Let’s take a look at who is in position to be in the All-American conversation now that we are halfway through the college basketball season.
Zion Williamson, Duke
Duke’s star freshman Zion Williamson looks every bit the best player in college basketball. At 6’7” and 285 pounds, Williamson is a physical specimen and is a generational talent that will likely be the top pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Zion took over the college basketball world when he erupted for 28 points and seven rebounds in the Blue Devils’ 118-84 blowout of then #2 Kentucky on opening night. He presents a matchup nightmare for pretty much every team in the country and is shooting an incredibly efficient 72.4-percent on two-point field goals. If there’s one thing for Williamson to improve on, it’s his three point shooting. He is by no means a volume shooter as the southpaw only attempts 1.5 threes per game, but he has connected on only 16.7-percent of his attempts from deep. When examining Duke’s one-and-done freshmen in the past, a consistent trend has been their inability to defend. Last year, the Blue Devils’ top freshman Marvin Bagley III, was so lacking defensively that Coach K switched to a 2-3 zone defense to hide his defensive inefficiencies. That is not the case with Zion. Williamson can guard multiple positions and is averaging 2.1 steals and 1.9 blocks per game—which allows him and his teammates to get out in transition, so he can make his highlight real dunks. At this point in the season, Zion is the frontrunner for National Player of the Year.
Dedric Lawson, Kansas
Perhaps one of the most quietly consistent players in the country is Kansas’ Dedric Lawson. The Memphis-transfer is averaging a double-double with 20.6 points, on 53.2-percent shooting, and 11.4 rebounds per game. The Jayhawks are 10-1, and without Lawson, they likely would not have clenched some of the closer matchups. In a 63-60 victory over New Mexico State, Lawson scored the final 14 points of the game for Kansas over the final 6:40 of play. Lawson finished the contest with 20 points, on 8-of-15 shooting, and 10 rebounds. If the Jayhawks plan on winning their 15th consecutive Big Twelve regular season title, they may need Lawson to continue averaging a double-double. For now Dedric Lawson is on track for being a First-Team All-American at the season’s end.
Markus Howard, Marquette
Two words: Sharp. Shooter. Marquette’s Markus Howard is just that. The junior guard is averaging 25 points, on 42.6-percent shooting and 40.2-percent from beyond the arc, 4.3 rebounds, and 4.5 assists. The Golden Eagles are 10-2 with their only losses coming to Indiana and then #2 Kansas and Howard is a key reason why. Most recently, Marquette took down #14 Buffalo 103-85. Howard tallied 45 points in the win on 12-of-25 from the field, including 9-of-13 from distance. He had one of the most electric 20 minutes in college basketball this season as he scored 24 consecutive points and a total of 40 points in the second half. The Golden Eagles have climbed to #18 in the rankings and will look to challenge Villanova for the Big East regular season crown. If Marquette is able to do that, Howard will be in the conversation for Big East Player of the Year and First-Team All-American status.
Grant Williams, Tennessee
The reigning SEC Player of the Year, Grant Williams, is off to a great start and has Tennessee in the conversation as a legitimate National Champion contender. Williams is a matchup nightmare who can shoot the three and bang in the post. He is averaging 19.6 points, on 56.3-percent shooting, including 41.2-percent from three-point land, 8.5 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per contest. Williams scored 24 points, on 9-of-15 from the floor, grabbed nine boards, and dished out four assists in a win over Louisville at the NIT Season Tip-Off in November. His efficiency and leadership will be necessary if the Volunteers are to repeat as SEC regular season champions and make a run to the Final Four. If they do that, there will be no doubt that Williams will repeat as SEC Player of the Year and be a First-Team All-American come March.
Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga
After playing averaging 11.6 points and 4.7 rebounds in only 20 minutes per game a season ago, Rui Hachimura returned to Gonzaga and has emerged as one of the best players in college basketball in his junior year. Hachimura has been incredibly efficient this year—shooting 58-percent from the field, including 44.4-percent from three. He leads Gonzaga, the nation’s most efficient offensive attack, in scoring as he is averaging 21.7 points per game. Hachimura also corrals 6.7 boards per contest. He scored 26 points, on 9-of-20 shooting, pulled down seven rebounds, and hit the game-winner in an 81-79 victory over Washington with 0.6 seconds remaining. The Japanese-born prospect will likely be a lottery pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, but before then, he is the early front-runner for WCC Player of the Year and a legitimate First-Team All-American candidate. If Hachimura keeps playing at this level, the Zags, with Killian Tillie back in the lineup, could cut down the nets in Minneapolis.
Syracuse is back in the Top 25 for the first time since the week of November 12 after defeating Northeastern and Georgetown in the Carrier Dome last week.
The Orange faced Colonial Athletic Association favorite, Northeastern, Tuesday night. Syracuse jumped out to an early 10-2 lead, but the Huskies scored 10 unanswered points to take a 12-10 lead. This was the only lead Northeastern held over the Orange all night. Syracuse closed the half on a 9-0 run with baskets by freshman guards Jalen Carey and Buddy Boeheim to take a 30-23 advantage into intermission.
The Orange’s patented 2-3 zone stymied the Huskies in the second half. Northeastern shot 32.1-percent from the floor in the closing stanza, including 2-of-16 from beyond the arc, which allowed Syracuse to roll to a 72-47 win.
The Orange outrebounded the Huskies 43-29 and held a 19-8 edge in second chance points.
Tomas Murphy led Northeastern with 17 points, on 7-of-10 shooting, and eight rebounds.
