10 Bold Predictions for College Basketball for the New Year

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJanuary 4, 2018

10 Bold Predictions for College Basketball for the New Year

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    Tra Holder
    Tra HolderRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    While some people are already giving up on their New Year's resolutions, we're storming into 2018 with bold predictions for the remaining three months of the men's college basketball season.

    Oftentimes, writers will promise you bold predictions, only to offer up half-hearted suggestions on things that no one cares about.

    If that's what you're used to, buckle up, because I'm here to tell you that Trae Young isn't winning the John Wooden Award, five or more lengthy NCAA tournament droughts will be broken and Arizona State is going to be the No. 1 overall seed on Selection Sunday.

    And as a reward for actually reading the intro, here are two bonus predictions that didn't quite make the cut:

    • Minnesota's Jordan Murphy is going to shatter the NCAA record for double-doubles in a season, which is 31 by David Robinson in 1985-86.
    • Wofford's Fletcher Magee will break the NCAA record for made three-pointers in a season, which is 162 by Stephen Curry in 2007-08.

    These predictions are in no particular order, outside of saving the one about the national championship until the end.

Notre Dame Loses at Least 10 ACC Games, Misses Tournament

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    Bonzie Colson
    Bonzie ColsonRobert Franklin/Associated Press

    Even before Tuesday's news that Bonzie Colson will miss up to eight weeks due to a foot fracture, there was cause for concern for Notre Dame.

    The Fighting Irish did not have a great showing in nonconference play. The neutral-court win over Wichita State was nice, but they needed to come back from a 16-point deficit against a team that frankly hasn't been anywhere near as good as expected.

    Aside from that, Notre Dame's best win of the season was probably a neutral-court game against LSU, which isn't even in the RPI top 100. Factor in the blowout loss to Michigan State as well as the bad losses to Ball State and Indiana, and this resume is anything but pretty.

    Now without Colson, Notre Dame is going to crash and burn in ACC play after losing its star player for the second time in five years.

    In 2013-14, the Fighting Irish lost Jerian Grant after 12 games due to an academic issue. They did manage to upset Duke in one of their first contests without him, but they went 5-13 the rest of the way and didn't even come close to reaching the NCAA tournament.

    And Colson is far more important to this year's roster than Grant was.

    Colson is leading Notre Dame in points, rebounds and steals, and he has blocked more shots (33) than the rest of the team combined (32). Virtually everything on both ends of the floor runs through the man sitting at No. 2 in the KenPom.com Player of the Year standings.

    With all due respect to John Mooney and Elijah Burns, you simply cannot replace a guy like Colson. The Irish may tread water for a few days, but they'll drown during the five-game stretch against North Carolina, Louisville, Clemson, Virginia Tech and Duke later this month, finishing with a sub-.500 ACC record.

Wisconsin Rallies for Yet Another Top-4 Finish in the Big Ten

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    Ethan Happ
    Ethan HappDylan Buell/Getty Images

    If you weren't paying attention for the first month of the season, this prediction might seem like the furthest thing from bold. Wisconsin has finished in the top four of the Big Ten standings in each of the last 17 years. It's not quite Kansas winning 13 consecutive Big 12 regular-season titles, but it has gotten to the point where projecting anything other than a top-four finish for Wisconsin is a fool's errand.

    But the Badgers had a brutal start to the season, losing seven of their first 11 games. Were it not for the one-point wins over Penn State and Western Kentucky, Wisconsin would have been 3-9, as well as dead and buried.

    Here's the thing, though: The Badgers scheduled too aggressively, given their lack of experience.

    Ethan Happ is an outstanding player. The junior was a consensus top-25 player in the preseason, and most viewed him as one of the top 10 candidates to win the Wooden Award. Though he hasn't quite lived up to that hype, he has been playing well, averaging 17.1 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game.

    The rest of the roster is painfully young, ranking 335th in experience, per KenPom. With so many first- and second-year players logging a ton of minutes, Wisconsin should have eased its way into the season with more nonconference cupcakes than usual. Instead, the Badgers played Xavier, Virginia, UCLA and Baylor before the end of November, racking up loss after loss.

    Since enduring those growing pains, Wisconsin has looked like a better team, reeling off five straight wins, including a home victory over Indiana on Tuesday to improve to 2-1 in Big Ten play.

    The biggest reason this prediction will come true is that Wisconsin's conference schedule is easier than its nonconference schedule.

    The Badgers do play four games against Michigan State and Purdue and may well lose all of those. But a 10-8 record should be good enough for a top-four finish this year, which would mean finishing 8-3. This isn't Wisconsin's best season by any means, but this team is certainly capable of accomplishing that.

