Expert predictions: SI writers make midseason picks for Final Four & more

Tuesday January 17th, 2017

In the blink of an eye, we find ourselves more than midway through the college basketball season. With elite teams beginning to separate themselves from the pack in conference play but the bubble picture still a long way from coming into focus, we offered our writers the opportunity to revise their preseason predictions based on what they’ve seen on courts across the country so far. Here are their predictions for Coach of the Year, Player of the Year, the national champion and much more.

Final Four

Seth Davis
Luke Winn
Brian Hamilton
Chris Johnson

National champion

Davis: UCLA. There is still plenty of time for my original pick, Duke, to right the ship, but that team seems too star-crossed to bet on right now. The Bruins check all the boxes, most importantly the stellar leadership of freshman Lonzo Ball at the point.

Winn: Kansas. The Jayhawks don’t have a customarily great Bill Self defense this season, but they have other championship characteristics that I like. They start two elite point guards in senior Frank Mason III and junior Devonte’ Graham, and the past four national champs have been structured that way. They have a proven, big-shot maker in Mason. They have multiple future NBA players on the roster, including a possible No. 1 pick in freshman wing Josh Jackson. They have extensive NCAA tournament experience, albeit not in the Final Four. They’re not a juggernaut, but no team is this season, so you just have to choose the best fit from a group of imperfect contenders.

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Hamilton: Kansas. It’s a little alarming that the Jayhawks are 29th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency to date. You’d expect a better rate from both a Bill Self team and a title contender. But Kansas was the pick here before the season and little has happened to change that. This is still the fourth-most efficient offense in the country driven by a Player of the Year candidate in Frank Mason and his complementary lead guard, Devonte’ Graham. Maybe even more auspiciously, Josh Jackson has proven to be the plug-and-play freshman star everyone anticipated he would be: If the defense picks up—and the Jayhawks wouldn’t be the first team to peak in that area come tournament time—there won’t be many nits to pick with them.

Johnson: Duke. This may feel like the perfect time to jump off the Blue Devils bandwagon rather than pick them to win the title. But as dire as things look for Duke right now, this isn’t about which is the best team in the country in the middle of January. It’s about which one can win six single-elimination games in March. The Blue Devils are the best choice. Although it slipped down various polls and power ratings since beginning the season as an obvious No. 1, Duke still has the most talented roster in the country, with a balanced blend of future first-round draft picks, valuable veterans and productive role guys. The Grayson Allen melodrama just won’t go away, and an injury to the same foot that Amile Jefferson fractured last season is concerning, but those issues should fade into the background as Duke steadies itself during conference play. The return of coach Mike Krzyzewski after an extended absence following back surgery will provide a boost, and the Blue Devils will be prepared to handle whatever lies in their bracket path after going through the rigorous ACC.

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Team that has yet to peak

Davis: Michigan State. The Spartans stumbled in the early going because they’re young, they played a rigorous schedule, and they lost freshman forward Miles Bridges to injury. Now Bridges is back, freshman forward Nick Ward has emerged as a dynamic post threat, and Tom Izzo is back in business.

Winn: North Carolina. The Tar Heels are just working the underrated Theo Pinson back into their rotation after a long absence due to injury. Their offense has yet to hit its ceiling, and data has shown that Roy Williams teams historically play better in March than they do in January. They’re no longer ranked in the top 10, but I still think they can reach the Final Four.

Hamilton: Oregon. The Ducks have won 14 in a row and just whacked three straight Pac-12 foes by 23, 21 and 19 points, respectively, after beating UCLA by two in Eugene. Yet somehow Oregon—a trendy preseason Final Four pick—has been largely forgotten. What’s more, we should be able to expect more consistency from junior forward Dillon Brooks; the Ducks star hit for 23 against UCLA and 28 against USC recently . . . before scoring 15 points, total, against Washington and Washington State. Brooks has nearly as many single-digit scoring outings (seven) as double-digit outputs (eight). If he steadies himself in his continuing recovery from off-season foot surgery, and especially if he recovers his All-America promise, this can be a Final Four-caliber roster.

Johnson: Michigan State. The Spartans have the rest of their conference slate to round into form before ripping off a deep tourney run. Michigan State has played only four games since late November with Miles Bridges in the lineup as he recovered from an ankle injury; at his best, the freshman is a two-way force with few equals in the Big Ten in terms of overall impact. The Spartans probably won’t win the league (Wisconsin is the pick here), and they could well take a few more ugly Ls like the one they suffered at the Palestra to Penn State earlier this month, but Tom Izzo will have his team ready for March. In case you weren’t aware, he’s got a pretty strong track record of winning in that month.

