Here are 68 things to get excited about for the 2017-18 college basketball season
Get pumped - The college basketball season is finally here!
A lot has happened since then.
Thad Matta and Rick Pitino were fired. Marvin Bagley graduated early and enrolled at Duke. The NCAA opted against punishing UNC for what some called the biggest academic scandal in history. And, oh yeah, 10 men connected to the sport in various ways were arrested as part of an ongoing FBI investigation.
Needless to say, it's been quite and offseason.
So let the games begin!
And here are 68 things I'm looking forward to, or thinking about, heading into this season …
1. Spring Arbor at Eastern Michigan
I'm not really looking forward to Spring Arbor-Eastern Michigan, obviously. But that is technically the first game of the season. It tips at 10:30 a.m. ET. And when it tips the offseason will officially be behind us. And never in history has college basketball needed an offseason to be behind us and it.
2. The next so-called shoe dropping
Just because I'm ready for the games doesn't mean I'm disinterested in the federal case that's already touched Arizona, USC, Auburn, Alabama, Louisville, Oklahoma State and Miami. Because I'm totally interested in it. And fascinated by it. And I really do think it's going to be a dark cloud that hovers over the sport all season. Like, if we wake up the morning of Louisville-Kentucky in late December, and four more coaches from wherever are arrested as a result of this investigation, that won't surprise me. At this point, nothing will surprise me.
3. The Auburn situation unfolding
Bruce Pearl is reportedly unwilling to cooperate with Auburn's internal investigation prompted by the fact that associate head coach Chuck Person has been charged with federal crimes for allegedly accepting bribes from a financial advisor and then providing money in violation of NCAA rules to the parents of Auburn players Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, both of whom are being held out of games. So that's interesting, isn't it? Will Auburn really allow Pearl to coach if he's uncooperative with the administration? We'll see.
4. Collin Sexton's debut
The five-star freshman's eligibility was in question because of his father's alleged role in a meeting that resulted in the resignation of an Alabama staffer. But Alabama announced late Thursday that Sexton will only have to serve a one-game suspension. So he'll miss Friday's opener against Memphis in the Veteran's Classic and then play Tuesday against Lipscomb.
5. Braxton Key's debut
No relevant team will open without more relevant pieces than Alabama — which will play Memphis without Sexton, Key, Riley Norris and Ar'Mond Davis. That means the Crimson Tide will be without its most talented player (Sexton) and three of the top five returning scorers from last season's team (Key, Norris, Davis). Regardless, Alabama is still a 6-point favorite over the Tigers.
6. Tubby Smith's new-look Tigers
Alabama's misfortune is a huge break for a Memphis team that lost its top three scorers (Dedric Lawson, K.J. Lawson, Markel Crawford) to transfer and did not add a single graduate transfer or consensus top-150 recruit to replace them. That's why the Tigers were picked ninth in the American Athletic Conference — ahead of only Tulane, East Carolina and USF. So there was never going to be a way for Memphis to match Alabama player-for-player. But the talent gap won't be so drastic now that Alabama will be down four key guys.
7. The AAC race
For all the reasons just stated, Memphis likely won't be a factor at the top of the AAC. But the race for the league title should still be interesting — especially so thanks to the presence of Wichita State. Gregg Marshall's Shockers are ranked seventh in the preseason Associated Press poll and a reasonable pick to win the AAC in their first season in the AAC. To be clear, it's rarely simple moving up a level in leagues. But if anybody has ever been ready to do it, it's this Wichita State team led by Landy Shamet and Markis McDuffie.
8. Mick Cronin's Bearcats
Wichita State's biggest threat in the AAC should be Cincinnati, which should be in the NCAA Tournament for the eighth consecutive season come March. Cronin has been tremendous in rebuilding, and then maintaining, this historically strong program in the post-Bob Huggins era. He's not doing it with McDonald All-Americans but instead with blue-collar prospects he's enrolled, developed and used to win, on average, 25 games per season over the past seven years.
