ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- The start of college basketball has arrived. In the spirit of getting you ready, here's a list of 68 college basketball things worth monitoring.
1. Duke, baby
There's no better place to start than with the team that's No. 1 in the Associated Press poll, No. 1 in the Coaches poll, and No. 1 in the CBS Sports Top 25 (and one). Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils are loaded from top to bottom thanks to the return of Grayson Allen and enrollment of a freshman class highlighted by three possible future lottery picks: Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden. They need to get healthy, sure. But when they do, watch out.
2. UCLA's Lonzo (can) Ball
I first saw Lonzo Ball and his two younger brothers play a couple of summers ago. They were on a summer team coached by their parents. The whole family is fascinating. I wrote about them then. And now the oldest Ball brother is a freshman at UCLA, where he'll serve as the starting point guard and maybe lead UCLA to its first Pac-12 title since winning the conference outright in 2013 under Ben Howland.
3. Blue Devils' health
I honestly don't remember a preseason No. 1 ever beginning a season with injuries to three five-star prospects. But such is the case at Duke. Giles is recovering from a second knee surgery in the past year and, I'm told, unlikely to make his debut until the end of November, at least. Meantime, Bolden is out at least until next week with a lower leg injury. And though Tatum is expected to play in Friday's opener he still missed both exhibitions with a sprained foot. So the Duke we see early won't be the Duke we expected. But the Blue Devils should eventually be healthy and able to perform as planned, I think.
4. Oregon is Final Four good
The Ducks are my pick to win the Pac-12 and, on paper, the pieces are in place for Dana Altman to possibly make the first Final Four of his 28-year career -- as long as Dillon Brooks gets healthy and plays like the First Team All-American so many, myself included, believe he can be.
5. Freshman sensation Markelle Fultz
Giles used to be atop most mock drafts. But he's been replaced -- and mostly by Fultz. Hold the draft tonight, let me pick first, and I'm taking the 6-foot-4 point guard from Washington. I have two children, both of whom get up around 6 a.m. in the Central Time Zone. So my bedtime is earlier than ever. But Fultz is among the reasons I'll stretch that bedtime this season.
6. Duke's primary ball-handler
The Blue Devils have a natural shooting guard (Allen), a natural wing (Tatum), and two natural bigs (Giles, Bolden) who should play in the NBA. But there's not a natural point guard on the roster, future pro or otherwise. So if you're looking for a possible issue, perhaps that's it. To be clear, I'm not predicting that a lack of a natural point guard will hinder Duke in any real way. It's just something unique about the roster.
7. Dillon Brooks, the All-American
The Oregon star had offseason foot surgery; there's still no official timetable for his return. And that's not ideal for him or the Ducks. But people connected to the program seem optimistic the junior forward won't miss much time. If true, there should be no real limit to what Brooks and Oregon can accomplish.
8. Harry Giles' draft stock
Giles could still become the No. 1 pick, I guess. But it's been more than a year, and two knee surgeries ago, since the 6-10 forward last played in a real game. Will he still have his athleticism? Will he still be a top-shelf prospect? Those are questions NBA scouts are asking and anxious to have answered.
9. Ivan Rabb returns to Cal
I don't think California can challenge for a Pac-12 title. But Rabb should keep the Bears relevant. He's arguably the best NBA prospect who returned to college for a sophomore year and is now a projected lottery pick. The 6-11 forward averaged 12.5 points and 8.6 rebounds as Jaylen Brown's sidekick last season. Now Brown is gone. So this is Rabb's team.
10. Allonzo Trier (maybe)
Arizona's leading returning scorer, theoretically, is a legit Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate. But there are questions surrounding Trier's eligibility and no guarantee he's going to play. The 6-5 guard didn't appear in either exhibition. He also didn't travel to Hawaii with the Wildcats, who are set to play Michigan State there tonight.
