As the game has moved more and more to prizing versatility and positional flexibility, the amorphous “wing” designation has perhaps never been more important.
Coaches prize players that can guard one-through-four (and sometimes five) thanks to length and athleticism while still being skilled enough stretch the floor with shooting and attacking defenses with penetration.
How in demand those skills are is reflected at the top of our list.
It is dominated by freshmen who almost surely will spend one year in college basketball before being among the first players NBA commissioner Adam Silver announces at the NBA draft come June.
The players on this list will not only make up the top of mock drafts all winter and spring long, they’ll perhaps be the most impactful in determining who is the last team standing in Minneapolis come April.
Could the top four picks in the draft be on this list?
It’s very possible.
1. R.J. BARRETT, Duke
The 6-foot-7 Blue Devils freshman is the universal projection to be the top pick in the NBA draft come June. He’s been heralded as a potential top pick for years, certainly since as a 17-year-old he put 38 points on Team USA en route to a FIBA U19 World Cup crown.
This season, he’ll be leading the way for an ultra-talented Duke team that will once again lean heavily on freshmen. Barrett is a lot of pundits’ bet to be on the shortlist for National Player of the Year come March, and there’s little doubt that there are few that can match Barrett’s ceiling. He’s a top-tier scorer, an excellent rebounder and a gifted distributor.
2. ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke
There are few people in the world with the physical gifts Zion WIlliamson possesses. He’s 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds, which is a frame built for bruising, yet Williamson is a high-flyer. Whatever happens for the rest of his career, he’s a mixtape legend. It’s also worth mentioning he’s got 1.8 million followers on Instagram. Williamson isn’t the best player – not even the best freshman or wing, according to this list – on his team, but he might be the most-watched college basketball player this year.
The challenge for Williamson this season will be to shed the “just a dunker” label, even though that sounds like an awesome label. It’ll also be interesting to see what his role is with a team featuring Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones.
3. NASSIR LITTLE, North Carolina
Are you noticing a trend here? Little makes for three freshmen among the top of these rankings, an indication of the strength of the 2018 class, but also how integral wings are in the pace-and-space era. Not many of the good ones are spending much time in the college ranks.
Little may not have the Q-Score of Barrett or Williamson, but he’s going to rival both in impact on winning. The 6-foot-6 Florida product has a wingspan that measures more than 7 feet and was the MVP of the McDonald’s All-American game this past spring. He’ll also have the luxury of a veteran offensive focal point in Luke Maye to allow him a little more room to operate.
4. DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia
Hunter had a shot of being a first-round pick in June’s draft, but instead opted to return to Virginia following a freshman season in which he averaged 9.2 points and shot 38.2 percent from 3-point range in fewer than 20 minutes per game.
The 6-foot-7 Philadelphia native probably – almost certainly – won’t put up overly impressive raw numbers given Virginia’s pace of play, but if he’s given more time on the floor, which is expected, his usage rate and efficiency numbers from his rookie campaign suggests he could be in for a big season.
5. ERIC PASCHALL, Villanova
Paschall might have the best chance to overperform this ranking as he steps into a major role at Villanova following the departure of the Wildcats’ top four players from last year’s national championship team to the NBA. As a junior, Paschall averaged 10.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game.
What suggests he may be on the path to stardom, though, is he led the conference in Big East play in offensive rating with a monster 134.2 number thanks to shooting 45.7 percent from 3-point range during league play that helped translate to a true shooting percentage of 72.4 He may not be able to maintain those efficiency numbers with a bigger workload and an intensified defensive focus, but a small hit will probably be outweighed by an increase in volume.
6. CAM REDDISH, Duke
Hey, look, another Duke freshman. And another McDonald’s All-American. The top-five recruit averaged 23.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.5 steals in EYBL play ahead of his senior season in 2017 and makes up one fifth of the Blue Devils’ top-ranked 2018 class.
Reddish is ultra-talented, even if he’s behind his new teammates Barrett and Williamson. How Mike Krzyzewski makes the pieces fit will be one of the more interesting things to see unfold this season, but there’s no doubting the amount of talent Duke is going to have on the wing this season.
7. CHARLES MATTHEWS, Michigan
The 6-foot-6 Chicago native had a breakthrough sophomore season for the Wolverines last season, averaging 13 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists while playing 30 minutes per game, all after barely cracking the Michigan lineup as a freshman.
Matthews’ ability to ratchet things up once again will be key in Michigan’s encore season after last year’s NCAA tournament title game appearance. The show will be more of his to run without Mo Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, and how he is able to handle a bigger role will help determine the Big Ten pecking order.
8. JAMES PALMER, Nebraska
Palmer went from an afterthought at Miami to a budding star at Nebraska. He averaged 3.5 points in 11.9 minutes per game as a sophomore with the Hurricants, but after sitting out the 2016-17 season upon transferring to Lincoln, the 6-foot-6 swingman put up 17.2 points in 31 minutes per game.
What holds Palmer back from being further up this list is his shooting. He converted just 30.9 percent of his shots from 3-point range and a pedestrian 51.3 percent on shots inside the arc for an effective field goal percentage of 49.6. If he can bump those numbers up – and the Huskers can get back to the tournament for the first time since 2014 – Palmer will find himself making a few more waves.