DePaul and Georgetown Combine for 4 Wins in Big East Play

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    Marin Maric
    Marin MaricGary Landers/Associated Press

    Allow me to clarify from the start that this prediction is for four total wins in Big East play for DePaul and Georgetown, which includes the two games against each other. In other words, the Hoyas and Blue Demons will go a combined 2-30 against the rest of the Big East.

    Excluding Georgetown's victory at DePaul on Tuesday, these teams are a combined 0-10 against the KenPom top 200. Between the two of them, the most impressive win of the season was probably Georgetown's road win over Richmond, which is 3-10.

    There were some close calls along the way. Georgetown pushed both Syracuse and Butler to overtime. DePaul did the same against Oregon and nearly beat Northwestern and Xavier. But in the end, they were just five losses, because these teams aren't good and don't know how to close out games against quality opponents.

    Moreover, each of the top eight teams in the Big East has NCAA tournament aspirations, a few of which legitimately could reach the Final Four. It will inevitably happen once or twice, but it's hard to imagine any of them slipping up and taking a bad loss against DePaul or Georgetown.

    In leagues like the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12, there's more of a basement. This puts Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Washington State in much better position to steal a few conference wins, even though they're arguably worse than both DePaul and Georgetown. In the Big East, though, KenPom projected DePaul to lose every remaining game and gives Georgetown just a 51 percent chance of winning home games against St. John's and Providence.

A Double-Digit Seed Reaches SEC Championship Game

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    Tyree Crump
    Tyree CrumpWesley Hitt/Getty Images

    The divide between the top and the bottom of the SEC is narrower than in any other league. Per KenPom, no SEC team will finish better than 12-6 and none will finish worse than 7-11.

    Conference play is only a few days old, and we have already seen a handful of wild results.

    Texas A&M is playing without several starters due to injury or suspension, but the supposed best team in the league is already 0-2 with a pair of blowout losses to Alabama and Florida. The Aggies are sharing the basement with Tennessee, who was ranked in the AP Top 20 before losses to Arkansas and Auburn. Kentucky darn near lost a home game to Georgia. And Alabama somehow managed to lose to Vanderbilt just three days after the aforementioned shellacking of A&M.

    In college basketball, it always feels like anything can happen on any given night. This is my sixth season covering this glorious sport for Bleacher Report, and I've probably spent 85 percent of that time scratching my head over unforeseeable outcomes.

    But even in a world when randomness is the norm, it seems like the SEC is going to be especially wacky—and that will carry over into the conference tournament.

    Based on KenPom rankings, the five worst teams in the SEC are Ole Miss, LSU, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Georgia. In theory, those should be the double-digit seeds in the SEC tournament. Any one of those teamsparticularly the two Bulldogscould string together the necessary three or four consecutive wins to reach the conference title game.

    It'll be a heartburn-inducing mess for bracketologists, but we wouldn't have it any other way.

At Least 5 Teams Reach Big Dance for 1st Time in 2010s

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    Kenrich Williams (34) and Desmond Bane (1)
    Kenrich Williams (34) and Desmond Bane (1)Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    The big story heading into last year's March Madness was Northwestern finally ending its eternal NCAA drought. It took nearly eight decades, but the Wildcats finally got to go dancingand nearly upset Gonzaga in the process.

    This year, though, instead of one team ending a big drought, it's going to be a bunch of teams ending smaller ones.

    There are three schools in great shape to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since before 2010.

    Both Auburn and Mississippi State improved to 13-1 with wins over ranked teams on Tuesday night. The Bulldogs haven't been to the Big Dance since 2009 and the Tigers haven't gotten there since 2003, but they are looking good in the SEC. Auburn's nonconference schedule was drastically more impressive than Mississippi State's, putting the Tigers in better shape than the Bulldogs. However, they're both in a position to pull it off if they can just win eight or nine more games before Selection Sunday on March 11.

    Meanwhile, TCU also got to 13-1 on Tuesday with a road win over Baylor. It has been two decades since the Horned Frogs last earned a spot in the NCAA tournament, but it should only be a matter of time before they punch their ticket. Heck, they might even be the team responsible for ending Kansas' 13-year run as Big 12 champs.

    Those are the gimmes, though. What makes this a bold prediction is saying at least two other teams will join them.

    One of the top candidates is UCF, which last danced in 2005. Led by Tacko Fall, the Knights have one of the best defenses in the nation. They are a nightmare on offense, but that will get better if and when B.J. Taylor returns from injury. That better be soon, though, because the road win over Alabama isn't enough to buoy a resume with more than four or five AAC losses.

    Another candidate is Boston College, which last danced in 2009. The Eagles already have a marquee win over Duke, and they were one point away from a huge road win over Virginia. Unfortunately, they have a horrendous nonconference resume and will need to do some serious damage in ACC play to earn a bid, but this is easily the best version of BC in the past seven years.

