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College basketball’s biggest storylines heading into 2019

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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.

DUKE’S FRESHMEN

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.

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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.

OFF-THE-COURT

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?

RULE CHANGES

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?

Duke lands commitment from five-star forward Matthew Hurt

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For the fourth time in the last five years, Duke is tapping into that Minnesota pipeline to mine talent.

Following in the footsteps of Tyus Jones, Gary Trent Jr. and Tre Jones, Matthew Hurt, a 6-foot-9 forward and a top ten prospect in the Class of 2019, announced on Friday that he will be playing his college ball for the Blue Devils.

Hurt ultimately picked Duke over Kansas, but he was also pursued by the likes of Kentucky, North Carolina and Minnesota. He joins Vernon Carey, Wendell Moore and Boogie Ellis in Duke’s 2019 recruiting class.

Hurt is the perfect compliment to Carey, a powerhouse low-post force, and Moore, who is a talented wing. He has size and is extremely skilled, with the ability to stretch the floor out to 25 feet and the potential to be a dangerous face-up scorer, both in the mid-post and on the perimeter. He needs to get stronger and tougher, but that will come with time. As it stands, he’s the piece to the puzzle that Duke needed to add.

UNC women’s coach Hatchell resigns after findings from program review

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell had built a Hall of Fame career over more than three decades with the Tar Heels, including a national championship and becoming the Atlantic Coast Conference’s all-time winningest coach.

That tenure ended with her resignation after a program review found concerns over “racially insensitive” comments and pressuring players to compete through medical issues.

The school announced the 67-year-old Hatchell’s resignation late Thursday, along with findings from that external review conducted this month by a Charlotte-based law firm. Among the issues: a “breakdown of connectivity” between Hatchell and the players after 28 interviews of current players and program personnel.

The was enough to end Hatchell’s time in Chapel Hill, which began in 1986.

“The university commissioned a review of our women’s basketball program, which found issues that led us to conclude that the program needed to be taken in a new direction,” athletics director Bubba Cunningham said in a statement. “It is in the best interests of our university and student-athletes for us to do so. Coach Hatchell agrees, and she offered her resignation today. I accepted it.”

Hatchell — who has 1,023 victories, with 751 coming in 33 seasons at UNC along with the 1994 NCAA title — and her coaching staff had been on paid administrative leave since April 1. At the time, UNC announced the review amid player concerns to “assess the culture” of the program.

“The university will always hold a special place in my heart,” Hatchell said in a statement. “The game of basketball has given me so much, but now it is time for me to step away.”

In its release, UNC said the review found “widespread support” among three areas of concern, including the Hatchell-players connection.

The first centered on the racially insensitive comments, compounded by her failure to respond “in a timely or appropriate manner” when confronted by players or staff.

“The review concluded that Hatchell is not viewed as a racist,” the school said, “but her comments and subsequent response caused many in the program to believe she lacked awareness and appreciation for the effect her remarks had on those who heard them.”

Regarding injury concerns, the review reported frustration from players and medical staff with Hatchell’s “perceived and undue influence,” though medical staffers “did not surrender to pressure to clear players” before they were ready.

Wade Smith, Hatchell’s attorney, had defended her earlier this month by saying players had misconstrued comments she made as racist and that she wouldn’t try to force someone to play without medical clearance. That came after The Washington Post, citing unnamed parents of players, said complaints had been made about inappropriate racial comments and players being pushed to play while injured.

In a statement to The Associated Press at the time, Smith said Hatchell “does not have a racist bone in her body” and “cares deeply about (players’) health and well-being.”

Hatchell, who reached 1,000 wins in 2017, trailed only Tennessee’s Pat Summitt, Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer and Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma in women’s Division I career victories. But there had been difficulties in recent years.

She missed the 2013-14 season while battling leukemia and undergoing chemotherapy. The program also spent several seasons under the shadow of the school’s multi-year NCAA academic case dealing with irregular courses featuring significant athlete enrollments across numerous sports, a case that reached a no-penalty conclusion in October 2017.

