By: Sean Golonka
The start of college hoops is almost upon us. And even though the NCAA is currently embroiled in an FBI investigation that has been described by Coach K as “a blip” and by Coach Cal as a “black eye,” there are still plenty of reasons to be excited about the return of collegiate basketball. So, without much further ado, let’s get into some predictions and reasons to be excited for the 2018-19 season.
Arizona and the rest of the Pac-12 will struggle
Last year, the Pac-12 had only three teams make the NCAA tournament, with a grand total of zero making it past the round of 64. This year, with Arizona’s recruiting class destroyed by the findings of an FBI investigation and ASU losing Tra Holder, Shannon Evans, and Kodi Justice, the Pac-12 really shouldn’t expect to do much better. Now, these two Arizona-based teams should find themselves finishing slight above the middle of the “pac,” but below them, teams like the Travis Reid-less Cardinals and the Oregon State Beavers just don’t have enough talent to make a serious tournament run.
Luckily for this conference though, they definitely have four tournament-worthy teams at the top. USC finally has a healthy Bennie Boatwright, who will be playing alongside a deep freshmen class. UCLA, despite losing two elite talents, in Shareef O’Neal and Tyger Campbell, for the entire season, still has a strong rotation of players, led by Jaylen Hands, Kris Wilkes, and a strong class led by five-star center Moses Brown. UW, a team that beat Zona, ASU, and Kansas last year, brings back four double-digit scorers and brings in three four-star recruits, which means the Huskies should have the depth and experience to hang right around the top of this conference. As for the best team in the conference…
Bol Bol over the competition
The 2019 Pac-12 champions will be the Oregon Ducks. There are just so many factors working in favor of this team. Dana Altman is arguably the best coach in the conference. Payton Pritchard, coming off of year of 14 and 5 with elite shooting, headlines a solid group of vets. Bol Bol is a freak of nature that will likely terrify most of the other 19 and 20 year-olds in the conference. Francis Okoro, Will Richardson, and Miles Norris are all good prospects. And, perhaps most importantly, Louis King is an absolute stud. King is tall. He’s long. He can score from all three levels. He can create his own shot. He’s explosive. Honestly, King is one of the most underappreciated freshman of his class, and he is the reason Oregon will finish atop the Pac-12.
Charles Matthews and co. challenge for conference title
The Big Ten, alongside the Pac-12, is honestly one of the poorer conferences in the Power 5 and is, at times, a bit boring. Fortunately, they have two elite teams from the same state right at the top. And even though the Tom Izzo-led Spartans are the favorite, as they bring back Joshua Langford, Nick Ward, and sharpshooter Cassius Winston, the reigning National Championship runner-ups could give last year’s Big Ten winner some problems. The Wolverines have to replace some production, but Charles Matthews is a star in the making. And he’s surrounded by a number of plus defenders that should make Michigan a formidable team come March.
Duke is Duke!
I’ll get to R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson later in the alphabet, but this year, Duke is going to, yet again, be Duke. They’ve lost a ton of talent to the draft, including the likes of Marvin Bagley III, Grayson Allen, and Wendell Carter. But, the Blue Devils have reloaded with a ton of top prospects, highlighted by Barrett, Williamson, Tre Jones, a talented distributor and the younger brother of National Champion Tyus Jones, and Cam Reddish, a severely underrated wing with fluidity, a solid outside shot, and a good all around game. And those young guys will be joined by a couple of solid veteran bigs, like Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier. Duke will expectedly have their early season hiccups, but like always, expect greatness from the villains of college basketball.
Elite Eight repeat?
