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No. 6 Nevada: Will the Wolf Pack be able to prove how good they are this 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.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 6 Nevada.


No one was a bigger winner at the NBA Draft early entry deadline than Nevada.

The Wolf Pack not only brought back both Caleb and Cody Martin, both of whom looked like they were as good as gone, but Jordan Caroline returned to school for his final year of eligibility while Jordan Brown, a 6-foot-11 McDonald’s All-American, announced that he will be playing his college ball for Eric Musselman.

The odds of all of those things happening were so low that the Wolf Pack had already promised their scholarships to other players. Ehab Amin, a transfer from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, never even made it to campus, while Josh Hall, who hit the shot that sent the Wolf Pack to the Sweet 16 last season, was forced out, transferring to Missouri State.

Tough break.

But that is decidedly good news for Nevada fans, as they will have a chance to watch and root for the best the Mountain West has had to offer since Jimmer and Kawhi were running roughshod over the league seven seasons ago.

The real question for this group is not whether or not they are good enough to deserve a top ten ranking.

They are.

They have nine players on their roster that have spent at least three seasons playing college basketball, and the only one of those nine that did not averaged more than 13.2 points the last year they played is Lindsey Drew; he averaged “only” 8.3 points, 4.7 assists and 4.4 boards as Nevada’s starting point guard last season before rupturing his achilles.

That also doesn’t include Brown, a top 15 prospect nationally.

The question is less about whether or not there is enough talent on the roster and more if there are enough minutes available to keep all this talent happy with their role.

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NEVADA WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

There is just such a ridiculous amount of talent on this roster.

We need to start with the Martin twins. Caleb is the star. Last season he averaged 18.9 points, 5.4 boards and 2.6 assists while shooting 40.3 percent from three in a year where he spent much of the second half of the season battling a foot injury that was initially thought to require surgery. He is one of the nation’s best shot-makers, even if the shots that he makes tend to be a higher degree of difficulty that would be ideal. His twin brother, Cody, is the more versatile of the two. He averaged 14 points last year, but he also posted 6.0 boards, 4.7 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.5 blocks per night. With Lindsey Drew — the youngest son of former Atlanta Hawks head coach Larry Drew — still working his way back from a ruptured achilles, Cody will likely take on the starting point guard role.

It sounds weird to say this, but Jordan Caroline took a little bit of a backseat to the Martin twins last season even though he himself managed to up his scoring numbers to 17.7 points per game. He’s a threat to go for 25 every time he steps on the floor; as a sophomore, he once put up 45 points and 13 boards in a win at Mexico.

All three of Nevada’s big names are transfers, which should tell you how this roster is made up. They’re far from alone, too: Trey Porter is a grad transfer from Old Dominion that averaged 13.2 points and 6.2 boards last season. Corey Henson, another grad transfer, averaged 14.6 points at Wagner last season. Nisre Zouzoua sat out last season at Nevada after averaging 20.2 points at Bryant in 2016-17. Jazz Johnson (15.8 ppg at Portland) and Tre’Shawn Thurman (13.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg at Omaha) sat with him.

Nevada was one of the nation’s most dangerous teams offensively last season. They had three guys that could put 25 on you on any night, and that certainly isn’t going to change. How many teams in the country can bring four — potentially five, depending on if Drew can get back into the starting lineup — players off the bench that have averaged at least 13.8 points at the Division I level?

(The answer is not a single one.)

The other part of it is that these guys, they’re all old.

Nevada is going to start four guys that are redshirt seniors playing their fifth season at the college level. They’ll bring two more redshirt seniors off of their bench, as well as a trio of players that are simply on their fourth season in college; one true senior and a pair of redshirt juniors.

And I still haven’t mentioned the starting center for this group, Jordan Brown.

He is an athletic, 6-foot-11 high-flyer that will provide a dynamic to this team that no one else can provide — vertical-spacing, rim protection, work on the offensive glass.

RELATED: Expert Picks | CBT Podcast | Best non-conference games
Caleb Martin (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

BUT NEVADA IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

There might actually be too much talent on this roster.

I know how silly that sounds, but there are legitimately 10 guys on this team that deserve to play major minutes and will expect to get shots during those minutes.

But where are those minutes going to come from?

Cody Martin averaged 35.6 minutes last season. His brother averaged 33.3, but that number was higher before he was injured. Caroline played 34.8 minutes last season. Those are the three-best players on the roster, and I would be shocked to see them each average under 30 minutes a night this year.

There are 200 minutes available to be played during a college basketball game, and those three account for roughly 90 of them. Nevada’s other two starters averaged roughly 28 minutes last season. Let’s call that 25 this year, meaning that Nevada’s starters will be responsible for 140 of the available 200 minutes. The five guys on the bench would be left with about 12 minutes each.

And that’s before we even broach the subject of who would be getting shots and when.

This is not a unique phenomenon in college hoops. Every coach has to deal with it from time to time, and I’m not sure there is anyone in the country that is better at getting his players to buy into a role than John Calipari at Kentucky. The year he won the national title, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were the fourth and fifth options offensively. In 2015, the year they went 38-1 and made the Final Four, everyone played roughly 20 minutes a night. Karl-Anthony Towns averaged just 10.3 points.

The point isn’t to compare this Nevada team to that Kentucky team.

My point is that Musselman is going to have his work cut out for him getting the players on his roster, many of whom were brought into the program with the expectation of playing the minutes the Martin twins are going to be playing, to buy into their role and the team.

(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

The Wolf Pack, last season, were not a very good defensive team. They finished the year ranked outside the top 100 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, which was evidenced by the struggles they had stopping two anemic offenses in Texas and Cincinnati in the first two rounds of the tournament.

There were a couple of reasons for those defensive struggles:

  1. Nevada did not force a lot of turnovers.
  2. The Wolf Pack finished outside the top 200 in defensive rebounding percentage.
  3. Opponents shot better than 50 percent from two-point range.

In theory, this year’s team should be better on the glass and defending in the paint. Whereas there really wasn’t much size on the roster last year — for the most part, Musselman rolled out small-ball lineups with four or five guys all right around 6-foot-7 — this season Nevada will likely begin the year starting 6-foot-10 Trey Porter and 6-foot-11 Jordan Brown.

But that’s not guarantee. It ignores the benefits that come with putting a team on the floor where everyone is switchable defensively, not to mention limitations offensively that will come with having two big men playing together.

Either way, I think it will be Nevada’s ability on that end that will determine whether we are talking about a team with real national title potential or a highly-ranked team from the Mountain West that will sputter out early in March.

2018-19 OUTLOOK

The Wolf Pack are really, really good.

They are the class of their conference, and I would be shocked if they fell out of the top 25 at any point this season.

Part of that is because of how talented the are, but there is also a bit of an issue with their schedule. It’s not bad, per se, but there is a very real chance that the best team they play before the start of the NCAA tournament will be this Sunday’s exhibition with Washington, a contender for the Pac-12 title.

