2016-17 Season Preview

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

20 Bold Predictions for the 2016-17 College Basketball Season

Leave a comment

Here are our 20 bold predictions for the 2016-17 college basketball season.

Wisconsin won’t make the NCAA tournament’s second weekend: The Badgers return all five starters from a team that made the Sweet 16 last season, but the Big Ten is weaker this season and the rest of college basketball is stronger. Wisconsin won’t be as battle-tested heading into the postseason. (Scott Phillips)

Villanova becomes the first repeat national champion since the Florida Gators from a decade ago: Sure Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu are huge loses, not just from a production standpoint but a leadership one. However, Jay Wright has Josh Hart, a national player of the year candidate, and a versatile lineup that can bring home a second straight title. (Terrence Payne)

Creighton wins the Big East: Villanova has to deal with the pressure of wearing the crown and Xavier drops a game or two they shouldn’t, clearing the path for Creighton and their huge home court advantage to leapfrog both. (Travis Hines)

Subscribe to the CBT Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or Audioboom

Maryland wins at least a share of the Big Ten regular season title: I’m not enamored with any of the four teams most have pegged at the top of the Big Ten: Indiana, Purdue, Michigan State and Wisconsin. I’m not necessarily enamored with Maryland, either, but I do think that Melo Trimble is going to be a problem this year. He averages 20 points and six dimes and the Terps shine. (Rob Dauster)

Texas Tech will finish second in the Big 12: The Red Raiders were a surprising NCAA tournament team last season and they return most of last season’s core. With the rest of the Big 12 outside of Kansas having a significant amount of question marks, Texas Tech has a chance to make a major move. (SP)

AMES, IA - JANUARY 18: Monte Morris #11 of the Iowa State Cyclones celebrates after scoring a three point basket in the second half of play against the Oklahoma Sooners at Hilton Coliseum on January 18, 2016 in Ames, Iowa. The Iowa State Cyclones won 82-77 over the Oklahoma Sooners. (Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images)
Monte Morris (David Purdy/Getty Images)

Monte’ Morris becomes the national player of the year: Not much of a bold prediction considering that he’s the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year and an All-American candidate, but I think he could be the best player in college hoops this year. He doesn’t turn the ball over, we know that. But like Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne, two former Steve Prohm point guards, I think we’ll see a big increase in his points per game. (TP)

The Big Ten will be contested by three or more teams heading into the final week: Wisconsin and Michigan State are the prohibitive favorites but Purdue and Ohio State will be right there going into the league tournament. (TH)

N.C. State reaches the Elite 8: When it comes to the talent on the roster, I’m not sure that are ten teams better on paper than the Wolfpack. Dennis Smith Jr. will be a star and Omer Yurtseven will be a first round pick. The shooters on the perimeter makes shots and Abdul-Malik Abu plays his role, this team matches up with anyone. Can Mark Gottfried get them that far? (RD)

Mustapha Heron will be one of the five most productive freshmen in college basketball: The Auburn freshman wasn’t selected to any of the major spring high school all-star games, but with a starting role in a weaker power conference, Heron could put up big numbers. (SP)

Both Chattanooga and UT Arlington, not only make the tournament, but pull off upsets: We’re bound for upsets this March. We know that. But I think the Mocs and the Mavericks will be two of this year’s Cinderellas. Kevin Hervey and UT Arlington was 13-2 and had defeated Ohio State and Memphis. Then he tore his ACL. Little Rock went onto win the Sun Belt and upset Purdue. UT Arlington brings back everyone from a 24-win team. Chattanooga, a tournament team from a season ago, will have its hands full with EasteTennessee State, but I still give the Mocs the edge. They bring back four starters and Casey Jones, the 2015 SoCon Player of the Year, who missed all of last year. (TP)

Austin Nichols will be ACC Player of the Year: There are more talented players in the conference, but Nichols is positioned perfectly to put up big numbers for a good team. (TH)

Virginia Athletics
Austin Nichols, courtesy Virginia Athletics

By March, we’ll be talking about Duke as the best team in the one-and-done era: Harry Giles III comes back healthy to contribute 20 minutes a night, Grayson Allen adjusts to more of a lead guard role and Jayson Tatum ends up being a better version than Brandon Ingram was last season. (RD)

Florida will become a consistent top 25 team: Things were up-and-down in Mike White’s first year but Kasey Hill was great at the end of the last season and Devin Robinson, KeVaughn Allen and John Egbunu give the Gators enough talent to once again be a major threat. (SP)

Whoever loses the February 11th game between Georgia Tech and Boston College will go winless in the ACC: Boston College went 0-18 in league. ACC is absolutely brutal this year. Twelve teams have a realistic shot to make the NCAA Tournament, which only limits the amount of wins for the Yellow Jackets and Eagles. (TP)

Kansas will go 18-0 in Big 12 play: The Jayhawks have a near-impenetrable homecourt advantage and the rest of the league will be down significantly, making their 13th-straight title their most definitive. (TH)

Malik Monk will be a top five pick: Come March, it will be evident that Monk is the best player on Kentucky. His shot selection will improve on a more talented team, he’ll consistently make jumpers and his athleticism will have teams salivating over finding the “Next Russell Westbrook”. (RD)

Conference USA will have more NCAA tourney contenders than the Mountain West: After sending only one team to the NCAA tournament in 2016, things don’t look much better for the Mountain West in 2017. Conference USA has UAB and Middle Tennessee returning a lot while Western Kentucky could be intriguing. (SP)

Virginia Tech wins at least a share of the ACC regular season title: I’m high on the Hokies, and you should be too. They bring back essentially everyone (Kerry Blackshear may be out for the year with an injury) and could really surprise people in the ACC standings. Duke has some injury concerns, Virginia lost Malcolm Brogdon (18.2 points per game is a lot in that offense) and while Louisville has a high ceiling, it’s dependent on sophomores making big jumps. (TP)

St. Mary’s makes it to February undefeated: The Gaels will have to get by Dayton on the road in November and Gonzaga in January, but they’ve got the personnel and experience to get it done. (TH)

All four No. 1 seeds get to the Final Four: Just like in 2015, there is a clear delineation between the best teams and the rest of the country, and one of those top teams – Oregon – will be dealing with an all-american that has a foot issue. (RD)

Malik Monk (Kentucky Athletics)
Malik Monk (Kentucky Athletics)

The 68 things we can’t wait to see this season

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
1 Comment

College basketball officially kicks off on Friday night. Here are the 68 things we’re looking forward to the most this season.

