- It's never too early to get excited about the next college basketball season. Here's Part 1 of our two-part series of what you should watch for this winter.
It’s been far too long since we saw Kris Jenkins swish a three-pointer win a national championship for Villanova. But college basketball is almost back—teams begin practicing this week, and the season tips off in a little more than a month. Here is Part 1 of our annual series of 64 things to be excited for this season. Come back for Part 2 on Friday.
64. The return of Valparaiso’s Alec Peters
Peters, a lethal perimeter shooter who posted one of the nation’s 20 best offensive ratings last season, considered turning pro this summer but he elected to withdraw from the NBA draft and then decided against transferring to a more high-profile program. In July he shined at the Nike Basketball Academy and, according to our Luke Winn, left the event with four pages of handwritten notes. You won’t see the 6' 9" forward on national television every week, but hopefully he leads the Crusaders to the NCAA tournament in his final season in college.
63. Bill Self for president
It’s been a difficult and contentious election season. It seems our country is more divided than ever. But thankfully, there is one clear choice for leader of the free world: Kansas coach Bill Self. He announced his “candidacy” in a promotional video for the Jayhawks, touting his foreign policy experience at the World University Games and his history of success, including 12 Big 12 titles in a row. He’ll have to gain a lot of ground between now and November, but he probably has as good a shot as Gary Johnson.
62. Saint Mary’s making another run
Everything seemed to line up for the Gaels last season. They notched 25 wins before the start of the conference tournament, including two over WCC power Gonzaga, and claimed a share of the conference regular season championship. Yet a loss to the Zags in the league title game left the Gaels in a precarious position heading into Selection Sunday, and the selection committee opted to leave them out. With all five starters back this season, they should be able to make another push for the NCAAs, though they’ll have to grapple with a Zags squad that could be better than it was last year.
61. Second-year coaches
As always, the results of the big-name new coaches last year were mixed. Steve Prohm (Iowa State), Shaka Smart (Texas) and Will Wade (VCU) guided strong returning rosters to the NCAA tournament and won over their fan bases in Year 1. Ben Howland (Mississippi State) and Chris Mullin (St. John’s) really missed the mark and will have to make up ground in their second seasons. Mike White (Florida) and Avery Johnson (Alabama) landed somewhere in the middle, but each group of coaches will begin now, in Year 2, with their first recruiting classes and their systems fully entrenched, to show what they’re capable of.
60. Gonzaga’s new guys
Coach Mark Few’s team is well equipped to withstand the departures of the Zags’ top two scorers, power forward Domantas Sabonis and wing Kyle Wiltjer. Not having Sabonis’s post scoring or Wiltjer’s floor spacing will hurt, but the Zags’ reinforcements from the transfer market should lessen the pain. Washington import Nigel Williams-Goss gives Gonzaga a steady hand in the backcourt, former Cal guard Jordan Mathews can spread the floor with his three-point shooting and former Missouri forward Johnathan Williams III will bolster a frontcourt rotation that returns massive center Przemek Karnowski.
59. Preseason nonconference tournaments
We’ll talk about a few of the marquee tournaments in more detail later on, but it’s important to note here how college basketball continues to make November and December more exciting for its fans. Sure, there are still plenty of lollipop games, but the committee and fans have put pressure on big-name programs to prove themselves with difficult matchups during the nonconference portion of the season. From the Champions Classic on Nov. 15, college basketball’s unofficial kickoff, to the CBS Sports Classic on Dec. 17, there’s a game worth tuning into almost every night.
58. The return of Jaron Blossomgame
Like Peters, Blossomgame could have decided to pursue a professional career last summer. Instead, he’s back for his senior season at Clemson, and rival ACC coaches probably wish that wasn’t the case. Blossomgame is a 6' 7" forward who can get to the basket off the dribble, knock down three-point shots and is versatile enough to defend a range of opposing players. He’ll give ACC contenders like Duke, North Carolina and Louisville fits when he faces them this season before potentially being selected (later) in the first round of this summer’s NBA draft.
57. Potential protests
The conversation surrounding the beginning of the NFL season was dominated by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem. Following his lead, WNBA players, college football players, bands and even high school athletes have carried the conversation forward by kneeling during the anthem. Already, Virginia’s basketball team posted a picture of the entire team kneeling in support of Kaepernick. So which teams will demonstrate during the season, and how will fans respond?
