The 68: Everything you need to get you fired up for the return of college hoops

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
0 Comments

Finally — mercifully — college basketball is back in full starting on Tuesday night.

With that in mind, and with all that we have given you for previews through the last months — from top 25 countdowns to positional breakdowns to the bets that you simply cannot live without — here our the final tidbit: the things we cannot wait to see, the things we don’t want to see and the things that have us fired up for college basketball already.

These are those 68 things:



1. ACTUAL BASKETBALL GAMES

Covering college basketball for the last 14 months has meant writing about FBI investigations, drastic rule changes, ill-advised commissions and trials mean for the future of the sport and the integrity of something that has been all about the money for as long as I can remember.

Studying the NCAA rulebook, pretending that I have any clue about how the legal process works and discussing why breaking the morally-reprehensible NCAA amateurism by-laws is actually a federal crime? These are not the things that I signed up to do when I got this job.

That all changes this week!

For the first time in exactly 217 days — and for the next five months — I will be watching and writing and talking about actual real live college basketball action!

That is …

2. … UNLESS THESE OTHER TWO TRIALS ACTUALLY HAPPEN

Just one of the three trials that stemmed from the FBI’s investigation into corruption on college basketball has actually happened, but we already have seen three defendants get found guilty — former Adidas executive Jim Gatto, former Nike and Adidas rep Merl Code and a former runner for an NBA agent in Christian Dawkins.

All three of them were found guilty on all charges, and if you listened to the podcast I recorded with an actual, real life lawyer, you’ll see that there is very little wiggle room here from a legal perspective.

It is still too early to know exactly how all of this is going to play out, but if I had to guess right now, I would put my money on the three people that have been found guilty negotiating a deal that would swap leniency for cooperation in the two upcoming trials, the ones involving the former assistant coaches at Auburn (Chuck Person), Arizona (Book Richardson), USC (Tony Bland) and Oklahoma State (Lamont Evans).

That, combined with the fact that the judge in the first trial more or less threw out the only shot that these guys have at a defense, I would expect those men to take pleas as well.

And if all of that happens, will we still get the dirt that the FBI has stored in evidence?

Who knows.

But what I do know is that my hopes of a drama-free, basketball-only season will go up in smoke if those trials actually happen. The first — Person’s — is scheduled to take place in February.

3. THE CHAMPIONS CLASSIC IS GOING TO BE AS AWESOME AS EVER

College basketball tweaked their rules a bit this season. Instead of having the season begin on a Friday night, with the Champions Classic marking unofficially launching the year on the fifth day of the season, the NCAA allowed the sport’s premiere double-header and the best night of college hoops this side of the Final Four to operate as the sport’s opening night.

What that means is, beginning at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, we will have three of the top four and four of the top ten teams in the same building.

No. 1 Kansas takes on No. 10 Michigan State in the opener. No. 2 Kentucky squares off with No. 4 Duke in the nightcap.

It’s going to be an unbelievable night of hoops in Indianapolis, and there is so much that I’m looking forward to seeing there.

4. DUKE’S FORAY INTO THE NBA’S VERSION OF SMALL-BALL

This is the major question. On the one hand, the Blue Devils have three of the consensus top five — and four of the top 15 when you include Tre Jones — players in the country in this recruiting class. There’s a non-zero chance that R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish end up being the top three picks in the 2019 NBA Draft come June. It is not often that we see that much talent on one roster.

But it is also worth noting here that the 2018 recruiting class is not considered to be all that good, at least not in comparison to, say, the top of the 2017 or 2016 classes.

That’s before you get into the question of how, exactly, all those players are going to fit together on the court at the same time. On the one hand, Duke’s roster looks an awful lot like the best in the NBA — they have a point guard, a trio of switchable wings that can create for themselves and athletic, rim-running bigs — but as good as those four newcomers are, they are all at their best with the ball in their hands. Is there enough shooting on this roster to keep the floor spaced? Are these guys good enough without the ball in their hands?

We’ll have an answer by Wednesday morning.

5. ZION WILLIAMSON

Barrett, at this point, is the favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft, and deservedly so. He’s really good. That’s why he’s the NBC Sports Preseason Player of the Year. Reddish may actually be the guy with the highest ceiling in this class, depending on who you ask, and his ability to be a shot-maker on the perimeter makes him something of the x-factor for this Duke team.

But it’s Zion that every whats to see. He’s the most famous college basketball player that we’ve seen in a long, long time, a testament to the power of social media and how just how incredible it is for a 6-foot-7, 280-pound person to do the things that he can do athletically. He’s the ultimate in highlight reels and mixtape culture. The question is whether or not that physical ability can manifest in basketball success. He’s a better passer and ball-handler than he gets credit for, and his shooting stroke is not as bad as it’s seemed in the past.

There is no chance that he can possibly live up to the hype that he’s bringing with him, but he’s still a damn-good player that will provide more highlights-per-minute than anyone in the history of the sport.

6. HOW THIS KENTUCKY TEAM COMES TOGETHER

As much as I am excited to see all the talent that Duke will have on display, I don’t think that there is a team that I’m as excited to follow this season as Kentucky.

That’s because there are so many questions that I have about this team. They go nine-deep, and all nine of those players are A) good enough to start and B) not quite good enough that they have to start. Put another way, I have no idea what the best five will be for this group. Will it be the team that is built on defense and rebounding — which will likely feature Ashton Hagans, Keldon Johnson and Reid Travis — or will it be their five-best scorers — where Quade Green, Tyler Herro and E.J. Montgomery see the court?