Nevada has road trips to Loyola-Chicago, USC and Utah. They play Arizona State on a neutral, and they host BYU and South Dakota State.

We’ve seen worse, that’s for sure, but with the Mountain West failing to provide them with a fellow top 25 team, I think we’re going to head into Selection Sunday talking about how we have yet to see Nevada prove they deserve the seed that they get.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 7 Tennessee
No. 8 Virginia
No. 9 North Carolina
No. 10 Auburn
No. 11 Kansas State
No. 12 Virginia Tech
No. 13 Michigan State
No. 14 Florida State
No. 15 TCU
No. 16 UCLA
No. 17 West Virginia
No. 18 Oregon
No. 19 Syracuse
No. 20 LSU
No. 21 Mississippi State
No. 22 Clemson
No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

Nine mid-majors that can be the next Loyola-Chicago

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In each of the last five NCAA tournaments, there’s been at least one double-digit seeded mid-major that’s managed to advance.

The 2013 NCAA tournament boasted two such teams, 14-seed Harvard and a 15-seed in FGCU, that became national darlings over the course of the opening weekend.

Since then there have been repeat winners (Harvard won as a 12-seed in 2015, and Middle Tennessee advanced in both 2016 and 2017), and Loyola-Chicago reached the 2018 Final Four as an 11-seed.

What traits do these teams tend to have in common?

In many cases experience is key, be it from winning an NCAA tournament game the season prior or bringing back many experienced pieces (or both).

And for some teams, the presence of a star player has been the key.

Below is a look at ten teams that could pull off at least one upset in next spring’s NCAA tournament.

NOTE: For this post the following conferences (and teams) are not under consideration: ACC, American, Atlantic 10, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Mountain West, Pac-12 and SEC, as well as BYU and Gonzaga.

Dan D’Antoni of Marshall (Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

BEEN THERE, DONE THAT

Loyola-Chicago

As noted above the Ramblers reached the program’s first Final Four since 1963 last season, knocking off Miami, Tennessee, Nevada and Kansas State on the way to San Antonio. Porter Moser will have to account for the loss of two double-digit scorers (Donte Ingram and Aundre Jackson) and the Missouri Valley Defensive Player of the Year (Ben Richardson) from that team, but reigning Valley Player of the Year Clayton Custer is back as are fellow starters Marques Townes and Cameron Krutwig.

Sophomore Lucas Williamson and junior Bruno Skokna will need to take a step forward after serving as supplementary options last season, but the Ramblers’ ability to defend and share the ball on the other end of the floor should serve them well. Will it be enough to cause some mayhem in the NCAA tournament for a second straight year? That’s the question, especially with their top challengers in the Valley having improved.

Buffalo

Nate Oats’ Bulls dominated Arizona in the first round of the 2018 NCAA tournament, shooting nearly 55 percent from the field and 50 percent from three in the 89-68 beating in Boise. Three starters from that team, guards CJ Massinburg, Jeremy Harris and Davonta Jordan, return as do valuable reserves Nick Perkins and Dontay Carruthers. Buffalo will have to account for the loss of Wes Clark, who was third on the team in scoring and first in assists, and forward Ikenna Smart, but there’s more than enough talent to get the job done. In addition to the returnees, Buffalo adds freshmen Ronaldo Segu and Jeenathan Williams to the mix. Not only does Buffalo have the tools needed to win an NCAA tournament game for the second consecutive season, but it could go beyond that in 2019.

Marshall

Marshall’s style of play made the Thundering Herd an entertaining team to watch last season, and with the tandem of Jon Elmore and C.J. Burks back on campus for one last hurrah expect more of the same in 2018-19. Elmore and Burks combined to score an average of 42.8 points per game, with the former also responsible for 6.8 assists and 5.8 rebounds per contest. Dan D’Antoni did lose his best front court player from the team that knocked off Wichita State in Adjin Penava, who averaged 15.6 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.9 blocks per game.

Penava’s departure that means players such as sophomore Jansson Williams and Darius George and juniors Mike Beyers Ante Sustic will need to step forward. That being said the backcourt rotation, which in addition to Elmore and Burks includes the likes of Rondale Watson and Jarrod West (both averaged 7.8 ppg last season), is talented enough to cause some chaos in the NCAA tournament yet again. That being said Marshall won’t lack for challengers within Conference USA, one being Western Kentucky.

Mike Daum (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

HIGH-LEVEL STAR

South Dakota State

Three of South Dakota State’s top four scorers from last season’s NCAA tournament team are back, with the leader of that bunch being one of the nation’s best scorers in senior forward Mike Daum (23.9 ppg, 10.3 rpg). “The Dauminator,” who’s won the last two Summit League Player of the Year awards, is on pace to become the ninth 3,000-point scorer in Division I history, and his ability to score from anywhere on the court (46.2 percent FG, 42.5 percent 3PT, 85.1 percent FT) makes the 6-foot-9 forward an extremely difficult matchup for opponents.

Sophomore David Jenkins Jr., the Summit League’s top freshman last season, and senior guards Tevin King, Skyler Flatten and Brandon Key return as well. T.J. Otzelberger’s roster has both talent and experience, and with a player like Daum this could be the season in which the Jackrabbits break through and pick up the program’s first Division I NCAA tournament victory.

Western Kentucky

When a star has led a mid-major to an NCAA tournament upset, it’s usually be an upperclassman who’s done the honors with Georgia State sophomore R.J. Hunter (2015) being a notable exception. The Hilltoppers land here because of the presence of a freshman many scouting services pegged as a Top-10 recruit in 6-foot-11 center Charles Bassey. Bassey has the size, athleticism and skill needed to make an immediate impact at WKU, and he’ll need to with forwards Dwight Coleby and Justin Johnson having moved on.

That being said, Rick Stansbury has two really good guards in senior Lamonte Bearden and sophomore Taveion Hollingsworth, with the latter having scored 30 in the Hilltoppers’ Postseason NIT win at Oklahoma State. Add in the likes of sophomore guard Josh Anderson, transfers Desean Murray (Auburn) and Jared Savage (Austin Peay) and Top 100 prospect Dalano Banton, and Western Kentucky has enough in the cupboard to reach the NCAA tournament after missing out last season. And they have the potential to do some damage if they get into the field.

Seth Towns (Corey Perrine/Getty Images)

RETURNING TALENT

Harvard

More than 99 percent of the scoring from last season’s Ivy League regular season co-champion team is back, and that includes three all-league selections in juniors Seth Towns, Chris Lewis and Justin Bassey. Towns and Lewis combined to average 28.8 points and 11.2 rebounds per game last season, with Bassey being part of a perimeter rotation that includes fellow juniors Bryce Aiken and Christian Juzang. Tommy Amaker has a roster that isn’t short on depth, talent or experience, which is why they enter the 2018-19 season as the clear favorite to win the Ivy League. And if the Crimson can successfully navigate the Ancient Eight’s four-team postseason tournament, something they were unable to do last season, look out.