1. Just how good Duke is going to be this season. Let’s say that, come January, Harry Giles III is healthy enough to play 20 minutes a night, Jayson Tatum and Marquese Bolden have shaken off the nagging injuries they’re dealing with and Grayson Allen is playing like last year’s Grayson Allen. Is that team more talented than the Kentucky team that started the 2014-15 season 38-0 …

2. … and if they are, who gives Duke the most trouble in March? Kentucky and Kansas both match up extremely well with the Blue Devils, while Oregon, Villanova and a handful of ACC rivals will have the talent to pick off Coach K’s club.

3. Speaking of Kansas, they have a freshman named Josh Jackson who is nearly as good of a prospect as Andrew Wiggins was when he entered Kansas …

4. … and he may not even be the best freshman in college basketball this season, which is as loaded with high-level talent as we’ve seen it since the one-and-done era started.

LEAGUE PREVIEWS: Big 12 | ACC | Pac-12 | Big Ten | Big East | SECMid-Majors

Subscribe to the CBT Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or Audioboom

5. There’s Washington point guard Markelle Fultz, a smooth, athletic 6-foot-5 guard that is the trendy pick to go No. 1 in the 2017 NBA Draft …

6. … but he may not even be the best point guard in this draft class. Some will give that title to Dennis Smith Jr., a powerfully-athletic, 6-foot-2 playmaker that has N.C. State fans in a tizzy.

7. Kentucky may have the two most entertaining freshmen in the country in Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo, and there’s an argument to be made that a third freshman, De’Aaron Fox, is actually UK’s best player.

8. Speaking of Kentucky, I cannot wait to see how John Calipari puts the pieces on his roster together. There’s talent there, but I wonder just how well that talent fits.

9. A healthy Dillon Brooks. Oregon has a chance to repeat what they did last season – dual Pac-12 titles, No. 1 seed in the tournament – but I cannot see that happening if their all-american cannot bounce back from a foot injury.

10. Villanova’s title defense, and how they overcome the loss of Daniel Ochefu in the middle.

CONTENDER SERIES: Duke | Oregon | Kentucky | Kansas | Villanova

LOUISVILLE, KY - FEBRUARY 20: Grayson Allen #3 of the Duke Blue Devils dribbles the ball during the game against the Louisville Cardinals at KFC YUM! Center on February 20, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Grayson Allen (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

11. The Champions Classic. It kicks off on Tuesday night, and features Kentucky and Michigan State while, in my opinion, the two best teams in the country – Duke and Kansas – square off.

12. The Armed Forces Classic. It’s not going to get as much hype as the Champions Classic, but it will feature Arizona playing Michigan State and Indiana squaring off with Kansas.

13. Kansas vs. Kentucky. They play in January at Rupp Arena. Both could be in the top five. That will be a tough ticket to get.

14. Kentucky vs. Louisville. They play on a Wednesday in December. I can’t imagine anyone in the state will be productive at work that Thursday.

15. The ACC. The conference is as loaded as any league we’ve seen since the Big East produced three No. 1 seeds in 2009, and the ACC may still be better than that.

16. Is this the year that Gonzaga finally puts together a Final Four run?

17. Speaking of Gonzaga, they play Fultz and Washington in Spokane this season. That’s one of the nation’s most under appreciated rivalries.

18. UConn-Syracuse at Madison Square Garden. Non-conference basketball just doesn’t get any better than that.

19. Speaking of Syracuse, do they have the point guard play they need to compete at the top of the ACC?

20. … and what about the Huskies, who will be counting on Jalen Adams to play like Shabazz Napier, the last superstar point guard to come out of Roxbury, Ma.

Top Backcourts | Top Frontcourts | Top 100 Players

Connecticut guard Jalen Adams (2) celebrates a 3-pointer from half court at the end of the triple overtime to tie the NCAA college basketball game against Cincinnati in the quarterfinals of the American Athletic Conference men's tournament Friday, MArch 11, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. UConn won104-97 in quadruple overtime. (Brad Horrigan/Hartford Courant via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Connecticut guard Jalen Adams (Brad Horrigan/Hartford Courant via AP)

21. What is going to happen with UCLA? They have the talent to be a national title contender, but between their defensive issues and incompatibility offensively, this team could end up finishing below .500 for the second straight season.

22. Miles Bridges. He’s as physical and as athletic as any player that’s entered college basketball in some time.

23. Greg Gard’s second season. He took Wisconsin from being a 9-9 team to a No. 7 seed last year. What can he get done with Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ all returning?

24. Figuring out who is the second-best team in the SEC and whether or not they are actually a tournament team.

25. Just how healthy is E.C. Mathews’ knee? If it’s healthy, Rhode Island will be dangerous.

26. Edmond Sumner’s sophomore year. He was downright dominant at times as a freshman.

27. What can Sean Miller do with this Arizona team? He’s lost so many piece, but he’s as good of a coach as their is in college basketball.

28. Pissed off Melo Trimble.

29. What kind of growth did Louisville’s guards – Donovan Mitchell, Deng Adel, etc. – make this offseason, and will the Cards be a top ten team as a result?

30. Did Thad Matta forget how to coach basketball or did Ohio State just need to shuffle out a few of the bad apples in their program?

X-Factors | Most Important Players | Cinderellas | Breakout Stars

MORGANTOWN, WV - JANUARY 09: Jawun Evans #1 of the Oklahoma State Cowboys drives to the basket during the game against Jonathan Holton #1 of the West Virginia Mountaineers at the WVU Coliseum on January 9, 2016 in Morgantown, West Virginia. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Jawun Evans (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

31. The best back court you’re paying no attention to: Phil Forte and Jawun Evans at Oklahoma State.

32. Has Isaac Haas, Caleb Swanigan or Vince Edwards taken the step forward needed for the Boilermakers to be a real Big Ten title contender?

33. Is Andrew White the point guard that Shaka Smart needs this season?

34. Austin Nichols transforming into an all-american at Virginia.

35. … and Joel Berry II doing the same at North Carolina.

36. Virginia Tech and Buzz Williams proving to everyone that last year’s run in the ACC – 10-8 record, wins over Virginia and Miami – wasn’t a fluke.

37. Quinndary Weatherspoon reminding everyone why Mississippi State wasn’t worried about Malik Newman transferring out of the program.

38. Just how good Jonathan Isaac is at Florida State. He has as much long-term potential as anyone in college basketball this season.

39. We’ve talked about a lot of Pac-12 teams and talent, but we haven’t yet mentioned Ivan Rabb. Does he get more attention during the season?