9. KELDON JOHNSON, Kentucky
The Oak Hill Academy grad is also an alum of the McDonald’s All-American and Jordan Brand Classic games, Johnson isn’t necessarily the most highly-regarded of Kentucky coach John Calipari’s 2018 recruiting class, but he’ll provide the firepower on the wing that none of Cal’s other five-star can. The 6-foot-6 freshman, who is also an NBPA Top 100 Camp MVP, averaged 20.7 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists in EYBL play ahead of his senior season.
10. JORDAN CAROLINE, Nevada
The Martin brothers might draw the most attention for the Wolf Pack, but the 6-foot-7 Caroline shouldn’t be overlooked on one of the country’s best teams (we’ve got Nevada sixth in the preseason). The Southern Illinois transfer averaged 17.7 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game as a junior.
He’s a high-usage player for the Wolf Pack, and a high-rate rebounder as well. If the ‘Pack are going to max out – and make one “expert” look pretty smart – Caroline is going to be a massive reason why.
2018-2019 Big Ten Conference Preview: Is this Michigan State’s league again?
Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.
Today, we are previewing the Big Ten.
Nothing about this season’s Big Ten is certain. With only two preseason NBC Sports top 25 teams, and a number of last season’s tournament teams losing significant pieces, the Big Ten will have a lot of question marks for this season.
When you also factor in the conference’s intriguing recruiting classes, and a new 20-game conference schedule, and the league could see so many different varieties of outcomes this season.
Of course, the Big Ten is still seeking its first national title since 2000 as the league came close with Michigan in last season’s title game. Will any of this season’s teams make a surprise run in March? Or will the league beat itself up without a clear title favorite heading into March?
FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
1. Michigan State lost two first-rounders but they have talent and experience to be preseason favorite.
It’s pretty much impossible for Michigan State to match the talent level of last season’s team. Forward Miles Bridges and big man Jaren Jackson Jr. were both first-round picks. This year’s Spartans don’t have many NBA draft prospects currently getting mock draft buzz. But Michigan State does return a solid core of experience.
The junior class of guards Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford and big man Nick Ward can all put up points and make plays. Seniors like Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins can fill rotation roles. And Tom Izzo recruited a very solid five-man recruiting class that is composed of all four-star prospects. That group, led by some intriguing athletes in Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown, and a potential backup lead guard in Foster Loyer, might need to step up in order for Michigan State to maximize its potential. It feels weird to say that Michigan State is the league’s favorite when they have so many glaring issues.
Who is the team’s go-to player? Can the juniors turn into all-league players? Does the freshmen class step up? This team isn’t the most talented Izzo has produced, but they have enough experience and intriguing weapons to be win another league title.
2. Michigan (also) lost plenty from its title-game team. They’re (also) still a major factor.
Coming off of a national title game loss to Villanova, the Wolverine have to replace the shooting and scoring prowess of Moritz Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson. At least Charles Matthews is back. The two-way guard has never thrived as a go-to scorer. But Matthews scored a strong ability to get buckets during a very good NCAA tournament run.
A defensive-minded Michigan team needs more help on offense from there. Point guard Zavier Simpson is known more for locking up opponents than his scoring while sophomores like Isaiah Livers and Jordan Poole didn’t play extended minutes very often last season. Big man Jon Teske is a solid junior with size, but he’s more known for being a big body in the paint who can rebound and defend. Michigan might need to rely on the talent of an enticing freshman class that includes multiple potential contributors.
Forwards Ignas Brazdeikis and Brandon Johns Jr. are both skilled offensive threats while big man Colin Castleton should provide interior depth as a backup center. Like some other Michigan teams of the past few years, this might be a team that starts more slowly and plays its best ball in March.
3. Indiana vs. Purdue is a rivalry to watch once again (between two likely tournament teams)
Now that Indiana has reeled in a top-ten recruiting class and Purdue is coming off of back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances, this is looking like the year their rivalry ramps up again. And, thankfully, the Big Ten’s new 20-game conference schedule means protected in-state matchups with home-and-home series. Because both of these teams could be fun NCAA tournament groups.
The Hoosiers have plenty of depth in Archie Miller’s second season as forward Juwan Morgan is back and freshman shooting guard Romeo Langford is the state’s most heralded recruit in years. We know Indiana will likely be able to defend. Getting consistent point guard play and consistent scoring help for Morgan and Langford could be key. But Miller’s already flipped most of the roster with long and versatile athletes. This Indiana team could be really good.
Purdue loses a lot of proven seniors. The great news is the return of high-scoring guard Carsen Edwards. The 6-foot-1 Edwards is a walking bucket getter. He can shoot from all over the floor. Edwards might lead college basketball in scoring this season. The Boilermakers’ season will ultimately hinge on how they replace the four other senior starters from last season. Sophomore big man Matt Haarms and guard Nojel Eastern should command larger roles while senior Ryan Cline has to be more than a shooting specialist. And the addition of junior grad transfer Evan Boudreaux was a huge coup on the transfer market.
This should be the first time in a few years that this rivalry felt so fun. Indiana should be right back in the thick of the Big Ten mix while Purdue remains one of the conference’s steadiest programs.
4. Nebraska is talented enough to make the NCAA tournament after just falling short last season.
Last season Nebraska won 22 games and finished tied for fourth in the Big Ten as they still missed the NCAA tournament. The good news is that four of those main pieces all return to form an experienced upperclass core that should be really talented. Seniors James Palmer Jr., Isaac Copeland and Glynn Watson have a ton of experience between them as they are all proven players. Junior Isaiah Roby might be a sleeper breakout player as he showed flashes of bigger things last season.