11. Arizona vs. Michigan State
This is one of Opening Night's best matchups -- the No. 10 Wildcats vs. the No. 12 Spartans in the first game of the Armed Forces Classic in Honolulu. But it won't be as good as it could have been because each team has had an unfortunate preseason. Arizona is without Trier for a still unreported reason, and former five-star recruit Ray Smith has torn his ACL for a third time. Meanwhile, Michigan State lost Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling to injuries. So the Wildcats and Spartans are operating shorthanded, which means their freshmen have to contribute immediately. Like ...
12. Sparty's Miles Bridges
Bridges is the star of Michigan State's recruiting class that ranked third nationally. The 6-7 forward averaged 26.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in two exhibitions. And the Spartans need him to be great just as much as Arizona needs its top freshman to be great. His name is ...
13. Lauri Markkanen from Finland
The 7-foot forward averaged 14.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in Arizona's two exhibitions. He's a projected lottery pick and someone who seems perfectly equipped to be a stretch-4 at the NBA level. I'm not sure how much he and Bridges will guard each other tonight. But they'll be on the court together a lot, which should be fun.
14. Kansas vs. Indiana
This is the second part of Friday's doubleheader in Hawaii and by far Opening Night's biggest game. It's the team I think will win the Big 12 against the team I think will win the Big Ten. And it'll feature five projected first-round picks, according to DraftExpress, most notably ...
15. Super frosh Josh Jackson
The No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2016, according to 247Sports, is the first No. 1 prospect to enroll at Kansas since Andrew Wiggins in 2013. KU will be good whether Jackson is great or not because KU is always good whether its heralded freshmen are great or not. But if Jackson is terrific like Wiggins was terrific, then a 13th consecutive Big 12 title should come easily.
16. KU's quest for 13 straight Big 12 title
The Jayhawks' 12 straight Big 12 titles is among the most amazing and under-appreciated runs in American sports today. One more, and the Jayhawks would tie UCLA's record for consecutive league titles. And whenever KU's streak is snapped, I sincerely believe we'll never see another Power 5 school string conference championships like this again.
17. IU's quest for two straight Big Ten titles
It sounds like nothing when compared to Kansas' streak. But Indiana does have a real shot to win its second straight conference title, a massive accomplishment considering some people had Tom Crean on the so-called hot seat this time last year. Replacing point guard Yogi Ferrell won't be easy. But the Hoosiers still have a nice roster featuring two projected first-round picks. They are ...
18. OG Anunoby and Thomas Bryant
Nobody has two sophomores like these two. Neither posted huge numbers last season. But Anunoby averaged 20.5 points and 5.0 rebounds in two exhibitions this preseason while Bryant averaged 13.0 points and 8.0 rebounds. Breakout seasons are on tap for both.
19. The Veterans Classic
This is the other interesting doubleheader tonight -- one that'll happen on campus at the United States Naval Academy. It's Vanderbilt-Marquette followed by Ohio State-Navy. And as you might've noticed from the dateline, I'm here for the third straight year. And it's always a fun night -- although last year it was also a surreal night because North Carolina and Temple were on the court for the early game while details about the terror attack in Paris emerged. Yep, those two things happened simultaneously, which made it hard to focus on hoops and not watch Twitter for updates. I just remember watching Twitter for updates. So let's hope tonight offers nothing nearly as tragic or troubling.
20. Ohio State
Former OSU walk-on Mark Titus had an interesting story on Thad Matta last week, one where he got his old coach to open up about his program that missed the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time since 2008. In that story, Matta was funny and candid. He also sounded re-energized and anxious to quiet skeptics. So I'm looking forward to seeing the Buckeyes up close tonight. Meantime, I'll also get to see a man coach his first game at his new school. And that man is ...
21. Bryce Drew at Vandy
Like I wrote, the first game of the Veterans Classic is Vanderbilt-Marquette and it doubles as Drew's first game at Vandy, which hired him after Kevin Stallings left to become Pitt's coach. Drew had multiple offers last spring. He wisely picked Vandy over Georgia Tech. The smart money has him accomplishing nice things in Nashville. And, by the way, he isn't the only interesting coach at a new school. Here are a few more ...
