Everyone keeps waiting for the Wildcats to reach the final weekend for the first time since 2001. And waiting. And waiting. It isn’t for lack of opportunities. Arizona has averaged 29.1 victories over the past seven years, reaching the second weekend of the NCAA tournament five times and a regional final on three occasions.
This could be Sean Miller’s best team, but that’s a refrain that’s been heard before. The pieces are certainly talented, from guard Allonzo Trier to forward Rawle Alkins (when his broken foot heals) to a massive freshman class led by DeAndre Ayton. All that youth is cause to pause, but the Wildcats should be the best team out west this season.
It’s hard to describe any 30-win season as quiet, but the Bearcats methodically took care of their business last year while navigating the American Athletic Conference. They lose two starters, but bring back three double-digit scorers in wing Jacob Evans and forwards Gary Clark and Kyle Washington.
It’ll be up to skilled Sacred Heart transfer Cane Broome to keep things settled at both ends of the floor, and if he does, Coach Mick Cronin will be in good shape to guide Cincinnati not just to its seventh consecutive NCAA bid, but perhaps only its second Sweet 16 since 2001, its first Elite Eight since 1996 and maybe even more than that.
Four freshmen and Grayson Allen. That was the starting five for Duke’s exhibition opener, and it was a surprise to virtually no one. The Blue Devils have pushed in their chips on the one-and-done player more than anyone not named Kentucky — and the difference between the two at this point is fairly minute. They’ll go as far as guys such as Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Trevon Duval and Gary Trent Jr. take them.
If there’s one takeaway from the team built around the freshman class that largely made an eight-month pit stop in Durham last year, it’s that continuity is crucial and staying healthy is vital. It’s also worth remembering that Duke hasn’t made it out of the tournament’s first weekend in three of the past six years. Yes, the Blue Devils are talented. But it comes with no guarantees.
The Gators got to the Elite Eight last year largely on the strength of their defense and athleticism. After a two-year hiccup (one a losing season, the other featuring an NIT quarterfinal appearance under a first-year coach), Florida’s restoration as a national contender is complete. Coach Mike White will lean on senior Chris Chiozza and junior Kevaughn Allen to anchor a strong backcourt, and Virginia Tech transfer Jalen Hudson will help as well. If Florida finds some semblance of steady offensive punch in the paint, it will be able to play with anyone.
There’s no better bet in college basketball than Kansas winning the Big 12 regular season title. That’s mainly because they’ve earned at least a share of it for 13 years running. Frank Mason III is gone, but Devonte’ Graham will take a larger role in running the offense, Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman is eligible and freshman power forward Billy Preston is poised to make a difference. Maybe the Jayhawks will make a deep run and maybe they won’t, but they won’t be an afterthought when the tournament gets underway.
Whatever verbiage you prefer — one-and-done, succeed-and-proceed — there’s no question how the Wildcats’ hardwood machine works. Recruit a bunch of highly regarded players, plug them into the rotation and watch them leave for NBA riches after less than a year on campus. Rinse and repeat. Coach John Calipari probably doesn’t get as much credit as he warrants for fielding strong defensive teams more often than not. This year will likely be no different. Kentucky should win the Southeastern Conference behind the likes of Hamidou Diallo, Quade Green and Kevin Knox, and then be a threat to win the NCAA tournament.
Heavens knows how this is going to work out. The Cardinals had the potential to be a top-five team and perhaps even nose past Duke as the preseason favorite in the ACC. Of course, that was before Rick Pitino was fired in the wake of the FBI investigation into the sport.
Interim coach David Padgett has the benefit of familiarity with the program after a stint as an assistant. And he’ll a deploy a deep roster featuring a tested point guard (Quentin Snider), potential breakout stars on the wing (Deng Adel and V.J. King) and capable bigs (Anas Mahmoud and Ray Spalding). Whether Louisville can keep the trolley on the tracks after a tumultuous preseason is a major unknown.
The Hurricanes are likely to go with a four-out, one-in look far more frequently than the past, and that’s a credit to an impressive backcourt that includes star-in-the-making Bruce Brown Jr., freshman Lonnie Walker IV, senior Ja’Quan Newton and stretch four Anthony Lawrence Jr. Experience is a bit of a concern for Miami, as is an interior rotation that isn’t particularly proven. The program’s connection, however tangential, to the FBI investigation can’t help, either. But Jim Larrañaga has gone to the Final Four with a less lauded roster, and might just help get the Hurricanes there as well.
