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WCC Conference Preview: Can anyone threaten Gonzaga?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the West Coast Conference.


While the West Coast Conference can boast a national title contender in Gonzaga, the goal for the league is to see more than just one team make waves nationally.

After a run of four straight season in which at least two teams reached the NCAA tournament, the 2017-18 season was the second in the last three in which the WCC has been a one-bid league.

Turning things around in that regard will largely be the responsibility of BYU and Saint Mary’s, which comes as no surprise even with the latter having lost four starters from last season.

Gonzaga, BYU and Saint Mary’s enter the 2018-19 season as the headliners in the WCC, with San Diego and San Francisco appearing to be the teams closest to the conference’s “big three.”

And with there being a host of talented players in this league who don’t play for Gonzaga, BYU or Saint Mary’s, that should make for some fun winter nights along the west coast.

Mark Few (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Gonzaga’s flirtation with the Mountain West prompts changes

While the conference realignment wave at the beginning of this decade was largely influenced by football, college basketball has seen some of its power programs (that don’t sponsor football) make moves as well. At the very least Gonzaga considered a move itself, with there being “exploratory” conversations in February between athletic director Mike Roth, basketball coach Mark Few and Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson. Ultimately no move was made, with Gonzaga remaining in the WCC and the conference making some changes to its schedule.

The conference schedule has gone from 18 to 16 games, so the true round-robin format is gone. For the programs expected to be at the top of the league that should mean at least one less game against a projected conference bottom-feeder, which could have a positive impact on the strength of schedule and NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) numbers that are used to by the NCAA tournament selection committee.

The conference tournament has also changed, with the top two seeds receiving a bye to the semifinals. There are also other changes that will go into effect in the future with regards to non-conference scheduling, and the moves (plus the likely loss of earned NCAA tournament revenue had the school left the conference) were enough to satisfy Gonzaga. The WCC dodged a bullet this past spring.

2. Mark Few’s Bulldogs looks like a national title contender

Focusing on the action on the court, Gonzaga is a Top 5 team nationally in the eyes of many. Three starters are back from a team that won 32 games, the WCC regular season and tournament titles, and reached the Sweet 16 in 2017-18. And the returning starters don’t include junior forward Rui Hachimura, who averaged 11.6 points and 4.7 rebounds per game last season and was one of college basketball’s best reserves.

Guards Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell Jr. are also back, as are junior forward/center Killian Tillie and sophomore forward Corey Kispert. Add to this a talented crop of newcomers, which includes transfer Geno Crandall (North Dakota) and Brandon Clarke (San Jose State) and freshmen Filip Petrusev and Greg Foster Jr., and Gonzaga has enough talent and experience to be a national title contender.

That being said, the Bulldogs will be without Tillie for much of non-conference play as he underwent surgery to repair a stress fracture in his ankle. That puts more pressure on players such as Kispert, Clarke and Petrusev in the front court, as they’ll be tested by a schedule that includes games against Washington, Tennessee and North Carolina.

3. BYU sets its sights on top spot

With regards to its performance within the conference, the 2017-18 season was BYU’s worst as a member of the WCC since joining in 2011. Dave Rose’s Cougars posted an 11-7 mark in conference play, finishing five games behind second-place Saint Mary’s, and after a loss to Gonzaga in the WCC tournament final BYU finished its season in the Postseason NIT. BYU’s looking to take a step forward in 2018-19, and with five starters back the Cougars have the pieces needed to do just that.

Leading the way is junior forward Yoeli Childs, a first team All-WCC selection who averaged 17.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game last season. The 6-foot-7 Childs, who also blocked 1.8 shots per game, shot better than 54 percent from the field and will once again be one of the conference’s best players. Also back in Provo are guards TJ Haws, Jashire Hardnett and Nick Emery, who averaged 13.1 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game in 2016-17, and senior forward Luke Worthington. Reserves such as Dalton Nixon and Zach Seljaas will provide the depth for a talented group that could be the team best equipped to challenge Gonzaga.

Yoeli Childs (William Mancebo/Getty Images)

4. Saint Mary’s looks to replace three key starters

Saint Mary’s had a successful 2017-18 season, winning 30 games and finishing conference play with a 16-2 record. But that overall win total wasn’t enough to get the Gaels into the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season. Now Randy Bennett will have to account for the loss of three starters from that team, most notably one of the best big men in college basketball in Jock Landale. Sophomore guards Jordan Ford, who averaged 11.1 points and 2.7 rebounds per game last season, and Tanner Krebs (7.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg) are back to lead the way.

But after those two Saint Mary’s will be looking for contributions from newcomers and players who played sparingly in 2017-18. Redshirt junior forward Kyle Clark appeared in just three games before undergoing knee surgery, and senior center Jordan Hunter averaged just over seven minutes per game in 32 appearances. Graduate transfer Aaron Menzies, who averaged 11.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game at Seattle last season, will be a key newcomer for the Gaels as will redshirt sophomore forward Malik Fitts (7.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg in 2016-17 at South Florida). Saint Mary’s has a lot of new faces but the expectations remain high for a program that hasn’t failed to win at least 20 games in a season since 2006-07.

5. Pepperdine and San Diego have new head coaches

There were two head coaching changes in the WCC this past spring, and both hires are familiar faces to those who follow the league. Pepperdine, which let Marty Wilson go after seven seasons, hired Lorenzo Romar to lead its program. Prior to head coaching stops at Saint Louis and Washington, Romar, who last season served as associate head coach at Arizona, spent three seasons at Pepperdine. After his 1996-97 team won just six games, Romar led the Waves to 17 and 19-win seasons before moving on to SLU.

As for San Diego, its circumstances differ from those that prompted the change at Pepperdine. Lamont Smith resigned in early March after being arrested on suspicion of domestic violence, but he was never charged. Stepping into the head coaching role is Sam Scholl, another USD alum who served as acting head coach for the remainder of the 2017-18 season. Of the two new head coaches Scholl is better positioned to win immediately, with San Diego returning its top four scorers from last year’s 20-win squad including first team All-WCC selection Isaiah Pineiro.

Rui Hachimura (Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

PRESEASON WCC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga

One of college basketball’s best reserves last season, Hachimura moves into a starring role for the Bulldogs in 2018-19. In 2017-18 the 6-foot-8 Hachimura shot 56.8 percent from the field and 79.5 percent from the foul line with an effective field goal percentage of 57.7. With Gonzaga needing to account for the departure of Johnathan Williams III, who led the team in both scoring and rebounding as a senior, Hachimura will even more opportunities to put up quality numbers offensively. And with Killian Tillie out of the lineup for the time being, Gonzaga will need Hachimura to take the next step in his growth as a player and NBA prospect.

THE REST OF THE ALL-WCC FIRST TEAM

  • Frankie Ferrari, San Francisco: As a junior the 5-foot-11 Ferrari averaged 11.4 points and 4.6 assists per game, ranking tied for fifth in the conference in the latter statistical category.
  • Zach Norvell, Gonzaga: As a freshman Norvell, who redshirted in 2016-17, averaged 12.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. And if Gonzaga needs a big shot late in a game, there’s a decent chance that the fearless Norvell will be the one letting fly.
  • Yoeli Childs, BYU: In averaging 17.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.8 blocks per game, Childs increased his scoring average by 8.3 points per game from his freshman to sophomore season. While a similar increase may not occur in 2018-19, there’s no denying the junior’s status as one of the WCC’s best players.
  • Killian Tillie, Gonzaga: Due to the aforementioned stress fracture in his ankle, the 6-foot-10 Tillie (12.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg in 2017-18) will be out for approximately eight weeks. But when on the floor the versatile junior is a key cog in the Gonzaga attack, due to his ability to play either in the paint or away from the basket offensively (58.0 percent from the field, 47.9 percent from three).

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • Josh Perkins, Gonzaga
  • KJ Feagin, Santa Clara
  • TJ Haws, BYU
  • James Batemon, Loyola Marymount
  • Isaiah Pineiro, San Diego

BREAKOUT STAR

The pick here is Saint Mary’s sophomore guard Jordan Ford (11.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 1.6 apg in 2017-18), due in large part to the fact that the Gaels will need him to break out given the team’s personnel losses. As a freshman Ford shot 50.8 percent from the field, 44.3 percent from three and 75.4 percent from the foul line, doing so on just over eight field goal attempts per game. Look for Ford to be safety into double figures in shot attempts, and he’s skilled enough to not take a step back from an efficiency standpoint.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE

No names this time around. With Pepperdine making its move in the spring, replacing Marty Wilson with Lorenzo Romar, there isn’t a coach that enters the 2018-19 season under a considerable amount of pressure to produce a big year.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

The WCC has managed to be a multi-bid conference, with BYU joining Gonzaga.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

Seeing if Gonzaga can reach the Final Four for the second time in the last three seasons.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • November 6, BYU at Nevada
  • November 19-21, Gonzaga at the Maui Invitational (vs. Illinois, 11/19)
  • November 24, Harvard at Saint Mary’s
  • December 9, Gonzaga vs. Tennessee (in Phoenix)
  • December 15, Gonzaga at North Carolina
Randy Bennett (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. GONZAGA: Gonzaga’s the clear favorite to win the WCC, even with the loss of Tillie for the next eight weeks. His absence will be felt during non-conference play, as the Bulldogs have matchups with Washington, Tennessee and North Carolina in addition to their appearance in the Maui Invitational to navigate. That being said, Mark Few’s team is loaded with talent from guards Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell Jr. on down to an All-America candidate in Rui Hachimura. And newcomers such as transfer Brandon Clarke and Geno Crandall, who averaged 16.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg and 3.6 apg at North Dakota last season, and freshman big man Filip Petrusev should be impact additions.

2. BYU: Of course the returns of Yoeli Childs and TJ Haws will give the Cougars a shot at getting back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015. What will also help is the return of guard Nick Emery, who withdrew from school last November amid an investigation into his possibly receiving impermissible benefits from a booster. Emery, who averaged 14.7 points per game in his first two seasons at BYU, will have to miss BYU’s first nine games this season. When on the floor he gives BYU another quality perimeter scorer, which is needed due to the loss of leading scorer Elijah Bryant.

3. SAINT MARY’S: Three of the top four scorers from last season’s team have moved on in Jock Landale, Calvin Hermanson and Emmett Naar, with sophomore Jordan Ford being the lone returnee. Ford could be in line for a big 2018-19 season given the combination of those personnel losses and his skill set. Fellow sophomore guard Tanner Krebs, who made 29 starts last season, should also be a factor and the same can be said of transfers Aaron Menzies and Malik Fitts. While the Gaels have some questions to answer, they should once again be a top three team in the WCC.

4. SAN FRANCISCO: After winning 20 games in Kyle Smith’s first season at the helm, San Francisco won 22 games and reached the championship series of the CBI in 2017-18. All five starters, including first team All-WCC point guard Frankie Ferrari, return from a team that despite the strides made last season still has room for growth. San Francisco was the last team to crack the BYU/Gonzaga/Saint Mary’s hold on the top three spots in the WCC standings, finishing tied for second in 2013-14, and the Dons could very well pull off this feat again.

5. SAN DIEGO: The Toreros reached the 20-win mark for just the fourth time in the program’s Division I history last season, and there’s a decent chance that the count increases to five in 2018-19. San Diego’s top four scorers, led by redshirt senior forward and first team All-WCC selection Isaiah Pineiro, return to play for first-year head coach Sam Scholl.

6. PACIFIC: The Tigers have made strides in Damon Stoudamire’s first two seasons as head coach, with the overall win total improving by three games (11 in 2016-17 to 14 last season) and the conference win total improving by five (from four to nine). While there are eight newcomers to work into the program, Pacific welcomes back three of its top five scorers in guards Roberto Gallinat and Kendall Small and forward Jahlil Tripp.

7. LOYOLA MARYMOUNT: The Lions boast one of the WCC’s best individual talents in senior guard James Batemon, who averaged 17.8 points and 4.6 assists per game in his debut season at LMU. He’s one of four starters back for head coach Mike Dunlap, and given the talent and experience on this roster it’s likely that the Lions take a step forward after last year’s 11-20 finish.

8. SANTA CLARA: Senior guard KJ Feagin lead the Broncos in both points and assists last season, earning first team All-WCC honors as a result. He’ll once again lead the way for Herb Sendek’s group, with sophomore forward Josip Vrankic looking to take a step forward after averaging 10.4 points and 4.4 rebounds per game as a freshman.