40. Saint Mary’s reminding everyone that Gonzaga isn’t the only program in the WCC.

POSITION RANKS: Lead Guards | Off Guards | Wings | Big Men

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 05: Emmett Naar #3 of the Saint Mary's Gaels brings the ball up the court against the Loyola Marymount Lions during a quarterfinal game of the West Coast Conference Basketball tournament at the Orleans Arena on March 5, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Saint Mary's won 60-48. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Emmett Naar of the Saint Mary’s Gaels (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

41. … and BYU, led by Nick Emery and the returning Eric Mike, reminding everyone that the WCC isn’t a two-team race.

42. Jack Gibbs making a run at the nation’s scoring title while reminding everyone at Davidson of Stephen Curry.

43. Will USC avoid being a victim of their own success?

44. The VCU fan base’s never-ending trolling of our Terrence Payne, who still believes that the program is heading in the wrong direction.

45. Alec Peters’ snubbing the NBA and every high-major program in the country to return to Valparaiso for his senior season.

46. Is Florida head coach Mike White the real deal?

47. Seeing how the college students attending – and, frankly, playing in – these games respond to the current political climate. We’ve seen what Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig have done. Who joins them in their activism?

48. Creighton guards Mo Watson and Marcus Foster proving to the world just how good they are.

49. The first annual Ivy League tournament, which will be held at the Palestra.

50. Siyani Chambers’ return to Harvard after sitting out last year with a torn ACL.

Top Backcourts | Top Frontcourts | Top 100 Players | Top 25

FILE - In this Feb. 9, 2016, file photo, Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall directs his team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Drake, in Des Moines, Iowa. At this time of year college basketball coaches often sound like political candidates looking for votes as they tout their teams' NCAA tournament worthiness. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)
Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

51. Wichita State no longer has Ron Baker and Fred Van Vleet on the roster. Will that program be able to survive? (Hint: Yes. Yes it will.)

52. The return of the Monmouth Bench Mob, and the chance for the Hawks to pick off the likes of South Carolina (Nov. 15th), Syracuse (Nov. 18th), Memphis (Dec. 13th) and North Carolina (Dec. 28th).

53. Chris Beard at Texas Tech. The Red Raiders have a better roster than you realize, and Beard’s path to his dream school – Little Rock to UNLV for a few weeks to Lubbock – was as weird as any you’ll see at this level.

54. The Player of the Year race. The early, trendy pick is Grayson Allen, who could end up being the third-best player on that Duke team.

55. Kansas matching John Wooden’s UCLA teams by winning their 13th straight Big 12 regular season title.

56. Tubby Smith has consistently been one of the best coaches in college basketball, and now he’ll take over a struggling Memphis program that John Calipari had rolling less than a decade ago.

57. Suits. From John Calipari and Jay Wright in Armani suits to Bobby Huggins in sweat suits.

58. Does Charles Cooke of Dayton play his way into being an NBA Draft pick?

59. At what point will people realize just how good Cincinnati’s Troy Caupain really is?

60. O.G. Anunoby and Thomas Bryant ushering in Indiana’s post-Yogi era.

Subscribe to the CBT Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or Audioboom

DES MOINES, IA - MARCH 17: OG Anunoby #3 of the Indiana Hoosiers shoots a reverse dunk over Chuck Ester #0 of the Chattanooga Mocs in the second half during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Wells Fargo Arena on March 17, 2016 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
OG Anunoby (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

61. Will Iowa State be able to remain relevant in the Big 12 without Georges Niang, and will Monte’ Morris be the guy that makes it happen?

62. Clemson forward Jaron Blossomgame turning into a household name.

63. The Frank Mason anthem going viral every time that he does something good for Kansas.

64. Arkansas big man Moses Kingsley winning the SEC Player of the Year award.

65. Malcolm Hill carrying Illinois back to the NCAA tournament.

66. Can Peter Jok get up more than 25 shots a night for Iowa?

67. Every time a broadcast shows a replay of Villanova’s Kris Jenkins hitting his national title-winning, buzzer-beating three and the Marcus Paige jumper that led up to it.

68. … and waiting to see what will happen this season that tops this:

College Basketball’s 12 Most Important Players

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
Leave a comment

Yesterday, we took a look at the most influential “X-Factors” in college basketball for the 2016-17 season.

Players like Malik Monk, Dillon Brooks and Harry Giles III made that list. 

Today, we’re going to take a look at college basketball’s most important players, the guys who will have the biggest impact on their team, the guys who are a great year away from making their team a contender in their league and a threat in March.

We did the best we could to avoid duplicating players that were x-factors from players that are on the most important list. I do think there is a difference – that’s a different post for a different day – so without further ado, here are the 13 Most Important Players in college basketball. 

LEAGUE PREVIEWS: Big 12 | ACC | Pac-12 | Big Ten | | SECMid-Majors

Subscribe to the CBT Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or Audioboom

Melo Trimble, Maryland: Trimble and the Terps did not have the season they were hoping to have in 2015-16, meaning that Trimble is the only member of that team’s starting lineup that will be returning to school this year. That wasn’t the plan, but it is good news for Maryland. Trimble is still the talent that completely changed the fortunes of the Maryland program, and this year, it will be his team to lead. He’s an all-american caliber talent, and with a better supporting cast than some realize, the Terps have a chance to make some noise in a wide open Big Ten race this year.

E.C. Matthews, Rhode Island: As a sophomore, when Matthews was healthy, he averaged a team-high 16.8 points on a team-high usage rate of 29.5%. URI went 23-10 and made the NIT. As a junior, when Matthews managed just 10 minutes because of a torn ACL, the Rams went 17-15. Granted, there is a lot more that went into that drop-off that just Matthews missing time – he was far from the only player on the roster that was injured last season – but he was the biggest miss. He’s back now. And he’s healthy. That’s great news for URI, who should contend for the A-10 crown.

Jaron Blossomgame, Clemson: The Tigers have a chance to save Brad Brownell’s job this season if they can get to the NCAA tournament, and they are in a decent position to do so. Clemson brought back a number of pieces and added a couple of impact transfers – namely Elijah Thomas – but the key is Blossomgame. An athletic, 6-foot-7 wing with three point range that averaged 18 points last season is a rare commodity.

CONTENDER SERIES: Duke | Oregon | Kentucky | Kansas | Villanova

London Perrantes, Virginia: It’s hard to overstate just how much the Wahoos lost with Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill graduating. The arrival of Austin Nichols should help UVA replace Gill, but the burning question that remains is Brogdon. Who is going to carry his load offensively? The answer, it seems, is that no single player will be able to carry that load on his own. But given his role as the provider in this offense, and considering the fact that Perrantes has shown flashes of being a better offensive weapon than his numbers would indicate, he may be the most valuable player UVA has. There’s a reason he’s one 89 games in his career.

Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin: I’ve been critical of Hayes the basketball player this preseason – and not unfairly, his shooting splits were really inefficient – but if he can improve his consistency shooting the ball, he certainly has the talent to be a really good player for the Badgers. You may not realize this, but Hayes led Wisconsin in assists last season. Playing on a team where the lead guard is a guy like Bronson Koenig, who is shoot-first, having an efficient playmaker on the floor to join him is big, particularly when you consider that Ethan Happ, the Wisconsin center, may actually be the team’s best player. If Hayes is the guy we all want him to be, Wisconsin can win a national title.

Deonte Burton, Iowa State: Monte’ Morris is the easy pick here, but given the situation on the rest of the Cyclone roster, I think Burton is more important. Iowa State has no size. Burton isn’t all that tall, but he’s 6-foot-5, strong and super-athletic. In theory, he can be a guy that plays the Draymond Green role for the Cyclones. That’s a trendy thing to say these days – and, frankly, saying it undervalues just how good and unique Green is – but Burton has the tools to be that guy. Will he be effective in that role?

Dedric Lawson, Memphis: The Memphis program was in an awful spot last season, with a lame-duck head coach, a fan base that had turned and a roster that just didn’t have the talent to win anywhere near the level expected by the city. Much of that is still the case this year, but there are two important things to note: Tubby Smith is a hell of a basketball coach, and Dedric Lawson is a guy that could average 20 points and 10 boards this year. I don’t know if this is a tournament team just yet, but I have faith in Tubby making the most of what he has on the roster and, should the best-case scenario arise, it will be because Lawson plays like an all-american.

Top Backcourts | Top Frontcourts | Top 100 Players

DENVER, CO - MARCH 17: Vince Edwards #12 of the Purdue Boilermakers drives the ball past Josh Hagins #3 of the Arkansas Little Rock Trojans during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the Pepsi Center on March 17, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
Vince Edwards (Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

Vince Edwards, Purdue: Edwards is the difference-maker on this Purdue team. We know more or less what the rest of this team is going to be – their bigs are bigs, their point guards are not bad, they have some guys that, in theory, can shoot – but Edwards is the one player that has shown the potential to be a game-changing talent. He was the best player on the floor for the much of the final month of Purdue’s season, and he’s a versatile talent that can defend, that can make threes and that, at 6-foot-7, averaged 2.9 assists. He’s the guy that takes Purdue from being a Big Ten contender to the Big Ten champ.

Justin Jackson, North Carolina: Here’s the way that I see the North Carolina season going: Joel Berry II is going to be an upper-tier ACC point guard, good enough that he’s clearly the best player on this roster but not good enough to garner all-america consideration. Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks will be good enough to old their own against any front line in college basketball but not quite good enough to ever be thought of as UNC’s strength. What I’m unsure of is Jackson. I think the kid is really talented, but I think he’s an inconsistent shooter who has yet to prove he can take over a game when needed. And that’s what UNC needs him to be this year.

Dennis Smith Jr., N.C. State: There are a number of teams this year with terrific point guard play and questionable talent elsewhere on the floor. That’s not the case with the Wolfpack. Smith has a chance to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft on a team with shooters on the wings and talent like Abdul-Malik Abu and Omer Yurtseven on the front line. There isn’t really anyone else on this team capable of creating their own, but there is enough talent for the Wolfpack to be a top 15 team. If Smith lives up to the hype, and if Mark Gottfried finds a way to get something close to the most out of his roster, I don’t think it’s crazy to say this group has Final Four upside.

Landen Lucas, Kansas: There are a number of different ways I could have gone here, but I’m going with Lucas for two reasons: 1. If he does what he did last season, he has the skills to be the anchor defensively for a team that projects to be one of the best in the country on that end of the floor. With Frank Mason, Devonte’ Graham and Josh Jackson on the perimeter, KU needs a guy that can control the lane on that end of the floor and protect the rim if they get out and pressure or gamble for steals. 2. There isn’t all that much front court depth for the Jayhawks. Dwight Coleby is ‘a guy’ and coming off of a knee injury while Udoka Azubuike and Mitch Lightfoot are freshmen and not exactly ready to handle the kind of load they are probably going to need to play. That leaves Lucas. Remember, Duke won a national title in 2010 with Brian Zoubek playing center.

Dennis Smith Jr., courtesy N.C. State Athletics
Dennis Smith Jr., courtesy N.C. State Athletics

Mid-Majors to watch come March

Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
Leave a comment

It’s the most charming part of March. The Cinderellas who crash the ball by knocking off the sport’s biggest names on its biggest stage.

Besides being heavy underdogs, what makes these mid-majors so intriguing is how little the public knows about them.

We’ve been hearing about players from Duke, Kentucky and Arizona since they were prep stars. We have no idea who that fifth-year starter from the 13 seed that makes its way to the Sweet 16 is.

But here’s your sneak peak about some teams that we’ll be talking about come tourney time. This list looks at some lesser-known possibilities, that’s what you won’t see a top-25 team like St. Mary’s or a relatively high-profile program like Princeton.

Here are the teams best suited to wear the slipper this spring.

LEAGUE PREVIEWS: Big 12 | ACC | Pac-12 | Big Ten | | SECMid-Majors

Subscribe to the CBT Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or Audioboom

UAB: The Blazers made noise in 2015 when they eliminated Iowa State in the first round, but after a great regular season last year, they lost their first C-USA tournament game and had to settle for the NIT. Expect to hear from them again this year, though, as they return four starters from last year’s 26-7 team. Jarod Haase has left, but the Blazers’ ability to play spoiler in the NCAA tournament hasn’t. William Lee and Chris Cokley, both of whom are NBA prospects, are back to anchor what should be the best front line in mid-major hoops.

Chattanooga: The Mocs won 29 games last year and return three starters, which make them a threat not only to win the Southern Conference again, but to make some noise in the NCAA tournament. They won games last year at Dayton, at Georgia and at Illinois. Tre’McLean is a proven scorer while Justin Tuoyo anchors the defense. Chattanooga has veterans, talent and NCAA tournament experience, which will make them very dangerous come March. But perhaps the most important thing to mention here is that Chattanooga also returns Casey Jones, who was the best player in the SoCon in 2014-15 before missing last season with injury.

Princeton: The Tigers are like Chattanooga in that they not only bring back everyone from a conference title contender but they also get back one of their best players, Hans Brase, who missed the last season with injury. Harvard gets Siyani Chambers back healthy and Zena Edosomwan back for his senior year, but Princeton should be the favorite to win the Ivy League title. Henry Caruso looks like an Ivy Player of the Year candidate.

