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. 19 Syracuse.
For the second time in just three seasons, Syracuse and head coach Jim Boeheim did their best to make me look like an idiot in March.
In 2016, after the Orange were bounced out in the first round of the ACC tournament, finishing with a 19-13 record and a 9-9 mark in the ACC, I said that they had absolutely no business getting an at-large bid to the Big Dance before they, as a No. 10 seed, decided to march all the way to the Final Four. This past season, I, again, railed against the Orange’s inclusion in the NCAA tournament field after they entered Selection Sunday with a 20-13 record and an 8-10 finish in the ACC.
What did Syracuse do?
They beat Arizona State in a play-in game before knocking off both TCU and Michigan State en route to the Sweet 16, where Duke was finally able to send Syracuse packing.
You see, despite entering the tournament with a rotation that included just seven scholarship players, Boeheim was able to field a roster that finished with the nation’s fifth-best defense, according to KenPom.com, and was anchored by Tyus Battle, one of the most productive guards in the sport despite the fact that he essentially played every minute for the Orange over the course of the final three months of the season. He finished last season averaging 19.2 points despite playing on one of the slowest teams in college basketball.
And this is the best part: Syracuse returns everyone of consequence from that team while adding a pair of freshmen that will play roles as well as a transfer that could end up pushing for a starting spot.
It’s why Syracuse may not be the most entertaining team to watch this season, but they are a sneaky bet to win the ACC.
MORE: Mid-Major Power Rankings | The Hot Seat | Perry Ellis All-Stars
SYRACUSE WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …
The Orange will, once again, be one of the single-best teams in the country on the defensive end of the floor.
And, as Jim Boeheim has for what feels like half-a-century, they’ll do so by playing the nation’s preeminent 2-3 zone.
I know what you’re thinking: How can it be so difficult for coaches to game-plan against their zone? Why is it so hard for good basketball coaches and good basketball teasm to run good offense against a defense that is generally reserved for old guys trying to keep the dream alive in a men’s league?
It’s because the zone that Syracuse plays is different than your average 2-3 zone. It starts with the ridiculous amount of length that Boeheim has on his roster. Both of his starting guards are 6-foot-6, long and athletic. The wings are 6-foot-9, long and athletic. His starting center is 7-foot-2, and his back-up center is 6-foot-10. Both of them are, you guessed it, long and athletic.
What all that length does is take away passing lanes, especially when you factor in that Boeheim’s zone starts as something closer to a 2-2-1 than a 2-3. The wings push up high, the guards at the top of the zone cut-off a pass to the high-post as the center at the rim defends against a lob over the top of the defense. Opposing offenses can swing the ball around the perimeter or throw looping passes to the corners, which gives Syracuse defenders ample time to move where they need to be, but that’s about it.
The entire purpose of Boeheim’s recruiting strategy — stockpiling as much height, length and athleticism as humanly possible — is to make moving the ball quickly or getting a clean look from the perimeter against his zone impossible.
With this roster, he has done just that.
Syracuse finished last season ranked as the fifth-best defense in the country, according to KenPom’s adjusted-defensive efficiency metric. That is the highest that any Syracuse team has finished in the 17 seasons in KenPom’s database. They were 10th nationally in defensive effective field goal percentage, and while they struggled on the defensive glass, anyone that grabbed an offensive board still has to contend with finishing in the paint around all that length. Should I mention the Orange finished the year third in defensive block rate?
But that’s not the most impressive thing Syracuse did defensively.
This is: The Orange held opponent’s to just 31.8 percent shooting from three (good for 17th nationally) while forcing their opponents to shoot 44.5 percent of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc. That is the highest percentage of any team in the seven high-major leagues. For comparison’s sake, Virginia held opponent’s to 31.0 percent shooting from three, with 40.8 percent of their field goal attempts coming from beyond the arc.
That, frankly, is incredible. It tells you everything you need to know about the Syracuse.
And not only does Boeheim return all five starters and his sixth-man from that team, three of those six returnees — Oshae Brissett, Marek Dolezaj and Bourama Sidibe — were freshmen a season ago, and another 6-foot-6 guard — East Carolina transfer Elijah Hughes, who sat out last season — is eligible to play this season. Throw in a pair of freshmen — Jalen Carey and Buddy Boeheim — that are expected to see immediate playing time, and the Orange will actually be able to give some of their starters a rest this season.