22. Jamie Dixon at TCU
This first season should be difficult because Dixon didn't inherit much. But he's already recruiting at an unprecedented level relative to TCU's history. So it won't be long before this TCU graduate has the Horned Frogs competing for trips to the NCAA Tournament.
23. Brad Underwood at Oklahoma State
Let's stick in the Big 12 -- where Oklahoma State made one of the best, if not the best, offseason hire when it quickly targeted and pursued Underwood to replace Travis Ford. Underwood was 89-14 (including 53-1 in the Southland) in three seasons at Stephen F. Austin. Those career winning percentages will now dip, obviously. But don't be surprised if Underwood overachieves this season. And do be surprised if he does anything but win once he establishes his culture in Stillwater.
24. Travis Ford at Saint Louis
I have no idea who created the saying "one man's trash is another man's treasure," but it reminds me of Ford. They wanted him out badly at Oklahoma State after eight years. So they fired him. But Saint Louis scooped him right up. And now he's recruiting superbly. So he'll likely have the Billikens near the top of the Atlantic 10 within a few years.
25. Josh Pastner at Georgia Tech
Pastner desperately needed a parachute out of Memphis after seven seasons and missing two straight NCAA Tournaments, and Georgia Tech provided one. The Yellow Jackets might finish last in the ACC, given the roster Pastner inherited. But it'll be interesting to see whether this now-veteran coach, who is still only 39, can eventually make Georgia Tech respectable in an ACC loaded with big-brand programs and Hall of Fame coaches.
26. Tubby Smith at Memphis
Smith has taken five different schools to the NCAA Tournament and Memphis, someday, should become the sixth. Might be hard to do this season, though, because of a lack of high-level talent in the program, sophomore Dedric Lawson being an obvious exception. But, with time, Smith should make Memphis relevant again, if only because he's never not made the program he's coaching relevant.
27. Texas Tech
Texas Tech is the school Smith left for Memphis, at which point athletic director Kirby Hocutt lured Chris Beard away from the UNLV job he'd just accepted. Yes, the Red Raiders lost their top two scorers, but I won't be surprised if Beard still leads them to a second straight NCAA Tournament. If that happens, it'll be only the third time in three decades that Texas Tech has competed in consecutive NCAA Tournaments.
28. Shaka Smart's Longhorns
Though Texas Tech could be good, Texas should be the best team in the Lone Star state. Smart enrolled a top-five recruiting class highlighted by five-star forward Jarrett Allen. I'm not sure the Longhorns are ready to challenge Kansas for the Big 12 crown just yet. But I am confident Smart will be coaching in his seventh straight NCAA Tournament come March.
29. Will Wade's Rams
Smart's former employer should also be in the NCAA Tournament for the seventh straight season -- and for the second time under Wade. I write that well aware that the Rams lost an exhibition to Queens College. It's something I noticed but not something that concerns me.
30. The Atlantic 10 race
The Atlantic 10 should be really fun at the top because any of three teams -- Dayton, VCU or Rhode Island -- could reasonably be picked to win it. I believe all three will be in the NCAA Tournament. But my pick to actually win the A-10 is ...
31. Rhode Island
Barring more injuries that rip the possibilities out of another season, this should be the breakthrough year for Dan Hurley. He returns four players who averaged at least 9.8 points last season and adds E.C. Matthews, who suffered a torn ACL in last season's opener. Before that injury, Matthews was some people's pick to be the A-10 Player of the Year. So URI is adding a great piece to some other nice pieces. The result should be a whole bunch of wins.
32. Bobby Hurley's desert project
The older Hurley brother should have the better team, considering he might win the Atlantic 10 and Arizona State is picked 11th in the Pac-12. Regardless, it's worth noting that Bobby Hurley is building something interesting at Arizona State. He enrolled a top-20 recruiting class this year that won't get much attention but could pay benefits in the win column in another season or two.
