College basketball season is finally here!
Check out below for five questions heading into the 16-17 campaign.
1. Just how good is Duke?
Good enough to be a prohibitive favorite to win the 2017 national title.
Good enough to boast the fact that it has the best guard in college basketball (Grayson Allen), the most accomplished coach in college basketball (Mike Krzyzewski), and two potential top-five picks in next June’s NBA Draft (Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles).
The Blue Devils possess all the requisites to have as special of a season as they’ve ever had, and that’s saying a lot considering this program’s storied history over the past three decades.
Duke just doesn’t have star power — it also possesses the type of role players that are needed to navigate the best conference in the sport.
Amile Jefferson was the Blue Devils’ most valuable player last season before he was lost for the year in December with a foot injury. Krzyzewski told me in June that Duke needs Jefferson to be their own version of Draymond Green and that’s definitely a role he’ll relish with pride.
Veteran guard Matt Jones is a tough defender that can make timely three-point shots while crafty lefty Luke Kennard (11.8 points) is a talented offensive player that always seems to be playing downhill.
Add freshman big man Marques Bolden and the sleeper of the Blue Devils’ fabled recruiting class — freshman guard Frank Jackson — and it’s easy to see why the buzz is so palpable in Durham.
Duke will be appointment television in every single game it plays this season.
2. Can Villanova repeat?
This becomes a harder question to answer after the news came down last week that Wildcats’ freshman Omari Spellman was ruled a partial qualifier by the NCAA, but when you really split the atom, it becomes more and more clear that Villanova is still in position to again be one of the better teams in the country.
The Wildcats don’t have Spellman, a 6-10 offensive threat in the low post, but his absence means there’s more minutes available for two burgeoning stars — Mikal Bridges and Eric Paschall (Fordham transfer) — next to Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins.
Both Bridges and Paschall are capable of being double-figure scorers and while Spellman gave Villanova an ox for opponents to handle on the block, his absence may actually make the Wildcats more versatile defensively and harder to guard on offense if Jay Wright opts to play small and shift Jenkins to the five.
Jalen Brunson and Phil Both return as two guards who had significant roles in last year’s run to the national title and senior big man Darryl Reynolds is now in position to have a breakout season as he likely steps in for Spellman as this team’s starting center. Reynolds averaged 9.0 points and 10.6 rebounds last year in the three games that Daniel Ochefu missed due to injury.
Villanova doesn’t have as many ways to skin a cat (no pun intended) as it would if it had Spellman in the lineup, but Wright still has enough on his roster to again be the team to beat in the Big East and earn a top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
3. Will any team in the SEC legitimately challenge Kentucky?
It doesn’t look like it.
Florida appears to be the second-best team in this conference on paper, but the Gators’ roster has never collectively advanced to the NCAA Tournament and that also includes head coach Mike White.
Texas A&M meanwhile lost four key pieces — Anthony Collins, Alex Caruso, Danuel House, and Jalen Jones — from last year’s team that reached the Sweet 16. The Aggies have a promising sophomore class with Admon Gilder, D.J. Hogg, and Tyler Davis, but suffered a major blow when the NCAA ruled freshman point guard J.J. Caldwell ineligible for the 2016-17 season.
Bruce Pearl and Ben Howland have both recruited exceptionally well at Auburn and Mississippi State, respectively, but each of these coaches is probably a year away from fielding a legitimate NCAA Tournament caliber team.
With major defections at South Carolina up front and at Vanderbilt in both the back court (Wade Baldwin) and the interior (Damian Jones), it makes it seem as if those two programs are also both entering practice with questions at several different positions.
Kentucky has become to the SEC what Tom Hanks was to the movie Cast Away — it’s on an island by itself.
4. Is UCLA capable of a resurgence?
It all depends on defense.
The Bruins limped to a 15-17 record last season and gave up 80 or more points in 14 separate games. UCLA also surrendered an average of 78.3 points in 19 total conference games and lost three meetings against crosstown rival USC by an average of 17.7 points.
Steve Alford has recruited at an elite level and brings in two five-star prospects in point guard Lonzo Ball and power forward T.J. Leaf as well as 6-10 freshman Ike Anigbogu.
Ball and Leaf figure to be immediate factors in this team’s starting lineup with big man Thomas Welsh and it remains to be seen which one of the following three perimeter players — Bryce Alford, Aaron Holiday, and Isaac Hamilton — starts the year coming off the bench.
