By my count it’s been 218 days since the last college basketball game was played between Villanova and Michigan, but folks, we’ve made it. We’re finally here. Today is the day college basketball begins.
Sure, you might not tune in for the technical first game (anyone got the spread on Wisconsin-Lutheran vs. Green Bay?) but yes, there will be actual college hoops on our TV’s today and no shortage of good games. And it will be that way straight from now through the beginning of April of 2019.
Forget Christmas, this truly is the best time of year.
So what do you need to know heading into the season? Well hopefully you’ve been paying attention here as I’ve given you no shortage of good content, ranging from a bunch of major conference previews (including the SEC), to the strengths/weaknesses of each title contender and even my projected field of 68.
But even still, there is plenty more to get excited about.
What exactly, you ask? Here are 68 reasons to get excited (and if you stick around to the bottom of article, I’ll even give you my National Player of the Year, Final Four picks and 2019 national champion).
1) The Champions Classic: What better way to start off the season than with four Top 10 teams, a slew of future NBA lottery picks and the three teams that are favored to win the title in Vegas. This event is always must-watch, but the college basketball powers that be (aka the programming people at ESPN) did us all a favor by making this event the season-opener. Now THIS is the way to start the college hoops season, my friends.
2) Duke vs. Kentucky in the nightcap: My buddy Jon Rothstein has been arguing for years that these two teams should play every season, and I don’t disagree. But in the meantime, what better way to cap off the first night of hoops than a showdown of the two biggest brands in college basketball, two Hall of Fame coaches and more NBA talent than some actual NBA games that will be played this season. And to answer a question I know you’re thinking, no it wouldn’t surprise me to see these two teams meet up again later in the season – you know, in Minneapolis for the Final Four.
3) The other big-time games on Tuesday night: Look, all the focus will be in Indy, I get it. But there are plenty of other big games to get you going to start the season. How about this season’s most hyped non-blue blood in Nevada, hosting BYU? Or one of the most underrated teams anywhere in the country (Washington) hosting one of the best non-Power 5 programs in the sport, Western Kentucky? Just know that the hoops doesn’t end when Duke-Kentucky does Tuesday night (FYI, we will have a special post-Champions Classic episode of the Aaron Torres Sports Podcast ready for you for Wednesday morning. Go ahead and subscribe here).
4) Kansas’ Dedric Lawson: While so much of the focus in Indy will be on Duke-Kentucky, flip on the first game to see a potential preseason Player of the Year Dedric Lawson. Lawson was basically a 20-10 guy at Memphis two years ago before butting heads with Tubby Smith led him to transfer to Kansas, where again, he could mess around and win National Player of the Year. We know Bill Self is on the prowl for a couple “real guy.” He’s certainly got one in Lawson.
5) And Quentin Grimes: Who in my opinion was the best pure scorer in last year’s high school class, and could compete for first-team All-Big 12 honors as well. On a floor full of NBA Draft prospects Tuesday night, don’t forget about Grimes, who will end up somewhere in the Top 10 on draft night.
6) Zion Williamson: Look, love or hate Duke, Zion Williamson is the biggest start to enter college basketball in… well, I can’t even tell you how long. With it becoming more and more apparent that the “one and done” rule will be going away in the coming years, enjoy guys like Williamson while you can… no matter what team you root for.
7) Same with R.J. Barrett: Yeah, he’s pretty good too. And considering that most folks didn’t watch the McDonald’s All-American game/Nike Hoops Summit or Duke’s trip to Canada, this will be America’s first look at the eventual No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.
8) The certifiably insane Keldon Johnson: Yet as good as Barrett is – and believe me, the kid is a stud – I’m curious to see if Johnson can slow him down. Johnson is just a tiny bit short of certifiably insane (in a good way), and I’m guessing he probably doesn’t appreciate all the attention that is being heaped on Duke’s freshmen right now. With 3,687 NBA scouts expected to be in attendance on Tuesday night (rough estimate), Johnson will give the Duke guys his best effort. And don’t be surprised if he’s the freshman everyone is talking about come Wednesday morning.
9) “Grown man” Reid Travis: There isn’t anything I can really write here that hasn’t been written in a million different places, by a million different people about Travis’ arrival at Kentucky. But please, for the love of God, can we please stop calling him a “grown man.” We get it, he’s a fifth-year senior at a school that normally produces one and done freshmen. He has biceps the size of some small Central American countries. Again, we all get it. But please just stop with the “grown man” stuff. The season hasn’t even started yet and I’m already sick of it.
