KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Grant Williams scored 22 points and No. 5 Tennessee used its stingy defense to beat cold-shooting Georgia Tech 66-53 on Tuesday night.
Tennessee (3-0) was playing one day after moving up a spot in the Top 25 to earn its first top-five ranking since the 2007-08 season. After the Yellow Jackets made the game’s first basket, Tennessee scored the next seven points and stayed in control the rest of the way.
Georgia Tech (1-1) shot just 27.6 percent from the field — its lowest mark since Josh Pastner took over as coach in 2016. The Yellow Jackets had nearly twice as many fouls (30) as baskets (16).
The Yellow Jackets missed 15 straight shots during one stretch, including their first 11 attempts of the second half. They didn’t make their first second-half basket until Jose Alvarado sank a 3-pointer with 12:12 left.
Georgia Tech still managed to hang around and cut Tennessee’s lead to 45-37 on another basket by Alvarado with 10:08 remaining, but the Volunteers responded with seven straight points.
Jordan Bone had 15 points and Kyle Alexander added 12 for Tennessee. Brandon Alston led Georgia Tech with 16.
Tennessee’s defense enabled the Vols to win on a night when they shot just 39.6 percent (19 of 48) from the field and 63.2 percent (24 of 38) at the foul line.
Georgia Tech received some good news earlier in the day as the NCAA granted a waiver allowing Texas transfer James Banks III to play immediately for the Yellow Jackets rather than sitting out the season. Banks had five points and seven rebounds in 16 minutes before fouling out.
The game marked a return to Knoxville for Georgia Tech guard Shembari Phillips, who played two seasons at Tennessee before transferring. Phillips started and played 22 minutes but scored just two points.
Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets lacked the outside shooting that helped them beat Lamar 88-69 in their season opener. Georgia Tech shot just 3 of 19 from beyond the arc. Georgia Tech’s 12 3-point baskets and 30 3-point attempts against Lamar were the most by the Yellow Jackets under Pastner.
Tennessee: After winning its first two games by an average margin of 33.5 points, Tennessee passed a tougher test Tuesday before heading to the NIT Season Tip-Off next week in Brooklyn, New York. After facing Louisville in the first round of the NIT event, Tennessee will meet No. 2 Kansas or No. 24 Marquette.
Georgia Tech hosts East Carolina on Friday.
Tennessee faces Louisville on Nov. 21 in the NIT Season Tip-Off in Brooklyn.
Player of the Year Power Rankings: Two Dukies, stars from Auburn and Buffalo head list
We are now a week into the new season, which means it is time for us to do what we do every Tuesday: Player of the Year Power Rankings!
The season is just a week old, which means that this list is going to be comprised of players that were on the list during the preseason and players who have put together massive performances in the first couple of weeks of the season.
So without further ado, here are the Week 1 Player of the Year Power Rankings:
1. R.J. BARRETT, Duke
Barrett has been as good as advertised through the season’s first week. After putting up 33 points, six assists and four boards in a 34-point blowout win over Kentucky in the opener, the 6-foot-8 favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft made 23 points, six boards and a pair of assists look pedestrian in was what a disappointing, 94-72 win over Army. Hey, when you set standards as high as Duke did in their first game of the season, expectations follow.
2. ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke
The numbers that Zion has posted this season speak for themselves. He went for 28 points in the opener against Kentucky, following that up with an absolutely overwhelming performance against an Army did that simply did not have the athletes to compete with him — 27 points, 16 boards, six blocks, four assists. Through two games, Zion is shooting 81.5 percent from the floor.
But where things get really interesting are with this move, and with Zion’s jumper in general:
This is a defensive lineman creating two-feet of space with an off-hand, in-and-out dribble into a step-back 18-footer. The second clip is a great, slow-motion look at his release. He’s on balance, which is more important for him than getting a ton of lift; he’s not going to be taking jumpers like Kobe did. He needs to be able to force defenders to guard him from the three-point guard and have the balance to be able to make shots like the step-back he hit earlier.
Put another way, the biggest concern with Zion Williamson as a basketball player doesn’t look like it is too much of a concern.
3. C.J. MASSINBURG, Buffalo
Massinburg put together the single-best performance of the first week of the college basketball season on Friday night, going for 43 points, 14 boards and three assists in an overtime win at West Virginia. 26 of his 43 points came in the second half. He scored nine points in an 11-3 run in the final three minutes of regulation, including hitting the three that forced overtime. He scored nine of Buffalo’s 15 points in the extra frame. He was awesome:
We’ll see just how long he can remain on this list. While Buffalo is 3-0 on the season, Massinburg has combined for 18 points on 2-for-11 shooting from three in the other two wins. For now, however, he deserves every bit of his place here.
4. CHUMA OKEKE, Auburn
Who had Okeke as the best player on Auburn this season? If you did, you might end up proving smart. The 6-foot-8 sophomore has been sensational for the Tigers through two wins this season, including a 22-point blowout win over then-No. 25 Washington. He’s averaging 19.5 points, 9.5 boards, 3.5 assists and 2.5 blocks while shooting 6-for-8 from three.
I discussed Okeke on the most recent podcast with Dalen Cuff and why he, and Anfernee McLemore, are so important to the way that Auburn wants to play:
5. RUI HACHIMURA, Gonzaga
Even without Killian Tillie eligible, the Gonzaga star is putting up impressive numbers. He had 33 points in Gonzaga’s opener and followed that up with 17 points in a win over a Texas Southern team that beat Baylor at Baylor. Gonzaga’s schedule kicks up a notch this week, as they play Texas A&M before heading to Maui for a tournament that includes Duke, Auburn and Arizona.
6. CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue
The preseason first-team all-american hasn’t been anything less than what we expected. In two Purdue wins, he’s averaging 26.5 points.
7. TY JEROME Virginia
We all thought that De’Andre Hunter or Kyle Guy would end up being the best player on Virginia this season, but it might end up being Ty Jerome. At least that has been the case through the first two games of the season. Through two blowout wins, he’s averaging 20.0 points, 5.5 assists, 4.5 boards, 3.0 steals and shooting 68 percent from the floor and 71 percent from three.
