After seven months of recruiting, gathering transfers, overseas trips and preseason scrimmages, the college basketball season officially tips off on Friday.
This year in college basketball projects to be very dominant at the top of the rankings, with perennial powers Duke, Kentucky and Kansas being the favorites to go through March Madness unscathed.
Freshman Class Impact
Obviously a big part of any year in college basketball, but this year’s freshman group is the best in recent memory. Even with players like Dennis Smith Jr. (North Carolina State) and Harry Giles (Duke) coming off major knee injuries their senior year of high school, both are potential top five picks next June.
Also, the early injuries to Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden, both at Duke, have put a slight damper to the #1 ranked Blue Devils season. The injuries mean no impact meeting with Josh Jackson, Udoka Azubuike and a very talented Kansas team.
And what about Kentucky? They rely on freshman each year, and this year will be no different. They have an explosive backcourt duo in De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. Also, Bam Adebayo is mean man around the rim and plays with physicality rarely seen among people his age. Wenyen Gabriel is as raw as they come, but John Calipari has made a living of getting the best out of his young players.
In the Pac-12, the Arizona Wildcats added a trio of marquee freshman with Finnish import Lauri Markannen, wing Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons. Meanwhile, at UCLA, Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf make an interesting one-two combo and they will join a very experienced roster.
Tom Izzo brought in his best recruiting class at Michigan State, headlined by Miles Bridges, Cassius Winston, Josh Langford and Nick Ward.
Players like Markelle Fultz (Washington), Tony Bradley (North Carolina), Omari Spellman (Villanova) and V.J. King (Louisville) will be doing solo acts as impact freshman for their respective teams, but should be difference makers from day one.
There are certainly plenty of options in this pool. Teams like Florida State, North Carolina State, Miami and Texas A&M all figure to be up-and-coming programs leaning on star freshmen and promising sophomores. Oklahoma lost a TON of talent in the offseason, but Lon Kruger has an interesting bunch led by Khadeem Lattin and Jordan Woodard. Meanwhile squads, like Cincinnati, Dayton and Ohio State have been on the outside looking in before, but all are dangerous.
But my pick for best-unranked team in the nation goes to Texas A&M. If I had released a preseason rankings (school sucks, man) they would have been a top 20 team.
This is a super young team, and after losing Alex Caruso, Jalen Jones and Danuel House, the Aggies will be lead by two promising sophomores in Tyler Davis and DJ Hogg. Also, look for Admon Gilder to take a huge step forward as a sophomore.
This team will have to grow up fast, with only two seniors listed on the roster. JC Hampton is a graduate transfer who’s coming in from Lipscomb, and the jump from the Atlantic Sun to the SEC is huge. The other senior, Tavario Miller, played 10 minutes per game and scored 2.1 points per game.
Billy Kennedy is building something special for TAMU, and all signs point to this program becoming a powerhouse in the short future. In a wide-open race for second place in the SEC, there may be no better option than the Aggies.
In a year where freshmen are projected to dominate, there is a shortlist of players who could break out in their return to college basketball. A lot of breakout candidates are players who performed well down the stretch last year or are former highly rated recruits that have been lost in the shuffle and should finally be a key cog to their teams’ success.
A name that not many people know is Christian James, who spent his freshman year backing up Buddy Hield at Oklahoma. James, a straight sniper like Hield, hit 50% of his triples, knocking down 17/34 and showing some lighting in a bottle, going 4/5 from deep against TCU and 4/6 from three against Texas A&M in the Sweet Sixteen. Will he shoot 50% from three this year? Definitely not, but the man knows how to shoot off the dribble and can spot up. He’s an underrated athlete as well. Sounds a lot like the man who mentored him last year…
Also, expect the buzz around sophomore big man Bennie Boatwright to grow. He’s coming off a solid freshman year at USC, where he scored 11.5 points per game and shot 35% from three, making almost two threes per game and has a really smooth shooting stroke for a 6’9” power forward. Boatwright can really run the floor and is very mobile. He just needs to work on his post moves, and if those develop he can really drive his NBA stock up.