9. PEPPERDINE: Lorenzo Romar begins his second stint at Pepperdine with anything but an empty cupboard, as the top three scorers from last season’s team (Kameron Edwards, Colbey Ross and Eric Cooper Jr.) all back. While that is a positive, both Edwards (nine games) and Cooper (13) missed time due to injury so it goes without saying that they’ll need to remain healthy if Pepperdine is to take a step forward.

10. PORTLAND: Turning things around at Portland hasn’t been easy for Terry Porter, whose teams have won 11 and 10 games in his first two seasons at the helm. Four of Portland’s top five scorers from a season ago, led by sophomore guard Marcus Shaver and redshirt junior wing Josh McSwiggan, are back and Pitt transfer Crisshawn Clark is eligible after sitting out last season.

Pac-12 Conference Preview: Can league rebound from disappointing season?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Pac-12 Conference.


After a 2015-16 season in which seven teams made the NCAA tournament, the Pac-12 has seen its count drop in each of the last two years.

After earning four bids in 2017 that number dropped to three last season, and two of those bids went to teams (Arizona State and UCLA) that played in the First Four.

All three league representatives were done by the end of the first round, a brutal conclusion to a season that began with controversy thanks to the FBI.

While there may not be a clear-cut favorite in the Pac-12 as the start of the 2018-19 season approaches, the hope is that there are enough quality teams and players to turn things around when it comes to the conference’s national reputation.



FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Stability is paying dividends at Arizona and USC

Arizona and USC were the two Pac-12 programs that were impacted the most by the FBI’s investigation, as each had a now-former assistant coach be indicted. But after some uncertainty — and predictions of doom — both programs have seemed to get back on solid ground. USC managed to hold onto Kevin Porter Jr., who committed before the FBI case began, and both Elijah Weaver and J’Raan Brooks (who originally committed to USC in the spring before reopening his recruitment in the fall) were brought on board afterwards.

As for Arizona, its recruiting wins with regards to the 2018 class would come in the spring as Devonaire Doutrive and Brandon Williams made their pledges (Omar Thielemans did as well, only to transfer in the fall). Add in two grad transfers in Ryan Luther (Pittsburgh) and Justin Coleman (Samford), and the Wildcats managed to fill many of the holes within their rotation. Also, both Arizona and USC have experienced early success in the 2019 recruiting window, with both currently boasting Top 5 classes.

2. UCLA has already been hit hard by the injury bug

UCLA had what many considered to be one of the top recruiting classes in the Pac-12 heading into this season, with Oregon’s talented crop being the only one held in higher regard. But health issues have ruled out two of Steve Alford’s prized recruits for the 2018-19 season, with power forward Shareef O’Neal being sidelined by a heart condition and point guard Tyger Campbell suffering a torn ACL.

While these are both tough losses for the Bruins, one could argue that the loss of Campbell is the bigger of the two due to UCLA’s lack of depth at the point. Sophomore Jaylen Hands will get the keys to the offense, which was the case before Campbell’s injury, but should he run into any issues (foul trouble, injuries, etc.) where can UCLA turn? 6-foot-4 freshman David Singleton III and redshirt junior Prince Ali are certainly comparable to Hands from a size standpoint, but both are more scorers than distributors. UCLA’s young inside but at least there’s an ample amount of depth and talent at those spots to help account for the loss of O’Neal. But while there’s little margin for error at the point, the expectations remain high in Westwood.

Jaylen Hands (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

3. Oregon welcomes the conference’s best recruiting class

Oregon lost three of its four double-digit scorers from last season, as Elijah Brown and MiKyle McIntosh were both out of eligibility and Troy Brown Jr. entered the NBA Draft after one year on campus. But leading scorer and starting point guard Payton Pritchard is back, as are forward Paul White and one of the conference’s best defenders in Kenny Wooten Jr., and head coach Dana Altman has added one of the nation’s best recruiting classes to the mix. All five of Oregon’s freshmen were Top 100 recruits, led by 7-foot-2 big man Bol Bol and 6-foot-8 wing Louis King. And one must not overlook grad transfer Ehab Amin, who as a junior at Texas A&M Corpus Christi led the nation in steals.

As a result of the influx of talent, and Altman’s ability to put his players in spots where they can be most successful, the Ducks are one of the early favorites in the Pac-12. What may be most interesting about this team is how Bol and Wooten could potentially work together, with some flashing back to the Chris Boucher/Jordan Bell combo that figured so prominently in Oregon’s run to the 2017 Final Four.

4. Washington has the look of a contender in Mike Hopkins’ second season

With a win over Kansas to its credit, Washington appeared poised to reach the NCAA tournament last season in Mike Hopkins’ first season at the helm. But the Huskies faltered down the stretch, landing in the Postseason NIT, meaning that the program had to wait another season to end its NCAA tournament drought. There’s a very good chance that Washington will do that this season, with its top seven scorers from 2017-18 back on campus led by sophomore guard Jaylen Nowell and senior center Noah Dickerson. Also in the rotation are senior guards David Crisp and Mathysse Thybulle, the latter being the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, and a four-member recruiting class headlined by 6-foot-10 freshman Bryan Penn-Johnson.

With the number of players that Hopkins can call upon, including many who contributed to last season’s 21-win campaign, it’s well within reason to expect Washington to be a conference title contender. To make good on that promise the Huskies need to be better on the defensive glass (338th in defensive rebounding percentage) and shooting the basketball, as they ranked in the 200’s nationally in two-point (229th), three-point (246th) and effective field goal percentage (249th).

5. The race for Pac-12 Player of the Year appears to be wide-open

When the offseason began it appeared as if Stanford’s Reid Travis would be the early favorite to win Pac-12 Player of the Year. But after withdrawing from the NBA draft Travis decided to make the move to Kentucky as a graduate transfer, and with that the race for Pac-12 Player of the Year got a lot more interesting. The Pac-12 welcomes back two players who earned first team all-conference honors last season in Washington’s Noah Dickerson and Oregon State’s Tres Tinkle, and Oregon’s Payton Pritchard is the only second team all-conference selection back on campus.

Dickerson and Pritchard seem like good places to start when looking for a Pac-12 Player of the Year favorite given what’s expected of their respective teams, but players such as Tinkle, UCLA’s Kris Wilkes and Colorado’s McKinley Wright IV shouldn’t be overlooked either. That will make for an interesting winter in a conference that should not lack for intrigue from a team standpoint, either.

Mike Hopkins (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

PRESEASON PAC-12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Kris Wilkes, UCLA

Others will likely lean in the direction of a Pritchard or Dickerson, but the choice here is Wilkes as he should be UCLA’s top scoring option in the aftermath of Aaron Holiday’s departure to the NBA. As a freshman Wilkes, a member of the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team, averaged 13.7 points and 4.9 rebounds in 29.8 minutes per game. UCLA did add some solid perimeter options to the rotation in David Singleton and Jules Bernard, improving their depth alongside (and behind) Wilkes.

But with two of last year’s top three scorers having departed (Thomas Welsh being the other) and Jaylen Hands also having the responsibility of being the team’s starting point guard, that should open things up for the 6-foot-7 sophomore wing from a scoring standpoint. Wilkes will need to improve his shooting percentages, as he was just a 35.2 percent shooter from beyond the arc (4.8 three-point attempts per game) and 65.5 percent from the foul line, but he has the talent to lead the way for the Bruins.

THE REST OF THE PAC-12 FIRST TEAM

  • Payton Pritchard, Oregon: A second team all-conference selection as a sophomore, Pritchard led the Ducks in both scoring (14.5 ppg) and assists (4.8 apg)
  • McKinley Wright IV, Colorado: Wright was a revelation as a freshman, leading the Buffaloes in scoring and assists (14.2 ppg, 5.5 apg) while also averaging 4.7 rebounds per game
  • Tres Tinkle, Oregon State: Tinkle, a first team all-conference selection last season, is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer (17.6 ppg)
  • Noah Dickerson, Washington: The conference’s leading returning rebounder (8.4 rpg), Dickerson also averaged 15.5 points per game on 56.9 percent shooting

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • Mathysse Thybulle, Washington
  • Daejon Davis, Stanford
  • Sedrick Barefield, Utah
  • Bol Bol, Oregon
  • Moses Brown, UCLA
Sean Miller (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR

Washington’s Jaylen Nowell was one of the Pac-12’s best freshmen in 2017-18, averaging 16.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. While those were certainly good numbers for the 6-foot-4 guard, who earned a spot on the conference’s all-freshman team, there’s still room for growth. A 45.1 percent shooter from the field and 80.0 percent from the foul line, Nowell shot just over 35 percent from three on 3.3 attempts per game.

He’s got the physical tools needed to be effective within Washington’s offensive system, and an improved perimeter shot can make him an even tougher matchup for opponents. If Nowell, who finished last season with an offensive rating of 104.2 and posted an effective field goal percentage of 49.4, can improve those numbers look out.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE

In Ernie Kent’s first four seasons at Washington State, the Cougars really haven’t made much progress with regards to either their overall record or their standing within the Pac-12. Washington State won no more than 13 games in any of those seasons, and they’ve finished no higher than tenth in the conference standings since his arrival. That makes Kent’s fifth season on the Palouse an important one, but the good news is that three starters are back including the Pac-12’s Most Improved Player in Robert Franks.

Carter Skaggs and Viont’e Daniels also return, and Washington State’s added seven newcomers with five being junior college transfers. Among those newcomers who will be expected to make an immediate impact are Eastern Florida State College transfer Ahmed Ali and Barton CC transfer Marvin Cannon, with the former being a second team NJCAA All-American last season.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

The Pac-12’s got some talent, but can any of these teams play into the second weekend?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

The seemingly unpredictable nature of the middle of the Pac-12. There’s a group of about six teams that appear capable of landing just about anywhere in the standings.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • November 9, Washington at Auburn
  • November 15-16, Oregon in the 2K Empire Classic (vs. Iowa 11/15; Syracuse or UConn 11/16)
  • November 19-21, Arizona in the Maui Invitational (vs. Iowa State 11/19)
  • November 22-23, UCLA in the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational (vs. Michigan State 11/22; North Carolina or Texas 11/23)
  • December 5, Washington at Gonzaga
Bol Bol (Jon Lopez, Nike)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. WASHINGTON: The Huskies may not have been ranked in our Top 25, but they’ve got a legitimate chance of winning the Pac-12 this season. The top seven scorers from last season return, led by Jaylen Nowell and Noah Dickerson, and Mike Hopkins’ squad has a good combination of both talent and experience. The key: getting more consistent production from their younger options, including the likes of Nowell and Nazhiah Carter, and becoming a more efficient team on the offensive end of the floor.

2. OREGON: The newcomers will receive a lot of praise and attention, and rightfully so. Dana Altman’s brought in a very talented recruiting class. That being said the returnees aren’t to be overlooked, with Payton Pritchard, Kenny Wooten Jr. and Paul White due to be key factors with regards to both production and leadership. If all of the pieces fit together, Oregon is more than capable of winning the Pac-12.

3. UCLA: The Bruins have already lost two members of their Top 10 recruiting class due to injury, but the cupboard isn’t bare. Jaylen Hands, Kris Wilkes and Prince Ali are among the returnees, and newcomers such as Jules Bernard, David Singleton III and Moses Brown should all have an impact. UCLA’s a bit young inside, with Alex Olesinski being their most experienced player, but there isn’t a depth issue with Brown and Kenny Nwuba joining the ranks along with Cody Riley and Jalen Hill (who were both suspended for the entire 2017-18 season). The concern is the lack of depth at the point, as Tyger Campbell went down with a torn ACL.

4. ARIZONA: The Wildcats are one of two teams to have lost their entire starting lineup from a season ago, with the other being Duke. For many programs that would lead to expectations of doom. Not so much for Arizona, as this program has not finished lower than fourth in the Pac-12 since the 2008-09 season. There are a lot of holes to fill with DeAndre Ayton, Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins all in the NBA and Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Dusan Ristic having graduated, but a late rally on the recruiting trail helped matters.

Brandon Williams and Devonair Doutrive join the ranks as freshmen, with Ryan Luther and Justin Coleman doing so as graduate transfers. Add in Duke transfer Chase Jeter, who sat out last season, and Arizona will have five players who have yet to appear in a game as Wildcats in the rotation. The sophomore class, which includes Brandon Randolph and Ira Lee, will need to take a step forward as will redshirt junior guard Dylan Smith. Arizona may have a lot of unknowns, but it wouldn’t be wise to expect a major fall this season.

