Auburn landed its fifth verbal pledge in the Class of 2019 Tuesday evening, as four-star combo guard Tyrell Jones announced his commitment. The 6-foot-1 Jones, who currently attends West Oaks Academy in Orlando and played for the Showtime Ballers program on the adidas Uprising circuit, took his official visit to Auburn in mid-September.
Jones is one of three four-star commits in Auburn’s 2019 class to date, with wings Allen Flanigan and Jaylin Williams being the others, and guard Isaac Okoro and forward Babatunde Akingbola round out the quintet.
During Bruce Pearl’s rebuild at Auburn the program’s had multiple perimeter players who can create off the dribble, opening things up for themselves and their teammates, and Jones fits the mold. At minimum Auburn will have to account for the loss of senior guard Bryce Brown after the upcoming season, with junior guards Jared Harper, Samir Doughty and J’Von McCormick all being upperclassmen as well.
Add in senior wing Malik Dunbar and junior Danjel Purifoy, and Auburn has six perimeter upperclassmen on the current roster. The 2019 recruiting class will go a long way towards bolstering that area of the program, with regards to both depth and talent.
No. 10 Auburn: How will the reigning SEC champs handle what’s returning?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Mustapha Heron has been ruled immediately eligible after an offseason transfer from Auburn to St. John’s, the school announced on Saturday. Heron’s eligibility was first reported by Adam Zagoria.
One of the biggest transfers to make a move last offseason, the 6-foot-4 Heron gives the Red Storm a potent double-figure scorer as expectations will now be sky-high for St. John’s to make a run for a bid to the NCAA tournament. Heron is receiving a hardship waiver from the NCAA, as the Waterbury, Connecticut native moved closer to home so that he could be near his ill mother.
As a sophomore with the Tigers last season, Heron put up 16.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, helping lead Auburn to a surprising season in the SEC. Entering the 2018 NBA Draft process before pulling his name out and transferring, Heron is a former five-star prospect who brings a lot of hype to the Red Storm for this season.
St. John’s now as four returning double-figure scorers in the lineup for next season, including two All-American candidates in Heron and junior guard Shamorie Ponds. That duo, along with junior guard Justin Simon, and senior forward Marvin Clark II, gives the Red Storm one of the most intimidating lineups in the Big East. Finding a big man who can rebound and protect the rim might ultimately be the key to the ceiling of St. John’s season, but adding a high-caliber weapon like Heron is huge step for the Red Storm.
Scandal Proof: A year after the arrests, is college basketball immune to change or consequence?
Four high major assistant coaches, two shoe company executives, the head of a high-profile AAU program, a former runner for an NBA agent, a Princeton-based financial advisor and a former NBA-referee-turned-suit-maker were caught up in the FBI raids that would eventually end the career of one prominent NBA agent and implicate ten high-major programs — Louisville, Arizona, USC, Auburn, Oklahoma State, Miami, South Carolina, Kansas, Maryland and Alabama — while leaving dozens more twisting in the winds of rumor and hearsay.
This was supposed to be the moment of reckoning for a sport that had, many believe, spun out of control, a chance for the federal government to do what the NCAA had proven incapable of for so many decades: Clean up college hoops.
The FBI had exposed, as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Joon Kim referred to it, “the dark underbelly of college athletics.”
“Today’s arrests serve as a warning to others choosing to conduct business this way in the world of college athletics,” Kim added, “We have your playbook.”
A year on, and eight of the 10 people arrested will be heading to trial in the next six months while one Hall of Fame head coach has lost his job as a result of the investigation.
But the reality, no matter what the NCAA or the FBI has tried to tout over the course of the last 12 months, is that not much has truly changed, and that the one measure the NCAA could have taken to find an answer was hardly even discussed.
In the weeks and months after armed FBI agents raided the homes of the 10 men who were arrested, the entire college basketball world felt like it came to a halt.
Everyone — media members, coaches, players, agents — was, and to a point still is, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
If the FBI had managed to clandestinely investigate college basketball for more than two years, if they had wiretaps on the phones of powerful shoe company executives like Jim Gatto and Merl Code Jr., then there had to be more famous names than Book Richardson and Tony Bland just waiting to get arrested. All of those man-hours, the grandiose press conference touting the end of corruption in college basketball, it wasn’t just so the Southern District of New York could parade out four assistant coaches and a couple guys that helped distribute Adidas’ slush fund and say they fixed the sport.
