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ACC Conference Reset: Get caught up on everything that’s happened this offseason

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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 ACC over the next six months.

KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES

HOW WILL THESE DUKE FRESHMEN FIT TOGETHER?: To me, this is probably the most important storyline of college basketball’s offseason that does not involve the FBI or an NBA draft decision. On paper, this Duke team is going to be as talented as any team that we’ve seen in college basketball in recent memory. They have three of the consensus top five prospects — including the top two — coming into the program as well as the top point guard in the class. Those players they are adding (R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, Zion Williamson, Tre Jones, Joey Baker) combined with some of the pieces already on the roster (Javin DeLaurier, Alex O’Connell) give the Blue Devils a roster that looks an awful lot like some of the NBA teams that are thriving in these playoffs. They finally have a steady point guard to replace Tyus Jones, and they surround him with big wings that are skilled and multi-positional defenders.

Put another way, this Duke team is built in a mold that is more similar to the Boston Celtics, the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors that anyone has been willing to mention. Hell, you can connect a lot of dots between the way that Villanova has been built in recent years and the way that Duke can, in theory, play this season.

That does not, however, mean that this experiment is going to work. For starters, the tie that binds all of those teams together is elite-level three-point shooting, and that’s not something that this Duke roster is going to have in abundance. The other part of it is on the defensive end of the floor. Just because players are switchable doesn’t guarantee that they are going to understand defensive concepts, be able to read where they are supposed to rotate to defensively or even be able to guard. There are plenty of great athletes that just don’t care about defending well.

Duke has had back-to-back ridiculous recruiting classes, and in those two seasons they’ve lost 12 ACC games and haven’t made it past the Elite Eight. Is this the year it all comes together?

JUST HOW GOOD IS NASSIR LITTLE?: At this point, I’m assuming that Luke Maye is not only coming back to school but that he will be the most accomplished returnee in the country. If you think that’s a weird think to say, imagine writing it. (More on Maye below.) But I’m not sure that Maye is going to be the best player on the Tar Heels next season, and that’s mostly because Nassir Little just won’t stop getting better.

Little had something of a tumultuous path to North Carolina. He was thought to be a heavy Arizona lean before the FBI’s investigation tied him to a deal that a Miami coach was allegedly working on to funnel his family $150,000 from Adidas in exchange for a commitment. He committed to North Carolina as a top 15ish prospect that did not have the greatest motor, jump shot or reputation for working hard. That’s changed. His was sensational during his senior season and on the all-star circuit, and suddenly he’s being talked about as a potential top three pick in the 2019 draft. A 6-foot-7 wing with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and the tools to guard bigger and smaller players, he’s turned into a star in a role that is becoming increasingly more valuable in modern basketball.

If he lives up to the hype, the Tar Heels are going to be in the mix for an ACC title.

CHRIS MACK SETTLING IN AT LOUISVILLE: Louisville made the hire of the offseason, reaching into Cincinnati and pulling Mack out of his alma mater, Xavier. Mack is a top ten coach in the sport, but given what Louisville has lost — Deng Adel, Ray Spalding, Rick Pitino, the 2013 title banner, their pride, their dignity, their recruiting class — the rebuilding (reloading?) job that Mack has in front of him is going to be large.

A big reason for that is due to the looming NCAA investigation into everything that happened with Brian Bowen and Rick Pitino. Who knows how long that is going to take to play out and whether or not the possibility of a postseason ban or the stink of a scandal that involved hookers on recruiting visits is going to limit who the Cardinals can get involved with on the trail. Mack will be hitting the road in July for his first summer with the Cards. It will be very interesting to see who he targets in the Class of 2019, and which targets are willing to hear him out.

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IS TYUS BATTLE COMING BACK TO SCHOOL?: Of all the stay-or-go decisions that are left to be made in the ACC, Battle’s is going to be the most important. The 6-foot-6 Syracuse guard averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore last season despite playing on a team that didn’t have another source of offense and played a pace that rivaled that of Virginia’s as the slowest in the league. Jim Boeheim really needs him back, and if he returns, there’s an argument to be made that the Orange are a top 25 team. O’Shae Brissett would be back in the fold and there is size, athleticism and wingspan at every position on the court the Orange zone might be impenetrable.

