Remember when Villanova destroyed Michigan in April to win its second national title in three years? Remember waking up the next morning with an empty feeling and then immediately pulling out a calendar to figure out how far away the start of the 2018-19 season was? And remember becoming even more depressed upon realizing that November was so far into the future that calculating a wait of that magnitude required technology unknown to man? It feels like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it? But I’ll be damned, we did it! At long last, a new college basketball season is here!
I have no shame admitting that I’m a prisoner of the moment when it comes to college basketball, especially when a new season is about to start. I just can’t help myself. Every year I tell people that I’ve NEVER been this excited for a new season, and every year I’m telling the truth. I’m like a coach preaching a next-play mentality. This season is the most important and exciting season because it is the one currently in front of me. That’s why I’m going to lose my mind taking in Tuesday’s opening-night games, even if I find myself stuck watching boring games like, hmmm … let’s see … [checks schedule] … the MOTHERFUCKING CHAMPIONS CLASSIC? Wait … WHAT??? We’re getting Duke vs. Kentucky and Kansas vs. Michigan State … on opening night? Lord have mercy. I need to go take a cold shower.
In the meantime, let me say that even taking into account my tendency to be a prisoner of the moment, I still can’t remember ever being this intrigued by the national player of the year race before the season started. You can seriously name just about any player in college basketball (especially Pantelis Xidias) and I’d be willing to listen to an argument as to why they are a national player of the year contender. That’s how wide open the race is right now. For God’s sake, there are people in this world who believe that Luke Maye is the best player in the country. No, seriously, these people exist and are living among us. Knowing this, how can anyone say with any sort of certainty how the national player of the year race will shake out? What if I told you that Brad Davison will average 15 points and five assists per game, and that every time Wisconsin plays on national television, he’ll dislocate his shoulder diving for a loose ball, pop it back into place on the bench, and then reenter the game? Do you seriously think that the geezers who vote for these awards will give a shit about Zion Williamson putting his armpits on the rim every night when Buzzcut Brad is doing that? That’s what I thought.
The point is, like everything else in college basketball, the future is completely uncertain. And that, my friends, is exactly what makes this sport so great. But let’s take a shot at identifying some of the national player of the year candidates anyway!
The Kings of the Mock Draft
R.J. Barrett, Freshman, Duke
There’s a chance that the current favorite to be the top pick in the 2019 NBA draft might be the third-best player on his own college team, which is a reality bordering on the perverse the more I think about it. What’s more likely is that Barrett demonstrates why he has long been considered the best freshman in this class. Namely, that he’s a 6-foot-7 athletic marvel who can get to any spot on the floor and put the ball in the basket just as easily as he sets up his teammates. Until proved otherwise, I maintain a slight concern about how Barrett, Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish, and Tre Jones are going to coexist while playing for a program whose recent history suggests it will be disjointed on offense and completely lost on defense. But that might not even matter given how much talent Duke has at its disposal, especially when a great deal of that talent comes in the form of Barrett.
Cam Reddish, Freshman, Duke
By virtue of being teammates with the best pro prospect in college basketball (Barrett), and an amorphous ball of mass that can be explained onlyas a physical specimen the likes of which college basketball has never seen before (Williamson), Reddish has been somewhat lost in the preseason shuffle. It doesn’t help that he missed every game of Duke’s tour of Canada in August because of a groin strain, or that he has a tendency to be far too passive on the court. Still, if we’re talking about raw talent alone, I’m inclined to believe that Reddish is the most talented player in America. Whether that manifests itself as an All-American season depends on how all of Duke’s freshmen fit together. But it’s certainly not hard to imagine a world where Reddish averages 17-plus points per game for a top-five Duke team.
Nassir Little, Freshman, North Carolina
Even though Little is the most talented Carolina recruit since Harrison Barnes, early whispers out of Chapel Hill hinted at point guard Coby White being the Tar Heels freshman that Roy Williams was the most excited about. That still might be the case, considering all signs point to White becoming just the third Tar Heels freshman point guard to start his first career game under Williams (Bobby Frasor and Marcus Paige are the others). But make no mistake, Little is the one guy on Carolina’s roster good enough to carry the Heels to a national championship, and that includes preseason All-American Luke Maye. Little, who scored 28 points in the 2018 McDonald’s All American Game, is a bit of a late-bloomer in that his skills are still catching up with his overwhelming physical traits. But he plays his ass off and seems to take pride in playing defense, which is another way of saying that even if he doesn’t average 20-plus points per game, he’s still going to be a problem for opposing teams all season.
