2014-15 Season Preview: Can the ACC produce four Final Four teams?

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Jahlil Okafor (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we will be previewing the ACC.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

We’re entering a new era in the ACC, as Louisville enters the conference while Maryland exits to the Big Ten. Some old rivalries will die as a result — the Duke-Maryland rivalry in the early-2000s was as good as it gets — but the ACC is now the best conference in the country. The top four teams in the conference are all good enough to make a Final Four and win the ACC regular season title. There are at least six more teams that will have a chance to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. It’s going to be a fun league to watch play out.

REALIGNMENT MOVES

In: Louisville
Out: Maryland

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. The top four in the ACC is clear-cut: Duke, North Carolina, Louisville and Virginia. Those are the four best teams in the ACC, and there really isn’t a debate to be had there. All four are ranked in the top ten of the NBCSports.com preseason poll, and all four are legitimate national title contenders. What order those four should be ranked is something we are all going to disagree on, but the bottom-line is this: no one else in the conference can even be called a consensus top 25 team. That said …

2. … the race for fifth place will be just as contested: There may not be another consensus top 25 team in the conference, but there are six teams in the league that could end up being ranked at some point during the season and earning themselves an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. All six could also end up missing the NCAA tournament. We have Notre Dame fifth and Miami tenth in our preseason poll. You could flip-flop them and I wouldn’t argue all that much. The middle of the league is going to be a mess.

3. The offseason talking points had more to do with students than athletes: Despite the fact that the ACC is home to four top ten teams, four players that made at least one appearance as a preseason first-team all-american and four hall of fame head coaches, the stories that dominated the headlines this offseason were all bad. Syracuse is staring down the barrel of an NCAA investigation into academic improprieties, improper benefits, failed drug tests and who knows what else. But those issues paled in comparison to what North Carolina dealt with this fall, as a damaging independent investigation into the academic fraud in the athletic department — the Wainstein Report — legitimized the questions surrounding Roy Williams’ program. It’s bad enough that there’s a real chance the 2005 national title could end up being vacated.

4. It’s been two years since a blueblood won an ACC title: For all the talk of the ACC’s bluebloods — Duke and North Carolina — and the storied programs the league swiped from the Big East — Syracuse, Pitt, Louisville — it’s mildly surprising that it has been a full two years since anyone of those programs have won an ACC regular season or tournament title. In 2014, Virginia won dual ACC titles. In 2013, Miami did the same.

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Marcus Paige and Malcolm Brogdon (AP Photo)

5. Best point guard play in the country: You like watching elite ball-handlers? You’ll love the ACC this season. North Carolina’s Marcus Paige and Louisville’s Terry Rozier are going to get the majority of the attention, but that’s just the beginning of it. Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant is talented enough to put together an all-american caliber campaign. Miami’s Angel Rodriguez was an all-Big 12 point guard before transferring out of Kansas State. Duke’s Tyus Jones is the nation’s best freshman point guard. Olivier Hanlan (Boston College), Codi Miller-McIntyre (Wake Forest), Xavier Rathan-Mayes (Florida State), Cat Barber (N.C. State). There are going to be some really good point guards that don’t sniff the all-ACC team.

PRESEASON ACC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jahlil Okafor, Duke

Jahlil Okafor is my pick to be the National Player of the Year this season, so it would only make sense that he is the Preseason ACC Player of the Year as well. I expect Okafor to have an impact as a freshman similar to that of Jabari Parker last season, as the 6-foot-11 center will be the most-skilled low-post player in the country.

THE REST OF THE ALL-ACC FIRST TEAM:

  • Marcus Paige, North Carolina, Jr.: Paige was dominant at times as a sophomore, as he learned how to playthe role of facilitator until he needed to take over.
  • Montrezl Harrell, Louisville, Jr.: Louisville caught a bit of a break when Harrell made the decision to return to school for his junior season. We know about his work in the paint, but he’s hitting threes now as well.
  • Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia, Jr.: Brogdon is one of the most underrated players in the country. He’s not flashy and won’t post huge numbers, but he’s consistent and the key for Virginia offensively.
  • Jerian Grant, Notre Dame, Sr.: Grant was having an all-american caliber season when he was suspended from school for the second semester. Expect him to pick up where he left off.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Terry Rozier, Louisville, So.
  • Angel Rodriguez, Miami, Jr.
  • Olivier Hanlan, Boston College, Jr.
  • Aaron Thomas, Florida State, Jr.
  • Tyus Jones, Duke, Fr.

