College basketball season tips off on Friday, which means it’s time for me to recklessly speculate on which teams will hear their names called on Selection Sunday. While I might be crazy enough to make projections on something that’s more than four months away, I focused more on selecting and seeding the field as opposed to bracketing all of this out. There will be plenty of time for that during the season.
Kentucky -With nine former McDonald’s All-Americans on the roster, the Wildcats boast the nation’s most talented roster. Freshmen Karl Towns and Trey Lyles give Kentucky another pair of skilled big men, while the Harrison twins will look to build off of their strong NCAA Tournament performances as they enter their sophomore seasons.
Arizona – Despite losing Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson, Sean Miller’s squad is a heavy favorite to win the Pac-12. Stanley Johnson will provide instant impact as a freshman, adding to a deep and talented frontcourt that already features super soph Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and juniors Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski. The Wildcats led the nation in defensive efficiency last season according to KenPom, and tough D should be their calling card once again.
Wisconsin – The Badgers lost only Ben Brust from last year’s Final Four team, and there’s a wide gap between Wisconsin and the rest of the Big Ten. Few teams can compete with the duo of Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, and it’s always a plus to have a steady senior point guard like Trae Jackson.
Duke – Coach K will be counting on the freshman tandem of Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones to play major roles (and major minutes) from day one. With Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon back for the Blue Devils, perimeter play won’t be a concern, but front court depth is a potential issue. Okafor may wind up being so good that it won’t matter.
North Carolina – Marcus Paige is arguably the best guard in the country, and the Heels are among the nation’s most talented teams. Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, and J.P. Tokoto were all key rotation players last year, and the addition of freshmen Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson provides an influx of firepower on the wing.
Kansas – Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Jayhawks are the preseason favorite to win the Big 12. Bill Self’s squad will be incredibly young with three freshmen (Cliff Alexander, Kelly Oubre, and Devonte’ Graham) in the projected starting lineup. Junior forward Perry Ellis will provide stability inside, while sophomore Wayne Selden Jr. will help shoulder more of the scoring load in his second season.
Villanova – The Wildcats are the prohibitive favorite in the Big East, a league they dominated last year (at least when not playing Creighton). They will need to replace leading scorer James Bell, but sophomore Josh Hart looks poised to excel in a larger role. Darrun Hilliard gives Jay Wright another outstanding scorer in the backcourt and is one of three returnees who averaged at least 9.9 points last season.
Louisville – It’s impossible to expect anyone to replace Russ Smith, but with Terry Rozier and Chris Jones, the Cardinal backcourt should still be potent. On the interior, Montrezl Harrell is a monster, and most Louisville opponents will wind up wishing he’d gone pro after last season as many experts expected. The bench is largely comprised of freshmen, so there could be some growing pains early.
Texas – Expectations are infinitely higher for the Longhorns than they were at this time last season. Virtually everyone is back from last year’s 24-win club, and Rick Barnes added prized recruit Myles Turner to an already deep frontcourt. Jonathan Holmes and Isaiah Taylor lead four Longhorns who averaged between 11 and 13 points last season.
Virginia – The reigning ACC regular season and tournament champs will need to replace departed seniors Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell, but Tony Bennett’s squad still has plenty of talent. Malcolm Brogdon led the team in scoring last season, and a trio of juniors (Anthony Gill, Justin Anderson, and Mike Tobey) will hold down the frontcourt.
Florida – There are big shoes to fill following the losses of Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young, and Casey Prather, but it’s hard not to give Billy Donovan the benefit of the doubt based on his track record. Michael Frazier made nearly 45 percent of his three-point attempts last season, and sophomore Kasey Hill should slide in nicely at the point. Chris Walker’s maturity both on and off the court will have a huge impact on the Gators’ fortunes this year.
Wichita State – It’s hard to overstate the importance of the departed Cleanthony Early, but the backcourt trio of Fred Van Vleet, Ron Baker, and Tekele Cotton will ensure the Shockers don’t fall too far. There are questions up front, but I’ll take my chances that Gregg Marshall will be able to effectively mix and match with a number of options at his disposal.
