On our last episode of college basketball, this happened:
— Kyle Kensing (@kensing45) April 5, 2016
The greatest ending in national championship game history. Not a bad way to cap a season, eh?
The writing staff on even the best television series could not script a more satisfying season finale, but how does college basketball avoid a letdown from such a dramatic cliffhanger?
Crank up the drama further, of course.
The 2015-’16 season gave the sport a jolt it has needed for a few seasons, recapturing season-long intrigue and excitement that had been sapped from college basketball.
More than any of the team games, basketball thrives on star power. The 2015-’16 season reintroduced the classic star to college basketball, and the 2016-’17 campaign promises to further elevate big names.
Villanova’s Kris Jenkins provided the heart-stopping conclusion to the previous season. He’s back, teaming once more with Josh Hart. Philadelphia hasn’t seen a dynamic duo like this since Louis Winthrope III and Billy Ray Valentine teamed up to bring down the Duke Bros.
How fitting, given the chief antagonist of the coming season is none other than the Duke Blue Devils, assuming the role they have oh-so expertly filled for the better part of a quarter-century.
Every great drama needs a villain, and the most decorated program of the last 25 years enters into the 2016-’17 season with a loaded roster. It just makes too much sense. Grayson Allen’s at the forefront of the upperclassman comeback, a third-year player who grew from Final Four spark plug as a freshman, to a superstar as a sophomore.
Allen’s the kind of consummate college star who elevated the game in the 1990s, but he’s far from the only one.
Villanova’s Hart is an established star player, still on the rise. Iowa State’s Monte Morris is the driving engine for one of the nation’s most exciting offenses. Ivan Rabb gives a stout Cal defense its heart in the middle, and Allonzo Trier leads a loaded Arizona roster.
Trier and the Wildcats have a tall task in catching Oregon, though, with another of the coming season’s returning stars standing front-and-center: Dillon Brooks.
Brooks leads the Ducks — the Thornton Mellons of college basketball with their bright yellow uniforms and unique style — back to school to contend with the blue bloods. Oregon will battle Kentucky, Kansas, Duke and North Carolina, all expected to contend for the national championship.
The old guard owe early-season expectations to infusions of new blood. The star-studded cast of freshmen joining the fray includes Kansas’s Josh Jackson, Duke’s Harry Giles and Frank Jackson, and Kentucky’s trio of De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo. All these freshmen will carry the banner for proud programs.
Big-name teams can maintain a high standard from year to year with a constant influx of talent, but part of what makes the college game exciting is how just a few new faces can change a program’s fortunes.
Since ascending to the heights in the mid-2000s, Washington has languished for a few years. The arrival of Markelle Fultz brings optimism to Seattle. Similarly, Lonzo Ball’s freshman campaign alongside the returning Bryce Alford instills the promise of prosperity for 11-time national champion UCLA, bolstering the idea that the Bruins can compete for another banner in the crowded Pauley Pavilion rafters.
All it takes sometimes is that one compatible player, but the game’s drama heightens when it takes just one loss to bring a season to an end.
Another beautiful aspect of college basketball is that the outsiders shake up the landscape. March functions as the sport’s Sweeps Week, when the entire nation tunes in, and unlikely names become common around workplaces and dinner tables.
Remember just a few months ago when Middle Tennessee State stunned Mr. March, Tom Izzo, and Michigan State? Remember when Stephen F. Austin left Big 12 heavyweight West Virginia stone-cold stunned? Recall when Yale bulldogged Baylor?
You need not wait for March to meet the next wave of Cinderellas.
Every good story needs its underdog. College basketball delivers every year come March, but the early season isn’t without its unlikely heroes. The nation came to love the Monmouth bench last autumn, but the Hawks’ reserves would not have had reason to cheer if MU was not beating opponents the caliber of USC and Notre Dame — both NCAA Tournament qualifiers, and in the Irish’s case, a game shy of reaching the Final Four.
Monmouth is one of several mid-major conference programs built to rattle the game’s power structure both in November and March. The Hawks have company in 2016 NCAA Tournament qualifier Florida Gulf Coast, the March darling of 2013, that appears primed for more shining moments with an entirely different identity.
Long Beach State will trot around the nation throughout the season’s first two months, bringing the same qualities that have made Big West counterparts Hawaii and UC Irvine first-round threats in the last two NCAA Tournaments.
Harvard basketball has recruited with as much success as its business school lately; Saint Mary’s has gone international to cultivate a roster capable of the deepest NCAA Tournament run in program history.
A new college basketball season has not had this much promise for nightly drama, for star-quality performances, for sheer excitement as 2016-’17.
Last season’s finale set a high bar. This coming campaign is ready to clear it. Welcome back to college basketball.