A meeting between two of the sport’s most successful programs highlights this year’s slate of games in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, which was unveiled Thursday.
Kansas will visit Rupp Arena to play Kentucky on Jan. 26 as part of the annual event’s sixth year of competition.
The Jayhawks have won three-straight against the Wildcats with two being part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge and last year’s meeting part of the Champion’s Classic. Both teams ranked in the top five of our preseason Top 25.
Another marquee matchup will be defending SEC champ and likely top-10 preseason ranked Tennessee hosting Bob Huggins and West Virginia. Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton will welcome his alma mater to Stillwater with South Carolina the Cowboys’ matchup.
All games will be played on Saturday, Jan. 26. The challenge was split 5-5 last season. The Big 12 holds a 3-1-1 advantage in the event with its teams holding an overall record of 29-21.
The college basketball season has come and gone, meaning that it is officially time for us to start looking forward to next year.
And what better way is there to do that than by publishing a Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25!
DISCLAIMER: We don’t know about all of the NBA Draft decisions yet. Not even close. So if you see a * next to player’s name, it is because we are taking a guess — some more educated than others — on what he is going to be doing this spring.
Drop us a line here or @CBTonNBC if you see any names missing.
Here is the top 25:
1. KANSAS JAYHAWKS
Who’s gone: Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk, Malik Newman
Who do they add: Dedric Lawson, K.J. Lawson, Charlie Moore, Quentin Grimes, Devon Dotson, David McCormack
Projected starting lineup: Charlie Moore, Marcus Garrett, Quentin Grimes, Dedric Lawson, Udoka Azubuike*
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 Charlie Moore should be able to step in and handle the point guard duties – if that role isn’t taken over by Devon 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. There is still going to be some turbulence with this roster. Do they hold onto Udoka Azubuike? Will anyone else get run out of town? But the bottom line is that they are talented, they are old, they are well coached and they have a functional point guard on their roster.
2. GONZAGA BULLDOGS
Who’s gone: Silas Melson, Johnathan Williams III
Who do they add: 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 addition of Clarke and a couple more talented foreigners — Ayayi and Petrušev — and this is just about what you would expect for Gonzaga.
Who do they add: Jahvon Quinerly, Cole Swider, Brandon Slater, Joe Cremo
Projected starting lineup: Collin Gillispie, Phil Booth, Jermaine Samuels, Eric Paschall, Omari Spellman*
This ranking really does depend on what happens with DiVincenzo and Spellman. DiVincenzo was the MOP of the Final Four. Spellman, as we noted here, is the piece that brings it all together for the Wildcats. Both would be borderline first round picks if they remain in the 2018 draft. At this point, Spellman is probably 50-50 over whether he stays in the draft. Barring something drastic, DiVincenzo appears to be a lock to head to the NBA.
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, and it appears as if Bolden will be back for another season. 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. 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.
As always, there are so many moving parts with this Kentucky team’s roster and who will end up leaving school. At this point, I’m going to set the over-under for the number of players that leave for the draft at four: Knox, Gilgeous-Alexander, Diallo and … either Gabriel or Vanderbilt? Maybe both? Sacha Killeya-Jones already transferred out as well. We’ll see how that all plays out, but regardless of what happens, 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. The question is going to be whether or not these freshmen can all come together, because there are going to be far fewer veterans on the roster than we initially expected.
6. 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 pieces 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.
7. 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.
8. 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 is a guy that the public at-large hasn’t really seen play in Wade. Bruce Weber is going to silence the haters!
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 next season that is better than Luke Maye?
10. 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.
Assuming that Purifoy and Wiley don’t enter the NBA Draft, Auburn would return everyone from a team that shared the SEC regular season title with Tennessee. 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, especially if Wiley keeps his name in the draft.
12. 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.
13. 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 would be key, as would finding another point guard on the transfer market to replace C.J. Walker, who left the program.
14. 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.
15. 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 Ihe’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.
