Syracuse suffered their second loss in three games when they lost at North Carolina State last Wednesday night.
The Orange fell behind by as many as 12, 28-16, in the first stanza, but Syracuse trimmed their halftime deficit to just three, 30-27, at the break. Frank Howard connected on a three-pointer to pull Syracuse within one, 35-34, with 18:04 remaining, but the Orange would not get any closer the rest of the way. The Wolfpack ripped off a 16-3 run, capped off by a dunk by DJ Funderbunk, to put the game away for good. North Carolina State went on to win by a score of 73-58.
The Wolfpack shot 49-percent from the field and held the Syracuse to a mere 35-percent from the floor to earn the win. North Carolina State dominated the Orange on the boards, winning the battle on the glass 42-31.
Braxton Beverly led the Wolfpack with 21 points. Torin Dorn posted a double-double with 16 points, on 7-of-14 shooting, and 12 rebounds. Dorn also dished out three assists and came away with two steals. Funderbunk came off the bench and scored 12 points.
Howard led the Orange with 21 points on 8-of-16 from the field. Marek Dolezaj came off the bench and tallied 10 points, pulled down five boards, and grabbed three steals.
With the loss, Syracuse fell to 17-8 overall and 8-4 in the ACC.
Player of the Week: Frank Howard
The one bright spot from the horrific loss at North Carolina State was the performance of Frank Howard. The 21 points he scored were his season high. The more puzzling result was that none of his teammates stepped up to support him. Syracuse needs to have all their players show up down the stretch if they want to stay in the top half of the conference and not have to sweat it out on Selection Sunday.
Up Next: Louisville and Duke
Syracuse begins an arduous stretch of games against three consecutive ranked opponents when they take on #18 Louisville in the Carrier Dome on Wednesday night. Tip-off is set for 7pm. The Cardinals are 18-8 overall and 9-4 in the league in Chris Mack’s first year at the helm. Louisville is coming off a narrow 56-55 win over Clemson on Saturday. The Cardinals are led by Jordan Nwora who is averaging 17.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game.
The Orange will host #1 Duke on Saturday evening. ESPN’s College GameDay will be inside the “Loud House” for the rematch between the two schools. Syracuse won the first meeting, 95-91 in overtime, at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 14th. The Blue Devils have not lost since falling to the Orange and are back at full strength. Duke is 23-2 on the season, 11-1 in conference, and is coming off a 94-78 win over North Carolina State on Saturday. The Blue Devils will take on arch rival North Carolina on Wednesday before traveling north to battle Syracuse. Duke’s star freshman have led them to take back the number one ranking. The Blue Devils are led by RJ Barrett who is averaging 22.7 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 4 assists per contest. Likely #1 NBA Draft pick Zion Williamson is averaging 22.4 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. Cam Reddish missed the first game against the Orange with flu-like symptoms, while Tre Jones exited the contest just over five minutes into the game after colliding with Howard as the two were diving for a loose ball. Syracuse will need to be ready for both players to see meaningful minutes in the rematch. Reddish is averaging 13.8 points and 3.5 rebounds per game, while Jones is Duke’s quarterback averaging 8.7 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per contest.
The Orange have quite the tests on their schedule this week, but if they are up to the task, they will bolster their NCAA Tournament resume.
A Wild Week for the Orange Culminates with Upset over Top-Ranked Duke
Wow! Syracuse battled through a wild week defeating Clemson at home, being blown out by a subpar Georgia Tech team in the Carrier Dome, and traveling to Durham, NC to topple the #1 ranked Duke Blue Devils. Three games in six days is tough for any team, but the way the Orange weathered that storm was a script that no one could write.
