I don’t mean to alarm anyone, but it’s that time of year when “way-too-early top 25” college basketball pieces are now being replaced by just “too-early top 25” pieces, which means that, if you point your ear in the direction of Tampa Bay during the next full moon, you might be able to faintly hear Dick Vitale comparing Grayson Allen to John Havlicek. That’s not to say that you should panic. We’re still three months away from the tip-off of the 2017-18 season, meaning there remains plenty of time to prepare yourself for the triennial tradition of Kentucky beating the hell out of Kansas in the Champions Classic. It’s just that college basketball has a way of sneaking up on everyone. With Game of Thrones (America’s favorite sport) going into overdrive, football season around the corner, and the MLB playoffs and the beginning of the NBA season creeping up, I wouldn’t blame anyone for not being up to date on the latest in college basketball.
What can make this problematic, though, is that other than horse racing few sports have less year-to-year continuity than college hoops. Players transfer or turn pro, coaches get fired or leave for greener pastures, and schools switch conferences so often that it can feel impossible for the casual fan to stay on top of everything. When the season does roll around, it can be jarring to see Rutgers representing the Big Ten, Fran Dunphy not having a mustache, Dylan Ennis playing his 12th season of college basketball for his seventh different program, Kennedy Meeks looking oh-so-slightly slimmer than he was before, Kentucky trotting out five unknown starters who have yet to hit puberty, or Kyle Guy taking the court without a man bun.
That’s why I’m here. Don’t think of this as a college basketball preview article. It’s still too early for that. (But not way too early!) Instead, think of it as a rundown of all the important developments that have happened in the sport since North Carolina beat Gonzaga to win the 2016-17 national title and Jay Bilas reneged on his promise to grow a Przemek Karnowski beard (#NeverForget). Here are my power rankings of the top 10 offseason story lines that changed the college basketball landscape.
10. Mitchell Robinson left Western Kentucky almost as soon as he got there.
Robinson is a Class of 2017 five-star recruit and McDonald’s All American who originally committed to Texas A&M when Rick Stansbury was an assistant coach for the Aggies. After Stansbury took the head job at Western Kentucky in March 2016 (and hired Robinson’s godfather in a completely coincidental move that in no way should add to Stansbury’s reputation as a shady recruiter), Robinson switched his commitment to the Hilltoppers. Robinson’s godfather—former North Carolina star Shammond Williams—abruptly resigned in July, though, and Robinson decided to transfer just two weeks after he started classes.
That last part is the key: Robinson chose to transfer after he had already enrolled and began working out with the team, meaning he now has to sit out an entire year if he transfers to another Division I NCAA program. Or maybe not! Robinson is currently in the process of trying to obtain a waiver from the NCAA, citing the little-known “we can find a way to skirt the rules if you’re really good” clause in the association’s bylaws. As the NCAA takes its time trying to determine if it can make enough money off of Robinson playing (likely) one year of college basketball to justify granting him immediate eligibility, the 7-foot 233-pounder has reopened his recruitment and is visiting the likes of LSU and Kansas.
All signs point to Robinson being declared ineligible this season and then leaving for the NBA after spending a year in junior college, going overseas, or simply practicing with a Division I team, so college hoops fans probably don’t need to get too familiar with him. But there’s also a slight chance that Bill Self might have just fallen ass-backward into another prized freshman big man to yell at, and that has my attention.
9. San Diego State head coach Steve Fisher retired.
Fisher’s retirement in April was somewhat expected given that he’s now in his 70s and his San Diego State teams have gotten progressively worse in each of the past three seasons. Even so, it’ll be weird to see someone other than Fisher patrolling the Aztecs bench. The only thing I know about San Diego State basketball from its pre-Fisher era is that Tony Gwynn was a Khalid El-Amin All-Star (a guard who looks and/or is kind of fat) in the early 1980s, and I’m guessing I’m not alone in being largely uninformed: The Aztecs hadn’t won a single Division I postseason game of any kind before Fisher took over. So while it’s tempting to lob grenades at Fisher for making only two Sweet 16s in his 18 years at SDSU or for overseeing the Florida Gulf Coast implosion in the 2013 NCAA tournament, the truth is that the guy started from scratch and built a program that consistently pumped out 25 wins per year. That’s virtually impossible to pull off.
