Burning Questions Ahead of the 2017-18 NCAA Basketball Season
The start of the 2017-18 college basketball season is at our doorstep, but there are a few burning questions to address before it finally arrives.
The biggest elephant in the room heading into the start of the season is the F.B.I. investigation into college basketball's rampant pay-for-play problem. Questions of eligibility stemming from those uncharted waters will be the first thing we'll discuss, but from there, it's on to the more traditional burning questions such as:
- Who are the teams to beat and the under-the-radar candidates to watch?
- Can the top freshman in the country turn around a bad team for one season?
- How good is that one up-and-coming conference with the potential to set records for NCAA tournament berths?
- Is Duke back?
To the best of our ability, we'll answer those questions and more.
What's Going to Come of This Whole FBI Thing?
In case you somehow missed the news, the F.B.I. arrested four assistant coaches back in late September as the result of a long investigation into college basketball's (read: shoe companies') not-so-secret methods for paying top recruits to commit to certain schools. We'll never know why the F.B.I. decided it needed to crack down on the world of amateur athletics, but it rocked our sport to its core.
So, now what?
For all the time we spent discussing how deep this runs and how it's going to change the game as we know it, one of the only particularly noteworthy ramifications to date was Louisville firing Rick Pitino and suspending 5-star recruit Brian Bowen from team activities. But, let's be honest, with everything that has happened with Pitino in the past decade, an I.R.S. audit might have been enough for termination with cause. Once there was even an inkling that Louisville might be involved in this mess, it was only a matter of time before Pitino got the axe.
One other recent development was Auburn announcing Thursday morning that Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy are both sitting indefinitely due to eligibility concerns amid the F.B.I. investigation. Considering both were expected to be starters, that's kind of a big deal. And call it a hunch, but that won't be the last announcement of that ilk that we hear in the near future.
Aside from that, though, we have to assume it's business as usual for the 2017-18 season. Even Louisville hasn't been ruled ineligible for postseason play, let alone the other primary teams involved in the sting operations—Arizona, Auburn, Miami, Oklahoma State and USC.
When the story first broke, just about the last thing worth worrying about was how the NCAA would deal with the specific teams involved. Now that it's November and we haven't heard diddly squat in about a month, it's time to seriously start wondering: Will the NCAA take action? And will it happen this year?
Self-imposing postseason bans has seemed to placate the NCAA in recent years, but Arizona, Louisville, Miami and USC all have reasonable aspirations of winning a national championship, provided they're still allowed to compete for one five months from now. They aren't about to fall on their own swords. And considering it took the NCAA three full years to come to a (highly controversial) decision on the North Carolina academic scandal, chances are it won't do anything to these teams until at least next offseason, if ever.
But, hey, let's actually talk about college basketball...
Is Duke Back?
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski has had some incredible recruiting hauls in the past few years. Per Scout, the Blue Devils were No. 1 in 2014, No. 2 in 2015 and have been No. 1 in each of the past two years. The late additions of Marvin Bagley III and Trevon Duval pushed them to the top of the recruiting rankings, as well as to the top of the preseason polls.
While they did win a national championship with that first incredible class—Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen—things haven't gone quite as swimmingly the past two seasons. Brandon Ingram and Jayson Tatum were the only instant stars, and they weren't nearly enough to carry Duke to a Final Four or a 30-win season.
Can we trust Duke to fulfill its potential this year?
The good news is the Blue Devils still have Grayson Allen, so they at least have one veteran presence on an otherwise young roster. (Well, it's good news if he's both physically and emotionally healthier than last season.) And the better news is they have a lead guard (Duval) capable of running this show.
Derryck Thornton and Frank Jackson are fine athletes, but they weren't properly wired for the most scrutinized position in college basketball: point guard of the Duke Blue Devils. Neither one was much of a passer nor an assertive scorer. They were just kind of there, trying not to make too many mistakes and deferring to the stars of the team. But that won't be the case with Duval. He's much more Austin Rivers than Tyus Jones as far as lead guards at Duke go, but he'll do enough driving and dishing to open up this offense much wider than it has been the past two seasons.
It was the addition of Bagley that pushed Duke over the top, though, and makes this team the favorite to win the national championship.
