Sixty-eight things I'm looking forward to this season
The college basketball season has tipped. Here are 68 things I'm looking forward to watching. That's one thing for each team that'll participate in March Madness.
The college basketball season has tipped.
Here are 68 things I'm looking forward to watching.
That's one thing for each team that'll participate in March Madness.
1. Friday night: College basketball doesn't have the best opening day in sports, but it's not awful. Connecticut Huskies - Maryland Terrapins , Oregon Ducks - Georgetown Hoyas , St. John's Red Storm - Wisconsin Badgers and Colorado Buffaloes - Baylor Bears are all interesting matchups. So, if you need me, I'll be sitting in front of three different televisions.
2. Oregon without Dominic Artis : Just so we're clear, yes, I was looking more forward to Oregon with Artis than without him. But the sophomore point guard sold some shoes, got caught, and now he's out for nine games, including Friday night's matchup with Georgetown. Can the Ducks get by without him?
3. The Champions Classic: I've repeatedly called Tuesday's event in Chicago the "best regular-season doubleheader" in college basketball history, and I genuinely believe it's true. It'll be No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats vs. No. 2 Michigan Wolverines State followed by No. 4 Duke Blue Devils vs. No. 5 Kansas Jayhawks . I'll be courtside at the United Center. I'm as excited for that as I've been for any Final Four in recent years. Or ever.
4. Andrew Wiggins vs. Jabari Parker : I'm not sure how much time the two Sports Illustrated cover boys will spend guarding each other Tuesday night, but they'll be on the court together, and that alone is awesome. Wiggins and Parker could theoretically go first and second in next June's NBA Draft … but not until they make impacts at this level.
5. Julius Randle : I couldn't possibly go any farther without mentioning Randle -- the preseason SEC Player of the Year who is likely the nation's best candidate to replace Wiggins atop draft boards. The 6-foot-9 forward is strong and relentless. He'll stack double-doubles at an impressive rate.
6. Julius Randle's teammates: Randle is great but far from alone in Lexington. He has seven teammates who could also be future first-round NBA Draft picks, including a set of twins. Which brings me to …
7. The Harrison twins: Andrew and Aaron Harrison are super-talented guards with size from Texas Longhorns . But can they and will they play well with others? If so, UK is going to challenge for a second national title in three years. If not, the Wildcats' coach will stomp a lot.
8. John Calipari's stomp: Few coaches are as animated on the sideline as Calipari, and few things make a coach as animated as a young and erratic team. So this deal at UK should be interesting, especially early.
9. Freshmen vs. Veterans: A debate will probably develop at some point about whether it's better to be young and filled with pros (like Kansas and Kentucky) or slightly less-talented but experienced (like Michigan State Spartans and Oklahoma State Cowboys State" data-canon="Oklahoma Sooners" data-type="SPORTS_OBJECT_TEAM" id="shortcode0">). Which side will you be on?
10. Marcus Smart 's sophomore season: Every coach I know who has ever worked with or around Smart loves him, and he's a tremendous talent and leader. So it's nice that he's back in school for one more year at Oklahoma State. His patience (as it pertains to becoming a pro) could result in a National Player of the Year award and, perhaps, a trip to the Final Four.
11. The Final Four: It goes without saying that I'm looking forward to the Final Four, which will possibly provide us with another school from outside the traditional power structure. That school last season was Wichita State Shockers . This season there are a few realistic candidates … among them Wichita State.
12. Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker : Those are Wichita State's two stars who burst onto the national scene last March after mostly playing in anonymity because of the Missouri Tigers Valley Conference's television contract. The average fan, quite simply, didn't know much (or anything) about Early and Baker before the NCAA tournament began. But there are no excuses to not enjoy them now.
13. A new MVC Player of the Year: Creighton Bluejays 's Doug McDermott has won that award the past two seasons, and for good reason. But now Creighton and McDermott are in the Big East, which means there will be a new MVC Player of the Year. (It'll probably be Early.)
14. The Big East Player of the Year race: Will it even be a race? I say go ahead and hand it to McDermott now. I'm not certain anybody will seriously challenge him for the honor.
15. Markel Starks , Devante Gardner and Semaj Christon : OK, perhaps there are three guys capable of challenging McDermott for Big East Player of the Year honors, and these are those three guys. Starks and Gardner could lead their schools (Georgetown and Marquette Golden Eagles ) to a league title, and Christon is a future pro. It's probably wise to not rule them out just yet.