There had to be more.
But as the weeks and months passed, it became more and more evident that this case had as much to do with Mischa Barton as it did a targeted strike on the biggest players in the world of amateur basketball.
Marty Blazer, a Pittsburgh-based financial advisor for professional athletes, was caught by the SEC committing securities fraud, illegally using his clients’ money to fund Hollywood movies — like this flop, which starred Barton, Devon Sawa and Michael Clarke-Duncan — at the same time that his name and firm was tied to the agent scandal that was developing on the campus of North Carolina. He flipped, and he offered the government the sport of college basketball.
Blazer started handing out bribes to assistant coaches, trading wads of cash for handshake agreements of influence over where soon-to-be professional athletes would invest their money. That eventually led him, and the FBI agents listening to his phone calls and conversations, to Christian Dawkins, a former runner for ex-NBA agent Andy Miller.
Dawkins was the perfect mark, a young go-getter that was connected enough to attract big names and high-profile programs while being green enough that he didn’t recognize the con. Blazer had put Auburn assistant Chuck Person and Oklahoma State assistant Lamont Evans on the radar. Dawkins was the one that brought Louisville, USC, and a number of other programs into that Las Vegas hotel suite, the one wired for video and sound by the undercover FBI agents posing as Dawkins’ money men. He helped get Gatto and Code on the FBI’s radar, which in turn ensnared the likes of Miami, Arizona, Kansas and Maryland.
But the bottom never fell out. The blue-bloods — Duke, Kentucky, UNC, Indiana, UCLA — more-or-less remained unscathed. The biggest name to get fired was Rick Pitino and his athletic director, Tom Jurich, but that had as much to do with the fact that this was Pitino’s third embarrassing scandal as it did the Louisville coaching staff getting caught (allegedly) helping to funnel $100,000 to a prospect.
In fact, one could argue that most of the programs that were caught up in the raid are doing better than ever.
Take, for example, Auburn.
Person, then an assistant with the Tigers, allegedly accepted at least $91,500 in bribes from Blazer in exchange for steering players Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy to Blazer for financial services, going as far as to lie to the players and their families about how well he knew Blazer and their past professional relationship. Getting kickbacks — or, as Person’s lawyer refers to it, “referral fees” — to send players that trust you to shady financial advisors is much different than finding a way to funnel $100,000 to the family of a player to get him on your roster.
Person will go to trial to face six federal charges in February of 2019.
They are coming off of their best season in decades. They won their first SEC regular season title since 1999 and just their third league title in program history last year. They reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003. They enter this season as the No. 10 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25, and Bruce Pearl — their head coach who has already served a three-year show-cause penalty for lying to NCAA investigators about violating NCAA rules — received a five-year contract extension in June.
Louisville is the program that had to deal with the most direct evidence of cheating, as it became quite evident that Adidas helped the coaching staff funnel $100,000 to five-star recruit Brian Bowen in exchange for his commitment. This cost Hall of Fame head coach Rick Pitino his job — and possibly his career.
But it’s not like the Cardinals are suffering. They went out and hired the best young coach in the sport in Chris Mack, and he has proceeded to put together a recruiting class that would have made his predecessor envious. Four four-star recruits have committed since May, including three players in the month of September, one of whom was previously committed to the program under Pitino.
USC and Arizona both had an assistant coaches get arrested for accepting bribes. The Trojans currently have the nation’s top-ranked 2019 recruiting class — including a pair of five-star recruits — and are the favorite to land a commitment from the top player in the Class of 2020. They also managed to land a top 20 recruiting class this year.
Arizona dealt with as much fallout from the FBI investigation as anyone, losing a five-star prospect in Jahvon Quinerly, an assistant coach and nearly a head coach after a questionable report about head coach Sean Miller getting caught on a wiretap surfaced. Despite all of that, Arizona is still a force to be reckoned with on the recruiting trail. Five-star guard Nico Mannion picked the Wildcats over Duke and Kansas, among many others.
Kansas themselves were officially linked to the investigation after a superseding indictment in April, and while that might cost them Silvio De Sousa this season the way it cost them Billy Preston last season, the Jayhawks are still sitting as the preseason No. 1 team in the country. They are still coming off of a run to the 2018 Final Four. Quentin Grimes, a five-star prospect from Texas and a potential top five pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, didn’t seem too worried about the investigation when he enrolled for this season.