BREAKOUT STAR: Terry Rozier had a handful of impressive performances as a freshman, but consistent minutes were tough for him to come by. Part of that was the result of playing the same position as all-american Russ Smith. But it wasn’t a secret that Rozier was the best pro prospect on Louisville’s roster last season, and using the 6-foot-2 combo-guard in a reserve role helped ensure that Rozier would be back for another season.

source: Getty Images
Roy Williams and Jim Boeheim (Getty Images)

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Georgia Tech head coach Brian Gregory is the obvious pick here, but it’s also the boring one. We know that the Yellow Jackets have not been good during his tenure, and when you’re the coach at an ACC school that isn’t winning, you’re job will be in jeopardy. What’s more interesting is the status of hall of famers Jim Boeheim and Roy Williams. Syracuse is currently dealing with an NCAA investigation into issues with academics and improper benefits while North Carolina is undergoing intense scrutiny regarding their use of “paper classes” and just how much of the cheating Williams was aware of.

Are they in danger of losing their jobs? Not unless they want to retire. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a pair of coaches in any league facing more pressure entering the season than those two.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : The ACC might get four teams into the Final Four, but will anyone else win a game?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT : Watching the top four teams in this league battle it out for a regular season title. The race for ACC Player of the Year will be fun as well.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • 12/3, Duke at Wisconsin (ACC/Big Ten Challenge)
  • 12/6, Virginia at VCU
  • 12/13, North Carolina at Kentucky
  • 12/18, Duke vs. UConn (at the Izod Center)
  • 12/27, Kentucky at Louisville

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @scacchoops

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Duke: I have my doubts about Duke, but the Blue Devils have the single-toughest matchup in the ACC in Jahlil Okafor roaming the paint and a ton of perimeter depth to surround him.
2. North Carolina: Picking the Tar Heels here means two things: Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks both lived up to their potential, and Justin Jackson played like the McDonald’s All-American he is.
3. Virginia: The ‘Hoos don’t look menacing on paper, but they return the majority of their roster from a team that won a dual-ACC title last season.
4. Louisville: Love Rozier and Harrell, but there are some real question marks elsewhere on the roster. That said, a fourth-place finish in the ACC could still yield a top three seed.
5. Notre Dame: Jerian Grant — and, to a lesser extent, Patrick Connaughton — good enough to get Notre Dame to .500 on his own. The Irish will be a tournament team if Zach Auguste, Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia improve.
6. Syracuse: The Orange are loaded with athletes, especially in their front court. But the inconsistent Trevor Cooney is the only proven scorer and Kaleb Joseph is the only point guard. I could see the Orange missing the tournament.
7. N.C. State: Cat Barber, Ralston Turner and Trevor Lacey is a talented back court, BeeJay Anya has shed a bunch of weight and Abdul-Malik Abu could end up being an all-freshmen team player.
8. Pitt: Getting Durand Johnson back healthy is key, as is the return of Cameron Wright and James Robinson. How good will Sheldon Jeter and Michael Young be up front?
9. Florida State: Aaron Thomas is one of the most underrated players in the league and the addition of Xavier Rathan-Mayes should be key. If they address their turnover and defensive rebounding issues, a top five finish is feasible.
10. Miami: The quartet of Angel Rodriguez, Sheldon McClellan, Deandre Burnett and JaQuan Newton gives the Canes a talented perimeter. But what about their front line?
11. Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons have had made a habit of picking off elite opponents at home, but they’ll need to shore up their defense and get help for Codi Miller-McIntyre and Devin Thomas to finish in the top half of the league in Danny Manning’s first year.
12. Georgia Tech: Point guard play is still an issue, but DeMarco Cox and Charles Mitchell are both eligible up front while Marcus Georges-Hunt is underrated on the wing.
13. Clemson: The Tigers were a top 20 defensive team last season, and while they return a number of veterans, they lose K.J. McDaniels, their best defender and leading scorer.
14. Virginia Tech: The future looks bright in Blacksburg with Buzz Williams coming to town, but it’s going to take some time for him to get enough talent into the program to compete near the top of the ACC.
15. Boston College: The Eagles bring back Olivier Hanlan, but they lose Ryan Anderson, among others, and look destined for the ACC cellar.

