.
7. Arizona State: Expect the Sun Devils to have one of the better backcourts in the league with three seniors in Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice. The frontcourt has major question marks as redshirt freshman Romello White and juco rim protector De’Quon Lake should help.
8. Oregon State: The Beavers bottomed out at 1-17 in league play last year as Tres Tinkle was hurt and a young team struggled. The good news is that Tinkle and nearly the entire roster is back. Top-75 recruit Ethan Thompson, a noted perimeter shooter, will be added to the rotation at guard.
9. Colorado: Four starters are gone from a 19-win team as the Buffaloes get a lot of fresh faces. Solid senior George King is back and the freshman class, potentially Tad Boyle’s best during his tenure, could dictate whether Colorado builds for the future or fights for the postseason now.
10. Washington: The Huskies don’t have the lottery pick talent of the past few seasons as Mike Hopkins takes over the beginnings of a rebuild. Junior wing Matisse Thybulle is back after a solid season while junior guard David Crisp can also produce. It’ll be fascinating to see how Hopkins coaches his own team and how much he takes from his time under Jim Boeheim.
11. California: New head coach Wyking Jones has a veteran frontcourt in senior center Kingsley Okoroh and Kentucky transfer forward Marcus Lee (a Perry Ellis All-Star) but the backcourt has giant question marks after nearly everyone left. Seeing if Jones tries to go uptempo while utilizing a full-court press is something to monitor for how Cal wants to play in the future.
12. Washington State: Underrated forward Josh Hawkinson is gone and the Cougars need a lot of new pieces to step up. Sophomore point guard Malachi Flynn showed promise last season as he has a chance to be a breakout player.

Northeast Conference Preview: Who survived after transfers gutted the league?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the NEC.

The NEC was absolutely brutalized by outgoing transfers this offseason. Of the 11 non-seniors that were on one of the three all-NEC teams, just four of them return to school. That includes three first-team all-NEC sophomores, but I’m not sure anyone in all of college basketball got hit quite as hard this offseason as Mount St. Mary’s head coach Jamion Christian did.

Coming off of an NEC regular season title and his second trip to the NCAA tournament in the last five years, Christian saw three key pieces opt to leave. Elijah Long, a sophomore guard that was a first-team all-league player and the Mount’s leading scorer a season ago, transferred to Texas. Miles Wilson, the team’s third-leading scorer and one of the best freshmen in the conference last year, transferred to Miami. Mawdo Sallah transferred to Kansas State.

The Mountaineers do return Junior Robinson, a 5-foot-5 dynamo that will be one of the most entertaining players in the mid-major ranks, as well as Greg Alexander, but Christian is going to have his work cut out for him.

With Mount St. Mary’s – and Robert Morris, another perennial power in the league that is dealing with the loss of a star player (Isaiah Still) transferring – the favorite is probably St. Francis (PA). The Red Flash, despite losing Josh Nebo to Texas A&M, return Isiah Blackmon and reigning Freshman of the Year Keith Braxton. They return the most talent of anyone that finished in the top half of the league.

Fairleigh Dickinson is a team to keep an eye on as well, although it will be tough for them to overcome a pair of their own transfers, as Stephen Jiggetts is now at South Florida and Earl Potts left school. But Darian Anderson returns, as does Mike Holloway and Darnell Edge.

Despite losing their top two scorers from last season, LIU Brooklyn should also be back in the mix. Jashaun Agosto returns for his sophomore season after a promising freshman year while Joel Hernandez, who averaged double-figures as a junior, is back after missing last season through injury. Bryant could find their way into the mix as well, although Nisre Zouzoua’s transfer was a massive blow.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

 PRESEASON NEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Darian Anderson, Fairleigh Dickinson

Anderson is the leading returning scorer in the NEC this season, and he’ll be playing on a team that will be competing for the league title. With the Knights losing their second- and third-leading scorers from last year, Anderson is going to have more of the offensive load to carry.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-NEC TEAM

  • Junior Robinson, Mount St. Mary’s: Robinson is the second-leading returning scorer in the conference, and with the Mount losing so much, the 5-foot-5 point guard will be asked to do a lot.
  • Keith Braxton, St. Francis (PA): Braxton was the best freshman in the conference a year ago.
  • Isiah Blackmon, St. Francis (PA): Blackmon was a third-team all-NEC performer as a sophomore.
  • Joseph Lopez, Sacred Heart: Lopez is back to anchor a front line for the most veteran team in the league.

PREDICTED FINISH

1. St. Francis (PA)
2. Fairleigh Dickinson
3. LIU Brooklyn
4. Robert Morris
5. Mount St. Mary’s
6. Bryant
7. Sacred Heart
8. Wagner
9. Central Connecticut State
10. St. Francis-Brooklyn

Ohio Valley Conference Preview: A trio of teams lead the way

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Ohio Valley Conference.

Two-time OVC player of the year Evan Bradds has graduated, but Belmont remains one of the favorites to claim another conference title.

The first task for the Bruins will be figuring out how to replace or replicate Bradds’ bucket-getting that powered the offense to a 23-win season. Amanze Egekeze and Dylan Winder would both seem to be the natural heirs after posting effective field goal percentages over 60 last year. Like Bradds, both are terrors on the inside, shooting better than 65 percent on 2-pointers, but also have a dimension that Bradds didn’t – 3-point shooting, with Egekeze converting 38.7 percent and Winder 40.2 percent from distance. Without the high-usage Bradds on the roster, both will likely see huge increases in roles, with guard Austin Luke setting them up.