16. MARYLAND TERRAPINS
Who’s gone: Justin Jackson, Jared Nickens, Michal Cekovsky, Sean Obi, Dion Wiley
Who do they add: Schnider Herard, Jalen Smith, Aaron Wiggins, Eric Ayala
Projected starting lineup: Anthony Cowan, Darryl Morsell, Kevin Huerter*, Jalen Smith, Bruno Fernando*
Losing Justin Jackson was a major blow, but there are some pieces for Mark Turgeon to work with here. Cowan and Huerter could be all-Big Ten players as juniors, Morsell and Fernando had promising freshman years and Turgeon does bring in four solid pieces. They’ve got a chance in a weak Big Ten, but the problem is that there is no guarantee Huerter and Fernando are back. Fernando’s guardian is the one that is caught up in the FBI investigation with Silvio De Sousa, and Huerter really impressed at the NBA combine this weekend. Someone needs to keep an eye on Scott Van Pelt between now and the deadline to withdraw from the draft. I think both will be back, but I don’t feel very confident saying that.
Who do they add: Tre’Shawn Thurman, Corey Henson, Jazz Johnson, Nisre Zouzoua, Kwame Hymes, Vince Lee, Trey Porter, Ehab Amin
Projected starting lineup: Ehab Amin, Lindsay Drew, Nisre Zouzoua, Jordan Caroline*, Jordan Brown
This one is a bit tougher to project, as the Martin twins and Caroline are all going to be fifth-year seniors and it’s always difficult to predict what they are going to do. If they already have their degree, does it make sense to return to school for another season? 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 deal with a foot injury the last two months of the season. If the Martins do end up returning to school, I think Nevada will be a top ten team.
18. UCLA BRUINS
Who’s gone: Aaron Holiday, Thomas Welsh, G.G. Goloman
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. Odds seem pretty good that he’ll have every underclassmen except Aaron Holiday back, meaning that back-to-back top five-ish recruiting classes will be 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.
19. 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.
20. LOUISVILLE CARDINALS
Who’s gone: Anas Mahmoud, Quentin Snider, Ray Spalding, Deng Adel
Who do they add: Chris Mack, Steve Enoch, Christian Cunningham
Projected starting lineup: Darius Perry, Dwayne Sutton, V.J. King, Steve Enoch, Malik Williams
How good of a coach do you think that Mack is? Because that is what this really comes down to. Even though the Cardinals lose Adel along with Spalding to the draft, there is enough talent on this roster to make an NCAA tournament — I think the evidence of that is that if the Cardinals hadn’t lost a fluke game to Virginia they would have been in the tournament last season. And all due respect to David Padgett, Mack is a better coach than he is right now.
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, I’m trusting that Bob Huggins will figure out a way to make it work.
22. 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, Saddiq Bey, 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.
23. 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.
24. 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*, AJ Oliver, Aamir Simms, Elijah Thomas
Obviously, the calculus here changes if Mitchell and Reed end up staying in the NBA Draft, but at this point, I think that they’ll come back. With those two in the fold, plus Elijah Thomas in the paint, this has the makings of another team that will push for a top five seed.
25. XAVIER MUSKETEERS
Who’s gone: Trevon Bluiett, J.P. Macura, Chris Mack, Kerem Kanter, Sean O’Mara, Kaiser Gates
Who do they add: Dontarius James, Jake Walker, Kyle Castlin, Zach Hankins, Ryan Welage
Projected starting lineup: Quentin Goodin, Paul Scruggs, Naji Marshall, Ryan Welage, Tyrique Jones
So just how good is Travis Steele? We’ll find out right away. This roster has some dudes. They are also quite young with a first-year head coach.
The fact of the matter is that for all the pomp and circumstance, the NBA Combine is, essentially, about getting face-to-face interviews with these prospects while also landing definitive results for height, length, athletic testing and medicals.
Those results, when they pop, can help — or hurt — a player’s standing.
That said, there is still plenty that can be taken away from the 5-on-5 games that are played.
For players from smaller schools, it’s a chance to prove themselves against a higher level of competition. Think Larry Nance Jr., who wound up as a first round pick out of Wyoming.
For players that are stuck in a rigid system in college, the combine is a chance to show what they can do when they are no longer reined in. Kyle Kuzma is the perfect example of this.
With all that in mind, let’s take a look at the players that are still testing the waters and how they performed in Chicago this week.