Gonzaga– With three seniors and two juniors in the starting lineup, the Bulldogs boast one of the most experienced rosters in the country. USC transfer Byron Wesley will team with Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. to form an outstanding backcourt trio, while Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer gives the Zags another scorer at forward. I’m looking forward to watching freshman big man Domantas Sabonis, son of Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis.
Iowa State – Fred Hoiberg continues to do a fantastic job at his alma mater, and he’s brought in another strong group of transfers (Bryce Dejean-Jones, Abdel Nader, and Jameel McKay) to complement the returning core of Georges Niang, Dustin Hogue, Naz Long, and Monte Morris.
San Diego State – Replacing Xavier Thames won’t be easy, but the Aztecs should be elite on the defensive end once again. Guards Winston Shepard and Dwayne Polee II should lead the way from a scoring standpoint, but guys like J.J. O’Brien, Skylar Spencer, and Arizona transfer Angelo Chol will be solid contributors up front.
Ohio State – The Buckeyes lost their top three scorers, but freshman D’Angelo Russell is going to be a star. Sam Thompson and Shannon Scott lead a quartet of key returnees, and Temple transfer Anthony Lee gives Thad Matta another veteran presence inside.
VCU – Senior Treveon Graham is back to pace the VCU attack after posting nearly 16 points and seven boards per game last season. Briante Weber and his harassing perimeter defense return as well, and undersized forward Mo Alie-Cox is in line for an expanded role with Juvonte Reddic gone. The Rams are the odds-on favorite to win the A-10.
Oklahoma – Lon Kruger’s club returns four players who scored at least 9.6 points per game last season, led by junior guard Buddy Hield. The Sooners are still waiting to see if Houston transfer TaShawn Thomas is granted a waiver to be eligible immediately, and his presence could push them over the top. Even without Thomas, the starting five is a solid group, but there is little to no experience on the bench.
SMU – Lost in the hoopla over Emmanuel Mudiay heading to China instead of SMU is the fact that the Mustangs are still incredibly talented. Nic Moore is an outstanding point guard, and Markus Kennedy provides a solid presence up front. With Kennedy ineligible for the first part of the season, Yanick Moreira, Cannen Cunningham, and Ben Moore will need to pick up the slack. Once at full strength, Larry Brown’s team will vie for the AAC crown and finally get back to the NCAA Tournament.
Connecticut – The defending champs won’t go quietly, even with Shabazz Napier gone. Ryan Boatright will take the reins in the backcourt, where he’ll be joined by NC State transfer Rodney Purvis. With no proven frontcourt scoring threats, guard play and defense will need to lead the way for the Huskies.
Michigan St. – With just four rotation players back from a season ago, there are plenty of question marks for the Spartans. Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice will be counted on to step up along side Branden Dawson. Cleveland State transfer Bryn Forbes will provide some additional scoring punch in the backcourt, but it feels like this team will go as Valentine goes. With Tom Izzo at the helm though, no one would be shocked to see MSU emerge from the crowd of Big Ten teams just behind Wisconsin.
Michigan – John Beilein is officially in “benefit of the doubt” territory after his last few seasons in Ann Arbor. There are some huge shoes to fill from last year’s roster, but the nucleus of Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton, and Zak Irvin gives the Wolverines a strong foundation on the perimeter. Outside of that trio, there simply isn’t much experience, particularly in the frontcourt.
Nebraska – The Huskers were arguably last season’s biggest surprise, but they won’t be sneaking up on anyone this time around. The returning trio of Terran Petteway, Shavon Shields, and Walter Pitchford combined to average over 40 points and 15 boards last season. Look for Tim Miles’ team to be right in the thick of things behind Wisconsin in the Big Ten.