Murray State suffered its first losing season in over 30 years when they went 16-17 last year in Matt McMahon’s second season since succeeding Steve Prohm, but the Racers appear to be on track for an immediate bounce back. Some of the struggle last year can be attributable to plain old bad luck as Murray State went 0-4 in the regular season in overtime games and went 1-8 in games decided by five points or less. The Racers, though, will have to clean things up on the defensive end if they want to challenge for a league title. They were below-average in just about every single facet of the game on that end, and adding five freshmen into the mix may make real strides there difficult. Murray State does have, though, Jonathan Stark, who averaged nearly 22 points per game last season, and he’s a game-changer. They also added junior college standout Anthony Smith, which makes them a threat to capture the conference.

Jacksonville State didn’t look much like a spoiler heading into March last year when they finished with a 9-7 OVC record, but the Gamecocks reeled off three wins, including over league champ Belmont, in the conference tournament to snag an NCAA tournament bid. Second-team all-OVC guard Malcolm Drumwright returns for his senior season and to give coach Ray Harper another dangerous team. Seven-footer Norbertas Giga is also back after putting 30 on Louisville in the NCAA tournament. It will be critical for the Gamecocks to defend the 3-point line better this season. Between Giga and junior Christian Cunningham, Jacksonville State has solid rim protection, but allowed opponents to shoot nearly 38 percent from distance. Some of that is sure to just be variable, but bringing that number down will be a huge determinant of success.

Beyond that, the OVC is tough to project this season, as a number of last season’s contenders lost some key pieces. One group to keep an eye on: Eastern Kentucky. With Asante Gist and Nick Mayo returning, Dan McHale has one of the best 1-2 punches in the league.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON OVC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jonathan Stark, Murray State

The 6-foot guard returns after averaging 21.9 points in his first season with the Racers after transferring from Tulane. He got up nearly eight 3-point attempts per game, converting at a 42.5 percent clip. He’s the rare high-volume shooter that also plays efficiently.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON OVC TEAM

  • Malcolm Drumwright, Jacksonville State: All-conference guard will lead the charge for the Gamecocks to get back to the NCAA tournament.
  • Nick Mayo, Eastern Kentucky: A 39 percent 3-point shooter, Mayo scored 18.5 points per game last year.
  • Denzel Mahoney, Southeast Missouri: Mahoney was a breakout star last year as a freshman, putting up nearly 15 points per game and shooting 37.7 percent from 3.
  • Terrell Miller, Murray State: A double-double threat every night, Miller averaged 16 points and 8 rebounds per game.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @OVCSports

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Belmont
2. Murray State
3. Jacksonville State
4. Tennessee State
5. Eastern Illinois
6. Eastern Kentucky
7. SIU-Edwardsville
8. Tennessee Tech
9. Southeast Missouri
10. Morehead State
11. UT Martin
12. Austin Peay

2017-18 Missouri Valley Conference preview: Who steps up with Wichita State gone?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Missouri Valley Conference.

The biggest story regarding the MVC is the team that’s no longer in the league. Wichita State left the conference after winning at least a share of every regular season title since the league’s other stalwart, Creighton, bolted for the Big East in 2013. The Shockers’ departure is a serious blow to the conference, diminishing its national relevance and making it that much more difficult for the conference to earn a second NCAA tournament bid some years, and that was tough enough as evidenced by Illinois State’s exclusion after 28-7 (17-1) season last year.

The Shockers’ departure, though, does clear the way at the top of the league, and the program that may be best suited to fill the void is Northern Iowa, which has enjoyed the most success outside of Wichita State in the league in recent years. The Panthers had their first losing season in coach Ben Jacobson’s 11 years last year and lose all-conference wing Jeremy Morgan, but they look poised for a comeback season with Bennett Koch and Klint Carlson as potential all-league players. Jacobson’s teams have never been the most exciting offensive squads, but they’ve been efficient. That disappeared last year to a dearth of shooting. Adam McDermott, cousin of former Creighton national player of the year Doug McDermott, shot 40 percent from 3-point range at North Dakota before transferring to Cedar Falls and could help fix UNI’s shooting issues. If the Panthers can put the ball in the basket with more consistency, they could be looking at their third NCAA tournament in four years.

Despite going 17-16 overall and finishing in the bottom half of the MVC, Missouri State has the look of a contender this season thanks largely due to Alize Johnson, a first-team all-conference performer last year and the only returnee from the league’s top-two all-conference squads. Paul Lusk has three others returning from his 2016-17 starting lineup plus adds reinforcements from the transfer wire and junior college ranks. The defense will likely be the difference for the Bears, who were roundly mediocre at that end last season, allowing opponents to convert both inside and out.

Illinois State initially appeared as though it would be the team to step into the Shockers’ vacuum immediately, but, in addition to the scheduled departure of MVC player of the year Paris Lee to graduation, the Redbirds saw MiKyle McIntosh (Oregon) and Deontae Hawkins (Boston College) both headed out of Normal via grad transfer to put a serious damper on the team’s short-term prospects. Phil Fayne is the only starter back, but transfers Milik Yarbrough and Christian Romine should be able to make immediate impacts.

