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

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

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

Today we dive into No. 6 Nevada.


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

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

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

Tough break.

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

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

They are.

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

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

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

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NEVADA WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

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

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

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

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

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

(The answer is not a single one.)

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

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

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

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

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

BUT NEVADA IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

There might actually be too much talent on this roster.

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

But where are those minutes going to come from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

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

There were a couple of reasons for those defensive struggles:

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

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

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

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

2018-19 OUTLOOK

The Wolf Pack are really, really good.

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

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

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

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

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

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

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

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

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

Today we dive into No. 7 Tennessee.


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

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

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

Not bad.

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

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

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

The Vols are no longer a secret.

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

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

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TENNESSEE WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

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

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

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

I’m not sure how else to put it.

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

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

Right?

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

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BUT TENNESSEE IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grant Williams (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

I wonder where the Vols can improve individually.

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

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

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

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

But those are the margins.

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

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

2018-19 OUTLOOK

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

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

What does all that mean?

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

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

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

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

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

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

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

Today we dive into No. 8 Virginia.


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

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

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

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

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

And then there was last year.

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

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

It is going to happen for UVA.

Will this be the year it finally does?

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VIRGINIA WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are.

Kyle Guy (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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BUT VIRGINIA IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

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

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

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

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

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

Which is why the key to Virginia reaching their ceiling …

De’Andre Hunter (Eric Espada/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

… is probably the status of Alabama transfer Braxton Key.

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

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

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

2018-19 OUTLOOK

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

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

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

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

They just haven’t done it in March yet.

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

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

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

No. 9 North Carolina: The Luke Maye Show rolls on for another season

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

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

Today we dive into No. 9 North Carolina.


North Carolina has been the most successful program this side of Villanova over the course of the last five years because they bucked the trend, whether that was the plan or not.

In an era where the other bluebloods have chased one-and-done talent and rebuilt their roster each and every offseason, the Tar Heels reached the 2016 national title game and won the 2017 national title on the backs of veterans.

Marcus Paige, Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II, Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson, Isaiah Hicks, Theo Pinson. Roy Williams went from being a Hall of Famer to one of the very best to ever do it thanks to players that stuck around for three or four years.

Now that might not have been by design.

The scandal that enveloped the UNC athletic department for years took some of the luster off of the program. Concerns about whether or not the program would be eligible for the NCAA tournament played a role in why a handful of those one-and-done prospects — namely, Brandon Ingram — ended up elsewhere.

This season is different.

For the first time in years, the Tar Heels will be relying quite heavily on a pair of highly-touted freshmen to carry them.

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NORTH CAROLINA WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

When Luke Maye committed to North Carolina in the fall of 2014, no one in the country thought much of it. Here was a three-star recruit, an in-state kid and the son of a former Tar Heel quarterback, committing to program that he had loved his entire life. The most notable thing about his decision to enroll at UNC was that he was, for a long time, the only member in Roy Williams 2015 recruiting class thanks to the academic scandal that was still hanging over the program at the time.

For forward three years, and Luke Maye had turned a memorable buzzer-beater during a national title run into an all-american season.

And now, he will enter the 2018-19 season as the best returning player in all of college basketball.

If you predicted that would happen, please buy me a Powerball ticket and predict the winning numbers.

In all seriousness, Maye is a terrific talent and almost the antithesis of a Roy Williams big man. For years and years, Williams was one of the last coaches to embrace the small-ball movement, but as his roster dictated it, he made the change last season and bought in. UNC’s best lineup a season ago featured Maye — a 6-foot-9 forward who is at his best as a shooter or when he has the chance to face-up — at the five with Cameron Johnson — a 6-foot-8 shooter that is officially listed as a guard — at the four. Johnson, along with fellow senior Kenny Williams, will join with Maye to provide Ole’ Roy with plenty of shooting and plenty of veteran leadership.

And, unlike past seasons, that group will be joined by a pair of five-star freshmen in Nassir Little and Coby White.

Little is the name to know here. He’s a consensus top three player in the class and, depending on how R.J. Barrett performs cross-town at Duke, he could end up being the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. He’s a perfect fit alongside Maye and Johnson, as he is more toolsy and, at 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, known more for what he can do defensively. White is the bigger question mark, but we’ll get into that in a bit.

The Tar Heels have a really nice blend of role-playing veterans and talented freshmen to go alongside their all-american senior.

They are also going to be coached by Roy Williams, who is definitively one of the best to ever do it.

Nassir Little (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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BUT NORTH CAROLINA IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

I may be in the minority here, but I actually think that losing Theo Pinson is going to hurt North Carolina more than losing Joel Berry II.

