College hoops Crystal Ball: Picking Final Four, player of the year, more
Last season, our writers peered into the Crystal Ball and saw only seven potential Final Four teams. This season, they see 10 candidates. It's a small but substantial difference, and it points to a predominant feeling about this year: While no team will be chasing 40–0, any team could be cutting down the nets come April. In our college basketball preview so far, we've projected:
- Every team in college basketball, 351-1
- First- and second-team All-Americas
- The top 100 scorers in the country
- The top 50 scoring transfers
- The top 50 breakout scorers
- The top 50 scoring freshmen
- And nine conference races
Now, with the regular season starting on Friday, we make our picks for the Final Four, national champion, coach on the hot seat and more.
Final Four teams and a darkhorse
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Davis: Maryland. This pick hinges on whether the Terrapins’ two frontcourt newcomers, freshman center Diamond Stone and Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter, can live up to their preseason billings. If so, then Maryland’s veteran, talented perimeter corps should bring this team over the finish line. The Terps have the best point guard in the country in sophomore Melo Trimble, and because the Big Ten is so strong, they should be battle-tested by March. In a season in which there are no clear dominant teams, and which features a so-so freshman class, betting on quality veteran guards is the smart play.
Winn: North Carolina. This is a tepid pick; the Tar Heels were No. 1 in SI’s statistical projections, but this team would've ranked eighth in the preseason last year. Still, they have the best mix of talent (10 former top-100 recruits, and a star lead guard in Marcus Paige) and experience. If sophomore wing Justin Jackson can have the breakthrough season I think he's capable of, their offense can be the best in the nation. Carolina’s defense is unlikely to be anywhere near the caliber of fellow ACC contender Virginia’s, but the great-offense, adequate-D model worked for Duke last season.
Hamilton: Oklahoma. In a year that promises to be delightfully unhinged, with maybe a dozen teams qualified to make national title runs, why not go with an unconventional pick? The Sooners return 75% of their scoring, 69% of their rebounding and 83% of their assists from a team that went 24–11 and suffered a four-point loss to Michigan State in the Sweet 16. More interesting to me: Solid guard play and a singular talent on hand. The backcourt of Buddy Hield and Isaiah Cousins have 5,435 minutes of college experience between them. And Hield, who averaged 17.4 points as a junior, can carry his team in March—especially if his shooting rebounds after suffering drops in overall accuracy (44.5% to 41.2%) and three-point marksmanship (38.6% to 35.9%) last year. And Oklahoma ranked eighth nationally in defensive efficiency in 2014-15, to boot. There are plenty of viable bets to dance amid falling confetti in Houston. The Sooners are as good a bet as any.
Schnell: Kansas. Perhaps this is foolish given the Jayhawks’ early tournament exits the last two seasons, but KU is loaded. They return two double-digit scorers in 6'8" forward Perry Ellis (13.8 points, 6.9 rebounds) and 5'11" guard Frank Mason III (12.6 points, 3.9 assists), and add a pair of 6'9" forwards in freshmen Cheick Diallo (who is still waiting to be cleared by the NCAA) and Carlton Bragg Jr., both McDonald’s All-Americans. Then there’s 6'2" guard Devonte Graham, who can push tempo with Mason III and gives Kansas a different, small-ball look. But experience is the game-changer. KU returns eight guys who averaged at least 11 minutes, and veteran playmakers are the difference in March. (If Diallo is ruled ineligible by the NCAA, I reserve the right to change this pick.)
Johnson: Villanova. The Wildcats have not advanced past the round of 32 since 2009, when they reached the Final Four. But their recent proclivity for early round defeats won’t deter me from buying into them this year. At point guard, Villanova will roll out the reigning co-Big East player of the year, Ryan Arcidiacono, and a five-star recruit, Jalen Brunson, who was named Most Valuable Player of the FIBA Under 19 World Championship this summer. Surrounding them on the perimeter will be talented junior Josh Hart and sophomore Phil Booth. And senior Daniel Ochefu, a tenacious rebounder who converted a Big East-high 66.7% of his twos during conference play last season, will anchor the interior. The Wildcats have the right combination of talent, depth and experience to roll through league play and vanquish whoever the selection committee lays in their path. Simply put, this is a really good team that I’m betting won’t slip up against weaker competition in March.