It’s also worth mentioning that Fisher won a national title at Michigan in 1989 after taking over as head coach during the first game of the NCAA tournament (which is absolutely absurd to think about), was the architect of the Fab Five (with a little help from Ed Martin), and convinced Kawhi Leonard to come play for a San Diego State program that had zero all-time NCAA tournament wins. Fisher is from that Mike Montgomery, Lon Kruger, and Dana Altman mold of underappreciated coaches who will probably be forgotten in 30 years even though almost every program in America would have been lucky to have had them. Maybe that’s not enough for Fisher’s departure to shake up the college basketball world, but it’s certainly worth taking a second to reflect on everything that he accomplished.
8. A handful of rules have been tweaked.
No offseason college basketball article would be complete without laying out the latest rule changes, pretending like they’re going to drastically alter the game, and offering mundane commentary about how it’ll be interesting to see how teams adjust. So I will do that now! The most notable changes are as follows:
- The selection committee is redefining the term “quality win” as it pertains to teams’ NCAA tournament résumés and will place a greater emphasis on road victories.
- The shot clock will reset to 20 seconds after a foul is called in the frontcourt (unless there were more than 20 seconds remaining on the clock when the whistle blew).
- The coach’s box has been extended from 28 feet to 38 feet, meaning Michigan State’s Tom Izzo won’t violate the rules as badly when he walks wherever the hell he wants on the sidelines.
- Referees can now consult replay in the final two minutes of games and overtime to determine where a secondary defender’s feet were during block and charge calls. In other words, if the Aaron Craft drawn charge against Iowa State in the second round of the 2013 tournament happened this upcoming season, the call could be reviewed and potentially reversed. Congrats, Cyclones fans!
- Defenders can no longer crowd offensive players (i.e. do things like this, this, or this). While this is a good change in theory (hooray, more scoring!), it will almost certainly lead to a bunch of fouls called in the first month of the season, which in turn will lead to everyone in the media (myself included) whining about the officiating. But all that complaining will last only until Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim also whines about the officiating, at which point the entire thing will be dropped. Forcing the media to pick sides between Boeheim and college basketball officials is an impossible ask.
- The NCAA tournament is adopting the Basketball Tournament’s tradition of winning teams filling in a giant bracket by moving their team name on to the next round. This means when Duke loses to a no. 14 seed in the first round of the 2018 tourney, Coach K will lecture the team that just kicked his ass in a public setting instead of inviting himself into the opposing locker room.
It’s going to be interesting to see how players and coaches adjust to these various rule changes!
7. Wichita State is now in the American Athletic Conference.
Remember when the AAC was hot for half a second in 2013-14? UConn, Louisville, and Cincinnati were all ranked in the top 10 at some point during the season. Shabazz Napier, Russ Smith, and Sean Kilpatrick delivered the most compelling major-conference player of the year race since virtually everyone in the Big Ten had a case in 1999-2000. And, of course, UConn went on to win the national title. That’s a hell of a first year for an upstart conference!
Since then, Louisville has moved to the ACC, UConn has bottomed out, Cincinnati has plateaued, and SMU (which was hit with NCAA sanctions less than two years ago) has emerged as the premier program in the league. Meanwhile, Memphis (which was once thought to be a coup for the AAC) has devolved into a hot mess, while legacy programs such as Houston and Temple have struggled to move the national needle. Taking all of this into account, you’ll have to forgive me if I’m not giddy over the idea of seeing Wichita State play East Carolina and Tulane. Still, the AAC should provide better competition for the Shockers than the Missouri Valley has in recent years, which really just means that Wichita State will now get a no. 7 seed instead of a no. 10 seed when it wins 30 games before the tourney.
6. Ohio State fired Thad Matta and hired Chris Holtmann.
Ohio State fired its best coach in school history to hire a guy who has made one career Sweet 16, a move that seems indefensible on the surface until you realize that “it had to be done” because “it was time.” To be fair to Holtmann, he’s said and done all the right things since coming to Columbus, and he did a decent enough job at Butler over the past three years, so I don’t want to make it seem like I’m not willing to give the guy a chance. It’s just that, no matter how many times Ohio State boosters who don’t even follow the basketball team until January try to convince me that this was the right call, I’ll never wrap my mind around bringing in a mostly unproven coach to replace a Big Ten legend who went to two Final Fours with a program that hadn’t secured a non-NCAA-vacated Final Four berth since 1968.