But all of that is assuming Battle is back.

Because if he’s gone, then Syracuse might struggle to crack 60 points per game next season.

WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN IN THE MIDDLE OF THE LEAGUE: There are seemingly a half-dozen teams that are not ACC title contenders but sure do look like they can be top 25 teams: Florida State, Virginia Tech, N.C. State, Clemson, Syracuse and Louisville. Who gets what back and adds which transfers? We’ll get into all that below.

WHO’S GONE?

  • ALL FIVE STARTERS, Duke: Duke will, once again, look entirely different next year. Their four star freshmen all declared for the draft and signed with an agent while Grayson Allen, the lone senior on last year’s roster, has graduated.
  • JOEL BERRY II, North Carolina: Berry had a long and illustrious career with the Tar Heels, winning a national title, making another national title game and playing a starring role for what felt like the better part of a decade. It’s going to be weird seeing UNC play without his hair bouncing around, bringing the ball up the floor.
  • MATT FARRELL and BONZIE COLSON, Notre Dame: It really is a shame how last season played out for the Fighting Irish, because these two — specifically Colson — deserved better than a senior season that ended in an injury-plagued trip to the NIT.
  • DENG ADEL and RAY SPALDING, Louisville: What separates these two from anyone else on this list is that they are not a) likely to get drafted or b) a senior. It would have ben nice for new Louisville head coach Chris Mack to have a pair of talented, all-ACC caliber seniors leading his roster next season. That is not going to be the case.
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WHO’S BACK?

  • LUKE MAYE, North Carolina: Maye averaged 16.9 points, 10.1 boards and 2.4 assists while shooting 43 percent from three on 116 attempts, finishing his junior season as an all-american one year after winning a national title in a tournament where he hit the shot that sent his team to the Final Four. That’s not bad, and it’s the reason that he is going to enter the 2018-19 season as a candidate for National Player of the Year and arguably the best returning player in college basketball.
  • DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia: For my money, the single-most important decision that has been made in regards to the NBA draft was Hunter’s decision to return to school for his redshirt sophomore season. There’s a chance that, as more of a focal point of Virginia’s offense, he could end up becoming a top ten pick in the draft. That’s a good thing for him. But he’s also the connecting piece to Virginia’s defense that allows them to match up with teams that go small. I fleshed that thought out more here, but suffice to say, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he was out of the lineup when the Cavaliers lost to UMBC as a No. 1 seed.
  • EVERYONE, Virginia Tech: The Hokies bring back seven of their top eight players from last season, including Justin Robinson, Chris Clarke, Kerry Blackshear. But the key for this team’s ceiling is going to be the development of their rising sophomore class: Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Wabissa Bede, P.J. Horne. We know how good Clarke, Robinson and Blackshear are, but if those three — specifically Alexander-Walker — take a step forward we could be looking at a top ten team.
  • ALMOST EVERYONE, Florida State: The Seminoles are coming off of a run to the Elite Eight as a No. 9 seed in which they upset No. 1 seed Xavier and played a brand of basketball that involved a lot of pressing, a lot of defensive versatility and enough perimeter firepower that they should enter this season as a top 20 team.

WHO’S COMING?

  • A NEW STARTING FIVE, Duke: paragraph
  • NASSIR LITTLE, North Carolina:
  • JAYLEN HOARD, Wake Forest:

COACHING CHANGES

  • CHRIS MACK, Louisville: For my money, Mack is one of the ten best coaches in college basketball. He’s young, he’s a high-level recruiter, he understands how to run a program in that part of the country, he’s dealt with a passionate fanbase at a basketball school. This was the hire, and Louisville got it done.
  • JEFF CAPEL, Pittsburgh: I think Capel is a good coach and a very good recruiter who doesn’t get enough credit for the job he did at VCU or at Oklahoma before everything blew up in his face post-Blake Griffin. He was overdue to get another shot at a high-major gig, and Pitt was able to land him. But I also think that Capel is going to have a nightmare of a time trying to rebuild this program, if, for no other reason, than the simple fact that Pitt is not what they once were. They’ve been to seven Sweet 16s in program history, and five of them came in a seven-year period from 2002-09. That was when the Panthers, who have no recruiting base to speak of, were pulling kids out of New York City with the pitch of being able to play in the Big East. Now? They’re in the ACC. That sale isn’t going to work, which means that Capel has to find a way to convince players to join a program that went 0-18 in the ACC last season.