The Extrapolation All-Stars
Udoka Azubuike, Junior, Kansas
After averaging 8.7 (!) fouls per 40 minutes in the 11 games that he played as a freshman, Azubuike made huge strides as a sophomore … and still averaged 5.1 fouls per 40 minutes. As you might imagine, this meant a ton of time on the bench, as he averaged only 23.6 minutes per game last season. But there is good news! Azubuike also became the only Division I player in the past 25 years to shoot better than 75 percent from the field while taking seven or more shot attempts per game, and he averaged 13 points and seven boards while doing so. Assuming he can find a way to stay out of foul trouble—and that is admittedly a big assumption—it’s terrifying to think how much damage Azubuike could do. Also terrifying: the reality that even if Kansas played him only 20 minutes a game again this season, the Jayhawks would still be good enough to beat any team in America.
De’Andre Hunter, Sophomore, Virginia
Every so often in college hoops, weird scenarios pop up that make no sense on paper and would NEVER happen in the NBA, yet somehow aren’t that egregious when looked at through a college basketball lens. Przemek Karnowski starting over Zach Collins on Gonzaga’s national runner-up team from 2016-17 is a great example. Another is America collectively deciding that Jalen Brunson was the best player in the country last season, even though three of his Villanova teammates were picked ahead of him in the 2018 NBA draft. One more to add to the list: Hunter was the best player on a Virginia team that entered the NCAA tournament with a 31-2 record, yet he started zero games for the Hoos and averaged less than 20 minutes per game. And because Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins were seniors who were pretty good in their own right, it made complete sense! What a sport!
Anyway, Hunter has all the makings of a future national player of the year, which is to say that he’s a lockdown defender who is likely going to be the leading scorer for a top-five team. The only thing hurting his candidacy is that he plays for a team that most of America had given up on before it lost to a no. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament. That brings me to a point that needs to be made: Virginia’s loss to UMBC—when the most dominant defense in college basketball for four and a half months suddenly let a no. 16 seed look like the goddamned Golden State Warriors—was the only game all year that Hunter missed. I’ll let you decide if that’s a coincidence.
Rui Hachimura, Junior, Gonzaga
Johnathan Williams led Gonzaga in scoring and rebounding last season and is currently getting some serious burn for the Los Angeles Lakers as a rookie, so I don’t mean to suggest that Hachimura starting on the bench behind Williams a season ago is on the same level as Karnowski starting over Collins in 2016-17. Still, it’s slightly strange to think that Hachimura, a projected lottery pick, played only 20.7 minutes per game as a sophomore. With Williams in the league, and Gonzaga big man Killian Tillie sidelined until Christmas with a stress fracture in his ankle, Hachimura will have no shortage of opportunities to show what he can do. Considering he led the Zags in scoring during West Coast Conference play while coming off the bench last season, I have a feeling he isn’t going to have any problems rising to the occasion.
Reid Travis, Senior, Kentucky
Travis, who might be the first person in recorded history to transfer from Stanford to Kentucky, has Big Blue Nation foaming at the mouth, and for good reason. A 6-foot-8, 245-pound beast of a man, who is almost 23 years old, Travis is a double-double machine who owns the paint, can score from pretty much anywhere inside of 15 feet, and has more career points than the rest of Kentucky’s roster combined. That last bit is the most important, and not just because it means that Travis will be asked to be an emotional leader for this team. It’s also important because even though Kentucky is loaded with talent, as usual, the Cats don’t have names popping up near the top of mock drafts like they typically do, which means Travis is almost certainly going to be the best Kentucky player from start to finish. And that, in turn, means—yep, you guessed it—you’re about to see the same shitty “Reid Travis is the latest in a long line of great one-and-done players for John Calipari” jokes made all season.
