The 8-seed in the West Region, Syracuse, took on the 9-seed, Baylor, on Thursday night at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The Bears jumped out to an early 15-4 lead after King McClure drained a triple with 15:48 left in the first half. The Orange responded and gained a 28-25 advantage with 6:53 to go before the break when Tyus Battle converted a four-point play. Baylor took a 38-37 lead into halftime. Battle’s dunk with 13:01 remaining in the game gave Syracuse a 53-50 edge. With the score knotted at 57, Jared Butler gave the Bears the lead for good when he nailed a three-pointer with 9:20 to play. Baylor pulled away and earned a 78-69 win.
The Orange were without the services of senior point guard Frank Howard who ended a rollercoaster career by being suspended for failing a drug test. Syracuse was looking to get Howard going in the NCAA Tournament after he tallied a career-high 28 points, on 11-of-20 shooting, when Duke eliminated the Orange from the ACC Tournament a week earlier.
The Bears shot 53.8-percent from the field, including 16-of-34 from deep, which proved to be too much for Syracuse to handle. The Orange shot just 41.2-percent from the floor, including 12-of-29 from beyond the arc in the losing effort.
Baylor was led by Yale-transfer Makai Mason who scored 22 points on 7-of-14 shooting. Mason also recorded four rebounds, four assists, and three steals. Jared Butler added 14 points, five rebounds, four assists, and two steals, while Mario Kegler dropped in 13 points and grabbed four boards.
Elijah Hughes paced Syracuse with 25 points, on 7-of-15-from the field, three rebounds, three assists, and two blocks. Battle, who declared for the NBA Draft on Friday, poured in 16 points and dished out three assists in his final game in an Orange uniform. Oshae Brissett finished with 14 points, on 6-of-12 from the floor, and eight boards in the loss.
Syracuse finished the season with a record of 20-14 and a first round exit from the NCAA Tournament—a relatively disappointing result for a team that returned all five starters from a team that made a run to the Sweet Sixteen a season ago.
Baylor’s season was ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament when they lost to the 1-seed in the West, Gonzaga, 83-71, in Salt Lake City on Saturday night.
Next season, Syracuse will lose Frank Howard to graduation and Tyus Battle to the NBA Draft, but aside from that, it is unclear what everyone else’s plans are. Paschal Chukwu could apply for an extra season due to having his redshirt-sophomore campaign shortened due to an eye injury. Oshae Brissett may enter the NBA Draft, but it is likely he will return for his junior season after not living up to the hype in his sophomore season. Elijah Hughes, Marek Dolezaj, and Bourama Sidibe will return for their junior seasons, while Buddy Boeheim, Jalen Carey, and Robert Braswell will come back for their sophomore seasons. Howard Washington will join the active roster once again for his redshirt-sophomore season after missing this year recovering from a torn ACL and a stroke. The Orange will add a freshman class of Brycen Goodine, Quincy Guerrier, John Bol Ajak, and New York State’s all-time leading high school scorer, Joe Girard III.
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.
Let’s take a look at some of the teams that dominated the storylines in college basketball in the month of December.
Studs: Duke, Tennessee, Nevada, Florida State
Duke Blue Devils
The Duke Blue Devils are 11-1 and haven’t lost since they were defeated by Gonzaga in the finals of the Maui Invitational on Thanksgiving Eve. Since then, Duke has taken down the likes of Indiana and #12 Texas Tech. Zion Williamson has emerged as the star of the team, even though it has three other top-tier freshman in RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish, and Tre Jones. Williamson has been an absolute beast and has catapulted the Blue Devils back to the top of the polls. He presents a matchup nightmare for almost every team in the country and has been a monster in all phases of the game. Yes, his dunks are highlight worthy on a nightly basis, but the play of the year thus far may have been that he jumped so high to block a shot against Princeton that he hit his head on the backboard. Williamson is averaging 19.8 points, on 65.2-percent from the field, and 9.4 rebounds per game. His efficiency and athletic prowess have NBA scouts drooling. Halfway through the season, Zion is atop the draft board and most teams tanking want to have a shot at him.
