10 Bold College Basketball Predictions for the New Year

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJanuary 2, 2019

10 Bold College Basketball Predictions for the New Year

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    Duke's Zion Williamson and Mike Krzyzewski
    Duke's Zion Williamson and Mike KrzyzewskiGerry Broome/Associated Press

    Let's storm into 2019 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 assumptions on things no one cares about.

    If that's what you're used to, buckle up, because I'm here to tell you Duke isn't winning the ACC, the MAC will get more NCAA tournament bids than the Pac-12 and a certain cursed program is going to win the national championship.

    These aren't hot takes, though. They are rational opinions that may well go horribly awry. But if even two of the 10 come to fruition, the rest of this season is going to get wild.

Nevada Enters NCAA Tournament with No Losses

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    Cody Martin
    Cody MartinMarcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    This might not seem like a bold prediction, but as far as the math is concerned, it's far more likely Nevada will suffer at least one loss than run the table.

    According to KenPom, the Wolf Pack have a 12.8 percent chance of winning all 18 of their regular-season Mountain West Conference games. Factor in the TBD opponents in the MWC tournament, and it's probably more like 8 percent. That puts Nevada's odds of going 34-0 roughly on par with the likelihood of rolling a 10 with a pair of dice.

    Those odds are much better than when the season began but still not great.

    Nevada will be favored to win each individual game on that journey. In fact, aside from the road games against Fresno State and Utah State, KenPom projects the Wolf Pack have at least an 80 percent chance of winning each remaining game. For 11 of their 18 conference games, the percent chance of victory is at least 92.

    But that still leaves seven games with a little bit of uncertainty. And even a 90 percent free-throw shooter is probably going to miss one if forced to shoot 21 in a row.

    This team is so experienced and versatile that it should be able to defy the odds and accomplish the mission. Stud freshman Jordan Brown is only going to get better as the season progresses, and Caleb Martin is a better shooter than he has shown thus far. The Wolf Pack should improve, and they'll do so against the weaker two-thirds of their schedule. That's the formula for a long winning streak.

The Pac-12 Does Not Receive a Single At-Large Bid

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    Luguentz Dort
    Luguentz DortDavid Becker/Getty Images

    The Pac-12 has sent multiple teams to the NCAA tournament every year since first expanding to the Pac-10 in 1978. In 28 of the past 30 seasons, at least three teams from this conference went dancing. And since expanding to 12 teams at the beginning of this decade, the Pac-12 has averaged 4.4 NCAA bids.

    But this league is a shell of its usual self.

    Arizona State is good. It almost beat Nevada. It did beat Kansas and Mississippi State. Luguentz Dort is playing like a potential lottery pick. And the frontcourt trio of Romello White, Zylan Cheatham and De'Quon Lake is dominating on the glass. Despite the recent home loss to Princeton, the Sun Devils should be an NCAA tournament team.

    If they win the Pac-12 tournament and earn the conference's automatic bid, though, there might not be another resume worthy of an at-large bid.

    California and Washington State are just plain bad and might be the two worst power-conference teams in the country this season. Neither Utah nor Stanford is much better. UCLA and USC have been colossal disappointments and currently have a 1-11 record against KenPom top-100 teams. Colorado's record (9-3) looks nice, but who the heck have the Buffaloes played?

    And while there are four teams with just four losses eachArizona, Oregon, Oregon State and Washingtonthere have already been so many blown opportunities among that group that it's hard to imagine any of them playing well enough to win the necessary dozen or more conference games to make a run at winning the regular-season crown.

    Of the bunch, Arizona is probably the top candidate. It has a nice win over Iowa State and nothing (yet) that would qualify as a terrible loss. It is also playing better than expected with transfers Chase Jeter, Justin Coleman and Ryan Luther each faring well. But this is still a bubble team at best, and it probably needs to win 14 Pac-12 games to have a strong enough resume.