9. Bob Huggins' Mountaineers
It's pretty cool that Cincinnati is doing fine post Huggins and that Huggins is doing fine post Cincinnati. They were great together, undeniably. But they're doing OK without each other too. Huggins started using a smother press in the 2014-15 season, and it's worked remarkably well. He's averaged 26 wins over the past three seasons while advancing to the Sweet 16 twice. West Virginia has finished second behind Kansas in the Big 12 standings each of the past seasons. Can the breakthrough come in 2018?
10. Kansas' attempt to win 14 consecutive Big 12 titles
That question I just asked is rhetorical. Because let's not be silly. The ceiling for West Virginia and all other Big 12 programs is probably second. Or, at best, a tie for first considering Kansas never finishes lower than first in the Big 12. The Jayhawks have won 13 straight league titles. One more and they'll exceed UCLA's streak of league titles from 1967 through 1979.
11. Malik Newman's return to college basketball
Newman was a McDonald's All-American coming out of high school and the prize of Ben Howland's first recruiting class at Mississippi State. He was supposed to be a program-changer. Alas, he was not. The 6-3 guard instead shot 39.1 percent from the field for a team that finished 16-16. Newman then transferred to Kansas, where, if nothing else, he'll get to be a conference champion at least once.
12. KU's practices
The Jayhawks will have one of the nation's most talented teams even though three of their most talented players aren't even eligible. The Lawson brothers from Memphis, and Charlie Moore (who, coincidentally, initially signed with Memphis) are all sitting out per normal NCAA transfer rules. So if you were thinking Kansas might win a 14th straight Big 12 title, lose Devonte' Graham and some other pieces and slip in the 2018-19 season, think again. Bill Self's team will be loaded again no matter which players enter the NBA Draft.
13. The national POY race
Graham is a legitimate Player of the Year candidate, and wouldn't it be something if different Kansas players won it in consecutive years? Undeniably, though, Michigan State's Miles Bridges has to be the favorite. He's the first first power-conference player in more than two decades to average 16 points, eight rebounds and two assists as a freshman and return for his sophomore season. So Bridges is positioned to have a massive sophomore year — not unlike Blake Griffin's sophomore year at Oklahoma. Thus, again, Bridges is the POY favorite. And Graham is a nice alternative pick. But there are other good candidates. Let's run through 10 more.
With Josh Hart gone, Villanova is Brunson's team now. He averaged 14.7 points, 4.1 assists and 2.6 rebounds while shooting 54.1 percent from the field last season. If those numbers go up, and the Wildcats win another Big East title, Brunson could be the POY.
Mizzou Arena is sold out for the season. Porter is the reason. And it's not unreasonable to think he will lead the SEC in scoring and take the Tigers to the NCAA Tournament. If he does those things, Porter could be the POY.
16. Duke's Marvin Bagley III
I doubt Bagley will be able to match Porter's statistics, if only because he's surrounded by so much more talent at Duke than Porter is at Missouri. But great players on great teams tend to receive individual honors. And Bagley should be a great player for a great team. If he is, Bagley could be the POY.
17. Duke's Grayson Allen
The obvious thing that could prevent Bagley from earning individual honors is that he'll likely split votes with teammates like Allen. I know. I know. Everybody has a tripping joke. But I'll be surprised if Allen doesn't have a senior season as good or better as his sophomore season. If he does, Allen could be the POY.
18. North Carolina's Joel Berry II
Berry is 61-14 as a starter the past two seasons while leading UNC to back-to-back appearances in the national title game. He lost the first, won the second. And now he's trying to guide the Tar Heels to a third straight Final Four. If he does, Berry could be the POY.
19. Arizona's Allonzo Trier
Trier averaged a team-high 17.2 points and 5.3 rebounds last season while shooting 39.1 percent from the 3-point line. So he's going to post numbers again — perhaps for a Final Four team. If he does, Trier could be the POY.
