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 our annual series of 64 things to be excited for this season.
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:
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.
32. Tom Izzo’s revenge tour
The Spartans entered the NCAA tournament 29–5 and as tentative favorites to make it to Houston’s Final Four. They didn’t make it out of their first game. In what will be remembered as one of the biggest tournament upsets of all time, No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee State beat No. 2 Michigan State. It was shocking not only because of the level of Michigan State’s talent, but also because Tom Izzo so rarely fails in March. This season, the expectations around the Spartans are sloughing slightly. It’s the perfect time for Izzo to remind everyone how the calendar reads: January-February-Izzo.
31. Everyone underrating Notre Dame again
It’s easy to understand why the Fighting Irish keep getting overlooked. They play in an absolutely loaded league, they don’t recruit at an elite level and their brand is more closely associated with football than arguably any other program in the country. The last two years, Notre Dame was picked to finish seventh and fourth, respectively, in the ACC preseason poll, and they were unranked and 19th in the AP poll. Mike Brey led his team to the Elite Eight both times. The Irish lose stud point guard Demetrius Jackson to the NBA, so they probably won’t even be considered a threat to crack the upper tier of the ACC. But writing off the possibility of another deep tournament run is probably a mistake, even if Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and Syracuse perform better during the regular season.
30. NC State’s return
When researching this blurb, I wanted to remind myself when the last time the Wolfpack played in the Sweet 16 was, so I turned to Wikipedia:
It seems hard to believe that NC State hasn’t advanced that far since the Ulysses S. Grant administration, but facts are facts. In reality, the Wolfpack missed the Big Dance last season after four straight appearances. This spring, coach Mark Gottfried remade his roster and convinced widely coveted five-star point guard recruit Dennis Smith Jr. to relocate to Raleigh instead of Durham or Chapel Hill. He’ll form a strong backcourt duo with sophomore Maverick Rowan, and the ‘Pack will be anchored up front by big man Abdul-Malik Abu. They may not win the ACC, but they seem likely to make a return to the NCAA tournament, even if Wikipedia won’t acknowledge it.
29. Silent Night
This is by far one of the coolest traditions in college sports. For a home game the Friday before final exams begin, Taylor University, a liberal arts school in Upland, Ind., whose basketball program competes in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) school, fills its home gym with students wearing everything from costumes you’d see at a Halloween party to pajamas. No one makes a sound until Taylor reaches 10 points . . . and then they go crazy. If you’re just learning about this, don’t miss it in 2016. Here’s a clip from last year:
28. The Big East has its swagger back
While almost every college conference has restructured itself to strengthen its football product, the Big East has remained staunchly committed to hoops. So it was nice to see the league, which hadn’t produced a title-winning team in 30 years, get to celebrate a national championship this spring. This season, Villanova looks like a strong repeat championship contender, Xavier looks ready to improve on its 23-win season and Creighton looks like a bounce-back contender.
27. An intriguing Big Ten race
Indiana rode star point guard Yogi Ferrell, talented wing Troy Williams and promising big man Thomas Bryant to a Big Ten regular-season title in 2016, the program’s second in the last four years. The Hoosiers should be in the running to claim the same honor in 2017 despite the departures of Ferrell and Williams, but they’ll face a lot of competition at the top of the league. Wisconsin (7), Purdue (13) and Michigan State (14) all joined Indiana (12) in the top 15 of our off-season Power Rankings, and it wouldn’t be surprising if any of those squads finished first. Either way, prepare for some really intriguing, high-level matchups between potential Final Four contenders during conference play. The Big Ten never fails to entertain, but it’ll be particularly fun to track this season.
26. A critical season for UCLA
After guiding the Bruins to consecutive Sweet 16 appearances, Steve Alford and his squad took a huge step back in 2016. UCLA ended its season with four straight conference losses, finishing 10th in the league with a final record of 15–17. Alford himself called the season “unacceptable” and returned a one-year contract extension he’d previously received. With the kind of talent he’ll have this season, the expectations in Westwood will be enormous again. In addition to four returning double-digit scorers, Alford brought in five-star recruits Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf. Can they help him keep his job?
25. Texas’s rise under Shaka Smart
It seems only a matter of time before Shaka Smart has Texas battling Kansas for Big 12 championships. That may not happen this season, given it lost point guard Isaiah Taylor and big men Cameron Ridley and Prince Ibeh, but Smart is compiling the talent necessary to compete with the Jayhawks. The Longhorns’ 2016 recruiting class includes two five-star prospects (point guard Andrew Jones, center Jarrett Allen) and two four-stars (shooting guard Jacob Young, center James Banks). They’ll join a rotation featuring talented forward Tevin Mack and dunker-of-the-year frontrunner Kerwin Roach. Smart’s first season in Austin ended with a loss to Northern Iowa in the opening round of the NCAAs. Anything less than at least one tourney win this season would register as a disappointment.