Davis: Purdue. The Boilermakers have won just two NCAA tournament games the last five years, and they have missed out on qualifying in two of the last three seasons. That should change with the addition of freshman forward Caleb Swanigan and the continued maturity of senior center A.J. Hammons. And just as the Boilers found success last season with point guard Jon Octeus, Matt Painter has added another graduate transfer to run his offense in 6'3" senior Johnny Hill, who averaged 10.1 points and 3.6 assists last season for UT Arlington.
Winn: NJIT.Yes: The team that went 0-29 in ’07-08 and then 1-30 the following season is now poised for its first-ever NCAA tournament bid. The Highlanders upset Michigan, Duquesne and Yale as an independent last season, and subsequently earned a membership to the Atlantic Sun conference. SI’s statistical projection system views NJIT as the strongest team in the league.
Hamilton: Marquette. Steve Wocjiechowski has four players who saw game action in 2014-15 on his roster. That may be a good thing. Vanquishing vestiges of a 4–14 season in the Big East is a fine place to start for the Golden Eagles. Freshman Henry Ellenson, a 6'10" forward will be among the most gifted and polished freshmen in the country offensively. Marquette had the benefit of a foreign tour to work out some kinks in August and now has Ellenson, a healthy Luke Fischer (11.0 points per game in 24 outings) and guard Duane Wilson (11.9 ppg last year) as a solid core. If the Golden Eagles can get production from former four-star recruit Sandy Cohen (3.8 ppg as a freshman) and consistency from freshmen guards Haanif Cheatham and Traci Carter, they should push for an NCAA tournament invite and set themselves up for bigger things down the line.
Schnell: Oregon State. “Breakthrough” is a relative term, but I’m buying the hype on the fabulous freshman class—ranked No. 18 nationally, according to Rivals.com—led by Tres Tinkle, a crafty big man (and head coach Wayne Tinkle’s son) and sharpshooter Stephen Thompson Jr. (son of assistant coach Stephen Thompson). The difference is Gary Payton II, the best all-around player in the Pac-12. Payton isn’t the type of dominating defender his dad was, but he’s terrific off the ball and a great rebounder. If he can be as consistent as he was last season (he averaged 13.4 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 3.1 steals) and the newcomers can provide scoring punch and some much-needed depth, the Beavers can finish in the top third of the conference. OSU hasn’t been dancing since 1990, but that drought will end in March.
Johnson: Oklahoma. Last season the Sooners won 24 games, finished in third in the Big 12 and reached the Sweet 16. That’s a high bar to clear, but Oklahoma should be able to both post a better record in the regular season and have more success in the postseason. Big 12 player of the year Buddy Hield decided to return for his senior season even though he may have been selected in the first round of this year’s NBA draft had he declared. SI.com projects the 6'4" guard to average 17.7 points per game, which would make him one of the nation's top 10 scorers. Meanwhile, the Sooners also bring back two other key perimeter rotation players in Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard as well as veteran big man Ryan Spangler, a voracious rebounder and effective finisher around the basket. It may not beat out Kansas for the Big 12 crown, but Oklahoma could push the Jayhawks during conference play and make its deepest tourney run yet under coach Lon Kruger.
Not buying the hype on
Davis: Arizona. The Wildcats are ranked 12th in the preseason AP poll (I voted them 13th) and 10th in the coaches’ poll, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they finished fourth in their own conference. They lost four starters from last year’s Elite Eight team, and one of its top newcomers, freshman forward Ray Smith, has already been lost for the season to a knee injury. Sean Miller has high hopes for Boston College transfer Ryan Anderson, a versatile 6'9" forward, but when you think of Arizona, you think of stellar guard play. That is not what you’ll be seeing on the court this season.
Winn: LSU. I have no doubts about Ben Simmons; it's just that SI’s projection system isn't as high on the Tigers as a whole. The coaches and AP polls have LSU 19/21, while SI's system sees them as more like the 30th-best team. They would need major offensive-efficiency breakthroughs from at least two non-Simmons players to ascend to the level of an elite offense.
Hamilton: Iowa State. O.K., a caveat: I think the Cyclones will be good. I think if you told any coach in the country that they had to start a new job, and Georges Niang and Monte Morris were their two building blocks, they would feel pretty great about this new endeavor. Still ... Fred Hoiberg isn’t there anymore. The former Iowa State star displayed a unique, even-keeled approach in his five years on the bench that helped turn his alma mater into a national contender. So, yes, this is a guess that when adversity strikes, the Cyclones won’t respond with the same tranquility imbued in them by their former coach. They won't miss the NCAA tournament or anything, but they are missing a very important piece of what got them to this point.
