64 reasons to be excited for the 2015-16 college hoops season (Nos. 48-33)
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 58 days remaining in the long college basketball off-season. While you're waiting for its return, here is Part II in our four-part installment of what to be excited for in the 2015-16 season.
48. Caris LeVert is back
When Caris LeVert was lost for the season with a foot injury in January, he was leading Michigan in scoring (14.9), rebounds (4.9), assists (3.7), steals (1.7) and minutes (35.8) per game. He had been living up to his billing as an SI preseason second-team All-America choice; the Wolverines had started the season 11-7 but finished 5-9 without him. (Around the time LeVert went out, Michigan’s injuries and illnesses were piling up.) Michigan returns almost every impact player (Max Biefeldt left for Indiana as a grad transfer), but LeVert will be the key to a return to the NCAA tournament.
47. Rule changes making college basketball more entertaining (and high scoring)
The NCAA approved a package of rules changes this offseason for a sport facing a crisis. Among the most notable tweaks were shortening the shot clock from 35 seconds to 30, expanding the restricted-area arc under the basket from three feet to four and reducing the number of timeouts each team can call from five to four, with the number of timeouts that can be saved for the second half capped at three. While the combined effect of the changes is difficult to predict, there could be more possessions and more scoring.
46. Chris Holtmann in charge of Butler
In October 2014, not yet 18 months into his tenure as an assistant under Brandon Miller, Chris Holtmann found himself as Butler’s interim head coach. After guiding the Bulldogs to a 10-4 start, Butler AD Barry Collier decided to make the promotion permanent. Then, after the Bulldogs finished 23-11 and went to the Round of 32 in the NCAA tournament, Holtmann earned a contract extension. There’s good reason to believe that Butler is headed back on its Way under Holtmann.
45. The Tip-Off tournament
Reward yourself for surviving six months without college basketball by drowning in it for more than 24 hours beginning at 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 16. The annual Tip-Off Tournament features everything from the marquee matchups in the Champions Classic (Kentucky-Duke and Michigan State-Kansas in Chicago) to the obscure (Nevada at Hawaii at 4 a.m.). But it’s all college hoops, all the time. Come next May, you’ll be dying for Green Bay-East Tennessee State (6 a.m.). Don’t take it for granted.
44. The Champions Classic
Even if you tend to tune out college basketball until football ends, make sure to catch at least part of this event. Because it’s great. During the first week of the regular season, four projected Top 25 teams will square off in a doubleheader. In this year’s installment, Duke will face Kentucky in the first matchup, and then Michigan State will take on Kansas. None of these squads will be in peak form at this point, but the games will offer an early indication of where they stand in the national pecking order.
43. The SEC’s collective improvement
Kentucky is the clear frontrunner in the SEC, but several other teams could make leaps forward this season, which should make conference play more interesting. Texas A&M is welcoming in a strong recruiting class highlighted by three top-40 prospects, Vanderbilt brings back a number of key contributors including first-team All-SEC center Damian Jones and LSU is adding two five-star prospects (Ben Simmons and Antonio Blakeney). The conference also made a few high-profile coaching hires this offseason: Avery Johnson (Alabama), Ben Howland (Mississippi State) and Rick Barnes (Tennessee).
42. Figuring out exactly what Louisville will look like this season
By March of this year, Louisville had become a three-man show: guard Terry Rozier, wing Wayne Blackshear and big man Montrezl Harrell were the only consistent threats for the Cardinals. And after guiding them to a surprising Elite Eight run, those three are gone. In all, Louisville lost its top four scorers and 82.5% of its points. Eleven players this season are freshmen or sophomores. Grad transfers Damion Lee and Trey Lewis will be tasked with assuming leadership and scoring responsibilities. Pitino never allows inexperience to be an excuse, so it’ll be exciting to see how all the pieces come together for the Cardinals this season.
41. Cal’s freshmen
Two recruiting decisions during a one-month span this spring put Cal—which hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2013—on the short list of contenders in the Pac-12. Center Ivan Rabb committed to the Golden Bears in April and small forward Jaylen Brown followed suit less than a month later. Of the two top-10 prospects, Brown projects to make a bigger impact right away. The Golden Bears could punish conference opponents with a lineup featuring Brown, Rabb, NBA prospect Tyrone Wallace and juniors Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews.