I can’t remember a team that I was this high on entering the season that had more differences between their best scoring lineup and their best defensive lineup. There are fascinating positional decisions that John Calipari will have to make as well. For example, Keldon Johnson is the perfect complimentary piece for any roster, but if he plans on using Quade Green off the ball, it will mean that either Johnson or Tyler Herro is forced to the bench. In the frontcourt, Travis and Washington are the two best players, but Nick Richards actually fits the mold of a Calipari big man better than either of them.

Calipari is as good as anyone at finding a way to get all his pieces to fit together. How he does that this year will be fun to follow.

7. THE INEVITABLE TYLER HERRO SHOW

All that said, I think Herro ends up being the leading scorer for this Kentucky team. Not only is he the best shooter on the roster and easily their most dangerous perimeter scorer, but in the games that the Wildcats have played to date — both in the Bahamas (where he led the team in scoring) and in their exhibitions — Herro has played the role that Calipari asked Malik Monk, Jamal Murray and Kevin Knox to play. He’s the one running off of screens and pindowns. He’s the one being schemed shots in Kentucky’s offense. There’s a reason for that.

8. THE FRESHMEN NO ONE TALKS ABOUT: NASSIR LITTLE AND COBY WHITE

We’ll get back to the Champions Classic in a second, but while the freshmen on Duke and Kentucky are getting all the buzz heading into the season, a pair of McDonald’s All-Americans down in Chapel Hill aren’t getting nearly enough attention.

Nassir Little is the name NBA folks will want to know. He fits the prototype for precisely the kind of player the NBA is searching the world for: He’s 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan. He can defend just about any position in the college game, and he’s made great strides in what he’s capable of doing offensively. If Barrett doesn’t end up being the first pick in next June’s draft, Little will very likely be the reason why.

Coby White may actually be more important to North Carolina’s cause this season, as he is in line to takeover starting point guard duties for this team. The leading career scorer in the history of North Carolina high school basketball, White has been a little bit up-and-down through the two exhibition games, but he fits the Tar Heel point guard mold well.

9. AND NEITHER OF THEM ARE EVEN THE BEST PLAYER ON THAT TEAM: LUKE MAYE IS

Is there a better story in college basketball than Luke Maye?

Maye, a three-star prospect, committed to North Carolina as a walk-on because it was his dream school — he grew up a Tar Heel fan because his dad played quarterback there — and their last scholarship offer was held by Brandon Ingram. He was a seldom-used player as a redshirt sophomore before hitting the jumper that sent the Tar Heels to the 2017 Final Four; they won the national title that year. The following season, he developed into an all-american and, heading into this year, he’s on the short-list for National Player of the Year.

10. OH, AND WHILE TALKING FRESHMEN, I NEED TO MENTION ROMEO LANGFORD AND INDIANA

For people outside the state of Indiana, it’s hard to overstate just how much Romeo means to the Indiana program.

He’s the biggest high school basketball star the state has seen in at least a decade. He made a run at setting the state’s scoring record. There were lines more than an hour long to get his autograph at road games. He’ll arrive in Bloomington as the face of a program that Archie Miller has on the brink of returning to the top 25 and the NCAA tournament.

The best part?

He’s probably not even the best player on the team. Senior big man Juwan Morgan is, and his presence should help take the pressure off of Langford, who is going to have enough on his shoulders this season. The Hoosiers are a sneaky-good team.

11. THE RETURN OF DEDRIC LAWSON

The last time we saw Lawson play games that mattered, he was putting up monster numbers — 19.2 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 3.3 apg, 2.1 spg, 1.3 bpg — for a Memphis team that wasn’t very good. The first time we saw him play in a Kansas uniform, he looked … ever better? Lawson averaged 24.5 points and 10.5 boards in a pair of exhibition wins this fall, and he projects as the perfect four for this program as …

12. … BILL SELF TRIES TO REMEMBER HOW TO PLAY WITH TWO BIG MEN

That’s the most interesting thing about Kansas this season. For the last two years, Self’s style of play has been forced. In 2016-17, Carlton Bragg’s ineffectiveness and the presence of three five-men on the roster forced Self out of his comfort zone and into a lineup that featured Josh Jackson at power forward. Last year, Billy Preston’s absence meant that it was LaGerald Vick and Svi Mykhailiuk that split time at that spot.

This season will be different. For the first time since Perry Ellis’ 17th season at Kansas, the Jayhawks have a power forward that can do all of the things that Self wants his power forwards to do. Lawson might as well be named Dedric Morris, and I fully expect him to be the best player on this team and, potentially, a national title contender.

We’ll get our first glimpse at it in a game that matters on Tuesday night against Michigan State.

13. SPEAKING OF KANSAS, THEY HEADLINE THE LOADED PRESEASON NIT

Outside of the Maui Invitational, this will be the best exempt event during the month of November. The Jayhawks, the No. 1 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25, will be joined by No. 7 Tennessee, No. 25 Marquette and new-look Louisville.

14. SPEAKING OF TENNESSEE, HOW DO THEY HANDLE BEING THE HUNTED?

The Volunteers put together one of the most surprising and impressive seasons in recent memory in 2017-18, as they went from being picked 13th in the SEC preseason poll to winning a share of the regular season title. Rick Barnes returns essentially every member of that team, including reigning SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams, which is why Tennessee is a consensus preseason top ten team and a favorite to win the national title.