Oshae Brissett posted a double-double with 21 points and 14 boards. Elijah Hughes scored 17 points, on 6-of-11 from the field and 3-of-8 from three. Boeheim chipped in with 11 points on 4-of-10 from the floor, including 3-of-7 from deep off the bench.
Frank Howard and Tyus Battle scored two points apiece on a combined 2-of-12 from the field and Syracuse still earned the win—a result that would have been unheard of last season.
The Orange hosted the Georgetown Hoyas in a matchup of old Big East rivals on Saturday afternoon in front of a raucous crowd of 24,082—the largest attendance in college basketball yet this season.
Patrick Ewing’s Hoyas jumped out to an early lead thanks to their impenetrable defense that forced Syracuse to miss 12 of their first 13 shots. Georgetown took a 35-22 lead into the break and held the Orange to 25-percent from the floor, including 1-of-14 from distance.
Syracuse came out of the locker room in the second half and played their best twenty minutes of basketball thus far in the 2018-19 campaign. The Orange went on a 14-4 run to pull within 39-36 on a layup by Battle with 16:05 left. The Hoyas responded with a 7-2 spurt to keep Syracuse’s comeback at bay for the time being. The Orange had an answer and took a 54-48 lead on a layup by Brissett with 9:52 remaining. Georgetown came back and tied the game at 60 on a free throw by Josh LeBlanc with 5:51 to go.
The teams traded baskets and Jessie Govan connected on a triple to give the Hoyas a 71-70 lead with 1:08 to play. Battle missed a jumper with 40 ticks on the clock and Jagan Mosely controlled the defensive board for the Hoyas. Syracuse coach, Jim Boeheim, made the gutsy decision not to foul and Marek Dolezaj drew a charge with 10.6 seconds left to give the Orange one last chance to beat Georgetown.
Enter Tyus Battle. As he has done so many times in his Syracuse career, the junior guard brought the ball up the court and put a dagger into the hearts of the Hoya faithful as he nailed a jumper with 2.5 seconds remaining on the clock, sending the Carrier Dome crowd into a frenzy. Jahvon Blair’s half-court heave clanged off the back iron and the Orange prevailed 72-71 in the latest installment of the storied rivalry.
Syracuse holds a 51-43 lead over Georgetown in the series. With the ACC schedule expanding to 20 games next season, it is uncertain as to whether or not the two schools will renew the rivalry in 2019-20, but both Boeheim and Ewing expressed their interest in continuing the rivalry moving forward.
The Orange’s comeback was fueled by an efficient offensive attack as Syracuse shot 60-percent from the field in the final 20 minutes and held the Hoyas to a 41.4-percent clip in the period. Georgetown outrebounded the Orange 45-34, but Syracuse forced the Hoyas into 15 turnovers.
Govan posted a double-double with 22 points, on 9-of-18 shooting and 2-of-3 from three point land, and 12 rebounds. He also dished out four assists.
Battle led the Orange with 26 points, on 8-of-18 from the floor, and five rebounds. Hughes added 15 points and six boards, while Brissett finished with 12 points and nine rebounds.
Player of the Week: Elijah Hughes
Despite Battle’s game-winner against Georgetown and Brissett’s double-double in the victory over Northeastern, this week’s player of the week for Syracuse was Elijah Hughes. The East Carolina transfer played a key role in both wins this week for the Orange and has been a consistent scorer in addition to the trio of Howard, Battle, and Brissett. His presence was clearly missed when he sat out his red-shirt season a year ago. This week, Hughes averaged 16 points and shot 11-of-24 from the field, including 7-of-18 from three point range and was the second leading scorer in support of Brissett and Battle in both triumphs last week. Hughes has looked more comfortable in the back of the zone as the season has evolved and recoded a steal and a block against the Huskies and the Hoyas. With Hughes as a key contributor on both ends of the floor, Syracuse should remain in the Top 25 over the course of the coming weeks.
Up Next: Old Dominion
The Orange will have a week to decompress from the hysteria of the huge win over Georgetown to take their finals and prepare for their next opponent, the Old Dominion Monarchs. Tip-off is set for noon on Saturday. Old Dominion enters the contest with a record of 7-3 and are coming off a 79-69 victory over Fairfield on Sunday. The Monarchs are led by Ahmad Caver who is averaging 18.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 5.1 assists per game.
Syracuse entered last Wednesday’s tilt with Ohio State in desperate need of a nonconference win over a ranked team on the road. The Orange got exactly what the doctor ordered and pulled off a 72-62 victory over the 16th-ranked Buckeyes in Columbus in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Syracuse followed that performance up with a 63-55 win over Cornell in a hotly contested “Battle of the Boeheim’s.”
Ohio State jumped out to an early 9-2 lead by connecting on their first four shot attempts. The Buckeyes cooled off and the Orange tied the game at 17 on a three-pointer by Marek Dolezaj. The teams traded baskets to close the half and Tyus Battle gave Syracuse momentum heading into the break with a spinning layup to pull the Orange to within two points (31-29) at halftime.
Syracuse wasted no time in the second stanza as Oshae Brissett made a layup of the first possession to ignite a 10-2 run to give the Orange a 39-33 lead. Ohio State used a 10-2 run of their own to take a 43-41 lead. Syracuse ripped off an 11-0 run to take a 55-45 lead that they would not relinquish the rest of the way and came away with a much needed 72-62 victory.
The Orange had their best shooting night of the season as they shot 48.9-percent from the field and 45.8-percent from beyond the arc to earn the win. Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone noticeably bothered the Buckeyes throughout the night as Ohio State was held to just 32.6-percent from the field and 27.3-percent from three point land.