DONTE DIVINCENZO, So., Villanova: The star of the national title game did not disappoint at the combine, in either the 5-on-5 play or in the athletic testing. Let’s start with the latter, where DiVincenzo registered a 42″ max vertical — tops at this year’s combine — and a 34.5″ standstill vertical to go along with a top five time in the lane agility drill. His size and length (6-foot-4.5 with a 6-foot-6 wingspan) is a bit of a concern, but DiVincenzo’s effort stood out during the games. The competitiveness and toughness is there, as is the shot-making ability. Already trending towards being a late first round pick, DiVincenzo probably solidified his standing at the combine. At this point I would be very surprised if he opted to return to school for his junior year.
KEVIN HUERTER, So., Maryland: We’ve been talking about Huerter as an under-the-radar prospect this spring, and he showcased why at the combine. Posting solid athletic testing numbers (he was top ten is all of the sprint drills and measured out at a 38″ max vert), Huerter proved himself to be a 6-foot-7 shot-making wing with an impressive feel; the 3.4 assists his averaged this season wasn’t a fluke. There’s a real chance that Huerter would be a late-first round pick should be stay in the draft, but there is a growing sentiment in NBA circles that he may want to return to school to try and play his way into the lottery of the weaker 2019 draft. If he adds strengths and proves himself to be an above-average Big Ten defender, that’s not an impossibility.
JOSH OKOGIE, So., Georgia Tech: We didn’t even mention Okogie when discussing which players had the most on the line heading into the combine, and that was clearly a mistake. Okogie may have proven himself worthy of an early-second round pick, if not late-first. The 6-foot-4.5 wing measured out at a 7-foot wingspan and finished with the fastest sprint time and the second-fastest shuttle run. A member of John Calipari’s Team USA U-19 team last summer, Okogie showcased his impressive defensive versatility during the combine games which, when combined with the 38 percent shooting from deep (173 attempts) in his two seasons in Atlanta, makes him an intriguing 3-and-D prospect in a league where defensively versatile wings that can space the floor are in high demand.
*(UPDATE: Okogie signed with an agent on Monday.)
It’s probably worth noting here that Huerter won’t turn 20 until August 27th and Okogie won’t turn 20 until September 1st. DiVincenzo is 19 months older than him. Hell, both of them are younger than Mo Bamba, Deandre Ayton and Michael Porter Jr. That’s a massive amount of time on the development curve.
CODY and CALEB MARTIN, Nevada: For both Martin twins, the combine made it looks like their incredible season with the Wolf Pack had more to do with the Mountain West than their future as NBA players. Caleb — the scorer — could not find a rhythm on that end while Cody — the jack-of-all-trades — didn’t exactly appear to be great at anything. The twins turn 23 in September, just received their degrees and Nevada would have 15 scholarship players if they return. They seem to be out the door, although that does not mean they’re headed for the NBA.
TYUS BATTLE, Syracuse: Physically, Battle tested out well, measuring nearly 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan and solid athletic testing numbers. But that was never the worry with Battle. His issue is that he was an inefficient, high-volume scorer that played predominantly with the ball in his hands at Syracuse. He needed to prove that he could a) play off the ball and b) shoot better than what his numbers were with the Orange. He did neither, and while I’m not sure he necessarily hurt himself, he did not play his way into the first round. If he remains in the draft, he’ll likely end up a second round pick.
BRIAN BOWEN, South Carolina: Bowen did not appear to be a draftable player during the games at the combine, which is more or less what we thought of him prior to sitting out the 2017-18 season after he was caught up in the FBI’s investigation into college basketball. This is a nightmare scenario for him. He has until May 30th to decide if he should just get started on a pro career, whatever level that ends up being at, or returning to school and hoping the NCAA will clear him.
JARRED VANDERBILT, Kentucky: Vanderbilt pulled out of the combine prior to the start, which might have more to do with his health and controlling the flow of information over his medical testing than anything else. For a player that has had a myriad of lower left leg injuries over the years — he missed the first 17 games and the final six games of his freshman season, as well as much of the summer prior to his senior season in high school — he’s going to have a difficult decision to make in regards to turning pro. He’s not a first rounder, but just how long is his athletic career going to be given these health issues?
