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The 10 Biggest Stories of the College Basketball Offseason

What happened this summer in college hoops? Rick Pitino became a published author, Duke’s recruiting class took over the world, and the FBI’s probe into corruption in the sport—um, well, about that

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I don’t mean to divert attention away from Aaron Rodgers’s one-legged brilliance or the Browns achieving the impossible by not losing, but with the excitement surrounding the return of football, it’s been easy to forget that the NBA is officially dead and the Golden State Warriors are holding the knife. Things were already bad for the NBA in June, when the Warriors won their third championship in four years without breaking a sweat. But then DeMarcus Cousins signed with Golden State in July and America lost its collective shit. Memes were made. Angry tweets were sent by people with almost two dozen followers. Barbershop conversations temporarily revolved around something other than LeBron vs. Jordan. It was a truly scary time in this country.

When the dust settled, the basketball landscape was forever changed. After years of passionately following the best athletes on the planet, millions of Americans came to the conclusion that enough was enough: They could no longer sit idly by and watch as, for what must be the first time in league history, one franchise came to rule all the others. And so, these scorned NBA fans let their voices be heard as they pronounced that this season they will turn their attention to far less talented players who suit up for teams with whom these fans have no connection. That’s right, folks: NBA diehards are so fed up with the lack of parity in the pro game that they’re flocking in droves to college basketball, which hasn’t produced a first-time national champion in more than a decade and which should have a preseason AP poll featuring Duke, Kentucky, and Kansas as its top three teams.

With that in mind, I’d like to welcome these former NBA fans to their new college basketball home with a tradition that dates back to the dawn of time: trying to come up with talking points for an amateur sport that is five months deep into its offseason. See, we’re still about eight weeks away from the first college games tipping off, which means it’s not quite time to roll out the typical preview coverage that pretends like Luke Maye is the best player in the country and that Kansas might not win the Big 12. Yet with practices set to start in a few weeks, the sport’s time to officially make the shift from “offseason” to “preseason” is fast approaching. So as we wait in this no-man’s-land on the college basketball calendar, let’s look back on the past five months and make sense of the offseason happenings. Here are my power rankings of everything that’s transpired in college basketball since Villanova beat the brakes off Michigan in April to win its second national title in three years.

10. Condoleezza Rice saved college basketball and, therefore, the world.

If you’re looking for an explanation as to how Rice became one of the preeminent figures in college sports, I’m sorry to inform you that you’ve come to the wrong place. What I can tell you, though, is that the former U.S. secretary of state served as the head of the “Commission on College Basketball,” and in April the commission put out a list of recommendations designed to clean up what it felt were the biggest problems facing the sport. (I’m not saying the commission was a farce; I’m just saying “Ted Valentine and Jamie Luckie are still officiating games” wasn’t the top priority.) In August, many of the recommendations became NCAA rules. Among them:

  • Recruits can now take up to 15 official visits, 10 more than they could previously.
  • Players who declare for the NBA draft and aren’t picked can return to college, but only if they were invited to the combine before the draft.
  • High school and college players can sign with agents, but those agents can only pay for certain expenses near the player’s house/school, and the agents must be let go if the player enrolls in college or decides to come back to school. Oh, and the only players who are eligible to sign with agents are the high schoolers who have been deemed “elite” by USA Basketball and the college players who have been approved by something called the “NBA Undergraduate Advisory Committee.” Meanwhile, the only agents who can make deals in these instances are those who go through an NCAA program and receive certification.
  • Scholarship players who were enrolled at a college for two or more years before leaving to pursue a professional career can return to the same school within 10 years to finish their degree while having their tuition, books, and fees covered.
  • Parties in dorms with hookers, like the ones that led to Louisville having to vacate its 2013 national championship, are now permitted as a method of recruiting.
  • I’m joking about that last bullet point. (I think.) Just making sure you’re still paying attention.
  • School presidents and athletic department members are contractually required to cooperate fully in NCAA investigations, which is another way of saying that the NCAA essentially gave itself subpoena power.
  • The NCAA can now use information obtained from probes done by outside agencies as part of its own investigations. In other words, the NCAA can outsource all of its investigating to actual law enforcement officials instead of making Janice from accounting and Tom from IT jump into the Mystery Machine to track down head coaches and ask what they knew. I’m pretty sure every NCAA investigation over the past 50 years has been carried out via that latter approach.

Mind you, most of these changes seem unenforceable, unnecessarily complicated, flat-out bad, or some combination of the three. But the important thing is they are, in fact, changes. And given that we’re in the midst of the juiciest, most far-reaching scandal that college basketball has ever seen, being able to tout that changes have been made is all that really matters.