20. Arizona's DeAndre Ayton
Trier and Ayton are not unlike Allen and Bagley in the sense that they could split votes and cancel each other out. But Ayton is so physically gifted he has to be on the list. He might average a double-double for the likely Pac-12 champions. If he does, Ayton could be the POY.
Colson has already proven he can average a double-double. He did it last season. If he does it again, and Notre Dame challenges Duke in the ACC, Colson could be the POY.
Delgado, like Colson, has already proven he can average a double-double. He, like Colson, did it last season. If he does it again, Seton Hall wins the Big East, Delgado could be the POY.
You can't list what amounts to 12 Player of the Year candidates without listing at least one Kentucky player. And Knox is the most obvious Kentucky player worth listing. If he's terrific, and UK wins the SEC, Knox could be the POY.
24. The Champions Classic
Kentucky opens with Utah Valley on Friday night, then plays Vermont on Sunday. But my first opportunity to see Knox in person will come Tuesday in Chicago at the Champions Classic. It was an awesome event when Kentucky, Kansas, Duke and Michigan State launched it in 2011. And this year's seventh version should be great. The doubleheader is as follows …
25. No. 1 Duke vs. No. 2 Michigan State
Can you believe a rare regular-season No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup is technically the undercard? Bagley and Bridges on the same court will be lots of fun.
26. No. 4 Kansas vs. No. 5 Kentucky
It'll be interesting to see how UK's freshmen deal with a Kansas' starting lineup that will likely feature two seniors (Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk), a junior (Lagerald Vick), a redshirt sophomore (Newman) and a sophomore (Udoka Azubuike). Experience doesn't always trump talent. But Kansas is experienced and talented. And that's a big advantage in early November.
27. Kentucky's development
You can probably tell I expect Kansas to handle Kentucky next week. (And the Wildcats had better be careful Sunday against Vermont.) But, ultimately, it's reasonable to assume John Calipari will mold these talented newcomers into a dominant team, if only because he almost always does. It just might take a little time. Which is why UK fans would be wise to be patient and not flip out every time something goes wrong — although I recognize that's not simple to do.
28. Duke's development
The only real difference between Kentucky and Duke is that the Blue Devils have at least one experienced high-level contributor (Allen) on which it can rely. Kentucky has none. But that doesn't mean Duke is built perfectly to win a national championship. In fact, the Blue Devils will likely end up starting four freshmen, and here's a fact: No team has ever won a national championship starting four freshmen. So Kentucky and Duke are both trying to cut nets in April with a roster unlike any roster that's ever cut nets in April. Keep that in mind.
29. Arizona's roster balance
If you're looking for a roster built more like the type of rosters that win national titles, look at Arizona's. Sean Miller's Wildcats return three double-digit scorers and added a top-three recruiting class highlighted by five-star prospects Ayton and Emmanuel Akot. So Arizona is fairly experienced and super-talented. And that's a good combination in this sport.
30. But …
But, yes, that FBI investigation could screw everything up. Will the Wildcats have to withhold a player from competition? Perhaps. And, either way, Rawle Alkins is injured. So we won't see Arizona at full strength to start the season. And, it's possible, we'll never see Arizona at full strength.
31. Same goes for USC
USC assistant Tony Bland is one of four college assistants facing federal charges. He's accused of accepting bribes and providing impermissible benefits to the families of two current USC players. Meantime, USC has been holding De'Anthony Melton out of scrimmages and exhibitions. I'll let you connect the dots.
32. UCLA has problems too
The Trojans' crosstown rivals haven't yet been tied to the FBI scandal. And perhaps they never will. But UCLA has its own issues — specifically that three players are confined to a hotel in China because one of them, or all of them, allegedly shoplifted at a Louis Vuitton store in China.