Despite battling foul trouble throughout the evening, the Orange were victorious. Syracuse committed 29 fouls in the tightly-called affair and lost three players, Bourama Sidibe, Frank Howard, and Dolezaj, to disqualification. Ohio State finished 26-for-35 from the charity stripe.
The Buckeyes were led by CJ Jackson, who tallied 19 points, on 4-of-14 from the floor, and four rebounds.
Battle paced the Orange attack with 20 points on 6-of-10 shooting. Elijah Hughes poured in 18 points on 6-of-14 from the floor and 4-of-9 from deep. Brissett added 14 points and four rebounds.
Coach Boeheim commented on his team’s performance postgame. “Our overall defense was good,” Boeheim said. “We guarded the three-point line better than we have all year. We did a good job inside, but it was Tyus and really Oshae, and Elijah in the second half that made some big plays.”
The ACC/Big Ten Challenge ended in a 7-7 tie.
After their impressive road win over the Buckeyes, Syracuse returned to the Carrier Dome to face the Cornell Big Red in the “Battle of the Boeheim’s” Saturday night. Coach Boeheim, Buddy, and the Orange squared off against Jimmy, the eldest of the Boeheim brothers, and the Big Red.
Syracuse looked to lack the intensity they played with against Ohio State. The Orange took a 33-24 lead into the break and built a 15 point lead (39-24) early in the second half, but Cornell refused to go away. The Big Red went on a 21-8 run to take a 48-47 lead with 7:53 remaining. Battle put the Orange ahead for good with a three-pointer that gave Syracuse a 52-50 lead with 5:51 to go. The Orange escaped the “Battle of the Boeheim’s” with a 63-55 win.
Cornell shot 46.5-percent from the field and drained 9-of-24 of their attempts from downtown to give Syracuse a run for their money. The Orange shot 50-percent from the floor and 8-of-21 from distance.
Defensively, Syracuse forced the Big Red into 14 turnovers.
Matt Morgan, one of the best players in mid-major college basketball, led the way for Cornell. Morgan scored 26 points on 9-of-14 shooting, including 6-of-10 from three-point range. Morgan has now scored in double figures in 59 consecutive contests. Jimmy Boeheim stuffed the stat sheet with nine points, six rebounds, four assists, and a block.
Battle led the way for the Orange as he scored a season-high 26 points on 10-of-17 from the floor, including 4-of-6 from three, and five rebounds. Brissett finished with 19 points and eight boards. Buddy Boeheim joined his older brother on the court and knocked down a three in five minutes off the bench.
Coach Boeheim was not happy with his team’s effort against the Big Red. “There’s a lot of things we’re not doing well,” Boeheim said. “Tyus and Oshae played well enough for us to win. Otherwise there wasn’t a lot of good things. I can’t tell you how disappointing it is. Really bad.”
Syracuse will need to play better on Tuesday when they take on CAA favorite Northeastern.
Player of the Week: Tyus Battle
This week’s player of the week is Tyus Battle. After playing out of position in the first four games while Frank Howard was out due to injury, Battle struggled to play up to his potential. Since Howard returned to the lineup against Colgate last Wednesday, Battle is averaging 23.3 points per game, shooting 64.9-percent from the field and 72.7-percent from three. If Battle continues playing like he has over the last week and a half, he will have a chance to live up to the All-American hype he generated in the preseason. This week, he was honored as the ACC Player of the Week.
Up Next: Northeastern and Georgetown
The Orange are set to enter a stretch in their schedule where they will not play a game away from the Carrier Dome until they travel to face Notre Dame on January 5. Syracuse will return to action on Tuesday when they take on Northeastern at 7pm. The Huskies are 4-4 and are coming off an 81-67 victory over former Syracuse assistant, Rob Murphy, and Eastern Michigan. Northeastern will be very familiar playing against zone. The Huskies are led by Jordan Roland who is averaging 15.9 points per game.
The Orange will host former Big East arch rival Georgetown on Saturday. Tip-off is set for 3:30pm. Second year head coach Patrick Ewing and his Hoyas are 7-1 and are coming off an 88-87 win over Liberty Monday night. Big man Jessie Govan leads the way for Georgetown as he is averaging 19.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. The Hoyas have an electric backcourt consisting of freshman guard James Akinjo and Mac McClung. The duo is averaging 21.5 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 6.9 assists per contest. Last year, Syracuse traveled to the nation’s capital and emerged with an 86-79 0vertime victory over their long-time arch rivals. Syracuse and Georgetown in the Dome will certainly not disappoint.
Siena off to a 1-1 start in the Jamion Christian Era
After a tumultuous offseason that saw Siena fire head coach Jimmy Patsos amid a scandal involving mistreatment of a team manager and many changes to the roster, the Saints opened the Jamion Christian Era this week. Christian had previously coached Mount Saint Mary’s to two NCAA Tournaments in six years. Coach Christian preaches defensive pressure and three point shooting as the cornerstones of his coaching philosophy. Saints fans saw both on display in the team’s first two games this week.
Siena, who was picked to finish last in the MAAC this season, opened their 2018-19 at Big East powerhouse Providence on Tuesday. The Saints pulled themselves within seven late, but ultimately fell 77-67 to the Friars. Providence coach Ed Cooley, who previously coached at Fairfield in the MAAC, made it clear in his postgame statements that he thought Siena would not finish last in the MAAC this year. Freshman forward Sloan Seymour led the way for the Saints as he tallied 15 points on 5-of-9 shooting from beyond the arc. Senior forward Evan Fisher contributed with 11 points, six rebounds, and three assists in the losing effort. Siena held true to Coach Christian’s philosophy as the team made 12 three pointers and forced the Friars into 15 turnovers.