Speaking of which …

9. Very little has happened with the FBI saga that started with a bombshell last September.

When news broke almost a year ago that the FBI was busting down doors and throwing cuffs on corrupt college basketball coaches, I thought I was going to pass out from the blood rushing to my pants. It was the absolute perfect story: It was a widespread scandal centered on all the scummy stuff that happens in college basketball; the FBI was involved; nobody had any clue what the feds knew or didn’t know; and best of all, my favorite teams weren’t implicated. All signs pointed to the sport heading toward its version of baseball’s steroid era, with Hall of Famers ratting each other out and analysts lamenting how this country would never be the same again.

Instead, only two things have happened that anyone will remember in 20 years: Louisville fired Rick Pitino, and ESPN’s Mark Schlabach went for Sean Miller’s jugular and missed very, very badly. I initially believed that the FBI was handling this case with the kind of surgical precision that one might associate with America’s most powerful law enforcement agency. I’ve since learned that the key witnesses are imbeciles, nobody in the media ever has the smoking gun they think they have, and the lead undercover agent on the case may have literally gambled in Vegas with the investigative funds.

To be fair, this story is technically far from over. There’s no telling what the FBI has been up to behind the scenes, and there are plenty of things that need to be sorted out in court. Headlines—like Maryland being subpoenaed and Skechers (!!!) trying to take down Adidas—continue to pop up every so often. But I’d be lying if I said I have my bucket of popcorn out, anxiously awaiting the next development. GIVE ME THE BLOOD THAT I WAS PROMISED, DAMMIT!

8. Andrew Jones is on the road to recovery and is planning to play for Texas this season.

Jones was diagnosed with leukemia just 10 games into his sophomore season, one in which he was averaging 15.3 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per contest before having his minutes limited because of his health. Once he discovered that he was battling something much more serious than the flu, he stepped away from basketball altogether to undergo treatment. Incredibly, just six years after being diagnosed with cancer, Jones is now back, as he proved by dunking in a (semi) competitive environment this July. He might even be part of the Longhorns’ rotation by opening night.

No, wait. I got that wrong. I meant to say that Jones was dunking six MONTHS after receiving his diagnosis.

NCAA Basketball: Texas at VCU
Andrew Jones
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

I seriously have no idea how he’s doing this. As someone who becomes bedridden if I sneeze more than twice in a day, these kinds of stories blow my mind. I can’t imagine being diagnosed with anything before my 21st birthday, let alone cancer. And I certainly can’t imagine playing Big 12 basketball less than a year later.

The wildest thing about this is that you know Jones is going to come back and torch the competition. He already looked NBA-bound before receiving the diagnosis. Assuming he can get back to full strength, it stands to reason that he’ll now have a newfound sense of purpose and determination to pair with his uncommon skill set. That’s a recipe for domination.

7. A Canadian team kicked everyone’s ass this summer.

By everyone, I mean Cincinnati, Ole Miss, South Dakota State (twice), and Maryland Eastern Shore. That’s the list of schools that the Carleton Ravens defeated in August, with each victory coming by 18 or more points. I’m not saying this is the equivalent of rolling through a gantlet of February road games in the ACC. But let’s be honest: If Patrick Ewing was forced to play a nonconference schedule like this, odds are he’d resign as Georgetown’s head coach immediately.

This isn’t a flash-in-the-pan thing for Carleton, either. Over the past handful of years, the Ravens have also beaten Alabama, Providence, Vanderbilt, and a Wisconsin squad that went on to make the 2014 Final Four. It’s gotten to the point that losing to Carleton isn’t even remotely embarrassing; in fact, it’s almost a rite of passage. If you coach a college basketball team and it’s summertime in the States, you take that team north of the border, eat a ton of poutine, get your ass kicked by Carleton, and come home with explosive diarrhea and a two-hour tape full of teachable moments. That’s how it is.

Unless you’re Duke, in which case a trip to Canada means hitting Carleton with the “new phone, who dis?” treatment, running like hell, and finding comfort in crushing a bunch of nerds in Montreal.