THEY ARE WHAT WE THOUGHT THEY WERE
CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue: Edwards was a late addition to the combine as other players dropped out. He’s more of a scorer than he is a point guard at this stage, and some of his struggles offensively at the combine showed that. He could use another year where he’ll be asked to do it all for Purdue offensively.
OMARI SPELLMAN, Villanova: We know what Spellman is. He’s a 6-foot-9 center with a 7-foot-2 wingspan and a lethal three-point shooting stroke. We also know that he’s lost nearly 50 pounds since he was in high school. At the combine, Spellman checked in at 253 pounds with 13.75 percent body fat, still managing to post a 35.5″ max vertical at that weight. Put another way, there is still improvement that can be made on his body and, in theory, his athleticism. That keeps teams interested, but he certainly didn’t play his way into being a first rounder.
BRUNO FERNANDO, Maryland: Fernando proved himself a very large human (6-foot-9.75, 7-foot-4.25) but beyond that, his instincts as a basketball players were not quite there. In an NBA era where paint-locked big men are becoming useless, Fernando seems to fall into that category. If anything, what may keep him in the draft is his guardian’s connection to Kansas big Silvio De Sousa and the FBI investigation into college basketball.
UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas: His 7-foot-7 wingspan is enough to make NBA GMs salivate, but that may be the only NBA-ready skill that the big fella has. He’s a non-shooter — career 40.6 percent from the free throw line — and his inability to defend on the perimeter was exposed by Villanova in the Final Four. He’s a late-second round pick at best.
SAGABA KONATE, West Virginia: The passion and the energy that Konate played with all season long was on full display at the combine as well. He’s a big, burly 6-foot-7.25 shot-blocker with a 7-foot wingspan and a better-than-you-think shooting stroke, but he didn’t do much to prove himself as more than a second round pick.
P.J. WASHINGTON, Kentucky: Physically, Washington doesn’t profile all that different that Spellman, who is slightly taller with a slightly longer wingspan and 30 extra pounds of weight he can stand to lose. The difference? Spellman is a very good shooter. The was time we saw Washington, who shot 5-for-21 from three as a freshman, he was missing 12 of his 20 free throws in a 61-58 loss to Kansas State in the Sweet 16. He’s already said he wants a first round guarantee to remain in the draft, and if teams didn’t rate him as a first rounder prior to the combine, I’m not sure anything happened that would change their minds.
JAYLEN HANDS and KRIS WILKES, UCLA: The most notable thing that happed with these two at the combine was that Hands, ironically enough, finished with the smallest hands at the event. He did, however, show some point guard instinct and fight defensively. There’s no guarantee he gets drafted, and the same can be same for Wilkes, who at least fits the profile of a versatile wing. Their decision essentially comes down to whether or not they think playing another year for Steve Alford will actually help their chances of getting into the first round in 2019.
ACC coaches want to expand NCAA tournament to 72 teams
At the ACC spring meetings this week, the conference’s basketball coaches made some recommendations for rule changes that would have a pretty big impact on the way that the game is played at the college level.
Among other things, they suggested moving the three-point line back (yes!), widening the lane (yes!), resetting the shot clock to 20 seconds on an offensive rebound (yes!) and sticking with halves instead of changing to four quarters (booooo).
The recommendation that is going to get the most headlines, however, is the suggestion that the NCAA tournament should expand from 68 to 72 teams, with a pair of regional First Fours because, apparently, a far greater percentage of football teams go to bowl games than basketball teams go to the NCAA tournament.
This is dumb for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the NIT, the CBI and the CIT exist, or that only four college football teams actually go to the tournament that determines a national champion. Ask UCF about that. The rest of bowl season is simply a series of glorified scrimmages that creates revenue for the people that wear suits and that degenerates love to gamble on.
But that idea is also ridiculous because it’s simply coaches riding for coaches. The truth is that these high major guys know that simply getting an invite to the NCAA tournament is the kind of thing that can earn them a contract extension or keep their bosses from firing them a year earlier than they would otherwise, and creating four more at-large bids means that there is the opportunity for four more coaches to get — or keep — themselves paid.
Personally, I am not married to the idea that the NCAA tournament has to remain at 68 teams — but that comes with one, simple caveat: The additions to the tournament field come in the form of regular season champions at the mid-major level, not middling high-major programs that couldn’t quite crack .500 in their league.
