25 questions that will shape the college basketball season
It’s hard to believe the new college hoops season is only a few days away.
It feels like just yesterday that I was on the floor of JerryWorld near Dallas, interviewing a delirious Ryan Boatright and his equally delirious mother about UConn becoming one of the most unlikely national champions in a good long while.
And it had just been one of the most unlikely NCAA tournaments in a good long while. (Three-seed Duke losing to 14-seed Mercer, 11-seed Dayton flying to the Elite Eight, Kentucky being a lowly eight-seed, then lowly eight-seed Kentucky running through the tournament, only to lose to a seven-seed in the title game …)
I expect another wild year right around the corner. The way I see the landscape is this: There’s a top tier of four, perhaps five teams. Kentucky – with its typically elite talent but with an atypical amount of experience – gets the preseason nod as the best team around. But Arizona, Duke, Wisconsin and perhaps even Kansas are right there in the same top tier. There are plenty of next-tier dark horses that could make a run at the Final Four: Iowa State, Texas, Virginia, Louisville, Utah, Gonzaga, Wichita State. And there are also plenty of controversies at bluebloods to start out our season with some sensationalism: An academic scandal at North Carolina, a long-running NCAA investigation at Syracuse that’s finally coming to a head, a head coach on the hot seat at Indiana.
And of course, there are plenty of players and teams nobody is talking about in November that everyone will be talking about in March, just like UConn last season.
Here are the 25 big-picture questions I’m going to be paying the most attention to between the new season’s tip-off on Friday and when a new national champion cuts down the nets on April 6, 2015 in Indianapolis.
1. Can Kentucky run the table? Yep, I was That Guy. I wrote a month ago I thought Kentucky has as good of a chance as any team we’ve seen in a while to go 40-0. Does that mean I think the Wildcats have a good chance to go undefeated. Hell, no. These are college kids. A perfect season means five months without a single letdown. The way John Calipari is approaching this season – using a platoon system where he’ll shuttle in and out two entire lineups – sounds to me like a well-meaning experiment that will be scrapped pretty early on. But this team is so, so talented, and more important, it has experience. Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein are juniors. The Harrison twins, following the wild rollercoaster of their freshman season, ought to be considered wily veterans after being under the Big Blue Microscope for so long. And the four newest McDonald’s All-Americans – freshmen Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker – are stunningly talented. Do they have a good chance at going undefeated? No. Do they have a chance? Absolutely.
2. Will the ACC far and away be the best conference? The ACC has assembled what might be the single best collection of college basketball programs we’ve ever seen under one conference umbrella. A league that already had two of college hoops’ bluebloods in Duke and UNC added Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame last season, then Louisville this season. The last three ACC tournaments were won by non-blueblood programs that are on the rise: Florida State in 2012, Miami in 2013 and Virginia last season. Virginia Tech will only improve under Buzz Williams, Wake Forest will only improve under Danny Manning, and North Carolina State still has plenty of tradition and talent. Someday, we might end up with a conference that can rival the record 11 NCAA tournament bids of the Big East in 2011. But will that year be this year? In a word: No. The ACC will take a while to build into what will be a behemoth.
3. If not the ACC, then who? The Big 12. I love this conference so much this season that I put four Big 12 teams in the top 13 of my preseason rankings. Kansas must be considered the favorite, with its 10 straight Big 12 championships and with another stunning recruiting job by Bill Self, but three other teams ought to challenge the Jayhawks: Texas, Iowa State and Oklahoma, who all should be considered dark-horse Final Four candidates. Kansas State will again be very good as the Wildcats return Marcus Foster and Thomas Gipson. Depending how Baylor, Oklahoma State and West Virginia do, it’s feasible that eight of the Big 12’s 10 teams could make the NCAA tournament. I’d say it’s likely that at least six will. That’s phenomenal.