Bennie Boatwright (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

5. USC: USC bid farewell to three extremely important contributors at the end of last season, as Jordan McLaughlin, Chimezie Metu and Elijah Stewart all graduated (Metu had a season of eligibility remaining). The good news for Andy Enfield is that Bennie Boatwright, who missed 13 games last season due to injury, is back for his senior season. When healthy “Bennie Buckets” can score from anywhere on the floor, making him a tough matchup at the four.

Also back from a team that won 24 games and finished second in the Pac-12 are players such as guards Derryck Thornton Jr., Jonah Mathews and Shaqquan Aaron and forward Nick Rakocevic. What should also help matters is the arrival of a talented recruiting class that includes Elijah Weaver, Kevin Porter Jr. and J’Raan Brooks, with Porter a household name of sorts thanks to the work he put in at the Drew League this summer. If Boatwright can remain healthy, USC can make a run at an NCAA tournament bid after missing out last season.

6. UTAH: Picking Utah to finish worse than fourth is a risky thing to do, as Larry Krystkowiak’s program has finished fourth or better in each of the last four seasons. That being said the Runnin’ Utes did lose three of their top four scorers in Justin Bibbins, David Collette and Tyler Rawson. Sedrick Barefield, who averaged 12.0 points and 2.5 assists per game last season, returns as does a sophomore wing in Donnie Tillman who may be one of the conference’s best athletes. Jayce Johnson and Parker Van Dyke, who were both part of last year’s rotation, also return.

Utah welcomes eight newcomers to the program, including four-star freshmen Timmy Allen and Riley Battin and junior college transfers Charles Jones Jr. and Brandon Morley, and grad transfer Novak Topalovic (Idaho State). Keep an eye on Jones, an NJCAA All-American at the College of Southern Idaho. If he and Barefield mesh well together Utah stands to be a handful. And given what Krystkowiak has managed to do with this program since his arrival in Salt Lake City, Utah may once again defy expectations.

7. ARIZONA STATE: “Guard U” was all the rage during non-conference play as Bobby Hurley’s Sun Devils won their first 12 games of the season. That run included wins over Xavier and Kansas, teams that would go on to receive 1-seeds in the NCAA tournament. And those quality wins ultimately saved Arizona State, as its lackluster showing in conference play put the team in danger of missing out on the Big Dance. ASU made the field, but with guards Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice all having moved on there are some significant holes to fill. Remy Martin, who was an absolute pest and shared Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year honors with Colorado’s Dominique Collier, is back for his sophomore season and he’ll be asked to run the show.

Four-star freshmen Luguentz Dort and Elias Valtonen and Cleveland State transfer Rob Edwards, who averaged 14.4 points per game in two seasons at CSU, are among the player who will join Martin in the perimeter rotation. But after its guards received so much attention last season, Arizona State is considerably bigger in 2018-19. Dort is 6-foot-4, three inches shorter than Valtonen, and the Sun Devils are deep in the front court as well. De’Quon Lake, Romello White, Mickey Mitchell, Vitaly Shibel and Kimani Lawrence all return, and San Diego State transfer Zylan Cheatham is eligible after sitting out last season. And 6-foot-9 four-star forward Taeshon Cherry will also be competing for minutes. Size won’t be an issue for Arizona State this season, and if that leads to improvements on the defensive end of the floor Hurley’s guys could make a return trip to the NCAA tournament.

8. COLORADO: Four starters are back from a team that won 17 games and finished Pac-12 play with an 8-10 record, with the most noteworthy returnee being sophomore point guard McKinley Wright IV. Wright, who led Colorado in points, assists and steals, was an All-Freshman Team selection as well as an honorable mention all-conference and all-defensive team honoree. He and senior Namon Wright will lead the way in the backcourt, with forward Tyler Bey and center Dallas Walton looking to make progress in their development as sophomores.

Juniors De’Leon Brown and Lucas Siewert also return, with the former having missed eight games due to a hand injury and the latter looking to build on a solid finish to the 2017-18 season. Add in sophomore wing D’Shawn Schwartz and Tad Boyle has a good rotation to work with as he accounts for the losses of George King and Dominique Collier. Colorado also welcomes eight newcomers into the program, one being a redshirt freshman in Evan Battey who missed all of last season as he recovered from a stroke. Another key addition is NJCAA All-American guard Shane Gatling, who averaged 16.6 points and 2.9 assists per game at Indian Hills CC last season.

McKinley Wright IV (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

9. STANFORD: The loss of Reid Travis is obviously a big deal for the Cardinal, given the fact that he led the Cardinal in both scoring and rebounding last season and was also their most experienced player. Add in the graduation of Dorian Pickens and Michael Humphrey, and Jerod Haase has to account for the loss of three of his top four scorers from a season ago. The good news is that sophomore point guard Daejon Davis is back, as are classmates KZ Okpala, Oscar Da Silva, Isaac White and Kodye Pugh (redshirt sophomore).

Davis was one of the conference’s top freshmen last season, and both Okpala and Da Silva showed flashes of what they could potentially be for the Cardinal. Add in senior Josh Sharma and redshirt junior Marcus Sheffield, and while Stanford lost a lot of production at the end of last season they’ve got some guys who have experience. But if the Cardinal are to outperform this expectation they’re going to need a very good freshman class, which includes guards Cormac Ryan and Bryce Willis and forward Jaiden Delaire, to be ready to produce from the start.

10. OREGON STATE: While there didn’t seem to be much concern following the abrupt departure of JaQuori McLaughlin before the start of the 2017-18 season, the lack of a “true” point guard hurt Oregon State last season. That’s one of two key areas for Wayne Tinkle’s team to address heading into the 2018-19 season, with the other being to figure out who in the front court can step forward and help fill the hole left by the departure of Drew Eubanks. Stephen Thompson Jr., Ethan Thompson and Tres Tinkle were Oregon State’s best assist men while also being three of the team’s top four scorers, but will that approach be sustainable?

Freshmen Antoine Vernon and Jordan Campbell will compete for the point guard job, and finding a viable option there will be key. As for the post, Oregon State doesn’t have a lot of production back as Gligorije Rakocevic wasn’t a major contributor last season. Junior college transfer Kylor Kelley gives Oregon State some size at 7-feet, and he’ll need to hit the ground running. The Thompson brothers and Tinkle won’t be an easy matchup for most opponents, but they’re going to need help if Oregon State is to take a step forward.

11. WASHINGTON STATE: With Malachi Flynn having decided to transfer to San Diego State, the Cougars will return just one of its two double-digits scorers from a season ago. Robert Franks, who was the Pac-12’s Most Improved Player last season, decided to withdraw his name from the NBA draft and return for his senior year and that was an important development for Wazzu. Viont’e Daniels and Carter Skaggs are also back, giving Ernie Kent three returning starters to work with.

But there was a lot of turnover on this roster, with Washington State adding eight newcomers to the program including junior college All-American Ahmed Ali. The Cougars have enough talent, led by Franks, to give some teams a hard time in Pullman. But to make a move in a conference that has gotten stronger in its “middle,” simply being a pesky foe may not be enough for Washington State to make an upward move.

12. CALIFORNIA: Wyking Jones’ first season at the helm was a difficult one, as the young Golden Bears took their lumps and won just two conference games. While Cal will have to account for the loss of two of its top three scorers in Don Coleman and Marcus Lee, promising sophomore forward Justice Sueing is back as are sophomore guards Darius McNeill and Juhwan Harris-Dyson. What may help this trio, as much as the work they put in during the offseason, is the presence of point guard Paris Austin.

Austin, who began his collegiate career at Boise State, is eligible after sitting out last season and he’ll be needed to kick start an offense that ranked 296th nationally in adjusted efficiency. In addition to Austin the Golden Bears have four scholarship freshmen to incorporate, including four-star prospects Matt Bradley and Jacobi Gordon. Cal has some young talent, but that youth may be what keeps them in the back of the pack for another season.

2018-19 Big 12 Preview: Kansas and everybody else, once again

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big 12 Conference.


Ah, the Big 12. It’s the league that has spent the last five years as the top-rated conference by KenPom, and usually by a wide margin. Seventy percent of its membership made the NCAA tournament last season, with a total of 90 percent playing in the postseason. Its teams won 60 percent of its games against other power conferences. Six players were selected in the NBA draft for the third consecutive year. The league is a running, dribbling, dunking, winning monster.

It also has been singularly, completely and, I’d argue, embarrassingly dominated by a single team for 14 consecutive years.

It’s not Kansas and the Little Nine, but to say the Jayhawks aren’t in a class of their own is sort of like arguing the sun is just another piece of our solar system.

The separation this looks to be significant enough that the annual head-meet-wall exercise of “Who will dethrone Kansas?” seems to be more of a futile exercise than typical.

Kansas is going to win the conference. It’ll be the 15th-consecutive time. They’re going to better than the numerous storied, proud and accomplished programs in the league.

Again.

We’re not far off from an enrolling a freshman class literally not knowing a world without the Jayhawks winning the Big 12. No matter how good the rest of the nine teams in the conference all may be any year, that’s a tough reality to swallow every single year.

Udoka Azubuike (John Weast/Getty Images)

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Kansas reaches a singularity

The last half-decade or so of college basketball has produced essentially three paths to competing at the highest levels of the sport. You can accumulate five-star, one-and-done freshmen. Another way is to round up high-level transfers. Then there’s this other way of having players contribute and play for, and hear me out on this, multiple years on the same team and stepping into bigger and bigger roles.

Kansas just said eff it and did all three.

The Jayhawks have a top-five recruiting class featuring five-stars Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson while putting together maybe one of the more fearsome transfer groups ever with Dedric Lawson, K.J. Lawson and Charlie Moore. Then there’s Udoka Azubuike and Lagerald Vick, both Final Four starters, plus Mitch Lightfoot, back for more. The Jayhawks may not be Duke, they may not be Nevada and they may not be Villanova, but they basically are a mashup of all the best talent-acquisition and roster-building strategies.

It’s easy to see why the rest of the league ends up on its back seeing stars while the Jayhawks pull away the Big 12 trophy every season. Kansas just does it better.

2. Kansas State runs it back

It took something like 500 words to get here, but I’m actually going to discuss – actually even just name – a Big 12 team other than Kansas now.

Let’s head west to Manhattan, where Bruce Weber has his entire team back after a surprise Elite Eight run. It’s a rather astounding turnaround for a coaching tenure that looked cooked in February 2017 when Kansas State had lost eight of 10, looked primed to miss the NCAA tournament for the third-straight year and Weber was under intense pressure.

Dean Wade is a legitimate All-American candidate, Barry Brown isn’t far behind and Xavier Sneed, Carter Diarra and Kamau Stokes are all proven Big 12 difference-makers. The Wildcats are going to have a level of continuity that is exceedingly – maybe entirely – rare in college hoops today. If that stability can keep them strong defensively – they make opponents grind out possessions when they’re not turning them over – and make strides offensively – they ranked outside the top-100 in eFG% last year – then Weber and the Wildcats might have a busy March once again.

Dean Wade (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

3. Is the honeymoon over in Austin?

It took four seasons after an earth-shaking Final Four appearance for a school to pull Shaka Smart away from VCU. Texas fans have to be hoping that’s exactly how long it takes for him to live up to expectations in Austin.

Smart has gotten the Longhorns to two NCAA tournaments in three years, but both resulted in first-round exits. In between those Big Dances in 2016 and 2018, Texas finished dead-last in the Big 12. It’s basically undeniable that Smart’s best season with Texas was on the strength of a roster compiled by a guy run out of town for not winning enough (that guy won an SEC title last year, by the way).

It’s probably not wholly accurate to say Smart is on the hot seat – most Texas fans probably won’t remember they have a basketball team until Tom Herman’s squad stops playing – but given his contract and Texas’ resources, it’s more than fair to expect something better than what he’s delivered in three years. The Longhorns have talent this season despite losing Mo Bamba with Jericho Sims, Matt Coleman, Kerwin Roach and Dylan Osetkowski all back while Andrew Jones continues his valiant battle with leukemia and holds out hope to be back on the floor. There’s also a top-10 recruiting class and Mount. St. Mary’s transfer Elijah Mitrou-Long. That’s probably not a roster that’ll wreak havoc on the Big 12, but it should be good enough to keep fans from fixating on spring football in February.