16. Russ Smith: If not for realignment, the Big East Player of the Year would probably be Smith. But Louisville is now in the American Eagles Athletic Conference. So Smith is instead the favorite to win AAC Player of the Year, and isn't all this a little confusing?
17. AAC guards in general: I don't know if this league has the nation's best guards, but this league has terrific guards. There's Smith and Chris Jones at Louisville, Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright at UConn, Joe Jackson , Michael Dixon, Geron Johnson and Chris Crawford at Memphis Tigers , and Sean Kilpatrick at Cincinnati Bearcats . And those are just the quality guards from the projected top four teams.
18. Memphis' guards, specifically: Some have labeled Josh Pastner's backcourt as the nation's best backcourt, and for good reason. All four players listed above have averaged double-figures at the Division I level. It'll be interesting to see how Pastner uses them, and how often he uses them together.
19. The guard who got away from Memphis: What's wild is that the Tigers could've theoretically had another elite guard. But the above-mentioned Jones picked Louisville over Memphis even though he's from Memphis, and now he'll be charged with A) replacing Peyton Siva, B) trying to help Louisville make a third straight Final Four, and C) keeping his hometown away from the first ever American Athletic Conference title.
20. Montrezl Harrell : The nation has no better candidate for a so-called breakout season than Harrell, Louisville's super-athletic forward who will be thrust into a prominent role in the absence of Gorgui Dieng. The good news for the Cardinals is that Harrell is more than capable. The bad news is that once he proves as much he'll be off to the NBA.
21. Chane Behanan 's possible return: Harrell's frontcourt mate at Louisville is suspended until at least the middle of December. Will Behanan return? Yes, probably. But winning another title will be tough if he doesn't.
22. Marshall Thundering Herd Henderson" data-canon="Marshall Henderson" data-type="SPORTS_OBJECT_PLAYER" id="shortcode0">'s definite return: Speaking of guys who have been suspended, the sport's most polarizing player still resides in Mississippi and will miss Ole Miss Rebels ' opener (plus the first two SEC games). Love him or hate him, Henderson is entertaining. I can't wait to again watch him drive opposing fans crazy, and make shots from deep.
23. The Auburn Tigers student section: I'm not saying the Auburn students are the best students in the country. Or the SEC. Or even the state of Alabama Crimson Tide . But, man, they sure did get after Henderson last season. The guy who flipped the double-bird is still my favorite.
24. Cameron Crazies: It's difficult to write about students without mentioning the Duke students who paint themselves and chant and jump and create great television. They make press row a little crammed at Cameron Indoor, and that's not ideal. But the Duke students are still among the best when it comes to producing a great atmosphere for college basketball.
25. Rodney Hood 's new role at Duke: Among the players the Cameron Crazies will be cheering for is Hood, the talented transfer from Mississippi State Bulldogs . Which leads to an interesting question: Has anybody ever before transferred to Duke from Mississippi State?
26. Rick Ray's second year in Starkville: Ray is in the middle of a major culture change at Mississippi State; it hasn't been, nor will it be, easy. He's removed questionable characters from the program in the spirit of trying to build a solid foundation. I'm anxious to see if the approach eventually pays off.
27. Steve Alford's first year in Westwood: Alford did nice things at New Mexico Lobos , and now he has one of the nation's best jobs at UCLA Bruins . Inheriting Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson makes winning at a high level possible right from the jump.
28. Kyle Anderson's sophomore year in Westwood: Anderson was a projected lottery pick out of high school who must've thought he'd be in the NBA by now. For a variety of reasons, he's not. Let's see if he can regain some of his reputation as a legitimate pro prospect, of if he just cements himself as another guy.
29. UCLA's crosstown rival: Andy Enfield was a great hire for USC, and he's already established himself as a competent high-major recruiter. Winning this season will be a challenge. But it'll be fun to watch the former Florida Gators Gulf Coast coach get his rebuilding job underway.
30. The current Florida Gulf Coast Eagles coach: Joe Dooley is the man who was picked to replace Enfield at FGCU. Will Dunk City continue?
31. Somebody's surprise run to the Sweet 16: I know Louisville won the title last season, and that Wichita State made the Final Four. But the lasting memory from the Field of 68 will forever be either Kevin Ware 's broken leg or Florida Gulf Coast's wins over Georgetown and San Diego Toreros State. Seriously, what was better than FGCU's shocking advancement to the Sweet 16? Hopefully a similar story emerges in March.
