Expert Predictions: SI writers make picks for Final Four, Player of the Year, more
- The college basketball season begins on Friday, and our experts make their predictions for the march to March below.
On Friday, college basketball's long off-season finally comes to a close. To get you ready for tip-off, our experts have again gazed into their crystal balls to predict player of the year candidates, Final Four teams, coaches on hot seats and so much more. Be sure to check out the rest of our season preview coverage here.
Final Four teams and a dark horse
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Davis: Duke. There they go again. The Blue Devils have the perfect blend of young and old, big and small, plus a pretty good coach on the sideline. The health of freshman forward Harry Giles is a lingering issue, but even if Giles has a less-than-hoped-for impact, Duke’s frontcourt is so deep that his absence won’t be fatal. The larger question is whether freshman point guard Frank Jackson will emerge enough to allow Grayson Allen to move off the ball where he is more comfortable.
Winn: Kansas. There isn’t much separating Duke, the No. 1 overall team in SI’s projections, from No. 2 Kansas and No. 3 Kentucky. And what differentiates the Jayhawks from those other two is that KU has two, veteran point guards in Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham; Duke doesn’t have a true floor general, and Kentucky’s is a true freshman. That Mason and Graham are complemented by wing Josh Jackson, a candidate to be the top pick in the 2017 draft, and power forward Carlton Bragg, the top guy on my breakout sophomore list, makes me even more bullish on the Jayhawks. Had they not run into the Villanova buzzsaw last season in the Elite Eight, we might be talking about a Kansas repeat.
Hamilton: Kansas. It’s probably more The Bill Self Coincidence than The Bill Self Corollary. But here’s the dynamic at play in Lawrence this season: The last two times Kansas was eliminated in the Elite Eight, it reached the national championship game the following April—winning in 2008, and losing in 2012. And last spring, the Jayhawks exited last spring’s tournament in—drumroll—the Elite Eight. While Kansas may not be the most deeply talented team in the country, its top six or seven rotation players can match up with anyone else’s. The roster is set up as you would want a national title roster to set up: Productive veteran lead guards in Frank Mason Jr. and Devonte’ Graham; a top-flight talent and potential freshman of the year in 6’8” wing Josh Jackson; a space-the-floor bench threat in Svu Mykailiuk; one workhorse holdover in the paint in 6' 10" center Landen Lucas and an ascendant forward in 6' 9" sophomore Carlton Bragg, who should at least flirt with a double-double on a regular basis. Duke, with its enviable combination of championship experience meshed with prolific new talent, is a safe pick. But no preseason No. 1 has won the title in the past seven years. Kansas’s overall talent is nothing to ignore, however, and it seems to have the personality to make a run at Self’s second national championship.
Johnson: Duke. The Blue Devils are the overwhelming favorite to win it all entering the season, and I think they will make good on that potential by cutting down the nets next spring. Duke features the frontrunner for national player of the year (Grayson Allen), returns solid contributors on the perimeter (Matt Jones, Luke Kennard) and the frontcourt (Amile Jefferson) and brings in a loaded recruiting class including four five-star prospects (Marques Bolden, Harry Giles, Frank Jackson, Jayson Tatum). One potential flaw is uncertainty at the point guard position, but the Blue Devils have enough talented ballhandlers and playmakers to overcome that. And while losing Giles for most (or all) of the season after he underwent another knee surgery is a significant blow, Duke has the depth to beat any team in the country without him. This is a super-talented group with a combination of proven veterans and freshman potential that no other squad can match.
Davis: Saint Mary’s. The Gaels return all but three total points from the team that won 29 games, finished in a tie for first in the West Coast Conference and led the nation field goal percentage. Once again, they have an Aussie-heavy roster led by Emmett Naar, a 6' 1" junior guard who tied Matthew Dellavedeova’s single-assist school record last season.
