From the wide-open battle for No. 1 to the Hall of Fame coaches on hot seats, here are 10 storylines to watch in college basketball this season.
Season’s greetings, Hoopheads! It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
It’s hard to believe that six long, lonely months have passed since the Duke Blue Devils cut down the nets in Indianapolis. During that time, the coaching carousel has turned, rosters have been replenished, the pages of the calendar have flipped. There are plenty of new faces in new places, yet the usual suspects will still play the major characters in our long-running drama. So the new season will feel fresh and familiar at the same time.
The NCAA tournament remains the most exciting event in American sports, but true fans like us don’t want to fast forward to the finale. We want to become engrossed in the plot. There will be plenty of surprising bends and turns along the way, and if we’re lucky, a bona fide twist ending. The only thing we know for sure is that we are going to enjoy the ride.
So as the curtain rises and the games begin, your resident Hoop Thinker is here to lay out the ten most intriguing storylines that will emerge during the 2015-16 season. Some are naughty, others are nice—but all of them are worth following. Herewith:
1. How open is too open?
It is fitting that when the preseason coaches’ poll was revealed last week, there was a tie for the No. 1 ranking between Kentucky and North Carolina. It has been a while since a season commenced with this much cloudiness at the top. I have counted four different teams ranked at the top of the various preseason rankings, with a second tier of four or five schools that all could lay claim to No. 1. Thus, it appears that the college basketball season is going to follow much the same script as the college football season. Who’s the best team in the country? There isn’t one.
Is this a good thing? As the Zen Master would say: We’ll see. On the one hand, debate is good, and having multiple teams take turns at No. 1 will excite a lot of fan bases. On the other hand, a dominant team moves the needle, especially if it’s a blue-chip, polarizing program like Kentucky or Duke. Just like golf’s TV ratings are higher when Tiger Woods is in the hunt, college basketball does better when a team is vying to make history.
On the other, other hand, many of the game’s traditional powers will be in the mix—namely, Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, Duke and Indiana. Virginia, which also deserves consideration as a preseason No. 1, does not have the pedigree of those programs, but Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers have been flying with the eagles for a while now. Thus, the most intriguing of the contenders is Maryland, which happens to be my choice for preseason No. 1. It has been a long while since the Terps tried to wear a crown this heavy. This time a year ago, people were openly speculating whether Mark Turgeon could survive. It is one thing to sneak up on people; it is quite another to take everybody’s best shot from Day 1. So Maryland has much to learn, but this is a good time to be a program on the ascent.
2. Get ready for the whistle fest
Two years ago, the men’s basketball rules committee made some minor adjustments to the rulebook in hopes of cleaning up physical play. The main point of emphasis concerned protecting the dribbler from hand-checking. The results weren’t pretty: Fouls spiked to 19.11 per game, up from 17.68 the year before and the highest average since 2002. That led to predictable complaining from coaches, media and fans, which was followed by an even more predictable reversion to old habits once conference play began. As a result, the committee dialed back its efforts the following summer, which produced the modern era’s worst offensive season in 2014-15.
Be forewarned: The effort to restore freedom of movement has been renewed with vigor. Instead of issuing points of emphasis on one or two actions, the rules committee set its sights on five different areas of physical play: hand-checking the dribbler, post play, moving screens, bumping cutters and taking charges. Combine that with an ambitious set of new rules such as the 30-second shot clock and widening the arc under the basket, and we are looking at long, painful period of adjustment.
When the NBA clamped down on its physical play beginning in 2000, it took a full two seasons for players and coaches to get used to it. But it worked. College hoops needs to make those same changes, but it won’t be easy for the powers that be to tune out all the noise. So we’re all just going to have to plug our ears and stiffen our spines until the game is cleaned up for good.
3. Hall of Fame hot seats
Let’s be honest, it’s been a pretty depressing year on the college hoops beat.
Whether we like it or not, the coaches are the biggest stars in this sport, and far too many of them are in trouble for reasons that have nothing to do with how their teams perform. Two Hall of Famers, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and SMU’s Larry Brown, will serve in-season suspensions for NCAA rules violations. Two others, Louisville’s Rick Pitino and North Carolina’s Roy Williams, are currently in the NCAA’s crosshairs. The North Carolina case is particularly dicey since it will likely come to a head at some point during the season. The Tar Heels are a consensus preseason top-five team and a national championship contender, and yet their fans are wondering whether they will even be eligible to play in the 2016 NCAA tournament.