There’s no questioning this team’s overall talent level, especially on the perimeter, but it will be interesting to see how four ball-dominant guards complement each other over the course of a season.
The one common theme with the games of Ball, Alford, Hamilton, and Holiday?
They’re all guys who need the ball in their hands to be successful and no one in that quartet resembles a true catch-and-shoot type wing.
Nevertheless, there’s still more than enough talent in this program to compete for a Pac-12 regular season title and a high seed in the field of 68.
How far Steve Alford can get this group to advance when it gets there will depend on how well UCLA defends and how much a talented nucleus of players is willing to shoot less in order to potentially win more.
5. How many ACC teams will make the 2017 NCAA Tournament?
Ten looks like a legitimate possibility.
Duke, Virginia, North Carolina, Louisville, and Syracuse will all be top-25 teams to start the season while Notre Dame, Pitt, Miami, NC State, Virginia Tech, Clemson, and Florida State will all begin practice with realistic hopes of hearing their names called on Selection Sunday.
How is 80.0 percent of the ACC in position to compete for a bid to the field of 68 next March?
There’s a few reasons.
The five teams mentioned above — Duke, Virginia, North Carolina, Louisville, and Syracuse — all should be in position to be near the top-10 for the majority of the season while the other seven teams mentioned all have reasons why they should expect to compete for a bid.
Notre Dame has a combined 17 years of collegiate experience in its projected starting lineup (Matt Farrell, Steve Vasturia, V.J. Beachem, Bonzie Colson, Martin Geben) while both Pitt and Miami return strong veterans who had significant roles on teams that reached the NCAA Tournament last March.
NC State meanwhile was dead last in the ACC last season in assists and adds arguably the best table setting freshman point guard in the country in Dennis Smith along with two transfers in Terry Henderson (West Virginia) and Torin Dorn (Charlotte). The Wolfpack also return three starters in Maverick Rowan, Beejay Anya, and Abdul-Malik Abu.
Virginia Tech and Clemson each won 10 league games last season and both of these teams should be more formidable than they were a year ago. The Hokies return seven of their top eight players from 15-16 and also get back Ahmed Hill, who missed all of last season with a patella injury. The Tigers meanwhile, did yeoman’s work last year without a true home court advantage and add three transfers — Shelton Mitchell (Vanderbilt), Marcquise Reed (Robert Morris), and Elijah Thomas (Texas A&M) — to go with a strong returning nucleus of Jaron Blossomgame, Donte Grantham, and Avry Holmes.
Leonard Hamilton was able to squeeze 20 wins out of the Noles last season along with a 9-9 mark in ACC play despite the fact that his projected starting front court — Phil Cofer and Michael Ojo — only played a combined 11 games due to injuries.
Those two players are now back healthy and join two All-ACC perimeter players — Xavier Rathan-Mayes and Dwayne Bacon — along with a one-and-done type talent in skilled freshman forward Jonathan Isaac.
The NCAA Selection Committee proved that it values teams that test themselves over teams that don’t when it put Syracuse in the bracket last March as a 10 seed over a team like San Diego State that won 25 games and had an RPI in the top-40. The Orange lost to Pitt early in the ACC Tournament and only finished 9-9 in league play, but ultimately made the field of 68 because they won at Duke and beat both UConn and Texas A&M when they played on a neutral court.
Teams that get more opportunities to earn quality wins are going to be the teams that have a better chance of earning at-large bids in March and nobody is going to get more opportunities than teams that play in the ACC.
Another thing to keep in mind?
The American Conference only looks like it has two surefire NCAA contenders in UConn and Cincinnati while the SEC only has one in Kentucky.
The Mountain West is now also trending towards being a one-bid league and there’s also no guarantee that the Pac-12 will get seven teams into the field of 68 like it did last March.
Where are all of the at-large bids going to come from?
The smart bet is on the ACC.
Jon Rothstein has been a college basketball insider for CBS Sports since 2010 and is the lead college basketball columnist for the FanRag Sports Network. He is also the host of the College Hoops Today Podcast via Compass Media Networks, which is available via iTunes. Rothstein is also a regular in-studio correspondent for both WFAN and CBS Sports Radio. He currently lives in Manhattan.