33. And one of them is a Big Baller
Yes, one of them is LiAngelo Ball. He's the middle Ball brother — in between Lonzo and LaMelo. I assume he'll make it back to the United States eventually. But, man, what a mess.
34. Speaking of messes …
UCLA's opponent in China late Friday is Georgia Tech, which will be without two of its best players, Josh Okogie and Tadric Jackson, because a longtime friend of Yellow Jackets coach Josh Pastner provided extra benefits to them. Where this situation is headed remains unclear. But there's never been a season-opener with crazy storylines connected to it than this Georgia Tech-UCLA season-opener.
35. Texas A&M vs. West Virginia
That's the other Friday night game scheduled outside of the United States. The Aggies and Mountaineers are playing in Germany in the lone game this weekend between two nationally ranked teams. Texas A&M is without its best player (Robert Williams). That's not ideal. So the Mountaineers are favored and thus expected to return to Morgantown 1-0.
36. Fordham's defensive turnover percentage
Most college basketball fans know West Virginia led the nation in defensive turnover percentage last season. But did you know Fordham was second? It's true. The Rams turned their opponents over on 25.7 percent of possessions. But it didn't help them win like it helped West Virginia win. Fordham finished only 13-19.
37. The Atlantic 10 race
Fordham is in the A-10. But you wouldn't know it by looking at the top of the league standings in, say, February. That's a nice way to say the Rams won't be a factor — unless, of course, you're talking about the Rhode Island Rams. Dan Hurley's team is the heavy favorite to take the A-10 title. He has the best roster by far.
One of the reasons Rhode Island has to break through this season is because two of the A-10's best programs are starting over with new coaches. VCU lost Will Wade and replaced him with Mike Rhoades. Dayton lost Archie Miller and replaced him with Anthony Grant. So there's a door open for URI right now. And I fully expect the Rams to walk straight through it and into the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year.
39. Miller's first year at Indiana
Miller made each of the past four NCAA Tournaments while coaching at Dayton. If he can extend his personal streak to five, now that he's at Indiana, that would be a nice accomplishment. For what it's worth, Jerry Palm does not have Indiana in his preseason Bracketology.
40. But Palm does have seven other Big Ten schools
Seven is actually a good projection for the Big Ten because the Big Ten has placed exactly seven schools in the NCAA Tournament each of the past three years. So, yeah, put me down for seven too.
41. And one of them is Northwestern
Absolutely, one of them is Northwestern. And how about that? This time last year, we were reduced to wondering if Northwestern would ever make the NCAA Tournament. Now it'll be surprising if the Wildcats aren't in the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive years.
42. Get well soon, Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Northwestern's most famous fan — Louis-Dreyfus' son, Charlie Hall, is on the team — announced in September that she's been diagnosed with breast cancer, and now she's getting ready to start a third round of chemotherapy. It's serious stuff. But not unbeatable. So here's hoping she beats it, returns to VEEP and then screams like crazy for the Wildcats, in person, during the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
43. Gonzaga should be good again
The team that eliminated Louis-Dreyfus' favorite team from the 2017 NCAA Tournament was Gonzaga, which went on to play in the national title game. It was an incredible achievement for Mark Few's program. And even though the Zags are without four of their top five scorers from last season, I'll still take them to win another WCC title.
44. Saint Mary's might have something to say about that
Calm down, SMC fans. I'm not handing the league title to the Zags just yet. I know you return most of the pieces from a team that finished 15th at KenPom last season. I know you're good. And I won't be surprised if you snap Gonzaga's streak of five consecutive WCC titles. It's just that, if forced to pick, I'll still pick Gonzaga in what should be an extremely close race.
45. SMC's Jock Landale
Landale didn't get enough votes to make one of the CBS Sports preseason All-America teams. But he could make the postseason team — especially if the 6-11 center improves on the 16.9 points and 9.5 rebounds he averaged last season.
