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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

Writer

Final Four

Final Four

Final Four

Final Four

Darkhorse

Seth Davis

Luke Winn

Brian Hamilton

Chris Johnson

National Champion

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.

Breakthrough team

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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.

Here We Go, 'Zo: Can Lonzo Ball bring UCLA back to the top?

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.

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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.

The top six mid-major contenders this season

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.