- College basketball is back! Our opening week roundtable looks at which players could swing this year's Champions Classic doubleheader, the nation's most underrated teams and more.
Welcome to the Tuesday Shootaround! Every Tuesday during college basketball season, we'll be holding a roundtable with our writers and editors where we ask the most pressing questions concerning the most recent action and the week ahead. The topics for opening week include Champions Classic x-factors, teams that deserve more hype and the (non-Indianapolis) most compelling games of the week.
Who will be the x-factor in each of the Champions Classic games?
Dan Greene: In a game featuring as much youth as Duke-Kentucky, it can feel like just about everything and everyone is an X-factor. But considering the Blue Devils are so reliant on newcomers, the big question will be how ready they are to function as a team out of the gate, a lot of which may come down to how Tre Jones does running the point. He'll be the one most responsible for running this team on the floor and will have to do it without many experienced shoulders to share the load. The steepness (or lack thereof) of his learning curve could loom large.
In the first game, I'll have my eyes on Michigan State's Nick Ward, who has been an effective and important presence for the Spartans when he's been on the floor, but hasn't managed to stay out there as much as Tom Izzo would like due to defensive issues. Kansas should go to newly eligible forward Dedric Lawson, a transfer from Memphis, early and often, and if Ward can't limit Lawson's impact then it could have the added consequence of forcing Ward to the bench, downgrading Michigan State's offense in what could already be an uphill battle.
Emily Caron: Duke’s will be Tre Jones at the point guard slot. Without a fantastic facilitator, there’s no shot the Blue Devils get the most out of their young team against a team like Kentucky. Grad transfer Reid Travis will be the Wildcats’ X-factor as he’ll be able to bring buckets under the basket against an unknown Duke defense. Cassius Winston will star for the Spartans as a leader, playmaker and scorer. Kansas’s X-factor will come in the form of potential player of the year candidate Dedric Lawson. The Memphis transfer will likely be the Jayhawks' No. 1 scoring option this season and that’ll start against Michigan State.
Jake Fischer: Duke-Kentucky: Reid Travis. In John Calipari's first 10th season at a school, the Wildcats have high expectations, once again behind a talented crop of freshmen. Yet the grad transfer from Stanford could be the straw that stirs the drink for Kentucky this winter. I’m curious to see how he meshes with one of my favorite players in the country, combo-forward PJ Washington. As small ball and positional versatility have permeated the game, it will be interesting to see just exactly how Cal uses Travis to unlock different, malleable UK lineups. The Champions Classic, pitting the Cats against Duke’s star-studded team, may give a telling glimpse of that impending creativity.
Michigan State-Kansas: Matt McQuaid. It’s been a while since the sharpshooter was just a young floor spacer on that Denzel Valentine-Bryn Forbes team that started the season undefeated in 2015–16. The Spartans had high hopes for McQuaid back then, but the Texas native hasn’t really developed outside of a complimentary piece during his three years in East Lansing. McQuaid has never eclipsed 21.5 minutes per game and is a career 37.9% three-point shooter. We’ll see if increased playing time will translate into more than his career-average 3.1 attempts from downtown.
Eric Single: Lagerald Vick and Kansas spent a few weeks of the early offseason on a break while Vick tested the NBA draft waters and the Jayhawks wished him well while jamming their roster with star-studded newcomers. It’s still a little unclear where he fits in the long run, but in the season opener it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the senior’s poise and shooting touch show up at the right time. I’m keeping my eye on P.J. Washington in the nightcap. He got lost in Kentucky’s frontcourt at times as a freshman but came on so strong at the end of last year, and the Wildcats’ bigs need to play Duke’s to a draw at least.
Max Meyer: Kansas-Michigan State: Kansas has been led by savvy floor generals over the past few campaigns, but the Jayhawks have questions at the position heading into this season. Five-stars Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes along with Cal transfer Charlie Moore will all be in the mix to take over this role. If Michigan State were to have a chance in this game, however, veteran Cassius Winston will need to take advantage with his experience. Winston is extremely efficient from the floor and is an excellent distributor. Point guard is the one area that Michigan State has an edge over Kansas, and Winston will have to be the guy that leads the Spartans.
Kentucky-Duke: I think this game will be won in the paint, and Kentucky has an elite interior scorer in Reid Travis. Travis came over as a grad transfer from Stanford, and his play on the both sides of the floor will be critical in this contest. He’ll likely be tasked with defending freakish freshman Zion Williamson, while Duke will have a difficult time preventing Travis from eating close to the basket. In a game filled with many talented freshmen, this senior will be the most important player on the hardwood.