Loyola will also be in the mix with three returners – Aundre Jackson, Donte Ingram and Clayton Custer – who averaged in double-figures. The Ramblers rely heavily on the 3-point shot, but that trio of returners are all excellent from deep and should make the team incredibly dangerous on the offensive end.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

REALIGNMENT MOVES

  • In: Valparaiso
  • Out: Wichita State

PRESEASON MVC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Alize Johnson, Missouri State

The 6-foot-9 forward recorded 17 double-doubles, finishing the year averaging 14.8 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. He was one of the best defensive rebounders in the country last year as well as an inside-out threat, shooting 52.9 percent from inside the arc and 39.2 percent from outside it.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON MVC TEAM

  • Donte Ingram, Loyola: Shot 52.9 percent overall and 45.8 percent from 3-point range while averaging 13.6 points per game
  • Brenton Scott, Indiana State: A third-team all-conference performer last year, put up nearly 16 points and 5 rebounds per game.
  • Tevonn Walker, Valparaiso: The 6-foot-2 guard is the Crusaders’ best chance of instantly competing in a new league.
  • Bennett Koch, Northern Iowa: Needs to be more productive on the glass, but will be a big part of UNI’s offense

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @ValleyHoops

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Missouri State
2. Northern Iowa
3. Loyola
4. Illinois State
5. Southern Illinois
6. Valparaiso
7. Indiana State
8. Evansville
9. Bradley
10. Drake

American Athletic Conference Preview: Welcome, Wichita State!

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the American Athletic Conference.

The American gains a huge new program with the addition of Wichita State this season as head coach Gregg Marshall brings his highly-successful outfit into a bigger league.

Expected to compete for the league title right away, even after the leap in conference levels, the Shockers addition into the American gives the league a unique storyline that isn’t often seen in any level of sports.

Although Wichita State will be a big national focus, don’t sleep on teams like Cincinnati, UCF and SMU as those three teams are also making a push for the Big Dance.

RELATEDBig Ten Preview | ACC Preview | Atlantic 10Mountain West

Markis McDuffie (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. The American welcomes (a very good) Wichita State

Now we’ll finally get to see how good Wichita State will look playing in a multi-bid league. No disrespect to a tough Missouri Valley Conference but the American is going to be a much harder game-by-game league for the Shockers than anything they’ve dealt with over the past few years.

Luckily for Wichita State, they have the perfect roster loaded with depth and experience to make this leap upwards at this very moment. Following last season’s close Round of 32 loss to Kentucky, Wichita State only loses guard Daishon Smith as they bring back plenty of talented pieces.

The key for Wichita State’s season will be health of their stars, sophomore point guard Landry Shamet and junior wing Markis McDuffie. An All-American candidate if he is healthy and ready to play, Shamet suffered a stress fracture in his foot and had surgery in July, leaving his status slightly up in the air at the beginning of the season. Shamet is expected to make a full recovery and return by mid-November but his health is definitely something to monitor, especially since the Shockers have some unproven depth behind him at point.

Forward Markis McDuffie is coming off of a strong sophomore season that saw him lead the Shockers in scoring and rebounding, but he could miss a month of the season – if not more – recovering from a stress fracture in the navicular bone in his left foot. That’s the same bone that has derailed many basketball careers, including Joel Embiid. As versatile as any frontcourt player in the country, it wouldn’t at all surprise if McDuffie took an additional leap as a junior and was an all-conference performer once again.

Returning in the backcourt with Shamet is experienced shooter Conner Frankamp, who spent a season in the Big 12 at Kansas and shouldn’t be at all intimidated by the move up the American. Rugged three-year starter Zach Brown also returns as the team’s premier wing defender while another senior, Rashard Kelly, is also back to provide more depth. The team’s big men are also experienced as senior center Shaquille Morris has two solid season backups in Rauno Nurger and Darral Willis Jr.

Expectations are very high for Wichita State as many projections place them high in preseason top-25 rankings. Many have even picked the Shockers to win the American in their very first season in the league. Seeing how this entire team adapts to a new league is going to be one of the best early conference storylines to follow.

RELATED: Perry Ellis All-Stars | Final Four Sleepers | Louisville | Villanova | West Virginia


2. Cincinnati remains a major title contender

Very quietly, Cincinnati has become one of the most consistent programs in the country. Coming off of a 30-win season and a seventh consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, the Bearcats and head coach Mick Cronin have a very good thing going right now.

Losing the backcourt of seniors Troy Caupain and Kevin Johnson is going to hurt. Two of the winningest guards in program history, it will be tough for Cincinnati to move on without their consistent presence. The Bearcats are hoping that Sacred Heart transfer Cane Broome can be an adequate replacement. The nation’s sixth-leading scorer at 23.1 points per game two seasons ago as a sophomore, Broome will play a new role at point for Cincinnati. If Broome can maintain his double-figure scoring status while getting others good looks then Cincinnati actually might have a better offense than last year. Junior Justin Jenifer is a solid security blanket should Broome struggle as he’s also provided minutes at point backing up Caupain.

After a breakout sophomore campaign, Jacob Evans returns on the wing after putting up numbers across the board while shooting 41 percent from three-point range. Evans is an all-league threat who might be a Player of the Year candidate if he can make another leap in the scoring column. Johnson’s spot in the lineup will be filled by sophomore Jarron Cumberland, a tough bucket-getter who could also be a potential upgrade from an offensive perspective.

Cincinnati’s frontcourt is perhaps the league’s best as versatile senior forwards Gary Clark and Kyle Washington return. A former league Defensive Player of the Year, Clark is a huge presence on the floor for Cincinnati at both ends while Washington is springy enough to block shots on defense while being skilled enough to stretch the floor a bit on offense.

Besides replacing a point guard, depth is going to be a question for Cincinnati. The frontcourt depth is there, but many of the pieces like sophomores Nysier Brooks and Tre Scott and freshmen Mamoudou Diarra and Eliel Nsoseme are inexperienced. Besides for Jennifer, Cincinnati doesn’t have many proven perimeter players who can come in and give a lift.

We know that Mick Cronin teams always have a chip on their shoulders and they’ll play physical and defend. Despite a 30-win season, nobody from the Bearcats was first-team All-AAC last season. Wichita State is getting all of this positive buzz now as the new guy. You think that doesn’t make Cincinnati angry? If the Bearcats can stay healthy then they have the offensive pop to be a really scary team this season.