How do they handle that kind of expectation? What happens when the Vols become the team that everyone circles on their calendar? As Northwestern proved to us last season, that’s a heavy burden to carry.

15. SPEAKING OF MARQUETTE, THEY CAN LIVE UP TO (MY) LOFTY EXPECTATIONS … IF THEY DEFEND

With Markus Howard and Sam Hauser on the floor, the Golden Eagles will always have one of the nation’s most dangerous offenses. They are one of just five programs to finish in the top 12 of KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric in each of the last two seasons. The problem? Last year, they slotted in at 184th in defensive efficiency. That’s egregiously bad.

Get stops, win games. If they do, this is a team that is a threat to go a long, long way in March.

16. SPEAKING OF LOUISVILLE, CHRIS MACK’S FIRST SEASON SHOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE

The buzz about Louisville entering this season has mostly been about the recruiting class that Mack has been able to put together despite the fact that he’s in his first season at a program that has been dragged through the mud by the FBI scandal and that may still face sanctions for the recruitment of Brian Bowen.

But it’s also to important to remember two things — there still is a good bit of talent on this roster, and Mack’s track record should make it easy to buy in to the idea that he can get the best out of this roster.

17. AND FINALLY, SPEAKING OF MACK, THE TRAVIS STEELE ERA STARTS AT XAVIER

Here are the last five head coaches at Xavier: Pete Gillen, Skip Prosser, Thad Matta, Sean Miller and Chris Mack. That lineage is on par with just about any program in the country, and Steele is the next in that pipeline. He’ll start his head coaching tenure without J.P. Macura or Trevon Bluiett, but Mack left him with enough talent that a trip to the NCAA tournament should not come as a surprise.

18. THE STAR TURN FOR MICHIGAN STATE’S JUNIOR CLASS

I’d be remiss if I didn’t finish up the discussion of the Champions Classic with some talk about the fourth member of the event, the Michigan State Spartans.

It’s a big year for a trio of juniors on that roster — Cassius Winston, Nick Ward and Joshua Langford. Winston had looked like an all-american in the past, and that’s been backed up by the fact that he’s one of the most efficient point guards in the country, even with some turnover issues. Ward and Langford are where the bigger questions lie.

Langford’s issues are somewhat straight-forward — he’s not quite athletic enough to be a scoring guard that can turn the corner and get all the way to the rim, but offensively he’s settled into a role as something of a mid-rage jump-shooter. Not ideal.

And Ward?

Well, he can’t seem to find a way to stay out of Tom Izzo’s doghouse. He’s uber-productive when he’s on the floor, but he hasn’t averaged more than 20 minutes a night in East Lansing to date. Those three will determine whether or not MSU wins their second straight Big Ten title this season.

CHAMPIONS CLASSIC ISN’T THE ONLY GOOD GAME THIS WEEK:

  • 20. NORTH CAROLINA AT WOFFORD: The Tar Heels lost to the Terriers last season, and they did so at home. Keep on eye on Fletcher Magee in this one, who has a shot at breaking the NCAA three-point record. And props to Roy Williams, who is playing on the road against mid-major opponent.
  • 21. FLORIDA AT FLORIDA STATE: The battle for supremacy in the Sunshine State features a top 20 team in the Seminoles and a team with sneaky-Final Four upside in Florida.
  • 22. BYU AT NEVADA: The Wolf Pack are a top ten team, but BYU — who has Yoeli Childs and will return Nick Emery this year — is no slouch.
  • 23. BUFFALO AT WEST VIRGINIA: Buffalo might be the best mid-major program in the country this season, while West Virginia will be looking to replace their starting backcourt.
  • 24. WASHINGTON AT AUBURN: The reigning SEC co-champions taking on the team that many believe is actually the best team in the Pac-12.

25. THE MAUI INVITATIONAL SHOULD BE AWESOME AGAIN

We alluded to this earlier, but easily the best event during the month of November will be the Maui Invitational. Gonzaga is there. Duke is there. Auburn is there. All three of those teams are in the top ten as of today, and that’s before we even mention Arizona, Iowa State, San Diego State, Illinois or Xavier. A loaded field with countless storylines is the perfect way to kick off Thanksgiving week.

26. GONZAGA’S NON-CONFERENCE SCHEDULE

The Zags are going to be awesome this season, but the way that they perform during the non-conference is going to be so important for them. As always, they play a WCC schedule that is not going to impress anyone, but they made up for it this season with an absolutely loaded non-conference slate; Mark Few knows what it will take to get a No. 1 seed this year.

They play Texas A&M on a neutral. They play in the Maui, which opens with a game against Illinois where, with a win, they’ll get either Arizona or Iowa State and then, in all likelihood, one of Duke or Auburn. (Can we please get a Duke-Gonzaga title game? One time?) They’re at Creighton and North Carolina. They host Washington and get Tennessee a neutral court. That’s a lot of really good teams.

27. KILLIAN TILLIE’S RETURN

Everything I’ve written this preseason about Gonzaga has centered around two things: Rui Hachimura’s breakout and Josh Perkins proving he’s a title-winning point guard. But with the news that Tillie will miss two months with an ankle injury the narrative for Gonzaga changes: Can this team win the games they need to win to get a No. 1 seed without Tillie on the floor until January?