33. Scott Drew's quiet excellence
If I'm going to mention Dan Hurley's younger brother, I should probably mention Bryce Drew's older brother who is about to start his 14th season at Baylor. Scott Drew has a chance to make the NCAA Tournament for the seventh time in a 10-year period, and for the fourth straight time, this season. Given the history of Baylor basketball, and the mess he inherited, what the 46 year old has done with the Bears is genuinely one of the greatest rebuilding jobs in the history of college basketball.
34. Houston goes dancing
Only 183 miles separate Baylor from Houston, where Kelvin Sampson has a good chance to guide the Cougars to the NCAA Tournament for only the second time since 1992. My prediction: He'll do it.
35. The AAC race
CBS Sports' Jerry Palm projects three AAC schools to make the NCAA Tournament: Connecticut, Cincinnati and SMU. There's nothing crazy about that. But I'm going with UConn, Cincinnati and Houston -- followed by Memphis and SMU in some order. And, in my opinion, UConn and Cincinnati is a total coin-flip when it comes to predicting the AAC champion.
36. UConn's guards
Gun to head, I think the Huskies will win the AAC. But they'll need their backcourt to be great to do it, which means Jalen Adams has to have a breakthrough season and Alterique Gilbert must be impactful early and consistently. If that happens, and Rodney Purvis scores, and Amida Brimah duplicates his sophomore season as opposed to his junior season, UConn could be a dark horse Final Four candidate.
37. Dedric Lawson will light it up
Even if UConn wins the AAC, and Memphis finishes fourth or fifth, expect Dedric Lawson to be the conference Player of the Year because he's going to post monster numbers. The 6-9 forward averaged 15.8 points and 9.3 rebounds for the Tigers last season while sharing the frontcourt with Shaq Goodwin. But now Goodwin is gone, meaning Lawson will get all of the shots and rebounds he wants. He could rank among the top 20 scorers and rebounders in the nation.
38. Kentucky, of course
Lawson's coach at Memphis is a former Kentucky coach. And the Kentucky coach is a former Memphis coach. And you didn't really think I was going to get through 68 things without spending some time on John Calipari's Wildcats, did you? They're the clear favorite in the SEC and a solid pick to win the national championship. Among the reasons is ...
39. De'Aaron Fox
Must be nice for John Calipari to lose an All-American point guard in Tyler Ulis and replace him with a natural point guard who projects as a lottery pick just like John Wall once did. Fox should be awesome at UK. I can't wait to watch him run fast breaks and throw lobs to ...
40. Malik Monk
I've said for three years, even when others started to cool on the bouncy combo guard, that Monk would be a college star and go in the top 10 of the 2017 NBA Draft. Now, after preseason workouts, Monk's skeptics are starting to disappear. He'll likely lead the Wildcats in scoring. He's my pick to be the SEC Player of the Year. But if that award goes to another Kentucky player, it'll probably be ...
41. Bam Adebayo
Every coach loves an athletic big with a great motor. Adebayo is an athletic big with a great motor. The 6-9 freshman is tenacious and relentless. He'll be better than any big who played for UK last season, then go in the lottery of the 2017 NBA Draft alongside two of his teammates.
42. Moses Kingsley
The Kentucky players are getting most of the media attention in the SEC, and for good and obvious reasons. But Arkansas' Kingsley is the official SEC Preseason Player of the Year. I only disagree with that pick because I believe UK will win the SEC by multiple games, at which point the individual awards will be funneled to Wildcats. But I do love Kingsley. He should average another double-double and lead the Razorbacks to their second NCAA Tournament in a three-year span.
43. Florida's chance to Dance
The Gators have missed the NCAA Tournament in consecutive years for only the second time this century and are at risk of missing it for three straight years for the first time since 1998. But I don't think that'll happen because I believe Florida will finish second in the SEC and return to the NCAA Tournament.
44. Villanova can absolutely repeat
Florida is the last school to win back-to-back national championships. Villanova is the next school with that opportunity. And, make no mistake, Jay Wright's Wildcats have a real chance. The ineligibility of Omari Spellman didn't help. But Villanova returns more quality pieces from a national championship team than any team since Florida. So take that for what it's worth. Sure, the Wildcats don't have the same type of NBA talent as Duke and Kentucky. But, remember, they didn't last season, either.
