Ultimate Guide to the 2017-18 College Basketball Season
The 2017-18 college basketball season begins this Friday, but what's that you say? It crept up on you and you haven't got a clue what to expect this year?
Well, don't sweat it. We've whittled down an entire summer's worth of content into one easily digestible ultimate guide for the year ahead.
There are top returning players, marquee nonconference games, coaches on the hot seat, title contenders, etc. Basically everything you need to fake your way through a conversation and come out looking like an expert on college hoops.
We've ranked the top five components in eight different buckets. The components are ranked by importance or likelihood of occurrence, but the buckets are listed in no particular order.
Top Returning Players
Earlier this week, I ranked the Top 25 players in the country. Here's the abridged version of that piece:
5. Grayson Allen, Duke
Yes, Allen still has a year of eligibility left to remain college basketball's foremost villain. But he is also still a talented player who should bounce back from an injury-riddled junior year. He's the one veteran presence on this Duke roster, so he will be most responsible for ensuring the Blue Devils take a trip to the Final Four.
4. Allonzo Trier, Arizona
The best piece of Arizona's ridiculously versatile roster, Trier was incredible during the half of last season in which he was eligible to play. He showed significant improvement as both a rebounder and a passer, compared to a freshman season when he was a scorer and not much else. With backcourt-mate Rawle Alkins sidelined with a foot injury to start the season, look for Trier to become even more of an alpha dog than usual.
3. Jalen Brunson, Villanova
Brunson was kind of hidden behind Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins for the past two seasons, but now is his time to stand out. A more-than-capable perimeter shooter who shines brightest while showcasing his finishing moves around the bucket, Brunson ought to be the best lead guard in the nation.
2. Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
A poor man's Charles Barkley, Colson has an impeccable nose for rebounds despite standing just 6'6". He's also a solid defender who surprisingly became a legitimate three-point weapon last season when he shot 43.3 percent from deep. He's the exact type of "does it all without much fanfare" type of guy who will become a 10-year NBA vet after he falls right into the lap of the San Antonio Spurs late in the first round.
1. Miles Bridges, Michigan State
Bridges isn't quite the unanimous preseason pick to win the Wooden Award, but he's the consensus across the various major sports outlets. He was one of the only things that went right last season for Michigan State, and even he missed an entire month due to an ankle injury. But the Spartans are among the favorites to win the 2018 national championship because he—and the other three top-50 freshmen in last year's highly-touted recruiting class—decided to return for another season.
Top Incoming Freshmen
5. Trevon Duval, Duke
With Alabama's Collin Sexton not cleared to play, Duval enters the season as the overwhelming favorite to be the most impactful freshman guard in the country. Last year's class was loaded with game-changing point guards, but it might be Duval or bust until Sexton gets reinstated—if that ever happens. At any rate, how well this guy is able to run the point at Duke will decide whether the Blue Devils remain one of the favorites to win it all as the season progresses.
4. Mohamed Bamba, Texas
If you've ever wondered what it would look like if a pterodactyl played basketball, check out a Texas game this season. Bamba has one of the most incredible wingspans ever measured (7'9"), and he can almost dunk without leaving the ground. Combine him with head coach Shaka Smart's defensive genius and, oh yes, there will be blocked shots.
3. Deandre Ayton, Arizona
If you were to create a player on NBA 2K, making him as tall and as strong as possible while also making him an above-average three-point shooter, you'd basically have Ayton. It's like he was built in a lab and designed specifically for Wildcats head coach Sean Miller's love of versatile athletes. All the experts say the next two guys are higher on the draft boards, but Ayton is the most physically imposing freshman I can ever remember.
1b. Michael Porter Jr., Missouri
1a. Marvin Bagley III, Duke
Similar to Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker a few years ago, it has become impossible to talk about one of these studs without mentioning the other. Virtually everyone has decided these are the top two college players in the running for the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft (though Slovenia's Luka Doncic may take the honor).
Porter is a small/power forward hybrid. Bagley is a power forward/center hybrid. They're both ridiculously athletic and versatile and will likely both have an entire highlight reel worthy of draft night before the end of November. But Porter may slip through the national cracks if Missouri struggles—similar to what happened late in the year with Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz.
Bagley, however, will be front and center on national television all season for a title contender, so he gets the slight edge. Do yourself a favor, though, and watch them both as much as you can.
5. Charles Matthews, Michigan
Matthews didn't make much of an impact in his one season with Kentucky, but big things are expected from him at Michigan. The Wolverines only have three returning players who averaged better than 1.6 points per game last season, so he'll have the opportunity to flourish.