The fatal flaw for every team in the top ten

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So much of college basketball’s preseason content centers around talking about what teams do well.

Well, what if we do the opposite?

Let’s talk about what the best teams in college basketball are bad at.

Today, we will be looking at every team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25 and working through their fatal flaw, a ‘Why Your Team Sucks’ preview, if you will.

This is why your favorite team will be bad this season. You can find teams 11-25 here

1. MICHIGAN STATE

TOM IZZO’S WILLINGNESS TO PLAY SMALL

Two seasons ago, when the Spartans had a pair of lottery picks on their roster in Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr., Michigan State was in a position where they had the absolute best frontcourt possible to go full small ball. Jackson was everything that you could ask for out of a small-ball five, a 6-foot-11 shot-blocker with a 7-foot-5 wingspan and three-point range. Bridges was the uber-athletic forward that was big and strong enough to play the four while also being a nightmare for opposing bigs to deal with.

We spent, quite literally, wishing that Izzo would find a way to get those two on the floor together at the four and the five and it never really happened.

I bring that up because this Michigan State team has all the makings of a group that should be very good playing small. Other than Xavier Tillman, there isn’t really a big man on the roster that has proven himself. Getting another spacer on the floor at the four will create just that much more room for Winston to operate, and the more room you can create for Winston, the easier your life is going to be. Throw in the fact that Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown, Malik Hall and Kyle Aherns all make sense as guys that can play bigger than what they are listed at, and we have another Michigan State team that looks like a perfect fit to play small. Will Izzo agree?

(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

2. KENTUCKY

SCORING IN THE HALFCOURT

The Wildcats are going to be an interesting team to track over the course of the season. They’re young again, obviously, and they don’t really have a clear-cut star on their roster. Can you, unequivocally, tell me who is going to be the best player on their roster? (No. You cannot.)

And that puts the Cats in a weird position, similar to the one they were in last year. I’m just not sure how they are going to play this season. Cal has tended towards playing a slower brand of basketball, one that relied on overwhelming opponents in the paint, unless he has an absolute jet – John Wall or De’Aaron Fox, specifically – at the point. He has three guys that can play the point guard role this year, and none of Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey or Immanuel Quickley are as good as Wall or Fox. But he also doesn’t have an overpowering presence in the paint. There have been some rumblings from people that the best big on Kentucky’s roster early on has been Nate Sestina, the Bucknell transfer. He’s not exactly Karl Anthony-Towns.

So I’d think that in an ideal world, Kentucky would play as more of a pressing team, allowing them to get out into transition and let their athletes do athletic things.

But when they are forced to play slower, where is their offense coming from?

Put another way, if you are an SEC coach game-planning to stop them in the halfcourt, who are you worried about? Hagans can’t shoot. Johnny Juzang has gotten some buzz, but can he really be better than Tyler Herro was last year? Is E.J. Montgomery going to actually take a step forward? Maxey is fine, but he’s also not the caliber of Kentucky’s past star guards.

It will be very interesting to see how Kentucky evolves this season.

3. KANSAS

THE FOUR

The power forward spot has traditionally been the most important spot on the floor for the Jayhawks, and last year was no different. Before Udoka Azubuike’s injury, Kansas was playing like one of the best teams in the country because it was borderline impossible to stop Dedric Lawson and Azubuike in high-low action. And while Azubuike is back this season, Lawson is off to the professional ranks, and there is no clear answer for who will step into that four-man role for the Jayhawks.

