6 Hot Takes We're Buying at Tipoff of the 2018-19 College Basketball Season
It isn't easy to come up with preseason hot takes about a sport with no actual preseason, but that didn't stop us from trying for the 2018-19 men's college basketball campaign.
Could Vanderbilt be a threat to win the SEC?
Should Memphis be the favorite in the AAC with Penny Hardaway running the show?
Are four of the 10 most successful programs of the 2010s destined for mediocrity?
Does the best hope for an undefeated season fall on a program that has never played in an Elite Eight?
If you're expecting anything other than a resounding yes to each of those questions, crack a window before it gets too hot in here.
Arizona, Louisville, Saint Mary's and Wichita St. Will All Miss NCAA Tournament
Dating back to the 2010-11 season, Arizona, Louisville, Saint Mary's and Wichita State have been four of the 10 winningest programs in college basketball. All four have won at least 21 games in each of the past eight seasons.
But it wouldn't be a surprise if all four fall shy of that mark this year.
Arizona lost all five of its leading scorers and didn't add any can't-miss stars to replace them. Transfers Chase Jeter, Ryan Luther and Justin Coleman could all make a difference. Sean Miller did sign three 4-star players who could contribute immediately. And Emmanuel Akot, Ira Lee and Brandon Randolph all have breakout potential. But they aren't packing anywhere near the punch they usually do. Plus, there's no telling what negative impact the FBI situation will have here.
Louisville also has that FBI stigma in addition to losing four out of five starters. The only exception is V.J. King, who in two seasons has yet to live up to his recruiting hype. The Cardinals have to hope the veterans they added this offseason will all be great. Fifth-year seniors Christen Cunningham and Khwan Fore and sixth-year senior Akoy Agau aren't high on the list of the nation's best transfers, though.
Saint Mary's avoided any implication in the shoe-company scandal, but it was gutted by offseason departures. Jock Landale, Emmett Naar, Calvin Hermanson, Evan Fitzner and Cullen Neal are all gone, leaving the Gaels with sophomores Jordan Ford and Tanner Krebs and a slew of question marks. Big man Aaron Menzies is an intriguing acquisition as a grad transfer from Seattle. But even if he fills Landale's void, there's still the big issue of the other four vacancies.
Wichita State lost eight of its nine leading scorers, thanks to Landry Shamet going pro and Austin Reaves transferring to Oklahoma. The Shockers should have a solid inside-outside duo in Samajae Haynes-Jones and Markis McDuffie, and West Virginia transfer Teddy Allen would be a nice addition if he gets granted a waiver for immediate eligibility. But beyond those three, no player on the roster has more than 11 career points at the D-I level.
It figures to be a rough season for four programs we've grown accustomed to seeing in the AP Top 25 year after year.
Bol Bol Is the Biggest Boom-or-Bust Player in the Country
Oregon big man Bol Bol has highest ceiling of any incoming freshman this season.
Bol falls into the Kristaps Porzingis mold of a shot-blocking big man with legitimate three-point range. Bol can practically dunk flat-footed, but his shooting ability will make him lethal. He's rail thin and will likely get pushed around in the paint by bulkier centers, though he can step out and hit triples when necessary.
When he's cooking, the only player in the country talented enough to slow down Bol is Bol. That puts him on the short list of viable candidates to become the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA draft.
There's also serious bust potential.
Every scouting report on Bol expresses major concerns about his motor. Some attribute it to boredom since he has the physical tools to destroy high school competition in his sleep. The hope is that he'll become more engaged once he's challenged on a semi-regular basis.
But what if he never flips that switch and continues to coast through games? What if he struggles to pack on weight/muscle and maintains the physique of a beanpole who would get broken in half in the NBA? Or worse, what if he shoots around 30 percent from three-point range and leaves NBA teams questioning where they can play him on offense?
Oregon is expected to win the Pac-12 in large part because of Bol, which makes him perhaps the nation's biggest X-factor this season.
Vanderbilt Is Best Team No One Is Talking About
Three years ago, California—which had missed three of the previous five NCAA tournaments—signed two of the best recruits in the country (Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb) and instantly became a title contender. Though the Golden Bears never quite lived up to the hype, they debuted at No. 14 in the AP poll and earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Vanderbilt is in a similar position this year, yet it did not receive a single preseason AP Top 25 vote.
Granted, that Cal team added two great pieces to a group that already had Tyrone Wallace, Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews returning as upperclassmen. That's far better than Vanderbilt's group of holdovers, which is sophomore Saben Lee...and that's about it. Maybe Clevon Brown will fulfill his 4-star potential this year, but he didn't show much in his first two seasons.
Nonetheless, Bryce Drew signed a pair of 5-star McDonald's All-Americans in Simi Shittu and Darius Garland. The former is a prototypical modern-day 4, prized for his fluidity, versatility and wingspan. The latter might be the best point guard in this year's class. Were it not for those two, the third member of Vanderbilt's freshman trio (SG Aaron Nesmith) would have been the program's highest-rated enrollee since 2011.
In most years, Vanderbilt's recruiting class ranks somewhere around 13th in the SEC. This year, it's No. 13 in the country. Factor in Notre Dame transfer Matt Ryan—a gifted shooter who had trouble finding playing time behind Bonzie Colson and V.J. Beachem—and Vanderbilt has its most talented starting five in a while.
Maybe 2019-20 is actually Vandy's breakthrough year. There's only one senior on this year's roster (Joe Toye), and both Shittu and Garland are in that "probably could go pro after one year, but not guaranteed one-and-done" range of the recruiting rankings. But this team has the talent to compete this year, even in a loaded SEC.