4. Mountaineer Machine

After two lackluster years to start its Big 12 tenure, West Virginia morphed into Press Virginia and Bob Huggins’ team hasn’t looked back. There have been standout players like Juwan Staten, Jaysean Paige, and Jevon Carter, but the strength has been the system for the Mountaineers. That’ll be put to the test this year again with the loss of Carter, a national defensive player of the year and All-American, but Huggins should once again have the bodies to throw weight around the Big 12.

Sagaba Konate may be the most entertaining defensive player in the whole country. The 6-foot-8 forward has wingspan and vert for days, plus a panache for the dramatic. The guy just seems to love blocking dunks and snatching shots out of mid-air. Esa Ahmad had a breakout sophomore campaign before academic issues upended his season last year, but a return to form is in order and would be a huge boon for the Mountaineers on both ends of the floor. Those are the headliners, but Huggs will again be able to roll out waves of talented and tough dudes that’ll be a menace in the Big 12.

5. Will there be any federal fallout?

Three Big 12 programs have become embroiled to varying degrees in the federal investigation into corruption in college basketball that rocked the sport more than a year ago, reverberated throughout last season and continues to send aftershocks with testimony ongoing in the Southern District of New York.

Brian Bowen Sr. alleged under oath that agent/runner Christian Dawkins told him Texas was willing to “help” with housing if his son, top-30 recruit Brian Jr., joined the Longhorns while Oklahoma State was offering $150,000 in cash, $8,000 for a car and more to buy a house. Cowboys associate head coach Lamont Evans was one of 10 arrested last fall, and was fired by the school.

The potential involvement and rule-breaking by Texas and Oklahoma State is certainly noteworthy and interesting, but the question that hangs over the conference is just how exposed Kansas may be. The Jayhawks are one of adidas’ flagship programs, and the three-stripes are knee-deep in federal investigators. There’s already been testimony that former Jayhawk Billy Preston got money, and there’s also under-oath statements saying that not only did current KU sophomore Silvio De Sousa as well, but that the Angola native previously had signed a pro deal with a Spanish club as well. De Sousa played in the Final Four last season, which would seem to imperil that banner at Allen Fieldhouse, at minimum.

So far, there have been no bombshells of alleged wrongdoing by coach Bill Self and the Jayhawks – especially when judged against a backdrop of fans increasingly caring less about players getting paid – but that possibility seems to be the biggest what-if still out there in a federal case that we’ve learned has spanned more than three years now.

Dedric Lawson (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

PRESEASON BIG 12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: DEDRIC LAWSON, Kansas

There are two fan bases that are indebted to the Lawson family. Really, the entire season of 2018-19 owes them thanks. If it wasn’t for Keelon Lawson getting demoted from assistant by Tubby Smith, Memphis might not have its electrifying alum, Penny Hardaway, at the helm of the program and Kansas might not be a popular preseason No. 1 pick. Those are two of the most interesting storylines this season and a testament to how good Dedric Lawson is.

The 6-foot-9 transfer averaged 19.2 points, 9.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.2 steals and 2.1 blocks per game as a sophomore for the Tigers, but left his hometown for Lawrence, along with his talented brother K.J., after Smith dumped their dad before getting dumped by Memphis. He now gives Bill Self one of the most productive and versatile players in the country to headline one of the most talented rosters in the country. Must be nice.

THE REST OF THE BIG 12 FIRST TEAM

  • SAGABA KONATE, West Virginia: The rare player who is it is actually exciting to watch play defense, Konate changes games with his work at the rim.
  • DEAN WADE, Kansas State: The 6-foot-10 senior is effective inside and out, which helps keep the Wildcats’ offense from bogging down.
  • QUENTIN GRIMES, Kansas: This is a bet Kansas leans on the Team USA’s MVP at the FIBA U18 Americas Championship at guard.
  • BARRY BROWN, Kansas State: The 6-foot-3 guard averaged 15.9 points per game last season and will be critical in the Wildcats’ quest to backup last year’s Elite Eight season.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • LINDELL WIGGINTON, Iowa State
  • UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas
  • JAYLEN FISHER, TCU
  • MAKAI MASON, Baylor
  • KERWIN ROACH, Texas
Jarrett Culver (Elsa/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR

Keenan Evans and Zhaire Smith stole the show for Texas Tech’s resurgent season and Elite Eight showing under Chris Beard, but Jarrett Culver was no slouch and figures to step into the void created by those two stars’ departures. He averaged 11.2 points per game and shot 38.2 percent from 3-point range. With a bigger role, he could put up major numbers in Lubbock.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE

Aside from Smart for the aforementioned reasons, the Big 12 doesn’t have any coach who is explicitly feeling the heat. So if we dig below the surface (and, yes, stretch some), there are a few things to talk about.

It’s probably worth watching to see what happens with Kansas and the government’s corruption case, but the list of more bulletproof coaches than Bill Self probably isn’t longer than Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams. Mike Boynton was on staff when Oklahoma State was allegedly offering the Bowen family money, and his contract (and short, if surprisingly strong, track record) would make him easily expendable if the Cowboys had to. Steve Prohm went to back-to-back NCAA tournaments, won a Big 12 tournament and got to the Sweet 16 in his first two years with Iowa State but that was exclusively with players Fred Hoiberg brought to Ames, and when the roster turned over last year, the Cyclones sunk to last place. Prohm’s talent pool is much improved and he’s got plenty of goodwill with administration, but if the Cyclones aren’t back to relevance after missing the tournament for the first time since 2011, some impatience could bubble up.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

Kansas is once again the Big 12’s best – and maybe only – hope for winning its first national title since 2008, but the league’s depth is once again one of – and maybe the – best in the country.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

The inevitable collision between the Super Slam Swatter Sagaba Konate and Soul-Snatching Slammer Lindell Wigginton.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • Dec. 15, Kansas vs. Villanova
  • Jan. 26, Kansas vs. Kentucky
  • Nov. 9, West Virginia vs. Buffalo
  • Nov. 22, Texas vs. North Carolina
  • Dec. 20, Texas Tech vs. Duke
Sagaba Konate (Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. KANSAS: Because there simply has been enough written about the Jayhawks in this space, here’s some more to consider about Kansas’ streak.

The last time the Jayhawks shared the Big 12 title: It was 2013, with Kansas State in Bruce Weber’s first season leading the Wildcats and playing the Jayhawks to a draw. Back then, Perry Ellis was a freshman, twerking was a thing people talked about a lot, Ben McLemore looked like a future NBA star, the power went out at the Super Bowl and Jeff Withey shot 100 percent (1-1) from 3-point range.

The last time there was a non-Kansas outright Big 12 winner: It was 2004. Eddie Sutton led Oklahoma State to a a 14-2 mark in the Big 12 and the Final Four. Those were the days when Kansas rolled with a Wayne Simien and Keith Langford 1-2 punch, everyone was quoting ‘Anchorman,’ Jameer Nelson was the national player of the year and MySpace and Facebook began their battle for friends. Which reminds me that ‘Friends’ was still on TV then, too.

2. KANSAS STATE: So I think Kansas State is going to be quite good. I think it’s clear going into the season that they have to be slotted as the second-best team in the Big 12. They’ve got continuity and talent. Stability and skill. Let’s indulge, for a moment, though, that maybe we’ve got them overrated some.

Would everyone be so high on the Wildcats if UMBC accomplish the 16-1 miracle and they instead had to face No. 1 overall seed Virginia? What if Arizona had actually played up to its talent level and gotten by Buffalo and Kentucky, to face Kansas State instead of a good-but-not-great John Calipari team? Kansas State, after all, was ultimately beat by a team that had losses to Milwaukee and Indiana State, although admittedly it was a team was from Chicago that had the backing of a nun, so Loyola could have been on a mission from God.

I dunno. Something to think about.

3. WEST VIRGINIA: The Mountaineers’ offense was actually ranked higher than its defense last season on KenPom for the first time of the Press Virginia era. West Virginia really didn’t make a ton of shots but they took care of the ball and hit the offensive glass. Losing Jevon Carter is a blow, no doubt, but the Mountaineers should be able to recreate that success on offense without him. It’s also probably a safe assumption that Bob Huggins won’t let the defense fall off a cliff.

Jaylen Fisher (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

4. TCU: It was pretty obvious in 2016 that the Horned Frogs had pulled off quite the coup when it took Jamie Dixon off Pitt’s hands, but the 1987 TCU graduate has outperformed expectations in a hurry. The Horned Frogs made their first NCAA tournament appearance in 20 years last year, and look to have staying power under Dixon.

Vlad Brodziansky made a lot of what TCU did work with his presence in the middle and his loss, along with Kenrich Williams’, will be felt, but Dixon has plenty to work with. Point guard Jaylen Fisher is back after being sidelined with a knee injury to team with Alex Robinson in the backcourt while sharpshooters Desmond Bane and Kouat Noi return to give the Horned Frogs deadly shooters on the outside. The frontcourt could be a question, but TCU is a Big 12 contender.

5. TEXAS: Texas may not have a Jarrett Allen- or Mo Bamba-caliber NBA prospect on its roster this season, but the Longhorns are plenty talented. It wouldn’t shock anyone to see any of Matt Coleman, Dylan Osetkowski, Kerwin Roach and Jericho Sims on all-conference teams come season’s end while Texas also welcomes a top-10 recruiting class and Elijah Mitrou-Long, a Mount St. Mary’s transfer who averaged 15 points per game as a sophomore. Andrew Jones’ long-term health is obviously the chief concern, but if he is able to play, that gives Shaka Smart another highly talented player to deploy.

Smart has gotten Texas to play defense in his three years in Austin, but they’ll need to make strides on the offensive end to finally start competing at the upper echelon of the Big 12, much less the country, which was the expectation when the Longhorns became the team to finally pull Smart from VCU after a long list of schools failed to.

6. IOWA STATE: The Cyclones are going to be much more talented this season as they come off a 13-18 campaign that saw them finish four games behind ninth-place Oklahoma State in the standings, but getting all the pieces to fit could be the trick for coach Steve Prohm.

Lindell Wigginton is a proven scorer and his return after an NBA flirtation was paramount for the Cyclones, but if he wants to play point guard, his likely pro position, what’s that mean for Nick Weiler-Babb, who became a nightly triple-double threat at PG before injuries ended his season? Cameron Lard is a hugely talented big man, but found himself in trouble off the court and spent the summer off-campus at a wellness center. Iowa State will also have to figure out how to integrate transfers Marial Shayok (Virginia) and Michael Jacobson (Nebraska) along with one of the program’s best recruiting classes, headlined by top-50 recruit Talen Horton-Tucker, who the Cyclones think could be a star. There’s also the matter of Iowa State having no proven shooters outside of Wigginton.

If Iowa State can make it all fit together, they could be this year’s rags to riches story, but if things go wobbly, is there enough leadership to keep things steady?

Lindell Wigginton (J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

7. TEXAS TECH: It’s going to be difficult for Chris Beard to replace Keenan Evans and Zhaire Smith, but if he’s able to do it, it’ll probably be on the strength of graduate transfers. The Red Raiders welcome South Dakota’s Matt Mooney, who averaged 18 points per game in back-to-back seasons for the Coyotes, and St. John’s Tariq Owens, who averaged 8.4 points and 5.9 rebounds per game for the Red Storm.

Beard isn’t without returners to lean on, however, with Jarrett Culver expected to take a major role and Norense Odiase back after starting 29 games. An Elite Eight repeat is probably a tall task, but Beard seems to have a formula figured out to keep things rolling in Lubbock.

8. BAYLOR: It’s going to be a rebuilding season in Waco for coach Scott Drew, who narrowly missed guiding the Bears to their fifth-straight NCAA tournament appearance last year with a 19-15 overall record and 8-10 Big 12 mark. Drew is experiencing heavy losses from that team, namely Manu Lecomte, Jo Lual-Acuil and T.J. Maston.

There will still be experience at Drew’s disposal, though, with Jake Lindsey, Tristan Clark, King McClure and Mark Vital all back after starting at least 14 games each, though none were huge contributors. The most fascinating pieces for Drew are transfers Mario Kegler (Mississippi State) and Makai Mason (Yale), who hasn’t played in essentially two years due to injury.

9. OKLAHOMA: Lon Kruger is one of the best coaches to do it, but he could be in for a long season with the Trae Young Show moving on after one year. Sure, it turned out to be a bumpy ride with Young, a lottery pick to Atlanta, last season, but you could never count the Sooners out with him on the floor.