That’s not meant as a shot at Berry, either. He was terrific. He was the MOP when the Tar Heels cut down the nets in 2017. He played in two national title games. His resume speaks for itself.

What he did for this North Carolina team, however, can more easily be replaced than what Pinson did. Berry may have played the point for the Tar Heels last season and he may have been the ‘one’ in Roy Williams’ secondary break, but for all intents and purposes, Pinson was the playmaker on that Tar Heel team the last two years. He’s the guy that made things have in the halfcourt, helping to break down a set defense. He’s the guy that led the program in assists. He was their most important player for long stretches, and while the Tar Heels bring in guys that can score, they don’t have someone that can do the things that Pinson did.

But that doesn’t mean that UNC won’t miss Berry, who provided the kind of leadership every team in the country needs. That’s not necessarily something that can be coached into you. You either have it or you don’t, and Berry had it.

And all of this becomes more relevant when you realize that UNC will likely end up starting a freshman at the point this season …

THE X-FACTOR

… and that brings me to Coby White.

First things first: Roy Williams, more than anything, is known for being a coach that wants to play two bigs as much as possible. He’s also known as a coach that prioritizes playing in transition, that runs a lethal secondary break and that attacks the glass with abandon.

The other thing that Williams’ best teams have been known for has been point guard play.

Ray Felton was the starter with the Tar Heels won the 2005 national title. Ty Lawson ran the show when North Carolina cut down the nets in 2009. The 2017 title saw UNC led by Joel Berry II, who isn’t going to have the NBA career of the other two but who was an all-american in his own right. In 2012, the year where the Tar Heels were the one team that could have kept John Calipari from getting his national title with Kentucky, North Carolina had Kendall Marshall at the point.

Marshall was a pure point guard in every sense of the word, but he’s also something of the outlier in this group.

Coby White (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Berry was more of a natural scorer than he was a playmaker, as Pinson was the guy that North Carolina ran their offense through last season. Felton and Lawson both put up big assist numbers in their time in college — both were clearly more than capable as playmakers — and while they weren’t exactly score-first, they certainly were scoring point guards. Having a player that can go coast-to-coast, having a lead guard that can get him 20 points on any given night, that’s what Williams’ best teams have had. It’s part of what makes his offense work.

And that’s where Coby White comes into play.

A low-end five-star prospect, White is a 6-foot-5 combo-guard that scored a state-record 3,573 points while in high school, a downright ludicrous number that should tell you all you need to know about his reputation as a bucket-getter. It also provides the clear contextual concerns for this UNC team: Not only is White looking at stepping into the ACC as a starting point guard as a freshman, he’s potentially doing so as a score-first combo on a team where he will be surrounded by plenty of shooting and a roster full of veterans, particularly UNC’s all-american big man, Luke Maye.

It’s almost counter-intuitive to say this, but the freshman that could end up being a top two pick in the 2019 NBA Draft — Nassir Little — is less important to North Carolina’s success this season than the freshman that profiles as their next three- or four-year starting point guard.

How quickly will White adjust to playing at the one in the ACC? Can he score at that level? Can he also be more than just a scorer at that level?

The answers to those questions could end up being the difference between the Tar Heels competing for the ACC title and making a run at a Final Four and finishing the year as something closer to a No. 6 seed.

2018-19 OUTLOOK

The Tar Heels should be fine.

They are old, they are talented and they have at least one all-american on a roster that is going to be coached by a Hall of Famer.

That’s enough to win a lot of basketball games.

That said, given the question marks we do have about their point guard situation, I think the ceiling on this team is a little bit limited. In a one-off competition like the NCAA tournament, anyone can win, I just find it difficult to believe that the Tar Heels are going to have the horses to make a run at getting back to the Final Week of the season.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

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

No. 10 Auburn: How will the reigning SEC champs handle what’s returning?

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

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

Today we dive into No. 10 Auburn.


Auburn, last year, had one of the strangest seasons I can recall in my time covering this sport.

No one, and I mean no one, had the Tigers pegged as a surefire tournament team heading into the season. It’s true that Bruce Pearl was coming off of his best season as the head coach of the Tigers, but that doesn’t mean that Auburn was particularly good. The Tigers went 18-14 in 2016-17 and 7-11 in the SEC, climbing out of 13th place in the SEC for the first time in Pearl’s tenure.

So expectations weren’t particularly high heading into the year, and all of that happened before the bombshell of an FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball dropped right as practices were starting.

