I think it’s fair to say that college basketball has reached a point where the stuff happening off the court is more interesting than the stuff happening on it. Things were already bad with the scandals hanging over individual programs, from North Carolina’s academic fraud case to Louisville’s hiring of prostitutes for recruits to whatever incriminating evidence Bruce Weber used to blackmail Kansas State into handing him a contract extension over the summer. And then news of the FBI probe hit in September and all hell broke loose. Now, if you tell people you love college basketball, they might assume that you love parsing legal documents, watching coaches get put in handcuffs, and listening to Jay Bilas shit on the NCAA. And that’s to say nothing of the larger conversation about the amateur model and the kids being exploited. The discourse around college basketball has gotten so far removed from the factors that make the sport great that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to remember that the sport is still great.
That changes today. Well, not today, per se. The first day of games usually sucks, to be honest. But you know what I’m getting at. The 2017–18 season has arrived, which means it’s time to focus on what happens on the court instead of in court. For the next five months, we can yell at each other about the important things, like whether Gonzaga is overrated.
Yes, college basketball is finally back. And more importantly, so are the most powerful power rankings in college basketball.
12. West Virginia
Say it with me in your best Dick Vitale voice: “Bob Huggins deserves to be in the Hall of Fame!” Huggins, the Mountaineers’ 11th-year head coach, has a decent chance to cross the 800-win threshold for his Division I career in the next two seasons, which would leave him and Eddie Sutton as the only two 800-win men’s head coaches at that level who aren’t enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Meanwhile, Huggins is set to become the winningest Division I coach who isn’t in the separate National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame, which I suppose feels like a strong case for his inclusion until you realize that there will always be one coach who fits that description. If coaches were inducted into halls of fame based on that criterion alone, we’d just keep giving commemorative jackets to whoever sits atop the list, and before you know it Dan Dakich and his .525 winning percentage would be in Springfield, Massachusetts, giving a three-hour acceptance speech that turns into a roast of Frank Kaminsky.
Which brings me to my ultimate point: Who gives a shit about any of this? (No offense, Dickie V.) I’d put everyone in my version of the Hall of Fame. I’d make it the size of the Mall of America and install a roller coaster called “Rick Pitino’s Career” that would last 15 seconds and blindfold riders so they had no idea what was happening around them. I’d charge coaches and players $10,000 to be inducted and turn it into a Ponzi scheme wherein I honor more and more people each year. There are maybe 10 players and coaches in the history of basketball who people will still give a damn about in 200 years, so really these halls of fame are already bloated. We might as well just take things to the extreme and let virtually everyone in, especially guys like Huggins, who will surely throw one hell of a party to celebrate.
Until that call comes for Huggy Bear, I guess he’s going to have to settle for his parties taking on a different form: Jevon Carter and the Mountaineers’ press defense forcing a million turnovers against a top-ranked team, West Virginia winning in convincing fashion, and the coach trying to stay alive as thousands of drunk college students belt out “Take Me Home, Country Roads” while they rush onto the court. That’s not a bad consolation prize.
11. North Carolina
I always know that a college basketball season is about to start when I catch myself poring over North Carolina’s roster and experiencing serious doubts about the Tar Heels being highly ranked. It’s become a November tradition for me. And I’m happy to report that the tradition is alive and well heading into this season, because seriously — how is Roy Williams going to pull this off? Granted, I thought that the departures of Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson to the NBA would hurt last season’s Heels, and I suppose one could argue that Carolina’s national championship win proved me wrong. But this time I’m sure that my concerns are justified.
The Heels lost ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Tony Bradley, and Nate Britt, and replaced them with … a 20th-ranked national recruiting class and a guy who averaged 11.9 points per game for the worst Pitt team of this millennium. Joel Berry II is made of papier-mâché; even the biggest Carolina fan in the world remembers only one shot that Luke Maye made last season; Kenny Williams has had two knee surgeries within a 15-month span; and I get an ulcer watching Theo Pinson try to shoot a basketball. I have no idea how this team is even going to make the NCAA tournament, let alone win a game once it gets there. That’s why I want to take this opportunity to congratulate North Carolina fans on the program’s third consecutive trip to the Final Four.