The MAC Sends Multiple Teams Dancing for First Time in 2 Decades

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    CJ Massinburg
    CJ MassinburgAssociated Press

    Thanks in large part to the Pac-12's woeful season, the door is wide-open for a few more mid-major teams than usual to sneak into the NCAA tournament. Down years from the American Athletic Conference and the Atlantic 10 leave the Mountain West, West Coast and Mid-American Conferences as the most likely benefactors.

    Extra bids for the WCC and/or MWC wouldn't be groundbreaking developments. The former has earned multiple bids in six of the past nine years, and the latterthough it has struggled recentlyput at least two teams in the Big Dance in 15 out of 17 years.

    But the MAC hasn't produced an at-large bid since 1999, when Wally Szczerbiak carried Miami-Ohio to the Sweet 16 after losing to Kent State in the MAC championship.

    Buffalo is a bona fide Top 25 team, boasting road wins over Syracuse and West Virginia and a neutral-site victory over San Francisco. A recent loss to Marquette ended the possibility of an undefeated season, but this team should win the MAC regular-season and conference-tournament titles, locking up a single-digit seed.

    Should the Bulls happen to slip up in the conference tournament, they'll just about be a lock for an at-large bid, provided they don't lose five or more games between now and then.

    Even if Buffalo takes care of business, though, there are other teams in the MAC worthy of at-large consideration. Toledo (No. 43), Ball State (No. 82) and Kent State (No. 97) each enter the new year in the top 100 of the NET rankings. Factor in Buffalo at No. 24, and that's four top-100 teams from the MACsame as the WCC and one more than the A-10, Conference USA or Mountain West can boast.

    Kent State probably has the best case thanks to road wins over Oregon State and Vanderbilt, but Toledo would be right there, as well, if the one-loss Rockets can score one win over Buffalo.

St. John's Wins an NCAA Tournament Game

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    Mustapha Heron
    Mustapha HeronSteven Ryan/Getty Images

    It has been a long two decades for St. John's men's basketball. The Red Storm have neither won more than 21 games in a season nor won an NCAA tournament game since 2000. And they spent more than a couple of those seasons in the basement of the Big East standings.

    This is the year they put an end to that drought. 

    Even though St. John's is located in a recruiting hotbed, most of the key contributors on this roster were not signed out of high school. Mikey Dixon came from Quinnipiac. Justin Simon got his start at Arizona. Marvin Clark spent two years at Michigan State before landing with the Johnnies. Mustapha Heron transferred from Auburn this offseason. And LJ Figueroa was playing JUCO ball one year ago. Shamorie Ponds is the only St. John's original.

    None of that really matters, but it is interesting that Chris Mullin and his coaching staff have turned a hodgepodge of former castoffs into a viable candidate to win the Big East.

    It's hard to know what to make of the Red Storm's 12-0 start to the season. They'll eventually play a February road game against Duke, but their nonconference schedule in November and December was a joke. However, they shot better than 40 percent from three-point range and forced 75 more turnovers than they committed, which is at least worth noting.

    And if there's any year for an overachieving team to rise up for a dozen or more wins in the Big East, it's this one. Xavier, DePaul and Georgetown are all struggling, and neither Villanova nor Marquette figures to run away with the league. The Red Storm should win 10 or 11 games, earn a single-digit seed in the NCAA tournament and finally play on a Saturday or Sunday for the first time in almost 20 years.

A Currently Ranked Big Ten Team Fails to Reach the NCAA Tournament

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    Tyler Cook
    Tyler CookCharlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    At this stage in the season, if you're in the AP Top 25, there is a near-100 percent chance you'll make the NCAA tournament.

    Last year, all 25 teams in the Jan. 1 AP poll made the dance. (Although, Oklahoma and Arizona State went from "Top 10" to "Photo Finish.") The year before that, only Indiana missed the tournament after appearing in the Jan. 2 AP polland the four-loss Hoosiers were tied for 25th with USC, so they didn't exactly crash and burn.

    But one of these Big Ten teams is bound to stub its toe a few too many times, right?

