2018-19 College Basketball Season Preview
The college basketball season is finally here, with action tipping off Tuesday thanks to the NCAA allowing teams to begin their seasons three days earlier than in years past. While the specter of the FBI investigation may not hover over the start of the season like it did last year, it’s still present and will likely remain a point of conversation with the next set of trials set to begin in the spring. But even with that being the case there’s still plenty to look forward to, from “blue bloods” that will play a major role in the Final Four conversation to solid programs that are headed back to relevancy, and mid-majors that are hoping to make a deep run along the lines of what Loyola-Chicago managed to pull off last season.
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Below is a quick look at the upcoming season, beginning with my preseason Top 10.
1) Kansas: Bill Self’s got a loaded roster, led by a forward in Memphis transfer Dedric Lawson who should rank among the best players in college basketball. My questions: how long will Silvio De Sousa have to sit as the school looks into his amateur status (his name came up quite often during the recent FBI trial)? And how will the point guard position shake out? Freshman Devon Dotson should be the guy there, but Marcus Garrett and Cal transfer Charlie Moore are also competing for playing time.
2) Kentucky: While much of John Calipari’s roster is young, with one of the top recruiting classes in the sport coming aboard, the Wildcats also have got some experience to work with. P.J. Washington, Quade Green and Nick Richards played key minutes last season as freshmen, and Kentucky also adds a grad transfer in Reid Travis who would have been the early favorite for Pac-12 POY had he remained at Stanford. The question: who finishes games for Kentucky, and will the team’s two best shooters (Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro) be part of that final five?
3) Gonzaga: After reaching the national title game in 2017, the Zags have the talent to finish the job this time around. But they’ll be without junior forward Killian Tillie for much of non-conference play after he underwent ankle surgery this week. Rui Hachimura will be an All-American, but are San Jose State transfer Brandon Clarke and freshman Filip Petrusev ready to step forward to help account for the loss of Tillie? Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell Jr. will anchor the backcourt, but no Tillie makes those games against Washington, Tennessee and North Carolina (the Zags are playing in the Maui Invitational as well) even more difficult than they already were. And those are games Gonzaga can definitely use, since there won’t be a lot of chances to impress the selection committee once WCC play begins.
4) Duke: Mike Krzyzewski reeled in the best recruiting class in college basketball, with Tre Jones, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson all penned into the starting lineup. Given the athleticism of players such as Barrett and Williamson, Duke should be better defensively and not have to turn a last resort (going zone) into its primary strategy on that end of the floor. The question I have is who steps forward in that fifth spot? Javin DeLaurier is the best defender of the available options and likely to get the starting nod early on, but Duke’s going to need contributions from Marques Bolden and Jack White as well. And when it comes to Bolden, if he can play to the level he appeared capable of reaching as a recruit then Duke’s chances of winning the national title improve substantially.
5) Virginia: Virginia’s been one of the best regular season teams in college basketball in recent years, but that success hasn’t carried over into the NCAA tournament. We all know what happened in March, and that will be reason enough for some to discount the Cavaliers. Be careful with that. Ty Jerome had a very good summer on the camp circuit, Kyle Guy is back as well, and De’Andre Hunter is healthy after a broken thumb sidelined him for what would turn out to be Virginia’s lone NCAA tournament game. Add in Alabama transfer Braxton Key, whose versatility could in turn free up Hunter to do even more offensively, and some solid options at center, and Virginia has enough to put together another good regular season and possibly win the ACC again. But the ultimately judge of Tony Bennett’s program will be what they do in the NCAA tournament, whether that’s fair or not.
6) Tennessee: There aren’t many teams this season that are deeper or tougher than the Volunteers, who return the reigning SEC POY in junior forward Grant Williams and talented senior forward Admiral Schofield is back as well. Rick Barnes welcomes back the top six scorers from a team that won 26 games and a share of the SEC regular season title a season ago. The question for Tennessee: can they get better on the defensive glass? For all the options at Barnes’ disposal in the front court, the Volunteers were flat-out poor when it came to ending their defensive possessions with a rebound (281st in defensive rebounding percentage). In a league that projects to be even better than it was last season, that department could mean the difference between merely contending for the SEC title and once again sitting atop the standings.
7) Nevada: When the Martin twins, Cody and Caleb, and Jordan Caroline all decided to return for their final season of eligibility the expectations were raised for the Wolf Pack. Cody was Mountain West Player of the Year last season while Caleb was the conference’s top defender, and Caroline was a first team all-conference selection. Lindsey Drew, who suffered a torn Achilles last season, also returns to a team that has depth, talent and experience. Among the additions, McDonald’s All-American Jordan Brown is the headliner but don’t ignore Bryant transfer Nisre Zouzoua or Wagner transfer Corey Henson either. While the Mountain West is a step up from the NEC, where both plied their trade before heading west, they’ve got the talent to be immediate impact players. The question: how will Eric Musselman, who’s done a good job of this so far in Reno, get all of the pieces to fit together? And will everyone be accepting of their roles? Nevada is clearly the best team in the Mountain West, and they’ve got the talent needed to go even further than last season’s Sweet 16 run.