8. CAMERON JOHNSON, North Carolina
I’m not ready to call anyone other than Luke Maye the best player on North Carolina just yet, but to date, Johnson has played the best of anyone on the Tar Heels. Through three games, he looks like a different player than he was last season. He’s averaging 18.3 points and 6.7 boards while shooting 10-for-14 from three. He looks more mobile and athletic than he was last season, and gives the Tar Heels a third long, athletic wing that — in theory — should allow them to matchup with Duke.
t-9. GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee and MARKUS HOWARD, Marquette
It is tough to delineate between these two at this point. Both have been as good as advertised early on this season. In one game against Division I competition, Williams went for 31 points, 10 boards and three assists. Howard, through two games, is averaging 26 points, eight boards and six assists while shooting 9-for-22 from three.
10. SOMEONE ON KANSAS, Kansas
I’m not really sure who to pick here. At the end of the day, I think it will be Dedric Lawson. He’s the guy they run offense through, he’s the perfect four-man for Bill Self’s offense and he’s the player that went for 20 points, 14 boards and six assists in the win over Michigan State in the Champions Classic. But he also went scoreless in Monday night’s win over Vermont as LaGerald Vick, who had just two points in the opener, had 32 points on 8-for-8 shooting from three against the Catamounts.
With all the hand-wringing and excitement about the return of college basketball this week, you might be surprised to learn that just three teams ranked in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25 lost.
Two of those losses came in the Champions Classic, as Kentucky and Michigan State fell to the top two teams in this week’s NBC Sports Top 25, Duke and Kansas, respectively. The third? Then-No. 17 West Virginia losing at home to now-No. 25 Buffalo on Friday night.
I say all that to say this: There really isn’t all that much to change about the Top 25 this week. There are really only three questions that need to be answered, so I’ll walk you through my thought process for each one:
Can Kansas fall out of the top spot with a win over a top 15 team?: Hell yes they can. The Jayhawks were the No. 1 team in the country in the preseason based on projections and feelings we had about how good they might end up being. Now we have actual, actionable results to evaluate, and there really should be all that much of a discussion. I’m not even sure there are Kansas fans will sit here and say that, after watching Duke beat Kentucky by 34 points, they believe the Jayhawks are better than the Blue Devils.
How far should Kentucky fall?: I dropped the Wildcats to 18th. I’ve seen other top 25s that have Kentucky at the back-end of the top ten. I don’t think that’s crazy, but I also think that we have much more to worry about with this Wildcat team that those folks realize. Kentucky still has top ten potential, but for my money they are much further from reaching their ceiling than anyone realized. I ended up with them 18th because I couldn’t justify dropping them below LSU or Mississippi State.
What do we do with West Virginia and Buffalo?: I was already lower on West Virginia entering the season than the public, so dropping them out of the top 25 with a loss at home against Buffalo was pretty easy for me to do. I know that loss came as a result of a once-in-a-career blow-up game from C.J. Massinburg and that the Mountaineers didn’t have Beetle Bolden down the stretch as he dealt with cramping issues, but it seemed pretty evident that Press Virginia has some kinks to work out. Buffalo, on the other hand, entered the season as one of the best mid-majors in the country after smoking Arizona in the first round of the 2018 NCAA tournament. They lived up to that billing, so why not reward them?
While plenty of our best-of lists are heavily populated by freshmen, this one, highlighting the top frontcourt players in the country, has a decidedly veteran bent.
From four-year stars to seasoned upperclassmen to super sophs and successful transfers, the best players big men in the country this season will be no strangers to college basketball fans.
Here are the 10 best big men heading into the 2018-19 season.
1. LUKE MAYE, North Carolina
By this point, Maye’s story is well known as he went from over-qualified walk-on to a potential National Player of the Year. Still, his rise is remarkable. He went from averaging 5.5 points in 14.4 minutes per game as a sophomore to 16.9 points in 32.2 minutes per game as a junior to establish himself as one of college basketball’s best bigs – and players.
Maye, a 6-foot-8 power forward, has gotten there largely on the strength of his ability to stretch defenses. He shot 43.1 percent from 3-point range last season, including a mark of 46.6 percent in ACC play, which was tops in the league. A rather remarkable feat for a frontcourt player who launched over 100 3s for the season. In a sport often dominated by freshmen, Maye gives North Carolina the valuable weapon of the combination of experience and talent.
2. RUI HACHIMURA, Gonzaga
The 6-foot-8 Japanese standout has been a favorite in basketball circles for awhile, though he’s yet to truly breakthrough in a major way to the broader hoops public. That could very much change this season.
Hachimura averaged 11.6 points and 4.7 rebounds as a sophomore for the Bulldogs last year while shooting 60.6 percent inside the arc. It’s been on the international scene, though, where he’s really flashed the potential that has him being looked at as a lottery pick. He averaged 20.6 points and 11 rebounds in the 2017 U19 World Cup and he’s averaging 21.5 points and six rebounds per game in Japan’s World Cup qualifiers this year. WIth Johnathan Williams graduated and Killian Tillie out for two months with injury, Hachimura will take over the Gonzaga frontcourt in a big way.
3. DEDRIC LAWSON, Kansas
The Kansas roster is loaded with returners off last year’s Final Four squad, a top-flight recruiting class and transfers like K.J Lawson and Charlie Moore, but it’s Dedric Lawson, a transfer from Memphis, that really puts the Jayhawks over the top as the preseason national title favorite.
As a sophomore at Memphis, the 6-foot-9 forward averaged 19.2 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. He’s an elite defensive rebounder, an underappreciated shot blocker and a willing passer. He can replicate something close to the numbers he put up in the AAC in the Big 12, Lawson will have a spot on the All-American first team.
4. ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin
Wisconsin was bad last year. The Badgers finished under .500 and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in two decades. That famed top-four-in-the-Big-Ten run came to a close, too, obviously. Things were not sweet in Madison. Ethan Happ, though, he was good.
The Badger big man averaged 17.9 points, eight rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.5 steals per game while converting at a 52.8 percent clip from the floor. As an under-the-rim player who doesn’t stretch the floor, Happ doesn’t project particularly well at the next level, but he is unquestionably one of the top players – let alone big men – in the country. Wisconsin should be improved this season, and Happ will once again get his due after sliding off the radar some during the Baders’ dip last season.
5. GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee
Grant Williams has a chance to do something that no one has done since Corliss Williamson and Shaquille O’Neal did in the early 1990s: Repeat as SEC Player of the Year, as Williamson did in ‘94 and ‘95 and the Shaq Diesel did in ‘91 and ‘92.
The 6-foot-7 junior averaged 15.2 points, six rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game last season en route to those honors as the Volunteers surprised just about everyone with their move to the top of the SEC standings. Williams, picked as the league’s preseason player of the year this fall, isn’t a high-level finisher, but he draws fouls, gets to the line and frustrates opponents at a rate few others can match.
6. REID TRAVIS, Kentucky
It’ll be interesting to see how Travis fits in at Kentucky after spending four NCAA tournament-less seasons out west at Stanford. Given the monster numbers he put up the last two seasons with the Cardinal, it’s not hard to see the 6-foot-8, 238-pound forward as the linchpin on an otherwise young roster.
Travis put up 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game while shooting 52.7 percent from the floor. As a graduate transfer who flirted with the idea of going pro before making his way to Lexington, the bet is here that Travis embraces his role around a group of talented-yet-inexperienced teammates to help make the Wildcats one of the preeminent national title contenders.
7. DANIEL GAFFORD, Arkansas
Gafford could have easily called it a collegiate career last year after averaging 11.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks while shooting 60.5 percent from the floor. The 6-foot-11 Arkansas native made the decision quickly that he’d return to the Razorbacks after his rookie campaign, and enters this season as one of the premier shot blockers in the country.
8. DEAN WADE, Kansas State
There’s not much flashy about Wade’s game. He’s not overly athletic and he’s not going to be throwing down rim-rattling dunks, but he leads the charge for a Kansas State team that brings back everyone from last year’s surprise Elite Eight team.
He averaged 16.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.5 steals (more than he averaged on blocks) as a junior, but it was his 44 percent mark from 3-point range that truly made him an offensive threat and a potential All-American for his senior season.
9. MIKE DAUM, South Dakota State
All Mike Daum has done for three seasons in Brookings is put up huge numbers. He averaged 15 points as a freshman before 25 as a sophomore and 23.9 – while shooting 42.5 percent from deep – last season as a junior. The 6-foot-9 Nebraska native could have been a graduate transfer or gone pro after last season, but instead returned to what will be the overwhelming favorite in the Summit and almost certainly a Cinderella darling come March.
10. P.J. WASHINGTON, Kentucky
The strangest part of this list is that it has two Kentucky Wildcats and neither are freshmen. How about that?
Washington averaged 10.8 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.5 assists last season as a rookie for John Calipari. He’s back for his sophomore campaign, and it’ll be interesting to see how he’s deployed by Calipari, who will have decisions to make about weighing 3-point shooting, experience and defense with his lineup construction, especially up front.
2018-19 SEC Preview: Can Kentucky beat out Tennessee, Auburn?
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 SEC.
Known mostly as a football (or even baseball) conference for many years, the SEC is starting to come into form as a deep and respected basketball league.
The SEC’s stable of coaches has improved dramatically over the last decade, and with that, has come an influx of talent and top programs.
This season’s SEC boasts three serious contenders along with a bevy of second-tier teams who are dangerous enough to make deep postseason runs if things really come together.
The SEC features elite coaches, McDonald’s All-American freshmen, and a lot of returning talent from successful teams.
It should be another fun year for a league that was once a basketball afterthought.
Let’s get into it.
FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
1. The SEC should send a bunch of teams back to the NCAA tournament
Last season was a banner year for the SEC. The league sent a record eight teams to the NCAA tournament. The SEC had tons of top-50 caliber teams. This isn’t just a football conference anymore. The SEC has some serious depth on the hardwood.
We all know about Kentucky’s yearly influx of elite talent. It’s the other conference regular season leaders like Auburn and Tennessee who are the returning teams to keep an eye on. Both co-SEC regular season champions return most of last season’s teams. Then there are others like LSU, Mississippi State, Florida and Vanderbilt who have loads of young talent coming in. That should make for another deep year of SEC NCAA tournament teams. Even the group of teams just after the second tier shouldn’t be slept on. The depth of coaching and talent in the SEC is as good as it has ever been.
It should make for some unpredictable action in the conference this season as it will be very difficult to earn wins on the road.
2. Kentucky has as much depth as its had in years
We can usually count on Kentucky having a freshman-heavy team of elite recruits. That’s the case with five top-40 recruits — four of them five-star prospects. What makes this Kentucky team especially unique is that three McDonald’s All-American sophomores return in P.J. Washington, Nick Richards and Quade Green. Stanford graduate transfer Reid Travis put up monster numbers last season as he’s immediately eligible of the Wildcats.
This is perhaps the deepest and most balanced Kentucky team we’ve seen since the Final Four team in 2015 as this Wildcat team has the potential to go nine or 10 deep. Freshmen like Immanuel Quickley and Ashton Hagans help Kentucky’s ball-handling and perimeter defense while guards Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro should help provide scoring on the wing. E.J. Montgomery is a great option to have in the frontcourt to spell Richards, Washington or Travis.
If the exhibition trip to the Bahamas is any indicator of how talented and deep Kentucky is, then the Wildcats could be a major national title contender and the favorite in the SEC. They have a bit of everything this season, and the upside is scary.