24. Tubby Smith at Memphis
After John Calipari left Memphis for Kentucky, the Tigers had difficulty recruiting a coach to follow Cal. Instead, they turned to his most trusted assistant, Josh Pastner, who was only 31. Pastner did well, but he’d been a staple on the hot-seat lists for the past couple seasons and took off for Georgia Tech in the spring. In response, the Tigers hired Texas Tech’s Tubby Smith. Smith won a national championship at Kentucky, but his stock dropped significantly after a difficult six-season stretch at Minnesota. But he turned Texas Tech into an NCAA tournament team after just three seasons, and the Tigers hope that the 65-year-old still has something left to prove.
23. Virginia Tech’s rise under Buzz Williams
There was little doubt Williams would get Virginia Tech trending in the right direction soon after it hired him in 2014. He’s already made the Hokies a lot more competitive (they finished 63rd in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings in 2015–16 after checking in at 175th in '14–15) but this could be the season they break through to the NCAAs for the first time since 2007. Senior guard Seth Allen and senior forward Zach LeDay, both of whom transferred to Virginia Tech after the program hired Williams, will lead a team with the potential to push Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and Louisville and Syracuse for a top-five finish in the ACC standings. We expect a massive surge in sales of this sweater over the next six months.
22. SMU without Larry Brown
The Hall of Fame coach abruptly left the Mustangs on July 8, reportedly over the program’s refusal to extend his contract. When SMU originally hired Brown in 2012, the team also brought on Tim Jankovich, who was then the head coach at Illinois State, to be Brown’s top assistant and the coach-in-waiting. Now, Jankovich has the wheel, and he has a roster that not only looks capable of returning to the NCAA tournament this season, but also has something to prove after being banned from the Big Dance a season ago.
21. Larry Brown watch
This will probably take place after the season, but you can count on Larry Brown’s name coming up frequently during coaching searches. Brown just turned 76, but there is little reason to believe that he won’t take another job (or two or three) in his lifetime.
20. Bill Self tying John Wooden
Kansas’s consistent excellence under Bill Self is so impressive that we probably don’t talk about it enough. The Jayhawks have won 12 consecutive titles in a high-major conference. Twelve! Think about all of the factors—injuries, roster turnover, strong competition—that could have derailed the streak in any of those seasons. Kansas has continued to navigate them deftly, and it should continue to do so in 2016–17, with a talented roster fronted by a tough, veteran backcourt (Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham) and the potential No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft (Josh Jackson). Another league title would be special, though: The Jayhawks would match UCLA’s record for consecutive conference championships. Say what you will about Kansas’s earlier-than-expected slip-ups in the NCAAs during Self’s tenure. Hanging a banner in March every year is a pretty good consolation prize.
19. Tom Izzo with a loaded recruiting class
The Spartans welcome in the highest-regarded recruiting class of Izzo’s tenure. Five-star forward Miles Bridges is the headliner, but he’s joined by one other five-star prospect (shooting guard Joshua Langford) and two four-stars (Cassius Winston and Nick Ward). Add in returnees like Eron Harris, Lourawls (Tum Tum) Nairn, Gavin Schilling and Matt McQuaid, and you have a roster with the potential to finish atop the Big Ten and get to the Final Four. This is a lot of talent for a really good coach to work with.
18. Harry Giles returning to basketball
Duke announced earlier this month that Giles is expected to miss about six weeks after undergoing surgery on his left knee. The five-star big man sustained two serious knee injuries prior to this procedure. In June 2013, he tore the ACL, MCL and meniscus in his left knee, and in November 2015 he tore the ACL in his right knee. The procedure casts more doubt on his professional future, but in the short term, it robs Duke of the most talented big man in the class of 2016. Giles is an athletic, versatile forward who’s drawn comparisons to five-time NBA All-Star Chris Webber. The Blue Devils have enough frontcourt depth to win a lot of games without Giles (including another five-star big man in the 2016 class, Marques Bolden), but let’s hope Giles gets healthy sooner rather than later.
17. Michigan State at the Palestra
Never been to the Palestra? This might be a good occasion to make the trip to Philadelphia. Penn State decided to move its Jan. 7 home game against the Spartans from State College to the historic arena. It’s a good recruiting play for Penn State, and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has described a game at the Palestra as a “bucket-list thing.” Good on the two programs for turning what would have been a totally unremarkable league tilt in early January into something fans may tune into for the setting alone. The game may not be all that interesting—the Spartans shouldn’t have much trouble handling the Nittany Lions—but seeing one of the best teams in the country play in such an awesome gym will be a treat.
