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

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

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

These are those 68 things:



1. ACTUAL BASKETBALL GAMES

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

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

That all changes this week!

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

That is …

2. … UNLESS THESE OTHER TWO TRIALS ACTUALLY HAPPEN

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

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

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

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

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

Who knows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll have an answer by Wednesday morning.

5. ZION WILLIAMSON

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

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

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

6. HOW THIS KENTUCKY TEAM COMES TOGETHER

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

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

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

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

7. THE INEVITABLE TYLER HERRO SHOW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best part?

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

11. THE RETURN OF DEDRIC LAWSON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Ward?

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

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

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

25. THE MAUI INVITATIONAL SHOULD BE AWESOME AGAIN

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

26. GONZAGA’S NON-CONFERENCE SCHEDULE

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

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

27. KILLIAN TILLIE’S RETURN

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

28. WASHINGTON-GONZAGA SHOULD BE AWESOME

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

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

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

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

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

34. HOW LONG WILL ERIC MUSSELMAN STAY IN RENO?

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

35. NEVADA’S REMATCH WITH LOYOLA-CHICAGO

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

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

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

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

37. CHARLES MATTHEWS

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

38. PHIL BOOTH AND ERIC PASCHALL

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

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

39. VILLANOVA PROVING DOUBTERS WRONG

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

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

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

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

41. VIRGINIA’S BOUNCE BACK

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

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

42. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT TY JEROME

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

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

43. GREG GARD PROVING HIMSELF AT WISCONSIN

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

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

44. THE JALEN HUDSON SHOW AT FLORIDA

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

45. PRESS VIRGINIA’S SURVIVAL

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

46. THE PENNY ERA

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

47. THE DANNY HURLEY ERA

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

48. THE UCONN-SYRACUSE RIVALRY IS BACK ON

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

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

49. IS BOL BOL ACTUALLY GOOD?

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

50. KANSAS STATE

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

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

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

52. USC’S KEVIN PORTER

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

53. NEBRASKA’S RUN TO THE TOURNAMENT

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

54. CHRIS BEARD’S ENCORE PERFORMANCE

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

55. SO IS MISSISSIPPI STATE FOR REAL?

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

56. WHAT ABOUT LSU?

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

57. AND TCU?

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

58. AND FLORIDA STATE?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

62. WESTERN KENTUCKY

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

63. THE LEAGUE CHAMPIONS ARE …

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

64. THE PLAYERS OF THE YEAR ARE …

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

65. FIRST-TEAM ALL-AMERICA IS …

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

66. THE FINAL FOUR IS …

  • Kentucky
  • Kansas
  • Gonzaga
  • Marquette

67. THE NATIONAL CHAMPION IS …

  • Kansas

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

Not ideal.

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

Bold Predictions: 12 things that are guaranteed to happen this season

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A new basketball season is upon us, and with that in mind, it is time for us to start making predictions that we are going to regret.

Below, you will find 12 bold predictions that are all guaranteed to happen.

Try and tell us where we’re wrong? You can’t.



VIRGINIA WILL MAKE THE FINAL FOUR

Virginia is Villanova circa November of 2015. The Wildcats at that point in time were a powerhouse in the Big East, having coasted to back-to-back Big East titles before getting dumped in the NCAA tournament during the first weekend. No one thought Villanova was good enough to be a national title team, not with the way that they relied on developing four-year players in the era of one-and-done superstars. Then lo-and-behold, it turns out that those four-year stars actually were NBA players and that it was the randomness of a lose-and-go-home tournament combined with an ill-timed off-night that was the cause of Villanova’s postseason struggles.

Does that sound like the Wahoos to you?

Virginia is coming off of their third ACC regular season title in the last five years. They’ve consistently churned out NBA role players and have two or three more on their roster this season, including a potential lottery pick in De’Andre Hunter. Their tournament losses have been fluky … ish; UMBC whooped their behinds. This is the year UVA gets it done. (Rob Dauster)

GONZAGA WILL WIN THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP

Sure, it’s probably not all that bold to declare that a consensus top-five team will win the national title, but Gonzaga seems to be the team that so many people love to not believe in, even after their title game appearance in 2017. The Bulldogs have been knocking on the door for years now, and they’ve got a talented and experienced roster that, to my mind, is built to win at the absolute highest level. Unless they get through their non-conference schedule undefeated, we probably won’t talk that much about them in January and February, but Gonzaga is the best team in the country. They’re cutting nets in Minneapolis. (Travis Hines)

BOL BOL BECOMES THE NATION’S MUST-SEE FRESHMAN

Watching freshman stars has become an annual tradition in college basketball. Since the sport is often dominated by newcomers, who double as the best NBA prospects, it creates a natural curiosity for both hardcore college hoops fans, and casual sports watchers.

Duke’s freshman class is going to draw the majority of the freshmen headlines this season with its star-studded group composed of R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones. It’s one of the most talented recruiting classes of all-time — and I’ve argued the most famous of any incoming recruiting class.

Bol Bol (by Jon Lopez, Nike)

But Oregon center Bol Bol is going to be the freshman that draws the most interest from fans outside of the Duke group. Bol checks two key boxes when it comes to sensationalized national interest: he’s the son of a former NBA player and he possesses a freakish skill level (especially for someone his size). The son of Manute Bol — the tallest player in NBA history — the younger Bol checks in at only 7-foot-3. But Bol has a beautiful perimeter jumper that helps him stretch the floor out to NBA range. In fact, he could be one of the best three-point shooters in the country this season. Bol was 26-for-59 (44 percent) from three-point range in 19 Nike EYBL games his final grassroots season.

Between the blocked shots at the rim, and the ridiculous perimeter shots Bol can make with a defender on him, he’s going to be a ton of fun to watch this season in an otherwise underwhelming Pac-12.