Winn: Creighton. This is a re-breakthrough pick: The Bluejays disappeared from the polls and the NCAA tournament in their first two years after Doug McDermott moved on to the NBA, but they look ready to become nationally relevant again. SI projects them as the No. 21 overall team, behind only Villanova and Xavier in the Big East, and they have one of the country’s best starting backcourts in former transfers Maurice Watson Jr. (from Boston) and Marcus Foster (Kansas State).
Hamilton: Illinois. John Groce may be positioned for the biggest swing season in memory. He’s working for a new athletic director and, as such, he’s likely to be fired if his team misses the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight season. But the Illini also have enough talent to earn a spot in the field of 68, which means Groce would likely get to coach an incoming Class of 2017 recruiting haul that currently features 6' 10" five-star center Jeremiah Tilmon and a pair of four-star guards. The future is bleak or bright, and there’s no in between. But Illinois has leading scorer Malcolm Hill (18.1 points per game) back as well as two double-digit producers in Mike Thorne (12.9) and Jalen Coleman-Lands (10.3). Floor general Tracy Abrams attempts yet another comeback after missing 2014–15 with a torn ACL and ‘15–16 with an Achilles injury. And Illinois plays conference favorites Michigan State, Wisconsin and Purdue just once apiece.
Johnson: Virginia Tech. The Hokies made a massive leap from Year 1 to Year 2 under new coach Buzz Williams. After recording only 11 wins and finishing 175th in adjusted efficiency in 2014–15, they recorded 20 victories and closed at 63rd in adjusted efficiency ‘15–16. The Hokies are ready to make yet another leap this season. Virginia Tech probably won’t compete with Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and Louisville at the top of the ACC, but expect senior guard Seth Allen and senior forward Zach LeDay to lead a team that made the NIT last season to the Big Dance for the first time in a decade.
Not buying the hype on
Davis: UCLA. The last thing Steve Alford needs is another rough season, but he is going to be heavily dependent a freshman point guard, Lonzo Ball, who comes in with a ton of hype. Meanwhile, the Bruins’ frontcourt took a hit with the graduation of Tony Parker and the unexpected departure of Jonah Bolden, who announced in July he was leaving to play professionally in his native Australia.
Winn: Maryland. The Terrapins are ranked No. 21 in the preseason Coaches’ poll and 25th in the AP poll, but analytics models—including our own—don’t agree. SI’s projection system sees star guard Melo Trimble having a strong, bounce-back junior season, but it doesn’t believe enough in his offensive supporting cast to have Maryland as a top-25 team, ranking it 36th. Ken Pomeroy’s preseason ranking formula, meanwhile, has the Terps at 48th. Their non-Trimble guards will need to significantly outperform projections to make them an actual Big Ten contender.
Hamilton: Virginia. This could be the year that Tony Bennett’s seemingly imperturbable program stumbles just a bit. There’s London Perrantes (11.0 points per game) and talented 6' 9" transfer forward Austin Nichols (13.3 points per game at Memphis in 2014-15) . . . and a lot of unknowns after that. Isaiah Wilkins and Marial Shayok are veterans of 60-plus college games and must be rotation stalwarts this year, and they’ve been underwhelming to date: Both averaged fewer than five points per game last year. The frontcourt, beyond Nichols, is a mystery. The pack-line defense will give the Cavaliers a chance against virtually anyone they play, and no one is saying they will plunge to irrelevance. But this doesn’t look like a top-15 team.
Johnson: Maryland. The Terrapins underperformed expectations after being touted as a national championship contenders entering last season. Few observers think the Terrapins can get that far this season, but I’m not sure they’ll even make the NCAAs. Mark Turgeon loses four of his top five possession-users from 2015–16 (Robert Carter, Diamond Stone, Rasheed Sulaimon and Jake Layman), and star point guard Melo Trimble endured a pretty big slump last season as a sophomore after shining as a freshman. If he doesn’t bounce back in a major way as a junior, Maryland may find itself scrapping with the likes of Penn State, Nebraska and Minnesota in the bottom half of the Big Ten standings.