28. WASHINGTON-GONZAGA SHOULD BE AWESOME

Speaking of this, the rivalry between Gonzaga and Washington is back on and will be phenomenal this season. Washington looks like the favorite to win the Pac-12. They’ll play in Spokane against the Zags on Dec. 5th. Buckle up.

THE REST OF THE TEAMS IN MAUI HAVE FASCINATING STORYLINES, TOO:

  • 29. AUBURN: The Tigers are coming off of a shocking run to an SEC regular season title. How will they handle the return of Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley? Will the health of Anfernee McLemore mean more? And how will they deal with what happens if/when former assistant Chuck Person goes on trial?
  • 30. ARIZONA: Like Auburn, Arizona might end up having a former assistant coach on trial during the season. Unlike Auburn, Arizona does not return a single starter from last season.
  • 31. LINDELL WIGGINTON: The Iowa State star might be the least-appreciated player in college basketball …
  • 32. JALEN MCDANIELS: … if this San Diego State star isn’t.

33. SINCE WE’RE ON THE MOUNTAIN WEST, NEVADA SHOULD BE AWESOME

The Wolf Pack will be must-see TV this year, as they return a team that sits in the top ten of the preseason polls. You like scoring? Well, Nevada has nine scholarship players on their roster that are fourth- or fifth-year players, and eight of those nine averaged double-figures their last season in college hoops. That doesn’t include Jordan Brown, their McDonald’s All-American freshman.

34. HOW LONG WILL ERIC MUSSELMAN STAY IN RENO?

Nevada has a very real chance of getting to the Final Four this year, and given just how much talent will depart the program during the offseason, the question has to be asked: Will Eric Musselman be on the road recruiting for Nevada come next spring? It’s not hard to imagine that one of the high-major jobs that opens up in March and April will look to hire a guy with NBA pedigree that has proven he can rebuild programs, bring in transfers and recruit five-star players.

35. NEVADA’S REMATCH WITH LOYOLA-CHICAGO

The Wolf Pack reached the Sweet 16 of last year’s NCAA tournament, where they were dropped by Loyola-Chicago as the Ramblers made it all the way to the Final Four. They’ll face off again on Nov. 27th, as Porter Moser looks to prove to the doubters that his team should remain in the mix for the top 25 despite the fact that he lost three key pieces from last year’s team.

36. THAT’S NOT THE ONLY FUN REMATCH FROM LAST YEAR’S TOURNAMENT: MICHIGAN-VILLANOVA

In a rematch of last season’s national title game, the Wolverines square off with the Wildcats that will look entirely different from the last time we saw these two teams play. Villanova lost Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman. Michigan lost Mo Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson. That’s arguably the seven-best scorers that were on the floor during that title game.

That doesn’t mean the cupboard is going to be bare, however. Both teams enter this season in the preseason top 25 because …

37. CHARLES MATTHEWS

I’m torn on how to feel about Matthews, the Kentucky transfer. He was a really good defender last season that averaged better than 13 points but that never really seemed to get a total grip on how to be a go-to guy in the John Beilein offense. He will be the John Beilein offense this season, and how he carries that weight on his shoulders will be the difference Michigan returning to the tournament and disappointing their fanbase.

38. PHIL BOOTH AND ERIC PASCHALL

Paschall has been the guy that has gotten all the hype this offseason, as he is built for the NBA. He’s got the positional size and the physical tools (wingspan, athleticism, versatility, etc.), and he’s proven he can be a knockdown three-pointer shooter. He’s an NBC Sports Preseason All-American.

But Booth might end up being the leading scorer for Villanova. A fifth-year senior, Booth is known as being a scoring guard and as proven as much on a big stage; he had 20 points in the 2016 national title game win over North Carolina. He also had 41 points in Villanova’s scrimmage against the Tar Heels.

39. VILLANOVA PROVING DOUBTERS WRONG

I have the Wildcats fifth in the preseason, and that is absolutely going to be the highest anyone has them. If Jay Wright has proven anything in his career, it is that he can turn his veterans into all-americans and NBA players. Booth and Paschall are the next in line, and that’s before you factor in this year’s loaded recruiting class, a trip of sophomores that are ready for a bigger role and the addition of Albany transfer Joe Cremo. Best against Villanova at your own risk.

40. THE BATTLE 4 ATLANTIS WILL MAKE YOU WATCH HOOPS IN A BALLROOM AGAIN

There isn’t much in this world that I find funnier than putting on the TV every Thanksgiving week to watch some of the best teams in college basketball player on a makeshift court in a ballroom at a resort in the Bahamas.

This year’s event is as good as ever, as Virginia, Wisconsin, Florida, Butler and Stanford will provide more than enough intrigue to make you tune in.

41. VIRGINIA’S BOUNCE BACK

I probably don’t need to remind you about how Virginia’s season ended in 2018. What I do need to remind you about, however, is that the Wahoos return Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome from that team while adding Alabama transfer Braxton Key, who averaged 12 points as a freshman in the SEC.

Tony Bennett has a terrific team once again, one that not only has NBA-caliber players but features a pair of potential All-Americans in Guy and Hunter.

42. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT TY JEROME

Guy is the player on Virginia that everyone knows, partly because he was the skinny white kid that shot a bunch of threes and played with a top-knot when he was a freshman. Hunter is the other player that everyone knows, because he is the future lottery pick that missed ‘that game’. But Jerome might end up being an NBA player in his own right, if not a critical piece for this Virginia team.

He’s a heady point guard with deep three-point range that knows his way around a ball-screen. He’s the new London Perrantes, and he might actually be better.

