The national runners-up lost Mo Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahman, but this blog believes head coach John Beilein knows what to do with what returns. Those returnees are the trio of guards senior Charles Matthews, junior Zavier Simpson and sophomore Jordan Poole. The Wolverines also brings in a top-20 recruiting class featuring Ignas Brazdeikis. Plenty for Michigan to, at least, be one of the top teams in the league.
A better non-conference strength of schedule and this team probably would’ve been in the Big Dance last season. They weren’t, but the Cornhuskers have a lot returning from a team that won 13 conference games last season. They’ll be led by seniors James Palmer, a player of the year candidate, and Isaac Copeland as well as junior forward Isaiah Roby. Those three will lead the best Cornhusker team since the 1990’s – a team that will be a threat to win the program’s first ever NCAA tournament game.
3. Michigan St
Last season was one of the strangest in Tom Izzo’s tenure as head coach at Michigan St. From the team being overshadowed by the school’s mishandling of the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal to the team’s early exit from the tournament. Two first-round draft picks in Jaren Jackson and Miles Bridges are gone so it will be up to juniors Cassius Winston, Nick Ward and Joshua Langford to step up. This probably won’t be the best team Izzo has coach, but he’ll probably enjoy not having to answer questions that needed to be asked.
Wisconsin fans are used to winning so last season was such a departure for them. This season should see a return to the tournament because so much of the roster returns including senior forward Ethan Happ, who will be an all-American candidate. Happ is the leader of a lineup that sees its top eight scorers from last season returning. The Badgers look to be back.
Speaking of teams that could be back, Indiana had an up-and-down season last season, but look to be headed for greener pastures. Coach Archie Miller brought in one of the best recruiting classes in the country led by Indiana high school legend, guard Romeo Langford. He’ll be asked to be a key member of the supporting cast around senior forward Juwan Morgan, who will be one of the best players in America. This program is certainly on an upward trajectory.
The Boilermakers are at the tail end of the second great run under Matt Painter. They have to find replacements for Isaac Haas, Vince Edwards and Dakota Mathias in a hurry. Fortunately, national player of the year candidate, junior guard Carsen Edwards doesn’t leave the cupboard completely bare. He’ll be plenty good enough to carry the load for Purdue this season.
With everything going on at Maryland, the start of basketball season has to be a welcome respite. That being said, it better be a good season for head coach Mark Turgeon. He enters this season needing to usher his team to the tournament and the talent is there to do it. Junior guard Anthony Cowan has to be the leader of a team that returns sophomores Darryl Morsell and Bruno Fernando. Five-star freshman Jalen Smith leads an incoming class that also features Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala. There will be nowhere to hide if this doesn’t work.
Head coach Fran McCaffery is going to have to get a better defensive performance out of this team to prevent a repeat of last season’s disappointment. I think he can and with the firepower returning in juniors Jordan Bohannon and Tyler Cook and sophomore Luka Garza. Those three in addition to freshman Joe Wieskamp should have the Hawkeyes in the mix for a NCAA tournament berth.
Injuries and other types of roster attrition plagued the Gophers last season. They’re healthy now and there is enough talent here to get back to the NCAA tournament. The story is whether there will be another scandal to derail, not only the season, but also coach Richard Pitino’s tenure at the school. Senior Jordan Murphy will be an awesome weapon for a Minnesota team that could finish much higher than this prediction if everything goes right.
10. Penn St
Tony Carr declaring for the draft is keeping the Nittany Lions from being a top-5 team in this league. He and Shep Garner are huge losses. The cupboard isn’t bare as juniors Lamar Stevens, Mike Watkins and sophomore Josh Reaves return. Freshmen Myles Dread and Rasir Bolton will provide depth and will be great pieces for the future.
Two years ago the Wildcats made the program’s first ever NCAA tournament and had people thinking the team would be even better last season. Then the season started and it was clear that people overrated their talent. This season Northwestern will be aided by returning to Welsh-Ryan Arena for home games after playing in Rosemont last season. Seniors Vic Law and Dererk Pardon should be steady hands for head coach Chris Collins.
12. Ohio St
Head coach Chris Holtman put together one of the more surprising seasons in all of college basketball last season. The Buckeyes had no expectations, but led by Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate they earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. They’re both gone and leave a sizable hole to fill. Sophomore forward Kaleb Wesson and senior guard C.J. Jackson will attempt to fill that hole along with freshmen Luther Muhammad and Jaedon LeDee.