Remember the old Jerry Tarkanian line? “The NCAA was so mad at Kentucky they put Cleveland State on probation.” Well, I guess that era is over. The NCAA’s enforcement division is up and running again, and it is putting the sport’s biggest names on notice. There might be some benefits in the long run to having strong policing in place, but for this season, these Hall of Fame headlines are going to detract from the action on the court.
4. Unusual destinations for top freshmen
It won’t surprise people to learn that Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, Syracuse and Arizona all nabbed top-10 recruiting classes. But there are two other schools in the group we’re not used to seeing—LSU and California. In today’s game, if you can nab a couple of elite freshmen, you can instantly become a top 25-caliber program.
LSU has not just the nation’s top freshmen, but in my view, the top overall player in Ben Simmons, a 6'9" power forward who can direct an offense as well as any point guard in the country. Since Simmons was raised mostly in his native Australia, he brings both an international flair and refreshing, mature mindset. His decision to come to LSU prompted two other top freshmen, 6'3" combo guard Antonio Blakeney and 6'5" swingman Brandon Sampson, to sign on as well.
Meanwhile, Cal coach Cuonzo Martin went from coaching a team that lost eight out of nine games at one point last season to leading a borderline top-10 team. That’s due mostly to the arrival of freshman forwards Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown, both of whom have one-and-done potential. Martin also got good news last spring when his two best players, 6'5" sophomore guard Tyrone Wallace and 6'6" junior swingman Jabari Bird, decided to forego the NBA draft. If you’re going to be young, you’re better off being young in the frontcourt. Thus, the Bears have the ideal blueprint for some high-level success this season.
5. Is this the end of Wichita State’s run?
Most of the time, when a mid-major plays deep into the NCAA tournament, it regresses within a year or two. That’s what makes what Gregg Marshall is doing at Wichita State so remarkable. The Shockers have remained among the nation’s best teams even after reaching the 2013 Final Four. The following year, they gave Kentucky its toughest test before falling in the second round, 78-76. Last year, Wichita State returned to the Sweet 16, where it lost to Notre Dame. Contrast that with George Mason, which has won just one NCAA tournament game since it went to the 2006 Final Four; and VCU, which has never made it back to the Sweet 16 following its run in 2011.
The Shockers are very much a threat to reach Houston in April because they boast the nation’s best backcourt tandem in Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker. Both of those players, however, are seniors. This program should stay relevant as long as Marshall is there—in 17 years as a head coach at Winthrop and Wichita State, his teams have played in 11 NCAA tournaments – but how long will that be the case? Every year, he is the most coveted coach on the market. Last spring, Marshall flirted with Alabama (and would have accepted Texas if offered) before re-upping at Wichita State for more than $3 million per year. (Thank you, Koch brothers.) Without VanVleet and Baker, this program will likely take a step back next season. Without Marshall, it could very well fall off the map.
6. Transfer Madness
This season will demonstrate once again that landing transfers (and keeping your better players from transferring) is even more important to coaches than recruiting. More than 600 players changed schools last spring. This has prompted many inside the NCAA to begin crafting legislation in hopes of abating this trend. That won’t put the transfer genie back in the bottle, but it will probably keep those numbers from inflating dramatically.
This year’s freshman class is good but not great (and not real deep), so there will be an even brighter spotlight on the top transfers. The names you will see mentioned most include Ryan Anderson, 6'9" forward, Arizona; Robert Carter, 6'9" forward, Maryland; Dylan Ennis, 6'2" guard, Oregon; Sterling Gibbs, 6'2" guard, UConn; Anton Grady, 6'8" forward, Wichita State; Eron Harris, 6'3" guard, Michigan State; Damion Lee, 6'6" guard, Louisville; and Rasheed Sulaimon, 6'5" guard, Maryland.
7. Still streaking?
I’ve said many times that Kansas’s 11 consecutive Big 12 titles under Bill Self is one of the most underappreciated achievements in all of sports. Roster turnover in college basketball has never been higher, and it is especially problematic at Kansas, which annually sees multiple undergraduate defections to the NBA. Yet, there is every reason to believe that Self will make it a cool dozen this season. Once again, KU lost some players—Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander declared for the draft, and Conner Frankamp transferred to Wichita State—yet it is still being picked to win the conference. The season is beginning under a cloud of uncertainty because stud freshman center Cheick Diallo has yet to be academically cleared by the NCAA. But even if Diallo is out for a while, the Jayhawks will remain the favorite.
There’s another streak to keep your eye on this season, and that’s Bo Ryan’s NCAA tournament run at Wisconsin. Before Ryan got to Madison in 2001-02, the Badgers had been to seven NCAA tournaments in their entire history, and just five since 1947. Yet, in Ryan’s 14 seasons there, Wisconsin has never failed to earn a bid. The Badgers have also finished in the top four of the Big Ten standings for 14 straight years, which is a league record.