Molly Geary: For Michigan State-Kansas, I'll say Cassius Winston. The 6' 0" junior point guard is going to need to come up big for the Spartans and use his experience as an advantage going against a young Jayhawks backcourt that contains two (albeit highly-touted) freshmen in Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson and Cal transfer Charlie Moore, who hasn't played in an official game since March 2017. For Duke-Kentucky, I'm going to wander into left field and say the Blue Devils' Alex O'Connell. The sharpshooting guard made 22 of 45 threes as a freshman and could easily find himself open in whatever minutes he gets while the big guns draw the focus of the Wildcats' defense. If O'Connell can knock down a few clutch threes off the bench, it'll help a young Duke team immensely.
Jeremy Woo: Kansas-Michigan State could turn into a bit of a mismatch if the Jayhawks get going early. Keep an eye on freshman point guard Devon Dotson, who’s quick and creative enough to make Cassius Winston’s life miserable. Kansas’s front line is as deep as you’ll find anywhere, but the guards are going to have to mesh fast for this team to truly contend, and Dotson is probably the best bet to grow into the starting job, although Charlie Moore is no slouch.
Duke-Kentucky is going to be an uptempo game, and whether the Wildcats can keep pace may hinge on Tyler Herro being able to make timely shots. The freshman is UK’s best perimeter threat and a dangerous option running off screens and pulling up. To beat Duke, you’re going to have to make their star freshmen work defensively. Kentucky is one of the few teams with enough talent to match them, and they’ll need Herro to get hot (and also not get exposed defensively). This game may live up to the hype.
Which team heading into the season do you feel is being most underrated nationally?
Greene: Wisconsin. The Badgers are coming off their first losing season since 1997–98—when a lot of this season's biggest stars were not yet born—so it's understandable that they have fallen off the radar a tad. But they return basically everyone from that team, including guards D'Mitrik Trice and Kobe King, who each played just 10 games a years ago. Most importantly, Bucky brings back big man Ethan Happ, one of the country's most productive and efficient players, for his senior season. They'll make a return to the national rankings at some point and some noise in the Big Ten.
Caron: Louisville has a talented team and a tested coach to lead it this season as it starts fresh post-Pitino mayhem. While the Cardinals will have to transition to the Mack era right after losing their top three scorers, I think they have enough holdover talent for Mack to mold into a formidable team faster than people might be expecting.
Fischer: St. John’s. The Shamorie Ponds show is back for another tour at Madison Square Garden, but the Red Storm’s season will be defined by a slew of additions the national discussion has not granted nearly enough attention. Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron, the Tigers’ former leading scorer, will keep defenses at bay for Ponds to shimmy around the perimeter. The Johnnies also add Sedee Keita (South Carolina) and Mikey Dixon (Quinnipiac), who sat out last season. A junior college All-American in L.J. Figueroa, and some promising freshmen—featuring Monteverde product Josh Roberts—and Chris Mullin’s program could potentially challenge Villanova atop the Big East.
Single: Clemson made the Sweet Sixteen last year, lost to its region’s Final Four representative (Kansas) by four points, enters this year in both traditional Top 25s and kenpom.com’s top 15 … and still hasn’t gotten much air time in preseason ACC conversations. We should be talking about this team’s chances of getting to Minneapolis. Four seniors that kept last year’s run going once Donte Grantham tore his ACL will make up the Tigers’ core, including a whip-smart backcourt and shot-blocking extraordinaire Elijah Thomas patrolling the middle. Clemson’s defensive consistency could prove to be the primary disruptor of the conference’s natural order.
Meyer: Not only should Marquette be ranked, the Golden Eagles have a legitimate shot of winning the Big East this season. This is a team that can put up points in bunches, led by one of the best shooters in the country in Markus Howard. Two years ago as a freshman, he shot 54.7% from three. While his efficiency dropped as a sophomore, he still put up 20.4 points per game. Forward Sam Hauser added another 14.1 points per game, and shot 48.7% from beyond the arc. Per kenpom.com, Hauser recorded the nation’s 11th-highest offensive rating. His brother Joey also joins the fold this season, a top-50 recruit. Transfers Joseph Chartouny and Ed Morrow figure to play important roles in this rotation as well. The team’s Achilles’ heel over the past couple seasons has been defense, and there are certainly question marks in that area again. But this is a group that can beat any team on a night that it’s shooting the ball well, which it certainly has the capability of doing often.
Geary: I'm going to say Iowa State. The Cyclones' preseason expectations (sixth place in the Big 12 poll, zero AP or coaches' poll top-25 votes) are a direct result of their 13–18 record last season, but I'm betting on that showing being an anomaly. They were without starters Nick Weiler-Babb and Solomon Young for most of their final winless stretch, and while the latter recently had surgery for a groin strain, both are back in Ames. So is Lindell Wigginton, who starred as a freshman and looks primed for a big year, while Virginia transfer Marial Shayok and Nebraska transfer Michael Jacobson are both now eligible after sitting out 2017–18. If Iowa State can improve on defense, it should have no problem bouncing back to the kind of Cyclones teams we're used to seeing.