So a perfect repeat of last year’s Elite Eight seems crazy, but we could see a number of 2018’s Elite Eight make it back to the regional semi’s in 2019. Loyola has enough returning talent to be one of the cinderella teams of the tournament again. Kansas State has a strong argument as the number two team in the Big 12. Michigan is a top-two team in the Big Ten. Florida State returns elite vets Phil Cofer and Terance Mann, and M.J. Walker should take a big step up offensively. Villanova was torn up by the draft, but they still have a bunch of talent and a tremendous system in place. Texas Tech is the biggest question mark out of the eight because of too much lost talent, and they’ll still likely return to the tournament. And Duke and Kansas are obviously top teams in college hoops that could easily return to the Elite Eight.
First day matchups for the ages
November 6th, Duke against Kentucky, Michigan State against Kansas, Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cassius Winston, Keldon Washington, Cam Reddish, Reid Travis, Dedric Lawson, Quentin Grimes, Izzo, Krzyzewski, Calipari, Self. I could keep going, but you get the point. The start of the college basketball season will be special.
Georgetown is back! (maybe)
Okay, so Georgetown definitely won’t be winning close to 30 games and competing for a National Championship. But, in the last three years, the Hoyas have failed to finish over .500. This year though, with Jessie Govan, one of the best returning players in the Big East, and some talented newcomers, like the electric high school star Mac McClung, the Patrick Ewing-led G-Town should be good enough to win at least 20 games. And at the very least, this team will be more fun to watch than it has been in years.
Howard headlines big names in Big East
Jessie Govan is definitely one of the best big men in the conference, and Markus Howard from Marquette could possibly lead the nation in scoring with his tremendous shooting. But the Big East is so much deeper with stars. Kamar Baldwin can do just about everything, and he might be the best player in the conference. Jahvon Quinerly is the best freshman in the conference, and he’ll make sure Nova stays in the national conversation. And, Shamorie Ponds and Mustapha Heron will give St. John’s one of the best back courts in the country.
Indiana is finally fun again
Indiana is probably the basketball capital of the world, and these past few years, IU just hasn’t been fun or good. Fortunately though, the 2018-19 Hoosiers have a deep group of vets that should be able to pick up wins. And, most importantly, Romeo Langford is the most exciting freshman in the conference, and he’ll likely will Indiana to a number of victories with his scoring ability.
Josh Perkins contingency
Zach Norvell Jr., Rui Hachimura, and Killian Tillie are all NBA-level talents that lead maybe the deepest group Mark Few has ever had at Gonzaga. They’re starting the season right around the top, and they look like a top-2 tournament seed. But if this team is going to succeed in the postseason, they are going to need Josh Perkins to step up and take on a Nigel Williams-Goss type role.
Kentucky and Kansas kompete for basketball supremacy
KU and UK are obviously the top two teams in college basketball entering the start of the 2018-2019 season. Both teams have great coaches, experienced veterans, dazzling five-star freshman, elite new transfers, and lots of talent and depth. So until we see them play some regular season basketball, the question remains: who is the best team in college hoops?
Laser Nate keeps ND relevant
With Bonzie Colson, Matt Farrell, and Martinas Geben, all gone, the Fighting Irish will likely have to rely on the likes of T.J. Gibbs and Rex Pflueger to keep them relevant in the ACC. The real key to this team maintaining a middle of the pack finish in the best conference in college basketball is incoming freshman Nate Laszewski, who I am giving the nickname Laser Nate. Laszewski is an elite sharpshooter, who will be one of the best shooters in the nation as a freshman. He’ll prove to be a difference maker in more than a few games for this team.
Maye for Naismith?
Last year, after getting an opportunity to start, Luke Maye put up 17 and 10 with 43% shooting from beyond the arc as a power forward. This year, the best returning player in college basketball could have a Tyler Hansbrough-esque year. Hansbrough, a former Tar Heel power forward, won both a Naismith and National Title at UNC, and with shades of Hansbrough in his game, we could see Maye make the jump to a 20 ppg guy, which along with a bunch of wins, could land him a NPOY award.
Name a better backcourt duo.