It’s not going to be as difficult to bet against the Sooners this year as they return the bulk of the supporting cast from last year that seemed incapable of supporting Young. Maybe that singular style of play was just too hard to adapt to, but it’s difficult to see how Oklahoma is better this season than last.

10. OKLAHOMA STATE: Mike Boynton’s team was the surprise of the Big 12 last year as they won 21 games with a roster few in the Big 12 would have envied. That roster, though, lost basically all its best pieces and there aren’t much in the way of immediate reinforcements on their way. The Cowboys will try to hang their hats on defense, and if they’re able to parlay that into a season similar to last, it’ll be perhaps as big a surprise as their two wins against Kansas last year.

2018-19 Atlantic 10 Preview: Turnover at the top creates wide-open league race

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Atlantic 10 Conference.


Since sending a combined 11 teams to the NCAA tournament in 2013 and 2014, the Atlantic 10 has put just 12 combined teams into the tournament in the four years since.

In those four years, the league has been the target of more powerful conferences.

First, in realignment and expansion. More recently in pilfering head coaches like Shaka Smart, Archie Miller and, this offseason, Dan Hurley.

The conference was fortunate to get three teams into the Dance last year after a fluky A-10 tournament title run.

That mark may be difficult to repeat this year unless the top of the league exceed expectations.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Turnover at the top

Predicting the contenders of the A10 in recent years hasn’t been much of a chore with the likes of Rhode Island, VCU, St. Bonaventure and Dayton fixtures at the top. This year doesn’t promise the same continuity. Rhode Island is down four starters and a head coach, VCU is still finding footing in the wake of Shaka Smart and Will Wade’s departure, the Bonnies lost their backcourt and Dayton is rebuilding since the loss of Archie Miller. The top crop this year features some familiar names that look to be back on an upswing like St. Louis and George Mason along with traditional contenders St. Joseph’s and Davidson, but the league doesn’t have any heavyweights and may be without much depth either.

Travis Ford (Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

2. Built Ford tough?

St. Louis has gone 29-37 overall and 15-21 in the two years since Travis Ford took the helm after eight years leading Oklahoma State, but this would seem to be the season when things could take a major leap forward. The Billikens are adding transfers Traimaine Isabell, Jr. (Missouri and Drexel) and Dion Wiley (Maryland) along with four-star recruit Carte’Are Gordon to a core that already included Javon Bess (all-A-10 defense), Hasahn French (all-A-10 rookie) and Jordan Goodwin (11.5 points and 7.5 rebounds).

Ford’s teams have always played defense, and he got the Billikens to buckle down on that end last year after struggling to do so in his debut season, but if St. Louis is going to win the A-10 and make some noise nationally, it’ll have to improve on offense. They went from being one of the worst offenses in the country in 2017 to merely poor last year based largely on hitting the offensive glass — a good idea when you’re one of the weakest shooting teams in the country. If the Billikens can hold the line defensively and make big a leap on the other end, they’ve got the talent to be quite good.

3. Davidson’s next star(s)

Every sweet-shooting guard Davidson ever has, from now until eternity, will likely have the unfortunate fate of being compared, or at least mentioned in relation to, Steph Curry. Such is life when an under-the-radar recruit evolves into a transformational, generational player under your watch. Fair or not, expect to hear plenty of Curry talk when it comes to sophomore Kellan Grady. The 6-foot-5 guard shot 37.2 percent from 3-point range and had a true-shooting percentage of 61.1 percent while scoring 18 points per game.

Grady, obviously, isn’t Curry, but he’s a damn good player with a potential NBA future. Before that, though, he’ll be tasked with helping get Davidson back to a second-straight NCAA tournament and compete for its first league title since 2015. He won’t be doing it alone, though, as Jon Axel Gudmundsson is back after a sophomore campaign in which he shot 40.6 percent from beyond the arc. They’ll both need to be at their best to replace Peyton Aldridge and the 21 points he scored every night.

4. Rhode Island rebuild

Dan Hurley took Rhode Island from eight wins in his first season of 2012-13 to a combined 51 wins and two NCAA tournaments the last two years. Now, though, he’s gone, off to Connecticut to try to return the Huskies to prominence, and so, too, are four starters off last year’s squad. Rhode Island bet on itself when finding Hurley’s replacement, promoting David Cox, who spent four years on Hurley’s staff (including two as associate head coach), to the first chair.

Cox also helped preside over a recruiting class that will be carrying a heavy load, but is well-regarded. It’s highlighted by top-100 forward Jermaine Harris and three-stars Dana Tate and Tyrese Martin. Returning guard Jeff Dowtin should help lead the way after averaging just under 10 points per game as a role player and lone returning starter, but the Rams have quite a bit of work ahead of them replacing the likes of Jared Terrell and E.C. Matthews.

Phil Martelli (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

5. How high can healthy Hawks fly?

St. Joseph’s finished the year on a tear, winning seven of its last nine games and nearly upending Rhode Island in the A10 tournament. That, along with a fourth-place finish in the regular season standings, is an admirable season, but one in which the Hawks couldn’t have helped but wonder what might had been if Lamarr Kimble and Charlie Brown, who combined to play one game last season, had been healthy.

Both are now back to a team that sustained minimal losses from a season ago. Kimble, who broke his foot one game into the season, averaged 15.5 points per game as sophomore wile Brown put up 12.8 as a freshman before a broken wrist robbed him of 2017-18. Their return along with four starters, including Taylor Funk (11.8 ppg), means St. Joe’s has championship aspirations and eyes on its third NCAA tournament in six years.

PRESEASON ATLANTIC 10 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: KELLAN GRADY, Davidson

So now that we’ve previously established that Kellan Grady is not, in fact, Stephen Curry, let’s talk about what exactly he is.

Grady was a fringe top-100 recruit in the 2017 class, and picked Davidson over other A10 programs and more than a handful Power 5 offers. The decision to follow in his idol’s footsteps – the Boston native picked up NBA league pass as an 11-year-old to follow Curry’s rookie season – paid off in a major way during his own rookie campaign. He went for more than 20 in his first two games (hitting seven 3s in his debut), erupted for 30 on Christmas Day against Akron and then 39 in a three-OT thriller against St. Bonaventure. He did all that while playing aside A10 player of the year Peyton Aldridge, who, while being an excellent player, took 30 percent of Davidson’s shots while on the floor. His departure means more looks for Grady. That could mean that Grady’s stay at Davidson is one year shorter than Curry himself.

THE REST OF THE ATLANTIC 10 FIRST TEAM

  • JOSH CUNNINGHAM, Dayton: A former top-150 recruit who began his career at Bradley, blossomed in his junior year, averaging 15.6 points and 8.4 rebounds while shooting 64.6 percent from the floor.
  • OTIS LIVINGSTON, George Mason: The 5-foot-11 point guard from New Jersey put up 17.3 points per game last year for the Patriots.
  • LUWANE PIPKINS, UMass: The Minuteman went from 10.2 ppg as a freshman to 21.2 ppg as a sophomore thanks in large part to shooting 42.6 percent from 3-point range.
  • JAVON BESS, St. Louis: The Michigan State transfer emerged as a major contributor last year and could be even better with an improved team around him.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • JEFF DOWTIN, Rhode Island
  • CHARLIE BROWN, St. Joseph’s
  • CARTE’ARE GORDON, St. Louis
  • JON AXEL GUDMUNDSSON, Davidson
  • GRANT GOLDEN, Richmond
Josh Cunningham (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR

Carte’Are Gordon is the rare top-75 recruit to call the A-10 home, which makes him interesting enough, but Gordon’s ability to do stuff like render a backboard to mere smithereens means there’s a decent chance your Twitter feed features a healthy helping of Gordon highlights, especially if St. Louis is the class of the conference.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE

Fordham isn’t exactly a traditional power or a program with exactingly high hoops standards, but the Rams have gone in the wrong direction the last two years under Jeff Neubauer. He posted a 17-win season after taking over for Tom Pecora, who had five-straight losing seasons, in 2016, but the Rams regressed to 13 wins in 2017 and down to nine last year. The recipe for improvement – unless you’re at Duke or Kentucky, which is decidedly not the case here – does not include eight freshmen on the roster, as Neubauer has this season.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

The Atlantic 10’s trouble continued without strength beyond the top, limiting it to three NCAA tournament teams if all goes well.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

While the league may not have its historical depth, there’s plenty interesting with St. Louis, George Mason, St. Joe’s and others, but the excitement the A10 generates this year is going to come from Kellan Grady. He’s a potential superstar.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • Dec. 22, St. Louis vs. Florida State
  • Dec. 29, George Mason vs. Kansas State
  • Dec. 8, St. Joseph’s vs. Villanova
  • Dec. 29, Davidson vs. North Carolina
  • Dec. 8, Dayton vs. Auburn
Otis Livingston II (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. ST. LOUIS: Year 3 under Travis Ford should bring the level of success the Billikens were hoping for when they became Ford’s post-Oklahoma State landing spot. With a solid group of returners meshing with talented newcomers, St. Louis should be the class of the Atlantic 10.

2. ST. JOSEPH’S: Phil Martelli’s group was competitive last year despite losing two of its top players for essentially the entire season. WIth Lamarr Kimble and Charlie Brown back and healthy, however, the Hawks should be in position to be more than a fly in the ointment – they should be among the A10’s best.

3. DAVIDSON: Replacing A10 player of the year Peyton Aldridge is no easy task, but coach Bob McKillop has a potential first-round draft pick in Kellan Grady, but also dynamic backcourt mates Jon Axel Gudmundsson and KiShawn Pritchett. There are frontcourt questions, but none loud enough to doubt the Wildcats much.

4. GEORGE MASON: Otis Livingston and Jaire Grayer (son of former NBA player Jeff) give the Patriotsa significant one-two scoring punch and Virginia transfer Jarred Reuter could help solidify a defense that struggled.

5. UMASS: It was a struggle for Matt McCall’s team in his first season in Amherst, but things are looking up in Year 2. Luwane Pipkins can get buckets with the best of them, but the Minutemen will need to clean up the defense to really make an A10 run.

6. ST. BONAVENTURE: The Bonnies won 13-straight to end the regular season and get an at-large bid before knocking off UCLA in the First Four last year, but the losses of Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley means they’re due for a step back this season.

7. RICHMOND: The Spiders limped to the finish line last year, dismissed second-leading scorer De’Monte Buckingham and lost Khwan Fore to Louisville, but Grant Golden should be one of the best in the conference and keep the Spiders competitive.

Mike Rhoades (Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

8. VCU: Star guard Marcus Evans suffered a second Achilles tear this summer, but is still hopeful to play this season. With his health in doubt, however, the Rams could be in for bumpy ride in Mike Rhoades’ second season.

9. DAYTON: Josh Cunningham leads a group of four returning starters that should make things better for Anthony Grant in his second season with the Flyers, though frontcourt issues could hold them back.

10. RHODE ISLAND: The Rams welcome a solid recruiting class and David Cox represents stability on the coaching staff, but Rhode Island’s losses are simply too much to suffer without ensuing struggles.

11. DUQUESNE: Keith Dambrot is counting on five Division I transfers to get things off the ground in his second season in Pittsburgh after a 13-year run at his alma mater Akron.

12. GEORGE WASHINGTON: Yuta Watanabe exhausting his eligibility would have been a tough blow by itself, but Jair Bolden transferring to South Carolina makes this an especially tough hill to climb for coach Maurice Joseph in Year 3.

13. LA SALLE: Ashley Howard had heaps of success across town on Jay Wright’s national championship staff, but he’s got a significant rebuild job ahead of him with the Explorers.

14. FORDHAM: Joseph Chartouny transferring to Marquette was a huge loss that will loom large for a Rams team that struggled mightily last year.

2018-19 American Preview: Year of the AAC rebuild

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the American Athletic Conference.


The AAC wasn’t as deep last year as the league would have hoped, but it was strong at the top with Cincinnati, Houston and Wichita State all proving themselves among the country’s best – even if all three had disappointing ends to their seasons in the NCAA tournament.

This season will be one of transition for the conference as those three tournament teams from last year all having major roster turnover while two of the league’s traditional power programs – Memphis and UConn – made splashy head coaching moves after both had fallen into mediocrity in recent years.

That means the league is there for the taking this season.

Cincy, Houston and Wichita State could all be back at the top while talented UCF could shrug off last season’s injury woes to take the crown or one of the league’s middle tier could jump up and surprise.