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-ACC TEAM

DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia (POY)
R.J. BARRETT, Duke
CAM REDDISH, Duke
LUKE MAYE, UNC
NASSIR LITTLE, UNC

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS

1. DUKE: As I wrote earlier, I have no idea whether or not it is all going to come together for Duke this season. What I do believe, however, is that this is the most talented team in the conference, and with the league’s other contenders losing key pieces, Duke should be the favorite to win their first regular season title since 2010.

2. VIRGINIA: I’m not worried about what happened in the NCAA tournament last year, but I am worried about how that is going to affect this group. An embarrassing loss like that is the kind of thing that can damage confidence and hang in the back of someone’s mind for a long time. Getting De’Andre Hunter back is incredibly important, and Tony Bennett’s teams are always going to defend, but it will be interesting to see just how bad the hangover ends up being.

3. NORTH CAROLINA: The key to the Tar Heel season is going to end up being their incoming freshman. Is Nassir Little as good as advertised? Can Coby White handle point guard duties? I think that there is going to be a sophomore big on their roster than can handle the big man duties, and Luke Maye is going to be awesome again. It’s those connecting pieces that I’m worried about.

4. VIRGINIA TECH: This is when it starts getting interesting in the ACC standings. I’m very high on this Virginia Tech team — I have them 11th nationally right now — but part of me is concerned over whether or not the pieces they are bringing back have maxed out on their talent. Does bringing back seven of your top eight from a borderline top 25 team make you an ACC title contender?

5. FLORIDA STATE: I was not sold on Florida State at all heading into the NCAA tournament. Now I have them 14th in my preseason top 25. I’m not really sure what to make of this group, but they have a nice combination of returning talent and players that can take a big step forward — M.J. Walker, Mfiondu Kabengele.

6. N.C. STATE: The Wolfpack lost a couple of valuable front court pieces, but they are going to be loaded with talented guards while playing for a coach that thrived running a pressing system at UNC Wilmington. They should be fun to watch.

7. CLEMSON: It’s tough to know precisely what to make of the Tigers without knowing where Shelton Mitchell and Marcquise Reed are going to be playing next season.

8. LOUISVILLE: Losing Deng Adel and Ray Spalding is going to be brutal. There is some young talent on this roster, and the Chris Mack factor will help, but the more I think about this group the less confident I am that they are going to be a top 25 team.

9. NOTRE DAME: Losing two four-year seniors like Farrell and Colson is a nightmare, although I do think that Temple Gibbs, D.J. Harvey and Juwan Durham is a solid core to build around. That said, this happens every year, and I’m going to regret this ranking, I know.

10. SYRACUSE: If Tyus Battle returns, the Orange might be closer to top seven. If he doesn’t, they might end up in the bottom four. This seems like a happy medium.

11. MIAMI: I’m not quite sure what to make of the Hurricanes right now. Losing the talent that they lost is not going to be easy to replace, but they’ve added a few transfers and they still have Chris Lykes and Dewan Huell. Having them 11th here doesn’t mean I can’t see them making an NCAA tournament.

12. WAKE FOREST: I know they have some talent coming into the program and that there is some talent leftover on the roster from last season, but I bought into Wake last season and that burned me. I’ll believe it when I see it.

13. GEORGIA TECH: Losing Ben Lammers hurts. Losing Josh Okogie would hurt even more.

14. BOSTON COLLEGE: The Eagles had a chance to make some noise if they had gotten Jerome Robinson back. Now that he’s gone? I don’t know.