Just think about the precedent that Buckeyes athletic director Gene Smith set by firing Matta. Assuming Holtmann will be judged by the same criteria that Matta was, he’ll have to do better than producing eight first-round NBA draft picks, five Big Ten titles, five Sweet 16 appearances, four Big Ten tournament championships, and two Final Four berths in the next 13 seasons to keep his job. And the kicker is that Holtmann will likely be held to an even loftier standard given that the expectations of the Ohio State fan base are much more delusional demanding now than they were when Matta was hired in 2004. But, you know, this had to be done!
5. Various players have been working out.
If you thought that college basketball players simply laid on the couch all day during the offseason, you’re about to be in for the surprise of your life.
Just look at 2017 NCAA tournament Most Outstanding Player Joel Berry II.
At the start of the summer, he was in really, really good shape. But then he presumably got sick, shit until he lost weight, worked out, and snapped a shirtless picture of himself directly afterward. All of that hard work clearly paid off, as Berry’s body-fat percentage dropped, like, maybe a point or two.
And then there’s Purdue freshman Aaron Wheeler, who arrived on campus with a slender 6-foot-9 frame. After a little more than a month of training, though, he now … uh, looks pretty much the same?
Meanwhile, Eastern Michigan’s Paul Jackson put on 12 pounds (all of it obviously pure, tight, clean, EXPLOSIVE muscle); Indiana’s De’Ron Davis lost 21 pounds (all of it totally fat) and improved his vertical by 8 inches in 12 weeks; Indiana’s Freddie McSwain discovered the magic of flexing in the “after” picture; and Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson took up yoga while trying not to eat too much cheese.
4. ESPN let go of Andy Katz.
Just so we’re clear, I’m not mentioning this because I know Katz personally or because I believe that working in college basketball media is the most important job in the world. Layoffs suck in every industry, and I generally take my profession about as seriously as Arizona coach Sean Miller takes game planning how to beat a zone defense. I’m just bummed about this as a die-hard college basketball fan. I can’t remember what it’s like to follow a season without having Katz’s face pop onto my TV every so often. ESPN still airs the biggest games in the sport, and Katz was a staple of the network’s coverage. That’s why I can’t help but think that something is going to feel a little off all season, even though Katz never had any impact whatsoever on what transpired on the court.
3. Louisville’s 2013 national title is in danger of being vacated.
The NCAA has spoken: Hiring hookers for underage recruits is bad, and Louisville shouldn’t have done it. The sport’s governing body hit Louisville with an infractions report in June that included the following penalties, among others: scholarship reductions, recruiting restrictions (no more hookers), four years of probation (through 2021), and a five-game ACC suspension for head coach Rick Pitino. And because the NCAA determined the sessions with hookers to be impermissible benefits, the Cardinals were also forced to vacate all of their wins in which ineligible players participated, including the 2013 national championship victory over Michigan.
As much as I’d like to hop on the popular train of thought and argue that vacating wins is pointless since everyone remembers who won those games, this case feels different because it involves a national championship. Taking away regular-season wins isn’t a big deal, but national titles are currency in college basketball’s arms race, and preventing schools from acknowledging them (even if “everyone remembers who won anyway”) matters.
The NCAA has had no problem vacating Final Four appearances in the past (2007-08 Memphis, 1995-96 UMass, and other teams not coached by John Calipari are some examples), but titles have always seemed to be off-limits. For example, the City College of New York got to keep its 1950 national championship despite a point-shaving scandal, UCLA was able to keep all of its John Wooden–era titles even though super-booster Sam Gilbert didn’t even bother trying to hide his cheating, and UNLV retained its 1990 title despite head coach Jerry Tarkanian basically daring the NCAA to take it away. Louisville’s 2013 banner coming down would be an unprecedented decision that would become even more significant considering that North Carolina’s academic scandal still has an NCAA judgment pending; the Tar Heels have multiple banners in jeopardy with that case.