Southern Illinois

All five starters return from a team that won 20 games and finished second in the Missouri Valley last season, led by seniors Armon Fletcher (14.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg), Sean Lloyd Jr. (12.1 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and Kaivon Pippen (12.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg). The experience stands to serve Southern Illinois well in what projects to be a tighter Valley race than a season ago, which Loyola won by four games.

Two things to keep an eye on regarding the Salukis: what senior center Thik Bol can give them off the bench after missing all of last season due to a knee injury, and how they perform in close games. Ten of SIU’s 18 regular season conference games were decided by six points or less, with the Salukis winning eight. Will that good fortune carry over? Or better yet, can Barry Hinson’s team do enough to cut down on the number of close games it has to play? Either way, this sets up to be a good season for Southern Illinois.

Cal State Fullerton

Dedrique Taylor’s Titans won 20 games and the Big West tournament last season, earning the program’s first NCAA tournament bid since 2008. And with four starters back from that team, Cal State Fullerton may be in line for a return trip. The perimeter tandem of seniors Kyle Allman and Khalil Ahmad is outstanding, with the former being a first team All-Big West selection as a junior after averaging 19.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. As for Ahmad, he earned second team all-conference honors and averaged 15.1 points and 3.8 rebounds per game.

Add in junior forward Jackson Rowe (12.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg), and all three double-digit scorers from last season’s NCAA tournament team are back. The NCAA tournament experience for the Titans was a humbling one, as Purdue limited them to 48 points, but that should serve as motivation for this talented squad. Cal State Fullerton has the talent to become the first Big West team to win a Round of 64 NCAA tournament game since Hawaii did so in 2016.

Rider

All five starters are back for Rider, which won 22 games and the MAAC regular season title in 2017-18. But like Harvard, memories of how that season ended (a loss in the MAAC tournament quarters) could serve as fuel for the Broncs in 2018-19. Redshirt sophomore guard/forward Dimencio Vaughn, a first team all-MAAC performer, leads the way after averaging 16.1 points and 6.7 rebounds per game with Jordan Allen, Frederick Scott, Stevie Jordan and Tyere Marshall all back as well.

Add in grad student Anthony Durham, and Kevin Baggett has his top six scorers from a season ago to work with as Rider looks for its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1994. Navigating the MAAC tournament has proven difficult for the Broncs since joining the league in 1997, but this could be the group that breaks the run of bad luck. And given the production and experience on this roster, Rider could be a team first round opponents hope to avoid come Selection Sunday.

No. 7 Tennessee: With everyone back, are the Vols a national title favorite?

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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.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 7 Tennessee.


The Vols were one of the best stories in all of college basketball last season.

They were picked 13th out of 14 teams in the SEC in the preseason. They didn’t have a single player on their roster that was ranked in the top 100 of their recruiting class, according to 247 Sports composite rankings. They were led by a coach in Rick Barnes that not enough people respected and that some believed had taken Tennessee in an effort to land one, last payday before hanging up the clipboard.

And all they did was go out and win a share of the SEC regular season title in a year where the SEC sent eight teams to the NCAA tournament.

Not bad.

Barnes, as you might imagine, was named the SEC Coach of the Year as a result.

Perhaps the best news of all is that the Vols will return essentially everyone from that team. All five starters are back, including SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams. Their sixth-man, who played starters’ minutes and was the third-leading scorer on the team, is back as well. Their bench, which was young and unproved last season, has another year of experience under their belt and adds four-star freshman D.J. Burns, who, while talented, is year another sub-100 prospect.

When it comes down to it, the only real difference between this Tennessee team and last year’s Tennessee team is that this team is going to have to face the full weight of expectation.

The Vols are no longer a secret.

They are the reigning SEC champs, a preseason top ten team and one of, if not the biggest game on the schedule for everyone they are going to face this season.

How the Vols handle that burden will determine just how much success they have this season.

MOREPreseason Top 25 | NBC Sports All-Americans | Preview Schedule

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TENNESSEE WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

There were really good last year, and they are essentially the same team this year.

It really is going to be that simple with the Vols.

They bring back the SEC Player of the Year in Grant Williams. They bring back the three guards that they featured when they played their small lineup. They bring back Admiral Schofield, who is the physical, no-nonsense wing that can guard-up, rebound the ball and shoot nearly-40 percent from three. Starting center Kyle Alexander is now a senior, and he’ll be pushed for minutes as Rick Barnes added frontcourt depth with the addition of four-star recruit D.J. Burns and the return of Zach Kent. Throw in the fact that Yves Pons, one of the very-best athletes in the SEC regardless of sport, might actually have a better feel of how to be a basketball player this season, and it stands to season that the Vols are going to be just as good, if not better, this year.

I’m not sure how else to put it.

And if anything, the roster additions that Barnes made should help.

Tennessee was one of the best defensive teams in the country last season. They finished sixth-nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, and they did so because they forced a lot of turnovers and were terrific at contesting shots and running teams off the three-point line. Their weakness on that end of the floor was the fact that they allowed their opponents a 31.1 offensive rebounding percentage — 281st nationally — but it would stand to reason adding more size would help here.

Right?

Either way, it’s hard to envision a scenario where Tennessee is going to be worse this season than last when thinking strictly about the X’s and O’s of it all …

RELATED: Expert Picks | CBT Podcast | Best non-conference games

BUT TENNESSEE IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

… but basketball isn’t just about the X’s and O’s.

In 2017, Northwestern made the NCAA tournament for the first time in the history of the program. They then won a game in the tournament and, if it wasn’t for a questionable goaltending call and the ensuing technical foul on Chris Collins, the Wildcats might have actually picked off eventual runners-up Gonzaga in the second round.

The following season, Northwestern returned everyone and found themselves ranked in the preseason top 20 before falling off a cliff. The Wildcats finished below .500, losing their final seven games of the season while earmarking what was supposed to be a breakout year for the program with a 6-12 Big Ten record.

“I kind of knew we weren’t ready,” star point guard Bryant McIntosh said at the time. “We weren’t really prepared to play a good team. We weren’t mentally ready. I don’t think we were in shape physically,” while Collins added that the team had lost their edge. “We didn’t have that same hunger,” he said.

Northwestern thought they had made it, they eased up instead of striving to be better and it cost them.

This is precisely what Tennessee needed to avoid this offseason. Complacency and satisfaction is the most dangerous thing that a team like these Vols can face. This is not a group that is going to out-talent anyone at this level. I’m not sure there is an NBA player on the roster. They win games because they work their tails off at all times: Defensively, on the glass, in transition, cutting on offense and, perhaps most importantly, during offseason workouts.

It is not easy to go from being the hunter to the hunted, and Tennessee is going to find that out this year.

Grant Williams (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

I wonder where the Vols can improve individually.