4. How about the Atlantic 10? It was the most surprising conference in the country last season. Who would have thought a year ago the A-10 would send six teams to the NCAA tournament, and the team that was the last one in, Dayton, would make the Elite Eight? It will be a bit of a letdown in the A-10 this season, as defending champ St. Louis graduated a ton of players from a senior-heavy team. But this conference will still be really, really good. VCU is a dark-horse Final Four team, the most Havoc-like team of the Shaka Smart era. Dayton and George Washington could both be top 25-caliber, and UMass should make a run at the tournament. Plus, Rhode Island is one team that plenty of coaches told me in the offseason could be one of the nation’s bigger surprises. Three bids is a certainty, four is likely, but more than that will be tough going.
5. So the most disappointing conference? The Big Ten will be a bit down from last season, when it sent six teams to the NCAA tournament and ranked third in conference RPI. Tons of people pick on the SEC, but of the three teams the SEC sent to the tournament last season, two made the Final Four and the third, Tennessee, made the Sweet 16. Billy Donovan told me the SEC doesn’t always get a fair shake in basketball, and I believe him. The single most disappointing conference this season will have to be the Pac-12. A year after sending six teams to the NCAA tournament, there are a ton of question marks. Arizona is a sure thing, Sean Miller’s best team and a legitimate national-title contender. After that? UCLA is talented but so, so young. Oregon is decimated from last season’s sexual assault scandal. Cal has a new coach though still lots of talent. I’m not a believer in Stanford, notwithstanding last season’s Sweet 16 run and the fact it returns Chasson Randle this season. I like Colorado a ton, and I like Utah as a dark horse, but after Arizona, the Pac-12 is filled with teams that could really be disappointing.
6. Who’ll be this season’s Bo Ryan – the longtime coach who’d never made a Final Four? It’s gotta be Sean Miller. You can’t get any closer to a Final Four than Miller has been: Three trips to the Elite Eight, including last season’s heartbreaking overtime Elite Eight loss to Wisconsin. Despite the Wildcats losing two players, Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson, to the NBA, people around the program told me they expect Arizona to be better this year than the team that had the nation’s top-ranked defense last season. If you’re looking to put another coach on this list, Gonzaga’s Mark Few wouldn’t be a bad choice, either.
7. Which controversy will give their coaches, players and fans a bigger headache this season: Syracuse’s or North Carolina’s? UNC’s. No matter the on-the-ground reality of the decades-long UNC academic scandal – remember, a majority of students in the alleged gift-grade or no-show classes were non-athletes – an academic scandal will raise the ire of the public more than anything that has to do with alleged extra benefits. After seeing the ho-hum reaction to Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston allegedly signing autographs for cash, I don’t think the public cares too much about college athletes getting extra benefits. But what is alleged at UNC points to the heart of the word “student-athlete” that the NCAA believes to be the core of its mission. This UNC academic scandal will be a thorn in Roy Williams’ side as long as he remains coach there
8. So do all these distractions mean we can count UNC out of the national title chase? Nope. UNC, ranked sixth in the preseason AP poll, is a very real title threat. Marcus Paige might mean as much to his team this season as Shabazz Napier meant to UConn last season. He’s surrounded by a great recruiting class plus some big-time returning talent, especially big men Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks. Remember Syracuse’s reaction to the Bernie Fine fiasco back in 2011? The Orange went 30-1 in the regular season, were ranked No. 1 in the nation, and made the Elite Eight. Instead of crumbling in the face of controversy, some teams band together. That could be the case in Chapel Hill.
9. What about Syracuse? This is a team you can count out from the title chase. And it has nothing to do with any off-court issues. This team lost so, so much from last season – senior C.J. Fair, sophomore Jerami Grant and freshman Tyler Ennis all headed to the pros – and now the Orange are stuck with their third starting point guard in as many seasons. How can Kaleb Joseph handle the pressure of being the only point guard on this roster? And they’re in an ACC, where the conference schedule will be a beast. This could be the worst Syracuse team since 2008, the last time Boeheim missed an NCAA tournament.
