2019-20 College Basketball Preview
In just under three weeks the 2019-20 college basketball season will tip off, and many of the usual suspects are among the expected national title contenders. While there’s reason for optimism in College Park, as this Maryland team may be the best that Mark Turgeon has coached during his time on campus. But with the program getting out of the first weekend just once in his tenure, it’s understandable if people are taking a “wait and see” approach with the Terps. Maryland should be in the mix both within the Big Ten and nationally, and the program has already shown up in the Top 10 of some early preseason rankings.
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Beyond Maryland the Big Ten boasts another contender in Michigan State, as a good portion of the squad that reached the Final Four last season is back led by senior point guard Cassius Winston. Kansas, which returns bigs Udoka Azubuike and Silvio De Sousa, should once again claim the top spot in the Big 12 after seeing its run of regular season conference titles come to an end last season. Florida and Kentucky appear to be the best teams in the SEC, and the ACC is loaded at the top with Louisville, Duke, reigning national champion Virginia and North Carolina looking good on paper.
Below is my preseason top ten for the upcoming season, followed by some NCAA tournament picks and All-America selections.
1) Michigan State: The aforementioned Winston is the most important returnee for the Spartans, as he’s been the choice of many to win National Player of the Year honors. But he won’t lack for help in East Lansing, as Tom Izzo has a roster that doesn’t lack for either depth or talent. Joshua Langford, who was limited to 13 games due to injury, is healthy and will provide scoring and defense on the perimeter. Kyle Ahrens, another contributor whose 2018-19 season came to a premature end due to injury, is also back. Xavier Tillman and Aaron Henry, two players whose production down the stretch helped push Michigan State to the Final Four, will also be key options this season.
Tillman will be especially key, as the Spartans will have to account for the departures of Nick Ward and Kenny Goins. Michigan State also lost Matt McQuaid, whose play on both ends of the floor should not be overlooked, so there are some holes to be filled. But the combination of returnees and newcomers make this a team capable of winning Izzo’s second national title.
2) Kansas: Last season was a weird one for Kansas, a program that had been the model of stability under Bill Self. The FBI investigation resulted in Silvio De Sousa being suspended for the entire season by the NCAA, and Udoka Azubuike played in just nine games due to injury. As a result the Jayhawks lacked depth in the post, and wing LaGerald Vick’s situation (he would eventually leave the team in early February) didn’t help matters either. Kansas lost Quentin Grimes during the offseason as he transferred to Houston, but Devon Dotson is back and both Azubuike and De Sousa are good to go. As a result the program has the talent needed to not only return to the top of the Big 12, but to win a national title as well. And Kansas made a key move during the offseason, adding Iowa grad transfer Isaiah Moss to the mix. He can provide the consistent perimeter shooting that this roster was lacking, thus giving the likes of Azubuike, De Sousa and David McCormack the room they need to operate inside.
3) Kentucky: While John Calipari is one of the best recruiters in the sport, his best teams at Kentucky have tended to combine high-level newcomers with talented, experienced returnees who have been around the block, so to speak. He has that kind of roster heading into the 2019-20 season, despite the fact that the top four scorers from last year’s team have all moved on. Guards Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley both return, as do bigs Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery, and they’ve been joined by a crop of newcomers headlined by guard Tyrese Maxey and forward Kahlil Whitney. Another newcomer who should not be overlooked: senior Nate Sestina, who averaged 15.8 points and 8.5 rebounds per game with shooting splits of 53.6% from the field, 38.0% from three and 80.8% from the foul line last season at Bucknell. He’ll be facing much stiffer competition in the SEC, but Sestina’s ability to play inside and out will help Kentucky in the front court.
4) Florida: Mike White’s Gators picked up the best grad transfer on the market during the offseason, as former all-ACC power forward Kerry Blackshear Jr. decided after withdrawing his name from the NBA Draft pool to move on to Florida instead of return to Virginia Tech to play for a new head coach. Blackshear is part of a talented crop of newcomers that includes McDonald’s All-American Scottie Lewis, and they join returnees such as sophomore point guard Andrew Nembhard (who played for Canada at the FIBA World Cup) and sophomore combo guard Noah Locke. Florida did lose three of its top four scorers from last season in KeVaughn Allen, Jalen Hudson and Kevarrius Hayes, but there’s more than enough talent on this roster to win the SEC and make a deep run in March.
