It’s the middle of October, and I know you’re excited. No, not for Halloween. College basketball is getting closer to ramping up. Before the first tip-off, here are seven things for you to think about for the upcoming season.
1. Maryland The Top Team?
The Terrapins’ offseason mirrored that of an NBA team. Maryland did it all — compensating for losing its veteran talent by retaining its best young player, acquiring “free agents,” and adding a top draft pick.
The blow of losing of senior wingman Dez Wells was softened by the surprising news that star frosh Melo Trimble (pictured above) would reject his sure fire NBA lottery pick status and return to campus for his sophomore season. Trimble will be an early candidate for National Player of the Year.
Added to that, after sitting out a season, former Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter Jr. will join Duke graduate transfer Rasheed Sulaimon in a bolstered 2015 starting lineup.
And if that still weren’t enough, the Terrapins will add 5-star recruit and consensus top 10 prospect Diamond Stone to its front court. Plug in senior Jake Layman and Maryland will feature one of the nation’s strongest starting five. They will also have plenty of size and experience coming off the bench, making this the nation’s most complete team.
Playing in an excellent Big 10 conference will have this squad ready to contend for a National Championship in March.
2. Cuonzo’s Potential At Cal
Cuonzo Martin wasted no time in making a huge splash in the Bay Area. The former Tennessee cast-off started his second season at Berkeley off by adding two of the nation’s top 5 recruits.
Ivan Rabb (6’10, 220 pounds, power forward) and Jaylen Brown (6’7, 215 pounds, small forward) aren’t just highly touted high
schoolers, these guys are NBA players, right now. Not only was Martin able to keep these kids away from Pac-12 perennial powerhouses UCLA and Arizona, but Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, and North Carolina’s attempts to sign Rabb and Brown also fell short.
Although the Golden Bears still have former top prospect Jabari Bird, I don’t think this program has quite enough to challenge for a national title. Still, after finishing 18-15 last year, the additions of Rabb and Brown has the Golden Bears sitting at number 14 in the preseason coaches poll.
This is great progress for a California program that hasn’t had much national spotlight over the last half a century. It should be interesting to see if Martin can build something great up at Berkeley.
3. Who Is The Best Freshman?
The beauty of sports is that just about any debate can be settled on the court (or field). This season’s Great College Basketball Debate has undoubtedly been, “Who will be the top freshman?”
In the blue corner, measuring at 6’11 and weighing in at 200 pounds, coming out of Memphis, Tennessee by way of Port au Prince, Haiti, the Kentucky Wildcats will feature one of the nation’s top perimeter players in Skal Labissiere (pictured). While UK fans — and coach John Calipari — are hoping Labissiere is the second coming of Anthony Davis, Labissiere will need to follow in his antecessor’s footsteps and develop the strength and coordination to make that huge frame work on the next level.
In the purple and gold corner, measuring at 6’10 and weighing in at 225 pounds, out of Montverde, Florida by way of Melbourne, Australia, the LSU Tigers’ Ben Simmons is one of the most NBA ready prospect’s in the nation.
Simmons already has the body of a grown man, and knows how to use his strength in the post on both sides of the ball. The National High School Player of the Year is also a great perimeter shooter and an agile defender.
Much like the Jahlil Okafor/Karl-Anthony Towns debate of last year, this comes down to upside vs. current ability. Labissiere seems to have more upside while Ben Simmons looks ready now. Still, neither their current SEC landlords nor their future NBA drafters will have any quarrels with having either of these two dawning their uniform.
4. New Era Of Coaching In The SEC
It’s no secret that football is king in the Southeast. In fact, SEC football may rank above most family members in the lives of some southerners. But sometime between loading the barbeque pit onto the pick-up truck and raising the school flag on a 50-foot pole, SEC fans should start taking notice of the shift in basketball leadership at their precious alma maters.
It’s pretty much been all about Kentucky and Florida for the vast majority of the last eighty-some odd years of the conference’s existence, but a few familiar coaches have been tasked with the duty of changing that.
The biggest news comes out of the aforementioned Florida program, where two-time National Championship coach Billy Donovan has jettisoned the Gators and is now coaching the Oklahoma City Thunder. With Donovan now gone, Florida will look to Michael White to return the Gators to top ranks of D-1 hoops.
Although White may be unfamiliar to some, the SEC will also welcome a few bigger names into the fold.