Sell your stock on this team

Davis: Virginia. The Cavaliers have always played a grinding, efficient defense, but in the past few years they had Malcolm Brogdon to bail them out on offense. There is no such player on the team this year, which is going to be especially problematic in the deepest conference we have seen in a long time.

Winn: West Virginia. The Mountaineers recently blew out the No. 1 team in the country, they’re ranked No. 7 in the AP poll, and No. 2 in overall efficiency on kenpom.com. I don’t know if things can get much better for them, mainly because their incredible offensive (14.8%) and defensive (32.7%) turnover rates are a tad unsustainable. I don’t see a crash coming, but a slight correction seems realistic.

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Hamilton: TCU. Maybe no one has any TCU stock to begin with, and this is a moot point. But Jamie Dixon’s first season has been pleasantly inoffensive so far, with a 14–3 (3–2 Big 12) record so far. This may be as good as it gets though. The Horned Frogs face Baylor twice and travel to Kansas State, Iowa State and Kansas during the remainder of Big 12 play, not to mention hosting West Virginia in late February. TCU only had one solid nonconference win, against Illinois State. The rest of the conference schedule threatens to expose this team.

Johnson: Baylor. This is not an overreaction to the Bears’ 21-point loss at West Virginia last week. The Mountaineers may not lose in Morgantown all season. But for as good as Baylor looked throughout the nonconference portion of its schedule and during the early part of conference play, the notion that it’ll seriously push Kansas for the Big 12 title seems far-fetched. Though this league is deeper than anticipated before the season, there remains a sizable gulf between the Jayhawks and the rest of the pack. The Bears are a lock for the NCAAs and should have a good shot at making the second weekend depending on their draw, but they’ll have a hard time finishing better than third in the Big 12.

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Mid-major to watch

Davis: Wichita State. The Shockers held up well in the nonconference season, they have terrific depth, they still play angry on defense, and they should only face one worthy Missouri Valley Conference opponent, Illinois State. The Shockers lost to the Redbirds on the road on Saturday, but I believe they’ll run the table from here and be back in the top 25 by season’s end.

Winn: UNC Wilmington. This off-season I gave UNCW coach Kevin Keatts a (highly prestigious) Effy Award for orchestrating the biggest two-year turnaround in all of college hoops. The Seahawks’ improvement hasn’t stopped, as they’re now the only non-WCC/MVC mid-major ranked in the top 50 in efficiency, and they have an elite offense with three senior starters that’s capable of pulling off an NCAA tourney upset. (They just need to make sure fellow CAA contender Northeastern—which has already upset UConn and Michigan State—doesn’t snatch the league’s automatic bid.)

Hamilton: Saint Mary’s. O.K., so the issue once again is . . . actually making the NCAA tournamentLast year the Gaels won 29 games and were left out of the field of 68. This year they have the nation’s No. 18 offense and No. 40 defense in terms of adjusted efficiency, but they also have two losses, including a blowout at Gonzaga on Saturday. Given the chance, though, this is a team with a rotation that can go 10- or 11-deep with a bona fide star in 6' 11" center Jock Landale. Let’s hope the Gaels, which the pollsters currently esteem as one of the top 25 outfits in the country, get a chance to prove themselves this March.

Johnson: Wichita State. The Shockers will be a threat to knock off a power-conference team or three in the NCAAs, but their path to earning a bid is precarious. Wichita State dropped key nonconference games to Louisville, Michigan State and Oklahoma State, as well as a conference tilt at Illinois State; its best win so far came against an Oklahoma team that’s 1–4 in Big 12 play so far. But irrespective of whether the Shockers need to win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament to make the field of 68, they would be a tough matchup even without star guards Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet. Wichita State boasts a talented sophomore forward in Markis McDuffie, and former three-star guard Landry Shamet has showed well as a freshman after redshirting last season.

Coach of the year

Davis: Sean Miller, Arizona. I actually think it should be Scott Drew, but I wanted at least to make the case for Miller, who has been without his best returning player, freshman guard Allonzo Trier (who is suspended indefinitely), and a four-star freshman, wing Ray Smith, who retired from basketball after his third ACL tear. Still, Miller has the Wildcats ranked No. 14 in the AP poll and in the hunt for a Pac-12 title. If Trier becomes eligible soon, Arizona will be able to give UCLA a run for its money in the league.

