College basketball season tips off Friday night with all but four Top 25 teams in action. To celebrate the end of the offseason, here are 68 fearless predictions for the new season.
1. The FBI investigation will overshadow the games just as it has the buildup to this college basketball season. Four of the top 16 teams in the preseason AP poll have already been ensnared and more marquee programs will also likely be entangled as the investigation continues and the 10 men arrested start cutting deals to avoid jail time. Waiting to learn who’s accused next will be more compelling than this season’s most seismic upsets or dramatic buzzer beaters.
2. No longer should the SEC be mocked as Kentucky, Florida and everyone else. This will be the deepest and strongest SEC in years, with Texas A&M, Alabama, Missouri, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss each capable of not only making the NCAA tournament but perhaps doing some damage too.
3. Is Wisconsin poised for a fall after graduating every proven player besides All-American candidate Ethan Happ? Or will the Badgers simply plug a new set of perimeter players into their system and churn out their usual 25 wins? The guess here is somewhere in between. I think Wisconsin’s streak of top-four Big Ten finishes ends, but sophomore D’Mitrik Trice and freshmen Kobe King and Brad Davison provide enough in support of Happ to comfortably send the Badgers to the NCAA tournament.
4. Exhibition loss that will be forgotten by Thanksgiving: Carleton 77, Providence 67. The Friars were shorthanded and unmotivated, and the seven-time Canadian national champs made them pay. Once the regular season starts, expect Providence to resemble the team that reached the NCAA tournament last season and thumped UConn in its other preseason exhibition.
5. Exhibition loss that’s a sign of things to come: Barry University 100, Auburn 95. This was supposed to be the year that Auburn ascended in the SEC standings under Bruce Pearl, but the fallout from the FBI scandal has thrown all that into doubt. Two key starters are already suspended indefinitely amid eligibility concerns and things could get worse as the investigation continues.
6. It’s unlikely this FBI probe will incite anymore long-lasting change than previous scandals have. College presidents and athletic directors will speak of the importance of eradicating cheating in college athletics … until it’s their ultra-successful head coach in the crosshairs. Then they’ll defend him vehemently, cite his spotless track record and scapegoat a rogue assistant until the evidence renders it impossible, anything to avoid having to fire a winning head coach who rakes in money for the university.
7. The message to other coaches will be clear: Win by any means necessary, and you’ll have job security.
8. Also don’t expect meaningful reform from the committee NCAA president Mark Emmert created to clean up college basketball. Not only do most members lack firsthand knowledge of how cheating in the sport occurs, many also were handpicked by Emmert because they have similar views on college athletics as he does. Examining the NCAA’s outdated concept of amateurism isn’t on the agenda. College basketball’s thriving black market surrounding elite prospects won’t become a free market anytime soon.
9. Kentucky will still be a factor in the title race by March, but it may take longer than usual for these young Wildcats to blossom. Only one rotation player from last season returns: Forward Wenyen Gabriel, who averaged 4.6 points per game. Relying mostly on talented freshmen will likely be a recipe for the unpredictable. Expect some impressive wins and head-scratching losses.
10. Coach who will be in demand next spring: Rhode Island’s Dan Hurley. The Rams made the NCAA tournament for the first time in 19 seasons last March. This year, they’re favored to win the Atlantic 10 and they return a backcourt capable of doing some damage in the postseason.
11. Coach who will be out of work next spring: Brad Brownell, Clemson. The Tigers haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 2011 and they’re projected to finish 13th in the ACC this season. Unless Brownell exceeds expectations on the court or makes a recruiting splash by landing Zion Williamson, it’s tough to see him keeping his job.
12. Coach on the hot seat who will keep his job: Jim Christian, Boston College. The Ky Bowman-Jerome Christian backcourt ought to be able to make just enough headway in the loaded ACC to buy Christian another year.
13. A lot of people are projecting Saint Mary’s to unseat Gonzaga atop the WCC. I’m not one of them. The Zags will miss the steady leadership of Nigel Williams-Goss and the rim protection of Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins, but four of the top eight players from last year’s national runner-ups return and some talented younger guys are ready to make an impact. Gonzaga will be fine.
14. Here’s another reason to stick with Gonzaga: It’s easy to envision Saint Mary’s regressing a bit defensively without graduated seniors Joe Rahon and Dane Pineau. The Gaels could even be more efficient on offense this season with Jordan Ford, Cullen Neal and Evan Fitzner absorbing some of those minutes, but they’ll miss Pineau’s interior defense and Rahon’s ability as a perimeter stopper.