Here’s an idea that I’ve been chewing on for a while, one that I think would be great for all levels of the game and put more of an emphasis on the regular season:
Expand the field to 76 teams, give automatic bids to both the regular season and tournament champs for every conference.
Guarantee that teams that win both the regular season and the tournament title for their respective conference is able to avoid having to play in one of the 12 play-in games.
Those 12 play-in games would be played for the right to be a 14, 15 or 16 seed, and they would be held between the 24 teams that weren’t dual-league champs rated the lowest in the Selection Committee’s seed list, whether that means they only won a regular season title, a tournament title or were an at-large bid.
The number of at-large teams in the field would be fluid. With Wichita State out of the Missouri Valley, there are now essentially 22 leagues where the regular season champ isn’t all-but guaranteed to be an at-large bid. In the last four season, an average of 11 of those conference tournaments were won by someone other than the league’s regular season champ, which means that, on average, there would have been 33 mid-major automatic bids to the Big Dance under these rules and 43 bids available to the top ten conferences and, essentially, 33 at-large bids available. That would be down three from what it currently is, meaning that three of the thoroughly mediocre bubble teams that get in every year would miss out, on average.
This would do a couple of things that I think would make the tournament a better product.
For starter’s, it would give us two more days of wall-to-wall tournament games, meaning that the Tuesday and the Wednesday of the first weekend of the tournament feature an endless amount of play-in games on TV. As gambling on sports becomes more popular, this just means that there is more inventory to be able to cash in on.
It would also ensure that the best mid-major teams in the country — the most likely cinderellas — would be in the tournament after steam-rolling their league. As it stands, we miss out on so many great mid-major teams getting their shine in March because someone they beat twice during the regular season gets hot during one four-day stretch. We all lamented how screwed Middle Tennessee State was this year when they didn’t get a bid to the Big Dance. This model gives them that bid.
Then there is the added bonus that Championship Week becomes that much more insane. If your favorite team is on the bubble, you’ll be locked into all of those mid-major tournament games, because every top seed that loses is a bubble that bursts. That would be amazing, like taking the insanity of March and forcing it to shotgun an old Four Loko.
Now, this idea isn’t exactly perfect. Unbalanced scheduling means that the “best” team in a given conference might not end up being the regular season champ. It also creates a clear and obvious incentive for a conference to rig their conference tournament against the league champ; getting two teams into the tournament increases the odds of getting a win-share for the league, as does having those two teams play a play-in game opponent as opposed to, say, a No. 4 or a No. 5 seed.
It also moves us further and further away from the bracket being able to fit on a single, 8 X 11.5 piece of paper. But honestly, when was the last time you filled out a bracket that wasn’t online?
I know that this idea will never gain any real traction because the people in power — the people at the high major level — are the ones that would be hurt the most by this, but I do think this is the best way to make the tournament as interesting and as fair as possible.
The deadline to declare for the NBA draft has come and gone, which means we’re now waiting for the next deadline: When underclassmen have to pull their name out of the NBA draft if they are testing the waters.
That day is May 30th.
It is two weeks away, after the NBA draft combine and nearly three weeks before the draft itself.
So there is still a ways to go with this process.
But as things stand today, on the even of the combine, here are the players that will have the biggest impact on next season..
To help you parse it all down, here are the most influential Should-I-Stay-Or-Should-I-Go decisions that are going to be made over the course of the next two weeks.
OMARI SPELLMAN and DONTE DIVINCENZO, Villanova
Villanova already lost a pair of juniors to the NBA draft as both Mikal Bridges, a potential top ten pick, and Jalen Brunson, last year’s reigning National Player of the Year, declared for the draft and signed with an agent.
Eric Paschall and Phil Booth both opted to return to school for their redshirt senior seasons where, along with returnees Jermaine Samuels, Collin Gillispie and Dhamir Cosby-Rountree and a recruiting class that is as good as any that Jay Wright had landed in his time on the Main Line, has Villanova’s program in a great place for the future.
And frankly, even with just that group of guys, the Wildcats are likely still going to enter the season as the favorite to win the Big East once again, although that might say more about the Big East than it does about Villanova.