15. PITT: Good luck, Coach Capel.

Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson to return Wednesday night

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Six days after he made his return to the practice floor, Notre Dame senior forward Bonzie Colson will play in the team’s home finale against Pittsburgh Wednesday night.

Colson, who’s been out of the lineup since breaking a bone in his left foot during a win over Georgia Tech on December 30, sent out a video via his Twitter account Tuesday afternoon to make the news of his return official.

Colson played 39 minutes against the Yellow Jackets despite suffering the injury, tallying 22 points and 17 rebounds. Notre Dame has been cautious in the handling of Colson’s recovery, and has said that the senior forward’s minutes will be “limited” for Senior Night.

At the time of his injury Colson was averaging 21.4 points and 10.4 rebounds per game, shooting 52.6 percent from the field. As a junior Colson averaged 17.8 points and 10.1 rebounds per contest, earning first team All-ACC honors.

Notre Dame will be without Matt Farrell (ankle) vs. Syracuse

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Losing Bonzie Colson for two months is bad enough. A team losing its best player, an All-American and national player of the year contender, is already facing an uphill battle. To lose your second-best player to injury, too, well, that’s just cruel.

It’s also reality for Notre Dame.

The Fighting Irish will be without guard Matt Farrell on Saturday at Syracuse due to an ankle injury, coach Mike Brey said on his radio show, according to Tom Noie of the South Bend Tribune.

Farrell rolled his ankle in the first half of the Irish’s 88-58 win over North Carolina State on Wednesday, and did not appear in the second half.

“He’s got some swelling,” Brey said after the game. “It’s one of those that I don’t think is going to be ready. I would hope that he’d be healthy to play Wednesday in Atlanta (against Georgia Tech).”

Farrell is averaging 15.9 points and 5.1 assists this season, and was likely to be the one to carry an increased workload with Colson out due to a broken foot.

“That group is so confident and upbeat,” Brey said. “Bonzie’s been down a day and we’re practicing and then Matty goes down and then T.J. Gibbs, you just see him and Rex (Pflueger) go, ‘OK, we’re running this now.’

“That’s the culture of the program.”

Four takeaways from No. 3 Michigan State’s dominating win over No. 5 Notre Dame

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With the ACC having already secured a landslide victory in its annual challenge with the Big Ten, Thursday night promised to offer some respite into the one-sidedness of the competition.

Well, the Big Ten added to its paltry win total, but there wasn’t much in the way of competition as No. 3 Michigan State walloped No. 5 Notre Dame, 81-63, to improve to 6-1 on the season and send the Fighting Irish to their first loss of the season.

The Spartans controlled the game from the outset, getting up big early and withstanding a second-half charge from the Irish.  Notre Dame, especially at the Breslin Center, was simply no match for Michigan State.

Josh Langford and Cassius Winston both had 17 for the Spartans with Winston also contributing seven assists. Miles Bridges had 14 points and Nick Ward 12.

Bonzie Colson led the way for the Irish with 17 points while Rex Pflueger had 15.

It was a dominating performance from the Spartans, who have made a habit of being dominating since that Champion’s Classic loss to Duke. Their last five wins have all come by at least 18 points.

Here’s what we learned Thursday:

Michigan State at full-bore is scary good

The Spartans were dominant for about 30 minutes of this game, having to withstand about a 10-minute second-half push from Notre Dame. When they were on, it was clear that Michigan State is among the top tier of teams that appear capable of winning a national championship. Duke’s win over Tom Izzo’s team and its run through the PK80 has them at the front of the line right now, but the Spartans aren’t far behind.

Against a top-five opponent, Michigan State shot 51.4 percent in the first half despite 4 of 13 from 3-point range. The held the Fighting Irish to 37.9 percent shooting (3 of 11 from 3) and forced six turnovers to be 20 points better heading into halftime.

There was that lull from the Spartans after halftime – and give credit to Notre Dame for punching back – but Michigan State still at least 12 points from four starters and nine from Matt McQuaid off the bench. Jaren Jackson was the sole starter not to break 10 points, but foul trouble limited to 14 minutes and he still managed three blocks.