It’s the rest of the Huskers that have to prove themselves. Atrocious on the defensive glass last season, Nebraska doesn’t have returning size with much game experience and the bench is also pretty unproven. Sophomore Thomas Allen has a chance to be a solid contributor. Overall, Nebraska returns over 75 percent of last season’s scoring and rebounding. But how will this team will in the other parts? That will ultimately dictate if Nebraska is a Big Ten contender, or a team on the outside of the NCAA tournament yet again.
5. The Big Ten moves to a 20-game conference schedule.
The Big Ten gets an interesting wrinkle this season with the addition of two more conference games. The first league to go to 20 conference games in a season, the move could give the Big Ten more chances at quality wins along with a better overall profile of scheduled games. It could also mean the conference becomes a brutal gauntlet where it becomes increasingly difficult to stay atop the college basketball food chain.
With each team in the league adding at least one additional conference road game, it makes for seven head-to-head matchups and six individual matchups. In-state matchups are also protected with home-and-home guarantees, so we won’t see any more seasons where Michigan and Michigan State only play once. Already a difficult league to win, the Big Ten is going to be brutal to win this season, and it’ll be fascinating to see how the 20-game conference schedule plays out before the conference tournament even begins.
PRESEASON BIG TEN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue
Already an All-American on some lists last season, Edwards could be a sleeper Player of the Year candidate now that he lost four senior starters around him. One of the most fun-to-watch players in the country, the 6-foot-1 Edwards is fearless with the ball in his hands. Capable of taking over a game offensively, Edwards has also improved his efficiency and his ability to get others involved. He’ll need to make teammates better this season if Purdue is to attempt to make a third consecutive Sweet 16 appearance.
THE REST OF THE BIG TEN FIRST TEAM
ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin: A three-year starter and All-American candidate who quietly put up 17.9 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game last year, Happ is one of the most productive and experienced returning players in the country.
CHARLES MATTHEWS, Michigan: Outstanding during the tournament, the junior wing is a dynamic two-way wing. Can he be turned to as more of a go-to scorer? If Matthews is more consistent on offense he could be an All-American.
NICK WARD, Michigan State: The Big Ten’s leader in field goal percentage last season (64.8 percent), Ward put up big numbers despite only playing 18.9 minutes per game. With increased conditioning, Ward could put up huge numbers.
JORDAN MURPHY, Minnesota: The national leader in double-doubles last season with 24, Murphy was the bright spot of a bad Minnesota season. If Murphy improves his 31 percent three-point shooting then he could be a lethal scorer.
FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW
ROMEO LANGFORD, Indiana
JAMES PALMER JR, Nebraska
CASSIUS WINSTON, Michigan State
ANTHONY COWAN JR., Maryland
JUWAN MORGAN, Indiana
Penn State junior forward Lamar Stevens has taken a backseat to Tony Carr since the two were teammates in high school. With Carr leaving the Nittany Lions for the pros, the 6-foot-8 Stevens could be in line for a huge season. As a sophomore, Stevens already put up solid numbers of 15.5 points and 5.9 rebounds per game while shooting 46 percent from the field. Stevens has never been the go-to guy with Carr playing alongside him.
But Stevens also showed flashes of bigger things at the end of last season. Winning Most Outstanding Player honors during Penn State’s NIT title run, Stevens had games of 30 points against Marquette and 28 points in the title game against Utah during the tournament. If he can handle the season-long pressure of being the featured player, Stevens could have a huge year.
COACH UNDER PRESSURE
It has been an up-and-down few seasons for Minnesota and head coach Richard Pitino. The Golden Gophers made a surprising NCAA tournament appearance in 2017, which was followed by last season’s dud of a 4-14 record in Big Ten play. Despite producing an underrated amount of in-state talent, Minnesota only has five NCAA tournament appearance during Pitino’s five seasons as he’s only 31-59 in Big Ten play.
ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …
The Big Ten has a deep profile of teams who are in the Field of 68, but it’s tough to tell if any of them are major contenders. The league’s expanded schedule made for a tougher season, and more losses. But Big Ten teams that get hot in the conference tournament have also exceeded expectations in recent years. Don’t sleep on a team from the Big Ten getting hot.
I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …
Seeing what happens during Archie Miller’s second season at Indiana. The addition of Romeo Langford adds a ton of excitement to the Hoosiers since he’s the type of talent who can take over a game while making it look easy. Miller usually gets the most out of his teams, and this year, Indiana has the talent and depth to be a team that is really fun to watch.
FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR
Nov. 6, Michigan State vs. Kansas (Champions Classic, Indianapolis)
Nov. 14, Michigan at Villanova (Gavitt Games)
Nov. 22, Michigan State vs. UCLA (in Las Vegas)
Nov. 28, Purdue at Florida State (ACC/Big Ten Challenge)
Nov. 28, North Carolina at Michigan (ACC/Big Ten Challenge)
1. MICHIGAN STATE: With a stable of three solid core juniors, senior role players, and an athletic and talented five-man freshman class, the Spartans have all of the necessary pieces to win another Big Ten title. Point guard Cassius Winston and shooting guard Joshua Langford are much better than many of the league’s backcourts while big man Nick Ward could put up huge numbers with an increase in minutes. Depth on this team shouldn’t be too much of a concern as long as the freshmen can help. The Spartans don’t have the look of a national title contender, but they’re also dangerous enough where it would be dumb to count them out of making a run in March. It all depends on who steps up and is ready to take big shots this season after two seasons of exits in the Round of 32.