Alabama is coming off of a trip to the NCAA tournament and looks like a team that can get back there again next season. Maryland may not have returned to the heights that they were at prior to leaving the ACC, but that has as much to do with Mark Turgeon as it does any links to this investigation. Miami looks to be headed to a down year, but that probably has more to do with the natural swings that come with being a mid-level program in the ACC as anything.
Scandal does not impact a program as much as you might think. North Carolina reached a title game and won the title the following season with the recruiting classes that were built during the throes of the investigation into academic fraud. Impropriety is not going to affect recruiting. Instability does.
Once it became clear Sean Miller wasn’t losing his job, Arizona was back to landing five-stars. Once Louisville landed another elite head coach, the Cardinals were back to getting the players the program is used to. That’s why Bruce Pearl got his extension.
As much as Condoleezza Rice and the NCAA would like you to believe, not much has actually changed in the day-to-day realities of running a high-major college basketball program.
At this point, we know how ridiculous it is that the FBI is stepping in to try and turn the NCAA’s amateurism bylaws into federal law. We know that the legs that this case stands on are flimsy, that the men going to trial are facing decades in prison for something that no one truly believes is a crime. We know that the victims in this case — the universities — are not actually victims, that they are willingly complicit in the deals that get done. If they weren’t, would Kansas have signed a 12-year, $191 million extension on their apparel deal with Adidas after Adidas victimized the university by allegedly funneling $90,000 to the family of Preston and $20,000 to the guardian of De Sousa?
The question that is left here is what comes next, and that likely depends on what happens over the course of the three trials. Dawkins, Gatto and Code will be in court beginning on October 1st. The trial for Person and Michel is scheduled to begin on Feb. 4th, 2019, while the trial for Richardson, Evans and Bland is set to begin on April 22nd, 2019.
And that’s where things are going to get dicey for the programs that have had their names tied up in this scandal. Once those trials begin, the evidence that the FBI gathered over the course of their two-year investigation — which included wiretaps, undercover sting operations and the seizure of cell phones and laptops — becomes public. We’ve gotten a taste of what might be included in that evidence already. In February, Yahoo Sports got their hands on a couple of pages of evidence, and that was enough to get programs like Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State and Texas linked to this investigation.
What happens when all of that evidence comes out?
Perhaps more importantly, what happens when the NCAA if finally allowed to get their hands on all of this evidence?
But what the Commission did manage to get through this rule change: “People charged with investigating and resolving NCAA cases can accept information established by another administrative body, including a court of law [or] government agency.” In other words, the NCAA can use any and all evidence that the FBI dug up to hammer schools, coaches and players that found themselves caught in this mess.
They won’t actually start their investigatory procedures until the legal process has fully played out, but they absolutely will have a chance to come down hard on the offenders that get exposed by the FBI.
That stability currently being enjoyed by Louisville, USC, Arizona and the like?
We’ll see how long it lasts.
CBT Podcast: Breaking down our top 25, preseason All-Americans
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 unveiling the NBC Sports preseason top 25. Over the course of the next five weeks, we will be taking long, in-depth dives into each of these 25 teams. You can follow along with that right here.
Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25. You can find them here:
Losing Graham is a major, major blow for this program, but they had as much talent sitting out this season as any program in college basketball. Cal transfer Moore should be able to step in and handle the point guard duties – if that role isn’t taken over by Dotson – while Dedric Lawson and K.J. Lawson will give Bill Self actual power forwards, something he has been yearning for the last two years. This team is talented, they are old, they are well coached and they have a functional point guard on their roster. There is a lot to like about the Jayhawks heading into the year.
As always, there is quite a bit of turnover on the Kentucky roster. Six key pieces from last year are gone, while the Wildcats bring in yet another loaded recruiting class. I think the combination of incoming backcourt talent and the remaining front court veterans is going to be a fun combination for Kentucky fans to watch, especially when Stanford grad transfer Travis is factored into the mix. The big question for Kentucky is going to be how they can put a team on the floor that can both shoot and play the kind of elite-level defense we all are expecting. Cal has plenty of weapons, and it will be fascinating to see how he decides to deploy them.
3. GONZAGA BULLDOGS
Who’s gone: Silas Melson, Johnathan Williams III
Who do they add: Geno Crandall, Brandon Clarke, Joel Ayayi, Filip Petrušev, Greg Foster Jr.
