College basketball preview: 68 things to watch this season
Don't think that the college basketball season begins in January. After seven long months, the sport is back with a strong slate of games in November and December. Here are 68 things we're looking forward to until the nets are cut down again in April.
1. Kentucky’s platoon system.
The Wildcats have so much talent that their reserves are good enough to hang with most other starting fives in the country. Coach John Calipari’s solution? Alternating two platoons. How long he keeps this system in place is anyone’s best guess.
For the second straight season, Duke has one of the best freshman in the country, and he’s from Chicago. But Okafor will have more talent around him than Parker did, including one of his closest friends, freshman guard Tyus Jones. Expect this version of the Blue Devils to surpass Parker’s.
3. Stanley Johnson, unleashed on the Pac-12.
He’s big enough to play power forward, quick enough to line up at shooting guard and strong enough to moonlight as a linebacker on Arizona’s football team. Coach Sean Miller will find productive ways to use Johnson in his first (and likely only) college season.
4. Boatright tries to go full Kemba/Shabazz.
It’s time for the next great senior UConn guard to emerge. Entering last season, it was questionable whether Shabazz Napier would have even been drafted. Largely on the strength of his tournament performance, he became a first-round pick. Now Ryan Boatright will attempt to take the Huskies further than they have any right to go.
5. The Champions Classic
This event lived up to its billing in 2013, and we hope that will be the case again this season. In the first matchup, a re-tooled Michigan State team will take on a Duke team with legitimate national title aspirations. Then Kentucky and Kansas will meet in a matchup NBA scouts will be watching intently.
6. Gonzaga becomes the country’s best mid-major.
It seems like someone says Mark Few has his best team at Gonzaga every few years. This may not be his best team, but that doesn’t matter -- this could be his team that finally breaks into the Final Four.
7. The court storming argument.
There are several dimensions to the court storming debate. Some decry a fan base’s decision to storm on the grounds that a certain win doesn’t merit the occasion. Others point to the dangers of a mass of ecstatic teenagers running and jumping around on a hardwood floor alongside players. Whatever your stance on the matter, be prepared to hear the debate rehashed in full.
8. Duke fans making fun of UNC academic scandal.
Can you imagine the signs that the Tar Heels are going to have to endure in Cameron this season? I’ll have my popcorn ready.
9. Jim Boeheim on Twitter.
Some may question the motivation and timing of Boeheim creating an account, but you’re going to want to keep tabs on @therealboeheim. This is a big step for a coach who once claimed not to not even know what social media is.
10. The Big Ten.
Wisconsin is way out front this season, but this conference cannibalizes itself. It will be interesting to see how the next four teams in the conference -- which will all likely go dancing -- shake out. Iowa could be a surprising second-place team.
11. Tim Miles on Twitter
12. Montrezl Harrell
Harrell was one of college basketball’s best players last year, and even though he is a Louisville Cardinal, he was often out of the spotlight. With Louisville entering the ACC this season, you’ll see plenty of ‘Trez.
13. D’Angelo Russell
Russell, a five-star shooting guard, should help Ohio State improve offensively after it ranked 128th in points scored per possession last season, according to Kenpom.com. He led the Buckeyes with 17 points and eight rebounds in an exhibition earlier this week and is already generating NBA buzz.
14. John Brown dunks
15. Keifer Sykes dunks.
Dunks almost always look better when executed by shorter guys. It’s why Nate Robinson was such a hit on NBA All-Star weekend. The 6-foot, 180-pound Sykes, a point guard at Green Bay, is already on Chris Paul’s radar. He ought to be on yours, too.
16. Bruce Pearl is back.
It’ll be particularly enjoyable to watch him return to Tennessee. He says he’ll kiss the court. And I bet that won’t be the most interesting thing he does this year.
17. Wichita State’s backcourt
Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker helped lead Wichita State to a perfect regular-season record last year. The Shockers might stumble a few times this season, but Baker and VanVleet should keep them in the hunt for a desirable NCAA tournament seed.
18. Arkansas will give the SEC a legitimate third contender.
The Razorbacks return their three leading scorers -- Rashad Madden, Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls -- from a team that beat Kentucky twice. They’re unlikely to repeat that feat, but expect them to be a part of the Big Dance.
19. Rodney Purvis is eligible at UConn.
Huskies coach Kevin Ollie said last season that Purvis -- who was sitting out after transferring from N.C. State -- was like “a Ferrari sitting in the garage that I can’t drive.” Purvis, a former five-star recruit, will team with Ryan Boatright, Daniel Hamilton and Sam Cassell Jr. to form a strong perimeter group.
20. The ACC race
Montrezl Harrell is a national player of the year candidate, but he might not even be the second-best player in the conference. Watch as Jahlil Okafor and Marcus Paige introduce the next chapter of the Duke-UNC rivalry, and as Louisville adds a little extra magic to the mix.
21. Tyler Haws going off
SI.com projected that Haws will lead the nation in scoring. He’s going to need to deliver some big-time scoring performances to make that happen. To give you an idea of what Haws is capable of, the BYU guard dropped 71 points over a two-game stretch against Pacific and Saint Mary’s last season.