FLORIDA IS THE TEAM RANKED OUTSIDE THE TOP 25 THAT GOES TO THE FINAL FOUR

There are some good possibilities from which to choose, with Marquette, Indiana and last season’s darlings Loyola-Chicago just missing out. But here’s a team to keep an eye on: Florida. The Gators did lose Chris Chiozza and Egor Koulechov from last year’s squad, but KeVaughn Allen and Jalen Hudson both return as do front court contributors Kevarrius Hayes and Keith Stone. Also there’s that talented freshman class, led by point guard Andrew Nembhard and off-guard Keyontae Johnson. The Gators may endure some growing pains as Nembhard adjusts to the college level, especially in an SEC that should be really good. But this could very well be a team that, once it gets out of league play and into the NCAA tournament, winds up going on a deep run. (Raphielle Johnson)

TYLER HERRO WILL BE KENTUCKY’S LEADING SCORER

I’ve made this point over and over again during the offseason: Kentucky has a lot of really good basketball players and prospects on their roster, but if there is something they are lacking it is a go-to guy. I’m not convinced P.J. Washington is ready for that role. It’s hard to run offense through a barrel-chested low-post scorer like Reid Travis. Quade Green isn’t the guy, and I’m not ready to say Ashton Hagans or Immanuel Quickley is, either. Keldon Johnson is at his best in a complimentary role.

Enter Herro, a four-star recruit from Wisconsin that is definitively the best shooter on the team. He led the program in scoring during their trip to the Bahamas, and he did so while playing the role in Kentucky’s offense that was played by Jamal Murray, Malik Monk and Kevin Knox before him. It’s not a coincidence his last name is pronounced ‘hero’. (Rob Dauster)

Tyler Herro; Chet White/UK Athletics

NEVADA WILL BE A STAPLE OF HOOPS AFTER DARK AND A #CBBTWITTER DARLING

I’m really high on Eric Musselman’s team. The Wolf Pack’s offense is going to be awesome — they’ve got the preseason top spot in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency rankings — with a group of mostly transfers with something to prove after last season’s run. There are nine scholarship players in their 4th or 5th season in college. Eight of those nine averaged double-figure points the last season they played, either at Nevada or at their previous school. The one who didn’t started at PG last season. And then there’s Jordan Brown, their McDonald’s All-American center.

Plus, it’s west coast hoops, which mean those of us east of the Rockies are going to have super entertaining basketball to watch late at night, which ups the cool factor significantly, in my opinion. I’m all-in on watching Nevada roll all season long. (Travis Hines)

SEC BASKETBALL RETURNS TO BRAZEN MEDIOCRITY

Last year was memorable for SEC basketball. While the league has been inconsistent outside of Kentucky and Florida over the past decade, the rest of the conference stepped up in a major way last season. A record eight SEC teams made the NCAA tournament as the league was one of the toughest top-to-bottom basketball conferences in the country. Instead of another dominant John Calipari-led Kentucky team, the Wildcats faltered enough where Auburn and Tennessee tied atop the regular-season standings.

That likely won’t be the case again this season.

Kentucky has a loaded roster that once again makes them the favorites. Auburn and Tennessee bring back a lot of last season’s rosters — but they’ll also be the hunted now instead of the surprising upstarts. And the rest of the league has been gutted with big losses and injuries. Collin Sexton is gone from Alabama. Missouri has to continue without Michael (NBA) or Jontay Porter (injury). Arkansas and Texas A&M suffered significant roster turnover. The SEC still has a chance to have a significant presence in the NCAA tournament once again. But everything would have to go right with young teams like Vanderbilt and LSU stepping up. I just don’t see eight NCAA tournament bids happening again.

BY FEBRUARY, PROVIDENCE’S ALPHA DIALLO WILL BE LEADING THE BIG EAST PLAYER OF THE YEAR RACE

There are some really good preseason candidates, with St. John’s guard Shamorie Ponds being the preseason pick and players such as Villanova’s Eric Paschall and Marquette’s Markus Howard meriting serious discussion as well. But here’s a name that may not be discussed enough: Alpha Diallo, a 6-foot-7 guard who last season was one of the Big East’s most improved players. After averaging 5.7 points and 3.2 rebounds in just over 21 minutes per game as a freshman, Diallo averaged 13.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists in just over 30 minutes per game last season. Look for him to take a significant step forward in 2018-19, with the addition of some talented freshmen and the return of Emmitt Holt helping Diallo lead a team that’s expected to contend in the Big East. (Raphielle Johnson)

MARQUETTE FINISHES NO WORSE THAT SECOND IN THE BIG EAST AND MAKES THE FINAL FOUR

Anyone that reads this space knows how I feel about Marquette this season. They are a team with unlimited potential on the offensive end of the floor — if Markus Howard isn’t the best shooter in the Big East, Sam Hauser is — that couldn’t defend the men’s league team that I play on last season. Well, it just so happens that Steve Wojciechowski brought in two transfers that should help solve some of their defensive problems in Joseph Chartouny and Ed Morrow. Chartouny provides the added bonus of being precisely the kind of point guard that will be able to get Markus Howard off the ball, where he is more effective.

Marquette is one of my favorite picks to win the national title. I may or may not already have some money invested in their eventual march in March. This isn’t even a bold take for me. It’s lukewarm. (Rob Dauster)

Markus Howard (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

WE’RE NOT EVEN CLOSE TO THE END OF THE DRAMA FROM THE FBI INVESTIGATION

The three guilty verdicts last month in the federal government’s case of college basketball corruption didn’t resonate too much, but I just can’t help but feel like there is more here. Whether it’s cooperation or more evidence — i.e. wiretaps, or the fallout from another trial — that come to light, I think we’re going to see something significant that will make the sport rumble. (Travis Hines)

BUFFALO TURNS INTO THE MID-MAJOR DARLING OF THIS SEASON

Everyone is searching for the new Loyola. After the Ramblers made a shocking run to the Final Four out of the Missouri Valley Conference last season, everyone seems to believe that another mid-major will rise and compete with the big boys once again.

A Final Four run for a mid-major isn’t a likely feat. But if I were to bet on one mid-major team having a chance, it would be Buffalo out of the MAC.

Making a national statement with a blowout win over Arizona in the first round of the NCAA tournament last season, the Bulls return most of their core group. The senior trio of guard CJ Massinburg, wing Jeremy Harris and big man Nick Perkins is back. All three could be all-league players.