6. Eric Musselman has turned Reno into Ellis Island.

Nevada should be a top-10 and maybe even top-five team in the AP poll to open this season, and head coach Eric Musselman’s strategy of welcoming every player on earth to campus and figuring out the rest later is a major reason. I’m only slightly exaggerating, by the way. When Caleb and Cody Martin announced their commitments to Nevada in May 2016, that put the Wolf Pack at 16 scholarship players, or three over the then-NCAA limit of 13. The problem sorted itself out when three players decided (or, ahem, had the decision made for them) to transfer or decommit. Two years later, Musselman found himself in a familiar position, as the Martin twins decided in May to return to Reno for their final seasons of eligibility, once again putting Nevada’s scholarship count over the NCAA allotment (this time of 15). And once again, the problem has resolved itself, as Nevada is back down to 13 scholarship players after Josh Hall transferred to Missouri State and graduate transfer Ehab Amin decommitted. (Weird coincidence that might not be a coincidence: After decommitting from Nevada, Amin ended up at Oregon, the same program that took in Kenny Wooten after Wooten was the odd man out in Reno when the Martin twins originally committed to Nevada in 2016.)

But it’s not just the binging and purging of scholarship players that makes Nevada’s roster unique. There’s also these facts:

  • Three of Nevada’s 13 scholarship players are true freshmen. Nine of the remaining 10 transferred into the program.
  • Six of Nevada’s 13 scholarships are being used by fifth-year seniors, two are being used by fourth-year juniors, and one is being used by a fourth-year senior.
  • Of the 10 non-freshman scholarship players on Nevada’s roster, nine have averaged 13.0 or more points per game over an entire season of Division I basketball.
  • 2018 McDonald’s All American and incoming freshman Jordan Brown is Nevada’s first five-star recruit in program history.

Basically, everything you need to know about the 2018-19 Nevada men’s basketball team can be summed up with this: The 10-man rotation will feature a McDonald’s All American and nine guys who have at least four years of experience playing college basketball. NINE. Eight of those nine have averaged 13-plus points per game in a season, with the lone exception being Lindsey Drew … WHO IS HEADING INTO HIS FOURTH SEASON AS NEVADA’S STARTING POINT GUARD. I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s making me dizzy just thinking about how the hell everything you just read is possible. I need to go lie down.

5. It’s anyone’s guess as to who should be the National Player of the Year favorite.

A handful of publications have rolled out rankings of who they expect to be the best players in college basketball this season, and every single one of them is hilariously wrong. But here’s the weird thing: I can’t figure out why they’re wrong. If I had to make my own list, I’d probably laugh just as hard at my finished product as the ones that are out there. All I know for sure is that it doesn’t feel right to say that Luke Maye is the best player in America this season. The same can be said for Carsen Edwards. And that’s also how I feel about Mike Daum, Caleb Martin, Eric Paschall, Markus Howard, Grant Williams, Tyus Battle, whoever you think Gonzaga’s best player is, and every other guy returning to college basketball.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-North Carolina vs Texas A&M
Luke Maye
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The picture grows even more unclear when accounting for the freshmen. It’s a safe bet to assume that at least one Duke freshman will challenge for All-American honors, but good luck trying to identify the favorite. Sorting through potential Kentucky and Kansas candidates presents a similar issue. Meanwhile, North Carolina’s Nassir Little has the talent to make a national POY push, but he’s teammates with Maye, and you and I both know that it will take the dummies who vote on this stuff until at least February to realize that Little is the Tar Heels’ best player. (Although, if last season with Jalen Brunson taught us anything, not being the best player on his own team might be the best thing for Maye’s POY candidacy.) Romeo Langford isn’t a terrible pick because he should score a ton of points for Indiana, but the Hoosiers might not be good enough for it to matter.

If you asked me right now to name a player who will be a first-team All-American at season’s end, I’d stare at you for a few seconds, come up with a shitty joke like “Sister Jean,” and hope that you laugh hard enough to forget that I failed to give a real answer. And if you pressed me, I suppose I’d say Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter. But given that Hunter is still teammates with Kyle Guy and America thinks that Guy is Virginia’s best player simply because he was the Cavaliers’ leading scorer a year ago, I wouldn’t exactly feel great about it. In other words: It’s going to be a wild season.

4. The RPI is dead and something called NET has risen from its ashes.

I won’t bore you with the details of this change because, hoo boy, the details are mind-numbing. So here’s the gist: Twenty years after the general public realized that the RPI’s ranking model was indistinguishable from drawing names out of a hat, the NCAA finally decided to do away with it. Moving forward, the chief metric for the NCAA tournament selection committee will be a thing called NET (Get it? Like a basketball net!) that’s admittedly better than the RPI, mostly because we now have the technology to track advanced stats that we previously couldn’t, such as margin of victory and road record. In fact, the NET system is so advanced that starting this season the entire NCAA tournament selection process will be automated: NET will spit out its top 68 teams, and nos. 1 through 4 will get the no. 1 seeds, nos. 5 through 8 will get the no. 2 seeds, and so on.