Tennessee and Texas Tech both earned No. 3 seeds in last year's NCAA tournament after not receiving a single preseason AP vote. It wouldn't be unprecedented for Vanderbilt to make some noise this year.
Penny Hardaway Is Going to Turn Memphis Around Overnight
It's been a long, rough decade for Memphis fans.
John Calipari's tenure as head coach ended in 2009, following four consecutive trips to the Sweet 16 or beyond as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. Memphis finished all four of those seasons ranked in the Top 5 of the AP poll, becoming a national juggernaut out of Conference USA.
Since then, the Tigers are 2-4 in the NCAA tournament, have missed the Big Dance in each of the last four years and have run both Josh Pastner and Tubby Smith out of town due to ineffectiveness.
Memphis still has the talent to be relevant. It just needs better leadership from the sideline. And Penny Hardaway is poised to be that guy.
He doesn't have any coaching experience at the college level, but unlike Patrick Ewing's return to Georgetown or Chris Mullins' homecoming at St. John's—each of whom held various NBA jobs for more than a decade before going back to the college game—Hardaway has spent the past seven years at the middle school, high school and AAU levels.
Before leading a single practice with the Tigers, he already had exponentially more recruiting pull than Smith held in Memphis over the previous two years.
As a result, Memphis has the best recruiting class in the AAC by a wide margin. Hardaway snared a pair of 4-star guards in Antwann Jones and Tyler Harris and also signed high 3-stars Alex Lomax and Ryan Boyce. (Hardaway coached Lomax and Boyce to three consecutive state titles at East High School.)
In addition to a strong crop of freshmen, Memphis is loaded with quality seniors. Jeremiah Martin is the undisputed star of the bunch, but he, Kyvon Davenport, Kareem Brewton Jr., Mike Parks. Jr. and Raynere Thornton combined to score 54.8 points per game last season. Thornton ranked seventh on the team in scoring average, but the other four led the 21-win Tigers in points scored.
Factoring in the "others receiving votes," the AAC did not place a single team in the top 33 of the preseason AP poll. Cincinnati, Houston and UCF all have potential, but they are no guarantee to be great. Wichita State is likely headed for its worst season in a decade. And who knows what Connecticut will accomplish in Dan Hurley's first season as head coach?
As a result, there's a non-zero chance that Hardaway immediately leads Memphis to an AAC title and the NCAA tournament. And that's just the beginning of bringing this program back from the dead.
Nevada Is the Biggest Threat to Go 40-0
Nevada has never won a national championship.
In fact, the Wolf Pack have never played in a championship game. Nor a Final Four game. Nor an Elite Eight game.
But how could anyone look at this roster and see anything other than title potential?
Nevada has six seniors on its roster who averaged at least 13 points per game in their most recent season. Caleb Martin, Cody Martin and Jordan Caroline did so with the Wolf Pack, while Corey Henson (Wagner), Trey Porter (Old Dominion) and Tre'Shawn Thurman (Omaha) did it before they transferred to Reno.
The Wolf Pack also have a seventh senior who might be the most important piece of all: PG Lindsey Drew. He has always been more of a facilitator than a self-server who hunts his own shot, but isn't that what you need on a team otherwise loaded with scorers?
And those are just the seniors. There's also McDonald's All-American freshman big man Jordan Brown, as well as juniors Jazz Johnson (Portland) and Nisre Zouzoua (Bryant), who combined for 36.1 points per game in 2016-17.
That's a total of 10 players with either proven collegiate production or an absurd amount of potential. Even if a few of them suffer injuries or otherwise struggle, Nevada has arguably the deepest team in the country.
The Wolf Pack will be taking that loaded roster up against one of the weakest schedules imaginable.
Road games against Loyola-Chicago, USC and Utah should provide a bit of a challenge, but Nevada will not face a single preseason AP Top 25 team nor a team in the preseason KenPom Top 50 until at least the NCAA tournament.
Whether they'll be battle-tested enough to beat that caliber of opponent at that time is a valid question, but the Wolf Pack have a decent chance of at least starting the tournament with a 34-0 record.
Transfers Will Determine the National Champion
Transfers have been a huge part of the college basketball landscape for a while now.
This year, they feel more important than ever before, as six of the teams in the AP Top 9 are putting a ton of faith in new transfers.
No. 1 Kansas might have a transfer leading the team in all five categories. Dedric Lawson will be a phenom in the paint on both ends of the floor, Charlie Moore might be the primary point guard, and don't rule out a big year from K.J. Lawson. If the Jayhawks win the title, all three of those transfers will be a big part of it.
No. 2 Kentucky became a much more legitimate threat to win it all when it added some veteran experience in the form of Stanford transfer Reid Travis.
No. 3 Gonzaga will rely on San Jose State transfer Brandon Clarke and North Dakota transfer Geno Crandall as pivotal pieces of the primary rotation, especially until Killian Tillie returns from surgery to repair a stress fracture in his ankle.
No. 5 Virginia is hopeful that Alabama transfer Braxton Key can become the new Isaiah Wilkins of the pack-line D.
No. 9 Villanova expects former transfer Eric Paschall to become a star, and new Albany transfer Joe Cremo should be a key addition as a sharpshooter.
And No. 7 Nevada has been built almost entirely out of transfers.
Don't call it an epidemic, but it sure is a widespread phenomenon. Unless you have Duke, North Carolina, Tennessee and Michigan State in the Final Four, the national semifinals figure to be loaded with starters who began their college careers elsewhere.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.