Daum is another player with great stats who didn't get enough votes to make one of the CBS Sports preseason All-America teams. But he's no longer a secret in college basketball circles. The 6-9 forward averaged 25.1 points and 8.1 rebounds last season. He is the nation's leading returning scorer. He'll play against Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse on Nov. 17.
47. Allen Fieldhouse remains the GOAT
I don't want to get into a ranking of college basketball arenas here. (Time and place, you know?) But Allen Fieldhouse, at its best, is still the best. There are plenty of other great spots. But that's the greatest, far as I'm concerned. Can't wait to get back there. And I hope Daum points on a show there. Because that's a memory, as a basketball player, that you probably keep forever.
48. OK, I lied
Real quick, here are my five favorite places to watch a college basketball game: Allen Fieldhouse at Kansas, Cameron Indoor Stadium at Duke, Hinkle Fieldhouse at Butler, Assembly Hall at Indiana, and the McCarthey Athletic Center at Gonzaga.
49. But what about Rupp Arena at Kentucky?
It's cool. And the fans are great. But mostly it just feels like a big arena with great fans.
50. But what about the Dean Smith Center at North Carolina?
Same deal. It's cool. I dig the banners. And the fans are great. But mostly it just feels like a big arena with great fans.
51. But what about The Palestra?
Embarrassingly, I've never stepped foot in The Palestra. And I've never been to The Pit either. Not sure how I've let these things happen. But I'll get to those places at some point, I hope.
52. The PK80-Phil Knight Invitational
This is, by far, the best early season event. It's basically two eight-team tournaments taking place simultaneously in Portland. And you better believe I have predictions for both.
53. The Victory Bracket
This is the bracket with North Carolina and Michigan State on opposite ends. I'll take Michigan State to beat Oklahoma in the title game.
54. The Motion Bracket
This is the bracket with Duke and Gonzaga on opposite ends. I'll take Duke to beat Florida in the title game.
55. But keep an eye on Florida going forward
I have Kentucky winning the SEC because I'm a sucker for talent and Kentucky has lots of it. But I won't be shocked if Michael White's Gators snap UK's three-year run of SEC championships. It's never easy following a coaching legend like White is being asked to do in Gainesville. But he's doing well so far. Florida was just one win away from the Final Four last season. A similar season filled with good things could be on tap.
56. Xavier was also just one win away from the Final Four last season
The Musketeers were an 11-seed in the NCAA Tournament that upset (in order) Maryland, Florida State and Arizona to make the Elite Eight. Then Gonzaga handled Chris Mack's team easily, 83-59. But still. The Musketeers made the Elite Eight even though they lost Edmond Sumner midseason, and now the top two healthy players from that team (Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura) are back. And it won't be too crazy if Xavier finds itself once again on the doorstep of the first Final Four in school history.
57. Notre Dame due for a breakthrough?
The Irish made the Final Four in 1978. So they're not searching for their first national semifinal appearance ever like Xavier. But they haven't made it since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, which makes Notre Dame one of the best programs to fit that description. Mike Brey has led the Irish to seven of the past eight NCAA Tournaments and been to two Elite Eights. So he's been close. And it would be cool if this is the season he finally advances to the final weekend. The inside-outside duo of Matt Farrell and Colson gives the Fighting Irish a fighting chance.
58. Purdue due for a breakthrough?
The Boilermakers, like Notre Dame, also haven't made a Final Four in the 64-team/68-team era. More specifically, they haven't made the Final Four since 1980. Purdue is ranked 20th in the preseason AP poll after winning a silver medal in the World University Games, and that experience this summer can't possibly hurt. And, it should be noted, last season South Carolina made the Final Four even though it was unranked in the preseason AP poll. Year before that, Syracuse made the Final Four even though it was unranked in the preseason AP poll. So being heralded in November is not a prerequisite to playing in April.
59. And the unranked team most likely to make the Final Four this season is …
Rhode Island. Or Alabama, if healthy. Or maybe even the reigning NIT champion TCU Horned Frogs.