Replacing point guard Wes Clark will be the major question mark for the Bulls. Thankfully for Buffalo, the roster is restocked with a recruiting class that rivals many high-major programs. Shooting guard JeeNathan Williams is a legitimate consensus four-star prospect while point guard Ronald Segu received plenty of national praise. And Buffalo has a lot of chances to pick off the big boys with its stacked non-conference schedule. Don’t be surprised if Buffalo earns some big early-season wins and vaults itself into the bubble conversation.

SAINT JOSEPH’S WILL WIN AT LEAST ONE NCAA TOURNAMENT GAME

Given the fact that Saint Joseph’s lost its top two scorers from a season ago in Shavar Newkirk and James Demery, this certainly qualifies as a bold prediction. While those are two key personnel losses for the Hawks, both Lamarr “Fresh” Kimble and Charlie Brown Jr. are back after missing all of last season due to injury. In 2016-17 Kimble and Brown combined to average 28.3 points and 9.0 rebounds per game, with Kimble also dishing out 4.5 assists per game. Add those two to three returning starters, and Phil Martelli’s team is considered to be a contender in the Atlantic 10 for good reason. Among the other returnees is sophomore forward Taylor Funk, who was one of the A-10’s best newcomers last season. So I’m going “all in” on Saint Joseph’s…and with just two seniors on the roster the Hawks could be even better in 2019-20. (Raphielle Johnson)

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.

College Basketball’s Best Big Men

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While plenty of our best-of lists are heavily populated by freshmen, this one, highlighting the top frontcourt players in the country, has a decidedly veteran bent.

From four-year stars to seasoned upperclassmen to super sophs and successful transfers, the best players big men in the country this season will be no strangers to college basketball fans.

Here are the 10 best big men heading into the 2018-19 season.



1. LUKE MAYE, North Carolina

By this point, Maye’s story is well known as he went from over-qualified walk-on to a potential National Player of the Year. Still, his rise is remarkable. He went from averaging 5.5 points in 14.4 minutes per game as a sophomore to 16.9 points in 32.2 minutes per game as a junior to establish himself as one of college basketball’s best bigs – and players.

Maye, a 6-foot-8 power forward, has gotten there largely on the strength of his ability to stretch defenses. He shot 43.1 percent from 3-point range last season, including a mark of 46.6 percent in ACC play, which was tops in the league. A rather remarkable feat for a frontcourt player who launched over 100 3s for the season. In a sport often dominated by freshmen, Maye gives North Carolina the valuable weapon of the combination of experience and talent.

2. RUI HACHIMURA, Gonzaga

The 6-foot-8 Japanese standout has been a favorite in basketball circles for awhile, though he’s yet to truly breakthrough in a major way to the broader hoops public. That could very much change this season.

Hachimura averaged 11.6 points and 4.7 rebounds as a sophomore for the Bulldogs last year while shooting 60.6 percent inside the arc. It’s been on the international scene, though, where he’s really flashed the potential that has him being looked at as a lottery pick. He averaged 20.6 points and 11 rebounds in the 2017 U19 World Cup and he’s averaging 21.5 points and six rebounds per game in Japan’s World Cup qualifiers this year. WIth Johnathan Williams graduated and Killian Tillie out for two months with injury, Hachimura will take over the Gonzaga frontcourt in a big way.

Rui Hachimura (Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

3. DEDRIC LAWSON, Kansas

The Kansas roster is loaded with returners off last year’s Final Four squad, a top-flight recruiting class and transfers like K.J Lawson and Charlie Moore, but it’s Dedric Lawson, a transfer from Memphis, that really puts the Jayhawks over the top as the preseason national title favorite.

As a sophomore at Memphis, the 6-foot-9 forward averaged 19.2 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. He’s an elite defensive rebounder, an underappreciated shot blocker and a willing passer. He can replicate something close to the numbers he put up in the AAC in the Big 12, Lawson will have a spot on the All-American first team.

4. ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin

Wisconsin was bad last year. The Badgers finished under .500 and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in two decades. That famed top-four-in-the-Big-Ten run came to a close, too, obviously. Things were not sweet in Madison. Ethan Happ, though, he was good.

The Badger big man averaged 17.9 points, eight rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.5 steals per game while converting at a 52.8 percent clip from the floor. As an under-the-rim player who doesn’t stretch the floor, Happ doesn’t project particularly well at the next level, but he is unquestionably one of the top players – let alone big men – in the country. Wisconsin should be improved this season, and Happ will once again get his due after sliding off the radar some during the Baders’ dip last season.

5. GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee

Grant Williams has a chance to do something that no one has done since Corliss Williamson and Shaquille O’Neal did in the early 1990s: Repeat as SEC Player of the Year, as Williamson did in ‘94 and ‘95 and the Shaq Diesel did in ‘91 and ‘92.

The 6-foot-7 junior averaged 15.2 points, six rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game last season en route to those honors as the Volunteers surprised just about everyone with their move to the top of the SEC standings. Williams, picked as the league’s preseason player of the year this fall, isn’t a high-level finisher, but he draws fouls, gets to the line and frustrates opponents at a rate few others can match.

6. REID TRAVIS, Kentucky

It’ll be interesting to see how Travis fits in at Kentucky after spending four NCAA tournament-less seasons out west at Stanford. Given the monster numbers he put up the last two seasons with the Cardinal, it’s not hard to see the 6-foot-8, 238-pound forward as the linchpin on an otherwise young roster.

Travis put up 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game while shooting 52.7 percent from the floor. As a graduate transfer who flirted with the idea of going pro before making his way to Lexington, the bet is here that Travis embraces his role around a group of talented-yet-inexperienced teammates to help make the Wildcats one of the preeminent national title contenders.

7. DANIEL GAFFORD, Arkansas

Gafford could have easily called it a collegiate career last year after averaging 11.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks while shooting 60.5 percent from the floor. The 6-foot-11 Arkansas native made the decision quickly that he’d return to the Razorbacks after his rookie campaign, and enters this season as one of the premier shot blockers in the country.

8. DEAN WADE, Kansas State

There’s not much flashy about Wade’s game. He’s not overly athletic and he’s not going to be throwing down rim-rattling dunks, but he leads the charge for a Kansas State team that brings back everyone from last year’s surprise Elite Eight team.

He averaged 16.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.5 steals (more than he averaged on blocks) as a junior, but it was his 44 percent mark from 3-point range that truly made him an offensive threat and a potential All-American for his senior season.