Winn: Scott Drew, Baylor. West Virginia’s Bob Huggins is a solid candidate, as is Butler’s Chris Holtmann. But Drew taking a Baylor team that didn’t crack the preseason AP poll all the way to No. 1 in January makes him the obvious, midseason choice—especially given that his Bears started the year 15–0 against a grueling schedule that included seven teams ranked in the top 50 in efficiency.

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Hamilton: Tony Bennett, Virginia. To recap, the Cavaliers lost three of their top four scorers off last year’s 29-win Elite Eight team. Then, exactly one game into the 2016–17 season, highly touted transfer forward Austin Nichols—a double-double threat who might have been an All-ACC performer, at least—was kicked out of the program. At the moment, Virginia has exactly one double-digit scorer: senior guard London Perrantes. And despite all of this, Bennett’s team is 13–3 while ranking eighth nationally in defensive efficiency and 15th in offensive efficiency. There are others whose teams have surpassed expectations, yes. But then there’s Virginia, which faced decent expectations, lost one of the most important parts to meeting those expectations, and remains right in the ACC hunt at near the top of the national polls anyway.

Johnson: Miller. The first major blow to Miller’s roster this season came when talented wing Ray Smith announced his retirement after tearing his ACL for the third time. Then point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright suffered a high ankle sprain that forced him to miss six games. And the Wildcats are still managing without leading returning scorer Allonzo Trier, who has been suspended indefinitely for undisclosed reasons. Despite all of that, the Wildcats have dropped only two games to projected top-four NCAA tournament seeds (Butler, Gonzaga) and opened Pac-12 play 5–0 (with a 16–2 record overall). Miller has a lot of talent to work with, including a projected lottery pick in freshman seven-footer Lauri Markkanen, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t done a really good job with this team.

Joe Robbins/Getty

Player of the year

Davis: Josh Hart, senior guard, Villanova. Some players do a little of everything, but Hart does a lot of everything. He pinpoints Villanova’s defense, scores from all over the floor, and he is at his best in late-game clutch situations.

Winn: Hart. Hart is doing everything this season—handling a go-to-guy scoring role; acting as the Wildcats’ secondary creator after sophomore point guard Jalen Brunson; leading them in defensive rebounding; and taking on big defensive assignments. NPOY cases can be made for Kansas senior guard Frank Mason III and UCLA freshman guard Lonzo Ball, but when impact on both ends of the court is fully considered, Hart has a clear edge.

Hamilton: Hart. The reigning national champions may not repeat as national champions because they’re a little too reliant on Hart getting things done in crunch time. Even for a guard who is arguably the most valuable offensive player in the country (Hart’s 3.2 offensive win shares are tied for first in the nation), resorting to hero ball is no way to return to the Final Four. Still, Villanova probably will win the Big East and earn a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, and Hart’s contributions to that will be impossible to ignore. Voters may wish they could wait until after the last game is played if Kansas and Frank Mason take home a title, but Hart looks to be the MVP for this season.

Johnson: Frank Mason III, senior guard, Kansas. Mason is one half of the nation’s best backcourt, and he’s made a pretty big leap after earning second-team All-Big 12 honors last season. The senior has upped his usage rate and scoring efficiency, increased his assist rate and slashed his turnovers, drawn more fouls and hit a higher percentage of his free throws, all while leading powering the Jayhawks’ top-five offense. Freshman Josh Jackson is Kansas’s best NBA prospect, but Mason is a bigger driver of its success. He’s also responsible for the shot of the season to date, a pull-up jumper over Duke’s Matt Jones to sink the Blue Devils at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 15.

Defensive player of the year

Davis: Sindarius Thornwell, senior guard, South Carolina. You saw how valuable Thornwell is to the Gamecocks as they lost three games while he was suspended for violating athletic department policy. With him in the lineup spearheading Frank Martin’s defense, the Gamecocks are undefeated this season.

Winn: Ethan Happ, sophomore center, Wisconsin. A five-man typically distinguishes himself by blocking a ton of shots. Happ is different: He brings a total package of elite defensive rebounding (grabbing 29.6% of opponents’ misses), elite turnover-creation (second in the Big Ten at 4.5%) and moderate shot-blocking skills. He’s been the key to the Badgers having a top-20 defense for a second straight season.