10. Can Wichita State top the past two seasons? That’ll be tough, given that the Shockers’ 2013 surprise run to the Final Four was followed in 2014 by becoming the first team to reach the NCAA tournament undefeated since UNLV more than 20 years ago. But this program is rolling, and this year’s team – despite having less depth, especially in the frontcourt – has the talent to be great again. A monster backcourt of Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton might be the nation’s best – and UConn reminded us last season exactly what kind of damage a best-in-nation backcourt can do in March.
11. Will Tom Crean survive past this season? I can’t see a situation where he does. Two seasons ago we were proclaiming how Crean had rescued Indiana basketball from the doldrums. Then last season his team of underachievers missed the NCAA tournament and the NIT, which was followed by an offseason of his players getting in trouble off the court, which has been followed by rumors of dissension within and around the program. Here’s one more problem: His team isn’t going to be very good. Four players from last season transferred out of the program. That team’s star, Noah Vonleh, was one-and-done and off to the NBA, and Will Sheehey graduated. One well-connected source at a Big Ten school told me that, combined with the ill will he’s generated over the years from his, ahem, “prickly” personality, there’s no way Crean recovers from the current storm and will be gone after missing another NCAA tournament this season.
12. How will Butler deal with having its third head coach in as many seasons? After Brandon Miller took a medical leave just before his second season, things got upended once again at Hinkle Fieldhouse, as assistant coach Chris Holtmann took over as the interim coach. But Butler will still improve on its rough first year in the Big East last season, which was the program’s first sub-.500 record since 2004-05. Last season was filled with close losses, overtime losses, heartbreaking losses. But the Bulldogs get all-everything star Roosevelt Jones back from the injury that sidelined him last season. Kellen Dunham is an all-Big East-type of guard. Senior Kameron Woods is a rebounding machine. Will Butler win the Big East? No. But it’ll be in the mix.
13. Who will be the second-best team in the Big Ten? The Big Ten has a top tier of one: Wisconsin, far and away the class of this conference as it returns nearly everyone from a Final Four team. After that, your guess is as good as mine. I count a massive and fluid second tier of seven teams, any of which could vie for second place and all of whom could make the NCAA tournament: Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio State. I put them in alphabetical order because I have zero idea which is the favorite among them. If you go by the polls, then it’s Michigan State, but that team loses so, so much from last year – and I know Branden Dawson is good, but is he carry-a-team good? If I were to pick one team to finish second to Wisconsin, it would be Nebraska because I’ll always take experience (Terran Petteway, Shavon Shields, Tai Webster) over inexperience (Ohio State and its heralded freshman class). And Minnesota will be an NCAA tournament team. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Iowa ended up surprising us all.
14. Wait – Iowa, the team that ended its season 1-7 last year? That’s right. And even though Fran McCaffery lost that team’s leading scorer (Devyn Marble), this team could be better than last year’s. It was mid-February when Iowa beat eventual Elite Eight team Michigan by 18, and at that point I thought Iowa looked like a dark-horse Final Four team. A few things went wrong in that final stretch. The team stopped playing defense, allowing 86 or more points in three games of a four-game stretch. Point guard play was lackluster or worse. And a team that lost so many close games during the season – nine of its 13 losses were by fewer than six points or in overtime – seemed to stop believing in itself. But with a shorter rotation that’ll give players more regular minutes, and with an exciting point guard in ex-juco star Trey Dickerson, this team could be better than we expect. There’s no go-to scorer at Iowa, but I see this solid bunch as being Wisconsin Lite.
