2018 has been a wild year in college basketball.
We saw what might have been the best team in college basketball history win a title as Villanova landed their second ring in the last three years. We saw the sport get turned on its head as an FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball led to trials, convictions and some of the secrets as to how the sausage is made in recruiting. That investigation also led to the NCAA changing a number of rules that don’t really make all that much sense.
With 2019 now just around the corner, here are the biggest storylines to follow for the rest of the season and the upcoming year.
This is the biggest, most exciting story in college basketball this season. Zion Williamson is an absolute sensation, and rightfully so. We have never seen anything like him before in college hoops — there’s a reason that we are looking at him as the clear-cut favorite to be the No. 1 pick in June — and he is far from alone on this Duke roster. R.J. Barrett could be the No. 2 pick. Cam Reddish could be the No. 3 pick. Tre Jones could be a lottery pick. We’ve never seen anything like that.
But there is certainly some question as to whether or not this is a team that can win a national title. For starters, the other six teams that are currently sitting at the top of the college hoops hierarchy are loaded with veterans; there’s a reason that only two teams built around freshmen have won the title in the one-and-done era. It’s hard to do, and that’s before you consider some of the issues that Duke has had. For example: Reddish has struggled to figure out what, exactly, his role is and how, exactly, he fits as a guy wired to play on the ball while being asked to play off it. Another example: Can Barrett figure out how to be a playmaker while defenses get tailored to his tendency to barrel into defenders in the paint?
This is the most entertaining team in the country and loaded with talent. Seeing whether or not they can finish it off with a ring is the biggest story in the sport.
IS THE PAC-12 A ONE-BID LEAGUE?
If the season ended today, it probably would be. Outside of Arizona State, no one in the conference has done anything that would earn them consideration as an at-large bid. UCLA is such a dumpster fire that Steve Alford has already lost his job — more on that in a second. USC isn’t much better, as the Trojans have a matching 7-6 record while their star player, Kevin Porter Jr., may have disappeared. Oregon is losing buy games to Texas Southern. Washington is 8-4 on the season. No one in the league has less than three losses. As a league, they are just 7-9 against the WCC, and if you look at the conference ratings on KenPom, the conference belongs in the same tier as the American and the WCC, not the Big East or the SEC or the rest of the big boys.
This reminds me of the 2011-12 season, the year that Washington went 7-6 in league play, won the Pac-12 regular season title and missed the NCAA tournament as Colorado — a No. 11 seed — and Cal — a No. 12 seed — were the only two programs from the conference to get into the tournament.
That leads me into the next question …
HOW MUCH COACHING TURNOVER WILL THERE BE IF IT IS?
We already have an answer on one program in the Pac-12 — UCLA will be hiring in March, and who fills that job could be the kind of thing that launches the coaching carousel. For example, what if it is Notre Dame’s Mike Brey that gets the job? Or TCU’s Jamie Dixon? Or N.C. State’s Kevin Keatts?
(Also, what if it is Rick Pitino, although that is an entirely different — and much more interesting — can of worms.)
And that could end up being far from the only job that opens up in the league. Cal’s hire of Wyking Jones has been an abject disaster. Ernie Kent is in his fifth season at Washington State and has yet to win more than 13 games in a season. Andy Enfield has USC at 7-6 on the season after his program spent the last year in the FBI’s crosshairs. Wayne Tinkle is in year five at Oregon State and has as many NCAA tournaments to his name as he has five-win seasons. Even Washington is something to keep an eye on, as Mike Hopkins will be the obvious name to keep an eye on if this is finally the year that Jim Boeheim retires.
As one Pac-12 coach put it, the Pac-12 has only “two established, highly successful coaches.”
NEVADA’S UNDEFEATED RUN
I don’t know if the Wolf Pack is actually good enough to go undefeated heading into the NCAA tournament, but I do know they have the best chance of anyone in college basketball to get it done this season. The Mountain West is actually deeper than anyone initially thought — both Utah State and Fresno State should give Nevada a fight when they play, and both have a shot at getting an at-large bid should they upset Eric Musselman’s program — but Nevada is going to be the heavy favorite every night they take the court the rest of the season.
Personally, I want them to make a run at an undefeated record in the regular season. It would be great for the sport the same way that Wichita State, Kentucky and Gonzaga going on prolonged undefeated runs in the last five seasons was.
CAN VIRGINIA GET TO THE FINAL FOUR?
They are coming off what may be the most embarrassing loss in college basketball history, becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament. This season, they may actually be better than they were last year, as Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter both look like first round picks while the rest of that program is as solid as you would expect a Virginia team to be. Three years ago, we all thought Villanova were choke artists. You can’t win the big one until you win the big one.
TEXAS TECH TO MAKE ANOTHER RUN AT KANSAS?
The Red Raiders would have won the Big 12 last season if Keenan Evans hadn’t broken his toe. This year, with Jarrett Culver running the offense, can Chris Beard’s team make another run at knocking off Kansas? I’ll say this: Tech is the best team in the Big 12 that is not named Kansas, and while the Jayhawks have struggled through the start of the season, I do think their upside is immense. Udoka Azubuike is back and Quentin Grimes illl, eventually, get right. (Right?) Either way, I’m hoping that Texas Tech at least makes it interesting.
There are still two more trials scheduled to happen stemming from the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball, although at least one of those defendants — former USC assistant coach Tony Bland — is on the verge of taking a plea. Will either of those trials take place? If they do, what kind of dirt is going to arise from the evidence that the FBI has collected? Will any of this impact coaches that are currently employed at powerhouse programs (looking at you, Bill Self)? When will the NCAA investigations begin in full, and what is the timetable for those investigations to be completed?
The FBI investigation changed the way that a lot of things happen in college basketball. For starters, if high school kids are allowed to take $125,000 to go play in the G League, is this something that the elite of the elite are truly going to consider? If they don’t, will the extra scrutiny on recruiting as a result of this investigation change where some of these kids end up? No rule change the NCAA has implemented has been ripped more consistently than their changes to the recruiting calendar, which goes into effect in the coming months. Will the NCAA backtrack on those changes?
Oh, and what about the NET rankings? They looked like an abject failure a month ago, but not so much today. How will they turn out come March, and will it change the way that teams are determined for the NCAA tournament?