As a team, there is a clear answer to this: They can get better on the defensive glass. The way that their roster is composed and that they execute their defense is always going to leave them liable to giving up second-chance points — this is what happens when you play small and you gamble for steals — but they couldn’t even grab seven out of every ten potential defensive rebounds. That number can get better.

I’m curious which player on this team can take a step forward.

Because it looks like the six rotations players they are bringing back have more or less maxed themselves out.

Williams can become a better three-point shooter. That will help. Turner, Bowden and Bone all shot under 40.3% from two-point range last season. That certainly can improve. Those guards have a tendency to turn the ball over a little too much. That can get better as well.

But those are the margins.

What I’m struggling to see is where a someone can go from being a role player to an all-SEC player. I don’t think they have a breakout star, and to me, that is the difference between Tennessee being considered a top ten team and the Vols being looked at as a real contender to Kentucky in the SEC title race.

If that happens — if, say, Admiral Schofield becomes the best wing in the league — then we may have to start talking about Tennessee as a basketball school.

2018-19 OUTLOOK

Outside of the teams in the top four, Tennessee to me has the narrowest gap between their ceiling and their floor of any team in the top 15 or 20 this season.

We know they’re going to be really good because they were really good last season and this is basically the same team. We also know there may not be an NBA player on this roster, and it is not easy to win at the highest level in college hoops without having the kind of talent that can play in the NBA.

What does all that mean?

It’s hard to fathom Tennessee falling out of the top three in the SEC.

It also seems unlikely that Tennessee will be cutting down the nets on the final weekend of the season.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 8 Virginia
No. 9 North Carolina
No. 10 Auburn
No. 11 Kansas State
No. 12 Virginia Tech
No. 13 Michigan State
No. 14 Florida State
No. 15 TCU
No. 16 UCLA
No. 17 West Virginia
No. 18 Oregon
No. 19 Syracuse
No. 20 LSU
No. 21 Mississippi State
No. 22 Clemson
No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

2018-2019 Big Ten Conference Preview: Is this Michigan State’s league 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 Ten.


Nothing about this season’s Big Ten is certain. With only two preseason NBC Sports top 25 teams, and a number of last season’s tournament teams losing significant pieces, the Big Ten will have a lot of question marks for this season.

When you also factor in the conference’s intriguing recruiting classes, and a new 20-game conference schedule, and the league could see so many different varieties of outcomes this season.

Of course, the Big Ten is still seeking its first national title since 2000 as the league came close with Michigan in last season’s title game. Will any of this season’s teams make a surprise run in March? Or will the league beat itself up without a clear title favorite heading into March?

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Michigan State lost two first-rounders but they have talent and experience to be preseason favorite.

It’s pretty much impossible for Michigan State to match the talent level of last season’s team. Forward Miles Bridges and big man Jaren Jackson Jr. were both first-round picks. This year’s Spartans don’t have many NBA draft prospects currently getting mock draft buzz. But Michigan State does return a solid core of experience.

The junior class of guards Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford and big man Nick Ward can all put up points and make plays. Seniors like Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins can fill rotation roles. And Tom Izzo recruited a very solid five-man recruiting class that is composed of all four-star prospects. That group, led by some intriguing athletes in Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown, and a potential backup lead guard in Foster Loyer, might need to step up in order for Michigan State to maximize its potential. It feels weird to say that Michigan State is the league’s favorite when they have so many glaring issues.

Who is the team’s go-to player? Can the juniors turn into all-league players? Does the freshmen class step up? This team isn’t the most talented Izzo has produced, but they have enough experience and intriguing weapons to be win another league title.

(Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

2. Michigan (also) lost plenty from its title-game team. They’re (also) still a major factor.

Coming off of a national title game loss to Villanova, the Wolverine have to replace the shooting and scoring prowess of Moritz Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson. At least Charles Matthews is back. The two-way guard has never thrived as a go-to scorer. But Matthews scored a strong ability to get buckets during a very good NCAA tournament run.

A defensive-minded Michigan team needs more help on offense from there. Point guard Zavier Simpson is known more for locking up opponents than his scoring while sophomores like Isaiah Livers and Jordan Poole didn’t play extended minutes very often last season. Big man Jon Teske is a solid junior with size, but he’s more known for being a big body in the paint who can rebound and defend. Michigan might need to rely on the talent of an enticing freshman class that includes multiple potential contributors.

Forwards Ignas Brazdeikis and Brandon Johns Jr. are both skilled offensive threats while big man Colin Castleton should provide interior depth as a backup center. Like some other Michigan teams of the past few years, this might be a team that starts more slowly and plays its best ball in March.

3. Indiana vs. Purdue is a rivalry to watch once again (between two likely tournament teams)

Now that Indiana has reeled in a top-ten recruiting class and Purdue is coming off of back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances, this is looking like the year their rivalry ramps up again. And, thankfully, the Big Ten’s new 20-game conference schedule means protected in-state matchups with home-and-home series. Because both of these teams could be fun NCAA tournament groups.

The Hoosiers have plenty of depth in Archie Miller’s second season as forward Juwan Morgan is back and freshman shooting guard Romeo Langford is the state’s most heralded recruit in years. We know Indiana will likely be able to defend. Getting consistent point guard play and consistent scoring help for Morgan and Langford could be key. But Miller’s already flipped most of the roster with long and versatile athletes. This Indiana team could be really good.

Purdue loses a lot of proven seniors. The great news is the return of high-scoring guard Carsen Edwards. The 6-foot-1 Edwards is a walking bucket getter. He can shoot from all over the floor. Edwards might lead college basketball in scoring this season. The Boilermakers’ season will ultimately hinge on how they replace the four other senior starters from last season. Sophomore big man Matt Haarms and guard Nojel Eastern should command larger roles while senior Ryan Cline has to be more than a shooting specialist. And the addition of junior grad transfer Evan Boudreaux was a huge coup on the transfer market.

This should be the first time in a few years that this rivalry felt so fun. Indiana should be right back in the thick of the Big Ten mix while Purdue remains one of the conference’s steadiest programs.

Carsen Edwards (Elsa/Getty Images)

4. Nebraska is talented enough to make the NCAA tournament after just falling short last season.

Last season Nebraska won 22 games and finished tied for fourth in the Big Ten as they still missed the NCAA tournament. The good news is that four of those main pieces all return to form an experienced upperclass core that should be really talented. Seniors James Palmer Jr., Isaac Copeland and Glynn Watson have a ton of experience between them as they are all proven players. Junior Isaiah Roby might be a sleeper breakout player as he showed flashes of bigger things last season.

It’s the rest of the Huskers that have to prove themselves. Atrocious on the defensive glass last season, Nebraska doesn’t have returning size with much game experience and the bench is also pretty unproven. Sophomore Thomas Allen has a chance to be a solid contributor. Overall, Nebraska returns over 75 percent of last season’s scoring and rebounding. But how will this team will in the other parts? That will ultimately dictate if Nebraska is a Big Ten contender, or a team on the outside of the NCAA tournament yet again.