Syracuse took on the Clemson Tigers on Wednesday night in their second ACC matchup of the 2018-19 campaign. The Orange jumped out to a 21-10 lead thanks to a 19-5 run capped off by a dunk by Oshae Brissett with 8:41 left in the opening stanza. Clemson shortened Syracuse’s advantage to eight, 30-22 at the half. The Orange grabbed control of the game as a triple by Elijah Hughes gave Syracuse a 51-36 edge with 9:13 remaining. The Tigers made it a six point game, 54-48, when Marcquise Reed nailed a trey with 4:46 to go, but the Orange hung on and secured four consecutive defensive stops to earn a 61-53 victory to improve to 2-0 in conference play.
Syracuse shot 41.7-percent from the field and held the Tigers to a 35.8-percent clip. The Orange’s vaunted 2-3 zone perplexed Clemson all night as the Tigers committed 17 turnovers.
Reed led Clemson with 16 points, on 5-of-13 shooting, six rebounds, and three assists. Elijah Thomas chipped in with 13 points on, on 4-of-6 from the field, and seven boards.
Hughes paced Syracuse with 14 points and seven rebounds. Tyus Battle added 12 points, three boards, and three assists. Frank Howard tallied 12 points, on 4-of-8 from the floor, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out four assists. Marek Dolezaj stuffed the stat sheet with 10 points, on 3-of-5 shooting, four boards, four helpers, two blocks, and two steals.
The Orange looked to remain undefeated in league play when they squared off with the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets Saturday evening. Both teams struggled to score in the opening twenty minutes and Georgia Tech took a one point lead, 27-26 into the break. The Yellow Jackets blew the game wide open with a 24-7 spurt that ended with a layup by Jose Alvarado to build a 51-33 edge with 12:17 left in the game. Syracuse ran a full-court press for the final 14 minutes of the contest, but failed to get anything going offensively, which allowed Georgia Tech to pull away to a 73-59 win on the road.
The Orange had improved their shooting over the last few weeks until the Yellow Jackets’ zone stifled their offensive attack. Syracuse shot a dreadful 31.6-percent from the floor and an even more pitiful 21.2-percent from beyond the arc. Georgia Tech, on the other hand, shot the lights out—59.5-percent from the field and 50-percent from three-point land.
Alvarado led the Yellow Jackets with 19 points, on 5-of-6 from the field, and three rebounds. James Banks III poured in 16 points, on 6-of-10 from the floor, grabbed seven boards, blocked three shots, and came away with three steals. Curtis Haywood II dropped in 15 points, on 6-of-10 shooting, corralled four rebounds, and distributed seven helpers. Abdoulaye Gaeye finished with 10 points on 5-of-7 from the field.
Brissett scored a team-high 15 points, pulled in seven boards, and dished out three assists. Hughes recorded 12 points and three rebounds, while Battle contributed with 11 points.
After suffering a bad loss at home to Georgia Tech, the Orange were staring down a .500 in record in conference play as they were set to battle with #1 Duke on the road on Monday. In desperate need of a signature win, Syracuse needed a few bounces to fall their way and an improved shooting performance in order to pull off an unforeseen upset. The Blue Devils, and their four star freshman, were fresh off a last second win at Florida State two days earlier and came into tip-off favored by 17.
Cam Reddish, the third-ranked recruit in the Class of 2018 was out with flu-like symptoms, but Duke’s remaining star frosh raced out to an early 12-0 lead only three minutes into the contest. However, the tide was about to change. The Blue Devils’ freshman point guard, Tre Jones, separated his right shoulder when he collided with Howard as the two players were chasing after a loose ball five and a half minutes into the first half.
The Orange came all the way back to tie the game at 29 with 6:37 remaining in the opening stanza. Syracuse claimed their first lead of the game, 36-35, on a free throw by Paschal Chukwu with 4:49 to go before intermission. RJ Barrett, the top recruit in the Class of 2018, extended Duke’s lead with a jumper to 49-44 with 1:19 to go before the break. The Orange trimmed the Blue Devils’ halftime edge to one, 49-48, as Hughes made what could possibly be the shot of the year as his 75-foot heave at the buzzer was true.