Suddenly, Auburn and Pearl were thrust into the middle of a massive scandal. Former assistant coach Chuck Person was arrested and charged with fraud, part of a bribery scandal where he was paid as much as $91,000 to help funnel money to players on his roster and exert his influence over where they would opt to invest their money once they reached the professional ranks. Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, two of the most talented players on the team, were ruled ineligible — Purifoy will be suspended for the first nine games of the 2018-19 season as well — while five-star prospect E.J. Montgomery eventually decommitted from the program.

And while all of this was happening, Pearl — who already had an NCAA rap sheet thanks to a barbecue and Aaron Craft — was refusing to speak with Auburn’s investigators; the scuttle was that he might not make it to the new year employed.

What did the Tigers do?

Oh, they just went out and won 26 games, took home a share of the SEC regular season title and reached their first NCAA tournament in 15 years despite losing their best frontcourt weapon in February to a grisly dislocated ankle.

It was a remarkable year, one that likely would have resulted in numerous Coach of the Year awards had Pearl, you know, not been on the brink of being fired.

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AUBURN WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

They bring back a number of key pieces from last season’s team, and get a number of key players back that were in street clothes in March.

Let’s start with Anfernee McLemore. He’s not the most well-known player on this team by a longshot, but I think he may be the most important. When he’s healthy, he is the perfect piece to put at the five for the Tigers. He’s only 6-foot-7, but he’s a terrific athlete vertically, he shot 39.1 percent from three last season and he would have led the nation in block percentage had he managed to play enough minutes to qualify. An energetic rim-protector that can rebound the ball and shoot it from distance is exactly what you want in your big man if you are a team that wants to play fast, spread the floor and create mismatches.

McLemore suffered a gruesome injury to his left ankle in mid-February — think Gordon Hayward — and the Tigers fell off a cliff afterwards. They lost to South Carolina the day he was injured. They lost two of their last four regular season games. They lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and after struggling to beat a short-handed Charleston team in the first round, they were dropped by 31 points in the second round by Clemson. McLemore is expected to be back to 100 percent by the time the season. If and when he is, he’ll be back in the starting lineup and the Tigers should be closer to what they were for the majority of last season.

Anfernee McLemore (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The other guy that is critical to the way that this Auburn team wants to play is point guard Jared Harper. He led the team in assists last season and is integral to the way that they run that uptempo offense. He — and Bryce Brown, the best shooter in the program if not the SEC — both declared for the NBA Draft before opting to return to school. Like McLemore, Brown should be healthy to start the season; he was slowed by a shoulder injury down the stretch of last season.

With the gut that makes their offense click bank in the fold and the most important player defensively healthy, the Tigers should be back to their uptempo, high-scoring ways once again.

They also bring back Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

ST LOUIS, MO – MARCH 09: Jared Harper (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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BUT AUBURN IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

The reason that the Tigers were as good as they were last season was due to the fact that they played in an SEC where everyone was just OK.

Look at the teams that finished behind Auburn and Tennessee in the league standings. Florida finished third despite losing 13 games on the season. It took Kentucky four months to figure out who their go-to guy was, and they still managed to finished fourth in the league, tied in the standings with a Missouri team that didn’t have Michael Porter Jr. Texas A&M was a massive disappointment. Alabama finished below .500 in the conference despite having Colin Sexton and one of the nation’s top ten defenses.

The league was deep, there were plenty of teams that were tournament-worthy and winning a league title in a conference that is that balanced is not something that should be overlooked.

That said, looking up and down Auburn’s roster, what is there that is really all that intimidating? I don’t know that they had an NBA player last season, and that was before they lost Mustapha Heron to a transfer.

What made Auburn so good last season was the style they played — super-uptempo, spread out and hard to guard — while doing so with an energy level higher than everyone they played. I’m not sure if there is a coach in the country better at getting a group of guys with a chip on their shoulder to play with that foxhole mentality than Bruce Pearl, and he proved it last season.

Calling Auburn a group try-hards would not be fair, and I truly do believe that playing hard, playing with a motor and playing with the kind of energy that Auburn did is a skill, but at some point, talent in basketball wins out, and Auburn does not have a roster that is as talented as many of the other top teams around the country and in their own league.

Bryce Brown (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

On the court, the key to this season for the Tigers is going to be how they replace the scoring of Mustapha Heron.

While he has hit warts as a player, Heron was certainly capable of being a guy that could get a bucket when Auburn needed a bucket. He finished the season as the team’s leading scorer and popped off for more than 20 points eight times.

And that brings me to what is arguably the bigger question mark for this program moving forward: How will they reincorporate Purifoy and Wiley into the mix?