56. Jalen Adams’s next step
Adams was expected to make an immediate impact as a freshman after arriving at UConn as a five-star recruit in the class of 2015. Yet the Huskies didn’t necessarily need him to take over point guard duties right away because they’d brought in a highly regarded graduate transfer in Sterling Gibbs. Gibbs is gone now—along with playmaking wing Daniel Hamilton, who actually assisted on a higher percentage of UConn’s baskets than any other Huskies player in 2015–16—which means more responsibility for Adams. One area he’ll need to improve: Three-point shooting. Adams connected on only 27% of his 44 attempts from deep as a freshman.
55. James Blackmon is back
Blackmon only played in 13 games last season before he suffered a torn ACL in his left knee. But in those 13 games, he showed an improvement from his already excellent freshman season. He took more of the Hoosiers’ shots and possessions while improving his offensive rating and assist rate. Now that Indiana is without Troy Williams and Yogi Ferrell on the perimeter, Blackmon should have a green light to make plays and put up points. He’ll be helped by the continued growth of second-year big man Thomas Bryant and wing O.G. Anunoby.
54. The Maui Invitational
Every year this event brings together quality teams in a cool setting at around that time you start fretting over the cold weather and probably wish you could take a vacation to a tropical location . . . like Hawaii. This season’s edition features three potential top-10 teams (North Carolina, Oregon, Wisconsin), a possible top-25 squad (UConn) a big-name program (Georgetown) with a potential first-round draft pick manning the block (sophomore Jessie Govan) and a program on the rise (Oklahoma State) after plucking a highly coveted coach from the mid-major ranks (Brad Underwood) this off-season. You really can’t ask for a better selection of teams for a nonconference tournament.
53. Austin Nichols at Virginia
Nichols had to work long and hard to get to Virginia. Memphis, the team that he committed to and played for from 2013–15, initially blocked his transfer request and then relented but wouldn’t allow him to transfer to Virginia. In response, Nichols’s family hired a lawyer, and the Tigers dropped their case. After sitting out last season, per NCAA transfer rules, Nichols is ready to find his place on the Cavaliers. Nichols should do a good job anchoring coach Tony Bennett’s patented pack-line defense, and he’ll also provide the kind of offensive spark they need to challenge the best teams in the ACC.
52. The Champions Classic
O.K., so the Maui Invitational is great and all, but it’s not in the same stratosphere as the Champions Classic. This is maybe the only event that can really make waves nationally in the heart of football season; for college hoops fans, it officially closes the door on the long, boring stretch following the national championship game. In one matchup, Kansas will face Duke. And in the other, Kentucky will square off with Michigan State. The Blue Devils look like the best team in the country, but it wouldn’t be shocking if any of these teams—all of which should open 2016–17 ranked in the top 15—ended the season cutting down nets. The doubleheader will be held in Madison Square Garden.
51. The CBS Sports Classic
The event is still a newcomer to college basketball’s early season tournament calendar, but it’s a whopper. This year, the showcase heads to Las Vegas and will feature UCLA vs. Ohio State, two teams looking to rebound from subpar performances a season ago, in the early game. And then college basketball’s two winningest programs of all time—Kentucky and North Carolina—will clash in the main event. The last time there was this much hype for a UNC-UK game was in 2011, when the Wildcats were the No. 1 team in the country and beat the No. 5 Tar Heels thanks to a late-game Anthony Davis blocked shot.
50. Monte Morris’s star turn
Morris has spent the past two seasons manning the point for Cyclones teams headlined by versatile forward Georges Niang (and, for one season before that, DeAndre Kane). With Niang out of the picture this season, coach Steve Prohm likely will need Morris to shoulder a bigger scoring load. Morris is a savvy facilitator who’s done an excellent job setting up teammates for clean looks; his distribution helped fuel the Cyclones’ top-15 offensive efficiency rankings in 2014–15 and ‘15–16. As a senior, though, he’ll need to focus less on setting the table for his teammates than creating shots for himself.
49. Rules changes in Year 2
As Luke Winn explained in his State of the Game piece this week on SI.com, the widely discussed rules changes from last summer had a great effect on college basketball. Scoring is up. Offensive efficiency is up. Pace is up. Although some feared that the 30-second shot clock could become an advantage for defensives and potentially slow the game down even further, it had the opposite effect—and the effect that the rules committee had hoped for. This season, it’ll be interesting to see how coaches adjust for what has become a faster-paced and more high-scoring game.
48. A post-Baker-VanVleet Wichita State
This isn’t something to be excited about: Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet won’t be around this season. However, it will be interesting to see whether coach Gregg Marshall (we hope he’s not still fuming over what went down in Montreal this summer) can keep the Shockers at the top of the Missouri Valley Conference and subsequently confirm that their reputation as a nightmare tourney draw remains intact even without the backcourt pair that was so integral to their success the last few years. Expect big things from conference freshman of the year Markis McDuffie, former Kansas transfer Conner Frankamp and forwards Zach Brown and Shaq Morris.