32. The November schedule: Obviously, March is great. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. November is usually also pretty great, and this November should be no exception thanks to all the interesting neutral-court match ups.
33. My November trips: I haven't settled on everything yet, but I already know that I'll be at the Champions Classic next week, the Hall of Fame Tipoff the week after that, and the Old Spice Classic the week after that. So I'm guaranteed to see Kentucky, Michigan State, Louisville, Duke, Kansas, Oklahoma State, North Carolina Tar Heels , Memphis, LSU Tigers , Purdue Boilermakers and several others before December arrives. That's not bad.
34. LSU's freshmen: The Tigers are one of the unranked teams I'm anxious to see because of their freshmen -- specifically Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey . If those two are as good as expected, and Johnny O'Bryant makes the natural progression that a junior might make, then LSU will be in the NCAA tournament.
35. The race for fourth in the SEC: Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee Volunteers (in that order) are the smart picks to finish first, second and third in the SEC. But fourth is up for debate. It could be LSU. Or Alabama. Or Missouri. Or maybe even Georgia Bulldogs , if you go by the preseason Coaches poll.
36. Mark Fox's weekly ballot: The Georgia coach voted his team 25th on his USA Today coaches poll ballot, and, you know, I don't even mind it. Do I think Georgia is a Top 25 team? Not on paper, no. But I'm OK with Fox using this very public display to show his players he believes in them even if it could lead to his appearance in a future edition of The Poll Attacks.
37. The Top 25 (and one): You know how I update the Top 25 (and one) every Sunday night? I'm taking a new approach this season by updating the Top 25 (and one) every Sunday night … and every single morning. That doesn't mean the order will always change. But what it does mean is that I'll be providing the most up-to-date rankings in college basketball for you guys to pick apart every morning. Should be fun. And stressful. But mostly fun.
38. Saturday morning's Top 25 (and one): I really do love rankings and the debate they spark. I suspect I'll have to drop a team or two in the next 24 hours. Maybe Oregon because of those suspensions?
39. Mike Moser : The former UCLA signee transferred to Oregon after one great season at UNLV Rebels and one average season at UNLV. He's talented. If he returns to his form of two years ago, then Oregon might not drop in the rankings at all. If not, then we'll forever be asking, "What happened to Mike Moser?"
40. Josh Smith : Moser will, at times Friday night, surely find himself battling Smith -- a fellow former UCLA Bruin. I'm still not sure that I agree with the NCAA's decision to give Smith two years of eligibility despite him having already played in three seasons at UCLA. But whatever. I genuinely hope it works out for Smith given the struggles he's faced in recent years.
41. Joseph Young : Yet another transfer who will be on that court in South Korea late Friday is Young, the Oregon guard who scored in bunches for Houston Cougars last season before transferring. He'll be fun to watch on this big stage and could become a legitimate candidate for Pac-12 honors.
42. The Pac-12: I've already mentioned Oregon, UCLA and USC, but what about Arizona Wildcats ? That's the Pac-12's best team, at least on paper. Sean Miller is building a monster in Tucson, in case you didn't notice.
43. Aaron Gordon : This future lottery pick is the most recent bit of evidence that Miller is building that monster in Tucson. He'll dunk on a lot of folks this season, then do the same in the NBA.
44. Arizona's point guard: Though Gordon is great, as are lots of other Arizona pieces, Arizona still has a question at point guard. Duquesne Dukes transfer T.J. McConnell will be given an opportunity to run the team. Is he good enough to help the Wildcats to a national title?
45. Arizona State Sun Devils 's point guard: The other Pac-12 school in Arizona has no such questions at point guard. That's because Jahii Carson is Arizona State's point guard. He's undeniably fun and fantastic.
46. The return of Josh Gasser : On the subject of point guards … I saw Gasser early in his career at Wisconsin and quickly realized he was better than his recruiting ranking suggested. It was too bad when he tore his ACL before last season. But now he's back. Wisconsin was good without him last season. The Badgers will be better with him this season.
47. The Badgers in general: I'll never understand why some hate on Wisconsin and its style of play, particularly when it's consistently successful. I guess my point is that I dig winners, and Wisconsin always wins. That should be exciting enough. I'm not sure why it's not.
48. Aaron Craft : It's silly to go too far on the subject of point guards -- specifically Big Ten point guards -- without mentioning the Big Ten's best point guard. His name is Aaron Craft. He will stay between you and the rim, almost every time.