It’s not surprising or news to notice that Michigan State is really, really good, but it’s still impressive to see them at full stride.

Bonzie Colson is awesome, but does have his limitations

The Notre Dame senior is one of the best players in college basketball. He’s incredibly fun to watch as a 6-foot-5 forward with an expansive wingspan. The guy gets buckets.

But when faced with a defender with size, length and/or athletcism, it can cause problems for him.

That’s what happened Thursday night.

Colson was 6 of 19 from the floor (31.5 percent) against the Spartans, who were able to throw a number of defenders at him, though it was Jackson (6-10 with a 7-f wingspan) that really gave him fits. What makes him so strong is his efficiency, and Michigan State took that away completely.

Miles Bridges shouldn’t settle for jumpers

Michigan State’s star had a so-so night with 14 points, six rebounds, four assists and a block, but he was 6 of 15 from the floor and committed three turnovers in 32 minutes. The biggest issue for Bridges is that he wasn’t getting to the rim in the halfcourt with much consistency, instead launching 3s. He made just 1 of 7.

Bridges can make 3s. He’s actually a pretty good shooter from distance, having converted at a 38.9 percent clip last year and coming in at 36 percent this year. But he’s too much of a dynamic physical weapon with his size and athleticism to shoot from 3 that much, taking the pressure of a defense that would likely nothing more than to avoid the prospect of getting dunked on by Miles Bridges. He’s shot at least five 3s in four of Michigan State’s seven games.

If Bridges can use the 3-point shot more as a strategic threat than principal play, it’ll go a long way.

The Spartans are going to blow through the Big Ten

The Big Ten got absolutely waxed in its annual matchup with the ACC, dropping 11 of 15 games. It’s a pretty good indication that the league, as a whole, just isn’t as strong as most years. Minnesota and Purdue have probably looked the best of the potential contenders, but neither of those teams appear to be at an elite level.

That really just leaves Michigan State to carry the banner for the conference this season, and, as noted above, they are more than capable of doing just that. The Spartans appear poised for a No. 1 seed in a couple months, and, given that it won’t be surprising if they clear the Big Ten by three or more games, the conversation will likely be about their worthiness for the top overall seed.

College Hoops Contender Series: Here Are Six Final Four Sleepers

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Who are the favorites to win a national title? Who can legitimately be called a contender? Who has the pieces to make a run to the Final Four? We’ll break that all down for you over the next three weeks in our Contender Series.

First up: Final Four Sleepers

It takes a certain amount of talent to be able to win a national title in college basketball, even if that talent doesn’t always show up every night.

Winning four games in two weeks to get to the season’s final weekend can be done by a team with a handful of future pros and 10 losses on the season. We see it all the time.

Here are seven teams that have the tools to make a run to the Final Four even if they don’t have a great chance of winning their conference and look likely to enter the NCAA tournament outside the top four seeds.

Angel Delgado, Seton Hall (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

SETON HALL

If you’re not the kind of program that is going to be landing five-star, soon-to-be lottery pick freshmen by the car-load each and every fall, the best way to win basketball games is to get old and stay old. No one quite embodies that ethos this season like Seton Hall does.

Head coach Kevin Willard entered the 2015-16 season on the hot seat after his loaded 2014 recruiting class sparked a 13-3 start to the 2014-15 season before the team fell off a cliff, losing 12 of their last 15 games and missing out on the postseason entirely. Following that season, the Pirates jettisoned some of their baggage and returned a core of sophomores that would eventually lead the program to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances despite losing Isaiah Whitehead to the 2016 NBA Draft.

And now, four members of that 2014 recruiting class — guards Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez, big men Angel Delgado and Ishmael Sanogo — are now seniors leading what may be the best Seton Hall team since the P.J. Carlesimo days. Delgado’s name is the one you need to know. The 6-foot-9 Dominican power forward is one of the toughest and most physical bigs in the country. It’s not a mistake that he averaged 15.2 points and 13.1 boards last season, numbers that jumped to 16.4 points and 14.5 boards in Big East play.