Coach Brad Underwood’s first season was not a good one, but there’s reason to be optimistic here. Sophomore guard Trent Frazier and junior forward Kipper Nichols return to a team that’ll also feature one of the best freshmen in the country in Ayo Dosunmu. It’s a little too soon to expect a tournament run this year for the Illini, but it’s coming.
Rutgers gave its fans a glimmer of hope during its run in the Big Ten tournament last season, but the fact of the matter is this team still won’t be competitive in the league this year. Sophomore Geo Baker and Freshman Montez Mathis could be a solid backcourt in the future.
1. Kentucky Wildcats Location: Lexington, Ky. Record: 32-2 Automatic Bid: Southeastern Conference Champions Key Players: John Wall (16.9 ppg, 6.4 apg), DeMarcus Cousins (15.3 ppg, 10.1 rpg), Patrick Patterson (14.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg), Erick Bledsoe (10.8 ppg) Strength: This team has talent everywhere. Coach John Calipari brought in one of the best recruiting classes in the country and they haven’t disappointed. John Wall has the entire state doing his dance while DeMarcus Cousins has owned opposing big men. They defend; they’re dangerous in transition and have guys who can create their own shot in the half-court. This is definitely a legit national title contender. Weakness: This team is young and has showed its youth on occasion. It hasn’t hurt the Wildcats so far, but the NCAA tournament is a different animal. There’s a whole other kind of pressure that comes with the Big Dance, especially when Kentucky is across the front of the uniform. If they show their immaturity at any point in this tournament it could be lights out for them.
2. West Virginia Mountaineers Location: Morgantown, W.V. Record: 27-6 Automatic Bid: Big East Conference Champions Key Players: Da’Sean Butler (17.4 ppg 6.3 rpg), Kevin Jones (13.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg), Devin Ebanks (11.8 ppg, 8.2 rpg), Darryl Bryant (9.7 ppg) Strength: West Virginia owns the backboards. The Mountaineers are one of the best rebounding teams in the nation. They’re not big, but coach Bob Huggins makes it a prerequisite for players in his program to rebound. It’s such a weapon for a team that’s not explosive offensively. They lead the Big East in offensive rebound percentage at 42.4 percent. When a team is allowed that many second chances, it makes them extremely difficult to beat. Weakness: West Virginia really struggles to shoot at times. They’re streaky, but if you can make them miss and keep them off of the boards, they’re a really ordinary team. They’re only shooting 43.4 percent from the field and 69.6 percent from the free throw line. Those numbers are going to have to go up if they expect to make a deep run in the tournament.
3. New Mexico Lobos Location: Albuquerque, N.M. Record: 29-4 At-Large Bid: Mountain West Conference Key Players: Darrington Hobson (16.2 ppg, 9.2 rpg), Roman Martinez (13.8 ppg, 6 rpg), Dairese Gary (12.7 ppg), Phillip McDonald (10.7 ppg), A.J. Hardeman (5.6 rpg) Strength: The Lobos have four guys who can light up the scoreboard with the best of them. Led by Darrington Hobson, the Lobos have the type of offensive balance most teams dream of. They score over 76 points per game and have a number of guys who can score at any given moment. The four all shoot a good percentage from behind the arc and have been consistent all year. If they’re getting good offensive outputs from all four, they’re a very tough out. Weakness: New Mexico gets a lot of production out of its four stars, but they get nothing out of anyone else. New Mexico has been good when the four guys get going, but what happens if one player doesn’t get it going. That’s the challenge New Mexico coach Steve Alford has to face this postseason. If one star doesn’t produce, than someone else will have to play outside of themselves for the Lobos to be successful.
4. Wisconsin Badgers Location: Madison, Wis. Record: 23-8 At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference Key Players: Trevon Hughes (15.4 ppg), Jon Leuer (14.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg), Jason Bohannon (11.8 ppg), Jordan Taylor (10.2 ppg), Keaton Nankivil (8.6 ppg) Strength: This team is about toughness and tempo. Bo Ryan-coached teams are going to defend well, hit the boards, and run their sets on offense. This team is no different. It’s not going to scare you with athleticism, but no team is going to be able to scare the Badgers using their athleticism either. They’re physical, disciplined and will scrap to the end. Weakness: Explosiveness is really lacking when you look at the Badgers. Not just offensively, where they don’t have a guy who can really take over a game, but they also don’t have a guy who can overwhelm you with his athleticism defensively. They’re not dangerous in transition and they can’t really challenge people at the rim. This is a typical Wisconsin team, which means if their toughness is matched, then they will be in a lot of trouble.