Schnell: Maryland. I’m just not convinced the Terps have the maturity to advance deep into the NCAA tournament, let alone contend for a national title. Yes, they have one of the best players in college hoops in sophomore guard Melo Trimble (16.2 points per game, 41.2% from three and a top-notch shot creator) and 6'11" freshman Diamond Stone will make an immediate impact but ... I’ll have to see Maryland as a cohesive unit to believe it. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that players were ditching this program left and right. I’m also not sure Rasheed Sulaimon will work, even though Maryland coach Mark Turgeon is happy to have him in the rotation. It just feels like a lot of chatter for a program that was pretty much left for dead after the 2013-14 season. Have the Terps really climbed all the way back that quickly?
Johnson: North Carolina. It’s not difficult to make the case for North Carolina as a national championship contender. It returns a pair of skilled big men in Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks. Two former top-20 recruits, Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson, could make major leaps as sophomores. And senior guard Marcus Paige should perform much better this season after putting up solid offensive numbers in 2014–15 despite being hampered by injuries. All of which is promising for a program looking to deliver a strong season with the possibility of a severe NCAA punishment looming. Yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that the Tar Heels may be only marginally—if at all—better than they were in 2014–15, when they lost 12 games. The biggest reason for optimism is that returning pieces will improve, but maybe that’s more wishful thinking than a realistic expectation. This team could be great—AP poll voters pegged it No. 1 in the country—but it won’t live up to its potential.
Mid-major to watch
Davis: Iona. It would be too easy to go with Wichita State or Gonzaga, so I want to take the chance to jump on the Gaels’ bandwagon before it fills up. They return four starters from last year’s conference champs, including MAAC player of the year favorite A.J. English, and coach Tim Cluess’ up-tempo, trey-happy offense will benefit from the rules changes and renewed emphasis on freedom of movement. The Gaels missed out on the NCAA tournament after getting tripped up by Manhattan in the MAAC tournament final. If this team can avoid that unlucky fate, it is going to be the type of giant slayer that no power conference team will want to face.
Winn: High Point. SI projects the Panthers to make their first-ever trip to the NCAA tournament this season, on the strength of one of the best mid-major offenses. Senior forward John Brown has the nation's best YouTube mixtape and is one of its best high-usage scorers, and he should be surrounded by a crew of excellent long-range shooters.
Hamilton: Valparaiso. During the past two off-seasons, Bryce Drew’s name has circulated through the coaching search rumor mill. He was under consideration at places like Northwestern and DePaul, but it’s possible the 41-year-old will have his pick of schools should he want to jump after this season. The Crusaders return nearly all of their scoring and rebounding from the team that won 28 games and the Horizon League regular season and tournament titles a year ago. League player of the year candidate Alec Peters (16.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and reigning conference defensive player of the year Vashil Fernandez (98 blocks) are the most notable returnees. They are just two of six returning rotation regulars that Drew can deploy. Valpo's coach is most well-known for his game-winning, buzzer-beating shot against Ole Miss in the 1998 NCAA tournament, a seminal March moment. He may add to his catalog next spring.
Schnell: Wichita State. It feels somewhat unfair to still call the Shockers a midmajor but, hey, I didn’t create the “Power Five.” Wichita State again returns guards Ron Baker (14.7 points, 43% from the field) and Fred VanVleet (13.6 points, 5.2 assists and 4.5 rebounds). Is it just me, or have these two been in college for a decade? Regardless, that type of veteran experience is big in big moments. Of course the Shockers will need development and production from interior players like 6'11" senior Bush Wamukota and senior transfer Anton Grady, who chipped in 14.3 points and 7.9 rebounds per game as a junior at Cleveland State. But with senior guards like VanVleet and Baker, plus one of the best coaches in the country, Wichita State can do pretty much anything. Including get back to the Final Four.