But enough about that. Let’s focus on what really matters: We are getting Reid Travis vs. Zion Williamson on college basketball’s opening night. Do you understand how ludicrous this is? ON THE VERY FIRST NIGHT OF THE COLLEGE BASKETBALL SEASON, WE GET TO SEE REID TRAVIS’S CHISELED BICEPS SUMO WRESTLE A MOTHERFUCKING WRECKING BALL NAMED ZION. Have I mentioned that college basketball is the greatest damn thing in the world? Because college basketball is the greatest damn thing in the world. Eat your heart out, FBI.
Caleb Martin, Senior, Nevada
I’ll be honest: I’m worried the Nevada hype is getting a little out of control. I mean, I don’t blame Nevada fans one bit for losing their minds. It’s almost comical how loaded the Wolf Pack are on paper. They have an absurd amount of talent, their entire team is a few years away from collecting Social Security checks, and they play in the Mountain West, a conference that will hand them 10 wins just for writing their name correctly at the top of the test. But there are two things that I urge everyone to keep in mind as the season gets underway: Even though just about everyone on Nevada’s roster is capable of averaging 15 points per game, there’s no way that even half of them will. Also, it won’t matter how good the Nevada offense is if the Pack can’t guard anybody. One player I’m not worried about in the slightest, though, is Martin. The reigning Mountain West Player of the Year put up 18.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game a season ago. He is in a perfect situation, as the focal point of a veteran, offensive-minded team, to help those numbers soar even higher this year.
Dedric Lawson, Junior, Kansas
Kansas was voted the preseason no. 1 team for a reason, and that reason can pretty much be reduced to the fact Lawson is eligible this season after transferring from Memphis. If you don’t remember Lawson’s two years playing for the Tigers, you are certainly not alone. He played on some very forgettable teams, going 19-15 (8-10 in the American) for Josh Pastner in his freshman season and 19-13 (9-9 in the American) in his sophomore year under Tubby Smith. But the 6-foot-8 Lawson put up monster numbers, averaging 17.5 points and 9.6 rebounds over the course of his Memphis career. When he and his older brother, K.J., realized that their relationship with Smith was FUBAR, they sought greener pastures in Lawrence, setting up what could be a dominant season for the Jayhawks. Bill Self traditionally loves running his offense through his big men, but has had to play four-guard lineups in recent years out of necessity. This season, he has an embarrassment of riches in his frontcourt, and it’s going to be interesting to see how he chooses to sort everything out. And I don’t mean interesting in the sense that there’s a chance this could all be a train wreck. I mean interesting in that Self could pull different lineups out of a hat every night and Kansas would probably still win the Big 12 comfortably.
The Guys Who Will Feel Like Breakout Stars Even Though They’ve Already Broken Out
Tyus Battle, Junior, Syracuse
I don’t think America is fully prepared for what Syracuse is bringing to the table this season. The Orange return all five starters from last season’s team and their 2-3 zone is going to be absolutely disgusting. In fact, I would be pretty surprised if the two best defenses in college basketball end up being anything other than Syracuse and Virginia. (That reminds me: Don’t forget to set your clocks back 60 years when Syracuse plays Virginia on March 4.)
The other reason to be high on Syracuse this year is Battle, who averaged 19.2 points per game last season for a team that was so horrendous offensively that I have no doubt in my mind Jim Boeheim’s Google search history includes the phrase “how do you punt on third down in basketball?” The point is this: The most clear-cut path to the Final Four for any Syracuse team is to play lockdown defense and let one man more or less carry the offense. That guy for this team is Battle, who has proved that he is capable of delivering the goods. If the rest of his teammates can give him a little support—especially guys other than Oshae Brissett and Frank Howard—Syracuse is going to be the stuff that nightmares are made of.
Grant Williams, Junior, Tennessee
Has there ever been less buzz for a returning power conference player of the year who plays for the reigning conference champion? Hang on, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me ask a simpler question: Were you aware that Grant Williams was named SEC Player of the Year by the conference’s coaches in 2017-18? Shoot, did you even remember that Tennessee tied Auburn for the regular-season SEC title last year? For God’s sake, do you know anything?
Don’t feel too bad. I couldn’t believe it either, but Wikipedia confirms that these things are, in fact, true. Williams averaged 15.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 1.9 assists for a 26-win team that had its heart ripped out by Sister Jean in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Tennessee returns all five starters and is Kentucky’s biggest SEC threat, so it stands to reason that maybe—juuuuust maybe—America will pay more attention to the no. 6 ranked Vols. Even if they don’t, Williams has at least put himself in position to make a run at becoming the first back-to-back SEC player of the year since Arkansas’s Corliss Williamson in 1993-94 and 1994-95.