Then again, Louisville’s banner might stay up since the school is appealing the decision, with Pitino claiming he’s “lost a lot of faith in the NCAA” as a result of this ruling and that “what went on was unjust and inconceivable.” And yes, I’m almost positive that second quote is in reference to the NCAA making him sit out of conference games against Pitt and Georgia Tech, not the fact that someone on his staff hired prostitutes for minors.
2. Reclassifying is apparently in right now.
News broke Wednesday night that Jontay Porter, a five-star prospect in the Class of 2018, is reclassifying to the 2017 class and enrolling at Missouri with his brother Michael, who is the consensus no. 1 recruit in the 2017 class. Meanwhile, Marvin Bagley, who is the consensus no. 1 recruit in the Class of 2018, is also attempting to join the Class of 2017 and is considering the likes of Duke (the perceived favorite right now), USC (in part because head coach Andy Enfield offered Bagley’s 7-year-old brother a scholarship), UCLA, and Arizona. In other words, two of the most talented amateur basketball players in the world were supposed to be starting their senior years of high school in the next few weeks, but instead both might be playing for Final Four contenders this season.
If you’re confused as to how this is a thing, I’m sorry to say that I don’t have answers. I’m also unsure how guys can skip their senior year of high school and still be eligible to play college basketball, whereas Omari Spellman was blocked from playing for Villanova last season because he changed schools when he was 14. Don’t get me wrong: Porter and (potentially) Bagley will make the sport more entertaining this season, and I’m all for that. I just think these reclassifications pose a number of extremely pressing questions.
First: How are the teachers at Porter’s and Bagley’s schools supposed to get the rest of their students to give a damn when these dudes just straight up miss a full year’s worth of curriculum, still graduate, and end up on track to make more money than the rest of the student body combined? I suppose age is just a number and grade levels are nothing but social constructs, so does that mean that incoming juniors can skip two years’ worth of high school classes and play Division I ball? What about sophomores? What about kindergarteners? Do we even need schools in America? Do we even need sports? Why don’t we just let golden retrievers and/or robots play all of the sports for us? What’s keeping us from hooking our brains into the Matrix and living out our existences in an augmented virtual reality? How can any of us be certain that we’re not already living in a simulation?
These are the questions the powers that be at the NCAA need to be asking themselves as they allow high-profile recruiting reclassifications to happen.
1. GRAYSON ALLEN IS BACK!
I want to be excited that the most hated college basketball player of this generation is coming back for his senior year to lead what should be a top-10 Duke team. I really do. But I have a bad feeling about this upcoming Grayson Allen season, which is to say that I don’t think it’s going to be quite as fun to hate him as it has been up until now.
I know. This seems like an absurd thought, as if anyone would ever get sick of cheering against THAT face on THAT team who does THAT type of bullshit when he plays. Please, don’t mistake this as me telling you that you’re wrong for hating the guy.
It’s just that I’ve been ahead of the Grayson Allen Hate Curve for years, dating back to when I declared that he would be the most hated player in college basketball nine months before he ever put on a Duke uniform. And right now, my sense is that the Grayson Allen Redemption Tour is coming. Shoot, it might already be upon us. Allen stopped tweeting last year on December 21, the same day that he tripped an Elon player and was given an indefinite one-game suspension by Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski. Allen then apparently hired a PR group or something because when he started tweeting again after the season ended, he did so as a … [gulp] … likable guy? In a span of about two weeks, Allen reminded idiots like me that he’s technically not “back,” made a self-deprecating joke, showed love to North Carolina’s Justin Jackson, acknowledged the Ted Cruz doppelgänger situation, and took a jab at LaVar Ball. Now, Allen is making drive-by dunk videos and publicizing his Rick and Morty fandom, while Coach K is saying that he’s happy with where Allen is “emotionally.”
I’m not making the case that Allen will ever be liked by the general public or that a few tweets can make up for three years of detestable behavior. I’m just pointing out that an impossible standard of Allen hatred was set last year, and it’s unlikely that he and the 2017-18 Blue Devils will come close to approaching anywhere near that level of despised. Hell, forget about this Duke season—I’m not sure how the drama surrounding the 2016-17 Duke team can ever be topped by any team in any year. So hate away. Just don’t be surprised if your plan to loathe Allen even more than you did last year ultimately gets tripped up.