8) North Carolina: Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson have moved on, but the Tar Heels welcome back the likes of Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams. And they’ve got one of the best recruits in the 2018 class as well, with forward Nassir Little having the look of a player who should have an immediate impact in Chapel Hill. Just how good North Carolina can be likely weighs on the point guard position however, with freshman Coby White likely to be the choice there. How does the 6-foot-4 White take to the responsibility of running a team, one that won’t lack for quality offensive options? The skill level is certainly there, but it can be tough for a freshman to influence a team (early on at least) that has multiple veterans who have been around the block. How White handles this will have a major impact on North Carolina’s chances of playing deep into March.
9) Villanova: Given how much Villanova lost from last season’s national championship team, some may question their presence in the Top 10. But Jay Wright’s program has earned that kind of respect, since year after year the Wildcats seem to churn out tough guards who can fit a variety of roles. Also, as “vanilla” as Villanova may seem from a quote standpoint that singular mindset just seems to work well for them. Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, who could be an All-American by season’s end, lead the way and they’ll be asked to shepherd along a talented crop of underclassmen. Among those expected to play a major role for the Wildcats this season are sophomore guard Collin Gillespie and highly regarded freshman point guard Javon Quinerly. Can the underclassmen develop and make this another season of “business as usual” for Villanova? Or will the growing pains be too much to overcome, thus opening the door for a challenger in the Big East?
10) Auburn: Auburn was one of the programs impacted by the FBI investigation last season, as Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy were sidelined for the entire season. Both will miss nine more games this season before being allowed to compete, and those returns along with that of Anfernee McLemore (broken leg) will bolster Bruce Pearl’s available depth in the front court. The Tigers did lose Mustapha Heron, who’s now at St. John’s, but there’s more than enough talent on the perimeter to build upon last season’s success as Jared Harper and Bryce Brown are back. Auburn won a share of the SEC regular season title without Wiley and Purifoy, so the question heading into this season is how well will those two fit into the rotation this season? Auburn has the talent needed to battle Kentucky and Tennessee for the SEC crown in 2018-19.
– Who’s going dancing? Power conference NCAA tournament teams
American: UCF, Cincinnati, Houston
Atlantic 10: Saint Louis, Saint Joseph’s
ACC: Duke, Virginia, North Carolina, Syracuse, Florida State, Clemson, NC State, Virginia Tech
Big 12: Kansas, Kansas State, West Virginia, TCU, Texas, Iowa State, Baylor
Big East: Villanova, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Butler, Creighton
Big Ten: Michigan State, Michigan, Purdue, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Indiana, Penn State, Maryland
Pac-12: Washington, Oregon, UCLA, Arizona
SEC: Kentucky, Tennessee, Auburn, Mississippi State, LSU, Florida, Alabama, Missouri
Three Mid-Majors to Keep an Eye On
Buffalo: The MAC regular season and tournament champions a season ago, Buffalo throttled Arizona in the first round of the NCAA tournament before falling to Kentucky. Three of the top four scorers from that team, led by senior guard C.J. Massinburg, are back, and head coach Nate Oats has also added a good recruiting class that includes guard Ronaldo Segu and wing Jeenathan Williams. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Bulls managed to play into the second weekend of the NCAA tournament given the talent on this roster.
Marshall: Dan D’Antoni’s entertaining style of basketball has paid dividends at Marshall, with the Thundering Herd reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1987 and picking up the program’s first NCAA tournament win. Senior guard Jon Elmore and C.J. Burks, who combined to average nearly 43 points per game, are back as are Jarrod West and Rondale Watson. Marshall will need someone to step up inside to help account for the loss of Adjin Penava, but they’ve got enough to once again contend in Conference USA and cause trouble should they get into the Big Dance.
Illinois State: Loyola-Chicago lost two starters and the Missouri Valley Defensive POY from last season’s Final Four team. But even if Donte Ingram, Aundre Jackson and Ben Richardson had been able to return for another run, the Ramblers would’ve had their hands full with Illinois State. The Redbirds welcome back three double-digits scorers from last season, including one of the Valley’s best players in senior guard Milik Yarbrough. The conference struggled for a bit following the departures of Creighton (Big East) and Wichita State (American), but the Valley may be in line for a resurgence of sorts with Illinois State and Southern Illinois — which returns all five starters from last season’s team — poised to challenge Loyola for the top spot.
G Carsen Edwards (Purdue)
G R.J. Barrett (Duke)
F Dedric Lawson (Kansas)
F Rui Hachimura (Gonzaga)
G Luke Maye (North Carolina)
G Tyus Battle (Syracuse)
G Markus Howard (Marquette)
F Eric Paschall (Villanova)
F Grant Williams (Tennessee)
F Ethan Happ (Wisconsin)