Rarely do you hear about breakout candidates from Kansas, but Carlton Bragg is certainly that this year for the Jayhawks. In just nine minutes off the bench, Bragg showed off a strong and sweet shooting touch, hitting mid range jumpers and even knocked down a few threes. He showed good motor in his limited time as well, and with the departure of Perry Ellis (FINALLY), his minutes should spike, as should his production.
The biggest breakout candidate for NBA scouts is O.G, Anunoby, who possesses freakish athleticism and physical traits despite playing less than 13 minutes per game for the Indiana Hoosiers. His role is projected to expand, but should still only be a third option on a team that still has James Blackmon and Thomas Bryant. His rise could be reminiscent of Victor Oladipo’s a few years back. He’s still more hype than production, but his raw athleticism makes NBA scouts drool.
However, MY pick for breakout player of the year is DJ Hogg from Texas A&M. Despite only knocking down 33% of his threes, he has a picturesque shooting form, which should lead to increased percentages as he gets more consistent reps. He may not be an outstanding athlete, but he’s smooth when attacking the basket. He’s more of a spot up shooter at this point, and if he can work on his off the dribble game, he could honestly score 20 points a game in a down year for the SEC.
Most Overrated Team?
I feel badly about choosing a team that is overrated, but every year a team that is projected to be a title contender falls off a cliff. Last year’s victim(s)? Wichita State, LSU and Michigan. This year’s victim? Wisconsin (You’re welcome Gabe and Tyler). They had a tale of two seasons last year and somehow made the Sweet Sixteen on a lucky shot by Bronson Koenig. Koenig is back along with fellow seniors Vitto Brown and Nigel Hayes, who is looking to rebound after a tough junior campaign.
Ethan Happ played out of his mind as a freshman last year, and I think he could take a step back and suffer from the dreaded “sophomore slump”. Other than those four players, it is a lot of unproven and young talent, and while Greg Gard was phenomenal on the sidelines after Bo Ryan’s sudden retirement, but this is his first full year on the bench, and the pressure is all on him. Gard learned from under one of the best to ever do it, but in a deeper (not better at the top, but better top to bottom) Big Ten, they could slip.
Will they still make the tournament? Absolutely, but I’m not sure this team is ready to go out and win or compete for a national championship.
For the first time in a while, Gonzaga isn’t the run away favorite to be the best Mid-Major program in the business. Gonzaga checks into the top 25 polls at 14, with Saint Mary’s right behind at 17. Other small schools such as Wichita State, Monmouth, Princeton, Ohio and Harvard all received votes in the polls, but find themselves outside the top 25 to begin the year. You also can’t sleep on Valparaiso, who brings back one of the top players in the country in Alec Peters.
Gonzaga, despite losing Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer, still bring back an impressive team, with Przemek Karnowski and Josh Perkins. They also added former five star and Washington commit Nigel Williams-Goss, as well as two solid freshman in Zach Norvell and Zach Collins.
However, teams like Saint Mary’s, Ohio, Princeton and Monmouth bring back the majority of their scoring. Monmouth also only lost one player, but it was Deon Jones, who scored 10 points per game for the Hawks. The Bench Mob is back once again this year, and they could be even better in 2016. And Princeton is going to have major problems with Harvard this season, who brought in a surprisingly great recruiting class headlined by a quartet of four star commits Chris Lewis, Robert Baker Jr., Seth Towns and Bryce Aiken.
That being said, the Saint Mary’s Gaels will be the best mid major this year. The only contributor the Gaels lost was Franklin Porter, who scored all of 30 points last season. They didn’t have a senior on the roster last year, and still only have two seniors on the roster this year. Joe Rahon, a Boston College transfer, Dane Pineau and Emmett Naar are the names to watch this year for Saint Mary’s as they look to make it back to the NCAA Tournament after somehow being left out a season ago.
Cover Photo via Milwaukee Journal Sentinel