16. A competitive player of the year race
Duke junior guard Grayson Allen and Villanova senior wing Josh Hart will begin the season as the favorites, but they won’t have much separation from the competition. Oregon’s Dillon Brooks, Iowa State’s Monte Morris, Clemson’s Jaron Blossongame and Washington freshman Markelle Fultz could all make the race more compelling as the season wears on. (Please tweet your complaints about people left off that short list to @bychrisjohnson. — David)
15. Siyani Chambers is back at Harvard
After helping the Crimson reach the NCAAs in three consecutive years, Chambers missed last season because of a torn ACL. (He also withdrew from school in order to maintain his final season of eligibility.) With Chambers on the mend, Harvard won only 14 games and missed the tourney. CBS Sports reported this week that Chambers has been cleared to fully participate in workouts, which means the 6-foot point guard should be ready when Harvard opens the season at Stanford on Nov. 11 (insert joke about SAT scores here). Harvard likely will have to overcome a talented Princeton team in the Ivy to get into to the field of 68, but Chambers is the star who could give the Crimson a slight edge in a conference that’s adding a four-team postseason tournament in 2017. And he’ll have plenty of help, including from second-team all-league forward Zena Edosomwan and a top-25 recruiting class.
Unless you’re an NC State or Arizona fan or an international basketball aficionado, you may not be familiar with either of these incoming recruits, because neither of them played at high schools in the United States. If Yurtseven is declared eligible by the NCAA, it won’t take long for he and Markkanen, both of whom are rated as five-star prospects by Scout.com, to become household names. Markkanen is a 7-foot stretch forward from Finland who projects as a lottery pick in the 2017 draft, while Yurtseven is a 6 11" center from Turkey who excels finishing on the blocks and somehow managed to score 91 points in a game earlier this year. Try to catch both of them in action at some point this season; mock drafters already have them projected as first-round picks in 2017.
13. The battle of the suits
One coach is referred to by his team’s best player as “GQ Jay,” there’s a Twitter account that honors his attire and he unofficially holds the title of “best-dressed man in college basketball.” The other coach shares a name with a famous musical artist, has drawn attention for his array of ties and was described by a fashion magazine as “a little bit George Clooney, a little bit Kyle Chandler.” When Virginia plays at Villanova on Jan. 29, college basketball diehards are going to watch two really good teams try to add a valuable data point to their respective tourney CVs. But another subset of the viewing public may be focused on the tie/suit combinations donned by the Wildcats’ Jay Wright and the Cavaliers’ Tony Bennett. The variety and quality of Wright’s collection of suits is so widely recognized that even his tailor received some media coverage this year, but this is Bennett’s chance to make a statement while notching a really good win in the process.
12. Oregon’s returners
Last season was a dream for the Ducks. They won a school-record 31 games and earned the program’s first-ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. And this spring, wing Dillon Brooks and guard Tyler Dorsey decided to return to for another season in Eugene rather than enter the NBA draft. In all, the Ducks have four starters back from their best team ever, and they look ready to compete with Arizona for another Pac-12 title and potentially make even more noise in March.
11. The growing K vs. Cal recruiting rivalry
This will largely take place off the court, but it’s fascinating to watch how Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Kentucky’s John Calipari stockpile the nation’s top recruits. Calipari was the first coach to embrace the one-and-done model, but Coach K has caught up—and in this recruiting class, even surpassed—the Kentucky coach. This summer, Calipari took a veiled shot at Duke in his blog. Unfortunately, Duke and Kentucky don’t meet this year in the Champions Classic, but the basketball gods could still potentially bless us in the NCAA tournament with a matchup between college basketball’s two powerhouses.
10. Villanova begins its title defense
The Wildcats look like they have the best chance to become repeat national title winners since the ‘06 Florida Gators (who of course ended up repeating). Jay Wright has the NCAA-tournament-early-exit monkey off his back, and he returns a supremely talented roster. Senior wing Josh Hart is an early favorite for player of the year, and guards Phil Booth, Jalen Brunson and wing Mikal Bridges form an impressive perimeter rotation.
9. Whatever Grayson Allen does next
Allen made the surprising decision to return to Duke for his junior year despite being a projected first-round pick in the NBA draft and despite the fact that he’s already helped the Blue Devils win a national championship. We’ll talk about Duke as a team more below, but Allen will again be the team’s sparkplug—and its lightning rod. He’s the kind of player that Duke fans adore and that rivals loathe. There’s no denying how talented of a scorer he is, but there’s also no denying his shortcomings. The bottom line is that college basketball needs stars more than ever, and Allen is one of them.