Duval was a critical add, but Bagley was a luxury pick up. The Blue Devils probably could have gotten by in the frontcourt with some combination of Wendell Carter Jr., Marques Bolden, Javin DeLaurier and Antonio Vrankovic. Instead, they'll be doing much more than just getting by thanks to the potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft.
Similar things had been said about Harry Giles, but Bagley hasn't had to recover from multiple major knee operations and is expected to dominate from Day 1 in Durham.
Love it or hate it, Duke is indeed back.
Aside from Duke, Who Are the Teams to Beat?
It's a go-to question in every preseason: Who actually matters?
For the most part, it's the usual suspects.
Kentucky reloaded with a haul of highly touted freshmen, as seems to be the case every single year. Michigan State is one of the top candidates to win it all because it was able to hang onto Miles Bridges and its entire 2016 recruiting class, which was ranked No. 3 in the nation by Scout.
Kansas has some frontcourt concerns, but it has more than enough talent on the perimeter to win a 14th consecutive Big 12 title. Villanova is looking strong for a fifth straight No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Sean Miller might finally get to the Final Four with Arizona. And while North Carolina isn't one of the top threats to win the title, it has the potential to repeat.
There are also a good number of unusual suspects with the talent to win it all.
First and foremost on that list is Wichita State. The Shockers have consistently been one of the best mid-major teams throughout the 2010s, but they bring back everyone from a strong roster while making the transition from the Missouri Valley to the American Athletic. They do have two of the most noteworthy injuries in the country with both Landry Shamet and Markis McDuffie recovering from offseason foot surgeries. If and when those leading scorers get back up to full speed, though, Wichita State could be a No. 1 seed.
The other team to definitely watch out for is USC. Like Wichita State, the Trojans bring back everyone who matters from last year's team. Unlike Wichita State, USC is also adding a former 5-star recruit (Duke transfer Derryck Thornton) and a pair of freshman shooting guards who would be in the mix for a starting job at just about any other program (Charles O'Bannon Jr. and Jordan Usher). This roster is more loaded than a baked potato.
One other contender from slightly off the beaten path is Miami. The Hurricanes did have good teams in 2013 and 2016, but this squad has the potential for greatness. The backcourt combination of Ja'Quan Newton, Bruce Brown and Lonnie Walker just might be the best in the nation. They aren't nearly as deep as USC or Wichita State, but if Dewan Huell and Ebuka Izundu can hold down the fort in the paint, the Canes could win a loaded ACC and/or a national championship.
Can Michael Porter Jr. Lead Missouri to the NCAA Tournament?
Michael Porter Jr. is one of the candidates to be selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft, but will he be enough to turn things around for Missouri?
One elite player can make all the difference in basketball, but that hasn't been the case for the top pick in recent years.
It started with Ben Simmons at LSU. The man is averaging nearly 20 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in the NBA this year, so he's clearly doggone talented. But his eye-popping collegiate numbers (19.2 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 4.8 APG) weren't enough to steer LSU to the 2016 NCAA tournament.
Everyone freaked out and started digging through decades of NCAA tournament data to figure out the last time a No. 1 pick (who played college basketball) never went dancing. That then led to questions about whether Simmons should be the No. 1 pick in the draft, simply because he wasn't able to carry a team that couldn't defend to save its life.
It was the exact same story for Markelle Fultz last season, except slightly worse because Washington couldn't even manage to win 10 games. "How could a point guard from such a terrible team be the best player in college basketball?" asked/shouted scores of people who don't understand how team sports and coaching work. Fultz was sensational, but there's only so much a player can do when no one else on the team cares one bit about playing defense.
Now we have Porter joining a Missouri team that went 8-24 last season and that has missed the NCAA tournament for four straight years. He's such an incredible talent, though, that Vegas Insider lists Missouri as tied with Wichita State for the seventh-best odds of winning the national championship.
No rational college basketball follower actually believes Missouri will be a top-10 team. Most probably wouldn't even put the Tigers in the top 25. But the sports books know they can put Mizzou's title odds that strong because people are always dying to bet on the best freshman in the country, which is either Porter or Duke's Marvin Bagley III.
Will Porter actually succeed where Simmons and Fultz failed by leading his team to the NCAA tournament? It's a tough call. But if you're tempted to think that Missouri's record is going to affect Porter's draft stock, please refer back to the last two years.