There’s a lot to like about the Spartans, from the national preseason player of the year (Miles Bridges) to a freshman with a good family history in the sport (Jaren Jackson Jr., son of the former Georgetown guard) to a brawny post presence whose per-minute production last year was exceptional (Nick Ward). There’s also a guy on the sideline in Tom Izzo who generally knows what to do when the pieces all come together. That doesn’t guarantee success in March (just ask the 2016 Spartans), but this is probably the team with the highest floor.
This season’s ultimate wild card, Missouri won 27 games total over the past three years as it dealt with an NCAA investigation, a self-imposed tournament ban and a whole lot of losing. But with the Tigers importing coach Cuonzo Martin from California (and Martin hiring Michael Porter Sr., the father of vaunted prospect Michael Porter Jr.), there’s hope in Columbia.
Porter Jr. was the centerpiece of a hastily stitched together recruiting class that ranked fourth nationally by 247Sports. Martin has a reputation as a grind-it-out, defense-first coach who has a roster built to run. There are a lot of moving pieces here, and as a result Missouri might have the widest range of possible outcomes as any team in the country.
Joel Berry II is an established star, and Theo Pinson will serve as a do-it-all option in an expanded role. Both are well aware of what it takes to make it to the final day of the season, as the Tar Heels have the past two seasons. The addition of Pittsburgh transfer Cameron Johnson and freshman Jalek Felton will solidify the backcourt.
The big concern in Chapel Hill is the post rotation, which has combined for one career start at the college level. That belongs to the energetic Luke Maye, the hero of last year’s NCAA tournament South regional, and he’ll be asked to do a lot more as a junior. Freshmen Garrison Brooks and Brandon Huffman must be effective and consistent contributors for the Tar Heels to make another deep push.
The Pirates’ prognosis got a whole lot better when Angel Delgado opted to remain for his senior year. Without the exceptional center, Seton Hall was a nice team destined to make a brief appearance in the NCAA tournament for the third year in a row. With him, it is one of the country’s most curious teams. Kevin Willard’s program had some internal issues earlier in his tenure, but he got things back on track with a senior class that also includes point guard Khadeen Carrington and wing Desi Rodriguez. The Pirates haven’t made it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament since 2000. Here’s guessing that changes this year.
Meet college basketball’s unicorn — a power conference team with all five starters returning, four of them juniors or seniors. The Trojans were better than expected in Coach Andy Enfield’s third season, then slipped last year while dealing with some defections. But things were always building toward Year 5. The steady Jordan McLaughlin is back at point guard, and wing Elijah Stewart returns for his senior year as well. With juniors Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu anchoring the paint, USC has the ability to land a No. 4 seed or better for only the second time in the last quarter-century.
How good were the Wildcats while Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins were on the Main Line? Besides that national championship, they averaged 32.3 victories per year. Coming close to matching that won’t be easy. Villanova has big holes to fill, but it also has a tested point guard (Jalen Brunson), a key contributor from its national title team back from injury (Phil Booth) and a versatile wing who’s seen plenty of big games (Mikal Bridges). If redshirt freshman Omari Spellman is as good as advertised, Villanova will be well-positioned to repeat as Big East champs.
Identity is such an important thing for any basketball team, and the Mountaineers embrace who they are as well as anyone. If there’s any problem with it, it’s that “Press Virginia” is Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and Plan D. This is an issue against only the very best (think 2015 Kentucky) or most poised teams (such as 2016 Stephen F. Austin), or some combination of the two (2017 Gonzaga). The Mountaineers had the misfortune of encountering someone from those categories in March in each of the last three years. With the right draw, though, Jevon Carter, Esa Ahmad and their teammates could go a long way.
The Shockers have won at least 30 games in four of the past five years and advanced in the NCAA tournament in each of those seasons. They bring back nearly every contributor as they move from the Missouri Valley to the American Athletic Conference. That move might not prove to be the best long-term choice for Wichita State’s athletic department, but it’s going to work out just fine for the Shockers’ basketball team in 2017-18. They’ll probably lose more than one conference game (their average in the Valley over the last four years), but the bump in strength of schedule should be enough to help them escape unnecessarily difficult matchups in the first weekend of the postseason.
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