64 reasons to be excited for the 2015-16 college hoops season (Nos. 32-17)
If you're reading this, it's too late. And thank goodness. There are now even fewer than 64 days left until college basketball. At the time of publication, there are only 56 days remaining in the long college basketball off-season. While you're waiting for its return, here is Part III in our four-part installment of what to be excited for in the 2015-16 season.
32. Battle for the Big Ten
Basketball in the heartland should again be one of the best parts of the season. After Wisconsin surged to 16-2 record in conference last season, it may struggle to finish in the top four spots this season. Maryland will be the early favorite—early preseason top 25s have put the Terps in the top 3 nationally—followed by Indiana, Michigan State, Michigan and Purdue in some order. Seeing how the conference shakes out—who saw Maryland coming a season ago?—will make for some exciting matchups in January and February.
31. Malik Pope’s star turn
Pope got off to a slow start as a freshman last season after suffering multiple leg injuries in high school. But the 6'10", 205-pound forward showed enough in limited minutes to impress NBA scouts. The scouting website DraftExpress projects him as the No. 30 pick in the 2016 draft. Pope flashed star potential in a few games but faded in others. If he can be more consistent this season, the sophomore will improve his draft stock while helping the Aztecs—which also bring back senior wing Winston Shepard and shot-blocking ace Skylar Spencer, among others—compete at the top of the Mountain West.
30. Midnight Madness
It no longer falls on a single day, and not every school celebrates it, but those that do still go all out. Think Tom Izzo dressed up as a member of KISS and extrapolate from there. It’s one of college basketball’s finest traditions, and it’s the first true signal that the sport has emerged from its off-season hybernation.
Jerian Grant led Notre Dame to 32 wins, a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament and the program’s first Elite Eight appearance since 1979 last season. With Grant off to the NBA, the Irish will need Jackson to to shoulder a larger workload. The junior dazzled at times last season, like when he jammed over Purdue’s 7'2" center. But can he keep Notre Dame from slipping offensively after it was kenpom.com's No. 2 offense last year in adjust efficiency? That may be tough—the Irish also lose skilled guard Pat Connaughton—but Jackson looks ready to shine as Notre Dame’s lead guard.
28. More Jay Bilas airtime
The sharpest commentator in college sports returns to the forefront as ESPN’s main college basketball analyst. Bilas’s blend of advanced stats and his eye test evaluations educate and entertain viewers when he’s serving as a color commentator during games. And there’s no one better at blasting the hypocrisy at the heart of the NCAA than Bilas. Also don’t miss his early-morning Yeezy tweets or "fro-back Friday" photos.
27. Brandon Ingram’s leaping ability
Every recruiting class contains its share of athletic wonders, but incoming Duke freshman Brandon Ingram deserves a special mention for what he pulled off—and had recorded on video—this summer. Here’s Ingram, the No. 4 prospect in the class of 2015, according to the RSCI, jumping so high that it looks as if he’d be able to touch the top of the backboard. That clip may not be as impressive as the photo of Andrew Wiggins during a pre-draft workout last year, but it’s clear Ingram can fly. Between Ingram and Grayson Allen, Duke should produce plenty of highlights this season.
26. Derrick Jones's dunks
Speaking of freshmen who can jump really high ... It’s time to introduce you to Derrick Jones. He’s a spectacular dunker, but that may be an understatement. One outlet went so far as to describe him “probably the best high school dunker ever.” Jones, a top-50 prospect who attended Archbishop John Carroll (Pa.) High, garnered national attention this summer with his performances in various contests, including when he leapt over four people. Jones also threw down a windmill from the foul line. Fellow UNLV freshman Stephen Zimmerman is expected to make a bigger impact for the Rebels this season, but expect Jones to be featured in a bunch of highlight reels.
25. Memphis recovering from an unusual off-season
Josh Pastner’s seat had been lukewarm after the Tigers failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament for just the second time in his six-year tenure. Then came the Austin Nichols saga. Nichols, undoubtedly Memphis’s top talented, wanted to transfer this summer. The school originally blocked him before public pressure forced it into offering him a conditional release. (He’s since signed with Virginia.) Nichols is the 10th of 17 scholarship players Pastner has recruited who has gone onto transfer. That rate is way too high for a school that values basketball as much as Memphis does. If the Tigers don’t have a great on-court product this season, expect Pastner’s seat to be officially declared “hot.”