He’s Seton Hall’s All-American. He was also the team’s third-leading scorer last year, behind Carrington and Rodriguez, who are both tough, physical New York City guards; Carrington is more of a combo while Rodriguez is a wing. Sanogo Michael Nzei are tough, athletic, defensive-minded front court players, and you’re starting to see the trend here, right?

Playing Seton Hall is not going to be fun this season, and while they may not be the most talented team in the country this year, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one that plays harder.

There are going to be two things that determine Seton Hall’s ceiling:

  • Does Seton Hall have a point guard? Freshman Jordan Walker is the only true point that will be eligible this season, and the Pirates ran into some problems that came with a lack of playmakers last season. Asking a freshman to handle those responsibilities will be tough, but it helps that Carrington can handle the ball and that everyone else on the floor will be a veteran.
  • What does Myles Powell turn into? He had some promising moments as a freshman, including 26-point outbursts at Iowa and at Xavier. If he become a more consistent shooter, that opens up a lot more space for Delgado inside.
Collin Sexton (David Banks/Getty Images)

ALABAMA

Last year, Alabama finished the season as one of the top ten defensive teams in college basketball, according to KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric.

Not only do the Crimson Tide return essentially everyone from that team, they also add one of the nation’s best recruiting classes to the mix. More importantly, that recruiting class features players that are able to get buckets in a hurry, and if you any Alabama basketball a year ago, you know that was a major issue; they were 153rd in adjusted offensive efficiency and, in February, played a four-overtime game against South Carolina where they managed all of 90 points in 60 minutes of basketball.

The name that you’re going to want to be familiar with is Collin Sexton, a top ten prospect in the class and the pound-for-pound best freshman scorer in the country. Assuming he’s eligible – which is no guarantee given the fact that he appears to be linked to the college basketball bribery scandal that erupted last week – it’s going to be interesting to see how he adjusts to the college level — in high school, the 6-foot-2 guard’s game was centered around getting into the lane, throwing his body into people and getting to the foul line — but he should immediately help relieve some of those scoring issues, as will five-star off-guard John Petty. Braxton Key and Dazon Ingram are both back in the mix as well, while former four-star big man Daniel Giddens will be eligible after transferring in from Ohio State.

I’m still very-much taking a wait-and-see approach with the Tide this year, but the combination of last year’s defense combined with the influx of scoring talent Avery Johnson will see in his back court this year gets the Tide a ceiling that is as high as anyone’s in the SEC this side of Kentucky and Florida.

UCLA

It’s going to be easy for people to write off this UCLA team.

Lonzo Ball is gone, as is T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu, Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford. Instead, the Bruins will enroll Liangelo Ball, the worst of the three Ball brothers and the one that may end up igniting LaVar’s ire if he does not play the kind of minutes and get the kind of shots he envisions.

Frankly, I’m not even going to bother trying to convince you otherwise. There are major, major question marks surrounding this team.

But let’s pretend, for a second, that LaVar Ball did not exist.

The Bruins may have the best point guard in the Pac-12 in Aaron Holiday, who is one of the nation’s most underrated players. They have Thomas Welsh, a senior big man that can space the floor, and G.G. Goloman, another veteran front court presence. Prince Ali is coming off of an injury but he was a five-star prospect coming out of high school. Then there is the recruiting class: Jaylen Hands might be the reason that Holiday isn’t the best point guard on UCLA this year, and wing Kris Wilkes may actually have the biggest impact as a freshman. Throw in four-star recruits Chris Smith, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, and there is talent, depth and experience up and down this lineup.

They’ve got a shot to make some noise.

J.P. Macura, Trevon Bluiett (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

XAVIER

You want a sneaky sleeper pick for National Player of the Year that no one seems to be talking about?

Trevon Bluiett.

The 6-foot-6 wing was an absolute killer when he wasn’t dealing with an ankle injury last season, and through the first three rounds of last year’s NCAA tournament, he was the best player in the event. He’ll be back, potentially as a Preseason First-Team All-American, to anchor a roster that is probably more talented and athletic than you realize.