8. Kansas’s perimeter
The Jayhawks return senior guard Frank Mason and junior guard Devone’ Graham, who were essentially co-point guards on a 33–5 team a year ago. Mason, despite standing just 5' 11" is a ferocious defender who famously shut down Oklahoma’s electric Buddy Hield last season. Graham, who is 6' 2", boasted an impressive 117.4 offensive rating a year ago while also leading the team in steal percentage. They’ll be joined by one of the best freshmen in the Class of 2016—6' 8" wing Josh Jackson. Although Bill Self has sometimes brought his freshmen along slowly, he has already said he has big expectations for Jackson. “I really think he has a chance to impact us as much as any freshman can impact any program,” he told the Kansas City Star.
7. Big 12 expansion closure . . . hopefully
The Big 12’s announcement this summer that it would evaluate candidates for expansion set off months of speculation over possible additions to a Power 5 conference whose power brokers change their minds seemingly every week. Houston and Cincinnati are considered among the top choices these days, but as many as 20 schools reportedly spoke with commissioner Bob Bowlsby about potential league membership. Whatever happens, the Big 12’s decision won’t be made with basketball as the main motivation. That’s a bummer for Big 12 hoops fans who’d like to see the league improve its product, but also for supporters of programs in other leagues who could see their rivals jump ship for the Big 12. Were the American Athletic Conference to lose the Bearcats, for example, it would be a major blow to the conference’s basketball profile. Fortunately for fans of AAC programs, there seems a good chance expansion does not occur; either way, a Big 12 board meeting on Oct. 17 should provide some clarity on the matter. Although given the way the conference has bungled this process so far, it could be months before we get an answer.
6. Duke’s starting lineup
Let’s borrow a mental exercise that my colleague Luke Winn used in his off-season Power Rankings: What if Duke only started returning players? The Blue Devils’ lineup would hypothetically look like this:
PG: Grayson Allen (Jr.)
SG: Luke Kennard (Soph.)
SF: Matt Jones (Sr.)
PF: Chase Jeter (Soph.)
PF/C: Amile Jefferson (Sr.)
That’s a lineup worthy of a preseason Top 10 ranking. If you want to know why Duke is No. 1 heading into the season, add in the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class. With Harry Giles (RSCI’s No. 2 recruit in the class), Jayson Tatum (No. 4), Marques Bolden (No. 11), Frank Jackson (No. 14) and Javin Montgomery-DeLaurier (No 35) rounding out the roster, Duke has unmatched talent and depth.
UK-Louisville is always competitive, but the 2016 rendition (Dec. 21 at the KFC Yum! Center) could serve as a preview for an Elite Eight or Final Four matchup between the two teams. The Wildcats reloaded after bowing out in the second round of the NCAAs last season by compiling one of the nation’s top recruiting classes, which features four five-star prospects (point guard DeAaron Fox, center Edrice Adebayo, small forward Wenyen Gabriel and shooting guard Malik Monk), according to Scout.com. The Cardinals, meanwhile, are headlined by two breakout candidates in guard Donovan Mitchell and wing Deng Adel, and they should get immediate returns from five-star freshman V.J. King and Penn graduate transfer Tony Hicks.
4. Duke-North Carolina
Like Kentucky-Louisville, this game hardly needs a sales pitch. It’s Duke-Carolina: You know it’s going to be good. The Blue Devils and Tar Heels will first square off in Durham on Feb. 9, and the second meeting, in Chapel Hill, will take place on March. 4. By early February, both of these squads should have taken up residence near the top of the ACC standings. Duke gets the edge right now based on its breadth of talent, but North Carolina returns a number of key pieces from the squad that reached the national championship game last season and should begin 2016–17 ranked in the top 10 of the polls even though it loses Sports Illustrated first-team All-America forward Brice Johnson and all-ACC honoree point guard Marcus Paige. These two games could be the difference between Duke or North Carolina nabbing one or two seeds in the NCAAs.
3. Conference tournaments
There’s something endlessly exciting about the possibilities that conference tournaments create. Every team in an auto-bid league gets the opportunity to hit the reset button on their entire season and play a series of single-elimination games with an eye at ensuring that they’ll be safe on Selection Sunday. Sometimes conference tournaments keep the best teams out of the Big Dance, but they provide some great basketball along the way.
2. Selection Sunday
Last year, CBS decided to stretch its Selection Show from one hour to two hours. And in what can only be described as cosmic karma, the full bracket was leaked for the first time in history, rendering the show much less meaningful. Selection Sunday has never been perfect, but it has always been cathartic—in one hour, you get a rapid-fire ranking of the top 70 teams in a sport. Hopefully CBS learns from its mistakes a year ago and makes sure that its announcers are the ones revealing the bracket—and that they do it in an hour.
1. The NCAA tournament
It’s never too early to be excited about the best postseason in American sports.