49. Derrick Walton Jr. : I can only reasonably call Craft the Big Ten's best point guard because Trey Burke left Michigan for the NBA. Walton is the new ball-handler in charge in Ann Arbor. He doesn't need to be Burke, exactly. But he needs to be good.
50. Mitch McGary : It would be a shame if McGary turned down millions of dollars to return to Michigan only to be hampered by a back injury, but that's where he's at right now. He won't play in the opener. Hopefully he returns soon.
51. Luke Hancock : The Final Four's Most Outstanding Player didn't reject millions to return to school, but he did return to school after playing against McGary in last season's national title game. And now, just like McGary, he's dealing with a nagging injury. Hancock will also miss the opener … but hopefully not much more than that.
52. This list being finished: Do you have any idea how hard it is to think of 68 things related to anything? (OK. Let's continue …)
53. HAVOC: I love what Shaka Smart has built at VCU and the way he's committed to the style. There can't be 10 teams in basketball that are more fun for their fans to watch, and don't be surprised if the Rams find themselves back in the Final Four.
54. Boise State Broncos : I was asked this morning on a radio show in St. Louis about which team could be this season's Wichita State. My answer was, like I said before, Wichita State. But VCU is another obvious option. And don't completely rule out Boise State. Leon Rice Owls has an interesting roster loaded with experienced winners.
55. New Mexico: Some New Mexico fans were upset that I picked Boise State over the Lobos in the Mountain West, and that's reasonable. UNM is a solid pick. The Craig Neal era should be fun … if only because college basketball now has a head coach nicknamed "Noodles."
56. Brandon Miller: Neal isn't the only assistant who is sliding over into his former boss's chair. Miller is doing it in an attempt to replace Brad Stevens at Butler Bulldogs and, my guess, is that his transition will be tougher than Neal's based on the roster in place and the jump in league affiliation.
57. Syracuse Orange in the ACC: The subject of league affiliation will be discussed a lot this season, and nothing is weirder than the Orange in the ACC. They'll host Duke at the Carrier Dome on Feb. 1.
58. Feb. 1: What's cooler than Duke at the Carrier Dome? Answer: Nothing … except maybe Syracuse at Cameron Indoor. That comes Feb. 22.
59. Michigan State at Michigan: That's the other premier game scheduled for Feb. 22. I know I'm getting ahead of myself. But isn't it fun to get ahead of yourself?
60. The South Regional in Memphis: To hell with it. Let's get ahead of ourselves completely and talk about the regionals -- which will be held in Anaheim, New York, Indiana Hoosiers polis and Memphis. On behalf of all college basketball writers, I can tell you that there's nothing better than a regional close to home, and the Memphis regional is really close to my home.
61. Kentucky in the South Regional: Jerry Palm currently has Kentucky as the top seed in the South Regional, which could lead to Calipari coaching a Sweet 16 game in Memphis. That would be interesting.
62. Bracketology across the board: There is little more pointless than trying to predict the Field of 68 in November. Or December. Or even January, honestly. But it's still fun. And poor California Golden Bears . Palm already has the Bears on the bubble.
63. Predictions in general: Publicly guessing things is a big part of this job, so I'll do it all season. And my predictions will surely change. But, for now, give me Kentucky, Michigan State, Louisville and Kansas in the Final Four … and I might end up picking Kansas to win it all if Joel Embiid develops into a game-changing post player pretty quickly.
64. Joel Embiid: Crazy as it sounds, Embiid might have the highest ceiling of any Jayhawk, Wiggins included. He's still raw and learning the game. But, my god, I can't wait for the rest of you to see his potential.
65. Chris Walker: Another young big with loads of potential is Walker, the Florida signee. Academics prevented him from enrolling this semester. The new plan is to enroll next month. We'll see.
66. Kasey Hill : Walker's AAU teammate did enroll as planned, and he'll be counted on to keep Florida near the top of the SEC. At some point, Scottie Wilbekin will be reinstated, at which point it'll be fun to watch these two point guards play together.
67. P.J. Hairston : Another player (like Wilbekin) who is currently suspended is Hairston, and North Carolina won't be too good without him. So here's hoping UNC's compliance officials and NCAA officials reach a conclusion fairly soon, whatever that conclusion might be.
68. Albion vs. Eastern Michigan Eagles : That game just tipped, which means the college basketball season is here. Enjoy. Should be a fun five months.
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