15. ACC breakout star: Kyle Guy, Virginia
16. American Athletic Conference breakout star: Alterique Gilbert, UConn
17. Atlantic 10 breakout star: Xeyrius Williams, Dayton
18. Big East breakout star: Donte DiVincenzo, Villanova
19. Big Ten breakout star: Justin Jackson, Maryland
20. Big 12 breakout star: Donovan Jackson, Iowa State
21. Mountain West breakout star: Nico Carvacho, Colorado State
22. Pac-12 breakout star: Malachi Flynn, Washington State
23. SEC breakout star: Breein Tyree, Ole Miss
24. Expect video of Grayson Allen’s every move to be painstakingly examined on social media as though it were the Zapruder film. The Duke standout brought that on himself with his penchant for tripping opposing players the past two seasons.
25. Expect Allen to behave himself better this season and finish a rollercoaster college career on a high note. He returned to school for his senior year knowing he’d face more scrutiny than any other player in the country. Now it’s up to him to learn from his past mistakes and show he can handle it.
26. Dominating the glass at both ends has traditionally been part of North Carolina’s formula for success, but the Tar Heels return only former walk-on Luke Maye from last year’s frontcourt. While Roy Williams may start 6-foot-9 freshman Garrison Brooks alongside Maye, North Carolina will be at its best when it breaks with tradition and goes small. Look for the Tar Heels to finish games with three guards on the floor and 6-8 wing Cameron Johnson sliding to power forward.
27. Football schools that will have more success on the court than the gridiron this year: Florida, Florida State
28. Basketball schools that will have more success on the gridiron than the hardwood this year: Memphis, Iowa State
29. VCU will continue to compete for Atlantic 10 titles long term under new coach Mike Rhoades, but a small step backward this season might be tough to avoid. A lack of interior defense or outside shooting could leave the Rams on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble this March.
30. Dayton also might be due for a fall this season after graduating last season’s three double-digit scorers and losing coach Archie Miller to Indiana. Defense should be a strength under new coach Anthony Grant, but a lack of proven shot creators in the backcourt could prevent the Flyers from contending in the Atlantic 10 or securing a fifth straight NCAA bid.
31. Where does that leave the Atlantic 10 then? In jeopardy of sending two or fewer teams to the NCAA tournament for the first time in more than a decade. League favorite Rhode Island should return to the NCAA tournament and do some damage. St. Bonaventure’s potent backcourt gives it the best chance to join the Rams.
32. Freshmen who will have the biggest impact this season: Missouri’s Michael Porter, Duke’s Marvin Bagley, Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton.
33. Freshmen ranked outside the top 10 who will have the biggest impact this season: Oklahoma’s Trae Young, Oregon’s Troy Brown and Iowa State’s Lindell Wigginton
34. Freshmen ranked outside the top 40 who will have the biggest impact this season: Stanford’s Daejon Davis, Iowa’s Luka Garza and Texas’ Matt Coleman
35. With Wichita State having left for the stronger American Athletic Conference this past offseason, the Valley appears unlikely to produce more than one NCAA tournament team this year. Missouri State could be the class of the league, but the Bears didn’t assemble a strong enough non-league schedule to give themselves hope of an at-large bid.
36. Preseason Top 25 team that could disappoint: Texas A&M. I want to believe in the Aggies. They have the SEC’s most talented frontcourt. But point guard play was a season-long issue for A&M a year ago, and newcomer J.J. Caldwell is suspended for the season’s first five games. Projected lottery pick Robert Williams will also sit two games and two other starters were suspended for Friday’s exhibition game. That’s a lot of red flags from a team that should be locked in and focused after badly underachieving a year ago.
37. Team outside the preseason Top 25 that could surprise: Oregon. History suggests Oregon will surpass preseason expectations under Dana Altman. History suggests Altman always finds a way to reload on the fly. Put me on the side of history even though Oregon returns only one of its top seven players from last year’s Final Four team. Behind Peyton Pritchard and a bevy of talented transfers and freshmen, the Ducks will find a way.
38. If Georgetown finishes above anyone besides DePaul in the Big East this year, that should be considered a wildly successful debut season for new coach Patrick Ewing. The Big East boasts eight NCAA tournament contenders and the Hoyas’ beleaguered backcourt is too big a mess for them to compete.
39. The Mountain West won’t reach its former heights until flagship programs UNLV and New Mexico return to prominence, but it at least should send multiple teams to the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years. Look for Nevada and San Diego State to both land bids.
40. Team that will make the biggest jump from last year to this year: Missouri. Could heralded freshman Michael Porter Jr. take the Tigers to the NCAA tournament after the worst three-year stretch in program history? It’s definitely possible. Missouri has the talent to finish in the upper third of the SEC if Cuonzo Martin can get his influx of promising newcomers to mesh quickly with a handful of key returners.
41. Team that will take the biggest fall from last year to this year: South Carolina. A Gamecocks team coming off a surprise Final Four run lost its two stalwarts last spring when Sindarius Thornwell graduated and P.J. Dozier turned pro. Three other guards from last season are also gone, leaving a giant hole in the backcourt. In a year in which the SEC is unusually deep and talented, South Carolina may struggle to avoid a bottom-four finish.