The Saints had a quick turnaround between its first two games as they traveled to the nation’s capital to take on George Washington Thursday night. Siena pulled away down the stretch to clinch a 69-61 win; the first victory under Christian. Freshman point guard Jalen Pickett stuffed the stat sheet with 19 points, five rebounds, and six assists. Senior forward Kevin Degnan finished with 15 points and eight boards in the win. The Saints connected on 13-of-34 three point attempts, compared to George Washington, who shot just 8-of-18 from distance.
Player of the Week: Jalen Pickett
This week’s player of the week for Siena was Jalen Pickett. The freshman has been tasked with quarterbacking the offensive attack for the Saints and has led the team in scoring at 13 points per contest. Most importantly, he has dished out 15 assists and only turned the ball over three times over the course of the first two games. Siena will rely on Pickett to shoulder a bulk of the ball-handling duties this season and has shown that he is up for the task thus far.
Up next: Norfolk State and Holy Cross/Stony Brook
Siena will take part in the Air Force Reserve Basketball Hall of Fame Classic presented by Citi at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut this weekend. The Saints will face Norfolk State in the first round Friday night at 8:30pm., followed by either the championship or consolation against either Holy Cross or Stony Brook.
The Norfolk State Spartans are 2-1 overall and will play at South Carolina on Tuesday night before they battle with the Saints. Norfolk State is led by Nic Thomas who is averaging 13.7 points and 4.3 rebounds per game.
Holy Cross is 1-1 on the season and will play at Providence before they meet with Stony Brook Friday night. The Crusaders are led by Austin Butler who is averaging 14 points and 3.5 boards per contest. If Siena and Holy Cross play each other this weekend, they will face each other for a second time, as the Saints are at the Crusaders December 22.
Stony Brook is 2-0 on the season with wins over George Washington and South Carolina and will square off against Holy Cross on Friday at 6pm. The Seawolves are led by Akwasi Yeboah who is averaging 18 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.
Let’s take a look at the Preseason All-Americans heading into the 2018-19 season.
First Team All-Americans
*Carsen Edwards, G, Purdue
Carsen Edwards was the best player on a Purdue team that featured four seniors in the starting lineup a year ago. This season, the Boilermakers will be heavily reliant on Edwards to lead the way if they hope to make it back to the “Big Dance.” An early favorite for National Player of the Year, Edwards will look to improve on averages of 18.5 points on 45.8% shooting, 3.8 rebounds, and 2.8 assists in 29 minutes per game last season. An increase in usage should see Edwards improve in each of these categories.
RJ Barrett, G/F, Duke
Duke’s top recruiting class is highlighted by the top prospect in the class, RJ Barrett. The Mississagua, Ontario, Canada native will look to prove that he is worthy of the number one overall pick in next spring’s NBA Draft. Expect Barrett to challenge Edwards in the National Player of the Year race.
Grant Williams, F, Tennessee
Grant Williams, the reigning SEC Player of the Year, was one of the major reasons why Tennessee surprised the college basketball world a season ago winning the SEC and earning a three seed in the NCAA Tournament. This year, the Volunteers have a target on their back. Williams will look to help Tennessee repeat as conference champions and make a deep run into March. If Williams improves on a season where he averaged 15.2 points on 47.3% shooting and 6 rebounds per game, the Vols will be able to live up to the hype.
Luke Maye, F, North Carolina
After hitting a game winning shot to beat Kentucky in the Elite Eight of the 2017 NCAA Tournament, Luke Maye was one of the most improved players in the country a season ago as he averaged 16.9 points on 48.6% shooting and 10.1 rebounds per game. Now as a senior, Maye will look to lead a young Tar Heels squad back to the Final Four after a disappointing loss in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year.
Ethan Happ, F, Wisconsin
Wisconsin missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in two decades last season, but that was not because of the play of Ethan Happ. Happ averaged 17.9 points on 52.8% shooting, 8 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game. Happ will be one of the most utilized players in the country and is one of the best passing big men in college basketball. Happ will be the key for the Badgers if they want to have realistic hopes of making it back to the “Big Dance.”
It is the first week of fall. The leaves are beginning to change and its getting cooler outside across the country. Yesterday, college teams reported for their first official practice day of the 2018-19 season. Over the summer the NCAA made feeble efforts to address the issues responsible for the ongoing FBI investigation, but alas they seem like they will do little to change the overall state of college basketball. Although there is still over a month to go before the season starts, it is time to take a look at who will be the major players in the college basketball scene this season. For the most part, we’ll see the usual suspects, but it is always fun to look forward to the coming season.
1.) Kentucky Wildcats
John Calipari brings in another top recruiting class to Lexington this season. The difference between last year’s team, which struggled to gel as a unit, and this group of young stars is that this year the Wildcats will have a nucleus of veterans to build around. PJ Washington returns after testing the NBA Draft waters and will look to contend for SEC Player of the Year. Additionally, Calipari landed Reid Travis, the most coveted graduate transfer in this year’s class from Stanford where he was a First-Team Pac-12 performer. Washington and Travis will be joined by the freshman class of EJ Montgomery, Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson, Immanuel Quickly, and Ashton Hagans. The best Kentucky teams in years past have had a lethal combination of youth and experience. Expect this team to follow suit and have a chance to cut down the nets in April.