5. The Big Ten moves to a 20-game conference schedule.

The Big Ten gets an interesting wrinkle this season with the addition of two more conference games. The first league to go to 20 conference games in a season, the move could give the Big Ten more chances at quality wins along with a better overall profile of scheduled games. It could also mean the conference becomes a brutal gauntlet where it becomes increasingly difficult to stay atop the college basketball food chain.

With each team in the league adding at least one additional conference road game, it makes for seven head-to-head matchups and six individual matchups. In-state matchups are also protected with home-and-home guarantees, so we won’t see any more seasons where Michigan and Michigan State only play once. Already a difficult league to win, the Big Ten is going to be brutal to win this season, and it’ll be fascinating to see how the 20-game conference schedule plays out before the conference tournament even begins.

Ethan Happ (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

PRESEASON BIG TEN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue

Already an All-American on some lists last season, Edwards could be a sleeper Player of the Year candidate now that he lost four senior starters around him. One of the most fun-to-watch players in the country, the 6-foot-1 Edwards is fearless with the ball in his hands. Capable of taking over a game offensively, Edwards has also improved his efficiency and his ability to get others involved. He’ll need to make teammates better this season if Purdue is to attempt to make a third consecutive Sweet 16 appearance.

THE REST OF THE BIG TEN FIRST TEAM

  • ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin: A three-year starter and All-American candidate who quietly put up 17.9 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game last year, Happ is one of the most productive and experienced returning players in the country.
  • CHARLES MATTHEWS, Michigan: Outstanding during the tournament, the junior wing is a dynamic two-way wing. Can he be turned to as more of a go-to scorer? If Matthews is more consistent on offense he could be an All-American.
  • NICK WARD, Michigan State: The Big Ten’s leader in field goal percentage last season (64.8 percent), Ward put up big numbers despite only playing 18.9 minutes per game. With increased conditioning, Ward could put up huge numbers.
  • JORDAN MURPHY, Minnesota: The national leader in double-doubles last season with 24, Murphy was the bright spot of a bad Minnesota season. If Murphy improves his 31 percent three-point shooting then he could be a lethal scorer.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • ROMEO LANGFORD, Indiana
  • JAMES PALMER JR, Nebraska
  • CASSIUS WINSTON, Michigan State
  • ANTHONY COWAN JR., Maryland
  • JUWAN MORGAN, Indiana

BREAKOUT STAR

Penn State junior forward Lamar Stevens has taken a backseat to Tony Carr since the two were teammates in high school. With Carr leaving the Nittany Lions for the pros, the 6-foot-8 Stevens could be in line for a huge season. As a sophomore, Stevens already put up solid numbers of 15.5 points and 5.9 rebounds per game while shooting 46 percent from the field. Stevens has never been the go-to guy with Carr playing alongside him.

But Stevens also showed flashes of bigger things at the end of last season. Winning Most Outstanding Player honors during Penn State’s NIT title run, Stevens had games of 30 points against Marquette and 28 points in the title game against Utah during the tournament. If he can handle the season-long pressure of being the featured player, Stevens could have a huge year.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE

It has been an up-and-down few seasons for Minnesota and head coach Richard Pitino. The Golden Gophers made a surprising NCAA tournament appearance in 2017, which was followed by last season’s dud of a 4-14 record in Big Ten play. Despite producing an underrated amount of in-state talent, Minnesota only has five NCAA tournament appearance during Pitino’s five seasons as he’s only 31-59 in Big Ten play.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

The Big Ten has a deep profile of teams who are in the Field of 68, but it’s tough to tell if any of them are major contenders. The league’s expanded schedule made for a tougher season, and more losses. But Big Ten teams that get hot in the conference tournament have also exceeded expectations in recent years. Don’t sleep on a team from the Big Ten getting hot.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

Seeing what happens during Archie Miller’s second season at Indiana. The addition of Romeo Langford adds a ton of excitement to the Hoosiers since he’s the type of talent who can take over a game while making it look easy. Miller usually gets the most out of his teams, and this year, Indiana has the talent and depth to be a team that is really fun to watch.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • Nov. 6, Michigan State vs. Kansas (Champions Classic, Indianapolis)
  • Nov. 14, Michigan at Villanova (Gavitt Games)
  • Nov. 22, Michigan State vs. UCLA (in Las Vegas)
  • Nov. 28, Purdue at Florida State (ACC/Big Ten Challenge)
  • Nov. 28, North Carolina at Michigan (ACC/Big Ten Challenge)
Tim Miles (Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. MICHIGAN STATE: With a stable of three solid core juniors, senior role players, and an athletic and talented five-man freshman class, the Spartans have all of the necessary pieces to win another Big Ten title. Point guard Cassius Winston and shooting guard Joshua Langford are much better than many of the league’s backcourts while big man Nick Ward could put up huge numbers with an increase in minutes. Depth on this team shouldn’t be too much of a concern as long as the freshmen can help. The Spartans don’t have the look of a national title contender, but they’re also dangerous enough where it would be dumb to count them out of making a run in March. It all depends on who steps up and is ready to take big shots this season after two seasons of exits in the Round of 32.

2. MICHIGAN: Michigan has transformed into a defensive team these past two seasons as they’ll need to get stops and manufacture points at times this season. While many of John Beilein’s teams have been very good with perimeter shooting, this Wolverines team might struggle. Many of the returning players were sub-35 percent and inconsistent. Others, like freshmen Ignas Brazdeikis and Brandon Johns are unproven at the college level. If Charles Matthews, Zavier Simpson, Isaiah Livers and Jordan Poole can all even shoot a little bit better than Michigan’s offense should have enough to carry their potentially dangerous defense.

3. INDIANA: Archie Miller’s second season should have a ton of intrigue as the Hoosiers have huge expectations. Juwan Morgan and Romeo Langford might be the league’s best one-two punch. Indiana also has the benefit of a top-ten recruiting class filled with length, versatility and athleticism. As long as the point guard play of Devonte Green, Al Durham and Robert Phinisee can be consistent, then the Hoosiers should be fine. Interior play could be another thing to watch as that group has to remain healthy. The biggest takeaway is that Indiana’s defense has the potential to be very good, as Miller has many different weapons at his disposal to throw at opponents. All of the pieces are in place for Indiana to make its first NCAA tournament appearance in three seasons.

4. PURDUE: Better athleticism could make for an interesting subplot for this season. Matt Haarms and Nojel Eastern both have the chance to be plus defenders, while Evan Boudreaux is at least skilled enough and quick enough to run in the open floor. Consistent shooting around Carsen Edwards will be the key for Purdue’s offense. Ryan Cline needs to make shots while Eastern has to improve his inconsistent form. Some of the freshmen like Eric Hunter, and Boudreaux at forward, should also help a bit but they have to prove themselves as being consistent. Making a third straight Sweet 16 might prove to be a bit too tough. But it wouldn’t be surprising to see Purdue have another run to the NCAA tournament.