5. Temple Owls Location: Philadelphia, Pa. Record: 29-5 Automatic Bid: Atlantic 10 Champions Key Players: Ryan Brooks (14.3 ppg), Juan Fernandez (12.4 ppg,), Lavoy Allen (11.7 ppg, 10.9 rpg) Strength: Temple might be the best defensive team in the country. The Owls are first in the A-10 in field goal percentage defense at 37.9 percent and they’re second in the conference in three-point field goal percentage defense at 28.1 percent. They’re also No. 1 in the conference in defensive rebound percentage grabbing 72.5 percent of their opponents’ misses. They’re not only taking away initial offense, but they’re limiting second chances as well. This team will be a tough out in the tournament. Weakness: For a team that controls tempo, the Owls aren’t very efficient. Temple is only shooting 43.6 percent and having a negative turnover margin, Temple is a great offensive team. In addition to that, they’re shooting just 68.9 percent from the free-throw line. They only score 64.9 points per game which is good enough for 12th in the conference. They will need to be better offensively to have a chance for success in the tournament.
6. Marquette Golden Eagles Location: Milwaukee, Wis. Record: 22-11 At-Large Bid: Big East Conference Key Players: Lazar Hayward (18.1 ppg, 7.7 rpg), Jimmy Butler (14.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg), Darius Johnson-Odom (12.8 ppg), Maurice Acker (8.5 ppg) Strength: Whatever Marquette coach Buzz Williams is doing, he needs to bottle it up and sell it. There isn’t a team in the country that gives the effort night-in and night-out like the Golden Eagles. This team lost three of the greatest players in the history of the program last season and was able to come out and have an outstanding season. That’s due to how hard they play. They’re going to fight and claw to the end. It’s going to take an amazing effort to knock Marquette out of the tournament. Weakness: The Golden Eagles really lack a quality big man inside. This has shown up in their rebounding numbers and in post defense. They were out-rebounded by opponents by 1.2 rebounds per game. They’re in the bottom fourth of the Big East in every major rebounding category. Then there’s the matter of defending the post. There has been occasions where a team with a solid post player has really exploited Marquette. This will be an issue if Marquette plays a team with solid big men.
7. Clemson Tigers Location: Clemson, S.C. Record: 21-10 At-Large Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference Key Players: Trevor Booker (15.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg), Demontez Stitt (11.1 ppg), Tanner Smith (8.9 ppg), Andre Young (8.9 ppg) Strength: Clemson has a style of play that many teams haven’t seen. Clemson will full-court press for 40 minutes and they have the athletes to make it work. With Trevor Booker at the top of the press, the Tigers force over 17 turnovers per game; close 10 of those come off of steals. Clemson takes turnovers and creates offense off of them. If they’re allowed to do that, they are a very dangerous team. Weakness: At just under 66 percent, the Tigers are one of the worst free-throw shooting teams in the ACC. The crazy thing is most of the team shoots pretty well from the charity stripe, but Trevor Booker is killing the team. He’s taken 69 more free throws than any of his teammates making just 59.2 percent. That is an issue for a team that relies on Booker to give it offensive production.
8. Texas Longhorns Location: Austin, Texas Record: 24-9 At-Large Bid: Big XII Conference Key Players: Damion James (18 ppg, 10.4 rpg), Avery Bradley (11.7 ppg), Dexter Pittman (10.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg), Jordan Hamilton (9.8 ppg), Gary Johnson (9.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg), J’Covan Brown (9.3 ppg) Strength: Texas has guys in the post who are relentless on the boards. Damion James, Dexter Pittman and Gary Johnson are monsters on the glass. Their efforts helped Texas to a Big XII leading 42.2 rebounds per game, almost seven better than Texas’ opponents per game. James is especially tough. The 6’7” wingman has been the Longhorn’s most consistent player overall and just a complete animal on the boards. Weakness: Texas coach Rick Barnes still hasn’t figured out what to do with his roster. He had one of the country’s best recruiting classes last year and he thought he needed to play everyone. He didn’t figure out who should play and when and it became a major flow issue. It’s the primary reason why a team that was at one time, the No. 1 team in the nation, struggled mightily down the stretch.