UT-Arlington: The Mavericks looked like a potential March darling last year after they offed Ohio State and Memphis in November, but then 18-point-per-game scorer Kevin Hervey tore his ACL in January. Arlington lost four straight and ultimately couldn’t carry the Sun Belt tournament. Now, Hervey, along with four starters, is back and that makes Arlington a team few will know this winter, but one that could become a household name come spring. Perhaps the best news is that Hervey is not yet totally healthy. He should be by the time conference play rolls around, but the Mavericks are going to be forced to learn, again, how to win without their super star playing like a super star.

Valparaiso: The Crusaders are certainly no stranger to college basketball fans, but Valpo once again has the profile to play Cinderella. Alec Peters looked like he may transfer out of the program, but instead returned for his senior season and now may be the best player outside a Power 5 conference and is a potential All-American. The Crusaders lost a significant amount off last year’s 30-win team, but Peters’ presence means they’re going to be a program to contend with at the end of the year.

Texas-Arlington's Kevin Hervey, left, reacts to a 73-68 NCAA college basketball game win as Ohio State's Jae'Sean Tate looks on in Columbus, Ohio, Friday, Nov. 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)
Texas-Arlington’s Kevin Hervey (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • Illinois State: Wichita State is the team everyone pays attention to in the Missouri Valley, but the Redbirds are quietly building a program that will sneak up on people. Paris Lee may be the best point guard in the league and MiKyle McIntosh is talented enough to be a difference-maker.
  • Belmont: Rick Byrd is arguably the most successful mid-major coach in the country today, and even though the Bruins lost Craig Bradshaw, Evan Bradds should be good enough to make this group a threat in March to whomever they go up against.
  • Long Beach State: Nick Faust is gone, but Justin Bibbins and Evan Payne should be one of the nation’s best mid-major back courts.
  • UNC-Wilmington: Kevin Keatts has proven that he can win at the mid-major level in his two years in Wilmington, and last year, he nearly knocked off Duke in the first round of the NCAA tournament. He returns essentially everyone, including Chris Flemmings, and runs a system similar to VCU.
  • South Dakota State: The Jackrabbits have a new head coach in T.J. Otzelberger, but they also have the best big man in the mid-major ranks on their roster in Mike Daum. How will the team adjust to losing their back court and how will Daum adjust to playing under a new head coach?

College Basketball’s X-Factors: 14 storylines that will determine champions

Jayson Tatum (photo courtesy Duke Athletics
1 Comment

The season will finally be here on Friday, meaning that the time for previewing the year is just about over. 

But before we get there, let’s take a closer look at 14 things that could end up deciding league titles, who gets to the Final Four and, eventually, who wins the national title.

Call them story lines, call them positional battles, call them what you like. Here are the most important x-factors as we enter the 2016-17 college basketball season: 

So … is Duke ever going to be healthy or nah?: The major issue that Duke is dealing with right now is the health of Harry Giles III’s knees. He had yet to be fully cleared from a torn ACL he suffered in the first game of his senior season in high school when, in September, he underwent a procedure on his other knee, the one that he tore up after his freshman year in high school. The question of whether or not Giles plays – and just how effective he will be if he does – has been swirling around the Duke program since news of his second ACL tear came out a year ago.

But he’s not the only Blue Devil currently battling an injury. Jayson Tatum sprained a bone in his foot and is expected back for Friday’s season-opener. Marques Bolden suffered what the program is calling a “lower leg injury” this week and is expected to miss the first two games of the season. And Grayson Allen is banged up, having been pulled from Duke’s exhibition against Virginia State after hurting his shoulder.

The latter three listed here are not dealing with serious injuries and should, in theory, be able to get healthy before the first Christmas Carol of the year is sung. But Giles is the ultimate difference maker for this team – think Karl-Anthony Towns and Kentucky in 2015 – and his absence for this group is massive.

LEAGUE PREVIEWS: Big 12 | ACC | Pac-12 | Big Ten | | SECMid-Majors

Subscribe to the CBT Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or Audioboom

Speaking of health, Dillon Brooks and his balky foot: Oregon was a No. 1 seed last season, returns plenty of talent from a team that won a dual-conference title and will enter this year as the favorite to win the Pac-12 once again. But they are doing so without their all-american Dillon Brooks, who is battling a foot injury that kept him out during Oregon’s trip to Spain over the summer. Brooks is the most talented player on this team and the one guy that plays the position that would allow Oregon lineup versatility. Just how long is he going to be out for and, when he returns, just how effective is he going to be?

Is Malik Monk a streaky shooter, a dumb shooter or a good shooter finally on a real team?: Monk shot around 32 percent from three as a high schooler, per Draft Express, and developed a reputation for being as streaky as anyone at any level. He might go for 40 and hit nine threes one game and follow that up with a 2-for-18 performance the next. That kind of inconsistency won’t fly at Kentucky, but neither will Monk’s shot selection, which had much more to do with his shooting percentages than anything else. He played on a high school team that was almost as bad as Anthony Davis’. He played on an AAU team where his point guards liked to shoot just as much as he did. We’ve never seen him on a team like Kentucky, where he isn’t far and away the most talented player.

So how will this play out? Will Monk embrace being a part of an offense, being a guy that is asked to execute sets and play within the confines of a system? Or will he buck at being reined in and spend the season trying to prove that he is Russell Westbrook? No one questions the talent, the scoring ability, the athleticism. They do, however, question whether he can be a consistent jump-shooter, and if he is, than the biggest concern about these Wildcats – their ability to make perimeter shots – is, in part, answered.

Just how effective will Villanova’s small-ball lineups be?: Because they are going to have to be very, very good if the Wildcats are going to have a real shot at repeating as national champs. That’s what happens when the only true low-post threat on last year’s team, Daniel Ochefu, graduates while the only true low-post threat on this year’s team, Omari Spellman, has been ruled ineligible for this year. Darryl Reynolds was effective in his minutes last season, but Darryl Reynolds is not the answer for a team looking to win another ring. That leaves Villanova in a position where they’ll be using, essentially, five guards sets, the Villanova ‘Death Lineup’, if you will. The physicality and length of guys like Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, Mikal Bridges and Eric Paschall makes this option not only possible, but likely to succeed, at least to some degree.