4. Cane Broome, Cincinnati
Broome averaged 23.1 points per game two years ago at Sacred Heart, and he might finally be the scoring weapon the Bearcats have been searching for since Sean Kilpatrick graduated in 2014. The year off to learn the system should help his transition from the NEC to the AAC. But even if he's half the scorer he was with the Pioneers, it could be a boost for what was a 30-win team last year.
3. Elijah Brown, Oregon
Brown is a great scorer, but will Oregon be where he finally becomes a winner? Between his start at Butler and his last two seasons with New Mexico, Brown has yet to play for a team that won more than 17 games in a season. But he is either the biggest or second-biggest piece of Dana Altman's recruiting/transferring haul (No. 13 overall recruit Troy Brown being the other). The Ducks have won at least 24 games in each of the past six seasons, so one of those winning (or lack thereof) streaks is coming to an end.
2. Egor Koulechov, Florida
The Gators lost Devin Robinson to the pros, but no matter. They got Koulechov. This wing-forward averaged 18.2 points and 8.9 rebounds per game last season with Rice, and he shot 47.4 percent from three-point range. And with Dorian Finney-Smith, Jon Horford, John Egbunu and Canyon Barry all to its credit, Florida has had a solid track record with incoming transfers in recent years.
1. Malik Newman, Kansas
The clear-cut leader in the clubhouse among transfers, Newman was the No. 8 overall recruit in 2015 prior to one lackluster season with Mississippi State. He spent last year in Lawrence learning from head coach Bill Self and practicing against Frank Mason III and Devonte' Graham. He should immediately shine as a starting combo guard for the Jayhawks. Anything up to 20 points per game wouldn't be a surprise.
Coaches on the Hot Seat
5. Kevin Stallings, Pittsburgh
Typically, coaches on the hot seat are entering at least a fourth consecutive season without an NCAA tournament appearance, but Stallings appears to be in a world of trouble after just one season with Pittsburgh. The Panthers finished below .500 last year for the first time since 1999-00, lost basically everyone from that team and haven't even been doing much of anything on the recruiting trail. This should be one of the five-worst major-conference teams in the country in 2017-18, and that fall from grace might be enough to give Stallings an early boot.
4. Tim Miles, Nebraska
Though Miles did get the Cornhuskers to the NCAA tournament in 2013-14, he has an overall record that's 11 games below .500 in his five seasons. Fresh off one of the school's five-worst seasons in the past 50 years, Nebraska had yet another mass exodus of transfers with five players leaving the program this offseason, including two of last year's five leading scorers, Ed Morrow and Michael Jacobson. If the 'Huskers are flirting with the basement of the Big Ten yet again, Miles won't be back in 2018-19.
3. Pat Chambers, Penn State
Another Big Ten coach in dire need of a big season, Chambers finally has Penn State hauling in quality recruits for the first time in at least a decade, but it hasn't turned into wins yet. The Nittany Lions have been hovering right around .500 for the past four years, and they haven't made the tournament in any of Chambers' six seasons at the helm. Another year of mediocrity would be his last.
2. Brad Brownell, Clemson
Brownell hasn't been awful. Over the past seven seasons, he is 21 games over .500 at a school where it is tough to consistently win basketball games. But this team had more than enough talent to reach the NCAA tournament in each of the past two years and failed to do so. The Tigers need to get back to the Big Dance for the first time since 2011, or else they'll lose more than just the seniors on this year's roster.
1. Bruce Pearl, Auburn
Because of the FBI investigation that's hanging like a dark cloud over the sport, you could make the case that Sean Miller, Andy Enfield, Jim Larranaga, Avery Johnson and Brad Underwood belong on this list, too. However, setting aside that issue, this was always going to be a bit of a make-or-break year for Pearl.
It's his fourth season, there have been exceptional (by Auburn's standards) recruits and transfers joining the team, and all it has produced thus far is an overall record 10 games below .500. There was improvement last season and reasonable hope for a tournament berth this year, but another lackluster campaign would've made Pearl a candidate for the chopping block. Factor in that the Feds are snooping around the program and the future isn't looking bright for this coach.
Best Nonconference Games
We're not considering potential matchups in early-season tournaments, as they aren't guaranteed to happen. In case you're wondering, though, some incredible possible games from those events are Wichita State vs. Notre Dame (Maui Invitational championship), Duke vs. Florida (PK80 Motion championship), North Carolina vs. Michigan State (PK80 Victory championship) and Villanova vs. Arizona (Battle 4 Atlantis championship).
