From the Tip-Off Marathon to the NCAA tournament, here are 64 reasons to be excited about the 2015-16 college basketball season.
There are only 50 days left until the long college basketball off-season comes to a close, and we've decided to celebrate a little before the finish line. Here are 64 reasons to look forward to the season ahead:
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.Darion Atkins
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.
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.
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.
16. Student section creativity
College students have gone to such extreme lengths to distract opposing free throw shooters that it’s becoming difficult to find methods that are both new and effective. Last season The New York Times broke down which fans are most effective at forcing misses from the line, and unsurprisingly, Arizona State’s topped the list. The Curtain of Distraction is perfect: it’s novel, unpredictable and impossible to ignore. We can’t wait to see what will appear behind the curtain this year. Which students have huddled together this off-season concocting something to rival the creation that was so successful for Sun Devils’ supporters last year?
15. The “mid-major” debate
What is a mid-major? How does it differ from a regular major? Recent conference realignment moves have further complicated an already complex issue. One could even argue that individual teams should be classified as high majors, while other members of their leagues don’t meet the threshold. With no resolution in sight, prepare for another season of confusion over categorical distinctions that we should probably just tear up and agree never to use again. In the meantime, refer to John Gasaway’s new working definition of a “major conference.”
14. Putting Maryland’s pieces together
The Terrapins delivered their best season yet under coach Mark Turgeon last season. They posted 28 wins, finished in second place in the Big Ten and earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. Similar numbers this season, however, would leave Maryland fans wanting more. That’s because Turgeon’s team could be a lot better. Point guard Melo Trimble and wing Jake Layman elected to return to school, the nation’s top center recruit (Diamond Stone) and former Duke guard Rasheed Sulaimon will enter the fold, and Georgia Tech transfer forward Robert Carter will be eligible after sitting out last season. Given its combination of returnees and talented newcomers, Maryland should be considered the Big Ten favorite and a top-three squad nationally entering the season.
13. Kansas (probably) extending its conference title streak
It is one of the most impressive runs in college sports: Kansas has won at least a share of 11 consecutive Big 12 regular-season championships. If you think the streak will end this year, well, don’t think that. Because it’s probably going to continue. The Jayhawks return one first-team All-Big 12 performer (Perry Ellis), one second-team All-Big 12 performer (Frank Mason III) and one All-Big 12 honoree (Wayne Selden) from a team that earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament and won at least 25 games for the 10th consecutive season. Kansas also welcomes in a recruiting class featuring three top-50 prospects, although power forward Cheick Diallo has yet to receive clearance from the NCAA.
12. Shaka Smart on the big stage
Since he took VCU from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011, Smart has been one of college basketball’s hottest coaching candidates. He stayed in Richmond for four more seasons, until Texas came calling this off-season. Although the man who hired him has since been fired, expect Smart to stick in Austin. He’s charismatic enough to charm the boosters, tenacious enough to win over top recruits and smart enough to find the right formula for making the Longhorns elite. All that being said, Texas isn’t teeming with talent this season, and the Big 12 is unforgiving as always. It’ll be fun to watch Smart navigate his long-awaited foray into the big leagues.
• MORE: Inside Smart's first summer at Texas
The two squads meet the day after Christmas in Rupp Arena. With a win at the KFC Yum! Center last year, Kentucky cleared one of its biggest hurdles en route to an undefeated regular season. The stakes won’t be as high this season, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch. Kentucky projects to be better than Louisville despite losing seven players to the NBA, though the Cardinals could outperform expectations after adding two graduate transfers (Damion Lee and Trey Lewis) and highly regarded shooting guard recruit Donovan Mitchell this off-season. Even if this game won’t go down as one of the best in the rivalry’s history, it’ll still be the best game during the slow winter break.
10. Oklahoma’s experience
The Sooners’ prospects for this season got a lot better in April, when Buddy Hield announced that he would stay another year in Norman. Hield was a likely first-round pick; as a senior this season he’ll be a frontrunner for national player of the year. He and point guard Jordan Woodard will form one of the best backcourt. Down low, Ryan Spangler will lead a young but talented frontcourt featuring sophomore Khadeem Lattin, redshirt freshman Jamuni McNeace and 7-foot juco transfer Akolda Manyang. In the early going, Lon Kruger will lean heavily on Hield and Spangler as the other players—particularly in the post—settle into their roles.