40. Skal Labissiere at Kentucky
At this point, Labiessiere is perhaps best known for announcing in October that he would play for a team that didn’t yet exist, Reach Your Dream Prep. The team did end up forming, but the unusual circumstances led to Labissiere being ruled ineligible for the McDonald’s All-American game. The team he heads to now is no mystery to anyone. Under John Calipari, Labissiere should rise out of obscurity, absorb a huge role in the post and potentially leave school to become the No. 1 or No. 2 pick in the 2016 NBA draft.
39. Indiana’s offensive potential
The Hoosiers bring back four of the top five possession users (James Blackmon Jr., Troy Williams, Yogi Ferrell and Robert Johnson) from the team that lit up opponents to the tune of 1.17 points per possession last season, good for ninth in the country, according to kenpom.com. Indiana could be even more difficult to defend this season, as it adds one of the top incoming centers in the country, Thomas Bryant. The Hoosiers will need to improve on the other end of the floor, but their offense should provide plenty of breathing room.
38. Vanderbilt basketball is back
Quietly, the Commodores finished last season ranked No. 36 in kenpom.com’s efficiency metrics. A dreadful start to their conference season—they went 1-7 in January—left them off most radars, but they played really well down the stretch and even clawed back to end the season .500 in conference play. Along the way, they bested kenpom.com top-100 teams in Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee and Ole Miss. And they came within a bucket of being Stanford in the NIT. Junior big man Damian Jones and rising sophomores Riley LaChance, Wade Baldwin and Matthew Fisher-Davis all boasted 100+ offensive ratings a year ago, and the Commodores as a team were a top-20 offense. In the second half of conference play last year, Vanderbilt surprised opponents. This season, the Commodores can surprise the country.
37. Gonzaga’s frontcourt, which could be the best in the nation
The bad news for Gonzaga is that it loses starting guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell as well as wing Byron Wesley. The good news? Three star forwards return to give coach Mark Few one of the nation’s top frontcourts. Domantas Sabonis is an excellent rebounder, Kyle Wiltjer can stretch the floor with his three-point shooting and the 7'1", 288-pound Przemek Karnowski is a difficult matchup in the post for most, uh, normal-sized opponents who can drop behind-the-back bounce passes in traffic. Good luck defending those three, West Coast Conference.
36. John Beilein vs. Patrick Beilein
From Dick and Tony Bennett to Tubby and G.G. Smith to Rick and Richard Pitino, father-son coaches have a long history in college basketball. Last season, Tubby’s Texas Tech Red Raiders defeated G.G.’s Loyola Greyhounds and Rick’s Louisville Cardinals beat Richard’s Minnesota Golden Gophers on the same day. This game doesn’t have quite the allure of the others because Patrick’s team, Le Moyne, is a DII squad, and the game is during the preseason. But it’s intriguing because John doesn’t even like coaching against his friends—much less his family.
35. Drake’s relationship with Kentucky
Kentucky reportedly sent Drake a cease-and-desist letter after his contact with recruits at last year’s Big Blue Madness event constituted a Level III NCAA violation. Wildcats coach John Calipari made clear on Twitter that the multi-platinum rapper is welcome in Lexington and that he “is and always will be a part of our Big Blue family.” Whether or not Drake performs at this year’s Big Blue Madness event, it would be nice if Kentucky gave him a shot to redeem himself after his airballed jump shot went viral last year. Failing that, maybe we can just #blamedrake every time the Wildcats lose this season?
34. NJIT is no longer alone
Look out FGCU, Jacksonville and Kennesaw State—you have a new division rival. After wallowing in the mires as DI’s last independent team for two seasons, NJIT was scooped up by the Atlantic Sun. Going by kenpom.com’s efficiency rankings, NJIT would have been the No. 2 team in the conference last season after North Florida. After two years of struggling to schedule opponents, NJIT should have a legitimate chance of qualifying for the NCAA tournament.
33. January, February, Izzo
Last season offered a reminder that doubting Michigan State’s ability to outperform its seed line in the NCAA tournament is almost never a good idea. The Spartans entered the field as a No. 7, having dropped games to Texas Southern, Nebraska and Illinois, as well as two of their final four contests prior to the Big Ten conference tournament. But Tom Izzo led his team to upsets over No. 2 seed Virginia, Oklahoma (3) and Louisville (4) en route to his seventh Final Four appearance. Michigan State is good enough to earn better than a No. 7 seed this season, but even if it doesn’t, think twice before picking against the Spartans.