43. GREG GARD PROVING HIMSELF AT WISCONSIN

This is the year for Greg Gard. If he doesn’t get it done this season it might be time to start questioning whether or not it’s going to happen for him with the Badgers. Ethan Happ is back for what should be his third-straight All-American season. Brad Davison is back to lead the country in floor burns, and his shoulder should be healthy, too. Kobe King should be healthy. D’Mitrik Trice should be healthy. The only key piece that won’t be back to start the season is Aleem Ford, who’s hurt.

And while last season was a disappointment, it’s important to remember the way things ended last season. The Badgers won five of their last eight games, and two of those losses were dogfights against Michigan State. I think this is the year we realize that Gard is can be a caretaker for the Badgers, and it will start in the Bahamas.

44. THE JALEN HUDSON SHOW AT FLORIDA

With Chris Chiozza and Egor Koulechov gone, there are going to be a lot of shots available for Florida players. I expect Jalen Hudson, who does love to shoot the ball, to soak up quite a few of those. I would not be surprised to see him lead the SEC in scoring as a senior.

45. PRESS VIRGINIA’S SURVIVAL

Losing Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles will be difficult for any program to overcome, but none moreso than West Virginia, as those two were the engine that made Press Virginia run. I have no idea how he’ll make it work, but until proven otherwise, I’m going to ride with Bob Huggins. He’ll figure something out.

46. THE PENNY ERA

Like Mack at Louisville, the hype surrounding the Penny era has had more to do with what he’s done on the recruiting trail that what is expected of his entering this season. It’s wild when you think about it: Memphis is ranked outside the top 100 at KenPom, yet they are going to sell out every home game as they watch their most famous basketball product lead their beloved basketball program to, what, a fifth-place finish in the AAC?

47. THE DANNY HURLEY ERA

Hurley is not a UConn alum or a Connecticut native, but he’s revitalized an AAC fanbase starved for success just like Penny has. And with a roster that includes Jalen Adams and Alterique Gilbert, we might get the Huskies returning to relevance quicker than their Memphian counterparts.

48. THE UCONN-SYRACUSE RIVALRY IS BACK ON

There is no dynamic quite as fascinating in college basketball as the battle for ownership of New York City between UConn fans and Syracuse fans. Both schools have massive alumni bases in the city, and there is no environment quite as tantalizing as a UConn-Syracuse game played in Madison Square Garden. It’s electric when they both stink. Imagine what it will be like when UConn, like Syracuse, is good again.

This year, they’ll play at MSG on November 15th in the opening round of the 2K Classic. Good luck getting a ticket, Oregon and Iowa fans.

49. IS BOL BOL ACTUALLY GOOD?

Speaking of Oregon, they have the most fascinating freshman in the country this season. Bol Bol is the 7-foot-3 son of Manute Bol and a shot-blocking specialist that also happens to be a lethal three-point shooter. The question is whether or not he will ever be consistent, or if he loves basketball enough to shake his hot-and-cold tendencies. When his motor is running, he’s such a unique and talented prospect that it’s hard to imagine him failing to make an impressive impression.

50. KANSAS STATE

The Wildcats are one of the bigger question marks this season. I love the potential, I love Dean Wade and I love Barry Brown, but this is also a team that didn’t do anything impressive until they beat a No. 5 seed Kentucky in the Sweet 16 last season. Why should we be all that impressed? (Because they’re awesome.)

51. MUSTAPHA HERON, SHAMORIE PONDS AND JUSTIN SIMON ON THE SAME TEAM

St. John’s is one of the most talented teams in the Big East, if not the country. Try to find a better one-two punch than Mustapha Heron and Shamorie Ponds, and try to find a perimeter attack that has a better third member that the ever-underrated Justin Simon. Can this group push Villanova atop the Big East standings?

52. USC’S KEVIN PORTER

There may not be a freshman flying further under the radar that Kevin Porter, who looks like he’ll end up being a one-and-done by the time his first year at USC comes to a close.

53. NEBRASKA’S RUN TO THE TOURNAMENT

The Cornhuskers finished last season 23-8 and 13-5 in the Big Ten, but because of the way that their schedule shook out, they missed the NCAA tournament. This year, with Isaac Copeland and James Palmer back, they should be one of the teams that pushes for the top four in the Big Ten standings. Is this the season that finally gets Tim Miles off of the hot seat?

54. CHRIS BEARD’S ENCORE PERFORMANCE

Beard proved his coaching chops last season, taking Texas Tech to the Elite 8 as a No. 3 seed in a year where — and I’ll go to my grave saying this — the Red Raiders would have won the Big 12 regular season title outright had Keenan Evans not broken his toe. But Evans graduated, and Zhaire Smith ended up being a one-and-done player, which no one thought could happen. So how does Beard follow up what was a dream second season in Lubbock?

55. SO IS MISSISSIPPI STATE FOR REAL?

The Bulldogs have all the pieces on their roster this season. They have veterans. They have really good guards. They have size. They have NBA talent. They have a coach that has been to the Final Four. But that coach — Ben Howland — has seen every top 95 prospect that has played for him at Mississippi State transfer out of the program. He hasn’t coached a team that lived up to their potential since 2008. He hasn’t come close to an NCAA tournament in three seasons in Starkville. I need to see it to believe it.

