Who's Under the Most Pressure in College Basketball in 2016-17?
From underrated to overrated and back again, few players know the pressure of trying to meet expectations quite like Maryland's Melo Trimble. The junior combo guard (who we never thought would be here for three years) is one of the 10 entities under the most pressure for the 2016-17 college basketball season.
Hope springs eternal during the offseason. Every November, we enter the new year of hoops with a dozen "legitimate candidates" to win the national championship and a few dozen more that could conceivably reach the Final Four. But it'll be up to these players, coaches and teams to keep that hype going for as long as they can.
They aren't ranked in any particular order. Rather, it's just a collection of entities that will all feel like the weight of the world is on their shoulders this year. Make sure to send each a bucket of antacids for the holidays.
Grayson Allen, Duke
Grayson Allen is under more pressure than any player in recent memory.
Duke's top dog always faces a ton of scrutiny, but this is different. Allen is the consensus preseason National Player of the Year from the consensus favorite to win the national championship. Among returning players, he scored more points last year than everyone except Howard's James Daniel. And he was already under the nation's microscope because of last season's multiple tripping incidents.
Great players and great teams get much of our attention. Just think about how many articles were written about Kentucky two years ago or about Buddy Hield last year.
But now try to imagine if Hield had played on a team that flirted with 40-0; and instead of being one of the most likable guys in the entire country, let's pretend he was hated about as much as Tyler Hansbrough and Christian Laettner were in years past.
That's where we're at with Allen.
Duke fans adore him, but for the rest of the country, he might as well be a WWE villain. People reveled in the opportunity to point out how poorly Allen played last year in losses to Kentucky and Utah, and they'll be eagerly awaiting similar results this season. One subpar individual or team performance and the "Overrated!" chants and comments will come out in droves.
Both he and Duke need to be perfect this year in order to avoid that fate.
Even that might not be enough.
John Thompson III, Georgetown
Thanks in large part to the incredible job his father did with the Hoyas in the 1980s—and because "Big John" remains an ever-present figure within the program—John Thompson III has had more of a leash over the past decade than most coaches at major-conference schools likely would.
Since reaching the 2007 Final Four, Georgetown has as many NCAA tournaments wins as it has seasons watching the NCAA tournament from home—three of each. The most impressive of those three wins came against a No. 13 seed, and the Hoyas have been eliminated five times by double-digit seeds.
Outside of a three-way tie for the 2013 Big East crown, the Hoyas have neither a regular-season nor conference-tournament championship since 2008. And this past year was one of the worst in school history. In going 15-18, it was their first time losing more than 16 games in a season since 1971-72.
Could you imagine, say, Steve Alford sticking around UCLA for nine seasons with that kind of track record?
One of these years, Georgetown is going to need to start looking past Thompson's last name. If the Hoyas don't bounce back from last season's disaster, this might be the year.
This team has the pieces to be great. Georgetown is loaded with quality returnees in the frontcourt and has a pair of incoming guards—Rodney Pryor from Robert Morris and Jonathan Mulmore from JUCO—who have already had an immediate positive impact. At the very least, third place in the Big East is there for the taking if Thompson can get his guys to live up to their potential.
Miles Bridges, Michigan State
As the best player in Michigan State's best freshman class since recruiting sites became a thing in the early 2000s, Miles Bridges was always going to be under a fair amount of pressure. From the moment Middle Tennessee upset the Spartans in the NCAA tournament, most were already projecting him to be a starter as a freshman.
But then Javon Bess and Marvin Clark Jr. decided to transfer out of the program. Deyonta Davis declared for the NBA draft. Incoming transfer Ben Carter went down with yet another knee injury. Veteran big man Gavin Schilling suffered a similar fate.
Six months ago, Bridges was a talented recruit who ought to play a major role on a roster with a ton of frontcourt options. Now, Michigan State fans must be thinking, "Help us Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're our only hope."
Bridges showed off some of his immense potential in an October scrimmage against Northwood, shooting 12-of-14 from the field, hitting all of his three-point attempts and throwing down an impressive dunk en route to a game-high 33 points. If he can consistently play anywhere near that well against D-I foes, Michigan State can win the Big Ten, and he would be a lottery pick with room to spare.
Anytime he struggles, though, Michigan State may be in trouble.
Eron Harris should put up big numbers, but who else on this roster are you banking on for a dozen points on any given night? Nick Ward and Joshua Langford are great freshmen. Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins have "sophomore breakout" potential. They're all role players, though. Bridges need to be a star for Michigan State to shine.
And as we saw in the season-opening loss to Arizona, that might not even be enough. Bridges had a game-high 21 points and a handful of highlight-reel dunks, but no other Spartan scored in double figures, losing 65-63 despite jumping out to an early 17-2 lead.