The AAC probably won’t have those high-end, national contenders this season, but it figures to be an intriguing year, especially with the changes in Memphis and Storrs.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Penny’s back

There is just something overwhelmingly cool about Penny Hardaway. His game – full of both power and grace – as a 6-foot-7 point guard just screamed style. As did the jersey he wore while he came to prominence. Those 1990s Magic uniforms – especially the black pinstripes – was the thing of Starter jacket dreams. And those teams. Oh, those teams. Penny and Shaq in Orlando was more entertaining than anything their Disney neighbors could have dreamed up. I haven’t even mentioned the Chris Rock-voiced Lil’ Penny. Even the name ‘Penny’ is great.

My goodness, was Penny Hardaway cool. Now he’s trying to bring cool – and winning – back to his alma mater, Memphis.

An alum and city native, the former NBA All Star brings his starpower and puts his legacy on the line in trying to get the Tigers back in line after a slump in production and a slide into apathy under Tubby Smith. Hardaway brings instant credibility thanks to his NBA career and his work winning state titles at Memphis East and navigating the EYBL with Team Penny. Whether he can coach at an elite collegiate level remains to be seen, but he’s already attracting talent – including the ever-important homegrown Memphis talent – to the Tigers program.

His return to helm Memphis is also one of college basketball’s top storylines. Memphis basketball is cool again, simply by association. Whether it’ll be a winner remains to be seen.

Dan Hurley, AP

2. UConn rebuild begins under Hurley

Given his last name and success at Wagner and, more recently, Rhode Island, Dan Hurley had multiple chances to move on to a bigger program. It took a shot at rebuilding one of college basketball’s biggest brands to get him to move. Hurley, the son of legendary high school coach Bob and brother Arizona State coach and Duke legend Bobby, is tasked with taking a program that went from national championship to downtrodden in the span of just four years back to the heights it so long enjoyed for years under Jim Calhoun and then briefly under Kevin Ollie.

Bringing UConn back to national prominence is an interesting challenge for Hurley as while the Huskies were in the AAC when they won the 2014 national title, they were just a year removed from playing in the Big East. The challenges of recruiting to the AAC are certainly different, even with a brand as strong as UConn. Still, it’s a brand that carries weight, just like the Hurley name. And both are extremely strong in the northeast. After back-to-back losing seasons under Ollie, UConn should be better in Hurley’s first year due largely to the return of Jalen Adams and Christian Vital, but getting back to the NCAA tournament – and winning a few games there – is a more likely outcome later in Hurley’s Storrs tenure. That fate, however, would seem to be a foregone conclusion.

3. Wichita State, Houston and Cincy suffer heavy losses…but remain contenders

Even with Memphis and UConn down and UCF hit hard by injuries, it was a strong season for the AAC in 2017-18 thanks to the strength of Cincinnati, Wichita State and Houston, the league’s three NCAA tournament teams that were all seeded sixth or higher. The trio of teams carried the AAC banner admirably, even if the tournament results – Cincy’s blown lead against Nevada and Houston’s last-second loss to Michigan costing them Sweet 16 berths, and Wichita’s first-round loss to Marshall – left something to be desired. There was no doubting those three teams’ strengths, and that they play some real ball in the AAC.

This year, though, all three are slated to take steps back, though the degree to which remains to be seen.

The Bearcats arguably have the most to replace, but are the best equipped to do it after the losses of Jacob Evans (first-round pick), Gary Clark (AAC player of the year) and Kyle Washington (two-year starter) from last year’s team but the return of potential AAC player of the year Jarron Cumberland. Mick Cronin also remains on the bench, and Cincy continues to be a safe bet for the NCAA tournament, even with the roster turnover.

Houston’s losses were fewer, but no less significant as the Cougars will be without the AAC’s leading scorer Rob Gray, Jr. and their top rebounder, Devin Davis. Things look to remain on track with the Cougars, who will open a new $60 million home this season, with Kelvin Sampson staying put after the Orlando Magic made some inquiries this offseason. Corey Davis, Jr. will also be a big reason why after shooting 42.9 percent from 3-point range and averaging 13.1 points last year. He’ll be tasked with keeping the ever-potent Cougar offense (which has ranked in the top-40 in efficiency the last three years) humming.

If you believe in Wichita State this year, it’s because you believe in Gregg Marshall. The Shockers lost all five starters from last year’s team, which was successful but had at times difficulty navigating the new waters of the AAC after dominating the Missouri Valley Conference for so long. Marshall also already suffered his first loss to Penny Hardaway and Memphis when four-star commit Alex Lomax flipped to the Tigers after Hardaway, his high school coach, was hired at Memphis. If the Shockers are going to compete at the top of the AAC and get back to the NCAA tournament, it’ll likely have to be on the strength of a bounceback season from Markis McDuffie. The former MVC freshman of the year and first-team all-conference performer never seemed to find a rhythm last season after a stress fracture in his foot cost him the year’s first weeks. The Shockers will need him to return to star status this year.

Tacko Fall (Dan Forcella/UCF Athletics)

4. UCF’s talented – but unlucky – trio

The Knights are hoping they didn’t miss their window. Or, rather, they’re hoping beyond hope injuries didn’t slam that window shut. There were high expectations for UCF in Johnny Dawkins’ second year with not just talent, but unique talent, across the roster. Instead of fielding one of the AAC’s most talented groups, however, the Knights had one of its most frustrating.

Aubrey Dawkins, Johnny’s son and a transfer from Michigan, was lost before the season started with a torn labrum, B.J Taylor missed the first two months with a broken foot and Tacko Fall, he of 7-foot-6 fame, shut things down due to a shoulder injury. Instead of a fearsome threesome, the Knights had a rag-tag group that still scratched its way to a 19-13 record. With its trio back – and presumably healthy – the Knights could be the most talented team in a league that saw much of its top talent depart. If those three can stay on the court, UCF might be the last team standing in the AAC.

5. Dunphy’s last dance

Fran Dunphy began his Philadelphia Big 5 career in 1967 as a player at La Salle then had assistant gigs at his alma mater and Penn before taking the first chair for the Quakers in 1989 and then moving across town to replace John Chaney at Temple in 2006. And now after more than 50 years, his career will come to a close. The winningest coach in Big 5 history will step down after one final ride with the Owls, handing over the reins to former Temple star, NBA veteran and current Owls associate head coach Aaron McKie.

Dunphy is one of just five coaches to win at least 200 hundred games while going to at least six NCAA tournaments at two schools with Lou Henson, Rick Pitino, Eddie Sutton and Roy Williams the others to accomplish the feat. Following Chaney was no easy task, but Dunphy has taken the Owls to seven NCAA tournaments. He’s not largely mentioned as one of the most accomplished coaches in college basketball, but as he enters his 30th and final season, he certainly is exactly that.

PRESEASON AMERICAN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: JARRON CUMBERLAND, Cincinnati

Cumberland has spent his first two seasons in the Queen City in a supporting role for a team that won a combined 61 games while setting the standard in the AAC. This year, he’ll step into a starring role for a team looking to maintain that caliber of excellence. The 6-foot-5 guard studied under Jacob Evans and Troy Caupain and looks more than capable of taking the mantle of a Mick Cronin team.

Cumberland embodies the toughness and grit that has come to define Cronin’s Bearcat teams, but he’s plenty skilled as well. The Wilmington, Ohio native posted offensive efficiency ratings of 118.6 and 109.7 in his first two seasons as the team’s third or fourth offensive option. This year he’ll doubtless be the go-to guy, something he looked ready to assume with big NCAA tournament performances. The key to taking the step from role to star player, however, will be consistency. Cumberland’s production too often ebbed and flowed last season. This year’s team will need him to be good every night out. With the team unquestionably his, Cumberland will get his shot to be the next great Bearcat.

THE REST OF THE AMERICAN FIRST TEAM

  • B.J. TAYLOR, UCF: Injuries cost Taylor his sophomore season and half of his junior campaign, but the 6-foot-2 guard is a prolific scorer who will help the Knights compete for an AAC championship.
  • JALEN ADAMS, UConn: After averaging 18 points and seeing his coach get fired, Adams nearly went pro this summer, but instead returns to Storrs to give Dan Hurley a talented guard in his first season at the helm.
  • JEREMIAH MARTIN, Memphis: The 6-foot-3 guard has steadily and impressively improved his numbers every season and now he’ll get the chance to do so under Penny Hardaway.
  • JARREY FOSTER, SMU: Foster was on track for a big junior campaign before a torn ACL cut his season short, but his return will give him the chance to be the Mustangs’ featured player with Shake Milton gone to the pros.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • TACKO FALL, UCF
  • MARKIS MCDUFFIE, Wichita State
  • QUINTON ROSE, Temple
  • COREY DAVIS JR, Houston
  • AUBREY DAWKINS, UCF
Jarron Cumberland (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR

Maybe it’s been done before, but UConn’s Alterique Gilbert being named the AAC preseason rookie of the year twice is certainly a unique accomplishment. The possibility he may win it a third time is a little bit heartbreaking. The former top-50 recruit has played just nine games in two years for the Huskies after shoulder injuries twice ended what should have been his debut seasons before they could really get underway. Two lost seasons and three shoulder surgeries later, the point guard hopes to be healthy enough to play this season. If he’s able to play this season and can return to the form that made him a McDonald’s All-American in 2016, both he and the Huskies could be the surprise of the season in the AAC.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE

There really isn’t a coach that enters this season in risk of losing his job as each program either has a new head man, stability or an expected rebuild ahead of it. That means this distinction belongs not to a man coaching for his job, but one coaching for his legacy.

Penny Hardaway’s return to Memphis has been heralded as one of the biggest stories in college basketball – and rightfully so. He’s got the star power and cache that really only a few people can bring to the job, and probably no one else could have duplicated at Memphis, his alma mater and hometown. But the hype and hope come with a dark side. If Hardaway can’t pull this off, it’ll be a blow to his to his rock-solid reputation in Memphis. Fred Hoiberg pulled off this feat with his alma mater at Iowa State, but Chris Mullen is finding it difficult to replicate at St. John’s. Memphis has one of the most interesting situations in the sport, but feel-good stories eventually have to translate to wins to keep the good vibes.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

That the AAC isn’t as strong this season as last, but that it remained respectable with at least three bids.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

Did I mention FREAKING PENNY HARDAWAY IS THE COACH AT MEMPHIS?

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • Dec. 15, Memphis vs. Tennessee
  • Nov. 7, Cincinnati vs. Ohio State
  • Dec. 1, Houston vs. Oregon
  • Dec. 2, UCF vs. Missouri
  • Dec. 5, SMU vs. TCU
Kelvin Sampson, AP

PREDICTED FINISH

1. UCF: Winning the league will require quite a few things to go right for Johnny Dawkins’ team, but the Knights have the talent to do it, especially with the conference’s traditional powers not looking as powerful. It’ll largely come down to health. Can B.J. Taylor, Aubrey Dawkins and Tacko Fall all stay healthy all year long? If they share the floor all winter long, it’s not hard to see UCF atop the standings.

2. CINCINNATI: Despite heavy losses from last year’s 31-win team, Cincinnati should be strong enough once again to compete for a conference title. Jarron Cumberland will fill the offensive void, but it’s hard to envision a world where Mick Cronin’s team doesn’t defend well enough to win a ton of games in the AAC.

3. HOUSTON: Kelvin Sampson probably hasn’t been given the credit he deserves for the turnaround he’s engineered at Houston thanks in no small part to his scandal-forced exit at Indiana that kept him out of a head coaching chair for six years. The Cougars have developed into an AAC power, however, and look to stay there with an athletic department flush with cash in a new arena in one of the country’s booming cities. Houston is back on the basketball map, and even significant losses from last year won’t keep them off it.

4. SMU: The Mustangs are still under the purview of scholarship reductions from the Larry Brown era, but with a healthy Jarrey Foster and Mahmal McMurray, they should be competitive after injuries contributed to a second-half slide last season. Shake Milton is gone to the NBA and there are questions regarding the roster, but the Foster-McMurray one-two punch could be enough to elevate the Mustangs.

5. WICHITA STATE: This is a bet on the continuity of excellence. The Shockers will have to regroup after losing all five starters, including first-round pick Landry Shamet, but Gregg Marshall has been good enough long enough to warrant faith in a quick reload. Markis McDuffie is a talented piece to build around, especially if you give him the benefit of the doubt that last year’s struggles were the result of injury and not regression. All Marshall has done in Wichita has win, so it’s hard to believe we’ll see anything different this season, even if the faces on the floor are changed.