10) Reid Travis partnering with P.J. Washington in the Kentucky front court: I know that Washington will try to show a more balanced, versatile game for NBA scouts this season, but go ahead and name me a single more feared low-post combo than these two? You can’t, because they don’t exist. As a matter of fact, I just found exclusive footage of a practice those two were part of a few weeks ago – and embedded it below. Expect to see a lot of that this season.
11) A major injury at Gonzaga: Let’s get away from Tuesday night and onto something that frankly isn’t all that “exciting” and that’s the health of Gonzaga star Killian Tillie. The French forward recently underwent surgery on his ankle and could be out two months, and I don’t think everyone realizes just how big that injury is. The Zags are legit good enough to win the title, but without their best returning scorer and rebounder they aren’t the same team. Considering that this team needs to win some of their big out of conference games to make a serious run at a No. 1 seed, this injury could have a trickledown effect. Could you imagine this team losing three or four games in the out of conference, falling to a three or four seed and then seeing them lined up in your bracket? For everyone’s sake, you better hope that the Zags play well without Tillie – or it may come back to haunt your team come March.
12) LSU’s vaunted freshman class: I was chatting with a buddy of mine in coaching last week, when the topic of LSU came up. I mentioned that I thought they might have the second-best talent in the SEC and he said “Forget that, they might have the second best talent in the country.” Now, after what happened during the FBI trials it’s fair to ask how all that talent ended up in Baton Rouge, but that’s beside the point – we operate under innocent until proven guilty parameters here. In the meantime, just know that Emmitt Williams and Naz Reid are both good enough to be selected in the first round of this upcoming NBA Draft. The Tigers’ talent is off the charts.
13) LSU’s Tremont Waters: Of course the guy that brings everything together for LSU, and the man who gives them the best chance to make a deep tournament run – and yes, they are “Final Four good” – is Waters, the 5’10 point guard from my home state of Connecticut. Remember, Waters averaged 16 points and six assists a game last year with… well… how do I say this nicely… basically no talent around him. It’s scary to think what he will do with a few future studs playing alongside him in 2019.
14) Arkansas’ Daniel Gafford: I’m not sure the Hogs will be better this season than last (it’s hard to picture it after they lost six seniors off last year’s roster). But with Gafford back for another year in college, the Hogs will be must-watch basketball this season. Oh, and in case you forgot just how good Gafford is, I present you this video below.
SEC basketball media day is tomorrow, which means I'm doing preview/prep work today. It also gave me an excuse to find old clips of Daniel Gafford – and GOOD LORD I forgot how awesome this guy is pic.twitter.com/38niiITMBI
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) October 16, 2018
15) Bol Bol watch out West: As I’ve said in every preseason piece of content I’ve written this fall, I’m dubious that Oregon can live up to their massive potential – but there is no denying what Bol Bol brings to the table. There haven’t been many 7’2 guys who have entered college hoops recently who are just as comfortable stepping out and taking 22-foot threes as they are hanging in the paint, but he is one of those guys. And – good or bad – he will make Oregon must-watch TV every time he’s playing.
16) Nevada’s Trey Porter: There is so much buzz around Nevada (more on them coming later) and the return of Caleb and Cody Martin, who just might be the two best players in the Mountain West. But after spending some time in Reno last week – don’t sleep on 6’11 center Trey Porter. The kid is big and crazy-athletic and brings a shot-blocking presence to a team that lacked one last year. Come to watch the Martin twins (and Jordan Caroline and Jordan Brown). Stay for Trey Porter. Kid is a monster.
17) Year one of the Chris Mack Era at Louisville: Yes, I know it’s easy to poke fun at Louisville right now for the obvious reasons (that time they had a brothel on campus, dropping duffel bags on four-star recruits etc.). But while Louisville has been down, Chris Mack is exactly what this program needs: A good dude, who will win big and give the school someone who represents them well in the community (something the last guy… umm… wasn’t great at). Look for the Cards to sneak into the tournament in Year One of the Mack era. But it won’t be long before they’re competing for ACC titles.