Shamorie Ponds, Junior, St. John’s
The best point guard in college basketball last season averaged 21.6 points, 4.7 assists, and 5.0 rebounds for a St. John’s team that was pretty horrible outside of one incredible two-week stretch in February when it beat Duke and Villanova in back-to-back games. Now that the Red Storm have added Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron to the roster, a strong argument could be made that St. John’s has the best starting backcourt in the entire country. In other words, more people around the nation are going to be aware of St. John’s this season, which in turn means that casual fans are going to see Ponds stuff the stat sheet and assume that he came out of nowhere. That, as we know, is not true. Ponds has been right in front of our faces this entire time, which brings up an important philosophical question that I’m not sure I can answer: If a tree falls in the forest and Chris Mullin is its coach, how sorry should you feel for that tree?
The “He’s a Really Good College Player” Guys
Ethan Happ, Senior, Wisconsin
My new favorite backhanded compliment is when guys are said to be “great college players.” It’s meant to convey that an All-American’s game won’t translate well to the NBA, but it’s much funnier to think of it as just a nicer way of saying, “It’s obvious to anyone with a brain that this dude sucks at basketball, but I can’t deny that he’s somehow posting huge numbers.” Whatever the case, no player in America fits the “great college player” label more than Happ. He has one post move to speak of: a quick spin to the baseline followed by a reverse layup. And when I say that he has no jump shot, I mean that if you put five minutes on the clock and told him that he had to make 10 15-foot jumpers to save a loved one’s life, Happ would just use the entire five minutes to say his final goodbyes.
And yet, by virtue of being great at pretty much everything else, Happ is one of the most efficient players in college basketball. He’s an excellent defender who can challenge drivers at the rim just as easily as he can jump into passing lanes, he has great court vision, he can put the ball on the floor when he needs to, and he has a nose for grabbing rebounds. His game is unorthodox, at times confounding, but the results—17.9 points, 8.0 boards, 3.7 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.1 blocks per game a season ago—speak for themselves. In other words, Happ is a great college basketball player.
Mike Daum, Senior, South Dakota State
The Dauminator enters his final season with the Jackrabbits sitting on 2,232 career points, within striking range of becoming just the ninth Division I player to ever reach 3,000 career points. (Coincidentally, Campbell senior guard Chris Clemons also has exactly 2,232 career points. Only three players have reached the 3,000-point threshold in the past 25 years: Creighton’s Doug McDermott in 2014, Keydren Clark of St. Peter’s in 2006, and the Milwaukee Brewers’ Bernie Mac in 2004.) Assuming Daum plays 35 games this year, as he has in each of the past two seasons, he’d have to average about 22 points per game to get to 3,000, which should be pretty easy considering that the 6-foot-9 Daum playing against Summit League competition looks like a dad playing pool basketball against his prepubescent sons.
Speaking of which, because the double-double machine already holds a degree, he would have been eligible to play immediately elsewhere if he chose to transfer. There was speculation he’d be lured away from the Jackrabbits by a power conference school that could provide him with stiffer competition and more exposure for NBA scouts. Instead, Daum is choosing to have one more dance with the one who brought him, which is a decision that I love almost as much as I love the story about how Daum became a vegan over the summer to help him lose weight and become a more explosive athlete … only to realize that veganism was destroying his talent.
Luke Maye, Senior, North Carolina
After hitting a game-winner in the Elite Eight against Kentucky to help propel North Carolina to the 2017 national title, Maye exploded into a legitimate national player of the year candidate by averaging a double-double last season, and in doing so snatched the reins of the Tar Heels’ program from Joel Berry II. With Berry II and Theo Pinson gone, and Maye entering his senior season in Chapel Hill, it makes sense that many expect him to take his 16.9 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game to even greater heights. And that brings me to one of the most interesting subplots heading into this season: Is Luke Maye willing to accept the fact that he’s not North Carolina’s best player? Hell, he might not even be the second-best player if Coby White is as good as the rumors suggest.