2.) Kansas Jayhawks
Bill Self’s group will have a chance to win its 15th consecutive Big 12 regular season title this year. Kansas will have one of the most talented teams in the country. Udoka Azubuike and Lagerald Vick are two key returning players from last year’s team that made a run to the Final Four. Freshman Quentin Grimes will take the reins at point guard and will be joined by Memphis transfers Dedric and KJ Lawson. This could be the Jayhawks best team since the squad that won it all in 2008.
3.) Duke Blue Devils
The Duke Blue Devils will struggle to replace its entire starting lineup from a year ago. Yeah right. Coach K reloads his roster with the top three recruits in the Class of 2018: RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish, and Zion Williamson, and Tyus Jones’ brother, Tre, who will man the point. It may take some time for the Blue Devils to find some chemistry, but this team feels eerily similar to the 2015 National Championship team.
4.) Gonzaga Bulldogs
Last year, the Gonzaga Bulldogs looked well on their way to a second straight Final Four appearance until Killian Tillie sustained a hip injury and they were bounced by Florida State in the Sweet Sixteen. A healthy Tillie and an All-American/potential NBA First Round Draft pick in Rui Hachimura will make Gonzaga the class of the WCC yet again and have them in position for a one seed and a chance at a second trip to the Final Four in three years.
5.) Nevada Wolfpack
After back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances and a run to the Sweet Sixteen last season, Eric Musselman’s team will not be flying under the radar this year. Nevada will be one of the best teams in the country this season as the Martin twins (Caleb and Cody) decided to return for their senior season after testing the NBA Draft process in the spring. In addition, Jordan Caroline returns and the Wolfpack will have the services of Jordan Brown, a McDonald’s All-American from the Class of 2018. The next step in their rise to prominence will be a trip to Minneapolis.
6.) Tennessee Volunteers
After a surprising season in which Tennessee was picked to finished last in the SEC, the Volunteers won the SEC regular season championship. SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield will look to avenge a loss to Loyola-Chicago in the Round of 32 and get Rick Barnes to the Final Four.
7.) Virginia Cavaliers
The 2017-18 season for the Virginia Cavaliers came to a screeching halt when they became the first one seed in the history of the NCAA Tournament to a sixteen seed when they lost to UMBC in March. Tony Bennett will look to turn the tide against his woeful NCAA Tournament performances in the past and lead his team to success in the “Big Dance” in 2019. The Cavaliers return Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year, De’Andre Hunter, a likely first round pick in the 2019 NBA Draft who was sorely missed in their excruciating loss to the Retrievers.
8.) North Carolina Tar Heels
After losing in the second round to Texas A&M in the NCAA Tournament and losing the veteran backcourt of Joel Berry and Theo Pinson, Roy Williams will look to bounce back with a combination of youth, experience and aim for Tournament success in 2019. Nassir Little and Coby White join the Tar Heels as highly touted recruits, while Cameron Johnson and potential National Player of the Year candidate Luke Maye will return to Chapel Hill and look to get back to the Final Four for the third time in four years.
9.) Michigan State Spartans
Amid scandal, Tom Izzo led Michigan State to a 30-5 record in 2017-18 before being stunned by Syracuse in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Cassius Winston and Nick Ward will look to step up and fill the void left by the departures of Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. to the NBA.
10.) Villanova Wildcats
The defending National Champion Villanova Wildcats round out the preseason top ten. Jay Wright lost National Player of the Year Jalen Brunson, Big East Tournament MVP Mikal Bridges, Final Four Most Valuable Player Donte DiVincenzo, and Omari Spellman to the NBA Draft. The Wildcats return Eric Paschall and Phil Booth and add a recruiting class of Jahvon Quinerly, Brandon Slater, Cole Swider, and Albany transfer Joe Cremo. Villanova should still win the Big East, but has a lot of work to do if they plan to celebrate a National Championship for the third time in four years.
11.) West Virginia Mountaineers
Bob Huggins will be without the services of do-it-all guard Jevon Carter due to graduation this season, but the nation’s best shot blocker, Sagaba Konate, and Esa Ahmad will look to lead the Mountaineers as they try to dethrone Kansas for the top spot in the Big 12.
12.) Auburn Tigers
A veteran backcourt of Bryce Brown, Jared Harper, and DeSean Murray will look to follow-up last year’s surprise result and get Bruce Pearl deep into March.
13.) Kansas State Wildcats
Kansas State advanced to the Elite Eight last year with a late season surge despite playing without their best player, Dean Wade. Wade returns from injury and the Wildcats will look to contest atop the Big 12 and make another deep run through the NCAA Tournament Bracket.
14.) Virginia Tech Hokies
Despite being bounced in the first round of the “Big Dance” by Alabama, Virginia Tech returns deep core of talent from a team that raised havoc in the ACC, taking down North Carolina, Duke, and Virginia a year ago. Look for Nickeil Alexander-Walker to make a big jump from his freshman to sophomore year.
15.) Syracuse Orange
After making the NCAA Tournament as the last team in, the Orange rattled off three wins over Arizona State, TCU, and Michigan State before losing to Duke in the Sweet Sixteen. Syracuse is in a similar situation as they were entering the 2016 season, where a deep run in March fueled high expectations for the 2017 team. The Orange return all five starters, Frank Howard, Tyus Battle, Oshae Brissett, Marek Dolezaj, and Paschal Chukwu. Jalen Carey, Buddy Boeheim, Robert Braswell, and East Carolina transfer Elijah Hughes have been added to the roster to bring some needed depth and shooting to Central New York.