The Tennessee Volunteers are a complete college basketball team and are early season favorites to earn back-to-back regular season SEC titles. Tennessee is experienced and tough at every position. Rick Barnes has a pair of frontcourt bruisers in Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams who are dominating forces that can beat you in the post or from deep. Since their lone loss that came in overtime to then #2 Kansas in the NIT Season Tip-Off, in which Williams fouled out, Tennessee has won six consecutive games, including victories over Gonzaga, Memphis, and Wake Forest. The Volunteers have climbed to #3 in the country. After defeating then #1 Gonzaga, a game in which Schofield tallied 30 points and corralled six rebounds, the senior said that his main reason for coming back to school was to become one of Barnes’ favorite players that he ever coached. That’s what college basketball is about. Schofield is averaging 18.4 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. Although Williams, the reigning SEC Player of the Year that is averaging team-highs of 16.6 points and 8.5 boards, may get all the postseason honors, Schofield is the heart of this team that has its eyes set on something bigger than just a conference title.
With only one game, at Utah, left on their non-conference schedule, the Nevada Wolfpack are 12-0 and could be flirting with entering the NCAA Tournament as a one-seed with an undefeated record. Road conference games are always tough in any league, but this could be a bad year for the Mountain West which makes the prospect of an unblemished record for Nevada more reasonable. The Wolfpack have risen to #6 in the nation with wins over BYU, Tulsa, UMass, Loyola-Chicago, USC, then #20 Arizona State, Grand Canyon, and South Dakota State. Caleb Martin and Jordan Caroline are leading the team in scoring with 18.8 points per contest apiece. Martin and Caroline also average 5.6 and 9.6 rebounds per game, respectively. Caleb’s twin brother Cody facilitates the offense and has an assist to turnover rate of 3.2:1. Last year, Eric Musselman’s team played Cinderella. This season, Nevada has a target on their back and are poised to make a run even further than they did a year ago.
Florida State Seminoles
After a surprise run to the Elite Eight, the Florida State Seminoles carried that momentum into the 2018-19 season and are off to an 11-1 start, with their lone loss coming against Villanova in the championship game of the Advocare Invitational in November. Florida State has wins over Florida, Tulane, UAB, then #19 LSU, then #19 Purdue, UConn, and St. Louis. With their leading returning scorer, Phil Cofer, missing the first nine games of the season, the Seminoles haven’t skipped a beat and sit at #9 in the AP Poll. Terance Mann leads the Seminoles in scoring and rebounding with 12.3 points and 6.8 boards per contest. Florida State may not be getting the attention it deserves with Duke, Virginia, and North Carolina looming at the top of the ACC, but don’t be surprised to see the Seminoles near the top of the conference standings when all is said and done.
Surprises: Texas Tech and Ohio State
These four teams were all expected to be good, but two surprise teams thus far are Texas Tech and Ohio State. The Red Raiders and the Buckeyes were surprise teams a year ago and Chris Beard and Chris Holtmann have their teams shocking the college basketball world yet again in 2018-19.
Texas Tech Red Raiders
After making it to the Elite eight a season ago, Texas Tech lost their leading scorer Keenan Evans to graduation and second leading scorer, freshman, Zhaire Smith to the NBA Draft. Their top returning scorer, Jarrett Culver, is the key reason why the Red Raiders are #11 in the country. Culver is averaging 19.6 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 4.5 assists. Texas Tech has wins over USC, Nebraska, and Memphis and barely lost to Duke at Madison Square Garden a week ago. The Red Raiders have hopes of ending Kansas’ streak of 14 consecutive Big Twelve regular season titles.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Ohio State lost do-everything big man Keita Bates-Diop to the NBA Draft and was picked to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten entering this season. The Buckeyes are now 11-1 and have wins over Cincinnati, Creighton, Minnesota, Illinois, and UCLA—with their lone loss coming to Syracuse in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge in November. Kaleb Wesson is averaging 16.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game to lead Ohio State.
If one thing is for certain it’s that Texas Tech and Ohio State were underrated two years in a row and that Beard and Holtmann are two budding stars in the college basketball coaching circle.
The college basketball season is off and running. What have we learned so far?
As the calendar turns to December, teams are entering the second month of their seasons looking to take advantage of their last few opportunities to grab wins in the nonconference portion of the schedule before 2019 and conference play commences.