Which New Coach Will Have the Most Success in His 1st Season?
After several years of success at Dayton, could Archie Miller be the answer for Indiana? What about Chris Holtmann with Ohio State? Will either new Big Ten coach reach the NCAA tournament?
Fans of floundering teams will always clamor for a regime change, but it's rare for a coach to come in and immediately succeed.
Two years ago, Steve Prohm and Mike White did so at Iowa State and Florida, respectively. However, replacing coaches who were pilfered by the NBA is much different than replacing those fired for lack of results. Even Shaka Smart making the NCAA tournament after replacing Rick Barnes was an unusual circumstance, since Texas made the tournament in all but one of Barnes' 17 seasons—and since the Longhorns lost 22 games in Smart's second season.
Last year, the two new coaches who were most successful were Brad Underwood (Oklahoma State) and Jamie Dixon (TCU). Underwood significantly changed what the Cowboys had been doing under Travis Ford and it helped turn Jawun Evans into one of the best players in the nation. And Dixon was handed a ready-made situation with a bunch of returning talent that just needed a lesson in toughness, which he was more than able to provide after all those years with Pittsburgh in the Big East.
So, of the 12 major-conference changes in this year's ride on the coaching carousel—Butler, California, Georgetown, Illinois, Indiana, Louisville, LSU, Missouri, N.C. State, Ohio State, Oklahoma State and Washington—who is most likely to turn lemons into lemonade?
The top three candidates are Miller, Holtmann and Cuonzo Martin (Missouri).
Miller turned Dayton into an annual threat to reach the Sweet 16, and it shouldn't take him long to revitalize a Hoosiers team that wasn't all that bad last season. It's a similar situation for Holtmann at Ohio State, though outgoing transfers have gutted the Buckeyes program over the past several years. Martin has arguably the best freshman in the country and has already proven three times in his career that he can bolster a program in a hurry.
One other fringe candidate is LaVall Jordan at Butler. His one year of head coaching experience at Milwaukee wasn't great, but Jordan has more than a decade's worth of experience as an assistant at significant programs (Butler, Iowa and Michigan) and was handed a sweet package of Kelan Martin and Kamar Baldwin when Holtmann bolted for the Ohio State opening.
Just How Good Is the SEC Going to Be?
Earlier this week, I ranked all 32 college basketball conferences and ended up with the SEC at No. 2. For months, I've been outspoken in favor of the SEC's chances of sending at least seven teams to the NCAA tournament, and even I was surprised at how close the league came to taking the top spot.
After about a decade of being Kentucky, Florida and little else, what the heck turned this football conference into a basketball power?
For starters, the Wildcats and Gators are still quite good and will enter the season as the favorites to win the SEC. They're dependent on newcomers—Egor Koulechov and Jalen Hudson as transfers for Florida and Kentucky has eight freshmen—but they each have Final Four talent if it all comes together cohesively.
For once, the second tier (Texas A&M, Alabama and Missouri) isn't far behind those leaders. Alabama is expected to make a huge jump with the addition of stud freshman PG Collin Sexton. In addition to Michael Porter Jr., Missouri added a lights-out shooter of a graduate transfer (Kassius Robertson) and a few other noteworthy freshman, including Porter's younger brother, Jontay, who reclassified. And if either J.J. Caldwell or Duane Wilson pans out at point guard for A&M, the Aggies are going to be the breakout team of the 2017-18 season.
Perhaps most important of all, the third tier of teams with NCAA tournament potential is massive. Aside from LSU, there's not a single roster in the SEC that jumps out as having no chance to dance. In no way is that a suggestion that 13 teams from this league will make the tournament, but when you open the season with that many viable candidates—similar to how last year started for the ACC—there's a great chance at least half of the league makes the NCAA tournament.
One other critical factor is nonconference scheduling. As I noted on Twitter in September, the SEC as a whole did the best job of scheduling aggressively, and it's not even close. Mississippi State is the only team that didn't go out of its way to put tough games on the calendar for the first two months, and that is going to drastically help the league's overall RPI—provided most of the teams actually win a couple of those early challenges.