42. South Dakota State’s Mike Daum will lead college basketball in scoring this season. The 6-foot-9 forward’s combination of efficient post play and lethal perimeter shooting is almost unstoppable at the mid-major level. He should eclipse the 25.1 points per game he averaged last year and perhaps make a run at the 30-point mark.
43. Five transfers who will make the biggest impact this season: Malik Newman (Mississippi State to Kansas), Charles Matthews (Kentucky to Michigan), Cameron Johnson (Pittsburgh to North Carolina), Elijah Brown (New Mexico to Oregon), Marcus Lee (Kentucky to Cal)
44. UCLA’s Thomas Welsh will be one of the nation’s few 7-footers with a green light to hoist 3-pointers. College basketball’s mid-range king has expanded his range to behind the arc, making him even more lethal on pick-and-pops and further clearing driving lanes for UCLA’s array of athletic guards and wings.
45. A scandal-related suspension could almost be a blessing in disguise for talent-laden USC. The Trojans are two deep at every position, but if they’re at full strength, finding enough shots and playing time to keep everyone happy could be a season-long issue.
46. Missouri’s Cuonzo Martin will have the most immediate success of any new coach this season, but the hire I like best longterm is Indiana’s Archie Miller. In the next few years, he should have Indiana contending for Big Ten titles with a level of consistency that Tom Crean struggled to muster.
47. Small-conference team that could win a game or two in the NCAA tournament: Vermont. The Catamounts return four starters and most of their key reserves from a 29-win team that went undefeated in league play last season and was within striking distance of Purdue until the closing minutes of their first-round NCAA tournament game last March.
48. BYU’s Yoeli Childs will blossom into one of the WCC’s top players this season. The bouncy 6-8 forward blocks shots, skies for rebounds and finishes emphatically above the rim. He’s at his best throwing down lob passes from T.J. Haws, but he’s also developing a post-up game and range out to the 3-point arc.
49. Maui Invitational prediction: Notre Dame over Wichita State
50. Wooden Legacy prediction: Saint Mary’s over San Diego State
51. 2KSports Classic prediction: Virginia Tech over Providence
52. Orlando Classic prediction: West Virginia over Missouri
53. NIT Season Tip-Off prediction: Seton Hall over Virginia
54. Diamondhead Classic prediction: USC over Miami
55. Battle 4 Atlantis prediction: Villanova over Arizona
56. PK80 (Victory Bracket): Michigan State over North Carolina
57. PK80 (Motion Bracket): Duke over Florida
58. Two encouraging signs from Villanova’s exhibition rout of Drexel last week: Omari Spellman owned the paint at both ends of the floor and Phil Booth logged 28 minutes without his lingering knee injuries flaring up. If those trends continue against tougher competition, Villanova will win a fifth straight Big East title and contend for a second national title in three years.
59. The ACC will produce more NCAA tournament bids than any other league next season. Eight bids is realistic with Duke, Miami, North Carolina, Louisville and Notre Dame seemingly locks and Virginia, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, NC State and Florida State all capable of joining them.
60. Mid-major star whose name you’ll know by March: Tyler Hall, Montana State. The same league that produced Damian Lillard has another legitimate NBA prospect. Hall, a late-blooming 6-4 guard, showed a knack for scoring efficiently at all three levels as a sophomore last season, terrorizing the Big Sky by averaging 23.1 points and shooting 42.9 percent from behind the arc.
61. The ACC will win its challenge with the Big Ten for a second straight year, this time by a narrow 8-6 margin. Before last year’s ACC victory, the Big Ten had won or tied the previous seven challenges.
62. First-team All-Americans: G Devonte Graham (Kansas), G Joel Berry (North Carolina), F Miles Bridges (Michigan State), F Michael Porter (Missouri), F Bonzie Colson (Notre Dame)
63. Second-team All-Americans: G Jalen Brunson (Villanova), G Allonzo Trier (Arizona), F Trevon Bluiett (Xavier), F Marvin Bagley (Duke), C Ethan Happ (Wisconsin)
64. Conference title predictions: Duke (ACC), Cincinnati (AAC), Villanova (Big East), Michigan State (Big Ten), Kansas (Big 12), Arizona (Pac-12), Florida (SEC)
65. Most compelling conference title race: American Athletic Conference. It could be a two-horse race between Cincinnati and newcomer Wichita State, but watch out for UConn and SMU. Both have the guard play to jump into the fray.
66. Early men’s Final Four projection: Duke, Michigan State, Villanova, Kansas
67. Early women’s Final Four projection: UConn, South Carolina, Notre Dame, Baylor
68. Most of these preseason predictions will probably be wrong. The most fun part of college basketball is that it always defies expectation.
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