Heading into the season, college basketball looks to be as wide open as it has been in recent memory. A quick glance at the top 25 shows that more than half of those teams could – could – win a national title.
Yet not a single one of them seems even close to a sure thing as a Final Four contender.
With every national title contender this season comes a big, fat asterisk. Whether it’s health or inexperience, chemistry questions or questions whether a program has March Moxie, this strikes me as the most up-in-the-air season in a while. And even though it was fun a year ago to know at the beginning of the season that Kentucky had a real chance at 40-0 and every story line would revolve around the Wildcats, I’d argue that it’s even better for the sport when there’s a dozen teams we’re really wondering about in November.
I do not have Kentucky in this Final Four projection; when I compare these Wildcats to the team from a year ago, they look much more disjointed at this point of the season. (And remember that last year’s team had the August trip to the Bahamas to give the freshmen a head start on the season.) Nor do I have Duke on the list; last year’s national champion was special, but this year’s team is just so different, relying on talented perimeter players instead of centering on Jahlil Okafor. North Carolina isn’t here, either; Marcus Paige’s recent injury, even though he’ll be back well before conference play, reminded me how injury-prone UNC’s heart and soul can be.
Last year, my preseason Final Four looked like this: Kentucky (check). Wisconsin (check). Arizona (close – Elite Eight). And Iowa State (whoops – but hey, I needed a wild card). Duke was a team I put in my “teams I shoulda put in there” list. And Michigan State? Nowhere to be found.
My point is this: At this point in the year – just four days before the start of the season — it doesn’t matter how much expertise you have. It’s all guesswork.
Especially this year.
National champion: Kansas
This is the most balanced team in the nation. When I look at all of the Jayhawks’ parts, I don’t see anything missing. There’s experienced, aggressive point guard Frank Mason. There’s reliable, experienced senior Perry Ellis, who is basically the college version of Tim Duncan. There’s underachieving junior wing Wayne Selden, who seemed to finally come into his own during the World University Games this past summer in Korea. There’s smooth 6-foot-8 Ukrainian Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, who may have been invisible last season but whom NBA teams drool over. There’s Brannen Greene, who Bill Self told me is the second-best shooter he’s ever coached. (No. 1 was a kid from his Oral Roberts days.) The list keeps going: Blue-chip freshmen like Cheick Diallo and Carlton Bragg, quick and explosive point guard Devonte’ Graham (perfect for a small-ball, two point guard lineup), energetic down-and-dirty guys like Jamari Traylor. I’m not sure whether there’s one go-to guy on this team. I’m not sure it matters. This strikes me as the most San Antonio Spurs-like Self team, and that’s very much a good thing.
The asterisk: Will Diallo be eligible? And if so, will he be eligible in time for Self to be comfortable with Diallo in a defined role in his rotation? I wish the NCAA would clear this up soon, if only because it really messes with my predictions when I don’t know Diallo’s future. Diallo is the difference maker for Kansas. With him, Kansas has a high-motor, athletic big man who can block shots, grab rebounds and get down in the muck. Without him, Kansas has … Hunter Mickelson? Landen Lucas? Traylor? All three of those guys are people you love to have on a roster. But all three are enormous drop-offs from Diallo.
National runner-up: Virginia
Tony Bennett doesn’t need a standout scorer to get Virginia to the Final Four.
This is my legacy pick. Tony Bennett’s team has won the ACC two straight years yet both times has ran into Michigan State in the tournament and lost – first in the Sweet 16, then in the Round of 32. This is the year Bennett, one of the nation’s brightest young coaches, gets over the hump. His pack-line defense is the nation’s stoutest system, the type of defense that simply chokes and smothers you to death. He’s built this program into a consistent juggernaut, not just on the shoulders of one recruiting class but on the shoulders of a solid, built-from-the-bottom foundation. He lost two players to the pros from a team that last year lost only one game before March, and yet Bennett still has what might be the nation’s best triad of seniors with Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey and Malcolm Brogdon. Gill may be the most underrated player in the nation. Tobey is an NBA-level big man. Brogdon is a dark-horse player of the year candidate. Although Bennett teams tend to depress individual statistics, you could have said the same thing about Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan – until last year, when Frank Kaminsky won every player of the year honor there was. KenPom.com has Virginia third in its preseason rankings. This year, the Cavaliers will make a Final Four. Unless, of course, they run into Michigan State in March again.
The asterisk: Will Bennett have the scorers? That question may not matter to a Tony Bennett team. Joe Harris is an NBA player who averaged only 12 points as a senior. Same for Justin Anderson. Virginia teams share the ball, and though they don’t score a lot of points, they score on a very high percentage of possessions. Virginia ranked just 219th in the nation in points scored last season – yet 24th in offensive efficiency. The Cavs take smart shots. I just want to be sure that Brogdon and point guard London Perrantes – who made 34.4 percent and 31.6 percent of their 3-pointers last season, respectively – can hit enough of those shots now that Anderson, a gunner, is gone.
National semifinalist: Maryland
Uh, yeah, so these guys are stacked. Maryland may be the nation’s deepest team. Point guard Melo Trimble came back for his sophomore year. Forward Jake Layman came back for his senior year and is now playing his more natural small forward position. Head coach Mark Turgeon thinks junior big man Damonte Dodd has a chance to be the Big Ten defensive player of the year. Turgeon added Diamond Stone (stud freshman big man), Robert Carter (stud big man who transferred from Georgia Tech) and Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon (more on him later). These guys will come at you in waves. They’ll have to survive a brutal Big Ten schedule, but honestly I think that’ll be a good thing come March. The Terps will be battle-tested.
The asterisk: Aside from the regression-to-the-mean question on close games – last season’s 28-win Maryland team was 12-1 in games decided by two or fewer possessions – there’s also the Sulaimon question. Turgeon is bullish on Sulaimon going into the season. He described him as the team’s best perimeter defender, and we all know Sulaimon can score. But in Coach K’s 35 years at Duke, only one player has been kicked out of the program, and that was Sulaimon. If that’s not a giant red flag, I don’t know what is.
National semifinalist: Iowa State
Jameel McKay (1), Monte Morris (11) and Georges Niang (31) are an irreplaceable Big Three at Iowa State.
Iowa State, I can’t quit you! I picked you in my preseason Final Four a year ago, then you got UAB’d when March came around. And now, with a new coach but (mostly) the same players, I’m picking you again. When will I learn? Not this year. Because Iowa State will have the same free-flowing offense as last season (or so new coach Steve Prohm tells me). Only there will be a renewed emphasis on defense. And there will be no Bryce Dejean-Jones, who I believe to be the bad apple that ultimately spoiled the bunch last season. Here’s why I’m picking the Cyclones: I believe Iowa State will be one of the teams that benefits most from the new rules, specifically the emphasis on freedom of movement. I believe teams that go on an international trip over the summer reap benefits in the upcoming season, and the Cyclones went to Spain. I believe Georges Niang is impossible to game plan for. I believe Monte Morris is one of the best point guards in the nation. I believe Jameel McKay is an elite defensive force in the middle. I believe Deonte Burton is a linebacker masquerading as a basketball player, and I believe he may be the best athlete in the Big 12. I believe Naz Long is nails from deep, and Matt Thomas, too. I believe in Iowa State.
The asterisk: Health. You could say this about a lot of teams — you can never predict health. But Iowa State is in a precarious position with its top three players: Morris, McKay and Niang. There is no true backup point guard, there is no elite defensive big other than McKay, and there is no one else in college basketball like Niang. Lose one for the tourney and Iowa State is screwed. Have them all and I will, once again, believe.