3. Returning SEC champion Tennessee returns most of its team
For as good as Kentucky is on paper, Tennessee will still be a force to be reckoned with. The Vols return basically the entire roster from a team that won a share of the SEC regular season title. SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams is back. He’s surrounded by four returning upperclass starters. SEC Sixth Man of the Year Lamonte Turner also returns for his junior season.
Tennessee returns a talented and cohesive top six that are all upperclassmen. The key could be the team’s play at point guard. We know Williams and Admiral Schofield as the team’s top two players. Senior big man Kyle Alexander is a solid glue guy who can protect the rim. The up-and-down play of Jordan Bone, Turner and Jordan Bowden at point has to get stronger.
Bone is the starter and steady for most of the time. Turner comes off the bench as a heat-check scorer who can also distribute. Bowden usually defends the other team’s top perimeter threat and adds some other elements as well. But all three of those guys shot just below 40 percent from the field. If that trio gets stronger, and becomes more efficient, then Tennessee has even more room to grow from last season and a Sweet 16 is very possible.
4. Auburn returns two key players suspended after the FBI investigations last season
Tennessee isn’t the only returning SEC regular season roster with a talented returning roster. Auburn shouldn’t be counted out either. The Tigers return a lot of contributors while returning two key players who sat out last season. Expectations will be huge for Auburn after last season’s unexpected success.
Although the Tigers lost Mustapha Heron to transfer and Desean Murray is gone as well, they gain forward Danjel Purifoy and center Austin Wiley. VCU transfer Samir Doughty is also eligible, as he’ll provide some rotational depth at guard.
With Auburn returning six rotation players from last season’s team, they should have plenty of options to choose from this year despite the losses. Auburn’s frontcourt depth will be superior to last season, as Purifoy and Wiley make the Tigers much bigger and more athletic. If Auburn goes with Chuma Okeke at the three, then they’ll have the size to go against some bigger lineups like Kentucky or Tennessee.
And Auburn’s guards are already well-established as Bryce Brown and Jared Harper are proven upperclass scorers. With that duo having Doughty and senior Malik Dunbar behind them, Auburn appears to also have solid depth on the perimeter. Integrating Wiley and Purifoy back into the rotation and changing how Auburn’s lineup might play could take an adjustment period. But this new-look lineup also lends itself to more versatile looks and size on the interior. Auburn should stay right in the SEC race if their two lineups can blend together.
5. LSU, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Alabama are all capable of making it to the NCAA tournament
The race for the SEC’s regular season title is going to be very fun to watch this season. There are also a group of second-tier SEC teams worth keeping track of. This league, once again, looks like it will have a lot of depth this season.
It’s clear that Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee look like the three favorites of the league this preseason. But the second group of teams in the conference shouldn’t be taken lightly. LSU, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Alabama are all capable of making it to the NCAA tournament thanks to deep rosters of talented players. Missouri would also very likely be in that group of second-tier SEC teams if they didn’t lose Jontay Porter for the season with a torn ACL.
Although the three favorites look like top-15 teams this season, don’t be surprised if one of these second-tier teams ends up making a deep tournament run, or even finishing in that top three of the regular season standings.
PRESEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee
The reigning SEC Player of the Year has the same team back around him this season as the Vols have big expectations. The 6-foot-7, 240-pound Williams is a load to handle on the interior thanks to his natural strength as he’s able to play through contact while handling double teams.
An underrated passer out of the post, Williams can find shooters and wings for easy looks as he’s a huge part of Tennessee’s inside-outside game. The junior put up 15.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game last season while shooting 47 percent from the field.
THE REST OF THE SEC FIRST TEAM
P.J. WASHINGTON, Kentucky: Big expectations are on tap for Washington after a promising freshman season. The 6-foot-7 forward put up 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game last season. If he improves his 23 percent three-point shooting then Washington could be a matchup nightmare for opponents.
REID TRAVIS, Kentucky: It’s doubtful Travis matches the 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game he put up at Stanford. But Travis will also have more talent around him, as he won’t get as many double teams. And his natural strength is elite at the college level, as he should rebound at a high level.
BRYCE BROWN, Auburn: The senior guard is the SEC’s most prolific three-point shooter as his range makes him a deadly threat. Brown averaged 15.9 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.7 assists last season as he’ll be counted on for more offense with Mustapha Heron gone.
TREMONT WATERS, LSU: Brilliant at times as a freshman, the 5-foot-11 Waters is capable of running an effective offense or taking over the scoring himself. Armed with a deep pull-up game, Waters could have some monster games this season.
FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW
DANIEL GAFFORD, Arkansas
DARIUS GARLAND, Vanderbilt
JARED HARPER, Auburn
JALEN HUDSON, Florida
QUINNDARY WEATHERSPOON, Mississippi State
Tennessee has huge expectations with the entire team returning. Schofield, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound wing, is capable of making the Vols one of the most flexible teams in the country. With the size and strength to play bigger, but the skill level (39 percent three-point shooting) to play on the wing, Schofield enables Tennessee to throw different looks at opponents since he usually plays the three. Schofield should get more national attention this season as Tennessee’s second option beside Grant Williams.
COACH UNDER PRESSURE
The SEC doesn’t have many coaches on the actual hot seat since so many are coming off of tournament appearances or recently being hired. But Auburn’s Bruce Pearl is going to face big expectations this season a year after the Tigers unexpectedly made the Round of 32. And now the Tigers get two key players in Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley back.
Auburn will face big expectations this season, and they’ll be expected to deliver results. If Pearl and Auburn flop, then the FBI investigation is still looming, and many of the teams veterans are starting to filter through the program. The Tigers have a lot on the line this season.
ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …
The SEC has a deep collection of teams with some legitimate Final Four contenders in Kentucky and Tennessee.
I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …
It’s strange to feel excited about SEC conference play — for basketball. But the SEC was unpredictable, loaded with talent and completely compelling to watch last season. So much of the league’s talent is returning along with some seriously talented freshmen. It should be another great year to watch the SEC conference race.
FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR
Nov. 6, Duke vs. Kentucky (Champions Classic, Indianapolis)
Nov. 9, Washington at Auburn
Nov. 29, Kentucky at Louisville
Dec. 9, Gonzaga vs. Tennessee (in Phoenix)
Jan. 26, Kansas at Kentucky (Big 12/SEC Challenge)
1. KENTUCKY: Kentucky’s depth and how it figures out the rotation will be something to monitor during the season. With three-point shooting being an issue last season, the Wildcats should improve that mark this season with the addition of guys like Herro. Frontline depth is also a major strength for the Wildcats as they feature veteran experience coupled with talented freshmen.
As long as Kentucky gets consistent point guard play and hits enough shots, they will come at teams in waves at both ends of the floor. For most teams, that should be too much to deal with.
2. TENNESSEE: The Vols are a preseason top-10 team with loads of balance and experience. And they’ll be tested by a tough schedule that includes West Virginia, Gonzaga, Louisville and Georgia Tech during non-conference play. If Tennessee’s perimeter play gets slightly better than this is a team with Final Four upside thanks to the frontcourt versatility.
Tennessee can play big and physical with teams like Kentucky, or they can use a surprising amount of perimeter skill and shooting if teams try to go uptempo with small-ball lineups. That’s what makes Tennessee such an intriguing team for this season. They should be able to win in a number of different ways.
3. AUBURN: With a top-40 offense and defense last season, the Tigers didn’t have many holes except for frontcourt depth. That was fixed since Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy are both back. As long as that duo can come in and play at a solid level, then Horace Spencer and Anfernee McLemore provides quality frontcourt depth for the Tigers.
From there, the Auburn backcourt should be able to handle itself like last season. Brown and Harper are one of the toughest duos in the conference, and improved depth should also be present on the perimeter. There are still looming questions about the FBI investigation. And the Tigers have been hit with the injury bug early this season. But they still have huge expectations entering this season.
4. LSU: An NIT with big dreams thanks to a strong incoming recruiting class, LSU has a lot to be excited about. It starts with sophomore point guard Tremont Waters. A potential All-American who can take over a game with his scoring, Waters gets help from Skylar Mays, Daryl Edwards and a five-star backcourt newcomer in Javonte Smart.
But it’s LSU’s revamped frontcourt that has people very excited. Freshmen Naz Reid and Emmitt Williams were both five-star recruits and should play an immediate role. Transfer senior Kavell Bigby-Williams (Oregon) and junior college big man Courtese Cooper should also add to the depth while freshman Darius Days is another touted four-star prospect.
LSU ultimately has the tools to be one of the best teams in the country. It’s all going to depend on how the frontcourt of freshmen like Reid and Williams performs this season. Waters has a chance to be sensational, but he needs more consistency and help from the supporting cast for LSU to make a deep run.
5. MISSISSIPPI STATE: It looks like things should be promising for Mississippi State this season. The Bulldogs return all five starters and a quality sixth man while bringing in a top-20 recruiting class from an NIT team. That means head coach Ben Howland should take this program to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009.
The Weatherspoon brothers, Quinndary and Nick, are back to bring scoring, along with junior floor general Lamar Peters. As long as that trio can shoot more effectively from three-point range, they will be nearly impossible to defend. Junior guard Tyson Carter also returns after starting half his games and playing over 20 minutes per game last season. This perimeter group is tough and experienced. The interior has sophomore center Abdul Ado and senior Aric Holman returning along with freshman forward Reggie Perry. The McDonald’s All-American, along with junior college center Jethro Tshisumpa, gives the Bulldogs more interior depth this season.
With a core that has played together for a long time, along with an infusion of young talent and frontcourt depth, and Mississippi State should return to the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade.
6. FLORIDA: Florida has a lot to like about its team this season. Two high-scoring senior guards in Jalen Hudson and KeVaughn Allen have returned as they play with a five-star freshman point guard in Andrew Nembhard. That trio has the chance to be long and athletic as Nembhard’s natural passing ability and leadership should help others get good looks.
The Gators return some veterans in the frontcourt, but that duo will have to improve when it comes to physicality and rebounding. Senior Kevarrius Hayes and junior Keith Stone both played extended periods last season, as both need to get tougher on the interior. That duo should be helped by a younger and healthier rotation that includes junior Gorjok Gak, sophomore Chase Johnson and freshman Isaiah Stokes. The bench also has some talent to watch with forward Deaundrae Ballard and guard Keyontae Johnson.
Replacing Chris Chiozza at point is going to be difficult, but Florida has a chance to make a new imprint with the bigger Nembhard at point. The Gators still have interior question marks, but they’ll have the perimeter punch to make nearly anybody.
7. VANDERBILT: The recruiting addition of two McDonald’s All-Americans has Vanderbilt with huge expectations for this season. Point guard Darius Garland’s signing was big for the Commodores as the five-star gives Vanderbilt two quality lead guards in a young backcourt that includes sophomore Saben Lee. Garland and Lee should be dangerous right away, especially is Lee can improve his 30 percent three-point shooting.
Besides for Garland, five-star big man Simi Shittu is a giant addition on the interior. Shittu is coming off of a torn ACL, but he had top-five potential in the class if his trajectory continued. Junior forward Clevon Brown and senior wing Joe Toye received plenty of minutes last season. Shittu should also play plenty with Division II transfer Yanni Wetzell (St. Mary’s TX) a New Zealander who put up big numbers before his move to the SEC. Notre Dame transfer Matt Ryan and freshman Aaron Nesmith should also add perimeter shooting to a group that could use a lot more of it.
Vanderbilt had a top-30 offense last season, so with the addition of talents like Garland and Shittu, it’ll be interesting to see if head coach Bryce Drew’s offense can sustain that kind of effectiveness. The Commodores have some big-time talent as they should be a dangerous team this season.
8. ALABAMA: Moving on from Collin Sexton and Braxton Key is going to be difficult. The good news for Alabama is that the rest of a talented and young roster is back. Eight players who averaged double-figure minutes are back for the Crimson Tide.