Dean Wade (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

9. MIKE DAUM, South Dakota State

All Mike Daum has done for three seasons in Brookings is put up huge numbers. He averaged 15 points as a freshman before 25 as a sophomore and 23.9 – while shooting 42.5 percent from deep – last season as a junior. The 6-foot-9 Nebraska native could have been a graduate transfer or gone pro after last season, but instead returned to what will be the overwhelming favorite in the Summit and almost certainly a Cinderella darling come March.

10. P.J. WASHINGTON, Kentucky

The strangest part of this list is that it has two Kentucky Wildcats and neither are freshmen. How about that?

Washington averaged 10.8 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.5 assists last season as a rookie for John Calipari. He’s back for his sophomore campaign, and it’ll be interesting to see how he’s deployed by Calipari, who will have decisions to make about weighing 3-point shooting, experience and defense with his lineup construction, especially up front.

2018-19 SEC Preview: Can Kentucky beat out Tennessee, Auburn?

Chet White | UK Athletics
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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 SEC.


Known mostly as a football (or even baseball) conference for many years, the SEC is starting to come into form as a deep and respected basketball league.

The SEC’s stable of coaches has improved dramatically over the last decade, and with that, has come an influx of talent and top programs.

This season’s SEC boasts three serious contenders along with a bevy of second-tier teams who are dangerous enough to make deep postseason runs if things really come together.

The SEC features elite coaches, McDonald’s All-American freshmen, and a lot of returning talent from successful teams.

It should be another fun year for a league that was once a basketball afterthought.

Let’s get into it.



FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. The SEC should send a bunch of teams back to the NCAA tournament

Last season was a banner year for the SEC. The league sent a record eight teams to the NCAA tournament. The SEC had tons of top-50 caliber teams. This isn’t just a football conference anymore. The SEC has some serious depth on the hardwood.

We all know about Kentucky’s yearly influx of elite talent. It’s the other conference regular season leaders like Auburn and Tennessee who are the returning teams to keep an eye on. Both co-SEC regular season champions return most of last season’s teams. Then there are others like LSU, Mississippi State, Florida and Vanderbilt who have loads of young talent coming in. That should make for another deep year of SEC NCAA tournament teams. Even the group of teams just after the second tier shouldn’t be slept on. The depth of coaching and talent in the SEC is as good as it has ever been.

It should make for some unpredictable action in the conference this season as it will be very difficult to earn wins on the road.

2. Kentucky has as much depth as its had in years

We can usually count on Kentucky having a freshman-heavy team of elite recruits. That’s the case with five top-40 recruits — four of them five-star prospects. What makes this Kentucky team especially unique is that three McDonald’s All-American sophomores return in P.J. Washington, Nick Richards and Quade Green. Stanford graduate transfer Reid Travis put up monster numbers last season as he’s immediately eligible of the Wildcats.

This is perhaps the deepest and most balanced Kentucky team we’ve seen since the Final Four team in 2015 as this Wildcat team has the potential to go nine or 10 deep. Freshmen like Immanuel Quickley and Ashton Hagans help Kentucky’s ball-handling and perimeter defense while guards Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro should help provide scoring on the wing. E.J. Montgomery is a great option to have in the frontcourt to spell Richards, Washington or Travis.

If the exhibition trip to the Bahamas is any indicator of how talented and deep Kentucky is, then the Wildcats could be a major national title contender and the favorite in the SEC. They have a bit of everything this season, and the upside is scary.

Grant Williams (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

3. Returning SEC champion Tennessee returns most of its team

For as good as Kentucky is on paper, Tennessee will still be a force to be reckoned with. The Vols return basically the entire roster from a team that won a share of the SEC regular season title. SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams is back. He’s surrounded by four returning upperclass starters. SEC Sixth Man of the Year Lamonte Turner also returns for his junior season.

Tennessee returns a talented and cohesive top six that are all upperclassmen. The key could be the team’s play at point guard. We know Williams and Admiral Schofield as the team’s top two players. Senior big man Kyle Alexander is a solid glue guy who can protect the rim. The up-and-down play of Jordan Bone, Turner and Jordan Bowden at point has to get stronger.

Bone is the starter and steady for most of the time. Turner comes off the bench as a heat-check scorer who can also distribute. Bowden usually defends the other team’s top perimeter threat and adds some other elements as well. But all three of those guys shot just below 40 percent from the field. If that trio gets stronger, and becomes more efficient, then Tennessee has even more room to grow from last season and a Sweet 16 is very possible.

4. Auburn returns two key players suspended after the FBI investigations last season

Tennessee isn’t the only returning SEC regular season roster with a talented returning roster. Auburn shouldn’t be counted out either. The Tigers return a lot of contributors while returning two key players who sat out last season. Expectations will be huge for Auburn after last season’s unexpected success.

Although the Tigers lost Mustapha Heron to transfer and Desean Murray is gone as well, they gain forward Danjel Purifoy and center Austin Wiley. VCU transfer Samir Doughty is also eligible, as he’ll provide some rotational depth at guard.

Bryce Brown (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

With Auburn returning six rotation players from last season’s team, they should have plenty of options to choose from this year despite the losses. Auburn’s frontcourt depth will be superior to last season, as Purifoy and Wiley make the Tigers much bigger and more athletic. If Auburn goes with Chuma Okeke at the three, then they’ll have the size to go against some bigger lineups like Kentucky or Tennessee.

And Auburn’s guards are already well-established as Bryce Brown and Jared Harper are proven upperclass scorers. With that duo having Doughty and senior Malik Dunbar behind them, Auburn appears to also have solid depth on the perimeter. Integrating Wiley and Purifoy back into the rotation and changing how Auburn’s lineup might play could take an adjustment period. But this new-look lineup also lends itself to more versatile looks and size on the interior. Auburn should stay right in the SEC race if their two lineups can blend together.

5. LSU, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Alabama are all capable of making it to the NCAA tournament

The race for the SEC’s regular season title is going to be very fun to watch this season. There are also a group of second-tier SEC teams worth keeping track of. This league, once again, looks like it will have a lot of depth this season.