45. Xavier is really good
Villanova is the obvious pick in the Big East, but Xavier is a legitimate challenger to snap the Wildcats' string of three consecutive league titles. Some of that might depend on Myles Davis being reinstated. He averaged 10.8 points and a team-high 4.1 assists while shooting 38.1 percent from 3-point range last season. But the 6-2 senior is currently serving a suspension levied after his ex-girlfriend accused him of acting violently and filed for a protective order against him. Davis has denied her allegations. But he remains indefinitely suspended and will not play in the opener.
46. Power transfer
Speaking of suspensions, Austin Nichols will miss Virginia's opener because of a "violation of team rules." So his career as a Cavalier will be delayed. But I'll still be surprised if he isn't the nation's most impactful transfer. And if he is, you can expect Virginia to again compete at the top of the ACC with Duke, Louisville and North Carolina.
47. Don't sleep on UNC
The Tar Heels aren't entering this season with nearly the same kind of hype as last season. But they're still ranked sixth in the preseason AP poll, meaning they are legitimate national title contenders. Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams enters the season with eight Final Fours and two national titles on his resume. If the Tar Heels win the NCAA Tournament, Williams will become only the sixth Division I men's basketball coach to win more than two. The other five: John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Mike Krzyzewski, Bob Knight and Jim Calhoun.
48. The ACC is stacked
Ten ACC schools received votes in the preseason AP poll, four are ranked in the top 13, and Jerry Palm has nine making the NCAA Tournament, all of which suggests this league will be the nation's best by any measuring stick. Consider this: Buzz Williams has what most would call a borderline Top 25 team at Virginia Tech. Still, the Hokies were picked 10th in the ACC's preseason poll. And that's not unreasonable.
49. The ACC's NBA prospects
Duke has Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles, Marques Bolden and Grayson Allen. North Carolina State has Dennis Smith and Omer Yurtseven, Florida State has Jonathan Isaac and Dwayne Bacon, Syracuse has Tyler Lydon and Andrew White, Clemson has Jaron Blossomgame, North Carolina has Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks and Theo Pinson, Notre Dame has V.J. Beachem, Louisville has Donovan Mitchell, Ray Spalding and Deng Adel, Virginia has Austin Nichols, and surely you get the point. The ACC is filled with NBA prospects. It'll feature future pros playing against each other every week in league play.
50. The West Coast Conference
The WCC can't match the ACC team for team or player for player. But the top should be just as interesting and almost as good because Gonzaga is still Gonzaga and Saint Mary's returns everybody from a 29-win team. Both are ranked in the top 17 of the preseason AP poll. They'll play each other at least twice -- on Jan. 14 and Feb. 11.
Among the schools joining Gonzaga and Saint Mary's in the AP poll is Wisconsin -- which returns every relevant piece from a 22-win team that made the Sweet 16. That means Bronson Koenig and Ethan Happ are both back, as is ...
52. Nigel Hayes
College sports' most outspoken player has railed against the NCAA's definition of amateurism, supported Colin Kaepernick's protest and demanded Wisconsin's administration address racism on campus. So it's been a busy preseason for the senior forward. And if Wisconsin remains nationally relevant, the stage on which Hayes stands to make his points will grow even larger.
53. NCAA Tournament streaks
Hayes has played in three straight NCAA Tournaments and Wisconsin has been to 18 straight. That's streak is tied with Gonzaga and represents the sport's fourth-longest active streak. So there are three active streaks longer than Wisconsin's and Gonzaga's, headlined by ...
54. KU's Tourney streak
The Jayhawks have played in 27 straight NCAAs, which is all sorts of amazing. There have been coaching changes, graduations, transfers and lots of early entries to the NBA Draft from KU. But there have been no bad seasons. The Jayhawks are always good and usually great. And next on the list is ...
55. Duke not far behind
The Blue Devils have played in 21 straight NCAA Tournaments. The last time they missed the Big Dance was in 1995, the season where Mike Krzyzewski coached only 12 games because of back surgery. And next on the list is ...