56. WHAT ABOUT LSU?

I’m in a similar head space about LSU. I love Tremont Waters and what he can bring to a team offensively, and it is impossible to argue with the talent that Will Wade has brought into the program, but do the pieces actually fit together? And while it feels gross even mentioning this, this program saw a member of the team get gunned down during a fight last month. I can’t imagine dealing with that.

57. AND TCU?

They are going to be one of the nation’s most efficient offensive teams, what with a pair of talented point guards in Jaylen Fisher and Alex Robinson and shooters in Desmond Bane and Kouat Noi. But can they guard?

58. AND FLORIDA STATE?

Like Kansas State, the Seminoles were just another borderline top 25 team last season before catching fire in the month of March and getting to the Elite 8. Does a pretty good team returning everyone really make them something more than pretty good again? It might.

59. DOES CARSEN EDWARDS HAVE A REAL CHANCE AT A PLAYER OF THE YEAR AWARD?

Edwards could end up leading the nation in scoring. I think he’s a pretty safe bet to be the highest-scoring high-major player this season. The problem, however, is that to have a real shot at being the National Player of the Year, he is going to need to be on a team that, at the very least, is a top four seed. History has proven that. Is Purdue actually a tournament team?

60. SPEAKING OF SCORING, THE RACE FOR 3,000 POINTS

There are a pair of mid-major stars that have both scored 2,322 points through their first three seasons — you know about South Dakota State’s Mike Daum, but you probably don’t know about Campbell’s Chris Clemons. Both studs have a shot at becoming the ninth (or tenth) player to crack 3,000 career points in college. Who gets there first?

61. BUT MAKE SURE YOU FIND TIME TO WATCH JON ELMORE, TOO

Those two — or Wofford’s Fletcher Magee, who we mentioned earlier — might end up being the biggest mid-major scorers this season, but you need to make sure you dedicate some time to watching Marshall and Jon Elmore this season. Their style of play is the Phoenix Suns’ seven-seconds-or-else mantra on steroids, and Elmore — who averaged 22 points and seven assists and shoots threes from 30-feet at any given moment — is the engine that makes them run.

62. WESTERN KENTUCKY

Since we’re talking about mid-majors, keep an eye on Western Kentucky, who landed another top ten recruit in Charles Bassey. They were one of just two teams to go from outside the top 100 to the top 50 in KenPom’s rankings last season.

63. THE LEAGUE CHAMPIONS ARE …

  • ACC: Duke
  • Big 12: Kansas
  • Big East: Villanova
  • Big Ten: Michigan State
  • Pac-12: Washington
  • SEC: Kentucky

64. THE PLAYERS OF THE YEAR ARE …

  • ACC: R.J. Barrett, Duke
  • Big 12: Dedric Lawson, Kansas
  • Big East: Markus Howard, Marquette
  • Big Ten: Carsen Edwards, Purdue
  • Pac-12: Jaylen Nowell, Washington
  • SEC: Grant Williams, Tennessee

65. FIRST-TEAM ALL-AMERICA IS …

  • R.J. Barrett, Duke
  • Carsen Edwards, Purdue
  • Tyus Battle, Syracuse
  • Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga
  • Dedric Lawson, Kansas

66. THE FINAL FOUR IS …

  • Kentucky
  • Kansas
  • Gonzaga
  • Marquette

67. THE NATIONAL CHAMPION IS …

  • Kansas

68. FIGURING OUT HOW TO STAY WARM IN MINNEAPOLIS IS …

Not ideal.

Can we keep the Final Four in the warm weather cities where I don’t need to invest in a parka in April?

Houston reaches No. 1 in AP poll for first time since 1983

Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

Make some room, Phi Slama Jama. Another Houston team has reached the top of men’s college basketball.

Nearly four decades after Clyde Drexler and Akeem Olajuwon took the Cougars to No. 1, the latest bunch led by Marcus Sasser and star freshman Jarace Walker took over the top spot in the AP Top 25. They received 45 of 63 first-place votes from the national media panel, easily outdistancing second-place Texas and third-place Virginia.

“It’s not like we went online and applied for it and waited for a response back. We’ve been working for this,” said Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, whose team is coming off a Final Four and Elite Eight trip the past two seasons. “But remember, it’s a rental. You don’t own it. You’re just renting it because someday somebody else is going to be No. 1.”

North Carolina had been No. 1 all season, but the Tar Heels lost to Iowa State and in a four-overtime thriller to Alabama at the Phil Knight Invitational to cede the top spot to Houston, which beat Kent State in its only game last week.

The last time the Cougars ascended to No. 1 was the final poll of the 1982-83 season, when “The Glide” and “The Dream” along with coach Guy Lewis were the favorites to win it all. They rolled through the NCAA Tournament before falling to Jim Valvano and North Carolina State in an iconic championship game in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“I’ve never been ranked No. 1,” said Sampson, now in his 34th season as a college basketball coach. “We were ranked all 12 years at Oklahoma. I’m sure we were ranked at Indiana. Then we’ve been ranked five or six straight years. We’re used to having a high level of success.”

Texas received eight first-place votes and Virginia received two. Arizona climbed from 14th to fourth after emerging from a stacked field to win the Maui Invitational. Purdue jumped from 24th all the way to fifth and scooped up eight first-place votes after beating West Virginia, Gonzaga and Duke at the Phil Knight Legacy tourney.

“Our guys are competitive. They’re fun to coach. They get along. They’re out there playing with purpose and that’s what you have to have,” said Boilermakers coach Matt Painter, whose team was briefly No. 1 about this time last season.