5. NEBRASKA: The Huskers might be forced to play a lot of small-ball this season and hope that they can rebound better while defending the rim. Isaiah Roby has shown an ability to block shots while Isaac Copeland and James Palmer also have good size. Freshmen like center Brady Heiman and guard Amir Harris could also be asked to play early in the season. But as long as the team’s core four players performs then there is no reason Nebraska shouldn’t be in the NCAA tournament. Palmer is one of the nation’s more underrated scorers while Copeland is experienced and capable. Senior point guard Glynn Watson is a polished floor leader. This team has big aspirations for this season.

6. MARYLAND: Hit hard by players leaving early for the pros, most notably Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson, the Terps are facing tons of questions. But junior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. is back and the sophomore group of big man Bruno Fernando and guard Darryl Morsell is very solid. The freshmen class has a five-star forward in Jalen “Stix” Smith and guards Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala. If Maryland gets steady production from a few of its freshmen, then they should have the talent to stay with anyone in the league.

7. OHIO STATE: Chris Holtmann worked wonders during his first season with the Buckeyes, taking an undermanned roster and guiding them into the Round of 32. Losing Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate will be tough. The Buckeyes do regroup a bit thanks to some solid freshmen. Senior guard C.J. Jackson and sophomore big man Kaleb Wesson are proven double-figure guys. Grad transfer Keyshawn Woods has gotten ACC buckets. And a freshmen group with Jaedon LeDee, Luther Muhammad and Justin Ahrens provides depth and athleticism. As long as consistent rotation players step up, Ohio State will be an intriguing team.

Romeo Langford (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

8. WISCONSIN: Question marks linger for a Wisconsin team that doesn’t lose anyone from last season. Senior Ethan Happ is one of the nation’s most complete and productive players, while sophomore guard Brad Davison closed the season strong with some eye-opening scoring performances. If the rest of this team can stay healthy then the Badgers could get more pop. D’Mitrik Trice, Kobe King and Brevin Pritzl are all candidates to make a leap while transfer Trevor Anderson adds another rotation guard. If the Badgers can score, they could be competitive for the NCAA tournament.

9. IOWA: The Hawkeyes look like a solid team on paper with four returning double-figure scorers. They also featured the worst defense in the Big Ten and one of the worst in high-major college basketball last season. Big men Tyler Cook and Luka Garza can both put up numbers, but they have to improve as defenders. Jordan Bohannon and Isaiah Moss are capable scorers on the perimeter while top-50 in-state recruit Joe Wieskamp, and Fran McCaffery’s son, Connor McCaffery, should help on the perimeter.

10. MINNESOTA: After freefalling to a 4-14 mark in the Big Ten last season, head coach Richard Pitino could be on the hot seat. Senior forward Jordan Murphy is a double-double machine and a proven player and the Golden Gophers should be healthier this season. Sophomore point guard Isaiah Washington’s ability to replace Nate Mason could be the key to Minnesota’s season. A healthy Amir Coffey could also do wonders for Minnesota’s offense.

11. PENN STATE: Just as the Nittany Lions looked like they were on the verge of a big run, Tony Carr opted to turn pro. Junior forward Lamar Stevens and junior center Mike Watkins return to form one of the more capable and experienced frontcourts in the league. Replacing the backcourt of Carr and senior Shep Garner will be a different story. Senior Josh Reaves is a returning double-figure guy on the perimeter. Outside of him, the defending NIT champs don’t have many proven options.

12. NORTHWESTERN: After a disappointing campaign last season, the Wildcats need to find a new identity following the loss of four-year point guard Bryant McIntosh and shooting guard Scottie Lindsey. Frontcourt experience and length and versatility on the perimeter could be the key for Northwestern’s success. Seniors Derek Pardon and Vic Law return as the duo could be among the conference’s best frontcourt groups. Grad transfer guard Ryan Taylor was a big-time scorer at Evansville last season and Boston College transfer A.J. Turner is an intriguing 6-foot-7 wing. Point guard stability will be key, as reclassified freshmen Ryan Greer might have a lot on his shoulders.

13. ILLINOIS: Only making the tournament in three of the last 11 years, the Fighting Illini figure to be in for another long season. Very young across the board, head coach Brad Underwood has hope. Sophomore Trent Frazier and freshman Ayo Dosunmu form one of the league’s most talented backcourts, but they aren’t battle-tested. The frontcourt is also unproven with 6-foot-6 Kipper Nichols being the most consistent returner there. Developing freshmen and hoping for some unexpected gems are the keys for Illinois this season.

14. RUTGERS: Since joining the Big Ten four seasons ago, Rutgers has never won more than three league games in a season — finishing last in all four years. After losing three of their four top scorers from last season, this season will again be tough. But the sophomore backcourt of Geo Baker and Quinnipiac transfer Peter Kiss has a chance to shine while the Scarlet Knights have an intriguing amount of size and depth in the frontcourt. The talent level is up, but Rutgers is still trying to find its way.

No. 8 Virginia: How will Wahoos bounce back after loss to UMBC?

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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.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 8 Virginia.


In the 2018 NCAA Tournament, Virginia managed to accomplish the one thing that will ensure they will forever be remembered in the annals of history: The Cavaliers, as the No. 1 overall seed, not only managed to find a way to become the first No. 1 seed to ever lose to a No. 16 seed, but they did so while losing by 20 points.

They were run out of the gym in what was just their third loss of the season and their second loss since the first week of December, and we’re never going to forget about it.

History can be unkind when you’re the first to do something no one wants to do.

The question that everyone wants an answer to is simple: How does a team bounce back from that?

Virginia is already a program that has a reputation for choking in March. They’ve won three of the last five ACC regular season titles, two of the last five ACC tournament titles and they’ve entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed three times and a No. 2 seed once in that span. In those five years, they’ve only made it out of the Sweet 16 once. They lost as a No. 1 seed to No. 4 Michigan State in the Sweet 16 in 2014. They lost as a No. 2 seed to No. 7 Michigan State in 2015. In 2016, they blew a 15 point lead in the final ten minutes of the Elite 8 as a No. 1 seed taking on a No. 10 Syracuse team that barely deserved to get into the tournament in the first place.

And then there was last year.

That kind of streak is tough for any athlete to get out of their head, let alone a group of college kids that are fresh off one of the most embarrassing defeats in the history of sports.

That said, the narrative of being a ‘loser’ only lasts as long as the losing does. The Red Sox were cursed until they weren’t. Same with the Cubs. LeBron wasn’t clutch until he led Cleveland back from a 3-1 deficit against the Warriors. Peyton Manning wasn’t a winner until he won a Super Bowl. Bill Self, Jim Calhoun and Lute Olson couldn’t win the big one until they did. Hell, Villanova has won two of the last three national titles and prior to that, they were Virginia, the team that won a ton of games before getting bounced out early in March.