One option is Silvio De Sousa, but he would make Kansas a liability defensively and is not a floor-spacer. The same can be said about David McCormick. Mitch Lightfoot doesn’t appear to be the answer, and we saw last season just how much of an issue Marcus Garrett’s lack of shooting can cause when he’s slotted into that role. Will one of the freshmen, Jalen Wilson or Tristan Enaruna, step up?

I honestly don’t know.

And, as I mentioned in the video below, I’m not actually all that worried, either.

4. LOUISVILLE

THE POINT

Louisville has just about everything that you need in a college basketball program. They have the All-American in Jordan Nwora. They have all-league talent on their roster in Dwayne Sutton and Samuell Williamson. They have a talented freshmen class to pair with depth up and down their roster, which is why the Cardinals are a top five team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

The concern, however, is at the point guard spot, just as it was last season. With all due respect to Christen Cunningham, he was more of a guy that kept Louisville from losing games as opposed to being the kind of talent that wins games, if that makes sense. Louisville replaced him with two guys. The first is Fresh Kimble, a grad transfer from St. Joseph’s that put up good scoring numbers last season. The problem, however, is that Kimble was always more of a scorer than a pure point guard that made people around him better. I think the latter is what this Louisville team needs more than the former, and while incoming freshman David Johnson was impressive in early practices, he’s also going to be out until around the start of ACC play with a shoulder injury.

There is enough talent on this roster to be able to win big even if their point guard play isn’t great, but I do think that great point guard play is the most important thing for college basketball teams.

5. VILLANOVA

SO WHO’S MAKING SHOTS THIS YEAR?

The modus operandi for this Villanova program during this six-year dynasty has been simple: Target the most talented players that fit the program’s cultural values and style of play, develop them within the program over the course of two-or-three years, hang banners with a roster that’s older than the competition, ship those players off to a job in the NBA. Even without Omari Spellman and Donte DiVincenzo last season, the Wildcats still were able to play through Eric Paschall and Phil Booth en route to their fifth Big East regular season title and fourth Big East tournament title in the last six seasons.

This year, however, is the year when that gets tested. Because there is a lot of unproven talent on this Villanova roster. Is this the year Jermaine Samuels makes the jump to stardom? Are Collin Gillispie and Dhamir Cosby-Rountree truly good enough to be cornerstones for a team that is competing for league titles and Final Fours? Just how good will Cole Swider and Saddiq Bey be with a year of seasoning on the Main Line? Can Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Justin Moore and – when he gets healthy – Bryan Antoine be able to step in and play right away as freshmen?

The talent is there on paper. Will it show up in wins?

6. DUKE

CAN THEY BE GOOD DEFENSIVELY AND OFFENSIVELY

I’ve talked about written about this extensively already, so I’ll keep it short and sweet here: The roster makeup for this team is weird. There are a lot of players that are good and that can do a job in a role, but I’m not sure just how many players they have that are going to be good on both ends of the floor. Put another way, can Duke put a team on the floor that will be able to score and be able to defend?

7. FLORIDA

THE BURDEN OF EXPECTATION

Let me get this out of the way before I start: I’m in on Florida. I have them at the No. 7 team in the country. I invested my own hard-earned money on a ticket for Florida winning the national title. So I totally get the upside here.

But I’m also well aware of the fact that we are taking a leap of faith, one centered around the idea that a number of players on this roster are taking a significant step forward. Can Andrew Nembhard play his way into being on an all-SEC team? Will Noah Locke emerge as a secondary scorer with Jalen Hudson and KeVaughn Allen gone? How will Kerry Blackshear Jr. mesh within this roster? Perhaps most importantly, will the freshmen that Mike White has coming to campus – Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann, in particular – be a net positive over the inefficiency gunners that are graduating?

Remember, this team was a No. 10 seed last season that couldn’t shoot and lost 16 games. Asking them to go from that to a team that will be among the best in the country is a big ask.

8. GONZAGA

DO THEY HAVE A POINT GUARD?