5) Louisville: After winning 20 games and reaching the NCAA tournament in the first season of the Chris Mack era, the Cardinals should be one of the ACC’s best teams in 2019-20. Five of the top six scorers from that team return, led by one of the best forwards in college basketball in junior Jordan Nwora. Nwora averaged 17.0 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, and he represented Nigeria in the FIBA World Cup this summer. Also returning in the front court are Dwayne Sutton, Steven Enoch and Malik Williams, while guards Darius Perry and Ryan McMahon provide experience on the perimeter. Louisville’s recruiting class is a mixture of talented freshmen (power forward Aidan Igiehon and wing Samuell Williamson being two names to know) and grad transfers, as guards Lamarr “Fresh” Kimble (Saint Joseph’s) and Keith Oddo (Richmond) join the program after plying their trade in the Atlantic 10.
6) Duke: The Blue Devils, who were one possession away from the Final Four, have to account for the departure of the top three scorers from that team. Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish were all lottery picks, meaning that Duke will have just two returning starters. Point guard Tre Jones, who struggled at times to find his niche offensively playing alongside two ball-dominant players in Williamson and Barrett, is back for his sophomore season while veteran bigs Javin DeLaurier and Jack White return as well. As usual Mike Krzyzewski has put together one of the best recruiting classes in college basketball, with Vernon Carey, Cassius Stanley and Matthew Hurt among those joining the program. This Blue Devil team doesn’t have a player that’s on par with a Williamson (who does have a player of Zion’s caliber?) or Barrett, but this is still a squad that can win the ACC and potentially win a national title.
7) Maryland: The Terps return a lot from last season’s 23-win team, as seven of the team’s top eight scorers are back led by senior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. He’ll once again lead the way for this group, which doesn’t lack for experience or production on the perimeter. Eric Ayala, Darryl Morsell, Aaron Wiggins, Serrel Smith Jr. and Ricky Lindo Jr. are all a year older, and they’ll be joined in the fight for minutes by freshmen Donta Scott and Hakim Hart. The questions come in the front court, with sophomore Jalen Smith set to lead the way after having a very good freshman year. But who steps up to help the sophomore account for the loss of Bruno Fernando? Redshirt junior Joshua Tomaic played sparingly last season, and freshmen Makhi and Makhel Mitchell will be in the mix for minutes as well. Given how much talent Maryland has on the perimeter, and the lack of returning production in the front court, the Terps going “small” at times would not be a surprise. On paper this is a group that should be the biggest threat to Michigan State in the race for a Big Ten title, and making noise nationally is a realistic expectation for this group.
8) Virginia: For some programs, losing three double-digit scorers from a team that won a national title would prohibit them from contending the following year. Virginia isn’t one of those programs, and that’s a testament to the work that Tony Bennett and his staff have done since they’ve arrived in Charlottesville. Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter are all in the NBA, and center Jack Salt is another contributor who’s moved on. Two starters from that team, Kihei Clark and Mamadi Diakite (who combined to make the play that kept Virginia’s season alive in the Elite 8), are back as are senior guard Braxton Key and redshirt junior forward Jay Huff. Both Key and Huff are ready to take steps forward in 2019-20, with the former more comfortable in his second season at UVA after transferring in from Alabama. Add in a recruiting class led by Marquette grad transfer Sam Hauser (one of the best players in the Big East last season) and Indian Hills CC transfer Tomas Woldetensae, and Virginia should once again be among the best teams in the ACC. The question is whether or not there will be any “growing pains” when it comes to the newcomers grasping what the Cavaliers do on both ends of the floor. The bet here is that Bennett and his staff correct any issues early, and Virginia is one of the nation’s best teams come March.
9) North Carolina: The Tar Heels lost a lot from a team that won a share of the ACC regular season title (with Virginia), as four starters have moved on to the next level. In addition to those four starters Nassir Little also moved on to the NBA, meaning that Roy Williams will have to account for the loss of the top five scorers from that team. The good news: North Carolina adds a recruiting class headlined by five-star prospects Cole Anthony and Armando Bacot. While Anthony will grab the reins at the point immediately, Bacot will figure prominently in the Heels’ front court rotation. Two other newcomers who will be asked to contribute immediately are grad transfer Christian Keeling and Jusitn Pierce. Keeling was a first team all-Big South selection at Charleston Southern last season, while Pierce as a third team all-CAA forward at William & Mary in both 2017-18 and 208-19. Power forward Garrison Brooks is the lone returning starter, and veterans such as Brandon Robinson, Leaky Black and Sterling Manley have also seen action in the past. Accounting for the personnel losses from last season won’t be easy, but the Tar Heels will be fine.