18) Year one of the Penny Hardaway Era at Memphis: Say what you want about Penny, the man has created some damn excitement in Memphis. Look, I know that he will ultimately be judged by wins and losses, but the bottom line is that he’s been good for Memphis and when Memphis is good, it’s good for college basketball. In the meantime I’m fascinated to see if he can continue to keep momentum on the recruiting trail, highlighted of course by…
19) The future of James Wiseman: Yes, we haven’t even started the 2018-2019 college basketball season, but when I do the “68 things to be excited about” article for the 2019-2020 campaign, Wiseman will be front and center. Right now it’s anyone’s guess as to whether the No. 1 high school player in America will choose his dream school (Kentucky) or the one where his former high school and AAU head coach is now in charge (Memphis). But regardless, it will be fascinating to watch it all unfold in the coming days and weeks.
20) Year one of the Dan Hurley era at UConn: Can’t lie, as a UConn alum it’s been a touuuuuugh few years to be a Husky. But the bottom-line is that Dan Hurley is the perfect guy for this job, arriving at the perfect time, and he will get UConn back into the national conversation sooner rather than later. As I’ve said all off-season, it isn’t inconceivable that if the team can stay healthy (specifically former McDonald’s All-American Alterique Gilbert) that the Huskies could return to the NCAA Tournament… this season.
21) What year one of the Tom Crean era looks like at Georgia: I’ll just throw it out there: I was completely underwhelmed by the Crean hire when it became official last spring. My feelings were later confirmed when an SEC assistant coach told me, “You think I’m supposed to be scared to recruit against Tom Crean in Atlanta? This is the best thing that’s ever happened to our program.” Yikes! And yes, the jury will be out on Crean. But I have trouble seeing how this hire works out in the long run.
22) No Trae Young: It’s nothing personal, but did anyone else feel like the Trae Young talk got a weeee bit overwhelming last season? You know, like when ESPN would add a Trae Young ticker to it’s bottom-line – even when his games weren’t on their network? Or when all the national media (except me really) continued to gush over him, even as his team lost one conference game after another? Look, I like Young. Interviewed quite a few times in his prep career. And it wasn’t his fault that the media made him the entire story of the season – but I think we’re all ready for a few new storylines in 2019.
23) The Charles Bassey Era at Western Kentucky: I know there’s this narrative out there to “Never bet against Rick Stansbury in recruiting” wink, wink, nod, nod, but to me I think it’s a total crock of crap. There’s nothing illegal with hiring the parent or guardian of a high school recruit (which is what Stansbury did), meaning that right now – at least as best we know – Western Kentucky didn’t do anything illegal to land him. So while all the other college hoops media members crack jokes I’m just going to sit back and enjoy watching Bassey play with the Hilltoppers this year… it’s gonna be a rocking six months in Bowling Green.
24) Another season of Marshall hoops and Dan D’Antoni: Western Kentucky is the favorite in Conference USA, but Marshall and their t-shirt-under-a-blazer-wearing-coach Dan D’Antoni are the defending champs. And with most of their team back – including 22-point a game scorer Jon Elmore – it’s possible that that the Thundering Herd, and not the Hilltoppers, take home the league’s automatic NCAA Tournament berth. Hopefully in a perfect world both teams will make it, considering that they project to be two of the 68 best teams in college basketball… even if the NCAA Tournament would rather let in the 11th best team in the ACC ahead of either one of them. Don’t get me started on that rant.
25) Just how good will Villanova be: The defending national champs lost four of the Top 33 NBA Draft picks last season, including three first rounders and the National Player of the Year Jalen Brunson, yet somehow are again favored to win the Big East. And they should be. While there are new stars in the lineup (Eric Paschall, freshman Jahvon Quinerly) the Wildcats remain the class of the Big East, and one of the best teams in the country. Don’t be surprised to see Nova again competing for another No. 1 seed come March because, well, that’s just what Nova does.
26) St. John’s and Chris Mullin with real expectations: In the same way it’s good for college basketball when Memphis is good, it’s good for college basketball when St. John’s is good. What’s better than the Garden rocking on a mid-February Saturday with Georgetown/Nova/or fill-in-the-blank Big East foe in town? Not much, I tell ya, not much. Just one problem, it’s been a long time since St. John’s has had that kind of team, and it’s not like Chris Mullin has exactly inspired hope among Red Storm faithful in his first three years on the job. Still, with Shamorie Ponds back and Mustapha Heron eligible via transfer, there are no excuses. This is one of the 68 best teams in college basketball and needs to make the tournament in 2019.