It shouldn’t really be up for debate at this point, but if you still weren’t buying into the idea that Gonzaga is one of the 8-10 best college basketball programs in America, all you have to do is look at the fact that they’ve continually lost talent to the professional ranks earlier than expected and have not skipped a beat. That was true when they lost Nigel Williams-Goss and Zach Collins to the pros and remained among the top ten teams in the country the last two seasons. And that’s even more true this year, when Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke and Zach Norvell all bounced with eligibility remaining, and the Zags will still enter the year as a preseason top ten team.

The concern, however, is that they have been forced to try and figure things out on the fly at the point guard spot. Josh Perkins graduated, and since Joel Ayayi has not earned the starting job and Brock Ravet is apparently not ready to take things over, Mark Few had to go to the grad transfer route again. He brought in Admon Gilder from Texas Tech and Ryan Woolridge from North Texas to paper mache over the gaps.

With a roster that’s pretty loaded up front, will that be enough for the Zags to compete at the level we’ve come to expect?

9. MARYLAND

THEY’RE MARYLAND

That’s harsh, I know, but the truth is that during Mark Turgeon’s tenure, the Terps have had a tendency to flop when they enter a season with a certain level of expectation. Take, for example, the 2015-16 season. The Terps were loaded – Melo Trimble, Rasheed Sulaimon, Jake Layman, Diamond Stone and Robert Carter – and entered the year as the preseason No. 1 team in the country, yet they stumbled to a 27-9 record, a third-place finish in the Big Ten and got bounced out of the tournament in the Sweet 16.

Some people will tell you that Turgeon isn’t a great coach, that that’s the problem. Others will point to the fact that players tend to stagnate in College Park. Melo Trimble was awesome as a freshman but never really took the leap to the next level. Anthony Cowan seems to be trending in that same direction.

Do you trust this program to be able to find a way to be among the nation’s elite?

10. VIRGINIA

CAN TONY BENNETT TRUST THEIR GUARD PLAY?

I love Virginia’s frontcourt. Mamadi Diakite is going to be arguably the best defensive big man in the country. Jay Huff is the protoype pick-and-roll big and should be in line for a monster junior season. Braxton Key should do well playing an expanded offensive role.

The question is going to be their backcourt. Kihei Clark was really good in a role last season, but with Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome off to the NBA, he’s going to be asked to be the guy this year. Is he up to the task? Can Casey Morsell be a contributor as a freshman? What about Tomas Woldetensae?

I went more in depth on Virginia below.

Kentucky lands commitment from five-star guard Askew

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Kentucky landed a commitment from five-star guard Devin Askew on Thursday night.

Askew is a top ten prospect in the Class of 2021, but the expectation is that he will reclassify and enroll at Kentucky next summer. Assuming he does, Askew will join a recruiting class that already includes Terrence Clarke, B.J. Boston, Lance Ware and Cam’Ron Fletcher.

Askew picked the Wildcats over Louisville, Arizona, Memphis and Kansas.

Where things get interesting here will be with Cade Cunningham, the top point guard in the Class of 2020 and arguably the top prospect in the class. Many believed that Cade would end up going to Oklahoma State, where Mike Boynton hired his brother, Cannen, as an assistant coach. But Cade has made it clear that he wants to be recruited, and after taking an official visit to Kentucky over the weekend, it looks as if the Wildcats have a real shot at landing him.

But will he be willing to share lead guard duties with Askew?

We shall see.

The fatal flaw for every team in the back half of the top 25

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So much of college basketball’s preseason content centers around talking about what teams do well.

Well, what if we do the opposite?

Let’s talk about what the best teams in college basketball are bad at.

Today, we will be looking at every team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25 and working through their fatal flaw, a ‘Why Your Team Sucks’ preview, if you will.

This is why your favorite team will be bad this season. You can find the top ten teams here

11. TEXAS TECH

PLAYMAKING

We know how good the Texas Tech defense is going to be because the Texas Tech defense is always good. It’s something Chris Beard and Mark Adams preach more than anything else, and while losing guys like Matt Mooney and Tariq Owens are big losses, the truth is that this defense is as much about the system as it is the players and guys like Chris Clarke and Jahmius Ramsey should be pretty good defensive pieces in their own right.

