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The 2018-19 College Basketball Preseason Enthusiasms

Here are the wonky and wacky players, teams, and coaches that staffers are excited about going into the season

Dedric Lawson, Bol Bol, and Penny Hardaway AP Images/Ringer illustration

The college basketball season is kicking off next week, and though madness is still months away, there’s plenty to be excited about. So Ringer staffers expanded on some of their fascinations and expectations for the upcoming season in college hoops.

Kentucky Might Finally Be Able to Shoot 3s

Jonathan Tjarks: There were times last season where it seemed like John Calipari was trying to run a thought experiment as much as a basketball team. What would happen if you put the five longest and most athletic players on the floor, even though none of them could shoot 3s? Kentucky had as much talent as any team in the country, yet guarding them was as easy as sticking all five defenders in the paint and daring them to shoot.

Whether it was because of the vagaries of recruiting or an actual philosophical change, Coach Cal appears to have brought in several freshman who can be knockdown shooters this season. The Wildcats are still incredibly long and athletic upfront, but now they may actually have players who can punish defenses for packing the paint against their big men. Kentucky has been passed by Duke in the recruiting wars for the best one-and-done players, which may end up being a good thing if it has forced Calipari to build a more well-rounded roster.

Kansas’s Dedric Lawson, Future Player of the Year

Danny Chau: Kansas is at the top of just about every preseason college basketball ranking because of newfound depth that borders on the absurd. Their five most impactful newcomers (two top-25 high school recruits in guards Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson, and three transfers in Charlie Moore and brothers Dedric and K.J. Lawson) alone could form a possible small-ball lineup that would terrorize just about any team in the nation. Grimes is the draft darling, but Dedric, amid all the talent around him, has a shot at bolstering his claim as college basketball’s best player.

At 6-foot-9, 235 pounds with a mammoth 7-foot-2.5 wingspan, Dedric is a do-it-all big man in the mold of Al Horford, a player who on any given possession can be a team’s best scorer, ball-handler, passer, screener, or rim protector. (In fact, Bill Self has already deemed Dedric the best passer he’s ever coached at Kansas, regardless of position.) What if I told you the best possible post-entry passer for junior Udoka Azubuike also has a comparable block rate to the 7-footer? Lawson’s comfort making plays on the perimeter will open things up for their freshmen dynamos and allow any number of their scoring guards (including returning senior LaGerald Vick) to get easy buckets off the ball. Lawson’s utter lack of explosiveness will keep his scent off most draft trackers, but at the college level, he can be the skeleton key to any number of lineup configurations Self dares to try.

The Very Slow Virginia Cavaliers

Shaker Samman: Basketball is getting faster. The slowest team in the NBA this season plays at a faster pace than the quickest did in 2012-13. Pro and college squads alike are sprinting up the floor and taking advantage of mismatches on the fast break to fill up the box score and log victories. Well, with one major exception. That is, of course, the Virginia Cavaliers.

For the past two seasons, no teams has moved more glacially than the Hoos. Virginia’s coach, Tony Bennett, was hired just before the 2009-10 season. No team he’s coached since then has been ranked faster than 316th in pace. Some call it boring. I call it art. What started as a system to mask talent disparities has evolved into soul-sucking, suffocating basketball as better and better players have called Charlottesville home. Last season saw the Hoos win 31 games and take a no. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. We all know how that ended. Now, with a healthy De’Andre Hunter, the Hoos are out for vengeance. Only time will tell whether or not they’ll get it, but one thing is for sure: If Virginia does get revenge, it will come slowly.

The Lightning-Fast Savannah State Tigers

Zach Kram: Allow me to introduce you to the Savannah State men’s basketball team in two graphs.

The first is their pace by season for every year of head coach Horace Broadnax’s tenure (using KenPom’s adjusted tempo numbers).

Chart showing Savannah State’s adjusted tempo, with a spike in 2017 and 2018

The second is their 3-point attempt rate by season (which measures the percentage of their shots that come from beyond the arc).

Chart showing Savannah State’s 3-point attempt rate, with a spike in 2017 and 2018

Seemingly overnight, Broadnax transformed one of the slowest, most 3-point-averse teams in Division I into a paragon of pace-and-space strategy. In each of the last two seasons, Savannah State has led the nation in both pace and 3PAr; in 2017-18, it led the second-place team in tempo by five full possessions per game and took over 55 percent of its shots from 3.