Woo: Florida. The SEC is terrifyingly deep on paper, but the Gators didn’t lose as much as people might think. Freshman Andrew Nembhard is well-equipped to take over Chris Chiozza’s spot at the point and has become something of a forgotten man nationally. I don’t expect that to last long. Jalen Hudson is still one of the best shooters in the conference, KeVaughn Allen is solid and there should be enough frontcourt depth to prop up the guard play and finish in the top part of the conference. This feels like a team that should be ranked everywhere, but alas.
Which non-Champions Classic game are you most looking forward to in opening week, and why?
Greene: The fact that the most logical answer to this question—Florida-Florida State—tips off during the Champions Classic, and that there isn't anything else of that quality to choose from in this first week, is a nice little window into the issues college basketball has with capturing the public's attention early in the season. So I'm gonna go off the map a little bit and say Buffalo at West Virginia on Friday night. The beginning of the Mountaineers' post-Jevon Carter (and Daxter Miles) era will get an early test from the Bulls, who are favorites to repeat as MAC champs and return all but one rotation player from the team that upset Arizona in the NCAA tournament's first round last March. It's a lower-key clash between two potential tourney teams that's about as quality a non-marquee matchup as you'll find this time of year. Plus you get to watch Sagaba Konate.
Caron: Florida at Florida State. It’s no Champions Classic but it’ll be a damn good rivalry game between two uber talented top-25 level teams. Florida comes in at No. 23 in SI’s preseason rankings while Florida State sits at No. 14. It’ll be a battle of Florida State’s tested talent vs. young guns like Andrew Nembhard at Florida.
Fischer: Give me Virginia-Towson. I want to see how the Cavaliers open their season, wounds still fresh from suffering that historic upset at the hands of No. 16 UMBC. UVA opens up this campaign facing another small Maryland school, a Tigers program that lost all five of its leading scorers from a season ago. With Virginia’s defense, this could be a 60-point blowout. But let’s see just how healthy and fully-recovered DeAndre Hunter is, and if the country’s best regular season team from a season ago will be ready to step on its opponents’ throats out the gate.
Single: Vanderbilt at USC. If you are free late next Sunday night and have Pac-12 Network (I acknowledge those are two big asks), make time for a clash between two teams that should be talented enough to beat anyone in their respective conferences, even if they are doomed to spend all year sweating out their bubble status. The Commodores’ two five-star freshmen, point guard Darius Garland and forward Simi Shittu, will get their first taste of high-major hoops; the Trojans have a much-hyped freshman of their own in Kevin Porter Jr., the program’s first five-star since DeMar DeRozan. Long before we learned both of these teams were mediocre at best last year, USC won a 93–89 thriller in Nashville on the strength of 58 points from Jordan McLaughlin and Chimezie Metu, both of whom are now gone.
Meyer: I’ll go with Auburn-Washington. These two teams aren’t the favorites to win their respective conferences, but they certainly have the talent, experience and coaching to flirt with a top-25 ranking all season long. This is a particularly important affair for the Pac-12, as this is the type of game that can help improve the conference’s reputation as a whole. It’ll be interesting to see how Auburn’s upperclassmen guards Bryce Brown and Jared Harper attack Washington’s zone. The Huskies, meanwhile, could have the best inside-outside combo in the Pac-12 with Noah Dickerson and Jaylen Nowell. This is a big litmus test in early non-conference action, and it also provides an opportunity for a major résumé boost to start the year.
Geary: I was going to pick the mid-major treat of Northeastern-Harvard, but with two of the Crimson's three best players out indefinitely that matchup loses a lot of its juice. Instead I'll go with the obvious—Florida at Florida State, which has the unfortunate distinction of going head-to-head with Duke-Kentucky. Most years, this would've been the marquee matchup of opening night, and it's absolutely worth DVR-ing and circling back to after the Champions Classic. Last year, the Seminoles' 17-point early December win in Gainesville provided the first major clue that A) Florida State was better than most thought and B) the Gators' early hype needed to be tempered. It will be interesting to see how Florida, which now has five-star freshman Andrew Nembhard running the point instead of Chris Chiozza, deals with its in-state rival's length this time around—though the 'Noles will be without injured 6' 8" senior Phil Cofer.
Woo: Vanderbilt-USC on Sunday night (Nov. 11) is going to be our first good look at Darius Garland, Simi Shittu and Kevin Porter, three freshmen with one and one potential and something to prove. Both teams could overachieve and spice up their respective conferences. That’s appointment viewing as far as I’m concerned.