Chris Walker is perhaps Billy Donovan’s best recruit at Florida -- remember that Joakim Noah, Al Horford and the two-time national championship winners weren’t highly touted high school prospects. And Walker hardly played 10 minutes as a freshman. Expect him to break out, and expect Kasey Hill to take over at point guard seamlessly.
23. Brandon Ashley rejoining Arizona
Arizona suffered its first loss last season in the same game (Feb. 1, at Cal) during which Ashley suffered a season-ending foot injury. His return to Arizona’s lineup this season makes the Wildcats an even scarier proposition for the rest of the Pac-12.
24. Tom Izzo with a little extra motivation after missing out on the Final Four last season.
It’s well documented that last year’s seniors were Tom Izzo’s first group not to make a Final Four. He has a less talented team this season -- or at least, there’s less known talent. But never count out Izzo in March.
25. More unintentional comedy from Drake
Let’s check in on that jump shot.
26. Texas tries to end Kansas’ run in the Big 12.
At the very least, Longhorns, please prevent us from having to hear the insufferable “Self searches for 12th Big 12 title” storylines next season.
27. A healthy Kris Dunn
Dunn missed the first nine games of his freshman season and most of last season due to shoulder injuries. If he’s able to stay on the court this season, Dunn -- the top-ranked point guard in the Class of 2012, according to Rivals.com -- can help Providence make noise in the Big East.
28. Utah State’s barbershop duet.
Just look at those luscious locks.
29. Texas’s frontcourt
The Longhorns bring back Cameron Ridley, Jonathan Holmes, Connor Lammert and Prince Ibeh and welcome in one of the nation’s top freshman in Myles Turner. That group could be devastating if Rick Barnes figures out how to deploy it effectively.
30. Danny Manning at Wake Forest.
If there’s one thing you can count on from Danny Manning, it’s a little bit of magic. The man who had the best Final Four performance of all time, also turned around Tulsa in a hurry last season. The Golden Hurricanes went from 1-6 to the NCAA tournament. How long until he can make Wake relevant again?
31. A slimmed-down Kennedy Meeks
Meeks was listed at 290 pounds on last year’s roster, but he’s down to 270 for this season. The sophomore is one of several big men tasked with providing reliable low-block production to complement lead guard Marcus Paige, and Meeks should be more effective than he was a year ago.
32. The Battle 4 Atlantis tournament (Nov. 26-28)
The B4A lined up another great field this year. Wisconsin, North Carolina, Oklahoma, UCLA and Florida are among the teams participating. As 2014 nonconference events go, this one is probably the best outside of the Champions Classic.
33. Silent Night, again
You may have seen this before, but it’s worth a reminder. Taylor University’s Silent Night tradition is one of the coolest things about the first couple of months of the college basketball season. The last game prior to the start of final exams in December, students clad in costumes and pajamas fill Taylor’s home court and stay silent while waiting for the Trojans to score their 10th point. When it happens, the students break into a wild celebration.
34. The Tip-Off Marathon.
35. Student section chant creativity
Go with something other than “I believe that we will win”
36. Branden Dawson
Dawson has one last chance (he’s a senior) to showcase his tremendous talent. If Michigan State does make a deep run, it will be on his shoulders.
37. Nebraska’s rise
The Huskers made the NCAA tournament last season for the first time since 1998. With most of its key contributors back, including preseason All-Big Ten selection Terran Petteway, Nebraska should be able to make headway in a league that seemingly features only one legit national title contender (Wisconsin).
38. Kansas’ sleek throwback jerseys.
Get ready to see these again this season.
39. Tyler Ulis at Kentucky
Ulis is different than other point guards John Calipari has coached. At 5-9, 155 pounds, the Chicago Heights, Ill., native is more of a distributor than a scorer. While it’s hard to say how much playing time he’ll get on such a deep team, Ulis should help facilitate a more free-flowing offense during his floor time.
40. The Hawk will never die.
But will he have anything to flap his wings for this season at Saint Joseph’s?
41. 5-12 matchups
Three No. 12 seeds (Stephen F. Austin over VCU, Harvard over Cincinnati and North Dakota State over Oklahoma) won their opening round matchup in last year’s tournament. Let’s hope we see at least one 5-12 upset this year.
He and fellow top-50 recruit Angel Delgado will be tasked with turning around a long-dormant basketball program. Whitehead has NBA lottery-type talent. Will that be enough?
43. Oklahoma’s guard trio
Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard should help the Sooners maintain one of the top offenses in the Big 12 this season. All three players averaged more than 10 points per game a year ago, and Hield was named to the preseason All-Big 12 team.
44. The best technical foul in sports.
John Brown University, and NAIA school in Arkansas, has one of the most interesting traditions in basketball. After the Golden Eagles’ first field goal, fans cover the gym floor in toilet paper and get the year’s first technical foul.
The Aztecs will need a few guys to step up to replace do-everything guard Xavier Thames, and improvement from Shepard, a 6-foot-8, 210-pound forward, could make a huge difference. He averaged 11.6 points and 4.9 rebounds per game last season and should see his production and efficiency tick upward.