“Early in the season, very few teams play with the purpose collectively,” he said. “I thought our guys played with a purpose.”

Baylor was sixth, Creighton seventh and U Conn climbed from 20th to eighth after beating Oregon, Alabama and Iowa State to win the Phil Knight Invitational. Kansas fell from third to ninth after losing to Tennessee in the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis, while Indiana rounded out the top 10.

There was a tie for 11th between SEC rivals Alabama and Arkansas with the Volunteers, another conference foe, right behind them. Gonzaga dropped from sixth to 14th, its first time outside the top 10 since Feb. 5, 2018, and Auburn was 15th.

Illinois was next followed by Duke and North Carolina in a tough week for Tobacco Road. The Blue Devils fell from eighth after their 75-56 loss to the Boilermakers.

Kentucky and Michigan State joined UCLA, Maryland, Iowa State, San Diego State and Ohio State in rounding out the poll.

RISING AND FALLING

Purdue made a rare 19-spot jump as the poll underwent a massive shakeup. UConn climbed 12 spots, Arizona moved up 10, Tennessee climbed nine and Alabama seven. On the flip side, the Tar Heels tumbled 17 spots, Duke dropped nine, Gonzaga fell eight and San Diego State fell seven.

IN AND OUT

Despite all the movement, Iowa State was the only newcomer this week, checking in at No. 23 after beating Villanova and North Carolina before falling to UConn. The Cyclones replaced Iowa, which dropped out after a one-week stay following its loss to TCU in the title game of the Emerald Coast Classic.

CONFERENCE WATCH

There are six difference conferences represented in the first seven teams in the poll. The Big Ten leads the way with six in the Top 25 while the SEC has five and the Big 12 has four, though three of them are in the top 10.

South Carolina tops women’s AP Top 25; Stanford, UConn next

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports
1 Comment

South Carolina remained the unanimous No. 1 choice in The Associated Press women’s poll, as the Gamecocks keep close watch on the foot injury of reigning Player of the Year Aliyah Boston.

The Gamecocks received all 29 first-place votes in the poll, a day after Boston left a game with her injury. Coach Dawn Staley said Boston was “questionable” going forward but added that the “team doctor wasn’t too, too concerned.”

South Carolina’s next game is at home against No. 15 UCLA.

Stanford remained No. 2 after cruising through a tournament in Hawaii. It’s the 618th appearance for Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer, tying the late Pat Summitt for most all-time. Summitt’s teams only missed being in the poll 14 times during her Hall of Fame career at Tennessee.

UConn, Ohio State and Indiana rounded out the top five.

The Huskies are one of four Big East teams to be ranked this week as Marquette entered the poll at No. 24. It’s the first time the Big East has four ranked teams since the conference realigned in 2014. The league is 56-14 so far this season, including going 8-2 against ranked teams.

“We’ve been trying to earn a little more respect,” Marquette coach Megan Duffy said of the Big East. “Tried to schedule tougher non-conference (games). ‘Nova’s playing people. Us going to the Bahamas was great. Creighton’s doing what they’ve been doing since last season. Getting some of those quality wins is everything.”

North Carolina moved up two spots to No. 6 after rallying to beat then-No. 5 Iowa State in the Phil Knight tournament. The Cyclones fell to eighth.

The Tar Heels visit the Hoosiers on Tuesday in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Indiana returns home after winning two games in Las Vegas at a subpar venue that lacked basic necessities.

Notre Dame remained No. 7 while Virginia Tech and Iowa finished off the top 10. At No. 9, Virginia Tech has matched its best ranking ever and is in the top 10 for the first time since 1999.

Tennessee fell out of the poll this week marking the 56th time in the 827-week history of the poll that the Lady Vols weren’t ranked. Kansas State also fell out with Gonzaga moving in at No. 23.

FALLING CARDINALS

Louisville dropped to 18th in the poll this week after falling to South Dakota State in the fifth place game at the Battle 4 Atlantis last week. It’s the Cardinals lowest ranking since Jan. 11, 2016.

Louisville entered the top 10 in the preseason poll in 2017 and hadn’t been out since, a span of 98 consecutive weeks. It was the longest active streak.

“It’s a compliment to the consistency that we built here,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said of being ranked in the top 10 for so long. “Obviously are goal would have been to stay in the top 10, but it’s a new team and growing.”

Edey scores 21 as No. 24 Purdue beats No. 8 Duke 75-56

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
2 Comments

PORTLAND, Ore. – Zach Edey and No. 24 Purdue shook off a slow start. When No. 8 Duke tried to rally in the second half, the Boilermakers finished strong.

Edey had 21 points and 12 rebounds, and Purdue beat Duke 75-56 on Sunday in the championship game of the Phil Knight Legacy men’s tournament.

Fletcher Loyer scored 18 points for Purdue (6-0), and reserve Caleb Furst finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds.

“I feel like we weren’t getting the looks we wanted early. As we settled into the game, we kept our poise and kept getting the shots that we wanted,” Edey said. “They were making some tough twos at the beginning of the game, shots we’re OK with all season.”

The 7-foot-4 Edey was 7 for 13 from the field and 7 for 8 at the line. He was named tournament MVP.

“They have the most unique player in the country,” Duke coach Jon Scheyer said of Edey. “He’s a hard guy to prepare for because there’s nobody else like him.”