It feels weird to power-rank Cincinnati in the top 10 considering that I’m pretty sure there’s a college basketball mandate requiring the Bearcats be ranked in the teens at all times. At least, that’s the sentiment that typically surrounds head coach Mick Cronin’s teams: They’re good enough to beat anybody on a given night, but not good enough to beat anyone on every given night. And while the Bearcats have always been great defensively, Cronin’s offensive game plan usually consists of hoping that one of his players will get hot and riding that for guy for 40 minutes. When that doesn’t work, Cronin scrunches up his face and starts making weird noises as if he’s just been given a hot-sauce enema.
This Cincinnati team should be different from past ones in that it figures to be the best offensive group that Cronin has ever coached, led by senior forward Gary Clark and redshirt junior guard Cane Broome, a transfer from Sacred Heart who averaged 23.1 points per game two seasons ago. I see this as a positive development because it means that the Bearcats should be balanced and able to adjust to various opposing styles. I’m sure Cronin will feel differently if/when this offensive improvement comes at the cost of Cincy no longer having a lockdown defense, though.
The Gators lose a significant amount of talent from last season’s Elite Eight squad, as Devin Robinson turned pro after his junior year and Kasey Hill, Canyon Barry (the granny-style free throw guy), and Justin Leon graduated. Still, KeVaughn Allen, the team’s leading scorer (14 points per game), who dropped 35 on Wisconsin in the 2017 Sweet 16, is back, as is Chris Chiozza, who put the final dagger through Wisconsin’s heart at the buzzer. The Gators also bring back big man John Egbunu, who tore his ACL in February and missed the remainder of the season, and add some transfers who can fill it up (Egor Koulechov from Rice and Jalen Hudson from Virginia Tech).
All of that is fine and well, but let’s be honest: None of the names on the Gators roster (outside of maybe Allen) have national cachet. And if I’m a Florida fan, I wouldn’t have it any other way. This team reminds me of the 2013–14 Gators group I loved so much, in the sense that the individual parts might feel underwhelming, but the collective amount of athleticism and defensive talent on the roster is absurd. Mike White’s team might just have the right combination of pieces to make a title run.
You’re never going to believe this, but it’s November and John Calipari doesn’t love the way his team looks. The Wildcats are too young. They have too much to learn, and Cal doesn’t have enough time to teach it. I just can’t believe that you’re ranking this team so high, you guys! Honestly, it’s not fair to these kids. They’re the ones who are hurt by the expectations. This freshman class at Kentucky — composed of Kevin Knox, Hamidou Diallo, Deon Jamison, Quade Green, Jarred Vanderbilt, Thomas Campbell, P.J. Washington, Ray Bell, and Nick Richards (I made up three of those names and I’m betting that you don’t know which three, nor care enough to find out) — is full of top-25 national recruits, but come on. They’re just kids! And don’t even talk to me about how sophomores Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones were top-25 recruits in the 2016 class, either. They just finished their freshman seasons, so they’re kids, too. And all the coaches on Kentucky’s staff are technically somebody’s children. So if you think about it, everyone involved in this program is a kid.
Please remember everything in the paragraph above as the 2017–18 season unfolds. Nothing should be expected out of this team, and any games that Kentucky wins should be considered a direct reflection of Calipari’s ability to get these kids to listen.
Can I interest you in a 26-win team that returns 98 percent of its scoring, adds two former five-star recruits (freshman Charles O’Bannon Jr. and Duke transfer Derryck Thornton), will send multiple players to the NBA, and has a rotation that’s 10 deep (with six of the 10 being upperclassmen)? The Trojans had to sneak into the 2017 NCAA tournament because of an abysmal nonconference schedule, a 22-point loss at Utah, and a 1–6 record against the Pac-12’s three giants (Arizona, UCLA, and Oregon). And there are definitely concerns about their defense, as USC gave up an average of 73 points per game last season without playing at a particularly fast tempo. But if we’re just looking at what’s been assembled on paper — and that’s the point of preseason power rankings, isn’t it? — this roster is terrifying.
I think the heavy favorite to win the Pac-12 this season is the FBI. Still, the Trojans should be in the hunt come March.