The key for Alabama is finding a replacement go-to scorer for Sexton. Senior forward Donta Hall, sophomore guard John Petty and junior guard Dazon Ingram are all capable scorers as Petty could be the one to make a big leap. In the frontcourt, junior Daniel Giddens and sophomores Alex Reese and Galin Smith all received solid minutes last season to form a good rotation for Alabama. In the perimeter, sophomore Herb Jones could be another key player for Alabama this season. A potential two-way wing with devastating defensive upside, Jones has the tools to be great.
Texas transfer Tevin Mack also joins to program and senior wing Riley Norris and guard Avery Johnson Jr. have all played in big games. As long as the Crimson Tide find a go-to scorer, they have the depth and talent to return to the tournament.
9. MISSOURI: It’s almost as if Missouri and head coach Cuonzo Martin have to hit the reset button from last season. The top two scorers are gone as Jordan Barnett and Kassius Robertson have graduated. There will be no Porter presence this season after Michael Jr. went pro and Jontay tore his ACL in the preseason. But the Tigers still have a lot of young talent.
The frontcourt of sophomore Jeremiah Tilmon and senior Kevin Puryear has a shot to be good. The guard play of the Tigers is going to be key. Point guard is a concern as senior Jordan Geist, Illinois transfer Mark Smith and a group of freshmen will all try their hand at the position early on. Missouri has plenty of talent coming into the pipeline. But this group might be too young and inexperienced to make a major dent in a talented league this season.
10. GEORGIA: Tom Crean takes over as head coach from Mark Fox as he inherits a decent rotation. The crop of bigs includes some depth and talent as senior Derek Ogbeide and sophomores Nicolas Claxton and Rayshaun Hammonds are a key part of Georgia’s season.
The backcourt also has some former starters as Turtle Jackson and sophomore Teshaun Hightower both started at point last season while Tyree Crump also earned legitimate minutes. Georgia is going to have a very tough time replacing departed forward Yante Maten. But this team will also play a bit more uptempo and shoot a lot more three-pointers under Crean this season. This roster is talented enough to surprise, as Georgia could be an intriguing spoiler.
11. TEXAS A&M: A new-look Texas A&M group won’t feature loads of interior talent and depth that we’ve seen the last several seasons. This version of the Aggies will be guard-heavy. There could be a lot of three- and four-guard sets this season.
Returning guards like junior Admon Gilder and sophomore T.J. Starks lead the way this season as they look for a whole new supporting cast. Transfers like Christian Mekowulu (Tennessee State) and Josh Nebo (St. Francis) should help defensively on the interior while JUCO transfers like Wendell Mitchell and Bandon Mahan help with more depth on the wing. Texas A&M will have to find their way pretty quickly. This group already lost a secret scrimmage to Stephen F. Austin as the season draws closer.
12. ARKANSAS: Arkansas will have more newcomers than Kentucky this season, so a transition year is expected for the Razorbacks. The good news is the return of sophomore center Daniel Gafford — a potential first-round pick next season. Gafford is a force on both ends of the floor, and with some offensive improvement, he’s a sleeper All-American pick.
From there, Arkansas has to integrate eight new freshmen and two sophomore transfers into a new rotation. Junior guard Adrio Bailey and sophomore forward Gabe Osabuohien are the only two other returning players with solid SEC experience. Guard play will be huge for Arkansas as New Mexico transfer Jalen Harris could get a shot to run point early. The Razorbacks have to hope for a big season from Gafford while hoping the newcomers are ready to hit the deep end.
13. SOUTH CAROLINA: The Gamecocks haven’t found consistent footing since reaching the Final Four in 2017. Last season’s roster barely finished above .500 as this roster looks very similar this season. South Carolina’s strength lies in the frontcourt as senior Chris Silva and junior Maik Kotsar are returning starters with plenty of experience.
Backcourt depth and questions are point guard are the chief concerns. Hassani Gravett is more natural off the ball, so the Gamecocks are hoping Georgetown grad transfer Tre Campbell or a freshman like T.J. Moss can help earn some minutes at lead guard. Preseason hasn’t been kind to South Carolina either. They’ve already lost to Division II Augusta in a game in which the veteran frontcourt barely showed up.
14. OLE MISS: New head coach Kermit Davis only inherits five scholarship players from a team that was already last in the SEC the previous year. While the Rebels don’t have a lot of experienced pieces, they do return some SEC-caliber players in senior guard Terence Davis, senior forward Bruce Stevens and junior guard Breein Tyree. Sophomore guard Devontae Shuler should also make a leap, meaning Ole Miss has some decent backcourt depth.
Ole Miss is hoping that Davis’ defensive work at Middle Tennessee comes to the Rebels. Ole Miss was one of the worst defensive high-major teams in the country last season. If Ole Miss doesn’t get more stops, while developing some young talent, it could be another long season.
What defines a big man in college basketball these days?
In the NBA, there are clearly defined types of bigs.
There are stretch-fours, stretch-fives, switchable rim-runners, rim-protecters, skilled fives.
And these days, those bigs come in all shapes and sizes, from Draymond Green to Clint Capela, from Joel Embiid to Giannis Antetokuonmpo.
In college, it’s a little bit different.
Since the Golden State Warriors haven’t broken the sport like they have at the highest level, teams can play different styles and have success. Villanova won the 2018 national title by going all in on spacing, shooting and skill while the 2017 national title was played between North Carolina and Gonzaga, two teams that played with massive frontcourts.
Styles can still make fights at this level, which makes the different frontcourts all that much more interesting this season.
So let’s take a look at them.
Here are the best sets of bigs in college basketball.
Players: Reid Travis, P.J. Washington, Nick Richard, E.J. Montgomery
The Wildcats may not match the numbers that some of the other teams on this list have from a depth standpoint, but they certainly hold their own from a talent standpoint. P.J. Washington and Nick Richards are the lone returnees in this quartet, with the former coming off of a freshman season in which he averaged 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 51.9 percent from the field. The transition to college basketball was a bit more difficult for Richards, who despite starting all 37 games struggled some from a consistency standpoint and averaged 5.1 points and 4.4 rebounds per game.