5. No. 6 Villanova vs. No. 18 Gonzaga (Dec. 5 in NYC)
It's not quite the marquee showdown it would've been last year when both teams earned No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament, but this is one heck of a random-Tuesday-in-December battle. Gonzaga is reloading after losing four of last year's five leading scorers, but the Zags still have a lot of talent—especially in the frontcourt. And Villanova is pretty much Jalen Brunson and a whole host of breakout candidates. The Wildcats may be the most interesting team to monitor for the first month of the season.
4. No. 12 Cincinnati vs. No. 17 Xavier (Dec. 2 in Cincinnati)
To put it lightly, these crosstown rivals do not like each other. Usually, it's just the mutual hatred that makes this a must-watch affair—maybe one of the two teams will be ranked, but rarely both. This year, though, both the Bearcats and Musketeers have Final Four aspirations, making this a battle with implications on bragging rights and tournament seeding. Last year, Xavier's Trevon Bluiett scored a career-high 40 points in this game, but Cincinnati managed to win.
3. No. 5 Kentucky vs. No. 21 UCLA (Dec. 23 in New Orleans)
UCLA has been all over the headlines this week because of LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill's arrest for alleged shoplifting in China. It's just one more wrinkle to throw into an offseason that has left us uncertain about player availability at many schools around the country. If and when that gets sorted out, though, the Bruins will have a roster capable of going head-to-head with Kentucky. Combined, these two blue bloods have 10 of the top 50 players in this year's recruiting class.
2. No. 16 Louisville at No. 5 Kentucky (Dec. 29 in Lexington)
The top (active) nonconference rivalry in college basketball got a little more interesting than usual when Louisville's latest scandal resulted in Rick Pitino's ouster. Projections for the Cardinals have bounced around like a lottery ping-pong ball for the past seven months, but this has always been a "throw out the records" type of game. Maybe it'll be a showdown between Top 10 teams, but even if Louisville crashes and burns for the first seven weeks of the season, you better believe the Cardinals will get up for this one.
1. Champions Classic (Nov. 14 in Chicago)
Yes, I know the Champions Classic is two games, but, come on; you're not watching one without watching the other. Unless something outlandish happens on opening weekend to shake up the top of the polls, it'll be No. 5 Kentucky vs. No. 4 Kansas and No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 1 Duke. Though these teams are nothing close to the finished products they will be in March, this is the closest we'll get to a Final Four preview.
Then again, that's what we thought in 2013 when all four teams were ranked in the AP Top Five for the Champions Classic and then not one of them ended up with a No. 1 seed in the dance. But regardless of where these teams are headed, this is always a fun night of iconic programs with dozens of NBA scouts in attendance to watch a good chunk of the best players in the country.
When I ranked all 32 conferences less than two weeks ago, I had the SEC at No. 2. However, the margin between Nos. 2-5 was extremely slim, and we have since learned that Alabama's Collin Sexton has been ruled ineligible and two of Auburn's top players (Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy) are being held out of games indefinitely. That's a massive blow for 14 percent of the teams in this league, which was more than enough to warrant the drop to No. 5. Still, Kentucky, Florida and Texas A&M are legitimate threats to win it all, and we can't rule out a big year from Missouri.
4. Big Ten
Outside of Michigan State, the Big Ten doesn't have any real title contenders. Minnesota, Northwestern and Purdue all open the season ranked in the Top 20, but preseason title odds would suggest no one's really buying any of those teams. Basically, this league is the Spartans and a whole bunch of question marks. Teams projected Nos. 2-9 are almost entirely interchangeable. That bodes well for getting a lot of Big Ten squads into the NCAA tournament, but MSU might be the only one seeded No. 5 or better.
3. Big 12
With all due respect to TCU, it's a testament to the slight drop in overall strength in the Big 12 that the Horned Frogs are just about unanimously expected to finish in the top four this year. Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Kansas State are likely all headed for disappointing seasons. But Texas and Oklahoma should be back in business, and both Kansas and West Virginia remain Top 10 good. Mark the Big 12 down for six or seven bids, per usual.
2. Big East
Georgetown and DePaul will be bad, but every other team in the Big East has a lot of potential. Even St. John's is going to be a factor in the NCAA tournament race this year. As with Kansas in the Big 12, this is still Villanova's conference to lose. However, that second tier is growing larger and catching up with the Wildcats.