2. MICHIGAN: Michigan has transformed into a defensive team these past two seasons as they’ll need to get stops and manufacture points at times this season. While many of John Beilein’s teams have been very good with perimeter shooting, this Wolverines team might struggle. Many of the returning players were sub-35 percent and inconsistent. Others, like freshmen Ignas Brazdeikis and Brandon Johns are unproven at the college level. If Charles Matthews, Zavier Simpson, Isaiah Livers and Jordan Poole can all even shoot a little bit better than Michigan’s offense should have enough to carry their potentially dangerous defense.
3. INDIANA: Archie Miller’s second season should have a ton of intrigue as the Hoosiers have huge expectations. Juwan Morgan and Romeo Langford might be the league’s best one-two punch. Indiana also has the benefit of a top-ten recruiting class filled with length, versatility and athleticism. As long as the point guard play of Devonte Green, Al Durham and Robert Phinisee can be consistent, then the Hoosiers should be fine. Interior play could be another thing to watch as that group has to remain healthy. The biggest takeaway is that Indiana’s defense has the potential to be very good, as Miller has many different weapons at his disposal to throw at opponents. All of the pieces are in place for Indiana to make its first NCAA tournament appearance in three seasons.
4. PURDUE: Better athleticism could make for an interesting subplot for this season. Matt Haarms and Nojel Eastern both have the chance to be plus defenders, while Evan Boudreaux is at least skilled enough and quick enough to run in the open floor. Consistent shooting around Carsen Edwards will be the key for Purdue’s offense. Ryan Cline needs to make shots while Eastern has to improve his inconsistent form. Some of the freshmen like Eric Hunter, and Boudreaux at forward, should also help a bit but they have to prove themselves as being consistent. Making a third straight Sweet 16 might prove to be a bit too tough. But it wouldn’t be surprising to see Purdue have another run to the NCAA tournament.
5. NEBRASKA: The Huskers might be forced to play a lot of small-ball this season and hope that they can rebound better while defending the rim. Isaiah Roby has shown an ability to block shots while Isaac Copeland and James Palmer also have good size. Freshmen like center Brady Heiman and guard Amir Harris could also be asked to play early in the season. But as long as the team’s core four players performs then there is no reason Nebraska shouldn’t be in the NCAA tournament. Palmer is one of the nation’s more underrated scorers while Copeland is experienced and capable. Senior point guard Glynn Watson is a polished floor leader. This team has big aspirations for this season.
6. MARYLAND: Hit hard by players leaving early for the pros, most notably Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson, the Terps are facing tons of questions. But junior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. is back and the sophomore group of big man Bruno Fernando and guard Darryl Morsell is very solid. The freshmen class has a five-star forward in Jalen “Stix” Smith and guards Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala. If Maryland gets steady production from a few of its freshmen, then they should have the talent to stay with anyone in the league.
7. OHIO STATE: Chris Holtmann worked wonders during his first season with the Buckeyes, taking an undermanned roster and guiding them into the Round of 32. Losing Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate will be tough. The Buckeyes do regroup a bit thanks to some solid freshmen. Senior guard C.J. Jackson and sophomore big man Kaleb Wesson are proven double-figure guys. Grad transfer Keyshawn Woods has gotten ACC buckets. And a freshmen group with Jaedon LeDee, Luther Muhammad and Justin Ahrens provides depth and athleticism. As long as consistent rotation players step up, Ohio State will be an intriguing team.
8. WISCONSIN: Question marks linger for a Wisconsin team that doesn’t lose anyone from last season. Senior Ethan Happ is one of the nation’s most complete and productive players, while sophomore guard Brad Davison closed the season strong with some eye-opening scoring performances. If the rest of this team can stay healthy then the Badgers could get more pop. D’Mitrik Trice, Kobe King and Brevin Pritzl are all candidates to make a leap while transfer Trevor Anderson adds another rotation guard. If the Badgers can score, they could be competitive for the NCAA tournament.
9. IOWA: The Hawkeyes look like a solid team on paper with four returning double-figure scorers. They also featured the worst defense in the Big Ten and one of the worst in high-major college basketball last season. Big men Tyler Cook and Luka Garza can both put up numbers, but they have to improve as defenders. Jordan Bohannon and Isaiah Moss are capable scorers on the perimeter while top-50 in-state recruit Joe Wieskamp, and Fran McCaffery’s son, Connor McCaffery, should help on the perimeter.
10. MINNESOTA: After freefalling to a 4-14 mark in the Big Ten last season, head coach Richard Pitino could be on the hot seat. Senior forward Jordan Murphy is a double-double machine and a proven player and the Golden Gophers should be healthier this season. Sophomore point guard Isaiah Washington’s ability to replace Nate Mason could be the key to Minnesota’s season. A healthy Amir Coffey could also do wonders for Minnesota’s offense.
11. PENN STATE: Just as the Nittany Lions looked like they were on the verge of a big run, Tony Carr opted to turn pro. Junior forward Lamar Stevens and junior center Mike Watkins return to form one of the more capable and experienced frontcourts in the league. Replacing the backcourt of Carr and senior Shep Garner will be a different story. Senior Josh Reaves is a returning double-figure guy on the perimeter. Outside of him, the defending NIT champs don’t have many proven options.
12. NORTHWESTERN: After a disappointing campaign last season, the Wildcats need to find a new identity following the loss of four-year point guard Bryant McIntosh and shooting guard Scottie Lindsey. Frontcourt experience and length and versatility on the perimeter could be the key for Northwestern’s success. Seniors Derek Pardon and Vic Law return as the duo could be among the conference’s best frontcourt groups. Grad transfer guard Ryan Taylor was a big-time scorer at Evansville last season and Boston College transfer A.J. Turner is an intriguing 6-foot-7 wing. Point guard stability will be key, as reclassified freshmen Ryan Greer might have a lot on his shoulders.