CONTENDER SERIES: Duke | Oregon | Kentucky | Kansas | Villanova

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 26:  Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats dunks the ball in the first half against the Kansas Jayhawks during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament South Regional at KFC YUM! Center on March 26, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Josh Hart, Villanova Wildcats (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

How will Gonzaga’s veterans adjust to losing minutes?: The four most important players on Gonzaga’s roster this season are taking someone else’s minutes. Nigel Williams-Goss and Johnathan Williams III were transfers that sat out last season. Jordan Mathews is a grad transfer from Cal. Prezemek Karnowski was supposed to graduate this summer and received a waiver to play one more year due to injury issues. What that means is that the Bulldogs are going to have a lot of pieces on their roster that were either expecting to play – or how gotten used to playing – major minutes. I worry about how that will affect team chemistry considering that the Zags are ranked eighth in our preseason poll.

Is there anyone on Louisville that can replace Chinanu Onuaku’s interior presence?: Because that is what the Cardinals are going to miss from the pieces they lost this offseason. I’m not worried about Rick Pitino’s club finding a way to replace Damion Lee’s scoring or Trey Lewis’ minutes at the lead guard spot. Between the jump I expect Donovan Mitchell, Deng Adel and Ray Spalding to make along with the addition of V.J. King, the Cards have more than enough talent and athleticism on the perimeter to play the way that Pitino wants to play. But do they have someone to replace Onuaku, who was one of the nation’s most effective shot-blockers and rebounders?

Michigan State’s point guard play: The Spartans have had some brutal injury luck during the fall, as both Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling suffered knee injuries that could very likely keep Michigan State from having any sort of front court depth this season. That means that the play of freshman Nick Ward is going to be critical to their season, as is Miles Bridges’ ability to be a small-ball four that exceeds the substantial hype he is entering the season with. This is as young of a team as Izzo has ever coached at Michigan State, which is why I think it will be the point guard play of Tum Tum Nairn and Cassius Winston that determines just how far this team goes. A young roster needs an alpha-dog with the ball in his hands, someone that can direct traffic on the floor, get players the ball in a spot where they can be effective and that can take over when needed. Nairn, through two seasons, hasn’t yet proven he can be that guy, and Winston is a freshman himself.

Speaking of point guards … hello, Syracuse: Do the Orange have a point guard on their roster? Is Franklin Howard the next Michael Gbinije? Can John Gillon adjust to the rigors of the ACC game? Because the rest of this Orange roster looks intimidating. It may be the longest team that Boeheim has ever had at his disposal. Tyus Battle has a chance to be a really good player for the Orange, while Tyler Lydon is on the verge of becoming a lottery pick. Throw in the addition of Andrew White – whose ability to assimilate into a team is an x-factor in its own right – and there are pieces here. But there aren’t a ton of guys that can take a game over or create their own shot. Which is why the point guard play is so important: Who is going to be the player that makes offense easier for everyone else?

Top Backcourts | Top Frontcourts | Top 100 Players

HOUSTON, TEXAS - APRIL 02:  Tyler Lydon #20 of the Syracuse Orange attempts to dunk the ball against Isaiah Hicks #4 of the North Carolina Tar Heels in the first half during the NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at NRG Stadium on April 2, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Tyler Lydon, Syracuse Orange (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

And hello, Indiana: The Hoosiers have a pair of potential lottery picks on their roster in Thomas Bryant and O.G. Anunoby, so I understand why they’re showing up in the top 15 of national polls. I have them there myself. But I think that we are all undervaluing just how much Yogi Ferrell meant to this team last season, and just how much his absence is going to cost them. Can Robert Johnson and Josh Newkirk adequately fill in that role? And if they can’t, who on this Indiana team do you trust to have the ball in their hands on a critical possession when the Hoosiers have to have a bucket?

And are any of these point guards ‘Point Gods’?: These five point guards have the ability to end up somewhere on an all-america team. Do they have the talent around them to win enough games to be considered?

  1. Dennis Smith Jr., N.C. State: Now healthy after recovering from a torn ACL, the uber-explosive Smith has an outside shot at being the No. 1 overall pick while the talent on the Wolfpack gives them a ceiling of being a top 15 team.
  2. Melo Trimble, Maryland: Trimble had a rough year in 2015-16, but with some roster turnover this season, expect the veteran point guard to be on a mission this season.
  3. Markelle Fultz, Washington: Fultz, like Smith, has a shot at being the No. 1 overall pick. Unlike Smith, however, Washington doesn’t have the same kind of talent around him.
  4. Monte’ Morris, Iowa State: Morris is a name that college basketball junkies have been familiar with for some time. It will be his show this season as Georges Niang (finally) graduated after what felt like a ten-year career.
  5. Jalen Adams, UConn: Adams isn’t as well-known as the other four names here, but he’s a sophomore point guard that was a top 25 prospect coming out of high school who should thrive in a Kevin Ollie system geared towards players of his ilk.

Will Allonzo Trier be eligible?: It’s mind-blowing just how much talent Arizona has lost this offseason that they expected to suit up from day one. Justin Simon transferred. Chance Comanche has been suspended for an academic issue. Terrence Ferguson is playing in Australia. Ray Smith tore his ACL. Now imagine you add Trier, who is dealing with an eligibility issue right now, to that list. He would Arizona’s leading returning scorer and the only non-freshman on the roster that might scare opposing game-planners. Without him, Arizona has seven scholarship players remaining and a starting five that may not be better than the five players they lost.

Can Ike Anigbogu anchor UCLA’s defense?: All the banter about the Bruins this summer centered around Bryce Alford, Lonzo Ball and whether or not head coach Steve Alford would be able to find a way to get all of the UCLA talent to play together. And while that is a definite concern, UCLA is only going to go so far this season if they can’t find a way to get tougher on the defensive end of the floor. They finished last season 119th in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. Only Washington State was worse in the Pac-12. They couldn’t force turnovers, they couldn’t get defensive rebounds and they couldn’t defend the rim. Anigbogu, a five-star freshman big man, is the guy that has the ability to solve some of those issues, but he’s dealing with a tear in the meniscus in his right knee.

Is there a go-to low-post presence on North Carolina’s roster?: North Carolina’s best teams under Roy Williams all have two thing in common: NBA-caliber point guard play and a first round draft pick playing in the post. Think about it: Ray Felton and Sean May; Ty Lawson and Tyler Hansbrough; Kendall Marshall and Tyler Zeller; Marcus Paige/Joel Berry II and Brice Johnson. Berry is back for his junior season, but who will he pair with on the block? Is Kennedy Meeks (finally?) ready to take that next step forward? Will Isaiah Hicks find a way to transfer his effectiveness in practice into consistent positive contributions in games?