Johnson: UAB. The Blazers were responsible for one of the most shocking upsets of last year’s NCAAs, a one-point win over third-seeded Iowa State in the second round of the South Regional. Part of what made that result so stunning was that UAB wasn’t playing all that well toward the end of the regular season. It finished in fourth place in Conference USA and lost four of its final seven games before the league tournament, including consecutive defeats to teams ranked 301st (Florida Atlantic) and 274th (Florida International), respectively, in Ken Pomeroy’s team efficiency ratings. Opponents won’t take coach Jerod Haase’s team lightly next March if it plays up to its potential from November to February. Redshirt senior guard Robert Brown provides reliable scoring from the perimeter, sophomore forward William Lee held his own against Cyclones and UCLA in the tourney (24 points and 18 rebounds combined) and a solid supporting cast is back.
Player of the year
Davis: Ben Simmons, LSU. Simmons is that rare freshman who will be both the best prospect in the country as well as the best player. He is the best passing big man to enter the college game since Kevin Love in 2007. Though Simmons has improved his long-range shooting, he will do most of his scoring in the midrange and the open court. The best thing about him is his ability to rip and run—that is, snare a defensive rebound and initiate a fast break without having to make an outlet pass. Unlike some of the other POY candidates, Simmons will be expected to carry a heavy load for his team from the first moment of the first game. It says here his shoulders are ready for the task.
Winn: Simmons. He's an incredible talent who's stepping into a perfect situation to put up huge numbers as a freshman. There are enough shots and rebounds available for Simmons to average a double-double, and the Tigers will run enough of their offense through him as a point forward that he might out-assist some of the SEC’s point guards.
Hamilton: Melo Trimble, Maryland. There will be players who post gaudier statistics, even on very good teams. But neither Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky nor Duke’s Jahlil Okafor needed to put up arcade-game numbers to be player of the year frontrunners last winter—they just needed to be recognized as exceptionally good on teams that were also exceptionally good. The 6'3" Trimble fits that bill this season. With scorers like Robert Carter, Jake Layman and others around him, it’s unlikely that he’ll come close to averaging 20 points. But he will be a primary scorer regardless—he did score 16.2 points per night as a freshman—and he’ll get his due if he plays with high efficiency. Moreover, if Trimble develops into a reliable defender after declaring himself “terrible” in that department last season, a well-rounded floor leader for a national title contender won’t be ignored.
Schnell: Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga. I think of value when I pick players of the year, as opposed to someone who is simply the most outstanding, which is the award given annually at the Final Four. The Zags have spent the past decade as a top 20 program but Wiltjer’s talent pushes them over the top. Without him, they’re a Sweet 16 team. With him, they can get to Houston. The 6'10" senior is smooth and cerebral around the basket, using his length to stretch defenders. He can shoot with both hands in the paint, a lost art in the college game. He’s stronger than he looks, with deft shooting touch that makes him an outside threat. Yes, he has a ways to go defensively—he needs to prove he can stick with guys when they pull him to the perimeter—but offensively he’s only going to get better. (He’s also a better passer than most realize.) The only thing I wonder when I watch the Kentucky transfer is, how deep could Gonzaga have gone in the 2015 tournament if that was Wiltjer’s third season in Spokane instead of his first?
Johnson: Wiltjer. He began his college career as a bit contributor on a Kentucky team led by NBA Lottery picks Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist that won a national championship. He’ll leave college as the go-to scorer on a national championship contender hailing from a much smaller league. Wiltjer rated out as one of the nation’s top offensive players while leading Gonzaga to another West Coast Conference title last season. He connected on 46.5% of his three-point attempts, posted one of the nation’s 10 highest offensive ratings and ranked among the nation’s top 40 in true shooting and effective field goal percentage while using more than 31% of available possessions, according to kenpom.com. There’s no reason to think his statistical output will drop off in 2015–16; opponents will have an extremely hard time trying to both account for Wiltjer and shut down frontcourt counterparts Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis.
Freshman of the year
Davis: Ben Simmons, LSU. See above.
Winn: Jamal Murray, Kentucky. I already have Simmons as my national POY, so Murray is the pick here. SI projects the versatile Canadian guard to lead a title-contending Kentucky team in scoring. Murray's ability to play three positions well—point guard, shooting guard and small forward—will keep him on the floor for major minutes.
Hamilton: Simmons. The Tigers had the 84th most efficient offense in the country a year ago. Calling upon a 6'10" five-star forward who can run the attack and also score from any spot on the floor should vastly improve that figure. Simmons should get the freedom to do whatever he wants, and SI’s own player of the year projections have him as a double-double guy who will average 17.2 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. Unlike the player of the year voting, winning big (or relatively big) isn’t as mandatory when it comes to selecting freshman of the year. Eye-popping numbers should do it, and Simmons will be in position to produce them.