Like I mentioned earlier, the reason that Auburn had as much success as they did last season was because they had a group of guys that bought into the collective and fit into the way that Pearl wants to play. Wiley is a former five-star recruit that was once projected as a first round pick, but he’s also a lumbering 6-foot-11 center that is over 250 pounds even when he’s in shape. He is the polar opposite of McLemore, and it is hard to figure how a dude like that is going to play in that offense.

The same can be said for Purifoy, who is a talented wing but, again, is not a player that is necessarily the ideal fit for Auburn’s style of play. Can he fill the scoring void left by Heron?

And can Wiley co-exist on a roster that wants to play fast? What happens if McLemore and Chuma Okeke take over the starting roles? How will the program’s chemistry be if Samir Doughty ends up starting over Purifoy?

2018-19 OUTLOOK

I don’t see Auburn winning a second straight SEC regular season title.

Kentucky is absolutely loaded and might be the best team in the country. Tennessee, who won a share of the title last season, returns everyone from that team. They are going to enter the season in the top five of some preseason rankings, and deservedly so. Auburn, as much as they bring back, has more question marks and more risk than any of the other teams sitting at the top of this league.

That said, it’s hard to ignore the success they had last season or the importance McLemore’s return.

The Tigers should make a return trip to the NCAA tournament and they should do so as a top four seed.

They’re good.

But given what they lost — and, in a way, what they’re getting back — I think it’s more likely that the bottom falls out and this group ends up outside the top 25 than they find a way to win the SEC.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

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

No. 11 Kansas State: Is a return to the Elite 8 in the cards?

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

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

Today we dive into No. 11 Kansas State.


Bruce Weber entered the 2017-18 season on the hot seat and, frankly, nothing about the way that the regular season played out changed that fact.

The Wildcats finished the regular season at 21-10 overall and 10-8 in the Big 12, earning themselves a bid to the NCAA tournament in large part due to the fact that they beat up on the bottom of a Big 12 that was really deep; nine Big 12 teams were on the bubble come Selection Sunday.

Kansas State lost all seven games they played against the top three teams in the league — Kansas, West Virginia and Texas Tech. Their best non-conference win came against a Georgia team that fired their head coach. They didn’t beat a single Big 12 team that finished above .500 in league play.

Sneaking into the tournament as a No. 9 seed seemed like a gift awarded to the Wildcats because they played in a conference that boosted their computer numbers.

And then the NCAA tournament happened.

Despite essentially playing without Dean Wade, Kansas State knocked off Creighton in the first round, ended the Cinderella run of UMBC in the second round and then picked off Kentucky in the Sweet 16 to get within 40 minutes of the Final Four. Loyola-Chicago ended that dream, but the expectations were set.

Kansas State returns every single member of a team that won 25 games and played in the Elite 8.

This will be the most highly-regarded team that Weber has had entering a season in Manhattan.

And in a way, this may be the most pressure he’s ever had to win.

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KANSAS STATE WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

This team has the three components that you look for in a good college basketball team.

For starters, the Wildcats really do have good guard play. Barry Brown is the name that you need to know. A tough, 6-foot-3 lead guard, Brown is a 195-pound bowling ball when he decides he wants to get to the rim. He is also a tenacious defender — he hounded Trae Young twice last season — and was the forgotten man in a conference that was absolutely stacked at the point guard spot a year ago. If he learns how to make consistently threes, Brown will be a first-team all-Big 12 player this season and a potential second round pick in June.

Kamau Stokes will help to lessen the playmaking load on Brown, and he is also a sparkplug offensively, a dynamic scorer that can pop off for 25 points. Xavier Sneed and Cartier Diarra are floor-spacers and versatile wings that are tough enough to let the Wildcats play super-small at times. Throw in Mike McGuirl — a sophomore that burned his redshirt when Stokes was injured last season only to drop 17 points on Creighton in the first round of the NCAA tournament — and the Wildcats have a ton of guard depth.

And the best part about all that guard depth is that they all can defend. As a team, the Wildcats finished 21st nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. They get killed on the glass — that’s what happens when you play four guys that are 6-foot-5 or shorter for extended minutes — but they make up for it by running teams off of the three-point line and forcing turnovers with their ball pressure.

So we have a team with really good guard play that can really defend.

The last piece of the puzzle?

Dean Wade.

This is not a name that many people nationally are going to be all that familiar with. He saw limited minutes in Kansas State’s tournament run after suffering a foot injury in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals, and he spent last season playing in a league where he was in the shadow of Kansas, Trae Young, Press Virginia and Texas Tech’s rise. But this kid can play. He’s 6-foot-10 but shoots 44 percent from three. He can pass the ball, he can move without the ball and he can play the four or the five. If you don’t want to believe me, this is what Mo Bamba had to say about him:

“I’d say one of the toughest players that I played against as far as just scouting, like, this was the first player that I looked at as far as tendencies and seeing what he does, is [Kansas State’s] Dean Wade. I’m not sure if you guys are familiar with him, but he’s really good. He’s super talented. He’s about 6-9 but can really move, and it was a challenge defensively.”