Syracuse is going to be one of the nation’s elite defenses once again, and that is enough to make them a top 25 team entering the season.
I’m not convinced that their offensive improvement is going to be all that drastic.
Let’s call a spade, a spade: Syracuse was downright bad offensively a season ago. They finished the year 135th in KenPom’s adjusted-offensive efficiency metric, which is easily the lowest Syracuse finish in KenPom’s database. The reason the Orange were so poor on that end is three-fold:
They were horrid shooting the ball from the perimeter, making just 31.8 percent of their threes. That was good for 324th nationally. Their floor-spacing was non-existent, which is what happens when you have two players on the floor that are ineffective more than five feet from the rim.
Syracuse didn’t exactly have a point guard on the floor. Franklin Howard led the team in assists, but he was quite turnover prone and, for the second straight season, padded those raw stats against some middling early-season competition. Tyus Battle took over lead guard duties, but …
… he was not only an inefficient scorer that struggled to make his teammates better, he was also more or less the only option for Syracuse to be able to create offense against quality competition.
I don’t think there’s any question that Syracuse will be improved on that end this season. I fully expect Brissett and Dolezaj to be more well-rounded weapons offensively, particularly Brissett, who averaged 14.9 points and 8.8 boards as a freshman. As he gets ‘stretchier’, making more than 33.1 percent of his threes, he’ll only become a better weapon.
Carey and Hughes will also help space the floor and take some of the creative responsibility off of Battle’s plate. Both have drawn rave reviews from sources around the program this offseason. Then there is Buddy Boeheim, a 6-foot-5 sharpshooter that could see 15-20 minutes per game. His size will allow him to play on the top of the zone, hiding his defensive issues, and he steps on campus as the best shooter in the program this side of assistant coach Gerry McNamara.
But I’m nowhere near convinced that this ensures Syracuse will be a top 50 offense, and I think that is what it will take for the Orange to be by the end of the season if they want to be a top four team in the ACC and a true Final Four contender.
Last season, Syracuse was the only top seven team in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric that was not ranked between 30th and 50th in adjusted offensive efficiency. Of those six — Virginia, Cincinnati, Michigan, Texas Tech, Tennessee and Clemson — only Clemson was outside the top three seed lines in the NCAA tournament; the Tigers were a No. 5 seed that reached the Sweet 16.
That’s where the Orange need to be offensively to hit their ceiling …
… but I’m still in wait and see mode.
The biggest reason? I don’t see a difference in their best five this season when compared to last season. Hughes averaged 7.8 points, 2.3 boards and 1.3 assists while shooting 27.3 percent from three for a bad East Carolina team in 2016-17. Is he going to solve the issues Syracuse has offensively? Carey is a four-star prospect that picked the Orange over Seton Hall and ranked 61st in 247 Sports composite rankings. Buddy Boeheim shoots the leather off the ball, but again, we’re not exactly talking about the second-coming of J.J. Redick here. Those two can fill a role. They’re not going to be one-and-done.
More importantly, every time one of those three newcomers steps on the court, Syracuse will be forced to do one of three things: Send Battle to the bench, send Howard to the bench or play with a guard in one of the wing spots.
Howard has his warts as a player, but he still managed to put up 14.4 points, 4.7 assists and 3.5 boards while leading the Orange in steals. He’s not a perfect fit for what Syracuse needs him to be, but he’s also a long way from being a bum. Playing a guard on a wing will hurt the Orange defensively. Will the boost they get from having another real offensive threat on the floor instead of playing Dolezaj alongside a catch-and-dunk center outweigh what they lose defensively?
And all of this ignores the simple fact that Jim Boeheim despises using his bench. His program hasn’t finished in the top 300 of bench minutes since the 2011-12 season, when he used Dion Waiters — who was the No. 4 pick in the 2012 draft — and Michael Carter-Williams — the No. 11 pick in the 2013 draft and the 2014 NBA Rookie of the Year — as substitutes.
Syracuse is going to be a good basketball team. They should make it back to the NCAA tournament. They are right there with the likes of Clemson, N.C. State, Virginia Tech and Florida State in the discussion for the fourth-best team in the ACC.
The difference-maker, I think, will be Tyus Battle.