The month of November was a wild one from the tip. From Duke blowing out Kentucky on opening night through Feast Week, we’ve seen some marquee matchups, upsets, surprises, and teams that look like they have a legitimate chance of cutting down the nets in Minneapolis in early April.
The four most impressive teams thus far are Gonzaga, Kansas, Virginia, and Michigan.
Although Duke came roaring out of the gate, the young Blue Devils got punched in the mouth in the championship game of the Maui Invitational by the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Gonzaga held on to beat Duke 89-87 in college basketball’s most intriguing matchup thus far this season. The Bulldogs ran through the Maui Invitational without forward Killian Tillie, who is out for the foreseeable future with an ankle injury. Mark Few’s team is deep and talented—led by junior Rui Hachimura, who has been a beast. The Japan native has NBA scouts drooling and is averaging 21.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. Even without Tillie, Gonzaga is still incredibly deep and talented. Zach Norvell Jr., Brandon Clarke, and Josh Perkins are all averaging double figures. The top ranked Zags still have nonconference games against Creighton, Washington, Tennessee, and North Carolina, but if they can make it through those contests unscathed, they may just be dancing with an unblemished mark in March.
The Kansas Jayhawks entered most preseason polls as the number team in the country, but for some reason are now ranked second even though they have yet to lose a game. Duke leapfrogged Kansas after their throttling of Kentucky on opening night in Indianapolis and Gonzaga did the same after beating Duke in Maui. Kansas looks every bit as good as they were expected to be in the preseason. The Jayhawks defeated fifth ranked Tennessee in the NIT Season Tip-Off Tournament championship game in Brooklyn, 87-81 in overtime. After almost not being welcomed back to the roster by Bill Self, Lagerald Vick has played with a chip on his shoulder to begin the season. The senior guard is leading the team in scoring with 19.6 points per game behind 58.3-percent shooting from three point land. Memphis-transfer Dedric Lawson is averaging a double-double, while Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson are also averaging double figures in scoring. Prior to entering Big Twelve play in search of their fifteenth consecutive regular season conference title, Kansas has matchups with Stanford, Villanova, and Arizona State. At this rate, it would be pretty shocking if anyone were to derail the Jayhawks hopes of another league title.
After being the first one seed to lose to a sixteen seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Virginia Cavaliers have bounced back with a vengeance to start their 2018-19 campaign. Just as it has been over the course of Tony Bennett’s tenure in Charlottesville, defense has been the key to Virginia’s early success. The fourth ranked Cavaliers are second in defensive efficiency and have held opponents to a mere 52.4 points per game. The main reason why the Hoos were bounced by UMBC in the first round of the “Big Dance” a year ago was that they were without their best player De’Andre Hunter in that game. Hunter is back and is leading the team in points (16.6) and rebounds (6.1) per game. Freshman point guard Kehei Clark has nearly a 3:1 assist to turnover ratio, which has allowed sharp shooters, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, to get open looks off the ball. The Cavaliers defeated Wisconsin 53-46 in the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis and traveled to College Park to defeat Maryland 76-71 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Virginia has a date at South Carolina on December 19, and it is very likely that they will enter ACC play undefeated. With Hunter being more of a focal point on this year’s team, this may be the year that Bennett finally makes it to the Final Four.
The reigning National Runners-Up from Michigan are back and look like one of the most impressive teams in the country. John Beilein’s team has climbed to number seven in the polls behind a tremendous defensive effort. The Wolverines are the top team in defensive efficiency and are hold opponents to just 51 points per contest. Michigan is led by freshman forward Iggy Brazdeikis who is averaging 16.9 points, on 54.9-percent shooting and 38.9-percent from three, and 5.7 rebounds per game. Charles Matthews and Jordan “Swaggy” Poole have chipped in and are averaging 15.4 and 10.1 points per game, respectively. The Wolverines have absolutely dominated their competition, winning by an average margin of 21.7 points on their way to a 7-0 start. Michigan avenged their loss in last year’s National Championship game with a 73-46 whooping of defending National Champion and then number eight Villanova. The Wolverines knocked off Providence, 66-47, in the championship game of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament. Most recently, Michigan pummeled number eleven North Carolina, 84-67, in front of a raucous home crowd in Ann Arbor in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Wolverines begin Big Ten play this weekend when they battle with number 19 Purdue on Saturday. As it looks right now, Michigan is good enough to be right back where they were last March, with hopes of getting one more win in 2019.