The new St. John’s Red Storm back court has the best pair of names in the country. Returning junior Shamorie Ponds is joined by Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron. Wow, aren’t those fun to say? More importantly though, these two guys make up the best starting PG-SG combo in the country, at least outside of Kansas. Ponds is coming off a 22-5-5 year. And last year, Heron put up 16-4-5 with above average defense. St. John’s is going to be a fun team to watch this season.
Oak Hill does not quit
Oak Hill Academy in Virginia has produced some great NBA players over the years. From Kevin Durant to Carmelo Anthony to Rajon Rondo to Michael Beasley to Brandon Jennings, a whole lot of talent has come out of that high school. And this year, Keldon Johnson, Kentucky’s best freshman and one of the best incoming players in the nation, is from Oak Hill. Oh also, Oak Hill has the number two guy in the class of 2019, Cole Anthony.
Patriot League basketball?
Now that I’m a college student, I feel somewhat compelled to include some information about my college’s basketball team because I’m a prideful student or something along those lines. The Terriers are in the Patriot League, which honestly is one of the worst conferences in college basketball. But, thanks to my fellow WTBU writer, Greg Levinsky, I know Lehigh and Bucknell will probably be competing for the Patriot League title. All I can really say about Boston University basketball though is: at least they’re in Division I.
Quentin Grimes doesn’t even need to play
The Kansas Jayhawks are so loaded this year, especially in the back court, that five-star point guard Quentin Grimes could probably miss the whole year, and KU would still be fine. Devon Dotson, Lagerald Vick, Marcus Garrett, and the Lawson brothers can all play in the back court or at least handle the ball well. And having five elite guys like that is more than every other team. But unfortunately for the rest of college basketball, Kansas does have six with Quentin Grimes rounding out the bunch and perhaps being the best playmaker on the Jayhawks’ roster.
R.J. Barrett deserves a whole section to himself
No other team, player, conference, or storyline deserves to be mentioned with the letter “R” more than R.J. Barrett. The Canadian stud was the number one prospect from the class of 2018. He’ll likely go number one in the NBA draft next June. He’s an elite athlete. He can shoot. He can slash. He can distribute. He can defend. He was the only freshman picked to the pre-season All-American team. And he’ll be a must-watch player all year long at Duke.
SEC reaches two-sport domination
The SEC is clearly the best conference in football and not just because Bama is so much better than everyone else. And this year, the conference could find the same success in basketball. (Okay, they’re obviously not gonna match the absurdly deep ACC, but they can elevate themselves to the number two conference in college hoops.)
Kentucky is the possible number one team in the nation. Regular season SEC co-champions Auburn and Tennessee are both top-10 teams that could make deep tournament runs, as the Tigers return Bryce Brown and Jared Harper and get back Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley, while the Vols bring back their best six players, most notably Admiral Schofield and former SEC POY Grant Williams.
Beyond the top three, LSU could make a postseason run with elite point guard Tremont Waters leading a deep group of talented newcomers. Mississippi State has bunches of experience and are adding a five-star recruit. Bama, lead by Tevin Mack and John Petty in the back court, will likely return to the tournament. And Florida, Mizzou, and Vandy all have strong rotations that could land them in the NCAA tournament mix.
Tyus Battle will make it past the Sweet Sixteen
Last year Syracuse made it to the Sweet Sixteen after being a big question mark to even make the tournament. And this year, the Orange have the potential to be a dangerous tourney team again. Frank Howard and Oshae Brissett return to give this team elite defensive potential. And more importantly, Tyus Battle returns after a 19 point-per-game year, ready to take Cuse to the next level and make a name for himself.
UNR deserves some attention!
As someone from Nevada, I am so excited to watch this team. And if you’re a fan of basketball, you should be too. The Wolf Pack have maybe the best offense in all of Division I. And as a Mountain West conference team, they’ll have plenty of opportunities to flex their versatility and scoring ability.