27) Can Virginia bounce back from a historically bad loss: Not sure if you heard, but Virginia became the first No. 1 seed to ever lose to a 16-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Crazy, right? I would have thought it was discussed a little bit more? In all seriousness, it will be fascinating to me to see if Tony Bennett – a guy who awkwardly stuck to his slow, methodical, boring style all the way to the bitter end last year – loosens things up a bit this year. It’s one thing to win a bunch of regular season games, but to win big in March, you need to be willing to mix things up and not run 28 seconds off the shot clock every possession when you’re down by 20. Until Bennett changes, it’s hard to see Virginia breaking their o-fer Final Four streak under his watch.
28) Can UMBC stay in the national picture: The team that beat Virginia last year UMBC, has done a spectacular job of keeping themselves in the national conversation after making history last March. But with a bunch of key players gone off last year’s team, can they make a repeat appearance in the NCAA Tournament?
29) UNC’s Nassir Little: When it comes to freshmen and college hoops, I know all the buzz is on the Duke guys, Bol Bol etc. Just don’t sleep on Nassir Little, who could mess around and compete with R.J. Barrett for the top spot in next year’s NBA Draft.
30) Mississippi State where they’re set to break a decade long NCAA Tournament drought: It’s taken Ben Howland a few years to get things rolling, but this is the year that the Bulldogs finally get back to the Big Dance. The question isn’t if they’ll be playing in March, but for how long.
31) While we’re at it, how about Darius Garland’s arrival at Vandy: I’m not sure that Garland’s presence alone makes the Commodores an NCAA Tournament team. Still, say this for the 6’3 point guard from Nashville: You probably weren’t watching many Vandy games last season. You will be in 2019.
32) Mike White and the Florida Gators: I’ll be honest: Nothing inherently stands out to me about the Gators entering this coming season. But Mike White is too good for the Gators not to make another NCAA Tournament and – like so many SEC teams – do damage once they get there.
33) Same with NC State: Again, nothing inherently stands out the Wolfpack entering the season (other than they have about 11 guards on their roster between 6’2 and 6’6 who will be part of their rotation). But in Kevin Keatts I trust, and truly believe we’ll see NC State in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season. And after the disastrous Mark Gottfried era, don’t Wolfpack fans deserve it?
34) Clemson’s attempt to make another run at the Sweet 16: I’m guessing many of you don’t remember it, but the Tigers were quietly one of the most consistent teams in college basketball last season, a year that resulted in the school’s first trip to the Sweet 16 in two decades. I find it hard to believe they’ll get back to the second weekend, but with Marcquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell back, they should return to the Big Dance for a second straight season.
35) Lorenzo Romar’s return to the sidelines: I can already see it now: It’s mid-February. You go out to a bar and have one too many drinks. You stumble home, a bit past your bedtime, turn on ESPN2 and can’t believe your eyes. Then you tweet me, “Wait, Torres, is Lorenzo Romar a head coach again?” Oh it’s real and spectacular my friends – Romar is back! But in the rough and tumble WCC, where no one is taking down Gonzaga, it’s just a matter of how long he’ll last.
36) How about Romar’s former squad: The Washington Huskies, who might be the most underrated team in college basketball coming into the season. One year after the disastrous Romar era ended, Mike Hopkins had the Huskies playing for an NCAA Tournament berth, before eventually bowing out late. With their top eight scorers back, Washington might just be the class of the Pac-12 – and after beating Nevada in a preseason exhibition a few weeks ago, could be a team that makes a deeper tourney run than any of us could possibly imagine.
37) Arizona freshman Brandon Williams: Washington is the class of the Pac-12, but I’m not sure defending champion Arizona will fall as far as most predict, in large part because of freshman Brandon Williams. The 6’4 guard from LA was a consensus Top 15 recruit in the 2018 class until a knee injury cost him his entire junior season. Now back at 100 percent, Williams has been a stud in the early going for the Wildcats, dropping 23 points in an exhibition on Sunday night. He’ll be the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, well, unless…
38) USC freshman Kevin Porter Jr. wins it: Porter Jr. is another fast-rising star on the West Coast, who was a Top 50-ish recruit… until he absolutely blew up at last year’s Nike Hoops Summit. I’ve told the story before but Porter was brought in as a local player to scrimmage against Team USA, and absolutely destroyed everyone in his path, including Darius Garland, Cam Reddish and a bunch of “higher ranked” recruits. It led him to vault into the Top 25 of the recruiting rankings and create buzz among NBA people that he may end up as a lottery pick in the next NBA Draft. Again, just pay attention to Porter and USC. You’ll thank me later.
