December Highlights

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

zion w
SB Nation

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.

Tennessee Volunteers

admiral
Chicago Tribune

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.

Nevada Wolfpack

martins
Mid-Major Madness

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

terance
Tomahawk Nation

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

jarrett
SportsRadio 1340 The Fan

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

kaleb
Eleven Warriors

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.

Preseason Final Four Picks

Who will make it to Minneapolis?

final four logo
ncaa.com

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.

FF

Why will these four make it to the “Twin Cities?”

Kentucky Wildcats

reid t
247Sports

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 Wolfpack

martin twins
SB Nation

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 Jayhawks

lawson twins
ESPN.com

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

zion
The Stepien

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:

South West Midwest East
1.)Kentucky 1.)Gonzaga 1.)Kansas 1.)Duke
2.)Virginia 2.)Nevada 2.)North Carolina 2.)Tennessee
3.)Syracuse 3.)Auburn 3.)Michigan State 3.)Villanova
4.)West Virginia 4.)Kansas State 4.)Oregon 4.)Virginia Tech

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.

2018-19 Preseason Top 25

A Look at the Preseason Top 25 for 2018-19

PJ
Zimbio

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

Reid
USA Today Sports

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

Caleb
New York Post

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

kyle
Twitter

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

eric
Getty Images

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

tyus
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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

mike
MyNorthwest.com

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

jarron
LA Times

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.

2018 NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Preview—South Region

The Sweet Sixteen

kevin knox ncaa
A Sea of Blue

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 South Region—Phillips Arena, Atlanta, GA, March 22 & 24

The South is the craziest of the four regionals in this year’s “Big Dance.” For the first time in NCAA Tournament history, none of the top four seeds in a single region advanced to the second weekend. With that being said Virginia, Cincinnati, Tennessee, and Arizona have all been eliminated and the door is open for an underdog to cut down the nets in Atlanta and keep their National Championship dreams intact.

#9 Kansas State vs. #5 Kentucky, Thursday 9:37pm., CBS

Kansas State and Kentucky have weathered the storm and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. Kansas State opened their NCAA Tournament run with a 69-59 victory over Creighton in the first round. The Wildcats figured that they would face the #1 overall seed Virginia in the Round of 32, but UMBC had other plans. The Retrievers took down the Cavaliers and became the first 16-seed to defeat a 1-seed in the history of the Men’s NCAA Tournament. K-State ended UMBC’s Cinderella run and defeated the Retrievers 50-43 to advance to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2010. The Wildcats have relied on their defense so far in the Tournament. Kansas State forced Creighton and UMBC to turn the ball over on 23% of their possessions. The Wildcats have struggled offensively without their leading scorer Dean Wade who missed both games last weekend. His status for the Sweet Sixteen is still uncertain.

Kentucky advanced to this point with wins over the 12-seed Davidson in the first round and 13-seed Buffalo, who ended Arizona’s season last Thursday, in the second round. The Wildcats have played their best basketball following a four game losing streak in early February. Kentucky has lost just once since February 15 and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has proven to be one of the best scoring point guards in college basketball down the stretch. If the young Wildcats can withstand the defensive pressure thrown at them by K-State, Kentucky will be well on their way to their second consecutive Elite Eight appearance. Look for Kentucky’s offense to be the difference and for the Wildcats to advance.

shai ncaa
Charlotte Observer

Kentucky 75, Kansas State 63

#11 Loyola-Chicago vs. #7 Nevada, Thursday 7:07pm., CBS

clayton custer ncaa
al.com

Loyola-Chicago has pulled off two of this year’s most impressive upsets, defeating 6-seed Miami on a buzzer beating three by Donte Ingram and then 3-seed Tennessee on a Clayton Custer jumper with 3.6 seconds left, to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. The Ramblers and their 98-year old chaplain turner Internet sensation, Sister Jean, are headed to Atlanta and have no plans of ending their season any time soon. Loyola-Chicago has been impressive defensively so far in the Tournament holding their two opponents to an average of 63.5 points. The Ramblers have yet to have a player foul out of a game all season.

sister jean
uproxx.com

Nevada holds the title of the first weekend’s comeback kids. The Wolfpack trailed the 10-seed Texas by 14 points in the second half and rallied back to win, 87-83, in overtime. Nevada followed up their first round win with an upset of the 2-seed Cincinnati on Sunday. The Wolfpack came back from a 22 point deficit to take down the Bearcats and advance to the second weekend. Of the 85 minutes Nevada has played in the NCAA Tournament, they have led for only one minute and fifty-six seconds of game time. The Wolfpack have a potent offensive attack and averaged 1.18 points per possession in their first two games of the “Big Dance.” If the South Region continues to be the most unpredictable in NCAA Tournament history, I’ll try to stay ahead of the curve and pick the upset. Loyola-Chicago will continue its magical run into an Elite Eight match-up with Kentucky.

Loyola-Chicago 66, Nevada 65

Winner of the South Region: Kentucky

calipari
CatsPause – 247Sports

As we’ve seen before, John Calipari has his freshman playing their best when it matters the most. The Wildcats have the easiest route to the Final Four and I expect them to take advantage of it. Big Blue Nation will be headed to San Antonio.