I’m a sucker for wacky tactics, but that description probably applies to most online college sports fans, so everyone should be excited about the Tigers. Do their wacky tactics make them a good team? Not really—they shot just 30 percent on all their 3s last year, ranking 345th out of 351 teams in the country, and they’re a prime blowout target for talented opponents, losing last year to Cincinnati (by 30 points), Texas Tech (34), Wichita State (46), Texas A&M (47), Baylor (32), Virginia (31), and Michigan State (56).

But Broadnax’s team is competitive in conference play, having tied for the MEAC regular-season title last season, and more importantly, it’s an extraordinarily innovative team that has leaned so far into pace and space as to make the Houston Rockets look ground-bound. Watch Savannah State play, and you’ll watch the future in flight. Just ignore all the messiness that comes along for the ride.

Penny Hardaway Coaching at Memphis

Conor Nevins: The return of a decorated former player to coach his alma mater is not all that uncommon in college basketball. Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin evoked memories of past Big East glory when they took over in recent years at Georgetown and St. John’s, respectively. But it’s hard to find an example to surpass the hype and hope that has greeted Penny Hardaway at Memphis. The four-time NBA All-Star, who had his peak cut short cruelly by injury, was the nation’s top recruit while playing at Treadwell High in Memphis and stayed in his hometown to play under Larry Finch at Memphis State.

Hardaway’s coaching résumé rests largely on his name and his reputation, which still carries immeasurable weight in Memphis. The biggest reason to bet on his success with the Tigers is his access to elite talent. Before his new job, Hardaway coached high school and AAU in Memphis. Some of his former players are among the best in the country and they’re expressing an interest in teaming up with their old coach. D.J. Jeffries, a five-star forward in the 2019 class, decommitted from Kentucky to play for Hardaway, his former AAU coach. The no. 1 player in next year’s class, 7-foot center James Wiseman, played for Hardaway at Memphis East High, and is said to be strongly considering the Tigers. Another Memphis East product, Alex Lomax, a highly rated point guard, was released from his commitment to Wichita State when Hardaway took over. He’ll likely start for the Tigers this season. It will take more than a local talent pipeline to bring Memphis back to the heights reached under John Calipari a decade ago. But for a new coach, with the name recognition like Hardaway’s, it’s not a bad place to start.

Duke Forward and Maybe Future Knick Zion Williamson

Nicole Bae: I usually get excited about college basketball in March and then again when the draft rolls around, but it’s November and I am very much looking forward to watching as many Duke games as I can for selfish reasons. Zion Williamson is the supersized wing of my dreams and [checks wingspan], yeah, maybe Coach Fiz’s too. I’m convinced my beloved Knicks are just a few years of development and a lottery pick away from being true, GOOD playoff contenders, and there is nothing more I’d like to see than Zion walking onto the stage on draft night to shake hands with Adam Silver while donning an orange and blue cap. Admittedly, my hype and adoration for Zion has been built solely from watching low-quality clips taken on iPhones during his high school games, but come on:

Oregon Center Bol Bol

Paolo Uggetti: West Coast college basketball is not for everyone. Staying up late to watch games, trying to figure out which teams in the Pac-12 are actually good, and already knowing that Gonzaga will likely go undefeated in the regular season so you don’t have to pay attention to them until March—I get it, it’s an acquired taste. So, here’s something that might make it more palatable this season. Turn on any Oregon game this year and you’ll see 7-foot-2 behemoth Bol Bol. Yes, that’s the late former NBA player Manute Bol’s son, a freshman who committed to Oregon over offers from Kentucky and Kansas, among others. Bol is an athletic five-star prospect who can make getting 24 points and nine rebounds look effortless:

And make this dunk look like he’s finishing on a Fisher-Price toy rim:

Bol is as skilled as he is long. His wingspan is a ridiculous 7-foot-8, and he has a decent shooting stroke. Give him the ball anywhere near the hoop and it’ll likely end in an easy dunk. Think a more nimble, more athletic Boban Marjanovic. Bol is immediately going to be must-watch TV as soon as he steps on the floor, and he’s likely only sticking around for a single season. So go, make sure you brew that extra cup of coffee and stay up for Oregon games this season. Bol will be worth it.