Mick Cronin (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

3. SMU can still be a factor despite losing so much

Coming off of a 30-win season of their own, SMU has to replace a lot of proven scoring from Semi Ojeleye, Ben Moore and Sterling Brown. Losing three NBA-level dudes is pretty much impossible to replace if you’re not a blueblood. While those three veterans are a huge loss, the return of juniors Shake Milton and Jarrey Foster should help.

Milton is one of the league’s most productive players and a lethal three-point threat who can also run the team’s offense. Now that the roster is more depleted, Milton could see his scoring numbers rise this season as the Mustangs don’t have nearly as many weapons around him. For SMU to have a great season, Milton has to have a big year.

The underrated Foster is a versatile defender who could be asked to play the small-ball four this season as he is also a strong perimeter shooter. Inconsistent at times on the offensive end, SMU needs Foster to also take a leap in scoring this season as he’ll need to shoot a lot more. Valuable role guy Ben Emelogu II is also back for his senior season as he’s a plus defender on the wing.

The Mustangs aren’t going to replace Moore and Ojeleye in the frontcourt very easily but Georgetown graduate transfer Akoy Agau is at least an experienced plug for this season who should give some decent minutes. Arkansas transfer Jimmy Whitt should also be a factor for SMU as he could provide a scoring lift while also playing a bit on the ball. If Jahmal McMurray returns to the team as expected in December then he’ll be another guard to watch on this roster.

Frontcourt depth is going to be the major concern for the Mustangs. Agau is experienced, but he only played 15 minutes for a mediocre Georgetown team last season and hasn’t logged big minutes very often during his injury-filled college career. Behind Agau, freshmen like Everett Ray and Ethan Chargois are unproven as they could be asked to give a lift. Those are the only three players who are 6-foot-7 or taller on the SMU roster.

This SMU team will likely have go small and try to space the floor as much as possible this season. Foster is a solid rebounder and defender who would be giving up some size to bigger lineups, but he’s also the type of floor spacer that would make for a tough cover on the other end. Foster’s ability to man that spot could be the key to SMU’s season.

RELATEDBig Ten Preview | ACC Preview | Atlantic 10Mountain West

4. Watch out for UCF

UCF hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since they were in the Atlantic Sun 12 years ago. But they’re coming off of a 24-win season and solid NIT semifinal run despite only playing seven scholarship players last season. With injuries that number sometimes dwindled to five. Double-figure scorer and sharpshooter Matt Williams is a notable loss but the Knights have a lot of talent returning this season to go along with transfer additions to fill out the bench.

Junior B.J. Taylor is one of the most slept-on players in college basketball as he put up 17.4 points per game as a sophomore. If Taylor improves his efficiency then he could easily be a Player of the Year candidate. Center Tacko Fall returns for his junior season. The 7-foot-6 big man is a double-double threat who shot 71 percent from the field. The league’s returning Defensive Player of the Year, Fall could see his scoring numbers rise as he continues to learn post moves. Senior A.J. Davis can maintain multiple positions while filling up the box score in a number of ways. Junior Chad Brown is another frontcourt returner who could make a leap this season.

The returnees at UCF will get a huge boost from transfers who sat out last season. Michigan transfer Aubrey Dawkins, son of head coach Johnny Dawkins, joins the rotation as he should help offset the loss of Williams’ scoring. Big man Rokas Ulvydas (Texas Tech) and guards Dayon Griffin (Louisiana Tech) and Terrell Allen (Drexel) also should play a factor for minutes as the Knights have options this season.

Again, this is a roster that already tasted some postseason success last season despite having a heavily-depleted roster. Taylor is a potential star, Fall is as unique a weapon as there is in college basketball and now this group adds reinforcements who are already familiar with the program after practicing with them last season. Watch out for the Knights.

5. UConn is hoping to make a push back into national prominence

Last season saw UConn struggle to its first losing season since Jim Calhoun’s first year on the job in 1986-87. Gutted with injuries that led to a depleted and inexperienced lineup, the Huskies are hoping for a turnaround in 2017-18.

After only combining for about seven total games due to season-ending injuries last season, junior forward Terry Larrier and point guard Alterique Gilbert both return to the UConn rotation and should provide a huge lift. UConn needs the 6-foot-8 Larrier to make an impact on both ends of the floor while Gilbert, a former McDonald’s All-American, can be electric with the ball in his hands.

Those two will have help from AAC Player of the Year candidate Jalen Adams as the junior guard is coming off of a strong season. The league’s leader in assists while scoring 14.1 points per game last season, Adams could see his scoring numbers rise if Gilbert allows him to play some off the ball. Sophomore Christian Vital is also back after providing some scoring pop last season. Vital’s presence gives UConn some three-guard lineup options or Vital can also be effective as a bench scorer. Fordham graduate transfer Antwoine Anderson gives the Huskies the luxury of a solid scorer who can run point.

Besides for the health of Gilbert and Larrier, the frontcourt remains a big question for the Huskies. While the perimeter rotation has some solid options, UConn needs new pieces to step up inside. Cornell graduate transfer David Onuorah is a proven rim protector but he’s also making a significant leap into a new league. The Huskies also hit the juco ranks for bigs as Eric Cobb (who was at South Carolina as a freshman) and Kwintin Williams (an absurd athlete and elite dunker) could both play a factor.  Mamadou Diarra is also returning from a season lost to injury as he’s a solid rebounder and defender.