Saint Mary's Gaels
Saint Mary's has been consistently solid for nearly an entire decade. Over the past nine years, the Gaels have averaged 26.0 wins, picking up at least 21 wins in each of those seasons. Granted, the schedule hasn't always (ever?) been a murderer's row, but Randy Bennett has turned this program into one of the few mid-majors that can be counted on for a winning season.
But No. 17 in the preseason AP Top 25 is uncharted territory for the Gaels.
In school history, they have never been ranked in the preseason poll. Even during the regular season, they've never been ranked higher than No. 14 and have spent a grand total of nine weeks ranked in the Top 20.
We've come to expect good things from this team, but not quite like this.
Gonzaga might have the most talented roster it has ever assembled, yet there are plenty of people who consider Saint Mary's the favorite to win the West Coast Conference. The Gaels get back everyone from last year's 29-win roster and should remain one of the most efficient offenses in the country as a result.
Can they handle the pressure that comes with those expectations? Early games against Dayton, UAB, Stanford and Texas-Arlington should answer that question—if the 81-63 win over a solid Nevada team didn't already do that.
Ivan Rabb, California
There were a lot of players who opted to postpone a chance to become a first-round draft pick for one more season of college hoops. Grayson Allen, Thomas Bryant, Melo Trimble and Dwayne Bacon were near the top of that list.
But there's no surprise returnee under more pressure than California's Ivan Rabb.
Rabb was a top-10 recruit coming out of high school—Scout had him at No. 5. Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman had Rabb projected for the 29th pick back in September 2015. By the time the Sweet 16 rolled around, he was up to No. 8 in Wasserman's mock drafts and was a surefire lottery pick in the eyes of most experts.
Those are not the things we can typically say about guys coming back for another year, but Rabb didn't feel he was ready to make the jump just yet.
"The NBA isn't going anywhere," Rabb told Sport Illustrated's Brian Hamilton in June. "If I'm the guy I'm supposed to be, I should be there next year as well. ... I want to have fewer weaknesses, so when I get there, I can just continue to get better."
It was a cerebral decision by a guy who would rather have a Tim Duncan-type NBA career than get immediate money to quickly fall off the map like an Anthony Bennett. Basically, the big man won the talent lottery and chose the 30-year annuity payout rather than taking it all up front and only getting half as much money.
What if the decision doesn't pan out, though?
California lost three starters from last season and is pretty much down to Rabb, Jabari Bird and the hope that guys like Sam Singer and Kameron Rooks finally have breakout years. Until teammates play well enough to prove otherwise, opposing teams can double-team Rabb every time he touches the ball. Most expect his numbers to improve in a starring role, but how will his efficiency do? And if California fails to make the NCAA tournament under his lead, will he still be a top-10 pick this June?
Tony Bennett, Virginia
From a job security standpoint, there is not a single pascal of pressure on Tony Bennett.
Before he became the head coach of Virginia, the program had only won more than 25 games in a season three times—and three-time AP Player of the Year Ralph Sampson was the center for each of those years. Bennett has led them to at least 29 wins in three consecutive seasons, including a pair of ACC titles. The Cavaliers could set a school record for losses (which currently stands at 23) and you wouldn't hear a single, rational human being calling for Bennett's head.
But from a "will he ever win the big one" perspective, the pressure is mounting.
Despite compiling an 89-19 record over the past three seasons and winning at least 65 percent of games in each of the past five, Bennett's teams have consistently disappointed in the NCAA tournament. Virginia was upset by lower-seeded Michigan State in both 2014 and 2015 and infamously blew a huge second-half lead last year against Syracuse.
Even worse for Bennett, Gonzaga has had strong showings in each of the past two tournaments, while the other team that was getting a bad reputation for letting us down after strong regular seasons (Villanova) just won the national championship, leaving Virginia alone on that island.
Regardless of how well the Cavaliers do in the regular season, prepare yourself for a lot of published doubts about this team's ability to succeed in March. And it'll stay that way until Bennett gets them to a Final Four. (Just ask Arizona and Sean Miller.)
Dennis Smith Jr., North Carolina State
There's a lot to like with North Carolina State this year.
Getting Abdul-Malik Abu back for another year was a huge, underrated win for the Wolfpack. Omer Yurtseven is expected to be a star at center after serving a nine-game suspension to open the season.
As far as the backcourt is concerned, Terry Henderson was a solid shooter in his two seasons with West Virginia and should be a welcome addition after missing all but seven minutes of last season due to an ankle injury. Charlotte's Torin Dorn is another transfer who could make a big impact. And does anyone else find it strange how few people are talking about Maverick Rowan after he averaged 12.9 points per game as a freshman?
But if you're hoarding stock in North Carolina State this year, it's because you're all-in on Dennis Smith Jr.
