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.
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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
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?
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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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?