It’s clear that Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee look like the three favorites of the league this preseason. But the second group of teams in the conference shouldn’t be taken lightly. LSU, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Alabama are all capable of making it to the NCAA tournament thanks to deep rosters of talented players. Missouri would also very likely be in that group of second-tier SEC teams if they didn’t lose Jontay Porter for the season with a torn ACL.

Although the three favorites look like top-15 teams this season, don’t be surprised if one of these second-tier teams ends up making a deep tournament run, or even finishing in that top three of the regular season standings.

John Calipari (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

PRESEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee

The reigning SEC Player of the Year has the same team back around him this season as the Vols have big expectations. The 6-foot-7, 240-pound Williams is a load to handle on the interior thanks to his natural strength as he’s able to play through contact while handling double teams.

An underrated passer out of the post, Williams can find shooters and wings for easy looks as he’s a huge part of Tennessee’s inside-outside game. The junior put up 15.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game last season while shooting 47 percent from the field.

THE REST OF THE SEC FIRST TEAM

  • P.J. WASHINGTON, Kentucky: Big expectations are on tap for Washington after a promising freshman season. The 6-foot-7 forward put up 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game last season. If he improves his 23 percent three-point shooting then Washington could be a matchup nightmare for opponents.
  • REID TRAVIS, Kentucky: It’s doubtful Travis matches the 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game he put up at Stanford. But Travis will also have more talent around him, as he won’t get as many double teams. And his natural strength is elite at the college level, as he should rebound at a high level.
  • BRYCE BROWN, Auburn: The senior guard is the SEC’s most prolific three-point shooter as his range makes him a deadly threat. Brown averaged 15.9 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.7 assists last season as he’ll be counted on for more offense with Mustapha Heron gone.
  • TREMONT WATERS, LSU: Brilliant at times as a freshman, the 5-foot-11 Waters is capable of running an effective offense or taking over the scoring himself. Armed with a deep pull-up game, Waters could have some monster games this season.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • DANIEL GAFFORD, Arkansas
  • DARIUS GARLAND, Vanderbilt
  • JARED HARPER, Auburn
  • JALEN HUDSON, Florida
  • QUINNDARY WEATHERSPOON, Mississippi State
Admiral Schofield (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR

Tennessee has huge expectations with the entire team returning. Schofield, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound wing, is capable of making the Vols one of the most flexible teams in the country. With the size and strength to play bigger, but the skill level (39 percent three-point shooting) to play on the wing, Schofield enables Tennessee to throw different looks at opponents since he usually plays the three. Schofield should get more national attention this season as Tennessee’s second option beside Grant Williams.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE

The SEC doesn’t have many coaches on the actual hot seat since so many are coming off of tournament appearances or recently being hired. But Auburn’s Bruce Pearl is going to face big expectations this season a year after the Tigers unexpectedly made the Round of 32. And now the Tigers get two key players in Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley back.

Auburn will face big expectations this season, and they’ll be expected to deliver results. If Pearl and Auburn flop, then the FBI investigation is still looming, and many of the teams veterans are starting to filter through the program. The Tigers have a lot on the line this season.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

The SEC has a deep collection of teams with some legitimate Final Four contenders in Kentucky and Tennessee.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

It’s strange to feel excited about SEC conference play — for basketball. But the SEC was unpredictable, loaded with talent and completely compelling to watch last season. So much of the league’s talent is returning along with some seriously talented freshmen. It should be another great year to watch the SEC conference race.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • Nov. 6, Duke vs. Kentucky (Champions Classic, Indianapolis)
  • Nov. 9, Washington at Auburn
  • Nov. 29, Kentucky at Louisville
  • Dec. 9, Gonzaga vs. Tennessee (in Phoenix)
  • Jan. 26, Kansas at Kentucky (Big 12/SEC Challenge)
Keldon Johnson (Chet White, UK Athletics)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. KENTUCKY: Kentucky’s depth and how it figures out the rotation will be something to monitor during the season. With three-point shooting being an issue last season, the Wildcats should improve that mark this season with the addition of guys like Herro. Frontline depth is also a major strength for the Wildcats as they feature veteran experience coupled with talented freshmen.

As long as Kentucky gets consistent point guard play and hits enough shots, they will come at teams in waves at both ends of the floor. For most teams, that should be too much to deal with.

2. TENNESSEE: The Vols are a preseason top-10 team with loads of balance and experience. And they’ll be tested by a tough schedule that includes West Virginia, Gonzaga, Louisville and Georgia Tech during non-conference play. If Tennessee’s perimeter play gets slightly better than this is a team with Final Four upside thanks to the frontcourt versatility.

Tennessee can play big and physical with teams like Kentucky, or they can use a surprising amount of perimeter skill and shooting if teams try to go uptempo with small-ball lineups. That’s what makes Tennessee such an intriguing team for this season. They should be able to win in a number of different ways.

3. AUBURN: With a top-40 offense and defense last season, the Tigers didn’t have many holes except for frontcourt depth. That was fixed since Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy are both back. As long as that duo can come in and play at a solid level, then Horace Spencer and Anfernee McLemore provides quality frontcourt depth for the Tigers.

From there, the Auburn backcourt should be able to handle itself like last season. Brown and Harper are one of the toughest duos in the conference, and improved depth should also be present on the perimeter. There are still looming questions about the FBI investigation. And the Tigers have been hit with the injury bug early this season. But they still have huge expectations entering this season.

4. LSU: An NIT with big dreams thanks to a strong incoming recruiting class, LSU has a lot to be excited about. It starts with sophomore point guard Tremont Waters. A potential All-American who can take over a game with his scoring, Waters gets help from Skylar Mays, Daryl Edwards and a five-star backcourt newcomer in Javonte Smart.

But it’s LSU’s revamped frontcourt that has people very excited. Freshmen Naz Reid and Emmitt Williams were both five-star recruits and should play an immediate role. Transfer senior Kavell Bigby-Williams (Oregon) and junior college big man Courtese Cooper should also add to the depth while freshman Darius Days is another touted four-star prospect.

LSU ultimately has the tools to be one of the best teams in the country. It’s all going to depend on how the frontcourt of freshmen like Reid and Williams performs this season. Waters has a chance to be sensational, but he needs more consistency and help from the supporting cast for LSU to make a deep run.