One of several freshman point guards who figure to be in the running for Conference Player of the Year awards this season, Smith is expected to be the leader of this team. Prior to tearing his ACL*, ESPN rated Smith as the best overall player in this year's class. With his explosiveness, it's not crazy to think he could be the best freshman point guard since John Wall.
However, he joins a team that suffered 17 losses last season before also losing three of its top five scorers. We view N.C. State as a Top 25 team because of Smith, but that might be a bit too much weight to put on his young shoulders.
*Smith's knee was fully cleared by N.C. State's medical staff in March. If you're still bringing up this injury as a reason not to jump aboard the bandwagon, it's time to find a new excuse.
By and large, the top teams in the preseason AP Top 25 are the same ones that were there in mid-March. Twelve of the Top 13 teams to open this season were ranked in the Top 20 of the poll that was published on Selection Sunday.
The one exception: Wisconsin.
The Badgers had a strong finish to the 2015-16 season, winning 13 of their final 17 games to reach the Sweet 16 despite a brutal first two months of the campaign. But they never quite made it back into the Top 25 after that season-opening home loss to Western Illinois.
With everyone returning from last season, though, expectations are sky-high. Wisconsin is No. 9 in the preseason poll. It is projected to win the Big Ten and should be either a No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament, depending on whom you ask.
Can the Badgers live up to the hype, though? Along with Saint Mary's and Princeton, this team will be an interesting case study in just how important it is to get back all of your key players. Much has been made in recent seasons about the sheer amount of roster turnover at some schools, but can Wisconsin go from good to great just by not losing players?
Also worth noting, Wisconsin's star players have been in the news a fair amount this offseason. Bronson Koenig, whose on-court success and Native American heritage have made him a hero to those who share his background, has joined with those protesting the North Dakota Access Pipeline project. Nigel Hayes has been outspoken in support of both the Black Lives Matter movement and the ever-present agenda to pay student athletes.
Perhaps not since Texas Western won the 1966 national championship with a starting lineup comprised entirely of African-Americans has a team been this prominent on societal issues. Will the imminent barrage of non-basketball questions motivate or distract the Badgers? Either way, more people will be watching this team as a result.
Lorenzo Romar, Washington
Has any coach done less with more than Lorenzo Romar?
The Huskies have sent 14 players to the NBA since the end of the 2005-06 season, but they have next to nothing to show for it. Washington has been to just three of the past 10 NCAA tournaments, including whiffing in each of the past five seasons. Despite coaching the likes of Nate Robinson, Brandon Roy, Spencer Hawes, Isaiah Thomas and Terrence Ross, Romar has never been to the Elite Eight.
Something of a microcosm of his entire 14-year tenure at Washington, Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray were both first-round draft picks after one season on a team that lost 15 games.
The man can obviously recruit. Without even counting Martell Webster, who committed to UW before going straight to the NBA, Romar has signed nine Top 50 recruits since 2005, including five 5-star guys. Incoming freshman Markelle Fultz is arguably the favorite to be taken with the No. 1 pick in June. 2017 signee Michael Porter may well be the No. 1 pick in 2018. But how long can Washington remain content with going nowhere with quality players?
We're not asking Romar to win a national championship with Fultz, but it'd be nice to see the Huskies win 20 games for a change, considering the remarkably talented player they're adding. If they instead lose at least 15 games for a fifth consecutive season, all that recruiting might not be enough to save Romar's job.
Melo Trimble, Maryland
If you had told college basketball fans last October that Melo Trimble would still be here this November, they would have laughed you right out of the room.
USA Today had Trimble as a preseason first-team All-American. CBS's Gary Parrish and SI had him on their second team. We had him on our third team, as did Mike DeCoursy of Sporting News. The moral of the story is, he was supposed to be one of the best players in the nation as a sophomore.
He wasn't bad by any means, but his three-point percentage plummeted while he served as the face of Maryland's failure to live up to the preseason hype. Trimble was a borderline-first-round draft pick after his freshman season, but he was looking like a second-rounder, at best, after last year.
So, now he's back for an unexpected third season as the sole leader of a fringe Top 25 team. Gone are Diamond Stone, Robert Carter, Jake Layman and Rasheed Sulaimon. If Maryland is going to do anything good in 2016-17, Trimble needs to be the reason why.
If he can dig into his bag of tricks for a repeat of his freshman season, the Terps could be the team that breaks up the Indiana, Michigan State, Purdue and Wisconsin party atop the Big Ten this year.
If he struggles, though, so will Maryland. And people have already shown they won't hesitate to point to him as the reason why Maryland isn't as good as it should be.
We're not too concerned about the 62-56 scare the Terrapins got against American on opening night. The five leaders in minutes played were Trimble, Duquesne transfer L.G. Gill and three freshmen. It might be a few weeks before all those new pieces start working well together. But it bears mentioning that Maryland had no hope of winning that game were it not for Trimble's Herculean effort.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.