Utah – With their top six scorers back from last season, the Utes have a strong chance to finish second in the Pac-12, which seemed like a pipe dream after they finished 6-25 just a few seasons ago. Delon Wright and Jordan Loveridge give Larry Krystowiak a phenomenal one-two punch.
Kansas State – After scoring 15.5 points per game as a freshman, guard Marcus Foster is back to the lead the way for K-State. Expect even more from Foster and fellow soph Wesley Iwundu this season, while big man Thomas Gipson returns to anchor things in the paint.
Colorado – The only loss for the Buffs was star Spencer Dinwiddie, but Colorado got plenty of practice playing without him following last season’s knee injury. Josh Scott, Askia Booker, and Xavier Johnson all averaged at least 12 points last season. The frontcourt is loaded, and if Colorado can find someone in the backcourt to complement Booker, a second-place finish in the Pac-12 is well within reach.
Stanford – Chasson Randle and Anthony Brown give the Cardinal a terrific pair of guards, but there are questions to be answered up front after losing Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis. Freshman Reid Travis will have a chance to make an immediate impact.
Syracuse – Trevor Cooney is the only returnee who scored more than six points per game last season, and Jim Boeheim will once again be relying on a freshman point guard (Kaleb Joseph) to run the show right away.
UCLA – Just three of UCLA’s eight rotation players are back, led by the backcourt tandem of Norman Powell and Bryce Alford. Isaac Hamilton and Kevon Looney provide an infusion of talent, but overall depth is a concern.
Georgetown – The Hoyas boast Big East Player of the Year candidate D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera and added an impressive recruiting class led by Isaac Copeland. The enigmatic Josh Smith is back as well, although at this point it’s anyone’s guess as to what he’ll be able to contribute.
Memphis – After being extremely guard-heavy a season ago, the Tigers’ backcourt is comprised almost entirely of newcomers, led by Vanderbilt transfer Kedren Johnson, Pookie Powell, and Dominic Magee. Big men Shaq Goodwin, Austin Nichols, and Calvin Godfrey will be the strength of Josh Pastner’s squad.
Illinois – Losing Tracy Abrams to a knee injury hurts the Illini, but transfers Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks should help ease the blow. Throw in Rayvonte Rice, the defensive presence of Nnanna Egwu, and a talented group of sophomores, and you’ve got a team that could emerge from a crowded middle tier in the Big Ten.
Harvard – Once again the Crimson are heavy favorites to win the Ivy League. Returnees Siyani Chambers, Wesley Saunders, and Steve Mondou-Missi were the team’s top three scorers a season ago. The big question mark is whether they can find someone to replace the outside shooting of Laurent Rivard.
Iowa – Replacing Roy Devyn Marble and Melsahn Basabe won’t be easy for a Hawkeyes team that faded down the stretch last season, but they do still have Aaron White, who is one of the most underrated players in the country. Iowa also boasts a solid point guard like Mike Gesell and experienced options like Jarrod Uthoff, Josh Ogelsby, and Adam Woodbury to round out the starting lineup.
Dayton – The Flyers lost a few key contributors from last season’s Elite Eight squad, but the one-two punch of Jordan Sibert and Dyshawn Pierre should be enough to propel them to a top three finish in the A-10.
Pittsburgh – Jamie Dixon has to replace the top two scorers from last season’s team, and Cameron Wright, the top returning scorer, is already sidelined with a foot injury. Even with Wright out, the backcourt is in good shape thanks to Durand Johnson and James Robinson, while the frontcourt has far more question marks.
Arkansas – The heat is on for Mike Anderson to get the Hogs back in the NCAA Tournament, but they have six of their top seven scorers back, led by the inside-outside combination of Bobby Portis and Ky Madden.
Xavier – The Musketeers lost three of their top four scorers, but seniors Dee Davis and Matt Stainbrook will provide plenty of stability. Up front, they need Jalen Reynolds and James Farr to step into more prominent roles, while IU transfer Remy Abell and freshman Trevon Bluiett should help pick up the scoring slack.
