This season in college basketball starts tonight, and as a general fan and writer, I literally cannot be more excited than I am right now. Granted, the first few weeks there aren’t many great games. Top programs play weak teams that don’t have a chance of making the NCAA Tournament. But there are diamonds in that rough no doubt. Games such as Duke vs Kentucky and Michigan State vs Kansas make the early part of the season almost bearable. But outside the below average start, this year has a lot of promise. A few teams have been greatly influenced by freshman, such as LSU, Florida State and California. Other teams have a ton of experience that should help them this year. Some teams that come to mind are North Carolina, Maryland, Indiana and Wichita State. Of course, the annual powerhouses such as Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State will be in the mix. After seven long months, it’s time to start the journey to March Madness and the Final Four in Houston. Here are some of the story lines to follow for the 2015-2016.
Programs on the Rise:
Every year there seems to be a few bandwagons that people tend to jump on. This year the popular bandwagons are Maryland and Indiana. Both teams bring back a lot of talent from teams who each made the tournament last year. Maryland is the deeper team but Indiana will have one of the best offenses in the entire country with shooters such as James Blackmon Jr. and Yogi Ferrell. The one thing Indiana lacked last season was an inside presence. During the recruiting cycle, Indiana managed to snag Thomas Bryant, who will likely get major minutes from day one and provide rebounding and defense inside. For Maryland, they bring back Melo Trimble, who was a sensation as a freshman last year, Jake Layman, and a whole bunch of role players who will provide important minutes off the bench. Maryland also added a stud inside force with the addition of Diamond Stone. Transfers Robert Carter and Rasheed Suliamon are also huge additions for a team with serious championship aspirations.
Programs on the Downswing:
Unfortunately, not every team can have a great offseason. Some team lose players to the NBA or transfer market. These teams go from a top 25 team the year before to a bubble team come tournament time. Some of the major teams that could be on this side of the fence are Wisconsin, Louisville and St. John’s. Wisconsin lost Player of the Year Award winner Frank Kaminsky and star forward Sam Dekker. The weight of the team falls on Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig. These players are solid no doubt, but they aren’t quite as good as Kaminsky and Dekker. Louisville has had a host of problems since the end last season. From their scandal to losing two key players, it’ll be a tough year in Louisville for the Cardinals. Losing Montrezl Harrell and Terry Rozier might be a bit too much for Rick Pitino to recover from, although the Cardinals did get two great transfers and some solid freshmen. If you thought it was going to be a tough year in Louisville, strap yourself in for the exodus that happened at St. John’s over the offseason. A nine seed last year, St. John’s will most likely be on the outside looking in this year. Head coach Steve Lavin left and was replaced by Chris Mullin. The Johnnies lost a tremendous amount of talent as D’Angelo Harrison, Chris Obekpa, Sir’Dominic Pointer and Rysheed Jordan all left the program for various reasons. Their best recruit Marcus Lovett Jr., who is a YouTube sensation for his handles, can’t play this year as he was ruled ineligible by the NCAA. To make matters worse, St. John’s lost to DII St. Thomas Aquinas in an exhibition game. If you’re a fan of St. John’s, this will be a tremendously long year.
Impact of Freshman:
The two freshman previously mentioned are important, but they aren’t even the cream of the crop. Ben Simmons made LSU an instant national title contender, and he’ll be helped by Antonio Blakeney. Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb were two top 10 recruits that committed to Cal and will help transform the culture in Berkeley. Duke and Kentucky just breed freshman and this year is no different. Five stars Skal Labissiere and Isaiah Briscoe will suit up this year for Kentucky. Duke had the number one class with five stars such as Brandon Ingram, Chase Jeter, Derryck Thornton and Luke Kennard leading the Blue Devils this year. Malik Newman and Henry Ellenson joined less prestigious programs, Mississippi State and Marquette, respectively, but they could be program changers in their own right. Each of these blue chip recruits are expected to be stars day one, let’s hope for college basketball that they all pan out and create some great basketball.
ACC vs BIG 12:
The ACC vs BIG 12 debate has been going on for a while. Each side believes that they’re conference in better than the other. But either way, these are far and away the best conferences in college basketball. In the opening AP Polls, the ACC had only four teams, with three of them coming in the top six. The BIG 12 also had four teams in the opening polls, with three coming in the top eight. The BIG 12 is the deeper conference, but the ACC has three teams ranked in the top six. The ACC is really dragged down Boston College, which could seriously go defeated in conference play. But the top three of North Carolina, Duke and Virginia is unmatched by any other conference. Each team could send the majority of their conference to the NCAA tournament.
Best Mid-Major Team:
Best Mid-Major doesn’t sound like such an honor at first glance. But there are two major powerhouse Mid-Major’s that could make some national title noise this year. Gonzaga and Wichita State are the two teams that can bring a title to a Mid-Major school. The main criticisms of these programs are the lack of quality opponents they play. Listen, these teams are legit. For Wichita State, they went undefeated in the regular season just two years ago and they still have Fred Van Fleet and Ron Baker, two of the best players in the NCAA. They added Evan Wessel and Anton Grady to the mix which further validates their legitimacy. Gonzaga might have the best front court in the country, with three players that can take over games. Przemek Karnowski, Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis are all dominant players and could lead Gonzaga to a perfect in conference record. Both of these teams are overwhelming favorites to win their respective conferences and both will be in the NCAA Tournament. Just because these programs don’t play top flight competition night in and night out doesn’t mean they aren’t great teams. Don’t overlook these roster, you have been warned.
BONUS- My Final Four.
Duke, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan State
Duke vs. Michigan State
National Champion: Duke