But if they get Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman back, we could be looking at a situation where this is once again the best team in college basketball.
Let’s start with DiVincenzo, since I think he’s the more likely of the two to return. On the one hand, he might end up being a preseason first-team all-american if he makes the choice to play for Jay Wright for another season, and as such, he’ll likely end up taking over the lion’s share of Villanova’s offense as a result. But more importantly, at least when it comes to the draft, is that DiVincenzo still has some things that he can improve on that would make him a more palatable first round pick. As dynamic as he was this season, Divincenzo has always been a streaky scorer, a mixed bag as a decision-maker and a questionable ball-handler. Those are things that can be improved upon and, with a weaker draft coming up in 2019, the kind of thing that might be able to sneak him into the lottery.
One concerning note: Villanova landed a commitment from grad transfer Joe Cremo. That’s not exactly a promising sign for DiVincenzo, as Cremo more or less plays the same position as him, a spot that Villanova does have depth.
Spellman is a different story. He’s something of a finished product in terms of an NBA prospect. There are things that he can improve on — his post game, for one, and his ability to drive left, another — but the weight loss that he went through in his two seasons as a part of the Villanova program is what turned him into an NBA player. Given his size, his ability to shoot from three, the way he attacks close-outs and the fact that he can protect the rim and rebound the ball now that he’s shed 50 pounds, there is likely a spot for him in an NBA rotation somewhere. And while DiVincenzo can improve where he’s picked by coming back, I think Spellman is always going to find himself in that range of being a late first rounder or an early second rounder.
As it stands, Villanova is currently the No. 2 overall team in the NBC Sports preseason top 25. With both players officially back, I’ll have to think long and hard about whether or not they should be No. 1.
CALEB MARTIN, CODY MARTIN and JORDAN CAROLINE, Nevada
Should Nevada get all three of these guys back for another season, the Wolf Pack are going to enter the 2018-19 season as a preseason top ten team.
But are they going to get all three of these guys back?
That, at this point, is a major question mark for one, simple reason: After landing commitments from a pair of grad transfers and top 15 recruit Jordan Brown, Eric Musselman currently has a roster with 15 players set to receive scholarships. That’s two over the limit.
All three of these guys are all staring down the barrel of a redshirt senior season, meaning that it will be the fifth year that the three — all of whom transferred into Nevada — will be in college. If they already have their degree, and they are all turning 23 years old in the next year, is a shot at making the Final Four enough incentive to return to school?
For Caroline it might be. As talented as he is, I’m not sure that he gets drafted if he turns pro. Both Martin twins have an actual chance to end up hearing their name called on draft night — Caleb as one of the best shot-makers in college basketball and Cody as a 3-and-D role player — but it would be as second round picks. As we noted last week, that’s not a deterrent from landing a guaranteed deal, and for kids that are on the wrong side of the development curve, starting to earn money might be an attractive option.
If all three are gone, then I think we’re talking about Nevada as a team that is going to be in the back end of the top 25. With all three, the Wolf Pack will probably be the best Mountain West team we’ve seen since Jimmer and Kawhi were tearing the conference up eight years ago.
KEVIN HUERTER and BRUNO FERNANDO, Maryland
There are so many teams in the Big Ten with so much on the line over the course of the next five weeks, but I’m not sure anyone has more at stake than Maryland, who is still waiting to hear what Huerter and Fernando are going to do.
Let’s pretend, for a second, that both return to school. Huerter — a 6-foot-7 wing that averaged 14.6 points and shot 42 percent from three — joins Anthony Cowan and Darryl Morsell to give the Terps one of the better backcourts in college basketball while Fernando, a native of Angola, would be in line for a breakout sophomore campaign. Throw in a recruiting class that includes transfer Schnider Herard and five-star Jalen Smith up front and promising four-star wings like Eric Ayala, Serrel Smith and Aaron Wiggins, and there is something here for Mark Turgeon to work with.
It’s why Maryland is a top 20 team in our preseason rankings.
But Huerter has some second round appeal this season given his size, length and shooting ability while Fernando, who had some impressive moments as a freshman, is tangentially linked to the FBI investigation into college basketball corruption. Fernando and Kansas freshman Silvio De Sousa as childhood friends that both have the same American guardian. That guardian allegedly received a payout of at least $20,000 to get De Sousa out from under payments he already received from a rival apparel company when he committed to Kansas; De Sousa, who played for Under Armour sponsored high school and AAU teams, was considered a near-lock to head to Maryland, who is Under Armour’s flagship program.