Bracket Busters: Buffalo and Furman
It’s never too early to pay attention to the teams from the one-bid leagues that are making noise in the nonconference portion of the schedule because that could be the difference between winning and losing your office March Madness pool. Two teams to keep an eye on this year are Buffalo and Furman.
The Buffalo Bulls are no stranger to being “Bracket Busters,” as last year they eliminated number overall pick Deandre Ayton and the Arizona Wildcats in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Buffalo is off to a 6-0 start this season and have climbed to number 21 in the polls, largely in part to their 99-94 overtime win over then number thirteen West Virginia in Morgantown. Senior guard CJ Massinburg is averaging 20.5 points per game, on 51.9-percent from the field and 51.5-percent from deep, and 7.8 rebounds per game. Massinburg, along with Jayvon Graves, Nick Perkins, and Jeremy Harris, will look to have the Bulls dancing into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament this year.
Can you name a school that has beaten half of last year’s Final Four on the road this season? Probably not. The correct answer to that question would be the Furman Paladins. Furman blessed the “Fighting Sister Jeans” with a 60-58 win in Chicago and followed that up with a 76-68 upset of then number eight Villanova. The Paladins of the SoCon are 7-0 and will look to pull off another upset on the road when they take on LSU in Baton Rouge on December 21. Jordan Lyons, Matt Rafferty, and Clay Mounce hope to lead Furman to the “Big Dance” for the first time since 1980.
Keep your eyes glued to the tube as we propel our way through the remainder of the nonconference slate and into conference play in December.
What did we learn about college basketball’s blue bloods on opening night?
Game 1: Kansas 92, Michigan State 87
Kansas showed why they were ranked #1 in the country in most preseason polls. The Jayhawks raced out to a seventeen point lead. Kansas struggled to put the game away late as Michigan State cut the lead to three, but the early deficit was too much for the Spartans to overcome.
Freshman point guard Quentin Grimes demonstrated why he is expected to be one of the best point guards in the country. The “diaper-dandy” paced the Jayhawks with 21 points and four assists. Memphis transfer Dedric Lawson was a nightmare for the Spartans. Lawson finished with 20 points, 14 rebounds, six assists, two steals, and two blocks in his Kansas debut. Junior Center Udoka Azubuike was a force on the interior with 17 points, although his missed free throws down the stretch allowed Michigan State to stay in the game. Freshman guard Devon Dotson did not disappoint in his first appearance in a Jayhawk uniform as he added 16 points, three assists, and three steals for the victors. Kansas has interior depth and the ability to connect from distance. The Jayhawks will be a tough out every night.
After a dreadful first half, Michigan State showed a lot of fight to make it a game in the second half. “I learned something about my team tonight,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “We played well in the second half and did some good things, but you don’t count games by halves.” Joshua Langford led the way for the Spartans with 18 points, while Kenny Goins posted a double-double with 17 points and 11 boards. The Spartans were plagued by turnovers a season ago and that issue continued into Tuesday night as Kansas forced Michigan State into 18 turnovers. The Spartans will need to take care of the ball going forward.
Both teams will get a breather from top ten competition as Kansas hosts Vermont on Monday, while Michigan State returns home to face Florida Gulf Coast on Sunday.
Game 2: Duke 118, Kentucky 84
Although Kansas proved they were deserving of their top ranking in Game 1, Duke and their top ranked recruiting class scared the “Devil” out of the rest of the college basketball world in the nightcap. The highly anticipated matchup was never close as the Blue Devils took a seventeen point lead into the locker room. Duke refused to take their foot off the gas pedal and let Kentucky back in the game in the second half as their freshman proved that the Blue Devils are the best team in the country.
The freshman trio of RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson, and Cam Reddish were “magnificent,” according to Coach K. Barrett, the top recruit in the Class of 2018, scored 33 points, grabbed four rebounds, and dished out six assists. Williamson, the second ranked recruit in his class, dropped 28 points on the Wildcats and pulled down seven rebounds. Reddish, the third ranked recruit in this year’s class, poured in 22 points and was stout defensively with three steals. The trio accounted for 70 percent of Duke’s points in the win. The Blue Devils seem to have it all and will be a formidable matchup throughout the season.