I’m not fully convinced that I love Perkins as a point guard, but with Norvell and Kispert a year older and Hachimura and Tillie on the front line, the Zags have a chance to be really, really good once again. Throw in the transfer additions of Clarke and Crandall as well as a couple more talented foreigners — Ayayi and Petrušev — and this is just about what you would expect for Gonzaga.
4. DUKE BLUE DEVILS
Who’s gone: Grayson Allen, Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Trevon Duval, Gary Trent Jr.
Who do they add: Tre Jones, Cam Reddish, R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Joey Baker
Projected starting lineup: Tre Jones, Cam Reddish, R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Javin DeLaurier
The Blue Devils are a team that has a lot left to figure out. Bagley, Trent, Duval and Carter are all following Allen out the door to make way for another loaded recruiting class. I’m still torn on how this Duke team — which will likely end up starting four freshmen — will play. That has not always been the path to success, but the talent here is impossible to ignore. There’s a non-zero chance that Barrett, Williamson and Reddish could end up going 1-2-3 in the 2019 NBA Draft. The big question with this group is going to be how well the pieces gel together and whether or not there is enough shooting (and willing defenders) to allow this group to play the way teams like Villanova, Golden State and Boston play. I explain that line of thinking more here.
Who do they add: Jahvon Quinerly, Cole Swider, Brandon Slater, Joe Cremo, Saddiq Bey
Projected starting lineup: Jahvon Quinerly, Phil Booth, Jermaine Samuels, Eric Paschall, Cole Swider
Villanova did not fair well at the NBA early entry deadline, losing four of the top 33 picks in the draft. I’m still willing to ride with the Wildcats, as I think they are more experienced than they will get credit for — Paschall and Booth are fifth-year seniors after all — and because Jay Wright’s teams always have people ready to step in and contribute immediately. Expect a breakout year from Jermaine Samuels, and don’t be surprised when Paschall is an All-American and a first round pick come the end of the season.
6. NEVADA WOLF PACK
Who’s gone: Kendell Stephens, Hallice Cooke, Josh Hall
Who do they add: Tre’Shawn Thurman, Corey Henson, Jazz Johnson, Nisre Zouzoua, Kwame Hymes, Vince Lee, Trey Porter, Jordan Brown
Projected starting lineup: Caleb Martin, Cody Martin, Jordan Caroline, Trey Porter, Jordan Brown
Getting the Martin twins back is massive. Drew’s recovery from a torn achilles is also something that could be a problem, but this was a wildly talented team that came a point away from the Elite Eight despite losing their starting point guard and having their best player (Caleb Martin) deal with a foot injury the last two months of the season, and they basically bring everyone back. This is the best Mountain West team since Kawhi and Jimmer were running roughshod over the league.
7. TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS
Who’s gone: James Daniel III
Who do they add: No one
Projected starting lineup: Lamonte’ Turner, Jordan Bone, Jordan Bowden, Admiral Schofield, Grant Williams
Tennessee won the SEC last season and returns literally everyone from that team outside of Daniel, who came off the bench. Williams was the SEC Player of the Year last year, and Rick Barnes has plenty of perimeter talent and switchable players at his disposal. There are also some young, talented pieces on this roster — Bone, Bowden, Yves Pons, Kyle Alexander — that still have room to develop. I don’t think it’s crazy to think Tennessee could end up making a run at a No. 1 seed.
8. VIRGINIA CAVALIERS
Who’s gone: Devon Hall, Isaiah Wilkins, Nigel Johnson
Who do they add: Kody Stattmann, Kihei Clark, Francisco Caffaro
Projected starting lineup: Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, Deandre Hunter, Mamadi Diakite, Jack Salt
I’ll never doubt Virginia again (unless they are a No. 1 seed … kidding!), even when they are losing their best guard and their best defender. Hunter is ready to step up and be the star for this team, and I think Mamadi Diakite will have a chance to be an elite defensive presence. If there is a real concern here, it’s depth, but I trust Tony Bennett will be able to figure something out. Always trust in Tony.
9. NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS
Who’s gone: Joel Berry III, Theo Pinson, Jalek Felton
Who do they add: Coby White, Nassir Little, Rechon Black
Projected starting lineup: Coby White, Kenny Williams, Nassir Little, Cam Johnson, Luke Maye
Where you rank UNC in the preseason is going to depend entirely on two things: How good you think their freshmen — White and Little — are going to be, and what kind of development you expect out of Brandon Huffman, Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks. Will there be a returning player in college basketball this season that is better than Maye?