60. Scott Drew's Baylor Bears
I've made it clear I believe Kansas will win a 14th-straight Big 12 title. Nobody in the league will seriously push the Jayhawks, not even my Final Four dark horse pick of TCU, I don't think. But Baylor is at least a reasonable candidate, and it really is incredible what Drew has done in Waco. He inherited one of the biggest messes in history, rebuilt it and has made seven of the past 10 NCAA Tournaments, including four of the past eight Sweet 16s, and two of the past Final Fours. It's one of the greatest rebuilding jobs in college athletics history.
61. Louisville under David Padgett
Speaking of inherited messes, Padgett clearly did. I mean, the roster is great. So don't get it twisted. But taking this kind of big job (on an interim basis) under these circumstances isn't ideal, and it'll be fascinated to see if he can do with the roster what Rick Pitino would've done with the roster, or if Louisville never actually amounts to much.
62. Pitino's legal battle
Federal documents suggest Pitino wasn't nearly as in the dark as he's insisted when it came to an agreement to pay Brian Bowen's father in exchange for Bowen's commitment to Louisville. But the alleged word of Christian Dawkins isn't going to be enough to prove what Pitino did or did not know. What if Adidas executive Jim Gatto, who has been charged with federal crimes, corroborates Dawkins' story, though? That kind of development would end any hope Pitino has of collecting a serious settlement from Louisville. And it could also lead to Pitino being indicted as a co-conspirator. So stay tuned.
63. Will Bowen ever be ruled eligible?
I doubt it. Simply put, no matter what Pitino did or did not know, the FBI has video of a Louisville assistant taking part in a deal to cheat to secure Bowen's enrollment. Given that reality, I can't understand why the NCAA would now allow Louisville benefit from that by ruling Bowen eligible and letting him play for the Cardinals.
64. Meantime, Richard Pitino is doing OK
This time last year the younger Pitino was on everybody's hot-seat list. Now he's coming off of an NCAA Tournament appearance and in charge of a preseason top-15 team. It goes to show how quickly everything can change. I mean, this time last year, how insane would it have been if I would've told you that, in November 2017, Rick Pitino would be fired at Louisville but Richard Pitino would be in possession of a preseason top-15 team. Would anybody have believed me?
Everybody, myself included, is looking forward to Tuesday's Champions Classic. But there's a sneaky good game scheduled for Monday night — specifically Minnesota vs. Providence. I have the Friars ranked 26th in the preseason Top 25 (and one). That means I believe Ed Cooley will be in the NCAA Tournament for the fifth consecutive year. Either way, this will be a game featuring Richard Pitino coaching against the school that gave his father his first head-coaching job. So don't be surprised if Rick Pitino is in attendance.
66. The Final Four
This season's Final Four will be in San Antonio, which is one of the best host cities. It'll be the first Final Four in San Antonio since Kansas beat Memphis in overtime in 2008 thanks to "Chalmers for the tie." So hopefully this season's final game, in the same building, provides similar theatrics. Probably won't. But there's no harm in hoping.
67. What will happen between now and then?
I mean, who knows? A team off everybody's radar will emerge as great. A team everybody thinks should be great will struggle. Another coach or seven could be caught up in this FBI investigation. A Player of the Year candidate will come out of nowhere. And that, more than anything, is what makes college basketball fun — the twists and turns of every season. The games start in November and conclude in March. In between, it's usually one surprise after another.
68. And the national champion will be …
Duke, I think. And I know the Blue Devils are inexperienced relative to most national champions. But I'll still bet on all that talent and the greatest coach in the history of the sport figuring it out, one way or another. I'll still bet on Coach K joining John Wooden as the only people in history to win at least six national championships in men's basketball. But, right or wrong, that's a long ways off. For now, let's just focus on Friday. The games are here, finally. Enjoy.