Tremont Waters (Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

5. MISSISSIPPI STATE: It looks like things should be promising for Mississippi State this season. The Bulldogs return all five starters and a quality sixth man while bringing in a top-20 recruiting class from an NIT team. That means head coach Ben Howland should take this program to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009.

The Weatherspoon brothers, Quinndary and Nick, are back to bring scoring, along with junior floor general Lamar Peters. As long as that trio can shoot more effectively from three-point range, they will be nearly impossible to defend. Junior guard Tyson Carter also returns after starting half his games and playing over 20 minutes per game last season. This perimeter group is tough and experienced. The interior has sophomore center Abdul Ado and senior Aric Holman returning along with freshman forward Reggie Perry. The McDonald’s All-American, along with junior college center Jethro Tshisumpa, gives the Bulldogs more interior depth this season.

With a core that has played together for a long time, along with an infusion of young talent and frontcourt depth, and Mississippi State should return to the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade.

6. FLORIDA: Florida has a lot to like about its team this season. Two high-scoring senior guards in Jalen Hudson and KeVaughn Allen have returned as they play with a five-star freshman point guard in Andrew Nembhard. That trio has the chance to be long and athletic as Nembhard’s natural passing ability and leadership should help others get good looks.

The Gators return some veterans in the frontcourt, but that duo will have to improve when it comes to physicality and rebounding. Senior Kevarrius Hayes and junior Keith Stone both played extended periods last season, as both need to get tougher on the interior. That duo should be helped by a younger and healthier rotation that includes junior Gorjok Gak, sophomore Chase Johnson and freshman Isaiah Stokes. The bench also has some talent to watch with forward Deaundrae Ballard and guard Keyontae Johnson.

Replacing Chris Chiozza at point is going to be difficult, but Florida has a chance to make a new imprint with the bigger Nembhard at point. The Gators still have interior question marks, but they’ll have the perimeter punch to make nearly anybody.

7. VANDERBILT: The recruiting addition of two McDonald’s All-Americans has Vanderbilt with huge expectations for this season. Point guard Darius Garland’s signing was big for the Commodores as the five-star gives Vanderbilt two quality lead guards in a young backcourt that includes sophomore Saben Lee. Garland and Lee should be dangerous right away, especially is Lee can improve his 30 percent three-point shooting.

Besides for Garland, five-star big man Simi Shittu is a giant addition on the interior. Shittu is coming off of a torn ACL, but he had top-five potential in the class if his trajectory continued. Junior forward Clevon Brown and senior wing Joe Toye received plenty of minutes last season. Shittu should also play plenty with Division II transfer Yanni Wetzell (St. Mary’s TX) a New Zealander who put up big numbers before his move to the SEC. Notre Dame transfer Matt Ryan and freshman Aaron Nesmith should also add perimeter shooting to a group that could use a lot more of it.

Vanderbilt had a top-30 offense last season, so with the addition of talents like Garland and Shittu, it’ll be interesting to see if head coach Bryce Drew’s offense can sustain that kind of effectiveness. The Commodores have some big-time talent as they should be a dangerous team this season.

8. ALABAMA: Moving on from Collin Sexton and Braxton Key is going to be difficult. The good news for Alabama is that the rest of a talented and young roster is back. Eight players who averaged double-figure minutes are back for the Crimson Tide.

The key for Alabama is finding a replacement go-to scorer for Sexton. Senior forward Donta Hall, sophomore guard John Petty and junior guard Dazon Ingram are all capable scorers as Petty could be the one to make a big leap. In the frontcourt, junior Daniel Giddens and sophomores Alex Reese and Galin Smith all received solid minutes last season to form a good rotation for Alabama. In the perimeter, sophomore Herb Jones could be another key player for Alabama this season. A potential two-way wing with devastating defensive upside, Jones has the tools to be great.

Texas transfer Tevin Mack also joins to program and senior wing Riley Norris and guard Avery Johnson Jr. have all played in big games. As long as the Crimson Tide find a go-to scorer, they have the depth and talent to return to the tournament.

Cuonzo Martin (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

9. MISSOURI: It’s almost as if Missouri and head coach Cuonzo Martin have to hit the reset button from last season. The top two scorers are gone as Jordan Barnett and Kassius Robertson have graduated. There will be no Porter presence this season after Michael Jr. went pro and Jontay tore his ACL in the preseason. But the Tigers still have a lot of young talent.

The frontcourt of sophomore Jeremiah Tilmon and senior Kevin Puryear has a shot to be good. The guard play of the Tigers is going to be key. Point guard is a concern as senior Jordan Geist, Illinois transfer Mark Smith and a group of freshmen will all try their hand at the position early on. Missouri has plenty of talent coming into the pipeline. But this group might be too young and inexperienced to make a major dent in a talented league this season.

10. GEORGIA: Tom Crean takes over as head coach from Mark Fox as he inherits a decent rotation. The crop of bigs includes some depth and talent as senior Derek Ogbeide and sophomores Nicolas Claxton and Rayshaun Hammonds are a key part of Georgia’s season.

The backcourt also has some former starters as Turtle Jackson and sophomore Teshaun Hightower both started at point last season while Tyree Crump also earned legitimate minutes. Georgia is going to have a very tough time replacing departed forward Yante Maten. But this team will also play a bit more uptempo and shoot a lot more three-pointers under Crean this season. This roster is talented enough to surprise, as Georgia could be an intriguing spoiler.

11. TEXAS A&M: A new-look Texas A&M group won’t feature loads of interior talent and depth that we’ve seen the last several seasons. This version of the Aggies will be guard-heavy. There could be a lot of three- and four-guard sets this season.

Returning guards like junior Admon Gilder and sophomore T.J. Starks lead the way this season as they look for a whole new supporting cast. Transfers like Christian Mekowulu (Tennessee State) and Josh Nebo (St. Francis) should help defensively on the interior while JUCO transfers like Wendell Mitchell and Bandon Mahan help with more depth on the wing. Texas A&M will have to find their way pretty quickly. This group already lost a secret scrimmage to Stephen F. Austin as the season draws closer.

12. ARKANSAS: Arkansas will have more newcomers than Kentucky this season, so a transition year is expected for the Razorbacks. The good news is the return of sophomore center Daniel Gafford — a potential first-round pick next season. Gafford is a force on both ends of the floor, and with some offensive improvement, he’s a sleeper All-American pick.