I’m not saying that Maye doesn’t deserve his accolades, because he certainly does. I’m also not saying I think there’s a chance that he’ll be a diva on an ego trip and won’t want to cede power to his freshman teammates. I’m just saying that the dude is a freaking robot with eyebrows. He’s programmed to only grab boards, put the ball in the basket, and bust his ass up and down the floor when he’s not doing either of those first two things. He doesn’t strike me as a guy who is even aware of the concept that the best basketball teams are the ones full of guys who know their roles. You know what he does strike me as, though? A great college basketball player.
The Chosen Ones
Carsen Edwards, Junior, Purdue
The leading vote-getter on the AP preseason All-American team also happens to be the only returning starter for a Purdue program that has not made a Final Four in almost four decades. If you’re a pessimistic Purdue fan—which is to say, if you’re an average Purdue fan—you’re already counting the ways for things to go wrong for the Boilers this season. Purdue has had at least four or five teams in the last decade more talented than this year’s squad, and for various reasons none of those teams made the deep run in March that Purdue fans are so desperate to see. Why, then, should anyone expect this season’s team do what those teams couldn’t?
Here’s the closest I can come to offering a glimmer of hope: Basketball has evolved to the point that it’s like Whose Line Is It Anyway?—everything is made up and the positions don’t matter. Someone like Edwards, an energetic combo guard who can do it all, is absolutely perfect for the modern game. Thirty years ago, Edwards would have been put in a box and asked to do only the things most associated with whatever position he was playing. Now, Purdue can just put the ball in his hands, step back, and let him work his magic. With the point guard situation in college basketball as shaky as it’s ever been, Edwards is the ace up Purdue’s sleeve and the most likely candidate to follow in the mold of past UConn guards Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier by single-handedly carrying his team to March glory. Assuming the front of Purdue’s jerseys said something other than “Purdue,” I mean.
Romeo Langford, Freshman, Indiana
After being hired as Indiana’s new basketball coach in 2017, Archie Miller made it clear at his introductory press conference that he would be taking an “inside-out” approach to recruiting. That is to say, his focus would be bringing the best players in the state of Indiana to Bloomington before he started worrying about what the rest of the country had to offer. He didn’t mention any specific recruit by name, but the message to Indiana fans was clear: Miller was all in on his pursuit of Langford, who captivated a state famous for its high school basketball in a way that no player before him had in almost 30 years. The reason the excitement surrounding Langford eclipsed that of the dozens of other four- and five-star prospects to come out of Indiana was simple: Tom Crean’s in-state pipeline had run dry. And for Indiana fans, the only sin more unforgivable than losing is losing with guys who didn’t play their high school basketball in the Hoosier State.
In other words, Langford’s commitment to Indiana wasn’t even about this particular season. It was about the direction that Miller is taking his program, one that looks a lot like the same path taken by all successful Indiana teams of the past. That, along with the fact that Langford waited until April 30 to announce his decision, is why Hoosiers fans slowly became more and more delirious at the thought of Langford wearing cream and crimson, and it’s why Langford has been elevated to messiah status before playing even a second of college basketball. There’s no way that Langford will live up to the hype, only because that would require him winning 10 national championships in just this season alone. But the dude is every bit as talented as any player in America and has the reputation he does for a reason.
Zion Williamson, Freshman, Duke
There’s nothing to say about Zion that hasn’t already been said a million different ways by a million different people. Remember the Nike ad campaign that made kids pick whether they wanted to be on Team Force or Team Flight? Zion chose both. He is a specimen the likes of which college basketball has never seen, and I can’t thank my lucky stars enough for everything that had to transpire for me to be alive to witness what is about to take place during the next five months. I don’t even mean that I expect Zion to average a triple-double. I just mean that he is a living, breathing content machine and I love everything about him for that very reason. Rumors about his recruitment, his unique physique, his highlight-reel dunks, the fact that he’s playing alongside the only two freshmen in the country ranked higher than him, the fact that all of these freshmen chose to play at the one school that all of the U.S. despises—it’s all just so perfect that it brings a tear to my eye.
And the best part of all is that the first chapter of the Zion saga is coming Tuesday against Reid Travis, PJ Washington, and the Kentucky Wildcats on national television. COLLEGE BASKETBALL IS BACK!!!