Which Marcus Foster shows up at Creighton?: It’s been two years so I’ll forgive you if you’ve forgotten, but Marcus Foster was so good during his freshman season at Kansas State. He averaged 15.5 points and led the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament despite entering the Big 12 program without being considered a top 100 recruit. Then, as a sophomore, he found himself out of shape, unmotivated and, eventually, in the doghouse. So he left, sitting out last season after transferring to Creighton. Will the motivated Marcus Foster show up this winter, or is that guy officially gone forever?

Malik Monk (Kentucky Athletics)
Malik Monk (Kentucky Athletics)

Big East Preview: Can Villanova repeat as national champs?

Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big East Conference.

The Big East Conference, in its third season of a relaunch, finally achieved nationwide validation it had been seeking when Kris Jenkins sunk a buzzer-beating three to lift Villanova over North Carolina, 77-74, in one of the greatest national championship games of all time.

In 2016-17, the 10-team league has a chance to build on that momentum, and once again it starts with Jay Wright’s Wildcats.

Xavier, coming off a historic season that saw the Musketeers climb to their highest ranking ever, stands as Villanova’s top threat again, while Creighton is poised to make a jump into the contender conversation.

The Big East, on average, has sent half the league to the NCAA Tournament over the past three years. Expect that to be the same in 2017.

LEAGUE PREVIEWS: Big 12 | ACC | Pac-12 | Big Ten | | SECMid-Majors

Subscribe to the CBT Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or Audioboom

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Villanova won the national championship: In an instant classic, Villanova won the program’s second national championship, ending the criticism surrounding Jay Wright in March (despite him having a Final Four appearance on his résumé).

CONTENDER SERIES: Duke | Oregon | Kentucky | Kansas | Villanova

Even with the graduation Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, and those are big losses for Villanova, the Wildcats have the best chance to repeat as national champions since the Florida Gators during 2006-07 season. Josh Hart, a national player of the year candidate, and Kris Jenkins are back, while Jalen Brunson could be in for a big sophomore season as the primary ball handler. Mikal Bridges figures to be the next Villanova player to come through the system and become a breakout star. Eric Paschall, a Fordham transfer, adds another versatile wing. The Wildcats won’t have Omari Spellman, their top incoming recruit who was ruled a partial-qualifier, but Darryl Reynolds, who has played sparingly over his first three seasons, showed glimpses when he started last year while Ochefu was out with a concussion.

NBC Sports has Villanova ranked as the No. 2 in the nation this preseason.

2. Some stars left for the pros: Kris Dunn, the Big East Player of the Year, and Henry Ellenson, the Big East Freshman of the Year, left for the NBA as expected and became top-20 picks. Some players, like Ben Bentil and Isaiah Whitehead, weren’t guaranteed to bolt after their sophomore seasons, but both wound up being selected in the second round.

3. … and some stars returned: Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, Trevon Bluiett and Maurice Watson Jr., three of whom are listed below as Big East first teamers, all took advantage of the new NBA Draft rules and declared. All four elected to return to their respective schools. This made Villanova a favorite to return to the Final Four, meant Xavier is a top-10 caliber team and gave Creighton the backcourt that can guide the program back to the NCAA Tournament.

4. Creighton’s new era: Speaking of Creighton, many people are bullish on the Bluejays, as Marcus Foster looks to replicate the success Watson had in his first season after sitting out a transfer year. Greg McDermott had four 20-win seasons to begin his tenure at Creighton, which had a lot to do with having one of the most prolific scorers in NCAA history, his son, Doug. After plummeting to ninth in the conference following Doug’s graduation, Creighton rebounded with a 20-15 record last season. This Creighton team has the potential to do what Dougie McBuckets’ led teams never did: make a deep NCAA Tournament run.

5. NCAA Tournament: One of the interesting aspects of the Big East reboot is that, on average, half the league gets into the NCAA Tournament. That’s one of the benefits of an 18-game, round-robin conference schedule. But in only three seasons, five different teams have appeared in the Big East Conference championship game, resulting in three different winners. Only two of the 10 teams — DePaul and Marquette — have failed to qualify for the Big Dance since its rebirth in 2013. That’s all a long-winded way of saying that this league has depth and balance.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 26: Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats dunks the ball in the first half against the Kansas Jayhawks during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament South Regional at KFC YUM! Center on March 26, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Villanova’s Josh Hart (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

PRESEASON BIG EAST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Josh Hart, Villanova

Josh Hart’s rise has been a continuous one during his time at Villanova. He was a role player as a freshman and the Big East Sixth Man of the Year as a sophomore before cracking the starting lineup as a junior, which resulted in first-team all-league honors. The preseason All-American really does it all for the Wildcats. He’s the top returning scorer at 15.5 points per game, while shooting 36 percent from three. At 6-foot-6, he’s the best rebounding guard in the nation, corralling 6.8 boards a contest. And he’s a versatile defender, a key reason why Villanova ranked among the best defenses in the country last year.

THE REST OF THE BIG EAST FIRST TEAM:

  • Trevon Bluiett, Xavier: A returning first-team all-Big East selection, Bluiett tested the NBA waters before returning to Cincinnati. The 6-foot-5 junior, who averaged 15.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game, is obviously an important piece for the Musketeers. His versatility allows them to space the floor on offense given his 3-point touch, and his strength helps him defend opposing fours.
  • Kris Jenkins, Villanova: The hero of the 2016 national championship game, averaged 15.5 points per game, shooting 49 percent from three during the NCAA Tournament. While he’ll be known for that shot, Jenkins is a quality rebounder and defender, something he put an emphasis on during the course of last season.
  • Kelan Martin, Butler: Despite starting in only 14 of 33 games last season, Martin is the conference’s top returning scorer at 15.7 points per game. With Kellen Dunham and Roosevelt Jones gone after impressive careers, Martin will be the focal point of a talented, yet thin roster. One would imagine that he’d have to assume some of the responsibilities left behind by Jones (i.e. ball-handling, defense, and most importantly, leadership) and not just replace the scoring production of Dunham.
  • Maurice Watson Jr., Creighton: Many questioned Watson’s move from Boston University to Creighton, but those naysayers were silenced when he finished his debut season in the Big East, averaging 14.1 points, 6.5 assists and 3.4 rebounds per game. With plenty of shooters surrounding him, Watson should be a nightmare for defenses when he gets involved in pick-and-rolls situations and gets into the lane.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Isaac Copeland, Georgetown
  • Angel Delgado, Seton Hall
  • Marcus Foster, Creighton
  • Billy Garrett Jr., DePaul
  • Edmond Sumner, Xavier

Top Backcourts | Top Frontcourts | Top 100 Players

CINCINNATI, OH - FEBRUARY 03: Edmond Sumner #4 of the Xavier Musketeers dunks the ball during the game against the St. John's Red Storm at Cintas Center on February 3, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Xavier’s Edmond Sumner (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR: Khadeen Carrington, Seton Hall

You could go a bunch of different ways with this pick: Marcus Derrickson at Georgetown, Xavier’s J.P. Macura, the reigning Big East Sixth Man of the Year, or Marquette’s Haanif Cheatham, but I’m going with the Seton Hall lead guard.