Minnesota – Richard Pitino returns four starters, led by the backcourt duo of Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu. There are a number of options to mix and match up front, and keep an eye on juco transfer Carlos Morris, who gives Pitino another scoring threat on the perimeter.
George Washington – The Colonials return a quartet of key contributors from last season’s 24-win squad. Kethan Savage is healthy after breaking a bone in his foot midway through last season, and Patricio Garino can do it all. Throw in a solid point guard like Joe McDonald and big man Kevin Larsen, and GW should be a contender in the A-10 once again.
LSU – The Tigers are loaded up front with sophomores Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin along with highly rated freshman Elbert Robinson III, but with limited options at guard, JUCO point guard Josh Gray has to produce right away.
BYU – Tyler Haws is one of the nation’s most prolific scorers, while Kyle Collinsworth should be back to full strength after a late-season knee injury. I wouldn’t expect the Cougars to challenge Gonzaga for the WCC crown, but they appear to be the clear-cut runner-up.
Colorado State – After San Diego State, the Mountain West is a jumbled mess, but I like the Rams to emerge from the pack. J.J. Avila and Daniel Bejarano both scored at least 16 points per game last season, and an influx of transfers should bolster the team’s talent and depth.
Cincinnati – Mick Cronin lost his top three scorers, which is a scary thought for a team that struggled offensively to begin with. Shaq Thomas and Troy Caupain have to step up, while juco transfer Octavius Ellis will contribute immediately as well.
Florida State (First Four) – Aaron Thomas will be asked to shoulder even more of the offensive load this season, although redshirt freshman Xavier Rathan-Mayes should help pick up the slack.
Georgia (First Four) – Led by guards Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines, the Bulldogs boast a solid starting five, but there are serious questions about their depth. Georgia won’t challenge Kentucky or Florida for the SEC title, but they’re firmly entrenched in the next tier of teams.
Boise State (First Four) – Anthony Dmric and Derrick Marks are a fantastic one-two punch, but there isn’t a clear option to replace the frontcourt contributions of Ryan Watkins. If the Broncos can find someone to step up, a second-place finish in the MWC is a possibility.
Northern Iowa (First Four) – Virtually everyone is back for the Panthers, including four players who scored at least 9.9 points per game last year. Seth Tuttle led the squad in both scoring and rebounding and is poised for a fantastic senior year.
Louisiana Tech – Coach Michael White opted to stay at La Tech despite opportunities to move to a major conference, and the Bulldogs should compete with UTEP for the C-USA title. Few teams can match the guard trio of Alex Hamilton, Raheem Appleby, and Speedy Smith.
Georgia State – The Panthers have an explosive backcourt as well, led by junior R.J. Hunter and senior Ryan Harrow, who combined to average over 36 points last season. There’s no reason they shouldn’t breeze through the Sun Belt.
Green Bay – The Phoenix had a compelling case for an at-large bid last season and return four starters. The centerpiece is senior point guard Keifer Sykes, who scored over 20 points per game last season. Filling the shoes of big man Alec Brown won’t be easy, but I still give Green Bay the edge over Cleveland State in the Horizon League.
Toledo – Point guard Juice Brown is one of the MAC’s top players and is one of four returning Rockets who averaged at least nine points last season. Toledo’s offense should be prolific once again, but they need to make strides on the defensive end to hold off Akron in the MAC.
Iona – The inside-outside combination of David Laury and A.J. English should give the Gaels a leg up over the competition in the MAAC and get them back to the NCAA Tournament.
Murray State – Cam Payne posted 16.8 points and 5.4 assists per game as a true freshman last season, and most of his supporting cast is back. Forward Jarvis Williams nearly averaged a double-double, and I’d look for the Racers to get back to the Big Dance following last season’s CIT Championship.
Stephen F. Austin – After going 18-0 in league play last year, the Lumberjacks are once again the favorites to win the Southland. There will be a number of new faces, but Jacob Parker and Thomas Walkup averaged at least 13 points and five rebounds last season and should battle it out for conference Player of the Year honors.