Kevin Porter Jr, the disrespect ? pic.twitter.com/CEsDWi01Fe
— Athlete Tweets ???? (@AthleticDesires) May 25, 2018
39) How does Steve Alford handle the hot seat at UCLA: To be clear, I don’t think it’s fair that a coach who has been to three Sweet 16’s in five years deserves to be on the hot seat, but this is UCLA, and that’s the reality Steve Alford is facing after a disappointing “First Four” loss in the NCAA Tournament last year. The good news is that Alford has the talent to coach himself off that hot seat, thanks in large part to wing Kris Wilkes, who I believe will end up as Pac-12 Player of the Year.
40) Seeing how the rest of the hot seat shakes out: On paper, it’s lining up to be a quiet year on the hot seat, where just one season after a few relatively big-time jobs opened up (UConn, Louisville, Memphis), UCLA is the only A+ job that might become available. Other than that, it’s a bunch of lower middle-tier jobs that could open, like Wake Forest, St. John’s, Minnesota etc. So yeah, it probably won’t be a booming year on the job market, unless something crazy happens in the FBI probe. Can you imagine if more came out, and jobs like Kansas, Arizona etc. all opened at once? It’s be pure insanity – even if it’s unlikely to happen.
41) The 2018 Maui Invitational: Wait, how did I get this far without talking about this year’s Maui Invitational – which just might be the single greatest field in the history of the event. Just how good is it? This year’s Maui bracket has at least three teams with legitimate Final Four hopes (Duke, Gonzaga, Auburn), and four more teams that could make the NCAA Tournament (Arizona, Iowa State, San Diego State, Xavier). The event took a tiny hit when Gonzaga lost Tillie to injury, and we lost a potential Final Four preview in the title game had the Zags met Duke at full-strength. But a tournament that is always must-watch, will be extra must-watchy this year.
42) Central Florida Knights… basketball: Think Central Florida football fans are annoying? Well this won’t be the year to tune into their hoops squad, which probably is the most talented in the AAC conference. I’m not sure Johnny Dawkins (a guy not exactly known as an X’s and O’s savant) can help them reach their potential, but even if they fall somewhere short, they could still make the school’s first NCAA Tournament as a member of the AAC.
43) Mick Cronin’s Cincinnati Bearcats: No word yet on if Cronin will try to compare his team to Indiana, Louisville and Kentucky this year, nor no word if Cincinnati has recovered from that 22-point blown lead they had in the NCAA Tournament last season against Nevada. But no matter what you think of Cronin (and opinions of him across college hoops vary) the one thing he has done, turned Cincy them into a consistent winner. And after eight straight NCAA Tournament appearances, there is no reason to think they won’t make it nine straight in 2019.
44) Ed Cooley’s Providence College Friars: Speaking of long NCAA Tournament streaks, did you know that Providence has quietly made five straight NCAA Tournament’s? It’s something the school had never done before Cooley arrived, which leads to the question: Is Ed Cooley the most underrated coach in college basketball? The answer just might be yes.
45) The Romeo Langford Era at Indiana: Indiana hoops is almost like Texas football, in that we’ve been arguing whether they’re “back” for so long, none of us can really remember when they were actually “here” to begin with. Heck, that analogy might not even be fair to Texas, since at least the Longhorns have won a title this century. Regardless, this is the most buzz that Indiana has had in years, thanks to their highest-rated recruit in years, Romeo Langford. Like St. John’s, Memphis, whoever, it’s good for college basketball when Indiana is good. And thanks to Langford and senior Juwan Morgan it looks like the Hoosiers may finally be close to back.
46) Michigan’s inevitable March run: On paper, this is a good, but not great Wolverines team – but then again, weren’t we saying the same thing around this time last year? If there’s one thing that’s certain it’s that John Beilein will have this team peaking come March, because let’s be honest, isn’t that just what John Beilein does?
47) Chris Holtmann: Real talk, I knew Chris Holtmann was a good coach, but what he did in Year 1 in Columbus after taking over mid-summer was simply incredible. After a talent drain it’s hard to imagine the Buckeyes repeating last year’s success, but if you’re looking for a program that could emerge over the next 5-10 years as a true college hoops power, it might be the one Holtmann is building Columbus.