13. ILLINOIS: Only making the tournament in three of the last 11 years, the Fighting Illini figure to be in for another long season. Very young across the board, head coach Brad Underwood has hope. Sophomore Trent Frazier and freshman Ayo Dosunmu form one of the league’s most talented backcourts, but they aren’t battle-tested. The frontcourt is also unproven with 6-foot-6 Kipper Nichols being the most consistent returner there. Developing freshmen and hoping for some unexpected gems are the keys for Illinois this season.
14. RUTGERS: Since joining the Big Ten four seasons ago, Rutgers has never won more than three league games in a season — finishing last in all four years. After losing three of their four top scorers from last season, this season will again be tough. But the sophomore backcourt of Geo Baker and Quinnipiac transfer Peter Kiss has a chance to shine while the Scarlet Knights have an intriguing amount of size and depth in the frontcourt. The talent level is up, but Rutgers is still trying to find its way.
Tshimanga averaged 4.0 points and 4.6 boards in 13 minutes this past season, and a source close to the program told NBC Sports he wasn’t expected to play much more than that this season.
Miles’ has spent the better part of the last two seasons on the hot seat, and this certainly doesn’t make his job easier, but with the talent the Cornhuskers have on their roster, they look like an NCAA tournament team already. They bring back their top four scorers, including former five-star prospect Isaac Copeland and potential first-team all-Big Ten wing James Palmer. With or without Tshimanga, Nebraska has a shot to finish top four in the Big Ten.
The Winners: Which college basketball teams got helped the most by NBA draft early entries
Mark Few will once again have a team that is going to contend for a national title this season, as the Bulldogs returned their two most important pieces in the front court in Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura.
The Zags were going to be good without them, but with that pair in the mix, Gonzaga has a real case to be the No. 1 team in the country heading into the preseason. They also return Zach Norvell, Josh Perkins and Corey Kispert while adding transfer Brandon Clarke. That is a very good core, but the reason they are going to be among the nation’s elite is because of that front court.
Tillie and Rui are both terrific athletes that will create mismatches and space the floor, and Rui has a real chance to develop into a top ten pick next season. This will be Gonzaga’s best team since … well, since they made the national title game in 2017.
The ‘Hoos are coming off an utter embarrassment at the hands of No. 16-seed UMBC in the NCAA tournament, but the good news is that they are going to once again have a team that will be in the mix for an ACC regular season title and a top three seed.
That is because they got De’Andre Hunter back. It’s his versatility that will make Hunter so important for the Cavaliers next season. Let’s go beyond the simple fact that he is going to be the only guy on the Virginia roster that can create his own shot against length and athleticism and that there is a chance that he could end up being an all-american next season if things play out the right way. What makes Hunter so important to Virginia his that his defensive versatility is what allows Virginia to matchup with teams that want to try and play small-ball against them.
With Hunter, Virginia has some depth issues but still looks like a top ten team on paper.
The Wolf Pack couldn’t stop adding pieces to their roster during the spring.
Not only did Eric Musselman clean up on the recruiting trail, adding Jordan Brown and a pair of grad transfers, but he managed to get both Caleb and Cody Martin to return to school along with Jordan Caroline. Those could end up being three of the five players on the preseason all-Mountain West team, and with those three back in the fold, Nevada — coming off of a run to the Sweet 16 — has enough talent on their roster to legitimately be considered a threat to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
This is the best MWC team since Kawhi and Jimmer were burning that conference to the ground. It’s a good time to live in Reno.
WHOEVER LANDS REID TRAVIS
The Stanford grad transfer immediately became the most important player in the college basketball news cycle when he announced that he will be returning to school but leaving the Cardinal program. A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 19.5 points and 8.7 boards, he’s a player that has been linked to both Kentucky and Villanova, two programs that got hit hard during the draft process and could use some interior depth. It’s not crazy to think that where he ends up going will become the favorite to win the 2019 national title.
The Orange were a weird team last season. They played a plodding pace and won because they could absolutely lock up defensively and they had Tyus Battle and Oshae Brissett to carry them offensively. Brissett announced that he will be returning to school back in April, but Battle waited until just a couple of hours before the deadline to make it official.
And it’s Battle that is the key. Syracuse should have a little more shooting this season that they did last year with Buddy Boeheim in the mix, but this is still a group that is going to rely quite a bit on Battle to create points for them. He is the difference between the back-end of the preseason top 25 and a .500 season.
THE BIG TEN
Other than Maryland, was there a Big Ten team that didn’t get good news when it came time for players that were testing the waters to make their decisions?
Michigan will not be losing their three best scorers now that Charles Matthews is returning to school. They’ll be a preseason top 25 team when the polls are released.
Purdue not only returned Nojel Eastern, but they bring back Carsen Edwards, who could end being a preseason first-team all-american.
Ethan Happ returns to anchor a Wisconsin program that seems to be on the verge of a resurgence.
Indiana not only landed Romeo Langford, but they brought back Juwan Morgan, who is the perfect player for an Archie Miller-coached team.
Nebraska looks like a tournament team with both James Palmer and Isaac Copeland back in the mix.
Iowa brought back both Tyler Cook and Isaiah Moss.
