On Friday, November 14, the NCAA basketball season will begin with a plethora of meaningless match-ups. Although the top teams this year should have no problem with their early match-ups, the entertainment will pick up as NCAA football winds down. Top story-lines entering this season include how Wisconsin will bounce back from their 2014 Final Four loss, whether the Harrison twins will continue to lead Kentucky, and if Duke’s young recruiting class can live up to all their hype. No one knows what team will have their “one shining moment” come early April, but here’s who you should expect to make some noise in the long-run.
Note: number of wins does not include postseason.
10. Wichita State (MVC)
Despite their mid-major status, Wichita State continues to be a college basketball powerhouse. Although superstar Cleanthony Early has taken his talents to the New York Knicks, the Shockers (kind of an ironic name) of Wichita should continue their prominence. Ron Baker, perhaps the sharpest shooter in the land, leads an aggressive offense along with a stifling defense.
Point guard Fred VanVleet, one of the best game managers in the country, consistently shoots the ball along with his 5:1 assist to turnover ratio. The 9th ranked scoring defense of 2014 may see a slight decline because of Early’s rebounding and shot blocking abilities now being displayed in the NBA, but I expect great things from the high pressure defensive group. Gregg Marshall will continue to lead the Shockers in the right direction, and I expect no less then a 27 win season for this years squad.
9. Louisville (ACC)
This year’s Cardinals are obviously depleted without former stars Russ Smith, Luke Hancock, and Chane Behanan. However, this is Rick Pitino we are talking about, and excellence is the only option here. Louisville’s move to the ACC will most likely provide problems considering the conference’s depth and star teams (Virginia, UNC, and Duke are still coming in this Top 10), but players such as Montrezl Harrell and Wayne Blackshear will support the Cards cause. 6 Incoming recruits will also help create a new spark this year. The Cards had the 8th ranked offense and 15th ranked defense in 2014 (mostly Smith and Hancock…), and Pitino’s aggressive coaching style should create both more points and more steals this year. Although Louisville is clearly not as strong as last year, I am expecting 21-23 regular season wins in another strong campaign.
8. Florida (SEC)
It’s no secret that Florida’s senior squad of last year will be missed. Patric Young, Casey Prather, and Scottie Wilbekin provided one of the best 3 man groups of recent time, and they will be sorely missed. But college basketball is a process, with players coming and going constantly. This year, Michael Frazier II and Dorian Finney-Smith (best name in basketball?) will attempt to lead the Gators to their 5th straight Elite 8. Florida had the 3rd best scoring defense in the country last year, but the majority of that can be attributed to Patric Young (best college defender I’ve seen in a while) and Scottie Wilbekin. Can Florida come back strong? To start, playing in the SEC is an immediate route to easy wins. Kentucky is the only true test in the conference, so look out for Florida to rack up easy wins, ending at a count of around 23.
7. Virginia (ACC)
If you’ve ever talked college basketball with me or follow me on twitter, you know I’m a die-hard UVa fan. I would actually say there is a 99% chance I am the biggest Virginia fan you know. As much as I would like to go into detail about all of their players, I sadly cannot be biased (I could probably write a whole article about this year’s Hoos). So, this year’s Cavaliers are very similar to last years breakout team. Tony Bennett, the mastermind coach behind it all, runs the pack-line defense, a style that led to the number 1 scoring defense in the country last year. UVa really is all about defense; it led them to both the regular season and ACC tournament titles, and a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The key loss for this team is sharpshooting Joe Harris, who now is part of the Big 4 in Cleveland (Lebron, Kyrie, Kevin Love, and Joe Harris). However, 6 of the top 8 players from last year return, and UVa should continue to rise. If you don’t know the names Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes yet, learn them, because they are a top 5 backcourt in the country. They can shoot, pass, defend, and manage a hell of a game. I don’t expect the Cavs to repeat as ACC champs, but I do see a large amount of wins this year, possibly 22-24.
6. North Carolina (ACC)
The Tar Heels will primarily revolve around one player this year: Marcus Paige. This kid is the next Kendall Marshall, and he could be even better. Paige returns this year, coming off a season where he averaged nearly 20 points a game. Paige will also continue his great passing numbers with the return of forwards Brice Johnson and JP Tokoto. The Heels third ranked recruiting class will also have a huge impact on the team this year.
The loss of James Michael McAdoo is a big one, but the Heels will have no problem replacing him. Although neither the offense or defense were statistically great, they will continue to be consistent. Roy Williams has a thing for winning, and this years team will give him that opportunity once again. The ACC, the most challenging conference in basketball, will present problems for UNC, but they should win upwards of 22 games behind Marcus Paige.