Schnell: Simmons. This is too easy. The 6'10" point-forward will be a contender for national player of the year, and should run away with this award. He can handle the ball and play in the paint—he’s sometimes compared to LeBron James because of his versatility and is already being touted as a top-three pick in the 2016 NBA draft—and he has the intangible quality of making everyone around him better. He chose LSU instead of Duke or Kentucky, so he’s under enormous pressure in Baton Rouge; the Tigers have been dancing only twice since reaching the 2006 Final Four. But Simmons has an uncommon maturity for someone his age, and surely he wants his only college season to be memorable. He’ll be the early favorite for this award, and he’ll stay that way.
Johnson: Simmons. He is a transcendent talent who should dominate the SEC with a rare mix of size, strength and perimeter skills. Simmons can run the break, attack the basket and rifle passes in transition. Though listed at 240 pounds, he can function as a perimeter playmaker and should rank among LSU’s leaders in assist. We know Simmons is a special player, but can he help Tigers eclipse Texas A&M and Vanderbilt to emerge as Kentucky’s primary challenger in the SEC this season? Simmons will have some help, as LSU also brings in top-50 recruits Antonio Blakeney and Brandon Sampson and returns veteran guards Tim Quarterman and Keith Hornsby. Still, the Tigers will need Simmons to breathe life into their offense. In any case, make sure to watch him as often as possible this season, because it’ll be a surprise if he’s not a top-five pick in the 2016 draft.
Davis: Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame. So much of the Irish’s offense last season was centered around Jerian Grant that Jackson often went unnoticed. The former McDonald’s All-American averaged 12.4 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game. Now that Grant is playing for the New York Knicks, Jackson is prepared to take the reins of this team. At 6'1", he's not as big as the 6'5" Grant, but Jackson is speedy and savvy, and he has a terrific step-back jumper from behind the three-point arc. Jackson has the ability to lead the Irish deep into the NCAA tournament and then become an NBA first-round pick.
Winn: Ethan Happ, Wisconsin. Happ is the rare high-impact redshirt freshman. He sat out ’14-15 because he was unlikely to earn playing time behind Frank Kaminsky, Nigel Hayes and Duje Dukan, but he battled daily with Frank the Tank in practice and now should be among the nation's most productive freshmen. SI’s projection system sees Happ averaging 10.7 points and 6.2 rebounds—not bad for a guy who's been out of competitive action since the spring of 2014.
Hamilton: Tyler Ulis, Kentucky. No one could argue with the 5'9" Ulis getting slotted as the backup option for the Wildcats at point guard last year, not with the loss column sitting at zero until the Final Four. But in his relatively limited work—he logged 23.8 minutes per game—Ulis had the second-highest offensive rating on the team (123.3), second only to Karl-Anthony Towns, the eventual No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. Ulis's defensive rating (90.3) was unremarkable on one of the best defensive teams in recent memory, but exceptionally good in any other context. (By comparison, Wichita State’s Fred VanVleet, considered one of the better defensive guards in the country, had a 91.4 rating in 2014–15.) The ball should be in Ulis’s hands far more this winter and he ought to be a double-digit scorer who adds a half-dozen assists per outing, at least, as a sophomore. If Kentucky wants to push the pace, Ulis will be the jet fuel. He probably won’t crack the All-America discussion because of the more glamorous personnel around him, but he’ll make a significant leap toward that level.
Schnell: Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin. Departed superstars Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker got most of the attention for getting the Badgers to the Final Four, but they weren't the only reason Wisconsin got that far. Koenig, who filled in admirably last year after Traevon Jackson broke his foot in January, was one of the team's hidden gems. He had just 33 turnovers last year (while passing out 98 assists) and hit 40.5% from the arc. With so many scorers gone, Koenig will have to look for his own shot more. We already got a glimpse of his breakout ability when he scored 12 points, grabbed four rebounds and recorded two assists and one steal (without a turnover) in the Badgers' Final Four upset of Kentucky last season. Expect plenty more clutch play from the 6'4" junior.