Auburn will lose Heron, who might have been their best player last season, but return everyone else from a team that won the SEC. Their guards are just so talented, and that was without Purifoy and Doughty. The health of McLemore, who suffered a dreadful ankle injury in February, will be critical, as well as the development of Chuma Okeke. But we saw what Pearl could do with these pieces last season, and that was with the FBI investigation hanging over their head.
11. KANSAS STATE WILDCATS
Who’s gone: No one
Who do they add: Shaun Williams
Projected starting lineup: Kamau Stokes, Barry Brown, Carter Diarra, Xavier Sneed, Dean Wade
This will probably be the highest that you see the Wildcats ranked heading into the season, but I really like this group. They have a crop of tough-minded, playmaking guards that can really get out and defend, and their best player might actually be a guy that the public at-large hasn’t really seen play in Wade. Bruce Weber is going to silence the haters!
12. VIRGINIA TECH HOKIES
Who’s gone: Devin Wilson, Justin Bibbs
Who do they add: Jon Kabongo, Landers Nolley II, Jarren McAllister
Projected starting lineup: Justin Robinson, Ahmed Hill, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Chris Clarke, Kerry Blackshear
The Hokies bring back seven of their top eight players, but the key for this team is going to be the development of their rising sophomore class: Alexander-Walker, Wabissa Bede, P.J. Horne. We know how good Clarke, Robinson and Blackshear are, but if those three take a step forward we could be looking at a top ten team.
13. MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS
Who’s gone: Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson, Ben Carter, Gavin Schilling, Tum Tum Nairn
Who do they add: Foster Loyer, Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown, Marcus Bingham Jr., Thomas Kithier
Projected starting lineup: Cassius Winston, Matt McQuaid, Josh Langford, Nick Ward, Xavier Tillman
I can’t help but look at this roster and see all the same issues that they had this past season, only without their two most talented players. Turnovers. Lack of star power. Some defensive issues. Winston has a chance to be a first-team all-Big Ten player, but Langford and Ward are going to have to live up to their potential. It feels like this group has nice pieces, but that those pieces doesn’t necessarily fit together. That said, who is better? What team is without warts?
14. FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES
Who’s gone: Braian Angola, C.J. Walker, Brandon Allen
I really like this group in theory. They have a whole bunch of athletic, switchable wings that can score. Mann, Walker and Kabengele returning was key, as is finding some point guard depth now that C.J. Walker left the program. Getting Cofer back for a fifth-year is enormous.
15. TCU HORNED FROGS
Who’s gone: Kenrich Williams, Vlad Brodziansky, Ahmed Hamdy
Who do they add: Kendric Davis, Kaden Archie, Angus McWilliam, Yuat Alok, Russel Barlow Jr.
Projected starting lineup: Alex Robinson, Jaylen Fisher, Desmond Bane, Kouat Noi, Kevin Samuel
Losing Williams and Brodziansky is going to be a blow, but there are still plenty of pieces. Bane and Noi should be in line for breakout seasons, and Jamie Dixon going small-ball with a two-point guard look should be fun to watch. Will Fisher ever be healthy?
16. UCLA BRUINS
Who’s gone: Aaron Holiday, Thomas Welsh, G.G. Goloman, LiAngelo Ball
Who do they add: Tyger Campbell, Shareef O’Neal, Moses Brown, Kenny Nwuba, David Singleton III, Jules Bernard, Cody Riley, Jalen Hill
Projected starting lineup: Jaylen Hands, Prince Ali, Kris Wilkes, Cody Riley, Moses Brown
This is a make or break year for Steve Alford. With every underclassmen except Aaron Holiday back, meaning that back-to-back top five-ish recruiting classes are on campus. It’s time for the Bruins to put up or shut up, and I think they’ll be right there as a favorite to win the Pac-12 … if they decide they want to play defense.
West Virginia has survived losing program guys in past seasons, but Carter and Miles were responsible for turning West Virginia into Press Virginia. Calling them program guys is a disservice. So we’ll see how this plays out. At this point, we have to trust that Bob Huggins will figure out a way to make it work.