UC Irvine – The Big West looks to be a battle between UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara, but I’m giving the Anteaters the nod. They return nine players who logged double-digit minutes last season, led by guard Luke Nelson and senior forward Will Davis II..
New Mexico State – Reigning WAC Player of the Year Daniel Mullings does a little of everything for the Aggies, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him win the award once again this year. Mullings isn’t the only offensive threat though, as seniors DK Eldridge and Tshilidzi Nephawe both scored in double figures last season.
Wofford – Virtually everyone is back for a Terriers team that made the Big Dance last year. Karl Cochran is one of three returnees who scored in double figures last season, and he also led the team in assists and steals.
IPFW – The Summit League should be an interesting race with Denver, IPFW, and Oral Roberts all in the mix. Even though the Mastodons will be breaking in a first year coach, Steve Forbes gives the team a strong post presence, while Mo Evans should have a breakout season as a sophomore.
Northeastern – The Huskies won just 11 games last season, but experience is on their side with all five starters returning. Senior Scott Eatherton averaged a double-double last year, and Quincy Ford is set to return after missing most of the season with a back injury.
American – The trio of Pee Wee Gardner, Jesse Reed, and John Schoof provides plenty of offensive firepower for the Eagles, who are looking for a return ticket to the NCAA Tournament. Depth is a potential concern, but then again, those three guys all averaged at least 35 minutes last season.
Florida Gulf Coast – Dunk City is a prohibitive favorite to win the A-Sun, thanks in large part to the backcourt tandem of Bernard Thompson and Brett Comer. A number of transfers are set to contribute as well, with former Rice guard Julian DeBose poised to provide additional punch on the perimeter.
Coastal Carolina – The Chanticleers return the top five scorers from a team that gave top-seeded Virginia all it could handle in the NCAA Tournament. Elijah Wilson led the team in scoring as a freshman, reaching double figures in 30 of 34 contests.
NC Central – Replacing 20-point scorer Jeremy Ingram won’t be easy, but LeVelle Moton has stocked the roster with D-1 transfers. The Eagles will need big seasons from senior Jordan Parks and Lamar transfer Nimrod Hilliard to hold off Hampton in the MEAC.
Weber State – The Big Sky should be an exciting race with Weber State and Eastern Washington leading the way. I gave the nod to Randy Rahe’s track record and the inside-outside combination of Joel Bolomboy and Jeremy Singlin.
Hartford – It was a coin flip between Hartford and Stony Brook in the America East, but I went with the Hawks, who bring back six seniors. Mark Nwakamma should lead the team in scoring once again, while Wes Cole and Corban Wroe both shot over 40 percent from beyond the arc a season ago.
St. Francis (NY) – There’s no clear favorite in the NEC, although the Terriers and Robert Morris seem to be the best of the bunch. Forward Jalen Cannon averaged 14.9 points and 8.2 boards last season, and JUCO All-American Tyreek Jewell will provide similar scoring punch on the perimeter.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff – Four starters are back for the Golden Lions, led by guards Marcel Mosley and Tevin Hammond, both of whom averaged over 13 points last season.
First Five Out:
UNLV – The Rebels bring in a fantastic recruiting class as well as San Francisco transfer Cody Doolin, but it’s not like the roster has been devoid of talent in recent years either.
Notre Dame – The return of Jerian Grant is huge for Mike Brey’s club, but there are plenty of question marks in the frontcourt.
Maryland – Depth is a potential concerns as the Terps enter the Big Ten, but Dez Wells is a tough matchup for anyone. Freshman guard Melo Trimble has earned rave reviews leading up to the season as well.
Miami (FL) – Transfers Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan form a solid backcourt, but there aren’t any sure things up front.
St. John’s – The backcourt will clearly be the strength with D’Angelo Harrison, Rysheed Jordan, and Phil Greene IV, but the frontcourt has been thinned out due to recent eligibility issues.
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