Without those two, Anthony Cowan will take on the role of Melo Trimble, trying to carry the load for the Terps, and I’m not sure he’s cut out for it the way that Trimble was.
CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue
Edwards might end up being the best lead guard in college basketball next season. I would not be surprised to see him end up as a consensus preseason first-team all-american should he end up coming back to school, and if he does, I think Purdue is a borderline top 25 team that will be back in the NCAA tournament. Without him, however, and the Boilermakers will have to replace five starters on a team that really didn’t have much in the way of quality depth. Edwards is the difference between Purdue being a good team and Purdue being in a total rebuild.
ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin
Wisconsin just finished the worst season the program has had in two decades, snapping a 19-year NCAA tournament streak and a 16-year run of top four finishes in the Big Ten. And yet, I feel good about where this team is headed. Much of that, as I noted in this column, has to do with the promising crop of youngsters and the way that they finished last season despite being injured and, you know, young. But much more of it had to do with the idea that Happ, an all-american in 2016-17 and a preseason all-american heading into last season, would be back for his senior year. He is the anchor for this group on both ends of the floor.
JAMES PALMER JR. and ISAAC COPELAND, Nebraska
Palmer was one of the best players in the Big Ten last season, quietly putting together an incredible year that not enough people paid attention to. Copeland had his best season as a collegian last year, and the two of them, the two leading scorers for a team that tied for fourth in the Big Ten last year, are the reason why Nebraska looks like they have a shot to be even better next year. They are a borderline top 25 team that should get Tim Miles back to the NCAA tournament. They are also both transfers that might opt to turn professional with a degree in hand, and if that were to happen, the Cornhuskers are going to be heading back into rebuilding mode.
CHARLES MATTHEWS, Michigan
Michigan is the team that I’ve gotten the most pushback on for leaving out of the NBC Sports preseason top 25. I have them out right now because I’m not convinced that Matthews returns to school and, when combined with losing their two best offensive weapons — Mo Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman — to graduation, would leave Michigan very young and without the kind of offensive firepower that they had this year. Matthews coming back would change that outlook and make the Wolverines more of a finished product than they are without him. Matthews, individually, would be a potential all-american — and top 20 picks — if he were to return and show off an ability to shoot more consistently from three.
MUSTAPHA HERON, BRYCE BROWN, JARED HARPER, and AUSTIN WILEY, Auburn
I’m honestly not sure what to do with Auburn here. It appeared initially that Mustapha Heron would be signing with an agent, but he has told reporters recently that he has not yet signed those papers and is considering returning to school. Without him, it is hard for me to justify to myself ranking the Tigers in the top 15 of the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25 even with the success they had last season. When it’s all said and done, they’ll probably be there so long as they get the other three guys back. But if Heron does come back? There would be a case to make for him as a top ten player in the sport next, and the Tigers could legitimately be a preseason top five team and the favorite in an SEC that will include a pair of other top ten teams — Kentucky and Tennessee. And I haven’t even mentioned anything about the FBI yet. There is a lot going on down in Auburn this offseason.
UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas
Azubuike is on this list now because of the fact that Kansas will, more likely than not, be without the services of Silvio De Sousa following the latest reveal in the FBI’s investigation into college basketball corruption. If Azubuike opts to remain in the draft, that means that the five-spot in the Kansas lineup will be manned by Mitch Lightfoot and freshman David McCormack. The reason that Azubuike is so low on this list is that, without him, I would fully expect Kansas to play a smaller, more versatile lineup, and that might actually make them more difficult to matchup with. Put another way, losing Azubuike would have a bigger impact on how Kansas plays instead of how good they actually end up being.
TYUS BATTLE, Syracuse
Battle is a borderline first round pick, a guy that could go anywhere between the 20s and the 40s, depending on which NBA organizations fall in love with him. If he’s back, Syracuse has to be thought of as a potential tournament team because, you know, they were this year without all that much around him. If he’s gone, things could get ugly.