It is going to happen for UVA.

Will this be the year it finally does?

MOREPreseason Top 25 | NBC Sports All-Americans | Preview Schedule

MOREMid-Major Power Rankings The Hot Seat | Perry Ellis All-StarsRyan M. KellyRyan M. Kelly/

VIRGINIA WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

We know exactly what they are going to be, and we can take to the bank that they are going to excel doing it.

Tony Bennett’s team is going to play their vaunted Pack-Line defense. They are going to be one of the nation’s five-best defensive teams, if not they best. They are going to finish at or near the bottom of the 353 teams in Division I basketball in possessions per game. They are going to patiently and efficiently run their offense until they get a good look at the rim.

And, in the process, they are going to win a whole bunch of games.

The key is that they aren’t just a system this season. There is talent on this roster. De’Andre Hunter is the biggest name to know. A potential lottery pick and an NBC Sports second-team preseason All-American, Hunter is Virginia’s most versatile defender and the one guy that can really go out and create a bucket for himself. He’s an incredibly important piece to what Virginia wants to do. (More on that in a minute.)

He’s not alone, either. Kyle Guy led Virginia in scoring last season and he will pop up on some preseason All-American lists as well. He’s taken over the role in this offense that was played by Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris before him; the sharpshooter that gets run off of screens and who has plays called for him designed to get him open looks from three.

Ty Jerome is also back, and the steady-if-unexciting point guard is one of the best players in the country you aren’t really paying. With his size, defensive instincts, ability to operate in pick-and-rolls and deep, deep range on his jumper, he’s an NBA sleeper as well. Throw in pieces like Mamadi Diakite, Jack Salt and Jay Huff, and there is plenty up front as well.

The issue for this group is not going to be whether or not the players on this roster are good enough.

They are.

Kyle Guy (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
RELATED: Expert Picks | CBT Podcast | Best non-conference games

BUT VIRGINIA IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

The reason that Virginia lost to UMBC had quite a bit to do with the fact that the Cavaliers were missing De’Andre Hunter for that game; he broke his wrist prior to the start of the NCAA tournament.

Hunter is a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan. He’s athletic enough to defend down and he’s big and strong enough to defend up. He is the piece that allows Virginia to matchup with teams — like UMBC — who play four guards, and he also skilled enough offensively that he can go out and create a shot for himself, which is not exactly Virginia’s strength offensively.

Against UMBC, Virginia’s bigs were exposed guarding smaller players over and over again, and they weren’t enough of a threat offensively to punish smaller Retriever defenders at the other end. This wasn’t the sole reason that Virginia lost — UMBC played out of their minds, Virginia had an off-night and once the Cavs realized what was going on, they froze up and could never rally playing at their pace — but it was the root cause of what happened in ‘the game’.

The problem this season is that I’m afraid Hunter is going to be forced into playing the majority of his minutes at the three because, quite frankly, Virginia doesn’t have many guards that are actually good. Their perimeter depth as of today consists of a sophomore that played in 13 games last season (Marco Anthony), a redshirt freshman and a pair of true freshmen that are anything-but five-star prospects.

On the other hand, three of their top six players are big men — Salt, Diakite and Huff. Diakite is probably athletic enough that it won’t be a killer defensively if he ends up playing 25 minutes at the four, but it still would be suboptimal for the way that Virginia will need to score.

Which is why the key to Virginia reaching their ceiling …

De’Andre Hunter (Eric Espada/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

… is probably the status of Alabama transfer Braxton Key.

Key is a 6-foot-8 junior that spent the first two years of his college career playing for the Crimson Tide. As a freshman, he averaged 12.0 points and 5.7 boards, but he managed just 7.0 points and 5.3 boards in limited time last season after missing the first ten games following knee surgery.

Now, Key has his warts as a player. He’s turnover prone, he’s probably not quite as good of a perimeter shooter as he thinks he is and, like Hunter, he’s more of a combo-forward than he is a natural wing or a true four. But A) he can score, B) the fact that he’s a combo-forward is certainly not a killer given he’d spend time paired with Hunter, and C) there shouldn’t be an adjustment for him defensively. In the two seasons that Key was at Alabama, they finished in the top 20 of KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric both years.

The NCAA has been more lenient granting these waivers recently. Mustapha Heron at St. John’s was recently cleared to play this season. Key is hoping that he’ll be as lucky, and if he is, I think it changes what the ceiling for this team can end up being. He makes that much more difficult to create mismatches against.

2018-19 OUTLOOK

Virginia is going to be right there in the mix again.

I think they can win the ACC regular season title again. Duke is far from a perfect team and North Carolina will be starting a freshman at the point. Once you get out of the top three in the league, the conference takes a pretty big step down. Put another way, there is a clear-cut tier at the top of the league, and Virginia is a part of that tier.

But their issue has never been winning during the regular season.

Hell, they have won two of the last five ACC tournaments. They can win in a knockout setting.

They just haven’t done it in March yet.

And until they do, until they get to a Final Four and make a run at winning a national title, this is going to be the talking point in regards to this program. We’re never going to forget about ‘the game’, but that doesn’t mean UVA can’t give us something else to talk about, too.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 9 North Carolina
No. 10 Auburn
No. 11 Kansas State
No. 12 Virginia Tech
No. 13 Michigan State
No. 14 Florida State
No. 15 TCU
No. 16 UCLA
No. 17 West Virginia
No. 18 Oregon
No. 19 Syracuse
No. 20 LSU
No. 21 Mississippi State
No. 22 Clemson
No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

Best Bets: What national title favorites have best futures value?

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During the 2018-19 college basketball season, we will be taking deeper dives into the betting markets now that sports gambling has been legalized outside of the state of Nevada.

To kick the season off, we are going to break down National Title futures and which bets are worth your time and money. 

Here are the top ten teams in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25 ranked in order of which futures bet is the best value.

REMINDER: A bet of $100 on +200 odds would win $200. A bet of $100 on +10,000 odds would win $10,000. A bet of $1 on +20,000 would win $200.

NOTE: These odds come via the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook. 

PREVIOUS: Best longshot bets | Easiest contenders to fade

VALUE BETS

1. Villanova (+3000), No. 5 in our top 25

I may the only member of Villanova Island these days, but I’m fully bought in on the idea that the Wildcats are still national title contenders.

The narrative this team is currently facing is that they are young, which, in Villanova terms, is totally accurate. Three members of their rotation are going to be sophomores. They’ll likely play at least two, if not three freshmen significant minutes. For a program that has featured at least two players receiving social security benefits in each of the last five seasons, that is quite a bit of youth.

But Villanova also has as much veteran leadership as anyone in the country. Phil Booth is a fifth-year senior that has won two national titles and has more experience that any other player in the sport. Eric Paschall only played in one national title game, but he is also a fifth-year senior with two rings to his name. Joe Cremo is an Albany transfer, but Albany has a track record of winning and Cremo is a perfect fit for the way the Wildcats want to play.