16.) Oregon Ducks
The Oregon Ducks advanced to the Final Four for the first time in eight decades in 2017, but failed to make the “Big Dance” in 2018. Peyton Pritchard returns to Eugene to join a group of highly touted recruits, including Bol Bol, son of Manute Bol, and Louis King. The Ducks are early favorites to win the Pac-12.
17.) TCU Horned Frogs
TCU returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in two decades last season. With Victor Brodziansky and Kenrich Williams absent from this year’s roster, Desmond Bane and a healthy Jaylen Fisher will look to dance again for the second time in as many years under Jamie Dixon.
18.) Michigan Wolverines
The National Runners-up will look to continue their success under John Beilein with the return of Charles Matthews and Jordan Poole.
19.) UCLA Bruins
Steve Alford has yet to make it past the Sweet Sixteen in his tenure and after being sent out in the First Four by St. Bonaventure last year, he sits squarely on the hot seat. Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands return to campus after testing the NBA Draft waters in the spring; and along with Shareef O’Neal, Shaq’s son, the Bruins are hoping to break through in March.
20.) Washington Huskies
Coach Mike Hopkins brought the 2-3 zone from Syracuse to the Pacific Northwest and brought a team that won nine games in 2016-17 to a 21 win season and a trip to the NIT a season ago. Matisse Thybulle and Noah Dickerson will look to lead the Huskies to the top of the Pac-12 and to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.
21.) Mississippi State Bulldogs
Ben Howland will look to take his fourth program to the “Big Dance” after taking Mississippi State to the NIT semifinals a year ago. Quinndary Weatherspoon will need to be an All-SEC performer if the Bulldogs want to hear their name called on “Selection Sunday.”
22.) Loyola-Chicago Ramblers
Though Sister Jean and the Ramblers took the world by storm last March, they are no longer Cinderella. Clayton Custer returns to Porter Moser’s squad. A week non-conference schedule could keep Loyola-Chicago out of the NCAA Tournament if they were to slip up on their way to a Missouri Valley Conference Tournament title.
23.) Marquette Golden Eagles
Marquette had one of the best offenses in the country a year ago, but their defense was one of the worst. If the Golden Eagles can improve on the defensive end, Markus Howard and Sam Hauser will hope to shoot their way into March Madness.
24.) Nebraska Cornhuskers
Nebraska finished fourth in a down Big Ten last year, and a poor non-conference schedule kept them on the wrong side of the bubble. James Palmer Jr. will look to build on his First Team Big Ten selection a year ago and get the Cornhuskers into the Dance.
25.) Cincinnati Bearcats
After blowing a big second half lead to Nevada in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, Mick Cronan will look to regroup in order to make a run in the postseason this year. The Bearcats lost Gary Clark and Kyle Washington to graduation, and Jacob Evans to the NBA Draft from last year’s squad, but Jarron Cumberland and Justin Jenifer will look to take on a larger load and keep Cincinnati atop the AAC this year.
With the season behind us, let’s dive in and take a look at the five best players in college basketball this season who earned the right to be called All-Americans.
Jalen Brunson, G, Villanova
Jalen Brunson was the Player of the Year in college basketball, so naturally he is a First Team All-American. The junior guard served as the floor general of the nation’s best team and eventual National Champion, Villanova. Brunson averaged 18.9 points and 4.6 assists per game and shot 52.1% from the floor and 40.8% from three. He posed a tough match-up for opposing defenses as he could shoot the three, take it to the hole, post-up and be a threat in the mid-range. After the Wildcats defeated Michigan in the National Championship game, Brunson decided to forego his senior season and enter the NBA Draft, where he is projected as a late first round or early second round pick. He has etched his name in Villanova lore as he was a starter on two National Championship teams in three years.
Trae Young, G, Oklahoma
When Trae Young decided to stay home in Norman, Oklahoma and play for the Sooners rather that head off to Kentucky, very few people predicted that he would have the success he did in his only year in college. Young became the first player ever to lead the nation in both scoring and assists. The freshman scored 27.4 points per game and dished out 8.8 assists per game, leading Oklahoma to the NCAA Tournament where they fell in the first round to Rhode Island in overtime. Oklahoma relied on Young’s scoring and play-making. Although his numbers dipped toward the end of the season, he shot 42.2% from the floor and 36% from three. Young’s NBA Draft stock improved more than any other player in the country as he is now projected to be a top-ten pick in the NBA Draft.
Devonte’ Graham, G, Kansas
Devonte’ Graham’s decision to return to Lawrence for his senior season was a good one as the guard led his team to the Final Four for the first time since 2012 where they lost to Villanova. Graham led Kansas in scoring with 17.3 points per game on 40% shooting from the floor and 40.6% from beyond the arc. The senior point guard also corralled 4 rebounds and 7.2 assists per contest. After graduation, Graham will likely be chosen in the NBA Draft—he is projected to be an early second round selection.
Marvin Bagley III, F, Duke
The reclassification of Duke’s Marvin Bagley III was one of the biggest stories in college basketball heading into the 2017-18 season. Bagley III certainly did not disappoint as he led the nation’s most talented team in both scoring and rebounding. He also won ACC Player and Rookie of the Year honors, despite missing four games during conference play due to injury. The freshman averaged 21 points and 11.1 rebounds per game and led the Blue Devils to the Elite Eight where they lost to Kansas. The big man shot 61.4% from the floor and was a beast on the offensive glass. Bagley III will likely be a top five pick in this year’s NBA Draft. If he can improve his shooting from distance and his defense, he has all the ability to be an impact player at the next level.