The 6-foot-6 junior scored a ton of points last season. He also took a ton of shots and finished with a higher turnover rate than assist rate. It’s why he’s back in school right now instead of trying to earn a roster spot in the NBA. His inefficiency, while explainable, scared teams off.
And I think he’ll make an effort to improve that this year. He’ll look to take better shots. He’ll try to get his teammates more involved. If he wants to be a combo in the NBA, he has to showcase some ability to make teammates better in college.
If he does that, if he’s more efficient while the sophomore class takes a step forward and the newcomers take some of the load off of Battle’s shoulders, this group has a chance.
Their ability to fluster anyone and everyone with that zone gives them a floor of being a tournament team. Their ceiling, if it all comes together, is as a top ten team, but as of today, my money is on this group finishing closer to their floor than their ceiling.
Rob Dauster was joined on Monday morning by Scott Phillips to roll through the College Basketball Talk ACC preview podcast. Just how good will Duke’s freshmen end up being? Can Virginia overcome the demons of the worst tourney loss of all-time? Why is Theo Pinson a bigger loss for North Carolina than Joel Berry II? Which of the mass of teams in the middle of the league can get to a Final Four?
It’s all here.
Open: Boston College
20:42: Florida State
26:27: Georgia Tech
38:47: NC State
50:12: Notre Dame
1:09:27: Virginia Tech
1:12:25: Wake Forest
2018-19 ACC Preview: Duke, Virginia, North Carolina once again top loaded conference
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 Atlantic Coast Conference.
The ACC returns for another mega year as the league reloads with five-star freshmen and a ridiculous number of preseason top-25 teams.
This could very well be another year in which the ACC gets multiple No. 1 seeds and up to 10 teams in the NCAA tournament as the conference looks deep and talented.
Here’s a look at the ACC.
FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
1. The ACC is loaded with contenders, but doesn’t have a clear cut favorite.
A lot of familiar names pepper the top of the ACC’s preseason standings. Duke and North Carolina are the seemingly perennial contenders while Virginia has now included themselves in that tier with the past few years. All of those programs have the potential to win the ACC again this season. None of them are the clearcut favorite at this point.
You can certainly make a strong case for all three of those schools. They also all have glaring issues. Duke is going to be very young, with question marks about how the ball moves and defense. Virginia has the talent to be a title contender again, but how will they handle last season’s loss while also handling season-long questions about the team’s ability to score when necessary? And North Carolina will be relying heavily on two freshmen this season — something Roy Williams hasn’t always done before — so how well will Nassir Little and Coby White adjust to potential prime-time roles?
And this doesn’t include a ridiculously loaded second tier of teams. The NBC Sports Preseason Top 25 has more than half the league in the poll. Can one of those teams make a leap to compete for the title as well? It’s certainly feasible, with teams like Virginia Tech, Florida State, Clemson and Syracuse all returning a lot of talent from successful teams. This should be a fascinating year in the conference.
2. Duke’s freshman class has the potential to be legendary.
Duke returns a few key pieces from last season, but the truth is nobody’s interested in the Blue Devils that are coming back. Everybody wants to talk about the recruiting class with four top-10 talents and huge expectations.
The freshman class of R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones will all likely start from day one as the quartet is perhaps the most well-known recruiting class of all time. You could argue that other groups of recruits were deeper or more talented. None of them carry the level of burden this group does.
Williamson is the most popular high school basketball player since LeBron. He’s a YouTube sensation who throws down NBA Dunk Contest-level in-game dunks while checking in at the 285 pounds that an NFL defensive end weighs. He destroyed rims in Canada and showed off a higher skill level than people give him credit for.
Barrett is the future of Canada basketball and a potential No. 1 pick in next June’s NBA draft. He’s already defeated a team full of American stars in FIBA play while getting an early call up to play with pros on the Canadian Senior National team this summer. He just played a national high school schedule at Montverde and dominated everybody.
Reddish might be even more talented than Barrett and Williamson. There were times in high school that the 6-foot-8 perimeter threat looked like the best player in the class. But inconsistencies have plagued Reddish at times, as he makes for an insanely talented No. 3 option in this class.
And then there is Jones, the younger brother of an NBA player who already won a national title at the same school. Tre will be known more by casual basketball fans than the common Duke player because of that association to Tyus. But Tre has also won multiple gold medals with USA Basketball and should be ready for the attention that comes with the position of being Duke’s lead guard.