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Hamilton: Jevon Carter, junior guard, West Virginia. There’s Press Virginia, and then there’s the engine of Press Virginia. That would be Carter, the 6' 2" dynamo who ranks fourth in the country with 3.1 steals per game and second in overall defensive rating (80.3). No one is calling shot-blocking easy, but waiting for the offense to come to you is one thing—relentlessly attacking the offense and causing chaos is another. Carter has eight games with four or more steals this season. Of course his numbers wouldn’t be as good in a scheme that falls back past midcourt every time. But the Mountaineers likewise wouldn’t have the fourth-most efficient defense in the country without players particularly adept at executing it.

Johnson: Carter. This is a tip of the cap to the press-heavy style coach Bob Huggins employs to devastating effect at West Virginia, which looks like the Jayawks’ biggest threat in the Big 12 this season. On a team geared to rip the ball away from opponents, Carter has been an especially prolific pilferer. He recorded five swipes in the Mountaineers’ win over No. 1 Baylor last week and currently leads the Big 12 (and is third in the country) in steal percentage. Carter is one of the biggest reasons why West Virginia, after forcing giveaways on a quarter of opponents’ possessions last season, has turned teams over on nearly a third of their trips down the court in 2016–17, good for first in the nation.

Joe Robbins/Getty

Tournament hero in waiting

Davis: Alec Peters, senior forward, Valparaiso. He could have gone pro—and no one would have blamed him after his coach, Bryce Drew, left for Vanderbilt—but Peters came back to try to play in the NCAA tournament for the first time. He is as gifted an offensive players as there is in the country.

Hamilton: Malik Monk, freshman guard, Kentucky. Yes, picking the most gifted offensive player on one of the most potent teams in the country (second overall in offensive efficiency) is the sort of out-on-a-limb expertise you have come to expect here at Sports Illustrated. But picking a mid-major star is a crapshoot; their teams might not even make the field, or they might be 16th-seed chum when they do. Here’s betting Kentucky will have a close game or two, and here’s betting John Calipari will run a set for Monk to get a shot, and here’s betting Monk’s creative shot-making puts him in position to drop jaws at the buzzer one or two times.

Johnson: Bonzie Colson, junior forward, Notre Dame. NBA-bound point guards have keyed the Fighting Irish’s runs to the Elite Eight the last two seasons. This season it’ll be Colson who propels coach Mike Brey’s team to at least two wins in the tourney. He’s short for a big man (6' 5"), but Colson makes up for it with a nearly seven-foot wingspan. After Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson hogged the spotlight in the 2015 and 2016 tourneys, Colson is ready for his star turn on the sport’s biggest stage. He’ll have help from sharp-shooters Steve Vasturia, Matt Farrell and V.J. Beachem, but there’s one problem: Notre Dame could get bounced early if its defense (No. 70 in efficiency) doesn’t hold up.

A bold prediction

Davis: Northwestern is going to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in its history. The Wildcats have pro-level talent, and coach Chris Collins has done a great job putting together successive recruiting classes and building a winning culture.

Winn: The projected No. 14 seeds in BracketMatrix.com’s latest NCAA tournament forecast look especially strong: Princeton, Monmouth and Vermont all rank in the top 100 in efficiency, and Florida Gulf Coast isn’t too far behind them. In terms of quality they’re on par with the Georgia State (2015) and Mercer (2014), 14-seeds that pulled off upsets in past tournaments. If this holds up, the conditions seem ripe for multiple three-seeds to fall in the first round of the NCAAs.

Hamilton: Will there be precious few high-level job openings this off-season? People are going to get fired, for sure. That’s unavoidable. But a peek at the bottom-feeders in big conferences reveals a lot of programs who either recently made changes and have to give the new coach more time . . . or other programs who won’t be quick to give up on their longtime leaders.

Johnson: Kentucky will run the table in conference play. The Wildcats are beatable; UCLA and Louisville proved that in December. But both of those teams are considerably better than anyone Kentucky will face before the NCAAs. The Wildcats’ biggest challenge remaining in the regular season may be a Feb. 4 trip to Florida, and the Gators don’t have the firepower to hang with De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and the rest of Kentucky’s loaded rotation for 40 minutes. A Feb. 18 trip to Georgia and March 4 visit to Texas A&M are other games to monitor, but Kentucky bludgeoned the Aggies 100–58 in Rupp Arena earlier this month. The Wildcats’ inability to knock down three-point shots consistently may hurt them in the NCAAs, but they’ll probably spend the next couple of months in cruise control while racking up double-digit wins.

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