Syracuse began the second half by taking the lead (50-49) on a layup by Brissett less than a minute in. Duke reclaimed their advantage, 52-50, on a layup by Marques Bolden with 18:49 left. The Blue Devils built an eight point edge, 67-59, on a layup by the second ranked recruit in the Class of 2018 and the leading candidate for National Player of the Year, Zion Williamson, with 13:41 to go. The Orange were not ready to go away easily. Syracuse reclaimed the lead, 81-80, with 3:10 left on a layup by Chukwu. Williamson had a chance to win it for Duke at the free throw line after a questionable foul was called on Chukwu. The diaper-dandy converted on only one-of-two attempts from the charity stripe and the game was tied at 85. Battle’s shot at the buzzer clanked off the back iron and the ACC rivals were headed to overtime for the second time since the Orange joined the conference in 2013-14.
Hughes controlled the opening tip in the extra session and raced down the court to give Syracuse and 87-85 advantage. Less than a minute into the overtime period, Alex O’Connell nailed one from deep to give the Blue Devils an 88-87 lead. On the ensuing possession, Battle hit a jumper to put the Orange ahead for good. Barrett’s three at the buzzer missed and Syracuse emerged with a 95-91 upset over #1 Duke in overtime.
With the win, the Orange improved to 12-5 on the season, 3-1 in ACC play, and Syracuse became the first school other than North Carolina to upset a top-ranked Duke team at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The Orange shot 43.8-percent from the floor, including 44-percent from three, and held the Blue Devils to just 38.7-percent from the floor and a miserable 20.9-percent from behind the three-point line. Syracuse outrebounded Duke 51-48.
Williamson led the Blue Devils with a career-high 35 points, on 12-of-20 shooting, and 10 rebounds to record a double-double. Williamson also blocked four shots. Barrett was an assist shy of a triple-double with 23 points, on 8-of-30 from the field, 16 rebounds, and nine assists. Bolden recorded a double-double with 12 points, 11 rebounds, and five blocks off the bench, while O’Connell came off the pine to hang 16 points, three rebounds, and three assists on the Orange in the losing effort.
Battle paced Syracuse with 32 points, on 12-of-28 from the floor, four rebounds, and four assists. Hughes added 20 points, on 7-of-15 shooting, and five boards. Howard scored 16 points in the second half, on 7-of-13 from the field, corralled six rebounds, and dished out five assists. Brissett finished with 14 points and eight rebounds, while Chukwu came off the bench and recorded a double-double featuring 10 points, a career-high 18 rebounds, and three blocks.
Coach Boeheim commented on his team’s win over Duke in his postgame press conference. “When (Chukwu) plays like that,” Boeheim said, “we’re a different team.”
Coach K commented on the result in his postgame press conference. “This was a very difficult night for our basketball program,” K said. “We’ll figure out ways of handling it.”
Player of the Week: Paschal Chukwu
From Battle’s first half dominance against Duke and Hughes’ continued steady play, this week’s player of the week for Syracuse was Paschal Chukwu. After not playing against Clemson, and playing just 15 minutes against Georgia Tech, Chukwu played the game of his life in helping the Orange earn a signature win at #1 Duke. He was a force inside against Williamson and stepped up to hit key free throws and collected rebounds down the stretch to get defensive stops when his team needed it most. If Chukwu can build on Monday night’s performance and be a legitimate threat on the interior, Syracuse will be able to remain atop the ACC standings.
Up Next: Pittsburgh
The Orange return home to face Pittsburgh on Saturday afternoon. Tip-off is set for 2pm. After being the laughing stock of the ACC a year ago, first-year head coach Jeff Capel has rejuvenated the program. The Panthers are 12-5 overall, 2-2 in conference, and are coming off a 75-62 win against #11 Florida State on Monday night. Pitt is led by Xavier Johnson who is averaging 17.1 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per contest. Last season, Syracuse swept the season series from the Panthers.
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.
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.”