    It won't be No. 2 Michigan or No. 8 Michigan State. Those teams are too good. But between No. 14 Ohio State, No. 21 Indiana, No. 22 Wisconsin, No. 24 Nebraska and No. 25 Iowa, someone is going to suffer at least 10 or 11 losses in the 20-game Big Ten schedule to slip onto the wrong side of the bubble.

    The smart money is on Iowa, since the Hawkeyes already have two league losses and didn't play a demanding nonconference schedule. The home win over Iowa State should hold up nicely, and the neutral-court wins over Oregon and Connecticut can't hurt. But they still have 10 games remaining against the Big Ten's seven teams in the KenPom top 30, and they have the worst NET ranking of the bunch.

    But Indiana could be in a bit of danger, too. The Hoosiers still have to play two games apiece against Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa and Purdue, as well as tough home games against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska. Things could snowball in a hurry if they hit a rough patch, though nonconference wins over Marquette, Louisville and Butler will provide some extra cushion if they do struggle down the stretch.

Kentucky Rights the Ship and Earns Either a No. 1 or No. 2 Seed

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    PJ Washington
    PJ WashingtonAssociated Press

    As always seems to be the case for the first six weeks at Kentucky, it took a little while to figure out the role allocations. But now that Quade Green has transferred out of the program and EJ Montgomery has carved out a cozy spot on the bench, the Wildcats have a primary seven-man rotation more than capable of beating any team in the country.

    Ashton Hagans can't shoot worth a lick and has yet to score more than 11 points in a game, but he is a terror on defense and a fine distributor as a lead guard. Tyler Herro is finally starting to find his three-point stroke, and he has been a better asset on defense than expected. And Keldon Johnson has emerged as a scoring machine, catching fire from distance and drawing contact on drives like a young Stanley Johnson.

    Down low, PJ Washington and Reid Travis are combining for nearly 30 points and 15 rebounds per game and defending the rim well enough to keep opponents at bay.

    Factor in Immanuel Quickley and Nick Richards as valuable reserves, and you've got a team that simply outplayed North Carolina in a neutral-court win in late December and that had little difficulty winning a road rivalry game against Louisville seven days later.

    The Wildcats just need better luck defending the three-point arc, where opponents are shooting 38.0 percent. Once there's some regression to the mean there, they'll be in business.

    And with a remaining schedule that includes home-and-homes with Tennessee, Auburn, Mississippi State and Florida—plus a home game against Kansas in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge—there are ample opportunities for resume-boosting wins. Even a 14-5 record between now and the SEC tournament would be more than enough for a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Duke Doesn't Win the ACC...

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    Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski
    Duke head coach Mike KrzyzewskiLance King/Getty Images

    Based on current KenPom projections, Duke is the clear favorite to win the ACC. The Blue Devils are favored to win every remaining contest except for the road game against Virginia, and even that's a coin flip with the Cavaliers only favored by one point. Duke is projected to go 15-3, while no other team is supposed to win more than 13 ACC games.

    And yet, this might be the least bold of the 10 predictions, because this league is loaded with teams capable of winning the national championship, and Duke plays road games against each of the other ones.

    In addition to home-and-homes with North Carolina and Virginia, the Blue Devils need to play at Virginia Tech and at Florida State. They also travel to Syracuse, which is 2-1 at home against Duke since joining the ACC.

    Even worse for Duke, a lot of those tough games are bunched together. During an 18-day stretch in Februarythe point in the season when freshmen tend to hit the proverbial wallthe Blue Devils have this six-game gauntlet: at Virginia, at Louisville, vs. NC State, vs. North Carolina, at Syracuse, at Virginia Tech.

    That's practically a death sentence.

    Meanwhile, North Carolina doesn't need to play road games against Virginia, Virginia Tech or Florida State, the Seminoles don't have a double-dip against any of the top four teams and the Hokies don't play back-to-back games against KenPom top-25 teams until early March. Virginia does have a schedule almost as tough as Duke's, but the Cavaliers have won three outright ACC titles in the past five years, while Duke's last one came in 2005-06.

    Duke will finish top-three in the league because of its sheer talent, but the disparity in schedule strength is going to keep the door open for another team to win the ACC.