Michigan State lost Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson, but they did get Nick Ward back.
I think the Spartans will be the best team in the Big Ten next season, but I’m not all that confident in that. What I do know is that there are going to be six or seven teams that can compete for the league title, and that with all these players coming back, there is going to be much more depth in the conference this season.
The SEC also brought seemingly everyone that was on the fence back, which means that the conference, as a whole, is going to be loaded at the top with plenty of depth. Hell, the SEC might just be the best league in college basketball next season look at this:
Arkansas got perhaps the biggest gift as Daniel Gafford, a potential lottery pick, opted to return for his sophomore season.
Auburn lost Mustapha Heron but brought back Bryce Brown, Jared Harper, Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy and will enter the season as a top 15 team.
Tennessee brings back Admiral Schofield and looks like they might push to be a No. 1 seed.
Missouri lost Michael Porter Jr. but they bring back his brother Jontay.
Tremont Waters is back at LSU, making them a top 25 team.
Mississippi State had four players declare and four players opt to return to school. They will be a top 15 team.
Florida got Jalen Hudson back for his fifth-year.
Even Kentucky, who lost a handful of key pieces, brought back P.J Washington and Quade Green and still might add Reid Travis.
There is a lot to like about the SEC next year.
The deadline couldn’t have gone much better for the Bruins, as they returned all three of the players that declared for the draft not named Aaron Holiday: Kris Wilkes, Jaylen Hands and Cody Riley. Steve Alford has a roster that is talented enough that it should win the Pac-12 next season. We’ll see if the Bruins can live up to the expectations.
THE DEADLINE WAS GOOD TO THEM
KANSAS: The Jayhawks were always going to be really good, but getting Udoka Azubuike back means they’ll have arguably the best low-post presence in the country next season.
NORTH CAROLINA: The Tar Heels probably weren’t really in jeopardy of losing Luke Maye to the NBA, but he did declare and he did return to school. UNC will be a top ten team next season.
WEST VIRGINIA: The Mountaineers got both Esa Ahmad and Sagaba Konate back, meaning that it will be that much easier for them to weather the storm of losing Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles.
CLEMSON: The Tigers are once again going to be a top 25 team with both Shelton Mitchell and Marcquise Reed pulling out of the draft.
WASHINGTON: With Noah Dickerson back, are the Huskies the favorite to win the Pac-12 this season?
SAN DIEGO STATE: Jalen McDaniels came on strong late in the season and should be a star for the Aztecs in 2018-19.
ST. JOHN’S: Getting Shamorie Ponds back was a good thing. Adding Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron for the 2018-19 season would be a great thing.
Big Ten Conference Reset: Will the conference be better top-to-bottom this year?
The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone, and there are a dozen or so truly impactful decisions that are left to be made.
Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season.
The coaching carousel has come to a close.
The transfer market is slowly winding down.
In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2018-19 season.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at what has happened — and what will happen — in the Big Ten over the next six months.
KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES
NBA DRAFT DECISIONS: There are still quite a few players that still have stay-or-go decisions that are left to be made. The most significant of the bunch is Maryland wing Kevin Huerter, a potential first-team all-Big Ten player that might be a mid-to-late first round pick in this year’s NBA Draft if he opts to leave.
But he’s far from the only significant name left on the board. Carsen Edwards has yet to officially decide, and there’s a chance that he could be a first-team all-american should he come back for his junior season. Wisconsin’s return to relevancy hinges on Ethan Happ’s return to campus. Charles Matthews is probably the difference between Michigan being a top 25 team and Michigan having to fight for a bid to the NCAA tournament. Michigan State is still awaiting word on Nick Ward. So much about the conference will be settled out in the coming days.
ARE THERE ANY ELITE BIG TEN TEAMS THIS SEASON?: The Big Ten’s national title drought in basketball has been well-documented. In the past few years, Michigan and Wisconsin have reached the title game, only to fall short and keep the 18-year titleless streak alive.
This season doesn’t look much better for the Big Ten when it comes to the larger national title picture.
Perennial conference favorites like Michigan State, Michigan and Purdue are all expected to be competitive, top-25 caliber teams. Indiana is quickly rising. Maryland has a lot of intriguing pieces that could make them a team to watch. But none of those teams feel like juggernauts, and almost all of them lost significant pieces from last season.
So the big question remains: does the Big Ten have any elite teams this season? We might not know that answer until a few months into the season (Michigan has a habit of being a late-blooming team). For right now, it’s not looking good.
THE BIG TEN ADDED A LOT OF INTRIGUING FRESHMEN: Although the immediate outlook for the Big Ten might not feel so cheery for this season, the future looks pretty solid.
Thanks to most of the league’s teams recruiting at a solid level this past season, there are a lot of exciting young players entering the Big Ten in 2018-19. Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Maryland all added local, top-50 caliber players who will be asked to contribute immediately. Michigan State, Ohio State and the Hoosiers are programs who brought in deep recruiting classes filled with top-100 prospects.
And that’s not even counting other programs like Purdue, Michigan, Northwestern and Rutgers all adding four-star prospects. It might take a few years to see the payoff from some of these classes. But expect a lot of Big Ten teams to turn to freshmen to produce this season.
NO COACHING CHANGES MEANS UNIQUE STABILITY: After the Big Ten had three new head coaches enter last season (Illinois, Indiana and Ohio State) and two more the year-and-a-half before (Rutgers and Wisconsin) there were no coaching changes among the league’s 14 teams this offseason.