And all that comes before we start talking about the way the Villanova program operates. It’s always been next-man-up, and there has always been someone ready to make that next step. Darrun Hilliard, Josh Hart, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo. The beauty of the way Villanova operates is that there are NBA-caliber players willing to play a role for the betterment of the team, and this season I think that Paschall is going to be the guy that is the next-man-up.

A 15.9-ppg scorer at Fordham as a freshman, Paschall is a terrific athlete, an excellent three-point shooter — he shot 46.1 percent in the final three months of the season after a 1-for-25 start — and a guy primed for a breakout year. If he ends up being an All-American as I expect he will be and Booth becomes that secondary scorer, all Jay Wright needs his new faces to do are to thrive in their roles, and there is no reason that they can’t.

At these odds, a $10 bet pays off $300. That’s more than worth the risk.

2. Auburn (+4000), No. 10

Auburn has plenty of question marks this season. How will they handle the loss of their leading scorer, Mustapha Heron? Will the team able to effectively integrate Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy without messing with their style of play and their ego-less brand of basketball? What happens when the Tigers are no longer sneaking up on anyone? They are the reigning SEC co-champions and a preseason top ten team. They will be one of the biggest games on the schedule for every team they play this season.

But the key here is that while there are a couple of question marks, Auburn brings back the two most important pieces to their space-and-pace system. Jared Harper is their junior point guard and the floor general that make their fast-paced offense work. He declared for the draft but returned to school.

More importantly, however, it appears that Anfernee McLemore is healthy after a devastating ankle injury (think Gordon Hayward) that he suffered in February. McLemore is the piece that brings everything together for the Tigers. He’s a hyper-athletic 6-foot-7 big man that led the SEC in blocked shots (2.7 per game) despite playing less than 20 minutes per night. He led the nation in block rate. And he shot 39.1 percent from three.

There are real concerns about this team, but the risk is baked into the odds. At 40:1, Auburn is getting better odds than Michigan, UCLA and Oregon and is at the same level as Wichita State and Indiana. I like those odds.

Grant Williams (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

3. Tennessee (+2500), No. 7

I’m still not totally sure how I feel about Tennessee this season. It’s impossible to deny the success that they had last year, coming out of nowhere to win a share of the SEC regular season title. And they bring everyone back from that team, including reigning SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams.

They are going to win a lot of basketball games this season. They are very likely going to end up getting a top three seed again. They are old, they have some star power, Rick Barnes has been to a Final Four before.

At 25:1 odds, I see the value, I’m just not sure I’m ready to pull the trigger yet. If I’m betting on someone from the SEC, it’s probably going to be Auburn.

WORTH A LOOK

4. Virginia (+2000), No. 8

Look, I get it.

Virginia is scary.

In the last five years, they’ve been a No. 1-seed three times and a No. 2-seed once. In each of those four NCAA tournaments, they lost to a team seeded lower than them, including blowing a 15-point lead in the last ten minutes against No. 10-seed Syracuse and becoming the first No. 1-seed to ever lose to a No. 16-seed. So I understand why you would be hesitant.

But you’re also getting 20:1 odds here. Remember back in 2016, when Villanova was the team that always choked in March? Or when Mark Few, or Bill Self, or Jim Calhoun, or Lute Olson couldn’t win a big game? Or when the Cubs were those lovable losers that were never going to win a World Series?

This may not be the year that Virginia finally sheds the label of choke artist, but when a $100 bet pays off your phone bill for the entire year, the risk is worth it.

5. Kansas (+800), No. 1

There is a clear-cut top four in college basketball this season: Kansas, Kentucky, Gonzaga and Duke. They are the four teams with the lowest odds to win the national title, they are the four teams at the top of the NBC Sports preseason top 25 and they will be the four teams that inhabit the top four of both preseason polls.

The order that they wind up in will vary from place to place. Personally, I have Kansas at No. 1. Not only do they have a potential Player of the Year in Dedric Lawson and another potential All-American in Quentin Grimes, this is a team that has a terrific combination of talented youngsters and quality veterans. I’m a little worried about point guard play and I think that shooting will be an issue, but this group has the roster build of Bill Self’s best teams: big, athletic perimeter players, a hoss at the five and a face-up four that can get 20 points on any given night.

If you want to bet on one of the top four teams this season, Kansas — who has the best odds of the four — is the one I’m looking at.

6. Gonzaga (+700), No. 3; 7. Kentucky (+600), No. 2

I don’t see all that much of a difference between the Zags and the Wildcats this year. I think Kentucky probably has a higher ceiling, although their dependence on freshmen guards and the questions about who will be their go-to guy (Tyler Herro) in crunch-time are concerns. Gonzaga might have the best frontcourt in all of college basketball, but betting on them to win a national title means that you are betting on a team that will be run by Josh Perkins, and I’m not sure I’m ready to do that.

Either way, I doubt that I’ll invest in any futures for either of these teams. But at their cost I don’t think either are worth the payoff.

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

I’M STAYING AWAY

8. Duke (+500), No. 4

Everyone has a blind spot, and I think Duke might be mine. I am lower on the Blue Devils than the rest country. I did not really consider them for the top three in my rankings because I am really concerned about the way the pieces on this roster are going to come together.

There is no questioning the talent that will be on display here. RJ Barrett looks like the favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Cam Reddish might have the highest upside of anyone in the draft class. Tre Jones has all those point guard qualities Duke has been trying desperately to find for the last three seasons. Zion Williamson is Zion Williamson.

What concerns me is that the Blue Devils’ four best players are all going to operate best with the ball in their hands. There is also going to be a lack of shooting on this roster, and I’m not fully convinced that Coach K has figured out how to make these one-and-done rosters as good as he needs them to be defensively.

If they do end up winning the title, I will not be cashing a ticket. At the lowest odds of any team in the country, I’ll let someone else make that bet.

9. Nevada (+1200), No. 6

When the odds for the 2019 national title were first posted, Nevada checked in at (+6000). I would have been all over the Wolf Pack at 60:1, but once the Martin twins both announced that they would be returning to school for their final year of eligibility, those odds fell to 12:1. They now, according to the Westgate, are the sixth-most likely team to win the national title. I have them sixth-nationally heading into the season.

If you feel strongly that this is the year Eric Musselman’s crew can win a title, make the bet. I don’t hate it. But at these odds, I won’t be there with you.

10. North Carolina (+800), No. 9

I actually think the Tar Heels have a chance to be pretty good this season. I have them ninth in the preseason top 25. They have an All-American in Luke Maye and a future top three pick in Nassir Little. They might win the ACC. They’re good.

They’re also getting the same odds as Kansas — who I have as the preseason No. 1 team in the country — and are sitting between Tennessee (+2500), Virginia (+2000), Auburn (+4000) and Kansas State (+8000) in my rankings.

They could win the title, but at 8:1 odds I’m not going to be the guy betting on it.