The bigger issue is on the other end of the floor. The last two seasons, when Texas Tech has been the best team in the conference, has come when there has been a big, talented lead guard to run offense through when things get bogged down – Keenan Evans and Jarrett Culver. I believe it’s going to be Ramsey this season that takes over that role, but he is also a freshman. Is he going to be ready the moment he steps onto campus to carry the load offensively for a team that we expect to be competing for a Big 12 title?

12. OREGON

JUST HOW GOOD ARE THESE BIGS?

As good as Arizona and Washington are this season, I think that there is a valid argument to make that Oregon is not just the best team in the Pac-12 this season, but the most talented team. They have the best point guard in the conference in Payton Pritchard, a guy that is a proven winner and should make his way into the All-American conversation by the end of the year. Anthony Mathis and Shakur Juiston arrive as grad transfers and should play major roles immediately. Will Richardson should be ready for a bigger role, and the likes of Chris Duarte, C.J. Walker and Chandler Lawson should be able to contribute immediately. There may be a lot of turnover here, but Dana Altman has dealt with it before.

The question, however, is going to be in the frontcourt. Oregon’s best teams in recent seasons have had a hyper-athletic, elite defensive presence in the middle. Read: Bell, Jordan; or Wooten, Kenny. It’s not a coincidence that Oregon played their best basketball after Bol Bol got hurt. Who can play that role this season? I’m not sold that N’Faly Dante will be that guy when he finally does get eligible. Francis Okoro has been good in flashes but has never been asked to play a major role. Chandler Lawson and Juiston profile more as fours than elite defensive fives.

13. SETON HALL

DOES OLDER ALWAYS MEAN BETTER?

I love Seton Hall this season. I love Myles Powell forever and always. But the truth is that this Seton Hall team last season was already pretty old, turnover prone and inconsistent from beyond the arc. They won a bunch of games because Powell is good enough to win a bunch of games by himself, but if Seton Hall is going to live up to these lofty expectations, they’re going to need the likes of Myles Cale (consistency), Quincy McKnight (turnovers, three-point shooting) and Sandro Mamukelashvili (ability to control the paint) to take steps forward.

But just how much better will they actually be this year? These guys are already upperclassmen, and just because a good-not-great team returns everyone they have on their roster doesn’t mean that they are going to be great the next season. Put another way, just because they had room to grow doesn’t mean they grew.

14. NORTH CAROLINA

EVERYTHING AND EVERYONE IS NEW

The Tar Heels lost basically everything from last season. Coby White, Cam Johnson, Luke Maye, Nassir Little, Kenny Williams. Their leading returning scorer is a big guy who averaged 7.9 points. That’s a lot to replace, and it means there are going to be a lot of new faces asked to play in a system they haven’t played in before and old faces asked to play much bigger roles.

The talent is there. I think we can all agree. Cole Anthony is going to be awesome. I love Armando Bacot. The grad transfers are going to be super-valuable. But this much turnover in any program is not easy to navigate, and it’s not something that Roy Williams has a had a ton of experience dealing with.

15. UTAH STATE

ARE WE SURE THEY’RE ACTUALLY GOOD?

Before Aggie fans jump all over me for this, remember: I have you ranked 15th nationally.

But also remember: We’re ranking this team 15th a year after they put together a season where their best wins came against Saint Mary’s, UC Irvine and Nevada. They lost by 17 points in the NCAA tournament to a Washington team that lost by 22 points to a North Carolina team that lost by 17 points to an Auburn team that lost Chuma Okeke during the game. They finished the season 38th in KenPom.

I’m buying in on them, but that’s because I believe in the coaching staff and the talent. Not because we’ve seen them perform at this level before.

16. ARIZONA

DO YOU TRUST THEIR BIGS?