24. Villanova’s backcourt
From Kyle Lowry to Scottie Reynolds, Jay Wright has coached a number of great guards during his 14 seasons as coach at Villanova. That trend will continue this season, as the Wildcats bring back co-Big East player of the year Ryan Arcidiacono and welcome in five-star recruit Jalen Brunson. Though both players fit best at point guard, expect Wright to play Arcidiacono and Brunson together for stretches this season, as they’re too valuable to keep on the bench. Those two will be joined by sophomore Phil Booth and junior Josh Hart to give the Wildcats one of the top perimeter rotations in the Big East.
23. Will Dayton make another deep run?
After a couple of tough seasons to start his tenure at Dayton, Archie Miller has been a revelation. In 2014, the Flyers advanced to the Elite Eight, only to be knocked out by eventual national runner-up Florida. In 2015, they got into the Round of 32 and pushed No. 3 seed Oklahoma to the brink before falling by six. In both seasons, the Flyers entered the tournament as an 11-seed. Miller’s name was floated for several of the big jobs open this off-season, and no doubt he will be a hot candidate again. But perhaps, like Shaka Smart did at VCU, Miller recognizes the wonderful situation he has in at Dayton and will wait for only the perfect opportunity to leave. For now, just enjoy what his collection of diamonds-in-the-rough do when they face off with the bluebloods.
22. Nonconference upsets
While some teams line up a string of challenging opponents for the early part of the season, others choose to load up on tomato cans. Sometimes that strategy works out: Your team piles up wins without challenging itself and builds some confidence before conference play. Other times, it backfires. Last season alone, we saw Michigan lose at home to NJIT and Michigan State fall to Texas Southern. Which small school will shock a heavily favored major-conference squad at home this season? Should Kentucky be worried about its season-opening game against Albany at Rupp Arena? Probably not.
21. Arizona sorting out its minutes and shots
The Wildcats may not have the top-flight talent of Duke or Kentucky this season, but they have a smattering of four- and five-star players who all expect that they’ll be featured prominently on offense. From seniors Kaleb Tarczewski and Gabe York to freshmen Ray Smith and Allonzo Trier, Arizona has an enviable roster but it coaches have the unenviable job of keeping everyone happy with their playing time. Say, Sean Miller, have you considered platooning?
20. “Silent Night” at Taylor University
Students at Taylor University, an NAIA school located in Upland, Ind., fill the gym for the last game before the start of final exams. Wearing pajamas and other strange costumes, they stay silent until the Trojans score their 10th point. As soon as that happens, a massive celebration ensues. Make sure to catch this year’s version when it inevitably surfaces in Vine form. Here’s what went down last year.
19. Kansas’s upperclassmen shining
For better (Joel Embiid’s emergence, Ben McLemore’s brillains) or worse (Cliff Alexander’s NCAA eligibility battle), freshmen normally make the most news at Kansas. And although the Jayhawks welcome in another stellar class—Cheick Diallo and Carlton Bragg are likely stars—expect most of the attention to go to upperclassmen. Perry Ellis, who quietly was Kansas’ go-to option offensively last year, will be the main attraction. And rising juniors Wayne Selden and Frank Mason are ready for bigger roles as well.
18. “Seventh-year” seniors
Every year, there are a handful of players you see in games and wonder how it’s possible that they’re still eligible. For whatever reason, these players feel as though they’ve been playing college basketball far longer than NCAA rules allow. The composition of your version of this list will vary depending on the teams you’ve spent the most time watching in recent years, but here are some of SI.com’s top “seventh-year” senior candidates: Perry Ellis (Kansas), Josh Scott (Colorado), Arcidiacono (Villanova), Yogi Ferrell (Indiana), Kaleb Tarczewski (Arizona), Kyle Wiltjer (Gonzaga), Anthony Gill (Virginia) and Kyle Collinsworth (BYU).
17. SEC basketball fever
After a slew of strong coaching hires this off-season, SEC basketball fanbases are more excited about the hardcourt than they have been in several years. With Avery Johnson at Alabama, Bruce Pearl at Auburn (hired two years ago), Rick Barnes at Tennessee, Ben Howland at Mississippi State and Michael White at Florida, expect new rivalries to emerge and expect more five-star recruits to land at SEC schools not named Kentucky. Of course, until someone dethrones them, John Calipari’s Wildcats are still kings.