Mid-major team to watch
Winn: Princeton. Our projection model has the Tigers ranked 47th, which means they’re not only the Ivy League favorites—they also could be good enough to earn the league’s first-ever at-large bid to the NCAA tournament should they not get in automatically. With 96% of their minutes returning from last year, plus the re-addition of injured power forward Hans Brase, this is a veteran team that could be a dangerous No. 12 seed. They take and make a ton of threes, and in lineups where Brase plays the five, they can have five, competent long-range shooters on the floor, making for a highly efficient offense.
Hamilton: Saint Mary’s. A 29-win team that misses the NCAA tournament: You do not see this very often. But that is the way the wind blew for the Gaels last season, so leaving no doubt about their qualifications for March would be a good place to start. This roster is designed to achieve that. Seven St. Mary’s players saw action in all 35 games a year ago—and they’re all back. An eighth played in 34 games, and he’s back, too. At the top of the lineup, Emmett Naar (14.1 points per game) and Dane Pineau (11.3) pace an offense that ranked fourth nationally in true shooting percentage (60.1%) a year ago. There won’t be much room for error in the quest to make the field of 68. But St. Mary’s should manage that, and in turn, it could manage to make the Sweet 16.
Johnson: Wichita State. The Shockers don’t project as the best team from outside the major conferences this season (SI’s system likes Gonzaga). The main reason they’ll be so intriguing to watch is the absence of two stars: Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker. What will the Shockers look like without the tremendous guard pairing that helped them achieve so much the past four seasons? There’s still talent on this roster, including Missouri Valley freshman of the year Markis McDuffie, and Gregg Marshall didn’t leave for a job at a bigger program, but it’s fair to question whether Wichita State will continue shredding conference opponents and slaying giants in March without VanVleet and Baker around.
Player of the year
Davis: Grayson Allen, Duke. He may be the player you love to hate, but he is a skilled scorer with a relentless ability to attack the rim. He has proven to be able to rise to the occasion in a high-pressure situation (e.g. the 2015 NCAA championship game), and yes, he has the ability to get under an opponent’s skin. Allen will have the added advantage of putting up huge numbers on a top-five team, which can only help his POY cause.
Winn: Allen. Allen is the nation’s most complete and efficient veteran scorer, having already spent a season as the Blue Devils’ go-to-guy—ahead of Brandon Ingram, the one-and-done freshman who would become the No. 2 pick in the 2016 NBA draft. Allen is the best player and best scoring option on the (projected) best team, and that’s typically a strong formula for winning NPOY honors. We see Duke’s addition of a monster recruiting class dragging down his points per game only slightly; it’s still realistic that he’ll stay on the floor long enough, and use enough possessions, to average 20-plus.
Hamilton: Allen. For all the reinforcements that arrived in Durham this off-season, for all the one-and-done uber-talents that will mesh with multiple returning veterans for an enviably deep rotation, there is this truth: Allen, the 6' 5" junior guard, will play a lot. There is no way Mike Krzyzewski will limit the minutes of his most reliably productive player—at least not in any substantial way. All that auxiliary talent, though, should prevent defenses from going all-in on stopping Duke’s leading scorer. So the Blue Devils will be quite good, and Allen will score about 20 points a game again, and he may be even more efficient doing it. It’s tempting to go with Oregon’s Dillon Brooks, who will be similarly productive for a similarly good team, but Brooks’s summertime foot surgery is concerning. Allen is the safest bet for Duke. Which means he’s going to spend a lot of time on the floor despite a deep roster. Which is why he’s the safest bet to win player of the year.
Johnson: Allen. This is an easy choice. Allen is the best player on the best team in the country. He’s a skilled shot-creator with a strong track record of efficient, high-volume scoring and he has the potential to post the highest points-per-game figure in the major conferences. Any hesitation over the possibility that Duke’s other perimeter attackers, like Tatum or Kennard, will detract from Allen’s statistical profile is unwarranted. The Blue Devils’ range of scoring sources may actually help Allen, because opposing teams won’t be able to gear their coverages toward stopping him without conceding open looks elsewhere. In addition, unlike a highly touted freshman guard (Washington’s Markelle Fultz) joining a team that may fall short of the NCAAs or a star sophomore big man (Cal’s Ivan Rabb) leading a fringe top-25 squad, Allen will play in an abundance of high-profile games against marquee opponents. Unless voters decide to stage a protest over a continuation of trip-gate, he should be in contention for this honor all season long.