10) Villanova: The Wildcats lost two key leaders from last year’s team in Eric Paschall and Phil Booth, but Jay Wright’s program is more than capable of winning another Big East title. Guard Collin Gillespie and forward Jermaine Samuels, who were part of the Big East team that won bronze at the Pan-American Games this summer, return as does a sophomore in Saddiq Bey who could break out nationally this season. Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Cole Swider are also back for Villanova, which adds a solid recruiting class that includes guard Justin Moore and forwards Eric Dixon and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. Another member of the freshman class in McDonald’s All-American guard Bryan Antoine, but there are questions regarding his availability for the upcoming season. At Big East media day Wright said that it’s possible that the freshman guard redshirts after he underwent shoulder surgery at the end of May. If Antoine can return and contribute this is a top-10 team. If not the ceiling lowers some, and the gap between Villanova and a tough group of Big East contenders led by Seton Hall and Marquette closes.
Who’s going dancing? Power conference NCAA tournament teams
American: Memphis, Houston, Wichita State
Atlantic 10: VCU, Davidson, Dayton, Rhode Island
ACC: Louisville, Duke, Virginia, North Carolina, NC State, Florida State, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Miami
Big 12: Kansas, Texas Tech, Baylor, Texas, Oklahoma State
Big East: Villanova, Seton Hall, Marquette, Xavier, Providence, Georgetown
Big Ten: Michigan State, Maryland, Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois
Pac-12: Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, USC, Arizona State
SEC: Florida, Kentucky, LSU, Tennessee, Auburn, Alabama, Ole Miss
Three Mid-Majors to Keep an Eye On
Harvard: The Crimson are loaded this season, with seniors Bryce Aiken and Seth Towns leading the way for a team that returns all of its key contributors from a season ago. Among the freshmen wing Chris Ledlum is the headliner, as the four-star prospect picked Harvard over offers from many high-major programs. Harvard fell one win short of the NCAA tournament last season, losing to Yale in the Ivy League tournament final. The Crimson enter this season as the clear favorite to win the Ancient Eight, and if they get into the field look out. This is a group that has the experience and talent needed to make a run.
Western Kentucky: While the Hilltoppers won 20 games last season it was a bit of a disappointment, as Rick Stansbury’s team did not play in the postseason after reaching the NIT semifinals in 2018. Four starters from that team are back, led by sophomore center Charles Bassey and junior guard Taveion Hollingsworth. Losing Lamonte Bearden hurts, but the Hilltoppers have more than enough talent to account for his departure. IUPUI grad transfer Camron Justice will contribute immediately, as will Lipscomb transfer Kenny Cooper. Navigating Conference USA can be tough, especially when the conference tournament rolls around. But WKU has the pieces, led by an NBA prospect in Bassey, to win in the NCAA tournament.
New Mexico State: Auburn’s run to the Final Four was nearly derailed before it even got going, as Chris Jans’ Aggies took the Tigers down to the wire before losing by one. Four starters and nine players who played at least 10.9 minutes per game last season are back, led by seniors Terrell Brown, AJ Harris and Ivan Aurrecoechea. Balanced offensively (Brown was the only player who averaged double figures) and stingy defensively, New Mexico State should once again be the class of the WAC. And this time around, the Aggies may not miss the mark in their bid for an NCAA tournament upset.
G Cassius Winston (Michigan State)
G Markus Howard (Marquette)
G Myles Powell (Seton Hall)
F Kerry Blackshear Jr. (Florida)
C Udoka Azubuike (Kansas)
G Cole Anthony (North Carolina)
G Tre Jones (Duke)
G Jaron Cumberland (Cincinnati)
F Jordan Nwora (Louisville)
F James Wiseman (Memphis)
Raphielle’s been writing about college sports for more than a decade, making the move to college basketball alone in 2013. Beginning his work with the former website CollegeHoops.net in 2003, Raphielle spent 3 years writing for NBCSports.com beginning 2013, covering CBB and the Olympics. In 2016, Raphielle joined Heavy.com. If there’s a game on, there’s a strong likelihood that he’s watching it.