From there, Arkansas has to integrate eight new freshmen and two sophomore transfers into a new rotation. Junior guard Adrio Bailey and sophomore forward Gabe Osabuohien are the only two other returning players with solid SEC experience. Guard play will be huge for Arkansas as New Mexico transfer Jalen Harris could get a shot to run point early. The Razorbacks have to hope for a big season from Gafford while hoping the newcomers are ready to hit the deep end.

13. SOUTH CAROLINA: The Gamecocks haven’t found consistent footing since reaching the Final Four in 2017. Last season’s roster barely finished above .500 as this roster looks very similar this season. South Carolina’s strength lies in the frontcourt as senior Chris Silva and junior Maik Kotsar are returning starters with plenty of experience.

Backcourt depth and questions are point guard are the chief concerns. Hassani Gravett is more natural off the ball, so the Gamecocks are hoping Georgetown grad transfer Tre Campbell or a freshman like T.J. Moss can help earn some minutes at lead guard. Preseason hasn’t been kind to South Carolina either. They’ve already lost to Division II Augusta in a game in which the veteran frontcourt barely showed up.

14. OLE MISS: New head coach Kermit Davis only inherits five scholarship players from a team that was already last in the SEC the previous year. While the Rebels don’t have a lot of experienced pieces, they do return some SEC-caliber players in senior guard Terence Davis, senior forward Bruce Stevens and junior guard Breein Tyree. Sophomore guard Devontae Shuler should also make a leap, meaning Ole Miss has some decent backcourt depth.

Ole Miss is hoping that Davis’ defensive work at Middle Tennessee comes to the Rebels. Ole Miss was one of the worst defensive high-major teams in the country last season. If Ole Miss doesn’t get more stops, while developing some young talent, it could be another long season.

College Basketball’s Best Off Guards

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The off-guard position in college basketball has a lot of intriguing questions heading into the 2018-19 season.

While the group is headlined by some strong returning players and some five-star freshmen, it seems as though many of the players on this list still have something to prove. Whether that is perimeter shooting, becoming a more complete player or bringing more consistency, the off-guard spot in college hoops could be in a great place this season if many of these guys make standard improvements.

Here’s a look at 20 of the key off-guards to watch this season.



1. CALEB MARTIN, Nevada, Sr.

The reigning Mountain West Player of the Year nearly left for the NBA before deciding to return with his twin brother, Cody, at the 11th hour. With the Martin twins back in the fold, many are projecting Nevada as a top-ten preseason team. Caleb had a huge junior season as he put up 18.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game as he was the clear go-to player on a deep Wolf Pack team.

Also a 40 percent three-point shooter, Martin’s ability to score from all over the floor is what separates him from many of his peers and it helps make Nevada’s offense one of the best in the country. This season, Martin won’t have to do as much since he’s playing on a veteran team that should be significantly deeper. But don’t discount Martin having a huge year and potentially vaulting into All-American status.

2. QUENTIN GRIMES, Kansas, Fr.

The prized pledge of another solid Kansas recruiting class, the 6-foot-5 Grimes should have a huge impact on the Jayhawks this season. The former McDonald’s All-American really came into his own as a more complete guard during his senior season as some believed he was the best guard prospect in the Class of 2018.

Capable of playing the one, but more likely to play the two given the Kansas backcourt situation, Grimes is a tough-minded two-way player who can score or distribute. The key for the reigning MVP of the 2018 FIBA Americas will be perimeter shooting. If Grimes can consistently knock down three-pointers then the Jayhawks should have an incredibly dangerous offense.

Romeo Langford (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

3. ROMEO LANGFORD, Indiana, Fr.

Huge expectations will be lingering over Langford’s head all season, as the Hoosier faithful are hoping this in-state product can return Indiana basketball to glory. The former Mr. Basketball in Indiana is one of the most celebrated high school players to ever come out of the basketball-crazy state after putting up monster numbers.

At 6-foot-6, Langford is capable of 40-point outbursts where he’s scoring from all over the floor. Also a capable wing defender thanks to his length and athleticism, Langford is a likely one-and-done prospect if he lives up to his five-star billing. Consistency will be one of the keys to watch for with Langford. For as good as he can be, Langford had a tendency to disappear for minutes at a time for portions of his grassroots career. As long as Langford is engaged, he should be a force in the Big Ten.

4. LINDELL WIGGINTON, Iowa State, So.

After an impressive freshman season in which he was fifth in the Big 12 in scoring, Wigginton gets his chance to shine on a much deeper and more talented Iowa State team this season. Averaging 16.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game while shooting 40 percent from three-point range, the 6-foot-2 Wigginton showed natural ability as a scorer last season, as he’ll look to become more of a complete guard in his second season.

Testing the NBA waters this offseason, Wigginton can enhance his national reputation, and pro stock, by helping the Cyclones win games after the team finished only 13-18 last season. With another year to grow, and more help around him, Wigginton should be among the Big 12’s leading scorers once again.

Wigginton (J Pat Carter/Getty Images

5. JALEN HUDSON, Florida, Sr.

The leading scorer for the Gators last season, the 6-foot-6 Hudson will be counted on for points once again this season. It’s going to be the other things Hudson can give Florida that ultimately helps dictate how they might finish.

If Hudson can show more leadership, while also helping to set up teammates, then he’ll help offset the huge loss of point guard Chris Chiozza. The Gators don’t have an obvious replacement at lead guard for Chiozza, so Hudson’s impact in the backcourt beyond scoring will be something to keep an eye on. Even if Hudson is only trying to get buckets, he’s a 40 percent three-point shooter who put up 15.5 points and 3.9 rebounds per game last season. The Gators just ideally need him to contribute a bit of everything.

6. KELLAN GRADY, Davidson, So.

Putting together the best freshman season at Davidson since Steph Curry, the 6-foot-5 Grady made his own mark for the Wildcats last season. Although not quite as gifted a perimeter shooter as Curry (but really, who is?) Grady is no slouch in that department after shooting 50 percent from the floor and 37 percent from three-point range while averaging 18.0 points and 3.3 rebounds per game.