That makes for a unique scenario in which the Big Ten won’t have to prepare for unfamiliar coaches and styles of play.
While there are a few Big Ten coaches on the hot seat entering this season (most notably, Minnesota’s Richard Pitino), there’s a stability throughout the league right now when it comes its basketball programs. That could quickly change next season if certain coaches don’t make postseason appearances. But not many power conferences in the country keep all of the same coaches from year to year.
MILES BRIDGES AND JAREN JACKSON JR., Michigan State: Both Bridges and Jackson are expected to be lottery picks in next month’s 2018 NBA Draft as the Spartans were prepared to lose both of them before the season.
MORITZ WAGNER, Michigan: The German big man was a breakout player last season as he helped lead the Wolverines to the title game. Michigan is going to miss Wagner’s inside-outside ability on both ends of the floor.
JUSTIN JACKSON, Maryland: Never fully recovering from a torn labrum suffered last summer, the 6-foot-8 Jackson only played 11 games last season before shutting it down. This loss certainly stings for the Terps, but they should already be used to playing without Jackson.
KEITA BATES-DIOP, Ohio State: Exploding last season as a redshirt junior, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year was perhaps the most improved player in the nation last season. The Buckeyes will certainly miss Bates-Diop’s unique versatility and scoring prowess.
TONY CARR, Penn State: Just as Penn State looked like they were on the verge of a major breakthrough, Carr, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, opted to go pro. But you can’t blame Carr after he became the first player in program history to reach 1,000 points by the end of his sophomore year.
COREY SANDERS, Rutgers: A monster at the end of last season during the Big Ten Tournament, the 6-foot-2 Sanders was one of the Big Ten’s most lethal offensive talents. Although Sanders could be reckless and inefficient at times, his undeniable talent helped Rutgers stay competitive against better competition.
JAMES PALMER JR. and ISAAC COPELAND JR., Nebraska: Both of Nebraska’s top two scorers coming back to school is huge if the Huskers hope to make it back to the NCAA tournament. Palmer was a revelation last season as he emerged into one of the league’s best players. Copeland is a former top-30 talent who is starting to show signs of his predicted abilities.
BRUNO FERNANDO, Maryland: The promising big man is returning for his sophomore season after flirting with the 2018 NBA Draft. A major impact player in limited minutes, the 6-foot-10 Fernando could take an additional leap if he learns to stay out of foul trouble. If Fernando plays more minutes, he could be a double-double threat every game.
ROMEO LANGFORD, Indiana: Langford’s decision to stay home and play for the Hoosiers will be one of the major freshman storylines in college basketball this season. A consensus top-10 national prospect, the 6-foot-5 Langford will be asked to score immediately for Indiana.
AYO DOSUNMU, Illinois: Similar to Langford, Dosunmu’s choice to stay in the Land of Lincoln was a big coup for head coach Brad Underwood and Illinois. With an ability to score in bunches, or play a bit on the ball, the 6-foot-5 Dosunmu should see immediate minutes for the Illini.
JOE WIESKAMP, Iowa: Another top-50 in-state prospect who is staying home, the 6-foot-6 Wieskamp is one of the most highly-touted Iowa recruits in years. A local legend with over 2,000 career points in high school, the highly-efficient Wieskamp should immediately help the Hawkeyes with his poise and shooting ability.
IGNAS BRAZDEIKIS, Michigan: A late-bloomer who had some five-star rankings, the 6-foot-8 Brazdeikis is a gifted left-handed scorer who can make plays from all three levels. Experienced in international competition with the Canadian national team, Brazdeikis could be the latest John Beilein big man to explode.
DANIEL OTURU, Minnesota: The springy, 6-foot-9 Oturu is expected to earn immediate playing time in the Minnesota frontcourt after showing promising signs on both ends of the floor. Oturu is also coming off of an April shoulder injury that forced him to have surgery, Oturu is expected to be out all summer.
JALEN SMITH, Maryland: A McDonald’s All-American big man, the 6-foot-9 native of Baltimore has a chance to be a major impact for the Terps. Although Smith needs to add weight to compete in the Big Ten, he’ll be aided by the return of Bruno Fernando for his sophomore season.
EVAN BOUDREAUX, Purdue: One of the country’s most sought-after grad transfers, Boudreaux will have two years of eligibility remaining after dominating the Ivy League at Dartmouth. A floor-spacing forward who put up 17.6 points and 9.5 rebounds per game in two years with the Mean Green, Boudreaux should help offset the loss of Vincent Edwards.
RYAN TAYLOR AND A.J. TURNER, Northwestern: The Wildcats brought in a pair of wing scorers who should help the offense quite a bit this season. The 6-foot-7 Turner sat out last season after coming from Boston College, as he provides good size and shooting ability on the wing. Formerly at Evansville, the 6-foot-5 Taylor poured in 21.2 points per game last season while shooting 42 percent from three-point land.
WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-BIG TEN TEAM
CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue (POY)
JAMES PALMER JR., Nebraska
ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin
CHARLES MATTHEWS, Michigan
KEVIN HUERTER, Maryland
WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS
1. MICHIGAN STATE: Although Michigan State fell short of its Final Four aspirations last season, a lot of talent is back for 2018-19. The backcourt of Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford will now be upperclassmen. Bruising big man Nick Ward could also return, giving Michigan State three very experienced double-figure scorers. And head coach Tom Izzo also brought in a deep and talented recruiting class that includes a lot of potential.