Veterans like Javin DeLaurier, Marques Bolden and Alex O’Connell will likely play a big role in Duke’s season, but it’s the freshman class that everyone will be watching for, as we’ll only get a limited window to see these four play together in Durham.
3. Virginia returns another potential No. 1 seed after last season’s NCAA tournament disaster.
The jokes and memes are never going to stop, and neither will the questions about Tony Bennett’s credibility when it comes to winning in March. Virginia’s loss to No. 16 seed UMBC during last season’s NCAA tournament will always be remembered as one of the biggest upsets in sports history.
The good news for the ‘Hoos is that they have a potential No. 1 seed once again this season. They get a chance at revenge. Three starters, including the backcourt of Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, are back, as is senior center Jack Salt. And De’Andre Hunter should earn starting minutes and make a huge leap this season on the wing. Junior big man Mamadi Diakite showed some late signs of being a major factor with more minutes.
No matter what Virginia does, they’ll still have plenty of doubters — especially if the slow-paced offense continues. But this team has the makings of another consistent season in which they should compete for an ACC title.
4. North Carolina has the weapons to make another deep March run.
After four seasons of March memories, the backcourt of Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson have exhausted their eligibility. With a title and two Final Four appearances, the duo will be greatly missed. The good news for North Carolina is that they have the necessary weapons to make another deep run in March.
Senior forward Luke Maye is one of the nation’s most versatile frontcourt weapons. He’s a double-double machine who can also hit a three. Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams are veteran perimeter threats and two more returning double-figure scorers. And North Carolina also has a promising young center platoon that includes Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley.
But it’s the freshmen who could be the key to North Carolina’s success. Forward Nassir Little exploded into a top-five prospect during his senior season of high school as he’ll be expected to be a major contributor this season. Scoring guard Coby White will likely be asked to handle much of the point responsibilities that fell on Berry, as he’ll be playing a new role.
On the plus side, many project Little as a lottery pick after one season, while the scoring-minded White looked very good playing for the gold-medal winning USA Basketball U18 team this summer. So expectations will be high for both of them. The duo is also a big reason why expectations are once again high on North Carolina.
It’s easy to get lost discussing the recent greatness of programs like Duke, North Carolina and Virginia. So let’s not forget about the rest of the ACC — which is once again loaded this season. Virginia Tech returns most of last season’s NCAA tournament team, as they have a promising core and an offense that can really put up points.
Florida State, Syracuse and Clemson, the next pack of ACC teams, all made at least the Sweet 16 last season (the Seminoles made the Elite Eight) while each program returns a good chunk of those rosters. N.C. State and Miami both have intriguing rosters that just came off of NCAA tournament appearances. Both of those teams will rely heavily on rosters to offset the loss of some key players.
And it’s also tough to count out programs like Louisville, Boston College and Notre Dame this season. New coach Chris Mack inherits a talented, but inconsistent, group with the Cardinals. Boston College might have received preseason top 25 consideration if Jerome Robinson didn’t leave and go in the first round. The Eagles do have an All-American candidate in Ky Bowman with four starters back. And Notre Dame has T.J. Gibbs and Rex Pflueger returning, but they’ll rely heavily on freshmen.
All together, it’s feasible that this league gets double-digit NCAA tournament bids this season, particularly if some power leagues struggle to generate a normal number of bids.
PRESEASON ACC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: R.J. BARRETT, Duke
Many already view the 6-foot-7 Canadian as the No. 1 NBA Draft prospect for 2019, but before he shakes Adam Silver’s hand, Barrett will see if he can be the latest freshman to dominate college basketball. Already great at the high school level in both FIBA and playing a national schedule with Montverde Academy, Barrett has been battle-tested by older players for much of his career. An electric athlete who has a chance to be a menace on both sides of the ball, Barrett could be an unstoppable scorer for the Blue Devils this season. He was the NBC Sports Preseason National Player of the Year.
THE REST OF THE ACC FIRST TEAM
LUKE MAYE, North Carolina: The versatile junior big man became only the sixth Tar Heel in the last 40 years to average a double-double for a season (16.9 ppg, 10.1 rpg) as he also shot 43 percent from three-point range.
TYUS BATTLE, Syracuse: Stuck in a bad offense last season, the junior guard still managed to average 19.2 points per game — helping carry the Orange to a surprising postseason run.
ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke: Expectations for the freshman forward have been enhanced after some flashes of brilliance during Duke’s summer exhibition tour to Canada.
DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia: The sophomore could emerge as one of the premier two-way wings in the country after earning ACC Sixth Man of the Year last season.
FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW
KYLE GUY, Virginia
NASSIR LITTLE, North Carolina
KY BOWMAN, Boston College
CAM REDDISH, Duke
T.J. GIBBS, Notre Dame
Syracuse sophomore forward Oshae Brissett didn’t receive a lot of attention as a freshman putting up big numbers at a known school. The bouncy 6-foot-8 Brissett averaged 14.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game as he played in a notable 38.1 minutes per game. Despite putting up one of the best freshman seasons in Orange history, Tyus Battle received most of the attention as the go-to scorer from last season’s team. If Brissett improves his 35 percent shooting, while showing more consistent three-point range (33 percent), then he could have a monster second season and receive much more attention.
COACH UNDER PRESSURE
Danny Manning has recruited at a high level at Wake Forest (including a very good freshman class this season). Unfortunately that hasn’t always translated into success for the Demon Deacons. Although Wake Forest made the NCAA tournament with a breakout star in John Collins just two seasons ago, the program reverted back to a 4-14 finish in the ACC last season. Manning only has one postseason appearance in four seasons with the program and Wake Forest hasn’t finished about 10th in the ACC during his tenure. Regardless of how well he is recruiting, Manning needs to start winning some games.
ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …
The loaded ACC has multiple national title contenders to go along with a deep group of eight teams who were selected into the final Field of 68.
I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …
Watching Zion Williamson play at the college level is something I’ve been waiting for since his sophomore year of high school. America’s most popular prep basketball star since LeBron James, Williamson has rare size and athletic grace. If Zion puts up some monster numbers, while making huge highlight-reel plays, for the Blue Devils this season, then it’s a very good thing for college basketball.
FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR
Nov. 6, Duke vs. Kentucky (Champions Classic, Indianapolis)
Nov. 28, Purdue at Florida State (ACC/Big Ten Challenge)
Nov. 28, North Carolina at Michigan (ACC/Big Ten Challenge)
Dec. 8, Georgetown at Syracuse
Dec. 15, Gonzaga at North Carolina
1. DUKE: It’s always tough for teams reliant on freshmen to make the Final Four. Duke is hoping this potentially special group is an exception. Figuring out roles and lineups is going to be one of the fascinating things about this Duke roster.
The Blue Devils have the luxury of throwing a lot of unique looks out there since Barrett, Reddish and Williamson can play so many different positions on the wing. Small-ball lineups are available. Duke can throw a lot of size out there with someone like Bolden at center and maybe DeLaurier at the four. And O’Connell gives them another perimeter weapon who showed he can make some big plays last season. Scoring shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Getting consistent stops is likely going to dictate whether this team lives up to its ultimate potential.
2. VIRGINIA: Expected to once again be one of the best teams in the country, the Cavaliers feature a lot of returning talent. The backcourt of Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy are back. De’Andre Hunter goes from the bench to a starting, more featured role. Frontcourt depth shouldn’t be a concern as Jack Salt, Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff are among a versatile group.
Improving offense is going to be what everyone is watching for. Since Virginia got run out of the gym by UMBC last season, putting up points — when necessary — has been a big subject with this team. With an NBA talent and two upperclass guards who can really shoot, Virginia is hoping to have more consistent offensive firepower this year. Remember, Hunter also missed the NCAA tournament with a broken wrist. While the pack-line defense and getting stops is still the backbone of Virginia basketball, this offense should be better equipped to fight back if an opposing team gets hot. And if Virginia can consistently put up points, then it makes them more intriguing for a potential Final Four run.
3. NORTH CAROLINA: While the Tar Heels have plenty of returning veterans and five-star freshmen to plug in holes at starting positions this season, the North Carolina bench is going to be a fascinating subplot. Reliable players fill most of the spots in the starting five, but the Tar Heels will ultimately need a few more guys to step up and help Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams.
Aside from freshmen like Nassir Little and Coby White, junior guards Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson could be key guys off the bench, while sophomore big man Brandon Huffman is another development piece to keep track of. Freshman Rechon Black could also be looked at to play a Pinson-like role on the perimeter as his versatility and 6-foot-7 size are standout attributes. The freshmen duo of Little and White will ultimately be the big key to North Carolina’s ceiling. But developing a deep bench, or some surprising late-risers, wouldn’t hurt either.