Johnson: Koenig. Koenig thrived as a starter in Wisconsin’s backcourt after moving into the starting lineup. Yet Koenig was overshadowed by his teammates—one of whom (Frank Kaminsky) won the Wooden Award as national player of the year and two others who were selected to the all-Big Ten second (Sam Dekker) and third (Nigel Hayes) teams, respectively. After watching Dekker and Kaminsky become first-round NBA draft picks this off-season, the Badgers will need more from Koenig, and there’s reason to think he’ll deliver. Though Hayes, Dekker and Kamisky all posted higher usage rates than Koenig in 2014–15, he sank 40.5% of his three-point attempts while recording a 120.5 offensive rating during Big Ten play, good for 10th in the conference, according to kenpom.com. If he can continue to score efficiently while taking on a larger shot-creation load, Koenig can help keep Wisconsin in the mix for yet another top-four finish in the Big Ten.
Davis: Matt McQuaid, Michigan State. Tom Izzo has said this could be the best three-point shooting team he has ever coached in East Lansing, and McQuaid, a 6'5" freshman, is the best of the bunch. He has good size, a quick trigger, deep range and no conscience. McQuaid sank 45% of his treys on Nike’s EYBL circuit during his final season as a high school player. It might not be easy for McQuaid to get a lot of minutes this season because he has a slender frame and the Spartans’ perimeter is loaded. But when he’s in the game, he’ll be looking to fire away, and he will frequently hit his mark.
Winn: Micah Mason, Duquesne. Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer is the best shooter in the national player of the year race, but Mason is the best shooter, period. He’s had a career long-range percentage of 49.2% at Drake and Duquesne, including a junior year in which he shot 56.0%. Mason has quietly been one of the most efficient offensive weapons in college hoops for the past two seasons, and he’s succeeded in spite of a rare nervous-system syndrome that almost robbed him of his hoops career.
Hamilton: Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga. It’s a matter of production and percentages. In this, it’s hard to find a better package that the Bulldogs’ national player of the year candidate, who averaged 16.8 points per game last year as a high-efficiency shooter. Wiltjer shot 54% from the floor but also hit 46.6% of his 146 three-point attempts. He ranked in the 89th percentile nationally as a spot-up shooter last season, averaging 1.165 points per possession with an adjusted field goal percentage of 57.8% in those scenarios, via Synergy Sports data. You could certainly find some gunner, somewhere, with a knack for connecting from deep. But being a great shooter is about having a great impact, too. Wiltjer has few peers there.
Schnell: Buddy Hield, Oklahoma. The Big 12’s best player in 2014–15, Hield can score from anywhere and everywhere—and especially from long-distance, where he drained 93 three-pointers last season. At 6'4", he can elevate over small defenders, which helped him shoot 43% from the field. But perhaps more impressive than his scoring ability is his stamina: Hield started in each of the Sooners’ 35 games, played 32.4 minutes, usually had the other team’s best defender draped all over him and still managed to score 17.4 points per game. Leave him open, and you’re in trouble. Try to slow him and, well, you can’t really. But we wish you the best of luck.
Chris Johnson: Mason. Teams who give Mason even a sliver of space behind the arc will probably regret it. Over three seasons—two at Duquesne and one at Drake—the senior guard has knocked down 193 of his 392 three-point attempts (49.2%), including 65 of 116 (56%) in 2013–14. Mason also was nearly automatic at the free throw line last season, connecting at a 90.5% clip, and he posted a team-high 3.0 offensive win shares. Duquesne probably won’t contend in the Atlantic 10 this season—we project the Dukes to finish in ninth place in the conference—but Mason may be able to shoot coach Jim Ferry’s crew to a few victories over superior opponents.
Davis: Gary Payton II, Oregon State. Payton’s defensive style is similar to his father and namesake, a Hall of Famer who was famously nicknamed The Glove for his ability to cover up ball handlers. Last season, the younger Payton was named the Pac 12’s defensive player of the year after ranking second in the nation in steals with 3.06 per game. Payton also averaged 7.5 rebounds and 1.2 blocks, and his offensive game came around nicely too (13.4 ppg, 3.2 apg).
Winn: Skylar Spencer, San Diego State. SI projects the Aztecs to have the nation’s No. 1 defense, and while that's not all due to Spencer, he plays a big role. His rim protection—he had a 12.5% block rate last season and helped SDSU hold opponents to 42.3% shooting from inside the arc—has major value. It’s what keeps Spencer on the floor despite him rarely ever shooting (he took a stunningly low 8.4% of the Aztecs’ shots) and hitting just 49.3% of his free throws.