47. Davidson’s ‘Round-The-World roster
In September, Seth Davis wrote a piece about Davidson coach Bob McKillop, who has quietly become the most effective international recruiter in Division I. This season, the Wildcats will roll out a roster featuring players from seven different countries, from the U.S. to Nigeria. The meshing of different cultures and backgrounds has been a blessing for the team, according to McKillop, and it’ll be fascinating to watch the group coalesce on the court.
46. More Drake-induced NCAA violations
Kentucky self-reported an NCAA violation stemming from a picture star point guard (and 2016 NBA draft pick) Tyler Ulis took in 2015 with the hip hop mogul. That followed a separate violation after Drake posed for a photo with recruit Charles Matthews (who has since transferred to Michigan) at the school’s preseason Big Blue Madness event in 2014. While Kentucky reportedly issued the rapper a cease-and-desist letter, apparently he’s stayed in touch with Wildcats coach John Calipari. Yet a brief social media investigation conducted by SI.com suggests Drake’s allegiance to Kentucky be abating. (Let’s ignore that tour of Texas’s basketball facilities he took this summer while wearing Wildcats gear.) In August Drake met with Duke five-star freshmen Marques Bolden, Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles. These two programs battle for national championships every spring and recruits every summer, but the competition for Drake’s attention could be a new front in the Wildcats-Blue Devils rivalry. Duke should be careful, though. When Drake is involved, NCAA wrist slaps are a virtual certainty.
45. Jay Bilas back in the booth
In our opinion, Bilas is ESPN’s best commentator in any sport. For game broadcasts, he seamlessly blends advanced analytics with fundamental basketball knowledge. When he’s on SportsCenter or Twitter, he is the unquestioned leader in calling out the absurdity of the NCAA and the people who believe players should not be compensated beyond a college education. In a year so far defined by political turmoil and protests, count on Bilas to deliver calm and clear opinions with confidence.
44. Monmouth’s revenge tour
Monmouth built a compelling case for a tournament bid last season when it knocked off UCLA, Notre Dame, USC and Georgetown in nonconference play. Yet its profile was dragged down by a few slip-ups against Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference competition, and the committee denied them spot in the field of 68. The Hawks were perhaps the most controversial snub of 2016, but the good news is they’ll have a pretty good chance to get in this season. Leading scorers Justin Robinson and Micah Seaborn are back, and Monmouth will have several opportunities to notch marquee out-of-league wins: South Carolina (Nov. 15), Syracuse (Nov. 18), Memphis (Dec. 13) and North Carolina (Dec. 28).
43. Monmouth bench’s encore
If you thought the backups for Monmouth exhausted their creativity (or their coaches’ patience with them) last season, think again:
Are you excited for the basketball season?! We officially start practice today! RT if you're ready for some more bench antics!— The Monmouth Bench (@MonmouthBench) September 30, 2016
42. Seeing what Edmond Sumner will do next
The emergence of Sumner was one of the main reasons Xavier outperformed preseason expectations in 2015–16 (28 wins, a peak No. 5 ranking in the AP poll, a No. 2 seed in the NCAAs after being voted fourth place in the Big East preseason poll). He took a medical redshirt in 2014–15 and then proceeded to blossom into one of the BIg East’s best point guards, piloting an offense that finished second in the conference in points scored per possession and posting the fourth-highest steal rate in league play. Now he’s ready to expand his game while helping Xavier compete with reigning national champion Villanova in the Big East. Make sure you catch at least one of Sumner’s games this season, because his physical tools and package of skills suggest he’s not a four-year player.
41. Chris Beard’s return to Texas Tech
It was an unusual off-season for Beard. After guiding Little Rock to the best season in school history, he was a hot commodity in the coaching carousel. Initially, he accepted a job as the head coach of UNLV, but he backed out days later to take a job at Texas Tech, where he had coached for a decade under Bob and Pat Knight. The Red Raiders return the core of a team that surprised many by going 19–13 and making the NCAA tournament a year ago. But the most exciting thing about the team this season could be watching Beard’s enthusiasm from the sideline. Last year during a locker-room speech, he broke his hand punching a whiteboard to pump up his Little Rock team, which competed in the Sun Belt. You can only imagine what lengths he’ll go to in order to prepare his team for the gauntlet known as the Big 12, and he should have little trouble catching the attention of recruits:
40. Ivan Rabb’s development
It was one of the more surprising decisions any college player made regarding the draft last season. Rabb, a 6' 11" center, elected to return to Cal as a sophomore despite being projected as a lottery pick. What went into his choice? “At the end of the day, the NBA isn’t going anywhere,” Rabb told SI.com’s Brian Hamilton in June. “If I’m the guy I’m supposed to be, I should be there next year as well. I should be even better, even more comfortable on the floor, have a better mentality. There are some improvements on the floor I want to make, and why not make them in college before I get to the next level? I want to have fewer weaknesses, so when I get there, I can just continue to get better.” Pac-12 opponents had a hard time dealing with Rabb as a freshman. It’s safe to assume their job won’t be any easier in 2016–17.
