64 reasons to be excited for the 2015-16 college hoops season (Nos. 64-49)
Labor Day is over, and with it so went summer. But don’t mourn for the loss of sunshine and swimming, get excited instead for a prospect that at times seemed too distant to be true: college basketball is returning soon. It’s been 155 days since Duke cut down the nets in Indy, but this Thursday is a critical date: It’s 64 days until the new season starts. Over the next couple weeks, we’ll reveal in four installments 64 of the things we’re most excited for in the coming year of college hoops.
64. Sanity has been restored.
The First Four has been an incredibly fun addition to the NCAA tournament. Dayton is a deserving basketball city, and from those four teams at least one contender emerges seemingly every season. But it’s not the first round. This year, the Round of 64 will officially be known as the first round again. To celebrate, we made this list 64—not 68—items long.
63. Steve Prohm picking up right where Fred Hoiberg left off at Iowa State.
Fred Hoiberg left for the Chicago Bulls this summer after leading Iowa State to at least 23 wins and an NCAA tournament appearance in each of the last four seasons. The Cyclones played entertaining offensive basketball under The Mayor, and that should continue with former Murray State head man Steve Prohm taking over as head coach. The Racers ranked 13th in the country in offensive efficiency last season, according to kenpom.com.
62. A more level playing field.
Last season, there was a clear No. 1 in the country right up until the Final Four, when undefeated Kentucky was taken down by Wisconsin. This year, there are certainly stacked teams—North Carolina, Maryland and Iowa State, to name a few—but none will send seven players into the NBA draft. It won’t be one team vs. the world this year. It’ll be madness. And isn’t that exactly what we want?
61. November nonconference tournaments.
Fans get to watch their favorite teams play inside small gyms in tropical locations around that time of year when you need to start thinking about where you last left your winter jacket. The Maui Jim Maui Invitational (Kansas, Indiana, UCLA, UNLV, more) and Battle 4 Atlantis (Gonzaga, UConn, Michigan, Syracuse, more) didn’t disappoint with their fields this year, and while it’s not located in not a popular vacation spot (Chicago), you won’t want to miss the Champions Classic pitting Kentucky against Duke and Michigan State against Kansas.
60. Syracuse navigating its sanctions.
Jim Boeheim will be sidelined for half of the Orange’s ACC season as head-coach-in-waiting Mike Hopkins gets his first chance to lead the bench. But because Syracuse self-imposed a postseason ban, it will be eligible for the ACC tournament and NCAA tournament this season. Jim Boeheim vs. the Machine will be fun to watch—and to listen to—all season.
59. Virginia continuing to shut down the ACC with its pack-line defense.
Virginia will need to replace Justin Anderson and Darion Atkins from the team that went 30-4 and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament last year, but the Hoos are a strong bet to contend in the ACC anyway because of their pack-line defense. Virginia routinely shuts down even potent offensive teams with NBA talent; the Hoos led the nation in adjusted points allowed per possession in 2014-15 and have ranked outside the top 10 only once over the last four seasons, according to kenpom.com.
58. Austin Hatch heads to the sidelines.
Hatch was one of the most inspiring stories of the college basketball season. A two-time plane crash survivor, Hatch had committed to Michigan two weeks before the second accident. Afterward, his basketball future was uncertain. But Hatch played for the Wolverines and even scored collegiate points, completing his dream as a player. Now he’ll move to the sidelines to help the team as an assistant, all while maintaining his scholarship.
57. Wichita State’s backcourt, which feels like it’s been around forever.
Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker will be back at Wichita State this season. The two star guards were part of the Shockers team that reached the Final Four as a No. 9 seed in 2013 (and was recently voted the best cinderella of the seeding era on SI.com), the squad that went undefeated in the regular season before falling to Kentucky in a thrilling Round of 32 game in 2014 and the group that reached the Sweet 16 earlier this year. How far will Baker, VanVleet and coach Greg Marshall lead the Shockers this season?
56. The Michael White era begins at Florida.
No coach has bigger shoes to fill this season than White. He replaces a man whose identity was intertwined with Gators basketball, and who had taken the program to more NCAA tournaments than all other coaches in program history combined: Billy Donovan. White was great at Louisiana Tech, and he has an underrated roster that underperformed in finishing 16-17 season a year ago. White may not take that group to the Big Dance in his first season, but seeing a new man on the bench in Gainesville will be an intriguing change.
Simmons is the top-ranked player in the class of 2015, according to the Recruiting Services Consensus Index. He might play at LSU for only one season before becoming top-three pick in the NBA draft, but during that time you’ll witness a tremendous prospect with an intriguing skill set. Though Simmons is listed as a power forward by Rivals.com, he can attack the basket off the dribble and his passing skills are on par with some point guards. SI.com’s Seth Davis described him in July 2014 as a “point center.”
54. Les Miles at LSU.
In February, Miles took in a basketball game from LSU’s student section. Given his effusive praise for Simmons, you can expect to see Miles more often this season. Here’s what he had to say about the top freshman on campus this year: “What a magnificent player, and I just want you to know, so you know, if he's interested in taking some snaps for us, he can come over. I'm very honest. And I can give him a goal-line position where I would throw it to him. All he's got to prove to me is one thing is that he can catch.”
53. Wisconsin turning in another strong season despite losing some key players.
The Badgers lost the best player in the country (Frank Kaminsky) and another first-round draft pick (Sam Dekker) after winning the Big Ten and reaching the national championship game. So this is the year when the Badgers will finally finish worse than fourth in the conference standings, right? Not so fast: Guard Bronson Koenig could excel in a bigger role next season, and forward Nigel Hayes is a potential player of the year.
52. Bo Ryan watch begins.
In late June, Ryan made a sudden and surprising announcement: He would coach one more season, and he hoped assistant coach Greg Gard would replace him. But more recently, he seems to have changed his tune. He told SI.com’s Seth Davis in late August that he was going to wait until after the season to decide what he’s going to do. Speculation over Ryan’s future is unlikely to sidetrack the Badgers this season, but it’ll be an interesting storyline to watch.
51. Purdue’s massive frontcourt
We knew Purdue’s frontcourt would be massive when 7-foot center A.J. Hammons announced he would return for his senior season, alongside 7’2” sophomore Isaac Haas. Then the Boilermakers signed 6’9”, 250-pound forward Caleb Swanigan after he previously committed to Michigan State. That’s a lot of size to fit into one frontcourt rotation, and it will present a unique defensive challenge for opponents. Still, coach Matt Painter will need to figure out how to use the three big men without hurting his team’s spacing.
50. The return of dunk lines.
In what was the NCAA's equivalent of the NFL's limited touchdown celebration rules, college basketball players were not permitted to dunk during pregame warmups. That rule was repealed this off-season, and we now usher in an era where players can be free to throw down jams at any time, without the possible penalty of a technical foul. Make sure to arrive at the arena a little earlier this season.
49. Kentucky reloading with another stacked recruiting class
As long as John Calipari is in Lexington, expect Kentucky to bring in one of the nation’s best recruiting classes every year. This year’s group includes the potential No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft (Skal Labissiere), a Canadian point guard with star potential (Jamal Murray), and another point guard (Isaiah Briscoe) who could operate effectively alongside Murray and returnee Tyler Ulis. The Wildcats lost seven players to the draft this offseason, including top overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns, but they’re reloading with another crop of elite talent.