UNC returned to the NCAA Tournament this year for the first time since 2015 after upsets of top-ranked Notre Dame and No. 7 North Carolina State on the road, though her contract was set to expire after next season.

Hatchell said she will still support the school, including raising money for UNC’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and advocating for gender equity issues.

“While this is a bittersweet day, my faith remains strong,” Hatchell said. “After the fight of my life with leukemia, I count every day as a blessing.”

St. John’s expected to hire Mike Anderson

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The coaching search St. John’s started earlier this month is coming to an end, and its finality looks to be as bizarre as the process.

The Red Storm are expected to hire former Arkansas coach Mike Anderson, a source confirmed to NBC Sports. Roger Rubin of Newsday was first to report the development.

Anderson has a perfectly respectable resume after eight years with the Razorbacks and five at Missouri over the last decade-plus, but his history doesn’t suggest why he’s a great fit at St. John’s, a smaller private school in New York City rather than two large public institutions in college towns. New York City is also considerably more northeast than both Fayetteville and Columbia.

St. John’s swung big in a way that made sense when it hired Chris Mullin four years ago. There were question marks given his lack of college experience, but given his status as a Red Storm legend and NBA pedigree – both as a player and executive – you could connect the dots to success, even if Mullin ultimately couldn’t do it himself.

This hire, however, doesn’t make much sense. Anderson just got fired for not progressing enough with Arkansas, a place he spent 17 years at under Nolan Richardson prior to becoming a head coach himself. He had serious legacy there, but it wasn’t enough to overcome just three NCAA tournament appearances and no Sweet 16s in eight years.

That’s the guy that is now, with no clear ties to either the Big East or St. John’s, going to reinvigorate the Red Storm program? Anderson might do it, I guess, but his selection only highlights what a botched search this has been. Bobby Hurley, Porter Moser, Ryan Odom and Tim Cluess all reportedly spurned interest, and it’s about as inarguable as inarguable gets that St. John’s should be a slam-dunk better job than Loyola Chicago, UMBC and Iona, while Hurley is the type of guy an athletic department goes out and gets done if it wants to show it really means business.

Instead, St. John’s search falls to Anderson, who probably won’t win the press conference and didn’t win enough at Arkansas.

Ayo Dosunmu returning to Illinois for sophomore season

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Wins have been few and far between in two seasons for Brad Underwood at Illinois, which makes Thursday’s victory all the more important.

The Illini got a major April boost with Ayo Dosunmu announcing he would return to Champaign for his senior season rather than heading to the professional ranks.

“I stayed home to help coach Underwood turn the Illinois program around,” Dosunmu said in a video released on social media. “We tasted some success, but we didn’t dance. And Illinois has to dance.

“We are building. We will be better. I will be better, and that starts now.”

Dosunmu averaged 13.8 points, 4 rebounds and 3.3 assists during his freshman campaign, which led to speculation he might be off to the pros, leaving Illinois without its most dynamic scorer and playmaker heading into a critical third season for Underwood, who is 26-39 overall and 11-27 in the Big Ten the last two years. Instead, he’ll be returning giving Illinois a second season with an intriguing young core that will likely be a trendy pick to make a significant jump up the B1G standings next winter.

Oklahoma State lands commitment from top-150 guard Chris Harris Jr.

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Oklahoma State is adding another top-150 piece to its 2019 recruiting class as Chris Harris Jr., a guard from Texas, pledged to the Cowboys on Thursday

“I will be committing to Oklahoma State University,” Harris announced via a video on social media.

The consensus three-star recruit picks Mike Boynton’s program over offers from the likes of Texas A&M, Baylor, Kansas State and Georgia Tech. The 6-foot-3 guard visited Stillwater officially late last month. He previously was headed to the Aggies, but was released from his National Letter of Intent after Billy Kennedy was fired in College Station.

His commitment gives Oklahoma State what is increasingly looking like a major recruiting class for Boynton, who has largely exceeded expectations during his short tenure with the Cowboys. Boynton has already secured commitments from top-75 wing Marcus Watson of Georgia and top-125 guard Avery Anderson III as well as three-stars Kalib Boone and Keylan Boone.