5. Kansas (Big 12)
Obviously, a lack of Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid is probably the most drastic loss in the country. The two were both top 10 picks in the draft, and are future NBA superstars. However, considering their absence, Kansas still shows tremendous upside. Perry Ellis, who averaged almost 15 points a game last year, is clearly the star of this team. He will be one of the biggest names in college basketball this year, and I would expect him to average a minimum of 18 points a game.
Wayne Selden Jr., a returning guard, will also improve on his 10 points and 2 assist per game last year. 4 new recruits will also see a lot of court time for Bill Self’s Jayhawks. Kansas does have a rough non-conference schedule, but the Big 12 lacks real challenges other then Texas and Iowa State. Kansas may struggle in the beginning, but I expect them to pick up steam and rack up 23-25 regular season wins.
4. Arizona (Pac-12)
Arizona was arguably the best team in the country last year, and they will contend for that title again this year. Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson may have departed for the NBA, but they left behind Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski. Ashley, who’s season was shortened by a torn ligament last year, is back and hungry to avenge last year’s Elite 8 OT loss to Wisconsin. Tarczewski, Arizona’s 7 foot center, could average around a double double considering his 10 points and 7 rebound average from last year. The two create a top 5 frontcourt in the country; they will score and grab rebounds like nobodies business. 5 new recruits will also help out a team who ranked 6th nationally in scoring defense last year.
The Wildcats lack a dependable point guard, but if they can find a man who is half of what Nick Johnson was last year, they will be great once again. An easy non-conference schedule and a lenient Pac-12 will mean a great season for the Wildcats, ending with upwards of 25 wins.
3. Duke (ACC)
Fun game: spell Coach K’s name without looking on the internet. My guess is Krysczewski. The correct answer is Krzyzewksi. That was fun. Anyway, Duke is once again a contender this year. The first round exit in the NCAA tournament may still sting for the Blue Devils (Mercer hit that nae nae #huaaaaah), but this years team should make everything right again. First, Duke returns sharpshooters Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon.
They should both shine from behind the 3 point line this year. Amile Jefferson, a starting forward last year, will also return to Cameron Indoor. But this team isn’t about last years players, it’s about the recruiting class. 4 players will come to Duke this year, all of which are 5 star recruits. Point guard Tyus Jones and center Jahlil Okafor headline the nation’s number one recruiting class. Okafor, the number one recruit in the nation, will shine in the frontcourt as Jones, Cook, and Sulaimon lead a sturdy backcourt. Duke will shine in the ACC this year, potentially avenging for their loss in the ACC championship game last year to Virginia. Duke should soar to above 25 wins, and considering their schedule, that would be quite an accomplishment.
2. Wisconsin (Big 10)
As a young, white man, watching Wisconsin play basketball gives me the slightest form of hoop dreams (I’m not going to the league :(). From their Final Four team last year, they return 4 of their 5 best players. First is Frank Kaminksy, who is arguably the best player in college basketball. He can score with the best of them, and his 7 foot frame isn’t to bad either when he tries to grab rebounds. Kaminksy shined last year, making over half of his field goal attempts. Next is point guard Traevon Jackson. Considering all the shooting ability around him, Jackson’s job is to be quick and pass well. Luckily, this is exactly what he is good at. He also shoots 38% from behind the 3 point line, which only adds to the offensive talent here. Sam Dekker, a small forward, will continue to shine in his last year at Wisconsin.
He averaged 12 points and 6 rebounds last year, and should continue to be a vital asset for the Badgers. Lastly is Josh Gasser, who shot 43% percent from 3 last year. Wisconsin’s lack of speed may hurt them come tournament time, but their regular season should be full of 3 balls and wins. A weak Big 10 could mean upwards of 25 wins for Bo Ryan’s team.
1. Kentucky (SEC)
Did you really think anyone else would be #1 here? Be honest here, you knew this was coming the whole time. Coach Cal is an evil genius; he figured might as well bring back both Harrison’s, Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, and Dakari Johnson.
Add the number 2 recruiting class in the nation on to that already very good roster, and you’re looking at the number 1 team in the nation. The Wildcats couldn’t get it done against Uconn in the finals last year, and you already know they Harrison’s are coming back hungry. They will continue to knock down clutch shots, and will most likely get rid of some sloppy play that hurt the Wildcats last year. Cauley-Stein, who averaged 7 rebounds and 3 blocks a game last year, will make a living under the basket as long as he stays healthy. Poythress and Johnson also provide experience and support for the immense talent on this team.
Now for the recruits. Trey Lyles and Karl Towns Jr. will make their presence known around the basket, while Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis will only add to the already amazing backcourt. Kentucky has the toughest non-conference schedule in basketball (SEC is pretty easy though), but will it really matter? I expect Kentucky win at least 26 games en route to another great season.