56. Don't forget Michigan State
The Spartans have played in 19 straight NCAA Tournaments. That's the main reason why Tom Izzo was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame this year.
57. Tim Jankovich at SMU
While I'm on the subject of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, it should be noted there are now only six active Naismith Hall of Famers in college coaching, thanks to Larry Brown's abrupt resignation at SMU last July. (The six are Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Jim Boeheim, Rick Pitino, John Calipari and Tom Izzo.) The man replacing Brown at SMU is Jankovich. He inherited a nice situation, certainly one that's way better than what Brown inherited. And the best player on the roster could be ...
58. Shake Milton could break out
He only averaged 10.5 points as a freshman. But Milton will likely be SMU's leading scorer and perhaps one of the country's breakout stars. I really, really like him. And I love his name. Just rolls off the tongue. Sort of like ...
59. Melo Trimble
Most assumed the Maryland star would be out of college by now, including Trimble. But the junior point guard had an uneven sophomore year and wisely realized there probably wasn't a place for him in the 2016 NBA Draft. So he returned to school. And now Mark Turgeon has a security blanket and proven winner at the most important position on the court for a third consecutive year. Thus Turgeon knows how Wichita State's coach spent the past three years feeling.
60. Wichita State
Gregg Marshall might never again have a point guard as reliable as Fred VanVleet, who spent the past three seasons as the Shockers' starter while becoming a college basketball icon alongside teammate Ron Baker. Those two changed that program forever. They're legends on that campus. But now they're gone. And that hurts. But the Shockers should still be good and back in the NCAA Tournament.
61. A surprise Final Four threat
It was 2013 when Wichita State made the Final Four despite not winning the MVC. It was a fun and surprising story. So who's a threat to crack the Final Four from outside of the power structure this season? Pencil in Saint Mary's, Rhode Island, Dayton and maybe even Valparaiso as threats. I'm intrigued by Valpo, mostly because of ...
62. Alec Peters, All-America candidate
Peters averaged 18.4 points and 8.5 rebounds for a Valpo team that won 30 games last season. He's terrific and a legitimate All-American candidate. I can't wait to see the numbers he posts. Because they're going to be huge numbers. Just like the numbers posted by ...
63. Mike Daum
I wrote a story last month about the incredible development of Daum -- a lightly recruited prospect who is the preseason Summit League Player of the Year as a redshirt sophomore. He averaged more points per 40 minutes than anybody in the country last season. And if South Dakota State makes the NCAA Tournament, Daum could be one of those Thursday/Friday stars who gets a whole bunch of attention.
64. The NCAA Tournament
November is fun. December has its moments. January and February can get intense. But, let's be honest, the sport is at its best during those glorious three weeks when a 68-school single-elimination tournament is played. The opening Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday are my favorite days. But the Sweet 16 is awesome, too. And on that note ... are you ready for some picks?
65. Sweet 16 projections
Here's my Sweet 16 projections: Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, Villanova, Xavier, North Carolina, Oregon, Virginia, Indiana, UCLA, Wisconsin, Saint Mary's, Gonzaga, Michigan State, Louisville and Texas.
66. Elite Eight projections
My Elite Eight would be: Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, Villanova, Xavier, North Carolina, Oregon and Virginia.
67. Final Four projections
Put me down for Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and Villanova.
68. The national championship game
I'll go with Duke and Kentucky for all the so-called marbles on the first Monday in April, if only because those are the teams that are first and second in my preseason Top 25 (and one). And wouldn't Duke-Kentucky for a championship be awesome (don't answer that UNC fans)? It would be massive in every way. Big brands. Hall of Fame coaches. Lots of NBA talent. Ratings through the roof.
So put me down for that.
Or for Villanova getting back and having a chance to repeat. Or for Kansas getting there and having a chance to get Bill Self's second title. Or for ... honestly ... I don't care. It'll be fun regardless of how it ends.
College basketball is more of a journey sport than a destination sport.
And the journey starts now.