6. Wichita State
I have a confession to make: I was way too cool to give a damn when I heard that Wichita State was joining the American Athletic Conference before this basketball season. The announcement was made last spring on the heels of the NCAA tournament, and after all the excitement that the tourney provided, I just couldn’t bring myself to care about the Shockers transitioning from a mid-major league to a second-tier conference. Now that the new season is here and the implications of the move are staring me in the face, though, I’ll admit that this is fantastic for the sport. And it comes at a perfect time, with Wichita State returning its top-eight scorers from their 31-win team, which gave a loaded Kentucky squad all it could handle during a 65–62 loss in March.
Other than trying to understand what the hell Jim Calhoun is saying during the games that he broadcasts, there hasn’t been a more frustrating task as a college basketball fan over the past few seasons than trying to figure out whether Wichita State is actually good. Sure, the American isn’t exactly the ACC, but at least the Shockers will now have a Final Four threat (Cincinnati) in their league, which is more than can be said about the high school teams they’d been beating up on in the Missouri Valley Conference. Now Wichita State will get more respect from the selection committee when it wins 31 games. And by that, I mean it’ll get a no. 6 seed instead of a no. 10 seed.
I’m still not over Kansas’s loss to Oregon in last season’s Elite Eight. Bill Self had his most stylistically fun Jayhawks team ever in 2016–17, and it’s no secret as to why: At long last, roster constraints forced Self to finally abandon his inside-out offensive approach and rely on four-guard lineups instead. Frank Mason III, Devonte’ Graham, Josh Jackson, Lagerald Vick, and Svi “The Ukrainmaker” Mykhailiuk were given the freedom to make plays; defenses were left running in circles; and guys like me who get paid to pretend to know stuff began champing at the bit at the thought of writing “SELF REINVENTS SELF” headlines. Kansas looked like a future national champion through the first few rounds of the tournament … and then the Jayhawks got their asses handed to them by the Ducks in a game in which Tyler Dorsey went off for 27 points. Self had the permanent smirk on his face working as Kansas went 5-for-25 from the 3-point line against Oregon, but on the inside you just know he was pissed that he placed his trust in 3s off drive-and-kicks instead of tried-and-true high-low elbow post feeds.
Kansas’s 2017–18 roster will likely rely on two primary big men: Udoka Azubuike and five-star recruit Billy Preston. That means the Jayhawks will probably lean heavily on guard play once again, as Graham, Vick, and the Ukrainmaker all return, while 6-foot-3 Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman joins the lineup. To advance to the Final Four, Kansas will have to avoid going cold when it matters most — although the program should win its 5,391st consecutive Big 12 title regardless.
I’m going to shoot you guys straight: I pretend to love this job that allows me to watch college basketball for a living. I pretend to enjoy pumping out content just as much as I pretend to care about the players and coaches. But the truth is that I do this only for the glory. I do it for the likes and faves and upvotes, and so people link to my stories on Twitter and sprinkle in some pithy commentary like “damn, he did it again” or “this is amazing” or “this guy usually sucks but he wasn’t too bad this time.” That’s what keeps me going. So please understand how much courage it takes for me to open up and dish out the hackiest possible Villanova take. Understand that I know I’ll be roasted for this, yet I’m still brave enough to step into the unknown and write the following: It’s time for Villanova to leave the Big East.
I know. It’s bad. Believe me — I wish I was joking as much as you do. I just can’t draw any other conclusion from revisiting the last four years of Big East basketball. The Wildcats have won every regular-season conference title since the Big East 2.0 was formed, and they’ve won all of those titles by multiple games. That’s ridiculous. Even Gonzaga and Wichita State can’t say the same about their recent experiences in the West Coast Conference and MVC. And all signs point to that streak continuing, as Villanova brings back Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte “The Big Ragu” DiVincenzo, and Eric Paschall, while former five-star recruit Omari Spellman joins the 2017–18 roster after sitting out last season for an academic mixup. I’m not going to claim to know how difficult it’d be to promote Villanova’s football program to the FBS, but I do know that this Big East 2.0 thing has run its course with the Cats. It’s time for Villanova to join the ACC or Big Ten, and I’m betting that its football team could beat the ones from North Carolina or Rutgers anyway.
