1. Kentucky has a chance to run the table in the SEC
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the Wildcats are to the SEC what Tom Hanks was to the movie Cast Away — they’re on an island by themselves.
John Calipari’s squad is head and shoulders above all of its peers in the SEC during the upcoming season in terms of talent, guard play (De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Isaiah Briscoe), and interior power (Bam Adebayo), which should put it in position to go undefeated in conference play in 16-17.
The gap between the Wildcats and the rest of the SEC is significantly greater than it was last season and that’s saying something considering only three teams from this league reached the NCAA Tournament last March.
It’s extremely hard to see anyone from this conference beating Kentucky this season at Rupp Arena and the Wildcats’ four hardest road games in league play — Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, and Texas A&M — all feature opponents that boast major questions.
The Gators may have the second-best roster in the SEC, but only one player — Kasey Hill — has played in the NCAA Tournament. Florida’s head coach Mike White has also yet to lead a team to the field of 68.
Georgia boasts two All-SEC caliber players in J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten, but the Bulldogs still need to find a way to replace a veteran back court in Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines.
Ben Howland is doing a fine job building a contender in Starkville, but he’s at least a year away from being in a position to pick off a program like Kentucky — even if the game is played at Humphrey Coliseum.
And Texas A&M?
The Aggies lost four starters — Anthony Collins, Alex Caruso, Danuel House, and Jalen Jones — from last year’s team that reached the Sweet 16 and also lack proven guard play.
Texas A&M will likely start Lipscomb grad transfer J.C. Hampton at point guard, with sophomore Admon Gilder also likely to see time at the most important position on the floor.
Can those two players spearhead an upset over a perimeter trio of Fox, Monk, and Briscoe?
It seems highly unlikely at this point.
There’s a legitimate chance that Kentucky goes 18-0 this season in SEC play as the Wildcats are the only known commodity in this conference.
2. Harry Giles’ injury could allow Jayson Tatum to play more power forward
Mike Krzyzewski has always had a penchant for playing skilled players at four spots on the floor and there’s a good chance that will continue this season.
With Harry Giles’ status unknown moving forward following yet another knee surgery, don’t be shocked if the Blue Devils opt to do with Jayson Tatum what they did the past two years with both Justise Winslow and Brandon Ingram.
Krzyzewski has been a wizard at exploiting mismatches thanks to the bevy of talent that’s been in Duke’s program and there’s a good chance that Tatum becomes the ultimate mismatch at power forward if Giles remains on the shelf with injury.
The 6-8 freshman is a likely top-five pick in the 2017 NBA Draft and would be a nightmare for traditional power forwards to match up with.
The Blue Devils’ perimeter features three proud veterans — Grayson Allen, Matt Jones, and Luke Kennard — who all averaged in double-figures last season along with five-star freshman combo guard Frank Jackson. With those four players all in position to log significant time one through three, the door could be open for Tatum to regularly expose defenders at the four with Amile Jefferson manning the five-spot as he’s backed up by sophomore Chase Jeter and freshman Marques Bolden.
If healthy, Giles is the best NBA prospect in college basketball.
If he’s not, don’t feel bad for Duke.
The Blue Devils still have more than enough to be the best team in the sport and a big reason why is due to where they’ll likely use Tatum.
3. The Big East has elevated Xavier’s brand
The Musketeers’ program had great success under coaches like Pete Gillen, Skip Prosser, Thad Matta, and Sean Miller, but things have changed under Chris Mack since Xavier joined the Big East in 2013.
Instead of being the dominant program in the Atlantic 10, Xavier is instead a top-tier contender in a league that produced the most recent national champion.
Instead of the Cintas Center being labeled as a high-level mid-major home court, it’s now perceived as a venue where the Musketeers knocked off Villanova last February.
Xavier was a great program before it joined the Big East, but the marriage with this new conference now has the Musketeers en route to a different status.
On the heels of a 28-6 season where it earned a two-seed in the NCAA Tournament, Xavier again appears to be the second-best team in its league this season and its recruiting prowess only continues to progress.
Mack boasts two consensus top-100 freshmen on his roster this season in Quentin Goodin and Tyrique Jones while two top-100 prospects in the class of 2017 — Naji Marshall and Paul Scruggs — have already pledged to the Musketeers. Scruggs, a 6-3 point guard, was a top-30 recruit by most scouting services.
Not many programs have benefited more from realignment than Xavier, who is 37-24 in Big East play over the past three seasons.
This and That:
— It was hard not to be shocked when Texas was picked third in the Big 12’s Preseason Poll last week. The Longhorns lost six players from last season’s team that won 20 games and earned a six seed in the NCAA Tournament, including four of their top six scorers. While Shaka Smart has recruited well and landed guys like Andrew Jones and Jarrett Allen, he’ll have his work cut out during his second year in Austin.
— North Carolina’s most productive freshman during the upcoming season will be big man Tony Bradley. “He really looks the part,” Roy Williams told FanRag Sports last Wednesday in Chapel Hill in regards to the 6-10, 240-pound Bradley. “He’s got long arms and he can really run. Tony is definitely going to help us.” Bradley will likely be the Tar Heels’ third post player on the depth chart during the upcoming year behind both Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks.
— Dayton’s Kendall Pollard (knee) still hasn’t done any contact stuff in practice and will be week-to-week moving forward, Archie Miller told FanRag Sports. You have to wonder if this is the type of injury that’s going to linger for Pollard all season — again.
— One of the biggest things that stood out from watching NC State practice last week? Mark Gottfried got a steal in Charlotte transfer Torin Dorn. The 6-5 wing averaged 12.0 points and 3.7 rebounds two years ago in Conference-USA and should have an excellent chance to start for the Wolfpack in 16-17. Dorn should have three high-level years in Raleigh.
— Marquette’s Steve Wojciechowski told FanRag Sports that the Golden Eagles will go small this season, with either 6-7 freshman Sam Hauser or USC transfer Katin Reinhardt (6-6) logging extended minutes at power forward. It will be interesting to see if smaller is indeed better for Marquette in 16-17 after this team boasted a lottery pick in Henry Ellenson up front last season.
— Wake Forest is a year away from being a legitimate ACC team. The Demon Deacons have two potential all-league players in sophomores Bryant Crawford and John Collins as well as a mismatch at center in 6-10 Dinos Mitoglou. Danny Manning is expected to return eight of his 13 scholarship players in 17-18.
— One thing you didn’t think you’d hear this preseason: Houston may have the most complete perimeter in the American Conference with Galen Robinson, Rob Gray, and Damyean Dotson. Kelvin Sampson’s squad is a sleeper pick to compete for an NCAA bid in 2017.
— Georgia Tech may have the worst power-five roster I’ve ever seen. The Yellow Jackets won’t win a game in ACC play this season — book it.
— Long Beach State’s Dan Monson has outdone himself again with his team’s non-conference schedule. The 49ers open the year with five road games: Wichita State, North Carolina, Louisville, UCLA, and Washington. There’s only one word to describe that stretch — brutality.
— Looking forward to spending this week in the great city of Pittsburgh — the only place in the world for pancakes. Thank you Pamela’s!
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 theCollege 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.