Deandre Ayton, F, Arizona
Arizona’s Deandre Ayton rounds out the 2018 First Team All-American selections. Ayton is a physically imposing big man that shined in his one year in the Desert as he picked up both Pac-12 Rookie and Player of the Year honors. The freshman big man led the Wildcats to the Pac-12 Regular Season and Tournament Championships before getting upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Buffalo as he posted a double-double per contest at 20.1 points and 11.6 rebounds. Ayton shot 61.2% from the floor during his freshman campaign. He is projected to be a top-three pick in this year’s NBA Draft. Scouts will hope that Ayton can develop a jumper and improve his shot blocking ability in order to become an elite NBA player.
The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament was a wild one—filled with historic upsets and late game heroics. Let’s take a look at the Sweet Sixteen and who will advance to the Final Four in San Antonio.
The East Region—TD Garden, Boston, MA, March 23 & 25
The East Region is the chalkiest regional left as the top three seeds, Villanova, Purdue, and Texas Tech, all advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. The 5-seed West Virginia will join them in Boston after they knocked out 13-seed Marshall who upset 4th seeded Wichita State in the first round on Friday. All four teams have a legitimate chance to punch their ticket to the Final Four in San Antonio.
#5 West Virginia vs. #1 Villanova, Friday, 7:27pm., TBS
Aside from their senior leader Jevon Carter, West Virginia struggled mightily shooting the ball during the regular season, but the Mountaineers have dominated the offensive glass so far in the Tournament. Led by Sagaba Konate, West Virginia has pulled down 29 offensive boards over their first two games. The dominance on the glass has allowed the Mountaineers to shoot better than 50% from the floor in the “Big Dance” and put up, on average, 89.5 points per game in the first weekend. Carter versus Jalen Brunson is the best point guard match-up in the Sweet Sixteen. If Carter and West Virginia can speed up Brunson and Villanova and force turnovers and lead to easy transition baskets, the Mountaineers have a chance to pull off an upset and make it to the Elite Eight.
Villanova steamrolled Radford and Alabama in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. With Virginia out, the Wildcats have emerged as the team to beat. Villanova’s offense seems unstoppable—the Wildcats are shooting 53% from two and 46% from three in their first two games in the Dance. As good as that is, that’s right on par with their shooting numbers during the regular season, only now, the trio of Brunson, Mikal Bridges, and Donte DiVincenzo is shooting a greater volume of threes than they had throughout the first four months of the season. Expect the Wildcats to handle West Virginia’s press and emerge victorious on Friday night.
Villanova 84, West Virginia 78
#3 Texas Tech vs. #2 Purdue, Friday, 9:57pm., TBS
Texas Tech arrives in Boston after taking care of Stephen F. Austin in the first round and surviving a scare from Florida in the second round. The Red Raiders have themselves in the Sweet Sixteen thanks to their defensive performance. Texas Tech held the Lumberjacks and the Gators to 0.93 points per possession in Dallas last weekend, giving them a chance to muster up enough points to win the game. Keenan Evans and Zhaire Smith have emerged as stars of the Tournament thus far. There are pros and cons for the Red Raiders who will be facing Purdue, a team that will likely be without their 7-foot-2” center Isaac Haas. Texas Tech doesn’t have a 7-footer of their own to defend Haas in the post, but if the Boilermakers elect to go small and shoot a barrage of threes, things could get ugly for the Red Raiders.
Despite losing Haas in their opening round win over Cal State Fulerton, Purdue overcame Butler’s 60% shooting performance from inside the arc to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. Although the engineers on campus in West Lafayette, Indiana have been tasked with trying to design a brace for Haas’ elbow that meets NCAA standards, it is unlikely that the Boilermakers will have their big man this weekend. Purdue will need to rely on Carsen Edwards, Vincent Edwards, Dakota Mathias, and P.J. Thompson to pick up the slack on the offensive end. Matt Maarms (and his perfectly groomed hair) will need to be a factor in limiting Texas Tech’s offensive threats inside the paint. Look for Purdue to get hot from three and advance to the Elite Eight in a close one.
Purdue 71, Texas Tech 70
Winner of the East Region: Villanova
Unlike the South and the West, the East Region has been immune to upsets so far and I expect that to continue at the TD Garden this weekend. Jay Wright will have his team ready to get back to the Final Four in search of the program’s second National Championship in three years.
Here’s a look at this week’s winners and losers and Saturday’s premier match-up.
Winner: Michigan State Spartans
Michigan State (25-3, 13-2) has now won nine consecutive games after defeating #3 Purdue last Saturday at home on a three-pointer in the closing second by Miles Bridges and drubbing Minnesota by 30 on Tuesday thanks to 27 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 blocks from Jaren Jackson Jr. The Spartans climbed to #2 in the country and are tied for first place in the Big Ten with Ohio State. With a lower strength of schedule than the rest of the top teams in the country, Michigan State has kept themselves in the conversation by simply winning games and avoiding bad losses. The Spartans close out the regular season with games at Northwestern on Saturday at 2, home against Illinois, and at Wisconsin. A strong showing at Madison Square Garden in the Big Ten Tournament could land Michigan State a one seed. With a week off to prepare between the end of their conference tournament and the NCAA Tournament, the Spartans will be primed and ready for a deep run in March. Look for Michigan State to be motivated by the disrespect the selection committee demonstrated when they seeded them as a 3-seed in their bracket reveal last week.