Senior wing J.P. Macura is back, as is sophomore Quentin Goodin, a former four-star recruit that has some promising moments as in an up-and-down freshman season filling in for the injured Edmond Sumner. Throw in a trio of four-star perimeter recruits, an experienced and versatile frontline and The Return of the (Chris) Mack, who was a target during Indiana’s coaching search, and there is a lot to like about this team.

But it’s Bluiett that is the centerpiece. As much as anyone in college basketball, he can put this group on his back and carry them to four straight wins in March, and with this supporting cast and coaching staff, that make Xavier a dangerous team.

MINNESOTA

The Golden Gophers were one of college basketball’s biggest surprises a season ago. Richard Pitino entered the season on the hot seat before winning 12 of their first 13 games only to lose five straight midway through Big Ten play. They would regroup, however, winning eight straight down the stretch, finishing the year with 24 wins and, somehow, turning into the obvious first round NCAA tournament upset as a No. 5 seed.

It was a roller coaster, but given the youth that was on that roster and the fact that Akeem Springs is the only contributor that won’t be returning to school, it was a nice starting point for what could turn into an extended run of Big Ten success.

Nate Mason is back for his senior year while junior Dupree McBrayer and freshman Isaiah Washington give Pitino plenty of back court options. Amir Coffey, a former five-star recruit, had a terrific freshman campaign as a versatile wing while the front court options are plentiful — Reggie Lynch and Bakary Konate return, and Davante Fitzgerald’s return to health should help mitigate the loss of Eric Curry.

All told, that means a Pitino-coached team has a talented, experienced perimeter attack with a bevy of big bodies on the front line. If Coffey can grow into an all-Big Ten talent, Minnesota will have the horses to give Michigan State a run for their money atop the league.

Matt Farrell, Bonzie Colson (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

NOTRE DAME

To me, the Fighting Irish have reached the point in their program development that they are to the ACC what Wisconsin was to the Big Ten under Bo Ryan. Instead of trying to figure out who is going to play what role, just assume that the pieces Mike Brey has matriculating through his program will find a way to figure it out.

There is no better example of this than last year, when the Irish lost Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste from a team that went 24-12 and somehow managed to win more games with a better ACC record despite using 6-foot-5 Bonzie Colson as their small-ball center for much of the year.

And never has there been a player more perfectly-suited to a role than Colson is to playing in Mike Brey’s system. He’s borderline unstoppable one-on-one, and when the Irish plant knockdown shooters everywhere around him, they become a nightmare to defend.

Matt Farrell, who was one of the most pleasant surprises in college basketball last season, will return as well, but the key for this group is going to be three-fold:

  1. Will Temple Gibbs and Rex Pflueger, two wings that entered Notre Dame with expectations and a high rankings by recruiting services, take advantage of the minutes made available by the graduation of Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem?
  2. Will D.J. Harvey, a talented forward that was once a top ten player in the Class of 2017, have an immediate impact as the big wing that the Irish currently lack?
  3. Does Martinas Geben become a player that can anchor a front line when needed?

If all three of those things happen, Notre Dame will once again be a top 20 team that can beat anyone on any given night.

Notre Dame gets commitment from four-star guard

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Mike Brey’s 2018 recruiting class just got stronger Thursday.

Notre Dame added its second four-star prospect, Robby Carmody, a 6-foot-4 guard from Pennsylvania.

“The recruiting process has been a humbling and exciting experience!” Carmody wrote on social media. “My sincerest appreciation goes out to all the coaches and schools that invested time getting to know me throughout the process.

“Today I am blessed and excited to announce that I am committing to the University of Notre Dame!”

Carmody, who just recently visited the Fighting Irish and Purdue,  joins Prentiss Hubb as the first two pieces of Brey’s 2018 class. Hubb is a 6-foot-2 guard from Washington, DC and a top-75 ranked player nationally.

The Irish will need some major pieces in 2018 after losing the likes of Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell to graduation after this upcoming season. Notre Dame has won at least one NCAA tournament game in each of the last three seasons, making two Elite Eights during that time.