Nevada brings back Caleb and Cody Martin and Jordan Caroline, three switchy 6’7” guys that all averaged at least 14 points a game last year and have the ability to move the rock. Also, UNR is adding six transfers that all averaged at least 13 a game last year, and they’re bringing in four-star center Jordan Brown. I hope all my friends in Reno get to this team’s games before they start making some noise in March.
Virginia can’t reach 29
Tony Bennett has built a great program in Charlottesville. UVA has won at least 29 games in four of the last five years. And this year, motivated by one of the most embarrassing losses in college basketball history (as the one seed, Virginia lost to 16 UMBC, in case you forgot), with three elite guys returning, Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, and De’Andre Hunter, the Cavs look like they could be a great team yet again.
But this year, they will fail to reach that 29 win mark again, as their lack of big man depth will hurt them too much in a conference loaded with elite players that can attack the rim. They can make it past round one this year though, as long as De’Andre Hunter is actually healthy for the tournament.
Will anyone (ever) take down Kansas?
Kansas has won 14 straight Big 12 title. And this year, it looks like they’ll win it for the 15th time in a row. KU is a clear top-two team in the country, meanwhile their competition is likely not as fierce as it was last year. Fortunately though, the battles between teams two through seven will at least be pretty fun, as this conference should expect to send seven teams to the tournament again. Only Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Baylor should fail to make it.
But, Iowa State has Lindell Wigginton. Chris Beard has put together a strong program at TTU. Texas has a deep rotation led by the Kerwin Roach. A healthy Jaylen Fisher is joined by a number of other versatile playmakers at TCU. West Virginia, recovering from the losses of Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles, is still headlined by one of the best bigs in the country, Sagaba Konate. And Kansas State returns most of a strong defensive team, as well as their top two scorers from last year, Dean Wade and Barry Brown.
X-Factors for top teams?
Obviously, top teams like Duke, Kentucky, and Kansas are absolutely loaded with talent, but who are the x-factor players that will determine whether or not college basketball’s best teams can differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack?
For Duke, it’s Tre Jones. Barrett, Williamson, and Reddish are all elite wings, but all the successful Duke teams of recent times have relied on great playmakers to take pressure off their other top players. For Gonzaga, it’s Josh Perkins (see letter J for details). For Kansas, it’ll likely be Udoka Azubuike, mostly due to Kansas’s depth being concentrated on the wing and in the back court. For UNC, it’ll be Coby White, as he’ll be counted on to fill the role that Joel Berry and Marcus Paige have taken on in recent years. For Florida State, it will be M.J. Walker, who needs to take over as a scorer to take the Seminoles to the top. And for Virginia, it will be Alabama transfer Braxton Key, who will need to make an impact right away in the front court.
Year of the Junior
Like any other year, all four classes of college players are stacked with great players. But this year, the junior class seems to be even better than usual. Carsen Edwards, Rui Hachimura, D’Marcus Simonds, Tyus Battle, Markus Howard, Dedric Lawson, Sagaba Konate, Kamar Baldwin, Mustapha Heron, Shamorie Ponds, Kyle Guy, Killian Tillie, Ky Bowman, Payton Pritchard, Grant Williams, are all juniors. Wow. Juniors could easily win POY awards in the Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, SEC, and ACC.
Zion Williamson is a man among boys
There’s really no better way to end this preview then by discussing the most exciting story of the upcoming college basketball season. Zion Williamson is 6-foot-6 and 285 pounds of pure muscle. He’s got a 40-inch vertical. He’s a physical freak of nature.
Throughout high school, we saw him, time and time again, throw down some of the nastiest dunks you’ll ever see. Any time he steps on the court, even against other college athletes, he looks like a man among boys. He’ll likely play the 3, 4, and 5 at Duke. If he can sustain the three-point shooting success he had during the Blue Devils’ run through Canada, then he’ll be a match-up nightmare for literally everyone in college basketball. Although he basically already is, given his physique. To put it all simply, any time Zion Williamson is on the court this season, you should be watching.