46. Louisiana-Lafayette's next star.
You knew about Elfrid Payton last year. It’s time to get familiar with Shawn Long.
47. Wisconsin bringing back almost everyone
The Badgers return all of their key contributors besides Ben Brust after reaching the Final Four last season. Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Josh Gasser, Nigel Hayes, Traevon Jackson and other complementary pieces make Wisconsin the clear favorite in the Big Ten. Can it take another step forward in the NCAAs?
48. Donnie Tyndall era begins at Tennessee
So far, it isn’t off to a great start -- with Tyndall being investigated by the NCAA. From this perspective as well, it’ll be must-watch television when Bruce Pearl comes to town.
49. The American Athletic Conference’s new teams
50. South Dakota basketball!
Wichita State and Memphis are playing each other at Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D. as part of the Tip-Off Marathon. Why? “They have a nice arena, and they're paying us both a lot of money to be there," Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall told CBS Sports.
51. Miami’s transfers
The Hurricanes dipped last season after winning the ACC Tournament and playing themselves into a No. 2 NCAA tournament seed in 2013. Texas transfer Sheldon McClellan and Kansas State transfer Angel Rodriguez -- both eligible this season after sitting out 2013-14 -- will bolster the Hurricanes’ backcourt and help them compete in what should be a rugged ACC.
52. UCSB’s Alan Williams
He’s the best player you don’t know about on the best team you don’t know about in college basketball.
53. Utah’s potential breakthrough
A series of close losses in conference play left Utah on the outside looking in on Selection Sunday last season. With Delon Wright, Jordan Loveridge and a solid supporting cast back, the Utes should make the field this season and could be the strongest challenger to Arizona in the Pac-12.
54. You’re going to enjoy watching Cliff Alexander play basketball
I guarantee it.
55. The return of Jerian Grant
Grant played only 12 games before missing the rest of last season due to an academic issue. Notre Dame might not have the overall talent and depth to contend in the ACC, but Grant could be one of the league’s top players.
No one expected Tyler Ennis to fill in for Michael Carter-Williams so quickly, but he did. Can Joseph be the next great guard for the Orange?
57. Georges Niang leading Iowa State’s offense
Niang missed Iowa State’s final two tourney games, including a five-point loss to eventual national champion UConn, after fracturing his foot in an opening-round win over North Carolina Central. The skilled 6-8 forward will need to keep the Cyclones’ offense humming this season without DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim.
58. Stanford’s cowbell player, Alex
He turns down for nothing.
59. Rashad Vaughn and the rest of UNLV’s freshmen
After losing their top five scorers from last season, the Rebels will need Vaughn to produce right away. The five-star shooting guard headlines a strong recruiting class that also includes top-50 players Dwayne Morgan and Goodluck Okonoboh.
60. SMU’s return to the NCAA tournament.
The Mustangs don’t have Emmanuel Mudiay (although they do have Jean-Michael), but they have more than enough talent to go dancing after being snubbed last season.
61. Georgia State’s guards
The Panthers’ perimeter corps includes Louisville transfer Kevin Ware (whose leg fracture during a 2013 Elite 8 game drew national attention), NBA prospect R.J. Hunter and former Kentucky guard Ryan Harrow. That group could hold its own against most major conference guard trios.
62. Kevin Ware
His story last year at Louisville -- from a run-in with the law to no longer traveling with the team -- was unreal. Now what can he do on the basketball court?
63. Kentucky not needing an entire season to figure itself out
It took until March for Kentucky to fully harness its potential last season. With a more experienced roster (not to mention the memory of last season’s rocky start), maybe the Wildcats will hit their stride a little earlier this season. If they do, it’ll be bad news for the rest of the SEC.
64. Juwan Staten
The Big 12’s scoring leader last season wasn’t Andrew Wiggins or Joel Embiid, it was West Virginia’s Staten. And if the Mountaineers are going to compete in the conference, they’ll need him to be even better.
65. Shaka Smart’s first conference title
There’s a good chance the Rams win their first conference championship under Smart this season. Big man Juvonte Reddic won’t be easy to replace, but VCU brings back Treveon Graham, Briante Weber and Melvin Johnson.
66. Breakout sophomores
Each year, SI’s Luke Winn does an excellent job of identifying sophomores ready to step up. It will be exciting to see which players make big leaps in their games this season. Winn’s picks? Marquette’s Deonte Burton, UNC’s Kennedy Meeks, Richmond’s Shawndre’ Jones, Brown’s Leland King and USF’s Chris Perry.
67. Hilton Magic
When Iowa State introduced Fred Hoiberg as its new basketball coach in April 2010, he said that it was time to “bring the magic back to Hilton Coliseum.” The Mayor should have the Cyclones’ home arena rocking again this season. SI.com projects Iowa State to finish third in the Big 12, but don’t be surprised if it pushes Kansas, Texas or whoever else emerges for a spot in the top two.
68. One shining moment
It will be here before you know it.