9. Duke-North Carolina taking center stage
The Tar Heels have finished fifth and fourth, respectively, in the ACC the past two seasons while earning no better than a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. With a talented rotation returning, North Carolina should open this season ranked in the top three of the polls. Meanwhile, Duke also projects as a conference and national title contender despite losing three players (Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow) to the NBA. Games between the two teams could affect NCAA tournament seeding and the league title race, but you’ll have to wait a long time to see the Blue Devils and Tar Heels face off. The two squads won’t meet in conference play until February 17, with their second game set for March 5.
8. Kris Dunn in full health and in charge
It seems hard to believe, but we’ve only really witnessed a season and a half of Kris Dunn at Providence. The redshirt junior missed significant portions of his first two seasons, but finally showed what he’s capable of last year, leading Providence in assists and finishing second in points and rebounds. Without running mate LaDontae Henton (who led the Friars in scoring and rebounding) playing pro basketball, Providence’s offensive and defensive efforts will run through Dunn. If he can handle being the No. 1 target on every opponent’s scouting report, expect this season to be his last in Rhode Island.
7. Teams battling for top recruits
The high school class of 2016 is considered one of the best in recent memory. One of the top three players in the class, small forward Jayson Tatum, has already committed to Duke, but six of Rivals.com’s 10 highest-ranked rising seniors remain uncommitted. Where will they end up? We don’t know, but we’ll begin to find out in the coming months. While their decisions won’t help teams on the court this season, they will build excitement for what those teams can accomplish in the 2016-17 season. Can the Blue Devils add to a class already featuring two five-star prospects by signing power forward Harry Giles, the nation’s top player? Will power forward Edrice “Bam” Adebayo join five-star point guard Dennis Smith at N.C. State?
6. Player of the year race
You have to go back to 1995 to find a year that the Naismith Award and the Wooden Award went to different players. Could this be the year to break that streak? Unlike last season, when Frank Kaminsky and Jahlil Okafor were 1a and 1b essentially from Game 1, this isn’t a two-horse race. And although LSU’s Ben Simmons or Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere could have exceptional seasons, odds are that an upperclassmen will be taking home the hardware again this year. Early favorites include Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes, North Carolina’s Marcus Paige, Providence’s Kris Dunn and Iowa State’s Georges Niang.
5. Carolina basketball
This version of the Tar Heels looks to be Roy Williams’s most talented team in a long time. North Carolina only lost one starter—guard J.P. Tokoto—from last season’s starting lineup. A healthy Marcus Paige will be the focal point of the offense, and he’ll have plenty of help with wing Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson in the post. North Carolina boasted a top-10 offense, according to kenpom.com, last season, but its defense was outside of the top 50. Losing Tokoto hurts more on that end of the floor, but it also opens an opportunity for the bigger Isaiah Hicks to get more minutes and help improve the Tar Heels’ terrible defensive rebounding percentage. We’ll get an early glimpse of how good North Carolina is when it takes on Maryland in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on December 1.
4. 30-second shot clock.
The 30-second clock won’t singularly solve the plodding offensive pace that has plagued college basketball for the past couple of seasons, but it is a sign that the sport is open to change. The interesting thing here will be to see if this change actually helps offenses or defenses more. SI’s Luke Winn explained in June how teams like San Diego State and Florida, which use token fullcourt pressure on the ballhandler, could be in the best position to exploit the new changes. Expect a few more end-of-shot-clock heaves early this season as teams adjust to not being able to walk the ball up the floor and to not being able to run three or four offensive sets. And expect Virginia’s opponents to be frustrated even more than they were under the 35-second clock.
3. John Calipari’s new go-to phrase
We spent way too much time last year dissecting Calipari’s platoon system. Was it effective? Which players belonged in which platoon? In May, about a month after Kentucky fell to Wisconsin in the Final Four, Calipari tried to make clear that he won’t be platooning anymore, writing in a post on his website that, “I think how you will see us playing going forward will be closer to how we have always played. That won’t be platooning.” You may not hear the word “platoon” much this year, but get ready to see the Wildcats play some “position-less” basketball. By the end of the season, don’t be surprised if Cal comes up with yet another term to describe his team’s style.
2. Selection Sunday
Selection Sunday isn’t perfect—why, for example, are there still conference championship games on the same day?—but it’s one of the best days on the sports calendar. What’s not to like about a rapid-fire ranking of the top 75 teams in a sport? No matter how good of a job the Selection Committee does, there are at least a handful of well-founded complaints that make for excellent debates for the three days until ...
1. NCAA tournament
It’s not just the star of the college basketball season, the NCAA tournament is the best postseason in American sports. It doesn’t always crown the best team, but it certainly always provides the best entertainment. From the endless onslaught of games on Thursday and Friday of the Round of 64 to “One Shining Moment,” the three weeks of the NCAA tournament are unmissable.