Kentucky was absolutely embarrassed by Duke Tuesday night, but it is only the first game of the season. “I haven’t lost faith in my guys. We’ve still got a good group,” Calipari said. Freshman guard Keldon Johnson poured in 23 points and pulled in four rebounds to lead the Wildcats, while Stanford transfer Reid Travis added 22 points and seven boards in his debut for the “Big Blue.” Although they will not play Duke every night, the embarrassing loss to the Blue Devils exposed the Wildcats. Kentucky will need to improve drastically, especially on the defensive end, if they want to prove that they are one of the nation’s top teams.
Duke will play host to Coach K’s alma mater, Army, on Sunday, while Kentucky will return home to square off with Southern Illinois on Friday.
With the college basketball season starting tomorrow, here’s a look at my projected picks for who will make it to Minneapolis for a chance to cut down the nets on Monday, April 8, 2018.
My Final Four: Kentucky, Nevada, Kansas, and Duke.
Why will these four make it to the “Twin Cities?”
If you look back at John Calipari’s best Kentucky teams, they have been the ones that feature a blend of youth and experience. The 2018-19 Wildcats have exactly that. Kentucky made it to the Sweet Sixteen a year ago and will look to make an even deeper run this year. PJ Washington elected to return to Lexington after testing the NBA Draft waters last spring. As always, Calipari landed a loaded recruiting class of EJ Montgomery, Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson, Immanuel Quickly, and Ashton Hagans. Perhaps the best newcomer is Stanford graduate transfer, Reid Travis. Travis will be one of the most impactful big men in the country. The All Pac-12 performer will bring invaluable experience to the Wildcats.
Nevada was eliminated in the Sweet Sixteen a year ago by the Fighting Sister Jean’s of Loyola-Chicago. Eric Mussleman’s team will no longer flying under the radar this season. Twins Caleb and Cody Martin tested the 2018 NBA Draft process, but are returning to Reno for their senior seasons. In addition to the Martin twins, Jordan Caroline, the team’s second leading scorer from last season, also returns. The Wolfpack will add Class of 2018 McDonald’s All-American Jordan Brown to the equation as well. Nevada is primed and ready to make the next step in their rise to prominence by making it to the Final Four.
Kansas will look to make it back-to-back trips to the Final Four. The perennial Big 12 regular season champions return Udoka Azubuike and Lagerald Vick to Lawrence. Five star freshman point guard Quentin Grimes and Memphis transfers, twins, Dedric and KJ Lawson will also join the mix. Bill Self will be without the services of Silvio De Sousa who is out indefinitely waiting for the NCAA to rule on his eligibility in the midst of the FBI investigation surrounding college basketball. Regardless, this could be the most talented Kansas team since the squad that cut down the nets in San Antonio in 2008.
Duke Blue Devils
Duke was about as close to the Final Four as anyone could get without making it a season ago. Grayson Allen’s potential game winning runner fell off the rim and Kansas celebrated an Elite Eight win in overtime minutes later. The Blue Devils brought in the top recruiting class in the country including the top three recruits in the class, RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson, and Cam Reddish, along with the ninth ranked recruit Tre Jones, the brother of former Duke great Tyus Jones. The Blue Devils may be young, but they are definitely talented enough to make it to the “Twin Cities” in April.
Here’s a look at my projected top four seed lines and how Kentucky, Nevada, Kansas, and Duke will make their way to the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes:
Based on the regionals being seeded as they are above, I would expect Kentucky to defeat Jim Boeheim and Syracuse’s patented 2-3 zone in the Elite eight to advance to the Final Four. Nevada will take down Gonzaga in the battle for the title of “Best Mid-Major West of the Mississippi” on their way to Minneapolis. Kansas will knock out North Carolina to claim the Midwest Regional, while Duke will end Villanova’s quest for a third National Championship in four years to take home the East Regional title. This would set up matchups between Kentucky and Nevada and Kansas and Duke in the “Twin Cities.” I project a hard fought national championship game between Kentucky and Kansas.
My pick to win the 2018 National Championship is the Kentucky Wildcats led by PJ Washington, Reid Travis, and John Calipari.
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.”