It’s hard to say if UConn can overcome last season’s disjointed effort but they have a lot of intriguing perimeter options and Larrier could be one of the league’s better players if he’s healthy.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

Landry Shamet (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

PRESEASON AMERICAN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Landry Shamet, Wichita State

Health is obviously the big question for the 6-foot-4 Shamet but it will also be interesting to see him play a full season at point guard. Inserted into that role in mid-January of last season after playing shooting guard, Shamet and the Shockers didn’t lose when he became the team’s full-time point guard until their loss in the NCAA tournament.

THE REST OF THE AMERICAN FIRST TEAM

  • Rob Gray Jr., Houston: The league’s returning leading scorer at 20.6 points per game, Gray is one of the biggest perimeter scoring threats in college basketball. Gray could be in line for a monster senior year.
  • Shake Milton, SMU: Shooting the ball at a high level last season, Milton led the American at 42 percent three-point shooting while putting up 13.0 points and 4.5 assists per game.
  • Gary Clark, Cincinnati: A former Defensive Player of the Year in the American, if this senior forward can improve his woeful perimeter shooting then he becomes a major threat at both ends of the floor.
  • Jacob Evans, Cincinnati: The do-it-all junior wing is capable of scoring, helping on the glass, knocking down a perimeter shot or playing aggressively in passing lanes.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • Jalen Adams, UConn
  • Markis McDuffie, Wichita State
  • B.J. Taylor, UCF
  • Tacko Fall, UCF
  • Obi Enechionyia, Temple

BREAKOUT STAR: UCF’s B.J. Taylor

Okay, so Taylor is probably too established to consider him a true “breakout” player, but he has a chance to have a huge season on a bigger national stage. An absolute warrior who carried the Knights down the stretch, Taylor helped a team with seven scholarship players reach the NIT semifinals as he played nearly every minute of every game. And this was Taylor logging heavy minutes after missing the previous season when he redshirted with a lower leg injury. Taylor dropped 27 on Cincinnati in an upset win and also averaged 21 points a game in two losses to SMU, only missing one minute between all three games. Now with more weapons around him this season, the 6-foot-4 Taylor can improve upon his solid 3.5 assists per game average as he has a chance to be a top-ten scorer and assist man in the conference once again.

COACH UNDER PRESSUREEast Carolina’s Jeff Lebo

East Carolina still hasn’t made an NCAA tournament appearance in Lebo’s seven seasons as they’ve been a decidedly mediocre 114-118 in that span. The program is only 21-49 in conference play the past four seasons as East Carolina has never found its footing since moving into the American. Finishing ninth place last season, the Pirates will likely have to win some games in order for Lebo to feel secure. Thankfully for East Carolina, Lebo is fully healthy after missing the last 14 games of last season after a hip replacement.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

The American is looking strong in this season’s field as Wichita State and Cincinnati are both major threats.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT

Seeing Wichita State in a conference that is much more competitive should be a lot of fun, especially for this battle-tested group that is hungry to prove itself after the close NCAA tournament loss to Kentucky.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • 12/2, Wichita State at Baylor
  • 12/2, Cincinnati at Xavier
  • 12/2, USC at SMU
  • 12/3, UCF at Alabama
  • 12/9, Cincinnati vs. Florida (Newark, NJ)
RELATED: Perry Ellis All-Stars | Final Four Sleepers | Louisville | Villanova | West Virginia

Tacko Fall (Dan Forcella/UCF Athletics)

POWER RANKINGS

1. Cincinnati: Cincinnati has the experience and talent to win the league this season as the Bearcats should have more scoring pop than a typical Mick Cronin group. Broome’s addition in the backcourt is one to watch. It’s also noteworthy that Cincinnati will play its home games at Northern Kentucky’s BB&T Arena this season as their own arena undergoes renovations.
2. Wichita State: The Shockers finally get a call to the big leagues as they can immediately win this league if Shamet is healthy. Among the league’s deepest teams, Wichita State can wear anybody down by coming in waves as they’ll have the league’s best bench.
3. SMU: A severe lack of size could ultimately hurt the Mustangs this season but they’ll have some fun lineups with a lot of floor spacing. Shake Milton and Jarrey Foster are both proven AAC performers and as long as the transfers can step up, the Mustangs should be back in the Big Dance.
4. UCF: This could be a major year for the Knights as they advanced to the NIT semis with only seven scholarship players last season. Armed now with a complete roster that includes a big-time scorer and an elite rim protector, UCF could be a surprise nationally this season.
5. Temple: After a disappointing season, the Owls could make an NCAA tournament run if they are back at full strength. Senior Obi Enechionyia is one of the league’s best bigs while junior guard Shizz Alston is a proven scorer. If senior point guard Josh Brown looks like his old self after an Achilles’ injury then the Owls should bounce back.
6. UConn: The Huskies need to stay healthy in order to reach their ceiling but the roster still has plenty of talent. As long as the new frontcourt can hold its own during most games, UConn will have a chance to make it back to the postseason.
7. Houston: Besides for their unbelievable charity work in assisting after Hurricane Harvey, Houston is coming off of back-to-back 20-win seasons. Senior scorer Rob Gray, junior point guard Galen Robinson Jr. and senior forward Devin Davis are all back but they’ll need help from eight newcomers.
8. Tulsa: Last season, Tulsa had to integrate 10 new players into the roster so the Golden Hurricane should be more cohesive this season after only losing two this offseason. Senior forward Junior Etou is an all-league candidate while junior Sterling Taphorn is a solid floor leader.
9. East Carolina: The Pirates return a strong core trio in Kentrell Barkley, B.J. Tyson and Jeremy Sheppard but East Carolina is still lacking proven size. Having Lebo back on the sidelines will help but East Carolina still has too many question marks.
10. Tulane: Last season’s six-win effort was ugly for the Green Wave but there is some returning talent to keep an eye on. Junior guard Cameron Reynolds is a sleeper all-league candidate while Melvin Fraser and Ray Ona Embo showed flashes of strong play last season. Transfers Jordan Cornish (UNLV) and Samir Sehic (Vanderbilt) will help.
11. Memphis: Things got ugly for the Memphis roster when the Lawson brothers transferred to Kansas this offseason. Junior guard Jeremiah Martin finished last season in strong fashion but he doesn’t have a lot of proven help around him. JUCO all-americans Kareem Brewton and Kyvon Davenport need to contribute immediately.
12. USF: New head coach Brian Gregory brings in nearly an entirely new roster after seven players transferred this offseason. Returnees Troy Holston and Tulio Da Silva are both solid and the Bulls have a lot of help from grad transfers.