Hamilton: Payton. Payton’s 3.2 defensive win shares ranked second in the nation last year to Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein. Likewise his steals per game (3.1) and steal percentage (5.4) ranked second only to Eastern Kentucky’s Corey Walden in both departments. His defensive rating of 86.2 ranked 10th nationally—and fifth among players in Power 5 conference programs. It should also be noted that his defensive rebound percentage of 18.4—as a 6'3" guard—led Oregon State last year. No one in the country will do more to prevent scores or end possessions than The Mitten.
Schnell: Alex Poythress, Kentucky. I’m not sure there’s a dominant on-ball defender this year. And in reality, I could pick anyone from Kentucky, because you don’t get time under John Calipari unless you commit to the defensive end of the floor. But I’ll go with Poythress, a 6'8" forward who spent most of last season recovering from a torn knee ligament. He erases mistakes in the paint, altering numerous shots. He rejects quite a few, too: In just 20 minutes per game last season Poythress averaged 1.5 blocks and 3.8 rebounds. Imagine what he’ll be like when he’s not part of the platoon system. No opposing guard will eagerly venture inside, and big men will kick the ball back out.
Johnson: Payton. It’s unfortunate that Payton apparently is not embracing “The Mitten” as a nickname. He’ll need another moniker that conveys his defensive prowess. Payton hounds opponents on the perimeter and excels at preventing drives to the basket. His ball pressure and ability to jump into passing lanes helped the Beavers rank 16th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency last season, according to kenpom.com. Payton also led Division I in steal rate and defensive win shares and he finished eighth in the Pac-12 in block percentage during conference play, per kenpom.com. This season Payton could lead Oregon State to its first tourney berth since 1990.
Coach on the hottest seat
Davis: Josh Pastner, Memphis. Pastner knew what he was signing up for when he agreed to follow John Calipari at Memphis. In his first six seasons, Pastner’s record is not all that different from what Calipari’s was at the same stage, but Pastner’s teams have won a total of two NCAA tournament games and did not earn a bid last year. In the off-season, Pastner’s best player, forward Austin Nichols, transferred to Virginia. Now, he must coach his undermanned team in a resurgent AAC spearheaded by two ranked teams, UConn and SMU, and a Top 25-caliber team in Cincinnati. Memphis has always been considered a good job because the fan base is so enthusiastic, but that enthusiasm comes with expectations, and meeting those this season will not be easy.
Winn: Kevin Willard, Seton Hall. He’s entering his sixth season at the Hall and has yet to make the NCAA tournament. SI projects the Pirates to finish 80th in efficiency, which would translate to seventh place in the Big East—and no bid to the Big Dance. If that scenario plays out, Willard is unlikely to hang on for a seventh season. If there are reasons for optimism, it’s that sophomore Angel Delgado has the rebounding ability to become an all-conference power forward, and former NYC high school phenom Isaiah Whitehead is still capable of scoring 40 points in a game ... even it was just an exhibition against a Division III school.
Hamilton: Lorenzo Romar, Washington. There are other coaches arguably under more pressure, like Memphis’s Josh Pastner and Oklahoma State’s Travis Ford, because the bar to clear is so much higher. The issue with Romar is not having the experienced talent on hand to exceed even modest expectations. The Huskies haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 2011 and their best player (Nigel Williams-Goss) transferred to Gonzaga after last season. Washington has gone a middling 51–46 in the past three seasons, including 23–31 in the Pac-12. You’d expect the administration to take decisive action unless their is marked improvement, and that improvement doesn’t look like it’s coming.
Schnell: Tom Crean, Indiana. In 2014 the Hoosiers couldn’t even get an NIT invite; in 2015 they surprised everyone by starting 15–4 and ending their season in the NCAA tournament. But don't forget that they lost 10 of their final 15 games, or that they dropped an embarrassing 88-86 contest to Eastern Washington last November. (That the Eagles had one of the best scorers in the country is absolutely not the point.) Yes, expectations in this hoops hotbed are impossibly high, but that’s the job Crean signed up for. Indiana has the pieces to contend in the Big Ten—led by 6-foot senior guard Yogi Ferrell, who averaged 16.3 points and 4.9 assists per game in 2014–15—but if the Hoosiers aren’t good early, Crean’s tenure might come to an abrupt end.