4. VIRGINIA TECH: Back-to-back seasons of making the NCAA tournament is a good start for Buzz Williams turning Virginia Tech into more of a basketball school. Now the goal is to win a game or two in March. The Hokies return everybody except Justin Bibbs from a postseason team as expectations will be high.
Bibbs was an experienced double-figure scorer, but the Hokies can now slide Chris Clarke into the starting lineup and led him battle on both ends with Kerry Blackshear up front. Point guard Justin Robinson, one of the nation’s most underrated lead guards, also has talented perimeter options like Ahmed Hill and Nickeil Alexander-Walker returning. While the Hokies led the ACC in field goal percentage and threes last season, they often struggled for long stretches on the glass and the defensive end. If this veteran team puts more of a focus on being great on both ends, then the second weekend and beyond in the tournament isn’t a stretch.
5. FLORIDA STATE: Putting a reigning Elite Eight team fifth shows how loaded the ACC is, because Florida State could be really good once again. Most of last season’s group is back. Seven returning players averaged double-figure minutes. Depth is not going to be an issue.
Senior wing Terance Mann and fifth-year senior forward Phil Cofer are both returning double-figure scorers while lead guard Trent Forrest and wing M.J. Walker also return. The center rotation of Christ Koumadje and Mfiondu Kabengele provide a nice platoon in the middle. Shooter P.J. Savoy should also have more bench help from newcomers that include Albany transfer guard David Nichols and redshirt freshmen Raiquan Gray and Anthony Polite. Florida State is hoping that someone like Walker can make a leap and become a consistent third scoring option.
6. SYRACUSE: After shocking the sport by returning to the Sweet 16, the Orange have the makings of a very good team this season. All of the important pieces are back from last season, most notably junior guard and All-American candidate Tyus Battle. With Battle coming back, the Orange have a returning double-figure scorer at point in Frank Howard along with a long and athletic frontcourt that can really defend. Senior center Paschal Chukwu and sophomores Oshae Brissett and Marek Dolezaj all logged heavy minutes last year, with Brissett becoming a solid secondary off-ball scorer.
Landing reinforcements is what makes this Syracuse team so interesting. Last season’s group had to log heavy minutes, leading to low-scoring slogs throughout the NCAA tournament. Adding some talented freshmen and transfers should help alleviate some of the minutes burden on this program. Freshman guard Jalen Carey is a four-star prospect who should earn some minutes. East Carolina transfer Elijah Hughes is another 6-foot-6 shooter who can help. Guard Howard Washington should recover from injury. And you can’t forget freshman guard Buddy Boeheim, Jim’s son, who adds another shooter to the rotation as well. If Syracuse finds a good minutes balance for this roster then an improved offense could make them scary.
7. CLEMSON: Many of the Sweet 16 pieces return this season as the starting lineup features four returning seniors. Clemson’s backcourt of Shelton Mitchell and Marcquise Reed are one of the best duos in the nation as they’ll log heavy minutes. Forward David Skara and former top-50 recruit Elijah Thomas are also back as main cogs for the Tigers. Sophomore Aaric Simms should step in and help Clemson maintain the rugged defense that helped make them elite a season ago.
Question marks with the bench will be the key to Clemson’s success. Center Javan White was a near double-double a game at Oral Roberts, but the perimeter group could be thin. Freshman guard John Newman III could figure immediately into the Clemson rotation if head coach Brad Brownell wants to go small (as he’s done in the past). Expect a lot of opportunities for bench guys to help find a spark plug for the second unit.
8. N.C. STATE: Unknown, and perhaps underrated, the Wolfpack have eight new players on the roster as they try to acclimate transfers and freshmen into the rotation. But after a surprise NCAA tournament appearance last season, there’s reason to be decidedly optimistic that N.C. State is a potential darkhorse.
Loaded at guard, head coach Kevin Keatts will utilize a lot of small-ball lineups with 6-foot-5 veteran Torin Dorn often playing the four. Starting guards Markell Johnson and Braxton Beverley are also back after promising seasons. Newcomers will ultimately dictate the season. Guards C.J. Bryce (UNC Wilmington), Devon Daniels (Utah), Eric Lockett (FIU), Blake Harris (Missouri) and forward Wyatt Walker (Samford) are all expected to contribute. If the Wolfpack can mesh the old starters with the talented newcomers, then this could be a dangerous team.