48) A topsy-turvy Missouri Valley: The Valley is one of the most routinely entertaining mid-major leagues dating back to the days of Creighton, then Wichita and now last year’s run with Loyola of Chicago (even if Sister Jean did suck the oxygen out of the air during the NCAA Tournament). Still, as much buzz as the Ramblers are getting, this league is one where three or four teams could legitimately be picked to win it outright. In addition to Loyola, look out for Southern Illinois and Illinois State, who nearly snuck in the field of 68 in 2017.
49) What does Chris Beard have in store for an encore at Texas Tech: Yes, the Red Raiders lost a ton of talent off last year’s Elite Eight squad, but if there’s one man I trust to replenish it and continue to win games, it’s Beard. You don’t go from the ABA to DII to mid major college hoops to the Elite Eight in a six-year stretch (like Beard did) unless you’re an absolute rock star and have a knack for getting the absolute most out of your team. Beard is that dude, and in a year where most every other national pundit expects Texas Tech to dip, my guess is they once again find themselves in the Big Dance.
50) Bob Huggins and his pullover zip-up: I mean what can be said about Huggins – and his pullover – that hasn’t already been said countless times before? Yes, the Mountaineers lost program icon Jevon Carter to the NBA Draft, but as long as Huggins in charge, I’ll just go ahead slot them into another NCAA Tournament berth.
51) Lindell Wigginton’s sophomore year at Iowa State: Maybe my favorite random fact in college hoops is that Wigginton is trying to become the first player ever born in Nova Scotia (a province in Eastern Canada) to play in the NBA. What are we as humans if we don’t have dreams, right? Well Wigginton is also that dude, and after averaging 17 points per game last year as a freshman at Iowa State, the NBA is definitely in his future. The question is whether the NCAA Tournament is in the Cyclones future after missing last season. My hunch is that the answer is “yes.”
52) How about Wisconsin’s tourney “drought”: Look, when you make the NCAA Tournament every season for a decade, you can forgive us for wondering what went wrong in Madison last year where the Badgers missed the Big Dance for the first time this century. With their top eight scorers back there are no excuses for Wisconsin to miss the tourney again, and if they do, it’ll be fair to question Greg Gard’s long-term staying power with the Badgers.
53) Michigan State’s Cassius Winston: No Miles Bridges? No Jaren Jackson? No real problem in East Lansing, where according to people close to the program, Winston is ready to break out on a national stage. Winston has been stellar since he arrived at Michigan State and averaged 12 points and seven assists last season. In 2019 though he could just mess around and win Big Ten Player of the Year.
54) Nebraska: I’m just going to keep it real with you guys (because 5,000 words into this article, why wouldn’t I?) but Nebraska was one of the 68 best teams in college basketball last year, even if they didn’t end up in the Big Dance. With virtually every key piece for the Cornhuskers, look for them to return to the NCAA Tourney for just the second time since 1998.
55) Can New Mexico end up as the “other” team in the Mountain West: As much buzz as Nevada is receiving (and deservedly so), Paul Weir is quietly building a monster at New Mexico. The Lobos were looking like an NCAA Tournament caliber team until a devastating injury to starting point guard JaQuan Lyle just weeks ago, and now the question is, “where do they go from here.” With a pair of other big-time transfers (former UConn wing Vance Jackson and former Kansas forward Carlton Bragg) the Lobos have enough to still finish in the Top 2 in the Mountain West. But will that be enough to earn them a tourney bid?
56) Can Dan Majerle get Grand Canyon to its first NCAA Tournament: The story of GCU has been well-told over the last couple years, but after slowly building a program from scratch Majerle had the Lopes on the brink of an NCAA Tournament bid last season, before they fell in the WAC title game to New Mexico State. With a slew of big-time players back and a couple of even bigger-time transfers, 2019 could be the time Grand Canyon to make that NCAA Tourney breakthrough.
57) The last go-around for Mike Daum: Daum once again dominated the Summit League last season, led South Dakota State to a third straight NCAA Tournament, then decided against the grad transfer route and is back for one final go-around. By the end of the season he will go down as one of the greatest scorers in college basketball history, but can he get the Jackrabbits their first NCAA Tournament win in school history?