18. OREGON DUCKS
Who’s gone: Elijah Brown, MiKyle McIntosh, Troy Brown
Who do they add: Bol Bol, Louis King, Miles Norris, Will Richardson
Projected starting lineup: Payton Pritchard, Louis King, Paul White, Kenny Wooten, Bol Bol
For my money, Oregon’s season hung on whether or not Brown returned to school, and he’s gone. Bol and King are both potential one-and-done players, and Wooten is an elite defensive prospect, but I’m in a wait and see mode with them. Personally, I’m not on the Bol Bol bandwagon, but I understand why he is, in theory, a high-level prospect. They’re here because of the talent and Dana Altman, and we bought into that.
19. SYRACUSE ORANGE
Who’s gone: Matthew Moyer
Who do they add: Buddy Boeheim, Jalen Carey, Eli Hughes, Robert Braswell
Projected starting lineup: Tyus Battle, Franklin Howard, Oshae Brissett, Marek Dolezaj, Paschal Chukwu
The Orange had no depth and very little perimeter shooting last season, but it looks like that was addressed in the offseason. With Battle and Brissett back in the fold, this Syracuse team has a chance to match watchable offense with one of college basketball’s very best defenses.
20. LSU Tigers
Who’s gone: Duop Reath, Randy Onwuasor, Aaron Epps, Jeremy Combs, Mayan Kiir, Galen Alexander
Who do they add: Naz Reid, Emmitt Williams, Javonte Smart, Darius Days, Kavell Bigby-Williams
LSU is really young. They are also really talented. Waters is so entertaining, and the incoming trio of Smart, Reid and Williams is very good. Effort will be a key, as will their ability to play together, but they have a chance to be really good.
21. MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS
Who’s gone: No one
Who do they add: Reggie Perry, Robert Woodard, Jethro Tshisumpa Mbiya, D.J. Stewart
Projected starting lineup: Lamar Peters, Nick Weatherspoon, Quinndary Weatherspoon, Aric Holman, Abdul Ado
I am not totally sold on Ben Howland getting this thing going at Mississippi State, but this will be his most talented team. The Weatherspoon brothers are both going to be good players, Peters still intrigues some NBA teams and Holman should fill a role. Reggie Perry should be a nice addition and an impact player as well.
22. CLEMSON TIGERS
Who’s gone: Gabe DeVoe, Donte Grantham, Mark Donnal
Who do they add: John Newman III, Hunter Tyson, Trey Jamison, Javan White
Projected starting lineup: Shelton Mitchell, Marcquise Reed, David Skara, Aamir Simms, Elijah Thomas
With Mitchell and Reed back in the fold, plus Elijah Thomas in the paint, this has the makings of another team that will push for a top five seed.
Who do they add: Ignas Brazdeikis, David DeJulius, Brandon Johns, Adrian Nunez, Colin Castleton
Projected starting lineup: Zavier Simpson, Charles Matthews, Jordan Poole, Isaiah Livers, Jon Teske
Losing Wagner and Abdur-Rahkman, the program’s two best offensive weapons, are major blows for a team that struggled to score a season ago. Matthews’ decision to return is key and they will really be able to guard again, but one of their three big wings is going to need to take a major step forward for them offensively.
24. N.C. STATE WOLFPACK
Who’s gone: Omer Yurtseven, Al Freeman, Abdul-Malik Abu, Lennard Freeman, Sam Hunt
Who do they add: C.J. Bryce, Devon Daniels, Blake Harris, Jericole Hellems, Derek Funderburk, Ian Steere, Immanuel Bates
Kevin Keatts is going to miss Yurtseven, because he doesn’t have any size on his roster anymore. He does, however, have half-a-million guards on his roster, and all of them can play. That’s enough for me to bet on Keatts getting it done.
25. MARQUETTE GOLDEN EAGLES
Who’s gone: Andrew Rowsey, Haanif Cheatam, Harry Froling
Who do they add: Ed Morrow, Joseph Chartouny, Joey Hauser, Brendan Bailey
Projected starting lineup: Markus Howard, Joseph Chartouny, Sacar Anim, Sam Hauser, Matt Heldt
Marquette will be the second-best team in the Big East if they figure out how to defense. Howard is an all-american, while the Hauser brothers will provide plenty of offensive firepower. Chartouny’s addition is key, as is Morrow’s. Both are tough, veteran defensive presences.