That season of experience should serve both Washington and Richards well, and they’ve got two very talented newcomers to work with in Reid Travis and E.J. Montgomery. Travis is the best grad transfer in college basketball this season, as he’s coming off of a 2017-18 season at Stanford in which he averaged 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game on 52.5 percent shooting. Had Travis, who withdrew his name from the NBA draft in the spring, returned to Stanford he very well could have been the preseason Pac-12 Player of the Year. As for Montgomery, the 6-foot-10 five-star recruit earned McDonald’s All-America honors and was Florida’s Player of the Year after averaging 25.6 points, 13.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game as a high school senior.
Players: Jeremy Jones, Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, Killian Tillie, Corey Kispert, Filip Petrusev
The front court at Mark Few’s disposal this season is a big reason why Gonzaga has the appearance of a national title contender. In junior Rui Hachimura the Bulldogs have an All-America candidate who averaged 11.6 points and 4.7 rebounds per game, shooting 56.8 percent from the field. He isn’t the only returnee in the Gonzaga front court either, as second team All-WCC big man Killian Tillie returns after averaging 12.9 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. This duo will lead the way in a rotation that will have to account for the departure of leading scorer and rebounder Johnathan Williams, and they’re joined by two talented newcomers in Brandon Clarke and Filip Petrusev.
Clarke, who sat out last season after transferring from San Jose State, averaged 17.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game in 2016-17. At Gonzaga the 6-foot-8 redshirt junior may not score as much due to the talent he’s playing with, but he’ll certainly be an impact addition. As for Petrusev, the 6-foot-11 freshman from Serbia finished his high school career at Montverde Academy in Florida and was a key contributor on teams that won gold at both the 2017 and 2018 FIBA Europe Under-18 Championships. Sophomore Corey Kispert made seven starts last season, averaging 6.7 points and 3.2 rebounds in just over 19 minutes per game, and former walk-on Jeremy Jones will round out this talented rotation.
Players: Dedric Lawson, K.J. Lawson, Udoka Azubuike, Mitch Lightfoot, Silvio De Sousa*, David McCormack
While Kansas does have some uncertainty to work through at present time due to the status of sophomore power forward Silvo De Sousa, this is still one of college basketball’s most talented front court rotations. A big reason for that is the addition of Memphis transfer Dedric Lawson, a 6-foot-8 forward who averaged 19.2 points, 9.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.1 blocks per game as a sophomore in 2016-17. Also making the move from Memphis was Dedric’s brother K.J., who averaged 12.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game during that same season. The third newcomer is 6-foot-10 forward David McCormack, who earned McDonald’s All-America honors and helped lead Oak Hill Academy to a 30-4 record as a senior.
That trio joins three returnees led by junior center Udoka Azubuike, who in 2017-18 averaged 13.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 23.6 minutes per game. Azubuike led the country in field goal percentage, making 77.0 percent of his attempts, and when he gets the ball with two feet in the paint he’s incredibly difficult to stop. Mitch Lightfoot gives Kansas additional depth inside, but the question mark for the Jayhawks is De Sousa.
Joining the program in December, De Sousa averaged 4.0 points and 3.3 rebounds per game in 20 appearances as a freshman. He’s in line to take a significant step forward as a sophomore, provided he be cleared to play as the school is currently looking into his eligibility status in the aftermath of the first round of trials in the FBI’s investigation into bribes paid to influence recruits. The Kansas front court will be good regardless of that outcome, but there’s no denying that De Sousa’s presence would only make this group better.
4. NORTH CAROLINA
Players: Luke Maye, Garrison Brooks, Brandon Huffman, Sterling Manley, Nassir Little
The Tar Heel front court is led by a player in Maye who ranks among the nation’s best. The 6-foot-8 senior is coming off of a season in which he averaged 16.9 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game, earning first team All-ACC honors and the conference’s Most Improved Player award. In addition to the conference honors, Maye was also named a third-team All-American by multiple outlets at season’s end. At minimum he can be a first-team All-American this season, if not a major factor in the national Player of the Year race.
Another reason why the front court is considered to rate among the nation’s best is the arrival of Nassir Little, a 6-foot-6 McDonald’s All-American who can be used at either the three or the four. Given North Carolina’s numbers on the wings, it’s likely that the talented freshman will see more time at the latter spot. And given his athleticism, look for Little to be one of college basketball’s best freshmen. Sophomores Garrison Brooks, Brandon Huffman and Sterling Manley will all factor into Roy Williams’ plans as well, with Brooks (4.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg) having made 16 starts as a freshman and Manley averaging 5.4 points and 3.6 rebounds per game off the bench.
5. WEST VIRGINIA
Players: Sagaba Konate, Esa Ahmad, Andrew Gordon, Lamont West, Wesley Harris, Logan Routt, Derek Culver
While “Press Virginia” will have a different look this season due to the departures of guards Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles Jr., Bob Huggins has a front court that lacks neither depth nor experience. West Virginia’s top three returning scorers are all front court players, led by the nation’s best rim protector in 6-foot-8 junior Sagaba Konate. Last season Konate, who entered the NBA draft before deciding to withdraw his name, averaged 10.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game, ranking second in the country in block percentage (15.6; Texas’ Mo Bamba led in that category). Also back from last year’s Sweet 16 team are senior Esa Ahmad, and juniors Wesley Harris and Lamont West.
Ahmad, who missed West Virginia’s first 16 games of the season, made 16 starts and averaged 10.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game as a junior. West, who Ahmad eventually replaced in the starting lineup, made 20 starts and averaged 9.4 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. Harris was one of two Mountaineers, Carter being the other, to start all 37 games in 2017-18 and he chipped in with 5.3 points and 3.6 rebounds in 20.6 minutes per game. 6-foot-9 sophomore Andrew Gordon, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, and 6-foot-11 junior Logan Routt give West Virginia additional size inside, and the same can be said of talented 6-foot-10 freshman Derek Culver. Culver was a standout at Brewster Academy last season, earning first team All-NEPSAC Class AAA honors.