Johnson: Pastner. He took over at Memphis after John Calipari guided the program to the Sweet 16 in four consecutive years, three Elite Eights and one national championship game. That run showed how successful the Tigers can be with the right coach in place. It also set the bar extremely high for Pastner. Memphis undoubtedly has dipped since Calipari bolted for Kentucky after the 2008-09 season. In six years Pastner has led Memphis to only two wins in the NCAAs and it finished in fifth place in the American Athletic Conference in each of the past two seasons. Pastner could get things turned around, but what are the chances that happens in 2015–16? We project the Tigers to fall one spot in the AAC standings this season after they lost multiple players to transfer, including leading scorer Austin Nichols. Pastner will need big contributions from freshmen K.J. Lawson and Dedric Lawson and transfer Ricky Tarrant Jr. and hope big man Shaq Goodwin can elevate his play to help offset the impact of Nichols’s departure.
A bold prediction
Davis: There are going to be a lot of whistles because of all the rules changes and points of emphasis assigned to referees, but this time, the zebras will stick to their guns. Get ready for a lot of sniping about inconsistency, but eventually players and coaches will adapt and the game will be better for it. It will take a while for things to be smoothed out, but for the first time, I’m starting to believe we will get there.
Winn: That Georgetown, a team that could not even crack the top 30 vote-getters in the AP or Coaches polls in the preseason, finishes in the top 20 and contends for the Big East title. SI’s projections view senior guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera as one of the nation’s best high-usage scorers and an All-America candidate, and the Hoyas have three sophomores ready to make a leap in Isaac Copeland, Paul White and L.J. Peak. Georgetown and Texas—another talented team ignored in the human polls—are the best buy-low stocks of this preseason.
Hamilton: The abundance of fouling that may occur early on this season—or perhaps all the way throughout—due to the emphasis on freedom of movement could prompt the college game to up the personal foul limit from five per player to six, matching the NBA rule. You can already hear the outcry from coaches who must sit key players far too often as officials (presumably) call it tighter. And, frankly, they’d have a point: College basketball has enough issues. It doesn’t need its best players turned into spectators.
Schnell: There won’t be that much change in scoring. I get why the shot clock was shortened from 35 seconds to 30, but I’m not convinced it’ll work. First, officials have been told (again) to keep an eye on hand-checks and using an arm to impede the dribbler, which means more whistles. That’ll kill rhythm. Some coaches think there will be more zone, which could also lead to less scoring. But mostly I don’t think it’ll work because good defensive teams are still going to be good defensive teams. You really think Sean Miller, Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari are going to let some change in rule book language dictate how they coach their teams? Yeah, me either.
Johnson: Arizona won’t win the Pac-12. Is this a bold prediction? Not exactly. But the Wildcats have won the conference's regular-season championship by three games the last two years, and Pac-12 media members voted them to make it a three-peat in 2016. Arizona (18) received twice as many first-place nods as Cal (9), followed by Utah (7), Oregon (1) and UCLA (1). That’s a lot of confidence in a team that lost its four leading scorers (Stanley Johnson, Brandon Ashley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and T.J. McConnell), including two players who became first-round NBA draft picks (Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson) and another named first-team All-Pac 12 who’s currently on an NBA roster (McConnell).
Maybe the Wildcats will simply reload and set the league ablaze again—our model projects them to finish in first place, after all. But I think they will fall short. For one, they have to replace a lot of scoring and playmaking. McConnell excelled at setting up his teammates for easy shots, Hollis-Jefferson was a lock down defender and Johnson devastated opponents with a rare blend of power, size and skill. Arizona ranked in the nation’s top eight in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com, and it didn’t reach the Final Four only because Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker turned into Steph Curry during the second half of their Elite Eight game.
The Wildcats can get back there this season—at this point, coach Sean Miller deserves the benefit of the doubt—it just seems unlikely. Arizona will lean on returnees Gabe York and Kaleb Tarczewski, transfers Ryan Anderson and Mark Tollefsen and freshman Allonzo Trier. That group will have a hard time keeping pace in the league with a Cal team led by a strong perimeter corps and five-star freshman Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown; a Utah team that returns projected first-round pick Jakob Poeltl and an underrated Oregon team that returns forwards Elgin Cook and Dillon Brooks, adds transfer guard Dylan Ennis and welcomes in highly touted recruit Tyler Dorsey.