Last season, the Big Twelve rivaled ACC for the title of the toughest conference in the country. Will the Big Twelve be just as good in 2018-19? Another question to ask is can anyone stop Kansas?
Let’s take a look at how the Big Twelve will shake out in 2018-19.
1.) Kansas Jayhawks
The Kansas Jayhawks have sat atop the Big Twelve for the last fourteen years. Expect to see more of the same in 2018-19. Bill Self and the Kansas program was under FBI investigation for the recruitments of Billy Preston and Silvio De Sousa. Preston left the University of Kansas after never playing a game and went undrafted, while De Sousa will sit out until the NCAA rules on his eligibility. Despite the looming investigations, the Jayhawks are still the best team in the Big Twelve by far and will share the top spot in the national polls with Kentucky in the preseason. Udoka Azubuike and Lagerald Vick return from a team that made it to the Final Four a year ago. New additions include Memphis transfers Dedric and KJ Lawson and five star point guard Quentin Grimes. With that loaded roster, there is no doubt that Kansas has a great shot at winning the Big Twelve for the fifteenth time in as many years.
2.) West Virginia Mountaineers
Jevon Carter is no longer in Morgantown, but Bob Huggins club will have a chance at challenging Kansas for the conference crown this year. West Virginia has a tremendous returning frontcourt headlined by Sagaba Konate, Esa Ahmad, and Lamont West. The question for Huggy Bear is whether or not he will get consistent guard play in the post-Carter era.
3.) Kansas State Wildcats
The last team in the top tier of the Big Twelve is Kansas State. Bruce Webber and the Wildcats would want nothing more than to dethrone their in-state rivals for the Big Twelve regular season championship. Kansas State made it to the Elite Eight a year ago without their best player Dean Wade who was out with an injury. Wade and Barry Brown return to Manhattan and will look to take the conference by storm.
4.) TCU Horned Frogs
TCU made it to the NCAA Tournament in Jamie Dixon’s second year in Fort Worth, but was upset by Syracuse in the first round. Vladimir Brodziansky and Kenrich Williams departed due to graduation, but a healthy Jaylen Fisher, along with Desmond Bane, Alex Robinson, and Kouat Noi should be enough for the Horned Frogs to make their second consecutive trip to the “Big Dance.”
5.) Texas Longhorns
The Longhorns have produced NBA Draft lottery picks in each of the last two seasons, but have failed to be a force in the Big Twelve and advance to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament in either of those years. Andrew Jones was diagnosed with leukemia in January, but the cancer is in remission and he is set to return at some point this season. Jones, Kerwin Roach budding star Jericho Sims will look to make Texas a factor in the Big Twelve.
6.) Texas Tech Red Raiders
Texas Tech was one of the most surprising teams in college basketball last season in Chris Beard’s second year in Lubbock. The Red Raiders will be without the services of Keenan Evans who graduated and Zhaire Smith who declared for the NBA Draft after his freshman campaign. Jarrett Culver will hope to keep Texas Tech relevant in conference play and on the right side of the bubble this year.
7.) Iowa State Cyclones
A year removed from finishing in the basement of the Big Twelve, Iowa State is poised to put themselves in the conversation to be in the middle of the pack in the conference this year. Sophomore guard Lindell Wigginton, Nick Weiler-Babb, Cameron Lard, and Virginia transfer Marial Shayok will make for an exciting combination in Ames this season.
8.) Baylor Bears
Baylor was one of the first four out on Selection Sunday a year ago. Scott Drew will turn to transfers Mario Kegler and Makai Mason to lead his team in 2018-19. The Bears will likely find themselves on the wrong side of the bubble again this year.
9.) Oklahoma State Cowboys
Despite finishing below .500 in conference play a season ago, Oklahoma State swept the season series with Kansas. The Cowboys will probably find themselves near the bottom of the Big Twelve this season after losing Jeffrey Carroll and a host of others to the transfer market.
10.) Oklahoma Sooners
Oklahoma rode the Trae Young train wherever it led in 2017-18. The freshman point guard electrified the college basketball scene and led the nation in points and assists before being chosen fifth overall in the NBA Draft. Brady Manek and transfers Aaron Calixte and Miles Reynolds will try and keep the Sooners out of the cellar of the conference this year.
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.