58) How about the Buffalo Bulls: As they say, no one circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bulls (or is that the Bills?) and Nate Oats’ squad certainly did that last March when they went to the NCAA Tournament and absolutely kicked the crap out of Arizona in Round 1. With most of their key pieces back, Buffalo will again be a favorite to return to the tourney – and it isn’t inconceivable that they could even make a run to the second weekend.
59) The wacky Big West: I know that most of you know nothing about the Big West, but it might just be the single most intriguing race of any one-bid league in college hoops. In total, it feels like six or seven teams could win the league. The defending champ Cal State-Fullerton returns most of its best players, second place UC-Irvine brings back all five starters and UC-Santa Barbara, which won a league-best 23 games last year adds a couple high-major transfers. Stay up late and enjoy this league: Some good basketball will be played on the West Coast. Speaking of basketball on the West Coast…
60) The return of Mark Gottfried: Who is now the head coach at Cal State-Northridge, which is also in the Big West. Frankly, I’m not really sure how a guy who crashed and burned at both Alabama and NC State, AND had his program ensnared in the FBI situation got himself another D-1 head coaching job, but as the kids say, “YOLO.” To quote Ron Burgundy, I’m not even mad about the situation. I’m actually kind of impressed.
61) Luke Maye’s swan song: Luke Maye is officially the captain of the “That dude is still in school All-Stars.” Yes, he’s still in Chapel Hill, for one last go-around, which I’m pretty sure started at some point in the mid-1990’s.
62) Frank Martin: Nothing to add here that you don’t already know. I’m just a tiny bit afraid for my life, if I don’t give Martin and the South Carolina a Gamecocks a plug here.
63) The Virginia Tech Hokies: Alright, let’s finally get to the good stuff, and man, I was ready to drop a bomb on y’all and pick the Hokies to make the Final Four this season. It sounds crazy, but the Hokies return five of their top six scorers and have made back-to-back NCAA Tournaments – plus, Buzz Williams is a monster. Just one problem: Right when I was about to drop that pick, Virginia Tech announced that one of their key players, Chris Clarke, was suspended indefinitely, and in a weird twist, his name and bio was removed from the school’s website. That doesn’t sound like a kid who will be back in action any time soon, which is why it’s time to drop Virginia Tech out of my Final Four.
Here is who I like to make it to Minneapolis next season:
64) The Auburn Tigers: Again, another one that sounds crazy, but the Tigers were the best team in the SEC last year and return virtually all their key pieces. Losing Mustapha Heron might be addition by subtraction. And adding back Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley after both were suspended all of last season will give Bruce Pearl a couple extra bodies he desperately needs.
Also in my Final Four…
65) The Nevada Wolf Pack: I know the Pack have gotten quite a bit of hype this season, but after seeing them in Reno last week, I can tell you that they are absolutely, positively, 100 percent legit. It’s going to take time, and they won’t be a finished product in their opener against BYU. But if they start playing defense at the level their coaching staff expects, this is a team that’s not just capable of getting to Indianapolis, but winning it all once they get there.
66) My National Player of the Year is: Rui Hachimura from Gonzaga. Rui has been considered the Zags best long-term NBA prospect for years, and after blowing up the second half of last season (including a 25-point performance in the second round against Ohio State) he could have declared for last year’s NBA Draft and been a lottery pick. Instead, he decided to return to school and spent the summer playing against grown men with the Japanese National Team – averaging 20+ points there. That’s all my way of saying he is primed for a MONSTER season and is my pick as Player of the Year. Speaking of the Zags…
67) Gonzaga is my national runner-up: For the second time in three years, I believe that Gonzaga will be back in the Final Four, in large part because these ain’t your grandpa’s cuddly, overachieving Bulldogs. Gonzaga has probably at least three guys who will be selected in this year’s draft (Tillie, Hachimura and Zach Norvell) a senior point guard in Josh Perkins, size and depth. The initial injury to Tillie could hurt, but in the long-term it will help their depth and development of their young players overall. Look for the Zags to get back to the Final Four and play for another title, against…
68) Kentucky, your 2019 national champs: This isn’t a pick because I write here at KSR, but because I truly believe that Kentucky is the best team in college basketball. With the addition of Reid Travis and Ashton Hagans late, I see no true weaknesses for this team. They have size, athleticism, depth, shooting, you name it. For the second time in the decade-long John Calipari era, Kentucky will be your 2019 national champs.