9. MIAMI: Replacing Lonnie Walker, Bruce Brown and Ja’Quan Newton is tough enough. Miami has to replace that trio without the benefit of freshmen. The FBI scandal hurt Miami’s recruiting for this season, as they had to rely on transfers to fill holes.
There is still a lot to like about this team. Frontcourt experience returns in the form of junior big man Dewan Huell and senior forward Anthony Lawrence. Sophomore point guard Chris Lykes is also a dynamic playmaker and junior Dejan Vasiljevic can knock down shots. Grad transfer guard Zach Johnson (Florida Gulf Coast)is a proven double-figure scorer, but how do they acclimate to the ACC? And will the loss of transfer Miles Wilson (Mount St. Mary’s) hurt their backcourt depth? The key is getting multiple players to step up to become go-to guys. Walker and Brown took so much pressure off of the Hurricanes last season. Who steps up on this team to take and make tough shots down the stretch? That could ultimately decide how good Miami is this season.
10. LOUISVILLE: The excitement is certainly returning for Louisville as new head coach Chris Mack is drawing a lot of positive attention before even stepping on the sidelines. Recruiting wins aside, this season, Louisville has some holdover talent that should make them an intriguing team.
It all depends on who makes the jump. Junior V.J. King hasn’t lived up to his McDonald’s All-American billing yet as he has a chance to be a go-to guy this season. Point guard Darius Perry and junior shooter Ryan McMahon also have to address holes in their games on the perimeter. The interior of UConn transfer Steven Enoch and sophomore Malik Williams is unproven as well as both have only shown flashes of strong play. The talent is here, on paper, for the Cardinals to be a top-25 team. It all depends on how a group that has been through a lot the past few seasons handles playing for another new coach.
11. BOSTON COLLEGE: Had Jerome Robinson returned, Boston College could have been a sleeper top-25 team. Instead, Robinson went No. 13 to the Clippers, as the Eagles find themselves trying to replace an elite player. Thankfully, the rest of a team that went a surprising 7-11 in the ACC is back. Buy stock in junior guard Ky Bowman, a 6-foot-1 playmaker who should run the offense and be the team’s No. 1 scoring option. If Bowman can handle both responsibilities adequately, then he could reach All-American status. Guard Jordan Chatman is another double-figure scorer who returns as he’s another weapon from distance.
Frontcourt options remain intriguing for Boston College as starters Steffon Mitchell and Nik Popovic are back. Mitchell has shown himself to be a plus defender and rebounder while Popovic and Johncarlos Reyes could form an effective platoon in the middle. Replacing Robinson is going to be tough, but Jim Christian’s team showed a lot of ability and tenaciousness when many expected them to be a basement dweller last season. Don’t sleep on this group to beat some elite teams.
12. NOTRE DAME: It will be interesting to watch Mike Brey have to work with such a young team. Typically a veteran outfit, the Fighting Irish will have to count on a lot of inexperienced players and freshmen in 2018-19. Guard T.J. Gibbs is a potential All-ACC player after a brilliant sophomore season. Senior guard Rex Pflueger is a tough two-way guard who also returns with Gibbs.
But Notre Dame is desperately seeking a stable frontcourt while also finding some kind of lead guard of the future. The Fighting Irish should already be used to playing without former All-American Bonzie Colson since he missed much of his senior season. The loss of point guard Matt Farrell will be a tough one. Gibbs and Pflueger need help. The frontcourt returns junior John Mooney and former UConn transfer Juwan Durham, but question marks pepper this roster outside of the veteran perimeter duo. Finding an early identity will be key.
13. WAKE FOREST: A potential make-or-break season for head coach Danny Manning won’t be easy. After a 4-14 mark last season in the ACC, Wake Forest returns only three scholarship players from last season. Junior guard Brandon Childress and sophomore wing Chaundee Brown are the two most notable returnees.