In terms of raw talent, I think there’s a sizable gap between the top three teams in America and the rest of the field. What makes college basketball so great, of course, is that talent isn’t the only factor that determines who wins and who loses. Still, if you told every basketball coach in America that they could ask a magic genie for one wish, I’d imagine one or two might request “more talented players.” (That includes all of those high school coaches who have “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard” signs hanging in your locker rooms. That’s a garbage quote and you know it.)
Great news for Arizona fans: The 2017–18 Wildcats are absolutely loaded with talent. It’s disgusting how good this roster is. A strong case could be made that Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins, and Deandre Ayton will be the three best players in the Pac-12. And yeah, I know that the East Coasters reading this probably just rolled their eyes at the idea of “best in the Pac-12” being praiseworthy. But let me remind you that the Pac-12’s problem of late has been related to its teams’ success, not the production of individual players. This conference regularly cranks out high NBA draft picks, and that will be the case again as Ayton has a realistic chance of going first overall despite not even being the best player in his own program. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if the Wildcats might be the best team in the country, which I’m sure doesn’t sit well with an Arizona fan base that has been conditioned to assume that the other shoe is always going to drop.
2. Michigan State
My longtime readers know about my obsession with the Big Ten’s national championship drought, which dates back to Michigan State beating Florida in the 2000 title game. (No, Maryland’s 2002 title from when the Terrapins were still in the ACC doesn’t count. Stop it.) The Sean Miller–Arizona Final Four drought has locked down second place in my drought power rankings, but the top spot belongs to the Big Ten, and it isn’t especially close. It’s only fitting, then, that one of my top three teams is Arizona, and another is a Big Ten program that many are picking to cut down the nets in April. I like the odds of one of these droughts coming to an end this spring, but I can also feel the bile forming in my throat as I consider the possibility of Michigan State beating Arizona in the Elite Eight, only for the Spartans to fall to Duke in the national title game.
If Michigan State finally puts the Big Ten’s national championship drought to bed (and undoubtedly starts up the “non–Michigan State Big Ten teams haven’t won a title since 1989!” talk), it will likely be because Miles Bridges lives up to his national player of the year billing. I wrote about Bridges in my preseason player of the year primer, and I want to add one more point about him here. Bridges averaged 16.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 2.1 assists last season while shooting 48.6 percent from the field … and he had no idea what the hell he was doing. I mean that as a compliment. He was young (as was his entire team) and asked to do too much, and he basically just relied on his size, athleticism, and instinct. Now he has a year of experience under his belt, and the Spartans welcome back a couple of veteran big men (Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter) who sat out last year with knee injuries. Look out. And remember: Tom Izzo never fails in March (except when he does)!
Ah. It feels so right, doesn’t it? Hearing the phrase “Duke is the heavy preseason national title favorite because it has Grayson Allen and a group of freshmen who are expected to be first-round NBA draft picks” feels like taking off my shoes and falling into my recliner after a long day at work. It’s like cuddling with my dog, having scissors glide down wrapping paper, and getting a big plate of Mom’s homemade chicken and noodles all rolled into one. With so much chaos going on, it’s important to occasionally stop and appreciate all of the great things that this world has to offer. And buddy, let me tell you, Duke being BACK is right there at the top of my list.
I assume that you’re excited for the shitshow that’s about to unfold with this Duke season. I am too. The drama that surrounded last year’s Blue Devils was so amazing that there will still be people talking about it after the entire universe gets sucked into a black hole in a trillion years. It was the greatest single-season college basketball team saga of my lifetime, and the idea of getting even a fraction of it again in 2017–18 has me falling out of my chair with anticipation.
But remember this: Sequels often suck, so it’s important not to try to force the issue this time around. We shouldn’t freak out when Allen dives after a loose ball and knocks over an opponent in the process. Just take slow, deep breaths, and let it all come naturally. We have to be patient and allow the suspense to build; that way, when the Allen trip happens, Mike Krzyzewski takes a leave of absence, the team shuffles up its lineup, and Duke drops a handful of inexplicable blowouts, the payoff will be that much sweeter.
Until then, close your eyes, relax, and meditate on these words: Duke is the heavy preseason national title favorite because it has Grayson Allen and a group of freshmen who are expected to be first-round NBA draft picks.
Welcome to a new college basketball season, everybody.