Big Ten Conference Preview: This is Michigan State’s league to lose

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big Ten.

The Big Ten is going to be a fascinating league to watch this season as they have a national title contender in Michigan State and a few teams near the top of the standings who aren’t usually this strong.

Still hoping for a first national championship since 2000, the Big Ten has some unfamiliar faces near the top of the preseason standings.

Minnesota and Northwestern are both among the league’s elite teams after returning nearly full rosters from NCAA tournament teams from last season.

Most of the rest of the league, however, remains a mystery as new head coaches and rosters of new players are a common theme for the league.


MOREThe Enigma of Miles Bridges | NBC Sports Preseason All-American Team
Miles Bridges (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Michigan State returns almost everyone (including Miles Bridges) and is poised for a title run

Last year saw an up-and-down season from a young-and-depleted Michigan State team that still overachieved and managed to make the NCAA tournament despite starting an abundance of freshmen. This year, with nearly everyone back besides for Eron Harris and Alvin Ellis III, the Spartans are poised for a potential national championship run.

The return of Miles Bridges for his sophomore season was the key to Michigan State being in this current position. The 6-foot-7 Bridges is the consensus Preseason National Player of the Year after a monster freshman season. A lottery pick had he gone into the 2017 NBA Draft, Bridges will likely have dozens of ridiculous plays this season as he remains one of the most exciting players college basketball has seen over the last five seasons.

While Bridges returning was a big key for Sparty’s potential title hopes, Michigan State also returns plenty of solid talent around him. Fellow sophomores Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford and Nick Ward are all back as each of them could take a leap after promising freshman seasons. Langford, in particular, could be poised for a breakout year on the wing now that he is fully healthy. Ward has a chance to be one of the Big Ten’s better bigs and Winston should be more equipped to handling a full time point guard role.

Besides the promising sophomore core, the Spartans are loaded with experienced veteran role players who will play a big part. Senior point guard Tum Tum Nairn should command a healthy amount of minutes in the backcourt as he is one of the more battle-tested lead guards in the nation. Matt McQuaid, a junior shooter, is also back and fully healthy after a down sophomore season.

Michigan State also received a huge lift on the interior as senior Gavin Schilling, a former starter, returns from a season-ending injury while former UNLV transfer Ben Carter was granted an additional year of eligibility by the NCAA. McDonald’s All-American Jaren Jackson Jr. is another huge boost to the Spartans’ frontcourt rotation as he is a potential lottery pick who can space the floor at 6-foot-11.

The Spartans have depth, experience, talent and star power but they’ll have to get more consistent point-guard play to truly reach their ceiling. If Nairn can become a more reliable perimeter shooter and Winston steps up his play then expect Michigan State to be among the nation’s elite this season.

RELATEDACC Preview | Perry Ellis All-Stars | Contender Series
Nate Mason  (Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

2. Minnesota, Northwestern remain near the top after returning most of their rosters 

Michigan State is the clear favorite in the Big Ten but a solid second tier of teams sits right behind them in the Big Ten pecking order this season.

After a breakout season that saw 24 wins and an NCAA tournament appearance, Minnesota has a chance to take another step forward since they only lose senior Akeem Springs off of last year’s team. All-league point guard Nate Mason is back for his senior season to lead the charge for the Gophers as he is flanked by solid contributors at multiple spots on the floor. Juniors Jordan Murphy and Dupree McBrayer are both returning double-figure scorers while sophomore Amir Coffey could have a huge season if he takes an additional step from a positive freshman season. Shot-blocking menace Reggie Lynch is also back in the middle after setting a school record for blocks and earning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors.

Northwestern is also hoping to take a step forward as most of the core from last season’s Round of 32 squad is back. After finally making the Big Dance for the first time in 2017, expectations are sky-high for the Wildcats. Senior Bryant McIntosh is back handling the point for the Wildcats as the four-year starter is one of the most experienced players in the nation. If McIntosh can regain his perimeter shooting touch then he could finish out a storied career in memorable fashion. Senior shooting guard Scottie Lindsey is also back as he’s one of the Big Ten’s better scorers while junior forward Vic Law is a strong two-way player who provides good athleticism in the frontcourt. Dererk Pardon, a junior big man, could also factor more into the offense this season as his skill level continues to grow.

The major question for both of these teams is how they will deal with being the hunted? Just one year ago, Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino was essentially coaching for his job and Northwestern was still the only power conference school to never make the NCAA Tournament. But after last season’s success, these two teams aren’t sneaking up on anybody anymore.

Both Minnesota and Northwestern have the depth and talent to be consistent top-25 teams all season, but how will they handle this new pressure?

Vince Edwards (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

3. Purdue remains a contender despite the loss of Caleb Swanigan

“Biggie” Swanigan is the most irreplaceable player in the Big Ten. A double-double machine during his sophomore season, the All-American big man has moved on to the NBA after being a dominant force in college basketball last season. Purdue just won’t be the same without him.