The Demon Deacons have a good freshman class and some graduate transfers that they’re riding on to help produce. Freshman forward Jaylen Hoard received some five-star buzz while forward Isaiah Mucius was another top-100 prospect. Guard Jamie Lewis is another freshman who should crack the rotation as a backup lead guard. Finding big men could prove to be difficult as sophomore Olivier Sarr was inconsistent last season. Buffalo graduate transfer Ikenna Smart is also foul-prone. Wake Forest will need to offset the loss of big scorers like Bryant Crawford, Keyshawn Woods and Doral Moore, and they don’t have a lot of proven players ready to step up.
14. GEORGIA TECH: Expectations should be minimal as head coach Josh Pastner has a young team with not much returning firepower. Last season’s 13-19 team lost four of its top five scorers. Josh Okogie was a first-round pick and the Yellow Jackets still struggled. This season is about trying to rebuild and finding pieces for the future.
Lead guard Jose Alvarado showed All-ACC potential during a noteworthy freshman season that was cut short by an elbow injury. Senior guard Brandon Alston and senior big man Abdoulaye Gueye also have starting experience as the team’s veterans. Finding help for Alvarado will be key. Tennessee transfer Shembari Phillips should help on the wing. Sophomore guard Curtis Haywood II has intriguing upside as he returns from a shin injury. Freshman Michael Devoe was intriguing at times during his prep career. But Georgia Tech needs to find somebody to give Alvarado help off of the ball. The program’s season (and future) ultimately depends on getting Alvarado help.
15. PITT: Winless in ACC play last season, the Panthers have some positive momentum in Jeff Capel’s first season. Capel did himself some favors by feverishly recruiting a backcourt stable of talented pieces during the spring. While the Panthers return starters like Jared Wilson-Frame and Shamiel Stevenson on the wing, the backcourt has some interesting players who could make Pitt a tough out.
St. John’s transfer Malik Ellison and New Mexico State transfer Sidy N’Dir provide experience. Capel convinced two four-star guards, Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney, to reclassify a year up to play this season while also adding freshman guard Xavier Johnson when he decommitted from Nebraska. Pitt still has major holes in the middle. They’re asking a lot out of late additions who are younger than most freshman. They’re also in a much better position than last season’s winless team.
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.
“I mean, he made a mistake. It doesn’t do any good to talk about it,” Boeheim told Syracuse.com. “Everybody thinks I’m criticizing him. I’m not. I’m just telling it like it is. He made a mistake. He should own it. He’s just not ready. He’s just not physical. They’re not letting him play in the G League because he’d get killed.”
It’s not often a coach will speak like that about a player, even if it’s one that a coach may feel burned his program. It’s blunt and direct. It also may not be the whole story.
But it’s most likely right – at least from a purely basketball standpoint.
There is a legitimate conversation to be had about the merits of playing college ball vs. suiting up in the G League for prospects’ developments, but I doubt you’ll find many that would be advocating for simply taking a year off from competitive hoops when other avenues are available.
Players can work on their game behind closed doors, but that’s going to have limited value come draft day. It’s simply going to be hard for professional franchises to evaluate what kind of progress Bazley’s made when they can’t measure him against his peers. Seeing him in an empty gym going against practice players makes for a much less valuable evaluation environment than, say, watching Bazley go up against the likes of Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and the rest of what the ACC has to offer night-in and night-out for three-straight months.
It also seems more likely that such a situation would be better for Bazley to find success than even the G League would offer. With the Orange, Bazley would be going against players, essentially, his own age with, essentially, similar developmental arcs. In the G League, the 6-foot-9, 200 pounder would be tasked with going against players with multiple years in the professional ranks. One of those situations seems more likely to produce advantageous results than the other for an 18-year-old with a slight build and without a slam-dunk NBA future.
So, to call Bazley’s decision to skip Syracuse for an option he eventually decided not to pursue a “mistake” seems in bounds. He picked the G League over the Orange only to then find that option not quite as desirable as originally thought.
But that’s probably also not fully fair to Bazley. If he decided he simply didn’t want to pursue the student-athlete path – and all that entails (to whatever degree) – even if it cost him on the floor and on draft boards, that’s his decision. So often in this one-and-done era, players get slammed for simply going through the motions in their semester-plus on campus when they have no desire to be there other than to hoop. Seems unfair to criticize a player who decides against doing that, too.
Bazley’s decision to forego Syracuse looks like one that will hurt his professional prospects in the short-term. Maybe it will in the long-term, too, but there are plenty of paths to the pros. Bazley set out to blaze one trail, but maybe he’ll ultimately find another.