Players: Admiral Schofield, Grant Williams, Kyle Alexander, Yves Pons, Derrick Walker Jr., John Fulkerson, D.J. Burns, Zach Kent, Brock Jancek
The Tennessee front court, a big reason why the Volunteers managed to earn a share of the SEC regular season title, is anchored by reigning SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams. As a sophomore Williams averaged 15.2 points and 6.0 rebounds per game, shooting nearly 48 percent from the field. Also in the rotation is senior Admiral Schofield, who after entering his name into the NBA draft pool decided to return to Knoxville for one last run. The 6-foot-6 Schofield led Tennessee with an average of 6.4 rebounds per game last season while also scoring 13.9 points per game (he shot 39.5 percent from three on 4.6 attempts per game).
Adding depth and experience inside are senior Kyle Alexander and sophomores Yves Pons, John Fulkerson and Derrick Walker Jr., with Alexander (34 starts) having averaged 5.6 points and 5.6 rebounds in just over 20 minutes per game. Freshmen D.J. Burns, Brock Jancek and Zach Kent, who played in Tennessee’s first two games before being redshirted last season, will look to crack this experienced rotation. That will be difficult to do, but at the very least competing with the likes of Williams and Schofield should help those three freshmen down the line.
Players: Zion Williamson, Javin DeLaurier, Marques Bolden, Jack White, Justin Robinson, Antonio Vrankovic
Williamson, one of the nation’s top recruits in the 2018 class, is the headliner for this group. The freshman has a combination of athleticism, raw power and size (6-foot-7, 285 pounds) that has not been seen at this level. Given Williamson’s ability to impact a game, he’s going to be an incredibly difficult matchup for opponents to account for. The remainder of the front court rotation will be asked to provide depth, defense and rebounding in a lineup that projects to be led by four freshmen (Tre Jones, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish on the perimeter with Williamson at the four).
Javin DeLaurier, who averaged 3.4 points and 4.0 rebounds in 12.6 minutes per game as a sophomore, appears to be first in line for that fifth spot in the starting lineup with fellow junior Marques Bolden competing for that designation as well. Junior Jack White appeared in 28 games (5.6 mpg) last season, and Justin Robinson and Antonio Vrankovic will also look to earn increases in playing time in 2018-19.
Players: Jack Salt, Mamadi Diakite, De’Andre Hunter, Jay Huff, Francisco Caffaro
Redshirt sophomore De’Andre Hunter is healthy after his first season on the court came to a premature end due to a thumb injury, and he’s considered by many to be Virginia’s best NBA prospect heading into the 2018-19 campaign. As a redshirt freshman the 6-foot-7 Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 rebounds per game, earning ACC Sixth Man of the Year honors. Senior Jack Salt started all 34 games for the Cavaliers, averaging 3.4 points and 4.1 rebounds per game, and Mamadi Diakite was a valuable reserve with averages of 5.4 points and 3.0 rebounds per contest.
Redshirt sophomore Jay Huff and freshman Francisco Caffaro, a 7-footer who helped lead Argentina to a bronze medal in this summer’s FIBA U18 Americas Championship, will also compete for playing time. Note: We’ve grouped Braxton Key with Virginia’s perimeter players, but he could certainly factor into Tony Bennett’s plans in the front court as well given his size (6-foot-8, 225).
9. KANSAS STATE
Players: Dean Wade, Makol Mawien, Austin Trice, James Love III, Levi Stockard III, Nigel Shadd, Patrick Muldoon
Kansas State managed to reach the Elite Eight last season without Dean Wade, and with the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year healthy the feeling it that the Wildcats can do even more in 2018-19. As a junior Wade led the Wildcats in scoring and rebounding with averages of 16.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game while also dishing out 2.7 assists per contest. He’s joined in Kansas State’s interior rotation by fellow senior Makol Mawien, who started all 37 games last season and averaged 6.8 points and 3.4 rebounds in just over 20 minutes per night. If Mawien were to become more consistent in his production, Kansas State could really take off.
Levi Stockard and James Love III will both look to earn increased minutes after being on the periphery of the Kansas State rotation last season, and the same goes for redshirt freshman Nigel Shadd who played in just eight games due to a knee injury. Kansas State has added two transfers to the mix, with junior Austin Trice being a third team NJCAA All-American and Wabash Valley CC last season and Patrick Muldoon walking onto the team after averaging 5.5 points and 4.3 rebounds per game as a sophomore at Eastern Illinois in 2016-17.
While Auburn’s numbers in the front court will be down a bit to start the season as Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy serve the remainder of their NCAA suspensions, the fact that both returned after being sidelined for all of last season is very good news for Bruce Pearl. As a freshman, the 6-foot-11 Wiley averaged 8.8 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in just 18 minutes per game. As for Purifoy, he made 25 starts in 2016-17 and accounted for 11.5 points and 4.7 rebounds per contest. Once those two, who will miss Auburn’s first nine games, are back in the fold Auburn will have a deep rotation that won’t lack for talent.
Returnees Horace Spencer, Anfernee McLemore and Chuma Okeke will also be factors in 2018-19. Okeke was Auburn’s most productive front court reserve, as he averaged 7.5 points and 5.8 rebounds in 21.6 minutes per game. Spencer accounted for 4.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game as a key reserve, moving into the starting lineup when Anfernee McLemore went down with a broken leg. McLemore (7.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 2.7 bpg) was one of the nation’s best shot blockers before the injury, which he suffered in a loss at South Carolina. Getting the 6-foot-7 junior back gives Auburn the rim protector it lacked during last season’s stretch run. Prior to last season Auburn had gone 15 years without an NCAA tournament appearance. This front court is a key reason why the Tigers don’t have to worry about starting a new tournament drought in 2019.