6. UCONN: While UConn engages in an ugly battle off the court with former coach Kevin Ollie, the Huskies should be in line to play, if not beautiful, at least passing ball under first-year coach Dan Hurley. Jalen Adams could be the best player in the league, and Christian Vital is a proven commodity. If Alterique Gilbert is healthy and productive and Mamadou Diarra can return from injury, the Huskies could be frisky in the AAC race.

Fran Dunphy, AP

7. TEMPLE: Fran Dunphy’s swan song to Big 5 basketball isn’t likely going to be a sweet one. The Owls have struggled to find footing in the AAC as they’ve made the NCAA tournament just once in their five seasons in the league after six-straight appearances to end their stint in the Atlantic 10. There’s talent on the roster, especially in Quinton Rose and Shizz Alston, but it may not be enough for an upper-half finish in the conference.

8. MEMPHIS: The Tigers are the most talked about team in the league thanks to Penny Hardaway’s homecoming, but this season could be a struggle. Jeremiah Martin is one of the league’s best players and Kyvon Davenport is a proven contributor, but the rest of the roster is less impressive. Hardaway has already brought in a strong first recruiting class, but it’s not a group that will be able to be counted on to help win a lot of games right off the jump. Expectations are up and hope has returned to Memphis, but a Hardaway’s work is far from over.

9. TULSA: This is probably too low for the Golden Hurricane. Not because they’re wildly talented, but because Frank Haith consistently has gotten his teams to beat expectations in Tulsa. Sterling Taplin is as experienced as they get and is a potential all-conference guard while Martins Igbanu is also a solid contributor. If the Golden Hurricane can rebound and get to the line like they did last year, they could replicate that level of success in the standings.

10. TULANE: Mike Dunleavy’s hiring in New Orleans felt like a strange in 2016, but he’s took the Green Wave to six wins his first year to 14 last season while turning Melvin Frazier into an NBA draft pick. It’s hard, though, to see Tulane sustain that growth this season with Frazier with the Orlando Magic and Cameron Reynolds graduated. Dunleavy has shown he can get the Green Wave moving in the right direction, but it might not be a straight-line trajectory.

11. EAST CAROLINA: Joe Dooley is back in Greenville, y’all. Nearly 20 years after his first stint with the Pirates, Dooley returns to take the helm of the program he led from 1995-99 after winning big in Dunk City the last five years. He took Florida Gulf Coast over from Andy Enfield and won five-straight conference titles and got to two NCAA tournaments. Dooley will have his work cut out for him at his new job in his old home as the Pirates haven’t had a winning season since 2013.

12. SOUTH FLORIDA: A return to a head coaching spot wasn’t a rampant success for Brian Gregory as his Bulls went just 10-22 overall and 3-15 in AAC play last season. There isn’t a lot of hope that the turnaround will begin in earnest this season with just five upperclassmen on the roster

2018-19 ACC Preview: Duke, Virginia, North Carolina once again top loaded conference

R.J. Barrett, Reagan Lunn/@DukeMBB
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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Atlantic Coast Conference.


The ACC returns for another mega year as the league reloads with five-star freshmen and a ridiculous number of preseason top-25 teams.

This could very well be another year in which the ACC gets multiple No. 1 seeds and up to 10 teams in the NCAA tournament as the conference looks deep and talented.

Here’s a look at the ACC.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. The ACC is loaded with contenders, but doesn’t have a clear cut favorite.

A lot of familiar names pepper the top of the ACC’s preseason standings. Duke and North Carolina are the seemingly perennial contenders while Virginia has now included themselves in that tier with the past few years. All of those programs have the potential to win the ACC again this season. None of them are the clearcut favorite at this point.

You can certainly make a strong case for all three of those schools. They also all have glaring issues. Duke is going to be very young, with question marks about how the ball moves and defense. Virginia has the talent to be a title contender again, but how will they handle last season’s loss while also handling season-long questions about the team’s ability to score when necessary? And North Carolina will be relying heavily on two freshmen this season — something Roy Williams hasn’t always done before — so how well will Nassir Little and Coby White adjust to potential prime-time roles?

And this doesn’t include a ridiculously loaded second tier of teams. The NBC Sports Preseason Top 25 has more than half the league in the poll. Can one of those teams make a leap to compete for the title as well? It’s certainly feasible, with teams like Virginia Tech, Florida State, Clemson and Syracuse all returning a lot of talent from successful teams. This should be a fascinating year in the conference.

Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett, Reagan Lunn/@DukeMBB

2. Duke’s freshman class has the potential to be legendary.

Duke returns a few key pieces from last season, but the truth is nobody’s interested in the Blue Devils that are coming back. Everybody wants to talk about the recruiting class with four top-10 talents and huge expectations.

The freshman class of R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones will all likely start from day one as the quartet is perhaps the most well-known recruiting class of all time. You could argue that other groups of recruits were deeper or more talented. None of them carry the level of burden this group does.

Williamson is the most popular high school basketball player since LeBron. He’s a YouTube sensation who throws down NBA Dunk Contest-level in-game dunks while checking in at the 285 pounds that an NFL defensive end weighs. He destroyed rims in Canada and showed off a higher skill level than people give him credit for.

Barrett is the future of Canada basketball and a potential No. 1 pick in next June’s NBA draft. He’s already defeated a team full of American stars in FIBA play while getting an early call up to play with pros on the Canadian Senior National team this summer. He just played a national high school schedule at Montverde and dominated everybody.

Reddish might be even more talented than Barrett and Williamson. There were times in high school that the 6-foot-8 perimeter threat looked like the best player in the class. But inconsistencies have plagued Reddish at times, as he makes for an insanely talented No. 3 option in this class.

And then there is Jones, the younger brother of an NBA player who already won a national title at the same school. Tre will be known more by casual basketball fans than the common Duke player because of that association to Tyus. But Tre has also won multiple gold medals with USA Basketball and should be ready for the attention that comes with the position of being Duke’s lead guard.

Veterans like Javin DeLaurier, Marques Bolden and Alex O’Connell will likely play a big role in Duke’s season, but it’s the freshman class that everyone will be watching for, as we’ll only get a limited window to see these four play together in Durham.

De’Andre Hunter (Eric Espada/Getty Images)

3. Virginia returns another potential No. 1 seed after last season’s NCAA tournament disaster.

The jokes and memes are never going to stop, and neither will the questions about Tony Bennett’s credibility when it comes to winning in March. Virginia’s loss to No. 16 seed UMBC during last season’s NCAA tournament will always be remembered as one of the biggest upsets in sports history.

The good news for the ‘Hoos is that they have a potential No. 1 seed once again this season. They get a chance at revenge. Three starters, including the backcourt of Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, are back, as is senior center Jack Salt. And De’Andre Hunter should earn starting minutes and make a huge leap this season on the wing. Junior big man Mamadi Diakite showed some late signs of being a major factor with more minutes.

No matter what Virginia does, they’ll still have plenty of doubters — especially if the slow-paced offense continues. But this team has the makings of another consistent season in which they should compete for an ACC title.

4. North Carolina has the weapons to make another deep March run.

After four seasons of March memories, the backcourt of Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson have exhausted their eligibility. With a title and two Final Four appearances, the duo will be greatly missed. The good news for North Carolina is that they have the necessary weapons to make another deep run in March.

Senior forward Luke Maye is one of the nation’s most versatile frontcourt weapons. He’s a double-double machine who can also hit a three. Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams are veteran perimeter threats and two more returning double-figure scorers. And North Carolina also has a promising young center platoon that includes Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley.

But it’s the freshmen who could be the key to North Carolina’s success. Forward Nassir Little exploded into a top-five prospect during his senior season of high school as he’ll be expected to be a major contributor this season. Scoring guard Coby White will likely be asked to handle much of the point responsibilities that fell on Berry, as he’ll be playing a new role.

On the plus side, many project Little as a lottery pick after one season, while the scoring-minded White looked very good playing for the gold-medal winning USA Basketball U18 team this summer. So expectations will be high for both of them. The duo is also a big reason why expectations are once again high on North Carolina.

5. Eight ACC teams are in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. In other words, the league is loaded again.

It’s easy to get lost discussing the recent greatness of programs like Duke, North Carolina and Virginia. So let’s not forget about the rest of the ACC — which is once again loaded this season. Virginia Tech returns most of last season’s NCAA tournament team, as they have a promising core and an offense that can really put up points.

Florida State, Syracuse and Clemson, the next pack of ACC teams, all made at least the Sweet 16 last season (the Seminoles made the Elite Eight) while each program returns a good chunk of those rosters. N.C. State and Miami both have intriguing rosters that just came off of NCAA tournament appearances. Both of those teams will rely heavily on rosters to offset the loss of some key players.

And it’s also tough to count out programs like Louisville, Boston College and Notre Dame this season. New coach Chris Mack inherits a talented, but inconsistent, group with the Cardinals. Boston College might have received preseason top 25 consideration if Jerome Robinson didn’t leave and go in the first round. The Eagles do have an All-American candidate in Ky Bowman with four starters back. And Notre Dame has T.J. Gibbs and Rex Pflueger returning, but they’ll rely heavily on freshmen.

All together, it’s feasible that this league gets double-digit NCAA tournament bids this season, particularly if some power leagues struggle to generate a normal number of bids.

PRESEASON ACC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: R.J. BARRETT, Duke

Many already view the 6-foot-7 Canadian as the No. 1 NBA Draft prospect for 2019, but before he shakes Adam Silver’s hand, Barrett will see if he can be the latest freshman to dominate college basketball. Already great at the high school level in both FIBA and playing a national schedule with Montverde Academy, Barrett has been battle-tested by older players for much of his career. An electric athlete who has a chance to be a menace on both sides of the ball, Barrett could be an unstoppable scorer for the Blue Devils this season. He was the NBC Sports Preseason National Player of the Year.

THE REST OF THE ACC FIRST TEAM

  • LUKE MAYE, North Carolina: The versatile junior big man became only the sixth Tar Heel in the last 40 years to average a double-double for a season (16.9 ppg, 10.1 rpg) as he also shot 43 percent from three-point range.
  • TYUS BATTLE, Syracuse: Stuck in a bad offense last season, the junior guard still managed to average 19.2 points per game — helping carry the Orange to a surprising postseason run.
  • ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke: Expectations for the freshman forward have been enhanced after some flashes of brilliance during Duke’s summer exhibition tour to Canada.
  • DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia: The sophomore could emerge as one of the premier two-way wings in the country after earning ACC Sixth Man of the Year last season.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • KYLE GUY, Virginia
  • NASSIR LITTLE, North Carolina
  • KY BOWMAN, Boston College
  • CAM REDDISH, Duke
  • T.J. GIBBS, Notre Dame
Oshae Brissett (Elsa/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR

Syracuse sophomore forward Oshae Brissett didn’t receive a lot of attention as a freshman putting up big numbers at a known school. The bouncy 6-foot-8 Brissett averaged 14.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game as he played in a notable 38.1 minutes per game. Despite putting up one of the best freshman seasons in Orange history, Tyus Battle received most of the attention as the go-to scorer from last season’s team. If Brissett improves his 35 percent shooting, while showing more consistent three-point range (33 percent), then he could have a monster second season and receive much more attention.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE

Danny Manning has recruited at a high level at Wake Forest (including a very good freshman class this season). Unfortunately that hasn’t always translated into success for the Demon Deacons. Although Wake Forest made the NCAA tournament with a breakout star in John Collins just two seasons ago, the program reverted back to a 4-14 finish in the ACC last season. Manning only has one postseason appearance in four seasons with the program and Wake Forest hasn’t finished about 10th in the ACC during his tenure. Regardless of how well he is recruiting, Manning needs to start winning some games.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

The loaded ACC has multiple national title contenders to go along with a deep group of eight teams who were selected into the final Field of 68.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

Watching Zion Williamson play at the college level is something I’ve been waiting for since his sophomore year of high school. America’s most popular prep basketball star since LeBron James, Williamson has rare size and athletic grace. If Zion puts up some monster numbers, while making huge highlight-reel plays, for the Blue Devils this season, then it’s a very good thing for college basketball.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • Nov. 6, Duke vs. Kentucky (Champions Classic, Indianapolis)
  • Nov. 28, Purdue at Florida State (ACC/Big Ten Challenge)
  • Nov. 28, North Carolina at Michigan (ACC/Big Ten Challenge)
  • Dec. 8, Georgetown at Syracuse
  • Dec. 15, Gonzaga at North Carolina
Luke Maye (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. DUKE: It’s always tough for teams reliant on freshmen to make the Final Four. Duke is hoping this potentially special group is an exception. Figuring out roles and lineups is going to be one of the fascinating things about this Duke roster.