For starters, Khadeen Carrington averaged an extremely quiet 14.1 points per game. That’s understandable when the majority of the attention was focused on Isaiah Whitehead. With Whitehead now in the NBA, Carrington has a chance to improve on those numbers. Carrington showed promising strides from his freshman to sophomore year, becoming one of the best two-way guards in the league. The big test for him is how quickly he can adjust to running the team.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: John Thompson III, Georgetown

In no way am I saying John Thompson III is in jeopardy of losing his job. He’s been to eight NCAA Tournaments in 12 years, reaching a Final Four in 2007. On top of that 264–133 record, his father, who built the program into a national powerhouse, is still very much part of the university. The school recently opened a brand-new, state of the art athletic center, named after him.

But Georgetown is coming off a disappointing year. Pegged to finish second in the league, the Hoyas staggered to a 15-18 (7-11 Big East) record, missing the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three seasons. Georgetown is 3-6 — with three first-round exits — in the NCAA Tournament since the Final Four run in 2007.

Despite graduating D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, JT3 has a team that looks good on paper: Isaac Copeland, L.J. Peak, Marcus Derrickson, Jessie Govan and Rodney Pryor. Hoyas certainly have the talent of top-25 caliber team, and they’ll get plenty of opportunities to prove so against a non-conference slate that includes Maryland, Oregon (and the rest of the Maui Invitational field), Syracuse and UConn.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : At least half the league is in the field of 68 once again

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT : Villanova’s title defense

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • November 15, Creighton vs. Wisconsin
  • November 15, Georgetown vs. Maryland
  • December 10, Villanova vs. Notre Dame (Prudential Center, Newark, New Jersey)
  • December 17, Butler vs. Indiana (BankersLife Arena, Indianapolis, Indiana)
  • January 26, Xavier vs. Cincinnati

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @BigEastMBB

POSITION RANKS: Lead Guards | Off Guards | Wings | Big Men

VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 31: Head coach Jay Wright of the Villanova Wildcats shakes hands with head coach Chris Mack of the Xavier Musketeers after a game at the Pavilion on the campus of Villanova University on December 31, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.(Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
Villanova’s Jay Wright and Xavier’s Chris Mack (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Villanova: The Wildcats are the unanimous favorite to win the Big East for a fourth straight season. While they won’t have freshman big man Omari Spellman, they have the defensive versatility, length and knockdown shooting to throw out this lineup at times: Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart, Eric Paschall, Kris Jenkins and Mikal Bridges. Do you wanna guard that five?
2. Xavier: Rebounding and depth may not be as good as last year’s team, but Xavier will push Villanova once again. Trevon Bluiett is back. Edmond Sumner could skyrocket as a player this year. J.P. Macura is a breakout candidate. But RaShid Gaston is undoubtedly the x-factor the Xavier. He nearly averaged a double-double in his final season at Norfolk State. But there’s a slight difference in competition between the MEAC and Big East. The new-look frontline is key for the Musketeers. The reason why the 1-3-1 zone defense (aside from its length) was so effective was because James Farr controlled the glass. Myles Davis’ status is still uncertain, but Xavier has the weapons and personnel to match with Villanova (and its hypothetical “Death Lineup” listed above).
3. Creighton: Maurice Watson Jr. and Marcus Foster make up one of the best backcourts in the country. A lot needs to go right for the Bluejays: Isaiah Zierden staying healthy, Khyri Thomas emerging as a third option, Justin Patton, Cole Huff and Toby Hegner stabilizing the frontcourt following the graduation of Geoffrey Groselle, 3-point shooting, etc. If this all comes together, I wouldn’t want to see this team come March.
4. Seton Hall: We’d be talking much differently about the Pirates had Isaiah Whitehead returned. Still, Kevin Willard, now off the hot seat, could lead Seton Hall to another NCAA Tournament run. Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez, Angel Delgado: take your pick. Any of those guys could emerge as the team’s best player. Defense will be their calling card, especially with a group of guys who love to get out and run.
5. Georgetown: A rebound year is in order at The Hilltop. Like mentioned above, the Hoyas bring back talent. They should be good. Tre Campbell, the presumptive starting point guard, showed flashes (i.e. 21 points of five 3-pointers against Xavier last season), but can he do it all year long? JT3 doesn’t shy away from non-conference opponents, and Georgetown will be tested early (vs. Maryland on Nov. 15; vs. Oregon on Nov. 21 in the Maui Invitational).
6. Butler: The return of Kelan Martin and arrival of Kethan Savage help offset the departures of Kellen Dunham and Roosevelt Jones. Tyler Lewis need to take command of the point guard role with no Jones to play off of like last year. Butler’s depth is a concern again this season, but it’s realistic to view this as an NCAA Tournament team.
7. Marquette: Henry Ellenson, as expected, bolted for the NBA after one season. Luke Fischer is back on the frontline, but it surely isn’t a deep one. The Golden Eagles have a deep perimeter with Duane Wilson, Jujuan Johnson, Traci Carter, Sandy Cohen III and Haanif Cheatham being joined by Andrew Rowsey, Katin Reinhardt and Markus Howard. Ellenson leaving leaves a void in the rebounding department, and I’m not sure the new additions fix the turnover problems.
8. Providence: It’s tough to lose both Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil. But Ed Cooley is a good coach, and I think Kyron Cartwright is capable of being a quality point guard in the Big East. My real concern is whether both Rodney Bullock and Jalen Lindsey can become consistent scorers for the Friars. Newcomers also need to make instant contributions.
9. St. John’s: Chris Mullin’s second year at his alma mater should see slight strides. The Johnnies have one of the best frontlines in the league with two shot-blockers in Yankuba Sima and Kassoum Yakwe, as well as highly-touted JUCO forward Bashir Ahmed. Marcus LoVett Jr., who sat out last season, assumes the point guard role, while Shamorie Ponds, the Brooklyn native, will provide offensive firepower alongside shooter Federico Mussini.
10. DePaul: Billy Garrett Jr. will win the Blue Demons a few games in conference play, but I expect DePaul to continue this rebuild in Dave Leitao’s second season back. The new arena, opening in 2017, offers the program and its fans optimism.