...But Zion Williamson Does Win the Wooden Award

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    Zion Williamson
    Zion WilliamsonAdam Hunger/Associated Press

    There are a bunch of great candidates for the 2019 Wooden Award.

    Dedric Lawson is stuffing stat sheets at Kansas just like he did at Memphis but against better competition. Ethan Happ is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists and blocks and has Wisconsin back on the map after the team had a dreadful 2017-18 season. Tennessee's Grant Williams is even better than when he was named SEC POY last year. Carsen Edwards and Markus Howard are both setting the nets on fire for teams that would be anemic on offense without them.

    We could give similar glowing reports on Jarrett Culver, Rui Hachimura, RJ Barrett, Charles Matthews, Ty Jerome and others, but you get the point. It's a long list of excellent players from high-ranking teams.

    But this is Zion Williamson's title to lose, and he's not going to lose it.

    Despite only playing 26.2 minutes per game, Williamson is averaging 19.8 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.9 blocks. We haven't seen a stat line like that since Danny Granger destroyed the Mountain West Conference back in 2004-05.

    The highlight-reel blocks and dunks are a ton of fun, but that's just the icing on the cake here. Williamson is outrageously athletic, and he's also incredibly efficient. Despite shooting a mediocre 70.8 percent from the free-throw line with just three made three-pointers on the year, his advanced metrics don't even seem possible. In player efficiency rating, win shares per 40 minutes and box plus/minus, he's No. 1 in the nation with a significant cushion, per Sports Reference.

    It's too early in the season to responsibly put a bow on the POY race, but Williamson is going to win the Wooden Award as long as he doesn't suffer an injury.

Michigan Gets the No. 1 Overall Seed

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    Charles Matthews
    Charles MatthewsCarlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Last year's bold pick for the No. 1 overall seed was Arizona State, and the Sun Devils responded by going 8-10 in Pac-12 play and nearly missing the tournament.

    For Michigan's sake, here's hoping that wasn't the start of a trend, because the Wolverines are the early pick for the No. 1 overall seed this year.

    Pray tell, what is this team's biggest weakness?

    The Wolverines do a remarkable job of defending without fouling, rarely allowing open looks at three-pointers while also owning the defensive glass. On offense, they commit fewer than 10 turnovers per game and can score at all three levels. And they control the tempo at both ends of the floor, forcing the opposition to play their game.

    It's hard to imagine this team going through any sort of prolonged swoon, unlike Arizona State last year, which always had defense as a serious concern.

    Michigan has blowout wins over North Carolina, Villanova and Purdue, and its remaining schedule is just dripping with opportunities to improve what is arguably already the best resume in the country. Almost every game in Big Ten play is a potential quality win, and Michigan gets to save the best for last with two games against Michigan State in the final two weeks of the regular season.

    The Wolverines will drop a couple of games along the way, but they'll sweep the Big Ten regular-season and conference-tournament titles to wrap up the No. 1 overall seed with a 31-3 record.

Virginia Wins the National Championship

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    Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

    It has to happen eventually, right?

    Virginia has averaged 28.6 wins over the past five years, finishing each of those seasons in the top 12 of the KenPom rankings. It is undefeated so far this year and trails only Duke in the KenPom rankings.

    Aside from Villanova and Kansas, no team has been as consistently dominant during the regular season dating back to 2013-14.

    But aside from maybe Arizona, no team has been as consistently disappointing in the NCAA tournament as Virginia has.

    The Cavaliers held that dubious title even before last year's disastrous loss to UMBC. That result just ensured history will never forget this stretch of postseason futility.

    Now that Tony Bennett and Co. have endured the lowest of lows, it's time to finally know what it feels like to be a champion.

    The reasons to pick Virginia are the same as they have always been: impeccable defense, above-average three-point shooting and defensive rebounding, turnover-averse offense and a tough schedule against which the Cavaliers will prove they can beat anyone.

    They just need Lady Luck to shine on them in the tournament for a change.

               

    Advanced stats courtesy of KenPom.com and Sports Reference.

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