We know how good Arizona’s guards are going to be. Nico Mannion and Josh Green are five-star prospects with the chance to get picked in the lottery come June. Even with the injury to Brandon Williams, the addition of Max Hazzard gives the Wildcats one of the better backcourts in the country, particularly if Jemarl Baker gets a waiver.

The questions that I have are with their big guys. Their best frontcourt player is … Chase Jeter? Ira Lee? Stone Gettings, who was the second-best player player on a sub-.500 Ivy League team? Zeke Nnaji and Christian Koloko have had some buzz in the summer and fall, but can Arizona get to a Final Four if one of those two freshmen are forced to start and play 25 minutes a night?

17. SAINT MARY’S

IS JORDAN FORD GOOD ENOUGH TO SHOULDER THE LOAD?

So here’s a weird stat that I came across: Saint Mary’s had the lowest assist rate in all of college basketball last season. They literally finished 353rd nationally in the percentage of their made field goals that were assisted, a number that becomes all the more stark when you considered there were just five teams in college basketball that played at a slower pace. The Gaels averaged just 10.1 assists per game last season. In 2017-18, Emmett Naar averaged 7.9 assists himself.

The reason for this is that Randy Bennett runs a ball-screen heavy offense, but last season, the guy that was put in those ball-screens was Jordan Ford. Unlike past SMC point guards – Naar, Matthew Dellavedova, Mickey McConnell – Ford is a score-first player. He’s not coming off of those ball-screens looking to do anything other than find a way to get a bucket, and he’s really good at that.

But is he good enough at it to get the Gaels into the mix for the WCC title? Can Saint Mary’s make a run in March if their offense is, essentially, let’s see if Jordan Ford gets hot today?

18. XAVIER

ARE THEY THE TEAM THAT WON SIX OF THEIR LAST SEVEN, OR THE ONE THAT STARTED 3-8 IN THE BIG EAST?

The thing that is difficult about projecting teams that finished the regular season hot is that they may have made their leap during the season.

Put another way, is Xavier a team that still has room to grow after they figured some things out late in the year, or is this a group that made their jump down the stretch of the season?

I ask, because a team whose ceiling is an 11 game stretch where they go 8-3 against a mediocre Big East and NIT competition is one thing. But if Naji Marshall and Quentin Goodin actually get better from beyond the arc, if this group learns how not to turn the ball over, if they show some improvement in being able to run opponents off of the three-point line, then they have a chance to truly compete for a Big East title and make a run at getting a top four seed.

19. LSU

AT SOME POINT, THE NCAA PAYS A VISIT, RIGHT?

As much as any other team in college basketball this season, I think that there is a chance that the bottom falls out for LSU. The talent they have is undeniable. They are the reigning SEC regular season champs, and they bring back everyone except Tremont Waters and Naz Reid. Skylar Mays and Javonte Smart are as good as any guard duo in the league. Marlon Taylor and Emmitt Williams are two of the most exciting athletes in the sport. Trendon Watford is a five-star freshman. This team is loaded.

But their head coach had to sit out last year’s postseason run because of wiretaps that were played in federal court that appeared to show him trying to cut a deal for a player that is still on the roster. The NCAA is investigating. They are going to get hit with something. The when and the who are the big questions, as is the possibility that the program will fall on their sword and self-impose a punishment.

20. BAYLOR

WILL THEY STOP FOULING?

This Baylor team is weird. They look like they might be good enough to finish second in the Big 12 this season, but I’m not sure there is an NBA player on the roster. I’m sure most Big 12 fans know who Tristan Clark is, but he missed the second half of last season with a knee injury. There aren’t many college basketball players that are national names, and Baylor certainly does not have one. Hell, I’m not sure how many casual Big 12 fans that can name someone on the roster.

But there’s more to it than that. Baylor plays a zone, but not only did they lead the Big 12 in defensive rebounding percentage during league play, they also found a way to foul more than West Virginia did last season.