Duke (6-2) shot 36.2% (21 for 58) from the field. Tyres Proctor scored 16 points for the Blue Devils. Kyle Filipowski and Jeremy Roach each had 14.

Ethan Morton had a steal and a dunk to help Purdue open a 58-41 lead with 15:37 left in the second half.

Duke countered with an 8-0 run, capped by two foul shots by Dariq Whitehead. But Furst made a layup and a jumper to help hold off the Blue Devils.

A hook by Edey and a 3-pointer by Loyer made it 68-56 with 5:03 remaining.

Duke got off to a 14-7 start before Purdue worked its way back into the game.

“I don’t feel like we came out bad today, but they matched our energy,” Edey said.

A 3-pointer by Brandon Newman pushed the Purdue lead to 46-28. A late run by Duke cut the Boilermakers’ lead to 46-35 at halftime.

BIG PICTURE

Duke: It looked as if Roach had an issue with his left foot at one point, but he went back into the game. Scheyer said Roach had hurt his toe.

Purdue: Although neither team had great offensive games, Purdue was the better team from range. Purdue made seven 3-pointers to just two for Duke.

UP NEXT

Duke: Hosts Ohio State on Wednesday.

Purdue: Visits Florida State on Wednesday.

No. 18 Alabama beats No. 1 North Carolina 103-101 in 4 OTs

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

PORTLAND, Ore. – Mark Sears had 24 points, five rebounds and five assists, and No. 18 Alabama sent top-ranked North Carolina to a second straight loss with a 103-101 victory in a quadruple-overtime thriller on Sunday in the third-place game of the Phil Knight Invitational tournament.

Jahvon Quinerly added 21 points off the bench for the Crimson Tide (6-1), who knocked off the top-ranked team for the first time since upsetting Stanford in the 2004 NCAA Tournament.

“I was losing track of how many overtimes we were in there at the end,” Crimson Tide coach Nate Oats said. “A lot of credit to our guys. I thought they showed a lot of character when we could have folded.”

Charles Bediako had 14 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks, while Brandon Miller also scored 14 points.

Caleb Love led the Tar Heels (5-2) with 34 points, nine rebounds, four assists and three steals. Armando Bacot contributed 20 points and 10 rebounds, and R.J. Davis had 19 points and nine rebounds in the second four-overtime game in North Carolina history. The other was a victory over Tulane in 1976.

“At the end of the day, Alabama made one more play than we did,” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said. “I walked in the locker room and a number of the guys had their head down and I told them to pick their head up. I’m just as disappointed (as the players) in terms of the final outcome, but I couldn’t be any more proud about the way they competed.”

Bediako gave the Crimson Tide the lead for good on a layup with 26 seconds remaining in the fourth overtime.

The Tar Heels, who lost to Iowa State in the semifinals, led by as much as eight in the second half before Alabama came back to tie it. The Crimson Tide retook the lead on a pair of free throws from Gurley with 2 minutes remaining, and later tied with another free throw from Sears with 51 seconds remaining in regulation.

Alabama starting forward Noah Clowney took a hard fall on a dunk attempt four minutes into the first half and had to be helped off the court. He did not return.

The Crimson Tide were 16 for 38 (42.1%) from 3-point range, with Sears making seven.

BIG PICTURE

North Carolina: The Tar Heels figure to take a deep drop in the Top 25 poll.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide bounced back nicely following their loss to No. 20 UConn in the semifinals, beating a top-ranked team in the regular season for the first time since a 66-64 victory over eventual national champion Arkansas on Jan. 8, 1994.

UP NEXT:

North Carolina: The Tar Heels travel to Bloomington to face No. 11 Indiana on Wednesday.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide return home to face South Dakota State on Saturday.

Clingan lifts UConn past Iowa State for Phil Knight title

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

PORTLAND, Ore. – Donovan Clingan had 15 points and 10 rebounds to power No. 20 UConn to a 71-53 win over Iowa State in the championship game of the Phil Knight Invitational on Sunday night.

Tristen Newton scored 13 points for the Huskies (8-0), who went 20 for 25 at the free-throw line. Alex Karaban and Andre Jackson, Jr. each had 10 points.

Osun Osunniyi led Iowa State (5-1) with 14 points. Tamin Lipsey had 12 points and Jaren Holmes finished with 11.

“They were the more aggressive team,” Iowa State coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “We wanted a physical game. We didn’t want a physical game with them getting the rebounds and then also us putting them on the foul line. Lesson that we’ve got to learn is we need to embrace being the aggressor at both ends of the floor at all times.”

The Huskies had more offensive rebounds (20) than the Cyclones had total rebounds (19), and capitalized on that disparity with 20 second-chance points.

“Those guys are tough,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said. “T.J.`s an excellent coach. They grind people up. To outrebound them, it just speaks to how tough we were.”

Clingan, who was named tournament MVP, scored eight points to help UConn to a 38-28 lead at the break.

Iowa State closed to 53-48 on Holmes’ 3-pointer midway through the second half. But Karaban made a 3 and a dunk, and Newton’s jumper made it 60-48 with 7:13 remaining.

BIG PICTURE

UConn: The Huskies couldn’t have asked for a better showing in Portland, winning all three of their games.

Iowa State: The Cyclones picked up nice wins over Villanova and top-ranked North Carolina in the earlier rounds but ended with their first loss of the season.

UP NEXT

UConn: The Huskies return home to face Oklahoma State on Thursday.

Iowa State: The Cyclones return home to face North Dakota on Tuesday.