Freshman of the year
Davis: Markelle Fultz, Washington. Fultz possesses modern-day flash as well as an old man’s poise. He has the ability to get by any defender and make a good decision, but he can also finish in traffic and has an exquisite three-point touch. He is not of the human highlight variety, but he is devastatingly effective and a potential No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.
Winn: Fultz. For the second straight season, we could see a dynamic freshman chase triple-doubles, average All-America-level numbers, miss the NCAA tournament and then get picked No. 1 in the NBA draft. Fultz will be one of the game’s best lead guards from Day 1; I’m not sure if it’s possible for him to carry a Huskies team that we project at 63rd into the NCAAs, but he’ll be a must-watch player regardless.
Hamilton: Fultz. Because this award doesn’t always directly correlate to great team success—see Simmons, Ben—it’s easier to consider the guy that stuffs the stat sheet in a system that plays to his strengths. The Huskies may not make the NCAA tournament, but the 6' 4" Fultz can be a high-volume scorer (SI’s own preseason projections have him at 18.2 points per game) for a team that ranked second nationally in adjusted tempo last season. Kansas’s Josh Jackson and Duke’s Jayson Tatum both seem poised to put up eye-catching numbers for top contenders. But the Fultz highlight reel may be longer, even if the team success rate isn’t higher.
Johnson: Fultz. He would be a strong contender for this award even if he were joining a team with a few other five-star prospects (like, say, Tatum at Duke). At Washington, a squad that lost two first-round picks this off-season, he’ll have a green light to attack the basket and launch perimeter shots. The Huskies’ pace should help, too. The additional possessions they generate by playing up-tempo will goose Fultz’s scoring numbers. Unfortunately for Fultz, those numbers may seem like a bunch of empty calories come next March: SI projects the Huskies to finish eighth in the Pac-12 and rank 63rd among Division I teams.
Davis: OG Anunoby, Indiana. His athleticism and speed have drawn comparisons to Victor Oladipo, but Anunoby, a 6' 8" sophomore forward, is already a much better defender than Oladipo was at this stage. The question is whether he has developed enough offensive polish to become an All-Big Ten caliber player. He will certainly have ample opportunity for minutes after the loss of veteran forwards Troy Williams (NBA) and Collin Hartman (injury).
Winn: Donovan Mitchell, Louisville. The Cardinals’ sophomore combo guard fits my Breakout Sophomore Formula—coming off the bench for much of last season, he used possessions at a high volume with respectable efficiency—and his play at adidas Nations this summer, as well as for Louisville this preseason, passes the eye test. With Damion Lee and Trey Lewis gone, there are plenty of shots available in the Louisville offense, and Mitchell and fellow sophomore Deng Adel are ready to inherit them.
Hamilton: Anunoby. He played just 466 minutes as a freshman, but he will have nothing and no one preventing him from assuming a vastly expanded role. His per-40 minute numbers from 2015–16 (14.2 points, 7.7 rebounds) seem a reasonable bar to approach or clear in ‘16-17. He shot 56.9% overall and 44.8% from three-point range in that limited floor time, auguring high-efficiency offense. And Anunoby could be the Hoosiers’ best defender; his 97.6 defensive rating led anyone on the roster that played in more than 13 games last year. This is essentially a like-for-like replacement for Troy Williams, and given starter’s minutes the production should be very similar, too.
Johnson: Peter Jok, Iowa. Jok withdrew from the NBA draft this spring after a junior season in which he made big gains in scoring efficiency and shot volume. With senior stalwarts Jarod Uthoff, Mike Gesell, Anthony Clemmons and Adam Woodbury departing this off-season after helping the Hawkeyes win 22 games and climb as high as No. 3 in the AP Top 25 poll, coach Fran McCaffery will need Jok to do more of the heavy lifting on the offensive end. One could argue that Jok already sort of “broke out” in 2015–16, but he could rank among the nation’s leaders in points per game as a senior. It’ll be fun watching him try to shoot Iowa to its fourth consecutive tourney appearance.