15. And Tim Miles? He’ll be great, of course. The best program-promoter this side of John Calipari – and a damn fine basketball coach, too – has Nebrasketball buzzing in a state where that used to be impossible. There might not be a more surprisingly fun home-court environment in the nation than Nebraska’s new Pinnacle Bank Arena in downtown Lincoln, and there’s no better caretaker for this type of rising program than the fun, authentic Miles. It will be interesting to see how Nebraska operates being the hunted instead of the hunter. The Huskers didn’t fully emerge as a Big Ten force until February last season. Now teams will have dates with Nebraska circled on their calendars.
16. Can UConn repeat? Of course not. We’ve had a repeat twice since the end of the Vietnam War (Duke in 1991 and 1992, Florida in 2006 and 2007). The parity and roster changeover in the college game makes it a nearly impossible task – not to mention the luck it takes to run through the tournament. (Just look at UConn, which barely escaped its first tournament game last season, an overtime win over 10-seed St. Joseph’s.) The better question is whether UConn will win the American Conference and whether it can be a consistent top-25 team a season after losing all-everything point guard Shabazz Napier. I think the answer is yes, but it will all hinge on how Napier’s old backcourt mate, Ryan Boatright, deals with moving into the role as team leader. Kevin Ollie will still have the most talented team in his conference, especially in the backcourt, with Boatright joined by returner Terrence Samuel, NC State transfer Rodney Purvis and juco transfer Sam Cassell Jr., who was a first-team juco All-American last season. With big man Amida Brimah continuing his progress, UConn has a chance to be really, really good, if not great.
17. Which Pitino will have the better team? Rick, of course. But his son, Richard, made amazing strides in his first season at Minnesota, installing the signature Pitino pressing defense and bringing a wave of excitement to The Barn. On the first day of the season we’ll be treated to a wonderful father-son matchup as Louisville takes on Minnesota in the Armed Forces Classic in Puerto Rico. Louisville is going to be very, very good – Montrezl Harrell returning for a junior season was the biggest offseason surprise in college hoops, and Pitino told me Harrell made huge strides in the offseason, especially in adding mid-to-long-range jumpers to his game. But don’t give the son’s team any short shrift. Led by feisty point guard Deandre Mathieu, this is a scrappy, fast, fun bunch, the type of team where a player will sustain a bloody nose in practice but will just plug it up with cotton and keep going. Call Minnesota a program on the rise, and one season removed from winning the NIT, I expect the Golden Gophers to make the NCAA tournament. And I expect cheesy headline writers to employ the phrase “The Son Also Rises” quite a bit during March.
18. And how good can Louisville be? Rick Pitino could easily be headed to his third Final Four in four years. And remember: Last year’s Louisville squad was finally clicking at the end of the season, and those Cardinals easily could have gone to the Final Four if poor free-throw shooting (13 of 23 from the line) didn’t derail its chance at beating cross-state rival Kentucky in the Sweet 16. Louisville, on its third conference in three years, will get tested early and often in the mighty ACC, but that’s good for a Rick Pitino team. Montrezl Harrell is a manchild. The backcourt of Chris Jones and Terry Rozier, though it isn’t Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, is still really, really good. I’m most curious how Louisville recovers from losing its glue guy and reliable three-point shooter, Luke Hancock.
19. Biggest-picture question: What’s the state of the college game? Great, I’d say. For all the moaning about a lack of fundamental play that stems from the roll-the-ball-out summer circuits in high school, I was impressed with the level of play last season. Last season’s rule changes favoring the offense meant a lot of high-foul games early, but the game as a whole had less hacking and a faster tempo. Some conferences are experimenting with a 30-second shot clock in the preseason, which feels like an inevitability in the college game sooner instead of later. And did you know that the free-throw percentage in college hoops was at its highest point ever last season – a cumulative 69.79 percent? I didn’t, either, but it’s true.