The ACC isn't anywhere near as deep as it was last season, when nine teams got into the NCAA tournament and three others were right on the bubble until the bitter end. However, this league has five of the Top 16 teams in the preseason AP poll, and I would even argue Virginia has a shot at reaching the Final Four. Maybe the ACC won't produce the national champion, but there are going to be heavyweight battles in this conference on a weekly basis.
National Championship Favorites
5. Kansas Jayhawks/Villanova Wildcats/North Carolina Tar Heels
It feels like there are three title favorites, one team that's a serious threat if most of its freshmen pan out and then a bunch of "Sure, they could win it all" candidates that aren't necessarily favorites. That's where these three teams reside, because they each have outstanding, veteran guard play and massive question marks when it comes to frontcourt depth. But if they can find a way to address their lack of established big men, they'll be among the top picks for the title.
4. Kentucky Wildcats
The aforementioned freshman-filled enigma, Kentucky, has the recruiting stars to contend for a national championship, but will it all come together to create one cohesive front-runner? Our guess is Hamidou Diallo and Kevin Knox will battle for leading scorer in a starting five otherwise consisting of Quade Green, Wenyen Gabriel and Nick Richards, but there are options aplenty for head coach John Calipari to tinker with.
3. Arizona Wildcats
Two gigantic questions facing Arizona: When will Rawle Alkins return from foot surgery, and how will he look when he's back in action? And will the Wildcats get through the season without any complications from their connection to the FBI investigation? At full strength and eligibility, Arizona has more than enough pieces to win it all. There's just no telling if it'll get to play at that capacity.
2. Michigan State Spartans
The Spartans are loaded. Tom Izzo's recruiting M.O. for so many years was to bring in guys talented enough to become stars by their junior season, but not so talented that they leave before then. But he has finally jumped on the elite prospects bandwagon for what might be a starting five consisting of four sophomores and a freshman. And the Spartans have veteran depth at all five positions, which should keep everyone fresh through the marathon of a full season.
1. Duke Blue Devils
Duke doesn't have anywhere near as much depth as Michigan State or Arizona, but the star power here is ridiculous. Gary Trent Jr. might be a lottery pick, but he also might be the least-utilized starter on this roster. If Grayson Allen can return to sophomore-year form and if Marvin Bagley III is as incredible as advertised, Duke will be the team to beat.
5 End-of-Year Predictions
5. Jamie Dixon is named National Coach of the Year
No, TCU won't dethrone Kansas in the Big 12. But the Horned Frogs will put up a valiant fight. They'll possibly finish third in the league en route to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1998. Dixon got the party started with a 24-15 record and NIT championship last season, but he's going to get a lot of national love by taking TCU to the dance.
4. Oakland is this year's "Cinderella" team
There are several great candidates for this pick, including College of Charleston, Nevada, Vermont and UNC-Asheville. However, Oakland is my selection for the team from a one-bid league that reaches the Sweet 16. The Golden Grizzlies have two returning players (Martez Walker and Jalen Hayes) who combined to average 33.7 points per game last year, and they're adding Kendrick Nunn, who put up 15.5 points per game with Illinois in 2015-16. That three-headed monster will shred through the Horizon League before it causes problems for some poor No. 4 and No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament.
3. Wichita State reaches the Final Four
Should the Shockers end up in the same region as my pick to win the national championship, this prediction is effectively nullified. But assuming the bracket allows it, I love Wichita State's chances at a deep run. By moving from the MVC to the AAC, the Shockers will end up with a drastically better resume than usual and with a roster that is accustomed to facing high-major competition for a change.
It's amazing that Gregg Marshall was consistently able to get his guys ready for games against the likes of Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, Arizona and others after sleepwalking through the regular season against inferior competition. Battles with Cincinnati, SMU and Connecticut will make Wichita State more refined by fire than ever before.
2. Jalen Brunson wins the Wooden Award
This award doesn't always go to the best player, but rather to the one perceived to be most valuable. And when Villanova wins the Big East by a multiple-game margin for a fifth consecutive season—despite losing Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins to graduation—the national love affair with Jalen Brunson is going to be out of control. Plus, the Wooden Award panel owes one to Villanova for not giving the award to Hart last year.
1. Duke wins the national championship
I know it's not a bold prediction to pick the preseason favorite to win it all, but it only makes sense to go with the projected No. 1 overall seed, right? Duke has five likely first-round draft picks in its starting lineup, and a potential sixth off the bench if Marques Bolden can tap into his potential as a sophomore. One injury—particularly one to Trevon Duval—could derail the Blue Devils' season. But if they got all the injuries out of their system in 2016-17, they'll cut down the nets in April 2018.