Davis: Giddy Potts, Middle Tennessee. His name alone would warrant a mention, but Potts returns to the Blue Raiders after leading the nation last season in three-point percentage (50.6). He went 3 for 5 from behind the arc and finished with 19 points in Middle Tennessee’s epic NCAA tournament upset of Michigan State.
Winn: Alec Peters, Valparaiso. The nation’s best shooter is rarely a 6' 9" forward, but Peters is almost automatic in pick-and-pop situations, and he’s made 45.1% of his treys for the Crusaders over the past two seasons. Expect him to post another 40-plus percent year as a senior, and play well enough all-around to potentially be the first NBA draft pick out of Valpo since his ex-coach, Bryce Drew, was selected 16th overall in 1998.
Hamilton: Peters. He eschewed the chance to play his final season as a grad transfer elsewhere, which means one of the country’s most efficient producers at all levels may toil in semi-obscurity again. But Peters shot 56.2% on two-pointers, 44% on three-pointers and 85% from the line in 2015–16. He averaged 1.191 points per possession on half-court jump shots, per Synergy Sports, good for the 93rd percentile nationally. Even in guarded catch-and-shoot scenarios, his 1.197 PPP landed in the 83rd percentile (still in Synergy’s “excellent” range). And Peters was a 1.254 PPP performer on post-ups, ranking again in the 94th percentile in that department. He doesn’t do much mid-range work—such shots accounted for just 41 possessions all year. But Peters doesn’t need to toil there when he’s so effective at the offensive extremes.
Johnson: Duncan Robinson, Michigan. Robinson made a smooth transition to the Big Ten last season after beginning his career at Division III Williams College. As a sophomore in 2015–16, the 6' 8" wing knocked down 45% of his three-point attempts, ranked in the nation’s top 35 in effective field goal percentage and averaged 1.2 points per possession on spot up jumpers, according to Synergy Sports. It’s reasonable to expect Robinson to rain threes at a similar clip as a senior while spacing the floor for senior point guard Derrick Walton Jr. and senior wing Zak Irvin in one of the Big Ten’s most potent offenses.
Davis: Chris Boucher, Oregon. Boucher, a 6' 10" senior, is one of the top shot-blockers in the country, but he is also narrow and rangy, which means he can cover a lot of ground and also shut down his primary defender. It was not easy at times for Boucher to adjust to the physical game of Division I following his transfer from junior college last year, but that won’t be as much of a concern this time around.
Winn: Tacko Fall, UCF. The dude is 7' 6", not a total stiff, and his impact on the Knights’ defense is undeniable. He only averaged 17.6 minutes per game as a freshman last year, but when he was on the floor, UCF allowed just 0.94 points per possession, compared to 1.11 PPP when he was on the bench. Opponents struggled to make twos when Fall was in the paint, as they shot 41.5% on the interior with him on the floor, and 49.9% when he was out of the game.
Hamilton: Boucher. He was second in the nation in total blocks last year (110) and fourth in block percentage (11.8%). We know the Ducks can score, but Boucher offers the sort of defensive backstop that takes a team from good to Final Four-worthy. And he stays on the floor because he doesn’t force Oregon to sacrifice offense for defense; Boucher averaged 12.1 points and nearly 26 minutes per game last year. He’s a big reason the Ducks have championship-level balance.
Johnson: OG Anunoby, Indiana. Anunoby is a long, athletic small forward who can handle defensive assignments on the perimeter and in the paint. With impressive physical tools and favorable mobility for his size, Anunoby can cover everyone from scoring guards to three-and-“D” wings to playmaking forwards. Yet his importance owes as much to his individual defensive aptitude as its value for a team that projects to score a lot but hemorrhage points on the other end. SI projects Indiana to have the fifth best offense in the country but rank 79th on defense. Anunoby can help the Hoosiers eclipse that latter figure and make a run at another Big Ten title.