20. Can Larry Brown’s SMU still make that step forward despite not having Emmanuel Mudiay? Absolutely. This team was good enough to play in the NCAA tournament last season but was kept out only because of its dismal nonconference schedule. And the Mustangs ended up going all the way to the NIT final, where they lost to Minnesota. This year, the nonconference schedule is much tougher (Gonzaga, Indiana, Arkansas, Michigan), but SMU returns a ton of talent, notably Nic Moore, to a team that is dominated by upperclassmen. Will SMU be top-10 good, Final Four good, like it would have been with Mudiay? No. Will SMU be top-25 good, second weekend good, without him? Yep.
21. Which mid-major team has the best shot at making a national statement this season? Well, it depends on your definition of mid-major. Wichita State, Gonzaga and VCU all have a very good shot at going to a Final Four (and I would rank the strength of their chances in that order), but none of those are true mid-major programs. A couple schools I’m intrigued by are both in the South: Georgia State, which has one of the nation’s best backcourts in Kentucky transfer Ryan Harrow, Louisville transfer Kevin Ware and hot-shooting NBA prospect R.J. Hunter; and Florida Gulf Coast, which has a talented senior backcourt in Brett Comer and Bernard Thompson, both of whom played on that magical Sweet 16 team from two years ago.
22. When will Coach K get to his 1,000 all-time victory? I’m going to assume that the freshman-heavy Duke team will have a bit of an adjustment period to the college game, so it will probably drop a few games early to less-talented teams. But the greatest coach alive is only 17 wins away from that historic number. Duke plays its 17th game of this season at home against Pitt on Jan. 19 – then the Blue Devils go on a three-game road trip. The date I’m circling is at Virginia on Sat., Jan. 31, the final game of that three-game road swing and the day before the Super Bowl.
23. Who will the best college basketball player be this season? Plenty of people would toss out the name Frank Kaminsky, the Wisconsin 7-footer (and matchup nightmare) who broke out as a junior last season. I wouldn’t argue … much. But I’m going with a guy from a smaller program who’ll have a much bigger impact on his team, and that’s Fred VanVleet, Wichita State’s junior point guard. If you had to pick one reason Wichita State started its season 35-0 last year before losing to Kentucky in the most unfair regional bracket in NCAA history, it wouldn’t be Cleanthony Early, who was drafted by the New York Knicks. It was VanVleet, the engine that made this team roar. He’s one of the best passers in college hoops, with one of the best offensive ratings and assist rates in the nation. He’s always been a guy who has been overlooked: Overlooked as a recruit, overlooked as the backup point guard on Wichita State’s Final Four team two years ago. That changed last season, as he got third team All-American status, and should change even more this season.
24. And since the best college basketball player isn’t the same as the best basketball player who is currently in college … who will be the best player out there, i.e. the guy who becomes the next No. 1 NBA draft pick? If you say anyone other than Duke freshman center, Jahlil Okafor, you’d be kidding yourself, especially after former SMU commit Emmanuel Mudiay opted to play in a professional league in China instead of in college. Okafor is a rare, rare breed in today’s college basketball world: a big, strong, skilled, traditional back-to-the-basket post player who seems ready-made to be a star at the next level (and this level). I’ve heard scouts compare him to Andrew Bynum (when he was good) and Jared Sullinger (if Sullinger were bigger) and Tim Duncan (when he was young). His play is so fine-tuned for a freshman.
25. Final question: Who’ll win it all? Arizona. (No – Kentucky. Or wait – Wisconsin. I mean, Duke. Or UNC or Kansas or Texas or Villanova or Virginia or Iowa State or Gonzaga or Wichita State or Louisville or…) But seriously: Arizona. Sean Miller’s first Final Four will end in his first title. A team that was ranked tops in the nation in defensive efficiency last season lost Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson, but players told me this offseason that defense will be better this year. This team is deeper than last year’s. Stanley Johnson ought to be the go-to scorer, T.J. McConnell is a calm guide at point, Brandon Ashley is back from injury and ought to be the three-point threat the Wildcats were missing at the end of last season, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson should be a star, and so could Kaleb Tarczewski. I love how all these pieces fit together. But this year, like last year, looks as wide open as ever at the top.