Wait, what? That’s not true? We’re still going to let a bunch of athletic directors who have no basketball background and watch maybe three games per week select the field and seed the teams? Huh. So you’re telling me that the NCAA is putting a massive emphasis on advanced metrics … and then ultimately leaving it up to humans to determine how they want to apply those metrics? I, for one, can’t find a single flaw in this system. Well done, everyone.

NCAA Basketball: Preseason-Duke at Ryerson University
Zion Williamson
Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

3. Duke’s recruiting class—and specifically Zion Williamson—is taking over the world.

I’m going to keep this section brief because I already wrote more than 2,000 words about Duke’s incoming freshman class and I need to pace myself if I’m going to make it through this season without passing out. But let’s just say that for a galaxy-brain content creator like me, the quartet of Zion, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, and Tre Jones is manna from heaven. For God’s sake, do you realize how much I’ve already squeezed out of this Duke team from just three August games in Canada? It’s absurd. I don’t mean to gas myself up too much, but I’ve become so prolific when it comes to Duke content that Coach K farting during a press conference would be enough material for me to feed my family for an entire year.

Anyway, what makes me so giddy about this version of Duke is that the Blue Devils have the top three recruits in the country to go with another five-star recruit. All of these freshmen make Duke one of the two or three most talented teams in America, but it remains to be seen whether they can figure out how to play together. Also, Coach K has no idea what to do with former McDonald’s All American Marques Bolden; Duke doesn’t have a reliable big man; Alex O’Connell still exists; and we’re no closer to figuring out if Zion is fat. AHHHHHHHH, JUST START THE SEASON ALREADY.

2. Penny Hardaway vs. John Calipari vs. Coach K vs. Jeff Capel is about to melt my face off.

If you need further proof that college basketball is the greatest damn thing on earth, look no further: These four coaches have laid the foundation for the greatest recruiting war of all time smack dab in the middle of an FBI investigation into corrupt recruiting. The more I think about the timing of it all, the more I’m inclined to chef’s-kiss until my fingers bleed. Seriously, think about this for a second. Since news of the FBI investigation broke last September, the following has happened:

I’m not sure which of those four requires the most audacity. It’s staggering. And hey, would you look at that? The battle for the no. 1 overall recruit in the 2019 class, James Wiseman, is effectively a two-horse race between Memphis and Kentucky. I have no idea what we did to deserve this, but I suggest each and every one of you thank your lucky stars, because seeing “[Coach A] is beating [Coach B] at his own game” headlines a million times over the next five years is going to be glorious.

1. Rick Pitino officially retired.

After being fired from Louisville last October, Pitino wrote a book called Pitino: My Story. It was widely released last week, and in it he (a) shits all over Papa John; (b) takes full responsibility for his scandals at Louisville while also skirting responsibility for them in the same breath; and (c) all but claims that his removal from Louisville was a false-flag operation orchestrated by Kentucky fans (no, seriously). And while on a press tour for the book, Pitino repeatedly stated that he was done coaching forever. Some, such as Mike Rutherford, have written that Pitino will probably pop up on a sideline again soon. But I disagree. Pitino has never given anybody reason to distrust him before, so I have no choice but to take him at his word here.

Why would he want to get back into coaching anyway? The man has been victimized in unprecedented fashion by a system that conspired to bring him down simply because he was too successful and trusted the people around him too much. After all, what’s the point in coaching college basketball if you can’t even have an affair with a woman in an Italian restaurant, pay for her to have an abortion, and look the other way while your assistants hire hookers to lure in recruits and dole out large sums of money to convince players to come to your school? This was a witch hunt from Day 1, and it’s good to see that Pitino is smart enough to know how to handle it: Deny everything, paint yourself as the victim while simultaneously taking full responsibility, spend a ton of money to sue the University of Louisville, use the word “shocked” as often as possible, do a billion televised interviews that nobody asked for, write a tell-all book that doesn’t really tell anything, and then ride off into the sunset with your head held high. If the general public can’t support you after you’ve given them THE TRUTH, well, that’s on them.

So with that, I’d like to pour one out for one of the greatest college coaches who ever lived. Say what you want about Pitino, but the man knew how to build a winner. There will never be another coach like him, and it’s a shame that everything ended the way it did. Most importantly, it’s a shame that, with the remnants of Pitino’s career on their last leg, it appears as though all of the double entendre jokes made at Pitino’s expense are going to come to an end far too abruptly.