Tennessee will hand the team over to long-time University of Texas coach Rick Barnes. Barnes led the Longhorns to the NCAA Tournament 16 times in his 17 seasons in Austin, yet only advanced to the Final Four once in 2003. Barnes has a great opportunity to turn the Volunteer program into a powerhouse without much pressure to “win now.”
Over at Mississippi State, they’ve hired Ben Howland, who has a reputation for making his programs into national contenders. Howland is best remembered for his three consecutive trips to the Final Four at UCLA and his development of NBA talent. Today, the NBA is pretty much oozing of Howland-coached UCLA players.
Lastly, Alabama hired long-time NBAer Avery Johnson in his first stint as a collegiate head coach.
The line of thinking that Alabama is using here (and I can only assume all of Johnson’s previous employers did too) is: Dean Smith begat Larry Brown, Brown begat Gregg Popovich, Pop begat Avery Johnson, and Avery Johnson will deliver the success inherited from all of his coaching ancestors. I personally think that Johnson will be a great fit in the college game.
5. Shaka Smart At Texas
For the last four years, the biggest name in coaching has been Shaka Smart (pictured right).
After leading the Virginia Commonwealth Rams to the 2011 Final Four, every top program in the country has had their eyes on the then 34 year-old coach.
Smart, however, chose to sign an extension with the Rams, turn down top jobs from top programs such as UCLA and has continued to impress at VCU.
But Smart finally took the big job (and dollars) when he agreed to take over at the University of Texas. Now the Longhorns are hoping to reek “havoc” all the way to a national title.
Make ZERO bones about it, Shaka Smart is at Texas to deliver a national title and I can’t think of a better candidate. Smart has a proven track record on the bench and will be able to recruit top players with the power of UT at his disposal.
6. UK’s Next Class Of “Stars”
The 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats made a strong case for best team ever. When you sit back and think about what they were able to accomplish, even without winning the title, it falls short of legendary. But the most amazing part of the Wildcats’ season was their preseason.
John Calipari was able to sign four 5-star prospects and added them to a roster full of talent. So much talent, in fact, that Kentucky used a platoon system in which all 5 players on the floor would sub out for a fresh five players every 4 minutes.
There had never before been anything like this in college basketball. Four 5-stars in one class; something like this may never happen again.
Or it may happen months later, in the exact same place.
Calipari, not to be outdone by Calipari, will now welcome a freshman class of six players: Three 5-star recruits, two 4-stars, and a 3-star.
We’ve already touched on Skal Labissiere, but the 6’11 forward won’t arrive in Lexington alone. Guards Isaiah Briscoe (6’3) and Jamal Murray (6’5) will form a 5-star backcourt, while seven-footer Isaac Humphries will join Labissiere in the front court. The Cats will also feature 6’5 guard Charles Matthews and 6’4 guard Mychal Mulder.
Calipari’s main test this year may not be winning a championship, but rather managing all his talent once again.
7. Duke vs. UNC
If you think Kentucky’s recruiting class was impressive, wait till you get a load of the reigning champs.
Mike Krzyzewski will make up for the loss of his four superstars by adding four 5-star recruits to his roster. Center Chase Jeter (pictured right), guards Luke Kennard and
Derryck Thornton, and forward Brandon Ingram represent Krzyzewski’s most touted recruiting class ever.
In the past, Coach K has strayed away from the “one-and-dones” and instead elected to go with players that would remain at Duke for three or four years. But after winning his fifth title with three “one-and-dones,” it’s safe to say that mindset is out the window.
And let’s not forget about what’s going on 10 miles southwest of Durham, where their bitter rival is ready to add it’s sixth title.
The preseason number one (USA Today Coaches Poll) North Carolina Tar Heels have taken a different approach from their counterparts this season. Instead of a vaunted freshman class, Roy Williams will look to win with veteran talent, led by seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, junior Kennedy Meeks and sophomore Justin Jackson.
The contradicting rosters will provide a new wrinkle in this storied rivalry, but we will expect the same old drama that these bitter foes have always given us.
I wouldn’t be shocked the if Duke and North Carolina met four times this year, with the fourth meeting being for all the marbles.
Between the coaching changes in the SEC and Kentucky’s new incoming class, it should be an exciting and unpredictable NCAA season and I for one am looking forward to it.