Both of those streaks are in jeopardy after Wisconsin lost five of its top seven players from the group that went to back-to-back Final Fours, leaving behind the most inexperienced team Ryan has coached there. Still, 6'4" junior guard Bronson Koenig and 6'8" junior forward Nigel Hayes are two very good pieces to build around. And Ryan being Ryan, there will be no shortage of unproven but promising players who are ready to take a Kaminsky-esque leap forward. So stay tuned.
8. Will the NBA/college coaching door keep revolving?
For the longest time, the NBA appeared to have an unwritten ban against hiring college coaches, thanks largely to the bad experiences of guys like Jerry Tarkanian, Tim Floyd, John Calipari, Lon Kruger and Leonard Hamilton. Then again, most every NBA coach gets fired after a while, so it’s nice to see the league finally get smarter about plucking some of the college game’s brightest minds.
Brad Stevens is earning positive reviews as he enters his third year with the Celtics, and Fred Hoiberg and Billy Donovan have stepped into excellent situations with the Bulls and Thunder, respectively. The success that Mike Krzyzewski has enjoyed with NBA players at USA Basketball further enhances the argument that the college guys can cut it at the next level. That is good news for coaches like Kevin Ollie, Sean Miller, Thad Matta, Chris Collins, Bill Self and Jay Wright. Could one of them be next?
We are also starting to see the beginning of the reverse trend, where former NBA coaches are recasting their lot in college. This season, there are three new college coaches with NBA bona fides—Avery Johnson at Alabama, Mark Price at Charlotte and Chris Mullin at St. John’s. Being an NBA head coach is a good life, but there are only 30 of those jobs available. For guys who love to compete and enjoy working with younger players, there is much gratification to be had in college hoops. A pro background is also a major advantage on the recruiting trail. So I expect this trend to continue for the foreseeable future.
9. The SEC is on the rise
It has been a rough decade for the SEC, so it figures that just as the pendulum is swinging back on the football side, the league’s basketball programs are poised to make their move.
This league has had a good couple of coach-hiring cycles. Last spring, Mississippi State hired Ben Howland, Tennessee moved forward from the Donnie Tyndall debacle by hiring Rick Barnes and Alabama landed Avery Johnson. (Howland made an immediate splash by signing Malik Newman, a 6'3" uber-scorer from Jackson, Miss.) Over at Auburn, Bruce Pearl is starting to make some real noise on the recruiting trail as he enters his second season. LSU has that great recruiting class, Georgia is coming off back-to-back 20-win seasons, and both Texas A&M and Vanderbilt are likely to enjoy some time in the national rankings. Yes, Florida is in rebuilding mode now that Mike White, formerly of Louisiana Tech, has replaced Donovan, buy there seem to be enough marquee programs around the conference to offset a downturn in Gainesville.
All of this is welcome news for a league that has had fewer NCAA tournament appearances over the last ten years than any other Power Five conference. After a long period of the SEC basically being Kentucky, Florida and Everybody Else, it appears that Everybody Else is ready to have their say.
10. Geno Auriemma’s quest for history
Yes, this is technically a storyline for women’s basketball, but Auriemma’s dominance at UConn will have special resonance in the men’s game as well. His Huskies are once again entering the season as the No. 1 team. If they end it that way, then that will give Auriemma his 11th NCAA championship, which would surpass John Wooden’s total of ten titles at UCLA from 1964-75.
When and if that happens, you can expect all the cynical types (read: men) to guffaw at any comparisons between Auriemma and Wooden, just as they did when Auriemma’s teams eclipsed UCLA’s 88-game win streak in 2010. As someone who spent more than four years researching the details of Wooden’s life and career, I believe the comparison is plenty apt.
The fact that Auriemma is coaching women does not render his challenges any easier than Wooden’s. Like Auriemma, Wooden coached in an era with relatively little parity, and he won his titles at a time when the NCAA tournament field was far smaller than what it is now. In fact, it wasn’t until his final season of 1975 that Wooden’s teams had to win more than two games to reach the Final Four. Plus, when Wooden was at UCLA, the NCAA tournament’s regions were determined by geography, not competitive balance. College basketball out west was considerably behind the rest of the country, and some of the West regionals were played in Pauley Pavilion. That was a big advantage.
Comparisons between eras are always difficult. So are comparisons between genders. The bottom line is that Auriemma is on the verge of taking down a record that once seemed unbreakable. That is a storyline worth following and, if it happens, an achievement worth celebrating.