Coach on the hottest seat
Davis: Pass. (Conscientious objector.)
Winn: Kim Anderson, Missouri. The formerly successful D-II coach is only in Year 3 of a five-year contract, so this might seem a bit aggressive . . . but SI’s projections have Mizzou finishing last in the SEC for the third straight season, and 190th overall. With a new athletic director overseeing things, and little signs of progress out of the hoops program, this qualifies as a hot-seat situation.
Hamilton: Richard Pitino, Minnesota. The Gophers welcome Amir Coffey, a four-star freshman guard from nearby Hopkins, Minn., which is a plus. Minuses abound just about everywhere else. Minnesota has won eight Big Ten games, total, in the past two seasons. It won just eight games overall last year. As for the theory that Pitino’s energy would recharge the program’s ability to keep local talent at home, there’s Coffey . . . and then there’s the state’s three Top 100 prospects in the Class of 2017 currently planning to attend Texas and Wisconsin. (Two, in fact, are pledged to the rival Badgers. Though it’s only fair to note that Top 100 New York point guard Isaiah Washington is committed to Minnesota.) Multiple off-court incidents have dinged the program under Pitino’s watch. And there’s a new athletic director, Mark Coyle, running the department. Pretty much every factor that can work against a coach is working against Pitino. The 34-year-old swims against a very strong tide, and vast improvement is required to stem it.
Johnson: Bruce Weber, Kansas State. The trendline here is unequivocally negative. After winning 47 games combined and making the NCAAs during Weber’s first two years in charge of the Wildcats, Kansas State compiled a combined 32 victories and failed to qualify for the NCAAs over the past two seasons. Making matters worse for Weber is the success enjoyed by other programs in the Sunflower state. Kansas continues to stack conference titles under Bill Self and Wichita State has evolved into one of the nation’s best mid-major programs. It’s unrealistic to think the Wildcats can hang with the Jayhawks in the Big 12 every year, but fans rightly expect better than mediocrity. They expressed their displeasure with the situation to athletic director John Currie last March after Oklahoma State hired Kansas State alumnus Brad Underwood from Stephen F. Austin. Things may not get much better this season. The Wildcats have finished outside the nation’s top 100 in offensive efficiency in three consecutive years, and their top scorer from 2015–16 (guard Justin Edwards) won’t be back in 2016–17. Our system has Kansas State finishing ahead of only one team (TCU) in the Big 12 standings, and one spot below Underwood’s Cowboys.
A bold prediction
Davis: Sorry to say it, but we are bound to have a couple of ugly incidents once again in connection with a court storm. Though schools have gotten much better about keeping players and coaches safe, the storms have become so frequent and intense that they are bound to spill over into conflict or perhaps injury. To paraphrase Charles Barkley, I hope I’m wrong, but I doubt it.
Winn: That the ACC will receive 11 bids—and narrowly miss out on a 12th—to the NCAA tournament, tying the Big East for the alltime record. This version of the ACC could go down as the strongest conference ever, with five teams in the top 14 of our projections (Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Louisville, Syracuse) and 12 in our top 50. Merely finishing .500 in the conference should be viewed as an accomplishment.
Hamilton: One of these coaches will begin 2017–18 on an NBA sideline: Kevin Ollie, Jay Wright, Bill Self, Larry Krystkowiak, Kelvin Sampson.
Johnson: Gonzaga will make the Final Four. The program known first and foremost for shocking major conference heavyweights in March has never made the national semifinals. That streak will end this season, with the Zags bringing back mammoth center Przemek Karnowski and welcoming in a coveted crop of transfers (Nigel Williams-Goss, Jordan Mathews, Johnathan Williams) and an elite frontcourt recruit (Zach Collins). Gonzaga will tear through the West Coast Conference, sweep top projected challenger Saint Mary’s, earn a top-three seed in the NCAAs, emerge from their region and complete the year in Phoenix with around 35 wins.