Loser: Oklahoma Sooners
Oklahoma has now lost four games in a row (and seven of their last nine) and is proving that the selection committee’s choice to seed them as a 4-seed in the bracket reveal last week was an absolute joke. Trae Young has tried to keep his team afloat all season, but has fallen short recently. Despite the fact that Young is averaging 29.1 points and 9.3 assists per game, his percentages have slipped a bit recently. Specifically, Young has misfired on 18 of his last 19 attempts from three-point land. Aside from Young, Oklahoma only has two other double figure scorers in Christian James and Brady Manek. Oklahoma is in desperate need of a big game from Young or contributions from some of their supporting cast to get back in the win column. The Sooners (16-9, 6-7) have slid to #23 nationally and fifth place in the Big 12. Oklahoma will look to avenge an earlier loss to Texas when they take on Mohamed Bamba and the Longhorns at noon on Saturday. Although Young is still the leading candidate to win the National Player of the Year, I am skeptical of the Sooners’ reliance on him to take them far in March.
Premier Match-Up: #3 Villanova at #4 Xavier (4:30pm FOX)
Saturday’s premier match-up features a rematch between #3 Villanova (23-3, 10-3) and #4 Xavier (24-3, 12-2) in Cincinnati. The winner would all but win the Big East regular season championship. The Wildcats trounced the Musketeers in Philadelphia on January 10 when Phil Booth, who has been sidelined with a broken hand since late last month, led all scorers with 21 points. Villanova, who relies heavily on three pointers, struggled in their loss to Providence as they made just 3-of-20 of their attempts from deep. The Wildcats have lost two of their last three outings and will look to bounce back with a big win against Xavier. Villanova averages 11.3 successful three-point tries per game and their dreadful performance against the Friars snapped an 83 game streak where they connected on 4 or more shots from behind the arc. In light of their recent struggles, Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges have been spectacular this season as they are averaging 19.8 and 16.5 points, respectively. Prior to breaking his hand, Booth was third on the team in scoring at 11.6 points per game. Donte DiVincenzo has stepped into a starting role and is now averaging 14 points per contest. The other two starters, Omari Spellman and Eric Paschall are also averaging double figures. With Booth out, there is little bench production for Villanova. The Wildcats will have to rely heavily on their stars to leave the Cintas Center victorious.
Xavier enters Saturday as winners of their last nine games since losing to Villanova and have won those games by an average margin of 87-78. Most recently, the Musketeers went off for offensive explosion in their 102-90 victory over Seton Hall in which Trevon Bluiett lit it up for 37 points on only 12 shots. Bluiett, J.P. Macura, and Kerem Kanter have led Xavier to the top of the conference. Xavier ranks 9th nationally in points per game, but 239th in points allowed, while Villanova is 3rd and 133rd in those same categories. The Musketeers will look to make their case for a one seed by defending their home court against the Wildcats. Xavier is a perfect 16-0 at home this season. Expect Xavier to hold serve and take care of business at home in a fast, up-and-down, offensive game.
Here’s a look at this week’s winners and losers and Saturday’s premier match-up.
Winner: St. John’s Red Storm
If St. John’s had a chance to make the NCAA Tournament this year, their performance this past week would go a long way in sealing their bid. Congratulations to the Red Storm for defeating #4 Duke and #1 Villanova over the course of the last week. Last place St. John’s, losers of their last eleven games before their win over Duke, will likely only make the “Big Dance” if they win the Big East Tournament. Sophomore Shamorie Ponds finished with 33 points and 7 rebounds against the Blue Devils and followed that up with 26 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists in the upset of the top-ranked Wildcats. The Red Storm will look to build a three-game win streak when they host Marquette on Saturday at noon.
Loser: Kentucky Wildcats
Just when Kentucky fans thought their team was growing up, the young Wildcats proved to be even more unpredictable that most thought. Kentucky lost at Missouri last Saturday and home to Tennessee on Tuesday for the first time since 2006. After averaging 81.3 points per game over the course of their three game win streak, Kentucky averaged just 60 points per game in their last two losses. The Wildcats’ leading scorer, Kevin Knox, averaged only 7.5 points per game in the two losses this past week. If Kentucky hopes to make a deep run in March, Knox will need to step it up. The Wildcats will travel to College Station, TX to take on Texas A&M on Saturday at 8:15pm.
Premier Match-Up: #3 Purdue at #4 Michigan State (4pm ESPN)
Saturday’s premier match-up features a Big Ten battle between two of the nation’s top five teams. Purdue enters the game coming off a heartbreaking loss to #14 Ohio State on Wednesday—this snapped their program-record 19 game win streak. The Boilermakers were leading 63-62 until an offensive rebound put-back by Keita Bates-Diop with 3 seconds to go powered the Buckeyes past Purdue. The Boilermakers will look to rebound from Wednesday’s loss with a big win over Michigan State on the road. Purdue is the only team in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency in the country and have four players (Carsen Edwards, Vincent Edwards, Isaac Haas, and Dakota Mathias) averaging double figures in scoring this season. Purdue will face their toughest test to date on the road in the Breslin Center versus the Michigan State Spartans.
The Michigan State community has been under fire in the wake of the Larry Nassar trial, but the basketball team has given the school something to smile about recently. Michigan State is on a seven-game win streak and, most recently, defeated Iowa 96-93 on Tuesday. With all five starters (Miles Bridges, Nick Ward, Joshua Langford, Cassius Winston, and Jaren Jackson Jr.) averaging double figures in scoring, the Spartans have a chance to tie the Boilermakers in the Big Ten standings and pick up a win that would give them an edge to claim a one seed in March. If Michigan State is able to keep turnovers to a minimum, they will have a chance to beat Purdue. Purdue will be prepared for Michigan State and eager to avenge Wednesday’s loss. I expect the Boilermakers’ defense to be the difference in a close game.