    And then there are the candidates from likely one-bid leagues, of which Missouri State (1999), Texas-Arlington (2008) and Furman (1980) have the best shot at ending NCAA droughts.

Trae Young Does Not Win the Wooden Award

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    Richard W. Rodriguez/Associated Press

    In most seasons, proclaiming in early January that someone will not win the Wooden Award is about as bold as decaf breakfast blend coffee.

    Of course, most seasons don't have Trae Young.

    Oklahoma's freshman point guard is leading the nation in both points and assists, and by no slim margin. As of Wednesday morning, he was averaging 16.8 percent more points per game than any other player and an identical percentage more assists than the next closest challenger.

    Assuming Kendrick Nunn of Oakland and Emmett Naar of Saint Mary's maintain their averages at No. 2 in points per game and assists per game, respectively, Young could have zero points and zero assists in each of his next two games, and he would still lead the nation in points per game and assists per game. It's downright absurd how much more impressive he has been than everyone else.

    If there is anyone currently ranking someone other than Young as the top player in the country, please let us know, because that person clearly needs to be placed into concussion protocol.

    But are we sure Oklahoma will be good enough for Young to take home the sport's most prestigious individual honor?

    Each of the last 12 Wooden Award male recipients played for a team that earned a No. 4 seed or better in the NCAA tournament, but the Sooners have a lot of difficult games remaining on their schedule. They would certainly be good enough for a top-four seed today, but that might not be the case after running the Big 12 gauntlet for two months.

    Should Oklahoma slip to the No. 6 or No. 7 seed line, it's going to open the door for a guy like Marvin Bagley III, Jalen Brunson or Miles Bridges to swoop in and steal the Wooden as the best member of one of the top contenders for the national championship.

    For what it's worth, I will be frantically rooting against this bold prediction. Young has single-handedly gotten casual fans excited about the first half of the college basketball season, which never happens. I want nothing more than to see him continue to put up ridiculous numbers for a team that makes a run to the Final Four. We need a great story like that to make up for all the FBI talk at the beginning of the season.

The West Coast Conference Is a 1-Bid League

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    Mark Few and Jacob Larsen
    Mark Few and Jacob LarsenYoung Kwak/Associated Press

    The West Coast Conference has sent multiple teams to the NCAA tournament in five of the past six seasons. Gonzaga has been invited to the Big Dance 19 consecutive times. Both Saint Mary's and the Zags were ranked in the preseason AP Top 25. Top challengers BYU and San Diego have a combined record of 23-6. And major conferences like the Pac-12 and Big Ten appear to be destined for fewer bids than usual.

    Yet, the WCC conference tournament champion will be the only team representing this league in the NCAA tournament.

    The resumes just aren't there this year.

    Gonzaga's best wins came on a neutral court against Texas and Ohio State, neither of which is anything close to a lock for the NCAA tournament. Coupled with a bad loss to San Diego State and a blowout loss to Villanova, this is a far cry from the "might be a No. 1 seed if it runs the table in WCC play" type of synopsis that Gonzaga usually carries into January.

    Saint Mary's isn't in any better shape. The Wooden Legacy was the one opportunity for the Gaels to make up for a weak nonconference strength of schedule, and they proceeded to go 1-2 with an awful loss to Washington State. By the end of November, virtually everyone had already come to the conclusion that Saint Mary's either needs to beat Gonzaga twice during the regular season or once in the conference tournament championship to reach the NCAA tournament.

    Honestly, BYU might have had the most impressive nonconference run, beating Utah and Illinois State and winning a road game against Utah Valley. But an early home loss to Texas-Arlington keeps the Cougars out of both the RPI's and KenPom's top 50. If they end up going 0-4 against the Zags and Gaels, they'll likely drop out of the top 100 in both.

    If Gonzaga and Saint Mary's both go 17-1, splitting the season series with each other before meeting in the WCC championship game, maybe the runner-up would receive a bid. Based on what we've seen from those teams, though, it's hard to believe that neither one will slip up at any point in the next two months. And they are both one bad loss away from "auto bid or bust."

9 of 10 Big 12 Teams Make the NCAA Tournament

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    Mohamed Bamba
    Mohamed BambaJoe Robbins/Getty Images

    During the nonconference portion of the season, the Big 12 had a combined record of 101-16. Only one of those losses (Iowa State vs. Milwaukee) came against a team outside the RPI top 100. And 14 of the 101 wins came against teams in the RPI top 50.

    Long story short, this league is outstanding from top to bottom. Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma State don't have great RPI and strength-of-schedule numbers, but after 18 conference games—and one more noteworthy nonconference game in the SEC-B12 Challenge—those ratings will inevitably improve.