The Blue Devils have the luxury of throwing a lot of unique looks out there since Barrett, Reddish and Williamson can play so many different positions on the wing. Small-ball lineups are available. Duke can throw a lot of size out there with someone like Bolden at center and maybe DeLaurier at the four. And O’Connell gives them another perimeter weapon who showed he can make some big plays last season. Scoring shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Getting consistent stops is likely going to dictate whether this team lives up to its ultimate potential.

2. VIRGINIA: Expected to once again be one of the best teams in the country, the Cavaliers feature a lot of returning talent. The backcourt of Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy are back. De’Andre Hunter goes from the bench to a starting, more featured role. Frontcourt depth shouldn’t be a concern as Jack Salt, Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff are among a versatile group.

Improving offense is going to be what everyone is watching for. Since Virginia got run out of the gym by UMBC last season, putting up points — when necessary — has been a big subject with this team. With an NBA talent and two upperclass guards who can really shoot, Virginia is hoping to have more consistent offensive firepower this year. Remember, Hunter also missed the NCAA tournament with a broken wrist. While the pack-line defense and getting stops is still the backbone of Virginia basketball, this offense should be better equipped to fight back if an opposing team gets hot. And if Virginia can consistently put up points, then it makes them more intriguing for a potential Final Four run.

3. NORTH CAROLINA: While the Tar Heels have plenty of returning veterans and five-star freshmen to plug in holes at starting positions this season, the North Carolina bench is going to be a fascinating subplot. Reliable players fill most of the spots in the starting five, but the Tar Heels will ultimately need a few more guys to step up and help Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams.

Aside from freshmen like Nassir Little and Coby White, junior guards Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson could be key guys off the bench, while sophomore big man Brandon Huffman is another development piece to keep track of. Freshman Rechon Black could also be looked at to play a Pinson-like role on the perimeter as his versatility and 6-foot-7 size are standout attributes. The freshmen duo of Little and White will ultimately be the big key to North Carolina’s ceiling. But developing a deep bench, or some surprising late-risers, wouldn’t hurt either.

4. VIRGINIA TECH: Back-to-back seasons of making the NCAA tournament is a good start for Buzz Williams turning Virginia Tech into more of a basketball school. Now the goal is to win a game or two in March. The Hokies return everybody except Justin Bibbs from a postseason team as expectations will be high.

Bibbs was an experienced double-figure scorer, but the Hokies can now slide Chris Clarke into the starting lineup and led him battle on both ends with Kerry Blackshear up front. Point guard Justin Robinson, one of the nation’s most underrated lead guards, also has talented perimeter options like Ahmed Hill and Nickeil Alexander-Walker returning. While the Hokies led the ACC in field goal percentage and threes last season, they often struggled for long stretches on the glass and the defensive end. If this veteran team puts more of a focus on being great on both ends, then the second weekend and beyond in the tournament isn’t a stretch.

Terance Mann (Harry How/Getty Images)

5. FLORIDA STATE: Putting a reigning Elite Eight team fifth shows how loaded the ACC is, because Florida State could be really good once again. Most of last season’s group is back. Seven returning players averaged double-figure minutes. Depth is not going to be an issue.

Senior wing Terance Mann and fifth-year senior forward Phil Cofer are both returning double-figure scorers while lead guard Trent Forrest and wing M.J. Walker also return. The center rotation of Christ Koumadje and Mfiondu Kabengele provide a nice platoon in the middle. Shooter P.J. Savoy should also have more bench help from newcomers that include Albany transfer guard David Nichols and redshirt freshmen Raiquan Gray and Anthony Polite. Florida State is hoping that someone like Walker can make a leap and become a consistent third scoring option.

6. SYRACUSE: After shocking the sport by returning to the Sweet 16, the Orange have the makings of a very good team this season. All of the important pieces are back from last season, most notably junior guard and All-American candidate Tyus Battle. With Battle coming back, the Orange have a returning double-figure scorer at point in Frank Howard along with a long and athletic frontcourt that can really defend. Senior center Paschal Chukwu and sophomores Oshae Brissett and Marek Dolezaj all logged heavy minutes last year, with Brissett becoming a solid secondary off-ball scorer.

Landing reinforcements is what makes this Syracuse team so interesting. Last season’s group had to log heavy minutes, leading to low-scoring slogs throughout the NCAA tournament. Adding some talented freshmen and transfers should help alleviate some of the minutes burden on this program. Freshman guard Jalen Carey is a four-star prospect who should earn some minutes. East Carolina transfer Elijah Hughes is another 6-foot-6 shooter who can help. Guard Howard Washington should recover from injury. And you can’t forget freshman guard Buddy Boeheim, Jim’s son, who adds another shooter to the rotation as well. If Syracuse finds a good minutes balance for this roster then an improved offense could make them scary.

7. CLEMSON: Many of the Sweet 16 pieces return this season as the starting lineup features four returning seniors. Clemson’s backcourt of Shelton Mitchell and Marcquise Reed are one of the best duos in the nation as they’ll log heavy minutes. Forward David Skara and former top-50 recruit Elijah Thomas are also back as main cogs for the Tigers. Sophomore Aaric Simms should step in and help Clemson maintain the rugged defense that helped make them elite a season ago.

Question marks with the bench will be the key to Clemson’s success. Center Javan White was a near double-double a game at Oral Roberts, but the perimeter group could be thin. Freshman guard John Newman III could figure immediately into the Clemson rotation if head coach Brad Brownell wants to go small (as he’s done in the past). Expect a lot of opportunities for bench guys to help find a spark plug for the second unit.

8. N.C. STATE: Unknown, and perhaps underrated, the Wolfpack have eight new players on the roster as they try to acclimate transfers and freshmen into the rotation. But after a surprise NCAA tournament appearance last season, there’s reason to be decidedly optimistic that N.C. State is a potential darkhorse.

Loaded at guard, head coach Kevin Keatts will utilize a lot of small-ball lineups with 6-foot-5 veteran Torin Dorn often playing the four. Starting guards Markell Johnson and Braxton Beverley are also back after promising seasons. Newcomers will ultimately dictate the season. Guards C.J. Bryce (UNC Wilmington), Devon Daniels (Utah), Eric Lockett (FIU), Blake Harris (Missouri) and forward Wyatt Walker (Samford) are all expected to contribute. If the Wolfpack can mesh the old starters with the talented newcomers, then this could be a dangerous team.

9. MIAMI: Replacing Lonnie Walker, Bruce Brown and Ja’Quan Newton is tough enough. Miami has to replace that trio without the benefit of freshmen. The FBI scandal hurt Miami’s recruiting for this season, as they had to rely on transfers to fill holes.

There is still a lot to like about this team. Frontcourt experience returns in the form of junior big man Dewan Huell and senior forward Anthony Lawrence. Sophomore point guard Chris Lykes is also a dynamic playmaker and junior Dejan Vasiljevic can knock down shots. Grad transfer guard Zach Johnson (Florida Gulf Coast)is a proven double-figure scorer, but how do they acclimate to the ACC? And will the loss of transfer Miles Wilson (Mount St. Mary’s) hurt their backcourt depth? The key is getting multiple players to step up to become go-to guys. Walker and Brown took so much pressure off of the Hurricanes last season. Who steps up on this team to take and make tough shots down the stretch? That could ultimately decide how good Miami is this season.

Chris Mack (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

10. LOUISVILLE: The excitement is certainly returning for Louisville as new head coach Chris Mack is drawing a lot of positive attention before even stepping on the sidelines. Recruiting wins aside, this season, Louisville has some holdover talent that should make them an intriguing team.

It all depends on who makes the jump. Junior V.J. King hasn’t lived up to his McDonald’s All-American billing yet as he has a chance to be a go-to guy this season. Point guard Darius Perry and junior shooter Ryan McMahon also have to address holes in their games on the perimeter. The interior of UConn transfer Steven Enoch and sophomore Malik Williams is unproven as well as both have only shown flashes of strong play. The talent is here, on paper, for the Cardinals to be a top-25 team. It all depends on how a group that has been through a lot the past few seasons handles playing for another new coach.

11. BOSTON COLLEGE: Had Jerome Robinson returned, Boston College could have been a sleeper top-25 team. Instead, Robinson went No. 13 to the Clippers, as the Eagles find themselves trying to replace an elite player. Thankfully, the rest of a team that went a surprising 7-11 in the ACC is back. Buy stock in junior guard Ky Bowman, a 6-foot-1 playmaker who should run the offense and be the team’s No. 1 scoring option. If Bowman can handle both responsibilities adequately, then he could reach All-American status. Guard Jordan Chatman is another double-figure scorer who returns as he’s another weapon from distance.

Frontcourt options remain intriguing for Boston College as starters Steffon Mitchell and Nik Popovic are back. Mitchell has shown himself to be a plus defender and rebounder while Popovic and Johncarlos Reyes could form an effective platoon in the middle. Replacing Robinson is going to be tough, but Jim Christian’s team showed a lot of ability and tenaciousness when many expected them to be a basement dweller last season. Don’t sleep on this group to beat some elite teams.

12. NOTRE DAME: It will be interesting to watch Mike Brey have to work with such a young team. Typically a veteran outfit, the Fighting Irish will have to count on a lot of inexperienced players and freshmen in 2018-19. Guard T.J. Gibbs is a potential All-ACC player after a brilliant sophomore season. Senior guard Rex Pflueger is a tough two-way guard who also returns with Gibbs.

But Notre Dame is desperately seeking a stable frontcourt while also finding some kind of lead guard of the future. The Fighting Irish should already be used to playing without former All-American Bonzie Colson since he missed much of his senior season. The loss of point guard Matt Farrell will be a tough one. Gibbs and Pflueger need help. The frontcourt returns junior John Mooney and former UConn transfer Juwan Durham, but question marks pepper this roster outside of the veteran perimeter duo. Finding an early identity will be key.

13. WAKE FOREST: A potential make-or-break season for head coach Danny Manning won’t be easy. After a 4-14 mark last season in the ACC, Wake Forest returns only three scholarship players from last season. Junior guard Brandon Childress and sophomore wing Chaundee Brown are the two most notable returnees.

The Demon Deacons have a good freshman class and some graduate transfers that they’re riding on to help produce. Freshman forward Jaylen Hoard received some five-star buzz while forward Isaiah Mucius was another top-100 prospect. Guard Jamie Lewis is another freshman who should crack the rotation as a backup lead guard. Finding big men could prove to be difficult as sophomore Olivier Sarr was inconsistent last season. Buffalo graduate transfer Ikenna Smart is also foul-prone. Wake Forest will need to offset the loss of big scorers like Bryant Crawford, Keyshawn Woods and Doral Moore, and they don’t have a lot of proven players ready to step up.

14. GEORGIA TECH: Expectations should be minimal as head coach Josh Pastner has a young team with not much returning firepower. Last season’s 13-19 team lost four of its top five scorers. Josh Okogie was a first-round pick and the Yellow Jackets still struggled. This season is about trying to rebuild and finding pieces for the future.

Lead guard Jose Alvarado showed All-ACC potential during a noteworthy freshman season that was cut short by an elbow injury. Senior guard Brandon Alston and senior big man Abdoulaye Gueye also have starting experience as the team’s veterans. Finding help for Alvarado will be key. Tennessee transfer Shembari Phillips should help on the wing. Sophomore guard Curtis Haywood II has intriguing upside as he returns from a shin injury. Freshman Michael Devoe was intriguing at times during his prep career. But Georgia Tech needs to find somebody to give Alvarado help off of the ball. The program’s season (and future) ultimately depends on getting Alvarado help.

15. PITT: Winless in ACC play last season, the Panthers have some positive momentum in Jeff Capel’s first season. Capel did himself some favors by feverishly recruiting a backcourt stable of talented pieces during the spring. While the Panthers return starters like Jared Wilson-Frame and Shamiel Stevenson on the wing, the backcourt has some interesting players who could make Pitt a tough out.

St. John’s transfer Malik Ellison and New Mexico State transfer Sidy N’Dir provide experience. Capel convinced two four-star guards, Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney, to reclassify a year up to play this season while also adding freshman guard Xavier Johnson when he decommitted from Nebraska. Pitt still has major holes in the middle. They’re asking a lot out of late additions who are younger than most freshman. They’re also in a much better position than last season’s winless team.