But even with Swanigan leaving early for the NBA, Purdue is still in a very strong position to be one of the Big Ten’s best teams. Most of the rest of the roster returns. The frontcourt of seniors Isaac Haas and Vincent Edwards are both very productive and efficient and they are surrounded by plenty of high-caliber shooters. P.J. Thompson and Dakota Mathias are both seniors who have plenty of experience in big-game situations. Junior Ryan Cline is another perimeter threat that the Boilermakers can bring off the bench,

The key for Purdue is going to be the play of sophomore guard Carsen Edwards. A talented shotmaker who can be reckless at times, Edwards has the ability to make a huge impact if he can be more efficient. If Edwards becomes a guard who can create shots for himself and others on a consistent basis then Purdue should still be in strong position to win a few games in the NCAA tournament.

4. Maryland, Michigan and Wisconsin have question marks after valuable losses

Gutted with losses to the NBA Draft, some of the Big Ten’s familiar faces have to replace go-to players with new faces this season. And, unlike Purdue replacing Caleb Swanigan, these teams have plenty of holes to fix.

The past three seasons, Maryland relied heavily on point guard Melo Trimble’s clutch play and ability to create offense. Without Trimble, who left for the the NBA, head coach Mark Turgeon will count on a trio of sophomores this season. Point guard Anthony Cowan assumes the lead-guard responsibilities from Trimble for the Terps after playing plenty off the ball last season. Shooting guard Kevin Huerter is a noted perimeter scorer who is coming off of an appearance this summer for the USA Basketball U19 team. Forward Justin Jackson could be the difference in Maryland being a contender or a normal team. The 6-foot-7 Jackson showed that he could be one of the Big Ten’s best players last season during certain games but he also faltered down the stretch and has to complete a full season of being a productive player. If Maryland gets strong production from the sophomores, they have enough depth at other positions to still be among the league’s best teams.

After peaking at the right time last season, Michigan has to replace point guard Derrick Walton Jr. and big man D.J. Wilson. Walton is going to be tough to replace but Michigan is hoping that a combination of graduate transfer Jaaron Simmons and sophomore Zavier Simpson can do the trick. Simmons has been one of the MAC’s best players the past few seasons and Simpson is a former top-100 recruit, so there is reason to be cautiously optimistic that the Wolverines will still get solid guard play. Replacing Wilson might be harder. While junior forward Mo Wagner is back as one of the league’s more unique offensive threats, Wilson’s defensive presence will surely be missed by the Wolverines.

And what do we make of Wisconsin? Head coach Greg Gard inherited an experienced and talented roster from predecessor Bo Ryan. Unfortunately, Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown all exhausted their eligibilities as Ethan Happ is the team’s only returning double-figure scorer. This is a huge test for the Badgers and Gard. It was always a minimum expectation of Bo Ryan and Wisconsin to at least make the NCAA tournament, regardless of who was on the roster. The Badgers are the only team in the country to make the Sweet 16 six of the last seven seasons. If Gard can make it work and bring Wisconsin back to the NCAAs then he’s definitely the heir apparent to his former boss. But Wisconsin will have to clear up an uncertain backcourt situation while playing a lot of unproven big men along with Happ.

5. There are new coaches to watch at Illinois, Indiana and Ohio State

Some of the classic Big Ten programs are going to have new coaches at the helm this season.

Taking over at Illinois, former Oklahoma State head coach Brad Underwood has had a tremendous amount of success at Stephen F. Austin and with the Cowboys as he led both programs to NCAA tournament appearances in his first year on the job. That is unlikely to happen at Illinois this season but Underwood’s track record gives them a puncher’s chance. Replacing senior scorer Malcolm Hill will be next to impossible but the Illini have some strong young pieces like freshman guards Mark Smith and Trent Frazier.

Indiana finally made a move to replace Tom Crean as former Dayton head coach Archie Miller is the new architect. The Hoosiers don’t have a lot of proven returning players but Miller is also a coach who is used to doing more with less. Remember, Miller once took Dayton to the NCAA Tournament with six scholarship players at the start of a conference season, so he’s done some ridiculous coaching in the past. Senior guard Robert Johnson will be expected to score at a high level and Miller has already made a positive impression on the recruiting trail with his first two groups.

Things get slightly tougher at Ohio State as Chris Holtmann replaced Thad Matta in the middle of June. The Buckeyes have some solid veterans in Jae’Sean Tate, Kam Williams and Keita Bates-Diop but most of the rest of the roster has been gutted following Matta’s departure. Thankfully for the Buckeyes, Holtmann has already landed plenty of positive recruits for next season, and it wouldn’t surprise many people if Ohio State exceeded expectations with its current roster.


Brad Underwood (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON BIG TEN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Miles Bridges, Michigan State

Just enjoy this while it lasts. Bypassing a potential spot in the NBA Draft lottery, the explosive 6-foot-7 Bridges gets a chance to play more on the wing this season now that Michigan State is healthy on the interior. If Bridges can prove that he’s just as talented playing on the wing, then he could elevate into a top three pick.