With Davidson leading scorer Peyton Aldridge moving on from the program, the reigning A-10 Rookie of the Year is going to be the go-to guy for a Wildcats team with NCAA tournament aspirations. Since Davidson doesn’t have a lot of experienced pieces returning from last season’s tournament squad, then we could be seeing a lot of 20-point games from Grady.

Ky Bowman (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

7. KY BOWMAN, Boston College, Jr.

Although backcourt running mate and NBA first-round pick Jerome Robinson received much of the attention for Boston College last season, Bowman also had a monster campaign. As a sophomore, the 6-foot-1 Bowman averaged 17.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game while shooting 36 percent from three-point range and 80 percent from the free-throw line.

A North Carolina native who seems to play at his best when facing the in-state teams that passed him over in the ACC, Bowman just missed a triple-double in a win over Duke last year. Now that Robinson is gone, Bowman will be asked to do even more this season, as the Eagles are going to be counting on Bowman for a potential All-American season. If Bowman can lift his three-point percentage closer to the 44 percent he shot as a freshman, then he could very well reach that status.

8. MUSTAPHA HERON, St. John’s, Jr.

Immediately eligible after the NCAA gave him a hardship waiver, the 6-foot-5 Heron is a monster addition for the Red Storm. Coupled with a potential All-American at point in Shamorie Ponds, St. John’s now has one of the best backcourt tandems in all of college basketball.

Spending his first two seasons at Auburn, Heron averaged 16.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game for the Tigers as a sophomore. The 220-pound Heron and his power and athleticism should pair well with Ponds’ slippery ability to get to the basket as the duo should be immensely fun to watch this season.

If Heron can find his three-point consistency like he showed during freshman season (42 percent from three-point range) then his perimeter shooting would also greatly open things up for Ponds as he attacks off the dribble.

Kris Wilkes (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

9. KRIS WILKES, UCLA, So.

Quietly putting up good numbers as a freshman last season, the 6-foot-8 Wilkes was second on the Bruins in scoring and rebounding at 13.7 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. Now the versatile perimeter threat will be asked to become a team leader on a young, but talented, Bruins team.

Wilkes flirted with staying in the NBA Draft, but by coming back for another year in the Pac-12, he has a chance to improve his average 35 percent three-point shooting while displaying more overall leadership for an intriguing team. Potentially an All-Pac-12 player with a big season, Wilkes will get asked to take a lot of big shots at UCLA this season.

10. MATISSE THYBULLE, Washington, Sr.

The offensive numbers won’t jump out at you. That doesn’t mean this 6-foot-5 senior doesn’t make a giant impact on all of Washington’s games. The Pac-12’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Thybulle can make game-changing defensive plays on one end while contributing quite a bit to other facets of the game.

Thybulle scored 11.2 points per game while getting 2.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game last season. But getting 3.0 steals per game and 1.4 blocks per game had an immense impact on a Washington team that finally showed signs of life on the defensive end. Also a 36 percent three-point shooter, Thybulle is the perfect three-and-d wing for a Washington team with a sneaky amount of talent this season.

11. ZACH NORVELL, Gonzaga, So.

Gonzaga’s most consistent and versatile scorer has a chance to be a better all-around player as a sophomore. The 6-foot-5 Norvell put up 12.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game while shooting 37 percent from three-point range. If Norvell improves defensively, then he’ll be one of college basketball’s best two-way guards.

12. NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER, Virginia Tech, So.

Consistency will be the key for this ultra-talented 6-foot-5 guard. There were times last season when Alexander-Walker looked like Virginia Tech’s best players and other games where he was barely contributing. If Alexander-Walker finds a better balance, he could be a force in the ACC this season.

13. KYLE GUY, Virginia, Jr.

A veteran scorer who acts as Virginia’s top perimeter shooter, the 6-foot-2 Guy would put up even bigger scoring numbers in a more uptempo offense. Guy averaged 14.1 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game while shooting 39 percent from three-point range.

14. T.J. GIBBS, Notre Dame, Jr.

Coming on strong during his sophomore season, the 6-foot-3 Gibbs is going to be asked to do even more for a young Fighting Irish team. The good news is that Gibbs is already used to being the main scorer. Gibbs scored double-figures in 19 of 21 ACC games last season while averaging 15.3 points, 3.0 assists and 2.8 rebounds per game.

15. D’MARCUS SIMONDS, Georgia State, Jr.

The reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year made a huge impression by putting up 21.2 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game last season. If Simonds can improve his woeful 29 percent three-point shooting then he’ll become one of the most complete scorers in the country.

Phil Booth (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

16. QUINNDARY WEATHERSPOON, Mississippi State, Sr.

The 6-foot-4 Weatherspoon saw his scoring numbers and three-point percentage dip from sophomore to junior season. But Weatherspoon also became a more well-rounded guard as he nearly doubled his assist total. If Weatherspoon lifts his perimeter shooting, then he could make this ranking look silly.

17. FLETCHER MAGEE, Wofford, Sr.

The SoCon Player of the Year is arguably the best pure shooter in college hoops. Just missing a 50/40/90 season as a junior, MaGee averaged 22.1 points per game while making 4.4 three-pointers per game at a 43 percent clip. Magee is perhaps most well-known for his 27 points in the Dean Dome last season when Wofford upset North Carolina.

18. PHIL BOOTH, Villanova, Sr.

It seems like Booth’s been with the Wildcats forever. This season the 6-foot-3 guard has more of a chance to shine. Already dropping 41 points, and nine three-pointers, on North Carolina in a preseason scrimmage, Booth appears to be ready to take a high number of shots in Villanova’s high-octane offense.

19. BRYCE BROWN, Auburn, Sr.

As dangerous as it gets from the perimeter, the 6-foot-3 Brown led the SEC with 107 made three-pointers last season. Auburn’s uptempo attack gives Brown a lot of makeable shots, as he averaged 15.9 points per game on 38 percent three-point shooting last season.

20. HERB JONES, Alabama, So.

Expectations are very high for the 6-foot-7 Jones to make a major leap this season. A potentially elite two-way guard who shows very strong defensive traits, Jones has the upside to make a leap to the pros. Jones has to expand on the modest minutes and numbers he put up last season, but he has major upside.