9. Wake Forest Demon Deacons Location: Winston-Salem, N.C. Record: 19-10 At-Large Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference Key Players: Al-Farouq Aminu (15.7 ppg, 10.7 rpg), Ishmael Smith (13.3 ppg, 6 apg) , C.J. Harris (10 ppg), L.D. Williams (8.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg), Chas McFarland (7.1 rpg) Strength: Wake Forest is one of the best defensive teams in the ACC. They have athletic players which make for great defenders. The Demon Deacons are holding foes to just over 38 percent in overall field goal percentage, a little under 29 percent from behind the arc and they’re getting over seven steals per game. That defense has allowed them to get their transition game going and helped them to some huge wins this season. Weakness: Wake Forest just flat-out turns the ball over too much. The Demon Deacons are 11th and 12th in turnover margin and assist-to-turnover ratio in the ACC respectively. Al-Farouq Aminu and Ishmael Smith are the cause of many of the issues as they turn the ball over 6.2 times per game. When the two players who dominate the ball at such an alarming rate, it will lead to misfortune and maybe another one-and-done trip to the tournament.
10. Missouri Tigers Location: Columbia, Mo Record: 22-10 At-Large Bid: Big XII Conference Key Players: Kim English (13.9 ppg), Marcus Denmon (10.8 ppg), Laurence Bowers (10.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg), J.T. Tiller (8.8 ppg), Zaire Taylor (8.2 ppg) Strength: When the Missouri Tigers step on the floor it is surely to be an out of control affair. A lot of teams employ full-court presses, but none really do it quite the way the Tigers do. They always seem to toe the line of being a little too out of control, but that’s the way they like it. If they’re too frenetic then their opponent probably is too and if that’s the case, they are in their comfort zone. Weakness: Missouri struggles on the boards. The Tigers are one of the weakest rebounding teams in the Big XII. They’re 10th in the league, getting out-rebounded by an average of 2.6 rebounds per game. Being able to turn people over kind of masked that deficiency for most of the season, but against teams who take good care of the basketball, that could come back to haunt the Tigers.
11. Washington Huskies Location: Seattle, Wash. Record: 24-9 Automatic Bid: Pac-10 Conference Champions Key Players: Quincy Pondexter (19.8 ppg, 7.5 rpg), Isaiah Thomas (17.1 ppg), Matthew Bryan-Amaning (8.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Venoy Overton (8.5 ppg) Strength: Quincy Pondexter and Isaiah Thomas comprise one of the most potent one-two punches in the country. Between the two stars, they average about 37 points per game and, because of their efforts, the Huskies led the Pac-10 in scoring. Thomas is a quick point guard who’s tough to handle in transition while Pondexter is a tweener who can score in the post or from behind the arc. Weakness: What’s made the Huskies dynamic in previous seasons is having a dominant low-post presence. They don’t have one this season and that’s why they struggled against many of the good teams on their schedule. There’s no Jon Brockman or Spencer Hawes this season so that’s made them very perimeter dominant. Matthew Bryan-Amaning has been serviceable, but he hasn’t been the answer consistently. They need him to give a huge effort to be successful.
12. Cornell Big Red Location: Ithaca, N.Y. Record: 27-4 Automatic Bid: Ivy League Champions Key Players: Ryan Wittman (17.5 ppg), Jeff Foote (12.3 ppg, 8.2 rpg), Louis Dale (11.9 ppg), Chris Wroblewski Foote (8.9 ppg) Strength: Cornell is a bit atypical for a college basketball team, especially at the mid-major level. The Big Red has outstanding guards, a great post presence and a swing player who may play in the NBA. This team, once again, proved that it was too difficult to defend in the Ivy League and it is confident that’ll be too difficult to defend for its first-round opponent. Weakness: This is a team that’ll have issues against a team that can really shoot the three-point shot. The Big Red’s opponents are shooting around 35 percent from deep. That stat reared its ugly head big time in its loss to Penn. The Quakers shot over 52 percent from behind the arc. If they can’t defend three=pointers well, they’ll have another short stay in the tournament.