THE REST OF THE BIG TEN FIRST TEAM:

  • Ethan Happ, Wisconsin: The redshirt junior big man is hoping to expand his range after being strictly an interior scorer his first two seasons. Happ remains one of the league’s best defenders and rebounders.
  • Nate Mason, Minnesota: Outstanding during his junior season (15.2 pts, 5.0 ast, 3.6 reb) if Mason can improve his 37 percent shooting then he’ll be one of the nation’s best floor generals.
  • Vincent Edwards, Purdue: Overshadowed by Caleb Swanigan the past two years, this senior forward could have a breakout year after quietly putting up 12.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game last season.
  • Bryant McIntosh, Northwestern: Poised to shatter the Northwestern career assists record, the senior point guard could have a huge year if his perimeter jumper returns to form.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Moritz Wagner, Michigan
  • Justin Jackson, Maryland
  • Tyler Cook, Iowa
  • Vic Law, Northwestern
  • Jaren Jackson Jr., Michigan State

BREAKOUT STARJustin Jackson, Maryland

Maryland needs to find a new go-to player now that Melo Trimble has moved on to the pros and this 6-foot-7 sophomore could be in line for a lot more production. Capable of playing on the wing or as a stretch-4, Jackson put up some monster double-doubles as a freshman in the middle of Big Ten play last season, but his play faltered down the stretch. If Jackson can become more consistent on the offensive end, he also should be a menace on the defensive end while contributing on the glass. A big year for Jackson could mean a huge leap up NBA Draft boards.

Justin Jackson (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Tim Miles, Nebraska

At one point a few seasons ago, Nebraska looked like it was on the verge of becoming a perennial postseason contender. Nebraska made the NCAA tournament in 2013-14, Miles was the Big Ten Coach of the Year and the Huskers had the tremendous home-court advantage at the sold-out Pinnacle Bank Arena. While the Nebraska fanbase is still one of best in the nation, the Huskers have struggled to three consecutive losing seasons as they have finished 11th or 12th in the Big Ten the past three seasons. With many predicting Nebraska to once again be among the Big Ten’s worst teams this preseason, can Miles win enough to keep his job safe?

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

Michigan State has a great chance to be the Big Ten’s first national champion since 2000.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT

I’m most excited to get another year of Miles Bridges. This wasn’t supposed to happen. And now that the lottery pick is back for his sophomore season, I’m expecting some ridiculous dunks for a fun-to-watch national title contender.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • 11/13, Minnesota at Providence
  • 11/14, Michigan State vs. Duke, Champions Classic (Chicago)
  • 11/28, Louisville at Purdue, ACC-Big Ten Challenge
  • 11/29, Miami at Minnesota, ACC-Big Ten Challenge
  • 11/30, Notre Dame at Michigan State, ACC-Big Ten Challenge

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @BigTenNetwork

POWER RANKINGS

1. Michigan State: The Spartans have it all as they are clearly the class of the Big Ten. Having a Player of the Year favorite, a lot of depth and talent is a major plus for Michigan State but they also have the pressure of trying to win the national title this season.
2. Purdue: Losing Caleb Swanigan will hurt but this Boilermaker team is still capable of winning a lot of games. The key could be the play of sophomore guard Carsen Edwards. If Edwards can improve his shot selection and run a more efficient offense then he brings a new offensive dimension for Purdue.
3. Minnesota: Returning nearly everyone from last season’s surprise NCAA Tournament team, the Gophers have strong guard play (Nate Mason), capable wing scorers (Amir Coffey, Dupree McBrayer) and an experienced rim protector (Reggie Lynch). If this team can add some quality depth at guard then they don’t have many holes and could be in line for a Sweet 16 run.
4. Northwestern: Now that Northwestern has finally made the Big Dance, they can focus on returning and advancing even further. The core of Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, Vic Law and Dererk Pardon are all back while the Wildcat bench should be improved over last season.
5. Michigan: Head coach John Beilein has plenty of weapons, but he also returns only two players who started more than three games for the Wolverines last season. Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews could be a big difference as he’s the type of two-way wing that Michigan needs right away.
6. Maryland: Melo Trimble is finally gone. But Mark Turgeon has a strong sophomore class and an intriguing group of upperclass vets. If big man Michal Cekovsky and guard Dion Wiley can stay healthy and productive then Maryland can finish much higher than this.
7. Wisconsin: This season’s Badgers will be a major test to see if Greg Gard can make Wisconsin a perennial NCAA Tournament contender like Bo Ryan did. Having Ethan Happ back helps, but Gard is going to have questions at almost every other position. Point guard play could be critical for Wisconsin.
8. Iowa: Replacing Peter Jok is going to be difficult but the Hawkeyes still return nine players who averaged at lease 12 minutes per game last season. Somebody has to step up and replace Jok’s scoring, but Iowa has the depth and experience to make it back to the NCAA Tournament.
9. Illinois: The frontcourt features loads of questions and the backcourt is young but Illinois is not going to be an easy out this season. The key will be junior forwards Leron Black and Michael Finke. If both can be productive then the Illini have a chance to surprise.
10. Indiana: Robert Johnson is the team’s only known threat but there are plenty of former top-100 recruits on the roster. Junior forward Juwan Morgan has shown some positive flashes while senior point guard Josh Newkirk has seen plenty of minutes during his college career.
11. Penn State: There is plenty of young talent to get excited about at Penn State but they need to make a leap up the league standings this season. Guards Tony Carr and Shep Garner can both score while forward Lamar Stevens had a very productive freshman season. If Penn State can improve in tight games, they could be a surprise.
12. Ohio State: The Chris Holtmann era begins with a depleted roster and the hope that upperclass leaders can still be effective. Although the Buckeyes are down a few scholarship players, senior guards Jae’Sean Tate and Kam Williams and junior forward Keita Bates-Diop are all capable Big Ten players.
13. Nebraska: The Huskers have hovered near the bottom of the Big Ten standings the past three years and this year looks no different. Junior point guard Glynn Watson Jr. is a promising returner but most of the rest of Nebraska’s roster features inconsistent veterans and unproven young players.
14. Rutgers: Steve Pikiell did a great job of improving the Rutgers defense in year one but a massive talent overhaul is still necessary. The backcourt tandem of Corey Sanders and Mike Williams is solid while senior forward Deshawn Freeman is a double-double threat. The rest of the roster has major questions marks.