39. Miles Bridges’s dunks
The gem of Michigan State’s recruiting class is a freshman forward who can jump out of the gym. How high can he jump exactly? That remains unclear since he maxed out the Spartans’ vertical test:
What is clear is that Bridges can leave you in awe even without a basketball in his hands. If he has one, and he’s headed for the rim, look out.
38. New Big 12 coaches
The nation’s best conference in 2015–16, as measured by Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency metrics, shook up its coaching lineup this off-season. TCU hired Jamie Dixon, a proven winner at Pittsburgh who played for the Horned Frogs in the 1980s and is already having success on the recruiting trail, to replace Trent Johnson. Oklahoma State tabbed Brad Underwood, whose 89 wins between 2013–14 and 2015–16 at Stephen F. Austin tied Butler’s Brad Stevens for the most by a coach in his first three seasons at a Division I program, to replace Travis Ford. And Texas Tech hired Chris Beard, who led Little Rock to an upset over Purdue in the tourney last season, to fill in for Tubby Smith. Those are strong additions to a league that already features Bill Self, Lon Kruger, Shaka Smart and Bob Huggins.
37. Markelle Fultz at Washington
This would have been a lot more exciting if Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray hadn’t left the Huskies last year. (Both were selected in the first round of the NBA draft.) But the downside for Washington—a team that could have gone on a deep March run now looks more likely to struggle in the Pac-12—could be a boon for Fultz. A 6' 5" point guard, Fultz already has a reputation as an elite scorer. And the Huskies will look to him to carry the bulk of the offensive load this season. He could approach 20 points per game.
36. The next dance craze
This spring Maryland wing Jared Nickens and guard Jaylen Brantley popularized the Running Man Challenge, a silly dance that quickly gained traction on social media, spread to the NBA and caught the attention of college football teams. The two players then appeared on The Ellen Degeneres Show to talk about it. It may be difficult for anyone to come up with something that popular, but we’d all enjoy a new dance that catches on in locker rooms across the country. The Running Man fad showed the move need not be particularly creative–just something people will enjoy performing that can be captured in a short clip. Time is running out. The season is almost here.
35. E.C. Matthews is back
Matthews missed almost all of last season after tearing the ACL in his right knee 10 minutes into Rhode Island’s opener against American. He’s reportedly been cleared to fully participate in practices this fall, meaning he should be ready to go when the Rams host Dartmouth on Nov. 11. Matthews is a skilled scorer, but he won’t have to lead Rhode Island to the top of the Atlantic 10 alone. He’ll have a talented supporting cast to complement him, including guards Jared Terrell and Jarvis Garrett, forwards Hassan Martin and Kuran Iverson and Indiana transfer Stanford Robinson. With Matthews at full strength, this is a top-25 caliber squad with the potential to make a run in the NCAAs.
34. Creighton’s backcourt
Villanova will begin the season as the odds-on favorite to win the Big East, and Xavier is a good bet to push the Wildcats in the conference standings. But don’t overlook the Bluejays, which will feature one of the premier perimeter duos in the country. Anyone who watched them in 2015–16 no doubt is familiar with Maurice Watson Jr., the 5' 10" point guard who led Creighton in scoring and assists in his first year eligible with the program after transferring from Boston University. He’ll be joined in 2016–17 by another talented transfer: Former Kansas State guard Marcus Foster, who was named second-team All-Big 12 in 2014 after averaging 15.5 points per game as a freshman in 2013–14. He was dismissed from the program a year later after a previous suspension for violating team rules and subsequently elected to transfer to Creighton. Now Foster will get a fresh start on a team poised for its best season since Doug McDermott left town.
33. The Tip-Off tournament
The Champions Classic is merely the kicker to more than 24 hours of straight college basketball coverage. The women tip off the Tip-Off tournament with No. 4 UConn out to prove it was more than the sum of last year’s senior class and concludes with the Duke and Kansas men in Madison Square Garden. In between there will be intriguing matchups, like No. 10 Oregon and Baylor, and plenty of potential duds. But by this date next year, when you’re starved for college hoops, you’d kill to watch Winthrop at Manhattan tip off at 8:45 a.m. Enjoy it while it’s here.