I’m in on this Baylor team. They are balanced, they are well-coached and they have some guys that can really play. But when you don’t have the high-end NBA-caliber talent, you’re winning on the margins, so to speak. You’re winning because you can dominate the glass on both ends, because you extend possessions with second-chance points better than anyone while ending possessions after missed shots at an elite level. Fouling at a rate that

21. MEMPHIS

FRESHMEN DO FRESHMEN THINGS

As the saying goes, the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores. Memphis is on track to start five freshmen and play seven freshmen in their rotation. I expand on all that below.

22. AUBURN

WHERE ARE THE SHOT CREATORS?

Losing Jared Harper was a major blow for the Tigers, because he did so much for them when their offense got bogged down in the halfcourt. Chuma Okeke was another option, because he was such a matchup problem for opposing defenses. Even Bryce Brown was able to just shoot over any and all defenses when he got hot. Can J’Von McCormick, Isaac Okoro and Samir Doughty replace that?

23. TENNESSEE

DO THEY HAVE ANYONE TO PLAY THE FIVE?

The Vols lost a lot in their frontcourt. Kyle Alexander is gone. Admiral Schofield is gone. Grant Williams is gone. That is a lot of production to replace, and I’m not sure who they have that can do it. Their guards are going to be fine. Lamonte’ Turner is ready for a bigger role, Jordan Bowden is talented-if-inconsistent and five-star Josiah James should be able to provide scoring and shot creation. Hell, even using Yves Pons at the four is doable. But can Tennessee win if they need to rely on John Fulkerson and Zach Kent?

24. VCU

THEY CANNOT SCORE

We spent the entirety of last season burying Duke because they were such a bad shooting team. The Blue Devils actually shot better from three than VCU did last year, and the Rams don’t have guys like Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett. That’s why they finished last year ranked 177th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric.

25. OHIO STATE

HOW GOOD ARE THEIR GUARDS?

The Buckeyes lost their starting backcourt from last season, and while we all know how good Kaleb Wesson is, there is a legitimate concern as to whether or not they have guys that can get him the ball this year. C.J. Walker is a transfer from Florida State who was fine in the ACC, so that helps with the experience, and D.J. Carton is a guy with an incredibly high ceiling, but he’s a ways away from that ceiling at this point.

Michigan lands commitment from five-star forward Todd

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Juwan Howard has landed his first five-star prospect as the head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.

On Thursday night, Isaiah Todd, a top ten prospect from Word Of God Christian Academy in North Carolina, announced that he will be playing his college ball in Ann Arbor. Todd picked Michigan over Kansas, having cut both Kentucky and North Carolina from his list earlier this month.

Part of the intrigue for Todd in committing to Michigan and Howard is that the two are similar as players. Todd is a skilled and mobile four that runs well, can finish above the rim and play out on the perimeter. Motor and consistent effort is the key for him. When he’s dialed in, he’s dangerous.

Todd joins top 100 shooting guard Zeb Jackson in Howard’s first recruiting class, and this is where the intrigue really begins. Michigan is also involved with a number of highly-touted prospects – five-stars Josh Christopher, Jaden Springer and Nimari Burnett as well as four-stars Moses Moody, Mark Williams and Hunter Dickinson.

CBT Podcast: Penny Hardaway and the Big Ten Preview

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Rob Dauster was joined by Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway for the latest episode of the College Basketball Talk podcast. Afterwards, Scott Phillips jumped onto the pod to walk through a full breakdown of every team in the Big Ten. Does Michigan State have the NBA-level talent to win a title? Can Maryland live up to their lofty expectations? There are new eras at Michigan, Purdue and Wisconsin to discuss. Who is best set up for success? Ohio State and Illinois are trending up, Iowa and Minnesota are trending down, and the Mayor is back!

Here is the full rundown:

OPEN: Penny Hardaway

15:45: Big Ten overview

20:05: Illinois

26:55: Indiana

31:30: Iowa

35:45: Maryland

40:25: Michigan

45:30: Michigan State

51:35: Minnesota

54:40: Nebraska

57:15: Northwestern

59:20: Ohio State

1:03:30: Penn State

1:07:45: Purdue

1:13:45: Rutgers

1:17:00: Wisconsin