    It's entirely possible that all 10 teams in this conference finish the year in the RPI top 50, which is going to mean a ridiculous number of Group 1 and Group 2 games for everyone.

    For a few weeks, I thought it might be possible for all 10 teams to reach the NCAA tournament. I'm backing away from that bold prediction but still staying that nine teams get in. Ninety percent of a conference getting into the NCAA tournament would be a record, so, yes, it's still a bold prediction.

    Following home losses to Kansas State and Texas, it's looking like Iowa State will be the one team left in the lurch. Given all that the Cyclones lost from last season, that's no big surprise. The good news for the rest of the Big 12 is that Iowa State managed to pick up wins over Boise State, Iowa, Tulsa and Northern Iowa, which will help keep this resume looking decent, even if the Cyclones fail to win a single conference game.

    Given how well everyone fared in nonconference play, a 7-11 record in this conference should be good enough for a spot in the field. Maybe Baylor and Kansas State would need to go at least 8-10 to make up for their brutal NC SOS, but it is certainly mathematically possibleespecially if a 12-6 record is good enough to win the Big 12 this year, as many have suggested recently.

Arizona State Gets the No. 1 Overall Seed

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    Bobby Hurley
    Bobby HurleyRalph Freso/Associated Press

    If Arizona had this exact same resume and remaining schedule, this would not be a bold prediction. It would practically be a foregone conclusion.

    But because Arizona State has won a grand total of two NCAA tournament games since 1995 and has not received better than a No. 5 seed since 1981, it might be a bit jarring to see it suggested that the Sun Devils could be the No. 1 overall seed a little over two months from now.

    Get used to it, though, because Bobby Hurley's guys aren't going anywhere, and Arizona State already has one of the best resumes in the nation.

    It started with a 22-point home win over San Diego State. Though the Aztecs aren't as good as they were a few years ago, they do have wins over Gonzaga and Georgia and are nothing close to a pushover. Blowing out a team that usually has one of the better defenses in the country is always an impressive feat.

    Then the Sun Devils won the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational, squeaking by Kansas State before stomping Xavier by a 16-point margin on a neutral court. Given the location and margin, that's arguably the most impressive win by any team thus far in 2017-18.

    Arizona State followed it up with a neutral-court win over St. John's and a road win over Kansas. Obviously, the latter is the more impressive of the two. However, the game against the Red Storm is worth noting, because it came right down to the wire and it finished roughly 40 hours before the start of the game against Kansas. That type of performance in a quick turnaround in a hostile environment speaks volumes for what this team might be able to do in March.

    And the Sun Devils should not lose another game during the regular season. They already played (and almost won) their road game at Arizona. They don't play a road game against UCLA or USC. And there's no one else in this conference worth mentioning right now.

    Maybe they slip up once along the way. Maybe they also fall short of winning the Pac-12 tournament. But if they can get to 30-3 with no bad losses and all those aforementioned quality nonconference victories, they'll have a strong case for the No. 1 overall seed.

A Head Coach Wins His 1st National Championship

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    Chris Mack
    Chris MackJohn Minchillo/Associated Press

    Right now, the three clear favorites to win the 2018 national championship are Duke, Michigan State and Villanova. All three have been in the top five of the AP Top 25 in every in-season poll, and they are the only teams receiving first-place votes.

    One other thing those three teams have in common is a head coach who has already won at least one national championship.

    So, yeah, this is a bold prediction that this year's NCAA tournament is not won by Duke, Michigan State or Villanova. Moreover, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Syracuse, Connecticut and Memphis will not win it all, since they also have head coaches with a national championship on their resume.

    Who does that leave?

    For starters, Bobby Hurley and Arizona State. If I'm predicting the Sun Devils to be the No. 1 overall seed, they're an obvious candidate to win it all.

    In-state rival Sean Miller and Arizona are certainly at the top of the list, as well. The trio of Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins and Deandre Ayton is arguably the best in the entire country, and the Wildcats have been surging since their disappointing showing in the Battle 4 Atlantis.

    Miller's former school, Xavier, also has a great team and a head coach (Chris Mack) seeking his first title. Trevon Bluiett and Co. had a nice run to the 2017 Elite Eight, and they are ready for more.

    Oklahoma (Lon Kruger), Wichita State (Gregg Marshall), Virginia (Tony Bennett), Purdue (Matt Painter), Texas A&M (Billy Kennedy) and Florida (Mike White) also have championship-less coaches on the short list of legitimate candidates to win the 2018 title.

    I'll even go one step further and say that will be two coaches who reach the Final Four for the first time. Marshall and Kruger have each gotten that far before, but every other coach just mentioned has yet to appear in a national semifinal.

                              

    Kerry Miller covers men's basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.