2. MARYLAND: If Kevin Huerter returns to school (a major “if” given his NBA Draft combine performance) then the Terps could be a major team to watch for next season. Anthony Cowan is back at point. The frontcourt returns Bruno Fernando while adding Jalen Smith and transfer Schneider Herard. Sophomore guard Darryl Morsell should continue to improve while three four-star prospects (Aaron Wiggins, Eric Ayala and Serrel Smith) have been added on the perimeter. The Terps are balanced and potentially deep.
3. MICHIGAN: The Wolverines have peaked at the right time the past two seasons as the 2018-19 team has plenty to like. If Charles Matthews comes back, then he could emerge as one of the league’s best players after he was outstanding during the final month of the season. Isaiah Livers, Zavier Simpson, Jordan Poole and Jon Teske also return after they all earned at least double-figure minutes last season. And Michigan brings in a loaded five-man recruiting class that includes three four-star prospects and a five-star prospect, Brazdeikis, who should help fill the void left by Moe Wagner.
4. INDIANA: Expectations are rising quickly in Bloomington after head coach Archie Miller brought in a loaded recruiting class to go along with an intriguing young roster. Forward Juwan Morgan developed into an all-league player. Others like Justin Smith and Aljami Durham showed promising signs. And the frontcourt should get a healthy De’Ron Davis and redshirt big man Race Thompson. The five-man freshman class could dictate the ceiling of this team. If Langford can handle the immense pressure he’ll face, then the Hoosiers should be fine.
5. PURDUE: Losing four starters is going to be tough to replace, but if Carsen Edwards returns, he might be the league’s Player of the Year. Around Edwards, the Boilermakers will have to have some solid role guys like Nojel Eastern, Ryan Cline and Matt Haarms step up. Boudreaux should help immediately in the frontcourt as well. Purdue also has some talented four-star freshmen, including in-state guard Eric Hunter, who could contribute.
6. NEBRASKA: During a breakthrough, 22-win season, the Huskers went back to the postseason while building on a foundation for this season. With Palmer, Copeland, point guard Glynn Watson Jr. and Isaiah Roby all returning, this is the year for Nebraska to make a leap into the NCAA tournament. But how will the Huskers handle legitimate expectations? Will Nebraska be able to beat quality competition? They’ll be one of the hunted teams in the league this season. Ask Minnesota and Northwestern how that went for them last season.
7. OHIO STATE: Perhaps the biggest surprise in the country last season, head coach Chris Holtmann took a limited rotation and turned them into a top-25 program. Losing Bates-Diop and his production will hurt, but the Buckeyes have some solid returning starters like point guard C.J. Jackson and big man Kaleb Wesson. With a solid recruiting class, and a quality grad transfer in guard Keyshawn Woods (Wake Forest) Ohio State will be a fascinating team.
8. WISCONSIN: One of the youngest teams in the country last season, Wisconsin should see a number of players make a leap this season. If Ethan Happ returns, the Badgers have a go-to player and consistent double-double threat. The development of promising freshman guard Brad Davison will also be something to watch.
9. IOWA: Defense is going to be the major thing to watch with the Hawkeyes. While this roster has been together for multiple seasons, and can really put up points, the Hawkeyes were one of the worst power-conference defenses in the nation last season. If Fran McCaffery’s ballclub can get more stops, they have the offensive firepower to compete with most teams in the conference.
10. PENN STATE: The NIT champions were gutted by the early departure of Carr, but the Nittany Lions still have plenty of talent coming back. Penn State will have to replace its backcourt of Carr and senior Shep Garner, but Mike Watkins and Lamar Stevens are a more-than-capable frontcourt. The development of players like Josh Reaves will be key.
11. NORTHWESTERN: After a massively disappointing season, Northwestern is also hoping to bounce back. Losing seniors like Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey hurts, but the Wildcats get most of the frontcourt back along with two talented wing transfers. Finding stability at point to replace McIntosh might be the key to Northwestern’s entire outlook.
12. MINNESOTA: The talent is in place for a Minnesota revival, but a bizarre second-half collapse leaves the Golden Gophers with more questions than answers. Jordan Murphy and Amir Coffey are proven Big Ten players. But the frontcourt needs Oturu to play well and Isaiah Washington needs to be steady at point.
13. ILLINOIS: Last season was difficult for Illinois. And it won’t get easier after the early exits of frontcourt starters Leron Black (pro) and Michael Finke (Grand Canyon). Dosunmu’s addition certainly helps, but the Illini are a very young team without any proven frontcourt talents. Underwood is known for turnarounds, but he needs more talent on the roster to make that happen.
14. RUTGERS: The loss of point guard Corey Sanders will sting, but head coach Steve Pikiell has some intriguing young pieces to work with — particularly in the backcourt. This will be sophomore Geo Baker’s team now, and freshman guards like Montez Mathis and Ron Harper Jr. are also expected to contribute. The frontcourt will be a major question mark.
Nebraska received some important news on Friday night as senior guard James Palmer Jr. will be back for next season.
The 6-foot-6 Palmer had tested the NBA draft waters, but he decided to return to the Cornhuskers. After putting up 17.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game last season, Palmer is expected to be an All-Big Ten candidate once again this season. Palmer shot 44 percent from the floor and 30 percent from three-point range last season.
After transferring in from Miami, Palmer became the Huskers’ go-to scorer last season in helping Nebraska to a 22-win season and NIT appearance.
With Palmer back, Nebraska will have some legitimate expectations for the upcoming season, especially if the team’s second-leading scorer, Isaac Copeland Jr., also returns from the NBA draft process.