I like it when the dots connect, and, on this Kansas State team, all the dots connect.

It’s hard to see them being a total bust this year.

Dean Wade (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
RELATED: Expert Picks | CBT Podcast | Best non-conference games

BUT KANSAS STATE IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

Outside of those three wins in March, Kansas State did nothing that would lead us to believe that they are going to be good enough to be a top 10-15 team in college basketball this season.

They lost seven games to Kansas, West Virginia and Texas Tech last season by an average of 16 points. Their only win over a Big 12 team that finished .500 in league play came when they beat TCU at home, and even that may not technically count; the Horned Frogs went 9-9 in the regular season and then lost their Big 12 tournament opener to Kansas State, dropping them to 9-10 against league foes on the year.

The Wildcats beat Georgia during the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, and that came just two months before Georgia fired head coach Mark Fox. They beat Vanderbilt and Washington State. The best thing you can say about Kansas State’s regular season is that they didn’t lose at home against anyone outside of the top three in the league, and they managed to pick off Baylor, Texas, Oklahoma State and Iowa State on the road.

Which is fine.

In a year where the Big 12 was as deep as it was, that’s enough to get into the NCAA tournament.

But if the Wildcats hadn’t advanced to the Elite 8 — hell, if they had lost to Kentucky in the Sweet 16, capping their tournament run at wins over a No. 8 and a No. 16 seed — I’m not sure they’d have the hype they currently have heading into this season …

THE X-FACTOR

… which is why the x-factor for Kansas State isn’t so much what they are capable of but rather how they will handle the burden that comes with being targeted.

There are three or four names that can make the claim of being the second-best team in the Big 12 this season, and Kansas State — along with West Virginia, TCU and maybe even Iowa State — are right there in the mix. They are going to enter the season with a very high ranking next to their name. Every game they play, from their opener against Kennesaw State to their trip to the Paradise Jam to a visit to Marquette to a game against Kansas in the Octagon of Doom, will be one of, if not the biggest game that their opponent is going to play.

We’ve seen teams struggle with this before.

Just last season, Northwestern followed up their first-ever trip to the NCAA tournament with a preseason top 20 ranking and a disastrous season that left them utterly irrelevant by the time that Thanksgiving rolled around.

There’s another side of this as well.

Bruce Weber is an underrated coach. He gets a lot of stick for what he’s been able to accomplish since he arrived in Manhattan, and I don’t think that it is entirely warranted. This is also his seventh season at Kansas State, and the Wildcats have yet to come close to matching what he accomplished in his first season — a 27-8 record, a 14-4 mark in the Big 12 and a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. Prior to last year’s Elite 8 run, he had been to just two tournaments in the last four years and was 0-3 in the Big Dance in his Kansas State tenure.

Barry Brown (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

I say all that to say this: The truth is that a coach never really gets off of the hot seat. Once a fan base decides that they want a coach gone, that coach is always one season — hell, one game — away from having people calling for his job. Ask Tom Crean about this.

Seeing how Weber will handle any disappoints, especially those that come early in the season, will be fascinating. The Kansas State fanbase is very well aware of the fact that missing out on Brad
Underwood, an alumnus and a former Frank Martin assistant that has twice changed jobs in the last 30 months, may mean missing out on an elite head coach that would have a reason to wind down his career with them.

The hype for this Kansas State team is very real — we have them 11th nationally, and that likely won’t be an outlier — even if there is a chance the team may not be.

What will happen if the Wildcats end up being closer to a borderline top 25 team than a borderline top 10 team? Will Weber be able to get this team to continue to perform if they don’t live up to expectations they had no part in creating?

And will that end up being his ultimate downfall?

Kansas State is one of the most interesting teams to follow this season.

2018-19 OUTLOOK

I think Kansas State will be just fine.

They might not end up being the second-best team in the Big 12, but I don’t see anyway they aren’t right there with the two or three teams that are chasing Kansas. They might not end up being a top two or three seed heading into the NCAA tournament, but I have a hard team seeing them fall past the No. 5-seed line.

This is a veteran group with March experience that defends, that has tough guards and that has two first-team all-Big 12-caliber players, including a potential all-american in Dean Wade.

There floor is quite high, even if there isn’t necessarily a Final Four-ceiling with this group.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

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