Plenty will change over the course of the next 20 weeks, but eight bids for the SEC is more than reasonable.
Who Is This Year's Breakout Team?
In each of the past 10 seasons—possibly more, but that's where I got bored with the research—there has been at least one team that won 30 games and earned a single-digit seed in the NCAA tournament despite not appearing in the preseason AP Top 25. Both Cincinnati and SMU fit that description last year with No. 6 seeds.
Assuming that trend continues for another year, who are the top candidates?
First on the list is Virginia. A lot of people bailed on the Cavaliers early in the offseason when Marial Shayok, Darius Thompson and Jarred Reuter transferred elsewhere. But Tony Bennett still has one heck of a group to work with—especially if redshirt freshmen and 2016 Top 100 recruits Jay Huff and De'Andre Hunter provide significant value. Isaiah Wilkins will remain the most underappreciated player in the nation for one more year while his defensive presence helps keep UVA near the top of the ACC standings.
Another strong candidate is Providence. Two games each against Villanova, Xavier and Seton Hall may keep the Friars from reaching 30 wins, but Ed Cooley is getting back basically everyone from last season and even added a couple of impact freshmen in Makai Ashton-Langford and Nate Watson. This team has gone dancing in four straight seasons and this is arguably its best roster to date. Watch out for the Friars.
Alabama should be dangerous with the additions of Collin Sexton and Daniel Giddens. Rhode Island might win 30 games just because it's going to be a down year in the Atlantic 10. And it wouldn't be a huge surprise if TCU ends up being the second-best team in the Big 12.
But here's one more below-the-radar candidate for you: the Oakland Golden Grizzlies. They won 25 games last season and bring back every impact player except for Sherron Dorsey-Walker. But the addition of former Illinois star Kendrick Nunn is more than enough to make up for that loss. Oakland plays three nonconference games against Kansas, Michigan State and Syracuse, but aside from those contests, this team should be favored to win every single game this season. Whether it's enough for a single-digit NCAA tournament seed remains to be seen, but I can see this team getting to 30-4 on Selection Sunday.
Why Does the NCAA Hate Braxton Beverly?
Unless you're a big Ohio State or North Carolina State fan, chances are you had never heard of Braxton Beverly until about a month ago. An incoming freshman rated No. 321 nationally by 247Sports, let's just say he's not at the top of the list of one-and-done candidates.
Beverly originally committed to Ohio State and enrolled in summer classes, as is fairly customary after graduating from high school. But less than a month after he arrived in Columbus came the shocking news that Thad Matta was out as head coach of the Buckeyes. Shortly thereafter, he de-committed from Ohio State to sign with North Carolina State.
By the letter of the law, because Beverly had already started taking classes at Ohio State, he was considered a transfer, which meant he would be required to sit out one year like every other non-graduate transfer. However, N.C. State was confident that the NCAA would show some common sense and grant him a waiver, given the circumstances. After all, what kind of message would you be sending student-athletes by penalizing one for pursuing his education?
Lo and behold, the NCAA denied Beverly's appeal, ruling him ineligible for this season.
Worst of all, the initial news of his potential ineligibility came on the same day that the NCAA finally decided after a three-year investigation that North Carolina would face no penalty as a result of the Wainstein Report, which unearthed wide-spread academic fraud in the form of "paper courses." Apparently, because the charade also benefited non-athletes, the NCAA couldn't prove it was a sham just for athletes. (That is one hell of a loophole that I'm sure no other school will exploit any time soon.)
One player taking classes and then deciding to switch schools when his coach unexpectedly quit/got fired? "That's bad. Better shut that garbage down!"
Many students advancing toward their degree because of a class they didn't even take? "Well, that's OK. Just don't do it again!"
Well done, NCAA. And right in the middle of an F.B.I. investigation to deal with something else you were supposed to be able to handle but couldn't.
The irony in this whole Beverly situation is he might have just taken a redshirt year anyway. At best, he probably would have been sixth on the backcourt depth chart behind Markell Johnson, Al Freeman, Torin Dorn, Sam Hunt and Lavar Batts Jr. Coupled with the fact that he didn't join the team until the middle of the summer, it would've made sense for him to sit a year. But by forcing him to do so, the NCAA furthered its public perception of hopeless incompetence and tone deafness.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.