13. Wofford Terriers Location: Spartanburg, S.C. Record: 26-8 Automatic Bid: Southern Conference Champions Key Players: Noah Dahlman (16.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg), Jamar Diggs (9.4 ppg), Tim Johnson (7.9 rpg) Strength: The Terriers are an incredible defensive team. They hold their opponents to 41.8 percent shooting and 30.9 percent from three while forcing 14.3 turnovers per game. Teams are barely scoring 61 points per game on them. In fact, the Terriers have held 13 of their opponents under 60 points this season. That kind of defense led them to a pretty dominant year in the Southern Conference and will help them to a possible upset in the Big Dance. Weakness: This is a team that relies one man too much. Noah Dahlman is the conference’s player of the year, but he needs to have help for them to beat the talent they’ll face in the NCAA tournament. He’s the only player averaging in double figures and the only legitimate post presence they have. At just 6’6”, he’s going to play against guys who can match-up with him and Wofford is going to need a plan b to be successful.
14. Montana Grizzlies Location: Missoula, Mont. Record: 22-9 Automatic Bid: Big Sky Conference Champions Key Players: Anthony Johnson (19.6 ppg), Brian Qvale (9.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Ryan Staudacher (8.6 ppg), Will Cherry (8.3 ppg), Derek Selvig (5 rpg) Strength: Montana is the best defensive team in the Big Sky conference. The Grizzlies are holding their opponents to just 41.7 percent shooting from the floor. They’re third in the league in blocks and are in the top half of their league in defensive rebound percentage. That means they stop people and then refuse to give second chances. It helped them come back in the Big Sky Championship game and they hope it helps keep them competitive in the tournament. Weakness: Montana is really dependent on one man to play well. Anthony Johnson has to be aggressive and playing well for Montana to have any chance. In the first half against Weber St in the Big Sky Championship he only had eight first-half points and the Grizzlies found themselves down by 20. They were able to comeback in the second half, but they won’t be playing Weber St in the tournament. They’ll be playing a good team who won’t be easy to make up ground on.
15. Morgan State Bears Location: Baltimore, Md. Record: 27-9 Automatic Bid: Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Champions Key Players: Reggie Holmes (21.8 ppg), Kevin Thompson (12.8 ppg, 11.9 rpg), DeWayne Jackson (10.1 ppg), Troy Smith (9.3 ppg) Strength: The Bears will go as far as their two stars will take them. Forward Kevin Thompson and his backcourt mate Reggie Holmes are two of the best players at the low-major level. Holmes is leading scorer in Morgan St history and the success the program has enjoyed during his time at Morgan has him at the top of the list of the school’s all-time greats. If those two guys play well, the Bears will have a chance to be competitive. Weakness: The Bears’ depth is almost non-existent. Production drops incredibly once coach Todd Bozeman goes to his bench. The bears are getting a lot of production from their two aforementioned stars along with DeWayne Jackson and Troy Smith, but pass that there’s not much. There’s no way they’re going to be able to win a game without having another guy step up and play outside of himself.
16. East Tennessee State Buccaneers Location: Johnson City, Tenn. Record: 20-14 Automatic Bid: Atlantic Sun Conference Champions Key Players: Tommy Hubbard (14.1 ppg. 8.3 rpg), Micah Williams (12.5 ppg), Justin Tubbs (12 ppg) Strength: Across the board, East Tennessee St is outstanding defensively. The Buccaneers’ opponents are shooting a little over 41 percent while turning the ball over almost 17 times per game. Nothing gives you a chance to win like being able to stop defensively. The Buccaneers have done that all year and find themselves in the NCAA tournament, a very familiar place for the program. Weakness: There’s a reason why East Tennessee St has 14 losses and it’s because it is close to awful on the offensive end of the floor. The Buccaneers barely shoot over 43 percent from the floor, shoot 31 percent from behind the arc, and are in last place in the Atlantic Sun Conference in assist-to-turnover ratio at 0.73. Those numbers are too ugly to expect them to stay in this tournament for very long.
This blog will be dedicated to nothing but college basketball. Right now, we’re in the midst of Holiday tournament season with one of the great tournaments, EA Sports Maui Invitational tipping off today.
Saint Josephs vs. (8) Texas
Indiana vs. (9) Notre Dame
Chaminade vs. (1) North Carolina
Oregon vs. Alabama
We also have two other barnburners on tap for today as well.
(22) Wisconsin vs. (2) Connecticut-Championship game of the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands
Syracuse vs. (19) Florida in the semi-finals of the O’Reilly Auto Parts CBE Classic.
Lot’s of action makes this Monday tolerable. Talk to you later.